Chuck Billy

REVIEW: We Wish You A Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year – Various Artists (2008)

WE WISH YOU A METAL XMAS AND A HEADBANGING NEW YEAR (2008 Armoury)

Yep, It’s another Bob Kulick album with various guests.  You know what you’re going to get.  Let’s not dilly-dally; let’s crack open the cranberry sauce and see what a Metal Xmas sounds like.

Generic!  A truly ordinary title track features the amazing Jeff Scott Soto on lead vocals, but it’s a purely cookie-cutter arrangement with all the cheesy adornments you expect.  Ray Luzier fans will enjoy the busy drums, but this does not bode well for the album.

Fortunately it’s Lemmy to the rescue, with “Run Rudolph Run”, an utterly classic performance with Billy Gibbons and Dave Grohl.  All spit n’ vinegar with no apologies and nary a mistletoe in sight.  I remember playing this for my sister Dr. Kathryn Ladano in the car one Christmas.

When Lemmy opened his yap, she proclaimed “This is bullshit!  How come they get to make albums and not me?”

Lemmy Kilmister, pissing people off since day one, has done it again.  You can buy the CD for “Run Rudolph Run” even if the rest is utter shit.

A silly “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by Alice Cooper echoes “The Black Widow”, but novelty value aside, is not very good.  A joke song can only take you so far, and Alice is usually far more clever.  (At least John 5’s soloing is quite delicious.)  And even though Dio is next, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” comes across as a joke, too.  Which is a shame because the lineup is a Dio/Sabbath hybrid:  Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo, and Simon Wright.  Dio’s joyless, dead serious interpretation is amusing only because of its unintentional dry humour.

Funny enough, Geoff Tate’s “Silver Bells” has the right attitude.  Even though Geoff is perpetually flat, his spirited version (with Carlos Cavazo, James Lomenzo and Ray Luzier) kicks up some snow.  That makes me happy, but it pains me to say that Dug Pinnick’s “Little Drummer Boy” (with George Lynch, Billy Sheehan and Simon Phillips) doesn’t jingle.  Ripper Owens, Steve More & pals team up next on “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, so bad that it borders on parody.

The most bizarre track is Chuck Billy’s “Silent Night”, with thrash buddies like Scott Ian.  Chuck performs it in his death metal growl, and it’s pure comedy.  Oni Logan can’t follow that with “Deck the Halls”, though it’s pretty inoffensive.  Stephen Pearcy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” adapts the riff from “Tie Your Mother Down” and succeeds in creating a listenable track.  “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree” is ably performed by Joe Lynn Turner, sounding a lot like a Christmas party jam.

The final artist is Tommy Shaw with John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.  It’s an authentic version and while not a replacement for the original, will be enjoyable to Styx fans.

Christmas albums by rock artists are, let’s be honest, rarely worthwhile.  This one has only a handful of keepers so spend wisely.

2/5 stars

REVIEW: Testament – The Ritual (1992)

TESTAMENT – The Ritual (1992 Atlantic)

This may have been the first thrash metal album I ever bought.  I was late to the mosh pit, but I think I chose a good first thrash.  Lead video “Electric Crown” was in rotation on the Power 30, and I loved the speed combined with melody and a virtuoso guitarist.  To me, “Electric Crown” blew away any of the Metallica singles I’d heard so far.  It was way superior to the overly simplistic “Enter Sandman”.

One of the coolest sounds I ever heard came from Alex Skolnick’s guitar. In that melodic, four-note descending lick, the fourth note…just shakes. I sat there in my bedroom with my guitar, trying to make the same sound, failing every time. Skolnick was increasingly interested in jazz, and you can hear that in some of the soloing and tubey tone.

The Ritual is the most commercial Testament album.  That made it an easy gateway to thrash.  Did they sell out?  By all accounts, The Ritual is the album on which Alex Skolnick stepped up in terms on contributions.  As a schooled musician he wanted to try some different things, and indeed he left the band shortly after to grow as a player.  This isn’t a sellout, but it’s the album on which the guy who was trained by Joe Satriani had a lot more influence.  (After he left, the band went hard back to the extremes of thrash with Low and Demonic.)

Not a sellout, then.  But there are definite parallels to the contemporary Metallica album.  The slower metal chug of “So Many Lies” is this album’s “Sad But True”.  The Ritual also has a modern, crisp production (by Tony Platt) though not as fully stuffed as Metallica.

Immediately after “So Many Lies”, drummer Louie Clemente goes into a gallop on “Let Go Of My World”, an angry testament to independence.  See what I did there?  The longest song on the album is the title track, an anti-drug anthem that rocks it slow and forboding.  “Kill yourself, killing time.”  Vocalist Chuck Billy has a mighty set of lungs, the kind that make you listen up.  These lungs are put to great effect on “Deadline”, the mid-tempo banger that finishes side one.  There’s something just slightly different about the beat and there’s nothing equivalent on the Metallica album.  “Deadline” is arresting, kickin’ and menacing all at once.

“As the Seasons Grey” continues the blistering metal, not as fast as yesteryear but more measured.  Dig that false ending.  “Agony” and “The Sermon” offer some variety, but Testament are best when served fast.  Right?  Right?  No – check out the ballad “Return to Serenity”!  Testament were of course no strangers to ballads.  “The Ballad” and “The Legacy” worked out well for them previously, but “Return to Serenity” blows them away.  Alex Skolnick’s clever, echoey guitar hook is spellbinding.  This incredible ballad really should have been a hit.  That’s why they included it again on 1993’s Return to the Apocalyptic City EP.  It should be as well known as hit ballads by another big name thrash band.  The Ritual closes on a stampeding “Troubled Dreams”, an album highlight and as persistent as the wandering nomad in the lyrics.

There are more important Testament albums than The Ritual, such as their landmark Practice What You Preach.  It still remains a high water mark in the catalogue.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Testament – Signs of Chaos: The Best of Testament (1997)

 

 

TESTAMENT – Signs of Chaos: The Best of Testament (1997 Mayhem)

I bought this in the winter of 1997.  I hadn’t listened to Testament in a few years.  I’d bought The Ritual album in 1992, but they kind of lost me post-Skolnick, when they went hell-bent for death metal.  Therefore the idea of a good, remastered single disc compilation album covering the entire career was appealing to me.  All the key tracks that I wanted were here, including two incredible B-sides!

Shortly after The Ritual came out, singer Chuck Billy denounced it as too soft, too commercial, and not the direction he and Eric Peterson wanted to take the band in the future.  Regardless of this, the single “Electric Crown” was chosen to kick off Signs of Chaos (including the brief instrumental intro, “Signs of Chaos”.  I’ve always felt it was superior to a couple of its chief rival songs at the time:  “Enter Sandman” and “Symphony of Destruction”.  You be the judge.  I think I have a strong case.

As I delved into the disc I found that I was very hit-and-miss with Testament’s earlier material.  For example “The New Order”, the title track from their 1988 album.  I find it thin production-wise, and melodically a bit awkward.  It’s hard-hitting and thrashy as fuck, but strangely enough I prefer the earlier track “Alone in the Dark” from 1987’s The Legacy.  Not only does it boast a stomping riff, but also a chorus that sticks to the head.

“Dog Faced Gods” introduced me to the Testament world of blast-beats and death metal growls.  This was from the first post-Skolnick album, Low.  Now Peterson and Billy had the chance to indulge their heaviest urges, and they did a fantastic job.  Featuring the stellar drum talents of John Tempesta (currently in The Cult), this is Testament brought to a whole new level.  While death metal growls are not normally my bag, Billy sings in a “normal” voice during the cool chorus.  As for the rest of the song, it is a precise complex of drum fills, lightning-fast guitar licks, time changes and riffs.

If you thought “Dog Faced Gods” was heavy, then “Demonic Refusal” might very well blow you out of your seat.  The followup album to Low was called Demonic and it took things further out to the boundaries.  Gene Hoglan on drums this time, “Demonic Refusal” is even more evil and scary.  It still boasts a head-crushing riff and has a strangely catchy quality to the vocal.  Chuck Billy convinced me on these songs that he is a diverse, talented thrash metal singer among the best in the genre.

“The Ballad” from the landmark 1989 album Practice What You Preach was about as close as Testament got to a hit single.  The timing was right, seeing as Metallica had success with “One” the year before.  Even though it is clearly a ballad (albeit a heavy one), the song has balls and metal fans had no problem embracing it.  To me it seems to be based on a prototype of some of Iron Maiden’s softer material.  The album Souls of Black, which followed Practice, was considered little more than a rushed carbon copy followup.  That may be the case, but either way the song “Souls of Black” is still as catchy as ever.  Skolnick’s fluttery licks are a highlight, as is Chuck Billy’s groovy lead vocal.

I find it funny that “Trial By Fire” is listed as a CD-only bonus track.  I guess this album must have been released on cassette too in 1997.  “Trial By Fire” isn’t one of the best songs in my books, but it does contain more outstanding Skolnick guitar shreddery.  A brief word about Alex Skolnick for those who don’t know:  He was one of Joe Satriani’s students, and he’s also well known for playing jazz fusion on the side.  In fact he left Testament initially to enable him to explore that kind of style.  His tone is really warm, and you can feel the vacuum tubes humming in a vintage amp when he plays.

Another uber-heavy song, “Low” from the album of the same name, is just as good and memorable as “Dog Faced Gods”.  The Low album featured one of the most respected guitarists in the death metal genre, James Murphy (Death).  Murphy’s chops helped bring Testament closer to that line between thrash and death, while maintaining the virtuosity that the band had with Alex Skolnick.

“Practice What You Preach” and “Over the Wall” provide a double-punch of early Testament heavy metal.  To me, “Over the Wall” is not an outstanding song.  It’s good for a head-bang and has a killer solo, but it’s not particularly special.  “Practice What You Preach” on the other hand nails it.  Testament were crossing groove and thrash metal together successfully, before Metallica painted it Black.  “Practice” remains one of their highest achievements from the early years.

I mentioned earlier that Souls of Black was considered by many to be little more than a second generation copy of Practice.  This extended to putting out another ballad.  “The Legacy” was one of their earlier compositions, polished up for Souls of Black.  While it’s the lesser known song, I think I prefer it to “The Ballad”.  The production seems a little more full, although the two songs are very similar.  As far as ballads go, I don’t think either song holds a candle to the next track.  “Return to Serenity” from The Ritual is a beautiful song, with gorgeous guitar tones.  It’s a less dark than the other two songs, and lyrically discussing those special places that you may have had as a child, and returning to serenity.  I would put “Return to Serenity” up against virtually any similar Metallica song, and I believe it would blow them away.  While both bands have a lead guitar player that was taught by Joe Satriani, I believe Alex Skolnick to be on a completely different level from other guitar players in this genre.

“Perilous Nation” is a plenty-good thrash party, but again this is listed as a CD only bonus track.  I just find that amusing on an album released in 1997.  The CD ends with two smoking covers:  “The Sails of Charon” (Scorpions) and “Draw the Line” (Aerosmith)!  We all know Testament are huge Aerosmith fans, since they covered “Nobody’s Fault” earlier.  Both are absolutely incredible covers and alone worth the price of the CD.  “Draw the Line”, already a manic-fast song, is give a dose of Liquid Schwartz in the ol’ engine.  I defy you to refrain from banging your head.  What an awesome song to end the CD on, and this review on!

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Slash Puppet – No Strings Attached (aka The Demo, 1989)

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SLASH PUPPET – No Strings Attached (2007 Sun City Records)

Slash Puppet were one of the biggest names of the burgeoning Toronto rock scene of the early 1990’s.  Unfortunately, unlike their competition Sven Gali and I Mother Earth, they never got signed to a major label.  They did, however, manage to sell out 2500 copies of their first recording, The Demo, an independent cassette, via mail order.  They were the darlings of M.E.A.T Magazine and appeared on MuchMusic’s Power Hour.  Slash Puppet signed a management deal with Ray Danniels and SRO (Rush) who later also handled Van Halen, King’s X, and Extreme.

SLASH PUPPET GLOSSY

I was one of the 2500 people who ordered The Demo.  Every mail order was accompanied by a glossy 8 1/2 x 11 autographed photo.  I still have mine, this is especially treasured since their talented lead guitarist, Lou Garscadden, passed away in 2001.   Today, lead vocalist Mif (originally billed as “Tony Terrance Dartanian”, for some weird reason) is a successful actor.   That’s him as the mob boss in Norm McDonald’s hilarious Dirty Work, billed under his real name, Anthony J. Mifsud!

Incredibly, for a band that never put out a major label release and split in 1994, Australia’s Sun City Records reissued The Demo on CD in 2007, as No Strings Attached.  A well-assembled package, it features liner notes, lyrics, and loads of photos.

This ass-kicker starts with a bang:  “Slow Down”.  This was the first video, and it even made a return appearance (in slightly remixed form) on the second Slash Puppet release, a self-titled EP.  “Slow Down” is an infectious hard rocker, a tougher and faster Faster Pussycat with a way, way raspier singer.  It has more integrity than most of the Sunset Strip of the time combined.  And this was from the bad bad streets of Mississauga!

The extremely catchy ‘Squeeze It In” follows, a mid-tempo groover, and my personal favourite song.  This one just drips sleaze with a knack for gritty melody.   Up next is “Hard On Love”.  It’s another concoction of raspy lead vocals, catchy backing gang vocals, and pure sex.  It’s twice as hard as anything Hollywood was producing at the time.  “Bad Girls”, which closed side one of the original cassette, is about the only misstep.  While the song is another adrenaline-filled sex romp, the chorus lacks punch.

It’s here that I think the CD edition of No Strings Attached differs from The Demo.  If memory serves correctly, side two began with “Overload” and closed with “Turn It On”.  On the CD, the track order seems switched.  Unfortunately, my original cassette copy is now lost.

Regardless, “Turn It On” is fast paced, raspy and built for sex.  It’s not an upper-echelon song, it’s more similar to “Bad Girls”, the chorus is a bit thin.  The band compensates with the excellent “Evil Woman”.  Great chorus, great hooks, and it sounds great in the car.  It also has a cool dual guitar solo by Lou Garscadden and Frank “Bart” Bartoletti, proving these guys had the chops.

The dark and slower-paced “Some Kind O’ Lady” provides some variety on an album that is otherwise very party-oriented.  This killer tune was always one of my favourites.  It has some killer soloing and a great riff.  The verses kind of remind me of a Testament ballad like “Return To Serenity”, but before Testament even wrote that song.  Maybe it’s the grit in Mif’s voice that reminds me of Chuck Billy.

“Overload” closes the CD on an upbeat note.  It has a fast, playful riff, sleazy lyrics and plenty of grit.  It’s totally headbang-worthy.  And with that, the CD ends, listener exhausted by half an hour of pure heavy glam rock!

The production values for this album are not the greatest.  Keep in mind this was originally a self-financed demo tape, never meant for wide release, and never intended for CD.  The guitar solos are often buried, and the backing vocals sound a bit thin.  What does come across is the grit of Mif, an underrated singer and frontman (by all contemporary accounts).

As mentioned, Slash Puppet returned with an EP later (released by indi Fringe), amped up, better sounding and more mature without losing an ounce of their street-tough sensibilities.  Look for a review of that ultra-rarity in a future edition of mikeladano.com!

As for No Strings Attached?

4/5 stars, baby!