Raging Slab’s overlooked comeback album The Dealer At 20
For my money, The Dealer is the greatest progressive boogie metal album of all time. And while that may sound like a backhanded compliment it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve had this album in rotation on every tour or road trip of the last two decades.
Most people have never even heard of Raging Slab. And those who have probably don’t realize that the band started way back in 1983, gigging with the likes of White Zombie and Butthole Surfers.
New York City is not where one assumes a southern rock-inflected band like Slab would form. But from that melting pot, like-minded guitarists Greg Strzempka and Elyse Steinman met and formed a band. Eventually they married. Together their rock and roll love story ran a gamut of highs and lows documented on six studio albums we’ve heard, and several more than no one’s heard.
My intro to Raging Slab came when a high school buddy hipped me to the True Death E.P. circa 1989. The sleeve depicted a semi truck with a skeletal driver behind the wheel. Maximum Overdrive vibes infused those four songs that were aptly described by Guitar World as “Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Metallica.”
AUDIO: Raging Slab “Thunder Chucker”
I had never heard a hybrid quite like it. Very few bands have even tried to come close. That fusion of southern rock, boogie, heavy metal, hot leads, twisted vocals, and progressive time signatures culminated into a succession of deal breakers for most listeners. I am gladly not one of them.
Another interesting footnote: a little known group called Mr. Crowe’s Garden opened for the Slab in 1990. That band took notes, refocused their sound, and made it big as the Black Crowes. Obviously they managed their success by excising all of the utter weirdness that gave Slab its incomparable style.
RCA was the first major to take a chance by signing Raging Slab. The self-titled album that followed was so special that Rick Rubin bought out their contract and migrated them over to his American label. Most people know Raging Slab because of the Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert album that Rubin produced. Slab recorded several more albums for American. Only one of them saw the light of day.
The band had videos on MTV and hit the road with bands as diverse as Monster Magnet, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Ramones, Molly Hatchet and even Warrant. They were special guests on a secret club tour with Guns ‘n’ Roses. Nothing really stuck, though. Due to mismanagement, Spinal Tap-level drummer problems, sui generis songwriting, and several alleged heavy drug habits, the big time was not to be for Raging Slab.
When all was said and done the band was mired in a contract with American that wouldn’t expire until the year 2000.
VIDEO: Raging Slab “Don’t Dog Me”
Nearly six years in limbo gave Raging Slab ample time to assemble the best collection of songs from its long career. The Dealer was released on indie label Tee Pee records, which did its best to keep gas in the tank. But the promotional muscle behind this comeback album was a far cry from what RCA, American and Columbia had done. Far too few Slab fans even knew the band was back. The indie budget also explains why the overall production–in your face as it is–has a DIY quality that their slicker major label releases did not.
The record kicks off with barnstormer “Here Lies” bolstered by a drum performance from longtime Slab fan and ally Dale Crover. More on him later. The band’s three-guitar assault is in fine form. So is its mastery of weird time signatures. They stop and start on a series of dimes for two bucks and change before the lurch of “Sir Lord Ford…” revs its engine.
“I’m in love with the needle and the dealer” is the kind of lyric that most bands as plagued by substance abuse as Slab reportedly were tended to avoid. It’s a painfully honest chorus bolstered by heavy riffs, guitar melodies, and rampant cowbell. The second half of the song is an instrumental hoedown that absolutely scorches, which just happens to be a credited riff on Black Oak Arkansas’ “When Electricity Came to Arkansas.”
“Double Wide! Half-assed!” croon Greg and Elyse on track three, driven by the superb drumming of session player Rob Cournoyer. The cover of the album features a mobile trailer in flames. Whether it’s truth in advertising or perfectly curated white trash imagery, the boot fits.
“Real Good Time” is a laid back jam with a plaintive chorus that begs for one more fix. The guitar solo in this one is packed with Eddie Hazel-levels of emotion. The band harmonizes “I just wanna feel good” as the track winds down with an impending sense that Real Good Times never seem to last.
The fun resumes with “Too Bad.” Uptempo and gritty, this ditty boogies with the best of them. “One’s too much and two’s too bad” is one of the seemingly endless double entendres on The Dealer’s lyric sheet.
“Chasin the Dragon” is the first lead vocal for Elyse on the album, though most listeners would assume this was hissed by a Sleestak, not sung by a woman. By this time we are losing count of the heroin references and ready to call The Dealer a concept album.
“Flap Your Boogie Flap” is another high energy jam that slams the speakers with urgency and never relents throughout its 2:27 runtime. That is the beauty of The Dealer. Sixteen songs over 54 minutes. Not a single track that hits the five minute mark. Just a succession of gems that proves what wizards of songwriting Slab truly were.
Side One wraps up with “That’s Alright” a jazzy syncopated riff that stops and starts where it chooses. Eventually the song breaks down into a slow finale with bristling electric guitar on top.
VIDEO: Raging Slab at King’s in Raleigh, NC 3/6/01
“The Ballad of Truly Mae” kicks off Side Two with an effervescent ode to its titular character. Beyond the buoyant groove this one stands out because Greg literally coughs out the vocals at one point that sounds too real to be staged. Most bands streamline the life out of their songs. Raging Slab chokes theirs full of sandpaper truth.
Cowbell introduces the aptly titled “Bite the Lightning.” While Slab was more overtly heavy metal in the ‘80s, remnants still flit through the sound here. The guitar solo is all rock though, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a James Gang album. The looseness of the ending is a testament to how tight the band actually was.
If there’s a proper ballad on The Dealer, it’s “I Don’t Know You.” This tune also boasts the most melodic vocal track on the album. Most bands go their whole career without every writing a song this beautiful–not discounting how hard it rocks coming out of the lead section. Definitely a high point on an album devoid of lows.
“Roadless Rider” is the longest track at 4:37. Some sort of indeterminate heavy guitar effect soars woozily over another massive lurching 5/4 riff. Who else does that? Maybe Rush–but Rush never slummed it at a monster truck rally while too wasted to pull a tractor out of the ditch they drove it into in the first place.
If there’s an Achilles heel to the Dealer it’s that 2001 was firmly in the CD era. Saving a few of the last tracks from the album to be singles or b-sides might have been for the best. When you listen to ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, the temptation to flip it over and start again is real because it’s only 33-minutes long.
The Dealer is an embarrassment of riches. Each song so potent, full of energy, honesty, melody, and power, that it can give you a toothache, a bellyache, and an itch for something a bit stronger.
After another standout cut–“That Aint’ What I Meant”–the album concludes with a rendition of an old standard, gender-swapped into “Good Mornin’ Little Schoolboy.” Elyse rasps this one out, sounding like she smoked a carton before taking a 4pm breakfast of black coffee and reheated Sizzlean.
AUDIO: Raging Slab (pronounced ēat-shït)
While Slab did follow up The Dealer with one more record, 2002’s (pronounced ēat-shït), it would be the last released during Elyse Steinman’s lifetime. She finally succumbed to lung cancer in 2017.
In her waning years she sang on a set of material that was released in Dec of 2020 as Sisterslab and the Boogie Coalition: Vol 1. Dale Crover played drums on these tracks, an avowed champion of the Slab. The Vol 1 in the title leads one to believe that there’s more in the vault, which makes sense since Greg and Elyse lived on a farm and had built their own Slabbey Road studio.
It’s my fervent hope that the three albums Raging Slab recorded for RCA and American will eventually see the light of day. But in the meantime, I remain in love with The Dealer.
AUDIO: Raging Slab The Dealer (full album)