Atlantic

REVIEW: Savatage – Fight For the Rock (Steamhammer remaster)

Part Five of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Fight For the Rock (Originally 1986, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Like many bands then and now, Savatage were led astray by bad management and poor direction by record company executives.  At least they tried.  Hoping to make some headway, Savatage leader Jon Oliva agreed with the record company’s plan for a change in style.  Steering towards hard rock and hoping to become the next Journey, Oliva and company said “what the hell”.  Meanwhile, Jon Oliva had submitted some songs to management to see if any other artists might be interested in recording them: “Lady in Disguise”, “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, and “Crying For Love”.  They turned around and said “No, we want Savatage to record these songs.”

New bassist Johnny Lee Middleton was lined up to replace Keith Collins.  They flew to England on a tourist visa to record the album, only to find Steve “Doc” Wacholz detained at the airport for five hours.  “I’m a golf instructor,” he claimed at customs, but most golf instructors don’t carry drum sticks and sheet music in their carry-on bags.  This is a perfect metaphor for the album Fight For the Rock:  a band masquerading as something they were not.

A big echoey 80s sound blunts the sharp edge that Savatage gained on Power of the Night (produced by Max Norman).  “Fight For the Rock” is a good song, but obviously toned down in comparison to title tracks past.  Most obtrusive are keyboard overdubs by a studio cat, very different from the keys that Jon Oliva would eventually bring into Savatage himself.  These sound like added afterthoughts, not structurally part of the song.  Still, as stated, a good song in that Dokken-Crue mold.  Only the Jon Oliva screams really connect it with early Savatage.

Keyboards return on “Out on the Streets”, a song from Sirens re-recorded.  As a ballad, you can see why the suits thought it would be worth another shot.  A great tune is a great tune, but the pipe-like keyboards don’t do it favours.  “Crying for Love” is a re-recording of “Fighting for Your Love” and one of the songs Oliva wanted another artist to record, perhaps John Waite.  It’s a heavier ballad, not as good as the Sava-demo, but retains some balls.

Hard left turn ahead:  “Day After Day” by Badfinger.  Oliva decided to do this track since he’d be playing the very piano from the original, so why not.  He’d already gone this far.  May as well go all-in.  “Day After Day” is perhaps the least “Savatage” song in their entire catalogue.  A very different Savatage would have evolved had this been a hit for them.  A Savatage more akin to Night Ranger or even Stryper!

There are only two songs that Jon Oliva considers “real” Savatage songs today:  “The Edge of Midnight” and “Hyde”.  They occupy the dead center of the album, closing side one and opening side two.  Although they too are infected by the awkward keyboard overdubs, they are both metallic Savatage lurkers, dark and shadowy.  “Hyde” hits all the right notes, with perfect OIiva lyrics:

“A good man to evil,
From the potion on the table,
Taken by mistake, but now it’s far too late.”

“Lady in Disguise”, which exists in superior demo form, was largely rewritten to be submitted to other artists.  It exists on Fight For the Rock as the third ballad, watered down and rearranged to accommodate a big keyboard hook.  “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” is a little more Savatage even though it too was not intended for their use.  It’s a hard rock Savatage, a little Dio-ish and one of the few songs with a recognizable Criss Oliva guitar riff.

Not particularly Sava-like but very good just the same is the Free cover “Wishing Well”.  It and “Day After Day” remain the only true covers that Savatage have ever recorded.  It’s a pummelling arrangement, well performed and strangely appropriate for the Sava-treatment.  It’s like their “Green Manalishi”.  Concluding the album, “Red Light Paradise” has a touch of that occasional Sava-sleaze.  Good track with a nice chug to it, and plenty of screamin’ vocals.

As before, Steamhammer added bonus tracks to the 2002 reissue.  From the Gutter Ballet tour and featuring an expanded lineup with second guitarist Christopher Caffery, it’s two live classics:  “The Dungeons are Calling” and “City Beneath the Surface”.  Could that year, 1990, have been peak Savatage?  That powerful lineup was short lived, as Caffery temporarily left the band at its conclusion.  When he returned, Criss Oliva was gone, killed by a drunk driver.  To the point:  these are killer versions, (and not the same as the live album Ghost in the Ruins).

Steamhammer also provided in-depth liner notes, housed inside a blurry reproduction of the cover art.  That is an unfortunately win/lose.  One is tempted to have two copies of the album, just to have clear original cover art.  Collectors need more that one copy anyway, just to deal with the maze-like bonus track situation through the entire Savatage collection.

As Jon Oliva says in the notes, Fight For the Rock is not a bad album, if you like hard rock.  It’s not really a good Savatage album.  Hey, they tried, right?  They swung for the fences.  And when they failed to hit the grand slam home run, they lost credibility with fans and the rock press.  Still, for those willing to check it out, there are a few rewarding tracks amidst the muck.

3/5 stars

The story continues with these previously posted reviews:

Part Six:  Hall of the Mountain King (1987)
Part Seven:  Gutter Ballet (1989)
Part Eight:  U.S.A. 1990 (live bootleg)
Part Nine:  Streets: A Rock Opera (1991)
Part Ten:  Edge of Thorns (1993) – New singer and death of Criss Oliva

 

 

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REVIEW: Savatage – Power of the Night (Steamhammer remaster)

Part Four of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Power of the Night (Originally 1985, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Raise the first of the metal child!

If any fans were worried that Savatage would “sell out” after signing to Atlantic in 1984, those fears were swiftly cast aside.  Power of the Night, their first on a major label, was produced by metal-meister-to-be, Max Norman.  The band had plenty of material demoed (in a session with Rick Derringer) and were ready for the studio.

Nothing was toned down; if anything, Savatage turned it up.  Melting the speakers with the title track, a fancy keyboard opening might have fooled some.  When the patented Criss Oliva riff commences, you better hold on tight.

“Children of the metal movement,
The legions growing stronger,
Stronger than they believe.”

With Norman at the helm, Savatage achieved a sharp, biting sound.  Relentless beats courtesy of Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz helped them cement themselves as true metal competitors.  The foursome from Florida were not to be ignored.

Savatage were improving as songwriters.  “Unusual” puts atmosphere over headbangin’ riffs, and effectively so.  Singer Jon Oliva became increasingly interested in keyboards album by album until it eventually became the focus of the band.  Here it works to cloak you in a dark weave of ominous metal.  Then, if you were hungering for more riffs, bow down to the fuckin’ rad* “Warriors”.  Another Criss Oliva riff as only he could write them, “Warriors” rivals Judas Priest for absurd fantasy metal thrills.  It gets a little silly on “Necrophilia”, but the headbangin’ does not wane.   You might break your neck on “Washed Out”, a little speed metal ditty to cure what ails you.

Side two switches the gears a bit with a Scorpions-Dokken hybrid called “Hard for Love”, which generated some faux-controversy in the 80s.  It’s the most commercial Savatage song yet, but it works remarkably well due to the sharp edges; not blunted by improved production values.  Still riding high with quality metal, “Fountain of Youth” takes things to a wizardly world inhabited by Dio and his cohorts.  (Of note:  it’s one of the few Savatage songs with a Doc Wacholz writing credit.)

Savatage’s speed metal adventures can be hit or miss.  “Skull Session” is a miss, though you may enjoy the lyrics about an “X-rated lesson”.  There’s no real melody and the riff isn’t one of Criss’ most notable.  Plenty of screams though.  A mid-tempo “Stuck On Your” doesn’t get the car out of the mud.  It’s just a little dull compared to the scorchers on side one.

Ending Power of the Night on a ballad was a ballsy move, but “In the Dream” is one of the best from the early years.  Indeed, Jon Oliva re-recorded it acoustically for one of the many reissues of Sirens/Dungeons are Calling.  Dr. Killdrums does a fine job of punctuating the song’s drama with short bursts of swinging limbs.

Steamhammer included two live bonus tracks.**  From Cleveland in 1987, a spot-on “Power of the Night” is a furious rendition of a song already smoking hot.  “Sirens” live in Dallas three years later is just as furious, though Jon’s voice is more worn.  They also included excellent liner notes, lengthy and detailed.  Unfortunately the cover art on these Steamhammer reissues is atrociously blurry.

Power of the Night was the last Savatage album with original bassist Keith Collins.  Originally a guitarist, Collins’ bass wasn’t up to snuff at all times so Criss Oliva had to play on several tracks to fix portions they weren’t happy with.  Now that it’s encoded on a little silver disc forever, the final album is tight and punchy.

4/5 stars

Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well enough for Atlantic.  Bumpy road ahead!

* “Warriors” is “fuckin’ rad” according to Holen MaGroin

** Like all Savatage albums, different issues have different sets of bonus tracks.  These will have to be covered at a later time as a “complete” Savatage collection can be an expensive proposition.

REVIEW: Testament – The Ritual (1992)

TESTAMENT – The Ritual (1992 Atlantic)

This may have been the first thrash metal album I ever bought.  I was late to the mosh pit, but I think I chose a good first thrash.  Lead video “Electric Crown” was in rotation on the Power 30, and I loved the speed combined with melody and a virtuoso guitarist.  To me, “Electric Crown” blew away any of the Metallica singles I’d heard so far.  It was way superior to the overly simplistic “Enter Sandman”.

One of the coolest sounds I ever heard came from Alex Skolnick’s guitar. In that melodic, four-note descending lick, the fourth note…just shakes. I sat there in my bedroom with my guitar, trying to make the same sound, failing every time. Skolnick was increasingly interested in jazz, and you can hear that in some of the soloing and tubey tone.

The Ritual is the most commercial Testament album.  That made it an easy gateway to thrash.  Did they sell out?  By all accounts, The Ritual is the album on which Alex Skolnick stepped up in terms on contributions.  As a schooled musician he wanted to try some different things, and indeed he left the band shortly after to grow as a player.  This isn’t a sellout, but it’s the album on which the guy who was trained by Joe Satriani had a lot more influence.  (After he left, the band went hard back to the extremes of thrash with Low and Demonic.)

Not a sellout, then.  But there are definite parallels to the contemporary Metallica album.  The slower metal chug of “So Many Lies” is this album’s “Sad But True”.  The Ritual also has a modern, crisp production (by Tony Platt) though not as fully stuffed as Metallica.

Immediately after “So Many Lies”, drummer Louie Clemente goes into a gallop on “Let Go Of My World”, an angry testament to independence.  See what I did there?  The longest song on the album is the title track, an anti-drug anthem that rocks it slow and forboding.  “Kill yourself, killing time.”  Vocalist Chuck Billy has a mighty set of lungs, the kind that make you listen up.  These lungs are put to great effect on “Deadline”, the mid-tempo banger that finishes side one.  There’s something just slightly different about the beat and there’s nothing equivalent on the Metallica album.  “Deadline” is arresting, kickin’ and menacing all at once.

“As the Seasons Grey” continues the blistering metal, not as fast as yesteryear but more measured.  Dig that false ending.  “Agony” and “The Sermon” offer some variety, but Testament are best when served fast.  Right?  Right?  No – check out the ballad “Return to Serenity”!  Testament were of course no strangers to ballads.  “The Ballad” and “The Legacy” worked out well for them previously, but “Return to Serenity” blows them away.  Alex Skolnick’s clever, echoey guitar hook is spellbinding.  This incredible ballad really should have been a hit.  That’s why they included it again on 1993’s Return to the Apocalyptic City EP.  It should be as well known as hit ballads by another big name thrash band.  The Ritual closes on a stampeding “Troubled Dreams”, an album highlight and as persistent as the wandering nomad in the lyrics.

There are more important Testament albums than The Ritual, such as their landmark Practice What You Preach.  It still remains a high water mark in the catalogue.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: The Darkness – One Way Ticket to Hell …and Back (2005)

THE DARKNESS – One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back (2005 Atlantic)

It was pins and needles, waiting for the new Darkness album in 2005.  First Mutt Lange was said to be the producer.  Then it was Roy Thomas Baker, who got a test drive on the 2004 remake of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman…Again”.  With guys like that at the control panel, you knew the Darkness were going to do something epic.  Unfortunately, some people just wanted more of the same Permission To Land style of fun but hard rock.  Those folks didn’t want flutes, strings or gui-boards.

“The new Darkness…sucks,” said one of my bosses when I walked in to work at the Record Store one afternoon in late December.  We had just received our shipment.  “In one song, all he does is sing, ‘I love what you’ve done with your hair,’ over and over again,” complained the boss, who loved raining on my parade.  My opinion of the album was the polar opposite.

There’s little question that the band took it too far.  Justin Hawkins was knee-deep in drugs and an infatuation with the 80s.  One Way Ticket to Hell …And Back is like a busy, manic snapshot of that period in time.  The band fired off in all directions, with pompous and bombastic kitchen-sink production backing them up.  Bassist Frankie Poullain was also out (the usual “creative differences”) and replaced by the uber-talented Richie Edwards.

The over-production is certainly an issue, especially when so many were attracted to the raw sound of the Darkness.  The shrill title track opens with flutes and Gregorian monks, and then Justin takes a snort.  “The first line hit me like a kick in the face. Thought I better have another just in case.”  A nice thick riff is joined to a soaring multi-layered chorus for that classic Darkness formula.  Then the acoustics and a sitar kicks in, because what else do you need on a song about excess?  The coke and money must have been flowing right through that recording studio.  (At least they saved a little money on the sitar.  They didn’t have to hire a player, since Justin could do it.  They did hire a flautist.)

“And I love what you’ve done with your hair!” screams Justin on the song that is (obviously) called “Knockers”.  It’s pure pop rock with piano, keyboards and slide guitar for that necessary excess.  “Is It Just Me?” (a single) strips things down to the basics, because you have to have a few songs like that too.  Then we get hysterical on “Dinner Lady Arms”, a Def Leppard song at heart.  Justin’s soaring high chorus was far beyond the Leps, but Phil Collen could have written that riff.

Permission to Land ended its first side with a ballad (“Love is Only a Feeling”) and so the formula was repeated here.  “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” is similar but just as good, embellished with strings and piano.  The most epic song, however, is “Hazel Eyes”.  The side two opener boasts full-on bagpipes and an indescribable high-pitched Celtic chorus!  Everything gels.  The pompous overindulgence, and the pure Darkness sound, are mixed to chemical perfection.  It also features that signature Eddie Graham drum fill.  Boom-boom-boom-boom, BAP!

There’s a brief stumble here.  “Bald” is an amusing song, rocking slow and hard, but lacking that je ne sais quoi that could have made it unforgettable.  Then Justin swerves a little too far into pop with the disco-like “Girlfriend“, complete with gui-board solo and the highest notes known to humankind.  A brilliant single it is, but perhaps an example of the Darkness going too far off course on an album that is already overflowing with excess.  Then again, perhaps it’s actually the right song for an album like this.  Where else would you put it?

As we close in on the end, “English Country Garden” fires on with a speedy piano rock jam.  It’s like taking a Queen LP and turning the speed up to 45.  Finally “Blind Man” is the closing ballad to takes things to their logical ends.  You will hear no discernible rock instruments, just the strings and woodwinds of an orchestra, for almost the whole thing.  That was really the end way to end an album this bombastic.  Appropriately, Justin’s vocals are similarly taken to the extreme.

You have to admire The Darkness for just going for it.  They could have done Permission to Land Part II, just by leaving out the excess.  They didn’t.  We knew they were going to go balls to the wall when they were briefly working with Mutt Lange.  You don’t work with Mutt Lange unless you want every note under the microscope.  There are a lot of notes on One Way Ticket, and each one sounds like it was painstakingly created in sterile perfection.  And that’s fine.  That’s one method of getting there.  One Way Ticket was the “experimental” second album, and like any other, it’s both baffling and charismatic in extreme measures.

4.5/5 stars

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Hot Wire (1991)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin – part 5 in his KIX series

KIX – Hot Wire (1991 Atlantic)

It took the almighty Kix three years to follow up their commercial breakthrough Blow My Fuse. When they did, they had a new record contract, and an assload of debt from their first three albums. Being that this was 1991, the clock was ticking before that putz from Seattle would change the face of rock music forever by replacing talented musicianship and fun with glorified punk songs about deodorant. The resulting album Hot Wire was the band’s heaviest album to date, with their hard rock influences taking over their sound completely. While Hot Wire is still an entertaining listen, it’s not as consistent as the albums that preceded it, and is a little derivative at times.

Hot Wire is jumpstarted by the title track, which starts off with a riff that sounds like Ted Nugent’s “Just What the Doctor Ordered”, and ends with a loving homage to “Have a Drink on Me”. The sonic annihilation in between is a whole hell of a lot of fun, and has Kix playing some of the most aggressive music of their career. Steve Whiteman in particular is taking no prisoners with an absolutely electrifying vocal performance that commands attention and respect. The song juggles the head banging verses with a trademark melodic Kix chorus that will blow your mind. Maybe Kurt Cobain was listening to this when his Kurt Cobrains hit the floor in April of 1994. It’s a great choice to open the album with, as it dispels any notion that Kix has become less hungry as a result of their platinum success.

Kix follows it up with what could only be described as a tribute to AC/DC’s “Big Balls”, complete with a Bon Scott impression. In lead single “Girl Money”, Whiteman channels Scott while talking about a woman of low moral fibre across the bar. The chorus is an absolute explosion of melody, literally. If you listen carefully, you can hear cannons going from the left to the right speaker after the lyrics “bang boom party”. The attention to detail is not only amusing, but it reflects the sonic identity of the record. The production on this album serves to polish the rough edges while retaining all the sonic power that Kix have to offer. It sounds good, but there are no frills to be found. This is a rock and roll record, and the band is going to treat it as such. No more Cool Kids new wave pandering, the group is out to rock your world.

 The fourth slot on the album is left to “Tear Down the Walls”, a weak ballad that was probably recorded to capitalize on the success of “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. It’s pleasant enough, but one can’t help but compare it to superior ballads on past Kix records. While it’s not nearly as iconic or enjoyable as “For Shame”, “Walkin’ Away”, or “Don’t Close Your Eyes”, it’s still a much better decision to listen to it than to marry Courtney Love, in my opinion only of course.

Kix only has one ballad again, and gets away with it by preceding it with the hook laden “Luv-A-Holic”, which has a similar structure to “Get It While It’s Hot” from the previous record, done in a heavier style that is more representative of the Hot Wire sound.  It’s one of the best songs on the album, and the deal only gets sweeter when “Rock & Roll Overdose”, (a song title I believe Kurt took too literally) greets the listener after the lacklustre ballad. One of the heaviest tunes Kix have ever done, it’s a nice ode to rock and roll itself with Whiteman bringing back his powerful raspy vocals from the title track. Guitarists Ronnie “10/10” Younkins and Brian Forsythe really get to shine on this track with each getting a chance to show off their solo chops. It’s much more enjoyable than listening to nursery rhyme melodies over three chord punk songs and pretending like you hate any band that has reached any kind of success, including your contemporaries that praise you.

What sinks the album is a sense of monotony. Some of the lesser tunes begin to sound the same, and some of them are lyrically lacking. “Hee Bee Jee Bee Crush”, “Bump the La La”, and “Same Jane” were in desperate need of penmanship reform. There’s also not as much variety as you would normally expect from a Kix album, as they seem to be firmly rooted in a hard rock sound. Choruses lack some of the staying power that they had on earlier albums, and the songs begin to run together.

While by no means a bad album, Hot Wire comes as a bit of a disappointment after the quality of the two previous outings. Unfortunately, due to shifting (shitty) tastes, Kix would only release one more album on their major label (1993’s appropriately titled Contractual Obligation Live!) before being pushed to the indie world. The mighty titans would regroup for one more studio album with the original lineup.  They disappeared for the better part of twenty years before reemerging with a new bassist as strong as ever.  As for Hot Wire…

3.5/5 stars

Authors note: I don’t really hate Nirvana, but they’re just so easy to poke fun at. I would take Badmotorfinger, Ten, & Ritual de lo Habitual over Nevermind any day of the week though.

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Blow My Fuse (1988)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin – part 4 in his KIX series

KIX – Blow My Fuse (1988 Atlantic)

When Kix released their fourth album on Atlantic, the band would finally receive the recognition and popularity that they deserved. Blow My Fuse is one of the most fun hard rocking albums of the late ‘80s without the guilty feeling that you get listening to the other “hair bands” that were dominating MTV. You could blast this record in a way that you couldn’t with say, Warrant, and not care who heard you, because Kix aren’t a hair band. They’re a hard rock band. These glorious Maryland hicks with a collective explosion fetish crafted a glorious hard rock album in the mold of AC/DC, with the pop hooks necessary to get proper attention on the radio, without ever watering down the rock. Produced by Tom Werman (with help from Duane Baron and John Purdell), Kix finally teamed up with a production team that knew how to turn their material into charting hits without diluting it.

Album opener “Red Lite, Green Lite, TNT” displays Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfant reclaiming his territory after an Anton Fig substitution due to a broken arm on the end of the last album. Pounding away with a simple but effective beat, he sets the stage for the duo of Brian Forsythe and Ronnie “10/10” Younkins to blanket the track with midrange guitar goodness. The production on this album is really outstanding. The power of Kix clearly shines through, but with a new sheen to polish some of the rough edges. Steve Whiteman builds anticipation with restraint in his singing at the beginning of the song. Kix are masters of both tension and dynamics. They know just how long to string the listener along before delivering the heavy payoff. The twin guitar duo comes in with the song’s main riff, and Steve Whiteman pumps on the gas taking his vocals full throttle with rasp and power. Note the background vocals before the chanted chorus, which add some killer harmonic melody to the blistering hard rock. A call and response section between the harmonica and the guitar build off each other to end the song leaving the listener with his ass bruised and sore from being kixed for four euphoric minutes.

After taking a minute to ice the destroyed rectum, “Get It While It’s Hot” starts with a synthesizer run and some backwards vocals that recall their new wave roots. However, this is a clever ruse. Soon the guitars come in and betray the intro. This is another full on rock tune with the drums really in the driver’s seat during the verses. The guitarists play a few chords, rest, and then play a few chords, then rest; each phrase expanding upon the last to complete the picture at the end of five measures. It’s a tension building technique Kix would use again. The chorus drastically changes things up, but the energy level doesn’t dip at all. At this point we’re greeted by the song’s hook. With some era appropriate multi-tracked backing vocals, it drives the point across well.

Even with all the fantastic tunes, the reason that this album went platinum was because of the ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. A number eleven hit in America, the song put the band on map, and on MTV. However, it wasn’t originally released as a single. When Kix were on tour with Great White, their manager Alan Niven asked the band why the song hadn’t been released as a single. Niven, despite being the manager for Great White, called up Doug Morris (president of Atlantic Records at the time) and told him they were sitting on a massive hit. They released it, and the rest is history. As for the song, it’s not a typical fluffy power ballad of the late ‘80s. It has more in common with “Dream On” than it does “Home Sweet Home”. The song is an anti-suicide PSA, a reassuring topic that proved Kix had more on their mind than just sex and explosions. It’s a great song, haunting and emotional. The lyrics and the conviction with which Whiteman sings them makes the hairs on your arm stand up. “Don’t Close Your Eyes” is a powerful song that has probably saved more than one or two lives as well, and is one of the most respectable power ballads of the 1980s.

But who cares when they’re singing about sex when the music backing it is of such high caliber? “Cold Blood” was the first single, and it sold much better after “Don’t Close Your Eyes” became huge. This song deserved to be a huge hit. It’s a stone cold classic. Starting out with a riff sounding like Electric-era The Cult, and progressing to total pop harmony payoff, this one is definitely one of the band’s best tunes. It also received moderate MTV airplay, and became the band’s second most popular song, a place only challenged by the album’s title track. A very fun and electrifying number about singer Steve Whiteman getting his fuse blown, his tower shook, his wires crossed, his hair lit up, his senses overloaded, and his juice felt. The lyrics speak for themselves; this one is another genre classic.

The album is rounded out with several other dynamic hard rock tunes, and a supernatural ability to insert pop melodies into them without diminishing the power one iota. There is no filler on this album, every song is a keeper. A 30th anniversary edition remixed by Beau Hill was announced earlier this year. Start off with the original that has been serving the public well for three decades now. If you were only to buy one Kix album, this is the one.

5/5 stars

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Midnite Dynamite (1985)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin – part 3 in his KIX series

KIX – Midnite Dynamite (1985 Atlantic)

In 1985, Kix returned after two commercially unsuccessful albums, with what they consider to be their magnum opus, Midnight Dynamite. This is where the new wave styles of the first two records take a backseat to the hard rock influences. Later on, they’d completely shun their new wave influences by kicking them out of the car, and making new wave watch hard rock shag its girlfriend. For now, the blend was still somewhat apparent, but with the mix changed.

Produced by Lebrain’s favorite producer of all time (Beau Hill), Midnight Dynamite definitely sounds like its era, much more so than the debut or Cool Kids. For the first time we get some electronic percussion thrown into the mix and it is the first album by Kix to feature synthesizers in a prominent role. This could have been disastrous, but luckily Kix utilizes them to color the sound and they don’t diminish the hard edge of the guitars one iota. This is a hard rock record first and foremost, and with Ronnie “10/10” Younkins back in the mix, the guitar duo of the first album is reestablished. Pressured once again to work with outside writers, the primary guy for the job is Bob Halligan Jr. If the name sounds familiar, it could be because he wrote two songs for Judas Priest (“Take These Chains” & “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”), and co-wrote with Icon on their second album Night of the Crime. Boasting some impressive credentials, the songwriting takes a step up this time around. Nearly all the songs are collaborations between bassist Donnie Purnell and Halligan.

The album is jump started by the title track. A slow and heavy number, it was a bold choice to open an album with.  Fortunately for Kix, it completely works. The intensity of the verses builds up tension for the ridiculously catchy harmonies in pre-chorus, where we finally get the big payoff during the chorus. This is melodic hard rock done right, without the frills that are usually associated with AOR or other bands of the time period. Kix made sure that the material had balls, something that many other bands of the time period eschewed for chart success. The intensity of the title track is followed by the erotic “Red Hot (Black & Blue)” with a sleazy stuttering riff. The production on this song is a little heavy handed with the reverse reverb in the verses, but it’s nothing that ruins the impact. Another song with dynamics, the verses stutter along with spunk, until the chorus where that Kix fire is unleashed. Some pretty cheesy lyrics, but if you weren’t prepared for that then why would you be reading a Kix review?

One of Beau’s buddies Kip Winger earns himself a writing credit on track number 3, “Bang Bang (Balls of Fire)”. As you can tell by the title, it’s one of the more generic rock songs on the album. It’s one of the least substantial, but it’s still an enjoyable tune. “Layin’ Rubber” is much better, as all the elements that make up the Kix sound are blended masterfully. Obviously more hard rock orientated than material of the past, the track features bubblegum pop chants before launching into a hard rock riff, while the intensity of the music elevates as the song goes on. Each section of the song’s structure is composed to perfectly transition into the next. One of the best tracks on the album, it manages to be damn brutal, and also catchy as shit.

The rest of the album proceeds in this manner, blistering hard rock tunes with undeniably catchy melodies that are never too sugary enough to make you sick to your stomach. There is only one ballad “Walkin’ Away”, which is built on synthesizers, but has enough of a kick to be enjoyable. “Cold Shower” was the other single, which features some rap like vocals in the verses and singer Steve Whiteman hitting some glass shattering notes before the chorus. It’s one of the most eccentric tunes on the album, and I’m surprised it was picked as a single.

Surprising songs or not, this album is one of the most underrated of the era. It’s a mystery as to why it didn’t sell better than it did. Label indifference? If you’re a fan of the rock music, you owe it to yourself to pick up this album and the even better follow up Blow My Fuse.

4.75/5 stars

A note for Kiss fans, Anton Fig plays drums on the last two tracks because Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfant had broken his arm.

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Cool Kids (1983)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin – part 2 in his KIX series

KIX – Cool Kids (1983 Atlantic)

Coming off the heels of their unsuccessful debut album, Kix returned to the studio with new producer Peter Solley to shell out what would be their most polarizing and least rocking album. Cool Kids is the most commercial album that Kix every recorded, pressured by Atlantic to deliver a hit after the failure of the debut to find an audience. This was 1983, just before Pyromania broke through the stratosphere to make melodic hard rock/heavy metal a viable commercial direction. Atlantic still had no idea how to market Kix, and also didn’t know what direction to push them in order to find an audience. For this album, they decided to push them towards the new wave aspects of their sound, forcing them to work with outside writers for the first time.

The production of Cool Kids is much more slick and pop-orientated than the rough and ready production of the debut. It’s obvious that the band was pressured into this direction, as a lot of the time they don’t sound comfortable in their own skin. Signer Steve Whiteman’s voice lacks its usual power and grit on this recording, likely being asked to hold back for the songs by producer Peter Solley. Another notable change to the band’s sound is the presence of new guitar player Brad Divens, temporarily replacing Ronnie “10/10” Younkins. This is the only Kix album to feature Divens, as Younkins rejoined them by their next album Midnight DynamiteCool Kids lacks the fiery and spontaneous edge of Younkins’ playing, and contributes even more to the album feeling sterile.

Despite these flaws, this is still a Kix album. There are still enjoyable moments throughout the record, quite a few actually. They are however, overwhelmed by the material that doesn’t work on this album. Opener “Burning Love” doesn’t introduce the set of tunes with a lot of power. Kix always has energy, but it seems to be counteracted with the sterile production and addition of keyboards. That being said, it’s a perfectly serviceable melodic rock tune, but there’s nothing genuinely exceptional about it. With it’s bouncy keyboards and lazy riff, it doesn’t sound much like Kix. This is one of the tunes that wasn’t written by the band. The title track follows it in a similarly sleek fashion, but is ultimately more enjoyable because it is more guitar-driven, and the band’s natural energy pushes through much more. It was also written by outside writers, but it is a very catchy tune. I’d say it’s a great melodic rock song for the early ‘80s. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound much like Kix either.

After two tracks that fail to encompass the Kix sound, the first band-written track is up with “Love Pollution”. One of the only straight-up rockers on the disc, it’s also one of the best songs on the album. Written by Whiteman and Forsythe, the song burns along with a killer guitar riff and a lot of attitude, and accompanied by piano in the chorus that actually helps the song. A truly killer tune, one that I think represents the direction that this whole album should have gone in. It has a sound similar to that of the genre defying debut, but in a harder rocking vein. You can tell already that Kix wanted to toughen up their sound, though the shiny production doesn’t help that point across.

Next up is the outside penned “Body Talk” which used talk box three years before Bon Jovi, and also has one of the absolute worst music videos of all time. What the hell was the director thinking? Kix playing at what looks like a high school gym with only girls working out doing weird-ass synchronized exercise dances? Yeah, they really dropped the ball with this one. I find it strange that with this promotion Atlantic was confused about why the band weren’t doing well commercially. Luckily for them, Kix were still obscure enough that hardly anyone has ever seen that video. As for the song, it’s an uncharacteristic new wave workout, and a co-lead vocal between Steve Whiteman and drummer Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont. It’s a catchy pop tune, but it couldn’t be further from the Kix sound. Atlantic definitely missed the mark by making them record this one.

And if you didn’t think they could fall further into Flock of Seagulls territory, we get “Loco-Emotion”, penned by bass player Donnie Purnell. Steve Whiteman gets to play saxophone on this song, and for the verses it’s easily the weirdest Kix song ever. While the chorus contains a get up and go kick in the pants, the verses are just off-putting. Their first album used Devo primarily for what little new wave influence they had, but now they were courting the sound of several shittier new wave bands. Fortunately, from here on out everything was penned by the band, and there is nothing as jarring as this song.

However, a lot of these songs penned by Purnell are strange, and not up to his usual standards. “Mighty Mouth” is a powerful rock tune that gets bogged down by a very awkward and annoying chorus with Whiteman screaming the title. It seems a bit too cheeky for its own good, but is nothing compared to the campy “Nice on Ice” and the absolutely awful “Get Your Monkeys Out”. These songs lean hard on the bubblegum pop equation that was blended so successfully on albums before and after this with hard rock. Here, thanks to the shiny production, they sound cheesy and downright embarrassing. Thankfully, the album is redeemed with the two closing tunes.

Kix break the general rock standard of having the penultimate song be the worst on the album, by having the penultimate song be the best on the album. “For Shame” is an acoustic ballad years before “When the Children Cry”, or “Patience”, or “More than Words”. Beginning to see a trailblazing pattern? Yes, this is a heartfelt ballad that relies more on a nostalgic feeling than a sappy one. It uses the emotion of regret as the basis of the tune, which is an effective emotional connector. Whereas other love ballads seem derivative, this one seems genuine. The lyrics are very simple, but powerful. They detail summertime love that is lost with the passing of the seasons, with the two lovers unable to find each other afterwards Grease style. Thankfully, this song is stripped of the excess production that plagues most of the rest of the album, which keeps it sounding real, unlike other synthetic love tunes of the era. “For Shame” is a fantastic ballad, one that Kix would only surpass with a #11 hit on the Billboard charts (more on that when we get there).

They round the album out with the spiritual brother of “Love Pollution”. The other hard rocking song on the album, it features a writing credit from everyone in the band. It’s a speedy number the glides by ending the album on a high note. “Restless Blood” is an energetic kick in the pants to conclude the record with grace. Cool Kids is arguably the least essential Kixrecord, as it’s sound is the result of the label pressure. For the most part, it doesn’t represent the Kix sound, and a lot of the songs that do represent that sound, don’t get the equation as balanced as on the debut or any of their later albums. Thankfully, Kix would not let us down again. Atlantic finally realized that they had their hands on a hard rock band after this record tanked as bad as the first one. Our heroes would resurface again stronger than ever in 1985 with possibly the greatest album of their career. If this was the stepping stone that made Midnight Dynamite possible, so be it.

2.5/5 stars

 

GUEST REVIEW: Kix – Kix (1981)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

KIX – Kix (1981 Atlantic)

Kix: one of the most beloved and influential rock bands of the time that only made it big after years of great albums, legendary live performances, and a work ethic that never failed them. Unfortunately, they only seemed to stay there for the album/tour cycle of their classic Blow My Fuse. While over the years they’ve returned to being more of a cult act than a mainstream rock group, the effect the left on rock culture shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s common knowledge that Bret Michaels liked the group enough that he decided to “borrow” some moves from singer Steve Whiteman. Anthony Corder from Tora Tora called Kix a huge influence on the development of their second album Wild America. Despite all their influence, the band never seemed to secure a position as one of the most popular acts of the day. Bad management, label indifference, and being a little ahead of their time prevented them from becoming the multi-platinum success they deserved to be on every one of their albums.

As far as being ahead of their time, this eponymous debut was released on a major label in 1981, when even Mötley Crüe were still grinding it out on Leathür Records. Kix were one of the first hard rock acts signed from the decade, but were hardly acknowledged for it. This debut album sold very poorly, and original prints are tough finds out in the wild today. 1981 may have been just too early for a release like this to find widespread success. It’s also possible that Atlantic didn’t know how to market the band, as their debut album is an interesting and masterful blend of hard rock, new wave, and bubblegum melodies that sound like they could have come from the 1950s.

Produced by Tom Allom (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard), the album is given a very punchy and dynamic sound. The drums sound big and chunky, and everyone is audible in the mix. Anyone familiar with the Kix of the later ‘80s may find this release a bit jarring at first. There’s a certain quirkiness to the songs that isn’t as prevalent later on in their career. This would be the new wave sensibilities. Not all the guitars are overdriven in a way that you’d expect from a hard rock record. There are a number of songs that glide by with clean guitars, and still manage to rock with a ton of energy thanks to the contributions of drummer Jimmy “Chocolate” Chalfont, and the contagious exuberance of singer Steve Whiteman. Of course, not all the record is this style, there are songs where the guitars have plenty of distortion, and they’re power loaded with midnight dynamite force.

The album opens with the scorcher and fan favorite “Atomic Bombs”. Starting with air raid sirens and some tasteful drum fills, the suspense of the song builds as a riff that Poison probably ripped off for “Look What the Cat Dragged In” tethers the song, and keeps it from completely going out of control. The first Kix song about blowing things up (a favorite topic of these Maryland hicks), it sets the tone for the album. It’s a relentless hard rock number with dynamics, and a nice solo that manages to create a feeling of the impending chaos of fallout. Opening with a rocker was a good choice; it gets people’s attention so that they’ll be more open-minded about what’s to come.

“Love at First Sight” is the first of the quirky Kix tunes. It’s a bouncy new wave influenced song, without any keyboards. If the thought of new wave scares you, it really shouldn’t because it’s so skillfully blended with these songs. It’s more Devo than it is Flock of Seagulls, and it shouldn’t turn off anyone even if they don’t enjoy new wave. The song gets a kick in the ass from guitarists Ronnie “10/10” Younkins and Brian Forsythe, as the distortion kicks in and the guitar solo gives the song the kick it needs to succeed. They were never the flashiest or greatest players of the ‘80s, but they were melodically wise, and knew what fit the song.

At this point in the record we get yet another change of pace, the ‘50s heart throb tune “Heartache”. With a bubblegum melody bound to get stuck in your head, that goddamn Kix band gives another change of pace. Rarely do audiences get this much diversity from a record of any genre. Kix would never release another album as eclectic as this one. Bass player Donnie Purnell locks in perfectly with the guitars and drums to give this tune an infectious energy that seems to fuel this entire album. The song builds with the addition of more guitars. The band has mastered dynamics, and knows just how to play them for the benefit of the song. The album is filled with tunes that blend each of these styles, some in which they are blended so seamlessly it’s impossible to pick what style is dominant. Take “The Itch”, the riff and song structure sounds similar to the underrated AC/DC tune “What’s Next to the Moon”. They’ve somehow taken that song structure and turned it on its head. Giving it breezy rock verses that build in intensity until the chorus which delivers another catchy melody complete with claps and gang backing vocals. The blend of styles shown on this album is seriously impressive for such a young group.

In case that wasn’t impressive enough, Kix closes the album with concert favorite “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” (not an Alice Cooper cover). It’s a hard rock tune that lasts seven minutes, featuring the infamous rant from Steve Whiteman, complete with crowd noise. Steve is upset because the woman he’s been seducing has puked all over his floor. That’s a big mistake. Don’t puke on Steve Whiteman’s floor. Go outside and do that. The subject matter is juvenile, but this is rock and roll. It closes the album on a fast tempo upbeat note. Every song on here could be considered upbeat, no ballads, the energy never lets up.

As the album finishes a look at the liner notes reveals that this is the only Kix album in which they weren’t pressured to work with outside writers (at least of the ones on Atlantic). It can be concluded that this album is the purest distillation of the Kix sound. While I like some of their more hard rocking albums later down the line better, this album is interesting because of the fact that it and its much lesser follow up Cool Kids (the only Kix album I’m not overly fond of), contain a new wave style that the band would never return to. It’s interesting hearing the young Kix and what their original vision is. Some people consider this the best Kix album. Not me, but it’s still pretty damn good.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Winger – The Very Best Of (2001)

WINGER – The Very Best Of (2001 Atlantic/Rhino)

Winger broke up in ’94, but reunited in 2001.  Part of the reunion entailed new music.  Before they finally released a new album (Winger IV), they tested the waters with one new song on The Very Best of Winger.  Yes indeed, you had to buy a “greatest hits” to get the new song.  At least Winger also gave you a Japanese bonus track for your money too.

New tune “On the Inside” was written for Pull (their third album and last before breakup) but recorded for Very Best Of.  It’s a chunky, heavy tune with splashes of anthemic keyboard in the chorus.  It really underlines that Winger could write and play with integrity when they wanted to.  Reb Beach’s solo is unorthodox and outside the box.  “Hell to Pay” is listed as an outtake, but it was actually released as a Japanese bonus track to Pull.  Stuff like this saves collectors for shelling out mucho dinero for a Japanese import.  Good sassy tune, and listen for that scorching outro.

Pull was a record that never got a shot, so it’s OK that the first chunk of tunes are from that album.  It deserved a second chance.  These are standout songs:  “Blind Revolution Mad” smokes white hot, and with depth.  “Down Incognito” has a bright, memorable chorus contrasted with groovy verses.  90s-style riffing worked perfectly on the track “Junkyard Dog”, a seven-minute thrill ride through different textures.  Winger were not playing it simple.  Even their ballads from that era have more heft.  “Spell I’m Under” has edge under those layered melodies.  Few songs are as starkly lovely as “Who’s the One”.

The Very Best of Winger takes a dive after the Pull material.  The CD is in reverse chronological order, which almost never works.  Yes, it highlights the most current sounding music, but at the cost of consistency.  Winger II: In the Heart of the Young was, let’s be honest, not good.  The ballads were sappier and the rockers too cheesy.  Only “Rainbow in the Rose” really fits on this set.  Past the dreck, the four singles from album #1 are included.  This means the CD at least ends on an up, though the ballad “Headed for a Heartbreak” is a bit anti-climatic.

Go for The Very Best of Winger if:

a) you want to check this band out, or

b) you want the rarities.

Your needs might be met by just buying Pull.

3.5/5 stars