50 Greatest Hair Metal Albums of All Time – Rolling Stone
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50 Greatest Hair Metal Albums of All Time

The best LPs from the age of Aqua Net


C.C. DeVille and Bret Michaels of Poison (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Catchy, concise and more committed to getting parties rolling or groping groupies than conquering Valhalla or thinking depressive thoughts, what first passed as metal on Eighties MTV didn’t have much in common with what gets called metal now — or even what had mostly been called metal in the Seventies. Visually flamboyant and prone to shout-along hooks in ways that made them saleable in a video-single format, bands like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister and Ratt owed way more to British glam-rock or Aerosmith than to Black Sabbath. In any other era they might’ve just been labeled “hard rock,” but at some point somebody came up with the probably pejorative term “hair-metal,” and the name stuck. As did the music, at least through the rest of the decade — and most of it grew increasingly prettified and prefabricated, until it didn’t.

Swept under history’s rug and summarily dismissed as fake when thrash and grunge came along, hair-metal’s been out of the spotlight long enough by now to be forgiven for all but its sleaziest sins. More holds up musically than you might guess: Trimming this list to a mere 50 albums was so tough that in the long run Guns N’ Roses had to be disqualified for transcending the form and W.A.S.P. for sounding too legitimately heavy. Timewise, the perimeters were clearer: mid Eighties to early Nineties, pretty much. Call them superficial, but blasting these is still a headbanger’s ball. By Chuck Eddy

Lord Tracy - Deaf Gods Of Babylon

Lord Tracy, ‘Deaf Gods Of Babylon’ (1989)

From Tennessee among other locations, and fronted by a fellow named Terry Blaze who'd previously fronted Pantera when they were still a glam band, Lord Tracy were as refreshingly idiosyncratic as sleaze-metallers named after a porn star go. Their best non-jokey tracks are probably early Cheap Trick ringer "Whatchadoin'," catchier-than-Crüe cruiser "Rats Motel," metalbilly hoedown "King of the Nighttime Cowboy" and "Submission," which sounds like a heavier version of Boston fake-new-wavers the Fools. Best joke track is "Piranha," a sort of super-fast metal version of Descendents-type hardcore, "about a fish." Most offensive is frat-party rap "3 H.C." whose fake African jungle chants are a politically incorrect minstrel show. The guitarist steals some tasty Eddie Van Halen tricks here and there. And the four shortest songs, if you can call them that, check in at 0:22, 0:35, 1:26, and 1:27. C.E.

Mr. Big - Lean Into It

Mr. Big,’ Lean Into It’ (1991)

Fresh from his collaboration with Steve Vai in the David Lee Roth band, bassist Billy Sheehan teamed up with another terrifyingly fleet-fingered guitarist, Paul Gilbert of L.A. shredders Racer X, to form Mr. Big. The group, which also featured vocalist Eric Martin and former Tina Turner drummer Pat Torpey, released their solid Atlantic Records debut in 1989, but it was on 1991's Lean Into It that the band hit artistic and commercial paydirt. The album explodes out of the gate with "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)" a double-time shuffle that features both Gilbert and Sheehan — you guessed it — playing solos with guitar-pick-equipped power tools. But Lean Into It ultimately settles into a tuneful, mid-tempo groove that is ultimately much more satisfying. Gilbert's tapped intro to the psychedelic "Green Tinted Sixties Mind" is nothing short of hypnotic, while "CDFF — Lucky This Time" would not sound out of place on a Foreigner greatest hits collection. And then, of course, there's the hit acoustic ballad "To Be With You" which would rise to Number One on Billboard's singles chart — the final song of the hair metal era to hold that position. As Martin recently told Songfacts.com, he had been keeping that song in his back pocket since his youth. "I wrote 'To Be With You' when I was 16, 17 years old," he said. "Mainly to impress my sister's girlfriends." T.B.

Precious Metal - Right Here Right Now

Precious Metal, ‘Right Here Right Now’ (1985)

Maybe these five California girls from all over wouldn't count if they didn't have "metal" in their name — but, hey, a major label (Mercury) put their album out even if nobody bought it. And it was the Eighties, so anything went. "Girls Night Out" ("wanna do what the boys been doin' for years") is Girlschool-glamabilly tough, but most of the rest bridges we-got-the-Burundi-beat Go-Go's and early Poison — hard rock with a modern K-Pop smile. Leslie Knauer had had a couple late Seventies Europop-ish intercontinental hits in the family band Promises, and here she sings loud and thin, proclaiming her love for a same-sexed free spirit named "Emily" and heavy-breathing sultry come-ons over the Diddley-glam of "Cheesecake." And though the drummer and one guitarist go for black leather and metal scowls, the other three opt for bright colors and look very happy. C.E.

Lita Ford - Lita

Lita Ford, ‘Lita’ (1988)

The post-Runaways success story most told after Joan Jett's is the polar opposite of the "I Love Rock & Roll" singer's stripped-down punky pop. The third blistering album from Lita Ford was a platinum smash built on big hair, big guitar solos, big ideas (her new manager was Sharon Osbourne). Big hit "Kiss Me Deadly" recalls her old group's fierce attitude ("I went to a party last Saturday night/I didn't get laid, I got in a fight,"), but lets a synthesizer duke it out with the electric guitar for its catchy chorus. Ford also embraced all-star collaborations with Lemmy Kilmister, Nikki Sixx and Ozzy Osbourne. Ford and the Prince of Darkness hooked up to co-write the acoustic ballad "Close My Eyes Forever" after a night of playing pool and drinking wine — giving Ozzy his only Top 10 single ever. But did they ever perform their hit duet live? "No," said Ford, "because he could never remember the lyrics." R.F.

Kik Tracee - No Rules

Kik Tracee, ‘No Rules’ (1991)

L.A.'s Kik Tracee came across unboundedly optimistic even though their sound mostly recalls negative nellies GN'R and their subgenre was clearly on the way out. They released only one full album, but what a thoughtful, listenable album it is. The clear centerpiece, "Big Western Sky," feels as expansive and full of possibility as its title, and it's surrounded by awesomeness: a call-and-responding/cheerleading opener to get fans involved ("Don't Need Rules"); a "Mrs. Robinson" cover that should've prevented the Lemonheads; a dance groover shifting from "Stranded in the Jungle" Dolls to funky GN'R ("Soul Shaker"); a then-timely train track with "My Generation" st-st-stutters ("Generation Express"); the best Van Halen imitation of the Nineties ("Velvet Crush"); odes to strange girlfriends and dirty cities. In "Tangerine Man" and "Rattlesnake Eyes (Strawberry Jam)," there's even some fruit! C.E.

Pretty Boy Floyd - Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz

Pretty Boy Floyd, ‘Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz’ (1989)

Named after the notorious bank robber and armed with enough hairspray to rip a hole in the ozone, this quartet of glam overachievers was, of course, from Hollywood. Their debut's sonics mirrored their over-the-top looks, taking that more-the-better aesthetic and turning it into larger-than-life hooks — "whoa-oh-oh"s sounded like they were constructed from choruses of militias, lyrics were about taking over the world with the power of rock & roll. A faithful, if amped-up, cover of Mötley Crüe's early offering "Toast of the Town" proved that they knew their history; the syrupy ballad "I Wanna Be With You" proved that they knew how to lure in the ladies. Leather Boyz is glam metal at its most extreme, turned up to 11 on every possible level. M.J.

Kiss - Lick it Up

Kiss, ‘Lick It Up’ (1983)

Through sheer pop-culture dominance alone, Seventies-era Kiss wielded some measure of influence over every band that dared to poof their hair and play a candy-coated guitar riff in the following decade. And yet, by the early Eighties the New York foursome were teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. Lick It Up, however, resuscitated the band through reinvention. Never ones to pass up a good gimmick, Kiss shed their kabuki greasepaint and replaced it with . . . well, just another type of makeup. On the musical end of things, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley openly embraced songwriter and hotshot shredder Vinnie Vincent, who dragged Kiss into the modern era by infusing album cuts like "Exciter" and the indelible title track with a tougher, more metal-influenced chug. Simmons recalled removing the facepaint in his 2001 autobiography, Kiss and Make-Up: "We made the best of it, but I was scared stiff." R.B.

Vixen - Vixen

Vixen, ‘Vixen’ (1988)

Hair-metal's most successful all-woman band, for this one slick if somehow vocally muffled album at least, had pretty much the same hair all their male contemporaries had — just less makeup, maybe. The members all came to L.A. from colder climates and constantly had to prove themselves to dumb guys even though guitarist Jan Kuehnemund had started them as a working band in Minnesota way back in 1981, and Roxy Petrucci had been slaughtering drums since her days with shredding sister Maxine in Detroit's over-the-top Madam X. Beyond Girlschool-worthy road raver "Cruisin'," most of their debut was handled by a formidable team of songwriters: Souped-up schlock-ballad smash "Edge of a Broken Heart" came from Fee Waybill of the Tubes and co-producer Richard Marx; "I Want You to Rock Me," which funk-clanked like Billy Squier via Sly Fox's "Let's Go All The Way" was partially written by co-producer and future C+C Music Factory technician David Cole; and "American Dream," a vaguely protest-y number that quotes "Jesus Loves the Little Childen" ("red and yellow, black and white"), is credited to AOR blues-rock also-ran Jon Butcher. C.E.

D.A.D. - No Fuel Left For The Pilgrims

D-A-D, ‘No Fuel Left for the Pilgrims’ (1989)

Disneyland After Dark, as they were called before Walt put his foot down, came from Denmark and hence carried on Hanoi Rocks' great continental sleaze-glam tradition. But they sounded more Australian — not so much in the sense of AC/DC's riffs, which plenty of bands steal, but thanks to Jesper Binzer's Bon Scott-like vocals, a much rarer trick. They were Bon-worthily philosophical and funny, too — they start with their best-known song, "Sleeping My Day Away," which doesn't sound as lazy as its words and may well have inspired Slaughter's "Up All Night" (which also involved sleeping all day). Next comes "Jihad," which for some reason concerns gasoline bombs in Vietnam and provides the album title. "Rim Of Hell" says there are really smelly parties down there but it's "too hot for the D.J." And "ZCMI," whatever that means, is fast enough to almost excuse the unfortunate Andrew "Dice" Clay routine "Siamese Twin." C.E.

Winger - Winger

Winger, ‘Winger’ (1988)

Winger may have been lambasted by those arbiters of suck, Beavis and Butt-Head (not to mention Metallica's Lars Ulrich, who threw a dart at a picture of frontman Kip Winger in the video for "Nothing Else Matters") but the band's musical pedigree was practically unmatched in Eighties metal. Kip and keyboardist Paul Taylor had worked as backup musicians for artists like Alice Cooper; Berklee-educated guitarist Reb Beach played with everyone from Chaka Khan to the Bee Gees; and drummer Rod Morgenstein hailed from jazz-fusion pioneers Dixie Dregs. Together, the band crafted an album that combined hard-pop melodies with, not surprisingly, plenty of proggy, technically dazzling instrumental work. All of which was summarily eclipsed by their singer's pin-up good looks — and the lecherous undercurrent of tunes like "Seventeen." But, Kip later explained, "Seventeen was legal in Colorado [his home state], so I didn't even get the joke, dude. I didn't get it." R.B.

Stryper - To Hell With the Devil

Stryper, ‘To Hell With the Devil’ (1986)

To Hell With the Devil hits like "Calling on You" and the piano ballad "Honestly" sounded like nothing so much as ultra-melodic odes to a loved one, and they were — only in Stryper's case, that loved one was Jesus. To Hell With the Devil became the first Christian metal record to go Platinum. One of the keys to their success was in how Stryper adopted devices associated with heavier metal — harmonic guitar lines, operatic vocals — and transformed them into delivery systems for sweet pop hooks. Brothers and band founders Michael and Robert Sweet first came to Christianity through the sermons of Jimmy Swaggart; and, ironically, in the wake of To Hell With the Devil's mainstream success, the soon-to-be-disgraced televangelist became one of their fiercest detractors. "It hurt, because we respected him," Michael Sweet said. "But the Bible's very clear: When you judge, you will be judged." R.B.

Vinnie Vincent Invasion - Vinnie Vincent Invasion

Vinnie Vincent Invasion, ‘Vinnie Vincent Invasion’ (1986)

After a stint as a staff songwriter for Happy Days and a tenure as the lead guitarist for Kiss, Vinnie Vincent (née Vincent John Cusano) struck out on his own to form Vinnie Vincent Invasion. "Putting my own band together was the ultimate vehicle for myself," Vincent told Canada's Much Music at the time of Invasion's release. "It gives me the ability to write the songs that I want and play and produce them the way I want." How he wanted it, evidently, was a balls-to-the-wall celebration of sonic excess. When Vincent's lightning-fast guitar solo rips through album opener "Boyz Gonna Rock" you can actually hear the microphones distort from the sheer volume of his amplifiers in the studio. Former Journey vocalist Robert Fleishman's muscular soprano manages to rise above the guitar maelstrom on full-blown rockers like "I Wanna Be Your Victim" and "Shoot U Full of Love, while on the poppy "No Substitute," which demonstrates Vincent's pro songwriting chops, Fleischman even gets a chance to strut his melodic stuff — until, of course, he's cut off at the knees by another barrage of Vincent's unhinged shredding. T.B.

Britny Fox - Britny Fox

Britny Fox, ‘Britny Fox’ (1988)

Even more than fellow Philadelphians Cinderella and Central Pennsylvania-bred Poison, Britny Fox were spiritual and musical disciples of the totally obscure but locally ubiquitous turn-of-the-Eighties Berks County bar band Dead End Kids — sort of Pennsy's footnote answer to the New York Dolls. Britny'd later cover the same Sensational Alex Harvey Band track that group had, but on their debut they stick to Slade, who they're more suited for than Quiet Riot ever were. Their greatest moment, though, remains the massively riffed, AC/DC-ripping opener "Girlschool," about cigarette-smoking young ladies who don't follow rules. That song's "Hot For Teacher" vibe (schoolbells even) later recurs amid the gargantuan drumbeats kicking off apparent PMRC rejoinder "Rock Revolution." "Fun in Texas," their big-bottomed ZZ boogie, rules as well. But mainly, from the shag carpeting atop their scalps to the Spinal Tap-ish remedial-reading lyrics of starving-children protest "Save the Weak," they were ridiculous. Lovably so. C.E.

Bang Tango - Psycho Cafe

Bang Tango, ‘Psycho Café’ (1989)

You'd think more hair-metal vocalists would've gone the slithery Billy Idol/Ian Astbury route, but nope, only Joe Lesté of L.A.'s Bang Tango — see, for instance, the white-wedding way he exclaims "shotgun!" in two different songs. He also claimed Bang Tango were trying to give the Cure or Gene Loves Jezebel balls; and the pulse of "Love Injection" and tropical breakbeats opening "Sweet Little Razor" prove they didn't fear disco, which reached these guys via Prince and INXS. By 1991's more realized Dancin' on Coals they'd upped the goth and funk ante even higher while bemoaning Seattle-style "psychedelic crap coming through the front door" before Nirvana even hit. But the debut's got their own lone MTV smash "Someone Like You," a real wailer, plus "Breaking Up a Heart of Stone" echoing the iced perfume of early Nineties French pop — all in a post-Aerosmith/GN'R context, no less. C.E.

Alice Cooper - Trash

Alice Cooper, ‘Trash’ (1989)

After surviving decades of decadence, shock-rock icon Alice Cooper sobered up, teamed up with a big-haired bassist named Kip Winger and staged a quiet comeback in the mid-Eighties on a couple of middling hard-rock albums that hovered below the Top 50. But he didn't have another platinum record until he teamed with glam-metal songwriting guru Desmond Child and a star-studded guest list (Jon Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler and Kip Winger, who'd earned his own hits by then) for 1989's Trash. The hit quasi-ballad "Poison" contained lyrics lascivious enough for Kiss fans but snarky enough for Alice fans; "House of Fire," which Joan Jett co-wrote, is a perfectly dude-ly relationship song; "Bed of Nails" features gang-vocals singing "ow-ow-ow"; and "Only My Heart Talkin'" is the sort of hair-metal crooner Nikki Sixx would write if he could be contrite. "I would get into my Corvette, turn on the radio and hear all these great songs by Bon Jovi and Aerosmith," Cooper told Raw in 1989. "When I found out how many Desmond had been responsible for, I knew he was the man to get." K.G.

Badlands - Badlands

Badlands, ‘Badlands’ (1989)

Summarily dismissed from Ozzy Osbourne's band (via telegram no less), guitarist Jake E. Lee licked his wounds and formed Badlands with another former Black Sabbath singer, Ray Gillen. Despite the employment history of its principals, the group eschewed gothic themes and textures on their self-titled debut, embracing instead the bluesy swagger of Led Zeppelin and Montrose. Within the first few seconds of album opener "Live Wire" it becomes clear that Lee and Gillen made a wise stylistic choice, as the guitarist's swinging riff and vocalist's gravelly howl are electrifyingly compatible. The kinetic interplay is sustained through Badlands' eleven tracks, particularly on the fast boogie of "Hard Driver" and the album's first single "Dreams in the Dark." Perhaps because of its rawness — even "Winter's Tale," the album's sole nod to the power ballad genre, morphs rapidly into a full blown rocker — Badlands failed to live up to commercial expectations and Gillen and Lee would only make one more album together, 1991's tepid Voodoo Highway, before parting ways acrimoniously. T.B.

Junkyard - Junkyard

Junkyard, ‘Junkyard’ (1989)

"When Guns N' Roses got signed, every other label was looking for the next big thing and we were just in the right place at the right time, playing the right kind of music," Junkyard frontman David Roach said in 2012. "We were a little harder and a little uglier, but still rock & roll." GN'R's lesser-known Geffen labelmates — Axl Rose wore a Junkyard T-shirt in several photo shoots — had actually cut their teeth in some of American hardcore's most revered bands, including Minor Threat, the Big Boys and Decry: The band wasn't just a sign of hair metal's boom times, but a symbol of punk's identity crisis at the end of the Eighties. Riding Roach's ripped larynx and Chris Gates' rapid-fire axe, 1989's Junkyard has bone-crushing moments, especially "Hollywood." But "Simple Man" shows an equally strong proclivity for ZZ Top-style slide guitar and blues riffs. R.F.

Saigon Kick - The Lizard

Saigon Kick, ‘The Lizard’ (1992)

Florida quartet Saigon Kick was one of the many bands of the era that seemed misfiled as "hard rock" — their first album's flights of fancy included a kazoo solo, after all. On album Number Two, The Lizard, guitarist and chief songwriter Jason Bieler got even weirder: He indulged his twisted Beatles vibes with the jaunty yet vicious kiss-off "Chanel," got proggy on "Peppermint Tribe" and blended chugging thrash riffs with off-kilter harmonies on the title track. The guttural generational anthem "Hostile Youth," which Bieler co-wrote with frontman Matt Kramer, could have crossed over to the Lollapalooza crowd had the genre boundaries between melodic rock and then-nascent "alternative" not been so firmly drawn. The majestic, rueful ballad "Love Is on the Way," however, hit the pop charts thanks to its glittering guitars and soaring backing vocals. M.J.

Great White - Twice Shy

Great White, ‘…Twice Shy’ (1989)

Of the thousands of metal vocalists attempting to scale Robert Plant's stairway, few succeeded like Great White's Jack Russell. Before a tragic 2003 fire claimed the lives of 100 Great White fans in Rhode Island, the supremely coiffed Los Angeles band's legacy centered on their fourth album, 1989's …Twice Shy. Russell's soaring rasp, paired with Michael Lardie on keys, provided melodramatic fireworks. Their signature tune, a cover of Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter's 1979 glam sensation "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," broke the Top Five. "Our manager came to us with that song," guitarist Mark Kendall told Guitar World. "We played and recorded it, never figuring they'd make it the first single . . . . But the record company insisted that it was the 'big song,' and sure enough, it was a big hit." R.F.

Slaughter - Stick it To Ya

Slaughter, ‘Stick It to Ya’ (1990)

"It was 1990 when our album was released," Slaughter singer Mark Slaughter said, "and it was already changing. We were really the last big part of that whole wave." Formed out of the ashes of the Vinnie Vincent Invasion by the eponymous vocalist and bassist Dana Strum, Slaughter didn't appear on the hair metal scene until the genre was well into its third act. But Stick It to Ya, released in January of 1990, grabbed hold of the final moments and wrung every last multiplatinum drop from them. The album spawned three hit singles, including the crunchy "Up All Night" and the acoustic "Fly to the Angels," both of which pitted Mark Slaughter's Robert Plant-esque wail against a straightforward — and, in contrast to the VVI, less shred-crazed — hard-rock attack. By the time they followed it up two years later with The Wild Life, hair metal — and Slaughter's — glory days were over. R.B.

Bulletboys - Freakshow

BulletBoys, ‘Freakshow’ (1991)

Having already established themselves as carriers of the Van Halen torch with their self-titled debut, the BulletBoys decided to get a little weirder on their follow-up. "We just refuse to pander to tastes other than our own," guitarist Mick Sweda told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1991. Tracks like the saucy "Do Me Raw" and the yowling "Good Girl" revealed that raunch remained a key part of their arsenal, but they had artier things on their dirty minds. The album's first single, the paranoid, sludgy "THC Groove," had a video that opened with an homage to Battleship Potemkin — and was hastily clarified by a drug-resistant MTV as being parenthetically called "The Hard Core Groove." Instead of going the power-ballad route (a surefire ticket to Dial MTV), the band released covers of the Tom Waits growler "Hang On St. Christopher" and J.B. Lenoir's pestering "Talk to Your Daughter" as singles. Both became minor hits thanks to frontman Marq Torien's oozy charisma. M.J.

Dangerous Toys - Dangerous Toys

Dangerous Toys, ‘Dangerous Toys’ (1989)

Like much of their Headbangers Ball brethren, this bloozy Texas quintet had sex on the brain — the sleaze-romp "Teas'n Pleas'n" had a spoken-word breakdown where lead singer Jason McMaster hastily apologized to a husband who found him in flagrante with his squeeze, and the similarly contracted "Sport'n a Woody" is, well, kind of self-explanatory. But where McMaster and his bandmates transcend their sex-and-drugs-and-riffs peers was on the Alice Cooper homage "Scared," a freaked-out look at life at the bottom of a bottle that feels like an exploding locomotive. Its unsteadiness mirrors its subject matter so effectively that it stands up as one of the era's finest singles. M.J.

Black 'N Blue - Black 'N Blue

Black ‘N Blue, ‘Black ‘N Blue’ (1984)

Portlanders who naturally found their way south to L.A. before getting their shot at stardom, Black 'N Blue are excellent evidence that, in 1984, "false metal" and "true metal" hadn't really split in two yet. They definitely got the gorgeous locks and pouts down, and they cover "Action" by Seventies glamsters the Sweet, but their debut album is cranked-up, bruising stuff. "I'm the King" and the perfectly titled "Autoblast" are basically thrash metal with a better beat, and closer "Chains Around Heaven" was covered a few years back by super-cool Toronto thrash throwbacks Cauldron. On the sillier side, "School of Hard Knocks" (which rhymes with "rock your socks off") presages the guitar riff of the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!), while "Hold On to 18" (which rhymes with the ambivalent "I know what I might be") modifies its title from John Cougar's "Jack & Diane." C.E.

L.A. Guns - Cocked and Loaded

L.A. Guns, ‘Cocked and Loaded’ (1989)

Having established themselves as one of hard rock's snarlier outfits on their self-titled debut, L.A. Guns expanded their palette on album Number Two. The chugging roar of "Rip & Tear," the drag-race pep talk "17 Crash" and the swaggering "Give A Little" all possessed the bullet-belt bravado that made 1988's L.A. Guns a thrill ride. But Cocked & Loaded didn't stop there: The slinky fallen-angel fairy tale "Sleazy Come Easy Go" nodded at the hard-living knowledge that the band acquired during its first trip around the major-label block, while the whirling "Magdalaine" and the abyss-plumbing "Malaria" allowed the band to stretch out and indulge their proggier side. Cocked & Loaded gave L.A. Guns its highest-charting single, the sweetly mournful Mansfield eulogy "The Ballad of Jayne," but "Never Enough," a slice of blue-balls blues that burned up the Dial MTV phone lines, felt like the hit, its frustrated power-pop punch given extra heat by Phil Lewis's flinty yowl. M.J.