As you might recall, Heavy Blog is ten years old this year. As such, we’re setting off on an adventure, each quarter exploring a different “Year 9”. After looking at ’79, we’re now at ’89, and oh boy was ’89 A Year. It’s the year in which the Soviet Block collapsed. It was the year of Tiananmen Square, of the first written proposal of the World Wide Web (and the first Internet Service Provider companies), the year George H. W. Bush was sworn into office and Ted Bundy was executed. It’s a year etched into the cultural imagination as one of the high water marks of modernity, of the ever-increasing speed of change which is the hallmark of “the Informational Age”. Hell, it might even be the year when the Informational Age began!
It was also a damn fine year for music. No, seriously. Obviously, every list like this and every perspective on a whole god damn year is going to bring up some gems. But just look at the list below; Atheist‘s Piece of Time solidified and, some might even argue, gave birth to technical thrash. Fates Warning began their exploration of progressive music, also centered inside thrash. Fugazi released some of the most classic and well recognized punk tracks ever. And, last but not least, Morbid Angel released one of death metal’s most essential albums, there at the cusp of the genre’s birth and maturation, forever changing the sound of metal.
1989 seems like a threshold year for music as well then, seeing already popular bands change course into what would become their signature sound or debut bands erupt to usher in a new era. In music as in politics, ’89, at least to our collective and very biased memory, seems like a line in the sand, ushering in the last decade of the previous century and millennium. In music as in politics, there is much to be gain in understanding of our present condition, style, and modes by looking at this moment in time and trying to figure out whether our perceptions of it were shared by contemporaries and, if so, in what ways did they differ?
Atheist – Piece of Time
Just as death metal was beginning to evolve from thrash and establish its own identity, so too was the groundwork being laid for technical and progressive death metal. Death, Cynic and Atheist would all rise to prominence, at least in the underground scene, throughout the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, and 1989 saw the latter’s debut album: Piece of Time. From the very first notes of the opening title track we see that this is not quite like the heavy thrash that many of their contemporaries were producing. The bass isn’t just audible, it’s Iron Maiden levels of loud, and the jazzy opening marks one of the earlier examples of an intersection between death metal and non-metal genres.
The melding of speed metal and the occasionally odd chord progression or jazzy solo established a solid technothrash foundation. Just listen to “I Deny” – loud, sprawling bass and an unexpected chord progression gives way to a classic thrash riff that would’ve been right at home coming from any of the Big Four. This then leads into a jazzy midsection with off-kilter drum patterns before returning to the thrash riff listeners would’ve been so familiar with.
Yet, what made Atheist stand out was the addition of proto-death metal elements, such as the tremolo riffing on “Room with a View”, that would help give birth to the phenomenal progressive death metal scene we have today. Death and Cynic may get most of the accolades, but Atheist was right there with them and Piece of Time’s 30th anniversary is a great occasion with which to remember the enormous influence their first few albums had on the music we know and love today.
Faith No More – The Real Thing
There is a popular narrative which proposes that all the excesses of 1980s rock n’ roll were obliterated in one fell swoop by Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). Though Nevermind was perhaps the final nail in the coffin, like all things in life, the decline of ‘80s opulence was likely a more gradual process. As well as being a turning point in the Faith No More catalogue, The Real Thing can also be seen (alongside albums like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual (1990)) as a fulcrum between 80s extravagance and the oncoming wave of 90s alternative.
Even among as diverse a discography as Faith No More’s, The Real Thing stands apart as a distinctly idiosyncratic record. Although the band had established some degree of cult credulity with their first two Chuck Mosley-fronted albums, I imagine, for a lot of people, the sheer jump in quality to their third release would likely have come [ahem] “from out of nowhere!” The key ingredient that sets the real thing apart from what came before is obviously the addition of now-legendary vocalist Mike Patton, from the then-largely-unheard-of Mr Bungle. Yet, even Patton’s performance is out of character. His choice to stick to a more traditional, hard rock wail for the pre-written and recorded material, rather than indulge in the sultry vocal gymnastics for which he has become known is one of the things that lends the record its undeniable 80s sheen. It’s Patton’s vocal style that sets The Real Thing apart in the Faith No More catalogue than anything else, but he is by no means its only outstanding feature.
The members of Faith No More would stretch their wings far further on subsequent releases, but their songwriting has arguably never been sharper than on The Real Thing. The album opens with a pair of concise pop-rock punches, in the form of “From Out of Nowhere” and “Epic” – two of the band’s most iconic tracks – before running the stylistic gambit from heavy metal epics (the terribly underrated “Zombie Eaters” and the title track) to exhilarating instrumentals (“Woodpecker from Mars”), iconic covers (“War Pigs”) and thrash metal ragers (“Surprise! You’re Dead!” – which has been covered by a slew of modern extreme metal’s most notable acts, such as Aborted, Revocation and All Shall Perish). The Real Thing is by far the most “metal” of Faith No More’s albums – largely in part to its lingering 80s-isms. Its final offering, the lounged-out “Edge of the World” signalled more clearly the direction the band would take on more experimental albums like Angel Dust (1992) and, especially, King For a Day… Fool For a Life Time (1995) – across which Patton would really come into his own. However, it’s debatable whether they ever put together a collection of songs as strong as on The Real Thing and it’s upon these transitional compositions that much of their legacy was forged.
The Real Thing is an album that looks both forwards and backwards in equal measure, and which finds and finds immense success in both directions. The album revels as much in its 80s sheen as its subversive expansiveness. It serves as a culmination of various and often wild 80s trends and – although accusations that “Epic” is solely responsible for nu metal are needlessly reductive – there’s no denying the impact this album had upon a broad array of artists to come. Thirty years later, it remains a pivotal and distinctive entry in one of the most impressive and diverse discographies ever amassed, and one of the most important and influential (if often unsung) records which helped reshape the musical landscape during the final years of the 1980s.
Fates Warning – Perfect Symmetry
Calling Fates Warning underrated is a bit of a weird thing to do; among certain circles, the band is considered one of the more influential progressive metal bands. Alongside contemporaries like Voivod, Watchtower (also criminally “underrated”) and Dream Theater, they single the flourishing of progressive metal from out of thrash and heavy metal. The band are also still making music (their 2016 release, Theories of Flight, was even pretty good), and have plenty of fans. And yet, at the same time, their name seems under-exposed and underused, rarely appearing outside of niche retrospectives and histories or on the mouths of fans of progressive metal, even diehard ones.
This is all despite the fact that Perfect Symmetry, their 1989 release and the first real marker of their progressive career, is nothing short of a classic. Having added on the talents of Ray Alder (vocals) and Mark Zonder (drums), both of which would go on to play with Redemption and the latter of which would collaborate with Kevin Moore on Chroma Key (who also contributed keyboards to Perfect Symmetry), the band were set for a new direction, moving away from their thrash metal and NWOBHM roots. The result is Perfect Symmetry, an album which preceded Dream Theater Awake by five years and which hits much of the same sweet spots, some of them even better than that semina album.
The main formula of Perfect Symmetry lies in the collaboration between the aforementioned Zonder Joe DiBiase, on the bass guitar. Together, they make up a dominant and distinctly unique part of the instrumentation on the album; both have this oddly off-kilter-yet-accurate touch to their instruments, creating and supporting the stumbling time signatures of the album. On top of this is layered the heart of the band, Jim Matheos’s guitar (Matheos is also the only founder of the band still playing in it and also collaborated with Moore on OSI). His tones on this album are dry and incisive yet characteristically dramatic. They often scream their solos on top of Frank Aresti’s more chromatic tones, creating a contrast that’s very of its time and which still shines through until today.
Lastly, Alder’s vocals tie everything together. Even though he used somewhat lower registers overall on this album, he still scraped some dizzying heights (like on the excellent “Static Acts”), echoing the earlier NWOBHM influences of the band to dramatic effect. Everything comes together into this moody, hulking, technical album that still stands as a beacon to the power of progressive metal in those early days, even if it is somewhat forgotten today. There’s no reason why it should be; fans of progressive metal can still find plenty to draw them to one of the genre’s founding masterpieces.
Fugazi – 13 Songs
There may be no more iconic intro to a punk album than the simple, effective, and altogether memorable bassline that signifies the beginning of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”. It has been sampled and, the song itself, covered many times over. However, the whole front half of 13 Songs is classic with each song crashing into the next in the way that only a well-practiced batch of songs can be. Even without definitive evidence, it seems highly likely the band did much of the tracking as if playing a live show, in studio.
Part of what makes the album iconic is that production as well. When listening to this it may seem hard to make out that it is, in fact, two EPs – their self-titled effort and Margin Walker – placed onto one crucial slab of vinyl. Don Zientara’s trademark production values (and the lore behind it, seriously, look it up) from his home studio more famously known as Inner Ear Studios is as much a part of this record as any of Guy Picciotto’s slender guitar lines, Ian Mackaye’s yelps, Brendan Canty’s uncanny and unorthodox rhythms, or Joe Lally’s funk-infused bass lines. The magic of “Bulldog Front”, “Burning”, “Suggestion”, “Burning Too”, or “Provisional” can’t exist without it.
Perhaps the most meaningful legacy of the album, though, was its spiritual connection with so many fledgling bands and artists with it’s DIY background and completely-out-of-the-mainstream approach to songs that were still somehow so much more than their individual sonic pieces parts. The addition of the band’s critical eye, lyrically, on many of the issues of the time and their, sadly, continued (if not heightened) relevance to current affairs added another layer. Those lyrics created anthems that influenced so many others to speak out including their contemporaries all over the country throughout the ‘90s and beyond. In a way, they and so many others, became the musical conscience of a generation of artists and one can argue that it all started with that bassline and these 13 Songs.
Godflesh – Streetcleaner
Justin Broadrick and G. C. Green have certainly kept busy in the thirty years since they released Streetcleaner. They went on to create seven more excellent albums under the Godflesh name, along with Broadrick’s successful career with Jesu and both his and Green’s myriad of side projects and collaborations. But the massive influence Godflesh (and their offshoots) would have on extreme music began with Streetcleaner, a singular album both then and now. Sure, the duo certainly incorporated better production quality and more experimentation on subsequent releases. Yet, when it comes to pinpointing the impetus for burgeoning metal subgenres of the ’90s, it’s impossible to exclude Streetcleaner as a central part of that conversation.
Heavily influenced by ’80s industrial, noise and hip-hop, Godflesh built around this mechanical core with a groovy proto-sludge riffs and doom-adjacent atmospheres. Suffice it to say, the name of the game is “heavy” across the album, starting with classic track “Like Rats.” Using short, abrasive lyrics and pummeling riffs, the track is the perfect opener for a suffocating collection of songs. The title track is another statement of purpose style cut, spawning a perfect blend of headbanging and deeper examination. This last component comes from the experimental noise and atmosphere the duo incorporate on every track. The influences are sometimes subtle but always noticeable, making for a darker listen informed by the duo’s interest in space, feedback and noise.
The combination of sound on Streetcleaner has offered an enduring level of quality and was immediately impactful for the metal scene. Key bands in industrial metal, post-metal, sludge and even nu-metal have cited Godflesh as a key influence, due both to the band’s overall discography and the foundational songwriting on Streetcleaner. Again, Broadrick and Green broke further ground throughout their careers, both under the Godflesh banner and otherwise. But their ability to explore more interesting territory was only possible because of the groundbreaking work on their debut, and album that’s remained a testament of its time and a timeless classic even decades after its release.
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Though its early-90s heyday was fast approaching, death metal was a young and unsolidified branch of the metal tree back in 1989. While several famous and influential albums in the genre had dropped by the waning years of the 80s, death metal wouldn’t hit its first popular stride until Morbid Angel burst onto the scene. There are few bands in the death metal world more closely tied to the core tenets of the genre than these Floridian death-dealers, and with good reason. Along with Possessed and Death, Morbid Angel solidified both what death metal was and what it would eventually become as a genre. Trey Azagoth’s relentless and highly technical guitar work, David Vincent’s wretched vocals, and Pete Sandoval’s bludgeoning drum work have been oft imitated but rarely surpassed, and their debut record Altars of Madness did more to fan the flames of the genre than any other during this decade.
One spin of Altars of Madness is all it takes for death metal fans to understand why this record is so important to the evolution and popularization of the genre. Utilizing speedy passages nodding to the thrash metal from which death metal was derived, while increasing the sonic relentlessness and brutality of the musicianship and songwriting and throwing in some far-from-mainstream occult vibes, Morbid Angel concocted a bloody stew of tracks that pulled the most violent elements of metal’s most popular genre and condensed them into a bruising sonic onslaught unlike anything metal had seen since Slayer’s Reign in Blood. As a stand-alone record, Altars of Madness can easily go toe-to-toe with the genre’s all-time best. Starting with the off-kilter blasts of “Immortal Rites” and only accelerating from there, Altars of Madness is a pure adrenaline rush from start to finish. The punk-infused blasts of “Suffocation”, the insane solo guitar work in “Visions from the Dark Side”, the cavernous production of “Maze of Torment”, and the bile-filled musings of “Damnation” all serve as highlights on a record chock full of them, shredding faces with distinct immediacy while simultaneously laying the groundwork for death metal to come. It is, in every measurable metric, a death metal masterpiece.
Listening to this record again in 2019 only further cements its stature as one of the best and most influential death metal records in the genre’s history. The old school death metal revival that has been sweeping across the metal world over the past several years owes a large debt to Morbid Angel, as the sound they pioneered in the 80s and 90s has now become a cornerstone for the works of many bands working diligently to revive the glory days of death metal. For that alone, they deserve a most hearty tip o’ the cap. But even if death metal had died a lonely, inconspicuous death after its first round of glory days, Altars of Madness would remain a monumental achievement in metal on its own merit. So cheers to Morbid Angel. May the torch they helped ignite never burn out.
Testament – Practice What You Preach
Before the 80s were done, thrash metal had made a significant impact on the music scene. It helped usher in a new generation of metal bands and expand the sound in general into all manner of new territories. The Big 4 may have dominated the decade, but there were plenty of other smaller bands who had just as much impact during the decade as those bigger bands. Testament is just such a band, and 1989 saw the release of Practice What You Preach. This record showed the band still had room for growth even from the remarkable first two albums, The Legacy and The New Order. It showed an evolution beyond the standard thrash sound at the time of just speeding up traditional metal.
What really grabs me the most on this record is the dramatic increase in production quality over the band’s previous records. At the time, record companies knew music consumers wanted this kind of sound. So why not put some money into it and make it sound really great? Testament really got to benefit from the trend’s popularity here, and they have the material necessary to justify the record company investment. Thrash metal, and Testament in particular, really benefits from higher production qualities because there are so many little things going on in the music that you’d miss out on with a garbled tone.
You definitely don’t want to miss out on any of the guitar work on Practice. Alex Skolnick’s technical abilities are worth the price of admission. There are those little subtleties to each riff and lick that requires close listening in order to hear everything. In addition to the amazing music, the lyrical content has also taken a significant step up. Testament had previously written exclusively about more horror kind of elements, like demons or aliens enslaving the human race. Now they’re talking about real societal and political issues. The title track discusses the hypocrisy of our politicians. Other tracks refer to real issues like climate change (ahead of its time in 1989), the changing political landscape of the 80s, and various other real life issues. It’s also the high watermark for the band’s classic lineup who went on to record 2 more albums together before massive changes came through. Practice represents a great end to the 80s thrash heyday with the close of the decade.