The other side of the coin: Plasmatics and English Dogs

There may have been much analysis of punk’s evolution into thrash via hardcore, and how it resulted in the golden age of extreme metal; but it’s easy to forget the other side of punk’s impact on heavy metal as it was in the late 1970s. Away from whatever contrived antagonisms there were between the two subcultures, many artists simply borrowed elements from both traditions and applied them to a broadly rock framework. This is a story of more immediately obvious musical similarities than the complex cross pollination that occurred a few years later between thrash and metal. In that little window of time, before NWOBHM was outclassed by speed metal, before thrash metal became the consensus on how to combine metal and punk traditions; there was a brief period when harsh and energetic heavy metal still rooted in rock traditions claimed a monopoly on musical extremity, heavily informed by punk. We could broadly lump this in with heavy metal cultural streams of the late 70s and early 80s, caught between the worlds of ambition and regression, but it may still be worth isolating those heavy metal artists from this time with an overt penchant for punk all the same.

The evolution of Plasmatics prior to the release of their third LP ‘Coup d’Etat’ in 1982 was one of bare-bones punk shock rockers gradually refining their recorded material into heavy metal sophistication. As the metal elements grew more ambitious however, the sloppy antecedents still present in their music were replaced by anthemic rock ‘n’ roll (we’re not that out there with this observation given that one of the tracks on this album is called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’). The result is another schizophrenic release from the early 80s, that to modern ears appears trapped between two worlds; one is the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll as heavier pop music, an edgier form of light entertainment to mirror mainstream TV and film, the other is epic and sweeping heavy metal tapping into artforms with a longer attention span and a challenging message of descent against modernity. That being said, Plasmatics’ sing along numbers are a cut above the average anthemic heavy rock of this era. They have retained a pronounced punky grit carried over from their earlier releases which gives the whole album a drive and energy not present on more radio friendly equivalents.

It should also be noted that, despite their Mad Max anti-art aesthetic and abrasive primitivism, Plasmatics at this time were great musicians and song writers. Each track has an infectious hook that proudly dictates its direction, with verse//chorus/bridge offshoots that get by on creativity and energy alone regardless of how predictable the format is. On top of this we have Wendy O Williams’ voice at its strongest on this album. Despite being a talented clean vocalist, she sticks to a throaty, distorted croon throughout ‘Coup d’Etat’ that is more than capable of carrying the main tunes of each track all the same. Plasmatics seem comfortable jumping from gritty punk rock to light pop music a-la Blondie without pausing for breath, in a manner far more interesting and fearless than many of their contemporaries. ‘Path of Glory’ for instance jumps from dirty rock ‘n’ roll, to synth pop, to epic heavy metal in under five minutes that’s all exhilaration with no confused fudging of styles. For metal fans committed to longform narrative compositions who nevertheless fancy a break from such lofty pursuits, this makes for a worthy album to scratch that ich.

There are elements of NWOBHM scattered throughout, but the two most overtly heavy metal numbers – ‘Lightning Breaks’ and ‘The Damned’ –immediately stand a cut above the rest of the album for the simple fact that when Plasmatics put their mind to it, they tap into the same epic potentials common to all decent heavy metal. They reference Sabbath-esque plodding doom metal, some hints of late 70s Judas Priest riffcraft in their build of drama, with plenty of technical and creative skill applied to the guitar solos. Williams’ voice proves more than capable of carrying the operatic scope of her chosen vocal melodies, which fills out the drama and conflict that forms the emotional basis to this music. Despite these moments being all too brief across the course of ‘Coup d’Etat’, the result is a curiosity rather than a disappointment. This is for the simple reason that the rock elements are still worthy of attention by virtue of being so well crafted and informed by plenty of grit and energy which was lacking in so much pop-metal of this decade.

Following a similar trajectory of punk primitivism and its gradual assimilation into heavy metal complexity, Grantham’s English Dogs’ second LP ‘Forward into Battle’ (1985) is an interesting ride through proto thrash energy. Structurally this works like a hardcore punk album in the manner of the Exploited. The production certainly carries that raw garage quality to it. There are absolutely no thrills or mastering tricks discernible here; the mix puts one in mind of sitting in the practice studio with the band. Vocals are a raw, punky rasp that nevertheless aspire to carry tunes and melody that hint at heavy metal’s passion for heroism and danger. Each track is lightning fast, with the backbone consisting of melodic punk riffs that nevertheless accent the staccato, abrasive nature of early 80s hardcore. And, barring a few exceptions here and there, this comes to define the structural core of each track. They follow a frantic riff salad approach, as simple power chord progressions comment and collide with each other, underpinned by relentless, precise, yet simple drums.

What sets this apart from punk however is the melodic resolution to many of the riffs, which at times is almost neoclassical. This is brought particularly to the fore by the track ‘Ordeal by Fire’, which is where proceedings become heavy metal proper. But for the most part, solos and lead work will jump out of the powerful atonal fray to extend the shelf life of the half-formed, ultra-primitive philosophy of the rhythm. What’s notable is that, bar a couple of tracks, these melodic heavy metal flourishes that decorate this music with much needed sophistication do so at a stylistic level, but not a structural one.

If we take an album like ‘Hell Awaits’ for instance, also released in 1985, and also heavily influenced by hardcore punk, the contrast is clear. Slayer took the atonal, anti-structure barrage of Discharge and combined it with Mercyful Fate’s ambitious and neo-classical narratives, to create a metal classic that transcended the primordial soup that was thrash metal at the time. English Dogs combined similar elements in a completely different way by retaining the simplistic and deliberately aimless song structures of hardcore punk, adding heavy metal ambition as a mere decoration, not a foundational compositional tool. The result, whilst not nearly as enduring as ‘Hell Awaits’, was nevertheless akin to pivotal early black metal of this era in exploring the instinctive, animalistic end of extreme metal, defined more by energy and charisma than the ambition of sonic story telling.

Against our better judgement, in selecting our pick for this week we must go with the heavy rock album ‘Coup d’Etat’. Both in terms of talking points, an alternative perspective on metal’s integration with punk, and as an artefact from a window in time, ‘Forward into Battle’ is the more worthy album. But by the release of their third album, Plasmatics were just too good at what they were doing to criticise. The ambition may be limited, most of the songs may be anthemic heavy rock with added grit, but the result is an album of such character and energy that it warrants many revisits over the years. Such things don’t usually play into the decision-making procedure on these features, but as I pretty much make it up as I go along each week you can shite.

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