One of the very first bands that got me into metal was Chastain.
Sure, it had been floating around in the zeitgeist for several years by then – at least since 1982 and the Scorpions’ Blackout, with its big hit “no one like you”.
I’d already discovered certain videos thanks to the earliest iteration of Headbanger’s Ball (which aired for 1/2 hour weekday afternoons around 4:30) and songs from both the radio and friends: everything from Dokken to Quiet Riot to Kiss and Ozzy (who was actually still relevant at the time, way back in the Jake E. Lee era). But it was always a matter of songs, not bands so much. I certainly didn’t start buying albums, just grabbing a song here and there off friends or off the airwaves.
I remember tuning in to Matt O’Shaugnnessy’s Midnight Metal for the first time on the very day Cliff Burton died, which was disappointing – I’d already heard the new Metallica album several times over, and the last thing you want to hear when trying to discover a new world of music is a good dozen 7 and 12 minute tracks from a band you already had some familiarity with…and particularly not under such grim circumstances.
Then came that fatal summer in 1987, when I discovered the (more or less) 24 hour metal radio station of a nearby college campus, and was exposed to metal in its totality. Thrash was in full bloom, traditional metal was still alive and kicking, and the underground was in its first birth pangs.
King Diamond’s Abigail, White Lion’s Fight to Survive, Dokken’s Under Lock and Key, Heathen’s Breaking the Silence, Loudness’ Thunder in the East, Lizzy Borden’s Love You to Pieces, Kiss’ Asylum and the Cult’s Electric…it was a magical time, and everything sounded simply fantastic. Sure, some of those were a year or two old at the time, but who cared when it all built itself into such a wonderful melange? It was all new to me regardless.
Finally I discovered what I’d been looking for musically, where those awesome guitar bits from dancier tracks of the era like the original 12″ of Expose’s “point of no return”, Run DMC’s “rock box” and “king of rock” and Michael Jackson’s “beat it” actually got their proper prominence and place at the forefront of the mix. They didn’t simply appear to make one lone track stand out on an otherwise bland album, or come in for a jaw dropping solo and vanish thereafter. This was the real shit.
And the one song that made me run to the local record shop was “feel his magic”.
That powerful, gravelly yet soaring vocal performance from Leather Leone, those awe inspiring neoclassical leads and unutterably nasty distorted riffs from the man himself delivered a propulsive, immersive experience unlike anything else of its era. Polished without too much studio sheen, aggressive but melodic, skilled without being too pretty about it, this was music the way I’d always envisioned it played.
Because he was fast enough – technical enough – impressive enough to show the frayed edges, to allow a little looseness, even sloppiness to come through. You don’t like it? Fuck you, he exclaimed with every slurred harmonic minor run of the fretboard. The picking never seemed to match the fingering, but who gave a shit? Did Yngwie have this kind of darkness to his sound? This street level, night people feel, this grounded aggression? Hell no. David T. Chastain was the man.
What’s more, there was a weird gimmick for those who kept up with these sort of things: they were one of the extremely rare “bands” who hailed from all parts of the country, which meant that Leone, Chastain, longtime bassist Mike Skimmerhorn (who was as about as close to Billy Sheehan as bass players get, trading lines with Chastain with regularity) and Fifth Angel/Impelliteri drummer Ken Mary (who replaced and let’s be honest – greatly improved upon the work of Cinderella’s Fred Coury on the first album) would record their parts in separate studios, mailing the tapes back and forth for a final mix.
These days, it’s totally commonplace (to the point where the situation has done a complete 180 – it’s a surprise to hear a band is actually a physically proximate group of people who gets together to rehearse, record and play out in person!) But at the time, it was all but unheard of and leant an air of additional exoticism to the band.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that their albums weren’t the easiest to find either. Starting off on Mike Vraney’s infamous shredder label Shrapnel, they put out the bulk of their recorded output on Chastain’s own Leviathan records (which also provides home to the current iteration of the band), before moving to Roadrunner for their final album and Leather’s excellent solo release Shock Waves (also very highly recommended for those who have not yet indulged). We aren’t exactly talking major label support here…
While their first album Mystery of Illusion proved rather hard to find at the time and languished in relative obscurity for many years (I believe I finally laid hands on a copy in the early to mid 90’s), both Ruler of the Wasteland and in particular the band’s masterpiece the 7th of Never were on hand immediately, and what albums they were!
In fact, these two albums were (and amazingly, remain to this day) masterstrokes through and through, without a single throwaway track. “Too late for yesterday”, “paradise”, “we must carry on”, “fighting to stay alive”, “there will be justice”…most bands would kill to have just one track as good as any of these, much less several albums worth.
Later albums Voice of the Cult and For Those Who Dare would prove far more spotty, with soaring high points (such as their respective title tracks) weighed down by far lesser cuts (that Heart cover, anyone?). But the fact remains that back in 1987, Chastain was by far the greatest of all metal bands, and was the one act that took me from vaguely curious dabbler into full fledged metalhead.
Thank you, Leather and David…I’ll send you the therapy bill (drum roll).
So why all the backstory?
Well, a year back, I contacted Leather and longtime musical partner Sandy Sledge in relation to the lady’s long awaited return to the metal scene and their rather interesting project Sledge Leather. During our discussion, I got to talk Chastain, as well as her solo record Shock Waves and her days in Rude Girl and Malibu Barbi.
One point I kept hammering home was that her work with Chastain was not only highly respected as five of the greatest metal albums ever recorded, but quite influential on me personally. Hell, one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar after the usual Sabbath and a few classic Randy Rhoads tracks was “the wicked are restless”…beat THAT, kids!
So here we are, just about 12 months after that fateful interview, and the lady has fulfilled some longstanding hopes both among the community and myself by actually getting back together with the man himself.
But wait, it gets better: moreover, this project has actually gotten the man to return to the playing style he’d long since left behind, to put out a record not all that far removed from Mystery of Illusion, Ruler of the Wasteland and the 7th of Never (with perhaps just a dash of Voice of the Cult and For Those Who Dare peppering the mix just for good measure). This is the Chastain fresh from Spike, brimming with ideas and prolific as hell (remember all the concurrent CJSS and instrumental variations records he put out around the same time?)
From the opening salvo of “stand and fight” to the typically sinister sounding ballad “save me tonight”, you know you’re back in good hands at last, albeit a full 25 years on from that first shocking experience of hearing “feel his magic” on a battery operated portable “boom box” radio. Both tracks represent the album high points and are guaranteed to leave veteran Chastain aficionados watery eyed and pumping fists in solidarity.
While there are certainly some updates and changes to the sound, with a few tracks like “call of the wild” and “I am sin” providing a less palatable Zeppelinesque filler among the gems that surround them and one oddity crossing over into a more loping Corrosion of Conformity circa Deliverance territory (“fear my wrath”) that would appear to owe more to Chastain’s post-Leone work, there’s really nothing here that would cause a longtime fan to turn their nose up at it.
Another flashback: I actually recall the scene in vivid detail. I was working summers with my father in construction. I was working on adding some fire blocking supports to ceiling joists in the blazing heat of midsummer, when the song came on air, possibly for the first time ever…certainly for my first time.
I immediately stopped what I was doing, came down off the ladder to turn up and stand there in front of the radio, which was sitting in the middle of the floor, as the song played out. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my eyes practically bulged from my head. I didn’t go back to work until the track ended and the DJ (to my eternal gratitude) actually saw fit to inform the listeners as to just what it was that he just played…picture that nowadays! But seriously, it was that dramatic – I quite literally couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
25 years on, I still haven’t heard anything like Chastain in the Leone era – this is literally a band without peer.
And while no one can ever turn back the clock to recapture that perfect moment in time, that exact feeling…Chastain and Leone have come damn close here.
Feel their magic.