January 16, 2020

Take Control leaps from the speakers with a riff you could boil down to make soup with…

Ah yes, the NWOBHM, or New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, to give it its full name! For those who were around at the time, it really was the most tremendously thrilling time to be a metal fan. Hard to explain now without the context of history, but after the similarly exciting punk explosion of a few years earlier, this was more of the same, but this time it was OURS. Instead of spiky hair, bondage pants and safety pins, there was long hair, denim and leather, and badges proclaiming the likes of Judas Priest, Rainbow and AC/DC. It soon burned out, of course, but left an indelible influence on the subsequent ’80s and ’90s metal scenes. But it’s easy to forget that the NWOBHM was far from a homogenous musical menu – right from the start there were bands of very different persuasions, all linked by the ‘punk ethos’ of ‘just form a band and start playing’. There were the melodic, more glam bands such as Def Leppard and Girl, the doomy Sabbath-throwbacks such as Angel Witch, the ‘we have keyboards and we love Deep Purple’ sounds of White Spirit and, at the rowdier end of the metal playground, the proto-speed metal of Vardis, Venom and, of course, Raven.

This set covers the band’s output for Neat Records, the North East record label which could lay claim to have been metal’s very own ‘Stiff Records’, with a host of influential bands signed up to them, and a reputation which almost came as a trademark of quality for a time. In this box you get four CDs containing the three studio albums (plus a live double) that they put out for Neat, plus a whole host of bonus tracks and a rather nice foldout poster with a ton of neat (sorry!) photos and a lengthy new essay. It’s in microscopic print, but equip your reading glasses and it’s fascinating stuff! First off the bat is the debut Rock Until You Drop, whose hideously amateur sleeve design of the band in a demolished recording studio, coupled with the title, give an immediate impression of the sound contained within. And it’s an accurate one, with the album being essentially the sound of three keen young North Eastern lads going nuts in a recording studio for the first time and simply blasting away their collective cobwebs and frustrations in a kettle of cacophony. By any laws of music, physics or whatever discipline you care to name, with almost four decades of hindsight this should come across as, at best, quaint, and at worst hopeless. But guess what – somehow, against all the odds, it still sounds as thrilling as it did that first day it appeared in 1981. No, there isn’t a massive degree of subtlety, and no, Dream Theater or the Mahavishnu Orchestra shouldn’t be quaking in their virtuoso boots, but none of that is the point. From the carefree blast through the Sweet coupling of Hellraiser/Action through to wrecking-ball originals like opener Hard Ride, Over The Top or the ambitious closer Tyrant Of The Airways, the enthusiasm and sheer spirit of the album is utterly undimmed by time, and is still heartily recommended as one of the best albums to drive to that you can find. It’s the Raven high point still.

The follow-up, 1982’s Wiped Out, was a little bit of an odd duck, lurching as it did between several different stools. The band had decided in the short break after the debut album that they might as well get on with the job of virtually inventing thrash metal, and this manifested itself in the shape of embryonic anthems including one of the best songs Metallica never wrote, Faster Than The Speed Of Light. It is impossible to imagine avowed NWOBHM fanatic Lars Ulrich not having Raven on heavy rotation in the build up to their own debut in 1983. However, Raven did not go the full double-speed hog, and this ended up with an album which sounded as if it didn’t quite have the courage of its convictions, with some of the tracks being rather in the shadow of their debut album predecessors without the sparkle. Having said that, there was way more ambition on show than that first record, which culminated in the extraordinary beast which is To The Limit/To The Top, which crams every twist and turn one could imagine into an exhilarating if baffling eight minutes. Opening softly, one immediately anticipates a power-ballad from the Iron Maiden Remember Tomorrow playbook, but this is swept away by a breakneck couple of minutes of pure power metal. This stops, courtesy of some rather tight ensemble playing, before the bass and drums unexpectedly shift into an unlikely time signature as the guitar showers half riffs and half lead runs over the top, before all three people briefly play three entirely different songs at the same time and then transition into a big, epic, almost prog rock refrain. There’s still time for some more big riffs and some more sensitive playing before they leave the listener dazed and asking what just ran over him. On a patchier album with some rather muddy production, it is nevertheless worth the price of admission by itself.

Third album, All For One, ups the production ante straight away, as opener Take Control leaps from the speakers with a riff you could boil down to make soup with. The band sound more confident than ever, and the album is sonically leaps and bounds above its predecessors, full of great, chugging riffs and even a few big, Saxon-esque choruses. However, despite the improvement across the board in sound and technical ability, the material is still not up to the heights of Rock Until You Drop, which retains its position as the band’s studio peak. I say studio peak, as the final offering here, the originally double vinyl Live At The Inferno, could be many people’s favourite depending on their predilection for big, loud, raw, in-your-face live albums. Because this is definitely one of those, lest you were somehow suddenly expecting Mike Oldfield or something. Indeed, the album boasts the capital letters guarantee that there are ABSOLUTELY NO OVERDUBS WHATSOEVER, which seems rather a given considering this was Raven in 1984. It’s like an industrial steamhammer having a sign stating that it has no lace doilies involved in its operation.

Raven would carry on after their departure from Neat records – and indeed still do to this day – but a spell at Atlantic Records with a slicker, more commercial direction failed to work out as the label had hoped, and they never captured the metal public’s imagination again like they did during this first glorious salvo. Come relive your wasted youth with this box. All for one, and over the top! Let’s rock until we drop, or at least until we’re tired…