Justify Your Shitty Taste: Raven’s “The Pack Is Back”

Oh, man, do I ever have my work cut out for me here. We all know the story: NWOBHM speed freaks Raven released three excellent albums, signed to Atlantic, released a middling album, then turned into a strange, horn-fueled parody of Raven in The Pack Is Back, then got a bit of their mojo back with Life’s a Bitch. But, hold on, let’s back up a couple steps there: is The Pack Is Back that bad? Do horns actually mix awesomely with, ahem, athletic rock? Can not-great-era Twisted Sister combine with watered-down NWOBHM to create a sound that is surprisingly fun to listen to?

No one liked this album when it came out in 1986 and the years have not been kind to it (average rating on Metal Archives: 41 percent). Today, I want to revisit The Pack Is Back and bring to light some of the aspects of this album that actually make it a shit-ton of fun to listen to in 2019. Sit back, crack a cold one, and, please, crank up this album while you read my pleas.

The title track kicks things off with a very obvious attempt at a Twisted Sister-esque anthem, and it works, the chorus totally killing it, even if it’s a touch embarrassing. This song was a huge red flag when eager metalheads first dropped the needle on the album way back when, but it’s actually held up quite well, being a simple and stoopid romp through an era of mainstream rock that was, well, a lot of fun. The tour guides have no idea what they’re doing and are clearly out of their element, which makes it even more fun, and kinda fascinating. And, seriously, I love that chorus.

Then things get real dubious real quick with the synths and the Spencer Davis Group cover “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Look, I’m as shocked as anyone that this was chosen to be the second song on this album, because it’s pretty brutal, but it’s also awesome because it’s Raven covering an absurd song and, well, it actually sounds pretty good. I mean, “good” is, I suppose, subjective, but it makes me smile every single time, and kinda makes me feel pretty good, so there’s some validity there. Because this album is traumatising, it’s easy to get things mixed up: I always think this is the song where the horn section comes in but, lol, that’s later.

“Screamin’ Down the House” is next, for those who haven’t stopped listening, and it’s not a bad song by any means, Raven reining it in but still keeping their anthemic NWOBHM sound kinda intact. Ditto for “Young Blood”; man, these are not bad songs, they’re just different songs, and “Young Blood” is just fucking fine, thank you very much. Dig the huge chorus, and check those synths, and… look, it’s fine.

Then, the trouble starts. And by that, I mean, here come the horns. “Hyperactive” is the first of two songs here to feature The Uptown Horns and it’s absolutely insane. And, here in 2019, I absolutely love it. Listen to this song again: it’s basically classic Raven with, yup, a horn section adding even more chaos to things. It was clearly a very misguided major-label decision (I can see it now: “You know what always makes metal better? Horns. Sells millions every time,” says some in-the-know suit in Atlantic HQ before passing out face first in a pile of blow), and it just made every single person who heard this record hate Raven at the time, BUT, today it’s just a party to listen to, and, somehow, the parts in this song all come together perfectly. “Hyperactive” rules.

Side 2 of this album starts off with “Rock Dogs,” a mid-tempo Raven rocker with some very of-the-era guitar tones; it’s one of a few classic-Raven sounding songs on the second half of this release, and it could fit in just fine on many of their other albums. So, there. There’s no denying that even the more classic-sounding songs here are definitely the result of Atlantic tinkering and telling the band to tone everything down a bit—which is a tough sell because Raven are, clearly, at their best when they’re bouncing off the walls—but some days even a neutered Raven ain’t half bad.

And there’s the horns again! Yes! “Don’t Let it Die” brings back our good friends in The Uptown Horns for more head-shaking brass action, and this song is absolutely bonkers, like some haywire mix of doo-wop, bubblegum hard rock, NWOBHM, and coked-out major-label lunchtime brainstorming session. I love it, and you might want to as well.

I also totally love “Get Into Your Car and Drive,” even though it reeks of ’86 melodies and hit-single formulas, which brings up an important point: although this album was, clearly, an attempt at crossing over to a mainstream market, the end result is still Raven—of all bands—trying to cross over to a mainstream market, which is sort of like throwing a toddler into a posh restaurant and saying “be well behaved” then walking away. So while the intent behind the songs is a bit suspect at times, the execution is really something that we haven’t seen before or since, and that’s what makes this album kinda special, pretty awesome, and just tons of fun to spin.

In other words, there isn’t another album on the face of this planet that sounds like this one, and that’s sort of why I love it.

I’m still happy that “All I Want,” song nine of 10, isn’t a ballad like we all thought it would be given the placement and that song title, although that would have really pushed this album to incredible/unbelievable heights. Instead, we get another song, like “Rock Dogs,” that wouldn’t be incredibly out of place on a greater Raven album, although the band is still clearly holding themselves back and hitting those melodies a bit more politely than usual. And, what, you’re saying you don’t like melodic ’80s hard rock? You saying you don’t like Raven? Here, a song that combines both. You’re welcome.

“Nightmare Ride” ends things off with a surprise, probably the most manic-rockin’ old-school Raven song on the whole album, and it’s not like it redeems things, rather, it just leaves the listener all the more confused about what the bloody ’ell just happened. And what happened is a weird confluence of pop culture, chasing the dollar sign, art, youthful ambition, and American commerce meeting an underground culture from overseas, all of it clashing together horribly and wonderfully, the end result a strange historical artefact from the ’80s that very much could only have happened at that exact time with these exact dudes. Most importantly, we put it on now and laugh and shake our heads and have a couple beers and just bask in the absurdity of life, the glory of metal, the hilarious decisions of youth.

And that’s how The Pack Is Back can be justified.