Reviews

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars (1977)

STAR WARS – Original theatrical (1977) version
As released on the 2006 Lucasfilm Limited Edition DVD

Directed by George Lucas

In 1977 my parents took me to see Star Wars for the first time, like millions of other kids my age.  By the end of the year, terms like “The Force” and “Millennium Falcon” were commonly spoken among children like secret code, while remaining merely gibberish to their teachers.  Because of the availability of cool action figures and vehicles by Kenner, Star Wars became much more than a mere movie.  Its world building potential meant that kids were using the characters and settings to make their own adventures.  It became…forever.  A part of culture.  The image of Darth Vader will be found by future archaeologists the same as ours today find carvings Apollo and Zeus.

We memorized this movie.  Lines like “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”  We could recite them with perfect cadence and intonation, albeit an octave high.  But we didn’t understand all the words we were saying, or what it really meant.

Reviewing this movie is like revisiting an old friend to reminisce about the good times.


For the most authentic Star Wars re-watching experience, the 2006 Lucasfilm double DVD edition provides the theatrical version most of us grew up with and knew by heart.  There was no A New Hope, no episode number.  We saw Star Wars three times in the theatres.  After that, everyone had to wait for TV broadcasts or video rental if you wanted to watch Star Wars.  Except back then, there were only “fullscreen” tapes available for rental at the local store.  For many years, we completely forgot about certain alien creatures that were cropped out for home video!  This DVD is a reminder of those times, and how lucky we are today to have so many viewing options available.  (Including a new 2019 Disney+ version of the film. I say “Maclunkey!”)

When he conceived Star Wars, George Lucas had plenty of backstory sketched out.  Hhe assumed he only had one shot at making it, and so chose what he felt was the best and most exciting part of the overall story.  In a way, Star Wars always had a leg up on everything that came later for that reason.  The origin story of the farmer boy that leaves home to save the world is a setup taken from classic lore, and put on screen in an original way by turning it into a space fantasy.  With the benefit of hindsight, could it even lose?

Actually yes — if the special effects weren’t as convincing as they are.  Those artists took Ralph McQuarrie’s crucial conceptual art and turned drawings into filmable 3D objects that look worn, used and real.  Using bits of plastic battleship model kids and parts taken from cameras, a universe that looked as real as the world we live in was created.  Then they innovated further using blue screens and skill, creating dynamic space battles that surpassed anything we’d seen before.  One key innovation was the idea to choreograph the space battles based on actual World War II dogfight footage.

Sir Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi) and Peter Cushing (Tarkin) were the two most recognizable stars to the parents in the audience, but Harrison Ford was an up-and-comer who impressed everyone that loved George Lucas’ other coming-of-age story, American Graffiti.  Even though Cushing and Guinness had no idea what their dialogue was really about, they turned in incredible character performances.  The hero trio of Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were perfectly tuned.  Meanwhile, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker provided the roles of perspective for the film.  Indeed, Lucas said that only C-3P0 and R2-D2 witnessed the events of the entire saga.  Finally, Peter Mayhew and David Prowse provided the physical acting necessary for the roles of Chewbacca and Darth Vader.  These performances were topped off with sound effects by Ben Burtt and a brilliant Vader voiceover by James Earl Jones.

Lucas has been mocked in his later years for getting terribly wooden performances out of great actors in the prequel trilogy.  When he was young, making Star Wars, he was different.  His direction is alive and he gets spontaneous feeling performances from the entire cast.  Whatever he was doing in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, he was a different director in 1977.  Of course, much credit must also be given to the editors who carved this movie out of the celluloid.  Yet none of that would have had the same impact without the groundbreaking score by John Williams.  Williams is so important to the entire saga that he composed the scores to all nine films.

In other words, Star Wars is all but a perfect film.  On its own, without any sequels or prequels, it was already one of the best things ever, and what kid could resist that?  On a technical level, it’s a masterpiece achievement.  All this contained within a simple, engaging story drawing upon the tenets of classic mythology.  Consciously it’s blowing your mind, and subconsciously it’s tugging at your Jungian psyche.

The best part about watching the 1977 theatrical version of Star Wars is simply the ease of slipping into that world and really believing it.  When the 1997 special editions hit, the effects may have been improved, but awkwardly jarring additions were made:  The insertion of jerkily-moving Dewbacks.  An extended entry into Mos Eisley with distractingly fake looking Rontos.  A poorly-edited reimaginging of the Greedo faceoff.  And of course, Jabba the Hutt himself, perhaps the most hideous of all the additions due to the extremely primitive animation of the 1990s.  The rest of the changes, such as a restored Biggs Darklighter scene and an improved Death Star battle, are not so bad.  Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with the Death Star battle as it was in ’77.  The problem is that every time an addition is made in every reissue of a Star Wars film, it takes you right out of the movie and into reality once again.


Further Observations

When you pull the focus back and look at Star Wars in a greater context, more insight and meaning can be wrenched from the stone.  Both in terms of cultural impact, and how it relates to the Skywalker Saga as a whole, we can look deeper into this film and enjoy it even more.

One thing we appreciated a little bit as kids, but I really admire today, is the amount of sheer labour that went into making Star Wars.  It’s so much easier to appreciate in this original unrestored version.  If you can see the line between matte painting and live set, you realize:  oh my God, all of that big portion of the screen is actually a set!  And that matte painting is really, really good!  The amount of work to do both, and match them as close as they did is quite impressive without the aid of a computer.  Also, observe techniques used to make shots more dynamic.  The Falcon flying, for example.  The actual model isn’t moving much, but the starfield behind it is.  That makes it look as if it is really burning some rubber.

Here’s something to think about.  One of the biggest action set pieces of this movie involved Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm from a rope.  It blew everyone’s brain, that huge looking vertical shaft with the retracted bridges.  The Stormtroopers are coming at them from two directions, as Luke takes his leap of faith.  While in 1977 we also saw the male and female lead together as a team with possible romantic foreshadowing, today the scene actually has more meaning.  Now, it is the children of Anakin Skywalker finally united after two decades of separation.  The New Hopes.  It’s actually a pretty heavy moment in the whole saga when you think on what that means.  Obi-Wan and Yoda hid those children away as babies in the hopes that one day, they would take over the fight.  The moment we see them swinging across the chasm, we realize that dream has been realized.  From whiny space brat to brave hero in two hours.  It’s also clear from her courage and familiarity with a blaster that Leia is a “Force” to be reckoned with too.

Children loved the adventures but didn’t fully appreciate what Luke was experiencing.  You can feel that Uncle Owen tried, but wasn’t the father figure that Luke wanted.  Then Luke loses the only parents he ever had, his aunt and uncle, and is whisked off-planet for the first time in his life by a new father figure, Ben Kenobi.  In addition he’s told a bombshell of a truth (with a hidden lie):  his real father wasn’t a navigator on a spice freighter.  His uncle had been lying to him his entire life about who his father really was:  a Jedi knight, who fought in a “damn fool idealistic crusade” called the Clone Wars.  He then learns, in a second revelation, that the universe itself is more than it seems, and that an all powerful Force is behind everything.  And then he loses that father figure almost immediately after!  Today that would send most of us into months of therapy, but Luke soldiers on and picks up on this Jedi stuff pretty quickly!  In the end battle, he is forced into a leadership position when Red Leader is shot down by Darth Vader.  “We’re going in, we’re going in full throttle,” he says to the remaining squad.  His older best friend and role model Biggs is on board, and so is hot shot pilot Wedge.  “Right with you boss,” he says without hesitation.

A weighty moment is the final (corporeal) meeting of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  A physically imposing David Prowse in the Vader costume has the presence necessary to convey the anger behind the words:  “Your powers are weak, old man.”  You can almost hear the voice of Hayden Christensen from the Episode III Vader behind the voice of James Earl Jones.  The hate, as he now calls the man he once knew as “master” by the epithet “old man”.  It was always a foregone conclusion who would win this battle, but we children were amazed when Old Ben disappeared before our very eyes.  And what did those final words of his really mean?  “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  Surely a disembodied voice was not the “more powerful” that Ben was referring to?  This is something that the oft-criticized sequel trilogy finally delivered and expanded upon, where the prequels did not.  In episodes VIII and IX, we learn that powerful Jedi spirits can even interact with the physical world, and join with the living to defeat the ultimate evil.  In this way, Obi-Wan Kenobi has a role in concluding the nine-story arc of the Saga (even utilizing the voices of Sir Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor).

Another minor tie to the sequel trilogy is Han Solo’s offering to Luke Skywalker to come with him instead of joining the Rebellion on their “suicide” mission.  The only other person we see him offer to “job” to is Rey in Episode VII.  Any viewing of any Star Wars movie is always enriched by watching other Star Wars movies.  Last week I watched Rogue One.  Since that standalone film was designed to add backstory and blend the saga together even more tightly with the original movie, watching it adds richness and foundation to the original.  Knowing what happened to the previous Red Five, for example.  All the films have this ability to amplify the others.

Though dense with unfamiliar terms, throwaway dialogue built worlds.  The Kessel Run, for example, spawned half of the movie Solo.  Some of the most iconic lines in the whole original film were throwaways:  “You fought in the Clone Wars?”  Apparently so, when he was known as “General Kenobi”!  We didn’t learn a damn thing more about the Clone Wars until Episode II, released a quarter century later.  And so watching the prequels and even the animated Clone Wars series adds depth to the experience.  When Luke asks “How did my father die?” you see the hesitation on his face before Obi-Wan lies to Luke.  In that hesitation lies all the prequels and animated series.  The line about the Clone Wars planted the seed for pretty much everything about the prequels.  The only difference was that as kids, we assumed the clones were the bad guys not the good guys.  (Well, I guess they were both but we won’t delve further here.)

The quality and success of Star Wars were both necessary to launch a thousand imitations.  As kids we became familiar with the concept of “knock offs” pretty quickly.  Battlestar Galactica seemed like a B-level Star Wars.  You could even buy knock off toys at the store like glow-in-the-dark “space swords”.  For the real thing, there could be no substitute.  We were able to prolong and expand our love of the movie with the Kenner action figure line, the Marvel comics, the John Williams soundtrack records, and even “The Story of Star Wars” on vinyl.  This really gave kids a canvas to use their imaginations.  Today, some of the kids that played with Star Wars toys in a sandbox are making their visions real in official spinoff shows like The Mandalorian, that hearken back to what we liked about Star Wars in old ’77.


Conclusion

If you really want to recreate the authentic 1977 Star Wars experience, you won’t find it on your Disney+.  Even hardened cynics must concede that Disney has done some cool stuff with Star Wars recently, but if they really wanted to do something “Force”-ful, they could reissue the ’77 cut one more time.  If they never do, the 2006 DVD is always out there.  There’s nothing better than the real thing.

6/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Mötley Crüe – Too Fast For Love (1981 Leathür and CD remasters)

MÖTLEY CRÜE – Too Fast For Love (Originally 1981 Leathür Records, 2003 CD reissues)

I was so lucky to grow up not with the Elektra remix of Too Fast For Love, but the original Leathür Records version. Though I didn’t know anything about it at the time, Motley Crue’s debut existed in two different versions and I had the rarer of the two on an old cassette.  The original mix released in 1981 on the band’s own label was a raw beauty.  When Elektra signed the band, Roy Thomas Baker remixed the album for worldwide reissue.  But in Canada, we received the original mix on cassette first before the remix was even released.  This was so Motley had some music to promote on their first Canadian tour.  We were very lucky.  The Elektra mix came out and eventually replaced the original on shelves.

The differences are significant, including the deletion of an entire song (“Stick To Your Guns”) from the original on the Elektra release.  For nostalgia reasons, I always preferred the Leathür mix of this album.  “Come On And Dance” for example is a completely different and much longer recording.  It must be stated the Roy Thomas Baker mix is technically the better of the two.  It’s well balanced and has the required punch.  Vocal lines are thickened up.  It will undoubtedly sound better on your high end stereo.  There is more nuance.  The changes are especially audible on songs like “Starry Eyes” and “Live Wire”, but I simply have a preference for the raw, rough version I grew up with.  There’s something to be said for independent production values.  Additionally, the track listing was jumbled and the original running order flows better, so that’s the order we’ll be discussing the songs in.

Fortunately for you, you don’t have to track down an original vinyl or even an obscure Canadian cassette release to get the original Too Fast For Love.  It was officially reissued one time only on CD, in the 2003 Motley Crue box set called Music To Crash Your Car To Volume I.  In fact that box set includes both mixes of the album, plus the related CD bonus tracks.  (Actually, the box set is only missing one song, which we’ll discuss further on.)  For the money, Music To Crash Your Car To Volume I is the best way to get “all” the tracks.

The audio for the original Leathür mix is sourced directly from original vinyl, with the tapes presumably lost.  Audiophiles take note as you will hear the telltale sound of old vinyl.


It took a while for young me to get into Too Fast For Love.  The album was generally much different from the metal assault of Shout at the Devil.  That was the Motley I was familiar with.  The basic garage glam metal of Too Fast For Love was alien to me.  When I first received the cassette, I gave it a fair shake but didn’t start clicking with it until Easter of 1986.  It was a deliberate effort on my part.  “I want to hear and appreciate this album like my friends do.”  Bob Schipper had the songs he liked:  “Live Wire” (there was a music video, but he did not like the part with Mick Mars spitting up blood), “Merry-Go-Round”, and especially “On With the Show”.

No matter which version of the album you own, we begin on “Live Wire”, a blitzkrieg of an opener with punk-like pacing.  It’s dirty and messy cocaine-fueled mayhem, and the Leathür version sounds sharper and more chaotic.  Vince Neil is so young, less seasoned and a little shrill.  But the band is on fire with Mick Mars puking out one of his trademark riffs.

The Elektra reissue goes into “Come On and Dance” here, but Leathür puts “Public Enemy # 1” second.  It’s perfectly at home in this slot.  With the careless glee of youth, the song is one of Motley’s early pop rock deep cuts.  There is a lot of pop on Too Far For Love, especially in the vocal melodies.  “Public Enemy # 1” must go back to Nikki Sixx’s days in the band London, since it’s a co-write with London’s Lizzie Grey.  It then gives way to another blitzkrieg of a riff on “Take Me To the Top”.  This turns into a choppy groove, and yet another melodic Vince Neil vocal to keep you hanging on.  There’s that pop side again.  You could isolate Vince’s vocal and turn it into a pop song.  It’s like you have this three-man wall of pounding rock with Tommy Lee, Mick Mars and Nikki Sixx slamming in unison.  But on top of that you have Vince Neil singing a candy-sweet melody.

A ballad “Merry-Go-Round” gives your ears a slight rest.  Though Nikki wrote it, Mick has a way with these kinds of chords that makes them just sound “Mars”.  This song is given an urgency by Vince who, as it turns out, was quite a great singer in his early days.  The first side closes on “Piece of Your Action”, a song that has been remixed a number of times over the years.  It’s also Vince Neil’s first co-writing credit (lyrics).  With a sharp steely riff and aggressive vocals, this song will knock down walls.

The old mix of “Starry Eyes” sounds overblown and slurred compared to the Baker version, yet that’s its charm.  “Starry Eyes” has a disco-like groove and another sugar sweet Vince Neil vocal.  Nikki Sixx doesn’t get a lot of attention as a bassist, but he’s not content just to hang around banging out a rhythm.  He likes to play melodically too, and “Starry Eyes” is a fun song to listen to him play.

Only the Leathür version has “Stick to Your Guns” at this point in the running order.  It’s a busy song with different tempos and flavours, from fast verses, to a slow and choppy chorus riff, and a funky instrumental jam out.  Perhaps it was left off the Elektra reissue because it’s a little more complex than the rest of the album.  It also might have been because the song had been issued a couple times already:  “Stick to Your Guns” was also the flipside of Motley Crue’s very first single, “Toast of the Town” (to be discussed further on).

“Come On and Dance” has a heavy riff that flows well out of “Stick to Your Guns”, but it’s the most different between the two versions of the album, so you can choose your preference.  The original is longer and the vocal is better.

Regardless of which version you own, “Too Fast For Love” is always the second-last song on the album…but in two very different mixes.  4:16 on Leathür with a unique intro, and 3:21 on Elektra, going straight into the riff.  On Leathür the slow, ballady opening acts as a feint.  Mick then cranks up an unforgettable riff, and we are off into one of Motley’s true early classics.  The primitive gang backing vocals are quaint by modern standards, but again, that’s the charm.

Finally “On With the Show” is the emotional closer.  “Frankie died just the other night, some say it was suicide, but we know how the story goes.”  In real life nobody died (yet) but “Frankie” is Frank Feranna, the birth name of Nikki Sixx.  That name was his past, and Nikki Sixx was his future.  The ride was just beginning, and this song has both a sadness and a certain amount of glee.  “But you see Frankie was fast, he was too fast to know.  He wouldn’t go slow until his lethal dose.”  That part turned out to be somewhat prophetic.  Regardless, “On With the Show” is the fist-pounding pop metal album closer needed for a record like Too Fast For Love.  If you’re headbanging along with it, the you should feel well pooped out by the end!


In 1999, Motley Crue began reissuing all their albums on CD in a series called Crucial Crue on Motley Records, but the end result was disappointing.  The bonus tracks varied in quality, but the real problem was that each CD was given an additional bonus track in Japan, and they were pretty good ones too.  Fortunately this was rectified in 2003 with yet another series of reissues, adding the Japanese bonus tracks.  The box set Music To Crash Your Car To Volume I has all this bonus material as well.  For Too Fast For Love, the Japanese bonus track that was restored in 2003 was a live version of “Merry-Go-Round” recorded in San Antonio with an obviously very young Vince Neil on vocals.  Though the singing is shaky live, it’s a genuine live recording capturing the band at this early stage of their careers.

“Toast of the Town” was one of those song titles I kept hearing about as a kid, but nobody I knew had ever heard the first ever Motley Crue single.  According to the liner notes in the box set, this single was only given away at shows in L.A. for a limited time.  Both it and its B-side “Stick to Your Guns” are restored on the CD reissues as bonus track.  “Toast of the Town”, like Too Fast For Love itself, is a pop rocker with punch.

An unreleased song called “Tonight” is actually a Raspberries cover (there’s that pop side again).  And it’s bloody awesome.  They were already halfway there by covering it, but they made it work with their sound, basically just by adding distortion and turning it all up.  It sounds like this version was fully recorded and produced for release, so why it wasn’t, we don’t know.  Too pop?  Perhaps.

The last bonus track to discuss is “Too Fast For Love” with the alternate intro.  This is the same intro as on the Leathür version of the album, but it sounds like it was mixed to the higher standards of the Elektra version.  Regardless, there are three distinct versions of the song for you to enjoy.

One track is missing from these releases.  The one from this same era that they neglected to include is called “Nobody Knows What It’s Like to Be Lonely”.  Its only official release to date is as a bonus track on a 20 year old Motley Crue live DVD.  At seven minutes long, it plods along with a deliberate and heavy groove.  Nikki Sixx has praised the guitar work of Mick Mars, and it has a bizarrely funky drum breakdown at the end.  In order to get the complete picture of this era of Motley Crue, track down “Nobody Knows What It’s Like to Be Lonely”.  You can understand how a seven minute song didn’t make an album release, though it is certainly well overdue for a re-release on any format other than DVD.


Any way you go, Leathür or Elektra, CD or vinyl, or bloody Canadian cassette tape, Too Fast For Love is a hell of a debut album.  Few bands have as many haters as Motley Crue, but this album is an innocent reckless joy.  Shout at the Devil sounds contrived by comparison, with Motley Crue adopting a doomier metal sound and dropping the pop-punk pretences.  As good as Shout at the Devil undoubtedly is, this one sounds far more natural.  It’s the real deal.  This is the Crue laying it down hard, fast, getting it done quick and not messing around.  Love it or hate it.  I know how I feel.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Corey Taylor – CMFT (2020 Japanese version)

COREY TAYLOR – CMFT (2020 Warner Japan)

I’ve never particularly cared for Slipknot and I don’t own any Stone Sour.  However I’ve been aware of Corey Taylor since 2014’s Dio tribute, and “Rainbow in the Dark”.  That side of Taylor landed right in my ballpark.  So did his solo single “Black Eyes Blue”.

“Why not spend some dollars and get his album, see what he’s up to?” I said to myself.

“Oh wait,” and a pause.  “I need to know if there are any bonus tracks so I can buy the most complete version,” replied my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Some typing.  C-D-J-A-P-A-N into the search engine, a short wait and — confirmed.  “Black Eyes Blue”, acoustic bonus track.  In stock.

“It’s only money,” said the idiot in the middle of a pandemic.

A few weeks later, a Japanese CD of Corey Taylor’s solo debut CMFT , bejewelled wresting belt on the cover, had hit Canadian shores and was on its way to my post box.


The scene is set when the laser blasts aluminium.  A southern rockabilly vibe on “HWY 666” takes us on a heavy car trip in the forbidden zone.  This is what Nickelback was wishing they did with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.

The big single is in the welcoming second slot.  It’s hard to describe “Black Eyes Blue”, except that the beat swings in a danceable way while the chorus delivers big hooks.  Just like a classic Bon Jovi rocker, a guitar solo blasts out Sambora-like with a complimentary hook.  It’s all over but the crashing chords in just over three minutes.  Picture yourself on the highway going on at a good clip with the windows down, but the music blasting louder than the wind.  Classic in the making.

Taylor goes for a punky hard rock vibe on the next one, “Samantha’s Gone”, just a blast in a pickup truck on a dusty highway.  “We all got nothin’ to lose because the cash is gone,” goes the the thick chorus.  Some bright blasts of mean guitar melodicism keeps the hooks-a-flowin’ like booze.  It goes full-on punk rock with “Meine Lux”, but still in southern territory.  Filler perhaps; fortunately “Halfway Down” has a broader appeal.  It’s from the same Sonic Temple that the Cult built in 1989.  Straight-ahead hard rock with fat trimmed and bone-in.  

Corey opens and lets sentiment out on the sixth number, a dark exploration called “Silverfish”.  It’s a big ballad that sounds akin to some of the radio staples of the early 90s, but the surprising next twist is a splash of nice acoustic on “Kansas”.  This bright pop rocker recalls the big sounds of the Goo Doo Dolls on some of their biggest albums.  Clearly, Corey Taylor is dialled into the pop side of his music collection on this album.

Suddenly, like the car has hit the brakes to save a scared animal’s life, the tone changes and you’ve got whiplash.  “Culture Head” gets topical and aggressive.  It’s detuned and pissed off.   The speed picks up on a tangent with “Everybody Dies on My Birthday” which recalls the drum stylings of Matt Sorum.  The metal is strong with this one, as are the “We are!” singalong vocals.

The car you’re driving pulls into a diner on the roadside, and that’s “The Maria Fire”.  There’s a local band with a southern twang playing electric guitars.  Though the band is hot and the guitarist is smoking the fretboard, this is rough place and the tension feels like a fight could break at any moment.  Time to go “Home”.

“Home” is a beautiful piano piece, just Corey and keys.  The heartfelt tone and vocals could have been a perfect ending to the album here.  It’s one of those moments that maybe should be left as-is, and just walk away.  Instead we’re treated to the rap-rock closer “CMFT Must Be Stopped”.  Not my kind of thing, but I’m not Corey’s core audience and admittedly it’s fun to bop along to.  Listen for some cool percussion stuff in the background.  I’m oblivious to his guest rappers Tech N9ne and Kid Bookie; one of them has a very cool speed rap flow.  This is the point at which I roll up the windows of the car because I don’t wanna look like Michael Bolton in the movie Office Space.  This goes into a hardcore Anthrax-like thrash punk rocker “European Tour Bus Bathroom Song” which ends the album on an unnecessary jokey note.

It turns out that, though financially stupid, my choice of buying the Japanese version of the album was the correct one.  They end with the acoustic live version of “Black Eyes Blues”, a sparse version that leaves you feeling refreshed when the album’s over.

You know what lane I’m in musically, and where Corey Taylor comes from.  You can divine from this review whether you will like the album or not.  I think there’s a good chance that many of you would like most of it, but few would love it all.  Certainly not a bad investment since songs like “Black Eyes Blues”, “Samantha’s Gone”, “Everybody Dies on My Birthday” and “Home” have potential to stick around in your head for years.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Stryper – Even the Devil Believes (2020 Japanese version)

STRYPER – Even the Devil Believes (2020 Avalon Japan)

The resurrected Stryper have been riding a solid yellow and black wave of quality for several albums now.  Singer/guitarist Michael Sweet has honed in on an early-80s metal sound as Stryper’s foundation, with emphasis on riffs, vocal melodies and cool guitar solos.  2020’s Even the Devil Believes dwells within this rich landscape, drawing inspiration from classics galore.

Speedy metal abides.  “Blood From Above” sounds like Accept and Stryper in an atomic collision.  No quarter given here; this song is full-on, and you can easily imagine it coming from a lost album of the 80s.  However, a title like “Make Love Great Again” could only have come in 2020.  Stryper usually stay out of political commentary, but it’s obvious what “There’s a culture building walls, just like vultures consuming all,” is an oblique reference to.  While no artist should have to “stay in their lane”, this isn’t the kind of thing I want to be reminded of when I listen to Stryper.  Otherwise, the track is a slow metallic Dokken-esque groove, with an uplifting chorus.  Perhaps George Lynch has been rubbing off on Michael Sweet, but if Dokken had recorded “Make Love Great Again” in 1987 it would been a single.

Third song “Let Him In” is back to straight preachin’, only it’s preaching from a the open window of a yellow and black ’81 Corvette, rippin’ the tires.  The Dokken vibes resume on “Do Unto Others”, with a guitar solo that sounds as if inspired by the School of Rhoads.  But then the title track “Even the Devil Believes” sounds like “Breaking the Chains”.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it just means these songs have a classic vibe that brings back memories and emotions.  The chorus has the melodic sensibilities of Harem Scarem while there’s a dual solo a-la the mighty Priest.  Stryper then ease up on the pedal with “How to Fly”.  Still heavy, but nobody’s racing this time.  If anything this recalls some of the better kinds of 90s rock, with still uplifting melodies playing over slower grinds.  But then it’s back to biting, vicious and righteous metal on “Divider”.

Something cool happens on “This I Pray”.  Out come the acoustics, and we have a ballad that doesn’t sound all that different from Stryper’s celebrated underdog album from 1990, Against the Law.  Though Michael Sweet has spoken poorly of it (mainly because they dropped the Christian lyrics), fans have praised the musical direction of that album.  “This I Pray” feels the same, but without the lyrical change, and should please many diehards.  “Invitation Only” on the other hand brings back the keyboards, and not in a wimpy way at all.  More like Marillion.  This track sounds like a harder, tougher lost song from In God We Trust.  

Moving on to the end, the penultimate “For God & Rock ‘N’ Roll” sounds like a Stryper anthem.  Some fun solos and a fist-pumping chorus to go?  This sets off “Middle Finger Messiah” (now there’s an image for ya) to thrash its way to the finish line.  Kudos to drummer Steven Sweet for laying down the pace for this one.  It’s a fully loaded McLaren flying the flag of Jesus, but at least you know what you’re getting with Stryper.  Plenty of folks who can’t relate to the lyrics just get off on the music.  And “Middle Finger Messiah” sets the phasers on “stun”, especially during the solo/breakdown 2/3rds of the way into the song.  The album doesn’t state who is playing which solos, Michael Sweet or Oz Fox, so we’ll just salute the both of ’em.

The Japanese bonus track is an acoustic mix of “This I Pray” which, in this version, is more in the ballpark of later period Cinderella.  Once again, not a bad thing.  The electric guitars are turned down, letting us hear the nice acoustics, with keyboards providing a little bit of colour.

Here’s the problem with Stryper of late, and it’s a nice problem to have.  They’ve put out some pretty awesome albums in recent years.  Murder By Pride (2009),  No More Hell to Pay (2013), Fallen (2016), and God Damn Evil (2018) all raised the bar, collectively by several measures.  Stryper have been so great for a good stretch that it’s almost futile to rate them all numerically.  May as just say:  yep, they did it again, so go and get it.

5/5 strypes

REVIEW: AC/DC – Power Up (2020 Light Box edition)

AC/DC – Power Up (2020 Sony “Light Box”)

FAQ:

  1. No, Malcolm Young doesn’t play on it.
  2. No, Axl Rose is also not on the album.
  3. Yes, it is as good as you’ve heard.

41 minutes is all it takes to rock the world.  We needed AC/DC in 2020, and we got it.  This isn’t the first time AC/DC have put guitars on magnetic tape without Malcolm.  That era began with 2014’s Rock Or Bust, but this album is better.  The riffs are Malcolm’s, and nephew Stevie Young performs them admirably as he always has.  As for Brian Johnson, he sounds as if time stopped back in 1995.

“Realize” is catchier than the average AC/DC, with a few guitar overdubs to sweeten it up.  “Rejection” is similarly fun, despite its title.  Good tunes.  Not immortal classics in the making, just good album cuts as AC/DC have done for decades.  Even the first single “Shot in the Dark” doesn’t sound like the kind of AC/DC tune that radio will be pounding out in 10 years, even though they sure are playing the crap out of it today.  Good songs all, but comparison to the back catalogue is a doomed endeavour.

The one tune that does sound like a future staple is “Through the Mists of Time”, a title that seems more like Zep than Acca Dacca.  Focused on melody and spare guitar picking, it’s a bit softer than what most people expect.  The “Ahh-ah” backing vocals sell it.  This is probably the song you’ll remember years from now.

Moving on down the tracklist, we have a few songs with potential to grow.  “Kick You When You’re Down” has some cool pickin’ rhythm.  Also cool is “Witch’s Spell”, another title that doesn’t seem like AC/DC at first.  It’s among the most memorable tunes thanks to a stuttery guitars and a fun chorus.  The mood changes on “Demon Fire”, an excellent song similar in style to “Safe in New York City” from 20 years ago.  It’s got that fast 4/4 beat, coupled with a low Brian Johnson growl (at first).

After “Demon Fire”, we’re in for a series of workmanlike AC/DC tracks without a lot of distinction.  There’s “Bad Reputation” (mid-tempo), “No Man’s Land” (slow and menacing), “Systems Down” (mid-tempo), “Money Shot” (mid-tempo with bite), and “Code Red” (slinky).  Power Up, like any AC/DC album since about Flick of the Switch, gets the job done.  The only true classic is “Through the Mists of Time”, but there is plenty of strong material headlined by “Demon Fire”, “Shot in the Dark”, “Realize”, “Witch’s Spell” and “Money Shot”.  It’s still early of course, and in three months you might have some clear favourites.  This album has room to grow.

Now, the $60 “Light Box” is…disappointing.  It’s a box, made of cardboard, with a sound chip that plays exactly 17 seconds of “Shot in the Dark” through a little speaker in the top, while flashing.  (I call it a “Seizure Box”!)  It stays lit for a few more seconds, and then stops.  You can push the button as many times as you like, because it comes with a handy-dandy USB charging cable.  (I bet you needed another one of those!)  So that’s all it does.  Inside is the standard CD digipack wedged between two sturdy foam slats.  On the left hand side with the button and charging port, a cardboard strip is attached to prevent the button from being pushed in the stores.  Removing this piece, which you need to do to recharge the box, is difficult and I tore mine.  I glued it back, but you can still see it.  $60 box, ripped just like that.  Bummer.

AC/DC sound like AC/DC the most when Phil Rudd is in the band.  With Phil, Brian Johnson and Cliff Williams all back for one more round, authenticity is not an issue.  This is an album that deserves multiple listens.  You’ll have your own favourites too.

3.75/5 stars

 

 

The Complete Priest Directory

Let this directory be your Point of Entry to the mighty Judas Priest discography!  Complete reviews below, in chronological order.

JUDAS PRIEST REVIEWS

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Live in London (2003)

JUDAS PRIEST – Live in London (2003 SPV)

A second live album to go with a second Ripper studio album seemed excessive.  Double live albums, both.  ’98 Live Meltdown was a suitable way to get fans familiar with Ripper Owens’ spin on Priest tunes.  With only one new studio album between them, was 2003’s Live in London necessary?

Maybe not “necessary”, but certainly beneficial.  Wisely, Priest avoided double-dipping on many songs.  Eight songs were not on ’98 Live, including old classics like “Desert Plains”, “Heading Out to the Highway” and the rarely played “United”.  Notably, “Turbo Lover” was back in the set for the first time since 1987; no longer an embarrassing pariah but slowly becoming a classic.  It’s also a stronger album sonically than ’98 Live, with guitars more in-your-face.

Ripper is commanding.  On the Live in London DVD, he spoke about his stage attire.  He would come out on stage dressed in the leathers, but after a song or two, changed into a baseball cap.  He was clearly more comfortable just being himself.  And that translates into him sounding comfortable on album.

The new songs from Demolition included are “One On One”, “Feed On Me”, and “Hell Is Home”.  It’s hard to ignore the modern sonic touches like Morello-inspired guitar noises.  All decent enough tunes, but up against the back catalogue of the mighty Priest, they just disappear into the scenery.

One of the most impressive performances is all 10 minutes of “Victim of Changes”, probably the longest jam of the song you are likely to find.  KK’s guitar solo is mental.  “Diamonds and Rust” is the same acoustic version they played on the previous tour, but “Turbo Lover”…oh baby!  It is strange hearing anyone other than Rob Halford singing it, but this Priest is convincing enough.  It is largely stripped clean of the synths, as Priest seemed scared of this part of their history.  “Desert Plains” is also special — Ripper just lets loose a molten scream at the start.  This is the only version available with Ripper, or Scott Travis on drums.  Scott nails the pulse of “Desert Plains”.  Another special song is “Running Wild”, rarely played, from Hell Bent For Leather.  It’s joyful to hear.  Ripper really screams it up.  The oddball anthem “United” is heavier with the guitars amped up, but it’s definitely the one that sticks out like a sore thumb.

So how does Live In London stack up “One On One” against ’98 Live Meltdown?  It’s more well-rounded, and has two more tracks.  That means room for more old rare classics.  Overall the new Jugulator material worked better in concert than the Demolition stuff, which is an element in the favour of ’98 Live.  Both albums are so close to equally enjoyable that’s there’s no point in splitting hairs.  Just hit play and enjoy a “lost” era of Judas Priest that wasn’t bad at all.

3.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Priest, Live & Rare (1998 Japanese import)

JUDAS PRIEST – Priest, Live & Rare (1998 Sony Japan)

Fun fact:  in 1998, there were three Judas Priest live albums released.  First was the official ’98 Live Meltdown, featuring then-current singer Tim “Ripper” Owens.  There was also Concert Classics, an unauthorised CD from the British Steel tour that the band swiftly took legal action to remove from store shelves.  Finally, a CD called Priest, Live & Rare released by their old label Sony in Japan, featuring a smorgasbord of live B-sides.

Judas Priest’s B-sides don’t garner a lot of attention, but are worth looking in to.  Fortunately, a large assortment of them are collected on this compilation.  Covering a period from 1978 to 1986, Priest released a number of live B-sides (and one remix) that are included here.  Only two (“Starbreaker”, and a version of “Breaking the Law”) were released on CD in the 2004 Metalogy box set.  Because Priest were conscious of giving value to fans, the live B-sides are not the same familiar versions from live albums.

From the “Evening Star” single in 1978 comes “Beyond the Realms of Death”, Judas Priest’s “Stairway to Heaven”, or so some said.  It’s a rather weak comparison, but “Beyond the Realms of Death” does hold special status.  Glen’s solo, though imperfect, drips with the tension that comes from the live performance.  From the same gig, but lifted from the “Take on the World” single comes “White Heat, Red Hot” and “Starbreaker”.  You can hear the life in the songs, from Les Binks’ organic drum work to Rob’s impassioned performance.  The man is in top voice especially on “White Heat, Red Hot”.  Les Binks has an extended energized drum solo on “Starbreaker”.  These are fantastic live versions that need to be in a diehard’s collection.

The next single visited is 1981’s “Hot Rockin'”, with two live B-sides:  “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” from that year in Holland.  The drum stool has changed hands from Les Binks to Dave Holland, and it is like the band has had a heart transplant.  The difference is notable given that on this CD, Binks went out on a drum solo.  It’s like a pacemaker has been installed and the pulse of the beast has been tamed.  But that’s 80s Priest for you, and with that said, these are two excellent versions of some serious Priest hits.  Refreshing to hear, after the same familiar ones over and over again.

Priest’s set at the 1983 US Festival has not been released on CD yet, but here are some for you.  (The Festival on DVD is not an issue — the deluxe Screaming for Vengeance contains the whole thing.)  Here you get “Green Manalishi”, “Breaking the Law” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”.  “Green Manalishi” is a fantastic version (at least for one with Dave Holland on drums!) and Rob is peak Halford.  These three tracks are sourced from a live 1983 Japanese “Green Manalishi” EP that costs some fair funds on its own.  (This is the version of “Breaking the Law” that you can also find on the Metalogy box set.)

“Private Propety” (originally from 1986’s Turbo) is a rare live take from St. Louis. It was originally released on the “Parental Guidance” 12″ single.  Therefore it’s not the same one from Priest Live, nor the Turbo 30th anniversary set.  This one predates the release of the others and has a nice untampered quality.  Finally, also from the “Parental Guidance” single, is the only disappointing B-side in this collection.  It’s the “Hi-Octane” extended remix of “Turbo Lover”!  Extended remixes were a popular thing in the 80s.  Every mainstream artist did them; for example Def Leppard, Kiss and Aerosmith.  “Turbo Lover” is one of the poorer such examples.  Were any dance clubs likely to play Judas Priest?  No, but the Priest did try.

Unweildy ham-fisted “Turbo Lover” aside, Priest, Live & Rare is a highly recommended collection to get 10 rare Priest B-sides in one fell swoop.  Definitely cheaper than tracking down all those singles.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Defenders of the Faith – Part Two – Special 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition and 2001 Remaster

For yesterday’s review of the original album, click here.  

JUDAS PRIEST – Defenders of the Faith (2001 Sony reissue, 2014 Special 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

Let’s start this review by taking a quick look at the bonus tracks that were added to the 2001 Sony remastered CD.  The first is an acoustic ballad called “Turn On Your Light”.  With lead guitars overdubbed later on, this spare acoustic ballad would have been a sharp left turn for the band had it come out on the next album (Turbo).  It’s very light, even more so than the material that made the album.  On the other hand, given the musical climate of the era, maybe it could have been a hit that propelled Priest to heights previously unseen.  We’ll never know.  The second bonus track comes from Long Beach on the Defenders tour.  It is the duo of “Heavy Duty” and “Defenders of the Faith”, but we’ll get into it later as it’s also included (albeit remixed) in the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition we’re about to discuss.  Important to note:  the 30th Anniversary does not include “Turn On Your Light”.  If you want to get that song, you have to get the 2001 version.

When I was a kid, around the time of Defenders of the Faith, I can remember listening to a live Priest concert with the next door neighbour George.  We were on his picnic table in the side yard, listening to it on the radio.  That must have been Long Beach, May 5 1984, the show included in the Anniversary Deluxe set.  Spread over two discs, it’s a full Priest show with nine of the ten new songs played.  Only the controversial “Eat Me Alive” was not played.

“Love Bites” is an unusual set opener, but of course they did use “Out in the Cold” on the following tour too.  The mix is bass-heavy with Ian Hill up front for some reason.  Barking Rob spits out the words like bullets.  Sticking with new material, it’s “Jawbreaker”, the second track on Defenders, performed at light speed.  Rob says hello to 13,000 heavy metal maniacs and then dives into the oldies.  Three well-received number from British Steel in a row:  “Grinder”, “Metal Gods”, and “Breaking the Law”.  Though robotic in tempo these songs were and still are landmarks for the band.  “Breaking the Law” is the most lively, with Rob acting as the cheerleader in concert.

They reach way back for “Sinner”, which again suffers from the Dave Holland treatment on drums.  It’s too fast and stiff.  Fortunately, Halford belts out the chorus in scream-form with earnest.  “Desert Plains” comes next, a song for which there are few live versions available.  It’s a bit too fast, with pulse of the original song lost, but strong nonetheless.

Another batch of new songs follow, all awesome in their own right:  “Some Heads are Gonna Roll”, “The Sentinel”, “Hard Hard Ride Free” and “Night Comes Down”.  It speaks to the strength and popularity of the album that the set looks like this.  These are ably performed, though Rob’s voice sounds very raw on “The Sentinel”.  The crowd goes completely nuts when, before “Rock Hard Ride Free”, he announces that five million people are listening live on the radio!  Unfortunately due to his sore-sounding voice, the version on Priest…Live makes for better listening.  “Night Comes Down” (issued in an alternate live mix on the Ram It Down 2001 remaster) is one of Priest’s most unsung triumphs, a ballad of sorts set in the dusk.  Try listening to it when the sun is going down some time.

Strangely, “Electric Eye” is the first song from the previous hit album Screaming For Vengeance, an album that is largely ignored here in favour of the new one.  Next it’s a last gasp of new songs in the form of “Freewheel Burning” and the anthemic duo “Heavy Duty” and “Defenders of the Faith”.  These are a treat.  Rob uses “Defenders” to get the crowd to do a singalong.  “Freewheel” is pretty manic, and then it’s into the set-ending classics.

“Victim of Changes” can’t help but be the centrepiece of the set.  It’s a serious Priest epic and isn’t rushed through like other songs.  This version is just a little bit different.  “Green Manalishi” is dutifully tough, though every version with Dave Holland is intrinsically and unfortunately inferior to the one with Les Binks.  The guitar solos are note perfect and full of sparks.  Moving on to “Living After Midnight”, it’s big blockheaded fun.  “Hell Bent for Leather” is a high speed thrill as always, and then Priest finally end it on “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and the inevitable and annoying “Oh-oo-oh-oo-oh-yeah” crowd singalong.

The 30th Deluxe has a booklet with several live pictures — none of former drummer Dave Holland however.  (If you don’t know why, Google him and guess.)  The remastering of the album itself may be new, but the real emphasis is on the complete concert.  The fact that the setlist contained almost all the new album makes it unique among Priest releases.  It’s a show worth returning to and playing again.  If Rob’s voice was less rugged that night, it might have been a live album in its own right.

3.5/5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Defenders of the Faith (1984) Part One – Vinyl

JUDAS PRIEST – Defenders of the Faith (1984 Columbia)

If memory serves, in contemporary times, Defenders of the Faith was considered good but not as good as Screaming for Vengeance.  It was a down-ratchet in terms of tempo and intensity.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that both albums are near-equals in quality.

It begins with a bang.  “Freewheel Burning” is borderline thrash, with the kind of high octane tempos they do so well.  Racing metaphors are paired with a lightspeed lead Rob Halford vocal, syllables flowing so fast that only a seasoned rapper could keep up with his flow.

Look before you leap has never been the way we keep, our road is free.
Charging to the top and never give in never stop’s the way to be.
Hold on to the lead with all your will and not concede,
You’ll find there’s life with victory on high.

Without a lyric sheet, there was no way you were able to follow the words.

After an adrenaline rush like that, Priest wisely shifted the throttle back a few gears with “Jawbreaker”.  Though not slow, it’s also not mental like “Freewheel Burning”.  The pace is determined.  It would not be controversial to say that Dave Holland isn’t as complex a drummer as Les Binks was.  Still he and Ian Hill do lay down a pulsing, robotic metal beat.

Third in line and backed by regal guitars, “Rock Hard Ride Free” sounds like an anthem.  “Rock hard with a purpose, got a mind that won’t bend.  Die hard resolution that is true to the end.”  For context, in the 1980s, being a metal fan was like choosing to be a neighbourhood pariah.  Many of us appreciated upbeat, encouraging messages like “Rock Hard Ride Free”.  We believed in something, and it wasn’t what the teachers and preachers thought it was.  That’s what “Rock Hard Ride Free” is about.

The first side closes on “The Sentinel”, a mini epic.  A street battle is taking place in a shattered apocalyptic landscape.  It could very well be the same world inhabited in “Blood Red Skies” or “Painkiller”.

Amidst the upturned burned-out cars,
The challengers await,
And in their fists clutch iron bars,
With which to seal his fate.
Across his chest in scabbards rest,
The rows of throwing knives,
Whose razor points in challenged tests,
Have finished many lives.

A multi-parted dual guitar solo animates what the rumble must look like.  Rob tells the story with the necessary urgency.  In the end it’s a scream-laden metal triumph.

Ominous echoing bass notes ring as soon as the needle drops on Side Two.  “Love Bites” was a single, an unusual song with a very spare riff.  Its simplicity is its weapon as it bores its way into your brain.  Halford sounds absolutely menacing.  Then they go turn on the afterburners for the very naughty “Eat Me Alive”, a song which got them a bit of trouble in the 1980s.  It  was one of 15 songs the Parents Music Resource Center wanted stickered for “explicit content” . “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive” sings dirty Rob, as the parents of America weep in their Cheerios.  Not an album highlight, except in terms of pure aggression.

Much more interesting is the slower, menacing “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”.  A great deep cut.  Dave Holland could have been a drum machine for what it’s worth, but this song is a champion.  Interestingly they followed it with the even slower “Night Comes Down” which might be the album ballad (albeit a heavy one).  Great pulsing bassline by Ian Hill on this track.  It’s a more sensitive, thoughtful side of Rob.  “Call me and I’ll wait till summer.  You never understood that I would wait forever, for love that’s only good.”

The album closes on a dual track:  “Heavy Duty” / “Defenders of the Faith”.  “Defenders” itself is an epic outro with “Heavy Duty” being the main part of the song.  As it implies, this is a heavy duty stomp.  The highly processed drums are accompanied by a repeating riff until Rob breaks into the outro.  Though “Defenders” itself is only a minute and a half in length, it’s among the best minutes on the album.

Not a perfect album, but even though this is a simpler Judas Priest for the 1980s, it still commands respect.  Defenders of the Faith is undoubtedly an 80s album.  It’s aimed at a wider demographic that wouldn’t necessarily get their earlier more complex material.  Defenders does it well, with some truly timeless riffs, and great song after great song.

4.5/5 stars