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A sobering exhortation to a drunken age. - 98%

hells_unicorn, April 22nd, 2019
Written based on this version: 1989, CD, Capitol Records

Every trend that captures the mainstream's imagination has an ephemeral nature, often designated by their respective decade in the writings of those who obsess over pop culture's incongruous history. Perpetual debates could be waged over what underlying forces dictate the life and death of the public's fleeting craze with a particular genre of art, but one thing that is clearly observable are the signs of a transition, and the times in which these signals become obvious usual coincide with some truly astounding and unique collections of music being born. Often thought of as the decade of heavy metal, the 1980s had reached a fever pitch level of excess by around 1986-1987, spearheaded by a growing number of newer bands that were taking the glam image to its logical conclusion and matching it with a happier, less metallic musical approach. This, in turn, was being matched by a number of tamer albums among the older alumni, perhaps best represented in the AOR-steeped sound of the output of Saxon, Judas Priest, and Twisted Sister. In similar fashion to an alcohol-steeped party binge, everyone was in a euphoric buzz where everybody becomes best friends and life seems perfect, oblivious to the coming blackout and next morning hangover.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the hangover did not hit in the early 90s with the rise of "alternative rock", but in the late 80s when the hegemony of the mainline heavy metal scene was being challenged both by the ascendant thrash metal scene and the rise of a rawer, grittier answer to glam rock via bands like Guns 'N' Roses. When faced with this push back, some opted to double-down and continue downing shots of hard liquor to stave off the hangover, while others decided to down some much needed coffee and headache pills and started taking stock of the world around them. W.A.S.P., arguably among the most intense proponents of rock 'n' roll hedonism with a metallic musical edge, found themselves in the unique position of being split on which direction to go. The recent antics of guitarist Chris Holmes on the infamous Decline Of Western Civilization: The Metal Years documentary made it pretty clear that his devotion to living fast and partying hard wasn't over, whereas band leader Blackie Lawless, likely fueled in part by his experiences dealing with censorship-happy politicians and conversations he'd had with fans (he once recounted a fan telling him that the lyrics of his 1984 song "B.A.D." helped her beat an addiction to heroine), was going in the opposite direction.

The resulting friction between the two dominant personalities that made up W.A.S.P.'s classic 1980s sound would pave the way for the musical juggernaut that is The Headless Children, an album afflicted by one of the most beautifully worded fits of lyrical self-contradiction and a rare presentation of mid-80s excess and late-80s socio-political consciousness coexisting on the same album. There is a strong remnant of the same AC/DC meets Judas Priest approach of formulaic anthems dedicated to unapologetic carnal indulgence, but the lion's share of the songs found on here have a darker and more outwardly aware character more befitting of the recent output of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Queensryche. Fueled by a far heavier production that rests somewhere between the drum-heavy and dense character of Operation: Mindcrime and a punchy, thick guitar and bass sound that somehow winds up in very similar territory to Headless Cross (though the source of inspiration was more likely that of Seventh Star and The Eternal Idol), this is a more metallic version of W.A.S.P. that features a more refined and distilled version of past glory, yet with a far more bleak and poignant outlook more befitting of the ensuing cynicism of the day.

Though not a conceptual work in the literal sense, this highly ambitious opus parallels the same musical formula that was at work on both Mindcrime and Iron Maiden's Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, all but to a fault. These influences are at their most blatant right at the album's very onset, as the towering 7-minute opener "The Heretic (The Lost Child)" begins with a portmanteau of ideas featured on both aforementioned albums, introducing itself in a creepy atmospheric blend of clean guitars, droning keyboards and an increasing level of tension that functions as an instrumental prelude for entire album. Once hitting a fast-paced stride, it basically sounds like a sleazier yet equally hard-hitting homage to "Moonchild" for the first of what can be viewed as a trilogy of sections, the last of which also bears an uncanny resemblance to "The Clairvoyant". Interestingly enough, the musical end of W.A.S.P.'s evolution here proves to be a shared experience as Chris Holmes contributed to the songwriting here, as is the case with this album's other epic offering "Thunderhead", which sees a similarly soft and subdued keyboard intro chased by a Sabbath-infused heavy metal romp that kind of resembles "Devil And Daughter", with Franki Banali's kit work showing heavy parallels to what Cozy Powell took to said song.

While the tip of this massive iceberg shows a continuity of style that would put Blackie and company in very different territory than prior outings, the overall character of this album proves to be a mixed bag. Towing a fairly similar line to the aforementioned metallic masterpieces is another Sabbath-inspired classic in the title song, which features a similarly creepy intro and incorporates a fair degree of Deep Purple elements that find them in a similar place to the bulk of the Tony Martin-era of said influence, ditto for the more straight up cruisers in "Maneater" and the nuclear protest anthem "The Neutron Bomber". On the other side of the impact-based equation are straight up mid-paced riff monsters and throwbacks to the earlier days "Rebel In The F.D.G." (which sounds like an unofficial sequel to "Wild Child") and Blackie's ode to Chris Holmes' live fast and die lifestyle "Mean Man". The rest of the contents on here function more as curious outliers from the duel between political commentary and partying hard, with a brief acoustic interlude somewhat along the lines of a number of old school Sabbath instrumentals "Mephisto Waltz" and a Zeppelin meets Lynyrd Skynyrd inspired acoustic ballad in "Forever Free", which almost sounds light and sappy enough to rival Cinderella or Warrant, arguably the album's lone low point but overall a decent offering.

There is a unique synchronicity to this album, in spite of its clashing themes and occasionally jolting shifts in stylistic direction, that puts it in a class all by itself. Truth be told, although the massive stylistic progression at work in songs like "Thunderhead" and "The Heretic" definitely point to where Blackie would end up on the subsequent masterpiece The Crimson Idol, not to mention the selection of one of the best well known songs off The Who's Quadrophenia (which inspired W.A.S.P.'s 1992 classic) in "The Real Me" (former King Cobra bassist Johnny Rod does an excellent job of mimicking John Entwistle's fancy bass work, a rarity during his tenure with this band), this doesn't really come off as a musical prequel to what would follow. It is definitely the furthest away from the band's glam proclivities in a sonic sense, having a distinctively heavier, more technical, and stylistically adventurous attitude. There is definitely a reason why this album is often cited by critics as their greatest accomplishment and why it endears itself more to heavy metal fans than previous of subsequent albums, and it's the same reason why it didn't end up selling as well as the last three releases. This was a work of art with a high degree of depth that was put out in a time when people either wanted simple entertainment or to kill each other in the pit, a proverbial philosopher trying to appeal to a drunken world that wasn't ready to sober up.