Canadian rock

REVIEW: Raw M.E.A.T 1 – Various Artists (1990)

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RAW M.E.A.T 1 (1990 M.E.A.T Magazine)

Drew Masters’ legendary metal magazine M.E.A.T took a lot of pride in promoting Canadian talent.  The next logical step was putting out a CD featuring the best of the best in unsigned Canadian rock and metal.  The flagship band was Toronto’s Slash Puppet.  On this first volume, only groups from the province of Ontario signed up.   Even though the talent all came from a small region in and around Toronto (with one exception), it’s a surprisingly diverse selection of styles.

I look at Raw M.E.A.T as a first tapping of an oil reserve.  It was a gusher.  So much untapped raw talent, unheard in suburbs.

“Slow Down” by Slash Puppet was previously issued on their indi tape, but Raw M.E.A.T 1 was its first issue on CD.  The track has been described as Motorhead meets Faster Pussycat and that still fits the bill.  Lead singer Anthony J. Mifsud was the sandpaper throat to go with the rough and tumble music.  You can hear why there was such a buzz around Slash Puppet.  They had pro-level tunes and performance. All they needed was a break.

Most Raw M.E.A.T buyers knew what they were getting with Slash Puppet. The rest of the tunes were uncharted territory.

Eiffel Power, from Taranna, knocked it out with “City Action”.  Singer Lionel Lois  had ample range and lung capacity for this fun metal shuffle, very current for the time.  Think of Extreme’s first album but with more muscle.  Then there’s the instantly likeable “Feel Me Sweet” by Brampton’s own Ragadee Anne.  Yes, it’s true:  coming up with names for bands isn’t always easy, but “Feel Me Sweet” kicks.  One reason they sound so professional is due to the production by Tom Treumuth (Triumph), surely an advantage in the studio.  Glam rock with bite and youthful innocence sure sounds good.

Blackglama (Toronto) take it to the streets with the rock/rap hybrid of “Playin’ Hardball (With the Big Boys)”.  This was just a year or two ahead of its time, though director Bruce McDonald used it in his 1991 film Highway 61  (but not the soundtrack CD).  The next group, Washington Wives, bring it to immaculately composed AOR rock.  “Memoirs, Etc.” has backing vocals from Phil Naro, from just across the border in Buffalo.  Naro is best known for Talas and his work with Kiss’ Peter Criss.  “Memoirs, Etc.” is vaguely familiar, as if you’ve heard its like on the radio before (Journey? Night Ranger?), but there’s no question this track was hit-ready.  Zero fat content, this is all meat of the most melodic variety.

Short Avenue has another “name” attached, that being “Scarpelli”.  Guitarist Gene Scarpelli is the son of Gino, of Toronto’s Goddo.  Short Avenue sounds nothing like Goddo, rather more like some tough street punks ready to mix it up.  With hindsight, they sound like precursors to The Four Horsemen.  “Push Comes to Shove” is right in the same vein as the Horsemen’s “Rockin’ is Ma Business”.  From the Horsemen to the Cult:  The Cult have always been big in Canada.  First impressions are that Trouble In Mind (Toronto) were very inspired by Ian Astbury.  Regardless, their track “Sweet Addictions” is album quality.  Lead singer Beau (just “Beau”) turned up on a later instalment of the Raw M.E.A.T series, but that’s another story.

We depart Toronto momentarily for a trip to the nation’s capitol.  Ottawa’s Antix had been self-releasing vinyl since 1986, and “Kick It Up” was a new track.  With a Van Halen shuffle, their track hits the right spots, but suffers from inadequate production.   It’s unfortunate that the most experienced band has one of the poorest sounding tracks on the CD.

Russian Blue received their first major exposure via Raw M.E.A.T, and thanks to their incredible song “Once a Madman”, they gained a cult following.  They were a double threat:  a magnificent singer and a terrific guitar player.   Vocalist Jo E. Donner found himself compared to a young Robert Plant.  Richard Gauci backed that up with memorable guitar hooks.  “Once a Madman” gets the job done in just 3:15, leaving behind an unforgettable and unique rocker that begs for repeat listens.  One reason it sounds so good?  Produced by a pre-fame Harry Hess of Harem Scarem.

The next band, Zyle, sound like they were going for a traditional metal sound.  The Scorpions come to mind immediately, as does fellow Canadian rockers White Wolf.  They needed a bit more originality.  The guitar solo directly quotes Randy Rhoads, too close for comfort.  But then it’s The Remains with something a little more street punk.  A variation of the classic Peter Gunn riff, “Too Much” is actually never enough.  It’s the right mixture of middle finger and middle eight.

Hanging out just down the QEW are Hamilton and Oakville, from which come the last two groups.  Cathouse prove that you can never have enough permutations of the classic Van Halen shuffle.  “In For the Kill” nails it, with a vocalist who seems like equal parts Skid Roper and Rob Halford.  Finally, Oakville’s Johannes Linstead is best known today for his flamenco guitar albums.  He didn’t start there!  Wildside (later to become Gypsy Jayne) are about that sleaze rock.  You can hear that the guitarist is something special, though you wouldn’t predict the future from this one track.

It’s difficult to be objective, even though so many years have passed since Raw M.E.A.T 1.   Many (if not most) of these bands had potential.  Toronto in the early 90s was ready to explode as “the next Seattle”, but there was no “next Seattle”.  12 of these 13 songs are really fondly remembered, with one just needing a little more originality.

4.5/5 stars

 

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REVIEW: I Mother Earth – Scenery and Fish (1996)

I MOTHER EARTH – Scenery and Fish (1996 EMI)

Some albums that mean everything to some, can mean nothing to others.  Take a look at Scenery and Fish.

I Mother Earth’s second album gets a slew of 4 and 5 star ratings on the Canadian Amazon.  Yet I don’t get it and never have.  I was on the I Mother Earth train very early, before their first album came out.  I loved the modern heaviness of the band.  With the tribal and funk influences seeping through, I Mother Earth put out a seriously impressive debut album:  a Canadian classic.  As any band should, they mixed it up a bit on the second album.

In early 1996 I received a promo CD for the first single from the second album, “One More Astronaut”, with the album version and a 4:35 edit.  It didn’t seem too different, maybe just a bit more concise than some of the first album’s longer jams.  This isn’t indicative of the album in general, which is a wild ride of different styles.

The exotic percussion (by Luis Conte and Daniel Mansilla) is still intact, melded with the funk bass, but the overall sound is very different.  Paul Northfield’s production is cleaner and slicker than Mike Clink’s on the first LP.  He still enables to band to exercise their instruments unfettered, but perhaps with a more radio friendly backing.

Although I’ve tried over and over again through the past two decades to let Scenery and Fish “click”, it just won’t.  Other fans certainly have their favourite tracks:  “Like a Girl”, “Raspberry”, “Used to be Alright”, “Another Sunday”.  These are indeed some of the best tracks on the album, yet I struggled to remember how they go.  “Another Sunday”, for example has an incredible blast of hooks for a chorus, but no memorable verses.  Maybe this album is too thick with musical ideas and passages for the average mortal.

But that’s just me.  You might think I’m nuts.  There are those who think I Mother Earth can do no wrong, but fans in general love Scenery and Fish, while I simply don’t get it.  I’ll always enjoy “One More Astronaut” and “Like a Girl”, which by the way features a friend of theirs named Alex from some band called Rush.

2/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Max Webster – Live Magnetic Air (1979)

MAX WEBSTER – Live Magnetic Air (originally 1979, 2017 Anthem remaster)

So you’re the canker banker?  They’re just Max Webster, here to thin the thickness of your skin.

Any good 70s act worth their salt had to have a solid live album. Max released theirs after four studio albums, a good basis for a fulfilling concert set. The 10 songs (plus one reggae jam) only begin to scratch the surface of their bizarre and rocking history, but a good 10 songs they are.

Want some rockers? Tap into “America’s Veins”. 70s radio rock? Take a lift up into the “Paradise Skies”.  Looking for some progressive rock?  You’ll find it “In Context of the Moon”.  The adventurous and quirky arrangements of some tunes are a direct contrast to the catchiness of others.  “Gravity” blends quirky and catchy into one successful gestalt.  “Charmonium” both challenges and pleases the ears at once.  Whether you’re soaring on “Night Flights” or biting into “Lip Service”, there is no filler on Live Magnetic Air.

One expects great playing on any Max Webster platter. Live Magnetic Air has plenty of that gonzo Kim Mitchell guitar work that he is known for.  Terry Watkinson’s keys explore different tones within single songs, never getting boring.  Yet it’s Gary McCracken’s drum work that seems to really shine, especially on the 2017 remaster from The Party boxed set.

It is difficult to throw too much praise at Max Webster, because surely they deserve it.  They were not as famous as Rush and not as worshipped as Zappa.  But those are the kind of names thrown about when speaking of Max Webster.  Each Max album is loaded with amazing material, but if you were looking to start with something, why not make it Live Magnetic Air?  The party atmosphere and ace selection of songs are the basic ingredients of a classic live album.  Now that it’s finally been properly mastered for CD, you can hear it the way you were always meant to.  For those who just wanna rock, the guitars have the crunch.  The discerning fan will enjoy the new clarity and depth that this remaster offers, without overdriving the levels.

Once again we wholeheartedly recommend The Party boxed set, but if you find Live Magnetic Air on vinyl, pick it up and hear what some genuine “Sarniatown Reggae” sounds like.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – “The Devil is Having a Party Tonight” (2017 single)

HELIX – “The Devil is Having a Party Tonight” / “The Tequila Song” (2017 clear red picture single)

It’s been love for Helix and I since…many years!  Since Record Store Tales Part 2:  Gimme An R, at least.  As such, I may be a little biased when it comes to this band.  Maybe.  I truly believe their music deserves much more attention from the rock community, particularly the recent albums which are always excellent.  Helix mainman Brian Vollmer maintains a reputation as the hardest working man in Canadian heavy rock.  2017 sees the release of not just a new Helix single (and a lavish one at that), but also his second solo album Get Yer Hands Dirty.

Helix today is Vollmer on vox, Daryl Gray on bass, Fritz Hinz kickin’ the drums, and newer members Kaleb “Duckman” Duck and Chris Julke.  The inner sleeve is signed by all five members, which is just the kind of cool personal touch Helix are known for.  Also noteworthy, all but Hinz wrote the single A-side “The Devil is Having a Party Tonight”.  That makes it the first Helix song in years written solely by band members.  “The Tequila Song” on the B-side is composed by mainstay collaborators Gord Pryor, Steve Georgakopoulos and Vollmer.

Great tunes, these are, both party songs.  Each is a little heavier than you might usually expect from the Helix band.  “Devil” is possessed by a heavy-as-a-tombstone riff, and some exotic guitar noodlings that recall the good stuff from the metallic 80s.

I think “The Tequila Song” is even better.  I was known to drink tequila from time to time in my younger days, but I gotta say that Helix have written a better song about tequila than Sammy Hagar ever has.  Stomp to that riff as you “lick it, bang it, suck it, tequila!”  Even if you’re the designated driver, you’ll find the chorus infectious and party-ready.

Want a copy?  You know where to go – Planet Helix.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Max Webster – The Party (2017 box set)

MAX WEBSTER – The Party (2017 Anthem 8 CD box set)

Normally when we review box sets like this, we prefer to review each album individually.  Three of the eight discs have already been covered here:  Max Webster (their debut), High Class in Borrowed Shoes, and Universal Juveniles (their final album).  The rest of the Max Webster albums will be reviewed in due time, so for now we will take a general look at their brand new CD box set, The Party.

The Max Webster catalogue (and to a lesser extent, the solo Kim Mitchell discography) has been well overdue for a remastering.  The original Anthem CDs are thin and tinny.  Rock Candy did a fantastic remaster of the first three albums with better sound and a generous booklet, but what about the rest?  I first heard about this project via Uncle Meat this past summer at Sausagefest.  It was one of those “know a guy who knows a guy” stories, but the bottom line was, Max Webster’s catalogue was being remastered.  And now we have The Party in hand as proof!

The contents include all five original Max studio albums, their concert opus Live Magnetic Air, Kim Mitchell’s very rare solo EP, and a bonus disc of rarities called The Bootleg.  Those who buy the forthcoming vinyl version will also receive a booklet with rare photos and other goodies.  The CD version has no booklet, but it does have nice gatefold packaging for each album.  It’s affordably priced, so we forgive the lack of a booklet on the CD edition. Vinyl owners can look at it as a bonus for buying vinyl.

If improved audio is what you are longing for, then you should be very satisfied with The Party.  It’s not overdriven, but it sounds fuller and deep.  They didn’t go for loudness.  This is all very good.  You can safely ditch your old CD versions, rendered obsolete by this box.

The Bootleg will be the main draw for many.  It does not disappoint.  In fact, it intrigues, because it teases that there is more.  Unreleased demos are listed as “Contraband” — reports suggest this refers to a collection of unreleased material still in the vault.

Max Webster apparently recorded their 2007 reunion show, or at least “Let Go the Line”.  It sounds brilliant and makes you pray for a live album of the show.  Terry Watkinson’s classic ballad sounds a little older, a little wiser, but just as brilliant as ever.  Other live stuff from 1979 was recorded in Oshawa.  “Oh War” simply smokes, and was not included on Live Magnetic Air.  Then there’s the crazy jam centred on “Research (At Beach Resorts)”.  These insane live sessions really show why Max Webster is held in such high esteem, almost like a second coming of Frank Zappa himself.

The unreleased demos include some songs that didn’t make Max’s albums.  Fans know “Deep Dive” from Kim Mitchell’s solo live album, I Am A Wild Party.  Max’s original 1982 demo is completely different.  Same melody, same words, but a vastly different arrangement.  It’s like rock and roll bluegrass, fast as possible, and insanely good.  It was likely deemed too different to be on the Universal Juveniles LP, but there’s no doubt it’s awesome and the highlight of this box set.

Another standouts from the batch of demos is a version of “Battle Scar” without Rush; just Max!  It’s a revelation; an interesting work in progress.  There are also two songs you’ve never heard before, “Walden 5” and “Better”, both from 1979.  Let’s just say that the quality of these unreleased Max songs is album level.  “Walden 5” just needed some editing.  A demo version of “In the World of Giants” from 1979 has way more guitar soloing.  Kim fans will love it!  Oh — and stay tuned for a surprise unlisted bonus track.

The box itself is just a cardboard sleeve, but at least an attractively packaged one.  Yes, a booklet would have been appreciated.  In lieu of that, we recommend Martin Popoff’s brilliantly detailed book Live Magnetic Air: The Unlikely Saga of the Superlative Max Webster to accompany this otherwise perfect set.

Oh, one last thing:  The two “new” songs that were included on the hits compilation Diamonds Diamonds are not in this box set.  So, to be a completist, you’d still need to track that one down.  Vinyl is recommended; and then you’d own “Hot Spots” and “Overnight Sensation” to complete the picture.  Just a word to the wise.

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Arkells – High Noon (2014)

ARKELLS – High Noon (2014 Universal)

Thank rock and roll for new bands like the Arkells!  I’ve been happily enjoying their singles for years.  I really fell in love when I saw the Hamilton band open the 2017 NHL Awards.  A starstruck Max Kerman (vocals) gleefully fist-bumped with Wayne Gretzky.  I knew I had to get one of their albums.  On vinyl!  I chose their 2014 release High Noon to be my first Arkells, for its unforgettable single “Leather Jacket”.

Kerman managing to keep his shit together on national TV with The Great One

High Noon was a sound choice.  “Leather Jacket” has been an earworm for a long time.  High Noon also has another sterling single, “Come to Light”.  Its basis is similar to Bowie’s “Modern Love”.  While there is no mistaking the year, the Arkells put a slick 80s slant on these songs.  Whether it’s in the beats or the keyboards, there is a love of 1980s rock here on High Noon.

There are numerous highlights and few forgettable ones.  Album opener “Fake Money” has a strong piano riff, a classic U2 vibe, and an anti-corporate attitude.  One of the catchiest, more summer-y fun tracks is ironically “Cynical Bastards”.  Good time upbeat rock with solid beats to shake your butt to!  “11:11” is primed for dancing .  Everyone will pick out their own favourites, because there aren’t any poor songs on this wax.  Check out “Crawling Through the Window” for a slower tune with all the integrity intact, or the strange Disco hop of “Systematic”.

A band can make or break based on the lead singer.  I really like the expressive and sincere singing style of Max Kerman.  He stands out from first listen.  It’s hard to say exactly what makes him stand out, but he certainly does.  A band to watch.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Big Bang Theory (1998)

scan_20170218HAREM SCAREM – Big Bang Theory (1998 Warner)

Never give up, never surrender!  That should be Harem Scarem’s motto.

As big-time success continued to elude them despite some great albums and singles, they evolved for the times.  1998’s Big Bang Theory is the first major step in a more commercial direction.  This meant incorporating popular pop-punk sounds:  short, fast simple melodic songs with minimal soloing.  “Turn Around” is a perfect example of this new direction.  There is a guitar solo, albeit brief.  These qualities don’t have to be a bad thing if they’re done right, and Harem Scarem did them exceptionally well.

“Wasted Time” sounds more like Karma Cleansing material from the last album, which is nice as an anchor.  “So Blind” combines the two worlds.  It has the speedy pop-punk vibe but with a traditional sounding Harem Scarem song.  “So Blind” is the first slam dunk of the CD, its irresistible verses nailing it straight to your head.  Peter Lesperance’s solo is short and to the point, yet still tasty.  Time for a ballad?  Check out “Without You”, a terrific and sweet little number with irresistible “bop bop bop bop” backup harmonies.

The second bonafide home run on Big Bang Theory is “Climb the Gate”. It’s in the same mold as the single “Die Off Hard” from the prior album, but brand new. The stuttery hook in the riff slays it. “Climb the Gate” is an essential song for any Harem Scarem collection. It is one of their catalog gems. It doesn’t get much better than “Climb the Gate” for these guys. If you don’t like this tune, you won’t like this album.

There’s a natural break for a side change here.  “What I Do” brings the focus back to the added 90s-isms.  Programmed percussion sounded modern at the time, mixed in with the real drums.  Decent song, but the next one up “Sometimes I Wish” is notable as being the lead vocal debut of bassist Barry Donaghy.  Its pop-punk chorus keeps it in synch with the album, and if you didn’t know it was someone else singing, you might never have noticed.

“New Religion” is the final power play goal of the album.  Another powerful little riff backs up one of Harry Hess’ strongest choruses.  He’s going to start his own religion, demi-gods, there’ll be none.  This unforgettable number ranks among their catchiest, but Pete Lesperance’s speedy picking gives it an aggression you don’t get otherwise.  But wait!  “Lying” keeps the speedometer in the red, with another power-pop killer.  Like the direction or not, at least Harem Scarem did it well.  It’s also notable that Big Bang Theory has only one ballad, which is the closer “In My State of Mind”.   This gentle track is just Harry Hess and a piano.  Ending an album with a ballad is a gamble, but not when you have the goods.

Big Bang Theory maintained the Harem Scarem momentum.  It delivered three standout must-haves and an album’s worth of good material.  It began to move Harem Scarem into a direction that some fans didn’t quite get.  More changes were ahead, some more drastic.  Big Bang Theory is a grey area between the future and the past, but important to the journey.

4/5 stars

scan_20170218-3

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live in Japan (1996)

scan_20170221HAREM SCAREM – Live in Japan (1996 WEA)

Three albums seems to be the industry standard before you can release a live one.  Harem Scarem followed suit and issued Live in Japan right after their third LP, Voice of Reason.  It was their first with new bassist Barry Donaghy, replacing Mike Gionet.

Live in Japan is a safe, fairly compact selection of tunes from the first three.  It could use less Voice of Reason, an album which never boasted the killer tunage from the first two.  In fact if one edited out “Blue”, “Candle”, “Breathing Sand”, and “Paint Thins”, you could make a pretty tight set.  Leave in “Warming a Frozen Rose” though; it was always the best of the Voice of Reason tracks.  You can also leave in the title track as it’s pretty heavy.  Most of the real firepower comes from Mood Swings.  The opening salvo of “Change Comes Around” and “Saviours Never Cry” are a rousing start to the proceedings.

Live, Harem Scarem were tight.  Their harmonies are handled easily by the four guys, all capable singers.  Harry Hess’ roar is not lessened by the road nor jet lag.  He’s as powerful here as he is on record.  This is necessary for amped rockers like “Had Enough” and “Empty Promises” from Mood Swings, both very strong.  There is only one song from the 1991 debut album Harem Scarem. Representing Harem’s early pop rock roots is “Slowly Slipping Away”; call it a power ballad or just call it a song.  It feels like it has too much guitar to be a ballad, so call it what you want: it’s great.  You can clearly hear Barry Donaghy’s contributions on backing vocals, an essential part of the song’s hookiness.  The live set closes on “No Justice”, the best known track from Mood Swings and an obvious crowd favourite.  The vocals are just outstanding from the whole band.

There are two bonus studio tracks on this album, a nice little unexpected treat.  The first, “Pardon My Zinger” is a peppy instrumental the likes of which you expect from guys like Joe Satriani.  Not so much for guitar trickery, just in terms of composition and hooks.  The last track is a new ballad called “More Than You’ll Ever Know”.  It has since been reissued on Japanese compilations such as Ballads and B-Side Collection, but this live album is the easiest place to get a copy.  As far as ballads go, this one’s not bad.

For fans who didn’t get into Voice of Reason the way they did the first two, Live in Japan offers a bumpy ride.   There is little question that the recorded performance is freaking amazing.  It just comes down to the songs and personal taste.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live and Acoustic (1994 EP)

Part 1 of a Harem Scarem triple play!

live-and-acousticHAREM SCAREM – Live and Acoustic (1994 Warner EP, autographed cover pictured above)

Nothing wrong with releasing an EP in between albums, right?  Certainly not.  In Harem Scarem’s case, they collected some rare stuff and released it as an EP to tide fans over until album #3.  A strong album like Mood Swings deserved a little follow-up, to present some of its material live.  Recorded in Toronto, “No Justice”, “Hard to Love” and the instrumental “Mandy” kick it hard.  Here is the proof that Harem Scarem could pull of their thick harmonies live.  Having four singers in the band didn’t hurt, and Pete Lesperance’s guitar flourishes add the necessary pyrotechnics.  His solo spot on “Mandy” is a nice moment to spotlight a very under appreciated player.  Accompanied by drummer Darren Smith, “Mandy” is transformed live into something a little bigger.  “Hard to Love” is beefier than the version from the band’s first album, thanks in no small part to Smith’s ample backup singing.

The three live tracks and the included single edit of the ballad “If There Was a Time” are all taken from the CD single for that song.  “If There Was a Time” is one of the band’s most complex ballads, so an edit probably made it a bit more digestible to the masses.  For added value, two acoustic versions and one more single edit “Something to Say” from the first album) are also included.  The single for “If There Was a Time” is much rarer, so it was nice of Warner to release these things on something with better distribution, according to the back cover, this seems to have been done in collaboration with Warner Music Japan, which would explain why the it looks like a Japanese import from the side.

The acoustic tracks are fantastic:  “Jealousy” always seemed like it would be great in the fully-acoustic format.  It’s a great little acoustic jam, with Harry Hess showing off his impressive pipes much more so than the album version.  The other acoustic version is “Honestly”, which is cool, because that hit ballad was original arranged for piano and keyboards.  This version is done for acoustic guitars, which makes it less lush but more (pardon the pun) honest.

Looking back to 1994, it was reassuring to see new Harem Scarem product on the shelves at a time when there was no certainty for bands of their ilk.  Live and Acoustic was no exploit EP, as was unfortunately common.  It presented a smattering of rarities collected together in one easy package.  The single edits are not crucial, but it’s a seven song EP so it’s easy to look at these as just an added bonus.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Karma Cleansing (1997)

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.  

Today is Part 2 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161202HAREM SCAREM – Karma Cleansing (1997 Warner)

Against all odds Harem Scarem kept on givin’ er.  They were big in Japan but couldn’t get arrested in Canada anymore.  Their fourth album Believe (following the monumental Mood Swings and the experimental Voice of Reason) saw release in the Land of the Rising Sun, but in Canada the track listing was tweaked and put out as Karma Cleansing.  Original bassist Mike Gionet was out, replaced by Barry Donaghy who was also capable of singing lead.   And while three of the guys now had short hair, drummer Darren Smith stubbornly left his long.  Awesome.

Although their entire discography has highlights and standouts, many fans feel that Karma Cleansing was at once a return to sound of Mood Swings, and also the last Harem Scarem album before they began adding pop-punk elements.  There is nothing wrong with albums like Big Bang Theory and Rubber, and you can’t blame the guys for trying out some changes for greater success.  Fans who have stuck around since the start prefer the more progressive elements of Mood Swings and Karma Cleaning.

One can see parallels between Harem Scarem and bands such as Extreme and Van Hagar.  “Karma Cleansing”, the title track could have been an outtake from Van Halen’s Balance LP.  However, Harry Hess has a unique and powerful voice that is identifiably him.  When the band join him on those thick Harem Scarem harmonies, they hone in on that sound that makes them special.  “Karma Cleaning” kicks it off hard, melodically and with just a touch of exotic progressive influences.

One after another the strong songs roll on:  “Cages” hits the heavy buttons that you wanna hit to get the blood pumping fast.  Then “Hail, Hail” has Queen verses with pompous hard rock choruses.  And while one can hear that Harem Scarem continue to bring new and interesting elements to their songs, you can also identify that the guitar work is simplified.  It’s less busy, less showy.  This was a trend that continued into the next albums.

“Morning Grey” then conspires to bring Beatles sounds into the picture, but like its title, it’s dreary though hugely complex.  The adrenaline starts to flow again on “Die Off Hard”, a brilliant anthem that kicks every ass in the room.  Harem Scarem managed to write a few of these over the years, usually a couple per album.  Songs like “Die Off Hard” are immediate, but never get old.  Interestingly, the bridge to the song (“It’s been a long time coming…”) is ancient.  It appeared on Harem Scarem’s earliest demos before their first album as a part of other songs.  It only took four albums to finally use it!  Fortunately it found a home in “Die Off Hard”, making it one of the most luminous diamonds in the Harem Scarem catalogue.

This sounds like a nice place for a side break.  “Rain” is a light ballad, refreshing and cleansing the palette.  The mood gets darker on “I Won’t Be There”, somewhere between ballad and mournful dirge.  The band’s knack for melody keeps it all above the water: yet another brilliant song.  The beat gets harder on “Victim of Fate”.  Chunky guitars and a groovin’ foundation make this a winning combination.  Unmistakable Harem Scarem harmonies bring the chorus to the top level.  Then comes the Van Halen style boogie of “Believe”, an unexpected twist.  There are no words to describe how much this song kills it.  It also feels like it’s building up to an ending, as the side plays on.  That finale is “The Mirror”, a theatrical ballad which serves to end the album with a musical statement.  Not a ballad in the “radio hit” sense, but that it’s a slow track with light and shade, keyboards and emotional singing.

What an album.  You can see why the fans in Japan got it.  A lot of the rock artists that make it big in Japan are melodic rock bands with incredible musicians.  Harem Scarem fit that bill, and Karma Cleansing is another jewel in their crown.

4.5/5 stars

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