Everybody missteps sometimes, even the mightiest overlords of heavy metal sound and fury.
In fact, for a metal band (or any band, really) to truly attain legend status, it seems as though they’ve got to experience one colossal blunder, be it a major performance gone wrong (Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 St. Louis Riverport Riot), a mortifying music video (Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite”), or, toughest of all to take, an eagerly anticipated album that hits listeners in every wrong way possible.
Some audience-rejected records bomb so severely that they blow the band to smithereens. Others just slip into obscurity and everybody simply slinks away from the wreckage. The following musical misfires from fanatically followed metal giants, however, represent catastrophic career milestones that brought on historic hatred from each group’s own most fervent devotees. That accomplishment, in itself, is highly, heavily metal.
Metallica St. Anger (2003)
Any list of this nature could only begin with Metallica, a group that has spectacularly and repeatedly earned the descriptor, “the band most hated by its own fans.” From cutting their hair to suing Napster, the group’s non-musical endeavors come off prickly enough, but for most of their career now, each successive Metallica album seems to infuriate on immediate impact—while simultaneously selling millions. The split began in 1991 with the self-titled Metallica, more commonly known as “the Black Album.” Long-time devotees despised the record’s slick songwriting and even slicker production, but the Black Album is what turned Metallica into the biggest-selling hard rock band of all time.
This type of old-fans-out/new-fans-in divisiveness intensified throughout the ’90s over the records Load and Re-Load. Finally, come the 21st century, Metallica managed to unite listeners worldwide as one with the 2003 release of their long-in-the-making opus, St. Anger: seemingly everyone on earth instantly and psychotically hated what they heard.
With producer Bob Rock (already scorned by vintage Metallica fans for his work with Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe) playing bass, St. Anger boasts a hissing overall sound, tinny drums, and, insanely, not a single guitar solo. The songs are harsh, directionless, and repellant enough to suggest that some day some art school nerds might reclaim St. Anger as an avant-garde masterpiece. The rest of humanity will still loathe it, though.
Not helping the album’s reception was Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a brutally brilliant big-screen documentary that chronicled the making of St. Anger in which two key members of Metallica come off as out-of-touch, egomaniacal brats (hint: there were only three at the time, and one of the slap-inviting blowhards is not lead guitarist Kirk Hammett).
Aside from the 2011 bungle Lulu with Lou Reed, that simply got mocked into oblivion, Metallica have largely healed the rift they caused with fans in the early 2000s. The carefully crafted Death Magnetic was well received in 2008 (although that, too, sparked online uproar over how its sound was “compressed”), and the group has since mounted the Orion musical festival and released the really rather kickass 2014 3D concert movie, Through the Never. Still, they’ll mess up again, somehow. They’re Metallica. That’s what they do.
Led Zeppelin In Through the Out Door (1979)
It seems ludicrous to suggest that fans “hate” an album that’s sold more than seven million copies and rapidly generated four songs (out of seven total) that became classics and still play constantly on rock radio. Upon In Through the Out Door’s 1979 arrival, though, Led Zeppelin’s actual swan song went over with vast swaths of devotees like the built-to-crash airship for which the group is named. Even each one of the band members ultimately griped about Out Door.
Landing after a time of personal tumult that included the death of vocalist Robert Plant’s six-year-old son and drummer John Bonham’s alcoholism accelerating to lethal levals, In Through the Out Door held its own against disco, punk, and lite rock, but, to do so, even Plant had to admit the album sounded “sanitized.”
Harsher still was Jimmy Page, who largely dismissed In Through the Out Door as a Plant solo record, deeming it “a little soft.” He also added, “I wasn’t really keen on “All My Love.” I was a little worried about the chorus. I could just imagine people doing the wave and all of that. And I thought, ‘That’s not us. That’s not us.’ In its place it was fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to pursue that direction in the future.”
Multiple generations of prom night slow-dancers and backseat make-out artists would disagree with that analysis—particularly if and when they were doing the wave.
Van Halen Van Halen III(1998)
Oftentimes titling an album with a number can seem lackluster (Toto IV, anyone?), but in the case of Van Halen III, it’s actually clever. Although it’s Van Halen‘s eleventh release, Van Halen III introduces ex-Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone as the group’s third lead singer, and it was intended to usher VH triumphantly through the turn of the millennium. Instead, they may as well have called the record Van Halen I and Done. From the get-go, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar each define the concept of a hard (rock) act to follow. To fill the platform boots of those blazing blonde California party-metal icons with cold, dark, sober-minded Boston brooder Gary Cherone meant a sudden and severe shift in elemental Van Halen chemistry
Cherone’s ill-fitting prog leanings and political protest lyrics, in fact, hit Van Halen listeners in a manner much like the cannonball does to the gut of the old-timey shirtless fat dude on the album’s cover. Appropriately, then, Van Halen III imploded on impact.
Rush Roll the Bones (1991)
“Roll the Bones” is Rush’s rap song. There’s no other way to put it and, since then, there’s been no way for the rest of the Roll the Bones album to get around it. The title track from Rush’s fourteenth album runs five-minutes, thirty-seconds and, of that, five full minutes consist of a terrific, mid-tempo, radio-friendly number from prog-metal’s most beloved power trio. It’s that thirty seconds of rhyme-busting in the middle that not only stinks up the song, it’s largely sunk the reputation of the surrounding material.
No one is suggesting that’s right as, among hardcore Rush devotees, Roll the Bones stands among the group’s finest ’90s releases. For less intense fans, though, Rush’s momentary lapse of hip-hop was hard enough to take on CD, but was rendered hideous to the point of hilarity via the music video, wherein a crappy CGI skeleton dons wraparound shades and raps his way into humiliating rock-and-roll misstep history.
Judas Priest Turbo (1986)
From their 1974 debut as mystic metal shamans onward through the New Wave of British Heavy Metal later in the decade and deep into ’80s power and speed metal, Judas Priest charged forward through multiple changes in hard rock with towering, leather-clad might for more than a decade. Then, on 1986’s Turbo, Priest tried their iron fist at incorporating new wave synthesizers and glam-metal flourishes to their sound and image and, like the apostle with whom the group shares their first name, numerous fans turned on them.
The glitzy production and sudden overwhelming keyboard presence on Turbo proved especially jarring as the record came in the immediate wake of Defenders of the Faith. Priest’s 1984 smash album not only elevated the band to superstardom, it generated three massive, muscular hits that remain in heavy rock radio rotation: “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll,” “Love Bites,” and “Freewheel Burning.”
Almost immediately, Turbo became a before-and-after line in Priest history. The band never again scored a platinum album and, come the ’90s, frontman Rob Halford would leave and return. The band would later triumph and continue to endure as heavy metal elder statesmen who still produce worthwhile, even great new music.
Still, at the time, Turbo was exactly not what the kids were waiting to hear while partying outside a Priest show in the classic 1986 headbanger documentary, Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
Kiss Music From the Elder (1981)
If you’ve attended a Kiss concert since the mid-’80s, you’ve heard Paul Stanley and/or Gene Simmons joke from the stage about the band’s 1981 bungled concept album, Music From “The Elder.” Despite the popularity of the single “A World Without Heroes” in their live set and the sheer weirdness of some lyrics being co-written by Lou Reed, Music From “The Elder” is second only to the spectacularly wretched 1978 TV-movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park in laughable misfires that both Kiss and their fans have affectionately embraced in hindsight.
Mötley Crüe Generation Swine (1997)
After a few years of being out of step with the Lollapalooza decade while fronted by vocalist John Corabi, original singer Vince Neill returned to Mötley Crüe and the group scored a $25 million Elektra contract. Whoops. Generation Swine is the Crüe’s bid to catch up with the dominant alternative rock of the day. It employs Nine Inch Nails-style industrial-metal beats and Collective Soul-style gloss-grunge production—but not well. Even the album cover, on which the band members don business suits and pig masks in front of an American flag, comes off so hyper-’90s it looked dated before the CD even shipped.
Despite a mammoth publicity campaign that included the wise decision to pose on the cover of Hustler magazine, Generation Swine went straight to the slaughterhouse. Vince Neill has since called the record “terrible,” blaming its failure on “too much experimenting.” Precious few will fight him over those words.
Celtic Frost Cold Lake (1988)
On Cold Lake, Switzerland’s premiere progressive black metal pioneers Celtic Frost took a shot at going glam. It backfired in a manner that only a sudden poodle-head MTV makeover and polished pop-metal sound could for a band that, up until the moment of Cold Lake’s release, had embodied and continually expanded crushing and relentless experimental extreme metal. However, unlike Rush, who are now philosophical about their go at hip-hop on Roll the Bones, or Kiss, who have accepted Music From “The Elder” with a shrug and a smile, Cold Lake still boils the blood of Celtic Frost mastermind Tom G. Warrior.
“It was the absolute worst I could do in my lifetime,” Warrior once seethed, “[and] an utter piece of s—t, possibly the worst album ever created in heavy music.”
When Celtic Frost re-released their back catalogue in 1999, Cold Lake most pointedly did not make the cut. The album has since gone out of print, and Tom G. Warrior vociferously aims to keep it that way.
T.S.O.L Hit and Run (1987)
T.S.O.L.’s Hit and Run is the end result of an intense, respected, legitimately roughhewn Long Beach hardcore punk squad making a naked grab at Sunset Strip hair metal cash and coming away with only empty mousse cans, annihilated street cred, and a lifetime’s worth of mortifying band photos—not to mention an album absolutely no one could stomach, then or now. In the past, True Sounds of Liberty (which is what the band’s initials stand for) had expanded their combustive punk roots to absorb gothic and death rock elements. Those moves worked, likely because they were artistically motivated, but Hit and Run was a grossly transparent attempt to sell out, only nobody was buying.
The band’s specific strategy was to remake themselves as Poison/Mötley Crüe clones at the height of poodle-head mania, play some industry showcase gigs in New York, and score a major label record deal. The first two parts happened, the third did not.
Tin the ensuing years T.S.O.L. regrouped and switched members, put out more records, and eventually became a solid attraction on the punk nostalgia circuit, touring most recently with their fellow piecemeal SoCal hardcore survivors, Flag. It’s a living.