Thursday, August 28, 2014

The demise of thrash: a hypothesis

In an interesting intersection of nominally-unrelated topics, a recent newspaper Books column included reviews of both Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!  The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce, by Bob Stanley, and The Invisible Bridge:  The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein (one in a series of books he’s written on the rise of American conservatism).  It’s difficult to gauge Perlstein’s overall objectivity, as his journalistic career consists of having written for a string of liberal publications, but he can’t be all bad, as he clearly hates Rahm Emanuel (just read his Twitter feed for evidence) and clearly admires Ronald Reagan, at least in the context of his ability to connect with and communicate with the public, read a crowd, and wring ideological victory from political defeat.   In some ways, he comes across as a sort of quasi-Hunter Thompson:  immersed in his subject matter in a moderately Gonzo sort of way, but with less emphasis on Second Amendment militancy and more on corruption at a local level, as opposed to Thompson’s federal obsession (particularly the Nixon administration).



Although there’s essentially nothing in common, content-wise, to these books, there's an interesting intersection between their subject matter that I find much more interesting than the material typically deemed “pop music”:  the history of heavy metal, particularly the peculiarly 1980s strain known as “thrash.”  It is my intent here to demonstrate the impact of American politics, specifically the Reagan administration, on the evolution of heavy metal music.

If we dissect "pop" from rock, by way of admitting that American popular music, bland and unthreatening it may be, long predates rock 'n roll and runs in a typically parallel, often-overlapping stream, we can focus on the particularly rocky elements that serve as the bedrock craton for all blues-based musical forms:  the reliance on a I-IV-V chord progression and its derivatives; an emphasis on the minor pentatonic scale, with its naturally doomy-and-gloomy sound; and the embellishment of that progression and scale with more traditionally diatonic elements, in the form of “passing notes.”  You'll find these same elements in much pop and jazz, and virtually all early rock 'n roll, as well as in, to some degree, all its descendants, including heavy metal (which often additionally incorporates elements popularly regarded as "gothic," such as exotic scales, minor and diminished tonalities, and baroque melodic flourishes).

Metal is particularly interesting to me, as it satisfies some of the thinking, feeling person’s requirement for serious and complex music (in much the same way that classical does); it offers intellectual and emotional depth, somber, sometimes morbid sensibilities, political commentary, and, almost as often, theater, humor and self-parody.  Sometimes, as was the case throughout the 80s hair-metal (“Pop Metal”) movement, these last three elements appear unintentional, and therefore lamentable, but if we define Heavy Metal as a branch of rock music heavily concerned with supernatural and spiritual themes of good and evil, death, destruction and war, then we can largely dispense with Pop Metal as a commercial anomaly, crafted for maximum sales potential rather than evolved, as with metal proper, to cater to a particular set of aesthetics.  

The Face of Heavy Metal:  Black Sabbath, circa 1970.  From left:  Geezer Butler, Tommy Iommi, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne.

Arguably, it derives from the 1970s Glam Rock tradition, having more in common with T. Rex and David Bowie than with Heavy Metal proper, and this parentage is reflected in the other common label for the subgenre, “Glam Metal.”  Other than a tendency to involve loud vocals, the only thing Pop Metal has in common with Heavy Metal is a dependence on distorted electric guitar sounds (and the aforementioned elements common to all rock forms).  

The Hair of Glam:  Poison, circa whenever.

Glam bands got heavy MTV airplay, exhibiting videos that demonstrated a party-heavy mindset, full of scantily-clad babes and musicians mugging for the cameras.  Heavy metal artists didn’t (and don’t) engage in that kind of pageantry.  There is nothing glamorous about their image.  Denim and leather are the primary colors, and bared teeth and blistered fingers are the accent colors.

Ride The Lightning-era Metallica.  From left:  Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield.

Metal promo pics project attitude.  It’s the only personality trait that’s permitted in visual media.  Everything else is reserved for the stage.

Posing as metalheads:  Steel Panther.  From left:  Who cares.

What is of historical import about Heavy Metal is that its origins, like those of psychedelic pop (or “hippie rock,” what is now largely known as Classic Rock), lie in the geopolitical situation of the late 1960s.  Hippies and Port Huron Statement militants weren't the only groups alarmed by the Vietnam war, the apparent racial disparity in the draft, and the common perception of widespread social and economic injustice.  What all of these situations share at root level is government policy; what is particularly relevant, of course, is the Cold War, which can be argued as the ultimate source of all protest music.

And Heavy Metal, from the very start, was
protest music.

Black Sabbath arguably touched off the movement, although the Beatles, the Who, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin all contributed mightily to its inception, through their various art-rock and pre-punk heritages.  

Mod band The Who, godfathers of Proto-punk.  From left:  Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwhistle.

Pink Floyd, circa 1968, a rare photo of the short-lived five-man lineup (from left:  Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Dave Gilmour, Roger Waters and Rick Wright).

From left:  Roger Glover, Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Jon Lord, Ian Paice.

Led Zeppelin.  From left:  John Bonham, Robert Plant (in back), and John Paul Jones, with Jimmy Page hogging the spotlight as usual.

Oh, and these guys.

Nonetheless, none of those other bands were (at least at the outset) wholly Heavy Metal bands; Sabbath was the first to approach the making of music, and of albums, in a purely metallic manner.  Its members hailed from Birmingham, a particularly economically depressed, and depressing, outpost of the British Industrial Revolution, all sad and wet and besooted with coal smoke.  The members were angry at the world and wanted to share that anger.  Although they wrote of similar subject matter to that of their hippie brethren, they approached it in different ways.  For instance, rather than sing that "war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate" (Marvin Gaye), they called governments and military brass "war pigs," asserted that these pigs love violence for violence' sake (while leaving fighting "all to the poor"), and described a scenario in which Satan, pleased at the destruction they've sown, "laughing, spreads his wings."  (Lyrics from "War Pigs", on their 1970 album Paranoid.)

As Thompson himself put it, the desire for victory on the part of the hippies wasn't intended "in any mean or military sense; our energy would simply prevail."  This form of spiritual protest by way of presumed cultural / moral superiority had no chance of succeeding in the face of what Thompson acknowledged was the "grim meathook reality" of life in a competitive environment.  Nonviolence has been shown to be effective in raising awareness and pushing society toward acceptance in a civil rights context, but to be fairly useless in changing society beyond that.  True, Nixon did capitulate to “public pressure” in deciding to withdraw troops from Vietnam, but the "public" in this instance involved, by then, a great deal more than just the hippie movement, and the "pressure" involved a great deal more than nonviolent protest. 

The practitioners of Heavy Metal as a form of protest were more closely aligned with the Students for a Democratic Society radicals and Weathermen than with the hippies, and so, at the hands of the angry and the ideological, the first great schism in rock music came about.  Although "classic" rock entails all those elements of pre-New Wave music that can be viewed as having a psychedelic element in common, in truth the heavy metal audience and the Progressive Rock audience were two substantially different populations (albeit, as always, with some overlap).  The rise of Punk in the early-to-mid 70s drove another wedge, this time between the nascent punk audience and the entirety of "classic."  Both Prog Rock—the heir to hippie music—and Metal exhibited, in the opinion of the punks, an overblown pretentiousness that robbed rock music of its primitive immediacy and blunted its emotional impact.  Whatever the case, from that time on, it was no longer possible to be a “rock fan” in any generic sense.  Political sensibilities and social conceits bent the listener’s ear at least as much as aesthetics did, and a former cottage industry, having cut its teeth on the “youth market” of the 50s and 60s, metastatized into a burgeoning corporate machine, whose cogs and gears inevitably ground down many of the music’s rougher edges in the pursuit of appeal to a “wider audience.”  Perhaps punk, by way of splitting the demographics as viewed from the lofty perspective of radio executives, bears some blame for having created the rapid diversification of “rock” (or rather, its devolution into “pop”), including the AOR phenomenon which led inexorably toward ABBA and Air Supply.  What a tragically ignominious legacy to be left with, especially considering that over the past two decades, Punk’s foremost practitioners have all been of the pop-punk variety!  Although it is still possible today to find anarchists and communists averring the truth and purity of Punk Rock and its message, the fact remains that one of the first widely-popular punk acts, the Sex Pistols, was entirely a corporate creation, concocted in a calculating way to maximize profits by way of reaching as wide an audience as possible.

The Teeth of Punk:  Johnny "Rotten" Lydon (with Sid Vicious, above), then and now.


But although this scorn for pretentiousness is the superficial rationale, and the one most cited by the musical press, it seems to me that we cannot ignore the end of our involvement in the Vietnam War as a causal factor.  The punk crowd—disaffected, narcissistic youth—had just been denied the nexus of protest that their predecessors had seized upon and become identified with.  They still had a lot to be angry about (or to affect being angry about), but now lacked a focal point.  Nihilism was the inevitable consequence, and drug-induced self-destruction became the new face of youth.

Rock art:  body paintings of six Pink Floyd album covers.  I like art, that's why.

Progressive Rock never quite died away, although it fell from prominence as Punk rose, and as Garage Rock and Disco garnered increasing market share of album output.  Heavy Metal eked out an existence that kept it largely beneath the radar--Punk remained all the rage until well into the 80s--right up until the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which introduced American audiences to a rapidly-diversifying new field, dominated by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and reaffirmed the prominence of Sabbath as all-father of an increasingly-relevant form.

Iron Maiden, circa 1981.  From left:  Clive Burr, Adrian Smith (in back), Bruce Dickinson, Steve Harris (back), Dave Murray.

New Wave came into being as competing elements of punk culture switched prominence, with the nihilistic 70s giving way to the self-absorbed 80s; Punk acts softened their tone for a more mass audience.  This is often credited with burying Disco, but never let it be forgotten that even Disco wasn’t beneath some punk acts (I’m looking at you, Blondie, who charted not only with Punk and New Wave singles, but also with Disco and the first-ever-charted Rap single.)  In my opinion, Punk wasn’t the only nail in disco’s coffin; the NWOBHM played at least as substantial a role in that.  And so, coming into 1981, even as techno-synth sounds began to outcompete guitar for airplay, the elements fell into place for the emergence of Thrash:  a still-angry, still-fast Punk tradition, in search of a new expression, and a vast panoply of Metal sounds just looking for American adoptees.  The Thrash-metal fusion of rapid-fire, staccato Punk rhythms to Metal guitars and vocals is, like Blues, Jazz and Rock itself, a uniquely American invention, but just like the rest, it required the initial importation of sounds developed elsewhere.

The time was right in a geopolitical sense as well.  Although the Reagan presidency remains one of the towering achievements of American exceptionalism, vindicating both classical liberal economic theory and the triumph of market economics over Soviet command economy principles, it was—and is—one of the most maligned administrations in history, painted as unfeeling and rigorously moralizing, even authoritarian, by its opponents.  Of course, there was little if any of the conformist emphasis of the Eisenhower 1950s, whence Rock had originally come; and even if the Drug War, a child of the Nixon era, was expanded under the Reagan administration, drug use, including that of psychedelics, expanded even faster, negating any claim that government policy was dramatically affecting rank-and-file activity in any moralistic sense.  What Reagan really represented, to the larger arc of history, was a return of the Cold War, an economic and ideological conflict that had all but lain dormant during the naively idealistic Carter administration, which was focused on domestic problems, struggling simply to keep the nation afloat during the Stagflation era (brought about by misguided Keynesianism, which, to be fair, is as much Nixon's fault as Carter's).  Carter's achievements, such as they are, took place almost exclusively outside our borders.  The late 1970s were an economic and social hell, and therefore ripe for protest music; but because the administration was a pacifist, liberal one, engaged in furthering peace between warring nations in the Middle East, there was little for protest music of the traditional kind to seize upon.  By 1980, systemic high inflation and rising unemployment had put the final nail in the coffin of Keynesianism (whose mathematics predicts that such a combination is simply impossible).  It wasn’t uncommon for music to sing of “the economy” in the same way that Gaye had previously sung of “the ecology” and Bob Dylan had sung of “the government,” but nobody seemed willing to blame an ostensibly well-intentioned Democratic administration of mismanagement, so such music was more plaintive than protesting.  One might say of protest music that it, like the warhawks it lambastes, is born in war and knows little else.

Megadeth, circa 1990:  the name derives from a unit of measurement defined as "one million deaths due to nuclear explosion."  From left:  Dave Mustaine, Nick Menza, David Ellefson, Marty Friedman.

But with the return of Cold War sabre-rattling, even in the absence of direct armed conflict (and therefore of a draft), the spectre of nuclear devastation was resurrected, and thus was metal given its new raison d'etre.  Witness "Blackened" by Metallica (...And Justice For All, 1988), part of an 80s oeuvre that also includes "Disposable Heroes," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "One" (a Grammy winner in 1990).  

Justice may be blind, but she ain't cheap.

Witness also Rust In Peace, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? and Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good! by Megadeth, the band that Dave Mustaine founded specifically to compete with Metallica for metal dominance (after having been ejected from that band’s initial incarnation for excessively-excessive excess).  But we don't need to confine our discussion, in a foreign-policy context, to Thrash, as Iron Maiden maintains a long tradition of war songs, covering conflicts as varied as the Crimean War, WWI, and WWII. The difference is that whereas Maiden decries the massive destruction and glorifies the men who sacrificed their lives, in a lyrical, literary fashion, the thrash bands take a more satirical approach, vilifying those who bring war about in no uncertain terms, an approach that can be summarized as "War Pigs" at punk velocity.

Vic Rattlehead and a few heads of state chatting in Hangar 18.

At the same time that Thrash was being established on the west coast, government was taking dramatic steps to undo the economic damage of the Carter era.  Deregulatory processes begun on Carter’s watch were reaching their end, ushering in a new, highly-competitive environment in the trucking, rail transport and airline industries; the result was a Golden Age of national and world travel, making long-range vacations available to the masses and encouraging the kinds of cultural and economic interchange that would produce explosions of globalism and information technology (helping pull India, for instance, out of its four decades of socialist stagnation and beginning the process of converting it into a global economic powerhouse).  Paul Volcker, in his role as chairman of the Federal Reserve, imposed contractionary policy in order to tame inflation; this he accomplished, but at the cost of a sharp recession.  But because Reagan had already secured, from Tip O’Neill and the congressional Democrats, an agreement to cut taxes and further curtail government spending, this recession was remarkably short-lived (comparable to the rate of recovery of the 1920 Depression, whose Republican president Harding met with laissez-faire aplomb, turning it around orders of magnitude faster than Hoover’s and FDR’s interventionist policies managed against the 1929 Depression).  Within months, Stagflation had become the Reagan Boom, at the time the longest peacetime boom in the nation’s history. 

Although derision at the euphemism “trickle down economics” remains rampant in political discourse, there simply isn’t much to lambaste in results, and protest music rapidly lost whatever steam it still retained.  The sounds of Disco mutated into a new techno-dance craze, dominated by Madonna and her ilk, with overtly sexual lyrics presumably calculated to challenge the presumed moralistic conformity of the new era.  But the mainstream of Pop seemed to yearn for a return to the “Innocent Age” (popularly regarded as the Buddy Holly era, terminated by his untimely death, and lamented in Don McLean’s “American Pie.”)  Throughout Rock and Pop music as a whole, the good times seemed here to stay, and even as Rap and Glam Metal competed for dominance of the prurient-interest demographic, the Top 40 airwaves assumed a blandly cheerful “bubblegum” aesthetic.  Katrina and the Waves were “Walking on Sunshine.”  Depeche Mode “Just Can’t Get Enough.”  Cyndi Lauper and the rest of the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”  

These girls, perhaps.

But Thrash, for all its intensity and iconoclastic sophistication, was destined to be short-lived.  By the end of the 80s, the "Bach 'N Roll" movement had become predominant (sharing the stage, unfortunately, with Pop Metal, which at least offered some similar measure of guitar virtuosity).  Led by Yngwie Malmsteen, this strain deemphasized vocals and lyrical content; its later foremost practitioners (such as Tony MacAlpine), by the early 1990s, were releasing entirely instrumental albums on the Shrapnel label.  With almost no lyrics, the music had nothing topical to say, and perhaps that was one reason for its success:  the relief of political fatigue.  By means of the same kind of evolutionary progression that concentrates genes for size and aggression in any biological population, classical metal concentrated the purest musical elements of metal and shed everything else, giving a new focus to millions of pimply teens in garages with second- or third-hand guitars.  This would be their means of vying with the jocks for girl-share, and perseverance and practice would be rewarded, while looks, presence and vocal ability could all be dispensed with.  It was simply the logical extreme of what Thrash had already presented to these same teens just a few years earlier:

This.
Slayer, circa 2013.  From left:  Tom Araya, Paul Bostaph, Kerry King, Dave Lombardo.

Not this.


There was a sort of last gasp for Thrash right at the end of the decade, helped along by the conspiratorial fervor inculcated by the 40th anniversary of the purported 1947 UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, and the impetus this afforded Whitley Streiber’s books about alien abduction (which became a national pastime from 1988 onward).  1990, marked by renewed military tensions with Iraq, was the high water mark of this movement.  Megadeth, for instance, got some renewed mileage out of the first Gulf War.  I saw them in March 1991 at Pink's Garage in Honolulu, shortly after our victory over Iraq, at which Mustaine roused the mostly-military audience with an early use of the "Crush 'em" catch phrase, as in "Did we crush 'em or what?", just before launching into a spirited rendition of "Holy Wars."  (I suppose sometimes an anti-war sentiment can take a back seat to aggression, when marketing your sound to an Army crowd.)  But Megadeth has since fallen from prominence (a situation perhaps hastened by Mustaine's being Born Again); Anthrax is seemingly nowhere to be found; and while Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies have continued touring (with all the requisite temporary breakups and lineup changes that the Thrash gods require), they've released relatively little of note in the past two decades.  (For what it's worth, Slayer released a new song in 2014, after a five-year hiatus, and are set to release a new album this year.  But the 2013 loss of founding member Jeff Hannenman to liver failure seems to have left them uncertain about their future.) 

Suicidal Tendencies, the most psychologically-oriented of the Thrash bands.  Lead Singer Mike Muir enunciated the fears and personal issues of teenage America perfectly (rumor has it he was once an American teen himself).  From left:  Crap.  This band has had 31 members since its inception in 1981.  I'm not even gonna try.

As for Metallica, their sound has notoriously evolved since the 1980s, taking on a more downtempo, melodious form, with much more personal lyrics focused on mental health, substance abuse, interpersonal relationships and feelings of guilt and inadequacy, such as “Low Man’s Lyric,” from 1997’s Re-Load, in which singer / guitarist James Hetfield demeans himself thusly:

The trash fire is warm
But nowhere’s safe from the storm
And I can't bear to see
What I've let me be
So wicked and worn
So as I write to you
Of what is done and to do
Maybe you'll understand
And won't cry for this man
'Cause Low Man is due
Please forgive me
Please forgive me
Please forgive me
So low the sky is all I see
All I want from you is forgive me
So you bring this poor dog in from the rain
Though he just wants right back out again
And I cry to the alley way
Confess all to the rain
But I lie, lie straight to the mirror
The one I've broken, to match my face 

The latter history of this trend undoubtedly reflects the influence of one of the 90s’ main mega-successes, Nirvana (credited with massively popularizing, if not exactly inventing, the West Coast or “Seattle” genre typified by such Grunge acts as Mudhoney, Soungarden and Alice in Chains), but some elements of the shift were in play well before the turn of the decade.  Justice was a step in that direction, noted by critics for having shed much of the band's Thrash trappings in favor of a more "progressive metal" sound.  It's worth pointing out that the album's release coincides with the end of the Reagan administration, and comes well after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  If Justice was a step, then their eponymously-titled 1991 release (“the Black Album” to fans) was a giant leap.  It was much more introspective than their previous work (including the ballad “Nothing Else Matters” and the pensive, personal “Unforgiven”), and was the first studio album to largely discard the buzzsaw-guitar riffing identified with the Thrash sound.  The band’s overall appreciation of wartime conflict appears to have reversed, perhaps in response to the 1990 Gulf War; contrast the chorus of “Disposable Heroes,” from 1986’s Master of Puppets

Soldier boy, made of clay
Now an empty shell
Twenty-one, only son
But he served us well
Bred to kill, not to care
Do just as we say
Finished here, greeting Death
He’s yours to take away

…with that of “Don’t Tread On Me,” and its threat-of-the-rattlesnake motif:

So be it
Threaten no more
To secure peace
Is to prepare for war
So be it
Settle the score
Touch me again for the words you will hear evermore

Contrast, too, two songs about addiction, starting with the title track to Master of Puppets (about cocaine, menacing those poor fools who dared try it):

Taste me, you will see
More is all you need
Dedicated to
How I’m killing you

…versus “The House that Jack Built,” from Load, a self-deprecating, first-person confessional (based on Hetfield’s own struggle with alcohol addiction):

Open door, so I walk inside
Close my eyes, find my place to hide
And I shake as I take it in
Let the show begin

(…introduction and repeated refrain…)

The higher you are
The farther you fall
The longer the walk
The farther you crawl
My body, my temple
This temple, it tilts
Yes, this is the house that Jack built

(…chorus.)

By the time the band released Load, five years after the Black Album, they had almost completely abandoned buzzsaw riffing and fast punk rhythms.  While the band still has many die-hard old fans, and may have won some new ones with the "Mellowica" approach, they are most certainly no longer a Thrash band per se; it’s something they keep in their repertoire, but only by way of maintaining setlist standards from the mid-90s and earlier.  Even the harder-edged St. Anger (“stanger,” get it?), released in 2003, has more in common with David Bowie’s Tin Machine-era metal than with Thrash:  the guitars are de-emphasized, solos nonexistent, with the drums brought into the foreground, and a raw, garagey production sensibility prevailing over all.

Megadeth, the other Thrash contemporary still consistently making solid records, has also shifted its tone considerably, which probably explains their relative longevity too:  some ability to maintain mass appeal in the face of shifting tastes, while keeping the old standards on hand to keep the original audience in the fold.  Let’s compare two songs about the acceptance of death.  First, “My Last Words,” from 1986, about a game of Russian Roulette:

A couple grains of powder,
A couple grams of lead.
A touch against the trigger,
A touch inside the head.
Take another drink, and
Raise the last bets.
Think about my last words,
They might be what I just said.
A click comes from the hammer,
That couldn't drive a nail.
Sense the numbing cold blue,
Or the red of Hades' grill.
A fraction of a second,
Do you lose, or maybe still,
Pass it to the left,
And collect your mighty kill.

Violent and chilling, in contrast to the passive comfort of “A Tout Le Monde,” from Youthanasia (1994), a dying man's message to his loved ones:

So as you read this know my friends
I'd love to stay with you all
Smile when you think of me
My body's gone that's all
A tout le monde (To all the world)
A tout mes amis (To all my friends)
Je vous aime (I love you)
Je dois partir (I have to leave)
These are the last words
I'll ever speak
And they'll set me free

One might even look at the opening stanza of this latter song and see a metaphor for the maturation process that Mustaine and his songwriting has undergone in the interim:

Don't remember where I was
I realized life was a game
The more seriously I took things
The harder the rules became
I had no idea what it'd cost
My life had passed before my eyes
When I found out how little I accomplished
All my plans denied

Clearly, Metallica and Megadeth have maintained longevity by way of toning down their aggression and cynicism.  Meanwhile, an ever-expanding ecosystem of metal varieties has continued to radiate from the primal junction of punk and metal, abundant in forms both extreme (Black-, Death-, Speed-) and middling (Ozzy, Nü-, Prog-), a flavor (or several) for every taste.  These being much more niche in appeal, however, none have ever managed to acquire anywhere near the airwave share of the Thrash movement, which was the closest Heavy Metal has ever come to true mainstream appeal (again, disregarding the vapid party vibes of Glam Metal).

Anthrax, by way of early experimentation with rap vocals, helped usher in Nü-metal.  From left:  oh, hell, that's Scott Ian on the right, and he's pretty much the whole band. 

So what happened?  

It's my opinion that the end of the Cold War robbed late 80s metal artists of subject matter in the same way that the end of the Vietnam War robbed Prog-Rock practitioners in the early 70s.  After Reagan’s first term, the policy focus of his administration underwent a profound change, from kick-starting a moribund national economy to containing and eliminating the threat of global communism.  Sadly, this entailed a reversal of the trend in cutting government spending, but with the Boom well underway, it made sense to try to put some of the capitalist economy’s vast resources to work in bringing down the Soviet Union.  To that end, the administration engaged, with Congress, in a bit of subterfuge:  the Strategic Defense Initiative, a vastly expensive set of mostly-vaporware programs intended to
draw the USSR into a spending war that its command economy could ill-afford.  The ensuing arms race nearly bankrupted the communists, badly exacerbating the problem of meeting consumer demand in an economy devoid of pricing signals (problems which had created growing backlash against the regime for several years, legitimizing dissent in a nation which for decades had routinely imprisoned dissidents).  The results are incontrivertible.  The SDI kicked off in 1983.  During the interval from 1980 to 1989, US defense spending increased more than 88%, from $134 billion to $253 billion (some $30 billion of which went directly into SDI’s initial incarnation).  At the expense of a substantial federal deficit, this increased defense expenditures to some 7% of GDP.  Over the same interval, Soviet defense spending increased from 22% to 27% of GDP, with the production of civilian goods frozen at 1980 levels.  With well over a quarter of its economy’s resources devoted to militarily Keeping Up With the Americans, and widespread shortages worsening month by month as the population grew, the Soviet system simply collapsed under its own weight.  (Even Carl Sagan noted, as early as 1986, that the program’s real purpose was a form of economic warfare, a fact that wasn’t lost on many Soviet military commanders.)  And while the Initiative’s early promise turned out to be more fantasy than science fiction (which at least has potential to become self-fulfilling prophecy), it was retooled over the course of the Clinton and Bush II administrations, and some of its research programs have yielded real fruit, such as the Navy’s new high-powered laser weapon and several components of missile defense technology, including tracking systems that are in use today; there have also been peace dividends, such as methods for ground-based observatories to improve the resolution of telescopic observations by removing atmospheric distortions.

This economic pressure translated directly to political pressure.  Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for several years, attempted to reform central planning (perestroika) and normalize world relations (glasnost), but was met with resistance from the KGB and military hard-liners.  Part of the problem was his incomplete attempt to improve the economy by relaxing government control over industry without imposing real market reforms (the result of which was an even steeper decline in industrial output).  In late 1991, as the nation was preparing to vote in a referendum on maintaining a truly Soviet union, the hard-liners revolted, in an attempted coup that perfectly encapsulated the times:  the coup failed, quite publicly (the Revolution Was Televised), Russian president Boris Yeltsin emerged as the dominant personality in the proceedings, and by the end of the affair, there was little left for Gorbachev to do but resign his post and allow the individual Republics to forge their own destinies.  One immediate consequence was the institution of market reforms in many former Soviet bloc nations, providing the world with a sort of controlled experiment in which, for instance, Russia failed to completely relax price controls (resulting in turmoil that was only resolved, at great social expense, by the rise of the Oligarchs and their continuing influence over economic matters), whereas Poland’s leadership trusted the principle of market economics, eliminating all controls, with the result that markets immediately sprang up, prices fell to reasonable levels, and the currency stabilized.

And a new world emerged as the new decade began.  As the fraternal twin strains of self-indulgence (Hair Metal) and global paranoia (Thrash) found themselves on the precipice of the 1990s, the sociopolitical scene was changing too rapidly to sustain their base (a phenomenon glorified in the decidedly non-metallic Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now” in 1990).  Metallica, of course, found new life by adapting their sound.  Megadeth has gone on to release many more albums than they did throughout the 80s, and has taken a wide range of political stances on issues such as canned hunting (winning a Humane Society award in 1993 for raising awareness on animal abuse issues), but has also softened its sound somewhat, and has yet to regain the relevance it held throughout that decade.  The Hair Metal bands have been relegated to the role of novelty acts, useful in forging reunion tours but devoid of new content (save, perhaps, Steel Panther, which came to prominence in the Oughties as a sort of parody act).  As Thrash faded out, Grunge took its place (although it, too, seems to have managed to hold the post for only about a decade, leaving a great deal of long-term influence but almost no full-blooded participants still filling the arenas).  At the same time, the frivolty of the party-band mentality lost its luster, and the high gloss of eternally-adolescent pop culture gave way to a more jaded, intellectual sensibility (a la “college radio”), in which the new pretentiousness was directed toward sophistication and global awareness (an affectation that perhaps can be regarded as influenced by every other strain of Metal, demonstrating youth’s self-conscious rejection of Pop Metal in favor of the remainder of the genre’s corpus).

Metal, of course, isn't dead.  Far from it.  It has lost some of its earlier commercial luster, but it has also continued to adapt. Prog-Metal, the still-vibrant strain initially staked out in the early 1970s by Rush, has largely filled the void left by Thrash (and Grunge).  And in this new era of stateless warfare, of terrorism and Islamofascism, there is still plenty to be gloomy and angry about.  But the new brand of hard rock, typified by bands like Tool, Disturbed, GZR (the current band of Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler), and to a lesser extent the Nü-Metal bands that were quite popular about a decade ago, focus less on global issues and politics than on local corruption and decadence (see Tool’s “Aenema,” their answer to the Eagles’ “Hotel California”), less on death than on depression and sex and desire. The second Gulf War, and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, being relatively low-intensity affairs, failed to offer the same galvanizing influence that Vietnam and the threat of thermonuclear war did.  The kids are still angry, but now they're angry at greed and vice, at their pimples and at the cheerleaders who won't go out with them.  The Cold War impacted most of the industrialized world to some degree, but as it was essentially a drawn-out showdown between the Soviet Union and the United States, American citizens were more directly threatened by the prospects of a hot war than were the subjects of Britain and the citizens of other European nations.  So Thrash, that uniquely-American style, was more directly impacted by its waning than the NWOBHM (Britain), Black Metal (Norwegian) and other European forms.

Tool.  Owing to the band's secretive nature, nobody knows who any of these faces actually belong to.  

There's still guitar virtuosity, but now there's a growing interest in vocal virtuosity as well, not just in volume and growl but in all manner of subtle expression (perhaps largely inspired by the quasi-metal progressive stylings of bassist / vocalist Les Claypool of Primus).  Still, the focus is on songwriting more than anything else:  the wit and bite and turn of a phrase that reveals the inner torment of genius.  This is what makes Tool such a viable candidate for leader of a new movement.  If more new bands buy into singer (and all-around Renaissance Man) Maynard James Keenan's approach to swaggering—through pointed lyrics rather than a low-slung Kramer guitar—then metal will continue to flourish, perhaps enjoying yet another renaissance, its third (the NWOBHM and Thrash movements being the first two).  As Stanley puts it, "Along with country, it's quite likely it will outlast every other genre in this book."  The “alternative revolution” was the first great music movement to step into the shoes of Thrash, and it lasted approximately a decade, whereas Metal in general, represented by all its other subgenres, just keeps on truckin’.

To a
religious conservative, Heavy Metal was an unwelcome bellwether of the impending fall of Western civilization, and defined one of the major fronts in the Culture Wars.  To a Burkeian conservative, it could instead serve as a useful barometer for the attitudes and ideological impressions of youth culture.  The degree to which Metal was vilified and castigated by politicians both liberal and conservative is strong indication that political leadership neither fully understood it nor fully credited the youth of the 80s and 90s with much discernment.  But whether anyone in the Reagan camp can legitimately take credit for engineering the demise of Thrash Metal, and the cultural decline it was thought to evince, it's certain that they bear some of the blame, merely for outcompeting the Soviet Union.  Yet the triumph of the (somewhat) free market over the command economy, if bittersweet in heralding the end of a beloved musical movement, is still representative of the character of markets in general, as tastes change, market forces sample those tastes, and new products emerge to fill the ever-shifting landscape of niches.

Rock lives on.  Metal still shines.  In Markets We Trust.  



But hair eventually does fall out.


Disclaimer:  absolutely none of the lyrics or images in this article were used with permission.  It is sincerely hoped that Fair Use applies, but if it doesn’t, under no circumstances are you to notify Lars Ulrich.

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