You can’t really expect your favorite artists to come up with gold every time they go into the studio. Despite the pedestals we put them on, every musician is still human and you’re going to need a lot more than just a decent hook to turn your song into something classic. A lot of bands end up falling short, but you have to take the bad to recognize the good.
Even though every one of these bands was falling on hard times when these records were getting made, the music more than speaks for itself, sounding much more rejuvenated and ready to kick ass again.
Then again, not every band’s career is built the same, and these bounce-backs tend to come after a lot of BS that got in the way, from labels jerking them around to having their last record seriously disappoint their audience.
It’s never an easy thing to deal with, but you have to fall from grace to realize what made you sound so awesome in the first place, and these records illustrate just how much these artists have grown over the years. The band might be the ones benefiting from these records, but the real winners here are the fans. We had spent years in these guys’ corners and had to deal with a fair bit of crap, but these are the records that remind us why we loved them so much in the first place.
Brave New World – Iron Maiden: The Return of Bruce Dickinson
Before nu metal really took over the world, the early ‘90s were all too cruel to the world of metal. Outside of some of the more mainstream bands that were flying the flag like Metallica and Pantera coming up, the old guard was not doing well at all, with Black Sabbath putting out some of the weakest songs of their career and others in the midst of calling it quits.
After Bruce Dickinson decided to get his solo years out of his system though, Brave New World picked up right where Iron Maiden left off back in the late ‘80s.
Though both of Blaze Bayley’s records with the band were never terrible per se, both of them did sound like the band on autopilot and trying to coax by without the Air Raid Siren out in the front. For this record though, you can practically feel the joy they have to be playing together again, putting songs together with a much grander scope like “Ghost of the Navigator.”
Maiden always belonged to Steve Harris though, and he sounds like he took notes from records like Somewhere In Time from a decade previous, making songs that hold together as epics by themselves even before Bruce comes screaming in. The Blaze era may have broken a lot of hearts in its time, but sometimes you have to go through hell to realize how much sweeter it is on the other side.
.5 The Gray Chapter – Slipknot: Overcoming Paul Gray’s Death
It would have made complete sense if Slipknot decided to retire from music altogether once Paul Gray passed away. Paul had always been the good-time spirit of the band when they took to the road, and after his tragic passing from a drug overdose in 2010, the Maggots were left licking their wounds while the band decided where to go next. They may have even lost Joey Jordison in the process, but The Gray Chapter is the kind of sendoff that Paul definitely deserved.
Which is strange because not everything that turns up on this album is necessarily one tribute after another. Going through every single track, you can hear Corey Taylor getting more and more conflicting emotions about what Paul’s death meant to him, making songs that are equal parts mournful as they are angry at Paul for letting himself go down into that dark place.
While there are some more straightforward pit anthems on this record like “The Devil In I” and “Killpop,” we were already in for a much different experience on songs like “Goodbye” and the intro track “XIX,” almost sounding like you’re being invited to the other side to look at what Paul’s death has done to this group of people. There’s definitely a lot of hurt to sift through on this record, but even at half capacity, this is probably the closest that we’ve come to seeing the members of Slipknot as human beings rather than musicians.
Worship Music – Anthrax: The Return of Joey Belladonna
The road to Worship Music feels like a headache and a half even trying to get down all of the details. After Anthrax finished touring off of the record We’ve Come For You All, the decision to record a new album meant dealing with who was going to sing.
Although Joey Belladonna had been present during the Big 4 tours a few years back, the band had to play musical chairs to decide which vocalist was coming in, from John Bush not being available to bringing Dan Nelson in for about 5 seconds before realizing what a big mistake they made. Once Joey was back in the fold, they hunkered down and gave us one of their most consistent records since the ‘80s.
That’s not to say that all of the John Bush era records were terrible by any stretch. John had a more than powerful shout that suited Anthrax really well, but there was always one foot that seemed to be trailing back into the sounds of hard rock than anything to do with thrash metal.
For this record though, this is thrash perfection from cover to cover, with Rob Caggiano coming in on second guitar to add more of a flair to the songs that weren’t there going in.
There are even a few moments like “Judas Priest” that seem to take the band’s thrashy roots in newer directions, almost like Among the Living with a little bit more muscle behind it. Aside from the raw sound of the record, it just feels like everyone was just having a good time in the studio, with these thrash icons sounding psyched to be playing again.
Metal might be scary and intimidating, but it’s also about having fun too, and this record is an absolute blast to listen to.
Saints of Los Angeles – Mötley Crüe: The Return of Tommy Lee
In the world of glam metal, Mötley Crüe may be the most f*cked up metal family in the business. Every single one of the band members has their own unique personality, and even without Mick Mars in the fold these days, you still feel that adrenaline rush whenever you see them in action. Once Tommy Lee left though, we had to count our blessings before seeing the old guard one more time.
Compared to the more punk-influenced stuff that Motley got into back in their glory days, Saints of Los Angeles is practically a diary of their entire existence, going through their career from start to finish over the course of the record.
While you can definitely hear some songs that sound more modern and in the vein of Nikki’s side project SIXX:AM, the lyrics are about as pure Motley as they come, like the brashness of a song like “MF of the Year” or the odes to their years of partying like “Down at the Whisky” or “Goin Out Swingin.”
Outside of just the story side of the record, the title track might be one of the greatest later-era songs that any glam band has ever made, with Motley staking their claim as the kings of the LA strip and celebrating all of the excess that brought them to this stage. Given all of the guest stars that turn up on this record though from the likes of Buckcherry and SIXX:AM though, this isn’t just a band resting on their laurels at all. This is Motley coming into their own as the true elder statesmen of rock and roll.
Black Gives Way to Blue – Alice in Chains: An Incredible Comeback After Layne Staley’s Death
By the time Layne Staley was found dead in his apartment in 2002, any future of Alice in Chains seemed dead in the water. While Layne may not have written every song the band ever made, his tortured screams across albums like Dirt were irreplaceable, having just the right amount of pain in his delivery and being able to mesh with Jerry Cantrell’s voice perfectly whenever it came time to sing harmonies. Alice may have looked like they were reduced to a tribute act, but something funny happened once William DuVall stepped up to the mic.
Originally working with the band as a substitute for Layne during a tribute show, William actually came down for an audition with the band and fit like a glove alongside Jerry, which blossomed into a full tour with the new lineup. While there were no real plans to make an album, Black Gives Way to Blue may be the most consistent release the band has made since Dirt, having just the right amount of tender moments and savage metallic fury.
That’s not to say that they aren’t indebted to the past though, touching on some of the darker corners of their legacy on songs like the title track or “All Secrets Known,” which addresses right up front that there’s no chance of going back to the way things were.
William is far from a hired hand either, having a lot more grit in his voice than Jerry and even adding a bit of a punk influence into songs like “Last of My Kind,” which are offset by the Jar of Flies sound of “When the Sun Rose Again” and “Your Decision.” Alice was always going to be a much different beast without Layne up front, but this is not just the same band looking to milk its legacy. They still have something to say and are willing to keep growing the legacy for as long as they can.
The Hunting Party – Linkin Park: A Return to Form After the Disappointing Living Things
For any of the nu metal stripe of Linkin Park fans, the early 2010’s could not have been an easy time. Records like Minutes to Midnight were much more indebted to alternative rock than anything remotely metal, and their new evolution on A Thousand Suns and Living Things almost sounded like they were abandoning rock and roll altogether, turning their songs into something a lot more glitchy and having tunes that were looking to reach the charts rather than create something you could bang your head to.
These guys always had metal in their veins though, and The Hunting Party is the kind of record most of us had been waiting for since the early ‘00s.
Thinking that rock had lost its edge, Mike Shinoda had talked about making the kind of record that the rest of the guys would have loved to hear when they were kids, and they deliver on almost every track on here, starting with Chester Bennington screaming his guts out right off the top on “Keys to the Kingdom.” They aren’t alone in bringing the thunder either, with Page Hamilton from Helmet, Tom Morello, and System of a Down’s Daron Malakian all contributing a different flavor to the album.
While there are a few token radio-friendly songs on here like “Until It’s Gone,” the main focus of this entire project is making something that’s a lot more gritty, whether that means making a full-on punk song on the track “War” or stretching songs out into more grandiose moments on “Final Masquerade” or “Line in the Sand.”
This may have just been a fun record just before the pop-flavored One More Light, but it was nice to know that these guys still had the same fire in them that they had left over from songs like “A Place for My Head.”
Angel of Retribution – Judas Priest: The Return of The Metal God, Rob Halford
Any hope of Judas Priest continuing on without Rob Halford just seems a little bit silly. The band may have had a few spats with Rob in the past, but while Tim Ripper Owens may have a great set of pipes, no one was going to be able to compete with the Metal God on any day of the week. Once Rob started to lean more towards metal music with his solo band Halford though, it was only natural for him to take his seat on his throne with his old bandmates.
Originally getting together to put together box sets of material, the guys assembled again to make a new record with Rob, which became Angel of Retribution. While these riffs aren’t necessarily as balls to the wall as what you heard on an album like Painkiller, this is about as close to perfection as you could have hoped for after the dark days of Ripper. Starting off with the heavy sounds of “Judas Rising,” every single track gives you a new flavor of what you expected out of Priest.
Even if it’s far from the best Priest album, this might be a good first exposure to the band for some people who haven’t delved into their full body of work, showing their fury on “Demonizer,” having a few ballads mixed into everything on “Worth Fighting For” and even taking a few of the good moments from the Ripper days like the sludgy riffs behind a song like “Wheels of Fire.”
There are even a few hints at where this new iteration of Priest was going to go next on songs like “Lochness,” a 13-minute epic that seemed to signal the more ambitious side of the band that would turn up a few years later on Nostradamus. It may have seemed blasphemous to use a new singer in Rob’s absence, but once the Metal Gods came together, they found their congregation all over again.
Diamond Eyes – Deftones: Dealing with Chi Cheng’s Horrific Car Accident
Around the late ‘00s, it wasn’t necessarily fun to be in a nu metal band anymore. Even though the old guard like Korn and Linkin Park may have been kicking around with their own offshoots of the genre, the guys in Deftones were getting really burned out on their own sound, with Saturday Night Wrist being a low point for morale across the board. The band had to ask themselves if they had anything more they wanted to say, but things seemed to change once life took a dark turn.
Originally working on an album entitled Eros, bassist Chi Cheng’s horrific car accident that would eventually claim his life put the band’s priorities into perspective, reigniting how lucky they were to be playing music for their fans every single night.
Working with a new sense of purpose, Diamond Eyes captured the same unbridled energy that White Pony had in the early ‘00s, perfectly balancing their mix of styles, from the beautiful sounds of the title track to making riffs that could peel paint off the walls like “You’ve Seen the Butcher.” Compared to their last few albums, this might be the most consistent mood that one of their records has ever had, never feeling too aggressive at any one point and just giving you time to soak in the atmosphere of Frank Delgado’s drums.
That’s not to say that the heaviness has gone away here at all, especially when you hear Stephen Carpenter break out the 7 and 8 string guitars, creating riffs that you don’t so much hear as you do feel in your gut whenever they start.
Chino Moreno may have been looking to reinvent the band here and there, but this is probably the most straightforward Deftones record ever made, making you feel both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. It’s definitely soothing, but also in the same way that entering the mosh pit is soothing. A great workout, but not without a certain amount of pain too.
Heaven and Hell – Black Sabbath: Overcoming the Loss of Ozzy Osbourne on Vocals
Ozzy Osbourne is one of those few artists who seem impossible to replace. If you were to look at where he was with Black Sabbath at the time though, you can see why the rest of the band wanted him gone, getting way too strung out on drugs and even having him play to the side of the stage most of the time while the rest of the band filled up the center.
Ozzy may have been out the door, but Sabbath always belonged to Tony Iommi, and their next iteration on Heaven and Hell was just a new flavor of Sabbath.
Drafting in veteran rocker Ronnie James Dio, this album is a much more aggressive affair than what we were getting on albums like Never Say Die, with guitar riffs that were a lot more metallic than the sludgy sounds of the ‘70s. Seeing how there was new competition in the wake of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, this is the kind of Sabbath that could compete with the likes of Iron Maiden, with Ronnie having a much more dynamic range than what Ozzy could have hoped for on songs like “Neon Knights” and “Children of the Sea.”
Outside of the raw musical differences though, this album was actually greeted with mixed reviews back in the day, with a lot of the faithful Sabbath fans not willing to stomach a new version of the band without the Prince of Darkness up front.
With the passage of time though, most of those disgruntled fans didn’t know what they had on their hands here. This was a completely different band now, and the newer version of Sabbath was ready to kick some ass one more time.
Death Magnetic – Metallica: Atoning for the Sins of St. Anger
Even with almost 20 years since it came out, most Metallica fans still have battle scars from listening to St. Anger for the first time. We may have been looking for Metallica to get back in tune with their heavy roots, but none of us were expecting this either, having one of the worst production jobs in modern rock, uninspired riffs, and lyrics that felt like listening in on a prolonged therapy session we should have never heard.
It’s a miracle that the guys even managed to survive a bomb that big, but they managed to get back in business once Rick Rubin entered the picture.
Being the man behind Reign in Blood by Slayer back in the day, Rick’s mission statement behind Death Magnetic was to make the kind of record that Metallica should have made after And Justice For All, which got the band back to the skeleton of what they were in the first place.
While there are definitely still some production issues (old habits die hard, I guess), the actual songs are what most of us had been looking for since The Black Album, blending bits and pieces of the best Metallica music and spitting it out into a tight 10 track experience, even finding time to weave in an instrumental on “Suicide and Redemption.”
And after a full album of hearing nothing but one underwhelming riff after another, hearing Kirk Hammett coming back to actually play some guitar solos was just the icing on the cake. St. Anger may have been a nightmare to make and sounded even worse, but Death Magnetic is where Metallica started to sound like themselves again.