Heavy Issues: What is a Great Song on a Terrible Album?

We here at Heavy Blog like to ponder the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What’s your favourite album from 1989? You know, the big stuff. In order to better address such pressing matters, we bring you Heavy Issues: a bi-weekly column by which we plan to get to the bottom of things. Last round we asked “Which track taints an otherwise outstanding record?”; So this time we’re turning things around and asking:

What is a great song on a terrible album?

Read our responses below and weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.

 

Scott: I Set My Friends On Fire – “Things That Rhyme With Orange” (You Can’t Spell Slaughter Without Laughter, 2008)

Like most people, I avoid keeping “terrible” albums in my collection and regular rotation. That meant I had to look back to my formative high school years to find an album that fit the bill, a time filled with pop-punk, deathcore, and other genres I rarely listen to anymore. Surprisingly, finding the right artist and album proved more difficult than I expected. There were plenty of seemingly obvious choices like Asking Alexandria, Attack Attack!, Emmure, and a slew of other homogenous deathcore and metalcore bands. But all these bands still have some songs that carry a bit of nostalgia for me, and overall, their albums just feel more boring and not my thing anymore than truly, irredeemably awful.

And then there’s I Set My Friends On Fire. I relistened to their debut You Can’t Spell Slaughter Without Laughter in abject horror at the notion that I once enjoyed it on a regular basis. From the alien groupie skit that opens the album through the amalgamation of crunk, mathgrind, and easycore, the album is an absolute disaster from start to finish…except for “Things That Rhyme With Orange.”

Similar to the idea that nothing rhymes with orange, the album’s best song by a country mile also bears little resemblance to the rest of the track list. Throughout the album, ISMFOF’s songwriting feels like a haphazard blend of Brokencyde, Chunk! No, Captain Chunk!, Iwrestledabearonce, with little to no structure and a lack of interesting ideas to justify the chaos.

Yet, for whatever reason, “Things That Rhyme With Orange” is a well-written, catchy piece of easycore that delivers a balanced combination of the styles ISMFOF tries to smash into every song. With a bright, poppy synth intro, a sing-along chorus, and passable breakdowns, the track provides some genuinely enjoyable, mindless enjoyment. It’s not a perfect song by any means, but it’s easily the best moment on a terrible album.

Further Considerations: Just to branch off from my earlier point, Attila’s “About That Life”  is another purely “dumb fun” track I revisit from my early college years, when I was still clinging to a bit of my “-core” roots. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed another Attila song before or since, but “About That Life” is just so ridiculous and fun. I’m not proud of that opinion, but it’s the truth.

 

Josh: Killswitch Engage – “Never Again” (Killswitch Engage, 2009)

I’ve sung both Killswitch Engage and Howard Jones’s praises in the past but, by the time the band’s second self-titled effort rolled around, it was clear the collaboration had run its course. 2009’s Killswitch Engage is by no means the worst album I’ve ever heard, but it’s a blatantly uninspired effort that somehow feels simultaneously like a band going through the motions while also struggling to find direction. It also signalled the end of the line for Jones, who was struggling with personal issues at the time and left the band three years later, prior to the release of their new album. The second Killswitch Engage is the sound of a band in turmoil, struggling to find the inspiration that fuelled the string of world-conquering records that came before it – although you’d never know that from its opening number.

“Never Again” is a fairly standard Killswitch Engage offering, but it’s one that ripples with the band’s trademark power and passion – especially when compared to its surroundings.  “Never Again” provides a constant build: beginning in the band’s usual epic fashion through a verse that grows ever-more intense, before exploding into its defiant, uplifting chorus. It’s a powerful opener that earns its place alongside “A Bid Farewell” and “Numbered Days” as one of the band’s best. As with nearly all of Killswitch Engage’s strongest material, it’s Jones who leads the charge. His screams and cleans soar equally above the song’s frantic thrash metal foundation, taking what would be an otherwise rote metalcore number and elevating it to a level rarely even approached by the band’s competitors.

Sadly, just like Tucker’s daughter, it’s a case of being built up only to be torn down, with the rest of the album sorely lacking in vitality. Although tracks like “Starting Over”, “The Return” and “I Would Do Anything” all start strongly enough, their energy quickly dissipates and it is often Jones’s increasingly ineffectual delivery that delivers the final deathblow. The band sounded thoroughly reinvigorated, with Jesse Leach returned for 2013’s Disarm the Descent. However, I’d argue nothing in the post-Jones era has yet reached the height of “Never Again”, and it’s a track I sorely wish to see reinstated in their setlist.

Further Considerations: I’m going to have to disagree with Bill on this one and say “The Legacy” is the only decent number on Souls of Black (1990), which is easily Testament’s weakest album otherwise. “Bulldozer” from Machine Head’s Supercharger (2001) is another obvious pick – being an essential cut from what is undoubtedly a career low-point.

 

Bill: Queen – “Under Pressure” (Hot Space, 1982)

Hoo boy. Where to start with Hot Space that hasn’t already been said before? Now, I love Queen. I have devoured their back catalog (I’m positive that came out right…), watched the myriad films and DVDs of live shows and the recent big budget take on the band, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Live at Wembley ‘86 (1992) is one my favorite live albums of all time and, to my mind, might just be the perfect live album next to Iron Maiden’s Live After Death (1985). However, all of that said, Hot Space, while intriguingly artistically divergent from the entirety of the rest of their career, might be considered a disaster

That is up until the closing moments where the band with David Bowie in tow give us the sublime “Under Pressure”. This song, for me, is beyond reproach. It features every facet that made Queen and, to an extent, Bowie absolutely compelling. From the iconic bass and high hat intro, Brian May’s spidery and delicate guitar line, and then the sudden pop into the heart of the song. The back and forth vocals between Bowie and Mercury is nothing short of sublime. The lyrics, written separately by our two protagonists here, fit together eerily well. The building tension of the final crescendo and release is, well, it’s just a perfect construction of a song and we’ll likely and rightfully be singing its praises, and karaoke versions, for generations to come.

Therein lies the potential “problem” for Hot Space as an artistic adventure. Having a song this good that, in various accounts, was almost an afterthought cap off the album leaves you with a monumental impression when stacked up with the relatively lackluster music that precedes it. More than anything else, however, is the fact that this album sounds incredibly dated except for this one track. It’s not that there wasn’t potential to be found in the idea of the album or even in some of the songs that make up the latter half of it. It’s a case of combining one of the most iconic rock songs of all-time with the most underwhelming set of music Queen ever produced and yet is testament to the expectations the band engendered with their immense legacy then, now, and forever.

 

Eden: Iron Maiden – “Man on the Edge” (The X Factor, 1995

OK, let’s be honest here: I don’t know a single person who thinks Blaze Bayley-era Iron Maiden was good. Some of them might think it wasn’t as bad as people make it out to be, and they’re probably right; the ultra negative image some of us have of those albums (including yours truly) is probably painted in stark colors because of the contrasts, both before and after, between them and Bruce Dickinson’s legendary performances. If you look at the albums for what they are, they’re not wholly terrible.

For example, “Man on the Edge” from the oft-maligned The X Factor is mint Iron Maiden, replete with everything that’s always made the band great. It lacks the grandiose pomposity of the rest of the album, with tracks like “Blood on the World’s Hands” or “The Unbeliever” presenting Iron Maiden at their most laborious and protracted. “Man on the Edge”, with its signature galloping bass beat, energetic solos, and great drum-work has an energy that the rest of the album just lacks. It sends the listener back to earlier albums, perhaps even all the way to Killers (1981) for its inspiration and roots

And yes, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: Blaze Bayley sounds great on it. It has none of his usual trappings, the phoney melancholia, and strained registers. He sounds in his element, delivering a powerful performance that more than makes up for the lack of Dickinson’s presence. I’ll even go one further and say that some of the twists and passages on the track, the way the bass and the guitars interact with the beginning of the chorus and the vocals, work better with his vocals on it. Something about his directness where Dickinson is elaborate just carries those parts much better, giving them clarity and punch.

So, at the end of the day, The X Factor is not a great album by any definition of the word. But it has this moment on it, where we got a glimpse of what a more cohesive, self secure, and self aware of Blaze’s Iron Maiden might have sounded like. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to Powerslave (1984).

 

Matt: Fear Factory – “Cyberwaste” (Archetype, 2004)

Fifteen years ago, I was hearing Fear Factory for the first time. Archetype was just around the corner and the lead single, “Cyberwaste”, was fucking everywhere. MTV2 was playing the music video every other hour, Metal Hammer, Rocksound, every music publication on the shelves here in the UK seemed to have something to say about the return of industrial metal’s linchpin act – I’d built up a lot of hype for it myself too. I could not get enough of this fucking song

I devoured both De- and Remanufacture (1995/1997), Digimortal (2001) too in the build up to Archetype’s release, in between bandwidth devouring streams of the “Cyberwaste” video on the band’s official website. Pre-YouTube here folks. I could hear the death metal inspiration alongside the tracks that sounded like the Terminator 2: Judgement Day (2001) soundtrack we never got, and I wanted that a lot. The future metal sound was removed enough from nu-metal that I didn’t feel like a loser for listening to it. Then Archetype came out and I felt like a loser all over again. Insipid, dull choruses attached to mostly recycled riffs. Not even the logic-defyingly heavy grooves and patterns from Raymond Herrera could save it. The band tricked me with the lead single. I’d hazard a guess and say they tricked a few more folks too.

“Cyberwaste” isn’t an amazing track. It’s pretty straightforward – chunky riffs, furious percussion, and the obligatory teen angst shout-out “Nothing. You say. Matters. To us. Fuck You”. It’s still a far better track than anything else on this forgotten record, but the four records since have all been distinctly more Fear Factory than the tracks alongside this one. The album had a bonus DVD where band members nonchalantly walked past Tripp Eisen being shadowed by clearly underage fans; that’s the one memory outside of “Cyberwaste” I recall from Archetype. Blegh

 

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That’s it for us, but we want to know: which song do you think is a great song on a terrible album? Let us know in the comments, and if you have any questions or topics you’d like the Heavy Blog crew to cover, suggest away and we may use it in a future installment!

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