Skid Row — The Atlantic Years (1989-1996)

It’s nigh on 35 years since Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo called in a favour from friend Jon Bon Jovi to get in front of über manager Doc McGhee.

Sabo and Bon Jovi were teenage pals and had a gentleman’s agreement that if one of them hit paydirt then the other would step in and help out.

Cue Bon Jovi’s game-changing introduction to then manager McGhee and Skid Row’s rapid rise from virtual unknowns to the poster boys of Atlantic Records’ MTV-focused late 80s roster.

But a carefully fashioned image didn’t necessarily tally with a sound firmly rooted in hard rock and metal.

And this immersive seven-vinyl box set serves as a timely reminder that Skid Row were a far heavier version of your typically flimsy hair band.

Even to this day there’s a popular misconception that Sabo and co. were/are fully paid-up members of the poodle rock community.

The Bon Jovi narrative and the band’s dashing good looks helped fuel that painfully misguided perception.

And sure, there were times when flamboyant frontman Sebastian Bach and his buddies milked lazy comparisons to Europe, Leppard, Whitesnake et al.

Yes they enjoyed the super model attention, Smash Hits magazine spreads, fast cars and personal stylists.

But a band that became increasingly heavier and darker during their association with Atlantic was quick to distance themselves from their chart-busting pop rock peers.

And by the time the fractious, almost feral Subhuman Race hit stores in 1995 Skid Row had more in common with Y&T and W.A.S.P. than Poison or Winger.

Skid Row soundtrack Youth Gone Wild

Skid Row’s commercially savvy self-titled debut boasted more than enough FM radio earworms to catapult the new Jersey newbies into the big leagues.

But even lead single Youth Gone Wild and top five Billboard smash 18 And Life were capable of bullying Bon Jovi et all into submission.

Bach’s booming, brooding vocal style coupled with ‘Snake’ Sabo’s crunching riffs owed as much to NWOBHM’s angst-ridden edge as it did to the late 80s pursuit of polished pop rock.

And it’s no surprise that, even after both men went their separate ways in the mid 90s, a shared passion for the heavier stuff manifested itself in a series of far feistier releases.

Listen to Bach on formulaic ballad I Remember You and it’s clear he’s far more convincing — and confident — letting rip and unleashing the rage.

In fact, Can’t Stand The Heartache is a more compelling representation of one of rock’s great frontmen tackling affairs of the heart…on his own terms.

In retrospect, Skid Row’s critically acclaimed debut is the sound of a band shackled.

Compared to the musical gravitas underpinning career standout Slave To The Grind it lacks that growling, gritty edge.

But in their bold bid to join the big boys, embryonic Skid Row had constructed a creative prison of their own making.

Ultimately, it was worth the risk. They served their sentence and came out fighting (with a few million dollars in the bank).

On the back of a reputation-forming release, solid sales and months spent on the road honing their craft alongside Aerosmith et al, Bach and his buddies returned to the studio confident of crafting the ultimate Skid Row record.

Skid Row freed by Slave To The Grind

There was no second-album syndrome stifling Slave To The Grind.

And its double vinyl reissue within the Atlantic Years boxset is a fitting celebration of the record’s 30thanniversary.

From the dystopian artwork — painted by Bach’s father David Bierk — to the darkly affecting lyrical content this is a record that demanded attention back in the day.

And the fact that it shifted 134,000 copies in its opening week, before hitting top spot on the Billboard 200, suggests Skid Row were right to ditch any lingering remnants of those hair metal roots.

Make no mistake: this is a heavy metal album.

And the band wanted everyone to know it.

In 1992 Skid Row handpicked Pantera and Soundgarden to support the Slave To The Grind tour.

It was a statement of intent and another typically bold move.

And by all accounts the headliners held their own as they ripped through the weightiest cuts from their punishing new record night after night.

For a while the hair metal community had no idea how to handle Skid Row Mk II.

There was a period where pin-up Bach still commanded centrefold billing in the mainstream music mags.

And yet Slave To The Grind’s muscular and cerebral material was far removed from the glam-fuelled MTV glitz synonymous with the late 80s.

Gone were any last vestiges of the odd pop rock trope evident on Skid Row’s dazzling debut.

Instead at-times brutal songs like The Threat, Psycho Love and In A Darkened Room painted a picture of a band exploring a bleak alternative to hair metal’s picture-perfect vision of wild excess and singalong fluff.

It might be dark but Slave To The Grind never fails to deliver.

Bach’s brilliant, Sabo’s on point and fellow axe-slinger Scotti Hill (check out his contribution to Creepshow) makes his considerable present felt.

This is peak Skid Row perfectly repackaged. 

In fact the full Bierk mural, spread across the gatefold sleeve, must be seen to be believed.

Sub-standard Subhuman Race?

According to bassist Rachel Bolan, the wheels were coming off Skid Row even before the recording of 1995’s Subhuman Race was wrapped up in Vancouver.

The band’s rhythm king freely describes the album’s conception as ‘a nightmare’ and, on reflection, it’s some way off the band’s best work.

Significantly the Bach-less Skid Row (still touring regularly with ZP Theart at the helm) ignore Subhuman Race completely.

And although Sebastian has been known to dip into its flawed set, during solo shows, there’s nothing to compare to Slave To The Grind’s peerless commercial metal.

Stripped back and yet somehow steelier still than its punchy predecessor, Subhuman Race is, at times, so far removed from Skid Row’s pin-sharp debut that it sounds like two different bands.

But it does, at the very least, allow Bach to push his remarkable voice to the limits.

And an unregimented and raucous record is an essential part of any appraisal of the forthright frontman’s colourful career.

Bach is credited with four co-writes on the original 13-track album and it’s on one of those songs, the subversive Beat Yourself Blind, that he sounds more menacing than ever.

Time spent with grunge’s flag bearers and metal’s new breed had clearly persuaded the imposing singer that there was no way back vocally.

Skip to the chugging, cheerless Face Against My Soul and there’s further evidence of a fractious break with the past.

But the Bach to basics approach simply doesn’t work as the Living Colour-lite, Alice In Chains pastiche fades feebly int the background.

Bolan recalled that Skid Row were ‘forced’ to record Subhuman Race at a time when the band was falling apart. 

It’s an essential addition for the loyal completist but of the seven discs here it won’t be missed.

Skid Row live on

Skid Row – The Atlantic Years perfectly captures the whirlwind rise and fall of a band that still remains relevant today.

It also houses the B-Side Ourselves EP and Subhuman Beings On Tour live collection — six tracks previously only available on a rare Japanese CD.

And don’t be fooled: the latter features visceral versions of Slave To The Grind, Monkey Business and Riot Act.

Live’s always where it was at (and still is) for Skid Row and, in spite of their impending implosion, there’s no denying the passion and intent at the heart of a brief but brilliant set.

Covers of Judas Priest’s Delivering The Goods (Rob Halford makes a guest appearance) and The Ramones’ Psycho Therapy fill out the six-track vinyl version.

And it’s surely significant that Subhuman Beings On Tour features only one song from the patchy album of the same name as Bach blasts his way through Beat Yourself Blind.

For many years Skid Row’s early years back catalogue has deserved a remixed, revamped reboot on vinyl.

This riveting glimpse into the past offers plenty of hints about the future.

But it leaves a lingering sense of a missed opportunity.

Slave To The Grind should have been the platform for the ‘metal’ Skid Row to secure its legacy and lay waste to the opposition.

Instead it proved to be the beginning of the end — commercially and creatively at least — for an ambitious band that remains misunderstood and much maligned.