Strange Animal was only Lawrence Gowan’s second solo album, and one of his best sellers. It’s also one of his most dated sounding, with programming and production honed in on the 1980s. Regardless, you can’t knock the musicians: Tony Levin (bass/Chapman Stick), Jerry Marotta (drums), and Chris Jarrett & David Rhodes (guitars). Gowan basically lifted his studio band from Peter Gabriel.
Opener “Cosmetics” was a single, though just shy of cracking the Top 40. It’s terribly dated sounding, with that wretched brittle synthetic sound that even Queen resorted to at one point. So you might love it! The piano is delectable and Gowan is as smooth as pie. “Desperate” is darker, but I sure do hate synth hand-claps! Fortunately this is a great song, akin to 80s Phil Collins. Another really smooth one is “City of the Angels”, like a waltz at midnight. Progressive rock invades “Walking on Air”, which lightly tip-toes from gentle rock to more aggressive guitars.
A delicate but powerful “Burning Torches of Hope” sits right at the middle of the album, and it is so very 80s. Levin makes some animalist noise on “Keep the Tension On”, which sounds much like its title. Taut, powerful, and even heavy in a certain way. It’s melds right into a march on “Guerilla Soldier”, a killer song with terrific verse hooks. Massive song! It feels like this album builds to a close. Especially when you consider the last two songs.
Finally, at the end of the album comes the familiar hits. First: a huge Chapman Stick groove, on the poppy upbeat title track. “Strange Animal” is an awesome song: strictly fun, and incredibly so! The melody stays in your head for days, and you’re hooked. Ominous spiritus, ahh! And then it’s his most famous song, “A Criminal Mind”, otherwise known as “the one that Styx play live”. Solo, in the studio, “A Criminal Mind” is just as haunting, just as powerful, and just as unforgettable. It also had one of the most disturbing music videos we had seen as young kids, and our reaction was revulsion. On album, it is a capstone of a pretty terrific record. It really feels like it should have opened.
Though ultimately it is up to the listener, unless you grew up with Strange Animal in the Walkman nestled in your back pocket, the programming and 80s-isms are a bit distracting. It’s also strange how Gowan left all the big firepower stacked at the end of the album. In the CD age, it just makes the whole thing more rewarding at the end!