bruce fairbairn

GUEST REVIEW: Van Halen – Balance (Derek Kortepeter vs. LeBrain)

VAN HALEN – Balance (1995 Warner)

By Derek Kortepeter

I was perusing Mike’s blog like I sometimes do (what can I say, I’m a fan). I stumbled upon his review for a Van Halen record that means a lot to me, and frankly, is the one I love the most among all of the Hagar years AND Roth years. I was really surprised with just how harsh Mike was on what I’ve always regarded as the pinnacle of Van Halen’s creativity and musicality.

After discussing it with Mike, I decided to write somewhat of a rebuttal to his 3.75/5 review.  I plan to try to explain why this record means so much to me as a Van Halen fan and professional composer/musician. I will quote from the original review to make this sort of sound like a discussion rather than me just being a dick and touting my opinion as better. If anything, I just want detractors of this record to give it another view and possibly a second chance.

Ready? Let’s go!


Balance takes Van Halen into a highly polished, commercial direction. This is “balanced” with heavier grooves and a couple more “serious” lyrics.   The result turned out to be one of Van Halen’s most pop outings.

Right off the bat I will disagree with you Mike. I argue that this is Van Halen’s most EXPERIMENTAL outing since Fair Warning. The melodic phrasing and song structures on some of these songs are incredibly progressive, and additionally, I believe that there are enough instrumental pieces that push what people’s perception of the band could be.

As for the polish, that isn’t a negative, the band has never sounded better. The way Alex tuned his drums is brilliant and crisp, Eddie’s tone never sounded more varied (at least until Van Halen III), and the band sounded incredibly tight and focused (Mike’s bass in particular is fucking blistering). The record being heavy is 100 percent a positive as well, as this applies not only to the slamming instrumental but also the lyrical content.

This is hard rock, metal, and avant-garde with pop overtones. Not pop.

This is “The Seventh Seal”, and Sammy’s voice is in top form. Michael Anthony’s bass rolls and hits the notes at just the right moments. This is truly a great song, completely different from Van Halen of old, but surely a triumph.

No argument from me here. The Buddhist monks chanting in their low vocal register leading into Sammy’s fever dream about the End Times as described in the book of Revelation is a beckoning call to fans that Van Halen is in its most mature incarnation. Balance is established right off the bat as a theme involving spirituality, but that isn’t the only type of Balance pursued in the record. I see many of these songs as mirrors of one another, focusing in on a true sense of balance. I will extrapolate on this as I go on.

“Can’t Stop Loving You”, is an embarrassing foray into pop. While Van Halen wrote pop stuff before (“Love Walks In”), this song lacks cojones of any kind. The guitar is really thin, Alex Van Halen cha-cha’s his way through the drum fills, while Sammy sings a lyric that David Lee Roth would have used to wipe his ass.

Hoo boy. As I have already stated, I think the production on Balance is brilliant so we won’t retread that issue here. I always found this song to be sad, to me it is about the kind of longsuffering love that only couples who have been together for decades will understand. It shows an evolution in Van Halen’s views on love, which before were often juvenile in the sense that it was more about the start of the relationship before things get hard. The theme of commitment never really factored into the equation until this track, just the hormones in your body exploding when love is raw and new to you. David Lee Roth could never have come up with something like this, ever.

“Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” is anything but a love song. Sammy tackles drugs, faith, youth in crisis, and the 1990’s. Hagar has never sounded more foreboding, or mature for that matter. Eddie’s riff is simple, but dark and rhythmic. Michael locks onto the riff, creating this unstoppable wall of groove.

We agree here, this song is fucking genius in its execution and is the closest to metal Van Halen get until they write “Humans Being” a little later. Also here is where we begin to see the theme of Balance, which I argue permeates the record, take shape. The prior track is about a fulfilling love, this track is about the absence of love and how the dejected react in situations of pure despair. Pay attention, pretty much every song on the record has a directly opposing relationship to the song that it follows.

There is nothing wrong with this mid-tempo rocker (“Amsterdam”) with spare Eddie riff, except the lyrics.

Look the lyrics are in a party song, which as I recall, are not required to be Shakespeare. Do you really think that any DLR era gems known for partying like “Take Your Whiskey Home” are any more profound? Lyrics aside, this song is setting up another element of Balance by exploring sins of the flesh and addictive behaviors that can be found in so many cities. It is about losing control and giving into your desires, especially in this case with regards to alcohol and drugs. This is one part of the Balance equation, as the next track deals with sins of a different kind. Greed.

I’ll give VH a C for trying, but “Big Fat Money” is a C+ at best.

“Big Fat Money” is a raucous psychobilly freakout of a song. Every member of the band loses their fucking mind by giving all their energy into this burner of a track. Sammy shreds his vocal chords as he rapid-fires phrases, Eddie brings up-tempo blues and ragtime sounds to the forefront, Alex plays double-time almost punk rock beats, and Michael Anthony just slays you with his furious basslines. Furthermore, the element of Balance in relation to the prior track is the other most focused-upon sin in society (Greed). The song shows the destructive nature in a way, however, as you feel like the lyrics hint at somebody losing their mind to their desires that began in Amsterdam and continued to spiral downwards into pure insanity. The balance is the lure of desire and then the destructive after-effects of such desire.

“Strung Out” is a jokey opener to the ballad “Not Enough”.

I look at this track as an example of “chance music.” Much like the music of John Cage and other contemporaries of his, the aleatoric nature of “Strung Out” is based on numerous factors. It is essentially Eddie fucking around with piano strings, but it isn’t a joke in my opinion. If anything, it shows Van Halen willing to ask their listeners what music is, and more importantly, what they should define Van Halen as. It is in every way an experimental, not pop, foray into a new direction.

That fades into “Not Enough”, another ballad… Tunes like this made Van Halen seem completely out of touch with what was happening in the 1990s. Within months of its release, Shannon Hoon would overdose, Layne Staley locked into a dance of death with smack, and Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers went missing (presumed dead) after suffering long bouts of depression.

OK, a lot to unpack here. “Not Enough” isn’t a conventional ballad at all. It is about love and, more importantly, the loss of love. It doesn’t show a band out of touch at all, if anything, it shows that they are more in tune than ever. “Not Enough” is about the heart wrenching aspect of loss of someone you love. Period. The music video is somber and yet it also gives you hope. Eddie’s chorus-washed solo is a work of genius and as a whole the song remains the most mature expression of love and loss that I can possibly find in their catalogue.

As for the mentions of Layne Staley and Richey Edwards, I feel that I must interject that Alice In Chains and Manic Street Preachers are two incredibly important bands in my life. Layne spoke to my pain as a longtime sufferer of mental disorders and Richey looked at the world in the same cynical way that I do (plus as a Welsh-American, the Manics are a part of my culture and thus very important on another level to me). This is frankly a low-blow to the album that is unwarranted and patently false.

 “Aftershock” is another hard rocker, nothing embarrassing here, good riff, good melody, good song. 

As a drummer this is one of my all-time favorite songs to jam to. The entire song just blows the roof off of everything in its vicinity and remains a testament to just how hard Van Halen can rock. It also, however, brings in that same element of Balance that I speak of. “Not Enough” is about the raw and compassionate feelings of loss, namely in a relationship, but Aftershock is about the rage and bitterness that is likely to follow in the grieving process of a relationship. Both essential. Both a part of Balance.

A pair of instrumentals follow, an interesting touch seeing as Van Halen didn’t do too many instrumentals post-Dave. “Doin’ Time” is Alex messing around on the drums, which segues straight into “Baluchitherium”. 

These two songs are another part of me arguing about the experimental nature of this record. To devote so much time to instrumentals, especially the way they are structured here, is to push the band out of the Billboard 100 arena and into the “thinking” arena. The band is showing they are incredibly versatile and willing to take risks. Furthermore, guitar and drums are naturally instruments needed in order to balance out the equation of a rock band. Taken a step further, the instruments are played by brothers who are in many ways needed in their personal and professional lives to achieve balance.

Nothing on this record is haphazardly added.

“Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” is a pop song that I don’t mind at all, accented with acoustic guitar. 

It’s a brilliant song with brilliant instrumentation and vocals from Sammy. Also, it fits into the balance equation as it is about longing for better times. The reminiscing for the good times is here because the next track is all about the ugly of the present times.

“Feelin’” is a morose song but with an epic, powerful chorus. It is very different from anything the band had done prior.

The song is a masterpiece. Sammy is singing of a world on fire in every aspect of society as we know it. The song twists and turns with dazzling instrumentals and lyrics that are screamed at the heavens. It is the band completing its evolution into the mature incarnation of the band once known for wanting to “Dance the Night Away”. This would be the last song on the record unless you got it in Japan (more on that in a second), and it brings everything to a close. It is the end of the record, and unfortunately, the beginning of the End for the Hagar years.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan, there was one bonus track: this is the groove laden, oddball “Crossing Over”.  It’s a song about the afterlife and lyrically it’s probably the best tune of the bunch.

I am often called an experimental composer, so I suppose it is no surprise that I love this song and was so disappointed that it took me years after purchasing Balance to find it. I believe that this track completes the cycle started in “The Seventh Seal”. Notice how I talked about every song on the record being related in a balanced symmetry? I believe that “Crossing Over” is the mirror to “The Seventh Seal”. The album opens with nightmares of spiritual chaos, and this track is the completion of such chaos.


So, what do I have to say in closing? This record shows Van Halen at its highest possible output of creativity, and most importantly, its ability to show a deep philosophical approach to its writing never seen before or since. Balance is the culmination of everything that Van Halen was destined to be, and for that reason, it is the best record they ever wrote. Even if you disagree 100 percent with me, or just really hate Sammy Hagar, give this one another chance.

You might be surprised what you find.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Bon Jovi – “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1987 cassette)

BON JOVI – “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1987 Mercury extended play cassette)

Some rarities are easiest to find on tape.

That’s definitely still the case for “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, the 1987 acoustic version originally released only on an extended play cassette in most of the world.  This version, discussed below, is a Holy Grail collectable.  What about CD or vinyl?  There was a rare Japanese version with a slightly different tracklist, but for 30 years, all I had was this cherished cassette.

The tape has four tracks.  The original studio version (titled “Long Version” here to avoid confusion with the  4:10 single edit) leads side A.  “Wanted” is Bon Jovi’s first truly brilliant song.  An extended cowboy metaphor about the road, it’s timeless.  It always has been.  Richie Sambora’s 12 string guitar made all the young guitar kids want to play one.  His backing vocals were the real highlight.  Funny thing about Bon Jovi:  the backing vocalist was better than the lead singer!  Smoking guitar solo too, where every note counts.  You can hear Richie pushing those strings and wrenching that solo from the instrument.  It’s a perfect song, with every component serving a purpose and coming together.  The old west as seen from New Jersey.

The acoustic version of “Wanted” is the real delight here.  It’s just Jon and Sambora together with two acoustic guitars.  Jon explains the details in the liner notes, but only the cassette has this information: one more good reason to hunt down the tape.  Read below:

“On March 18, 1987 or somewhere there bouts, Richie and I flew into New York to mix some live tracks for a radio special.  After a couple hours of record making, donut eating, and MTV watching we got bored, picked up two acoustics and started to jam.  The results are here on tape, the way we wrote it, just like it was in the basement on that cold January night in Jersey.”

If that doesn’t set the scene, nothing will.  Richie sings more of the lyrics, and belts out a killer acoustic solo too.  It was this recording that demonstrated to me the talents of Mr. Sambo.  What it lacks in glossy finish, it makes up for in spades with vibe.

On side B, the live version of “Wanted” is another rarity.  It’s an extended 8:13 full band version, with a long instrumental prologue.  According to the liner notes (again, only on the cassette), it was recorded at Cobo Hall in Detroit on March 11, exactly a week before the studio jam was recorded.  It’s likely this is one of the live songs that Jon and Richie were in New York mixing on the 18th.  (Production is credited to both.)  You may have lots of versions of “Wanted” already, but owning an extended take from early ’87 is better.

The tape ends on “I’d Die For You”, a song that was good enough to be a single in its own right.  However, it wasn’t.  It’s just an album track from Slippery When Wet, but it’s safe to say it’s a bit of an unsung classic.  The Japanese CD version, on the other hand, comes with the non-album rarity “Edge of a Broken Heart”, one of their best tunes ever.  After “Edge”, there is an exclusive unlisted interview with all five band members.  Inside, Japan also got a “Bon Jovi Dictionary (R to Z)”.  Presumably the other volumes of the dictionary can be found in other Japanese CDs.

Though this cassette has an overabundance of “Wanted”, you simply need to get that acoustic version.  You want the one that’s 5:31 long, recorded in March ’87.  In fact, you need that one.  And even though CD is the superior format, the tape has the liner notes and other details you won’t find on CD.

5/5 stars

Thanks to Mitch Lafon for helping me locate a CD copy of these tracks!

REVIEW: AC/DC – The Razors Edge (1990)

AC/DC – The Razors Edge (1988, 2003 Epic remaster)

The 80s were bumpy for AC/DC.  Back In Black was massive.  For Those About to Rock was almost as big.  Flick of the Switch was a solid ball of rock, but things were uneven and some songs were filler.  Fly on the Wall has its detractors for its muddy sound, and Blow Up Your Video was mostly a snooze.  For their 1990 comeback, AC/DC got Canadian mega-producer Bruce Fairbairn involved.*  He had a huge run of hit albums most notably by Bon Jovi and Aerosmith.  Could he work his magic with AC/DC?

Bruce was one of the biggest names around, but having a hitmaker like him working with AC/DC was bound to affect their sound.  Not too much of course; this was AC/DC after all.  But Bruce did offer a cleaner sound, and there is no question it worked. To the tune of five million copies!  Another change was bringing in ex-The Firm drummer Chris Slade after the departure of Simon Wright, who joined Dio.  The bald-headed beat keeper became a fan favourite very quickly.  (Slade is once again the drummer of AC/DC today after replacing Phil Rudd.)

Debut single “Thunderstruck” has deservedly become a classic in the pantheon of AC/DC classics.  It was immediately obvious that AC/DC toned down the bluesy leanings of Blow Up Your Video in favour of rock and even arguably metal.  “Thunderstruck” is heavy metal, especially with that fluttery Angus Young lick that dominates the song.

Chris Slade’s hyper-caffeinated drum stylings really impact “Fire Your Guns”, one of the fastest and most fun AC/DC tracks in recorded history.  Any AC/DC song that involves them yelling “fire!” is guaranteed to thrill.  Not to be ignored is bassist Cliff Williams who is effortlessly locked in with Slade.  And sonically this is the best sounding AC/DC stuff since Back in Black.  Singer Brian Johnson said at the time that Bruce Fairbairn encouraged him to scream more like the old days.

Another huge single was the plucky “Moneytalks”, bringing the groove down to a perfect mid-tempo.  The main thing is the hook of the chorus.  Though all songs were written solely by the Brothers Young, you can hear Bruce Fairbairn’s impact.  It’s tight and focused more than AC/DC had been last time out.  No doubt Bruce acted as a brutal editor in the studio when necessary, and must have had a role in shaping the songs to their final form.  Listen to the layers of vocals on the chorus and tell me that’s not Bruce’s doing.

Some of the best AC/DC tracks in history have been deeper album cuts.  The title track is one such song, an ominous almost-epic.  “The Razors Edge” refers to a storm front on the horizon, and the song has that kind of foreboding feel.  Unfortunately this friggin’ incredible construction of guitars and screams is followed by a novelty track.  A seasonal novelty track.  “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all day the day.  I can’t wait til’ Christmas time when I roll you in the hay.”  This song should have been axed and saved for a compilation or single, where it actually could have had some impact.  Not that it’s not fun; it is!  But who wants to listen to jingle bells on track five of an AC/DC album?  “Rock Your Heart Out” closed the side with the dubious distinction of being the first obvious filler song.

The third single “Are You Ready” was the opening track for side two.  Good tune, nothing particularly special, but good enough for an AC/DC album.  “Got You By the Balls” is an amusing title, but not a memorable song.  It has a menacing bite, but not enough hooks.  There’s a definite “side two slump” as none of these songs are as good as the first batch on side one.  “Shot of Love” is OK.  Things get back on track with “Let’s Make It” which might have made a great single itself.  It has an old-timey rock and roll feel, and a slow groove.  That classic rock and roll sound isn’t heard frequently on The Razors Edge.  “Goodbye and Good Riddance to Bad Luck” isn’t shabby but veers close to that filler territory.  Finally The Razors Edge comes to a campy end with the unusual “If You Dare”.  Fortunately it’s a great, hooky little closer.

As it turns out, The Razors Edge was a one-off of sorts.  It spun off a successful live album, also produced by Bruce Fairbairn, but that was the end of their partnership.  A 1993 single called “Big Gun” sported a ballsier sound provided by Rick Rubin who went on to do their next album as well.  The Razors Edge is also the only studio album with Chris Slade.  Phil Rudd returned, reuniting the classic Back In Black lineup.  No one will question that Rudd is the best fitting drummer that AC/DC have ever had, but that doesn’t negate Chris Slade’s contribution.  Slade and Rudd do not sound alike, and therefore AC/DC acquires a different flavour with him in the band.  His cymbal work is enviable and nobody can play “Thunderstruck” like Chris Slade, period.

3.5/5 stars

*Much to the upset of the Scorpions who had tapped Bruce to do their next album Crazy World.  That didn’t happen because of the AC/DC job.

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Big Ones (1994)

AEROSMITH – Big Ones (1994 Geffen)

There is an informal rule that a band should have at least three albums out before they entertain the idea of a live or “greatest hits” release.  Aerosmith obviously had lots of albums out in 1994, but on two different labels:  Columbia, and Geffen.  Their 1994 best of, not-so-cleverly titled Big Ones, drew from only three Geffen albums.  Therein lies its weakness, though Aerosmith have often had issues trying to balance their classic and pop hit eras on compilations.  Big Ones is easily made redundant by later compilations, but how is it for a straight listen?

A long one:  73 minutes with lots of hits and perhaps a few too many ballads, although there is no denying their chart power.

Three songs were new to the majority of buyers.  “Deuces Are Wild” was a fine ballad, one of their best from this era.  It wasn’t entirely new; it was written for Pump and considered for Get A Grip before being released in 1993 on the Beavis and Butt-head Experience CD.  The other two were brand new recordings:  “Walk on Water” and “Blind Man”.  Fans who dug the heavy Aerosmith on tunes like “Eat the Rich” will enjoy “Walk on Water” as one of their harder rockers.  OK song, but long forgotten now.  Unfortunately “Blind Man” is just another ballad, this one similar to “What It Takes” from Pump.  It’s the better of the two new songs, but sadly another ballad is not what Big Ones needed.

Making this CD even less valuable to buyers, every single track is on the later album Young List: The Aerosmith Anthology (2001).   Even the three new songs!

Otherwise Big Ones plays much like a run-though of Aerosmith’s radio staples that you can hear on the FM dial just about everywhere.  Each and every big hit from the three massive Geffen albums is here.  How often do you need to hear “Crazy”, “Cryin'”, “Amazing”, “Janie”, “Rag Doll”, “Angel”, “Dude”, “Elevator” and the rest?  That is up to you.

Even the cover art is devoid of imagination.

2/5 stars

REVIEW: Honeymoon Suite – The Singles (1989)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

NIAGARA FALLS.

scan_20161110HONEYMOON SUITE – The Singles (1989 Warner)

In the mood for some good old fashioned Canadian AOR rock, but don’t know where to turn?

Easily solved.  Just drive down to Niagara Falls and take a left at Honeymoon Suite.

The Singles compiles all their best tunes from the first three LPs (Honeymoon Suite, The Big Prize, Racing After Midnight).  If you are a native of the Great White North, chances are you have already heard all 12 of these tracks.  Honeymoon Suite have been radio staples ever since their 1984 debut single, “New Girl Now”.  Even when they dropped off the face of the earth for much of the 1990s and 2000s, they got consistent radio play and gigs.  T-Rev and I saw them at Lulu’s in the 1990s when they were supporting a live album.  Even though singer Johnnie Dee seemed a lil’ tipsy they pulled out all the stops for an enjoyable gig.

When Honeymoon Suite kicked it off with “New Girl Now”, they tapped into a rock/new wave hybrid that earned them tons of video play in Canada.  Derry Grehan was (and is) a fine guitarist, certainly one of the most respected in the Great White North.  He gave the band the rock credibility they needed, meanwhile Johnny Dee had the pipes and the heartthrob looks.  The 80s angst of “Burning in Love” landed them another hit, with one foot a little more firmly in the rock arena. Bonus points for the very 80’s chorus echo. “I am still (still! still! still!) a lonely man burning in love,” sings Dee, and you know many ladies swooned.  The sound is not too distant from the Bon Jovi of the same period, burning up the clubs many miles away in New Jersey.


Filmed on location in Niagara Falls Ontario

“Stay in the Light” captures the same vibe, a keyboard-y tension with guitars providing the edge.  A sharp rhythm and indelible chorus keeps “Stay in the Light” burning in your memory long after it ceased playing.  “Wave Babies” is a bit hokey but that hasn’t kept it from airplay 30 years later.

Album #2, The Big Prize, edged their sound further into keyboard pop, which provided more hits but also turned some fans off.  “Feel It Again” maintained the guitars without straying too far, but the ballad anthem “What Does It Take” was a full-on 80s pop ballad.  The band had some serious firepower in the studio control room this time out.  The success of the first album gave them a shot with Bruce Fairbairn, and a young engineer named Bob Rock.  You can hear their impact in the improved sound of the drums, and the sonic clarity overall.  The production values help make “What Does It Take” palatable, but there is too much syrup for some.  “Bad Attitude” has some crunch but it’s overshadowed by those omnipresent keyboards.

Racing After Midnight returned rock to the forefront.  There were a couple lineup changes including on the keyboards.  The captain’s chair was manned this time by veteran Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.  With him they recorded “Lethal Weapon” for the film soundtrack of the same name.  Because it was written by Michael Kamen for a movie, we can forgive Honeymoon Suite for another soft rock ballad.  The guitar laden “Love Changes Everything” was a more proper introduction to the new album.  Derry has a chance to show off his enviable chops at the start, and has a good crunchy sound.  One of Honeymoon Suite’s most memorable choruses made it easy to love.  “Lookin’ Out for Number One” was equally powerful, especially when it comes to Derry Grehan’s impeccable shreddery.

Any good greatest hits album needs new material.  The Singles had two new songs:  big hit “Still Loving You”, and “Long Way”.  For a big anthemic ballad, “Still Loving You” nails it with class.  “Long Way” finishes it with a dark edgy acoustic vibe.  These two tracks do not negate the album title The Singles, because both were released as singles.

Factor in some great liner notes and lots of band photos, and The Singles is a pretty easy purchase to justify.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: AC/DC – Live (Remastered 2 CD collector’s edition)

AC/DC – Live (1992, 2003 Epic remastered collector’s edition)

AC/DC and their label did something very clever for their first live album with Brian Johnson in 1992.  Instead of putting out a full-on and expensive double live album (well over $30 on CD in the 90’s) they allowed fans to choose a more economic option.  A single “highlights” version of AC/DC Live was released simultaneously with 14 of the 23 tracks on one disc.  AC/DC must have been one of the first bands to release a “collector’s edition” of an album with an extra CD at a higher price.

Of course to a real AC/DC fan, the single disc is for rookies.  Sure, its firepower can’t be denied, but anybody with the dollars and a hard-on for AC/DC shelled out for the double.  Their last live release was 1978’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It with Bon Scott, a mere single disc.

Here’s the only serious flaw with AC/DC Live (either version).  Like The Razors Edge, it was produced by Bruce Fairbairn.  Why would AC/DC need a studio guy like Fairbairn to produce a live album?  Astute fans have picked apart the release and compared it to bootleg recordings from the same shows.  Like most live albums, even AC/DC succumbed to post-concert studio overdubs.  This is not particularly obvious on one listen, but it was always suspected due to the clean and near-perfect sound of AC/DC Live.  Where is the raunch?  Mixed out and overdubbed.   That’s unfortunate.  More bands should just pick the version of a song they like best, suck it up and put it on the album as-is.

Since 1992, AC/DC have released a lot of live material, both current and from the Bon era.  Notable is Live at River Plate (2012), another double, with Phil Rudd on drums.  A valid question would be, “How badly does a fan really need AC/DC Live in 2016?”  With so much to choose from, especially on DVD, AC/DC Live serves today as an historic document.  The Razors Edge album was a huge comeback for a band that never stopped, the tour was massive, and the resultant album is a document of this period.  With period hits like “Moneytalks” and “Heatseeker”, there are a few songs you won’t get live on some other releases.  (These two are even on the single CD version.)  There are also a couple nice long extended Angus jams, if you’re into the solos.  Lastly, AC/DC Live is the only live album with then (and present) drummer Chris Slade.  While no one will deny that Phil Rudd is “the man” when it comes to AC/DC, Chris Slade is well-liked and deserves his place in history.  He’s even on the album cover.

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Of note, the original (non-remastered) printing of AC/DC Live came with a neat bonus:  a little Angus $1 bill, like the ones they used to drop on the crowd during “Moneytalks”.  This memento was not included in the remaster, so when I traded my original copy in for a remaster I said “fuck it” and kept the $1 bill.  It’s too cool to throw away, and I’m sure many of those old Angus bills have been lost or destroyed since.

Ever so lucky, the Japanese fans received a bonus track:  “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place to Be”.  Fear not, everyone else.  This track was included on the live 1992 “Highway to Hell” single, which is fairly common.  Worth tracking down; it’s also on the Backtracks box set.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Pump (1989 collector’s faux leather edition)

AEROSMITH – Pump (1989 Geffen collector’s faux leather edition)

When speaking of Aerosmith “classics”, fans often skip over the 80’s or 90’s and talk singly about the 1970’s.  This is unfair to 1989’s Pump, a bonafide classic indeed, a rebirth, an all-too-brief twinkling of Aerosmith turning back the clock and smoothly kicking your behind.  Sure, Permanent Vacation brought them back from the dead and provided three surprise hit singles.   But that album wasn’t as laser-focused as Pump.

Teaming up for a second time with the late great Canadian producer extraordinaire Bruce Fairbairn, Aerosmith (and co-writers) cooked a short and sweet batch up.  10 songs, all to the point and done “just right”.  That’s how Aerosmith albums were in the 70’s, and Pump is as close as they have ever been able to touch that magical golden era.

Incidentally, if you’re curious about how this album was made, there was an excellent behind the scenes doc called The Making of Pump that was out on VHS.  The band were clearly riding a wave of energy, it was palpable in the studio.  There was some conflict but it all seemed productive.  There was a surplus of songs.  Titles such as “Looking Up Your Old Address” and “News For You Baby” were dropped in favour of stronger songs — the 10 on Pump.

“Young Lust” and “F.I.N.E.” have always seemed to work as a supercharged pair.  The band sound young, therefore “Young Lust”!  Joey Kramer on the skins propels the whole thing forward, aided and abetted by Tom Hamilton’s unmistakable bass slink.  Whitford and Perry — locked on to target, supporting and boosting each other’s licks.  And Steven Tyler, always the centrepiece, keeping the attention focused on the hooks.  “I got a brand new record, and I gotta play,” he sings, and you have to believe it.  When Aerosmith have all five members firing at peak performance, then you have one hell of a lethal weapon.

We don’t need to address “Love in an Elevator”; it’s all been said.  All you really need to focus on when listening to this overplayed radio staple is the musicianship.  All these years later, it’s still smoking hot.  Hamilton’s bass rides that riff like a surfer.

Aerosmith weren’t a preachy band, but they were pretty open about their drug usage and recovery.  “Monkey On My Back” was their first real statement about this subject.

“I made believe the devil made me do it,
I was the evil leader of the pack,
You best believe I had it all and then I blew it,
Feedin’ that fuckin’ monkey on my back.”

The reborn Aerosmith infuse it with all the energy and greasy groove required to make their point.  They’re a better band without the powders; deal with it!

“Janie’s Got a Gun” is another track we don’t need to delve into deeply.  It was an innovative and daring track for the time; a real statement from Tyler.  He fought hard for his lyrics.  “Put a bullet in his brain” was changed to “Left him out in the rain” on some edits, which robs the song of its shocking impact.  In my opinion, the real moment people started to pay attention was that line.  And incidentally, this is one of the best songs to watch come to life on the Making of Pump video.  From the initial work on the song with writer Jim Vallance to the punching in of final vocals, you can watch the creative process like a fly on the wall.

A brief but impressive acoustic bit called “Dulcimer Stomp” was used to open side two, right before another hit single, “The Other Side”.  I always appreciated that they included “Dulcimer Stomp” in the music video, even though it’s not part of the single version.  “The Other Side” is probably the safest track on the album, the only one without some kind of edginess.  It does boast some popping horns, a Bruce Fairbairn production trademark.  Bruce is one of the players in the horn section, dubbed the Margarita Horns.  “My Girl” is similarly simple and to the point, although later plagiarized for not one but two songs on 2012’s Music From Another Dimension!  Much more interesting is the heavy duty “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even”.  Swampy, even including didgeridoo, this is one of those Aero-blasts through the blues that Perry and Co. do so well.  Just as awesome is “Voodoo Medicine Man” which is probably the most…ominous…Aerosmith track ever recorded.  It is different and groove-heavy.  Deeply impressive heavy rocking happening here.

Closing out with the ballad “What It Takes” was a classy move.  Unlike some other ballads this band has had hits with over the years, “What It Takes” has a sincerity and authenticity that has kept it from ageing badly.   The country tinge of “What It Takes” foreshadows Steve Tyler’s current solo direction, but in 1989 this was just slightly different for the band.  Listen for a callback to “F.I.N.E.” from side one, and a hidden bonus track.  There’s an unlisted track of acoustic instrumental jamming, an outtake from the sessions, at the very end.  Even incidental bits like “Going Down” and “Dulcimer Stomp” are given their own titles on the CD, but this last jam is left a surprise.

This rare limited edition version of Pump comes in a “leather case”.  There is an outer slipcase, and an inner digipack.  It was manufactured as a promo and then later sold as a limited release at retail.  It’s cool and looks sharp, but there is nothing else exclusive about this release.  It’s a cool find if you happen upon one in your travels, but sticking with the zillions-selling regular CD edition will do you just F.I.N.E. fine.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Scorpions – Face the Heat (Japanese and Canadian versions)

Part 2 of 2 — for yesterday’s instalment, click here.  For Aaron’s review of the domestic CD, click here!

FACE THE HEAT_0002SCORPIONS – Face the Heat (1993 Polygram, Japanese and Canadian versions)

1990’s Crazy World was a huge hit, but before Keith Olsen produced it, Scorpions had approached Canada’s Bruce Fairbairn.  Pleased with his work on their Who cover “I Can’t Explain”, Scorpions prepared to convene in Vancouver with the producer.  They were disappointed when Bruce changed his mind at the last minute when forced to choose between the new Scorpions and AC/DC projects.  Fairbairn chose AC/DC, and the result was the five times platinum (US) Razors Edge album.

Since Crazy World ended up selling two million in the US and another five million worldwide, I’m sure there were no hard feelings between the two parties when they finally did hook up together on the followup album, Face the Heat.  Personally speaking I felt Crazy World wasn’t heavy enough.  I was hoping for more in Face the Heat.  Additionally, this album was the Scorpions’ first since 1972 without bassist Francis Buchholz.  Replacing him was five-stringer Ralph Rieckermann who ended up spending almost a decade with the Scorpions.  Rieckermann was a very different player and added new elements such as slapped bass.

The first single “Alien Nation” showed promise.  A menacing, metallic riff ushered in a tune with some slamming drums (thank you Herman Rarebell), and that ultra-low fifth string on the bass guitar. I preferred “Alien Nation” to just about any song on Crazy World. The year was 1993 and a heavy groove was exactly what the doctor ordered.

“No Pain No Gain” exhibits the Scorpions’ knack for naff song titles. Thankfully it too is a grinding metal groove, showing off Matthias Jabs’ talkbox skills on the guitar. With the Scorpions post-Schenker and post-Roth, you have to expect a certain amount of boneheaded metal. I think these guys genuinely love givin’ er on that trademark, simple sound. I believe they like playing this kind of thing with earnest, so good on them.

Three songs in and “Someone to Touch” is another great little Scorpions rocker. This speedy one won’t tax your brain cells in the lyrical department, but you will find yourself singing along to the chorus without realizing it. The chorus bears the stamp of Fairbairn with its answering lines. After this much firepower, I don’t mind a ballad and “Under the Same Sun” (perhaps a sequel to the worldwide hit “Wind of Change”) is a good one. Besides, Scorpions follow it by firing off another rocker called “Unholy Alliance”, another knockout with a great chorus. This helps lessen the impact of the next ballad, “Woman”. “Woman” is very different from “Under the Same Sun”, being dark and mournful. Another success.

Unfortunately, Face the Heat stalls in a major way on side two. A number of boring songs in a row (“Hate To Be Nice”, “Taxman Woman”, “Ship of Fools”, “Nightmare Avenue” boast only a few surprises and memorable moments. Jabs sports a nice fatbody jazz guitar solo on “Hate To Be Nice”, a trick that Fairbairn later encouraged Eddie Van Halen to use on his band’s next album, Balance. Unfortunately, a cool unique solo like this is within the same song as these lyrics:

“Hey baby, listen up,
I’m not in love with you,
You keep runnin’ off at the mouth,
And someone else can scratch my back,
And I could care less about your legs,
I just wanna see ’em walk all over me!”

The last listed track on the domestic CD is the ballad “Lonely Nights”, another really good ballad. Who cares that they just copied the way they ended Crazy World, with a slow dark ballad like “Send Me An Angel”?  All well and good says I, but as I mentioned in yesterday’s instalment of Getting More Tale, the US and Canadian versions of the album have a hidden bonus track!  Way back in ’89, the Scorps and Fairbairn discussed recording an Elvis cover.  Tucked away unlisted after “Lonely Nights” is Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame”.  It is a pleasant surprise!  The trombone and trumpets are the perfect added touch.  I’m sure Scorpions grew up listening to a lot of Elvis Presley records, and this version is faultless.  It’s gleeful and authentic sounding despite the fact that it’s the Scorpions!

FACE THE HEAT_0003Neither of the two bonus tracks on the Japanese version of the CD are as good as “His Latest Flame”.  Both are ballads:  “Kami O Shin Jiru”, and “Daddy’s Girl”.  They are inconsequential to casual Scorpions fans who don’t obsessively collect all their songs.  Additionally, they are disappointing to Scorpions collectors who buy these things hoping the extra tracks will be better.  I dig Rieckermann’s fretless bass on “Kami O Shin Jiru”, but these songs only serve to end Face the Heat on an excessively mellow note.  “Daddy’s Girl” is particularly depressing; I don’t want to listen to songs about child abuse — I already know it’s bad!  Scorpions tackle the subject in their usual subtle-as-a-brick fashion.

If only the second half of Face the Heat was as strong as the first.

3/5 stars

#397: Face the Heat (Mail From Sydenham)

Part 1 of 2 — First the tale, tomorrow the review!  This tale itself is a direct sequel to Aaron’s story “Mail From Jedi Master LeBrain”.

PARCEL FACE THE HEAT

RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#397: Face the Heat (Mail From Sydenham)

I collect Japanese imports, especially when there are bonus tracks afoot. A year ago, I found a Japanese copy of Scorpions’ Face the Heat CD with two such bonus tracks. I bought it from one of my favourite vendors, at the Toronto Musical Collectibles Record & CD Sale. It was $15 and complete with obi strip. A steal. (Who says Japanese imports are very expensive anyway?)

TOP OF THE BILLBecause I try to avoid redundant copies in my collection, I donated my original CD of Face the Heat to Aaron. He reviewed it and called it “a collection of strong songs that gets better as it goes along”. I played my Japanese copy, and filed it away without giving the album much thought until recently. Martin Popoff’s excellent Scorpions tome, Top of the Bill, reminded me of an Elvis cover that Scorpions did as a hidden bonus track.

The Scorpions almost recorded “His Latest Flame” back in 1989 for their hits compilation, Best of Rockers ‘n’ Ballads. It was between Elvis and The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”. “I Can’t Explain” won out, but the Scorps gave it another go in 1993 for Face the Heat. (Incidentally both tracks were produced by the late Bruce Fairbairn.)

“His Latest Flame” was one of the first “hidden bonus tracks” in my collection. It’s very unlike anything the Scorpions had done before, but they did a damn fine job of it in my opinion. I love the horn parts. I’m sure that was Fairbairn’s doing, a trumpet player. It was buried unlisted after the end of “Lonely Nights”, the final song on the CD, as part of the same track. When I read Popoff’s book, I realized, “When I gave Aaron my original CD, I didn’t check if the Japanese CD retained that bonus track…”

Indeed, “LeBrain” the Bonehead did fail to check if “His Latest Flame” was on the Japanese CD, and it is not. It’s very rare to find a domestic CD that has a bonus track not included on a Japanese version, but it does happen, and it did happen on Face the Heat!

Gratefully, when “LeBrain” the Bonehead asked if he could have the disc back, Aaron immediately said “no problem”! He knows the kind of collector I am. He sent it back to me as a part of a recent parcel exchange that we enjoy doing from time to time!

I do appreciate that he was willing to send this “gifted” CD back. It just goes to show how two collectors understand one another! As for Face the Heat, look for my review of both CDs right here tomorrow!

REVIEW: Poison – Flesh & Blood (remastered)

FLESH AND BLOOD_0001POISON – Flesh & Blood (1990, 2006 Capitol remaster)

Ah, Poison!  The band everybody loved to hate!  In spite of that, Poison made a couple pretty good albums.  Flesh & Blood is the best of the original C.C. DeVille era, and probably their most successful.  It spawned a huge headlining tour that also produced a double live album.  Flesh & Blood was also their “get serious” album, although in that regard it was only a partial success.  The idea was to write and record more mature music and lyrics, something that C.C. was opposed to.  He saw nothing wrong with the glam-slam-king-of-noize direction that they started on, and maintained that Look What the Cat Dragged In was their high point.  He saw the introduction of blues influences as diluting the Poison sound he liked.

That’s all bullshingles.  Flesh & Blood is the best thing C.C. has done, and is second only to Poison’s Native Tongue album with Richie Kotzen.  C.C. was still far from a great guitar player, but on most tracks it’s his most accessible and least annoying playing.  (On others…well, we’ll get there.)  Take the opening track “Valley of Lost Souls” for example (preceded by a jokey answering machine tape called “Strange Days of Uncle Jack”). “Valley” rocks heavy with integrity and an edge that Poison hadn’t displayed before, and C.C. throws in a lot of tasty, toffee-like strings.  His soloing will never be considered virtuoso, and his tone has always been thin and annoying, but never has C.C. generated such guitar thrills as he does on this album.  (Most of it.)

FLESH AND BLOOD_0002

I’m sure that producer Bruce Fairbairn steered this ship with a firm hand.  His stamp is all over Flesh & Blood:  from weird segues to rich backing vocals, this is a Fairbairn production through and through.  Fairbairn was known to be a taskmaster, and I’m sure he worked C.C. (and the whole band) to the bone.  The title track, “(Flesh & Blood) Sacrifice” has his patented, perfectly arranged vocal stamp.  The vocals are layered and almost Leppard-lush.  When we’re talking about a singer like Bret Michaels, you know it’s not going to be Pavarotti.  The credits don’t list additional singers, but there are some names in the tail end of the thank-yous:  Paul Laine, for example.  Laine was a Vancouver local, where Poison recorded the album.  Why is he being thanked?  I think it’s safe to assume that Laine and others helped out in the backing vocals department.  Anyway, “Sacrifice” is the second excellent song in a row.  Say what you like about Poison as performers, they wrote some fucking good songs too.

“Swampjuice (Soul-O)” is some surprisingly good C.C. acoustic blues.  Actually not bad at all — but just instrumental filler.  As is the next song, a massive huge hit single: “Unskinny Bop”.  The song is awful, the lyrics worse, and C.C.’s solo is like razor blades.  I mean that in a bad way.  Total shit.  Garbage.  “Let It Play” verges on filler, but it’s good enough.  It’s simple but memorably melodic.  Better is the timeless sounding single “Life Goes On”.  I liked this bombastic electric ballad then, and I still do now.  Michaels is a limited singer, but this is a damn good ballad.  I give Fairbairn credit for the backing vocal hooks.  The first side of the album closes on the forgettable but adequate hard rocker “Come Hell or High Water”.

Kicking off side two with the single “Ride the Wind” is a no-brainer.  This song sounds like its title.  It sounds like a car song, a rock and roll ode to the thrills of the road.   I’d rank this easily among Poison’s best hits — top five.  “Don’t Give Up an Inch” is filler, but “Something to Believe In” was another huge single.  Hearing it again today, I find it hard to dislike.  I wanted to, but I can’t.  I think Bret wrote some pretty good lyrics here.  The part about his best friend who died “in some Palm Springs hotel room” is about his bodyguard, a guy he was really close to.  It’s pretty heartfelt, and the piano ballad still stands up as well as any by Aerosmith from the same era.

Some boring C.C. pedal steel guitar leads into “Ball and Chain”.  It’s a pretty good rock boogie, but the second-to-last song “Life Loves a Tragedy” is the best track on the album.  Even better than “Ride the Wind” but similar in vibe, this song shoulda woulda coulda been a hit.  The soft intro fools you into thinking it’s a ballad.  It’s not.  It’s a ballsy rocker with another Bret Michaels lyric that you’d call more mature.  “My vices have turned to habits, and my habits have turned to stone,” sings Bret.  “I gotta stop living at a pace that kills, ‘fore I wake up dead.”  Not poetry really, but a hell of a lot better than “Unskinny bop bop, blow me away.”  The chorus kills, as does the whole song.  Another top five Poison track in my book.

The album ends on a pile of shit called “Poor Boy Blues”.  This may well be the worst Poison song of all time.   Of all time!  C.C.’s playing is so pointless, so brutal, so annoying, that I don’t know why somebody didn’t pull the guitar out of his hands.  Wah-wah alone does not a solo make!   This song stinks so bad.  Dammit, Poison, you’re not a blues band fer fuck’s sakes!  This song should have been axed, there is no reason for it to still exist.


POISONThe 2006 remastered edition has two bonus tracks.  The first is a disappointing acoustic version of “Something to Believe In” from the “Life Goes On” single B-side.  It has new lyrics (erasing one of the things I liked about the song) and absolutely pointless guitar playing by C.C.  His solos and melodies go nowhere.  It’s just a guy playing all kinds of notes on an acoustic guitar that don’t have any direction:  There’s no tension, no release, no hooks.  This version sucks.  Lastly there’s “God Save the Queen”, an instrumental demo version.  This too sucks.  More directionless soloing from C.C. over the Pistols riff.  That’s all it is.

Interestingly the remastered edition has two changes that I’ve noticed.  The cover is the “censored” version without the extra blood on the arm.  This is a US import, and I think in Canada we had the other cover originally.  Second, the reprise of “Strange Days of Uncle Jack” that closes the album is missing.  Normally this would fade in from the end of “Poor Boy Blues”.  Now, “Poor Boy Blues” ends with a few seconds of silence where that reprise used to be.  I don’t know why they did that.  I’m assuming somebody mistakenly used a version of the song from a compilation album.

I know I’ve been hard on Poison in this review, but this is actually a great album.  Take away “Unskinny Bop” and “Poor Boy Blues” and I would call it pretty damn solid.  As for the remaster?  Disappointing.

4/5 stars (for the album)