Various Artists

Metal Blade Records: 20th Anniversary

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Starting in 1982 during the magic period when American heavy metal found its voice in thrash, Metal Blade Records carved a niche in the indie community as the premiere showcase for young metal bands. By taking an honest, fan-friendly approach to a genre that the mainstream often rejects, Metal Blade built a body of work that documents the excessive, wonderful world of underground metal for two decades. With nine discs of music, a 40-page booklet, and a DVD dedicated to live performances and videos, Metal Blade Records 20th Anniversary is a dream compilation of the most memorable artists to spew forth from the label. What makes this such a fantastic set is the refusal to take a condescending attitude towards the genre, accepting all the faux-satanic gimmicks and goofy outfits as an important aspect of the scene. And face it, they were, as anyone from Slayer (whose early press photos are a booklet highlight) to post-apocalyptic sex mutants Gwar can attest to. The DVD is especially fun for this reason, as Mercyful Fate and Candlemass (among others) make their low-budget videos camp masterpieces due to their stone-faced seriousness amid plastic skulls and threadbare sets. But this isn't a mere parade of dated clichés and bad hair, as any disc here can prove. Contained inside are some of the earliest tracks from some of the most vital acts in the development of thrash and death metal. Hearing the birth of American thrash develop throughout the first two discs is fascinating, and the blueprint is laid down from the first moment with Metallica's opening track, "Hit the Lights." Using a version only available on early vinyl pressings of the Metal Massacre compilation, the rough recording is still a magical moment, as the teenage metalheads (then featuring Dave Mustaine on lead guitar!) chug through a masterful Mercyful Fate rip-off with little awareness of the song's historical significance. Slayer, Voivod, Trouble, Corrosion of Conformity, Armored Saint, and Flotsam & Jetsam are also all here in their youthful glory, bashing out sloppy, fast heavy metal that was attempting to ape their heroes in the British scene. Each band would have such a profound affect on the genre, it's refreshing to hear them in such a primal stage of their careers. As the set progresses, the label's attempts at variety become more evident, and heady prog metal songs from Fates Warning and proto-doom metal anthems from Candlemass become the highlights. The sense of following the growth of a genre dissipates as the bands begin to leave the label, but this makes way for blastbeat pioneers D.R.I., politically aware headbangers Sacred Reich, and death metal mainstays Cannibal Corpse. Finally, as the set reaches the '90s, thoughtful alternative metal bands like the Galactic Cowboys, the Junk Monkeys, and King's X stand side by side with veterans such as Manowar, King Diamond, and Savatage as the label's biggest attractions. The unique and mature work of the label's newer artists (and there are many more than just the few named) fits surprisingly well with the dramatic anthems of their elders, and the overall quality of most of the material tends to keep the discs tight and flowing nicely. There are some questionable absences from the set, considering that the Goo Goo Dolls' first few albums were released through Metal Blade, and the lack of Sodom, Dr. Know, and the Mentors may disappoint longtime followers of the label. But minor discrepancies aside, this is an awesome, comprehensive set of heavy metal that lovingly details the label's history and paints an honest, warts-and-all portrait of the first significant independent label to showcase heavy metal.

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