Even among the most maniacally obsessed music devotees, oversights occur. Albums that should have been classics occasionally fall through cracks and just gather dust—unheard, unnoticed, and way underappreciated—often for years, and sometimes even forever.
It’s a phenomenon that’s afflicted every level of hard rock and heavy metal, from the mightiest mavens of arena anthems to underground exemplars of extreme experimentation.
What follows now is a collection of ten towering albums that, for whatever reason, never fully caught on during their initial impact, but are now poised for immediate rediscovery and enthusiastic embracing by anyone and everyone who loves their music huge, hard, heavy, and louder-than-life.
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Done With Mirrors – Aerosmith (1985)
“Let the Music Do the Talking”
“Don’t call it a comeback!” is a phrase that gets tossed around often in regard to actual comeback projects but, alas, in the case of Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors, it actually holds true.
Both lead guitarist Joe Perry, who had left in 1979, and rhythm player Brad Whitford, who had left in 1981, returned to the group to record the new album, and Van Halen producer Ted Templeman came on board to capture the reunited fivesome’s “out of control freight train” dynamics.
Robust with double-entendre wordplay (beginning with the LP’s cocaine-joke title) and rollicking with the dirty, sexy riffs and cliffs that only the original Aerosmith lineup can deliver, Done With Mirrors is a killer hard rock album in the classic sense of the term. It just came out at a time when the definition and the boundaries of that term were transforming in whole new directions.
A year after Done With Mirrors cracked, Aerosmith rolled with the changes into their monster “Walk This Way” collaboration with Run-DMC, which they followed with the more pop-oriented, platinum-gushing Permanent Vacation. That, you can call a comeback.
Wild Dogs – The Rods (1982)
“Burned by Love”
The Rods stand as one of the great “also-ran” outfits in heavy metal—and if any group deserved marathon success, it was these longhaired, blue-collar bruisers. Formed in 1978 by guitarist and vocalist David “Rock” Feinstein, who had previously played in the heavy-blues outfit Elf with his cousin Ronnie James Dio, the Rods emulated Motörhead’s power-trio set-up, as well as their mammoth sound and wrecking ball power.
The bands first two albums, Rock Hard (1980) and The Rods (1981), channeled the “metal played with punk attitude” fury of the British Heavy Metal New Wave happening overseas. The group even scored an opening slot on Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast tour in England. While there, the Rods also recorded their masterpiece, Wild Dogs.
Monolithic rock, stripped down and beefed up at once, barrels upward and outward off of every groove on Wild Dogs. Choice cuts on the order of “No Sweet Talk, Honey” “Waiting for Tomorrow,” and the epic “Burned by Love” can only be described as positively pummeling. They can also only be properly experienced by putting on Wild Dogs and letting the music just blow you away.
Violation – Starz (1976)
The band Starz is a favorite of Eddie Trunk, esteemed metal DJ and host of VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show. Eddie even regularly wears a Starz t-shirt on the air, continuing to fight the good fight in exposing new listeners to the sublime pleasures of this New Jersey ensemble that perfectly blended exquisite pop songcraft with god-of-thunder riffs and heavy hooks rendered flawlessly by way of their masterful instrumentation.
This group that emerged from ’70s one-hit wonders the Looking Glass (“Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl") should have naturally followed the progression from the Raspberries to Sweet to Kiss to Cheap Trick. But sadly, they never made it to the end of that line— at least in the commercial sense.
What Starz did do, though, is bestow three great albums in a row upon the world for three years straight, beginning with their self-titled debut in 1977 and then succeeded by Violation and Attention Shoppers! It’s actually a toss-up as to which of the trio is most essential—they’re all top-notch—but the nod sort of has to go to Violation, as it contains the group’s signature should-have-been-a-hit, “Cherry Baby.”
Betty – Helmet (1994)
In some regards, the band Helmet in general, and their 1994 knockout Betty in particular, has become a cautionary tale about the 1990s music industry. Following Nirvana’s colossal breakthrough with Nevermind (perhaps you’ve heard something about that?), record companies went on a spending frenzy to snatch up the next grunge-era alt-rock superstars. New York’s underground metal heroes landed on the receiving end of the most famous of those lucrative offers.
The group’s major label debut, Meantime, sent a legitimate jolt through the culture and sold two million copies. The pressure was on then for Helmet’s follow-up to break even bigger. Betty was that album, and no such breaking big happened after it was released.
Betty peaked at #45 on the Billboard chart, but its expansion of Helmet’s massive, constricted combination of industrial metal, Black Sabbath sludge, and unique ’90s intensity may have frightened away meeker mainstream listeners. It’s a shame, because had Betty caught on, Helmet may well have been the next Soundgarden. Regardless, Helmet doesn’t have to be anything but Helmet. The band remains active, and Betty remains available for anyone who wants to put it on for an instant full-force downpour of Lollapalooza-era rage-rock.
Bang – Bang (1972)
Early hype for proto-metal Philadelphia noisemakers Bang got them tagged as “the American Black Sabbath.” The comparison is not without merit: Bang, the group's self-titled debut LP, sounds hard, heavy, and huge while plumbing the depths of sludgy blues and skyrocketing upward with heart-pounding, headbanging songs, riffs and solos. Playing off their inherently loud name, Bang correctly billed its sound as “music shot from guns.”
Bang hits like a succession of cannonballs launched in slow-motion, punctuated by machine-gun fire, and loaded with landmines that go off when one least expects them. It’s a ferocious declaration of a new band pushing rock toward previously unexplored destinations and, in a just universe, Bang would have become as big as the monsters of metal they predated and inspired. Then again, in a just universe, they’re might be a need for music this ferocious, so, occasionally, we’ll have to call such a trade-off even.
Lock Up the Wolves – Dio (1990)
1990 may well have looked like a proper time for Dio to call it quits. Musical tastes were shifting and the glory days of Holy Diver and The Last in Line lay increasingly in the past.
Throw horns in gratitude that Ronnie James soldiered forward, freshly empowered by nineteen-year-old wonder wizard Rowan Robertson on guitar, ex-AC/DC player Simon Wright on drums, and former Yngwie Malmsteen sideman Jen Johansson on keyboards. Together, as Dio, they wrought fourth one last masterful howl of metal ecstasy, Lock Up the Wolves.
Blues-based, low-down, and alternating tempos between a crushing lumber and an electric gallop at top charge, Lock up the Wolves showcases each Dio member cutting loose and clearly having fun, while never skimping on the heavy stuff. A few years earlier or maybe a decade later, this album would have found its audience. Good thing it still can do just that today.
Danzig 4 – Danzig (1994)
“Brand New God”
The locomotive-out-of-Hades that Glenn Danzig engineered seemed to come to a crashing halt with Danzig 4. And there’s not one good reason in all of Hell as to why that happened.
Danzig 4 immediately followed the snowballing success of Danzig III: How the Gods Kill, Thrall: Demonsweatlive, and the instrumental project Black Aria, as well as the group’s rock radio breakthrough, “Mother.” 4 also features the original Danzig lineup of Glenn on vocals. John Christ on guitar, Eerie Von on bass, and Chuck Biscuits on drums.
Rather than rehash previous efforts, 4 upholds and expands on Glenn’s tradition of venturing forward with new sounds, new textures, and new ideas, while still being immediately recognizable as a Danzig record. The complex packaging kicks ass. Alt-metal had captured the mainstream entirely. Yet still… Danzig 4 flopped.
As with so many of Glenn’s favorite movies and song subjects, though, let’s all come together to make this extraordinarily listenable and rewarding project rise from the dead. May we all soon be able to announce: “Danzig 4 walks among us now!”
Power Metal – Pantera (1988)
“Proud To Be Loud”
The most important metal band of the 1990s actually took flight toward the end of the ’80s, when frontman Phil Anselmo joined Pantera to record Power Metal.
Even in their long-sing-dismissed early stages as a glam outfit casually (but not officially) known as Pantera’s Metal Magic, the combination of Vinnie Paul Abbott on drums and his brother Darrell Abbott on guitar percolated with potential greatness. Anselmo unlocked all that pent-up fury and, come the group’s 1989 breakthrough, Cowboys From Hell, extreme rock was never the same.
Power Metal is Pantera’s transitional moment. If it’s not what the band would shortly become, it’s much closer to that than what they had been. For the most part, PM consists of conventional heavy rock sounds, although thrash erupts in spots, as do flickers of a groove metal future.
Anselmo’s growl is not quite in place yet; instead PM showcases the singer aiming for and absolutely hitting heights in the soaring vein of Rob Halford. The Abbott Brothers up their game noticeably, too—one of the pleasures of listening to Power Metal is to hear Dimebag Darrell start to take risks and being to realize that the guitar god within him is just on the verge of breaking out and taking over the world.
Presence – Led Zeppelin (1976)
“Achilles Last Stand”
By the mid-1970s, Led Zeppelin ruled as the greatest, most popular band on the planet, having just come off the unparalleled triumph of the double-LP Physical Graffiti and a series of world tours that transfixed and transformed humanity. Bizarrely, then, Led Zep’s 1976 effort, Presence, landed with a relative thud and it remains, to date, the slowest-selling item in the group’s catalogue.
The reason for the underperformance of Presence remains baffling. It’s certainly not for lack of necessary Led Zeppelin ingredients. The album traffics in kick-ass rock (“Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “For Your Life”), epic jams (“Achilles Last Stand,” “Tea for One”), and varying forays into different sounds, tempos, and witty genre explorations (“Royal Orleans,” “Candy Store Rock,” “Hots on For Nowhere”). Even the Presence’s packaging art is cool, depicting typical ’50s advertising white people in separate situations transfixed by the same mysterious obelisk.
For whatever reason, Presence didn’t connect with fans (i.e.—the entire world) in the manner of Zep’s previous or future releases. That makes it especially valuable as perhaps the last frontier for disciples to discover in their proper study and worship of hard rock’s all-time highest and heaviest hitters.
Born Again – Black Sabbath (1983)
“Zero the Hero”
Ronnie James Dio famously joined Black Sabbath in 1979, replacing departed vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and recording two instant classics with the band: Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981). Dio and Sabbath then parted ways over disagreements regarding the 1982 album, Live Evil.
This left guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and returning drummer Bill Ward in quite the bind. Iommi’s initial idea was to abandon the Black Sabbath name and audition vocalists for a supergroup to be called Born Again.
Among those considered in the running were Robert Plant and David Coverdale. Even a young Michael Bolton tried out. Finally, Iommi happened upon former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan and the path was set, even though, as Tony put it, “We’d never rehearsed. That band was put together on paper.”
At the insistence of their new manager Don Arden (the father of none other than Sharon Osbourne), the group stuck with the moniker Black Sabbath and opted to name their album Born Again.
Emblazoned with a shocking image of a human newborn turned devil baby, the music on Born Again takes off from where that cover artwork suggests it might be heading—i.e, downward. Ian Gillan even claimed that the infernal infant on the cover made him throw up. The pitch-black sonic spelunking of Born Again packs a similar stomach-turning effect, but not in a negative fashion—this is Black Sabbath escorting you through Hell itself, so naturally the ride gets plenty bumpy.
Born Again’s songs are bracing, dark, sinister, and loaded full of immediate and lasting wallops. By any sane standard, “Zero the Hero” alone is a Black Sabbath classic. The album proved to be a hit and exerted a later-blooming influence on death metal, black metal, and modern doom.
Ian Gillan and Black Sabbath went separate ways after Born Again, remaining friends, while acknowledging that perhaps the singer’s style wouldn’t properly mesh with the band on any type of long-term basis. That inherent tension informs every scary note of Born Again, elevating the album from a one-and-done experiment to a one-of-a-kind treasure for the ages.