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
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.
Nirvanas 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
rebellions 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
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
Metals 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
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
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
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
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.
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
peoples 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
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 hadnt dropped this bad since the end of the
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 1990s these sub-genres had worked their way into the
minds of metalheads.
Traditionally there have been 4 sub-genres:
AC/DC, Judas Priest, Motorhead, etc.
N.W.O.B.H.M - Iron Maiden, Saxon,
Venom, Grim Reaper, etc.
Thrash/Speed - Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax,
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:
|----------- Classical Metal
| | |--- Glam
| | |--- Thrash
| | |-- Death
Hard Rock |
| ||- Gothic
| | ||- Doom
| | ||- Gloom
| | |-- Hardcore
| |----- 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.
NINE INCH NAILS
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 '80s 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
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
In the 1990s rock revised itself during a period of
instability and this instability reflected back rocks (and Metals)
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.