Canadian rock

REVIEW: Gowan – Lost Brotherhood (1990)

GOWAN – Lost Brotherhood (1990 Atlantic)

I like to think of this Gowan album (a gift from Aaron at the KMA) as “the one with Alex Lifeson”.  Gowan has worked with some incredible musicians besides Styx, including Tony Levin (several times, including this album), Robert Fripp and Jon Anderson.  Gowan’s fourth album Lost Brotherhood has a distinct Rush tone on several tracks and so it easily became a favourite.  It’s important to note though that it’s not just Lifeson on this disc, but also Ken Greer from Red Rider providing the guitars.  Though Lawrence Gowan is primarily a keyboardist, this might be his most guitar-heavy album.  (Of note, future Triumph contributor Mladen Zarron also plays additional guitar on this album.)

“All the Lovers in the World” was the single, a hit as I recall, and still excellent today.  You can’t forget that chorus.  It sounds so very 1990, like Presto-era Rush, especially when Alex rips one of those patented Lifeson solos that’s more about the guitar tone than banging out a million notes.  In the back, you got Tony Levin dancing gleefully all over the neck of his bass.  One word:  breathtaking.

A Levin groove commences a nocturnal “Lost Brotherhood”, a serious prowler that you could easily mistake for latter-day Styx.  Lawrence has a way with writing piano hooks and “Lost Brotherhood” boasts a tasty one.  “Call It A Mission” could be Rush for all you could tell, if not for Gowan’s huskier voice.  The pulse of this song is like a “superconductor”, if you catch my drift, and the solo is slick and different.  Then it’s “The Dragon”, dramatic and weighty.  Levin is hitting some deep notes which just makes “Dragon” rumble like the titular beast.

Gowan goes for acoustic ballad territory on “Love Makes You Believe”, another big chorus.  Ken Greer accents the song with very slight touches and Tony adds so much texture.  They really crank it on “Fire It Up”, a rocker that would have led off side two of the original vinyl.  This boogie just stomps!

“Out of a Deeper Hunger” is another ballad, at least until a nice crunchy guitar kicks in on the excellent chorus.  Rock territory is reclaimed on “Tender Young Hero”, another Rush-like monolith with memorable chorus.  Gowan’s got a knack for a chorus, and the snare sound on drummer Jerry Marotta is a dead ringer for Peart.

Tinkling keys are the main feature on the delicate “Message From Heaven”.  Light, but still heavy.  Dramatic as hell.  But closer “Holding This Rage” is a masterwork, combining the piano and drama in a way that just reaches out and grabs you by your humanity.  Sounds like Marillion.

“Holding this rage isn’t your answer boy,
Holding this rage won’t lead you on.
Holding this rage will tear you to pieces boy,
Look what it’s done.”

By the fade out you’re…one again…breathless.

Though my Canadian bias is showing, it is a good thing that today, million of people get to hear Gowan’s special talents with Styx.  Though with Styx, Lawrence is part of a band led by Shaw/Young, as a solo artist he is the captain and always had the goods all along.  Lost Brotherhood is an excellent “first Gowan” album to check out due to the emphasis on guitar and of course the presence of one Alex Živojinović.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Max Webster – Diamonds Diamonds (1981)

MAX WEBSTER – Diamonds Diamonds (1981 Anthem)

What a title for your first “greatest hits” compilation, eh?  Diamonds Diamonds emerged the year after Max Webster broke up, with no songs from the final album Universal Juveniles, the only one without Terry Watkinson.  Even though these kinds of posthumous records are usually not very good, Diamonds Diamonds is an exception.  It’s also one of the hardest Max Webster albums to find on CD, but a generous slice of vinyl at 13 tracks and 47 minutes.

“What do I know?” asks Kim Mitchell in the opening line of “Gravity”, the debut number.  Kim knew quite a bit actually, including how to write catchy music without it being overtly commercial.  He knew how to challenge listeners while delivering the hooks they craved.  “Gravity” is one such slice of brilliance.   It’s complex pop.

“High Class in Borrowed Shoes” is a classic rocker from their second album in ’77.  As much as it kicks, the lyrics and keyboard arrangement are not typical.  The title track “Diamonds Diamonds” followed “High Class” on the original album and it does again here.  Like a lullaby, “Diamonds Diamonds” floats on the wings of the backing vocal arrangement.  Next is “Summer’s Up” from the incredible debut Max platter.  Jangling guitars and dreamy keyboards make for a summer scene by the pool side, with drinks.  “Blowing the Blues Away” has a more traditional feel, country and blues and pop rolled into one, with a side order of quirky tones.  But it’ll make you feel good.  Continuing the feel-good celebration, it’s “A Million Vacations”, one of the greatest Canadian party songs of all time.  Kim Mitchell’s guitar work is sublime and baffling at once.

Side A ends with one of Max Webster’s most significant songs, “Let Go the Line” with lead vocals by Terry Watkinson who wrote the song, music and lyrics.  In Max Webster, lyrics were usually handled by the poet Pye Dubois.  In fact he wrote all but two of the lyrics on Diamonds Diamonds.  The two he didn’t (“Blowing the Blues Away” being the other) were written by Watkinson.  “Let Go the Line” could not be improved upon if you tried.  Kim’s regal guitar line, Dave Myles bass pulse, and the thrift of Gary McCracken’s drums are all flawlessly and perfectly fit to Terry’s ballad.  If Max Webster only had one “perfect” song, it’s “Let Go the Line”.

Fearlessly opening side two with furvor, it’s “The Party”!  It’s the off-kilter musicianship on tracks like this that had fans often comparing Max Webster to Frank Zappa.  Frank liked to have fun, too.  Well Max really liked to have fun!  “We’re all here for a celebration, the madcap scene and the Max Machine!”  That says it all.

Every decent “greatest hits” album needs unreleased songs.  Diamonds Diamonds has two decent ones, good songs that might be a bit too mainstream for a Max studio album.  “Hot Spots” is the first, a rip-roaring boogie of a good time.  By comparison, Kim could have recorded it on one of his early solo albums if Max didn’t release it on this.  It is chased by the outstanding “Paradise Skies”, another summery Max hit that keeps Canadian radio stations in business.  Melody and musicianship — that should be Max’s calling card.  The second of the new unreleased tunes is “Overnight Sensation”, the most ordinary (or forgettable) of the tracks.  The bassline really hops, and there’s even some cowbell, but the song isn’t comparable to something like “The Party” or “High Class”.

Although it’s better as an album opener, “Lip Service” (from Mutiny Up My Sleeve) is a bouncer.  “Socialutions, written down in our teens.  I mailed them to Kennedy, I typed them for Tito.”  Brilliance in a pen by Pye Dubois, barely contained by the bopping bass and upbeat keys.  Then before it’s all over it goes into a brief jazzy jam!  Finally it’s “Hangover”, also traditionally an opening song.  It’s the hardest rocker of the bunch, quirky as all hell and actually a good closer too!

Diamonds Diamonds still an important record today because “Overnight Sensation” and the outstanding “Hot Spots” haven’t been reissued on anything else.  You can’t say that about any of the songs on The Best of Max Webster (1989).  This is the one to get.  If you find one on CD, you’ve got yourself a good one.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: My Wicked Twin – 3 Engines (2020)

MY WICKED TWIN – 3 Engines (2020)

Like a bolt out of the blue, My Wicked Twin (Brent & Brian Doerner) have a new album out, their fourth, called 3 Engines.  A tight set with 10 songs in the 3-4 minute range, 3 Engines rocks.  Let’s have a listen.

“Gone Nomad”, the heavier than hell opener, is a tricky number that recalls Max Webster, but amped up.  “I’ve got a gun if we disagree,” sings Brent in an electronically treated voice, appropriate to the tune.  By the second track, “Light From Within”, we are in more traditional hard rock territory…until the corner bar piano kicks in!  Clearly nobody was afraid of taking chances.  The dark guitar hook is terrific on this one, as is the melodic bass.  Melody is also the focus of “Things I Wanna Do” a quirky modern sounding track with programmed beats and patches of keyboard.  Dig the engines revving!  “Give and Take” sounds like a natural followup, and it’s interesting to hear so much focus on the vocal melodies this time out.  Clearly a lot of effort went into them.

“Escaping California” has a dreamy quality, with spare use of keyboards that set the scene.  But it’s the following song, “House on the Highway”, that is the most fun.  Who doesn’t love a little banjo?  It adds variety and a little down-home quality and there’s nothing wrong with that.  “House on the Highway” for the win.

For heavy, you want “Digital Veins”.  The guitars and keys complement each other nicely.  “Rock and roll is what I am used to,” sings Brent, but he’s also not afraid to stretch out within those confines.  There’s a cool 80s vibe to “Digital Veins”.  Then “Half Broken” has an interesting rhythm to accompany the cool keys and guitars.  Killer solo here.  “Running Out of Time” has an accelerated pace but also some seriously tasty twang.  The album ends with “Brain Dance”, a cool party tune with a serious thump.  Wicked guitars, with varied tones and licks.

3 Engines is different, and that’s good.  The keyboards add an atmospheric tone, and it’s not dissimilar to old Max Webster.  The electronic treatment on the drums and vocals works, and complement the music.  My Wicked Twin have taken some leaps and bounds on this album, and ended up with some accomplished tunes.  Not for headbangin’.  3 Engines rocks, but it rocks smart.

4/5 stars

Additional musicians:

Paul Chapman – guitar solo on “Running Out of Time”
Jim Mclean – guitar and co-writer on “Light”
Rob Kemp – guitar on “Light”
Graham Smith – bass on “House” and “Light”

REVIEW: The Guess Who – Greatest Hits (1999)

THE GUESS WHO – Greatest Hits (1999 RCA)

Fun fact:  every Canadian citizen in good standing is issued a Guess Who album when they turn voting age.  Instead of that one, I upgraded to the remastered Greatest Hits in 1999.  The timing for a new compilation was right for the Canadian institution.  Though they never broke up, they had a big reunion tour in 2000.  Burton Cummings (Guess Who singer/pianist 1966-1975) and guitarist  Randy Bachman (1962-1970) had been out of the band a long time.  There was a 1983 reunion but even that was far in the past.  It was the Guess Who’s time in Canada once again, and in talking to Record Store customers, they couldn’t have been more excited if it was the Beatles.

18 tracks of Guess Who hits cover most of the well known bases.  Opening with the dramatic ballad “These Eyes” (made famous once again by Canadian Michael Cera in the movie Superbad) I’m reminded what a tremendous singer Burton Cummings is.  From the ballads to rockers like “No Time”, he could do it soulful or raspy.  Whatever the songs required.

And let’s not forget ex-James Gang six-stringer Domenic Troiano.  The Italian-Canadian guitar wiz was brought in on in 1974 and quickly aided and abetted the group in songwriting.  Only one Troiano-penned track is included here (“Dancin’ Fool”) but his slick riff is totally tasty.  (Unfortunately, Troiano is probably best known as the guy who Gavin Rossdale had to pay off to call his band “Bush” instead of “Bush X”.  Troiano had a band called Bush in 1970.)

The Guess Who were a remarkable band in their day, with a firm hand on both ballads and slick boogie rockers.  Yet their best known song, 1969’s “American Woman” is one of their least remarkable.  Written while tuning up at a curling club (look it up) in Kitchener (says Bachman) or Scarborough (says Cummings), it’s just sledgehammer rock.  Which is fine — there is nothing wrong with that kind of rock.  It’s just bizarre that it’s “American Woman” that people remember when The Guess Who had 20 or so better songs.   Check out “Albert Flasher”, a piano boogie that rivals the best of the genre.

This set is a fine listen from start to finish, and I can only really think of one rocker that’s not present — “Bus Driver”.  Otherwise it covers all the important stuff from the beginning to Cummings’ departure.*  It’s not an album for deep cuts or obscurities.  If you’ve spent extended periods of time listening to Canadian radio, you’ll know 50-80% of these songs.  If not, you hopefully already know “These Eyes” and “American Woman”.  Maybe even “Laughing” or “Undun”.  The Guess Who were always solid with just a little bit of quirk to them.  Solid bouncy musicianship, clever arrangements and lyrics, and a killer voice.  That’s Greatest Hits by The Guess Who.

4.5/5 stars

* The Guess Who continues today with a lineup including original drummer Garry Peterson and Quiet Riot’s Rudy Sarzo.

REVIEW: The Tragically Hip – We Are the Same (2009)

THE TRAGICALLY HIP – We Are the Same (2009

“Later” records by bands are often overlooked in favour of a handful of classics, usually released early in a band’s first decade.  Here is one that should not be ignored:  We Are the Same, The Tragically Hip’s mellow 2009 offering.  Sure, the Hip had plenty of late career highlights.  But something about We Are the Same just connects.  It’s like plugging your soul into the great wide Canadian open, autumn-coloured maple leaves tossing in a cold breeze.  The rustling is accented by a softly wafting smell of coffee.

We Are the Same sounds (for a largely acoustic album anyway) absolutely massive.  Thank you, Bob Rock.  Perhaps there’s even a concept to this Gord Downie-driven album: it opens with a song called “Morning Moon” and ends with “Country Day”.  From the beginning, the chords of the Canadian prairies jangle on acoustic guitars.  Familiar hints of Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot fill the room, while Downie sings of a golden Labour Day.

You’ll hear lush string and piano accompaniment all over We Are the Same (piano by Barenaked Ladies‘ Kevin Hearn).  Take second track “Honey, Please” which is as pop as the Hip were ever likely to get.  Johnny Fay’s snare drum splashes are the only recall from the old days.  Then, one of the most luxurious tracks.  It’s also one of the best: album highlight “The Last Recluse”.  It delivers strange melodies wrapped in lonely imagery.  “Who are you? The last Canada goose”.

Geoff over at 1001albumsin10years says “I  have argued it is the best side 1 in the catalogue.”  I wouldn’t dare disagree.

“Coffee Girl” with its loop-like drums and trumpet solo is one of the more unusual, but also most successful compositions.  Downie had a miraculous way with words.

Your favourite mixed tape,
You popped it into the deck,
Don’t care if it’s out of date,
Old Cat Power and classic Beck.

The first big rock chords come crashing down on “Now the Struggle Has a Name”, also adorned with regal strings.  As great as it is, it’s just preamble to a Hip epic:  “The Depression Suite”, a multi-parted masterpiece.  It sparkles and growls, brilliantly and eloquently through a maze of quintessential Gord travelogue lyrics.

Peaking with a track like “The Depression Suite” only means the second half of the album has much to live up to.  An Aerosmith-like “The Exact Feeling” (can’t you just hear “Jaded”?) is the first song that feels like a drop.  But then “Queen of the Furrows” is a gentle acoustic song with delightful picking.  Until an explosive chorus kicks in, drawing your attention again.  Cool noisy guitar solo to boot!

The final four tracks are consistent, with “Frozen in My Tracks” being the strangest and heaviest, and “Love is a First” the strongest.  Its’ beat poetry and sharp bassline are the main hooks, but the chorus is a blast.  Yet it’s still clearly a case of the final few songs living in the shadow of the first.

An album this brilliant needs to be enjoyed over time, but do be sure to add it to your collection.  [See below for our recommended edition.]

4.5/5 stars

…Since you’re going to need this album one way or another, our recommended version if you can find it, is the “Kollector’s Krate”.  Kool Krate’s were an inconvenient way to store discs, but here’s one with a Tragically Hip logo on it.  Stuffed inside: a We Are the Same T-shirt, and a rare live bonus CD.  Whether Live From the Vault Vol. 4 is worth over $300 or not, that’s between you and Discogs.  (And that’s just the CD, without the Krate or T-shirt!)

 

 

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Rock the World (1986, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Six

Part Six – the final chapter of the classic KICK AXE series!

KICK AXE – Rock the World (1986, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

Though Kick Axe had the power of the Matrix on their side, it could not conjure up sales without support from Epic, the record label.  With only one music video and no real marketing plan, Welcome to the Club fizzled out in sales.  This resulted in three major changes.  First, the band were dropped by Epic, though still signed to CBS in Canada.  This resulted in an end with their relationship with producer Spencer Proffer.  Guitarist Raymond Harvey quit, eventually joining up with Bob Rock and Paul Hyde in Rock & Hyde.  Kick Axe decided to carry on, but as a four piece with guitarist Larry Gillstrom handling all the six strings himself.

Without big label money, the quartet produced and mixed their third album alone.  The record, initially titled Fuck the World, is bassist Victor Langen’s favourite to this day.  Ultimately, the album called Rock the World was met with split opinions among fans.

Lead single “Rock the World” opened the album with an intense blast of guitars, drums and bass.  On the verge of thrash, Kick Axe had obviously abandoned the overtly commercial tone of their last LP.  First comes the guitar histrionics, then a blast of stampeding drums, and a blitzkrieg bassline.  Shrieking in peak form, singer George Criston and his perfect pipes maintain the melodic metal standard.  Somewhere between Maiden and Motorhead lies “Rock the World”.

Every Kick Axe album has a cover tune, and for this album they bravely selected Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”.  Though the album generally suffers from a stuffy, echoing sound (due to the low budget production), “The Chain” manages to make that work to its advantage.  It adds to the ominous, foggy tone.  According to the liner notes, Kick Axe still play “The Chain” live today.

Finally going for that good-time rock and roll sound that they were founded on, it’s time for the “Red Line”.  This track proves that Kick Axe could write quality, catchy hard rock classics without Spencer Proffer or Randy Bishop’s help.  Then it’s the ambitious “Devachan”, a Maiden-esque volley of fire with multiple riffs and tempos.  It’s a very busy song, far more advanced than you’d expect.  It’s highly unlikely Spencer Proffer would have let them release a track this far left of mainstream rock.  With the band in control they were able to explore more epic arrangements like “Devachan”.  The side one closer is a track called “Warrior”, with Criston’s steely vocals leading the battle cry.  Its deliberate stomp is similar to a much later Rainbow song called “Hunting Humans”.

“We Still Remember” leaves smoking ruins in its wake on side two.  It seems like Kick Axe were aiming for something more than just melodic heavy metal.  There are intricate bass parts, well written solos, thoughful lyrics and complex changes.  Cookie-cutter metal, this is not.  It’s intelligent rock, the kind that fans of the genre take pride in owning.  And then, “the chase is on”, it’s “The Great Escape”.  This hurried rocker borders again on Iron Maiden, but things go slower for “Medusa”.  A rolling bass riff is the main feature for this slightly progressive composition, perhaps a bit too highbrow.

“The Dark Crusade” is, appropriately, more metal.  The beat, courtesy of Brian Gillstrom, is Priest-like circa Defenders of the Faith.  It’s a sound representative of the era.  Meanwhile George Criston takes the vocals to near-operatic levels.  A clever bass-led song called “Magic Man” ends the album with an atmospheric tone, and George Criston even ends it with some Ian Gillan screams a-la “Child In Time”.

Unfortunately but predictably, Kick Axe broke up in 1988 and the members went their separate ways.  After a number of side projects, a remarkable thing happened:  Kick Axe reunited.  They even made an album, called Kick Axe IV.  The only catch:  George Criston didn’t participate.  Instead, Victor Langen’s brother Gary (who happened to also be the original drummer in Kick Axe) stepped up to the microphone.  That era is outside the purview of this series, based on the classic original period, though perhaps after a few Discogs purchases, we’ll continue the story.  Today, Kick Axe continue with capable young singer Daniel Nargang.

As the final album in the original Kick Axe triumvirate, Rock the World delivers on a lot of promise.  Most bands tended to go more commercial album to album in the 1980s.  By being dropped by Epic, Kick Axe were able to unlock some serious heavy metal ideas, combining them into something a little more original.  The sonics could have used some more tender loving care, but they only had a month to make this thing.  It is the best thing they could have produced by themselves at the time, and probably the most pure.  The right producer could have tightened up the songs just enough to make each one a classic unto itself.  Rock the World is an indulgent Kick Axe album, just going for it, and fuck the world!

4/5 stars

 

 

Part One:  “Reality is the Nightmare”
Part Two:  “Weekend Ride”
Getting More Tale #773:  Rock Candy + Internet = Kick Axe!
Part Three:  Vices
Part Four:  The Transformers soundtrack (as Spectre General)
Part Five:  Welcome to the Club
Part Six:  Rock the World

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Welcome to the Club (1985, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Five

Part Five of a series on classic KICK AXE!

BONUS: Check out Superdeke’s concert review from this tour by clicking here!

KICK AXE – Welcome to the Club (1985, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

Kick Axe may have had a slight identity issue.

They certainly didn’t benefit at all when two of their songs (“Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”) were released under another name on The Transformers soundtrack.  Nobody knew that “Spectre General” was in fact Kick Axe.  Unicron may have been defeated, and Rodimus named as the next Prime, but Kick Axe didn’t gather any of the spoils.  There’s also the issue of their critical second album.  Vices was clearly a metal album and the band had an obviously heavy image, complete with toothy mascot.  When the second album saw its release, the mascot was gone and the lead video was a ballad!

The twist in the tale is that Welcome to the Club is considered by many fans to be Kick Axe’s best album; and they may be right.

The record label Pasha was trying to steer Kick Axe in a lighter direction.  Producer Spencer Proffer couldn’t be there, so staffer Randy Bishop was sent to Toronto to write and record the next album with the band.  They did this at the legendary Metalworks, and then the album was sent to Proffer in California to mix.  You’d expect this kind of operation to be detrimental to the music.  You’d be wrong.

The songs are tighter than those on Vices.  Yes, opener “Welcome to the Club” lacks the full-fisted punch of “Heavy Metal Shuffle”, but they are traded in for a dusky, cleaner vibe.  This is an older, wiser band and the lyrics reflect that.  “If you’ve had your share of heartache…welcome to the club.”  The drums are still thunder on tape, and George Criston could bellow like few others, so the “softening” of Kick Axe was actually quite minor.

“Feels Good – Don’t Stop” lets the bass lead the way, for a bangin’ chorus that any band would have given their nuts to write.  Another flawess chorus is found on the powerful “Comin’ After You”, which may in fact be the perfect 1985 hard rock song.  Softer verses build up to the kick of the first chorus, with backing keyboards providing unobtrusive texture.  “Make Your Move” is another expertly written rock song, something like Bon Jovi circa 7800° Fahrenheit.  Did Sambora spend time studying this album?  Then a dramatic “Never Let Go” has a creeping, dark vibe that makes one wonder just what Black Sabbath would have sounded like with George Criston on lead vocals.  When Ian Gillan left to join Deep Purple, Criston was one of the singers that Tony Iommi was very interested in.  This song is a glimpse into what that might have sounded like.

The side two kick-off, “Hellraisers” is a cold steel classic.  A signature guitar lick and a chorus plumbed straight from the most melodic depths of hell is all it takes.  Well, the solo cooks pretty hot too.  “Hellraisers” is most likely the best tune on Welcome to the Club, which goes a long way to making it the best Kick Axe song, period.  By the next track, “Can’t Take It With You”, Kick Axe discovered a time machine and somehow came up with a cool wah-wah riff right out the 2000s.  There is no way we’ll ever know for sure, but it’s not out of the question that this riff was lifted by time travel from John Norum of Europe during the sessions for Start From the Dark.

Anyone who felt Welcome to the Club underdelivered in terms of heavy metal probably thought “Too Loud…Too Old” was the best song.  Heavy groove and speed co-mingle, and the result is one of the heaviest hard rock tracks in the history of the genre.  “Feel the Power” dials it back in terms of heavy, but is no slouch of a track, not with all those Brian Gillstrom drumquakes.  Guitarists Larry Gillstrom and Ray Harvey had a knack for harmony guitar solos, as heard on “Feel the Power”.  Not to mention the capable backing vocals by the entire band, rounded out by Victor Langen on bass.

The oddball ballad goes last, and it really is a surprising one.  Continuing a tradition that would follow through on all their albums, Kick Axe did a cover.  This time it’s the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends”, but via the Joe Cocker arrangement.  The good news:  George Criston was more than capable of handling the difficult song without sounding like an asshole.  Not an easy task!  He is accompanied by Canadian stars like Alfie Zappacosta, Lee Aaron, Rik Emmett, and Andy Curran which gives the song some authenticity and serious star power.  Lee Aaron in particularly kicks the song right in the nuts when she steps up to the microphone.

It was this track that was chosen as the lead video, and immediately confused all the kids sitting at home watching MuchMusic.  This was the “On the Road to Rock” band, clearly, but they didn’t sound like that anymore.  The music video almost looked like a charity single, with everybody singing together in the studio.  We didn’t know what to make of it, and the clever but tame Hugh Syme cover artwork really didn’t speak like Vices did.

It is always a shame when a great album by a deserving band gets ignored.  Thanks to Rock Candy and their awesome CD reissues, it’s not too late to get into the Club.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Kick Axe as “Spectre General” – The Transformers soundtrack (1986) – Kick Axe series Part Four

KICK AXE as SPECTRE GENERAL – “Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”
from Transformers: The Movie original motion picture soundtrack (1986 BMG)

Although the recordings were not released until 1986, it makes sense to talk about “Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way” now, in terms of storytelling.  After the Vices album was completed in 1984, Kick Axe were tasked to contribute to another project.  And it wasn’t a movie soundtrack.

Producer Spencer Proffer was scheduled to go into the studio with Black Sabbath — a Black Sabbath still fronted by Ian Gillan, though not for long.  Proffer felt that Sabbath needed fresh ideas and recruited Kick Axe to write some.  Though details are murky, we do know that Gillan left Black Sabbath abruptly to record Perfect Strangers with Deep Purple.  Kick Axe frontman George Criston was one of the singers that Tony Iommi was interested in as his replacement.  Whatever happened, no recordings of Sabbath with Criston have surfaced, but we do have the songs Kick Axe wrote for the sessions.

In a strange coincidence, they all first came out on November 9 1985, on two separate albums.  W.A.S.P.’s The Last Command (produced by Proffer) featured the Quiet Riot-like “Running Wild in the Streets”, though without proper writing credit.  Another album produced by Proffer was released the same day:  Ready to Strike by King Kobra.  “Piece of the Rock” and hit single “Hunger” were written by Kick Axe for the Sabbath project.

Ultimately, “Hunger” by Kick Axe did finally come out in the summer of 1986.  Too late, perhaps, considering people assumed it was a generic cover of a King Kobra song.  Especially since no one had ever heard of…Spectre General?

Who the hell is Spectre General?!

For reasons unknown but said to be contractual, Kick Axe couldn’t release their own song under their own name, so Proffer invented Spectre General, and that’s how they’re credited in Transformers: The Movie.  The band didn’t even know about it.  They had two songs on the original 10 track album:  “Hunger”, and a new song called “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”, written for their next record Welcome to the Club.

Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the King Kobra recording, but this version of “Hunger” does stand in its shadow.  Both Mark (Marcie) Free and George Criston are stellar vocalists, and the Free version just had more…weight.  Kick Axe’s original is heavier and chunkier, so perhaps in that way it’s actually superior.  “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way” is an upbeat number, hook-laden, with the trademark Kick Axe “chug” and backing vocals.  It’s pretty essential to have both these tracks to augment a Kick Axe collection.

Besides not getting their real name in the album, other contributions by Weird Al Yankovic and Stan Bush were featured more prominently in the movie than the two “Spectre General” songs.  The band Lion got to do the movie theme song.  Those were some memorable movie moments to any kid in the theater, particularly the Stan Bush selections.

It’s pretty amazing that Kick Axe came up with “Hunger” but were never really recognized for it.  It’s a great song and their original version of it is the proof.  Also strong, “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way” would have made a fine addition to the next album.  Clearly, the Canadian quintet had big league talent the whole time.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Vices (1984, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Three

Part Three of a series on classic KICK AXE!

KICK AXE – Vices (1984, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

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.

4.5/5 stars

#773: Rock Candy + Internet = Kick Axe!

GETTING MORE TALE #773: Rock Candy + Internet = Kick Axe!

Like many things, it started with a story.

I have liked the music of Kick Axe since I first heard them back in 1984.  “On the Road to Rock” was a Power Hour (not yet the Pepsi Power Hour) staple.  I knew the video off by heart.  A Vices button was among the first handful I owned.  I think it was a birthday gift from my best friend Bob.  As it turns out, I never got the album, or any Kick Axe for that matter, until now.  So how did it turn out that I’m doing this Kick Axe review series?

I. ENCORE

In July, I scored two Kick Axe remastered CDs by Rock Candy records.  This occurred at the best Record Store in town, Encore, who had both Vices and Welcome to the Club in stock.  I had been looking for these in Toronto (“Taranna”) for years.  No luck.  The Encore visit was my first time finding them in store.  Vices has a bonus track.  I always intended to get the Rock Candy version for that reason.  Aaron and I found Kick Axe vinyl in Taranna before, but I was holding out.  The bonus track made the Rock Candy reissue my preferred version.

II. ROCK CANDY

Another thing about Rock Candy:  the liner notes are, shall we say, goddamn essential.  Featuring original interviews, untold stories, and assorted documented details, you will absolutely learn something from the liner notes in a Rock Candy CD.  One thing I learned before even opening the booklet was that the third Kick Axe album was also available from Rock Candy.  Already having the first two, it seemed dumb not to get the third.  Especially since the liner notes said that Rock the World was, in some regards, their strongest album.  As I read the notes, I recalled they did two songs for The Transformers soundtrack under the name Spectre General.  The notes confirmed that Spectre General was Kick Axe, not some side project.

Thanks to Rock Candy, light was shed on early Kick Axe history previously unknown to me.  I discovered they had an early 7″ single called “Weekend Ride”, with a singer earlier than George Criston.  They also had a live track on a compilation called Playboy Street Rock.  When Bob and I were kids, we used to be fascinated by the early history of bands.  Like finding out White Lion had an album before Pride, or that Iron Maiden had something called The Soundhouse Tapes before their first album.  I wanted to get the early Kick Axe stuff I just found out existed!

III. AMAZON and DISCOGS

If I knew about those early Kick Axe songs as a kid, it would have taken me decades to find them.  Today, I had most of them within a week.

Amazon had Rock the World in stock, and it was at the house two days later. Discogs had “Weekend Ride”, The Transformers, and Playboy Street Rock from different sellers.  I hesitated on Transformers but pulled the trigger on the other two.  I would have preferred a remastered Transformers CD with bonus tracks.  They were way too rich for me.  I couldn’t get one for much less than $50.  Even the reissued vinyl without the bonus tracks was pricey.  Ultimately, I settled on an original CD, which was still not cheap.

“Weekend Ride” and Playboy Street Rock arrived within a few days.  Wonders of the modern world.  What would have taken years before happened in under a week.

IV. KICK AXE

Fortunately, it turns out that I quite like my Kick Axe purchases.  So much so, that I was inspired to do a Kick Axe review series.

Kick Axe have a fourth album (Kick Axe IV) from a Criston-less reunion.  I’m undecided if I’ll go that far, but in the mean time you can look forward to learning more about Canada’s own metal proponents.  I’m delighted to discover a band that could really sing, and play like big leaguers.  I hope you’ll enjoy them too.