Album Review: Whiplash: The Roadrunner Years
Reviewed by Gareth Pugh
When it comes to 80’s thrash metal, the majority of people, even the non-metalheads, have heard of the big four, and while many have heard of the next level bands, Testament, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Exodus, etc, there’s other bands which are a bit more clandestine than those ‘household’ names, some of which are just as big an influence and just as original and just as important as those pioneers. But for one reason or another they never quite made it out of the metal underground. One such name is WHIPLASH, a cult favourite among many in the know. This package collects the first three albums together, which in fact is all you really need, the following two releases were very different with the band veering badly off course into a slower more groove orientated sound. Then the two ‘reunion’ albums, many years later, ‘Thrashback’ and ‘Unborn Again’, both of which are worthy albums, but neither of them hit the heights of these three classics.
Formed in 1984 by main man and constant member, guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Tony Portaro, in New Jersey, and backed by the formidable rhythm section of drummer Tony Scaglione and bassist Tony Bono (yes, that’s right, 3 Tonys!) it wasn’t until 1986 that the band unleashed their debut album, the minor thrash classic: ’Power and Pain’ onto the scene. Possibly party the reason the band went largely unnoticed to many was ’86 as we all know was one of the golden years of thrash releases, (Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood, Peace Sells… to name just three from the big four alone) and the fact that the cover artwork was striking for all the wrong reasons, a decidedly amateurish cartoon of a man’s head squeezed by a metal gauntlet, on a black background with lightning flashes, it was one of those covers you quickly skipped over in search of something a little less embarrassing. Another theory I have of why they possibly didn’t get the success that others gained, is the fact that Whiplash, while being a suitably cool ‘metal’ name, but with W coming fairly late on in the alphabet, meant a lot of thrashers had already chosen, and spent their hard-earned money on something alphabetically earlier in the rack.
If that is the case, they missed out on a cult classic, ‘P&P’ is thrash/speed metal monster, starting with the iconic ‘Stage Dive’, still a concert favourite to this day. After the powerful intro the band goes wild, the fierce, untamed riffs and vicious, pounding bass and drums wonderfully captures the energy and adrenaline of a thrash show, this is their equivalent to Exodus’ ‘Bonded by Blood’ or Metallica’s very own ‘Whiplash’. ‘Red Bomb’ comes next and after it’s chugging, chunky start we’re then into a sporadic, chaotic, riff fest, with changes aplenty. The rest of the album follows in a similar fashion, most of the songs are either fast, faster, or faster still, take ‘Message in Blood’ for instance, the band is just a hair's breadth from losing it completely, and there’s plenty of inventive single picked note tremolo riffs and licks interspersed with bouts of thicker, potent power chords, and imaginative leads and solos. There’s some real classics here; ‘War Monger’ is another speedy belter, then there’s the wonderfully titled ‘Stirring the Cauldron’ with its herkie jerky rhythm, the venomous ‘Spit on Your Grave’ which is probably the fastest song here while ‘Nailed to the Cross’, sorry Destruction, but Whiplash got there first, is a nasty and fitting finisher to a really undervalued album. The real sticking point for many will be Portaro’s vocals which, although far from death metal territory, are definitely on the rougher, raspy end of the scale, but perfectly adequate for this harsh and brutal thrash.
Second album, ‘Ticket to Mayhem’ saw the band develop and mature, for starters the cover-art was much better, and while still comical, a skeletal ticket collector at a theme park, it’s much more professional looking. Musically the band were also more and confident, and, after a fairly superfluous intro, opener proper ‘Walk the Plank’ continued right from where ‘P&P’ left off, with blistering speed and riffs flying everywhere, whereas second track ‘Last Nail in the Coffin’ saw the band introducing acoustics and melodic clean arpeggios into the mix, with great effect. And with ‘Drowning in Torment’ the band slowed down, with a heavier, weightier approach which is no less potent. Fear not, there is still speed aplenty, take live favourite ‘The Burning of Atlanta’ for instance, although the overall approach is a little bit more controlled here and slightly less chaotic, while the unruly ‘Snake Pit’ is just complete and utter, unruly brilliance. ‘Eternal Eyes (Last Nail in the Coffin: Part II)’ has a bluesy swagger, while ‘Spiral of Violence’ again uses quieter clean parts for added dynamics. Overall, I slightly prefer ‘Ticket to Mayhem’ to ‘Power and Pain’, although the sophomore effort lacks some of the out and out aggression and energy of the debut, it more than makes up for it with better variation between the songs and in general the tracks are stronger and constructed better, with stronger hooks and melodies. Production wise this is very similar to the debut, it’s a bit clearer, but still rough and ready, but everything is nicely separated, the drums have heft and unlike many thrash bands the bass is nice and prominent, while the guitars have a nice bite to them, although the whole thing is a bit on the ‘thin’ side compared with today’s production values. One thing that hasn’t changed is the vocals of Tony Portaro, so if those are what put you off before then this one might still be the factor that puts you off, but if you care to stick around….!
Album number three ‘Insult to Injury’ sees an even greater refinement and progression to their songwriting than ‘Ticket to Mayhem’, whilst retaining their core sound. For ‘Insult…’ Tony Portaro, always a slightly reluctant vocalist, decided he’d pass the vocal baton over to new guy Glenn Hansen, so that he could concentrate on songwriting and his main love, playing guitar. Hansen adds a more melodic edge, without really compromising the band's sound. Song wise, the fact that Tony P can concentrate more on the riffs, the songs have taken on a more technical nature and the sound is of a more adept nature. Opener ‘Voice of Sanity’ opts for more of a mosh feel to previous works, and this slight shift in pace works very well, the bass runs are also a nice touch, and Hansen’s more melodic vocals really elevate the song. ‘Hiroshima’ has a very catchy feel, with its distinctive high-end bass, and strong chorus, a very powerful song, despite some insipid lyrics. The title-track has some exceptionally catchy chord work and is a very memorable 2 and a half minutes or so. ‘Dementia Thirteen’ is uses different parts to great effect, and the sweeping refrains of ‘Essence of Evil’ are a real highlight, but in honesty there are no real weak tracks here apart from the completely useless 5 second ‘4.E.S’, and even the instrumental, mysteriously named after the last album, ‘Ticket to Mayhem’, is a 4 minute roller coaster of a ride through innovative riffs, clean acoustics and plenty of time and section changes, and they finish with a real barnstorming thrash track, ‘Pistolwhipped’ which could easily have been on either of the previous albums, and is a fine way to end.
So, there you go, another great re-release package from those lovely people at Cherry Red Records, and this time you get three for one. This is really a must for thrash fans, the originals are either out of print, or if you can find them; very expensive. Great value and a very enjoyable journey into thrash history. Highly recommended.