There’s been a change on the hard side of rock.
Hair is out.
Heavy is in. And the heavier, the better.
Consider the litany of bands that have fallen from public favor during the past couple of years - Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Poison, Ratt, Warrant - often labeled “hair bands” for their flashy looks and slick brand of hard rock that was deemed safe enough to play by radio and MTV programmers. Some have broken up; others, such as Bon Jovi, have taken their hits to softer radio formats.
And they all sound positively flaccid next to what’s pushed them out of the limelight, the granite and guttural attacks favored by Megadeth, Slayer, Pantera, Danzig, Type O Negative, Corrosion of Conformity and Machine Head. Not short of hair themselves, all these bands have hot-selling new albums. And they’re drawing big crowds for their concerts.
Bands that once sold a few thousand albums are selling in the hundreds of thousands - even, in some cases, in the millions. Last March, Pantera’s “Far Beyond Driven,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, a previously unheard of feat for music this hard.
Even rock radio, which once shied away from these bands as too hard for the masses, is embracing the trend by adding selections such as Megadeth’s “Train of Consequences,” Corrosion of Conformity’s “Albatross” or Type O Negative’s “Black No. 1” to their play lists.
“When we talk to the listeners, we see the interest really doubling in the past year or so,” says ABC Radio’s Lee Abrams, who runs Z-Rock, a national satellite service. “Where before people were aware of these bands but weren’t interested in them, now they’re saying they’re aware and they’re interested.
“With Motley Crue and those kind of bands, the word I get is ‘I’ve grown They don’t care about the look or anything. They’re just in there to rock.”
And they’re enjoying the new success on their own terms. After “Far Beyond Driven” hit No. 1, Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul noted that “it wasn’t like some marketing scheme and we hoaxed the world. We didn’t change the sound or anything; we made a record for ourselves and our fans.”
Adds Slayer guitarist Kerry King, “People always want to be pushed - ‘Here’s something new.’ And heavy is the way to go. If you’re listening to metal and get tired of it, you’ve got to have something more harsh.”
This harsh rock is built on biting, repetitive guitar riffs and jackhammer rhythms. Their forebears come from ‘70s metal (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath) as well as from punk movements dating back to the Stooges and MC5 in the ‘60s, the Ramones and Sex Pistols in the ‘70s, and ‘80s hard-core bands such as Black Flag, Bad Brains and the Minutemen.
It is, in many ways, the darker side of Seattle’s so-called grunge movement - Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden - that drew from many of the same influences. To write the Slayer song “Circle of Beliefs,” King acknowledges that “I put a barrage of riffs together in that song and made it work. Pretty basic, really.”
That’s a sharp contrast to the hair bands, which were pop groups dressed up in metal clothing. Their emphasis was on craft - well-structured songs with catchy melodies and memorable choruses.
It’s a timeless, Tin Pan Alley method, and it’s not unsuccessful, as evidenced by multimillion-selling albums by Bon Jovi and Def Leppard.
But that approach eventually backfired. “It just got to a point where you weren’t sure if you were hearing Kip Winger or Warrant, or was that the new Dokken?” says Derek Simon, senior director of marketing for Roadrunner Records, the home of bands such as Machine Head and Type O Negative.
“It all got too homogenous. Now, you know when you’re hearing a Slayer record, and (Megadeth’s) Dave Mustaine has a pretty unique voice and guitar sound.”
That’s not to say that virtuosity is unappreciated by the heavier bands. Their music requires masterful dynamics and precision playing.
What may sound like a wall of noise to some is, upon closer inspection, an intricate kind of grind whose tightly woven parts combine for a forceful sonic wallop.
These groups are staking out a different lyrical terrain, too. The ‘80s combination of love songs and party anthems has given way to darker and grittier fare, whether it’s Slayer’s doom-filled imagery or the political topics tackled on some songs by Pantera and Corrosion of Conformity.
“I’m an optimist,” says COC singer-guitarist Pepper Kennan. “I try to turn the lyrics around into positive things. The majority of these songs are ‘Think for yourself. Do what you want to do. Don’t let anybody hold you down.”’
On its new album, “Youthanasia,” Megadeth features songs about death, war and incest. Mustaine also takes listeners on a journey through his own personal demons, which have included heroin addiction.
But rather than lapsing into cloying self pity, his lyrics preach accountability; on rock stations around the country, fans now hear Mustaine sing “I’m tied up to the tracks/The train of consequences/ There ain’t no turning back.”
“The connection between the heart and the mind is more important to me now,” explains Mustaine, who entered a rehabilitation institute in February 1993 after a near-fatal overdose of Valium. “I was there; I did the witchcraft, read the satanic bible. I sang about the pagan stuff everybody now thinks is so cool.
“Now I’d rather say ‘See, I’ve been there, done took. I got sold hook, line and sinker into my addiction. And now I know there is a solution, a better way of life.’ “
These messages, according to Roadrunner’s Simon, are as responsible as the music for the groups’ burgeoning popularity.
“I think the kids are just reaching out for the sheer strength, the sheer reality of what these bands are … as opposed to the Dungeons and Dragons of 15 years ago,” he says. “They’re definitely coming from a very real place, and that’s hitting a chord.”
But while they’re united in musical purpose, this batch of bands hardly behaves like one happy family. “We don’t want to be included in whatever is trendy nowadays,” says COC’s Keenan.
“We did the thrash metal stuff years ago. We’re not going to sit around and repeat ourselves. We wanted to try to carve our own thing, regardless of how cool it was around us.”
Likewise, Mustaine grumbles that “Half these bands think they stand what I stand for, with all the thrash and speed. I know they sound like they share the same damn singer.”
And Slayer’s King takes an even harsher view of the movement his group is grudgingly part of. “There isn’t anybody close to what we do that I like,” says the guitarist, who these days keeps nine inch nails and old Deep Purple and Black Sabbath albums in his CD player.
He slams at Megadeth as “sapped out beyond recognition” and even criticizes Metallica - the genre’s acknowledged giant - for “playing weaker songs than it used to, but they’re still able to sell it.”
Still, all involved seem to realize popularity is a cyclical thing that’s only as reliable as the fickle tastes of the public; there’s even talk of a hair band resurrection, with John Kalodner - the record executive who revived Aerosmith’s career during the ‘80s - now putting his muscle behind Dokken.
So that means all of the heavy bands are making the best of this current portal of popularity.
“There is no satisfaction until you’re on every single radio station,” says Mustaine, “or until you can turn on CNN and hear them say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to break into tonight’s newscast to play the new Megadeth video.’ Then you’re talkin’.”