The album that brought Raven's flight to an end
Everything was all going brilliantly for Raven until they released 1985's Stay Hard album. It took them 30 years to recover.
“You're just an out-dated fool” - Get It Right
Listen, I'm no out-dated fool. I know exactly how important Raven has been to the development of all things loud, wild and heavy. Raven were one of the pioneers of speed metal, cranking up their used-leather hell-boogie to terminal velocity as far back as their 1980 debut single Don't Need Your Money. Their first three albums are undisputed classics of the genre, famously influencing/inspiring Metallica and countless others to play harder, get crazier, to take rock n' roll to the absolute limit. If you don't have a copy of Wiped Out in your collection, you can just get the fuck out of here right now.
A band of two brothers – Mark and John Gallagher – and a lunatic in a hockey mask on drums, Raven formed in Newcastle UK in 1974. Early years saw the band noodling around with prog, but by the time the 80s rolled along, they had solidified their “athletic rock” sound. All knobs to the right, play as fast as you can, and damn the torpedoes. The first two albums, 1981's Rock Until You Drop and '82's Wiped Out, are pure blister and thrash. They jumped ship from NWOBHM experts Neat records to American upstarts Megaforce for their third, the monolithic All For One album, which slowed the proceedings down to a more manageable tempo but hardened the band's sound even more. All For One was massively heavy but accessible and catchy, too. Even in 1983, heavy metal's most significant year, All For One stood out as one of the very best metal albums of the year, up their with Kill 'Em All and Show No Mercy, easy.
They followed up with the infamous Live at the Inferno double-live album (with the Defcon sides!), while Megaforce honcho Jon Z shopped Raven around to every major label in town. Eventually Atlantic won a minor bidding war and Z basically handed the Raven reins over a bunch of complete fucking imbeciles who had the British Metallica on their hands but decided Twisted Sister was a better direction for them. Sure, their mugs were just as cartoonish, but Twisted Sister was so not the way to go.
In the 80s, heavy metal fans were notoriously skeptical of major labels, and if an indie metal band jumped ship, forget it. Sell-outs might make some dough playing to the rubes in the suburbs, but the true headbangers and rivet heads were done with you. Maybe you *bought *Master of Puppets, but not me, fuck that noise. And so it was with Raven. Having abandoned their NWOBHM roots for what most conceived as a quick buck, they were essentially tasked with building a whole new audience. I'm not sure who they were courting with the woeful Stay Hard album, but it sure wasn't All For One fans.
Listen, I'm sure they hate it now as much as everybody else. It was a new environment, and it was an era when flash metal was in full-flower. You can see how just a few wrong turns would land anybody into a quagmire like Stay Hard. Standing here in 2015, sure man, all is forgiven. We can move on. But this is still a seriously terrible record. All For One toned down Raven's penchant for reckless speed, but Stay Hard slowed things down to a crawl, with every song plodding along like it's got a belly full of stones. Lead single On and On is clearly Raven's attempt at a teenage dirtbag anthem ala We're Not Gonna Take It, but it falls painfully flat. And then they try it again with different titles six more times. There's a goddamn ballad on the record, too, Pray for the Sun. You ever hear John Gallagher's voice? It's like a squirrel stuck in a band-saw. John Gallagher should not be singing ballads. The album even ends with an instrumental featuring a horn section. A fucking horn section on a fucking Raven record. And this was many many years before you could just steal all your music, man. People were paying cash money for this bullshit.
There really isn't a brighter side to this debacle, but I will say this about Stay Hard: at least it's not as bad as it's diabolically awful follow-up, The Pack is Back, wherein our already wayward heroes lose the plot completely, appear on the cover in their underwear and pepper their now fully commercial pop-metal with funky bass pops and new wave synthesisers. The mid 1980s were a long and harrowing season in hell for Raven, and they had strayed so far from their fast n' furious NWOBHM roots that it seemed like they would never get back home. But they did. It just took a few decades.
Somewhere in 1987, during the twilight days of Raven's major label era, self-injurious skinsman Rob 'Wacko' Hunter jumped ship and former Pentagram drummer Joe Hasselvander joined the band. The doom god's sick-heavy back-beats revitalised the beleaguered Gallagher brothers, and brought the band's speed metal roots back into focus for '88's back-to-basics pounder Nothing Exceeds Like Excess. Of course Raven had spent the last three years stumbling around in the glam wastelands, so the about-face looked more than a little suspicious, and truth be told, despite its loud and fast presentation, Excess sounds fairly generic. But still, they had escaped their truly hideous fate as major label stooges and were clearly back on the road to rocking until they dropped.
And they're still on that road. Raven never quite got their groove back in the 80s, and the ensuing decades have been a real rollercoaster, from record contracts with obscure Japanese labels to bright spots of NWOBHM revivalism and nods from Metallica to house fires and guitar thieves to a career-stalling four-year hiatus in the early 00s brought on when a whole fucking wall collapsed and landed on Mark Gallagher's legs. But they march on. Just this year they released the Kickstarter-funded ExtermiNation album, which finally – and demonstrably – serves as fitting follow-up to 1983's All For One. Seriously, it's a full-on rager, end to end. If you are willing to forgive the last 30 or so years of Raven's career – and christ knows, I'd love it if somebody would forgive the last 30 of mine – then Raven is absolutely the most consistent NWOBHM metal band since Iron Maiden. Ok, 1986 – 1987 was really fucked-up for the Gallagher brothers, but at the end of the day, let's give it to 'em: aside from their brief flirtation with a major label, they stayed hard. Long may they reign.
Next week: Everybody loves you when you're dead