Review Summary: You say it's raining but you're pissin' down my back
For all the changes that the hair metal scene went through as the eighties turned into the nineties, it’s hard to think of a more efficient overhaul than Skid Row’s jump from their 1989 self-titled debut to 1991’s Slave to the Grind. The group always had a heavier edge than most of their peers and palling around with groups like Metallica and Pantera only seemed to encourage those traits, setting their melodic hooks against a sludgy backdrop of classic metal, punk, and even thrash in spots. It’s the sort of album where you can identify all the ingredients going into it, yet not much else sounds exactly like it.
Fitting such an evolution, the musicianship has put on some serious muscle compared to the debut’s slinkier performances. The rhythms have an overall chunky feel with the guitar tones coming off sharper and jagged, the bass boasting a more aggressive presence, and the drums opting for slower patterns. Such a dynamic could’ve come off as too stiff but the moods are varied enough to make it work and the playing is always in service to the hooks. It also helps that the vocals are even more commanding this time around, showing off a gruff motor mouth with plenty of wails for the rockers and brooding croons for the ballads.
The lyrics have also gotten a considerable makeover between albums, pairing the sleaze with an observational cynicism throughout. There’s still plenty of sex to go around but it’s the sort that seems to come without any sort of pleasure and reinforced by the sort of jaded introspection and ‘we live in a society’ theming that just screams early nineties. Some of the lines haven’t aged well with “Creepshow” and “Get the *** Out” having some particular offenders, but other tracks throw out some potent venom.
While Slave to the Grind’s twelve-track total is the same as their debut, there’s much more variety at play compared to the largely uniform debut. This approach risks lacking cohesion but we thankfully come out of it with plenty of staples. “Monkey Business” works as an atmospheric opener with the first of many catchy choruses, but the title track is where things really get going with an ungodly heavy riff set to a powerful rolling beat and vocal acrobatics to die for. From there, “The Threat” and “Living on a Chain Gang” play like “Youth Gone Wild” on steroids, “Psycho Love” and “Creepshow” are bass-heavy groove excursions, and “Riot Act” is a blazing punk outlier.
I also enjoy how the album’s three ballads further develop the moodiness of “18 and Life” and “I Remember You” while providing some breathing room between the various bangers. “Quicksand Jesus” borders on doom with its murky layout, “In a Darkened Room” delivers effectively bombastic yearning, and “Wasted Time” closes things out with a particularly bittersweet demeanor. The worst I can say about this album is that “Mudkicker” feels somewhat redundant but even that still has a decent hook.
Skid Row’s self-titled debut may be their most remembered release as far as hits go, but Slave to the Grind is easily their crowning achievement. It certainly wasn’t hurting for success at the time if placing #1 on the Billboard 200 was anything to go by, but its unique style blend and strong songwriting has helped it maintain credibility in the years since. It’s the sort of album that demonstrates how a band can move forward with the times without fully jumping on a bandwagon, timely yet timeless in a way. Hindsight has since proven this album to be lightning in a bottle, but I’m always glad to have this snapshot.