Sonic Boom: Seven Bands That Ruled Seattle's Formidable 80s Heavy Metal Scene
Before we get started on this headbanging nod to the heavy metal scene in Seattle in the 1980s, I think it's important to disclose I've only lived in Seattle since 1999–so I personally missed out on what was without question a very interesting time in the city. Luckily, it's been relatively well documented and as a metal lifer myself, it's been fun learning about the town's rich heavy metal history, as well as experiencing much of it along the way. Like many other spots in the U.S., the metal scene in 80s Seattle was robusst. Metal Church and Queensrÿche were known on a national level, and their popularity helped other bands get the attention of big labels such as Epic and EMI, who signed several local groups in 1988 such as thrash metal warriors Sanctuary, and Fifth Angel. Many local bands were touring with big bands such as Megadeth, Dio, Def Leppard, and Testament and would support others like King Diamond during local stops. Heavy Metal bands in Seattle were having their moment in the 80s, and their jams, for the most part, have stood the test of time.
Another exciting aspect of the early metal scene in Seattle is how numerous players of 80s metal would later find themselves a vital part of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mad Season and other musical landscape-changing bands hailing from the city. As with other posts in this spirit, it's impossible to feature them all–so if your favorite old-school Seattle metal band wasn't covered, it's not because I "forgot." Lastly, this post is not meant to infer metal in Seattle went away when we welcomed in 1990–there were a shit-ton of great metal bands in Seattle ready, willing and able to kick your face in with their sounds. But for today, let's hang out for a while in the 1980s Emerald City, when people preferred spandex to flannel and hairspray to hair.
Fifth Angel's beginnings are a template for the other bands in this post as members Ted Pilot, Ed Archer, Ken Mary, James Byrd, and Kenny Kay formed the group while still in high school in 1984. In 1986 Fifth Angel engaged the services of producer Terry Date, who had only just embarked on his long, hugely influential career two years earlier working with Metal Church on their 1984 debut. Earlier in this post, I noted Epic Records had a keen interest in signing metal bands from Seattle, including Fifth Angel. In 1988, Fifth Angel inked a staggering $21 million, seven-record deal with the label. Two records later Fifth Angel were regulars on MTV, thanks to their polished video for the track "Time Will Tell" and were being touted by major publications and others like Howard Stern as "the next big thing."
In 2018 Fifth Angel signed on with Nuclear Blast Records, releasing their third album, The Third Secret, 29 years after Time Will Tell. The record has been well received, and the vocals of Kendall Bechtel (replacing original vocalist Ted Pilot, who departed the group in 1989) sound strong and Dio-esque. Check out the title track from the album here.
The video for "Time Will Tell" by Fifth Angel.
"Midnight Love" by Fifth Angel. Howard Stern used "Midnight Love" as the theme song for his television show "The Howard Stern Show."
Considered by many to be the forefathers of Seattle thrash (and pioneers of the genre as well), Forced Entry was face-smashingly far ahead of their time. Formed by childhood friends Brad Hull, Colin Mattson, and Tony Benjamin, the trio bonded over their love of Iron Maiden and sick basslines by holding jam sessions while still in high school. After putting out three records on their own between 1987 and 1988 (Thrashing Helpless Down, All Fucked Up, and Hate Fills Your Eyes), the band would sign on with New York label Combat, who had previously signed another local metal band, TKO. They then headed off to London Bridge Studios to work with producer Rakesh Parashar (RIP). London Bridge has long been regarded as a magical place, and by the time Forced Entry entered the creative epicenter, Mother Love Bone had already recorded their EP Shine, and Soundgarden had laid down their leviathan album, Louder Than Love. Parashar recalled the day they started work on their album Uncertain Future, Hull, Mattson, and Benjamin arrived on their skateboards, because they were still teenagers and that's how teenagers got around. During their time with Combat, the band had difficulty with getting proper distribution, especially in European markets. They moved over to Relativity Records for their second album, As Above So Below, and a single from the record, "Macrocosm, Microcosm" was a regular on MTV's Headbangers Ball. Once again, inept distribution on the part of Relativity worked against the band. According to Hull, Relativity was so cheap they even refused to support the group on a joint tour with Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Forced Entry would, however, head out on the road with Obituary and Sacred Reich in 1989 as support for the Slowly We Rot Tour.
Here's one of Forced Entry's videos you might have seen on Headbangers Ball back in the day, "Macrocosm, Microcosm."
Upper Echelon appeared early on the metal scene in Kirkland, Washington (just a tick east of Seattle) in 1981. Guitarist Morris Gattegno earned musical chops in high school playing saxophone in the jazz band, and their deep love for the stylings of Scorpions, Iron Maiden, and King Crimson yielded a sound reminiscent of bands associated with the NWOBHM, like Tank. The intrepid band self-released a tight-as-fuck four-song EP Surface Tension in 1984, and kills as hard as early 80s Judas Priest. In fact, vocalist Charles Carpp did a pretty good job of capturing both Rob Halford's and Bruce Dickinson's vocal prowess, without ripping either metal god off. Through their label Hierarchy Records, Upper Echelon moved 2000 copies Surface Tension, only to call it quits a few short years later when bassist Kevin Crosby left to attend renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston. The EP is now 34-years-old, and is as good as anything put out by any NWOBHM band during the decade. Think that statement is sketchy as fuck? Give it twenty minutes (or 19:56 minutes to be precise) and Upper Echelon will change your mind.
Upper Echelon's sole recording, 'Surface Tension.'
Seattle metal band Shadow was formed by feedback king Mike McCready of Pearl Jam fame before he finished the eighth grade at Eckstein Middle School in northeast Seattle. In a radio interview in 1985, bassist Rick Friel blamed KISS for inspiring the band to start playing rock and roll. According to Rick, he and his brother Chris (Shadow's drummer), McCready and vocalist Rob "Berko" Webber would stealthily sneak into shows by revered Seattle metal band TKO because they weren't old enough to get into the bars yet. If this sounds like a right of passage for any aspiring musician, you'd be right on the money, and the exposure helped Shadow craft their image. Further refinement of what they gleaned from TKO would take place at the mythical Lake Hills Roller Rink, and this is where we get a glimpse into Seattle's metal scene from the perspective of someone who was a part of it. Here's more from Rick on rocking out at the Lake Hills Roller Rink back in the 80s:
"The Lake Hills Roller Rink is where many of us first learned to play in front of an audience. It was a great setup because they would have two stages, one at each end of the roller rink, with the sound man in the center. One band would play, and when they would finish the next band would start. The kids would run back and forth as each band started, with the sound man pivoting from one to the other. That's where members of Queensrÿche, Alice in Chains, Supersuckers and myself really learned how to play for an audience. It was great because the audience was the same age as we were. It felt really communal, and it was a great time to be making music."
Another compelling story from the Shadow camp concerns the late Chris Cornell and how he almost became Shadow's vocalist. Rick recalls the day when Cornell rolled up to his house to pick up Shadow's demo tape so he could learn their songs for an upcoming audition. Then, according to Friel, their original vocalist Berko decided to rejoin the band, and that was that. Later, when McCready was just getting started with supergroup Temple of the Dog, he called Rick to tell him Cornell had approached him saying it had "bummed him out" he never got to audition for Shadow. Here, Friel perfectly sums up this missed opportunity by saying he believes "things turned out for the best" for Cornell and Soundgarden. After heading out to Los Angeles (like so many metal bands did during the 80s), Shadow called it quits in 1988.
Audio broadcast on Seattle radio station KISW in 1985 featuring the Shadow track "Don't Count The Tears" with a short interview with Rick Friel.
Rail's (or "Rail & Company" and "Rail & Co.") humble beginnings went down in conference room B of Highland Junior High School in Bellevue, Washington in 1970. Rail's future drummer Kelly Nobles posted an ad in the school paper asking for anyone who "wished to start a band" to show up at conference room B, and Terry James Young and his friend Andy Baldwin did just that. When it was time to move beyond high school, the band was already gigging and decided keep booking shows over the summer, temporarily putting off plans for college. Still unsigned in 1978, local short-lived Seattle radio station KYYX included Rail's first single (as Rail & Company) "You've Got A Lot To Live" on the compilation album Seattle Grown. Later that year rock station KZOK would crown Rail as the "Best Local Band" for the first of many times. They would tour with monster bands like Blue Öyster Cult and Seattle hometown heroes Heart. But by far, one of the coolest heavy metal moments in Rail's history had to be when they were invited to open a bunch of shows for Van Halen during the World Invasion Tour. According to the band's history page, Van Halen was so impressed by Rail that one day during sound check they broke into a cover of Rail's single "Bandit" while they watched from the side of the stage. A month into the tour with VH, Rail got to see David Lee Roth get arrested after tossing a lit joint into the crowd at a show at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. MTV dug the band, and after beating out 40,000 other videos, their song "Hello" would be selected the victors of The MTV Basement Tapes contest in 1983, as well as a record contract with EMI.
The video that won Rail MTV's "Basement Tapes" contest in 1983, "Hello."
Rail's super fun cover of Girlschool's 1983 jam, "1234 Rock 'n' Roll."
The story of how Sanctuary successfully stalked Megadeth's Dave Mustaine in 1986 at the Moore Theater in Seattle, opening for King Diamond, is worth retelling. According to the band's site, Enter the Sanctuary, during the show they were somehow able to figure out the location of Dave's hotel and post-show party with a little help from a couple of female Megadeth fans. As the party rolled on, Rutledge found himself tossing back Courvoisier with Mustaine one-on-one, and when his balls were finally full of booze, he slipped Dave their demo (on cassette, naturally). The opportunistic move worked out well for Sanctuary as Mustaine dug the demo and the band would soon sign on with Epic Records recording their first full-length album, Refuge Denied, in 1988. The eye-catching cover of Refuge Denied features the artwork of one of thrash metal's most celebrated artists, Ed Repka. Repka also did the artwork for Sanctuary's 2017 record, Inception.
"Die for My Sins."
Of all of the bands in this post, TKO is one of the most revered in Seattle, and their influence continues to be acknowledged and acclaimed to this day. This is a bonafide fact and if you don't believe it, then perhaps you'd prefer to hear it from Seattle metal historian and author, James Beach because that's how he called it too:
TKO was a huge influence on many local musicians: Mike McCready (Pearl Jam, Shadow), Tommy McMillan (War Babies, Slaughterhaus 5), Glen Logan (Overlord, Bible Stud, Palooka), Kendall Bechtel (Fifth Angel) and the list goes on and on. Pretty much every major label band out of Seattle at least has members that would say they were influenced by those guys.
TKO vocalist Brad Sinsel started his days in rock in the very early 70s in Yakima (about two hours outside of Seattle). After jamming with local band Mojo Hand, Sinsel and his pals commandeered the group only to lose guitarist Rick Pierce to glam rock improv sensations, Ze Whiz Kidz in 1973. This gave Sinsel the idea to start his own glam band, Ze Fabulous Pickle Sisters (noted in the book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music), and Ze Whiz Kidz took notice. Both bands joined forces and landed the opening spot for a gig with the New York Dolls at The Moore Theater. In 2014 your author got to see Sinsel in action again with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam ripping through "Kill the Pain" (a classic TKO track from 1979) at The Showbox here in Seattle, and the crowd went nuts when Sinsel appeared on stage. People in the know wonder aloud why the fuck there isn't a statue of Brad Sinsel standing proudly somewhere in Seattle, or his home of Yakima, and I have to agree I'm puzzled at our lack of a Sinsel statue as well. Let's make this happen, Seattle headbangers!
"Give into the Night."
"I Wanna Fight" 1984.