Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don’t get nearly enough love; stuff that’s essential listening that you’ve probably never heard of; stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for. This week's entry is proof that the bassist and drummer of the pop rock band Lit had better taste than you would probably give them credit for, since they're the ones that told me about it when I interviewed them back in 2003 or so – Leatherwolf's Leatherwolf (1987) (Island). Sort of ironic that members of a now-forgotten band clued me into another forgotten band, right? Anyway, Leatherwolf formed in 1981, modeled on the then-burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Of course, they were a few thousand miles away, in sunny Huntington Beach, California – much closer to the Sunset Strip and the idiocy that was happening there. Still, they managed to get in some shows with Metallica and Slayer, which nudged their sounded a positive direction – even if they never fully became thrash. And even though those two acts had our boys beat in terms of speed and intensity, Leatherwolf topped them in one regard: the triple ax attack. That's right – while that half of the Big Four were content with a measly two guitars, Leatherwolf rocked three six-strings in tandem. It took Iron Maiden a full two decades to do that!
Not to say that Leatherwolf were quite up to par with any of those legends, but they were pretty damn good in their own right. Hewing closer to the Queensryche-Dokken realm and focusing on light fantasy themes (more Conan the Barbarian than Lord of the Rings), they brought a melodic sensibility and grasp of hooks (in fact, they even had a song called "The Hook") to their metal madness. Their self-titled debut and this record's follow-up, Street Ready, may have been heavier, but their second self-titled record, from 1987, stands out as their finest hour (okay, 40 minutes). Produced by a dude better known for his work with REO Speedwagon and Jefferson Starship, Leatherwolf brought a welcome sheen to the sound. Not enough for the music to become slick and lose its edge, but just enough to allow the songs to really shine. And there were some killer tunes to be found.
Starting off with the longest song on the record, "Rise or Fall," these guys let you know exactly what you're in for: epic metal with one foot firmly grounded. Sure, it begins with a grandiose march, but instead of exploding into Manowar stupidity, it slams down into a slice of classically-tinged, mid-paced NWOBHM. "The Calling," which follows, feels like an Accept anthem with less gay innuendo. Then that's succeeded by a ballad, which, along with the ill-advised cover of "Bad Moon Rising," represents the nadir of the record. Fortunately, between those two tracks lies the 1-2 punch of "Cry Out" and "Gypsies and Thieves," the former a winner with its call-response chorus and the latter a creepy occult stalker. After that, they close things out with the grandiose "Princess of Love," speedily demonic "Magical Eyes," and the Helloween proto-power metal of "Rule the Night."
After this, they knocked out the aforementioned Street Ready and a song for the Return of the Living Dead II soundtrackbefore the 90s swept them into irrelevance. They broke up for a decade before reforming in the early 2000's to put out a couple more records, but none of the post-reunion stuff lived up to that which came before. And even though they were a little bit too influenced by other bands to be properly influential in their own right, you can see their DNA in modern-day throwbacks like Icarus Witch. While it's easy to say that they should have been big, it's also easy to see why they weren't (the fantasy lyrics, a little bit too heavy for rock radio at the time). Still, they had some pretty great songs, and hey, apparently they made a big impression on some future one-hit wonders!