Ernest Hilbert

Heavy Metal Case Study #3: Nitro


Nitro, “Freight Train,” (“O.F.R.” [“Out-Fucking-Rageous”] 1989)

How did we get from Roy Acuff’s “Wreck of the Old 97” to Aerosmith’s “Train Kept a Rollin’” to Nitro’s “Freight Train”?

Trains used to chug along, conductors “high on cocaine,” but still choo-chooing on their mazy way, until Nitro. Nitro confronts us with something altogether different. It’s as though we drifted off on yesterday’s rock rhythms only to bolt awake on the tracks blinded by the lights of an oncoming express. All senses are overwhelmed, and then, before you know it, you’re gone. Whatever else this is, it is no longer rock music.

Nitro is a band (not a rollercoaster or wrestler) almost entirely defined by, and remembered for, gimmicks. The band boasted at least two musicians with super-powers: The lead singer Jim Gillette (Lita Ford’s husband) claimed the ability to break glasses with his voice like an opera soprano of old, and guitarist Michael Angelo Batio was allegedly the “fastest” guitarist in the world (the bass player’s powers seem to consist of his ability to swing his bass in a circle like a Weight-Throw contestant in the Highland Games; the drummer may be merely human).

While musical speed and range, displayed as sublime virtuosity, can have a pleasing, even dizzying effect when it issues from the piano of an Art Tatum or the strings of a Paganini, musical quality is not generally measured in notes-per-second. Certainly scale and intensity lend themselves to what we think of as “greatness,” but they do not work alone and they cannot work without context. There must be something to rise up from. You can’t begin on eleven.

In Nitro the listener is met with a warlike barrage of genuinely irritating sonic gymnastics. For all his alleged range (six octaves claimed, but four octaves according to critics), Gillette makes one wish he came equipped with a mute button. (One may also feel the distinct urge to pull his wig off.)

Batio’s playing is shrill, antagonistic, and ultimately unnecessary. In fact, it is not merely unnecessary, or unnecessarily busy; it is, in fact, insanely busy, existing for the very sake of busyness. If an obsessive-compulsive sewing machine could play music, this is what it would sound like. Batio never once smiles or seems to enjoy himself. Gillette seems to plead anxiously the entire time, on the verge of some sort of calamitous breakdown. Do we not understand? He is like a freight train coming. Get it?

This is art as competition. Art as exaggeration. Every convention of rock music is overstated or embroidered to cartoonish degrees. This goes for their equipment as well. We all remember the classic double-necked guitar (twelve and six strings) employed to great effect by Jimmy Page in his performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” from the concert film “The Song Remains the Same.”

Then we had the grinning trickster Rick Nielsen, guitarist for arena-pleasers Cheap Trick, who pushed this innovation to an absurd end with his five-necked Hamer custom guitar. What good are five identical six-string necks? Who cares? That’s Nielsen’s point.


Rick Nielsen performs on his five-necked custom guitar (“Cheap Trick Live In Chicago”)

Then we get the straight-faced Batio’s famous “quad guitar,” which provides him with the implausible and perfectly pointless ability to play four different six-stringed necks at different times, two in mirror opposition to his normal configuration (named second “coolest guitar in rock” by online music magazine Gigwise; Rick Nielsen’s penta-guitar came in fifth, Page’s first).

Acrobatic? Yes. Impressive? Kinda. Pleasing to the ear? Never.

Nitro, “Freight Train” guitar solo highlight

Nothing can mask the fact that “Freight Train” is not a good song. The video’s director generously interlards footage of the band bopping and pouting around a sound stage with stock footage of a train. Yes, that’s right, an actual train, steam and all.

The director for Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” saved a goofy song from becoming goofier by showing photographs of missing children in the MTV video. This tactic made an otherwise forgettable song heartbreaking. But neither Nitro nor the director they retained for the video shoot are remotely concerned with subtlety. Even seasoned metal listeners will wince at least once during Batio’s front-loaded, claws-out guitar solo.

We must remember that “Freight Train” was released during the apocalyptic apex of “shred” guitar, when more and more guitarists battled for an ever shrinking share of the music entertainment market. Competition was severe.

Indeed, Batio was named “No. 1 Shredder of All Time” by Guitar One Magazine (how many of these magazine are there?) as late as 2003 (not best guitarist). Tricks of all kinds were in, like never before, or since. You could play the guitar upside-down, backwards, while spinning it around your spandexed torso; shoot rockets from it, blow it up, ignite the pickups, shoot lasers from the pegboard, anything, everything! Speed, more speed! If it’s too late to be the loudest band in the world, never fear: There is still time to be the fastest.

Guitarists became daredevils, pushing themselves and their gear to limits never heard before (and which no one wants to hear again!). Paul Gilbert, guitar prodigy, became known for actually playing solos using a modified drill bit with three picks attached, like blades of a propeller, to pluck the notes at baffling speed. He was that fast.


masterguitarforro, “Guitar prodigy Paul Gilbert Plays Drill Guitar”

Much of the blame for this trend in rock music—the trend that reached its illogical conclusion with Nitro—may be laid at the doorstep of one David Lee Roth. As front man for the biggest rock show on earth, Van Halen, he was compelled to stage an even bigger show upon his departure for a solo career.


David Lee Roth hams it up on “Just a Gigolo” (“Crazy from the Heat” 1985)

He was always the most vaudevillian of rock stars, and in his cosmopolitan, silver-tongued way he resembles stars like Bob Hope or Dean Martin more than primordial, mystical rockers like Jimi Hendrix or Robert Plant (he announced this at the start of his solo career by the decision to release this Frank Sinatra-esque version of an old Irving Caesar standard). He was a showman par excellence. Roth’s was a theatrical, wise-assed, variety-style of entertainment, far from the booming sludge of Black Sabbath, the druggy ease of The Eagles, or the psychedelic escapism of Pink Floyd. The man believed in ballyhoo.


“Diamond” Dave presents the biggest rock show on earth (“Eat ‘em and Smile,” 1986)

In his bid to outdo all comers, Roth hired the two most impressive (because excessive) performers of their kind: Steve Vai (guitar) and Billy Sheehan (bass). This lineup, and the incredibly lucrative tour that ensued, inspired an orgiastic enthusiasm for speed and flair on the part of hard rock musicians everywhere, who entered into a mutually-destructive arms race that peaked at the end of the decade, when such peacock performances would be made obsolete by morose, shoe-gazing rock produced by ironic and depressive Grunge artists.

After the hair-sprayed minstrelsy, musical burlesque, and outright freak shows of heavy metal, both kids and critics felt that Seattle represented a refreshing, refining return to the “authenticity” that had been bled out of rock music over the previous ten years by Los Angeles.

But let us return to Nitro, shall we?

It is instructive to note that both lead members offered lessons — “Vocal Power” and “Speed Kills” — by mail through a system called “Metal Method,” advertised in rock magazines like Circus and Hit Parader. What they did was, at root, aspirational (Batio pauses in his instructional video to promise “I’m going to give you the keys to the Lamborghini”).


Michael Angelo Batio in his “Speed Kills” course for “Metal Method” (1984)

Who wouldn’t want to get better, especially if they could be the best . . . ever, in history! Nitro’s exploits resembled athletic performances (or professional wrestling moves) more than musical expression. No “slow hand” for these LA rockers.

Watch Batio: A guitar lick easily played with a small movement of a single finger is instead frantically performed with a great lashing about. Showmanship, not musicianship.

They may have thought they embodied the future, but they really were just the latest in a lemming dash over the cliff of rock history. In fact, if you listen, you realize they shed the chrysalis of blues music from which rock had been born altogether, though in their desperate reach for some kind of Baroque post-rock transcendence they instead fell like Evel Knievel right down into the yawning canyon of their own vaunting ambition.

Before the 80s are done, heavy metal gets even crazier, and lazier.

- Ernest Hilbert

  • fullshred

    Ernest, you failed to mention many of Michael Angelo Batio’s recent accolades. Here are a few:

    ~MAB received 2 TOP HONORS IN THE SAME GUITAR WORLD MAGAZINE issue, April 2009.

    ~MAB WON the 15th annual Guitar World Magazine readers choice award in the BEST SHREDDER category (Paul Gilbert placed second, Buckethead third, John 5 fourth and finally Herman Li and Sam Totman).

    ~Michael was also featured in the April 2009 issue in an article naming him as one of the top 25 cult guitarists in history along with Paul Gilbert, Robert Fripp and more.

    ~Michael is currently the longest running columnist in the history of the Guitar World magazine.

    I could go on and on. In other words, not just showmanship. A hell of a lot of musicianship. Are you a recording artist? In a band? Or are you just an armchair curmudgeon hell bent on drawing on all things “negative” without listing anything positive?

    • http://ryeberg.com/author/ernest-hilbert/ Ernest Hilbert

      Dearest Full-shred,

      Thanks for writing. Yes, it seems Mr. Batio has amassed quite a lot of accolades. As I wrote: “This is art as competition.” You have shown us that he has the prizes to prove it. His technique, his musicianship, is hardly in dispute. The matter is a broader one and has to do with the song and its accompanying video.

      I have in fact been in bands, though the point is irrelevant. It was an awful long time ago, back when Nitro was brand new and out to conquer the world. I am hell bent, yes, but I certainly don’t set out from the start to be entirely negative.

      I’m sorry to say I don’t see much to enjoy in Nitro (though I am a heavy metal fan, and have been since the 1970s). I find the song under discussion contrived, dull, and seriously marred by Batio’s playing, which does nothing to enhance the quality of the song and, in fact, detracts quite noticeably from it.

      If you have some positive things to say about this particular song by Nitro, by all means, please contribute them. I’m all ears (or eyes, as the case may be). I am happy to learn by your example.

      Ernie

  • Bobby

    You state now that Michael’s musicianship is hardly in dispute but your article clearly questions this and labels him as having no substance. Michael’s playing is much more than just technique and if you researched him you’d find that he’s recieved accolade upon accolade from critics who see this.

    Say what you want about Nitro but I honestly think you should give some consideration to the times and the skill level of the musicians involved. Yes, it may be musicianship for the sake of musicianship but that was the point Nitro was about being over the top and as contrived as that may sound today back then it went along with the rest of the music scene.

    It took alot of talent to do what those guys did and if modern speed death metal and rap metal with everyone trying to go faster or lower than the next guy is acceptable today then this should be acceptable in the context of its time.

    Also, I’m not the same person as fullshred above.

    • http://ryeberg.com/author/ernest-hilbert/ Ernest Hilbert

      Bobby,

      I take your point. And I confess that I strayed a bit from the declared intentions of this series, which is meant to be an amusing glimpse into the ways that visual flash was used to compensate for lack of musical substance in 1980s heavy metal videos (this is laid out in the first installment).

      I never intended to devote extensive attention to the musical performances except to say that they were in need of some “special effects” to draw attention to themselves. Perhaps my sarcasm about Batio’s playing was a bit excessive and unwarranted, but at the same time I will admit that his grim-faced, one-upmanship irked me in the 1980s (I was an Yngwie acolyte) and continues to do so.

      However, I should be clear that Batio’s performance in this video (including his quad-guitar) is no more than a footnote in my series. He is only relevant to this discussion insofar as his playing (and visual acting) on this one particular song is concerned. The rest of his career falls entirely outside the scope of my modest essay about the Nitro video for “Freight Train.”

      So, to reiterate: I do not doubt that it takes talent to play strings of notes as quickly as Batio does in his solo for “Freight Train.” To my mind, however, that does not amount to quality music. That solo is shrill and boring. In fact, I think that sort of performance quickly becomes comic and makes it ever more difficult to persuade outsiders of the merits of the best heavy metal. (Later in the series I will begin to look at heavy metal videos that worked well and enhanced songs with a minimum of fuss.)

      When it comes to questions of talent and technique, I fear the ends are being confused with the means. Ideally, musical technique should be directed to create music that will thrill and entertain, or even move, an audience. I’m not persuaded that “Freight Train” accomplished this end. Of course, anyone is welcome to disagree with me on this point, but I stand by my comments about Batio’s “Freight Train” solo. Perhaps I am alone in doing so.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to read and respond thoughtfully to my essay.

      Ernie

  • Jeffrey

    “There must be something to rise up from. You can’t begin on eleven.”
    Who says. ;-) You begin on eleven and go to 20. Which is what Nitro did. Unfortunately most weren’t able to hack it. And they really couldn’t top it on their second album, which would have been killer to hear what 21 sounded like. They were the epitome of 80-90′s rock extremities…and I’m glad. You’ll also notice I am the only one here with a full personality profile.

  • Vassago Gamori

    …you gotta say yes to another excess in the cyclical rat trap of ephemeral mazes of illusions fueling the brutalizing gears of the apparatus that encages, devours and discards with the ever shifting whims of an evolving voracious panopticon audience hurling for distractions from the yawning void of time and certain oblivion…

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Ernest Hilbert is the author of two collections of poetry, "Sixty Sonnets" and "All of You on the Good Earth," as well as a spoken word album recorded with rock band and orchestra, "Elegies & Laments," available from Pub Can Records. He hosts the popular blog E-Verse (www.everseradio.com) and the E-Verse Equinox Reading Series at Fergie’s Pub in Philadelphia. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review as well as in a number of anthologies, including "The Incredible Sestinas Anthology" (2013), "The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets," and two Penguin anthologies, "Poetry: A Pocket Anthology" and "Literature: A Pocket Anthology" (2011). He works at Bauman Rare Books in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife Lynn Makowsky, the Keeper of the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. More Ernest here.