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State-of-the-Market Heavy Metal, Stuck in 1975


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State-of-the-Market Heavy Metal, Stuck in 1975

New York Times Company Jun 26, 1988

by Jon Pareles

YOU MAY HEAR A RUMBLE this afternoon and tomorrow from the direction of East Rutherford, N.J. It's not an oil refinery explosion -it's a two-day stand at Giants Stadium by the Monsters of Rock Tour, a nine-hour quintuple bill of heavy metal bands, headlined by Van Halen, that will be on the road until July 30. Although some tour dates, including Monday's show, are a long way from selling out their stadiums, Van Halen doesn't have to worry; its new album, ''OU812'' (Warner Bros. 25732-1, LP, cassette and CD) has already sold 1.5 million copies since its release in May, and it's likely to stay lodged in the Top 10 for quite some time. But major competition has just arrived - Jimmy Page's ''Outrider'' (Geffen 24188, all three formats), the first album by Led Zeppelin's guitarist on his own.

Both albums offer state-of-the-market heavy metal, with whiz-bang guitars and histrionic singing. They're geared for rock radio stations still stuck in 1975, when Led Zeppelin ruled the airwaves, before disco and punk-rock presented a clear-cut challenge to rock by ''superstars.'' For a decade, those stations have pursued an ever-narrower slice of the audience - males in their teens and early 20's who enjoy loud guitars and wailing white male singers almost exclusively.

Commercial heavy metal has evolved to fit those radio formats like a sub-species of fish that can only live in, say, an underwater cavern heated by a pollution-spewing factory; its features might seem grotesque and exaggerated by ordinary light, but they do the job. Although a burgeoning heavy-metal underground still aims to be genuinely outrageous, in current commercial heavy metal, vast advances in the sound and fury of guitar playing and vocal histrionics worthy of a daytime Emmy award are yoked to lyrics that relentlessly exploit a handful of adolescent yearnings.

With calculating empathy for their fans, grown men shriek about sex and empowerment, then croon reassuring platitudes: ''How do I know when it's love,'' Sammy Hagar emotes in a song on ''OU812'' that cannily dips into both Whitney Houston's ''How Will I Know'' and the Beatles' ''With a Little Help From My Friends.'' ''I can't tell you but it lasts forever.''

Every current heavy metal band owes something to Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin; Kingdom Come, which opens Monsters of Rock, blatantly imitates Led Zeppelin's songwriting, its sound and its random, rambling motions onstage. Mr. Page, along with Jimi Hendrix, started with the blues and invented whole vocabularies of electric guitar sounds: battering rams, roller coasters, molten steel, burning rubber, buzzbombs. In Led Zeppelin, Mr. Page also came up with riffs that lurched and swaggered so that slow songs were no longer anything like ballads. Mr. Page hasn't been silent since Led Zeppelin disbanded after the death of its drummer, John Bonham, in 1980; he wrote a soundtrack for ''Death Wish II'' and co-led a band, the Firm, that mixed the least of Led Zeppelin and the singer Paul Rodgers's previous band, Bad Company. Led Zeppelin itself recently reunited, with Bonham's son Jason on drums, to top the bill at Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary concert. Meanwhile, Mr. Page was working on ''Outrider,'' where three lead vocalists wrote the words and only one lives up to the assignment.

''Outrider'' has a fast Side One and a slow Side Two (on LP and cassette, anyway); it won't get turned over too often. Side Two features Chris Farlow, a singer who embodies the worst of British blues vocalizing, overwrought and irony-free. Mr. Farlow yowls and grunts and ululates three unintentionally laughable songs, separated by an instrumental, ''Emerald Eyes,'' with patented, shifty Page riffs strummed on acoustic guitars. Although Mr. Page plays a feisty solo on ''Prison Blues,'' a song recorded live in the studio in one take, it's not worth suffering through the vocals to hear it.

But Side One is guaranteed to splash ''Outrider'' all over the FM band. It has stop-start Zeppelin-style guitar riffs, seesawing across the beat and leaving spaces where they're least expected. But the two songs with John Miles, ''Wasting My Time'' and ''Wanna Make Love,'' are heavy metal by the numbers, with Mr. Miles huffing and puffing to imitate Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.

It's Mr. Plant himself who struts away with the album in ''The Only One,'' a kicking, swerving assemblage of riffs with vocal phrases slipped into the oddest places. The lyrics may be about a lover or about Led Zeppelin, or both; as he does on his solo albums, Mr. Plant slings enigmas to keep listeners coming back. ''Outrider'' shows what even diehard Led Zeppelin fans must have guessed - without a collaborator who'll challenge him, Mr. Page is just another hot guitarist.

So is Eddie Van Halen, a virtuoso whose zooming scales and arpeggios are now almost as widely imitated as Mr. Page's riffs. He built Van Halen's music on the speed, blasts and squeals of Led Zeppelin's ''Communications Breakdown,'' later adding the synthesizer chords of the Who's ''Won't Get Fooled Again'' to land Van Halen in the Top 10 with ''Jump.'' When the band's original singer, David Lee Roth, left for a disappointing solo career, Van Halen took on Sammy Hagar, trading Mr. Roth's humor for Mr. Hagar's earnest party-animal persona.

Van Halen still plays some of the snappiest heavy metal on the airwaves, and its songs are likely to take odd musical turns - an unexpected chord, an asymmetrical verse, a textural change that's like hitting a brick wall or suddenly sprouting wings. Except for the ballads, which don't escape pop formulas, the songs on ''OU812'' are utterly exhilarating. Unfortunately, they'd be more enjoyable for listeners who don't speak English. Van Halen essays one song, ''Mine All Mine,'' about greedy evangelists, but the band itself is no fount of high-minded, uncommercial idealism. Its tireless strutting and preening and naughty sexual innuendo grow wearing rather than titillating. Like too many other heavy metal bands, Van Halen is all revved up with nothing to say.

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