In the words of German superstars Scorpions, the wind of change was blowing in 1990. Europe faced its most sudden and drastic changes since the end of World War 2 forty five years before. Poland dismantled its socialist economy, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia declared their independence from the USSR and, in October, almost twelve months since the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany reunified as one nation. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union would be no more. And while it seemed, over-optimistically as it turned out, that the world was on a path to peace, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August led to the seven month Gulf War that, as much as the end of the Cold War, would help to define the coming decade.
While no one seemed to suspect it just yet, the winds were blowing for the music world too as smaller indie movements and niche genres began to gain wider attention from a youth growing disenchanted with the vacuities of corporate arena rock. The transition was still close to a full year away, but looking at some of the music we’ve chosen to highlight 1990’s important releases, things were about to snowball.
JUDAS PRIEST: Painkiller
After huge success in the early to mid-80s, Judas Priest had hit a rough patch by late in the decade, alienating many fans with Turbo and offering nothing spectacular with the follow-up, so few could have expected the beast that was Painkiller. The introduction of monster drummer Scott Travis added a totally new dimension to the rhythm section that hadn’t been there since the late 70s, an injection of blood and energy that sparked the band’s fires to create this behemoth of pure barnstorming heavy metal that ranks as one of the genre’s greatest ever.
PRIMUS: Frizzle Fry
California weirdos Primus had opened their account the year before with the live album Suck on This. Here they poured their funkified disparity into studio debut Frizzle Fry, an album of off-beat strangeness and wacky humour blending Metallica, Rush, the Police and Funkadelic with Les Claypool’s bizarre Zappa-style vocal delivery. It was a compelling melange of wildly diverse styles that set a new standard and helped lay the groundwork for the 90s alternative metal scene.
PANTERA: Cowboys From Hell
Texan quartet Pantera had spent the 80s establishing a local rep as a strong and dependable support act for anyone coming through the state with their solid line in party metal. By the end of the decade, they were done with that, and on their major label debut the band stepped out with their new “power groove” metal, drawing from the melody of Judas Priest, the fire and fury of Metallica and the groove and rhythmic drive of Texas heroes ZZ Top. Stylewise, Pantera were still finding their chops here and the production was only a moderate step up from what they had presented before, but Cowboys From Hell was such a breakthrough they casually cast off their entire previous catalogue and established a sound that would come to dominate metal for the next decade.
CANNIBAL CORPSE: Eaten Back to Life
Cannibal Corpse sprang to full-fledged life on their debut. Eaten Back to Life is a big dumb slab of under-produced thrash-laced death metal, an album that revels in silly, over-the-top gore. With their bone-headed earnesty, catchy riffs, a pure dedication to brutality above all else and Chris Barnes’ cartoonishly depraved lyrical content, Cannibal Corpse became the standard bearers for unadulterated death metal from this moment.
ALICE IN CHAINS: Facelift
A year before Nevermind, the rock world at large was exposed to the brewing storm of the grunge movement with Alice in Chains’ dark and moody album debut. Facelift meshed a dirgey sludge culled from classic influences like Black Sabbath with insidious melodies and the uncanny harmonised vocals of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell. The metal aspects of Facelift helped the band’s crossover appeal, even if it took a while to come, as the music scene they were part of suddenly took over the world less than two years later.
MEGADETH: Rust in Peace
Long written up as the most interesting and musically accomplished of thrash’s big acts, it was clear that Megadeth hadn’t lived up to expectations with their drug-addled and creatively-muddled third album. So a lot was riding on Rust in Peace and the new-look Megadeth delivered in spades. Featuring intelligent and sophisticated songwriting, thought-provoking lyrics and progressive, complex arrangements, Rust in Peace reigns as one of the best thrash albums of all time as Mustaine snarls and snaps while he and Marty Friedman shred each other’s faces off with unbridled alacrity through an abundance of blazing riffs. The highwater mark of their career.
Sydney indie rock upstarts the Hard-Ons stepped up to major label status with Yummy!, on which the band gave themselves up to their power-pop/melodic punk muse. Compromising without really compromising, all they did was add a bit of spit and polish to their usually lewd and grubby pop aesthetic, while still packing a wallop on the heavier tracks. It made for a glorious punk record that expanded their following without leaving their old fans behind, Yummy! gave the Hard-Ons their first ARIA Top 100 entry.
Deicide’s debut still ranks as one of the most evil and intense death metal debuts of all time. Glen Benton’s insane vocal delivery couples with Steve Asheim’s near-grindcore blastbeat manifesto and the catchy but demonically heavy riffing of the Hoffman brothers like a Satanic freight train smashing everything in its path. Only just over half an hour long, every track is an unrelenting bludgeoning of simplistic death metal driven by a fiendish power that has rarely been matched by this or any other band.
With Hammerheart, Swedish extreme metal pioneers Bathory delivered a full-blown epic concept album that ushered in the Viking metal phenomenon and inspired the Scandinavian black metal scene’s vehement anti-Christian stance with its re-telling of forced pagan conversion. Far from the primitive battering of earlier albums, Hammerheart matches its sweeping story with a majestic and grand musical palette with a style closer to a mixture of doom and a species of undeveloped power metal with Quorthon’s raw vocals that fit so strangely with the material.
HELMET: Strap it On
New York’s Helmet was another band about to stamp their influence on the next decade. With Strap it On the band opened their account with a brief but exhausting onslaught of catchy, slamming stop-start staccato riffs, jazz-inflected guitar noodling, John Stanier’s complex but rhythmic drumming and Page Hamilton’s snarling, barking vocals. Clocking in at just on half an hour, Strap it On’s relentless noise rock/post-hardcore assault winds up just as it threatens to become a little too much, leaving the band’s audience with a healthy taste for more.
We said it was a helluva year. If you’re keen to dive further into 1990’s musical treasure trove, here’s a few more recommendations: Slayer: Seasons in the Abyss, Anthrax: Persistence of Time, Queensryche: Empire, Napalm Death: Harmony Corruption, Death: Spiritual Healing, Eyehategod: In the Name of Suffering, Jane’s Addiction: Ritual de lo Habitual, The Black Crowes: Shake Your Money Maker, Bad Religion: Against the Grain, Entombed: Left Hand Path, Obituary: Cause of Death, Mother Love Bone: Apple, Iggy Pop: Brick by Brick