90’s rock

REVIEW: Ugly Kid Joe – Menace to Sobriety / “Milkman’s Son” single (1995)

UGLY KID JOE – Menace to Sobriety (1995 Polygram)

Let me tell ya folks, this album ain’t bad. Ugly Kid Joe made it hard to take them seriously sometimes, but on their second full-length Menace to Sobriety, they did what most jokey bands eventually do: Get serious. Get heavy. With former Wrathchild America drummer Shannon Larkin replacing original member Mark Davis, perhaps this was inevitable.  If not, co-producer GGGarth made it inevitable.

The first single “Tomorrow’s World” was dark-edged modern metal. No jokes, no wit, just Whit, givin’ ‘er at top lung. The album would pretty much follow suit. It felt like they got one side of their personalities out of their systems for the moment and wanted to do something a little more true to the heart.

An instrumental intro just called “Intro” gets a couple heavy riffs out of way in short order. The new drummer’s thick presence is felt immediately. This intro jumps right into “God”, a heavy wade through the mosh pit, spilling hooks all over the floor in violent celebration. Whitfield Crane sounds more menacing, but he’s still obviously the charismatic frontman. Cool wah-wah inflected solo too, which was one of the only ways you could make guitar solos work in 1995.

When “Tomorrow’s World” first hits, it’s with a beat and a rolling bass line, perfectly on brand for the 90s. After the quietly tense opening verses, Whit and the band rip it wide open with another ferocious riff and chorus. It’s well within Black Sabbath’s backyard (U.S. campus), while keeping a foot in 90s. A perfect mix of integrities.

Tempos get faster on “Clover”, with Whit taking his throat even further. The riffs are still the foundation, this one a little bit Priest-like. If the lyrics to “God” were a little on the nose at times, they’re more interesting in light of this one from “Clover”. “I was tempted, but the apple made me stronger.” Whitfield then screams that he’s here to free us. There’s more going on here than a guy who just hates “everything about you”.

The funky side returns on the speedy “C.U.S.T.” (“Can’t You See Them”).  Whit speed-raps through the impressive verses while the band jams hard underneath, wah-wah now back center stage.  Great tune and in fact better than some of the competition’s songs in this genre at the same time.  There’s a killer, clever percussion break in the middle that differentiates Ugly Kid Joe from the bands who were leading the pack.

“Milkman’s Son” was the single, an electric ballad and rightfully chosen.  It’s not soft, there’s a tasty jagged riff to keep it cool, but this is clearly the one that fills the part of prior Ugly Kid Joe hits such as “Busy Bee”.  Great tune, if a bit doomed.

The grind of a bass groove returns on “Suckerpath”, which seems about to about avoiding the ego and big head of rock stardom.  “Never goin’ down a suckerpath, baby,” insists Whit.  Unlike a lot of the tunes on Menace to Sobriety, “Suckerpath” never really explodes with power the way they have so far.  It remains in this wallowing groove, which rocks but never quite satisfies.

Another ballad:  “Cloudy Skies” has the kind of twang where you could called it “Western Skies”.  Still electric; no acoustic softness to be found, but quite excellent.  Crane seems to have tapped into something heartfelt here, and his singing is excellent.  Sticking to tunes with broad appeal, “Jesus Rode A Harley” is one of the most straight ahead and upbeat tracks on the album.

There’s an AC/DC vibe to the opening of “10/10” but then it goes pure grunge groove.  Suitably dark, impressively heavy, and utilizing tricks like conga and slide.  There’s a direction on this album and “10/10” is right down the middle.  Not an outstanding track overall but one you can headbang along to quite easily.  At the end, Whit tries to go full metal scream and does pretty good. This actually leads pretty well into the Priestly vibes on “V.I.P.”.  Priest circa Hell Bent, with a touch of Halford’s Fight.  The lead vocals are Jon Oliva from Savatage to a tee, whether intentional or not.

Finally, the jokey side emerges on “Oompa”, which is exactly what you think it is.  A heavy metal version of the Oompa Loopma song from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  And why not?  Green Jelly were having hits with this kind of song.  It’s only two minutes long and hey…it’s Ugly Kid Joe. And just misdirection.  That’s not how the album’s supposed to end.

After long last, the acoustic guitars come out on the tender closer “Candle Song”.  There’s more than a hint of western twang, but if you wanted a traditional hard rock ballad closer, here you go.  “Candle Song” is excellent way to take the listener down after such intensely heavy rocking.

The band isn’t entirely done with their sense of humour.  Open up the booklet and you will find a rental house bill for damages including a food fight.  Total cost:  $12,896.81.

4/5 stars


UGLY KID JOE – “Milkman’s Son” / “Tomorrow’s World” (1995 Mercury CD single)

This single seems kind of like a double header between “Milkman’s Son” and “Tomorrow’s World” which was the music video getting all the play on MuchMusic at the time.  Two of the best tracks from the album, they are a terrific one-two punch for this CD single.

The bonus tracks are quite cool.  There’s a 1994 version of “God”, which is structurally the same but rougher sounding.  Amazing how close to the final mark it was.  Then there’s a really rough demo of “C.U.S.T.” but still very close to its final form.  Hearing these somewhat flatter sounding early versions after listening to the album is really interesting, since it is so consistently pounding, especially in the bass.

Great single for bonus material and a good score if you can find one.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Urge Overkill – “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” (CD Single)

URGE OVERKILL “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” (1994 CD Single)

“Sister Havana” may have put Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser on the map, but it was their Neil Diamond cover “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” that put them in the ears of almost 10,000,000 Pulp Fiction soundtrack buyers.  Even the Tarantino novice knows that the auteur director has a way and a vision with soundtracks.  Urge Overkill were the beneficiaries of that vision when their 1992 cover (from the Stull EP) was used in one of the most dramatic, well performed and memorable scenes in Pulp Fiction.  You remember it well, don’t you?  Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), who seems to only own Urge Overkill on a reel to reel tape*, hits “play” and starts singing and dancing around the room.  Meanwhile, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is having a moment with himself in the bathroom with a monologue about loyalty.  Then Mia finds a baggie of heroin in his coat pocket, mistakes it for coke, and overdoses.  Blood runs down her nose as Nash sings, “Soon, you’ll be a woman”.  Powerful imagery.

It would have made more sense for Neil Diamond to be on the reel to reel tape, but let’s not complain.  Urge Overkill’s cover is brilliant, not deviating far from the original.  As the song sways and cha-chas like Mia Wallace in her mansion, the trio are accompanied by piano, acoustics and percussion.  Kato nails the vibe vocally; his voice is just lower and rougher than Neil Diamond’s.

The single has two B-sides:  One from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and one from Urge Overkill’s Saturation album (on which “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” does not appear).  “Dropout” from Saturation is an unexpected tune, focused on a synth-y beat, a couple acoustic guitars and a single keyboard hook.  Lead vocals are by drummer Blackie Onassis, accompanied by subtle female backing vocals.  It’s actually a really cool song, difficult to describe adequately.  It’s stripped down and laid back with minimal sound effects and a focus on the way the vocals are layered.  You would not think it was the same band who did the first track!  This cut is slightly edited down at the end from the album version, by 10 seconds.

Finally The Tornadoes close the single with their surf-rock instrumental “Bustin’ Surfboards” from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.  Think back to the film and you’ll remember this music.  Jody, Rosanna Arquette’s piercing-obsessed character, is playing the tune when Travolta comes by to score some drugs from Eric Stoltz.  This is a vintage track, featuring the sound of crashing waves over the surfin’ guitars and whammy bars.

When you think about it, the track listing for this single is actually quite cool.  For the average Pulp Fiction fan, they were getting a second Urge Overkill song that they wouldn’t have come across otherwise.  For the UO fan, they were getting the A-side and a Tornadoes tune from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack that they might dig.  Something for both scenarios.

And yes, before you ask, the “damaged” CD artwork seen below is just part of the artwork.  Like an old worn pulp fiction novel.

4/5 stars

* Teac were still making reel to reel machines in the early 90s.

 

REVIEW: Def Leppard – Euphoria (1999)

Part Twenty-Two of the Def Leppard Review Series

DEF LEPPARD – Euphoria (CD Collection Volume 2 Disc 4) (Originally 1999, 2019 remaster)

This is where we deviate from the norm.  After perhaps oversteering into the 90s with Slang, Def Leppard made a harsh course correction with their next album Euphoria.  An early retail solicitation  emphasized that after the Pyromania and Hysteria, comes the Euphoria.  It was clear where they were going.  The modern organic touch of Slang was dropped like a hot hand grenade!  In its place was an attempt to retread the hits of the past.  Mutt Lange was brought back to help polish up some songs.

Perhaps worst of all, and like Scorpions, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi at the same time, Def Leppard’s image made a big change.  Hair was cut and styled.  Shiny suits and glammy modern clothes were purchased.  While the transition to Slang felt natural, the direction of Euphoria seemed terribly contrived.  It was no secret that Slang was not a hit, and Euphoria sounded like it was crafted to generate hits to multiple formats.

One of Euphoria‘s flaws is its length.  51 minutes isn’t a big deal, but 13 tracks was too many, as we’ll see.

Opener “Demolition Man” has cool stuttering guitars like bands of the 80s employed.  It’s fast, adrenalized, and stacked high with the patented layered backing vocals.  But it feels less like the triumphant return of Leppard and more…unnatural.  To go with the top speed pace of the song, F1 race car driver Damon Hill plays some outro lead guitar on the track.

“Promises” was undoubtedly the centerpierce of the album.  A pretty successful re-write of “Photograph”, it captures the classic Leppard sound and vibe without the contrived feel.  The rich vocals of the chorus are hard to beat, and that signature Leppard guitar lick is easy to love.  The liner notes also give you lead solo credits for you to follow along – Phil or Viv.  This one has both in that order.  It’s a way to learn their individual styles, if you haven’t already!

The first serious dud is “Back in Your Face”, a plastic “Pour Some Sugar” homage with purposefully thin drum samples.  The ballad “Goodbye” is also filler, even though it was selected as a single.  By this time Leppard had accumulated plenty of ballads, and this reeks of a rewrite of “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad”.

The worst track on the record could be the Collen/Lange atrocity called “All Night”.  Digital funk just isn’t becoming.  A band like Extreme might have been able to make something of “All Night” if they did it without all the tech-y sounds, but this is a horrible mis-step.

Fortunately, “Paper Sun” is a mid-album redeemer.  A Leppard epic in the tradition of “Gods of Wars” and “White Lightning”, this one is worthy.  Sure it’s nothing new, but it has the vibe of a third song in a trilogy.  Play all three of those tunes in a row for some back chills.

“It’s Only Love” is another unnecessary ballad, which combines an Adrenalize vibe with Slang, but not memorably.  Then we have the embarrassingly titled “21st Century Sha La La La Girl”, a title as bad at Bon Jovi’s “Captain Crash and the Beauty Queen From Mars”.  It’s not a terrible song, though suffers from a plastic production problem.  It’s punchy, and has a singalong quality, but we’re lowering the bar a bit here.  The third ballad “To Be Alive” is the best of the batch.  Quiet and unassuming, it crosses Slang with Adrenalize more successfully.  Viv’s solo is excellent.

Collen’s “Disintegrate” brings us right back to the glory days of High N’ Dry.  Perhaps as close as they could ever get.  The blazing instrumental has definitely “Switch/625” vibes.  It is followed by another above average track called “Guilty”.  It sounds like a cousin to “Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)” which isn’t a bad thing.  Mid-tempo Def Leppard, plinking guitars, all good.  Continuing with some decent quality tunes, “Day After Day” has a slower, dramatic Leppard vibe.  The riff sounds vintage.

Closing track “Kings of Oblivion” turns up the tempo one last time for a pretty killer outro.  There’s a hint of the old Joe Elliott scream.  Maybe a smidge of Van Halen.  Rick Allen uses a variety of drum sounds on this album, but he sounds best right here on “Kings of Oblivion”, with a nice loud traditional snare.

A final assessment for Euphoria is difficult to reach.  It’s clear they were out to please old fans that were alienated by Slang.  We’ve argued that the superior Slang was a more creative attempt to adapt to the 1990s.  Euphoria felt like an absolutely commercially motivated attempt to capture “that sound” from the –ia albums, but also with a nudge towards late 90s pop rock.  The modern production does no favours.  But Leppard were unafraid to push further in that direction next time; not folding but going all-in.

Euphoria failed to crack the top ten in America, but “Promises” did hit #1.  It enabled them to go out on a long supporting tour.  But like many bands, the next few years would be rocky in musical direction.

2.5/5 stars

Previous:  

  1. The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night 
  2. The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
  3. The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
  4. The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
  5. The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings 
  6. The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
  7. Pyromania
  8. Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
  9. Hysteria
  10. Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
  11. In The Round In Your Face DVD
  12. “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
  13. Adrenalize
  14. Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
  15. Retro-Active
  16. Visualize
  17. Vault
  18. Video Archive
  19. “Slang” (UK single)
  20. Slang
  21. I Got A Bad Feeling About This: Euphoria – Record Store Tales

Next:  

23. Rarities – Volume Two

#981: I Got A Bad Feeling About This: Euphoria

Part Twenty-One of the Def Leppard Review Series

RECORD STORE TALES #981:  I Got A Bad Feeling About This: Euphoria

Without sounding like a broken record, the 90s were a rough time for rock and roll bands.  Those who suffered did what they had to do to survive.  When that didn’t work out, they’d revert to formula.  In the case of some high-profile groups, the moves were quite obvious attempts to recreate the past.  Take, for example, Bon Jovi.

1995’s These Days was a daring attempt to do something different, a little more laid back and organic.  The result was, with the benefit of hindsight, one of the band’s best records.  But it sold half as many copies as 1993’s Keep the Faith, which sold less than a third of what New Jersey sold, which sold just over half of what Slippery When Wet sold.  The law of diminishing returns.  So what did they do?  The wrote a song called “It’s My Life” which was just “Livin’ On A Prayer 2000” no matter what they admitted to.  Back was the talk box, Tommy, and Gina.  It was embarrassing.  The fans didn’t mind though, and they ate it up like crack-covered ice cream.

Hell, even Motley Crue got back with Bob Rock for a couple new throwback tunes.  They stepped back from the cliff of Generation Swine and scored some minor redemption before Tommy Lee fucked off.

In 1999, Def Leppard were faced with a similar situation.  Like Motley Crue, they leaned into the 1990s on Slang.  The difference was that Def Leppard made a coherent disc that felt natural, unlike the slop that Nikki Sixx fed us.  Instead of selling half of what the triple-platinum Adrenalize sold, Slang only mustered up gold in the US.  Alarm bells were ringing and something had to be done.  And like Bon Jovi at the same time, Leppard too attempted to recreate the past.

A certain Robert John “Mutt” Lange was summoned, and one of the resultant tracks called “Promises” sounds a dead ringer for “Photograph”.  And then, this artwork was released.

“After Pyromania and Hysteria comes…Euphoria.”

My buddy T-Rev was working at the Cambridge location of the Record Store.  He received the press release for Euphoria featuring that slogan in his morning shipment of CDs.  He laughed and gave me a ring to tell me.

Another “-ia” album.  For fucksakes…

I can’t recall my exact words, but I do remember my exact feeling:  “I got a bad feeling about this.”

It was as if the last decade didn’t happen.  Let’s forget the last couple records, no matter how good they may be.  And the cover art?  The dominant blue recalled the past hits, but the return of the classic logo was a clear message.  You’re going to get the Def Leppard you remember.  You’re going to get the Def Leppard album that should have followed Hysteria.  That’s the message here.

While the majority of fans were in love with the idea, I had reservations.  It seemed contrived.  Slang deserved better than to be buried like this.  In fact this move really does a disservice to the whole Slang era.  That album was a brave attempt to try some new hats on.  This looked like a timid step back into safe territory, afraid to do anything but.

Is that what happened?  Find out next time.

Previous:  

  1. The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night 
  2. The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
  3. The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
  4. The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
  5. The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings 
  6. The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
  7. Pyromania
  8. Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
  9. Hysteria
  10. Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
  11. In The Round In Your Face DVD
  12. “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
  13. Adrenalize
  14. Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
  15. Retro-Active
  16. Visualize
  17. Vault
  18. Video Archive
  19. “Slang” (UK single)
  20. Slang

Next:  

22. Euphoria

 

 

RE-REVIEW: Def Leppard – Slang (1996)

Part Twenty of the Def Leppard Review Series

Original ReviewSlang 2 CD edition (1996)

DEF LEPPARD – Slang (CD Collection Volume 2 Disc 3) (Originally 1996, 2019 remaster)

“Too alternative!”, they moaned.  “Doesn’t sound like old Def Leppard!”, they whined.  But what choice did Def Leppard have?

The world of 1996 was not the same as 1992, when Def Leppard re-emerged after a long hiatus with Adrenalize.  Leppard experimented wildly with their music on 1987’s Hysteria, but tended to stick to formula on Adrenalize.  After the hardship of losing Steve Clark, we can forgive them for not trying to re-invent the wheel a second time.  But by 1996, grunge had passed and the decade continued to move further away from classic hard rock and heavy metal.  It was overdue for Leppard to re-invent themselves one more time.  They owed it to themselves.  But it was actually more natural that that.

Vivian Campbell was on board for his first real album with Def Leppard, only to find they were “moving the goalposts”!  After making two painstakingly produced albums, it was time for change.  The band desired a fresh start with Campbell, using no holdover music from the past.  They wanted a more organic album, and part of that was Rick Allen incorporating acoustic drums back into his setup.  They were going to try and express themselves a bit more, and take some serious chances.  To hell with the critics, expectations, and old ways of doing things.

Regardless of how it sold, the final album Slang became a cult favourite for good reason.

Opening on a fade, the new Leppard begins different from any in the past.  “Truth?” is a slow, exotic groove with background samples and loops.  Not a stretch from “Rocket” in a technical sense, but completely different results.  Deeply distorted chorus vocals are a striking shift from the past, but are just as fetching.  An middle-eastern sounding solo nails the vibe, and drum loops offer more modern twists.  The mix sounds just as dense as anything you hear on Hysteria, but with completely different elements.  And fortunately Leppard haven’t forgotten how to write hooks, even if in a darker tone.

“Turn to Dust” takes the scene to India, with sitar and tabla.  Tempos are still slow and deliberate.  “Turn to Dust” has a bit more of the Def Leppard sound on the chorus, with Phil Collen singing backup, but the lyrics sure are different:  “Sentence rape me, segregate me” is a stark turn from “Let’s Get Rocked”.  But everybody was pissed off in the 90s.  This one drones on with ample musical genius towards the end.  Lots of strings and exotic instrumentation, backed by the grind of electric guitars.

The title track “Slang” is an immediate and fun change of pace.  With a modern sound, it could have been a “Pour Some Sugar” for the 90s had it caught on.  Beats and samples mixed in with an irresistible chorus make for a catchy concoction.  It’s really the only upbeat song on the album, but a treat it is.

The ballad “All I Want Is Everything” was briefly previewed on the VHS release Video Archives, in an October 1995 acoustic performance at the Wapentake Club in Sheffield.  That acoustic rendition did not really hint at the dark ballad on Slang.  A simple but effective droning guitar part forms the backing, but the luscious Leppard melodies are delivered vocally and with guitar flourishes.  It’s a different kind of ballad for Def Leppard, but no less stirring.  It was a single, but underperformed compared to past Leppard hits.

Vivian’s “Work It Out” sounded more like a Crowded House song in demo form, poppy and quirky.  Once Leppard wrestled with it, a different kind of track emerged.  Duskier, heavier, with really dominating drums and surprisingly slinky bass from Rick “Sav” Savage.  The final Leppard version is certainly superior to Viv’s demo in the long run though both have merit.  “Work It Out” was another Slang single that should have done better.

One of the biggest album surprises (and perhaps most divisive) is the supple ballad “Breathe A Sigh”.  Gentle tic-tic-tic R&B drum samples back a song that is mostly vocal with minimal instrumentation.  Drums, piano, and understated guitar melodies should have guided this to a hit spot on the charts.

Flip the record for a darker turn of events.  “Deliver Me” is more straight-ahead rock, but certainly not upbeat.  This is heavy, foreboding and dangerous Def Leppard.  Again, not without their knack for a melody.  The quiet/loud dynamic is very 90s, but that doesn’t make it bad.  The fact that Leppard always strove for a melodic foundation keeps it from falling into the morass of soundalike 90s rock.

“Gift Of Flesh” is another surprising twist.  Blasting fast and loud, this track is the most old-school, but still dark like a cloudy sky.  With lyrics like “scorch the Earth and torch the sky,” this is a more apocalyptic kind of rocker for the Leppard we were used to.  But it does rock, and hard!  You could bang your head to it even if you can’t rock rock ’til you drop.

Was Slang too ballady?  “Blood Runs Cold” is the third such song, followed by a fourth called “Where Does Love Go When It Dies”.  Joe Elliott really nails a killer vocal on “Blood Runs Cold”, which is very light and airey.  “Where Does Love Go When It Dies” lightens the skies further.  Acoustic strumming is a more traditional sound for Leppard.  It’s a little more like the acoustic Adrenalize B-sides, with a minimal arrangement.

The last few Leppard studio albums had “album epics”:  “Gods of War” on Hysteria and “White Lightning” on AdrenalizeSlang ends on an epic called “Pearl of Euphoria”.  There’s a lot going on in this track, with guitar overdubs and drones.  It’s a very Zeppelin-y song, but done in a modern way.  It draws from the same worldly wells that Zeppelin often explored.  Its fade-out alone is a minute long!

Unfortunately one of Slang‘s strengths, its adherence to the darker side of pop rock and hard rock, is also the factor that keeps it from hitting 5/5 stars like Hysteria.  It doesn’t necessarily make you feel as great after hearing it.  It does feel like you’ve heard something deeper and more profound, but not something that brightens your soul.

4/5 stars

Previous:  

  1. The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night 
  2. The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
  3. The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
  4. The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
  5. The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings 
  6. The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
  7. Pyromania
  8. Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
  9. Hysteria
  10. Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
  11. In The Round In Your Face DVD
  12. “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
  13. Adrenalize
  14. Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
  15. Retro-Active
  16. Visualize
  17. Vault
  18. Video Archive
  19. “Slang” (UK single)

Next:

21.  I Got a Bad Feeling About This:  Euphoria – Record Store Tales

REVIEW: Loudness – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips DVD

Part Four of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips (1999 Rooms DVD, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The complete Buddha Rock 1997-1999 set comes with the three Loudness albums from that brief era, and also a bonus DVD with the accompanying music videos.  On the back some are listed as “full size” and others “short size” — let’s find out what that means and what Loudness videos looked like in the late 90s.

“Ghetto Machine” opens, with Loudness including a shaven-headed Akira Takasaki performing in a darkened room.  The added static interferance reminds us we are in the 90s when bands like Loudness didn’t have much budget and covered it up with tricks like this.  Masaki appears cold with his big fur hat, but it’s fun to see this version of Loudness on video.  “Evil Ecstasy” has cleaner production, but this is one of the “short size” videos — it’s only about 90 seconds of a pretty cool song.  Too bad because this video is much more watchable.  The funkier “San Francisco” is also one of these short versions, as is “Creatures”.  All of these videos appear to be taped at the same time.  The section of “Creatures” used focuses on the guitar solo.  That’s cool at least.  “Katmandu Fly” is the “full size”, but it’s also only a minute-long instrumental so to call it “full size” is kinda cheatin’.

Moving on from the Ghetto Machine album, all the rest of the videos are “full size”.  From Dragon, it’s two of the best tracks:  “Dogshit” and “Crazy Go Go”.  This time Loudness are playing in a huge, uber-clean garage.  As “Dogshit” demonstrates, Akira was now into his “fly sunglasses” phase.  It looks like the band are having fun here, which makes it an enjoyable watch.  Great song too.  “Crazy Go Go” is more straight ahead, with lights and struttin’ stage moves instead of goofing around.

Apparently they only did one video for the final Masaki album, Engine.  “Black Biohazard” is that song; not a tune that impressed on prior listens.  (Also strange how “Black Biohazard” is the only song not in capital letters on the cover.)  This video is made from grainy outdoor concert festival footage.  From this we can ascertain that live, Masaki was a capable frontman with a cool rock star stage persona.

At 25 minutes, this DVD can not be considered more than a bonus for buying the Buddha Rock box set.  It is not the main draw.  The fundamental reason to get Buddha Rock is to acquire the three albums Ghetto Machine, Dragon and Engine in one place with ease.  As a bonus feature, the Music Clips disc does what it does.  “Dogshit” is the best video by a wide margin, and it remains unclear why “short size” videos were included, unless that’s all that was ever made for those particular songs?

The Buddha Rock box set also comes with photos, complete lyrics (in English) and liner notes (in Japanese).  It’s the obvious way to go to cover those years, an era which ended with the Engine album in 1999.  At Masaki’s urging, Akira Takasaki reunited the original Loudness lineup and released Spiritual Canoe with Minoru Niihara at the microphone.  That put an end to the Masaki Yamada era, which started with member turnover before solidifying on these three albums with Naoto Shibata and Hirotsugo Homma on bass and drums respectively.  Great musicians both who helped Loudness explore new and weird directions at the end of the 90s.

Music Clips DVD:  3/5 stars

Buddha Rock 1997-1999 box set:  3.5/5 stars  (the sum of the whole is greater than its parts)

REVIEW: Loudness – Engine (1999)

Part Three of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Engine (1999 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The Masaki Yamada era of Loudness ended with the 1990s.  Masaki felt (correctly) that Loudness would be best off reuniting with its original lineup in the year 2000, and so Engine is the last album to feature Yamada, drummer Hirotsugo Homma and bassist Naoto Shibata.

As with the previous two Loudness albums (also included in Buddha Rock), Akira Takasaki’s penchant for experimentation is at the forefront.  “Soul Tone”, the opening instrumental, makes that much clear with its atypical exotic guitar drones in place of a song.  Then Akira cranks up the string harmonics on the bizarrely rocking “Bug Killer”, a 90s song if there ever was one.  He must have been listening to Rage Against the Machine.  The track descends into guitar mayhem by the end.  It’s incredible to think how Akira transitioned from an 80s guitar hero compared to Eddie and Yngwie, to a 90s master borrowing from Morello and the Middle East.

“Black Biohazard” chugs unremarkably just like much of the 90s did.  Leaning on a groove, “Twist of Chain” has certain 80s delicious metal elements hidden under the distortion.  It’s the kind of song that makes these lost albums really worth hunting down.  Similarly, “Bad Date/Nothing I Can Do” buries its hooks under vocal distortion.  Unfortunate that they didn’t just let it loose.  “Apocalypse” fails to build on this with a forgettable alterna-dirge.  “Ace in the Hole” has more going on, with a menacing far East vibe.  The guitars are like razor blades.

 

A sudden left turn on the partly acoustic “Sweet Dreams” almost sounds like a great lost Stone Temple Pilots song from some unknown era.  “Asylum” focuses on the bass, as a lot of the album does, choosing a heavy psychedelic feel.  A long guitar solo section is the track’s highlight.

Without warning, the oddly titled “Burning Eye Balls” goes to acoustic exotic Zeppelin territory.  This refreshing change is followed by “Junk His Head”, a pretty straightforward headbanger that does away with the distorted vocals.  Hirotsugo Homma lays down a killer beat on this one.   The penultimate instrumental track “2008 (Candra 月天)” doesn’t have any particular hooks to relay which is unfortunate since previous Loudness instrumentals have at least been interesting.  This leaves it to the closing track “Coming Home” to make final impressions, of which it makes few.  It has echoes of the old Loudness track “So Lonely” but without much of the feeling or structure.

These three final Masaki-era Loudness albums all have some cool tracks; enough at least to assemble a good single-disc compilation.  Owning all three is for fans only.  It is fun to sit and listen to a band evolve, and watch them try on all kinds of different hats.  If that’s your obsession too, pick up Engine and check out the complete Buddha Rock box set while you’re at it.

2.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Dragon (1998)

Part Two of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Dragon (1998 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

Lucky 13th album for Loudness?  Maybe not, but it is an uptick from the prior release Ghetto Machine.  The band just kept on going, with only Akira Takasaki remaining from the original lineup.  Their third singer Masaki Yamada was on his fourth album with Loudness, and by now they had established a heavy alterna-metal 90s sound.  It is the strongest of the three albums of the Buddha Rock era.

Loudness had become fearless, blending thrash and funk together on “9 Mile High”.  Those who don’t enjoy Masaki’s growling style won’t be turned around here.  Those who like it fast enough to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs will not have a problem.  It skips between thrash and funk without warning.

The appetizingly titled “Dogshit” could only have come from the 1990s.  Harmonic drones are substituted for a main riff, and Masaki’s vocal is closer to rap metal.  Yet there’s something irresistible about it.  “Dog shit on my bike boots!” sings Masaki with a heavy guitar backing him.  And that’s why Loudness could get away with doing this kind of music.  It’s the guitar.  Akira Takasaki is one of the best in the world, but he’s more fearless than Yngwie and can play just about anything.  With a virtuoso like that, it’s unlikely you’re going to sound like dog shit.

“Wicked Witches” is heavy, detuned, and it grooves to the max while drilling into your brain.  There’s even a little bit of early Van Halen in the riff.  That leads into “Crazy Go-Go”, a single and album highlight.  Foregoing the nu-metal, this one is wah-wah heavy and just plain rocks!  Flat out, kick ass, rock and roll.  “Backstage go-go babe, like a circus after school, playin’ my guitar like a country horse.”  (Country horse?)  You get the picture!  It’s about groupies!  (Akira makes his guitar whinny like a horse!)

Drummer Hirotsugo Homma gets to have some rhythmic fun on “Voodoo Voices” which is one of the most bizarre tracks Loudness have ever done.  Voodoo voices indeed, as the vocals are buried, ethereal in the mix.  It’s trippy and trip-hoppy.  The instrumental “回想” (“Kaisō”) is made up of backwards guitars playing quietly and hypnotic.  Then suddenly it’s a metal riff on “Babylon”.  Masaki eschews the growl and goes for psychedelic singing.  “Crawl” features a chugging Akira riff, and then some pulsing synth?  This album goes everywhere.

“Forbidden Love” is pretty cool, coming closer to the spirit of 80s Loudness.  Then go for some more 90s funk metal on “Mirror Ball”, which is as hot as Anthony Kiedis’ arm pit.  Another stunning instrumental emerges in “Taj Mahal”, which is not about the shredding but entirely about atmosphere.  A variety of unique sounding guitars are accompanied by exotic percussion and bass.  Unfortunately that leads into a little bit of a dud for an album closer.  “Nightcreepers” doesn’t make an impression.

While this Dragon is an experimental one, not afraid to mess with expectations or traditions, it is still rooted in that 90s nu-metal dungeon.  That is something that dates the disc to certain period in time.  When it rises above that, as it does on “回想”, “Crazy Go Go” and “Voodoo Voices”, it transcends genre and goes somewhere unique.  There are just enough of those moments to make this album a keeper.

3.25/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Ghetto Machine (1997)

Part One of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Ghetto Machine (1997 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

1997:  Masaki Yamada, the third Loudness singer, was now on his third Loudness album.  Besides founding guitarist Akira Takasaki, the rest of the band was new.  Ghetto Machine is the first with bassist Naoto Shibata, and second with drummer Hirotsugu Homma.  The 90s were chaotic even for Loudness, just like it was for bands in North America.  In Loudness’ case, they now had more original E-Z-O members (in Masaki and Homma) than original Loudness members.  Like most Loudness albums from the 90s onwards, Ghetto Machine was released only in Japan.

The album was self-produced by Takasaki, recently converted to Buddhism, and he fearlessly dove into the 1990s.  Opening with the title “Ghetto Machine”, the riff is low and grinding.  Masaki takes on a growly lower tone, and in place of hooks there is only groove and the drone of guitar.  This is far removed from the regal metal of the earliest days, but seems sincere given the freedom for Loudness to do whatever they wanted.

Track two, “Slave” features an unusual droning riff, with the thrash metal tempos of early Loudness.  At least 90s Loudness didn’t forego guitar solos like some bands.  Akira’s here is as interesting as any he’s done.  “Evil Ecstasy” opts for a nice groove right in the pocket.  Although the riffs are simpler, Akira always does something interesting, either with tone or technique.  Though 90s Loudness seems to be less focused on songwriting hooks, sonics are treated with care.

“San Fransisco” isn’t outstanding, though the guitars always are.  Nice wah-wah on the solo.  Zeppelin seems to be one of many influences on “Love and Hate”, but at this point of the album it is clear that Masaki Yamada will not be delivering much in terms of melody.   “Creatures” has a stinging little whiplash of a riff and biting vocals but little that you can sing along to.  A cool funky groove called “Hypnotized” is preceded by “Katmandu Fly”, a short atmospheric instrumental.  I almost get the feeling that the chorus riff to “Hypnotized” is a twisted variation of “Smoke on the Water”, though it could be my imagination striving to find any kind of hook.

Some crooning during a slow psychedelic jammy break in “Dead Man Walking” is the only melody in that song.  The albums takes a turn back towards melodic at the end.  Second-to-last track “Jasmine Sky” starts the change up.  It’s slow and sparse, and sounds like lead vocals by Akira.  It’s one of the only tracks with an actual vocal melody from start to finish, and sets up “Wonder Man” as a final blowout.  This monolithic riff is accompanied by exotic guitar soloing and a Masaki vocal you can sing along to.  It crawls to a vaguely Zeppelin-y ending.

Ghetto Machine brings me back to that unhappy time in the 90s, when classic bands did what they had to do to adapt, and while the new albums had merit, they were clearly missing…something.  The ’92 Loudness album with Masaki was awesome and represented everything good that the 90s could do to a rock band.  Ghetto Machine is the slide afterwards.

2.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Catherine Wheel – Adam and Eve (1997)

CATHERINE WHEEL – Adam and Eve (1997 Mercury)

The 1990s presented a slew of new bands that, while not hard rock, did rock.  Some of them had connections to heavy metal.  Catherine Wheel had more than a few.  For example, Iron Maiden.  Managers Rod Smallwood, Andy Taylor, and Merck Mercuriadis (listed as a member of the band on this album) also handled Iron Maiden.  Singer Rob Dickinson has a cousin in that band.  For even more rock royalty, Bob Ezrin has a production credit as does Gggarth Richardson.  (With credits like those, you won’t be surprised that the album was partially recorded in Canada.)

For my money, I think Adam and Eve is Catherine Wheel’s best album.  It’s an argument that can be made, for it is a big dense emotional listening experience that plays out like a concept album.  The acoustic intro certainly lends the feel of a complete, framed work.  “Let’s get started…let’s get started…”

Blowing in like a cold wind, “Future Boy” quietly continues.  Droning guitars blend in as the song builds, and breaks into a beautiful acoustic verse.  Sonically layered, droney and feedbacky music, hits you wave after wave.  Rob Dickinson’s emphatic vocal melody is the initial hook, but there is so much more going on with “Future Boy”.  An utter masterpiece.

Then we suddenly careen into a poppy blast of fun called “Delicious”.  Simple in structure, but with hidden hooks in the mix.  A guitar blast, a brilliant chorus, and plenty of shimmer.  An easy single.  A piano interlude (further adding to the conceptual feel of the album) breaks into another single “Broken Nose”.  This one slams a little harder.  A stream of building music.  There’s a quiet break and then it’s back to hammering guitar.  There’s also depth — bells, organ, subtle guitar melodies.  Another real masterpiece.

Into epic territory.  “Phantom of the American Mother” bleeds acoustics, electrics, organs, percussion, and plaintive vocals.  “How you gonna feel if Superman and Sonic Youth are fairy tales?”  It’s a trip in and of itself, full of deep emotions and musical genius.

On a personal level, “Ma Solituda” is and probably always will be my favourite.  There’s a delicate sadness, but with a hopeful shine…and cello.  A gentle acoustic strum is paired with a defiantly powerful chorus.  It’s a vocal tour-de-force for Rob Dickinson.

“Satellite” has a pop feel, with an upbeat guitar hook.  Crashing cymbals, an unbelievable chorus, and loud guitars.  “Satellite” was not a single but should have been.  The refrain of “When you and I were young,” will ring in your brain for hours afterwards.  A slew of guitar solo noise is like frosting on top of a very loud and sweet dessert.  The mood turns on “Thunderbird”, a long but undefeated number with its own peaks and valleys of emotion.

Between “Thunderbird” and the next track, “Here Comes the Fat Controller”, the album becomes more of a slow burner.  The previous poppy firecrackers gave temporarily given way to some tracks that are more…mountainous.  They take time to climb.  “Here Comes the Fat Controller” is one such song, but a rewarded exercise.  Listen for tinkling piano in the back, adding even more colours to the palette.  “Sing, sing,” and enjoy.  “How do you feel?”

You can really hear Bob Ezrin’s influence at this part of the album.  The music gets muffled as someone gets in a car and closes the door, shades of “Detroit Rock City”.  The mood changes again on “Goodbye”, like a lullaby for a hangover.  It also feels like that a song that belongs near the conclusion of an album like this one, with its cinematic nature.  There’s still “For Dreaming”, the longest song and the climax to a pretty intense album.  That still leaves the denoument, which is the soft untitled outro.  With minimal accompaniment, Rob Dickinson ends the disc.

I’m gonna phone,
Everyone that I’ve known,
Through the downs and the ups,
And who I suspect have written me off…
As an insensitive fuck…
And say good luck, and goodbye.

Like a favourite movie, Adam and Eve feels like a story with a beginning, middle and end.  With conflict and resolution.  With character growth, and avoidance of cliches.  With light and shade, nuance and allusion.  Roll all that into a rock album and you have a hell of a way to spend an hour.

5/5 stars