Probably like many, my main exposure to Scorpions prior to this was "Rock You Like a Hurricane". Taken by Force predates that by some years, so I thought it'd be interesting to hear what was there before.
I'm going to cut straight to the most important point here: "The Sails of Charon" is amazing. Every part of it, the funky riffs at the core, Uli Roth's gorgeous lead work, the twisting, snaking, menacing vibe that it oozes, it's all vintage heavy metal. It's that classic sound where everything gels and flows so well, and will lead to so much in later years. "Sails of Charon" is a track that deserves to sit proud among other early classics like "Don't Fear the Reaper" or "Children of the Grave", and whatever else I have to say about the album as a whole, this song should be in any metalhead's collection.
As for the rest of the album...it's fine. It's decent. There's some good and some bad. It's hard not to be overshadowed around a track like "The Sails of Charon", honestly. None of the other songs on here are bad (though I'll admit "He's a Woman, She's a Man" feels a bit dry and overly reliant on just repeating the title). It treads the sort of lines you'd expect during the 70s, when hard rock was starting to give birth to heavy metal. There are typical but effective rockers like "Suspender Love", "I've Got to be Free" and "Steamrock Fever" (in which I actually enjoy the use of construction sounds and children chanting), and others that play a bit more with quieter moments. "Your Light" is a lazy river drifter with funky bass groundwork, "Born to Touch Your Feeling" harkens to some of Aerosmith's more effective ballads, and "The Riot of Your Time" has a nice rising sense of energy. "I've Got to be Free" is another of the harder tracks here, and probably the one that works best, just with sheer catchiness.
But despite all the praise I can give to these individual moments or elements, something's missing from the whole. Most of the songs on here are good, but rarely do Scorpions genuinely impress me like some of their contemporaries. Black Sabbath were darker, Led Zeppelin more ambitious, Motörhead nastier, Judas Priest sharper, AC/DC committing more fully to the rock aesthetic. Most of Taken by Force is good, but I can't say I'm going to stick the album on much after this review.
Except for "Sails of Charon". That shit rocks.
Choice cuts: I've Got to be Free, The Sails of Charon
Genres: Heavy Metal
It took me a long time to get around to listening to Rainbow's Rising. Don't make my mistake: listen to it. Listen to it again if you already have. Listen to it while you read this. Because if you're any kind of fan of rock 'n' roll or heavy music, you will enjoy it. It's simply that good.
It's hard to properly convey just how superbly crafted Rising is in words, as a reviewer I forever want to stick the album on and say "See?" to the reader. It doesn't necessarily break any boundaries, it just makes everything work so well. One of the most striking aspects, and as good a place to start as any, is how the album is so startlingly devoid of filler or fat in any form. Not a moment is wasted, every track is an absolute belter, and every part of each works. It's just six tracks of pure rocking brilliance.
Ronnie James Dio and Ritchie Blackmore is a match made in heaven, with Dio's gorgeous vocals and Blackmore's fantastic guitar work sitting side by side. Just listen to the way they play off each other to make "Lady Starstruck" so insanely catch, both shining and complementing one another. Or the crazy fun that is "A Light in the Black", which demands that you nod your head, tap your foot and sing along with Ronnie that you're "coming hoooome!". Then it treats you to some of the most succulent keyboard and guitar soloing to be had.
The song-writing on show here is fun and catchy without ever feeling dumbed down, and Rainbow are masters at evoking awe and wonder alongside the straightforward rocking. "Stargazer" is a perfect example, a tale to be told of an epic journey. Ronnie sings of the heat and the rain, the towers of stone, and Eastern-sounding melodies mingle with the constant marching pound of the drums to paint pictures of a trek across a vast, scorching desert, and all the wondrous sights along the way.
Rising gets a 5/5 because I simply can't justify giving it anything less. There isn't a wasted moment here, not an ounce of fat to be trimmed, not a single solitary bit of filler, just six tracks of pure, concentrated awesome, and every fan of heavy music should have this one in their collection.
Choice cuts: Stargazer, A Light in the Black, Lady Starstruck, Tarot Woman
Genres: Heavy Metal
The Ozzy-fronted Black Sabbath was of pivotal importance in the emergence of heavy metal music, but after a decade with the band he was fired from it. All the drama and potential reasons for it aren't to be discussed here, but it did pave the way for Ozzy to embark on his solo career, which kicked off in 1980 with Blizzard of Ozz.
Sabbath themselves had been suffering a little, with the last couple of Ozzy-fronted albums being poorly received, but earlier in 1980 they released the universally acclaimed Heaven and Hell with Dio at the helm. Now it was Ozzy's time to establish himself, and it's clear he intended to go in a somewhat different direction. Where Heaven and Hell saw a resurgence of the heavy metal at the core of Sabbath, Blizzard of Ozz opts for something a bit more accessible and light, leaning a little more towards hard rock than outright heavy metal.
This isn't to say it's bad of course, and there are some absolute bangers on here. "Crazy Train" is regarded as a classic for very good reason. It bounds along with so much momentum, and is all put together so well, rising into that catchy chorus with perfect timing and knowing just when to shift gears. Both "Goodbye to Romance" and "Revelation [Mother Earth]" show just how good the gentler parts of the album can be. Ozzy's vocals work surprisingly well as melodic, mournful crooning, and "Revelation" gives way to some absolutely glorious work from Randy Rhoads, the whole song climbing and ascending before suddenly crashing into silence.
The other big number here, "Mr. Crowley" is...okay. Honestly, I find it pretty dull for the most part, leaving me cold until Randy's Molten guitar solos kick in. They're the obvious highlight, and vastly outshine the rest of the track.
The other songs on here are generally good, but don't stand out so much. "Steal Away" is a decent toe-tapper that calls to mind some of Rainbow's more melodic numbers, while "Suicide Solution" makes good use of Ozzy sounding like a demon waiting for you to seal a pact.
Overall, this is a much brighter offering than the sort of proto-doom Sabbath were known for, at least in their early days. It maybe doesn't mesh quite so well with the whole "Prince of Darkness" title Ozzy had, and the metalhead in me has a taste for darker or heavier things, but it's still a decent time. There aren't really any bad tracks, but there are really only a handful of truly good ones, and the rest are just sort of there.
Choice cuts: Crazy Train, Goodbye to Romance, Revelation [Mother Earth]
Genres: Heavy Metal
Judas Priest is a band that's gone through a number of different evolutions over their lifetime, especially for a band so important in the evolution of an entire genre of music. Different people will often think of very distinct things when they hear the band's name: to some it means the hard rocking, leather studded 80s, to others the sheer fury and boundless energy of Painkiller, and to some it calls to mind the formative 70s, where both Priest and heavy metal itself were still developing.
That's always been my favourite era of the band. It's where their songcraft was truly at its strongest, with cheesy fun tempered by smart, effective writing and nice variety in styles. And Sad Wings is where that approach was properly birthed. Rocka Rolla may have been their actual debut full-length, but it's often forgotten for good reason, this was where Priest really came into their own.
The sense of theatricality is king here, and, complimented perfectly by Halford's glorious vocals, is what truly sets Sad Wings apart. The band just sound like they're having such a good time, and it feels wrong not to join in with it. Halford is a rock 'n' roll preacher here, a demagogue wailing and howling the gospel of heavy metal with irresistible vitality.
All the classic tracks in this one are grounded in that sense of theatrics: "Dreamer Deceiver" acts as a perfect build, satisfying in itself, but ensuring such a fun pay off in epic rocker "Deceiver". "The Ripper" is a showcase of those larger-than-life vocals, full of so much power that you have no choice but to go along for the ride. In lines like "Or, if you like, Jack the Knife..." you can just hear the wicked grin accompanying the delivery. "Island of Domination" and "Tyrant" are true templates for good classic metal tracks, driven by Ian Hill's rumbling bass and solid rhythms throughout.
The only real misstep of the album is "Epitaph". I appreciate the band trying to do something different, and Halford's a talented vocalist...but this one just doesn't work. The backing harmony vocals in particular are full of cringe and silliness, and it sticks out like something from a parody.
But that's a pretty minor point. The whole album represents a massive leap forward in the development of heavy music, much like Black Sabbath's early albums did in their own way. While it can still loosely be termed "rock music", it sheds much of rock's conventional tropes at the time and places greater emphasis on riffs, larger-than-life vocals and presence, and increasingly complex song-writing, while still remaining effective and catchy. This is where the razor-edge begins to be honed.
Where Sabbath donned robes and performed the rituals to usher in a dark, doomy side of heavy metal, Priest geared up in leather and spikes and rode out, the razor edge to Sabbath's crushing hammer.
Choice cuts: The Ripper, Tyrant, Dreamer Deceiver/Deceiver, Island of Domination
Genres: Heavy Metal
What better place to start the Metal Academy Heavy Metal - The First Era challenge than with (almost) the album that started it all?
Of course, Paranoid wasn't truly the first, that honour going to Black Sabbath's self-titled debut. But it was Paranoid, released a mere seven months after the debut, where Sabbath would really start to refine their craft. No covers this time, and while the blues influences are still there, this time it's a head-first dive into the origins of doom metal. And what an end result.
Paranoid is an album all about death, ruination and endings. It is grim, obsessed with the darkness of the world and humankind. It is doom metal, truly and utterly. "Iron Man", opening with the infamous, apocalyptic pound, is a tale of a scorned, vengeful man of iron, with the faster beat of the drums towards the end like the onrushing doom of his victims. "War Pigs" rightfully lambastes the powerful people of the world who enable the horrors of war, with Ozzy's vocals often isolated and solitary to hit all the harder: there's no ignoring their message, delivered almost like beat poetry.
"Paranoid", despite its higher tempo, is all about mental turmoil and chaos. It has a driving beat, but one driving straight off the edge of a cliff into oblivion. "Hand of Doom" gives us a stark look at drug addiction - that quiet opening is menacing enough the first time, but when it rears up again nearer the end it takes on a whole new meaning, painting the image of someone withered and broken, nothing left to give, drained of all energy. "Electric Funeral" is a deliciously dark dirge, a constant, mournful funeral march for the whole human race in the wake of nuclear war.
"Planet Caravan" is sometimes considered a bit of an outlier track here, and I can certainly see that, but I think it fits in in its own way. It's a hypnotic, otherworldly piece that typically conjures images of a transcendent hallucinogenic trip, though could also be taken more as something about ascending beyond life itself. I find it an enjoyable break if nothing else.
Where I -do- find a starker shift in tone is in the last two tracks. "Rat Salad" is another short one, but where "Planet Caravan" takes us on an ethereal trip, this one is more a couple of minutes of jamming out. Nothing bad, but it doesn't really add anything. "Fairies Wear Boots" is the only "full" track that really sticks out from the general theme of the album. It just kind of exists, never really going anywhere or fitting in with the other tracks all about doomsday or personal turmoil. Especially with it's somewhat more upbeat, almost jazzy instrumentation, it feels more like a leftover from the debut.
Neither of these final tracks are outright bad, but they leave the album closing on a much weaker note than the rest.
As on the debut, there's a darkness here that's so fresh. Sure, there's plenty of rocking groove and still some traces of their early blues influence, but it's all so ominous and heavy. That dark atmosphere is what made the opening track on Black Sabbath itself so good, and here they take that and make it work over (almost) an entire album, capitalising on their strength perfectly. Paranoid isn't just a historically important album, it remains a benchmark and measuring stick for dark, heavy music.
Choice cuts: War Pigs, Paranoid, Iron Man, Electric Funeral, Hand of Doom
Genres: Heavy Metal