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Back to the Front

Celebrating the rockers who overcame the crap.

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Nas: His career came back from the dead.
  • Nas: His career came back from the dead.

The European press says Metallica's forthcoming St. Anger is a holy terror: The album could mark the return to form headbangers have waited more than a decade for. After the middling Load/Re-Load albums and the downright awful S&M, Metallica's at a crossroads: One more disc of watered-down hard rock, and its metal-god legacy could be shot. All the St. Anger hype got us thinking about rockers who've gone from greatness to crap and back to greatness again. There haven't been many, but here are our favorites . . .

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash produced some of the most affecting music of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, but his '80s records were as welcoming as the penitentiaries he played. By the time the flower-sniffin' album Rainbow came out (in 1985), Cash had traded his butt-kickin' swagger for by-the-numbers country. But in 1994, he came back swinging with American Recordings. Some of its songs were old Cash chestnuts (most notably the subdued standout "Delia's Gone"), but with maverick producer Rick Rubin on board, Cash was back in black once more.

Kreator

With blinding velocity and vocals that sounded like a rake dragged over concrete, Kreator set the bar for virulent '80s Euro-thrash. Caustic crowd-pleasers such as Pleasure to Kill and '89's Extreme Aggression put the band at the forefront of the speed-metal ranks for half a decade. But after 1990's Coma of Souls, Kreator began to tinker too much with its trademark sound: Frontman Mille Petrozza abandoned his toe-curling growl in favor of bland shouting, and the band delved into industrial and other styles, diluting Kreator's appeal with such forgettable albums as Renewal and Cause for Conflict. But the band rebounded nicely with 2001's Violent Retribution, a return to untempered old-school savagery that opened with the appropriately titled "Reconquering the Throne."

Voivod

With futuristic lyrics, prog-rock underpinnings, and a sci-fi aesthetic, Voivod established itself as one of metal's most forward-thinking acts of the late '80s. But just after 1989's Nothingface placed Voivod on the cutting edge of metal, the group began overexperimenting, almost abandoning the genre altogether by 1993's muddled The Outer Limits. Frontman Denis "Snake" Belanger left shortly thereafter; what followed was three albums of redundant, forgettable metal. In 2002, the band recruited former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted and brought Belanger back into the fold, and Voivod returned this year with its self-titled 11th album, which toned down the prog pretension in favor of a stiff dose of dense metal that's brought back that pleasant ringing in our ears.

The Dwarves

When the Dwarves dropped their classic third LP, 1990's Blood Guts and Pussy, they were considered the most vile act in rock since Jerry Lee Lewis made off with his cousin. Led by remorseless rippers such as "Motherfucker" and "Let's Fuck," the album might still be the most reprehensible, unrelenting 15 minutes ever caught on wax. But the Dwarves slipped mightily on their next two albums, Thank Heaven for Little Girls and Sugarfix, which amounted to indistinguishable, uninspired rehashes of the same riffs. Blag Dahlia and Co. returned with a vengeance in '97 with the melodic, misanthropic The Dwarves Are Young and Good Looking. They followed it up with 2000's criminally underrated Come Clean, their best blend of pornographic punk and pop savvy; it's half Beach Boys, half Barely Legal.

Nas

Nas has long fancied himself as much a messiah as an MC. But after his seminal 1994 debut, Illmatic, and its solid 1996 follow-up, It Was Written, Nas delved straight into sacrilege: Beginning with the '99 duds I Am and Nastradamus, and culminating in 2000's incredibly overhyped Stillmatic, the Queensbridge rapper damn near forsook all the promise of his first record, with contradictory lyrical themes, scattershot tracks, and overbearing megalomania. But last year's raw, emotional God's Son, centered around the death of Nas's mother, was the rapper's most personal effort yet. His Christ complex never ended, but at least his string of lousy records did.

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