Part Three of a series on classic KICK AXE!
The loud Canadian quintet from Saskatchewan, Kick Axe, went from indi to major label in 1983 when they signed with CBS Canada. They also had a new singer in George Criston, a guy with incredible range and rock sensibilities. Everything was in place. With a couple solid metal releases already under their belts, they were about to go big league. The next step after the record deal was a hookup with the American producer behind Quiet Riot, Spencer Proffer. Spencer offered them the chance to write with him and record in his own studio, Pasha. They would have been foolish to turn down the opportunity considering what happened with Quiet Riot in similar circumstances.
In fact, Kick Axe’s debut album Vices is so similar to Metal Health, you probably could have heard it was Spender Proffer at the desk without reading the credits. The drum sound is exactly identical to that of Frankie Banali. The backing vocal arrangements are also very similar, even though the singers are different. The comparisons go further, but we’ll discuss them as we go.
“Heavy Metal Shuffle” sounds immediately like, who else, Quiet Riot! That is until George Criston starts croonin’. What a set of pipes on that man. He could scream with the best, but there’s more to Criston than just high notes. There’s a blue-eyed soulful trill in his screechin’, hard to pinpoint but there nonetheless. Another part of the Kick Axe sound is bassist Victor Langen, who has a solid metal chunk but with creative, busy melodic accents. Of course another major factor is the capable backing singers. Langen, Ray Harvey, and brothers Brian and Larry Gillstrom created an 80s tapestry of metal harmony. This is especially apparent on title track “Vices”. It’s a pretty irresistible song even if it sounds exactly like the year 1984. At least how I remember it sounding. Big, echoey, mushy, loud!
By the third track, “Stay On Top”, we’re really cookin’. You might cringe at the clichés, like the gang vocals or the big drum fills, or you could just chill out and rock with it. Ballad “Dreaming About You” pours on the rock standards, but the problem is…it’s good. It’s a great 80s ballad. Helix could have done it. Great White could have done it. Dozens of bands had songs like this, but at least Kick Axe wrote a good one. Up next, “Maneater” opens with some ferocious guitar wang-dang, although the song is more a slick rocker than a headbanger. It’s the chorus that differentiates it from the average.
When side two opens with the “big hit”, hopefully you’ll say “Oh yeah, I remember this one!” The memorable music video for “On the Road to Rock” introduced Kick Axe to a much larger audience. Listen to that chug! Langen had a killer sound, even with that huge axe bass that quickly became a symbol for the band. “On the Road to Rock” delivered an anthem the kids could get behind. The video also turned their cover art of the “Vices Guy” into a fully-fledged mascot.
My buddy Bob Schipper loved the music video. Especially when “Vices Guy” yells “Stop that you wimp!” at one of the legendary composers. Me, I liked that bass. I also liked that the drummer was a virtual hulk, who kicks down not one but two doors in the video. I didn’t understand why the singer was running around in bare feet. You’re gonna stub a toe, or step on some door shrapnel, guy.
Next up, “Cause For Alarm” sounds at first exactly like the song “We Were Born to Rock” by Quiet Riot. It soon becomes its own beast with a thunderous chorus. Yep, Kick Axe could write a chorus. They could also execute them via those thick backing vocals and the golden Criston pipes. The tempo takes a step back into the pocket on “Alive & Kickin'”. It’s another one of those choruses that the boys seemed to have an endless supply of, although a bit too heavy on the backing vocals this time. Langen really lets the bass groove on “All the Right Moves”, boasting one of those shout-choruses that are perfect for the live concert setting. It’s the kind of song Motley Crue would have given their nuts to be able to write at that time.
The final song on the standard album was a song with a certain epic “closing” quality. “Just Passing Through” makes it sound like the album just might have been a concept record on the theme of vices. Indeed, Spencer thought of it as such: “Living in our vices, we watch the rise and fall,” repeating some words from the title track. Regardless, it just sounds like an album closer. There’s a certain climactic quality to the melody and riff.
On CD (and strangely enough, also the original Canadian cassette) is the bonus track “30 Days in the Hole”, starting a custom of Kick Axe putting a cover song on every album. Spencer Proffer wanted to do it, since he had so much success with “Cum On Feel the Noize” earlier with Quiet Riot. It’s not the best version of “30 Days” that you’ve ever heard. It sure does sound like they’re playing the same amps as Carlos Cavazo, though.
As per usual, Rock Candy deserve extra thanks for the brilliant liner notes featuring interviews with Proffer and Langen. Also for including the bonus track, though we often take those for granted these days. Of course, Kick Axe deserve the lion’s share, for writing and performing a “kick ass” Kick Axe debut. Not an easy thing to accomplish, but with Proffer they had a good team. It shouldn’t overshadow their innate talents, of course.
The proof of Kick Axe’s talent was their progression, album to album. There were also some misadventures with Black Sabbath and giant transforming robots, but we’ll get there. Vices would be a fine Kick Axe album to satisfy your curiosity, but be prepared to get hooked and want to go deeper.