Five Heavy Albums that Changed My Life with Blöthar of Gwar

Man, what won’t those wild alien Antarcticans in Gwar do next? How about an acoustic EP? Well, sure: the band is following up 2017’s The Blood of Gods LP and 2019’s Gor-Gor EP with The Disc With No Name, which comes out tomorrow.

The Disc With No Name features four Gwar tunes reimagined acoustically, and it’s actually alarmingly fun to listen to. To celebrate the release of the new record, we caught up with vocalist Blöthar the Berserker (also known as Michael Bishop in human form) to find out what five heavy albums changed his life.

“To say anything ‘changed my life’ is a big statement for an immortal rock star from outer space,” says Blöthar. “But alas, I was not always the quadruple-dicked, bovine supergenius before you today. Imagine if you will, a much simpler time, when I was but a zit-encrusted pre-teen chronic masturbator living in a small town in Central Virginia. I struggled to find my place in a musical world full of halter-topped redneck chicks roller skating to disco, and Skynyrd-loving school bus douchebags. I decided to identify with music that was full of angst and as heavy as a wheelbarrow full of elephantitis balls. But what is ‘heavy?’ It means different things to different people. Is it slow, weighty riffs? Is it terrifying and spooky music that summons the feel of impending doom? The following five tunes came to define the term for me, and it was this music that helped me survive my teen years and get the fuck out of dodge. I think I have come to understand heavy music as music that redefines expectations.”

Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)

This record is beyond heavy. It’s freaking morbidly obese. More than 40 years down the line, the energy and rage on the album is undiminished. In another multiverse, I taught popular music at a university. When I played this record, the tones were familiar to classrooms full of kids well-versed in alternative music and mainstream rock radio. The sounds on the record are now part of the musical vocabulary of rock and metal. But the minute the vocals kick in, all bets are off. For the most part, my students HATED it. So many would comment “This isn’t music…” But it is precisely the irritating ferocity of Johnny Rotten’s vocal delivery that makes this record heavy. And I mean emotionally heavy, like bad news, or a depressing subject of conversation.

When I first heard the record, my reactions were similar to my students: “This isn’t music.” I used to think I had that reaction because Rotten’s voice de-emphasized melody. But there is plenty of melody there. Check out what the band manages with “Bodies,” an absolutely terrifying anthem of grotesquerie, but it has loads of twisted melody. What it rejects, absolutely, is beauty. Rotten’s voice refuses to speak the language of musical aesthetics made up of harmonic consonance, tension and resolution. Like his jarring accent, his vocal approach is ugly, and its ugliness is its strength. I heard it, and I said to myself, “If this is music, I can do this.” And beyond that, in the performative anger, disaffection, and attention-seeking ugliness, I found a point of identification. Nothing had spoken to me like this before, and nothing has since.

The Dead Kennedys – In God We Trust Inc. (1981)

Okay, it’s not an album, it’s an EP meant to be played at 45 rpm, and it’s not metal, it’s hardcore punk in its purest form, but it is heavy as fuck, and it was even heavier for me because I listened to it at the wrong speed for the better part of a year. And what a year it was. Reagan was president, parachute pants were all the rage, and I was a fledgling fatty with a rat tail who thought this full-sized EP was meant to be played at 33 rpm. At that speed, this record makes perfect sense and may be the heaviest piece of music ever recorded. It sounds like a wooly, avant-garde version of Judas Priest. The original tunes are so damn fast that even played 75% slower, the songs are still mid-tempo. In fact, things stopped making sense when I met another punk rocker who came over and flipped the switch to change the speed on my turntable. I finally heard Jello Biafra’s true voice caterwauling over music that seemed almost incomprehensibly fast. The speed and chaos of the music led me to declare, as I had with the Sex Pistols, “…this isn’t music!” I am seeing a pattern here. On at least one level, “heavy” means to me something that reorders expectations.

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)

Speaking of reordering expectations, I will never forget the first time I dropped the needle on this record. It reminded me of my old Halloween sound effects albums: a thunderstorm, heavy rain, spooky tolling bells. Musically, this record features clearly the ingredients of the developing Sabbath sound. This is blues re-framed in the language of doom, including a harmonica with the power of a freight train! The focus is on summoning images and emotions of alienated fear, and in the process it becomes a blueprint for heavy music. Tri-tones, semi-tones, sluggish tempos, a focus on riffs. Among these are other aspects that have rarely been picked up by subsequent metal acts. For instance, the awesome bass-guitar-driven improvisations and Ward’s jazz-inspired drums. Ozzy’s phrasing and timing are perfect, and his melodic contours are so distinct. Like with Prince, I can hear an Ozzy melody out of context and recognize the source. Of course, Iommi’s riffs drive the music but what is most commendable to me is that his solos always serve the mood and motion of the song, he doesn’t depart on some grandstanding bullshit. Yes, he wanks, but what guitarist doesn’t?

For my money, the best aspect of this record is the drumming. Ward plays with such expressiveness, and what is most striking is the way his drums become a melodic element in the songs. A good example of all of these qualities is the cover of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation tune “Warning.” Compare Ozzy’s vocal precision and handling of the melody to the original, and listen to how Ward manages to redefine the song.

Judas Priest – Unleashed in the East (1979)

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of Rob Halford on heavy music. I am not saying that he was the first to use a high voice or falsetto range, but he was the one who managed to make this unlikely vocal quality an almost defining element of heavy music. How strange that, at one stage of the music’s development, a man singing with an impressive upper range became an important part of heavy metal. I suppose it could be read off as an aspect of the genre’s emphasis on virtuosity, but I think it is more than that. Judas Priest records are a dirge without the uplift of Halford’s vocals. And it is the toughness and quality of his melodic choices as much as any riff in the guitars that make this record “heavy.” Listen to how he handles “Victim of Changes” and imagine the song without him. Did it change my life? Absolutely. And it has only gained in import in the intervening years. Halford, a gay man, fronting a glam-inspired, rock and roll juggernaut, quietly but clearly and consistently expressing himself in a world that just wasn’t prepared to hear or see every part of that expression. He is a hero.

Iron Maiden – Killers (1981)

This was the first record that made me want to be a good bass guitarist. I wore the grooves down on this vinyl and went through at least two cassette copies learning Steve Harris’ bass lines. At one time or another I learned to play just about all the songs on this record, and “Wrathchild” was literally the first heavy metal song I learned to play. It taught me the power of the octave jump, the idea of right-hand speed, consistency, how to keep time, how to look for easier fingering patterns to maintain clean, clear, and aggressive lines. Lyrically, it informed my search for inspiring topics. Apparently, literature and history can be heavy! What matters is cool images and moods. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” has some of the best lyrics, rhythmic shifts and catchy melodies in the annals of metal. Top to bottom, this album informs my sense of “heavy” as more than just weighty riffs. The theatrical anticipation and epicness of “The Ides of March,” the musical ambition of “Prodigal Son.” In fact, I will make those my final aspects of “heavy”… sonic ambition, clarity of purpose, theatricality, and pure propulsive energy. These, I think, are among the many aspects and approaches that make music “heavy” and Iron Maiden a shining example of those qualities.