If the years 1981-1986 are considered the “Golden Years of Heavy Metal” – then 1987 should be considered “the Meteoric Rise of Heavy Metal.” Looking back with the glorious gift of hindsight and wonderful memories, 1987 was a year of flux and flourish for metal. Consider the following highlights:
The popularity of metal via the largest medium at the time – MTV - was growing
Established metal bands were being signed at a record pace and new acts with no real experience were being gobbled up onto larger labels (like Atlantic Records)
Thrash metal was nearing its peak
Norwegian style black metal was starting to creep out of forests in living tribute to the first two Bathory albums
Metal starts mixing with other forms of music like rap and hardcore
Hair metal is on the rise, signaling what was thought of as the first “demise of metaWith so much going for it, heavy metal was quickly becoming a solid intuition, despite predictions for its early demise.
At the time, your author was an impressionable boy of 16 and in 1987, having become a fan of the genre just months earlier, I was a sponge for anything metal. 1987 offered more variety than any other previous years. Bands pushed boundaries, challenged traditions and forged sounds that would forever change the landscape of metal. Personally, it was the year that truly solidified my eternal love of metal, even though everyone in my life believed it was “just a phase.”
1987 saw both progression and birth of so many of today's metal subgenres. Let’s check out the highlights!
Traditional styles remained strong, however the influx of mainstream hair metal, the meteorand tinkering of corporate giants like Atlantic Records had already starting crumbling the walls of metal’s purity. Having previously gobbled up bands like Savatage, Twisted Sister and Raven and distributed material from the then highly touted Megaforce Records roster (Overkill, Testament, etc) – Atlantic was already well in the process of gaining its reputation as a label that forced conformity to the then current mainstream trends, or so many of these bands have expressed through the years. Most notably, Twisted Sister released the much maligned “Love is for Suckers” for Atlantic and the band broke up less than a year after. To this day, it is the last album of new material for the band, despite reforming in 2001 and 2003 as strictly a touring band.
Ironically, Savatage returned with a vengeance in September 1987 after a brief “Atlantic Records failure” (the much hated “Fight for the Rock”) – with perhaps its most coveted album in its discography “Hall of the Mountain King.”
The same can be said for a reinvigorated Raven who roared back with a vengeance with a new full length called “Life’s A Bitch” following the mainstream departure with “The Pack is Back,” which was preceded by the precursor return to form “Mad” EP in 1986. “Life’s A Bitch” was heralded by the fans, but the band was dropped by Atlantic and eventually saw the departure of long time drummer Rob “Wacko” Hunter.
Arguably, one of metal’s best releases was King Diamond’s revered “Abigail.” In 1987, King single-handedly made the concept album a fashion all its own and so many other bands followed suit. The tale of the ghost of Abigail would not only possess Miriam, but many metalhead’s hearts.
In 1987, the legend Udo Dirkschneider left Accept and released what was for all intents and purposes the next Accept release “Animal House” in November of 1987. Completely written by Accept and Deaffy (Wolf Hoffmann’s wife Gabby Hoffmann), “Animal House” was performed by Udo’s then new band U.D.O., where he continued the traditional Accept style as Accept was in the process of recruiting a new vocalist for a mainstream direction (which turned out to be 1989’s “Eat the Heat”).
Still, 1987 was still a very strong year for traditional metal seeing major releases from Dio (“Dream Evil”), Armored Saint (“Raising Fear”), Loudness (“Hurricane Eyes”), Anvil, who kept up its staunch consistency with “Strength of Steel,” Leatherwolf (“Leatherwolf” – its third distinct self-titled release at the time), Satan (“Suspended Sentence”) and Motorhead, who was still hitting it out of the park, this time with “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Hard rock - or was it rock that was getting harder - was quickly morphing into the “dreaded hair [or glam] metal,” which was considered by many of us at the time as the precursor to the “downfall of metal” (which, of course, never really occurred – it was merely subdued, and more so by the grunge movement than via glam metal). MTV picked up on the trend and it exploded, especially with the continued rise of bands like Motley Crue (“Girls, Girls, Girls”), Def Leppard (“Hysteria”) and Aerosmith (“Permanent Vacation”).
1987 saw the sensational rise of Guns ‘N’ Roses and the release of what many argue is the best hard rock album ever released - “Appetite for Destruction.” It’s hard to argue against it, as many of the songs are second to none and have been engrained in many of our then young minds. With the band back and touring again, sales of “Appetite” are likely back on the rise 30 years later with a whole new generation of fans being made.
Another one of the biggest hard rock releases of 1987 came from Whitesnake, with its then self-titled (now known as “1987”) album. The album saw then David Coverdale girlfriend Tawny Kitaen gracing clip after clip on MTV as the hottest chick in rock videos, single handedly spawning a whole generation of creepy dudes who – now 46-50 – still lurk in concert halls staring intently at any female.
As bands like Motley Crue and Def Leppard continued pushing further into radio friendly mainstream with big hair, Alice Cooper released what is still the heaviest album of his career – “Raise Your Fist and Yell” – with Rambo look-a-like Kane Roberts on guitar. Autograph released its final album with all original members “Loud & Clear” in March of 1987. Kiss was still on top with “Crazy Nights.” Norway’s TNT released a killer album called “Tell No Tales” in April, which was probably the best received album here in the U.S. in terms of commercial success, with the video clip for “10,000 Lovers” getting heavy airplay on MTV. Ron Keel released the self-titled fourth studio album in June, but it never lived up to its predecessor releases “Lay Down the Law” (1984), “The Right to Rock” (1985) and “The Final Frontier” (1986). Fastway’s soundtrack album for the movie “Trick Or Treat” far exceeded the movie itself and still holds up today as a hard rock classic. Helix’s staunch consistency as Canada’s best hard rock act remained with “Wild in the Streets,” though the band lost its deal with Capitol Records just after. Other excellent hard rock releases came via Sinner (“Dangerous Charm”), the rock steady Kix (“Blow My Fuse”), Great White’s MTV smash “Once Bitten…” and Shok Paris’ “Steel & Starlight.”
One of the year’s unsung hard rock gems was Pretty Maids’ “Future World.” Though it was this criminally underrated band’s only real foray into the U.S. market until recent years (usually it’s the only album fans here can name from the band despite a massive catalog), the album went largely unappreciated until decades later. I was most fortunate to catch the band performing the album in its entirety on 70,000 Tons of Metal, especially the first ever live performance of “Needles in the Dark.”
Parody U.K. band Bad News was the “original” Spinal Tap, having debuted on English TV in 1983, but Tap gets the legendary status. In 1987, the self-titled debut, produced by Queen’s Brian May, was released. By then, the then three year old soundtrack by Spinal Tap reigned in the world of parody metal bands. Still, that Bad News release was an absolute classic.
No subgenre of metal saw a greater rise in 1987 than thrash metal. With Metallica and Metal Church paving the way a few years earlier, the year saw the Bay Area thrash beginning its true reign with Testament’s “The Legacy,” Death Angel’s “The Ultra-Violence,” Exodus’ first post-Baloff release “Pleasures of the Flesh” and the lessor known classic debut from Heathen – “Breaking the Silence.”
Add to that some of the subgenre’s best releases from Overkill (“Taking Over”), Anthrax’s “Among the Living,” Nasty Savage’s “Indulgence,” Whiplash’s “Ticket to Mayhem,” Laaz Rockit’s “Know Your Enemy,” the brilliant subgenre defying “Killing Technology” from Canada’s avant garde Voivod, the killer debut “Ignorance” from Phoenix’s Sacred Reich, Canadian mainstay Razor (“Custom Killing”) and the twisted technical/progressive thrash origins of “Terror and Submission” from Los Angeles’ Holy Terror.
European thrash continued its rise, adding the debut from Coroner (“R.I.P.”), the stunning classic “Terror Squad” from Demark’s Artillery, Celtic Frost’s polarizing classic “Into the Pandemonium” (which led to the first of many breakups and reformations) and Destruction’s dual releases – the “Mad Butcher” EP and the landmark thrash album “Release From Agony.” The year also saw such career turning point to greatness albums from other German bands like Kreator (“Terrible Certainty”), Sodom (“Persecution Mania) and Rage (“Execution Guaranteed”).
In Brazil, a band was on the verge of a breakout – Sepultura. The band issued the second album “Schizophrenia” in 1987, but it wouldn’t be until signing with RC Records (a subdivision of Roadracer Records, the precursor to Roadrunner Records) and issuing “Beneath the Remains” in 1989 until the band would become a global commodity. Still, “Schizophrenia” was truly the beginning of the band’s classic sound, with distinctively better songwriting and production as the 1986 debut “Morbid Visions.”
Thrash had a landmark offshoot, as once punk/hardcore act D.R.I. coined the term “Crossover” with its 1987 release, signaling the crossover of the early hardcore acts into a more metal sound. The album garnered a host of metal fans that were looking for a socio-political fueled angst and D.R.I. was the remedy. One of the other godfathers of crossover – Suicidal Tendencies – issued “Join the Army” with a much different, more metal sound than on the punkish self-titled debut. Billy Milano also capitalized on the offshoot, having dabbled in the crossover genre with the Scott Ian project S.O.D. album “Speak English Or Die” a year earlier. M.O.D. would release its debut “U.S.A. for M.O.D.” in 1987.
In addition, lying in wait was the next wave of thrash bands ready to leave a mark, as demos from Atrophy, Impaler, Forbidden Evil (which became Forbidden), Kinetic Dissent, Sadus, Sacrifice, Hobbs’ Angel of Death and U.K.’s Sabbat (which would later morph into the folk metal godfathers Skyclad) were released in 1987 and waited to be discovered.
While U.S. power metal, which was born from traditional and speed metal, had seen its best days behind it (before resurging again decades later), there were still a number of classic releases issued by the likes of Agent Steel (“Unstoppable Force”), Liege Lord (“Burn to My Touch”), Obsession (“Methods of Madness”), Lizzy Borden (“Visual Rise” and the “Terror Rising I & II”), the much lessor known Apocrypha (“The Forgotten Scroll”) and the oft forgotten Malice (“License to Kill”). Manowar was still going strong with the classic “Fighting the World.”
In its place, European power metal was on the rise – heralded by one of the best albums of its kind: Helloween’s “Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. I” – and album that revolutionized power metal, just as they did with speed metal with “Walls of Jericho” just two years prior. Armed with a voice in Michael Kiske, who is still the prototype model for countless vocalists over the past thirty years, Helloween was truly the blueprint for great European power metal.
Over in Hamburg, Germany – Running Wild was coming out of its darker origins to be the originators of “pirate metal,” though at the time there was no such thing. In fact, though Running Wild embraced the identity due to the success of 1987’s other power metal landmark - “Under Jolly Roger” - the band actually only had only a handful of “pirate songs” from a lyrical standpoint – fluctuating from one to a couple on each album from this point to present. The base of Running Wild’s lyrical content was, and is, rebellion.
Proof positive that Germany was at the forefront of power metal at the time, 1987 also saw the release of another classic album – “Triumph & Agony” from Warlock. This would be the last album under the simple band name “Warlock”- with a legal battle that ensued some years later forced vocalist Doro Pesch to continue as a solo artist. “Triumph & Agony” continues to be regarded as one of the finest “female fronted” traditional/power metal albums of all time (though I object to “female fronted” as a separate subgenre).
Meanwhile, in Brazil – a hungry band with a budding new vocalist unleashed the debut album “Soldiers of Sunrise” in 1987. Viper launched the career of the great Andre Matos, who was to Brazilian metal what Michael Kiske was for German metal. Through Viper and Angra were not truly “connected” in any way – Matos was not only there at the origin for both, but was the signature voice for each of the band’s most classic albums.
While the origins of death metal are argued to this day, there is little doubt that Possessed’s 1985 classic “Seven Churches” was the first of its kind, with the subgenre named for its 1984 demo (and “Seven Churches” finale). However, the term “death metal” was used in adverts and compilation releases years earlier as a lyrical descriptor for bands like Running Wild and Helloween. Possessed was the first to identify the name with a sound.
In 1987, death metal was still in its infancy. Though Possessed was the godfather of death metal, the band that truly defined the subgenre was Death. The very young, and supremely talented, Chuck Schuldner was just getting started with the release of what still to this day is the quintessential old school death metal album “Scream Bloody Gore.”
Possessed was still kicking – releasing the amazing EP “The Eyes of Horror,” though this was the beginning of the end (at the time), with the band breaking up soon after. Sadly, when the band reformed – vocalist/bassist Jeff Becerra had been left paralyzed following a shooting and could only sing. To this day, he fronts the band in a wheel chair (like a total trooper) as the band’s only original member.
Another band on the rise was Canada’s Infernal Majesty, which released the classic debut “None Shall Defy” in 1987. The band would split up shortly after, and though has reformed and continues to issue releases – none have ever reached the same level as the debut. Quite frankly, as a 16 year old – “None Shall Defy” was simply terrifying with its power, frightening vocals of Chris Bailey and irreligious lyrics that intrigued a fan that grew up a god-fearing Catholic.
The subgenre was just starting a very quick rise to the top before eventually branching out into both melodic forms (again…with Schuldner at the lead) and extreme forms. The latter was already underway with one of the originators of grindcore Napalm Death issuing the debut classic “Scum.” Lying in wait, but at the very threshold of discovery, was the next wave of death metal, which was already producing demos in 1987: Bolt Thrower (“In Battle There is No Law”), Carcass (“Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment”), Pestilence (“Dysentery” and “The Penance”), Terrorizer (“Terrorizer”) and Believer (“The Return”).
One thing all metalheads are in agreement on is that Thomas Boje Forsberg (a/k/a Quorthon) was the purveyor of two distinct subgenres of metal – Scandinavian black metal and Viking metal. Back in 1984, Quorthon released the chaotic self-titled album – one that changed the very face of heavy metal. Here was a style never heard before which had absolutely no rules. In 1985, “The Return….” only cemented that chaotic style, this time with even worse production. Like death metal, the term “black metal” was coined by legendary punk crusted, hell fueled NWoBHM act Venom. As with most early 80’s descriptors – it was related to lyrical content rather than sound.
Little did anyone realize that this style would eventually turn into the corpse painted, forest frolicking and church burning characters that formed the infamous Norwegian Black Metal Mafia. Ritual killings, contract hits between rival bands and absolute tributes to Satan became the norm.
Meanwhile, Quorthon’s only aim was to create something that hadn’t been heard. In 1987, Bathory releases “Under the Sign of the Black Mark,” the album that spawned Black Mark Records and introduced a bit more melody to the mix. Though still solidly black metal, you can hear what would become “viking metal” creeping into songs like “Women of Dark Desires” and “Enter the Eternal Fire.” The style wouldn’t truly take flight until 1990’s “Hammerheart,” but you can hear stronger ties on 1988’s “Blood Fire Death.” Oddly, Bathory had a pattern of every two releases sounding identical before a monumental shift. Quorthon was a genius that wasn’t truly recognized until years later.
Still, in 1987 the fruits of Quorthon’s influential first two Bathory albums started to take root with the release of Mayhem’s “Deathcrush” EP following the demo of the same name.
Doom metal was still within the epic wrath of Leif Edling and his ground shaking Candlemass, releasing the best doom metal album of 1987 (and for many years to come) – “Nightfall.” The album followed the band’s subgenre defining release “Epicus Doomicus Metallicus,” argued by many (your author included) as the blueprint for the perfect doom metal album. “Nightfall” is regarded by Edling as the perfect doom metal album – as he introduced the world to the mad monk Messiah Marcolin. Though Candlemass was at its core a continuation of Black Sabbath with Swedish ingenuity, everything that happened in Candlemass’ early days paved the road for all great doom metal released since….and you can feel free to fight me on that.
Meanwhile, one of the originators of doom’s psychedelic cousin (which also lays claim to continuing the Sabbath style) - stoner doom act Pentagram - was also releasing a classic – “Day of Reckoning.” It was just the second album from the Bobby Liebling fronted U.S. doom act, but the band had already established itself a year earlier with the highly touted self-titled release.
Also toiling the scene with a classic release was the even more critically established doom great – Chicago’s Trouble, releasing “Run to the Light,” the last album the band issued that would originally be labelled “Christian doom metal” before reasserting itself a few years later as a full on stoner doom metal act on the 1990 self-titled release. Trouble was one of the first doom metal bands, found by Metal Blade Records, who released the classic 1984 self-titled album and subsequent great “The Skull.” However, “Run to the Light” was considered by many as the superior album from the band released up to that point, pointing to classic songs like “The Misery Shows,” “Born in a Prison” and “Thinking of the Past.”
All in all, 1987 was one of metal's strongest years and the seeds for maturation and progression were already being sown, even though the rise of hair metal was called by many the harbinger of its own demise.
Here is how CROM ranks 1987 releases by selecting the Top 42 here: