Forgotten series: Skid Row – Slave to the Grind (1991)

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Damn, this record is awesome. Even 20 years later, I consider it one of the finest hard rock records ever, and certainly among the best of its time period. So why don’t I listen to it more than I do these days? Good question. Time to remedy that.

I was brought to the record by a recent string of tweets from Eddie Trunk, who was calling out songs from the setlist of a show from the current lineup of the band, which doesn’t include singer Sebastian Bach or drummer Rob Affuso. He was particularly impressed with a performance of “Mudkicker,” one of my favorites from Slave to the Grind, so I went to Youtube to find a recent clip of it. With all due respect to Mr. Trunk, who I agree with more often than not, I was not impressed. A clip of the original lineup playing the song at Budokan in 1992, though, sent me running back to listen to the album version.

An hour or so later, I’m still sitting in front of my computer, starting the second round of the album, headbanging and moshing in my chair. I won’t say that I’d forgotten how good it was because I hadn’t, but whenever I return to it after not hearing it for a while, I’m always struck by how much better it is than pretty much anything in the hard rock realms these days.

When it came out in ’91, it marked a little bit of a change in direction for the band that had been discovered by Bon Jovi. There was nothing like the radio-friendly ballads “18 and Life” or “I Remember You” that launched Skid Row into stardom in the late 1980s. Instead, Slave to the Grind took the heavier songs from their first record – like “Youth Gone Wild” and “Piece of Me” – and cranked them up louder, faster and nastier. The riffs are heavier, the songs are catchier and Sebastian Bach is snarling like a caged beast almost all the way through. Despite the sea change, the album still holds the distinction of being the first heavy metal album to debut at No. 1 in the Soundscan era and went double-platinum. Deservedly so, I might add.

You don’t have to look any farther than the title track to see the shift. With its, if you’ll pardon the pun, grinding guitar riffs from Scotti Hill and Dave Sabo and Rob Affuso’s pounding drums, “Slave to the Grind” has much more in common with the great thrash acts of the 1980s than their brethren on the more commercial end of that era in hard rock. I can still relate to the song, too, though in a different way. Two decades later, like probably most of the kids that sang along with this song and said, “hell yeah, I’ll never be a slave to the grind,” I am. But for a good three and a half minutes, I can jam along and remember that time when the future seemed wide open and dreams were still attainable.

Slave to the Grind makes its living, though, with heavy, nasty grooves. There’s my aforementioned personal favorite, “Mudkicker,” which is plodding by comparison with some of the other songs, but has an awesome main theme and plenty of anger from Bach, who spits the lyrics with venom. Then there’s the hook-laden “Livin’ on a Chain Gang,” which might also be Bach’s best performance on the record. The riff won’t quit, and the chorus is about as catchy as they come. Bassist Rachel Bolan gets his spotlight on “Psycho Love,” providing the basis for the big groove. “Riot Act” rocks with a punk-like energy, first single “Monkey Business” has a great blues rock strut and even the “joke” song, “Get the Fuck Out,” is just downright catchy as hell.

That brings us to the ballads, which is normally where I hit the fast forward button, but not on this album. Granted, “Wasted Time” is far and away the weakest song here, but the other two rise well above the big radio-friendly ballads of the time. They’re smarter, better written and just stomp all over their contemporaries. “Quicksand Jesus” is, quite simply, epic. It doesn’t go for the three-chord, easy-hook love song formula. Instead, it’s a more complex piece, packed with power and a lyrical depth that was unusual in the genre. Then, there’s “In a Darkened Room,” which is almost a companion piece. It’s another dark tune that’s a little more straightforward than “Quicksand Jesus,” but man, that main guitar lick is absolutely killer – moaning, melancholy and utterly lonely, perfect for the song.

If there’s a such thing as a perfect hard rock record, I’d have to give the nod to Aerosmith’s Rocks – my all-time favorite album – but Slave to the Grind might finish a close second in my voting. I’d probably put it ahead of even the venerable Appetite for Destruction, a fantastic effort in its own right. Slave to the Grind is not quite perfect, but you can see it from the pinnacle of this record. A lot of people will scoff at that statement because of the “hair band” stigma that surrounds Skid Row, but if you look past that and listen with an honest ear, the power of Slave to the Grind is undeniable.

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