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Thirty Years Later: W.A.S.P. – The Headless Children

W.A.S.P.’s lineup in 1989

Following the release of three studio albums during glam metal’s biggest peak, W.A.S.P would take a far different direction than most of their hair band companions at the end of the decade. With a huge following, a live record, and endless controversy, 1989 would see a big shift in the W.A.S.P. timeline. By this point, most of the bands within the scene were either hitting their last round of wild success or already on the downfall towards making music that would soon be considered outdated. Blackie Lawless and co. saw a different opportunity. Rather continue on with the glam shtick that they’d been using previously, they instead completely reinvented themselves with different songwriting approaches, new playing techniques, and far more mature lyrics. Gone were the days of music erected around raunchy sex, wild parties, and evil. They also removed the gimmicks, outfits, and makeup in pictures for the album sleeve. The end product was The Headless Children, which is now celebrating its thirtieth birthday.

There was a bigger contribution to this change than the three-year gap between this and Inside The Electric Circus (an album that Lawless to this day hates). Chris Holmes was still his ax sidekick, but otherwise, the lineup was different, and W.A.S.P. morphed from something that was a band effort to a project that Lawless would take complete control of and generate the songs himself. Of course, there were constant musicians, and recruiting former Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali would prove to be one of the best additions they could have made, as he stayed for the next couple of albums. It was just that they never had a completely solid lineup from here on out. With Blackie Lawless taking the majority of the writing duties, The Headless Children would become a record reflective of how he was feeling at the time and his reactions to the political troubles and world issues. Although it isn’t a concept album, everything fits together as if it were, including their cover of The Who’s “The Real Me.”

A young Frankie Benali prior to joining W.A.S.P.

Musically, the ideas here would take paths that channeled in the vocal attitude used on previous offerings as well as more complexity regarding rhythms and leads. This, in turn, birthed longer songs with an epic feel, some of them creating what actually gave hints of chaos leading up to a resolution. Naturally, reeling in the classic W.A.S.P. attitude on top of this is what made it so tough, driven by the realistic narratives in all of the tracks. Ten songs of absolute realistic horrors reflected in a passionate yet devious way was what we got.

Epic tracks are a solid idea for a band trying to be taken seriously, and they’re crafted with great precision built by experienced musicians. Alongside Benali, Lawless, and Holmes was Jonny Rod of King Kobra on bass and Uriah Heep’s Ken Hensley handling keyboard duties; together they acted as a remarkable force. Record opener “The Heretic (The Lost Child)” clocks in over seven minutes, displaying a buildup that breaks into speed territory with a haunting production job. The slow build towards the last couple of minutes utilizes ascending guitar licks that ultimately melt into an aggressive shower of fret dueling that Lawless and Holmes deliver stupendously. But the title track is special in the way that it allows everyone to shine. Here Kensley displays some of the greatest fills in between the cracks of slower, more menacing guitar riffs backed by excellent drum work. Benali has some solid fills himself on this tune, and it all surrounds a chorus lead by the whole band chanting while Blackie lays the rest on top. “Thunderhead” could also fit into this category pretty easily, but it takes a far softer approach, utilizing a piano for the leads. Eventually, it turns into a pummeling heavy metal barrage of rolling drum kicks and raspy vocals with chants being loaded into the chorus. Despite all of this, “Thunderhead” along with others actually contain something of a sadder tint.

Such emotions are bound to spill into the cracks of the foundation due to the nature of the lyrics. “The Neutron Bomber” was written about Ronald Reagan with his madness over power and living under the threat of nuclear war during his time, which blatantly contrasted the more sorrowful songs like the Gothic passages of “Thunderhead.” This, of course, would generate a feeling of tension within the run of the album, always keeping the listener hooked, wondering where the record was going to go. It would seem the only way to break this was with the ballad “Forever Free,” which was crafted around clean guitar licks, easily holding the title for the most emotional song on the record. One can feel the helplessness and sad feelings emitted by this song’s aura, which is something that W.A.S.P. would capitalize on more with records following The Headless Children. The short and soft intro known as “Mephisto Waltz” couldn’t have been a better lead into it.

Despite a turn-around in sound as great as this, there were still hints of the old W.A.S.P. left, mostly ones that broke through in the attitude driven tracks “Mean Man” and “Rebel In The FDG.” The former was a more stripped down narrative about Holmes written by Lawless. With lyrics saying “I’m a mean motherfucking man/I gotta scream, that’s what I am” backed by some of the most vicious riffs on the disc,  it’s the most sinister track present. The latter is a strong closer that almost acts as a surprise, seeing that “Maneater” could have served as a solid closer as well. According to the band, “FDG” stands for “Fucking Decadent Generation.” As you should imagine, the tone of the music itself matches what the song suggests, and couldn’t have been a better fit for the attitude that went into The Headless Children.

To many, this is W.A.S.P.’s greatest effort, and while there are a few that I personally would put before it, it’s easily one of their best crafted and completely worth the three-year gap between releases. Emotion, struggle, attitude, ferocity, musical complexity, and riffs for days are all key ingredients, and this beast just wouldn’t have been what it was without all of the stars aligning. It’s a fine example of how writing mature songs can go a long way, even if a band is known for doing exactly the opposite.

The Headless Children was released on April 3rd, 1989 through Capitol Records. There are countless editions of this, as it was released in CD, LP, and cassette. There are various re-issues including 2CD versions, re-pressings released in Germany on vinyl, and plenty of others. Enjoy choosing your favorite pick at my favorite online distributor.

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