Common opinion has it that the 90’s were considerably tough for hard rock and metal bands and to a certain degree that statement rings true. The rise of grunge and the Aaternative scene all but killed hair metal stone dead and certainly went some way to derailing thrash and stalling metal’s progress; then came the lamentable rise of nu metal of course.
To be truthful, many of the so called big-hitters seemed to be in one hell of a rut. Both Maiden and Priest lost their talismanic frontmen and the likes of Megadeth and Metallica seemed to turn their backs on thrash metal, and metal in general, as the decade progressed.
Of course, there were also some high-profile groundbreaking releases during that time in the shape of Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power, Fear Factory’s Demanufacture, Sepultura’s Chaos AD and Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes to name just a few. These releases alone contest that metal was actually in pretty good health in the 90’s but many great 90’s albums have been unfairly lost to the annals of time, overshadowed by the dominance of grunge, nu metal etc.
With that in mind, we have ignored the high profile releases of the decade and instead selected 12 albums we feel don’t always get the credit they so richly deserve…..
Overkill – I Hear Black (1993)
Overkill had started the decade on a roll with the thrash masterclass that was Horrorscope but by 1993 they had decided to embrace prevailing changes to the music industry – cut back on the high speed riffing – and introduce fairly predictable elements of groove metal on 1993’s I Hear Black.
Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth has always had a distinctive voice but the slower tempo of the music allow his vocals to come to the fore and he delivers a performace of barely controlled aggression throughout the entire album. While some of the speed of old may be missing, this album is heavier than the proverbial ‘sack of spanners’ and the likes of “I Hear Black”, “Feed My Head” and the catchy “Spiritual Void” are thick slices of prime Overkill and boast monstrous riffs most bands would kill for.
I Hear Black proved Overkill were no mere one trick pony and were a band with the necessary skills to adapt and survive the 90’s with their integrity attached.
Dub War – Wrong Side Of Beautiful (1996)
Dub War are a rock band from Newport, Wales who laced their high tempo rock with a healthy dose of reggae. The great thing about this album is that the band were able to take disparate styles and meld them together into a seemless whole.
Frontman Benji Webbe (Skindred) has a unique voice and is equally at home singing softly or howling along at social injustices and the band can rage with the best of them on the likes of “BassBallBat”, “Enemy Maker” and the full on Reggae Rock freakout that is “Million Dollar Love”. However the band really come into their own on softer tracks like the beautiful “Cry Dignity” and “Silencer”
Unfortunately record company politics brought a premature end to Dub War a number of years after this release – although they appear to have briefly reunited for a few gigs over the last 12 months – but for a while they were leaders and innovators in a field of one. Listening to it today, Wrong Side Of Beautiful still sounds fresh and original; its good time vibes still guaranteed to put a smile on the sourest of faces.
Cathedral – Caravan Beyond Redemption (1998)
To be honest we could have picked any number of Cathedral albums but we feel that Caravan Beyond Reemption doesn’t get the attention it blatantly deserves. After all, who knew doom could be so funky, groovy and fun!
This album is a ‘Disco-Doom’ masterpiece from start to finish and crammed full of great songs from the frankly bonkers, all out riff fests of “Voodoo Fire” and “Captain Clegg” to the psychedelic “Kaleidoscope Of Desire” there is not a weak track or dull moment to be found.
Overall, Caravan Beyond Redemption has a nice warm, fuzzy authentic feel to it and credit must go to guitarist Garry Jennings for a fantastic performance throughout. Surely only Tony Iommi himself has written more top class doom riffs than this man!
Simply put, this is British doom at its very best.
Fear Factory – Soul Of A New Machine (1992)
Three years before Fear Factory helped change the face of modern mainstream metal with Demanufacture, they released this uncompromising beast of a record and it’s safe to say they have never sounded more hungry or brutal since!
This album was a game-changer when first released due to the vocal stylings of Burton C Bell. Never before had guttural growls and clean singing been used to such dazzling effect. However, the whole band deserve credit for their performances, from Dino Cazares’ razor sharp riffs to the unholy noise produced by the rhythm section of Andrew Shives and Raymond Herrera. Colin Richardson also deserves considerable praise for his raw as fuck production, the bass sound on this album alone could level buildings.
All of which would be of little use without the songs to back it up and luckily Soul Of A New Machine is full of them. Take your pick from “Martyr”, “Scapegoat”, “Leechmaster”, “Crisis” or “Big God/Raped Souls”; all are pulverising blasts of original Death Metal.
Those who believe Fear Factory starts with Demanufacture need to check this underrated album out!
Floodgate – Penalty (1996)
Penalty was the one and only album from Louisiana mob Floodgate. Featuring Kyle Thomas of Exhorder on vocals, anyone expecting the fury of his old band was in for a shock as Floodgate dealt in a melodic brand of Sludge comparable to that of Down or Corrosion Of Conformity as opposed to the groove/thrash assault of Exhorder.
In all senses of the word this is a bleak album full of pain and suffering. Whether the lyrics are autobiographical or not – who can tell – but they do paint a picture of a hellish world full of addiction and heartbreak; Kyle Thomas’ vocals full of pained emotion as he lays his soul open on each and every track. Musically the band lay down tar-heavy, mid-paced riffs which add to the feeling of overriding despair. The only let up comes with the acoustic respite of “Whole” which is reminiscent of “Jail” by Down or Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”.
Tracks such as “Shivering”, “Before The Line Divides” and “Black With Sin” are highlights on this incredible album. The band broke up a short time after the release of Penalty, which is a pity as this is a strong album that unfortunately faded into obscurity. It’s time to discover it again!
Testament – Low (1994)
After a foray into Black album territory with The Ritual, Testament returned to what they knew best with 1994’s Low; visceral and uncompromising Thrash Metal. By this point in their career both Alex Skolnick (Lead Guitar) and Louie Clemente (Drums) had left and were replaced by Death Metal gun-for-hire James Murphy and John Tempesta (Exodus/Rob Zombie/The Cult) respectively.
This was the first album the band released without founding member and Guitar God Alex Skolnick and to be fair it takes a little getting used to. Testament blatantly missed his classical style flourishes but once you get past his glaring omission, Low is a bruising ‘Thrashfest’ that does not disappoint.
Chock full of top quality Thrash tunes from “Hail Mary” to “All I Could Bleed” and the album highlight, the truly pulverising “Dog Faced Gods”, in which man mountain Chuck Billy unleashes his truly hellacious roar, Low maintained the high standards Testament had set themselves over the years. They also found time to slow the pace down with the fantastic “Trail Of Tears”, just one of a number of Testament tracks to address the plight of Native Americans.
All in all, Low is a fantastic thrash album that should have had the likes of Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield frantically taking notes; Testament were still thrashin’ hard while 50% of The Big 4 were busy softening their sound for the masses.
Pist.On – Number One (1996)
New Yorkers Pist.On were taken under the wing of Type O Negative keyboard player -and producer -Josh Silver and although he had nothing to do with the song writing, his touch is all over this fantastic album; his production giving the album the same lush, spacious feel that he applied to his own bands work.
Vocalist/Guitarist Henry Font was the sole songwriter for this album and it says a lot for his ability that the only weak point is a cover of the Smiths “Shoplifters Of The World Unite”….and even that is pretty damn good! Musically the album is quite downbeat and so too are the lyrics, Font’s distinctive voice pitched perfectly to suit the mood and alternating throughout the album from almost a whisper to full-throated singing. Bassist Val Ium also provided ethereal backing vocals which must have made an impression on Josh Silver, as she went on to lend her vocals talents to “In Praise Of Bacchus” from Type O Negative’s October Rust.
This is a brilliant wee album and one that truly deserves to be better known. Chock-full of catchy, intelligently written hard rock songs with a goth vibe, there’s not a bad track on Number One. From the driving opener “Parole” to the semi-ballad “Gray Flap” to the haunting “I Am No One” and “I’m Afraid Of Life”, if you enjoy thoughful, heartfelt Rock then this album should suit you down to the ground.
Kilgore – A Search For Reason (1998)
This was the second and final album of mid-paced metal from this bookish young band. Burton C Bell from Fear Factory provides guest vocals on the track “TK421” and it says a lot for the quality of Kilgore that he is out-classed by their own vocalist, Jay Berndt.
Berndt really is the star of this album, his lyrics are honest and thought provoking. His voice has a gritty texture to it which works well on the heavier tracks as well as the more mellow moments such as “Providence”. The rest of the band are no slouches either and A Search For Reason is full of crisp riffs and neat melodies.
Released at a time when nu metal was really beginning to take hold, an intelligent album like this never really had a chance. Which is a crying shame as tracks such as “Lullaby For Your Casket”, “Prayers for The Dying” and “Avowal” deserved to have been heard by far more people.
Monster Magnet – Powertrip (1998)
Monster Magnet and their lynchpin frontman Dave Wyndorf were well known and revered in the Stoner Rock scene yet in 1998 something strange happened in the Monster Magnet camp; Wyndorf transformed himself into a balls-out, leather-clad, all snorting, all shagging old-school ROCK STAR….and Powertrip was the result!
Powertrip is an uptempo, sleazy beast of a record and just a couple of lines from “Bummer” tells you all you need to know about this album; “You’re looking for the one who fucked your Mom. It’s not me” and “I need a fist full of medication just to keep it in my pants”. Revealing! The album seems to have two simple topics for its lyrics and they are hard drugs and fast women. It says it all that after this album the band returned to more of a “Stoner” type sound again, Powertrip rocked too hard even for its creators!
This may have been the bands commercial breakthrough but its status as an all-time 90’s classic is often overlooked, the songs are upbeat and lively and the band seriously didn’t care who they offend. “Crop Circle” “Spacelord”, “Tractor” or the aforementioned “Bummer” are all amazing. Hell, you can pick any song on the album and you won’t be disappointed!
Bruce Dickinson – Accident Of Birth (1997)
Bruce Dickinson tends to not get the credit he truly deserves for his solo work, whether it’s the Hard Rock stylings of Balls To Picasso or the Alternative Rock of the vastly under-rated Skunkworks. However in 1997 when traditional Metal appeared to be on its knees, Bruce returned to what Bruce does best and that’s proper old-school Heavy fucking Metal!
18 years on and Accident Of Birth is still a joy to listen to, positively bleeding life affirming Metal from highlights”Freak”, “Darkside Of Aquarius” and “Omega”. The production is crisp and clear, overflowing with guitar riffs built to hum or sing along to and Dickinson giving it his absolute all. Even better was the return of Adrian Smith, back in his righful place, standing side by side with his one time bandmate Dickinson; the seeds of Iron Maiden’s eventual rebirth sown right here!
Of course, the musical climate being what it was at the time the album sank without a trace. However, for those of us in the know, all was right in our world once again.
Amen – Amen (1999)
In 1999, along with nu metal, the inescapable sickly-sweet stench of pop-punk was all over the radio and it was the perfect time for Amen to release their self titled album. This truly was music as a weapon and is one pissed off, angry, violent collection of punk-infused songs.
There are traces of melody – if you can even call it that – throughout Amen but this is an album primarily built on hate and anger, the band lashing out at anyone foolish enough to get in their way. Ross Robinson’s production is raw as hell; the guitars scythe and slash while Shannon Larkin gives it his all behind the drumkit. The start of the show though is frontman Casey Chaos who gives a performance of bug-eyed intensity that is just a joy to listen to. He spits, screams and snarls his vicious diatribes like a seriously pissed off Tasmanian Devil. Such is the fury behind his delivery on the likes of “Down Human”, “When A Man Dies A Woman” and “Everything Is Untrue” that it’s a wonder he didn’t rupture something!
Amen was never going to be an album that appealed to the wider public – and definitely not for fans of bands such as The Offspring or New Found Glory – but then again it was never intended to be.
Blind Guardian – Imaginations From The Other Side (1995)
While other strands of metal were struggling in the 90’s, power metal was really beginning to come to the fore. One band that embraced power metal and helped to shape its boundaries was the fantastic Blind Guardian and their visionary leader Hansi Kursch.
Imaginations From The Other Side is power metal at its best and at this stage the band still retained the exhilarating elements of thrash and speed metal which would gradually die out altogether over their next handful of albums.
The majority of songs blur past in a series of frenetic riffing and pounding drums and – as usual with Blind Guardian – the lyrics are inspired by Tolkien, the Crusades and Arthurian legend. In lesser hands this could come off as insufferably cheesy, however Kursch and his writing partner and guitarist Andre Olbrich are not only assured songwriters but also masterful storytellers. Unlike some power metal bands, Blind Guardian resist the urge to ‘show-off’ and avoid filling every track with tonnes of guitar solos, pompous keyboards and wailing vocals. Instead, they give their music room to breath; if a song requires the bombastic treatment they’ll do it but if it needs to be ‘basic’, then that’s fine too.
This is simply a great album from start to finish and fans of metal in general should find much to admire, whether it’s the Thrashy tempo of “I’m Alive” or the more restrained yet equally riveting “Born In A Mourning Hall”. Power metal fans will already know what a great album this is, everyone else should give it a try, you never know you just might surprise yourself!
There you have it, 12 albums that are – in our humble opinion – underrated and prime examples of the strength and depth of our beloved scene in the 90’s and proof that metal was in a healthier state than it may have seemed at the time.
Please note that this is not in any way, shape or form an exhaustive list and is not in order.
Feel free to agree or disagree with our selection and also chip in with some of your own favourites that we have missed out!