Forgotten series: Skid Row – Subhuman Race (1995)

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by Fred Phillips

The evolution of Skid Row is an interesting study. Most people will remember hit ballads “I Remember You” and “18 and Life” from the self-titled and most commercial of their releases in 1989. Some may remember the harder-edged follow-up Slave to the Grind, which debuted at No. 1 in 1991 and was quite successful in its own right. That one’s easily their best work, and one of my favorite hard rock records ever.

Few, I’m betting, would mention the band’s third record Subhuman Race.

That’s a shame, too, because it’s very nearly the equal of Slave to the Grind. Released several years after the scene that spawned the band had faded, the album was probably damaged a little by Skid Row’s association with that era. In truth, listening to the band’s first record and Subhuman Race side by side, you might not even realize it was the same band. Subhuman Race is a much more grown-up record, and more importantly, a much heavier record. They spent a lot of time in the early 1990s on the road with bands like Pantera, Metallica and Anthrax, and the influence definitely rubbed off.

Start with the title track. Nestled right in the middle of the record, it’s probably the heaviest song the band ever recorded, with a speed metal riff from Dave “Snake” Sabo and singer Sebastian Bach snarling through most of it. It’s not the best song on the record by a long shot, but it is a sign that the winds have changed. Of course, the message is also sent earlier on the record with the thrash-punk basher “Bonehead,” which is a little more memorable than the title track.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach’s ‘Kicking and Screaming’ is much better than fans had any right to expect.]

Of the really heavy songs, the two best are at the end. “Medicine Jar” might remind people a little of “Livin’ on a Chain Gang” from Slave to the Grind with the way the music drops out behind Bach’s screeches. It opens with a bashing guitar and drum combo, and Bas commands the listener’s attention with his verse vocals. It’s got all the things that made me love Skid Row back then, and still love them today. The album ends on another strong heavy note with “Ironwill,” which features an almost Pantera-like groove metal riff and is driven by Rachel Bolan’s bass. That gives way to a more traditional hard rock chorus that gets stuck in your head.

In contrast to their previous works, there’s only one true ballad on the record, “Breakin’ Down,” a jangly alternative-influenced number that doesn’t impress. But there are two other semi-ballads that are amazing. “Eileen,” one of my favorite songs on the record, opens with a bendy clean guitar lick that leads into a similar distorted lick. It falls somewhere between bluesy and haunting. Bach’s vocals on the song are captivating, and the ghostly effects on the backing vocals of the chorus add to the mood. Sabo’s twisty solo is perfect, and the song is capped off with a heavier metal marching groove at the end.

The second of the two is probably the most commercial track on the record, “Into Another.” Still, it’s not the standard ballad. It’s dark and more akin to Anthrax’s “Black Lodge” than “18 and Life.” The chorus is a perfect blend of soaring vocals from Bas, a chunky guitar riff from Sabo and a big hook. It’s just a great hard rock tune.

There are more familiar sounds to Skid Row fans as well as some modern-at-the-time wrinkles. Album opener “My Enemy” — also a great song — and “Remains to be Seen” wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Slave to the Grind. But the band also experimented with some of the popular sounds of the time. “Frozen” opens with a plodding, bending riff that’s very reminiscent of Alice in Chains, and it’s an interesting mix with the vocals which are still straight-up hard rock. “Beat Yourself Blind” also has a grungy grind on the main riff and some of the harmonies that go along with it.

With the possible exception of “Breakin’ Down,” there’s not a bad moment on Subhuman Race. The guitars are super heavy and sound great. Bas lays down some of his best vocals ever. The band is locked in tight and ready to launch into a new, much heavier era of Skid Row. Of course, shortly after the release of this album, things fell apart, and we never got to see what direction they might take next.

The new version of Skid Row has never come close to touching these first three albums, and though Bach’s last two solo records have gotten closer, there’s still a little chemistry missing.

But for a moment in 1995, it looked like Skid Row could be one of the only acts that overcame the “hair band” stigma and moved on into a successful new direction. True, it might have been doomed, anyway. There’s every possibility that the “metal kids” wouldn’t have embraced a heavier Skid Row because of their 1980s hits and earlier commercial success — there’s a segment of us that are childish and silly like that sometimes. But you can’t listen to this record and deny its power.

If you missed this one the first time, or you’re a metal guy who thinks Skid Row isn’t hard core enough, give this album a spin. It might just change your mind.

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