We appear to be smack-gob in the middle of another golden age of music, at least for the music I like.
Right. This is going to be a long one, so strap in. Get a coffee, or a beer, or a whiskey, or a cigar. Or all of them if you think it'll help. But first, our usual business…
In 1992, I turned 18 and joined my second band, a heavy metal outfit called Ugly Seed. Excellent fun, that was. I finished college and failed the shit out of my A-levels (two Ns and a U), and so started working full-time in a soap factory in my home town of Eastbourne. The Atari 2600 was discontinued, Boutros-Boutros Ghali became UN Secretary General, George Bush Snr. boked all over the Prime Minister of Japan, the Cold War was officially declared over, the Maastricht Treaty was signed, founding the European Union, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape and jailed, Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced to 16 life terms in prison (of which he served only two years before being killed in the showers), Windows 3.1, Clinton (Mr.) won the election to become POTUS, the whites in South Africa finally voted to end apartheid, the Rodney King riots kicked off in LA, Black Wednesday, the world didn't end, and Q-Tip had a bad annus.
And so we come to the main business, and I've known since I started this thing over three years ago that 1992 was going to be the most difficult year to do. As mentioned in The Dark Times, this was the end of the golden era of hard rock but at the time we didn't know it was the end. Every shredder with a pout and spray-on trousers was getting signed up and sent out on arena tours, and if your hair was huge, probably so were you.
Albums that were initially shortlisted but didn't make the cut include Alice in Chains - Dirt, Lynch Mob - Lynch Mob, Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine, Blues Saraceno - Plaid, Saigon Kick - The Lizard, The Shamen - Boss Drum and Thunder - Laughing on Judgement Day.
Even so, the list just cannot be whittled down to the usual pool of 6, so here are the best 12 - yes twelve - of that magical year.
Ah, it was a strange time. I'd discovered that I have anxiety disorder and was off work for a short period due to debilitating panic attacks, and was living on a good friend's floor for a little while as I couldn't handle being alone even for a short time. Sometime around then, he introduced me to Canadian songsmiths Barenaked Ladies, and I immediately adored their humour, their musicianship and their endlessly inventive and clever lyrics. This was their debut album, and it is hard to beat. Such heart, so melody, much clever, wow. Top track: "Brian Wilson"
Jan Cyrka - Beyond the Common Ground
So as mentioned last time, Jan graduated from stunt guitarist for Zodiac Mindwarp to do his own solo thing. This was his debut solo release, and while it's a little more raw than the follow-up Spirit I think it's actually a better record, and it's just more fun. Top track: "On the Contrary"
Riiiiight. So. I gather that debates still rage on fora about how much of the huge sound of Extreme's 1990 smash Pornograffitti was down to legendary producer Michael Wagener and how much was the input of bonsai guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. (My 2p-worth? Michael did most of it, if not all. He didn't make just one amazing sounding record in this period, go look at the list if you want proof. FWIW I adore Nuno as a guitarist – I just think he’s a better player and songwriter than he is a producer.) Anyway, on this album, following the double platinum success of Porno and riding the wave of hard rock excess and ego, i) Nuno decided to sit in the producer's chair and ii) the band decided on an ambitious "three-sided" semi-concept album, which kind of works. For my money, they should have ditched the loftier tracks and stuck with the format of the first "side", i.e. the hard rock songs. Some of those are absolute belters, mind, and the album as a whole is definitely worth your time. Top track: "Rest in Peace"
FNM have always been a difficult one. While some of their stuff flies to the very top of the genius pole, other tracks are just fucking unlistenable shit, and this has been the case on pretty much every release. Angel Dust, though, is a very cohesive album and is perhaps the best recorded synergy between Mike Patton's unhinged persona and Jim Martin's unstoppable riffage. Only one or two skip-tracks on here, and when it's good it's very very good. Top track: “Midlife Crisis“
A friend and I used to frequently argue about which was better of Gabriel's two-letter albums, 1986's So or 1992’s Us (a problem which has been compounded further by 2002's Up), the answer to which of course is So. That doesn't mean that this isn't absolutely brilliant though. (Hint: it is.) Top track: "Blood of Eden"
I knew of King's X and their splendid sophomore record Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, and had heard one track of this eponymous release on the soundtrack to "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" (non-heinous) so picking this up was a no-brainer. Doug Pinnick's unique vocal and bass stylings and Ty Tabor's always always interesting guitar work make this a joy from start to finish. Top track: "Black Flag"
Love/Hate's debut Blackout in the Red Room was then and is still one of my favourite albums of all time, and if anything the follow-up is more cohesive and better put together. One absolutely shit track ("Social Sidewinder"), a bunch of crackers, and one anthem for the ages ("Don't Fuck With Me"). Top track: "Wasted in America"
On almost any other year this would win, and by some margin. There is not a moment or a note wasted on this album, with Dave Mustaine sneering relentlessly down his microphone at you for 47 minutes while perhaps the tightest recorded metal rhythm section ever pound out crisp riff after riff and the pyrotechnic Marty Friedman soars over it all at the absolute height of his angular-yet-melodic powers. The then ubiquitous "Symphony of Destruction" is a masterclass of metal songwriting and worth the price of admission alone, and it's not even close to being the best song on the album. Really, put this album in any other year and it would be in the bag, and the bag would be sewn up. In 1992 though, the field is just too crazy, and not everything can fit on the top of the podium. Sorry, Dave. Top track: "Foreclosure of a Dream"
And the winners are…
I spent ages on this. Weeks. I agonised. I fretted. I consulted with my longest serving music friend and we put in literal hours of consultation, and between us we just couldn't break the deadlock. Such a golden year was this for the music I love, that there is simply no alternative to the FOUR-WAY TIE I now present. Honestly, we tried.
You have to remember, it was 1992. Shred had existed for years (Malmsteen, Becker, Gilbert, all the Shrapnel label fellas) and prog had for decades, though I’d never really listened to any of it. And then one day someone showed up with a tape of Images and Words, and it blew my mind clean off. I’m aware that it wasn’t their debut album, but it was the first with singer James LaBrie and it was, I think, the first to get proper label backing and promotion. Anyway, I knew nothing about it.
The intro to “Pull Me Under” is long. It takes quite a while to build up to full steam, but it’s never boring, and when that first heavy riff crunches in it’s like a punch in the eye. In a good way. From there the album just goes from sublime to ridiculous – see “Take the Time” and “Metropolis” for details.
I’d never heard musicianship like it from a whole band at once before – perhaps the closest I’d heard was the interplay between Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan in Mr. Big or Sheehan and Vai on the early David Lee Roth albums, but this wasn’t just rock with shred in it, this was 8 minute prog epics with entire sections of simultaneous virtuosic extravagance from every member yet still melodic and singable. And the solos, oh my bleeding god, the solos. Nowadays I can’t get excited about Dream Theater and John Petrucci in particular, but in 1992 this was absolute sorcery. A must-have album.
Top tracks: "Take the Time", "Metropolis", "Under a Glass Moon"
Fuck me. This is how you do metal. OK, so it turns out that vocalist Phil Anselmo might be at best a bit of a tool and at worst some kind of white supremacist arsehole, but you can’t deny his output on this album is nothing short of mindbending. Gone are the Rob-Halford-esque high squeals that date the previous album Cowboys From Hell so much, and here is a voice that commands and delivers power from start to finish.
Again, it’s possible in this day and age to be a little concerned with lyrics that constantly bang on about demanding respect and claiming power, as these can be somewhat right-wing themes, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now and look at the album as a whole. We’ve covered Phil’s vocal performance, and it’s unparalleled. So much attitude and grit without ever resorting to death growls, and rarely going for the high screams that can just sound like parody. So he’s solid.
Vinnie Paul on drums is just a total and undeniable groove machine. At this time I’d never heard metal have anything resembling this much groove - 1992 remember. Your big metal drummers at the time were Lars Ulrich (fuck’s sake) and Charlie Benante from Anthrax who is absolutely incredible, but in a different way. Vinnie throws pop and jazz tricks like skipped beats, rimshot grooves and offbeat hi-hats into straight out metal songs turning them into something new entirely. Rex Brown on bass is kind of in the Noel Redding role here, playing it solid and straight for the most part and being the guide-rope for everyone else to fly by, and solid is absolutely the word. Not a note out of place, every groove held down like concrete.
So then, “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott on guitar. So much has been said about him elsewhere that to repeat it all here would be largely redundant, but this guy belongs up on a special unique plinth for rule-breaking cavaliers in rock guitar, a plinth that in my mind he shares with only two other players – Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. Technique aside (and he had that in spades), it’s the constant sense of fun and disregard for constrictive musical theory that put Darrell so far removed from his peers. Gnarly, dude. RIP, motherfucker.
Vulgar Display of Power remains for me the high water mark for heavy metal albums, and by it shall all others ever be measured.
Top tracks: "Mouth For War", "This Love", "Walk"
It was Satch’s 1987 release Surfing With the Alien that earned him his first grammy nomination and which blew the world of instrumental guitar wide open, and rightly so. His 1989 follow-up Flying in a Blue Dream trod some new, slightly shaky ground, with Joe taking lead vocals on some songs in between the instrumentals with (if I’m honest) mixed results.
So in 1992 Joe went back to the previous formula of 10 instrumental tracks, and fuck my hat, did he deliver.
Recruiting Matt and Gregg Bissonette on bass and drums respectively, and legendary producer Andy Johns, Joe created what is in my mind his best album of all time. From the moment I first saw the video for “Summer Song” on Raw Power to getting home with the CD and feverishly ripping off the cellophane right up to listening through it again today as I write this, it is an album of perfect guitar music. Joe’s later albums have become somewhat ballad-heavy (a malaise I think of as “The Aerosmith Affliction”) and prone to way too many mid-tempo major-key 4-minute chunks of not much, but every track on The Extremist would stand out as the best track on most other albums you’d be lucky enough to own. This truly is all killer, no shit, and you can take that to the bridge.
There is an element of “Let’s Name a Song With Joe” going on here, it’s true. “Summer Song”? “Motorcycle Driver”? Come on Joe, you can do better than that. Mind you, I’d rather have that than what you get with a lot of instrumentalists… generic bullshit like “Shifting Sands of the Soul”, “Beyond the Vale of My Mind”, “Wandering in the Ether” or “Behind the Great Unknown, Just Down a Bit, Near the Lake of Mystery, No, Keep Going, You’ll Know It When You See It” all of which translate directly as “It’s not really about anything but this sounds sort of deep”. (And Joe’s song naming problem didn’t get really bad until 2002, when he actually named a song “Seven String”…)
But anyway, balls to that, we’re not here to read the titles are we? We’re here for the songs. And that’s what you’ve got here, friends and noodles, SONGS. Many instrumental guitarists will shart out 40 minutes worth of technically excellent playing without so much as a melodic hook among any of it, but this is a collection of ten actual songs, GOOD songs, ones that you can even fucking hum later. I recommend this even if you’re not particularly into guitar. It’s just good music.
Top tracks: "Why", "Friends", "War"
People fall into two categories: people who have never heard of T-Ride, and people who absolutely loved them and still to this day cannot work out why they weren’t the biggest band of their time.
See, remember Joe Satriani mentioned above? Well he purty good on dat ole geetar, y’dig? And not only that but he was also a guitar teacher. Yeah. If you’re a guitar player, you may have heard of some of his pupils – Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Larry LaLonde (Primus) and Alex Skolnick (Testament) number among them. One you probably haven’t heard of though is Jeff/Geoff Tyson (used to go by the former, now appears to go by the latter, go figure) of T-Ride.
Anyway, amid no fanfare at all, this album got released. The first I heard of it was when meeting some friends in a pub and hearing them saying stuff like “Have you heard that song ‘Zombies From Hell’?” and wondering what they were on about. I eventually cadged a tape copy of it off someone to see what all the fuss was about and once again, set my best boots to fucked.
There has literally never been anything like it before or since. Read that again. It’s true.
They were a 3-piece outfit that produced some of the grooviest rock tunes I’ve ever heard, with amazing vocal harmonies and (in 1992, remember) no guitar solos. What Tyson did instead was sprinkle little fills in between the vocals here and there, any one of which I’d probably have to spend a month woodshedding to get even vaguely up to speed. His rhythm playing too… I’ve never heard the like. I still listen to the album and just don’t know what he’s doing. I mean, I hear it… and I go “Yeah… but what is he doing?” If I knew, I would… do it.
Check out “Zombies From Hell” on YouTube, why don’t you? Dawkins knows you won’t be able to buy the album any more even if you want to.
The story that I half-remember is that the record company didn’t have any faith in them, didn’t promote the album, it didn’t sell, and the band got shitcanned in the wake of bad sales and the impending march of grunge (see The Dark Times passim).
So all we got was this. 34 precious minutes of wonderment that was just too far ahead of its time to live.
We shall not see its like again. Cherish it. Love it. Cover it in chocolate sauce and lay with it in sin if the mood takes you. (I know it does me.)
Top tracks: "Zombies From Hell", "Backdoor Romeo", "Hit Squad"
Turkey of the Year
Balls, this was. Shame, as the first one was excellent.