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It would be easy to dismiss out of hand the horde of aging ’80s hair-metal bands still around. You could say, for instance, that they justified establishing some sort of headbangers’ pension plan, or that perhaps the government should sponsor agricultural-style subsidies for heavy metal—you know, pay the bands not to produce. But that wouldn’t be any fun, and what with all the angst and depression in popular music these days, who wouldn’t welcome a bit of rock’s brash essence, even if it comes in the form of middle-aged guys with perms in tight leather pants? Anything’s better than looking at Marilyn Manson.

There is still metal beyond Metallica; it just dropped below the radar for a while. Though a recent Rolling Stone article declaring the return of hair metal was probably a bit premature, it did at least recognize that a metal revival is slowly getting under way. Unlike other recent musical revivals (ska, lounge), this one doesn’t consist of a wave of newer, younger bands that have chosen to resurrect the banner of some long-forgotten genre. Rather, hair metal has turned to its originators for more kicks. Never mind that most of the boys have aged less gracefully than Keith Richards and have no more business jumping around in leather and Spandex than Roseanne. Popular music, like heavyweight boxing, is sorely lacking in both new talent and public interest right now, so why not follow boxing’s lead and drag out some tattered cash cow of yesteryear to squeeze a few more bucks out of the populace?

The unlikely center of this movement is the hamlet of Raleigh, N.C., where a label called CMC International appears to have cornered the hair-metal market—a move whose economic merit has yet to be proved but that caters nonetheless to that sought-after demographic of comic book-store clerks, burger-joint employees, and pizza delivery guys. In recent years, the label has contracted such metal heavyweights as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and L.A. Guns, and even crossed over into ’80s pop by signing Pat Benatar and Styx, and into classic rock with Lynyrd Skynyrd. But while popular music seems to have gone over to loops, samples, and British guys in soccer shirts, a CMC rep succinctly points out that “there’s lots of areas in the country where metal is still the shit.” He’s got the numbers to back it up, too. The metal albums released thus far on CMC have sold between 40,000 and 200,000 a pop—not bad for a group of artists who lost their major-label deals faster than Milli Vanilli as soon as grunge came along.

Now CMC is offering up three new albums from some of the ’80s’ finest purveyors of headbanging fun: Slaughter, Warrant, and Dokken. There was a time when you couldn’t flip past MTV without catching these acts waving their locks around and sneering at the camera. But time—and age—seem to have tempered that energy.

Slaughter captures the formula, if not the force, of the ’80s metal album to a T on Revolution. There’s the apocalyptic-battle-between-Good-and-Evil tune (“Heaven It Cries”), the token cry for rebellion (“Revolution”), and the federally mandated ballad/prom theme (“Can’t We Find a Way,” which even includes a few bars of recitation). Slaughter also panders plenty to lustful teens on numbers like “Tongue n’ Groove,” whose mastery of sexual innuendo goes no further than the title. And if you’re feeling disconnected (or maybe you just got beat up in gym), check out such misunderstood-loner tracks as “I’m Gone” and “Hard to Say Good-Bye.”

There are even some downright good tunes, like “Your’e [sic] My Everything,” which rocks along nicely behind the charmingly overblown harmonies only metal can provide. Hell, you almost feel sorry for these guys—had the song come out in 1984, it would have garnered some decent airplay or at least spawned a groupie-filled video perfect for Reagan-era MTV. Instead, it’s one of a precious few standouts on a collection marked by surprisingly staid music and self-parodic lyrics replete with the usual spelling errors (“corparate lies,” “no aliby”). While the sentiment is surely there, Revolution lacks the screaming guitar solos and headbanging chug that made hair metal so much fun the first time around.

Warrant’s Belly to Belly serves it up a little better, if only for a short while. Witness the kick-ass guitar in “In the End (There’s Nothing),” a number about aging that doubles as the album’s apocalypse tune, or “Feels Good,” whose wonderfully growling guitar underscores the song’s mood of weary isolation. The problem is that Warrant hedges far too often with middling attempts at Reznoresque self-loathing (“Falling Down” and “Solid”) and distorts the vocals on nearly every track—an inexcusable breach of hair-metal tradition. On songs like “Feels Good,” this makes for a rather comic effect: Jani Lane is so intent on copping a good Reznor imitation that he launches into one of Trent’s patented I’m-so-besieged-with-pain-I-can-only-manage-a-whisper deliveries. He comes off sounding like a particularly disturbed pervert making a crank call. Warrant blows it completely on “Angry Young Man,” which begins, “Generation X/We are complex/Angst is the perfect wave.” Yeah sure, Dad. The Surge-commercial mentality is second in annoyance only to the obvious fact that no one in the band is a day under 35. And Belly just goes downhill from there.

Dokken was the hardest-rocking of these three bands back in the day, but Shadowlife only illustrates how long ago that day was. The album lacks identity: It’s neither a sincere nod to the ’80s, like Revolution, nor an obvious attempt to co-opt the ’90s, like Belly. You don’t even have to listen to the music to know that something has gone horribly awry since Dokken was last seen. The pictures in the liner notes betray the band members’ obvious confusion—Jeff Pilson and Mick Brown are OK, they’ve still got long (thinning) hair and are appropriately dressed in black, with a leather jacket and a crucifix between them. But Don Dokken is sporting a rug worse than Marv Albert’s (anyway, I hope it’s a rug), and George Lynch is a good 20 years too old to be wearing a skate rat’s baggy jeans and nylon shirt.

The music on Shadowlife confirms metal fans’ worst fears. Songs like “Sky Beneath My Feet” and “Until I Know” are sluggish, midtempo drivel that doesn’t even acknowledge the hair-metal scene from which Dokken sprang. When the tunes do try to incorporate a bit of the metal motif, they fall flat on their faces. “Puppet on a String” takes a promising, we’re-all-just-cogs-in-the-machine stance, but then fails to fulfill that promise musically. Instead, that song and others are harrowingly evocative of today’s more successful hardcore outfits. Tool oughta sue over “Puppet,” “Here I Stand” is dime-store Soundgarden, and “Cracks in the Ground” doesn’t know what it’s trying to mimic. Ultimately, the inclusion of bongos (!?) and such lines as “turning bottled water into wine” on the abysmal (and abysmally titled) “Convenience Store Messiah” confirms that the band’s age is indeed a factor—in this case, that senility has already set in.CP