I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
That Was a Quick Three Decades...
Do you remember 1990? I do! At the dawn of that new decade, I was a 20 year old college sophomore and a full-blown hard rock and metal fanboy. 1990 was a pretty good year for my favorite musical genre, with the release of numerous albums that are still considered classics today. Those of us who spent the year at the record store, glued to MTV's Headbanger's Ball, or diving into the mosh pit didn't know it at the time, but 1990 was the beginning of the end for hard rock and metal as the dominant mainstream musical format. By 1991, the grunge movement had begun wiping the slate clean and covering the world in flannel. But hey, it was a fun ride while it lasted, huh?
Below are just some of the notable hard rock/metal albums that were released in 1990. It's hard to believe that these classics will all celebrate their thirtieth anniversary in 2020. Damn, when did I get so old? I bought most of these at Sam Goody at the mall when they were brand-new—on cassette!
Megadeth, Rust in Peace
I was a well-seasoned Metallica and Anthrax 'banger during thrash metal's formative era, but strangely, I was never much more than a casual fan of Megadeth... until I saw the Rust in Peace lineup live, opening for Judas Priest's Painkiller tour in late 1990. I watched in disbelief as Dave Mustaine and Company—all of whom were clean, sober, and at the absolute peak of their abilities at the time—completely stole the show from the mighty JP, a feat that I didn't think was possible. I bought Rust in Peace (as well as all of the other Megadeth recordings I was missing) shortly thereafter and I've been a slobbering fanboy for the band ever since.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Mustaine at a bookstore signing for his autobiography in 2010, and when I shook his hand, I told him about that show and said, "I've been waiting 20 years to tell you this... you guys wiped the f***ing floor with Judas Priest that night." Metal Nerd Achievement unlocked.
Judas Priest, Painkiller
Megadeth might have whooped'em on stage, but Judas Priest still made a convincing comeback on record with Painkiller, which brought the leather-n-studs veterans screeeeaaaaaaaming back to metal prominence after dabbling in slicker, more pop-friendly metal pastures for a few albums (1986's over-synthesized Turbo and 1988's over-produced Ram It Down). On Painkiller, Priest noticeably beefed up their aggression factor and mixed some influence from the thrash/speed metal underground into their trademark sound. They may have been simply trying to follow the trends of the day, but Painkiller has become a fan favorite and is regularly cited as one of the Priest's best albums. It would also be the last Judas Priest studio album for seven years, as Rob Halford shockingly left the band at the end of the Painkiller tour, forcing Priest into dormancy until they found a worthy vocal replacement in Tim "Ripper" Owens.
Pantera, Cowboys From Hell
Whether you loved'em or hated'em, you couldn't deny the impact Pantera had on the metal genre. Though they seemingly came out of nowhere, the four Texans had been plugging away on the Southwestern U.S. club circuit for nearly a decade—and had four independent album releases under their belts—prior to unleashing their major label debut, Cowboys From Hell. Pantera started out as a group of teenage hair farmers worshipping at the party-rock altars of KISS and Van Halen, but toughened up their sound in a big way with the addition of vocalist Phil Anselmo in 1988. Thanks to massive MTV and radio support for killer Cowboys cuts like "Cemetery Gates" and a relentless tour schedule which found them opening for luminaries like Suicidal Tendencies, Judas Priest, and Skid Row, Pantera quickly clawed their way to the top of the 1990s metal heap and held that position until drugs and egos tore them apart at the turn of the 2000s.
Slayer, Seasons in the Abyss
Just like with Megadeth, I was not much more than a casual Slayer fan during much of their '80s heyday, but something in their unholy sound finally clicked with me on Seasons in the Abyss, their fifth disc. Maybe it was that cool-as-hell music video for the title track (shot in Egypt at the foot of the Pyramids!), or the crushing assault of tracks like "War Ensemble" (who can forget Tom Araya's crazed scream of "WAAAAAAAARRRRRRRR?") and "Skeletons of Society." Seasons in the Abyss cracked the Billboard Top 40, scored Slayer a gold record, and today is considered one of the pillars of their catalog, standing proudly right next to the seminal duo of Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood.
Deliverance, Weapons of Our Warfare
If you weren't following the underground Christian metal scene of the era, Weapons of Our Warfare probably passed you by in 1990, but it's been a perennial favorite of mine since its initial release. This four-piece speed metal band's second album can best be described as Christian rock's answer to Metallica's Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets. The video for Weapons' title track even got some spins on MTV's "Headbanger's Ball," which helped the album move nearly 100,000 copies—a particularly impressive feat when you consider that most of them were sold via Christian book-and-music store channels, not "regular" record stores.
Scorpions, Crazy World
I saw the Scorpions on their U.S. tour for this album in early '91 and in fact that gig was one of my first hints that '80s arena-rock was losing its luster, because the arena was only half full. Despite the initially lukewarm reception to Crazy World, the German veterans still managed to squeak in one last massive hit before the doors closed on the hair metal era with the power ballad "Wind of Change," which became the unofficial theme song to the end of communism. They pretty much disappeared off of the U.S. radar after this album, but in spite of retirement rumors, the Scorpions are still at it thirty years later, packing 'em in around the globe.
Love/Hate, Blackout in the Red Room
When Guns N' Roses struck multiplatinum with Appetite for Destruction, the rest of the major labels immediately began scouring L.A.'s club scene to find their own gutter-rock combos, hoping to duplicate that success. Love/Hate were Columbia Records' entry into that sweepstakes, and though the band never sold a heck of a lot of records, their debut disc is a sweet one. Blackout in the Red Room piles on the sleaze in spades, coming off much like Appetite's scuzzy, hop-headed little brother. How this album never became huge will always be a mystery to me.
Suicidal Tendencies, Lights, Camera... Revolution
The former skate punks completed their transition from snotty, noisy teenagers to a well-oiled thrash machine on their fifth album, which featured future Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. S.T. got major support from MTV for the vicious "You Can't Bring Me Down" and sarcastic "Send Me Your Money" videos, which eventually garnered the Suicidals a gold record. As a side note, I saw the band live on their tour for this album and to this day it still holds the crown for the absolute sickest Mosh Pit action I have ever witnessed.
Warrior Soul, Last Decade Dead Century
Regular readers of my columns (all two of you) probably know that I am a total Warrior Soul fanboy. Last Decade Dead Century was the first of four critically acclaimed, politically charged punk/metal albums released during the early '90s by Kory Clarke and his gang of rabble rousers, whose incendiary sound should've caught on in a big way. Unfortunately, the band seemed to be just a little bit ahead of the curve, and they imploded just as bands like Rage Against the Machine began filling arenas and reaping platinum with similarly socially-aware mosh anthems. Weep for what might have been!
Other notable 1990 releases included AC/DC's biggest hit in years, The Razors Edge, which went multi-platinum thanks to the smash singles "Thunderstruck" and "Moneytalks."
Black Sabbath continued to rebound with the surprisingly strong TYR, while Iron Maiden's frontman Bruce Dickinson released his solo debut, Tattooed Millionaire, only a few months before Maiden themselves released No Prayer for the Dying.
Interest in the hair-metal genre was beginning to wane by 1990, but Don Dokken released his first album as a solo artist, Up From the Ashes, while Firehouse's debut album and Cinderella's Heartbreak Station still managed to strike gold. Poison continued their multi-platinum streak with Flesh and Blood, Warrant hit big with Cherry Pie, and Tesla unplugged for their Five Man Acoustical Jam live album. Extreme released Extreme II: Pornograffiti in late '90 but the album didn't truly blow up till the following Spring, thanks to the mega-hit acoustic ballad "More Than Words."
On the thrash front, Death Angel delivered Act III, which is widely considered to be their most mature work, while Anthrax's Persistence of Time, Testament's Souls of Black, GWAR's Scumdogs of the Universe and Prong's Beg to Differ kept mosh pits churning throughout the year.
Changing of the Guard?
Thrash metal's commercial peak came with the Clash of the Titans concert tour that featured Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (three out of the so-called "Big Four" bands) on the same bill. The tour started in Europe in 1990 and then made its way to U.S. enormo-domes in the Summer of 1991.
I doubt that anyone would have predicted that the band who opened the U.S. leg of the tour—an unknown Seattle act called Alice In Chains—would eclipse all of the other bands on the Clash bill a year later. It truly was the end of an era!
© 2019 Keith Abt
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 15, 2020:
Interesting and exhaustive account of the hard rock and metal albums. Well narrated. Thanks.
Diz on January 02, 2020:
Bathory - Hammerheart
Blind Guardian – Tales from the Twilight World
Tankard – The Meaning of Life
Kreator – Coma of Souls
Death – Spiritual Healing
Mekong Delta – Dances of Death (and other walking shadows)
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on December 28, 2019:
Hey Heidi -- Tower Records didnt arrive in my town till a few years into the 1990s, from then on I practically lived in that store! Out of all the big record store chains, I miss them most of all.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on December 28, 2019:
Sam Goody? It was Tower Records around here. Then Best Buy.
Anyway, yeah, how did 30 years pass so quickly? My fave 90 album would be Warrant.
Happy New Year and New Decade!