Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What Sophomore Slump?

The second album for a new band is critical, especially following a strong debut. More often than not, the results underwhelm or, worse, crumble beneath the pressures and expectations and, for many, it's a swift downhill slide into obscurity. For a handful of great artists, though, the second record not only improved upon the first but, looking back historically, came to be considered as the high point in their discography. Eight that I regard as just such an achievement:

Led Zeppelin II - Led Zeppelin - 1969

Led Zeppelin IIHow do you choose a gem among diamonds?  It's tough with the Zeppelin catalogue as every record shines. Led Zeppelin II, however, grew exponentially from the band's debut and took heavy to a whole new level. A riff-monster that has yet to be equalled in overall start-to-finish quality, II takes the hard blues and smelts them into metal ("Whole Lotta Love," "Bring It On Home"). It retains the exploration and humanity that only Led Zeppelin could achieve without ever coming close to anything trite ("What Is and What Should Never Be," "Thank You"). It provides the drum solo to end all drum solos ("Moby Dick"). It is, quite simply, the best Led Zeppelin album and easily the finest hard rock record ever recorded and, having held that title for over forty years, it will likely never be surpassed.

Paranoid - Black Sabbath - 1970

ParanoidAh, to have been a music fan in 1969-1970. Between the first two Zeppelin albums and the first two Sabbath albums, it must have felt like rock music was exploding. If Led Zeppelin II drafted the heavy metal blueprint, Paranoid distilled it. Whereas Black Sabbath defined menace, doom and dirge, Paranoid added its finest helping to date of Iommi's unabashed riffs. Two of rock and roll's enduring epics, "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" populate the first side with an unrivaled classic, "Paranoid," sandwiched between. "Hand of Doom" named its own genre and served as a hard drug warning while "Fairies Wear Boots" kept the band's herbal influences firmly affixed on their collective sleeve. Much like Zeppelin, Sabbath went on to record several more flawless records but none are as perfect in their simplicity as Paranoid.

Passion and Warfare - Steve Vai - 1990

Passion & WarfareSix years passed between Steve Vai's solo, very Zappa-esque, debut, Flex-Able, and Passion and Warfare. And what a world of difference. The Sorcerer's very able apprentice blossomed into a full-blown wizard and never looked back. A guitar record without an equal, Passion and Warfare starts off with nothing less than a new national anthem ("Liberty") and rips through fourteen largely instrumental tracks while still providing a listen as compelling as any vocal-dominated album.

According to a recent interview with Vai, Zappa himself listed Passion and Warfare as his favorite record of 1990. Just listen to "For the Love of God" and see if you can bring yourself to disagree.

High 'n' Dry - Def Leppard - 1981

High & DryHow I feel about High 'n' Dry is no secret. Easily one of the Top Ten albums I own period and, while I love them, by far superior to massive successes Pyromania and Hysteria. High 'n' Dry took the raw rock promise of 1980's On Through the Night and polished it just enough to turn out a classic record, largely through addition of hooks a'plenty. Three raving rockers ("Let it Go," "Another Hit and Run," "High 'n' Dry (Saturday Night)") precede the most palatable of power ballads ever recorded outside of "Stairway to Heaven," "Bringin' on the Heartbreak." "You Got Me Runnin'" is the zenith at the album's center and the album closes with nary a stinker to be found. Def Leppard made records that sold more. Lots more. And they continue to make great records. But they've never topped High 'n' Dry and, frankly, never will.

Peace Sells...But Who's Buying - Megadeth - 1986

Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?
1985's Killing is My Business...and Business is Good was OK. It's raw, it's fast but it feels rushed and almost unfinished. What a difference a year makes, then, as Peace Sells...But Who's Buying is not only a high point for Megadeth but for thrash and heavy metal in general. The record is unified around a mature, political theme and opens with an all-out macabre anthem, "Wake Up Dead." Mustaine's vocals are balanced better on Peace Sells... than they have ever been since and he comes across with a snarl that does not yet descended into silliness. The title track, "Peace Sells," is a masterpiece of metal and holds up to this day. It's got a message but doesn't come across as preachy. It presents solo after solo and each tops the one that came before. And then the album rolls on with the superb prisoner's POV on "Devil's Island." The record dips a tad for me with "I Ain't Superstitious" as I generally loathe metallized covers but ends on a high note with "My Last Words," an eerie ode to Russian roulette. Peace Sells... set off a string of high-quality Megadeth albums and, recently, Mustaine and crew are back at the top of their game. Can it be topped?  It'll be fun to find out.

Blues for the Red Sun - Kyuss - 1992

Blues for Red SunMany will say 1991's Kyuss debut, Wretch, didn't set the bar very high.  The fact that I discovered it in a $1.00 cut-out bargain bin at a Wal-Mart just a year or so after its release would provide a compelling argument in that direction. I go the other way and say no one knew what to do with it. 1991 was an odd year with Jesus Jones, Julian Cope, and Smashing Pumpkins dominating the alternative airwaves and plenty of hair metal still representing hard rock. Nirvana's Nevermind was released late in the year, the same week as Wretch, and we know which one stole the spotlight and changed music as we know it. I like to think those who opted for the alternative to "alternative" appreciated Wretch. And while Wretch laid out some trademark Kyuss blueprints with "Son of a Bitch" and "Big Bikes," Blues for the Red Sun leapt forward and set the gold standard for stoner rock. "Thumb" represents Kyuss' soon-to-be-trademark light and heavy dynamic and "Green Machine" propels you into another universe with kick-ass bass solo to boot. "Thong Song" takes the aforementioned dynamics to their farthest extremes. Proper "songs" are linked flawlessly with mind-blowing instrumentals, setting the stage for the three-part magnum opus, Sky Valley, in 1994. Kyuss' quality never flagged but Blues for the Red Sun remains their most balanced, most consistently rocking effort.

Salisbury - Uriah Heep - 1971

SalisburyIf I convert a single listener to Uriah Heep with this blog my efforts will not have been in vain. A longsuffering band who has been through multiple personnel and stylistic changes, it is easy to forget their rock-solid beginnings (though they've recently been delivering the goods with remarkable consistency). Heep's '70 debut, ...Very 'Eavy....Very 'Umble, is a solid set but a little too similar to contemporaries such as Deep Purple. Salisbury stretches out nicely and "Bird of Prey" belongs ranked right up there with other rockers of the era. "Lady in Black" set the stage for Rainbow a full four years before their debut and "Time to Live" is simply the best song Uriah Heep has ever recorded. The title track closes the album as a 16-minute prog epic that, with a full 22-piece brass and woodwind section set against wah-wah guitar, begs for placement on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack.

Overkill - Motörhead - 1979

OverkillYes, it's even better than Ace of Spades. And it's easily better than the band's eponymous '77 debut. Overkill is flawless. Motörhead somehow amble at a ferocious speed. They top-load the record with two all-time classics ("Overkill," "Stay Clean") and don't let up for the duration. A classic from the classic Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor lineup, Overkill is aggressively propelled by Lemmy and Philthy's rhythm section and packed with riffs and solos; "Damage Case," "Tear Ya Down" and "Metropolis" all overflowing with "Fast" Eddie's finest guitar work. My personal favorite Motörhead number, "Limb from Limb," closes the album, easily one of the finest hours to be found in hard rock history.

There are plenty of others waiting in the wings to populate this list just as soon as they flesh out their discographies. Trivium's Ascendancy, Mastodon's Leviathan and System of a Down's Toxicity all seem to be likely candidates. Time will tell and, happily, the wait will be accompanied by some incredible music.

No comments:

Post a Comment