What Was The Greatest ‘80s Debut Album?

August 30, 2021, 4 months ago

By Mark Gromen

feature heavy metal hard rock

What Was The Greatest ‘80s Debut Album?

No era of heavy metal is as venerated as the Eighties. What a far reaching decade, in terms of sights and sounds. What began with the relative simplicity of something like Def Leppard's On Through The Night progressed, and repeatedly mutated, into the speed, aggression and technical malevolence heard on decade ending debuts from Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary, Atheist and Pestilence, amongst countless lesser-knowns.

Most of the genre's greatest acts enjoyed their heyday in that era. Many of today's stadium headliners can be traced back to that period. Earthshaking albums that forged the path for nearly every sub-genre began in those ten years. Everyone has their favorites, be it underground/cult gem or multi-platinum success. Countless lists have been spawned and many ‘80s releases are positioned at, or near the top of, almost any poll.

BraveWords will attempt a different slant: not just another re-hash of the best platters from the decade, or a specific year, but rather the cream of the crop in terms of a true ‘80s debut album. These choices should be stone cold locks, in any/all metalheads' collections, an absolute classic (probably the best album of their career) and not just personal faves. Then there's the more debatable aspects, like staying power and historical significance. Fastway and Blue Murder, great debuts, but...

Sure, there were demos and (cassette) tape trading, but in order to qualify, a band must not have issued any commercial product beyond pressed singles, prior to that first full-length. No EPs, which means potentially worthy candidates, like Jag Panzer, Mercyful Fate, Helloween, Queensrÿche, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Overkill, and many others, are NOT eligible (and arguably, some of those first efforts are not as strong as what would follow). May knock a few perennial list toppers out of the running.

Got the ground rules? We present the evidence (alphabetically)...you decide! Or maybe we missed some. What do you think?

ANNIHILATOR - Alice In Hell (1989, Roadrunner)
Doubt its impact? Had to be a pretty big deal, especially in the pre-Internet age, to garner global attention for what was (initially) just a one man project from western Canada. Rather late in the decade too, when "everything" had already been seen/heard, when it was more difficult to generate the "wow factor." Jeff Waters has had other highlights, namely Carnival Diablos and Criteria For A Black Widow albums, but more than half the tracks off this debut are still staples of the live set (no other album, even the latest, for which they're touring), can even come close. Classic songs identified with Waters/Annihilator, and none morsel than that the title cut (and its accompanying, dynamic diverse instrumental intro: "Crystal Ann"). If you can sustain a career on people attending your show in hopes of hearing one specific song; that must be a pretty powerful tune.

CANDLEMASS - Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (1986, Black Dragon)
While much of the light (back in the day, as well as posthumously) was trained on North America, the USA specifically, ‘80s metal was a global phenomenon. After a couple years, as the Brits struggled to stay relevant, English language mags constantly touted "the UK's new savior,” while countless worthy acts cropped up on mainland Europe, but were ignored (especially if there was no angle to hype). Unfortunately, a lack of communication (typically between small, financially struggling labels and the UK/USA press), but also language barriers and Anglo favoritism made many Euro acts wither on the vine until they could no longer be ignored. 

Eventually, some like Accept and Helloween would break through, but it was usually several albums into their career, before English speaking/reading fans would make their acquaintance. By the mid-‘80s, some of that had changed (thanks to a plethora of zines and tape trading circuit), so a band from Sweden could make an impact and with their first blow, Candlemass shook the metal world. While most (America, especially) embraced the burgeoning speed/thrash momentum, the Swedes opted for a paradigm shift, in the opposite direction. In a party era, such depressive tomes ran counter to the narrative. As such it would take longer to garner an audience, but one no less loyal emerged. Picking up the legacy of early Black Sabbath's bass rumbling heaviness, C-mass are credited with the rise of doom metal, although a listen to their catalog will produce evidence of speedy material, as well. Six songs, on two sides of vinyl, and at import prices, an expensive proposition that future restricted early mass acceptance. 

Once purchased, given the climate, was a bit of a risk (in '86), to begin an album with acoustic guitar (and virtually a cappella vocals). However, it isn't long before the weighted melancholy of "Solitude" kicks in. After synth sci-fi spoken intro, the 9:12 "Demon Gate" finds its stride, slowly wobbling, like a punch drunk prize fighter staggering around the ring. Occasionally the band uncorks another attempted knockout blow ("pow"), sending the protagonist to a neutral corner. "Crystal Ball" differs in that amongst the lumbering pace Johan Längquist incorporates a piercing vocal accent and the band briefly displays the aforementioned speed quotient (is that double bass drumming?). Apart from rollicking back n forth vibe of "Black Stone Wielder", these cuts remain integral to any Candlemass live set, especially the closing duo of "Under The Oak" (with its twisting Mercyful Fate style guitars) and "A Sorcerer's Pledge".

DEATH ANGEL - The Ultra-Violence (1987, Enigma)
Remarkable. First and foremost, because of their ages, when written and recorded: mere teens, with Andy Galeon (drums) only14. From the fertile Bay Area hotbed, the Filipino cousins had seen older/whiter guys get signed and they wanted a piece of the thrash action. While the technically ambitious, instrumental title cut clocks in at over ten minutes, it's still played (albeit an edited version) at most concerts, even to go onstage. In fact, always thought the youngsters "went to school,” as the playing throughout is of a higher caliber, trickier than the initial offerings from their compatriots. 

Over the course of the next three albums the sound (like the boys) would grow/mature, with Act III ultimately demonstrating some mainstream/crossover potential. After a 15 year hiatus singer Mark Osegueda and Rob Cavestany (guitar) reunited and re-dedicated the band to heavier sounds, but circle pit inducing "Kill As One" and the chugging groove of "Voracious Souls" have rarely left the concert setlist. From tour to tour, depending upon which side of the Atlantic they're on, the likes of "Evil Priest" and "Mistress Of Pain" might show up too. Not bad for the musings of a "bunch of kids,” 35 years ago.

DIO - Holy Diver (1983, Warner Brothers)
Unlike all the other entries here, Ronnie James Dio had already established himself before "debuting" his surname outfit, but what a way to launch a solo career! "Man On A Silver Mountain" (from his Rainbow days) might be the definitive Dio (the man) tune, but his initial solo foray certainly earned him at least 1A and 1B (in the title cut and "Rainbow In The Dark") on any such list. "Stand Up And Shout" leaps out of the speakers, announcing his presence. The speedy guitar of virtually unknown Vivian Campbell introduces him as a world class player. 

While the titular number never gets above mid-tempo, it is one of the universally recognized metal anthems (just hang around the after show or karaoke tent at any festival/cruise. It won't be long before "Holy Diver" comes on and EVERYONE will be adding their voice. Neither "Gypsy" nor "Caught In The Middle”, vastly alter the tempo, both preceding "Don't Talk To Strangers", which closed the first vinyl side. The cautionary tale begins with a restrained harpsichord keyboard and basically spoken words until Dio unleashes a sudden and violence shift in momentum (helped by some Campbell shredding), ultimately finishing as the most aggressive track. 

Just four inclusions on the second half, beginning with the heavy stomp of future concert staple "Straight Through The Heart". Sure the label was excited to hear the airy beginning of "Invisible", but that quickly dissipates. As mentioned earlier, the soaring vocals in "Rainbow In The Dark" make it a classic, an icon recognized with the name Dio, before the disc ends on a bit of a down note/tone, with wolf howling begun "Shame On The Night".

EXCITER - Heavy Metal Maniac (1983, Shrapnel)
Apparently a demo submitted to the label (an early home for shredders), who pressed it on vinyl without the Canucks' consent! Glad they did, keeping all the glorious, lo-fi rawness. Ushering in a reliance on speed that would soon catch fire (especially in California), all the more impressive since it was just three guys, with the drummer (in addition to playing sick fills) letting out ungodly squeals. Really a game changer in the scene. Following the post-apocalyptic windstorm, and nuclear detonation, if the back-to-back blazing buzzsaw guitars don't get you headbanging, turn in your leather jacket and listen to K-Pop, or whatever is supposed to be music these days. 

"Stand Up And Fight" is the aural representation of a street riot and the title cut, offers no reprieve. Who won't want to stand up and shout, "I'm a heavy metal maniac!"? There's a couple of longer, mid-tempo cuts (the type they'd overdue on the Violence And Force follow-up, where cleaner production and a decreased sense of urgency disappointed many of us early converts), but sandwiched between "Under Attack" and "Cry Of The Banshee" helps distinguish one song from the other, unlike many speed merchants, who never touch the brakes and crash headlong into a brick wall. The cover art, with a switchblade slicing a Marshall cabinet, screams "metal!" in the age when flipping through the record racks, gazing at images was the equivalent of sampling songs on Spotify.

EXODUS - Bonded By Blood (1985, Torrid)
Personal favorite of all the thrash debuts, but then it came a little later than the others, even though this band predates all the others. None of the Big 4 debuts are as vicious! Say what you will about madman Paul Baloff's strained shouts (more psychotic than even Araya/Slayer), but it certainly suited them live. The title rack and "Metal Command" chronicle the growing sense of community, within "the scene". Might seem lame in the shadow of tales of mutilated body parts (death metal) or sacrilegious deeds (black metal) that would follow, but some of these lyrics are scary. It's not all comic book/horror movie violence. Check out the promises within the band's signature tune or "Lesson In Violence". 

Baloff mockingly ranted about "killing posers" and much of the lyrical mayhem is committed with a knife (not a gun, as would be the case today), an implement the singer carried and was rumored to use, in clubs, to "doctor" other band's concert tees that didn't meet with his approval. Talk about intimidation! Nine choices, thrash by in 40 minutes. Driven by the H Team (Gary Holt & Rick Hunolt, at the time, the most wicked guitar tandem), apart from "No Love" (begun with an uncharacteristic classical music guitar solo) this comprises a roster of live staples. In North America, only "Toxic Waltz" (thanks to MTV/video success, at the close of the decade, and the rise of slam dancing/moshing at venues) supersedes any/all Bonded By Blood material. As was de ringeur for the time, a wicked cover, which has since been deleted/edited/banned/canceled (conjoined twins, one normal, one demonic) helped sales.

FLOTSAM & JETSAM - Doomsday For The Deceiver (1986, Metal Blade)
Forget who was in the band, or where they eventually ended up, just listen to the high quality material, start-to-finish. And reportedly recorded in just two weeks, for a mere $12,000. Like so many bands mentioned above/below, the debut offers numerous concert favorites, to this day. However, the constructions are light years ahead of most, in terms of dynamic complexity. "Hammerhead" opens with a bass rumbling, all band intro that could be used to start live shows, in lieu of an intro tape (that few had back then). The title has nothing to do with aquatic wildlife (just a wild act, backstage)! 

The tempo rages throughout the nine offerings, but it's the tempo changes which demonstrate a maturity beyond album #1. First there's a temporary slowdown in "Hammerhead". The title cut basically has two acoustic guitar instrumentals, even if Jason Newsted, who wrote most of Doomsday, seemingly found inspiration off "Fade To Black", by his future bandmates. Still an amazing track, the twisted progression of notes and especially Eric AK's piercing high accentuation (Yes, Virginia, thrash singers used to sing in a higher register). Should be acknowledged as one of the genre's greatest songs, hands down. Alongside the aforementioned, "Iron Tears", "Desecrator" and the catchy (if comical) "She Took An Axe" thrash madly and all were still part of the sets witnessed on both sides of the Atlantic, last tour.

METAL CHURCH - Metal Church (1984, Ground Zero)
Wonder how many traction neck braces (like those whiplash patients are given at a hospital), emblazoned with the Metal Church logo, were bought/sold from the flyer accompanying this album. Were $15 back then (t-shirt was $10 and a hoodie $18), but what would it be worth today? Talk about one-of-a-kind and merch! Start to finish, not a bad song. Within nine tracks, encompasses all the requisites of that era, in that there's an instrumental AND a cover, concluding with a hypersonic rendition of Deep Purple's "Highway Star". Really a different band once Mike Howe (RIP) replaced the slightly strained, hoarseness of David Wayne, yet many of these tunes survived the transition, even if Howe had to adapt them to his voice. 

Speaking of voices, an ominous voiceover, detailing humanity's demise, introduces marching "Beyond The Black". Two-thirds of the way through, the tempo ups to proto-thrash. Great beginnings continue (ask Popoff) with the band's signature track: a repeated, but gradually louder drum fill cuts through a windy sound effect, as the entire band commences, but wait for the killer riff preceding Wayne's first verse. Somewhat odd for a full-blown (2:54) instrumental to be up third, but "Merciless Onslaught" (drum workout for Kirk Arrington!) rocks, regardless of its position in the running order. It nicely sets up (practically segueing into) the shifting dynamics of a refined, softly begun "Gods Of Wrath". 

It gradually builds and shows Wayne had vocal talent beyond just as a shouter, although the scream he unleashes here is mammoth. "Hitman", a return to speed, sees Wayne squeal and Arrington run a marathon on his kick drum pedals. The successive pairing of high pitched "In The Blood" and "(My Favorite) Nightmare" (practically another instrumental, given all the voiceless passages) always provided me with a brief respite, prior to the cacophony continuing with blazing fingered "Battalions" (love that dual lead section). Start-to-finish, the album's a wall-to-wall speaker shredder.

METALLICA- Kill 'Em All (1983, Megaforce)
Undoubtedly the biggest legacy of the discs included because of what the band went on to be. But that alone doesn't garner Best Debut From The ‘80s status. By fall of '82, had started my involvement with college radio, so didn't have to buy every new release, in order to hear it: could tape anything in the rapidly expanding, yet still voluminous library. Was aware of "Hit The Lights", courtesy of the Metal Massacre compilation, the year before, so a full album by Metallica? That was eagerly awaited. Trust me. There REALLY was nothing like this debut (although many would soon follow), as a commercially viable product, mass produced, or otherwise. NWOBHM heavyweights like Raven, Venom and Tank were as speedy and obnoxious as it got and this was in a league of its own: fast, yet "technically skilled" (compared to those others) and the pimply kids on the back cover group shot looked like us! 

Once the tone arm touches vinyl, the aforementioned single strikes first. The blistering guitar runs were revolutionary and served as the initial musical "hit" in a metal "addiction", always looking for another sonic "score" that produced a more powerful "high". The riff ride continues, through chugging (and rather long, at 7:13) "The Four Horsemen", punk fueled "Motorbreath" and mid-tempo (relative term, given the surroundings)"Jump In The Fire", but the next jaw drop moment was "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)" instrumental aka "bass solo, take one," as it's introduced. The only contemporary four string wizard, in the metal world, was Talas' Billy Sheehan (later of DLR, Mr. Big, Winery Dogs fame) and he didn't sound anything like this. Side one (sneaking 60% of the ten tracks onto the initial half) of the vinyl closes with another all-out speedster, the aptly entitled "Whiplash". Headbanging suddenly became dangerous. 

Despite the brief otherworldly intro, "Phantom Lord" kicks off Side 2 withe another bout of blistered/blistering fingers, until an uncharacteristic respite (midway through), before ultimately ending as it began: in a frenzy. Throughout the debut, James Hetfield's voice is (an undoubtedly alcohol) strained rasp/shout. Listen to "No Remorse". The landmark thrash album closes with "Seek & Destroy" (second longest cut) and "Metal Militia". In total, not a bad one in the bunch and iconic, all.

MORBID ANGEL - Altars Of Madness (1989, Combat/Earache)
Only through a quirk of timing, fueled by line-up changes, did this end up being their first album, as what is entitled Abominations Of Desolation (with a different bassist and Mick Browning, later of Nocturnus, on drums/vocals) was recorded three years earlier (but shelved), featuring tracks that would eventually be re-done here and throughout Morbid's career. Some might argue that later albums (with a bigger infusion of label cash & accompanying videos, even a run-in with Beavis & Butthead) were better/more elaborate, but despite the budgetary limitations, this raw recording showcases Trey Azagthoth's wicked guitar playing and David Vincent's brutal, guttural throat, which launched thousands of global imitators (OK, rather tame, by today's standards, but this is where most of it got a start). 

Besides, hallmark "Chapel Of Ghouls" succinctly encompasses the death metal ideology: a short, the (un)dead defiling Christendom. "Immortal Rites" suddenly staccato (stop-start) riffing feels like a horror film accent, typically accomplished with an orchestral strings section. Throughout, the band is hammering away and out-of-left-field (left hand path?), comes one of Trey's wild, undulating guitar runs, almost a non sequitur: "Suffocation", brief, contorted slowdown in "Maze Of Torment", ocean current churning "Bleed For The Devil", or the unnerving bell/chime effect concluding "Blasphemy". Game changing, in sense of melody.

MÖTLEY CRÜE -Too Fast For Love (1981, Leathur Records)
Conjures an image most envision when discussing "’80s metal": puffy hair, make-up, colorful outfits and outrageous party antics (OK, all are probably guilty of the last one, some metal journalists included!). For the Sunset Strip crowd, some might proffer the 1984 eponymous W.A.S.P. platter, but without the boastful, profanity-laced, stand-alone/pre-release single (which Capitol refused to include on the full-length), it doesn't qualify. 

Simple and energetic, a first listen to "Live Wire" confirmed the leather laced crotch on the cover was representative advertising. It's closer to the hard rockers found on the Shout At The Devil follow-up than most of its surroundings here, although the Leathur edition (smoothed over with re-recordings by Elektra) maintains gritty guitar tone and recurrent cowbell throughout the running order. Vince Neil's nasal whine and yelps soar higher than most of America was used to hearing at the dawn of the ‘80s. There's a Sweet feel to "Public Enemy #1". Descending riff in "Take Me To The Top" is a cool effect. Lyrical themes of womanizing (guitar heavy "Piece Of Your Action", call & response chorus of the title track, "Take Me To The Top" and self-explanatory "Come On And Dance"), raising hell ("Live Wire") and anti-authoritarian ("Public Enemy #1", echoing groove of "Stick To Your Guns") would prove VERY prophetic!

RAVEN - Rock Until You Drop (1981, Neat)
One of the rare NWOBHM acts that was able to translate into the thrash era (at least initially, thanks to getting a foothold outside the UK, in their case, the States, albeit prior to Atlantic Records missteps) and even more amazing, still viable today. The brothers Gallagher have been playing onstage, together, since '74! Much like labelmates Venom, there was something unsettling, yet unintentional comedic, about the seriousness of the delivery (especially bassist John's off kilter high pitched wail). Listen to his lengthy sustain (pre-ProTools) on "Hell Patrol". On the other end of things, "39/40" is an uncharacteristic, tranquil 52 seconds of Renaissance era, madrigal inspired, instrumental intermezzo, cleansing the palate for pro-thrasher "For The Future". 

These are anthems to youthful enthusiasm: "We Don't Need Your Money" (not that they were earning much, if any), "Over The Top" (where they're headed) and girl troubles: "Hellraiser" (which segues into an adaptation of The Sweet's "Action"). The title track, announcing their intent with its clarion call introductory notes, is still a live favorite, when unleashed from the vast catalog (which includes 14 full-lengths, several live outings and countless EPs, singles and compilations across the decades). Apart from the mile-a-minute vocal delivery, the start-stop "Nobody's Hero" is a typical NWOBHM construct. The closing pair are (now) rarely trotted out, speedy, more aggressive gems: "Lambs To The Slaughter" and "Tyrant Of The Airways". It may not be raucous, but you can still hear the intent in the grooves (and snippets of conversation left between some cuts). Classic.

TESLA - Mechanical Resonance (1986, Geffen)
Took full advantage of the promotional ($) power of the mid-‘80s Geffen machine to get videos on MTV and score high profile tours (DLR, Def Leppard, Poison), although (mis)perceived as a glam act, as a result. That said, they really didn't fit squarely in any of the segmenting sub-cultures of metal, just good, straight ahead songs. Turns out, the best of their career, as only the cover of "Signs" and the acoustic gig (at the dawn of the Nineties) would garner anywhere nearly as much interest as the debut. OK, a minor deduction for the funky bass notes that kick off "EZ Come EZ Go" but when it moves beyond the purposefully holding back strategy successfully employed by Van Halen, the tune rips. 

From there on out, it's pretty much aggro attitude and (usually) guitars to match. Check out the noodling throughout "Cumin' Atcha Live". Loose hi-hat drumming flying around almost as much as the guitar chords. Another refined start becomes (a short, 3:20) pounding rocker in "Gettin' Better". Drop the F-bomb in "2 Late 4 Love" before "Rock Me To The Top" lives up to billing. The first half dozen (now into the CD era, so able to squeeze more songs onto each release) closes with "We're No Good Together", a blues ballad that (even with a rousing ‘50s rockabilly coda) sticks out like a sore thumb. Back to heavy rock with "Modern Day Cowboy". Despite the title, no country, nor western influence, the lyrics seemingly targeted at (then) US President Ronald Regan. 

A crescendo, led by lounge piano, greets "Changes", which feels like an ‘80s Foreigner construct, to start (Easy to see why fickle listeners, able to skip/fast forward with modern, non-turntable technology might not have given Tesla their due). Even though an acoustic guitar introduces second single/cover "Little Suzi", it morphs into a jangly, balls out rocker, just what the band needed. Squawk box is the most exciting aspect of "Love Me", while there's a sleazy, stripper strut to "Cover Queen". Disc concludes with "Before My Eyes".

VENOM - Welcome To Hell (1981, Neat)
The importance of this record, 40 years on, can't be minimized. While not a watershed moment in high fidelity (there aren't many albums recorded AND "mixed" in three days, total, that have not only lasted, but created as much of a stir). Helping to prove the viability of black metal (basically creating the scene), the tropes of that genre are all over this record: lyrics, image, props and bombastic bravado (quotes the back sleeve, for all to read, those ballsy enough to purchase the vinyl, as well as the curious and naysayers: "We are possessed by all that is evil. The death of your God we demand. We spit at the virgin you worship. And sit at lord Satan’s left hand.") 

Nothing subtle or atmospheric, the first notes to "Sons of Satan" opener sound like an 18-wheeler pile-up and it only gets noisier. Again, several definitive Venom nuggets are part of the soundtrack, including the title cut (up second), with plenty of ride cymbal from Abaddon. "Schizo" is the first time the speed quotient goes into the red, practically faster than the band can muster. While Cronos' cackle is clearly up front, the music is often a mush of low end frequency, broken only by a Mantas solo. The serene bit, expected to kick things off, shows up as a 56 second, gong accented intermezzo, called "Mayhem With Mercy". It clears the way for grinding, over-the-top "Poison" (a regretted account of contracting VD). Seemingly having found their groove (after a rather slow initial build-up) successive options pick up the pace, including a racing, snarled vocal "Live Like An Angel (Die Like A Devil)". 

Trimming times to a few second either side of 3:30, the onslaught continues with "Witching Hour", this album's definite venom audio (courtesy of short guitar flourish slicing through the lovingly hellish din. Yes! Switch back to a pulverizing march for "One thousand Days In Sodom" before a 2:37 "Angel Dust" gives the impression of what it must feel like to be on the stuff: speeding, confused and slightly incoherent. Backward masked message (you can hear the turntable grooves being spun) introduces the tribal drumming "In League With Satan", where Cronos' delivery is double tracked. Violin music, a crashing crescendo of electric instruments and speeding thump kick off the "Red Light Fever" finale, a seemingly extemporaneously recorded performance of feedback and random audio. Perhaps it was necessary to get the most out of the recording tape for which they paid. At least half the tunes warrant "hallowed" status in Venom lore, maybe even a few more.

So who is it? Impossible to pick one, universal choice, without stylistic preferences getting involved.

Funny, how if you Google "80s metal" probably only two or three of these names/photos would appear. A far cry from what most misconceive the era was ALL about. Tons of great music, different styles/sounds. Much like today. Keep exploring and supporting metal music.

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