The Polishing of Metal
Part 5 - Maturity (1990s)

By Derek McDonald

They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To: The 1990's

By the time 1989 came around rock was beginning to roll again, as it seems to every ten years or so. New styles, which had been brewing in the background throughout the '80's, had now emerged to fight for the lucrative and growing 1990s market.

In 1988 Iron Maiden released the massive theme album: “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.” They would now take an increasing amount of influence from other sources for later albums, most notably Jethro Tull, thus underlining the changes that were on the horizon. They were still NWOBHM, but they appeared to not be sticking as closely to their old patterns which had brought them such success during the height of NWOBHM, 1984.

This example, along with many other groups, effectively stopped the NWOBHM empire dead in its tracks by 1989. Although the style lives on in those bands who continue to perform it, like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, they have lost some of their former steam but because of their huge popularity they will probably live long enough to see it rise again as all styles do.

With NWOBHM falling out of style and glam gone there was a huge gaping void which someone had to fill. What happened was that rock shattered into a thousand different sub-groups. These flavors were always boiling beneath the surface but with the widening gap they flooded up to get a piece of the popular spot light.

What emerged were many new flavors of Metal and completely new styles of rock.

A type of Rock music who got its start from Metal became known as "Alternative,” for lack of a better name. Alternative formed from the collision between punk and Metal forming the Metal sub-genre known as "Grunge.” Grunge is the birth point and connection point between Metal and it's offspring, Alternative. Such bands as Soundgarden and Nirvana pioneered this sub-genre. Grunge, in turn, stripped Metal of its spandex clad past and gave it a modern look. It has also caused a nostalgic backlash of Metal fans who want the colorful performances of the past to return.

Grunge was not so nice to Alternative, however. Whereas Punk and Metal complain about the world with energy, Alternative and Grunge complain but without the energy, a more lazy attitude that promotes acceptance. Alternative (sometimes, and more accurately described as College Rock (because it was founded on college radio stations)) requires Metal for its existence, its attitude, its sound and marketing. Unlike Metal, however, Alternative with its more popish style is a more marketable product; it needs not work in the underground.

Alternative and Grunge was called the "Seattle sound" as that is where it was predominantly made, the same way that Los Angeles and London were the homes of Metal. Such influential bands as Nirvana, headed by singer Kurt Cobain, who shortly after making it big committed suicide under questionable and highly publicized circumstances, pioneered this kind of music. Nirvana’s second album “Nevermind” managed to complete the link between pop, punk and metal appealing to fans in each genre.

But it wasn't until singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide that this Alternative and Grunge crap really got out of hand. The media went off its rocker and the record companies (as with every trend in the past) milked this cash cow for all she was worth. Suddenly it was trendy to wear ripped clothing and garage station style T-Shirts. It was rebellion for rebellion’s sake. At least Metal and Punk rebelled for a perceived cause but this was rebellion to be trendy and nothing more. As a result, by the late 1990's the music started to sound stale and repetitive. If it wasn't for the fact that at least a few good bands such as REM or The Tragically Hip came along this would have all been a waste of time. Who started this joke anyway? It is suggested that Alternative and Grunge are loosing their steam, but this is a discussion for a paper on Alternative Rock Music.

Punk was also revisited in the '90's with bands that were considered Punk but, in many critics opinions lacked the energy of the original. Such bands as Offspring and Green Day offered a punkish style of sound and the hair to match. These bands have not been around long enough for history to tell their story. Real Punk, however, did raise its spiked, mohawked head in the '90's and joined Metal on late night radio play and in pubs. Often merging, the two sounds would be named Hardcore Metal and Hardcore Punk.

In the '90s Metal also split within itself. Thrash, Doom, Gloom, Death and other forms now came into popularity with Thrash getting a dominant position.

The big bands like Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Judas Priest and Megadeth continued to be the big concert draws even in the fractured world of rock and managed to preserve their territories alongside the multitude of newer bands.

Megadeth was formed by ex-Metallica member Dave Mustaine shortly after he was "asked to leave" Metallica early in their career. Megadeth offers an uncompromising, intense and professional Thrash Metal sound. Since their first release, "Killing is my Business...And Business is Good" album in 1985 on the indie Combat label and later on EMI/Capitol, they have continued to gain popularity. Many of their songs contain lyrics debating current political issues such as the environment, nuclear warfare or the state of our children.

The Selling Of The Crown Jewels: The Soft Debate

Metal had once again taken the spotlight. Hollywood also embraced rock and the rock lifestyle by featuring the music and actors playing the part in movies. But this time the spotlight was going to be shared with Metal’s offspring and increasing rival Alternative.

The big controversy in Metal during the 1990's was the issue of Metal "going soft.” Many bands, like Metallica, were accused of going soft and abandoning their hard Metal edge to cater to the whims of a larger audience.

Case in point:
When Metallica released their 5th album, self titled “Metallica” in 1991, it opened up a Pandora's box of controversy which flooded the 1990's. They were accused of selling out to the corporate bosses to whom they were so much against all through the '80's. Since the album had a lighter flavor then their past albums, in essence abandoning the Thrash genre which they almost single-handedly invented, this caused fans to complain. Fortunately for Metallica and unfortunate to the nay-sayers, the sales of the Metallica album say the opposite story.

In 1996 the box was not only opened but ripped to shreds when it was announced that Metallica and other Metal bands would headline the Lollapalooza tour (a large traveling Alternative-rock show). Then their new album in 1996: “Load,” although re-introducing some elements of the Thrash sound, was still not palatable to hardened fans who have threatened to stop buying the records if there is a third such record. No way was this genie going back in its bottle!

Again, at time of this writing this issue is still hitting the fan so it is too early to write any conclusions. But, if a conclusion had to be made it will probably say that the softening of Metal is a temporary thing and may end off, or in the long run be an asset because it brought a whole new market of youths into the genre thus widening its market appeal.

The "softening of Metal" may not actually be an issue at all. It could simply be another shifting on the part of rock to reflect the changes in society as it does so well. Besides, there are still plenty of hard bands around such as Slayer, Obituary, Iron Maiden or AC/DC, etc. who tow a tighter and more traditional line.

Lasers: The New Technology

During the late '80's and early part of the '90's something else was happening to music in general. It became more popular!

Record companies blamed the arrival of the cassette as the problem in the falling sales. They claimed that because the cassette would allow people to record, people would simply rip off (pirate) the music and not buy the originals to feed their car stereos, home stereos and Walkmans. Although the cassette encouraged more bootlegs (illegal recordings of live shows) and pirates (illegal copies of recordings) this could not possibly be the only problem.

What the record executives fail to tell us, but we can plainly see it for ourselves, is that most forms of music during the 1980's was not evolving thus causing a fallen interest in music, as a whole. This falling interest in other music forms may have been the weak point Metal was waiting for because it succeeded in popularity where others failed. During the '80's, for the first time, Metal was hitting the charts and even managed to be played on the radio once or twice.

By the time the '90's rolled around, however, sales were climbing. Record sales (no pun intended) were reported for the first time since the '70's.

They went up firstly, because of a new interest in an evolving music but also because the record companies had something new other than music to put on the shelves. The Compact Disc! Because the CD, as it was known, was completely incompatible to all previous forms of recording, it was laser-optical and digital as opposed to analog (in the case of records) or magnetic-analog (in the case of cassettes), it would force people to buy new stereo equipment and allow them (the record companies) to re-publish old hits knowing that the gullible consumer would buy the same old albums in the new format.

The CD was the brain child of Phillips and Sony Corporations in 1978. It was originally designed to store video but it has yet to fully utilize this capability to the public. Music is where it succeeded. By 1983 many record companies had added it to their production inventory, some like EMI were reluctant and didn't until sometime later. It still took almost 10 years in total for it to become accepted by the consumer, a consumer who, to this day, is reluctant to change technologies frequently and certainly doesn't want to change after using records for 120 years and cassettes for close to 30. Not since 1954 with the termination of 78rpm records (the last one was actually printed in 1966) did the music industry have a new technology to offer the consumer.

At time of this writing CD's, although impressive in sales, only account for just under 50% of the music consuming public where records account for nearly 90% (although falling as people switch to CD) and cassettes at almost 80%.

A big factor stopping the switch to CD by many consumers is the fact that you cannot record CD to CD and they question how long this technology will be around in a world where technology changes every day.

At any rate, the CD is at least in part the reason for increased music sales. As soon as 1990 rolled around the record companies stopped making the old fashioned vinyl record sticking only to the newer cassettes and CD's, in essence forcing the consumer to change!

It is important to note however, while the cheaper technology and nostalgia grabs people by the wallets, records are still selling as used commodities and imported as new from many countries (most of the world) who still produce the older technology, thus causing many records to become valuable collectors items on this side of the Atlantic.

Statistical Data:
This record sale phase was short lived. In 1995 the music industry suffered a drop in music sales. This trend would continue for the remainder of the 1990s. They blame other forms of entertainment (such as home computers) but the fact is that they were too busy terminating music genres and formats (a fact mentioned later) to notice that people’s musical tastes were changing for the new millennium back to what they were in the 1980's.

In 1997 a survey of Americans and Canadians, two of the biggest music markets, was taken and the discovery was startling: Only 45% shopped for music in stores, most consumers were under the age of 40, people were fed up with commercial radio and snobby DJs putting down great music, everyone has access to cassettes and most still had records but only 58% owned CD players, CD prices were too high and the industry itself was hits-orientated thus churning out few career bands and discouraging consumer loyalty. Finally: people weren't so willing to abandon their old music formats for in 1995 worldwide:

CD sales went down by 2%
Cassette Sales down by 21%
Vinyl Sales UP by 150% (The only increase)

In 1996 the sales were slightly better but the net loss to the industry was apparent. It hadn’t dropped this bad since the end of the disco era.

Total decrease was 1% (not a lot, but that 1% counts for some 1.11 billion units) and the trend showed no signs of stopping.

It seemed that the increase in sales of the late '80's would not be matched in the economic hard times of the '90's.

Metal benefited from this activity because it gained new found popularity as well as a new sound.

Who, What & Where: Sub-Genre Classification

The sub-classifications of metal are based on the sound style of the group in question. They simply describe different flavors of the Metal sound. By the 1990’s these sub-genres had worked their way into the minds of metalheads.

Traditionally there have been 4 sub-genres:
Classic - AC/DC, Judas Priest, Motorhead, etc.
N.W.O.B.H.M - Iron Maiden, Saxon, Venom, Grim Reaper, etc.
Thrash/Speed - Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, etc.
Death/Doom - Sabbath, Sepultura, Impaler, Death, etc.

Now, some of the bands I mentioned cross over into other sub-sets, but you get the idea. Keep in mind, however, that really these labels are un-official in the music industry.

The evolution of each style can be summed up as follows:

Each evolved from a 'lesser' form (like Darwin's theory). However, the evolution is probably better summed up as the Chaos theory.

How I categorize the sounds is: If a group sounds like Maiden then I put it in with Maiden. If their style is like Metallica then that's where I put them. Some research into how the categories originally came about and fitting the bands into the slots is also helpful. Family tree:

|Classic Rock
|----------- Psychedelia
|----------- Pop Rock
|----------- Punk
|----------- Classical Metal
| |----- NWOBHM
| | |--- Glam
| | |--- Thrash
| | |-- Death
Hard Rock | | ||- Gothic
| | ||- Doom
| | ||- Gloom
| | |-- Hardcore
| | |-- Industrial
| |----- Grunge
| | |--- Alternative/College

This is an over simplified version of events. As Darwin could tell you (if he were still alive) evolution isn't as simple as this. Evolution occurs as a process of change when necessity warrants it. And metal, like all things, changes when needed else it would die. It did not evolve in a vacuum. Many things influenced its evolution.

So called Classical Metal came from the Classic Rock, Psychedelia and pop music of the late 60's and '70s.

NWOBHM came form Classic Metal and Punk which were popular during the late 1970's and early '80s.

Thrash evolved from NWOBHM as well as Classical Metal after this point. Thrash paid little attention to other genres except the old Psychedelia movement and its direct parentage. It evolved on automatic for a while spawning Death and it's various subsets.

Hardcore-Thrash was the re-introduction of influences to the musical genre. Once again Punk. So called Industrial is the same.

Grunge was the merging of Punk and Metal with Pop which spawned the whole College/Alternative movement. Although College/Alternative is not in itself part of the Heavy Metal movement it crosses the bridge between pop and Metal so at least in part it is on the Heavy Metal family tree.

Who is that? The New Bands

In the '90's bands got louder and faster and also stranger. Bands arose which really had no classification. They were descended from the examples of Alice Cooper and Twisted Sister and some other unknown element. These bands would simply be called "unique" or "bizarre.” Usually their sound was a basic Thrash beat but they re-introduced the visual element into their acts. Gwar and Marilyn Manson are excellent examples of this.

Metal would also get a harder sound. It started as early as the late 1980's but came to the front under the moniker "Industrial.” Again, these bands utilized the Thrash sound and probably took it to its farthest extreme. White Zombie, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry are excellent examples of this.

The Marilyn Manson group were formed in Florida in 1990 with the intention of "exploring the limits of censorship.” In keeping with this tradition they were the first to be signed to Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and John A. Malm Jr's Nothing label. Extensive tours as supporting roles gave them local recognition in the form of the 1993 Slammy awards for the nomination of the song "Dope Hat" not to mention other baubles. Reznor also acted as guest musician and executive producer on their 1994 debut album. Marilyn Manson's claim to fame is their dress and show equally as much as their music. Tearing a page from Alice Cooper's book, Marilyn Manson embraces controversial dress, make-up and music. Often, in dress, it goes to such an extreme they hardly look human.

Probably the most famous of these "bizarro" bands was known as Gwar. The 7 band members, a large number for any musical group, became known for their strange costumes (a combination of demons and piles of scrap-metal), questionable language, humor and reference to sexual activities. Once again proving that rock was a "bad boy" sport and in turn finding a new way to annoy the "establishment.”

Only a stainless steel ear could listen to them for long periods of time, however, they manage to this day to maintain a small but loyal following. Their sound is a basic Thrash style with sexual, violent or just plain silly lyrics.

Like Venom before, Gwar's members are only known by their stage names: Jizmak da Gusha, Sleazy P. Martini, Oderus Urungus, Beefcake The Mighty, Flattus Maximus, Sexecutioner, Symenstra Hymen.

In 1995 Gwar would go even farther. They dubbed themselves X-Cops and took their fantasies to the extreme of tolerance for some cultures. The album “You Have The Right” was immediately banned in many countries of the world including one of the most liberal: Canada.

In 1996 Gwar released a new album and then was nominated for a grammy for a song featured in a movie soundtrack they had forgotten they wrote. They lost.

Taking their name from a classic horror movie, they started in 1985 on New York's lower east side. White Zombie released two albums on their own label while they played their primal and unconventional Metal in local clubs. This helped them get a deal with Caroline Records. A slight change in direction saw their Stooges and Black Sabbath influence shine through. It would take an EP of a remake of the Kiss classic, "God Of Thunder," and another album, "La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. I," that would allow them justice. Now their sound consisted of bizarre lyrics against a loud barrage of instrumental sound sampled with B-movie dialogue. Because of this album they finally received coverage on MTV and managed to tour the USA extensively. Their 1995 album, "Astrocreep 2000," earned them mainstream status and made them one of the spearheads of the Industrial Thrash style.

Trent Reznor is the multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and creative force behind NIN. During his small-town Pennsylvania childhood he was classically trained as a pianist but his discovery of rock changed his life. After a stint working in a Cleveland recording studio with local bands he started recording as Nine Inch Nails in 1988. The dark “Pretty Hate Machine” was largely synthesizer based but on stage it was a ferocious wall of guitars and show stopping Lollapalooza performances in 1991. A US platinum hit was achieved with their “Head Like a Hole.” On the “Broken” LP, the stage show was adapted to recording which saw the guitars added (a subsequent remix was titled “Fixed”). This gave them a top 10 and a grammy for the song "Wish.” “Happiness In Slavery,” however was stalled in controversy as its video was almost universally banned, where performance artist Bob Flanigan appears to be torn apart as a sex slave to a machine, acting out the theme of control expressed in Reznor's lyrics. An unreleased full-length video for “Broken” was also done which Reznor feels makes “Happiness In Slavery” look like a Disney movie.

He then moved to L.A., built a studio and rented the house at 10050 Cielo Dr., the site of the Manson murders. Reznor honestly didn't know this at the time. The next album, “Downward Spiral,” saw synthesizers introduced and continued guitar fury which provided a fascinating soundscape for his exploration of human degradation through sex, drugs, violence and suicide including the song “Hurt” which expressed this point of view from a personal level. The album reached number 2. 1994 saw Reznor do non-NIN music on his own Nothing label as well. The band found time to create the soundtrack for the movie “Natural Born Killers”.

Al Jourgensen started the Ministry name in the early '80’s in Chicago but he was unhappy with the Euro-pop direction which his record company was pushing for. After the “Twitch” album he became more satisfied after the inclusion of Paul Barker and Bill Reiflin (ex-Rigor-Mortis guitarist Mike Sciccia and ex-Finitribe vocalist Chris Connelly would contribute after the next album). The band evolved an Industrial Metal sound utilizing heavy use of guitars as well as developed (despite Jourgensen's dislike of touring) a stunning live show containing a bone encrusted mic stand with a backdrop of disturbing images to accompany the music. The “In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up” (Live) album displayed the bands efforts of translating the shows to the recordings. Members of the band, meanwhile, worked on other projects: Lard and Jello Biafra to name two.

Ministry remained the main of the two acts - the other namely Revolting Cocks which served as a more humorous outlet for Jourgensen's and Barker's talents - a contrast to Ministry's often dark and socio-political themes. The growing acceptance of the youth culture/alternative lifestyles helped to increase their popularity giving them mainstream acceptance with “Psalm 69” (subtitled “The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs”). They received rotation on MTV and were a main act in 1992's Lollapalooza tour.

In the 1990’s rock revised itself during a period of instability and this instability reflected back rocks (and Metal’s) insecurity in the new world. A worldwide economic recession (almost as bad as the Great Depression of 1929) slowly descended upon the world. It was harder to sell a record and even if you could who would buy it with so many out of work. Technology was changing as well, leaving many wanting it to get over and others wanting the old days back. Metal didn't know which way to go. During the 90's it would suffer blows that would kill off any other music genre but, at time of writing, it looks like it will walk away.