Belly to Belly
By Joshua Green
For the better part of the Alternative Decade, being a heavy-metal fan has been no picnic--and even today, with Ozzfest lumbering toward us for the second year in a row, those who consider themselves more musically enlightened still look down their noses at the genre. In February critic Ben Ratliff threw metalheads a pretty big bone, writing about the "resurgence" of metal for the New York Times. But the article focused on the arcane--from "machine-assisted metal" to "folk metal" to "New York squatter metal"--at the expense of the popular. Ratliff not only ignored a whole new crop of hair-metal albums, but went so far as to declare hair metal "passed into retirement."
Now, hair metal may not lend itself to Ratliff's grand pronouncements about metal's ties to epistemology and the power struggles of the working class--it's metal for teenagers who just want to rock 'n' roll all night. But for better or for worse, it's not dead. It does, however, have an image problem--and more than half of image is age. Unlike the recent ska and lounge revivals, the current wave of hair metal finds its energy not in newer, younger bands who've chosen to resurrect the banner but in the same groups that cleaned up the first time around. Here's the problem: Rockers like Sting and Eric Clapton can slide gracefully into middle age, and so can the Stones, with a wink and a nod. Even Metallica can segue to slower, more accessible music without losing too much credibility. But there's just no way to inconspicuously abandon the excesses of hair metal--including the excessive hair--without diminishing its appeal considerably.
Or so you'd think. The unlikely center of the unlikely hair-metal revival is Raleigh, North Carolina, where a record label called CMC International appears to have cornered what remains of the market. CMC was founded by Tom Lipsky, a metal fan who's worked as a booking agent since 1977. He began speculating in metal futures in the early 90s, figuring that jilted bands who not too long ago could fill stadiums could still sell a respectable number of records.
His first signing was the German band Accept (of "Balls to the Wall" fame) in 1992; last year alone CMC put out 22 records by other hair-metal acts, metal warhorses like Iron Maiden, a Rob Halford-less Judas Priest, and Motorhead, and even nonmetal has-beens like Loverboy, the Fixx, Pat Benatar, and Styx. Recognizing metal's limitations in the current climate, he restricted advertising mainly to fanzines and promoted the bands primarily as live acts. The metal albums on CMC have so far sold between 40,000 and 200,000 a pop--not bad for bands that lost their major-label deals faster than Milli Vanilli when grunge came along. In 1995 CMC made $11 million, which prompted distribution giant BMG to snap up a 50-percent stake in the company. The cash influx let Lipsky prove his theory that the bands still had the fans even if they didn't have critical support: with his financing, Styx and Benatar grossed $7 million last summer playing sold-out arena shows.
Recently CMC released three new albums from some of the finest hair wavers of the 80s: Warrant, Slaughter, and Dokken. There was a time when you couldn't surf past MTV without catching one or the other of them leering gleefully at the camera. Two of these bands, Warrant and Slaughter, will test Lipsky's theory about hair metal's enduring live appeal this week at House of Blues, on a bill with Firehouse and Quiet Riot. But if the albums are any indication of what's to come onstage, I can't imagine how even the nostalgia factor that buoys Styx nowadays can help these guys.
Slaughter captures the formula, if not the force, of the 80s metal album to a tee on Revolution. There's the apocalyptic good-versus-evil tune ("Heaven It Cries"), the token call to arms ("Revolution"), and the federally mandated prom theme ("Can We Find a Way"). There are two misunderstood-loner anthems ("I'm Gone" and "Hard to Say Good-bye") and even a bit of pandering to lustful teens ("Tongue in Groove," which doesn't get any more nuanced than its title). And if the rollicking "You're My Everything" had come out in 1984, it would have been perfect fodder for one of those groupie-infested videos so prevalent in the Reagan era. But it's 1998, and the tune is in fact one of precious few standouts in a collection of surprisingly staid music and self-parodic, badly spelled lyrics ("corparate lies," "no aliby").
Warrant's Belly to Belly serves a slightly warmer dish, thanks mostly to Rick Steier's guitar playing, which kicks appropriate ass on the apocalypse tune, "In the End (There's Nothing)," and underscores the weary isolation on "Feels Good." But too often the band hedges its bets with middling attempts at Trent Reznor-style self-loathing ("Falling Down," "Solid"), and the distortion of the vocals on nearly every track, possibly an attempt to hide the years of damage from screaming, is an inexcusable breach of hair-metal tradition. The combination is deadly on "Feels Good," where Jani Lane's imitation of Reznor's I'm-so-beseiged-by-pain-all-I-can-manage-is-a-whisper delivery comes off like a perverted crank call. And Warrant blows it completely on "A.Y.M." (Angry Young Man), which begins, "Generation X / We are complex / Angst is the perfect wave." Uh, whatever you say, dad.
Dokken was the hardest rocking of these three bands back in the day, but Shadowlife only illustrates how long ago that day really was. It's neither a sincere nod to the 80s like Revolution nor an obvious attempt to co-opt alternative rock like Belly to Belly. You don't even have to listen to it to understand that something has gone horribly awry since you last saw Dokken. In the CD booklet, bassist Jeff Pilson and drummer Mick Brown look OK, with long (albeit thinning) hair and a black leather jacket and a crucifix between them. But singer Don Dokken is sporting what looks to be a rug worse than Marv Albert's, and guitarist George Lynch is a good 20 years too old to be wearing a skate rat's baggy jeans and nylon shirt. The music itself confirms the worst fears the photos could inspire. Songs like "Sky Beneath My Feet" and "Until I Know" bear no resemblance at all to hair metal; they're sluggish, mid-tempo, subradio drivel. And the tunes that do try to incorporate a metal motif or two fall flat: "Puppet on a String" takes a promising we're-all-just-cogs-in-the-machine lyrical stance, but musically it's harrowingly evocative of Tool. Likewise "Here I Stand" sounds like dime-store Soundgarden. Most of the rest of the material doesn't know what it's trying to mimic; the abysmal "Convenience Store Messiah" even includes bongo drums.
Still, for those who think hair metal is the Viagra that will cure popular music of its impotence, there's hope: CMC's success, Billboard reported in November, has inspired Sony to start its own imprint for more old hard-rock acts. And hey, for my metal money, any of these records is better than looking at Marilyn Manson in that leather butt harness.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Warrant; Dokken; Slaughter uncredited band photos, various album covers.