Thursday, March 30, 2017

Making "Reign in Blood" — Slayer's Timeless Classic

Suffice it to say 1986 was a game-changing year for thrash music and heavy metal, with Slayer's masterpiece "Reign in Blood" becoming the standard-bearer as one of the greatest thrash albums of all time.

Released by Def Jam records on Oct. 7, 1986, Slayer's third studio album came out seven months after Metallica's "Master of Puppets", and, while "Master of Puppets" was fast and heavy, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, Tom Araya and Dave Lombardo made sure "Reign in Blood" took heavy and fast to a whole new level.

At just 28:58 in length, it was one of the shortest records ever made (it could fit onto one side of a cassette tape), but that was all by design.

"If we do a verse two or three times, we're already bored with it," said Hanneman, who died in 2013 after dying from alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver. "So we weren't trying to make the songs shorter—that's just what we were into."

While the songs were shorter than on Slayer's hugely-underrated sophomore Hell Awaits, the furiously fast riffs, controversial and violent song matter, as well as Lombardo's frantic drumming were still there.

The key difference was producer Rick Rubin.

Rubin, who owned Def Jam Records, was well-known at the time as a top-notch rap producer for acts like LL Cool J and Run DMC. He met with the band in Europe and convinced them to join his label and let him produce the record (even though he'd never worked with a metal band before), while giving the Slayer full license to write whatever they wanted.

Through his official account on Genius, a music annotation site, Rubin gives some insight into recording Reign in Blood.

"In terms of writing, I’d say the Reign In Blood album was pretty close to complete when they came in," said Rubin. "I think we just stepped up the recording from what they had done independently before that. It was really more the engineering."

Renowned engineer Andy Wallace, who later produced Nirvana's Nevermind, had a huge hand in creating that crisp, clear, in-your-face thrash sound, which had way less reverb than on Slayer's previous two albums.

"Andy Wallace did it, which is what later got him in with Nirvana, absolutely. A hundred percent. It was insane. It was punk energy but with a precision that punk rarely ever had. It was much tighter than punk," said Rubin about Reign in Blood.

Most of the songs on Reign in Blood were brutal, morbid and disturbing for many people back in 1986, but none more so than "Angel of Death", a Hanneman track about Nazi SS officer Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed sickening experiments on Jews at Auschwitz, the Nazis most infamous concentration camp.

With it's no-holds barred look at Mengele's work, Columbia records (Def Jam's distributor) refused to distribute the record. Many of the record label owners were Jewish, so this shouldn't have come as a surprise. However, Geffen Records did distribute it, but because of the controversy, Reign in Blood was not on the their release schedule.

It should be noted what a key contributor the late Hanneman was for Slayer back then.

He wrote the music for every track on Reign except for "Piece by Piece", a King composition. Hanneman also contributed lyrics the intense lyrics for "Angel of Death" as well as "Necrophobic". He also had a hand in the words to "Criminally Insane" and "Raining Blood". There was a massive hole in Slayer when he died in 2013 of liver failure.

Check out how influential bassist Cliff Burton was on Metallica's Ride the Lightning.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Plenty of Smoke Around Van Halen Reunion with Hagar and Roth

Is it just coincidence that Sammy Hagar plans on divulging his ultimate Van Halen setlist with both he and David Lee Roth touring with the band?

Or Hagar is just getting the blood flowing a little bit and some publicity for himself ahead of airing his Best of Both Worlds setlist this weekend (Sat. March 25 and Sun. March 26) on his radio show (Top Rock Countdown)?

The timing might just be a coincidence considering yesterday was the anniversary of the release date of 5150 (March 23, 1986), and the anniversary of his first live show with Van Halen on March 27, 1986 in Shreveport, La.

But given how much has been said lately about a tour with both Van Halen frontmen, there might just be some fire along with the smoke.

To wit, ousted bassist Michael Anthony said in February he's open to reuniting with Eddie and Alex Van Halen, even though they treated him like garbage. He spoke with Alex in 2016 after the two hadn't communicated for more than a decade.

Now we have Hagar openly musing about a reunion with he and Roth trading off their Van Halen songs, with Anthony back on bass.

The Red Rocker has clearly stated several times that any version of a Van Halen reunion must involve Anthony, who was canned in 2007, to be replaced by Eddie's son, Wolfgang.

And, for Hagar, anyways, it wouldn't be about the money.

"For me, no money, man. I don’t need money. I would do that for the fans and give the money to food banks or something," said Hagar earlier this month. "I’m not sure anybody else would agree with me, but that would interest me enough to sit down across the table from everybody and work that one out."

Roth and Hagar did tour together, in 2002 without the Van Halen brothers, and when it was over, Hagar vowed he'd never do shows with Roth again.

If - and that's a big if - any Van Halen tour with both singers happens, it'll be next year. 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Van Halen I, which came out on Feb. 10, 1978.

Possible Setlist for a Van Halen Show with both Roth and Hagar

* In no particular order

  • Best of Both Worlds
  • Panama
  • Jump
  • 5150
  • Cabo Wabo
  • Right Now
  • Ain't Talkin Bout Love
  • Poundcake
  • Jamie's Crying
  • Summer Nights
  • Unchained
  • Why Can't This Be Love
  • Where Have All The Good Times Gone
  • Cradle Will Rock
  • Source of Infection
  • You Really Got Me
  • Dreams

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Five of Mick Taylor's Best Solos with the Rolling Stones

Most Rolling Stones fans know the impact guitarist Mick Taylor had on the band during his tenure from 1969-1974. He brought another layer to the group with his virtuoso guitar playing and influenced the band's songwriting, particularly when Keith Richards wasn't around as the band crafted songs. He also added some very memorable guitar solos that took tracks like "Winter" and "Sway" to new heights. So here are the five best guitar solos Taylor contributed on Stones studio recordings (his live solos would be an entirely different list).

Time Waits For No One

From the last album Taylor recorded with the Stones, It's Only Rock 'n Roll, "Time Waits For No One" features a latin feel and, with the solo, you almost get the sense Taylor knew he was finished as a Stone because there's an aching in the notes he's playing throughout. You can really feel it near the end of the song, at around the 5:20 mark. That solo is one of Taylor's finest moments in the studio and he quit the band (telling Mick Jagger at a party in December, 1974) two months after It's Only Rock 'n Roll was released.

Winter

One of the most underrated songs in the Rolling Stones catalogue, "Winter" is off 1973's Goat's Head Soup album and it's a track Taylor had a hand in writing, but never got credit. While Taylor incorporates some amazing licks during the verses, the solo is a pure work of genius. It's not a barrage of speed, but the feel Taylor brings with the notes that echoes the melancholy of the song, which is one of his trademarks throughout his tenure with the Stones.

Sway

With "Sway", a song from 1971's amazing Sticky Fingers record, Taylor delivers a masterpiece short solo using a bottleneck slide at 1:35 mark, then he cranks things up again for the outro solo which carries "Sway" as it fades out. Here Taylor brings a heavy blues feel with plenty of pull-offs and bends. It's worth it to really crank up the sound for the last 10 seconds, just to hear those last few amazing notes.

All Down the Line

On "All Down the Line", a classic track off Exile on Main St., Taylor lets loose with a blistering slide solo, which is fitting given the song is a double entendre about cocaine. Again, Taylor picks up on the groove of the song and carries it along, while Jagger and the rest of the band have a good 'ol hootin', hollerin' time playing along as it fades out.

Shine A Light

Another Exile on Main St. track, "Shine A Light" is a Mick Jagger song he'd written in 1968 under the name "Get a Line on You" in reference to Brian Jones' ever-worsening condition and his detachment from the band. After Jones died, it was redone for Exile. As usual, Mick Taylor crafts a tasty solo using lots of reverb that serves nicely with the gospel vibe of the song. The highlight is the ending, when Taylor comes out of the solo and tones it down with a few quiet passages.

Check out producer Jimmy Miller's impact on the Stones' best albums.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Piece of Mind: Iron Maiden's Metal Masterpiece

With the success of 1982's Number of the Beast, one would think Iron Maiden would be hard pressed to follow it with an equal or better record, but they did just that with Piece of Mind.

Despite bringing in a new drummer in yet another personnel change, 1983's Piece of Mind turned out to be an amazing album and it defined Maiden's modern, mid-late 1980s sound.

The album was quickly recorded at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas from January to March, 1983, and is the first to feature drummer Nicko McBrain after former skin-basher Clive Burr was ousted from Maiden in December, 1982.

Coming off the phenomenal Beast album and tour, the band was getting comfortable with each other as singer Bruce Dickinson had time to get fully adjusted to the workings of Iron Maiden. Dickinson had more influence on the songwriting, composing "Revelations", while co-writing on "Flight of Icarus", "Die with your Boots On", and "Sun and Steel".

"I think on this album, because Bruce has been in a band awhile and was also very involved with the writing, he's more relaxed," said bassist Steve Harris in a 1983 interview with Kevin Thompson for Artist Magazine. "So the vocal performance is tremendous. He's so quick in the studio because his ear for pitch is so good - he just gets up there and bang, it retains a great live feel."

Most of the songs were written at Hotel le Chalet in New Jersey during the hotel’s off-season, then recorded down in Nassau.

Certainly, Piece of Mind sets the mark for the "new Maiden" in terms of personnel and how the band sounds on record. It's the first record of the great bunch that includes Powerslave, Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son of Seventh Son to have that clean, crisp, modern metal sound.

"I think it's now becoming what Iron Maiden is all about, and we expect it's going to develop from there," said Harris at the time.

Sound of the Mind

The distinct sound of Piece of Mind is in no small part thanks to producer Martin "Black Night" Birch, who began working with the band on the Killers record. While Number of the Beast had a very doomy, dark feel to it (like it was recorded in a catacomb), Piece of Mind was very crisp and open.

"Martin has always added his expertise in the studio and his great ability at recording our sounds," noted Harris. "We've only just come to this point in our drum and guitar sounds, which are exceptional now - it's just a team growing up together."

The album came together very quickly, with Harris noting "Where Eagles Dare" was recorded in two takes.

"Revelations" was a Dickinson song, that Harris feels comes off much better live than on the album. Same with "Flight of Icarus", which was the first single off the album (it hit No.12 on the Billboard Rock Chart). Harris prefers it better live because it's faster, and if he had his druthers, the band would have put more pace into it on the record, but Dickinson argued for a slower, more plodding beat.

Backwards Message on Piece of Mind

The backwards recording before "Still Life" was Maiden getting back at all the religious freaks who came down on the because of Number of the Beast. The recording is actually a drunken McBrain doing an impersonation of Idi Amin (leader of Uganda in the 1970s), so the accent is very thick. Played forwards its says: "What ho, said da t'ing wid da t'ree bonce. Don't meddle wit t'ings you don't understand."

McBrain said the band had enough of being labelled as Satanic: "We were sick and tired of being labelled as Devil worshippers and all this bollocks by these fucking morons in the States, so we thought, 'Right, you want to take the piss? We'll show you how to take the bleeding piss, my son!' And one of the boys taped me in the middle of this Idi Amin routine I used to do when I'd had a few drinks. I remember it distinctly ended with the words, 'Don't meddle wid t'ings yo don't understand.' We thought, if people were going to be stupid about this sort of thing, we might as well give them something to be really stupid about, you know?"

Another cool song on the album and very underrated, is "To Tame A Land", which was based on the "Dune" novels by Frank Herbert. Interestingly, back in 1983, Harris said it's the best song he's ever written up to that point.

With Piece of Mind, Iron Maiden really came into their own and began a string of phenomenal records that carried on until 1990, when Adrian Smith left the band while in pre-production for "No Prayer for the Dying".

Check out the five best Maiden songs with Paul Di'Anno

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cliff Burton's Influence on Metallica's "Ride the Lightning"

There's no question Metallica's sophomore album, Ride the Lightning saw the band finding their thrash metal stride with better songs and production than on their stunning debut Kill 'Em All.

And a big reason the songs got better and were more mature, for lack of a better word, on Ride was because of bassist Cliff Burton's influence. The legend had a bigger hand in helping write more songs (he only got writing credits for "Anesthesia - Pulling Teeth" from Kill 'Em All. Tracks like "Fight Fire with Fire", "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "Ride the Lightning", "Fade to Black", "Creeping Death" and, of course, "Call of Ktulu" were co-written by Burton, who died tragically in a bus accident in Sweden on Sept. 27, 1986.

Guitarist Kirk Hammett recalls in an interview with Guitar World how Burton was the guy who had the musical theory and brought his love of harmonies to the songs.

"Cliff studied music in college,” Hammett said. “I had a grasp of music theory, thanks to Joe (Satriani, who was teaching Hammett ahead of recording Ride), but Cliff went the whole length and learned musical theory and everything. And he was way into harmonies. James really absorbed the dual-harmony thing and took it to heart. He made it his thing, but it was originally Cliff’s. Cliff also inspired James greatly on counterpoint and rhythmic concepts."

Interestingly, Hammett recalls a memory of Burton singing along with the Eagles whenever they came on the radio.

"And he would also sing harmonies. I remember the Eagles would come on the radio and he would sing all the harmony parts, never the root," Hammett said.

As for Burton's work on Ride the Lightning, it was often a case of the bassist throwing in some key parts here and there, while helping the band create harmonies and different feels.

"He wrote that “Creeping Death” harmony part and the harmony in the intro to “Ride the Lightning.” He even helped me with a lot of the harmony stuff I played in the solo to “Ride the Lightning," recalled Hammett. "I remember, I thought he’d just grab a bass and show me. But no, he had me write out all the notes in my solo on a piece of paper. Then he grabbed a pencil and went through and notated it, "If you’re playing E, then G, then A, then C…" I’m looking at him like, What? But I took the paper and worked it all out. And you know what? It was perfect."

Hammett: "Cliff was a Total Anomaly"

Hammett recalls his former bandmate being an eccentric type when it came to music.

"Cliff was a total anomaly. To this day, I’m still trying to figure out everything I experienced with him. He was a bass player and played like a bassist," said Hammett. "But, fucking hell, a lot of guitar sounds came out of it. He wrote a lot of guitar-centric runs. He always carried around a small acoustic guitar that was down tuned. I remember one time I picked it up and was like, "What is this thing even tuned to, like C?" He explained that he liked it like that because he could really bend the strings. He would always come up with harmonies on that acoustic guitar. I would be sitting there playing my guitar and he’d pick up his bass and immediately start playing a harmony part."

That memorable, soft acoustic intro to "Fight Fire with Fire" was a piece of Burton brilliance that opened the album, lulling listeners before the heavy guitar kicks in.

"That acoustic piece was Cliff’s! Cliff wrote that on the down-tuned acoustic guitar I was talking about. He had a really good grasp of playing the guitar, and a good grasp of classical modulations. That intro was his piece," said Hammett. "We heard it and stuck it onto “Fight,” and it worked fantastic. We knew that was going to be the opening track. There was no question about it."

Not only was Burton a phenomenal bass player, but he was such an integral part of Metallica's songwriting on the Ride the Lightning, then on 1986's Master of Puppets, the last album he'd do before his untimely death at just 24 years old.

Check out five of the five best Metallica songs co-written by Cliff Burton

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Rocks" - Inside Aerosmith's Greatest Album

Aerosmith have pumped out a bunch of amazing records over their long and stellar recording career.

But when you throw on Rocks, there's just something about it that makes it stand out from the rest. Certainly part of what makes Rocks such a great album is Aerosmith wore everything on their sleeve and crafted it into some amazing music.

Coming off their highly successful breakthrough Toys in the Attic album, the Boston rockers were flying high in 1976 - figuratively and literally - and had found their groove with American audiences.

They had been touring their asses off and were reaping all the benefits of the rock' n roll lifestyle. So when it came time to record Rocks, the band was a well-oiled machine because the heroin and cocaine hadn't taken them down, as was the case when they began work on Draw the Line in 1977. It took just two months to record Rocks.

"There's no doubt we were doing a lot of drugs by then, but whatever we were doing, it was still working for us," recalled Joe Perry.

They set up in the Wherehouse in Waltham, Mass. with the Record Plant's mobile recording truck. Again, they enlisted Jack Douglas to help with production (he did Toys as well). Douglas notes that this was a time when bassist Tom Hamilton and guitarist Brad Whitford took more of an active role in writing songs.

Rocks was the album where Tom [Hamilton] and Brad had a lot more input," said Douglas, the unofficial sixth member of Aerosmith. "This was a big album for Aerosmith. It had to make a big statement about how loud and hard they were, how unapologetic they felt about being who they were - this brash, rude, sexual, hard-core rock band."

Rocks Rolls with Stellar Songs

Whitford helped write "Last Child", while Hamilton was key in creating "Sick as a Dog", a song rumoured to be about meeting Mick Jagger, although it makes more sense that's it's about meeting Keith Richards, given his heroin addiction at the time.

Rocks also features the amazing Joe Perry-penned "Combination", which sees him writing a phenomenal riff and sharing lead vocals with Steven Tyler. Perry said he wrote the song about "cocaine, heroin and me" to make the combination. Tyler loved the song and the lyrics, saying in his memoir "Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?" that the line "Walkin' on Gucci wearing Yves St. Laurent/Barely stay on 'cause I'm so goddamn gaunt" was the best lyric Perry ever wrote: "It was the truth, it was clever, and it described us to a tee".

There's also "Back in the Saddle", which comes from a riff Perry wrote while stoned on heroin. Tyler's sexual innuendo lyrics are perfect with the western feel of the song - all the while "riding high".

Another great song is the highly underrated apocalyptic "Nobody's Fault" which Tyler lists as being among his greatest efforts as a member of Aerosmith.

While Rolling Stone magazine said in its 1976 review the album was filled with "mediocre material", the album was a major influence on the likes of Slash, James Hetfield, Kurt Cobain, and Nikki Sixx, to name a few.

Check out our in-depth look at Black Sabbath's Sabotage album.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

AC/DC's Most Underrated Songs with Brian Johnson

AC/DC's body of work with Brian Johnson on vocals is impressive, to say the least. With Johnson replacing Bon Scott after he died in 1980, and making his debut on the monster Back In Black album, the Aussie rockers have cranked out some huge hits,. However, it's not the hits we are looking at but the five of the most underrated tracks during the Johnson era featuring his distinct bluesy, raspy vocal style.

Flick of the Switch (1983)

The title track to the Flick of the Switch album is such a powerhouse song. Malcolm Young's riff carries things along at a solid pace, while Johnson's wailing vocals are perfect, as usual, although it's hard to decipher exactly what's he saying in the verses. The song was actually the second single from the record. It got some airplay and video play, but many critics panned it and the rest of the album because it didn't sound as refined as its predecessor, For Those About To Rock, which was produced by Mutt Lange. But the song embodies exactly what the Young brothers wanted the album to sound like: Big and Raw with no studio recording tricks.

Fly on the Wall (1985)

While hair metal was becoming all the rage in 1985, AC/DC were still doing their thing, cranking out great hard rock records. The title track to 1985's "Fly on the Wall" record is such an infectious song, you want to listen to it over and over again. Brian Johnson is an absolute force on this song (listen to him screaming the last chorus), and it's the first time fans heard a drummer (Simon Wright) other than Phil Rudd play on an AC/DC album after Rudd was fired after recording his parts on Flick of the Switch.

Have A Drink On Me (1980)

With lyrics penned by Brian Johnson, "Have A Drink On Me" can certainly be seen as an ode of sorts to Bon Scott who choked on his own vomit after drinking too much on the night of Feb. 19, 1980 at a London club. While some say the band shouldn't have celebrated booze so soon after Scott's death, you kind of know Scott would relish this song and "forget about the cheque, we'll get hell to pay". This romping, all-out celebration of alcohol is AC/DC at their typical, rocking best, with a cool, lurching kind of riff that sort of mimics a stumbling drunk.

Snowballed (1981)

An often overlooked track from the amazing For Those About To Rock album, "Snowballed" is one of AC/DC's most up-tempo songs, and Johnson's delivery during the verses is nothing short of amazing in the intensity he delivers to the lyrics. Then he's at his howling best as the song comes to a close. Certainly Angus Young gets most of the attention and kudos when it comes to AC/DC, but Johnson shows here why he was one of the best hard rock singers of all time.

Bedlam in Belgium (1983)

Another great track off the unheralded Flick of the Switch record, Bedlam in Belgium boasts a bouncy riff, a powerful chorus and lyrics based on a real-life event from back in the Bon Scott days when AC/DC played a one-off gig at Kontich, Belgium in 1977. There was a strict 10 pm curfew in the town, but the band was still rocking and a near riot erupted as police tried to stop the show. According to reports it was Angus who got cracked in the back by a cop as he duck-walked through the crowd after jumping off the stage after being told the show was over. Needless to say, it's a great story from the band's earlier days, and certainly an underrated AC/DC song.


Check out our look at the classic Powerage album

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Digging For Dirt: How Alice In Chains Made Their Ultimate Album

Among the truly great heavy metal albums, Alice in Chains' masterpiece Dirt is easily a cut above the rest.

Released in September, 1992, Dirt took the Seattle band to No. 6 on the U.S. Billboard chart, no small feat for band that got little airplay and a record with drug addiction, depression and anger as central themes.

But, aside from the lyrics and amazing songs, what makes Dirt such a great record is how good it sounds.

Produced by Dave Jerden, who also worked with AIC on their debut Facelift album, Dirt has a doomy, heavy sound that announced the band as one of the heavy hitters in rock at the time.

And central to that amazing sound is how guitarist and principal music writer Jerry Cantrell got those super thick and heavy guitar tones.

Turns out Cantrell actually recorded each riff through high, mid and low frequency amps to get three different tones. Then those tracks were double and triple tracked to fatten up the sound. Jerden and engineer Bryan Carlstrom built a customized splitter box that split the guitar into the three amps and cut down on the hissing and buzzing created from such a process.

You can really hear the thickness in songs like "Them Bones" and "Rooster".

In an interview with Music Radar, Jerden credits Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich for helping him find the right drum sound at One On One Studio in LA that helped Sean Kinney sound like a monster on Dirt.

"We recorded it at One On One, where Metallica did their "Black" album. Lars told me that they had this 31-inch woofer for the kick drum. I rented a PA system and put the kick drum, toms and snare through this woofer plus these huge side monitors," Jerden told Music Radar. "That went into the room sound, and it made the drums sound like artillery going off. I credit Lars with turning me on to that room."

Those who have read David de Sola's book "Alice in Chains: The Untold Story" will know that Layne Staley didn't like anyone watching him lay down the vocals. And that was the case recording Dirt. Staley would go into the booth by himself and cut vocals. He usually did them very quickly, with minimal retakes, in total privacy.

Staley's Vocal Booth Shrine

In de Sola's book, Carlstrom recalls Staley had created an inspirational shrine in the booth that included candles and a picture of the Last Supper, as well as a dead puppy in a jar.

As for how Jerden produced Staley's booming voice, he said he had two 24-track machines and used 16 tracks for Staley's vocal parts.

"I tripled-tracked him, and he sounded great. He knocked out his parts and just sang great. I made this effect using delays on Layne’s vocals with an Eventide Harmonizer; in fact, I called the effect ‘Layne Staley.’ Reverb can darken things up, but delays keep things hard and powerful," said Jerden. "None of the mixes took long. A lot of them were done in just half an hour."

Naturally, the songs speak for themselves on Dirt: A collection of phenomenal music with nary a filler track to be found (except for the 44-second "Intro: Dream Sequence). The songs are propelled by the stunning harmonies of Staley and Cantrell's voices, particularly on "Down in a Hole", "Them Bones", and the Staley-penned "Angry Chair", which those who have gone through drug rehab say is a song about the process of being in treatment and trying to kick heroin.

As for the album art, many wrongly believe the woman on the cover is Staley's then-girlfriend, Demri Parrott. In fact it's an actress named Mariah O'Brien who is laid out in the dirt of the desert. But she does look a lot like Parrott.

Suffice it to say, Dirt is a timeless album for the ages that will be enjoyed by many more generations of music fans.


Check out the five most underrated Alice in Chains songs with Layne Staley.