If Sunset Strip-style hard rock can be equated to the Star Wars films, the 1990s were the genre’s The Empire Strikes Back. Much like A New Hope, the 1980s represented the triumphant introduction of bands like Mötley Crüe, Warrant, Def Leppard and Poison, rising against the odds to achieve victory. And the present day is the Return of the Jedi, with the victorious era of the Rocklahoma and M3 festivals, Rock of Ages and big-ticket package tours. But the 1990s were a dark time for the rock rebels. Grunge and alternative had pushed Californian hard rock out of the spotlight. And worse, ’90s stars were actively trashing ’80s-style technique and production values. To quote another George Lucas production (Howard the Duck), the ’80s glam metal superstar was now “trapped in a world he never made.”
Coinciding with the rise of the alternative nation, most ’80s hard rock bands attempted to toughen up their sound, for the most part creating a new melodic/rhythmic hybrid rather than simply trying to “go grunge.” Many albums of this era pair melodies from psychedelic rock with rhythms from 1970s metal, combined with maybe a bit of contemporary drop-D tuning. It was an intriguing time for rock music, especially in retrospect. And now, up to two decades later, these albums are well worth revisiting, stripped of their ’80s-band-in-a-’90s-world context and taken on their own merits.
Warrant - Dog Eat Dog (1992)
Warrant vocalist Jani Lane was not shy about voicing his discomfort with the band’s megahit “Cherry Pie.” The album of the same name included more hard-hitting, blues-influenced material like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but with Dog Eat Dog Warrant more extensively explored darker, heavier sounds with elements of progressive and alternative rock. Gone were the C.C. DeVille guest solos, and Lane was able to display more of his undeniable songwriting talent. Parts of the album were even recorded at Morrisound Studios, the Tampa facility hailed as the center of the early ’90s Death Metal scene.
Trixter - Hear! (1992)
Trixter made a name for themselves through the good-time, post-Van Halen hard rock on their 1990 self-titled debut, with great guitar work courtesy of Steve Brown. The 1992 follow-up, Hear! is not particularly grunge-influenced – the mainstream popularity of the genre was still a pretty new phenomenon when this was recorded – but it’s definitely a harder-hitting album than its predecessor. The musicianship is more polished, the production is punchier and the songs rock a little harder. Trixter disbanded after their 1994 covers album Undercovers, but this year’s reunion album New Audio Machine is the ultimate realization of Trixter’s mix of hard rock, pop melody and virtuoso soloing.
Poison - Native Tongue (1993)
Where do you go when you’ve done the “Unskinny Bop,” had “Nothin’ But a Good Time” and learned that “Every Rose Has Its Thorn?” You fire your guitarist, hire Richie Kotzen (a blues and soul influenced shredder, inspired songwriter and very capable vocalist) and release a rootsy, funky, punchy album. Native Tongue peaked at #16 on the Billboard chart and went gold within two months of its release, but following a world tour the shine began to wear off and soon Kotzen was out. Kotzen went on to join fusion supergroup Virtu then Mr. Big, along with resuming his solo career (check out his brilliant new album 24 Hours), while Poison hired Blues Saraceno for a while before C.C. Deville eventually rejoined.
Winger - Pull (1993)
Winger took a lot of flak when grunge rose, especially from Beavis & Butthead on MTV. They were an easy target, with their poster-boy looks and pop hooks, but if only 1993’s Pull was given a chance by the same network whose show helped bring them down, the band could have ridden out the grunge wave. Stripped of the bubblegum that propelled songs like “Seventeen” from their 1988 debut, Pull has an almost progressive metal edge, especially on opener “Blind Revolution Mad.” The band’s subsequent reunion albums, IV (2006) and Karma (2009), build on this version of the Winger style rather than the sound established on their first few albums.
Mötley Crüe - Mötley Crüe (1994)
Consider the grandaddy of classic overlooked ’90s albums by ’80s bands, MC94, as it’s informally known, features the bluesy vocals and additional rhythm guitar of John Corabi (The Scream, Union) instead of Vince Neil. With almost 20 years of hindsight it stands out as a fully realized rebirth of the band: stripped of the glitz, the 1994 edition of Motley Crüe was angry, intense, confident and bold. Tommy Lee demonstrates the drum chops which brought him to the attention of bass god Stu Hamm for his 1991 album The Urge, and Mick Mars’ guitar work was never more inventive, textural and focused. But the album fell flat with audiences. Crüe fans wanted Vince, and grunge audiences just didn’t want Mötley Crüe.
Dokken - Dysfunctional (1995)
George Lynch had only been out of Dokken for four years when he rejoined in 1993, but for fans it had seemed like an eternity. Lynch had released the well-received solo album Sacred Groove with guest vocalists including Glenn Hughes, the Nelson brothers, WWIII’s Mandy Lion and Ray Gillan, but Lynch fans really wanted to hear him back with the band that made him famous. Dysfunctional simply didn’t do it for most fans. Despite some solid songwriting, the material is generally darker and more introspective. It’s not grunge but it’s definitely not ’80s-style hard rock – if anything it nods back to the 1970s. The band followed Dysfunctional with Shadowlife in 1997, an almost universally panned album which did try too hard to be grunge – and did so after the grunge revolution was well and truly over.
Def Leppard - Slang (1996)
Def Leppard are the band who are getting the out of Rock of Ages – heck, the show is named after one of their songs. And it’s almost impossible to listen to a modern rock track that doesn’t borrow some form of production influence from Def Leppard’s 1987 classic Hysteria. Produced by the band and Pete Woodroffe, Slang taps into darker subject matter than its predecessors, and features eclectic instrumentation, acoustic drums and the full force of guitarist Vivian Campbell. The album went gold in the U.S. and U.K., and platinum in Canada, but never came close to the 20 million units of Hysteria sold. Like MC94, Slang is looked upon by fans favorably in retrospect, and the band has hinted at a possible reissue in the near future.
Queensrÿche - Hear in the Now Frontier (1996)
Queensrÿche started as a popular Iron Maiden-influenced metal band but 1990’s Empire propelled them to stardom. Power ballad “Silent Lucidity” cracked the Billboard Top 10 and topped the Mainstream Rock Charts, while the album itself hit #7. The 1994 follow-up Promised Land explored darker textures and lyrical themes and even outperformed Empire’s chart result by hitting #3, but the grunge-influenced Hear in the Now Frontier featured a stripped-down, grunge-influenced style which didn't gel with fans. The album was partially recorded in Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s home studio and it was mixed by Toby Wright (Alice in Chains). Guitarist Chris DeGarmo left the band after the band’s 1997 tour, and although he participated in some of the tracks on 2003’s Tribe, and despite some great tracks throughout their post-DeGarmo output, Queensrÿche never quite recovered.