Fans insist that it never went away. Critics wish it would. But heavy metal, that belligerent bastard son of American blues and macho English rock-star attitudes, is back. It's also bigger, louder and — hard as this may be to believe — better than ever, rising to punk-rock's challenge by adding some new risks to the old riffs.
With an average age of eighteen, the five members of Def Leppard are barely old enough to remember the first Neanderthal rumblings of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Yet On through the Night shows they not only respect their elders, they've taken cues from their New Wave peers, too. Ignoring heavy-metal's unwritten law requiring long guitar solos in every other tune, guitarists Pete Willis and Steve Clark shoot from the hip, packing their licks into tight, three-minute pop arrangements. The anthemlike "Rock Brigade" and "Hello America," with its Queen-aphonic harmonies, are apt examples.
Even when they dare to wax poetic in such apocalyptic sagas as "When the Walls Came Tumbling Down" and the seven-minute, Rush-style "Overture," Def Leppard rarely let their ambition outstrip their rock & roll sense. Bassist Rick Savage and drummer Rick Allen apply the same youthful muscle to a breast-beating ballad ("Sorrow Is a Woman") as they do to a Thin Lizzy-like raver ("Wasted"). And while Joe Elliott isn't a lead singer on the sanctified level of Robert Plant, he wails wonderfully in a resonating tenor, fortified by backup harmonies and Tom Allom's battering-ram production.
Displaying a wisdom beyond their years, Def Leppard take the timeworn basics of heavy metal, give them a punky Eighties overhaul and come up with, uh, heavy melody. On through the Night is awfully impressive for a band making its vinyl debut.
Van Halen toss melody — along with subtlety and good manners — straight out the barroom door. Specializing in decibels and cock-strutting bravado, they put forth the proposition that Might Is Always Right, and the proof on their third LP, Women and Children First, is pretty convincing. "Romeo Delight," "Everybody Wants Some!!" and the mad, triple-time dash, "Loss of Control," are works of high-volume art. Each features banshee guitars, hellish drumming, lead vocalist David Lee Roth's cries of hedonistic ecstasy, and ensemble harmonies that sound like the Byrds singing through a sewer pipe — all violently competing for attention in an explosive sound mix.
But underneath the noisy chutzpah, Roth and his mob are exceptionally good players. This is especially true of guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who harnesses feedback almost as well as Jimi Hendrix did and displays smarts plus speed in his solos. As for David Lee Roth and his big mouth, he puts up a lot better than he shuts up, baying at the moon with far more spirit and comic panache than most of his competition. Megalomania of this kind is an acquired taste, yet the haste with which Women and Children First bullied its way into the Top Ten suggests that there's a little Van Halen in everybody.
Adding a touch of Wagnerian drama to the genre, the Scorpions mine the traditional heavy-metal lode and assay a potent sound that's one part Deep Purple (lead singer Klaus Meine), one part Black Sabbath (the Francis Buchholz-Herman Rarebell rhythm section) and two parts Blue Öyster Cult (guitarists Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs). Though not quite the killer that last year's Lovedrive was, Animal Magnetism, this German group's seventh American album, still scores a head-banger's bull's-eye with frantic rockers like "Falling in Love" and the rather commercial "Make It Real." The title track and "The Zoo" are a strange finale: two of the most oppressive, ham-fisted dirges I've heard since Black Sabbath turned loose "War Pigs."
Like it or not, heavy metal is here, there and everywhere. What they may lack in innovation, the Scorpions make up for in sheer amplified power, while Van Halen swagger confidently past their own limitations and Def Leppard fall back on youthful naiveté, enthusiasm and talent. To their credit, these bands have managed to tap some fresh energy from a source that apparently never went dry.
Only one quick question now: is this your idea of a good time?