Motörhead has been around for almost 40 years, but the band's reputation is based almost entirely on three albums released in 1979 and '80. Those three records—Overkill, Bomber, and Ace of Spades—deliver full-throttle rock 'n' roll as pure and unfiltered as Chuck Berry's late-'50s sides or any number of Sun Records compilations. From the iconic wild-side anthem "Ace of Spades" to the speed-freak space jam "Capricorn," from the road-warrior travelogue "(We Are) the Road Crew" to the proto-thrash of "The Hammer," the basic foundations of the Motörhead myth were all laid down between March 1979 and November 1980.
Most of the tracks on the classic 1981 live album No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith and the still-pretty-definitive 1984 best-of collection No Remorse are from those three albums. And the band's live set list, from then until now, has always relied heavily on those peak albums. So you could say that Lemmy Kilmister and company have been repeating themselves ever since 1982's Iron Fist. (The title track from that record, as awesome as it is, is still a rather shameless rewrite of "Ace of Spades." There are more than a few of those scattered throughout the band's catalog.) Motörhead's shifting lineup through the middle of the '80s kept things interesting—the replacement of "Fast" Eddie Clark with ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson lent a melodic sensibility to 1983's Another Perfect Day, and the two-guitar lineup starting with Orgasmatron in 1986 added heft and made room for Phil Campbell as a true lead guitarist.
But for more than 20 years, rating Motörhead albums has meant making uneasy comparisons to those early landmarks. Some more recent Motörhead albums rank higher than others. 1916, from 1991, has a handful of near-classic songs, including the title track, a bizarro World War I synth ballad, and the blistering punk tribute "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." "Sacrifice," from the 1995 album of the same name, might be the best post-'80s song the band has recorded. But the '90s, overall, were mixed for Motörhead.
The 21st century has been better, or at least more consistent. The six albums stretching from 2000's We Are Motörhead to 2010's The Wörld Is Yours have ranged from above average to pretty good, an impressive feat for a band that formed in 1975. For better or worse, that's helped turn Motörhead into a brand worth protecting. Once described as the worst band in the world by the British press, Motörhead has now been endorsed by The Guardian and Pitchfork. Lemmy, the guy who wrote "Jailbait" and "White Line Fever," has been adopted as weirdly cuddly mascot of heavy rock 'n' roll; he's become, to a whole generation of fans, something like a metal version of Spuds MacKenzie. There was a time when parents were appalled by everything Motörhead stands for—loud music, hard drugs, cheap booze, and cheaper sex. Now parents take their preteen kids to Motörhead concerts.
The brand-new Aftershock is one of the better recent Motörhead albums. It's a thoroughly professional modern hard-rock album, better by miles than present-day pretenders like Buckcherry. It's crisp, efficient, and speedy, with some cool riffs and a bunch of forgettable ones. There's a rewrite of "Ace of Spades." There are a couple of slow-burning token un-Motörhead-like songs, just like on every album since 1916. The reviews, as usual, are just as formulaic as the music: "as pummeling and unforgiving as ever," "Lemmy hasn't sounded this engaged with his art in years," "a classic ride-or-die Motörhead proposition."
What more could anyone ask of a new Motörhead record? Not much, really, especially considering the 67-year-old Lemmy's declining health. (He was hospitalized for a heart condition this summer and had a defibrillator implanted in his chest.) But is Aftershock enough?
I guess it depends on what you want. It's a recurring problem for bands that survive a few decades or longer. I'd rate the best of Motörhead among the greatest rock 'n' roll ever recorded, and Aftershock as a too-slick shadow of that. It's Motörhead, but it's not the best Motörhead. And there's so much better Motörhead music out there that I can't imagine why anyone would bother with this, or The Wörld Is Yours, or Kiss of Death, or Inferno, or any of the recent lesser albums more than a few times. I've spent several hours over the last few days listening to Aftershock over and over, and I'm looking forward to never hearing it again. Why am I listening to this instead of Orgasmatron?