Sucker For Punishment: They Are (They’re Them)

One of the best ideas the music industry has had in the last couple years is the mini box set. Either consisting of a band’s entire discography or a certain era in its history, these reasonably priced little collections of CDs in replica vinyl sleeves, usually housed in either a clamshell box, cardboard sleeve, or something slightly fancier in a few cases, have been a godsend for those who have been meaning to explore the back catalogs of classic rock and heavy metal bands, and a bevy of sets have come out as of late. Judas Priest, Rush, Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Yes, Scott Walker, Fields of the Nephilim, are only a handful of veteran artists given the mini-set treatment, and in a few weeks Black Sabbath will follow the trend, downsizing the epochal Black Box set into something more affordable.
This week Twisted Sister is joining in on the fun with a little set that focuses on three albums that have largely gone forgotten over the years. Unfairly dismissed by shortsighted North American writers, editors, and programmers as “hair metal” – the band will readily admit they’re far too ugly to qualify as hair metal – the work of Twisted Sister has only just started to regain a little traction again thanks to the maturation of Generation X and a subsequent critical reassessment of their two best albums, 1981’s rampaging debut Under the Blade and 1984’s wildly successful Stay Hungry, both of which were reissued in splendid fashion a few years ago. Also reissued were the New York band’s other three albums, 1983’s You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1985’s Come Out and Play, and 1987’s Love is For Suckers, but seeing how those records aren’t exactly as in demand as the other two, it’s easy to understand why Armoury chose to package them all together in one box set.

Needless to say, the set is a mixed bag, but it’s still enormously fun. You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll is far and away the best album of the three, a thunderous disc that had more in common with the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal than anything American at the time, its dense, colossal tone offset by some tremendous rave-ups like “The Kids Are Back”, “I Am (I’m Me)”, and the raucous title track, all of which hint at the explosive hooks of Stay Hungry less than a year later. The savage bite that made Under the Blade to appealing remains as sharp as ever, however, on tracks like “Like a Knife in the Back” and “I’ll Take You Alive”. It’s your prototypical transitional album, a stepping-stone that put Twisted Sister on the cusp of a breakthrough. Unbeknownst to them, that breakthrough would eventually do them in.

Released 18 months after the massive Stay Hungry, the Dieter Dierks-produced Come Out and Play pulled out all the stops, but felt far too forced, unsure of which direction to take next. On one side, the band cranked up the balls-out heavy metal that made them great in the first place, the savage title track eaaily its best moment, speeding along at a breakneck pace. On another side, though, was an unwillingness to let go of the cartoonish appeal created by their fun music videos, as “Be Chrool to Your Sceul”, complete with a cameo by a then-self-exiled Alice Cooper, went for laughs but fell flat. The re-recording of their deliberately unironic cover of “Leader of the Pack” sailed over the kids’ heads, while the deeper cuts tried to play up the “us against them” shtick, only to feel half convincing, if that.

The failure of Come Out and Play and the swift ascendancy of heavy metal as a whole rendered Twisted Sister passé by 1986, and by the time Love is For Suckers came out in the summer of 1987, the band was a shell of its former self, flogging an album that was originally meant to be a solo record by singer Dee Snider. Produced by Beau Hill and featuring half of Winger playing on the thing, it was the only time the Twisted Sister brand (not so much band) tried to hop on the glam bandwagon, and that decision contributed to Twisted’s demise shortly thereafter. The album wasn’t a total waste, as “Wake Up (The Sleeping Giant)” remains a great anthem, and the single “Hot Love” is fairly cute from a pop perspective, but it remains as depressing a note for a band to go out on as anyone could conceive.

Still, despite its weaker moments, this set is absolutely well worth the cheaper price. For a short while Twisted Sister was one of America’s foremost heavy metal bands, and these albums – one minor classic, one misguided follow-up, and one disaster – help tell a fascinating story of five lovable dirtbags’ steady rise and swift decline, a cautionary tale for all other bands since.

Also out this week:

Coffinworm, IV.I.VIII (Profound Lore): Has it really been four years since the vicious When All Becomes None? Either way, it’s great to have these Indiana deviants and miscreants back with new music, and this album is every bit as hostile, aggressive, and as unsettling as you’d expect. Typical of Coffinworm, it incorporates bits and pieces from various metal styles, but unlike other kitchen-sink “extreme” bands, this music has character, even when veering crazily from doom, to black metal, to death, to thrash in one song. Much of that is a credit to the band’s songwriting skills, but even the lyrics stand out, with tracks like “Of Eating Disorders and Restraining Orders” and “Sympathectomy” managing to convey putridity, malevolence, and a little gallows humour. And is that tambourine on the shockingly groovy “Black Tears”?! Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Dodsferd, The Parasitic Survival of the Human Race (Moribund): Whenever I see the word “moribund”, I immediately picture endless piles of black-sleeved promo CDs that used to pollute my mailbox. Beyond Leviathan, Satan’s Host and Horna, too many of the label’s bands bled into one another to the point where I could hardly care. Dodsferd was one of those bands that always went in one ear and out the other, the morbid malevolence of Greek musician Wrath coming across as too monotonous to bear. So although this new album sees the band shifting into a fairly straightforward and derivative punk rock direction, it got my attention, and worked its way into my head. It’s still not a great album by any stretch, but it sticks out, and I guess that’s something.

Don Jamieson, Hell Bent For Laughter (Metal Blade): Gay jokes about Rob Halford? Really, pal?

Earth Crisis, Salvation Of Innocents (Candlelight): If you like your hardcore straight edge, vegan, and utterly predictable, then, please, have a blast with this. The rest of you, don’t even give this a glance and go straight to the new Ringworm album, reviewed below.

Gus G., I Am The Fire (Century Media): In which Ozzy’s employee ditches all traces of Firewind’s power metal fun, instead pandering to the mainstream rock crowd with lazy, bloated post-grunge arrangements. Embarrassing, and a waste of Mats Leven’s formidable vocal talents.

Hark, Crystalline (Season Of Mist): Led by guitarist/vocalist Jimbob Isaac, formerly of Welsh stoner greats Taint, this latest power trio project treads similar territory, only this time no boundaries are set, with more freedom for songs to develop. The end result is not only a ferocious hour of sludge heaviness, but one that’s interspersed with clever little progressive leanings, not to mention the best hooks Jimbob has ever come up with. It’s those melodies that let this otherwise dense sludge breathe, working wonders on such standouts as “Black Hole South West” and “Mythopoeia”. It’s the kind of stuff that’ll appeal to fans of that Georgia sludge sound (Mastodon, Kylesa, Black Tusk, etc.), as well those who prefer more rock-oriented fare like Clutch and Torche, a spot-on contrast of brute force and catchiness.

Menace, Impact Velocity (Season Of Mist): I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this new project by Napalm Death guitarist Mitch Harris. Instead of carrying on with grind/death metal, he’s embraced the spacey progressive sounds of Voivod, Tool, and Dredg, creating something dreamy, melodic, and just a little peculiar. Not all of this idea sticks, and some folks will not like his detached singing style, but I like its boldness. Harris is trying to create somethnig new, and it’s a modest success.

The Pretty Reckless, Going To Hell (Razor & Tie):
I wasn’t going to review this
But I thought I’d take a chance
Although you’re not clad, this isn’t half bad
Now put on some fucking pants.

Ringworm, Hammer Of The Witch (Relapse): Aside from Converge, Baptists, and a few others, it’s hard to find new hardcore worth giving a damn about anymore, but as boring as the genre has become you have to credit Cleveland veterans Ringworm for being able to make their music sound fresh after all these years. The fact is, for all the aggro crossover bluster this band is potent rock ‘n’ roll at its core, and that energy, groove, and yes, musicality, leaps out on this potent new album.

Twilight, III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb (Century Media): The subject of enormous buildup, constantly delayed, and finally released months after the band itself completely imploded, the greatly hyped third album by the black metal supergroup is finally out. Featuring Neill Jameson from Krieg, Stavros Giannopoulos from The Atlas Moth, Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead, and producer/sonic manipulator extraordinaire Sanford Parker, this project took on an even more heightened profile when word got out the great Thurston Moore had joined in 2012, and typical of any heavily hyped yet long delayed album, Beneath Trident’s Tomb collapses under the weight of such unreasonably lofty expectations. Compared to the structured and at times ingenious post-punk direction of 2010’s Monument to Time End, The new record is much more abrasive, hostile, and nonlinear, with a more industrial influence looming over every song. At times the change of tactic yields brilliant results, as on the sensational “Oh Wretched Son” and the Killing Joke-inspired “Below Lights”, and Moore’s layers of noise tie it all together like Jeff Lebowski’s rug, but try as these guys might, not enough of the record coalesces as well as those tracks. Still, as an exercise in anguish and hostility by this mercurial band, it’s quite remarkable. It was created during a rough period in several members’ lives – Whitehead’s sexual assault trial, Moore’s divorce, Jameson’s battle with depression – and much like Metallica’s St. Anger, it’s a difficult, tortured yawp that might not represent these musicians’ finest work, but nevertheless had to be made.

Vampire, Vampire (Century Media): If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, first, THANK YOU, and secondly, you’ll probably know that any metal band that sounds like it comes straight out of 1984 is all right by me. For these Swedes, it’s all about copping underground proto-thrash, from Hellhammer, to Sodom, to Destruction, and they capture that ugliness awfully well on this debut album. Sure, the Cramps reference in “Ungodly Warlock” is a little distracting, but this is otherwise a simple yet immensely pleasing little record.

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