Let’s face it… not all music that moves us as youth stands the test of time. One of the joys of Black Wax Reviews is traveling through time and finding out what was good and what was awful.
Case in point: When I was 9 years old, I needed heavy. Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” and Neil Diamond’s “America” made me feel like I was standing triumphantly on a mountaintop, wind blowing through my hair. Today… not so much.
Our beloved 80’s metal is no different. Some of these albums that seemed so incredibly powerful back then (e.g., Y&T’s “In Rock We Trust”… Lizzy Borden… sorry, guys) fall flat today. Like a two-day old 7-Up left open in the fridge.
That being said, I’m happy to report that Icon’s self-titled debut sounds just as heavy, tight, and cohesive as it did when it first came out 27 years ago.
THE STATE OF METAL IN 1984
To zoom out for a second, 1984 was pretty much the Perfect Storm for Awesome Metal Albums. To name but a few:
- Accept: Balls to the Wall
- AC/DC: 74 Jailbreak
- Anthrax: Fistful of Metal (actually “Fistful of Meal” on my copy of the cassette)
- Armored Saint: March of the Saint
- Deep Purple: Perfect Strangers
- Dio: Last in Line
- Dokken: Tooth and Nail
- Fates Warning: Night on Brocken
- Great White: Great White
- Grim Reaper: See You in Hell
- Hanoi Rocks: Two Steps from the Move
- Helstar: Burning Star
- Iron Maiden: Powerslave
- Judas Priest: Defenders of the Faith
- KISS: Animalize
- Lizzy Borden: Give Em The Axe
- Mercyful Fate: Don’t Break the Oath
- Metal Church: Metal Church
- Metallica: Ride the Lightning
- Queensryche: The Warning
- Ratt: Out of the Cellar
- Saxon: Crusader
- Scorpions: Love at First Sting
- Slayer: Haunting the Chapel
- Spinal Tap: This Is Spinal Tap
- Stryper: Yellow and Black Attack
- Van Halen: 1984
- Venom: At War with Satan
- W.A.S.P.: W.A.S.P.
- Whitesnake: Slide It In
- White Wolf: Standing Alone
- Yngwie J. Malmsteen: Rising Force
With such a wide variety of metal happening, it’s hard to believe that Icon could stand out among the rest. But it did. And still does.
IS IT PERFECT?
Now, don’t get me wrong… Just like a case of Budweiser or a healthy serving of AC/DC, it is what it is. If you’re looking for the answers to life, you’re probably not going to find them here. The lyrics aren’t necessarily very philosophical, existential, or deep.
However, to a scared, confused, disaffected 16 year-old male trying his best to figure out which way was up while living in a small, conservative Texas town in 1984, this album was a life saver. It addressed relevant issues like alienation, the desire to claim and illuminate an inner mettle I didn’t know existed, and, of course, women. Gorgeous women. Sexy women. Dangerous women.
Since I knew basically nothing about actual women, I found the topic highly interesting.
CATEGORIZING THE BAND’S SOUND
Not quite as fast (tempo-wise) as The Big Four… Not quite as dark (subject matter-wise) as Mercyful Fate or Venom… Heavier than Deep Purple, Dokken, and Ratt. More of a complete unit (as a band) rather than simply a vehicle designed to showcase one musician’s talents (Malmsteen)…
And I daresay not as melodramatic as Grim Reaper, Lizzy Borden, or WASP. (Multiple reviewers from back in the day made direct comparisons to WASP/Priest, as opposed to Ratt/Motley Crue. For what it’s worth.)
Somewhere in between all that. Somewhere right down the middle. That’s where I see Icon.
First off, guitar sound. (As of press time, our staff has an e-mail out to the Icon guys requesting specifics on the gear used for the recording of Icon. Will update with more info asap. –Ed.) Definitely not Fender Strats… not stock, anyway. There’s no way those are single coils we’re hearing. Too much gain. Definitely humbuckers; probably active… maybe EMG 81’s and 85’s.
More than likely the guitars used were Jacksons, Robins, or possibly Kramers, which were extremely popular back then. I’ll spare you the whole “Eddie Van Halen/Frankenstrat/Kramer connection, trusting that you know how to use Google. Be warned—you’ll be reading for awhile.
I’m going to say Marshalls, simply because they were so incredibly popular. While they still are giants in the industry, these days amp companies have figured out that there’s an entire market of people who want to get full gain sound at low volumes. Today there are tons of boutique amp companies out there building everything from hybrid (solid state/tube) amps to lunchbox-sized, back-saving tube amps that offer monster tones and incredibly complex and rich distortion.
These options didn’t exist back then.
Back in the mid-80’s, the only way to get high-gain sounds with tube amps (which offer tones and feedback musicality that solid state amps simply could not rival) was to crank up the volume and get those vacuum tubes glowing. Since “gain” was tied to “volume”, you couldn’t get heavy distortion without waking the neighbors.
But I digress… I’m guessing Marshalls, and I’m going with that until the band tells me otherwise.
A popular EQ trend back then was to ‘scoop the mids’, meaning that on a graphic equalizer, the lowest and highest frequencies would be pushed high, the mid-range tones would be significantly lower, and everything else would be in between. Like a “V”. (See photo) Icon’s sound on this album is consistently edgy and bright, which suggests a lot of high end. At the same time, it sounds as though they have scooped the mids (a technique that significanlty contributed to defining the 80’s metal sound). Too much midrange can result in listening fatigue. (Listen to AC/DC’s “Fly On The Wall” album from start to finish and see if you get a headache. That’s an example of too much midrange.)
WHAT MAKES ICON UNIQUE
In addition to a unique, edgy, high-gain guitar sound, I’d say that what makes Icon stand out for me is Dan Wexler’s guitar technique. While he holds his own in the ‘soloing’ arena, it’s his rhythm playing that really stands out as being unique. He uses a lot of major 2nd intervals, rather than relying strictly on root-fifth shapes.
Lots of bands in the day could play fast. Lots of bands could write about fast cars, women, war, being tough, or ‘scary stuff’. Lots of bands could demonstrate technical proficiency and even virtuosity. Where Icon really shines is in Wexler’s ability to play a major second and sit with it, creating long, musical arcs, as opposed to relying on choppy rhythms all the time.
Even today, I find myself drawn in by the opening to (Rock On) Through The Night and Rock ‘n’ Roll Maniac for these very reasons. The opening to I’m Alive see-saws from root-fifth through a tri-tone down to a root-fourth, then back up through the tri-tone to the original root-fifth. So simple. Yet so incredibly effective in grabbing my attention.
Back in the day, I was in love with the instrumental, Iconoclast. It still holds up pretty well today, though now that I, myself have grown as a guitarist, I can recognize some of the lead guitar patterns (e.g., descending minor scale in four-note groupings) that he used (over-used?) and I’m reminded of the dangers and pitfalls of having a ‘new favorite lick’.
While it’s not fair to judge anything out of context, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this album does come off as a bit dated (“We’re in a world war… in 1994”) and even cliché at times (“together we stand, divided we fall”). I have to wonder about how strongly the popular metal bands of the day were influencing and being influenced by one another; Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil had been released just the year before, and from the looks of it, the guys in Icon was shopping from the same fashion catalog. (And I can’t help but notice some similarities between Killer Machine and Too Young To Fall In Love… but then again, I know I have to be careful on this or pretty soon I’ll be talking about how Welcome To The Jungle is really Zero The Hero, Dio’s “Invisible” is really “Shout At The Devil” (or vice-versa)… this song is really that song… it’s all downhill from there.)
But honestly, photos of myself wearing parachute pants that year make me wince as well, so I can’t really hold dated fashion against them. When I first saw the poster (included with the original release of the LP), I was highly impressed. While I haven’t necessarily hung the poster on my studio wall yet, I’m still considering. There’s still an admirable amount of retro-cool cache’ there.
Bottom-line—These songs stuck in my head long after my cassette copy died. Long after 80’s metal was no longer cool. Long after I’d ‘grown up and gotten a real job’. To paraphrase Bruce-Bruce in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, it’s important to keep that inner-child alive. Let him die, and life is a sadder place.
It took some time and energy to track down a near-mint copy of Icon on vinyl, but from the moment it arrived and I pulled it from the sleeve, it’s been completely worth it.
Doesn’t quite bring tears of joy to my eyes; isn’t quite as timeless as other stuff out there, and could do with a bit more bottom end (I understand it’s been remastered… hopefully available on vinyl, as well??). But still grabs my attention with interesting guitar playing and catchy, memorable hooks.
Icon rating: 9 stars out of 11