Album Review: Metal Massacre (40th ANNIVERSARY)

It’s surreal to think that even the world’s biggest heavy metal band was also once just a group of teenage goofballs copying their favorite artists, opening for SAXON and VENOM in dinky clubs, and covering nearly every song from the first DIAMOND HEAD album; along with a few cuts by BLITZKRIEG, SAVAGE, and SWEET SAVAGE because they didn’t have enough of their own songs to do a full set. It was probably even more surreal seeing them dwarf all of the bands named above in popularity in less than a decade. It’s also funny seeing the earliest photos of METALLICA when they were still decked out in their old school rock star attire. 

Well, really only James Hetfield is truly laughable with his pink and black zebra-striped sleeveless shirt with cut-off midriff and studded leather wristbands. In fact, I just watched a movie called The Smithereens from 1982, and the glam-cum-punk chick is wearing a similar shirt to the one Hetfield is wearing in those early photos. Lars Ulrich, Dave Mustaine, and original bassist Ron McGovney look about right in jeans, t-shirts, and biker vests, if still a bit like a late 70s band. But, in two short years, Metallica would, of course, epitomize the “street level” metal band in their sleeveless Brian “Pushead” Schroeder skull t-shirts, black denim, and high-top sneakers; signaling to the world that they’re not one of those makeup wearing poser L.A. bands like MÖTLEY CRÜE, DOKKEN, or RATT that look more like transsexual prostitutes than metal musicians.  

Ah yeah, what a difference two years makes; in 1982, you’re wearing a SCORPIONS t-shirt, and you think metal can’t get any faster, heavier, or more aggressive than MOTÖRHEAD, VENOM, and ACCEPT, and in 1984, you’re wearing a DISCHARGE t-shirt and your metal is faster, heavier, and more aggressive than Motörhead, Venom, and Accept. And, that same year, new bands, such as SODOM, DESTRUCTION, BATHORY, and CELTIC FROST, come out, and they’re even faster, heavier, and more aggressive than you; only to be topped a couple years after that by bands like DEATH, NAPALM DEATH, and SARCÓFAGO, who are faster, heavier, and more aggressive than them. 

Of course none of this could be known in 1982, the year that the Metal Massacre compilation introduced the world to a new independent heavy metal label called Metal Blade Records, while JUDAS PRIEST and the Scorpions hit pay dirt with “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and “No One Like You” from their breakthrough albums Screaming for Vengeance and Blackout, and heavy metal was just heavy metal; there was no thrash, glam, speed, death, black, or doom metal in 1982. If heavy metal itself was born in the late 60s, it took the entirety of the 70s for it finally become its own genre apart from the hard rock, heavy rock, blues rock, and prog rock from which it emerged. 

And, of course, when it did, teenage metalheads, such as Brian Slagel, unknowingly became entrepreneurs when they started their own independent labels to put out heavy metal. Slagel’s Metal Massacre compilation series is arguably the most popular and influential compilation series of its type and has featured the earliest recordings by SLAYER, ARMORED SAINT, METAL CHURCH, TROUBLE, NASTY SAVAGE, POSSESSED, VOIVOD, OVERKILL, and many more; curiously there were actually two different bands called Overkill, the popular New-Jersey-based thrash metal band and a punk-metal band from Los Angeles, both of which were on different Metal Massacre compilations. 

Metal Massacre, of course, isn’t the first heavy metal compilation. That honor would probably go to a double album called Heavy Metal that came out in 1974 and contains songs by such hard rock, heavy rock, and proto-metal favorites as BLACK SABBATH, DEEP PURPLE, LED ZEPPELIN, URIAH HEEP, ALICE COOPER, and MC5; it also features the ALLMAN BROTHERS, THE EAGLES, YES, and THE DOORS, but what can you do? The Metal for Muthas compilation from 1980, which includes Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Bruce Dickinson’s pre-Maiden band Samson, is closer to the metal mark, and plenty more metal compilations with names like Axe Attack and Live and Heavy followed. 

But, even in terms of independently released metal, Mike Varney actually beat Slagel to the punch with his Shrapnel label and its U.S. Metal compilation in 1981. Like Metal Massacre after it, U.S. Metal would also become a series. Unlike Metal Massacre, the bands on the U.S. Metal comps never expanded beyond traditional metal. The label didn’t unleash thrash, doom, or death metal onto the world the way Metal Massacre did, and the biggest bands to emerge from the U.S. Metal compilations are Exciter, Virgin Steele, Vicious Rumors, Manilla Road, and Keel; all good to great bands, mind you, but none which have much more than a cult following or created wild, new metal genres; except for maybe Exciter, who get credited for inventing speed metal, if you wanna count playing traditional metal really fast as its own genre. 

However, other than being the inaugural release for Metal Blade Records, Metal Massacre is also famous for unleashing Metallica upon the world. Now, for those who don’t know, the very first Metallica (or “Mettallica”, as they’re listed on the back of Metal Massacre), recording featured James Hetfield on singing, rhythm guitar, and bass, Lars Ulrich on drums, and a session guy named Lloyd Grant doing the guitar solo. If this here Metal Massacre reissue included that recording of “Hit the Lights”, Metallica wouldn’t have sounded very different from the other bands on the compilation; metallic hard rock or NWOBHM with some 70s residue. Sure the first recording of “Hit the Lights” is fast, but it’s not thrash fast, and James Hetfield is doing all kinds of hilarious high-pitch falsetto shouts. Not exactly a bastion of mosh-pit fueling aggression but a rockin’, speedy Saxon-esque metal song nonetheless.

However, by the time Metal Massacre was released in the summer of 1982, Metallica felt their first recording was no longer representative of the group’s sound and insisted that Slagel allow the band to re-record it with Dave Mustaine on guitar and Ron McGovney on bass and use that version on future pressings of Metal Massacre. The second version is tighter, faster, and can be considered early thrash metal, even if Hetfield’s voice still had another year to drop a few octaves before the group recorded their genre-defining classic debut Kill ‘em All. I’m guessing they used the second version on this reissue, because fans probably wanted at least one Metallica recording with the future Megadeth guitarist/singer; thought it is also noteworthy that James Hetfield doesn’t actually play guitar on this version. My question is why didn’t they just include both versions and allow us to compare them?

Especially considering how this reissue includes every other song from all three pressings of Metal Massacre. See, Metal Massacre was actually pressed three times. The first pressing opens with “Cold Day in Hell” by STEELER; and before you Yngwie fans get a boner, this is before the Swedish shredder joined the group. The second pressing replaced the Steeler track with “Chains Around Heaven” by BLACK ‘N BLUE. I’m not sure why they removed “Cold Day in Hell”, but Steeler released their first album – the one with Yngwie – on Shrapnel in 1983, so maybe being on a competing metal label had something to do with it; I dunno. And then the third pressing, which came out in 1984, omitted the Ratt song, “Tell the World.” At first I thought it might have been because Ratt had become a popular glam metal band on a major label by that point, but then so did Black ‘N Blue, so that can’t be it. What I do know is that “Cold Day in Hell”, “Chains Around Heaven”, and “Tell the World” are all damn fine hard rocking tunes that are nothing to be ashamed for including on an early 80s metal comp!

But, there you go; if this new reissue appears to be a hybrid of all three pressings of Metal Massacre, then why the heck did they not include both recordings of “Hit the Lights”? “Hit the Lights” is only four minutes long! They could have easily put version one at the end of side one and version two at the end of side two! 

As for the rest of Metal Massacre, whether it’s this reissue or any of the other pressings, there are seven other cuts by six other bands, ranging from cult favorites to complete obscurities. The fact that the compilation has two songs from MALICE, one of which sounds like a re-write of “Saints in Hell” by Judas Priest, gives me the impression that Brian Slagel wasn’t exactly being inundated with mountains of tapes from aspiring metal talent when he started his label. Not knocking Malice or anything; in fact, they’re a great traditional metal band and also one of two bands on Metal Massacre who weren’t very successful back in the day, broke up after releasing a few albums, and recently reformed in the wake of renewed interest in obscure 70s and 80s metal. 

The other is, of course, one of my favorite bands, CIRITH UNGOL. Of all the bands on Metal Massacre, Cirith Ungol is the strongest example of just how much metal evolves on a year to year basis. The group formed way back in 1971 but didn’t release their debut album, Frost and Fire, until 1981; which they had to do independently, because they just couldn’t get one of those overweight, balding, cigar chomping record execs in a cheap suit, who is still fat in spite of the all the coke he snorts, to shove a bad contract under their noses. 

This possibly might have been due to singer Tim Baker’s screeching vocals, which I’ve learned to tolerate in order to enjoy everything else about Cirith Ungol. But I can see why the group had to wait until independent specialty labels popped up to finally score a deal, even if they’re essentially a 70s band that was completely incongruous with the developing metal trends at the time. As for their song, they chose the shorter, faster “Death of the Sun”, which is not really representative of the group’s technical and melodic “progressive doom” sound and was recorded rather poorly, even for a demo; Cirith Ungol would record a far better version of “Death of the Sun” for their King of the Dead album two years later. 

On the other hand, BITCH and PANDEMONIUM, who released two and three albums respectively for Metal Blade, are long gone; with Bitch getting the occasional name-drop in metal histories for having a girl lead singer and Pandemonium never being mentioned at all. Bitch’s S&M anthem, “Live for the Whip”, is the second fastest song on the comp behind “Hit the Lights” and otherwise a pretty solid track, even if it kinda sounds like it “borrowed” the intro from the BUDGIE classic “Breadfan.” Brian Slagel must have liked Betsy Weiss and her Bitch boys a lot, because he put them on Metal Massacre III as well. Meanwhile, Pandemonium, who hail from the ultra-metal city of Fairbanks, Alaska, contributed the groovy, Sabbath-y, proto-doom metal “Fighting Backwards”, which I guess shouldn’t be too surprising, since, like Cirith Ungol, they too come from the 70s.

And lastly and most certainly leastly, you have DEMON FLIGHT and AVATAR. “Dead of the Night” by Demon Flight is a decent enough slow-to-fast metal song with an otherwise pretty hilariously bad lead vocal. Incidentally, the only other recorded release by the group is a three-track single for Metal Blade which includes an alternate recording of “Dead of the Night.” I can’t say if it’s better or not, since I didn’t bother listening to it. While the okay but pointless instrumental “Octave” is, in fact, the only recorded release by Avatar, who apparently didn’t even have a lead singer; further giving the impression that Slagel had to really dig deep and scrape the bottom of the barrel to find bands for his compilation. 

Overall, the first Metal Massacre, with its “I’ll take what I can get” vibe, won’t be much of a revelation to most people hearing it. However, for the hardcore collector geeks, it’s certainly a cool piece of metal ephemera from that golden year of 1982 when you could like all manner of metal and not worry about someone calling you a poser. 

My only criticism of the reissue, other than it not including both versions of “Hit the Lights”, is that it doesn’t come with thoroughly written liner notes with write-ups about each band and the song they contributed to the compilation; or at least a little written history about the compilation itself. Instead all we get is a neat poster with a bunch of pictures of flyers, promo photos, and issues of Slagel’s Heavy Metal Review zine. It would have been nice if someone took the time to write something as thorough for the actual Metal Massacre reissue as I did for this review. 

In fact, are ya hiring, Brian?

Edwin Oslan
Revenge of Riff Raff
17th May, 2022
Share on Google Plus


Post a Comment