It's common knowledge that several forms of metal weathered a serious beating at the hands of alt-you-name-it in the early-to-mid-90s, with hair-metal forced into a well-deserved dirt-nap. Hair metal was the only true fatality, despite a wrongheaded revisionist mythology purporting that first and second wave thrash, speed, and power metal bands suffered the same fate. The adaptive gestures executed by many of these bands constitutes an overlooked, yet fascinating collective phenomenon that I like to call "Metal’s Lost Survivalist Endeavors of the 1990s."
Lest any readers take the presumptuous route with the opinion that I’m just going on about a bunch of lesser-known examples of Metallica’s notorious transformation between the release of the Black Album and the Load/ReLoad debacle, I will briefly explain the soon-to-be obvious difference—aside from Nirvana’s Nevermind, no album of the early-90s can match the combined sales and musical impact of Metallica’s Black Album. And it’s not a straight-up piece of shit, either. Metallica could have made five more identical albums over the next ten years and been just fine. Their drastic, from-the-floor-up change was not a survivalist move by any means. It was more akin to a soft drink behemoth using contracted image consultants to introduce a new “Scented Candle Feces Flavor!” campaign.
Still, every other band on the planet would have self-terminated in the same situation, and Metallica navigated not only that major misstep, but the seven or eight that followed it to present day. As such, their creative pants-pooping was an anomalous and unnecessary choice that deserves the resounding negativity it attracted. The numerous discography detours profiled in this column are products of creative restlessness, panic, environmental necessity, and other more humanistic motives, and while I will write some “critical” content in regards to the albums in question, each and every band covered squared up with, then updated, their original respective strengths, and have chartered a dignifying third act over the last ten or 15 years.
It only makes sense to start things off with a look at one of the more blatant and absurd instances of Survivalist Endeavors within the realm of real metal (“real metal” is what I term anything betwixt NWOBHM and whatever metal happens to be the noisiest and heaviest development at the moment): The dire duo of Helloween’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape (1991) and Chameleon (1993).
Helloween peaked almost immediately with their first three albums, 1985’s Walls of Jericho and both of the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums ('87 and '88, respectively). These albums showcase the band’s perfection of a particularly precise, catchy, and unbelievably European (if not absurdly German) form of speed metal, one which they accurately have a proprietary stake in. Helloween were the most successful band on Noise Records (Germany’s Metal Blade, if you will) and the latter of the three aforementioned albums sold over a million copies worldwide. After inching up to mega-stardom behind MTV’s heavy rotation of the video for their golden bubblegum-thrash masterpiece, “I Want Out” (one of the hands-down greatest metal songs of all time) the band lost its secret weapon, the guitarist and vocalist Kai Hansen.
Kai formed Gamma Ray, who debuted in 1990 with a better version of the thrashy power-metal Helloween had moved into with their most recent work. This, of course, showed the world that a directional shift of some sort was on the horizon with Helloween. But the label friction that punctuated, if not defined, the four years between Helloween’s most successful album and their most hated cannot be understated. In 1990, Noise Records got into bed with a major label (EMI) on the strength of four bands cherry-picked from the roster: Helloween, Celtic Frost, Running Wild, and V2. But Helloween and their management decided to approach EMI behind their label’s back with an attempted alleviation of the middleman, who sued the living shit out of the band and associated parties with 16 different lawsuits. Not only was this one of the oldest fuck-ups in the biz, it turned out to be one that cost Helloween over a million dollars in out-of-court settlements. Helloween showed their gratitude to EMI by delivering two of the worst and most confusing albums to ever be associated with the last quarter-century of metal.
I’m unsure of what to call Pink Bubbles, although “career assassinator” comes to mind. In accordance with the aggressively godawful cover art, Helloween dialed-up the quirk and tried to hit anticipatory fans exactly where it didn't count: the funny bone (with obligatory social commentary and music-biz dissent, natch). Once again, the result was utter failure, a theme the band would thoroughly unpack for a rapidly shrinking fanbase for the next three years. “I’m Doing Fine, Crazy Man” could be considered self-defensive, that is if one were immersed in a battle of the wits with a broke-dick 1985 Ford Tempo, and the album’s single, “Kids of the Century” (that went to number fifty-fucking-three on the UK charts) rocks the always hilarious angle of future-shock, big-brother-is-watching (but blew its cover with deafening laughter). Think copious scenes of band members and other longhaired extras walking around with rubber sunny-side-up eggs covering their eyes and you’re 99 percent of the way there. Hey, Helloween had something to say! Listen up, sheeple!
The Japanese version of the CD includes a b-side called “Shit and Lobster,” a real head-scratcher that can be partially explained by these mid-song lyrics:
“Some get shit and some get lobster/ Take my ass into the sun/ It takes some time to realize/ We cannot eat a gun”
Unbelievably, “Shit and Lobster” is topped by the better-known “Heavy Metal Hamsters” a stab at criticizing the music industry as it's historically considered in the press. It could also be an anticipatory statement about negative fan reactions to the band’s directionless dilly-dallying. I am not the first writer to put this song under the lights, so to speak, nor will I be the last, and its profoundly-misguided nature coats the entire affair in a fog of poor taste. It’s that pathetic. The polar opposite of Napalm Death’s Enemy of the Music Business album meets Weird Al in the ninth ring of hell. Here’s a lyrical sampling that will only serve to increase the bullying element:
“A 20th century Fox came by/ A gold tipped cigarette high in his jaws/ Contracts, PDs, Nose-Bags, TV-shows/ And everything with no remorse”
“What is wrong with our Heavy Metal Hamster?/ Look what they have done our Heavy Metal Hamsters/ Where is the field to run for our Heavy Metal Hamsters/ Some things are left undone for our Heavy Metal Hamsters”
1993’s Chameleon, by some multidimensional stretch of logic and reason, is exponentially worse than Pink Bubbles Go Ape on every level... and then some. Take the humor element utilized on Pink Bubbles Go Ape; something that the band avoided altogether on Chameleon. It may have been shredded to pieces by the language and cultural barriers, it may have been excruciating against the sonic backdrop of tepid power metal buried under all manner of unfortunate instrumentation that has no business on a metal record, but Chameleon is such a categorically bad album that the miscarriage of mirth is actually missed.
The “They Might Be Germans” agenda remains in the some of the song titles (“I Don't Wanna Cry No More,” “Crazy Cat,” “Music,” “I Don't Care, You Don't Care,” and “Red Socks and the Smell of Trees”), but the budget-Duran-Duran album art and offensively-neutered negative rock, anti-metal metal conjures the dream scenario of a clueless undercover narc dressed in the world’s worst power/speed-metal disguise.
Rock and metal history is punctuated by timelessly-great albums created against the backdrop of adversity, be it the classic band out of or ahead of their time situation or a dedication to wildly unfashionable influences of the too-recent past. It’s a cliché we should all be grateful for and one that is increasingly rare. Conversely, what we have with Pink Bubbles Go Ape and Chameleon, and many of the future albums to be covered in this series, is the other side of the fence: bad music made possible by bad times. Chameleon got Helloween dropped by EMI and caused further lineup turmoil in a band that had by then become synonymous with such. Both of these albums resembled the band of six years earlier like my dad resembled the man who raced in the actual Cannonball Run, test-flew experimental jets for the Navy, fought in both WWII and Korea (yes, everyone thought my dad was my granddad when we went to the mall) on the morning he woke up after a massive stroke, entering the kitchen with the daily paper held upside-down, saturated in urine and announcing that he can no longer read words.
Miraculously, Helloween began to pick up the pieces with 1994’s Master of the Rings, a baby-step backwards into the metal they helped invent, 1996’s Time of the Oath, and 1998’s Better Than Raw (the former following the suicide of drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg, to whom it is dedicated) complete the band’s musical rehabilitation with the strongest material since their mid-80s heyday.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Metal’s Lost Survivalist Endeavors of the 1990s, when we take a look at Kreator’s dance with noise-rock, industrial metal, gothic-weirdness, and the worst compression to ever mire a drum sound.