Although Shrapnel Records is better known for its roster of inhumanly dexterous '80s guitar shredders, it began as an independent heavy metal label that released some brilliant (if largely forgotten) albums. Here are five gems that deserve your immediate attention:
Chastain, Ruler of the Wasteland (1986)
It's sort of a travesty that Chastain aren't praised by traditional metal fans in the same pious breath as bands like Manilla Road, Omen, and Jag Panzer. Beginning with 1985's Mystery of Illusion, Chastain recorded five of the most consistently excellent U.S. metal albums that I've ever heard (ending their winning streak with For Those Who Dare, as things got awfully sketchy after that). Despite releasing several instrumental guitar albums, band namesake David T. Chastain's shred prowess modestly takes a backseat to both the memorable songwriting and the overwhelming presence of vocalist Leather Leone. Leone is truly one of the most ferocious, passionate metal vocalists you're ever likely to hear. (Side note: her solo album, 1989's Shock Waves, also produced by David Chastain, is pretty great, too.)
I'm not quite sure how to explain this band's failure to penetrate the collective awareness of serious metal fans. Maybe it was the inconsistent touring; or the shitty, weirdly ubiquitous Leviathan Records ads (Chastain's house label after leaving Shrapnel) that showed up in every guitar magazine I read in the mid-'80s—but one could accurately complain about Manilla Road's or Brocas Helm's almost complete lack of visibility at their respective peaks, and that hasn't stopped them from (deservedly) cultivating devoted cult followings. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more deserving band to be rediscovered and appreciated, and you can't do better than Ruler of the Wasteland as a starting point. As with many Shrapnel releases, the production sucks truckloads of ass, but this is truly an unheralded classic nonetheless.
Hexx, Under the Spell (1986)
When your album cover appears to depict a giant warlock dude gettin' ready to hump the mystical shit out of a flaming hexagon, your record better be metal as fuck. Thankfully, this one delivers. You might remember Hexx as being a decent if unexceptional thrash band on Wild Rags, but before Quest for Sanity, Hexx released an absolute beast of a U.S. metal album with Under the Spell. If you love early Metal Church, Jag Panzer, Attacker, Liege Lord, and Savatage, Under the Spell is practically guaranteed to make you shoot confetti out of your peehole!
Not unlike their '84 debut, No Escape, there's an odd maturity present in the songwriting here that, sadly, the band abandoned on some of their subsequent thrashier outings. Standouts here include "A Time of War," "Suicide," "The Hexx," and "Edge of Death." My only beef is with the sub-par production; but, again, you could argue that for virtually every album that Shrapnel released.
Griffin, Flight of the Griffin (1984)
Flight of the Griffin could be described as a fierce amalgam of Brocas Helm's idiosyncratic dungeon metal, the raw but epic vibe of Battle at Helm's Deep-era Attacker, and Savage Grace's "Maiden on amphetamines" approach. Much like the aforementioned Hexx and Chastain records, this is a searing if rough-hewn U.S. metal masterpiece packed with quality songs, masterful-but-not-overly-polished guitar work, and one hell of an unhinged vocal performance by William McKay—who matches Hexx's Dan Bryant in sheer lunatic intensity. Flight of the Griffin is a vibrant, raw, glorious metal album that any traditional metal fan needs to hear.
9.0, Too Far Gone (1990)
Led by singer Peter Marrino (Cacophony)—along with veteran drummer Ray Luzier (David Lee Roth, KXM, and a bazillion other projects), bassist Mike Andrews, and guitarist Craig Small—9.0 specializes in (oxymoron alert) classy sleaze metal with absolutely stellar guitar work. Craig Small is a monstrous player—every bit the equal of Jake E. Lee, Warren DeMartini, and George Lynch—and I'm amazed that his name wasn't plastered all over every guitar magazine after this. While I wasn't a fan of Marrino's overbearing vocals on the Cacophony albums, he is totally on point here, delivering a surprisingly soulful performance which often calls to mind John Corabi's work on the '94 Crüe album. Luzier anchors every song with the same impeccable sense of groove and understated intricacy he brought to David Lee Roth's (sadly forgotten but kick-ass) DLR Band album. Admittedly, the songwriting isn't always exceptional, but these guys blaze through each track with such sophistication and bravado that you barely notice when things get a bit too by-the-numbers. Even the perfunctory ballad is tolerable, thanks mostly to a killer guitar solo. If you dig Jake E. Lee's Badlands and John Sykes' Blue Murder albums, you need to seek this out.
M.A.R.S., Project: Driver (1986)
Boasting a ridiculous lineup of Tony MacAlpine, Tommy Aldridge, Rob Rock, and Rudy Sarzo, M.A.R.S. blew my adolescent mind with their crafty metal riffs, catchy songwriting, and metal god vocals—all supported by Ozzy's Blizzard-era rhythm section. Despite all of the crazy pedigrees involved, egos didn't get in the way of crafting songs that are generally solid and memorable. My personal favorites include "Nations on Fire," "Writing's on the Wall," "Unknown Survivor," and the delightfully cheesy "Nostradamus." The only real turd is saved for last: the bland AOR ballad "You and I." Although MacAlpine predictably gets lots of room to show off, this is definitely not just an album for guitar fiends—I suspect that anyone who digs the more melodic side of '80s metal (Fifth Angel, Malice, Dokken, Obsession, Shok Paris, etc.) will dig this. Love the ridiculous cover art, too!
Lastly, here are a few other Shrapnel releases I'd strongly encourage any old school metal fan to check out: