(Metal Blade, 1986)
“You say that I’m corrupt/I’m inflicting pain/But your routine sacrifices/weigh too heavy on my brain/Outside the breakdown/is driving home/but with my rebellious nature/I shall not fall.”— Lizzy Borden, “Menace to Society”
Rebellion. It’s the spirit incarnate of hard rock and heavy metal, the driving force behind the music we worship and cherish. Yes, rebellion manifests itself in the art form: the extreme volume and aggression, the long hair and outrageous outfits, and the often controversial lyrics that address themes fantastical, taboo, or simply thought-provoking. But this outright rejection of societal conventions is not contrived or merely contrarian – it is the native language of the outcasts, the loners, the misfits, and the thwarted dreamers of our world. If any single band/man represented this demographic back in the 1980s, it was Lizzy Borden.
Menace to Society, the second full-length album by this king of horror-themed traditional U.S. metal, is in many ways the Lizzy Borden band’s pinnacle. It seamlessly melds the eviscerating, melodic speed metal of the band’s first ep and debut album with some more mature and sophisticated lyrical themes. The album stands tall as a statement of defiance and individuality, capped perfectly by Lizzy’s freakily high-ranging tenor soaring atop. While the musical performance is indeed invigorating and passionate throughout, it is Lizzy’s stratospheric shrieks and emotive vibrato that nearly steal the show. Granted, one could expect nothing less from the (reportedly) shy young man who stormed the L.A. metal scene with Alice Cooper-inspired theatrical live shows and some of the best metal this pond side of Maiden, Priest, and Rainbow.
The “Murderess” metal party started back in 1983 when Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records picked up the tune “Rod of Iron” for his iconic Metal Massacre series (MM 4, to be precise); the band also received their first radio airplay for the song, on KMET’s The Metal Shop. In the liner notes to the Best of Lizzy Borden CD, Lizzy recalls the band hearing it being blasted out of multiple cars in the parking lot of a Dio concert. Now, that’s another hardcore Heavy Metal Parking Lot story, folks. Lizzy Borden’s momentum and notoriety quickly increased, leading to the band signing with Metal Blade and releasing the Give ‘Em the Axe ep (1984), Love You to Pieces (1985), and the Murderess Metal Roadshow (1985), the latter of which could be considered one of the best live metal albums of all time. That ripping cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” peels the paint and shreds the remaining shards of the more famous Guns’n’Roses version.
Those early releases established and crystallized Lizzy Borden’s patented U.S. metal sound, aided by the astounding excellence of eternal anthems such as “American Metal,” as well as horror-drenched masterpieces like the “Love You to Pieces” title track and “Psychopath.” On Menace to Society, the band further perfected their style while adding more emotional depth to the lyrics and melodies. Borden himself, whose piercing, banshee-like wails are akin to (Samson-era) Bruce Dickinson on crack, sounds like America’s bonafide answer to the aforementioned Maiden frontman. His astonishing vocals lend the band its distinctive flair, but let’s not discount the other key players. The guitar duo of Gene Allen and Alex Nelson deliver the speedy, palm-muted metal riffs and glorious twin harmonies with aplomb-a-plenty; Michael Davis’ basslines are consistently clear, rollicking, and driving, thereby avoiding the common “background rumble” problem of barely-audible bass in two-guitar metal bands. Finally, drummer Joey Scott Harges provides the relatively frill-free, yet thunderous and competent, rhythmic foundation.
The album opens with Davis and Scott laying down a relaxing shuffle beat underneath chiming guitar arpeggios. Then the sonic layers and tempo accelerate for the exhilarating speed metal juggernaut that is “Generation Aliens.” Lizzy Borden, thankfully, is just getting started. “Notorious” is a straight-ahead, highly harmonized ode to the historical tyranny of Julius Caesar. Here Borden displays his unparalleled ability to write verse vocal melodies that are nearly as catchy as any chorus. Allen and Nelson’s solos in the interlude are tasty and melodic, while Borden’s shriek in his final belting out of “Notorious” in the chorus send shivers down the spine.
Other songs simply deliver straight-forward speed metal glory with melody, harmonies, and few excess accoutrements (“Terror on the Town,” “Brass Tactics,” and the title track). By contrast, the Lizzy Borden band ably demonstrates their versatility by slowing things down for the dark and moody power ballads, “Bloody Mary” and “Ursa Minor – sappy tubs of ‘80s cheese not included.
Lizzy Borden is at their best when they meld their irresistible riffs and melodies with equally incisive lyrics. “Ultra Violence” is one of Menace’s more mid-tempo numbers, but its lyrical depiction of Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing psychological thriller, A Clockwork Orange, is evocative: “Unleash the beast that lies within us/on the roundabout/We find there’s always time/for a bit of the ol in and out.” Never hearing this song, much like the immoral behavior of the film’s protagonists, would be criminal. Musically, “Love Kills” may be one of Menace’s most melodic and easily accessible tracks. It also stands as an infectious and brilliant ode to the love-jaded among us (the writer turns eyes upward, whistling). “Penetrating like cancer it feeds/parasite sucking life for all its needs/Seeping through you with venomous bliss/until all lie defenseless, a kiss.” Love may indeed ultimately kill all that it touches, but this music will only fuel and inspire us through the dark times.
While Lizzy Borden, the man and the band, achieved slightly greater commercial success a little later on, Menace to Society remains their crowning gem. This is one of those albums and bands that somehow has always been criminally under-recognized and under-appreciated. It’s well past time to change that.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot