I can remain silent no longer on an important topic: glam rock isn’t the same as glam metal. Not at all. Anyone who writes “glam rock/metal” (as though these are fuzzy or interrelated concepts) deserves to feel the sting of the lash across their pitiful shoulders.
“Glam rock” is a style that became popular in Great Britain in the early 70s: think Wizzard, T-Rex, and Roxy Music and also think platform boots, scarves, glitter, and flared jeans. The music was 50s-inspired rock and roll with a warm, summery vibe. Glam rock could be pretentiously analyzed as “radical self-manufacture”: its stars were big and cartoony and fake, but not in an “I’m lying to you” way. It was more like “I’m inviting you into a shared dream”. For a few years, the dream was so compelling that audiences accepted the invitation. You could really believe that David Bowie was an alien, Marc Bolan an elf, and Gary Glitter a good bloke with an unimpeachable internet search history.
Glam rock collapsed after three years, replaced by disco and limp-wristed parodies of itself (Mud, Bay City Rollers, Insert Third Example). Bowie salvaged his career from the glitter-strewn rubble; nobody else did. Look at the post-1975 discography of a middle-of-the-pack glam band you’ll see five or six flop albums in a row (with titles like Remember Us? and We’re Back! and Will This Work? and Our Manager Made Us Hire a Bagpipe Player), followed by a break up, followed by a 2001 nostalgia concert featuring two original members, followed by the end.
That’s glam rock. Glam metal (also known as hair metal) is very different: a variant of NWOBHM that became popular in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 80s. Famous bands include Motley Crue, Poison, and so forth. Like glam rock it had outrageous fashion sense, but unlike glam rock it was always the same fashion sense. Bolan didn’t look like Bowie who didn’t look like Brian Ferry, but all glam metal bands dressed the same.
Glam metal was ugly, cynical, and had no soul. Track one would be about fisting a hooker’s ass. Track 2 would be an overwrought ballad about the power of love. It was plastic music, totally disingenuous and shameless about it. It snorted rails of coke off the bottom of the barrel. Tucker Max once said there are “beer and girls” people (those who party to have fun) and “coke and strippers” people (those who party as an act of nihilistic self-destruction). Glam metal was the soundtrack for the letter. The music wasn’t feel-good, it was feel-dead, and often become-dead: Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” is about Nikki Sixx being resuscitated after going into drug-induced cardiac arrest. Five years earlier, his singer had killed a man in an alcohol-induced car accident. Were you in an 80s glam metal band? I’m sorry that your music career is over, but at least you now have a tear-jerker biography about overcoming addiction to sell to a major publisher.
So why do I bring all this up in a review of a half-forgotten Slade album? Because they’re notable as one of the few bands that played both styles.
They achieved fame in the 70s as part of the glam rock movement: they had six UK number ones. I don’t know why they’re called Slade. Like many glam bands they had a gimmick: they spelled the names of their songs wrong. “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”, “Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me”…I used to think there was a sharp line between artistic affect and crippling dyslexia, but Slade proves that it’s all just gray.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Slade had the profound misfortune of having “Merry Xmas Everybody” as their biggest chart success. A Christmas song is the worst kind of hit you can have: it means you become pigeonholed as a naff novelty band. It also means the world forgets you exist for 51 weeks out of the year.
After “Merry Xmas Everybody”, glam rock became unpopular and Slade’s number ones (and soon twos, etc) stopped coming. But in 1983 they managed a minor comeback with The Amazing Kamikaze Syndrome, which broke them in America with a harder, metal-tinged sound.
It’s a loud, hard-rocking and sleazy record. The guitars are like a brick wall and the vocals are like diamond chainsaw tearing through that wall: I don’t know how Noddy Holder’s voice survived so many years of abuse, but science is still asking that question of Nikki Sixx’s heart. “Run Runaway” is a great song, with Jim Lea somehow making an electric fiddle work in a pop context. “Slam the Hammer Down” could almost be a Chuck Berry song, although 80s technology turns it into a massive steroid-pumped gorilla of a track, almost scary to listen to. You feel as if you could get crushed by it.
When the rock-all-the-time approach gets old, you get the eight-minute-plus “Ready to Explode”, which is a weird metal epic combining Queen, Meat Loaf, The Cars, and Iron Maiden. The band pulls influences from just about anywhere, but surprisingly they make most of them work. “My Oh My” is a power ballad with drums so reverb-drenched they might have been recorded from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s like a parody of what music sounded like in the 80s, but it flows nicely and is quite memorable.
“(And Now the Waltz) C’est La Vie” was an odd choice for a single – a Broadway-style ballad with drums that never seem to land where you’d expect. The rest of the album finds the band taking no risks and playing to their strengths, delivering guitar-driven songs with keyboards adding a little color.
Slade wasn’t able to sustain this level of success. Soon they went back being a nostalgia band, and while this isn’t the worst kind of death, it’s a death regardless. Their biggest impact in the 80s might have been the fact that Quiet Riot covered one of their hits. It’s good that they managed this little comeback, but (with typical Slade) bad luck glam metal imploded beneath them just as suddenly as glam rock had. It’s like being aboard a sinking ship and getting rescued by the RMS Titanic.
On paper, Graceland sounds terrible. Folk rock musician in his mid-forties, divorced, losing relevance, dabbling in “exotic” styles that he has no fluency in or understanding of. There’s no barf bag big enough.
But music isn’t written on metaphorical paper, it’s written in air, and Graceland is somehow Simon’s greatest album by a mile.
It’s a stupendous record. Everything wrong with every past Simon solo record is made right: the excess of ballads is pared back, Simon’s occasionally flat-sounding voice is swelled by backing vocalists, and the thin-sounding arrangements are replaced by drums and basslines as massive and powerful as the thrumming steel cables of a suspension bridge. The songwriting is ten times better: normally Simon’s solo discography suspends me on a knife’s edge between mild entertainment and mild boredom while I wait for a classic like “Still Crazy” and “Me & Julio…” to show up. But here, nearly all the songs are that good.
The usual story of Graceland involves Paul Simon, his career failing after a series of indulgent vanity projects, being being given a bootlegged cassette tape by a singer-songwriter he was producing. He’d never heard anything like it. It had an accordion and lots of layered vocals and wouldn’t leave his head: it simply sounded alive in an age when pop music was breaching new frontiers of sterility.
He wanted to hear more; he wanted to make more; but what was it? This is a frustration of pre-internet life most people have forgotten: unlabelled tapes or records full of music you had no way of identifying. After some investigation, he discovered that the bootleg contained South African music by a group called the Boyoyo Boys. And although the particular tape Simon possessed seems lost to time, it probably sounded a little like this.
This is mbaqanga, a South African pastoral style that flourished as much as it could under apartheid. Musicians everywhere have a tendency to die broke and exploited: and for mbaqanga musicians this was nearly a certainty, yet enough of their music made it to Western shores (in defiance of a UN cultural boycott) for Simon to hear it. It picked the lock in his head, allowing him to write songs again.
One of the things about music is how it serves as fertilizer for the flowering of other music. Art never just exists within itself, it also creates the future, and Simon decided his future involved flying to South Africa and working with mbaqanga musicians. The result isn’t timeless in the same way as the greatest Simon & Garfunkel work. The gated snare and chorus-spackled guitars mark it as a creature of the mid 80s. But it’s a monumental achievement, towering over all the solo work Simon did before and after.
“The Boy in the Bubble” contains a catchy accordion riff by Forere Motloheloa, along with a loosely-sung lyric by Simon that almost sounds ad-libbed at the mic (listen to his unstressed delivery on “the bomb in the baby carriage…”) “You Can Call Me Al” sees fretless bassist Bakithi Kumalo stealing the show with an intricate bassline that nearly breaks my left wrist every time I play it (it also contains a slap bass solo that can’t be performed by human hands at all, because Simon reversed the tape in the studio!). “Crazy Love, Vol II” might be my favorite song, particularly the lush, painterly guitar parts in the verses and Simon’s oblique but heartfelt lyrics.
All these songs – even the minor ones – have rhythmic grooves that are dense and compelling. And Simon often seems like a small player within his own songs, which was almost certainly his intent.
By 1986, Simon had grown sick of “three chords and the truth” music in the Bob Dylan vibe, with Mr Wise Musician strumming guitar and mumbling profundities from atop the bandstand. He identified generically “African” music as a counter to that – he wanted its communal feel, its devotional attitude, its erasure of distinctions between bandleader and musician and musician and audience member.
It’s music that raises up the humble, putting everyone on the same level. Yes, African music has room for virtuoso musicians and virtuoso performances (and Graceland has plenty of both), but the sense of interconnectedness always comes first.
This was important for Simon, who is a pop singer who has always had trouble getting out of his own way. Nearly all of his music is both quotidian and personal, focused laser-like on Paul Simon’s stories, experiences, and daily life. Even his most political song, “American Tune”, has its thematic sting (Nixon is president, we all failed) drawn by navel-gazing lyrics that equate to “I’m Paul Simon and I feel bummed out”. For some people, it takes courage to take the stage. Simon might actually be the reverse: it takes him courage to back away, and let others steer his ship.
His usual songwriting approach was to write something, then book session musicians to play it. But Graceland forced him to do something different: capture performances first and then try to turn them into songs. He still knew jack shit about mbaqanga, and constructing Graceland was a long and often painful process, full of second guessing and scrapped takes. But the result is something unlike anything he ever tried before (aside from the reggae-influenced “Mother and Child Reunion”, which was a dry run for Graceland in some respects).
Paul Simon’s past music is him constructing a house – and often finding it to be a lonely, windy mansion, forbidding and alienating to everyone (including himself). Graceland is more like Paul Simon moving in and unpacking his bags in a house already built – a house that’s packed to the rafters with noisy and happy people, raising their voices in song. Thankfully, he’s a small man.
Despite ceding musical authority to dozens of South African musicians, the lyrics still have Simon as a commanding force. He wrote pages and pages of them – long-time engineer Roy Halee recalls that one of Graceland‘s biggest challenge was recording extremely wordy songs with extremely busy instrumentation without having everything collapse into a mess of shards. It speaks to the incredible creative period that Graceland was that Simon had so much to say. But again, it’s more about his own life than anything more cosmic.
The title track “Graceland” is a thrill ride along a lonely landscape with guitar lines shimmering like ripples of heat over a highway. But aside from a few gestures to history (the Civil War, etc), it’s a song about his breakup with Carrie Fisher. Two tracks later, he’s collaborating with the Boyoyo Boys themselves. “Gumboots” is a minor track, and Simon apparently didn’t enjoy working with them, but he left the song on the record, since they were the ones who’d inspired the project. What’s “Gumboots” about? The Boyoyo Boys probably intended a reference to South African “gumboot dancing” – mine owners forbade their workers from speaking when on the job, so miners improvised a system of foot movements to warn each other of cave-ins and so forth. In later years, the gumboots became one more strand of mbaqanga music, and a vivid example of how something as dull as an item of footwear can have profound cultural connections. That historical aspect isn’t present on Graceland‘s “Gumboots”. Simon just delivers a ruminative lyric about him trying to find love in small ways and places. I guess it’s fair for a Paul Simon solo album to be about Paul Simon. But just be prepared for an album that’s a little less globalist and world-spanning than its billing suggests.
Graceland was massively popular. And controversial. Simon had broken a UN embargo by making it. Black musicians accused him of stealing their style. Whites playing black music has always a touchy issue. He was selling out, he was trying too hard, he was appropriating styles, he was supporting apartheid. Disputes over songwriting credits haunt Graceland like restless ghosts. When Simon toured the album he found himself picketed by hundreds of people. Members of a militant South African liberation organization threw grenades into office of his promoter.
But the antonym of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. People have always cared in an obsessive way about Graceland, even those who don’t like. The old radio cliche about “a platter that matters” comes to mind. Graceland might not be universally loved, but for better or for worse, it matters.
Heavy metal is a temple erected in worship of riffs, which are repetitive melodic or rhythmic figures played on guitar. The greatest bands wield them like mystic incantations: songs like Metallica’s “Orion” and Dark Angel’s “Black Prophecies” have such deep, complex, and interesting guitar work that I hope they’ll never end when I listen to them. But it’s possible to overemphasize the riff, and some fans have an almost fascistic relationship with the guitar’s fretboard, with the “trueness” of metal subgenres increasing linearly with how many riffs they have. Dark Angel’s final album famously came with a sticker advertising 246 riffs, like an ad for a cable TV package, and some “cult” bands (Vio-Lence comes to mind) are like laboratory exercises in having riffs and nothing else, with vocals, songwriting, production, and so on being left deliberately casual.
But the riff religion has lukewarm worshippers as well as zealots and fanatics. It also has exploiters (I don’t mean that in a bad sense), and flower metal/melodic power metal bands like Sonata Artica are among them. They’re nominally heavy metal, but they simply don’t care about riffs at all, and metal ideals of “trueness” mean nothing to them. I guess you can’t have a temple – musical or literal – without attracting merchants and moneylenders.
Flower metal first emerged in the early 1990s. Right from the start it didn’t fit in – it was centered around a couple of trailblazing bands (most famously Finland’s Stratovarius and Italy’s Rhapsody) rather than a “scene” as such, and took inspiration more from Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, and Johann Sebastian Bach than from Black Sabbath. It achieved a degree of commercial popularity (flower metal is extremely catchy, almost comically so) but it was never respectable, either inside or outside the metal genre. After all, it had no riffs.
Sonata Arctica’s Ecliptica is an album I would have mocked 10 years ago, called “Disney metal”, or whatever. Now, I can appreciate what it’s doing. It’s not perfect, but it’s exemplary. If someone’s not sure what melodic power metal sounds like, show them this. It’s very intense, very catchy, not particularly heavy, and is unembarrassed and exuberant about what it is: a wintry storm of consonance and melody.
Fast songs like “Blank File”, “The 8th Commandment”, and “Picturing the Past” are like being in the path of a VTOL jet’s booster engines – they’re just a nonstop blur of notes, propelled by Tommy Portimo’s 16th note double bass drumming (this had already become a flower metal cliche). “Blank File” is probably the best; Tony Kakko would later regret pitching the key that high: he had tremendous trouble hitting those notes live.
“Kingdom for a Heart” and “My Land” are catchy uptempo rockers, anchored by Tony Kakko’s emotional (sometimes histrionic) vocals and loud/soft dynamics. “My Land” has a great moment where a staccato guitar riff cleaves through in the verse, proving that although Sonata Arctica were heresiarchs, they weren’t above occasionally genuflecting to the riff god. Deeper in the album we get “Full Moon”, which has a degree of lyrical storytelling about lycanthropy. This would cement the wolf as Sonata Arctica’s mascot, as much as the pumpkin is Helloween’s and the dragon is Rhapsody’s.
There’s a couple of ballads, which are overripe and hard to listen to. The band was still learning. They barely had any business playing heavy metal to begin with – their earliest demos (under the name Tricky Beans) reveal a kind of new wave sounding pop band. But their singer, Tony Kakko, discovered Stratovarius, and became briefly obsessed: Ecliptica is a forty seven minute Stratovarius tribute album that actually upstages the band he’s paying tribute to. Stratovarius is fast and virtuostic, but stiff and dead. I like some of their songs, but a lot of it just comes off as slabs of glittering plastic. Sonata Arctica has more life and color.
The album tapers off a little at the end, with “Unopened” and “Mary Lou” sounding like rearrangements of “Kingdom for a Heart”, and “Destruction Preventer” doesn’t have the songwriting to carry it to seven plus minutes. It’s as awkward and unengaging as its title. Nice scream, though.
At least 75% of the album is good to great, which – then and now – is an amazing batting average for melodic power metal. It’s an exhausting style to listen to, and an equally exhausting one to play. Many power metal bands eventually burn out or change styles: Edguy became a glam metal band, Nightwish pushed increasingly into film score and folk music, and Helloween became a dollar-store version of the Beatles for a couple of years. But Sonata Arctica changed styles further (and worse) than most, delving into prog rock, glam, ambient, and even quasi metalcore at points. I don’t like them at all now, and for me Ecliptica is one of the saddest things in music: an early peak.