The 90's Decline of Traditional Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Mar 15, 2014 13:08:00 GMT -5
Post by Erik Rupp on Mar 15, 2014 13:08:00 GMT -5
The conventional wisdom states that Grunge and Heavy Alternative music killed, "Hair Metal," after a decade of excess in the 80's. That's the conventional wisdom.
The facts are, of course, more complex than that, and far more interesting.
First off, there was no such thing as, "Hair Metal," in the 80's. Almost all bands in the 80's, regardless of genre, had big, overly styled, overly hairsprayed hair. It was part of the 80's - bigger was better. The only Metal bands that didn't go for the big hair were the Thrash or Speed Metal bands, and even a handful of those got caught up in the style of the day on occasion.
Second, the excess that most people think of when they think of 80's Metal is the Pop Metal scene, and rightly so - but that's not the only reason why Heavy Metal was not as hip at the very beginning of the 90's as it had been just five years earlier. There were other key factors that contributed to an overall view of Heavy Metal as a lesser genre. Less hip, and lesser in quality.
Well, let's start at the height of the Heavy Metal scene around 1984 or so.
Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and DIO were all riding high. All three of the early to mid 80's Metal Giants were on a run of high quality, big selling albums. Metallica was just starting to make some noise with their new album, Ride The Lightning. Motley Crue was still a great band in the middle of their Shout At The Devil tour. KISS had just made a miraculous comeback after being as UN-hip as they possibly could have been in 1980 and 1981. RATT was just breaking with a great album, and there were several other examples of a genre at the height of it's powers. Things couldn't possibly have been going better. And that's part of what would become the genre's problem four or five years later - things couldn't get any better than they were in 1984, and, well - they didn't.
Everything was going well for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal as a genre. Hugely successful albums, well attended arena tours, and a general high quality of music is what you'd hear more often than not from Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands in 1984. Van Halen scored a huge hit with 1984. RATT came Out Of The Cellar and scored multi-Platinum sales (and deservedly so). Judas Priest scored another hit with Defenders of the Faith (a good album, not as good as it's predecessor, but still good enough to hold up well against some strong competition). DIO proved to become a huge arena attraction even to those who were The Last In Line thanks to the album of that title (which followed up an even better album, Holy Diver). Iron Maiden scored huge with Powerslave, and Metallica made a lot of noise with Ride The Lightning.
And that's only part of what was going on at that point in time. After going from strength to strength starting in 1980, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal as a genre seemed to be unstoppable.
But it almost was stopped. It was certainly slowed. How? Why? What changed to bring down a juggernaut?
The well documented answer of the proliferation of Pop Metal by some rather greedy and opportunistic major label record companies in the late 80's was clearly a part of it. A lot of albums that were released and promoted heavily didn't deserve the treatment. Several of those bands were of marginally good quality, while several others were pretty weak, but even if all of them were good the market became oversaturated, and a backlash was inevitable.
But that's just one cause of the downfall. There were others.
Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, DIO, Iron Maiden. Those were the big boys at the beginning and middle of the decade.
Black Sabbath dropped off first, following the departure of singer Ronnie James Dio. The albums released after his departure were all good, but the revolving door of musicians (eventually leaving guitarist Tony Iommi as the sole original member of the band) turned a lot of fans off. So much so that most Sabbath fans didn't even pay attention to the band after 1983. They didn't know or care that new Black Sabbath albums came out, even if the albums were good.
Judas Priest and Iron Maiden shared declines that were amost mirror images, although Judas Priest's was a little more dramatic. In 1986 both bands bought and extensively used guitar synthesizers on their new albums (Turbo for Judas Priest, and Somewhere In Time for Iron Maiden). Both bands came up with musical styles that were a little more mainstream and accessible than their previous albums. However, Judas Priest went farther than Maiden did, and toyed with Pop Metal a little. To make matters worse, Turbo was filled with cliche ridden songs that really seemed cheesy - even at the time. It's not a bad album, just not all that good, either, and following up two classic Priest albums like Screaming For Vengeance (1982) and Defenders of the Faith (1984) Turbo sounded weak all around. That turned off a lot of their fans.
Somewhere In Time, however, was still a very strong album for Iron Maiden, and few of their fans were turned off by the adjustment in musical direction. But the fact that there were, "Synths," on Somewhere In Time still rubbed some fans the wrong way (others really enjoyed the expanded musical palette that Maiden could draw from). But most Maiden fans saw Somewhere In Time as a step down from the Number of the Beat/Piece of Mind/Powerslave era.
DIO came out of the gate incredibly strong in 1983. Holy Diver is still considered to be one of the greatest straightforward, old school Heavy Metal albums of all time, and it's follow up The Last In Line was almost as good. They had nowhere to go but down. Sacred Heart (from 1985) also featured expanded use of keyboards, to the benefit of some of the songs on the album, but to the detriment of others. Overall, the album was strong, but a noticeable step down from it's two precessors. Dream Evil (1987) was darker, and more ominous (as well as being better than Sacred Heart), but it was also denser and more ponderous. It was a serious album, and it didn't find as big of an audience as DIO's first three studio albums. By 1990 when DIO had a totally new band line-up and they released Lock Up The Wolves, the musical quality dropped just a little more (less in quality, more in a lack of originality), and Ronnie himself chose to go with too many slow or slow-ish mid tempo songs, something his fanbase didn't like. The overall songwriting quality on the album was good, but, again, a half step down from his previous albums. DIO, the band, was in musical decline (a slight decline in quality, but a more noticeable decline in originality), which led to sales declines.
The classic bands from earlier in the decade had lost much of their luster by the end of the 80's. Iron Maiden's 1990 tour supporting No Prayer for the Dying was less successful than their tours earlier in the decade. Their albums became less fan friendly (following Somewhere In Time with the equally good, but much less accessible, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and then the weaker quality of No Prayer for the Dying). The mighty juggernaut that Iron Maiden was just five years earlier was slowing down.
Judas Priest attempted to get back to basics with Ram It Down, and they came close to hitting the mark - but still missed. Yes, it was a significant improvement over Turbo, but it still wasn't as good as Defenders of the Faith, which itself wasn't as good as Screaming For Vengeance. Utilizing a drum machine, the album sounded mechanical and artificial, and some of the songs were excessively cheesy. Priest was also slowing down both in quality and success.
So with the big boys dropping the ball, who would pick it up?
Well, in the mid 80's a huge number of Van Halen's musical disciples started hitting the record bins. RATT and Dokken both showed some Van Halenisms, but put their own spin on the style. It was the next generation that saw the Pop Metal style hit in full force. Bon Jovi took the visual image of a Pop Metal band, added more keyboards and just a bit of Springsteen, and became one of the biggest bands of the decade. Def Leppard went from a band filled with Thin Lizzy, UFO, and AC/DC fanatics in 1981 to a slick, Pop Rock band by 1987. Hysteria was a huge hit, but it watered down the genre, alienating a lot of fans who wanted more aggression, energy, and crunch in their music.
After that, bands like Danger Danger, Firehouse, and Warrant took the Van Halen template and mixed it with Bon Jovi's, creating a watered down, frivolous style of Hard Rock that record company A&R guys and executives loved. That was the kind of stuff they could market and sell! Never mind that they were signing a bunch of bands that had no business putting out albums...
1987 also saw the release of two hugely successful Hard Rock albums, Whitesnake's self-titled album, and Guns 'N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction. Both of those albums were of high quality and had artistic merit. The albums released by their copycat followers weren't quite so good. It was just more product for the major labels to promote and sell. Product. Product overload.
By the end of the decade the decline of the big name Heavy Metal bands from the first half of the 80's (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Dio, Black Sabbath) didn't help matters much.
On the other hand, the heavier side of things saw some interesting and outstanding bands & albums. Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer - The Big Four. They changed the landscape. The kind of teenagers and young adults who got into Sabbath during the Dio era, and into Priest, Maiden, and Dio right after that, were now being attracted to the heavier and more aggressive styles of the Big Four. These fans had less enthusiasm for the former giants of the genre. They wanted their Metal louder, faster, and heavier. The fragmentation of the genre's fanbase had begun - something from which it would never fully recover.
Once Metallica hit the jackpot with The Black Album, and Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden all hit it big ushering in the Grunge era, it was all over for more melodic, commercial Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. All over for roughly seven or eight years. Sure, Bon Jovi continued to score hits. Aerosmith scored some (thanks in most part to their Pop crossover), and the heavier Metal bands still sold well (including the trendsetting and uncompromising Pantera), but the good times of the 70's and 80's were over.
Interestingly, in the early 2000's traditional Hard Rock, the kind from the 70's and 80's, made a fairly strong comeback. Not to the place where the music had been just 12 or 13 years earlier, but to a place where bands were viable to tour in large theaters, arenas, and amphitheaters. New albums would hit the top of the charts for a week as fans would flock to the record stores to buy them in that first week. And the perception that Hard Rock and Heavy Metal from the 80's was frivolous, cheesy, nonsense was fading.
In the end, Europe and Japan hardly wavered in their support for old school Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, and that allowed a lot of really good bands to develop outside of the United States. New, younger bands were playing either traditional Hard Rock and Metal, or a new style of Hard Rock and Metal that was heavily influenced and inspired by the old school.
So even though the 1990's was a tough decade for the genre, ultimately it survived and surpassed Grunge in popularity. Few in America would have seen that coming in 1993, but it happened.