concept album

RE-REVIEW: KISS – Music From the Elder (1981)

The KISS RE-REVIEW SERIES Part 20:  

  Music From the Elder (1981 Casablanca, 1997 Mercury remaster, 2014 Universal vinyl)

Kiss had gone as far as they could go in the pop direction that they travelled on Unmasked.  The band’s stature was in jeopardy.  The image was outweighing the music and they suffered their first member defection.  As discussed in chapter 18, Peter Criss was out, but he was replaced by an energetic young drummer henceforth known as Eric Carr.  His abilities put sounds in reach that the band weren’t able to do with Peter Criss.  The smartest move, albeit the safest, would be a return to the band’s hard rocking roots.  Songs were written and demoed, including “Don’t Run” (Frehley/Anton Fig), “Every Little Bit of My Heart” (Stanley), “Deadly Weapons” (Stanley/Simmons), “Nowhere to Run” (Stanley), “Feel Like Heaven” (Simmons) and an instrumental called “Kix Are For Kids”.

Based on what we know of these songs today, Kiss easily could have turned them into a classic sounding album.  Whether it be ego, fear, ambition or sheer hubris, Kiss scrapped the demos and aimed instead to shoot in another direction.  That is, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and manager Bill Aucoin changed direction at the protest of Ace Frehley.  Eric Carr had no say, being an employee.  Playing on the strengths of Kiss’ larger than life comic book image, Gene concocted a fantasy story that they wanted to turn into a concept album.  If that was successful, they could spin the album off into sequels, a tour and a movie.  And who else would be better to produce a concept album than Bob Ezrin?

The addition of Ezrin was another grievance for Ace Frehley.  It was Bob Ezrin who replaced him on 1976’s Destroyer album with Dick Wagner on “Sweet Pain”.

So a fractured Kiss went into separate studios to record the concept album.  Ace stayed in his new home studio in Connecticut and recorded his guitar parts there, painstakingly taking his time to get just the right crunch.  Much to his chagrin, Bob Ezrin used only bits and pieces of what he was sent.  Bob was dealing with a severe drug problem, and had isolated himself so that the only lines of communication regarding the album were Kiss and Bill Aucoin.  Nobody outside of the circle heard a note until they were done.  There was talk of a double album, but it made sense to do it one at a time…just in case it didn’t sell.  Hence the title, Music From the Elder.  Like Star Wars, this was meant to be only a part of the whole story.

A word about the running order.  When Music From the Elder was first released in North America, the story didn’t make much sense.  It was supposed to begin with the instrumental “fanfare” and then the acoustic strumming of “Just a Boy”.  Instead the record company shuffled the song order to start with something heavier:  “The Oath”.  But the concept never made any sense.  In 1997, Mercury released the Kiss remastered series, and restored the original intended track order.  They even restored a snippet of “lost” music, a Gregorian chant bit between the first two tracks.  The original Japanese pressing came with the tracks in the right order, but was missing one overall (“Escape From the Island”).  The Japanese version also came with a neat full cover obi with pictures of the band — something fans missed out on with the normal release.  (When fans did finally see pictures of the 1981 Kiss, they were taken aback by the modern hair and image.)  The current 2014 LP edition on 180 gram vinyl also has the restored track order.

The album begins quietly (and pretentiously) with strings and woodwinds of “fanfare“, credited to Ezrin and Stanley, and based on the melody of second track “Just a Boy”.  “Who steers the ship through the stormy seas?  If hope is lost then so are we.  While some eyes search for one to guide us, some are staring at me.”  The Elder is the tale of a reluctant hero known only as “the boy”.  He is the archetypal “chosen one” selected by the mysterious and powerful Council of the Elder.  “When the Earth was young, they were already old,” reads the liner notes.  He must face the evil Blackwell, but he can’t believe there is anything special about him.

Although “Just a Boy” is a deep cut loved only by those with Kiss infecting their blood, you can hear its charm.  It sounds nothing at all like Kiss, and its soft acoustics don’t even sound like a rock band.  Paul sings the chorus in an insane falsetto, which he also utilizes elsewhere on the album.  The powerful guitar solo is all his, and one struggles to hear Ace Frehley on the track at all.  “Just a Boy” is a good song, with structure and dynamics and thoughtful composition.  It isn’t something that could be performed well on stage, and the production leaves a muddy haze over the lead vocals.  It’s hard to hear 50% of Paul’s lyrics.  Fortunately, the 2014 vinyl reissue comes with something the 1997 CD did not:  a lyric sheet.  With that in hand, you can follow the story.

In fact, it must be recommended to listen to The Elder on vinyl at least once to fully appreciate the album.  Something about sitting there with a gatefold jacket open and following a story on a record sleeve works as a sort of time machine.  It’s truly an experience that you cannot feel with CD alone, and the only way to do that with the songs in the proper order is with the 2014 vinyl reissue.

Kiss have thrown obscure covers on their albums before, but it’s strange to see such a thing on a concept album.  “Odyssey” by Tony Powers fit the story at this moment, although nothing could sound less like Kiss.  It is a fully orchestrated song and it doesn’t even have Eric Carr on it.  Ezrin didn’t think he was getting the right vibe so he brought in Allan Schwartzberg who also played on Gene’s solo album.  “Odyssey” is as overblown and pretentious as a song can get, as if Kiss suddenly became the Beatles and this was their “Hey Jude” moment.  This many soft, un-Kiss like songs right off the bat is a good way to throw listeners, so the record label ended up moving it to side two.  Paul Stanley has disowned the song, but what Paul failed to appreciate is that though campy, “Odyssey” is also incredibly fun.  It has no place in the Kiss canon, but there it is, and it’s hard to forget that delightfully pompous orchestra.

The first appearance of the mighty demon Gene Simmons is “Only You”, a choppy and spare guitar number that is the first rock moment on the album.  It’s an attempt to be progressive and rock, and it more or less works.  It’s simple and blocky, but it shifts into a few different sections including a reprise of the “Just a Boy” theme.  Paul also guests on a verse as the boy character, questioning his destiny:  “I can’t believe this is true, why do I listen to you?  And if I am all that you say, why am I still so afraid?”  The Elder respond, “In every age, in every time, a hero is born as if by a grand design.”  In an interesting twist, Doro Pesche later covered this song with completely different lyrics.

According to their self-written Kisstory (volume 1) tome, Eric Carr expressed some doubt as to the band’s current direction.  In response Gene challenged him to come up with something of his own, so Eric provided the beginnings of “Under the Rose”, on which he also plays acoustic guitar.  “Under the Rose” became his first writing credit on a Kiss album, with Gene Simmons.  “Under the Rose” is soft/heavy, soft/heavy, and features an ominous choir on the chorus.  But through this, Ace Frehley’s presence cannot be felt.  Such an important part of the Kiss sound before, now relegated to the sidelines.  Ace had only one lead vocal on The Elder, a song based on a riff written by Anton Fig.  Their “Don’t Run” demo was re-written by Gene Simmons and Lou Reed, yes Lou Reed, to become “Dark Light”.  In context of the story, “Dark Light” warns of coming evil.  Ace’s presence is welcome, providing some much needed rock foundation and a brilliant guitar solo.  Unfortunately “Dark Light” is probably his weakest in his Kiss career, a disappointing followup to prior classics like “Talk to Me”, “Save Your Love” and “Shock Me”.

Lou Reed co-wrote the lyrics to the single “A World Without Heroes”, which originated as a Paul Stanley ballad called “Every Little Bit of My Heart”.  Reed came up with phrases like “a world without heroes is like a world without sun.”  These clicked with Gene and Bob Ezrin who completed the song.  Paul plays lead guitar on a somber single that, again, sounds little like Kiss.  Kiss had done ballads before and even had hits with them, but nothing like “A World Without Heroes”, one of their darkest songs.  Strangely, it ended up being covered by Cher.

At this point of the story, the boy agrees to fulfill his destiny and become the hero.  This happens on the most heavy metal song on the album, “The Oath”.  This is the track that opened the original released running order of the album, completely destroying any comprehensible plot.  You can still understand why they did this.  Its metal riff and impressive drums are the intro that the album really needed.  Paul sings in falsetto again:  “Now inside the fire of the ancient burns, a boy goes in and suddenly a man returns.”  The song was performed live once in 1982 on a TV show called Fridays.  Although the performance seemed sloppy and awkward, Ace burned up a couple wild guitar solos.  If this is the kind of material that Bob Ezrin cut from the album, it was a big mistake.

So the boy has taken the oath, and it’s time to meet the evil one. Gene and Lou Reed wrote “Mr. Blackwell” about the character, who doesn’t seem to be too worried about the discovery of the chosen one. “Here’s to the kid, a real man among men,” mocks Blackwell in the lyrics. (The song also contains the phrase “rotten to the core”, which was a song title Gene had been batting around since the mid-70s.) Musically, “Blackwell” is spare and revolves around the words. A bumping and thumping bass is the main feature of a song that is more words than music.

At the exact moment that you need Ace Frehley to come back and save the album, he does with the instrumental “Escape from the Island”. Co-written with Eric Carr and Bob Ezrin, “Island” delivers the thrills and action-packed guitar action. Because it’s an instrumental it’s hard to determine exactly how it fits the story, except it sounds like an action scene. Perhaps Blackwell launched a preemptive strike on the boy, who escaped. Ace’s guitar attacks the surroundings, chopping them down with fatally loud riffs.

The final song (on all versions of the album) is the single “I”. Gene and Paul split lead vocals on this Simmons/Ezrin song, but once again Eric Carr was secretly replaced on the recording by Allan Schwartzberg. The story is wrapped up with the boy now proclaiming he believes in himself and is ready to take on the evil. The end of the album, yes, but clearly intended as only the first chapter of something bigger. Gene spoke of a heavier sequel album called War of the Gods which would depict the conflict. Instead, “I” serves as the ending, and at least it’s a kicker. Like vintage Kiss, the riff and chorus meld into one fist of rock. The lyrics are suitably uplifting. “I believe in something more than you can understand, yes I believe in me!” That’s pure Kiss in a nutshell right there.

A short hidden track following “I” provides the only dialogue on the album (over a reprise of “fanfare“), although more was recorded. The hidden coda reaffirms that the Elder have found the right kid. “He’s got the light in his eyes, and the look of a champion. A real champion!”

There are two ways to listen to The Elder.  If you want the whole enchilada and would like to hear the story in its correct order, pick up a remastered edition of the album either on CD or vinyl.  If you’d like a more even listening experience that is the same as that of fans who dropped the needle on the album in 1981, then go for the original CD or vinyl release.  But if you’re a Kiss maniac, you simply must do it both ways.

Music From the Elder is a flawed album, mostly marred by sonic muddiness.  It has an uncharacteristic quantity of ballads and un-Kiss-like songs, so fans stayed away in droves.  What they missed was a decent concept album for Kiss, a band that never should have attempted a concept album in the first place.  Because the album failed to sell, Kiss’ ambitious tour plans were scrapped and the band stayed home.  Aside from the three songs played on the Fridays TV show (“The Oath”, “A World Without Heroes” and “I”), Kiss never played any songs from The Elder live until their 1995 acoustic Konvention tour.  The lack of a tour meant Kiss’ momentum was all but halted.  The new drummer that fans barely knew only ever played one show in North America!

A bigger problem was brewing, and that was a bitter and disenfranchised Ace Frehley.  Once again, fans were not aware of the problems brewing in Kiss, but The Elder was the last album Kiss Ace played on until 1998.  It was a repeat of the Peter Criss situation only two years prior.

If Kiss had stuck to their plan of recording a hard rock album again, perhaps things would have played out completely differently.  We’ll have a chance to check out some of the songs they were working on in upcoming chapters for they would not stay buried long.

Today’s rating:

3.5/5 stars


Uncle Meat’s rating:

2/5 steaks 

Meat’s slice:  Some of my favorite records ever have been “concept” records.  Operation: Mindcrime, Misplaced Childhood, 2112, Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory, El Corazon; to name just a few of many.  When it comes to The Elder, my one sentence review of this album would simply be:  Some bands should not make concept albums.  Bob Ezrin came straight from The Wall to record this mess.  I read somewhere recently, and it may even have been in the comments here perhaps, but Ace Frehley hates this album.  Which completely makes sense considering he had been on such a roll until it halted with this record.  It’s kind of a hard album to break down individually, but some quick notes:

“The Oath” – Very chuggy heavy song.  I think the [domestic] album starts off with the best song.  Song begins as if it’s Manowar meets Kiss.  More reminiscent of Creatures of the Night than this record.  Perhaps some bombastic Tenacious D-like moments.

“Just A Boy” – Starts off like early ELP and first reaction is that Paul Stanley could never come close to singing this song again.  Solid song.  Overall I get a Wishbone Ash feel. 

“Dark Light” – As mentioned earlier, Ace’s roll slows down with a dull track.  I do like the guitar solo over the bongos though.

“Only You” – An even duller track that starts with Gene singing, and morphs into Stanley singing with some stupid effect on his voice.  Right producer, wrong band.   (That could be another one sentence review of The Elder)

“Under the Rose” – This clunker doesn’t flow for me.  Gregorian Monks?  Bah….

“A World Without Heroes” – I thought it was lame then and it’s only slightly less lame to me now.  Could have used more Lou Reed.

“Mr. Blackwell” – Funky novel track.  Dancy and quirky but one of the strongest songs on The Elder for me.  One of the only songs for me that has a great hook to it.  Unmasked this album is not.

“Escape From the Island” – Good solid rocker.  Great drumming.  This would have been a great live jammer, but I’m doubting they have ever played this live.   LeBrain?  [Nope]

“Odyssey” – WTF?  Was this Paul’s tryout demo  for Phantom of the Opera?  This song alone is an unforgivable sin, and just another reason why this album should have been aborted in the womb.

Favorite Tracks”  “The Oath”, “Mr. Blackwell”, “Escape From the Island”

Forgettable Tracks:  Take your pick….


To be continued…

Original mikeladano.com review:  2012/07/26

REVIEW: Savatage – Streets: A Rock Opera (1990, 2002 remaster)

I haven’t reviewed much of my Savatage collection, and the reason for this is actually their fault.  There are so many different versions with different bonus tracks that I cannot keep any of it straight.  I have no idea what I have or what I’m missing at this point concerning bonus tracks.  I like to be thorough when reviewing an album, providing some commentary on all the different tracks available.  In Savatage’s case, I give up.  I can’t keep up with the bonus tracks, but I’m going to review the albums anyway.  Streets: A Rock Opera is the Savatage album closest to my metal heart.  And that means it’s Epic Review Time!

Scan_20160523SAVATAGE – Streets: A Rock Opera (1990, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

The origins of Savatage did little to hint at what they could become.  Little more than a thrash band with remarkable riffs and throat, Savatage truly began to grow when they hooked up with producer/co-writer Paul O’Neill.  He had already been working on an idea for a musical called Gutter Ballet.  Savatage liked his ideas;  singer Jon Olivia used the title for his song “Gutter Ballet” (unrelated), after being inspired by Phantom of the Opera.   Their next project was determined to be the O’Neill musical, which now needed a new title:  Streets (with Ghost in the Ruins being O’Neill’s preferred, un-used title).   One song was already used:  “When the Crowds are Gone” was recorded by Savatage for their 1989 LP.  Other songs would also have to be trimmed, such as “Desirée”, and “This is Where We Should Be” which later emerged as bonus tracks elsewhere.

A children’s choir opens the title track “Streets”, before the tinkling of creepy piano.  “Streets” acts as introduction to the story, setting the scene with Jon Olivia as your narrator.  The song turns very metal to let us know this story is going to be a heavy one.  “These streets never sleep, still they never wake,” goes the ominous tune.  Jon’s brother, guitarist Criss Oliva, rips up and down the neck for a solo section that evokes hope instead of fear.  I feel chills on my arms.

Streets contains very little dialogue.  A man begging for a quarter introduces himself.  “I ain’t no bum or nothin’.  I used to live uptown once before too you know.”  He lights up a cigarette.  Lots of characters down here.  But there was one character who made it out of here:  D.T. Jesus.  He was a drug dealer, “Downtown Jesus”, or “Detox” to his friends.  Streets is his story, and this is the intro to “Jesus Saves”.


“Jesus Saves”…

The interesting thing about “Jesus Saves” is that there is an alternate version out there that wasn’t used, called “DT Jesus”.  Lyrically it’s identical, but musically it’s gospel rock.  Don’t ask me to choose a favourite; I can’t.  The gospel version has an incredible power that the album version, “Jesus Saves”, does not.  However Savatage are a metal band, and even if this is a rock opera, “Jesus Saves” works better for a metal album.  It’s exactly what is needed for the start of this album:  a short, hard shot right in the face, guitars exotically dancing and Jon Oliva shrieking the best he can.  D.T. Jesus may have been a low-life, but that wasn’t his future.  “Bought himself a cheap guitar, started playing bars, kids came in their cars.”


…and “DT Jesus”. Which do you prefer?

Fame comes.  T-shirts, radio interviews, headline concerts.  It was not to last for D.T. Jesus.   “He started missing shows, the band came down to blows, but Jesus just didn’t care.”  Even when he quits the band, his fame won’t disappear.  The story of the musician who could not kick his demons resonated with Jon Oliva who went through his fair share of powders and pills before Streets.  There are probably several kernals of truth within his vocals and that is one thing that makes Streets so unforgettable.

“Tonight He Grins Again” refers to the monkey on his back:  addiction.  “Still he is my only friend, and tonight he grins again.”  The power in this piano/metal hybrid is undeniable.  During the quiet passages, Oliva’s voice quavers; then he shouts hauntingly on the choruses.   Mid-tempo guitars kick in for “Strange Reality”, and the story begans to turn.  Jesus sees a filthy man on the streets.  “That could be me,” he begins to think to himself.  Is it a sign or a warning?  D.T. comes to this realization and then begins a confessional on “A Little Too Far”.  A pretty piano ballad like “A Little Too Far” may seem out of place, but it is only the first of several.  “A Little Too Far” is very special, raw and penetrating.  Towards the end it lightens up, and this is my favourite verse on the whole album:

“And who’s to say what it’s about,
When John Wayne caught the last train out?
And Spock and Kirk have had enough,
And no-one’s left to beam me up?…”

Drummer Steve “Doc” Wacholz used to play with a United Federation of Planets banner on his bass drum.

The mood lightened, D.T. Jesus goes for a comeback.  “You’re Alive” is the most “pop-metal” of all the songs, like Sava-Journey, indicating this is it:  this is D.T.’s moment.  “The crowd they came in just to see a man back from the dead.”  Triumphant hard rock it is, victorious and fist-pounding.  But it’s too soon for a happy ending. “You’re Alive” ends abruptly.  Enter:  Sammy.

“Sammy and Tex” is old-school Motor-metal.  The heavy chug interrupts the celebration.  Oliva screams rapid-fire from the left speaker, as the character of Sammy, an old acquaintance from the drug days.  He’s come looking for an old drug debt: $30,000, plus interest:  “Now I would have said duck it, but with the money by the bucket, I hear you’re raking in…”  A struggle ensues, but D.T.’s manager Tex hears the commotion and enters the room.  Sammy pulls a knife, and Tex is dead.

Musically, “Sammy and Tex” is the most hard core Savatage metal on the album.  Shreddery and riffs collide with the kind of speed metal tempos that they mastered on their earliest albums.  Relentless and without pause, “Sammy and Tex” perfectly accompanies the words.  The struggle is over in a blur.  Sammy makes a run for it leaving D.T. with Tex’s dead body.

The first side of the album closes with the sorrowful “St. Patrick’s”.  Not knowing where to turn, D.T. enters St. Patrick’s church, begging for answers.  The statues and paintings provide no answers.  “Surely, you must care, or are you only air?” asks D.T. in frustration.  The music turns dramatic, and then explodes as D.T. breaks down.  He then apologizes for his outburst: “Didn’t mean to doubt what it’s all about, seems I forgot my place.  But if you find the time, please change the storyline.”

SAVATAGE STREETS

Side two opens in a different mood, a dreamy landscape of echoey drum bursts and light guitars.  “Can You Hear Me Now” drops a heavy Criss Oliva riff at the halfway mark and then it starts to rip.  D.T. Jesus seems haunted by people from his past as he tries to fall asleep.  Hitting the streets again, “New York City Don’t Mean Nothing” begins as an out-of-place acoustic song.  Here we meet some other unsavoury street characters, as the song begins to accelerate.  First a fast bass beat, then chunky electric guitars join in and the song blasts off.  All sorts of advice is offered to our lead character, but none is really useful.

It sounds like Savatage ripped off the opening guitars from Def Leppard’s “Die Hard the Hunter” on the next track, “Ghost in the Ruins”.  I all but expect Joe Elliot’s voice next.  It goes heavy instead, painting a picture of the bad side of town at night.  D.T. then begins to question what the world would be like if he didn’t exist anymore.  Would anybody care?  “If I Go Away” goes full-on power ballad mode.  It is one of the most powerful songs on the album, anthemic and beautiful, but sad.  It has become a bit of a classic to Savatage fans today, often considered among their best ballads.

D.T.’s demons will not die, and the urge to go back to the drugs once again speaks on “Agony and Ecstasy”, the last of the heavy tracks on the album.  With a chugging Criss riff, this one blasts like a train fueled by Van Halen (not Van Hagar) albums!  “Just remember, if you ever need me…I’m here,” ends the song.  Then the story gets a little fuzzy, but thankfully the band included a narrative that helps explain events.  The album closes with a trio of piano ballads, each building upon the other to a satisfying climax.

Fair warning here:  Much of Savatage’s conceptual music has Christian overtones, but none more obvious than on these three tracks.  According to the story, D.T. finds a homeless man in the streets who is dying.  D.T. feeds him and clothes him.  This would be during the ballad, “Heal My Soul”, the first of the ballad trio.  It is based on a Welch lullaby called “Suo Gân”.  With just piano and the voice of Oliva, you can imagine D.T. singing this to comfort the man as he passes away.  The children’s choir then returns, adding a pretty but haunting quality.


“Believe”

According to the story, D.T. witnesses a luminous spirit emerge from the homeless man, who he follows up several flights of stairs to a roof of a building.  On “Somewhere In Time”, D.T. seems to have come to a spiritual realization and confesses all his regrets and mistakes.  “I’ve been grasping at rainbows, holding on to the end, but the rain is so real lord, and the rainbows pretend.”  The music goes upbeat with a hard rocking middle section, guitars squealing as if possessed by St. Halen himself.  Then, finally D.T. opens his heart and gets his answers:  “Believe” is the perfect ending to an epic emotional journey.  With all the power that Savatage can muster, overblown, dramatic, and pompous, “Believe” ends a rock opera properly.  Interestingly, it retains a simply epic section that was lifted directly from “When the Crowds are Gone”, excised from the story when it was used on the Gullet Ballet album.  So epic is this segment, that Savatage had to re-use.  Then later, on another Savatage album later in 1994 called Handful of Rain, part of it was re-used again, along with other parts of “Believe”.  Its positioning on that album was the same:  it was part of the closing track.  Only on Handful of Rain, it was on a song called “Alone You Breathe” that was a tribute to Criss Oliva, who was killed by a drunk driver.

“Believe” ends the album on the bright up-note that you want a story to end with, your soul awash with light and musically uplifted.  Reading the story and words, it’s really hard to avoid the obvious message.  Listening to the music purely as an album, you can probably live life completely ignorant of the story.  But as soon as they put A Rock Opera in the title, that makes the listener try to follow along.  I think it’s pretty obvious, in the final song “Believe”:  “I am the way, I am the light, I am the dark inside the night…”   Paul O’Neill, who wrote the musical on which this album was based, is openly Catholic, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know and what interests you and what makes you feel something.  But some…probably a minority of listeners…just flat out won’t like it.  They will consider the call of “I’ll be right there, I’ll never leave, and all I ask is believe,” to be heavy-handed preaching, and fair enough.  That’s why I’m putting it out there — for readers to make up their own minds.


A later, Zak Stevens-sung version of “Believe” done acoustically.

So, on to this lovely Steamhammer remaster…with “bonus tracks”.

Two bonus tracks are listed:  “Jesus Saves” and “Ghost in the Ruins” live.  One issue:  There are no bonus tracks on this CD.  None.  Nada.

There is a recent release with narration between all the songs, and a previously unreleased track called “Larry Elbows”.  That’s probably a good one to have.  There is a 2011 remaster with unreleased acoustic songs.  There was a 1997 release with a Zak Stevens-sung version of the outtake “Desirée”. Or you could go with the original 1991 release if you’re so inclined, because there are more flaws with this Steamhammer package.

One is that all the artwork is blurry in comparison to an original release.  The other is that the narrative story isn’t included in the booklet.  It was in the original, along with the lyrics.  Steamhammer only brought over the lyrics.  In compensation, they do include an 11 page (very small print) segment detailing every aspect of the making of this album and the tour that followed.  In the end, Jon Oliva resigned from the band, citing exhaustion.  His replacement was the young and able Zak Stevens for 1993’s followup Edge of Thorns.

Savatage’s Streets: A Rock Opera was their first full-length concept album, the first of many:  Dead Winter Dead, The Wake of Magellan, and Poets and Madman all followed after a brief period of non-conceptual work.  That’s some heavy competition, but Streets remains their most passionate.

5/5 stars

but 1/5 for Steamhammer!

REVIEW: Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime II (2006)

QUEENSRYCHE – Operation: Mindcrime II (2006 Rhino)

10 years ago, when this project finally saw the light of day, a lot of fans were expecting it to be 1988 all over again. However, there were many reasons why they shouldn’t have.

1. Longtime guitarist/songwriter Chris DeGarmo, such an integral part of the original Mindcrime, had been out of the band for quite some time.
2. Geoff Tate’s voice didn’t have that high-note power it once had.
3. The band never intended to pretend it was still 1988. This album is a continuation, 18 years later, and as such the music has changed somewhat as well.  The albums are meant to complement each other, not duplicate each other.

Scan_20160510 (2)The story picks up with Nikki, the anti-hero from the original Mindcrime, finally being released from prison, 18 years after the events of the first album. He begins to piece together his memories of what happened. He decides to pay Dr. X a visit (“X marks the spot”, goes the lyric), who is deliciously played by the late Ronnie James Dio.  For die-hard Dio followers, this was a real treat. Dio sings as if in a stage production, which I’ve never heard him do before. Pamela Moore reprises her role of Sister Mary, playing a larger role and appearing on more songs. She’s a great complement to Geoff Tate, who clearly revels in the chance to do something dramatic like this.

New second guitar player Mike Stone (ex-Criss) gels very nicely with Michael Wilton, playing dual guitar leads that Queensryche of old would have been proud of. At the same time, modern technology has creeped into the production in the form of sequencers and samples, to remind us that this was 2006.  Still, Eddie Jackson’s bass had never been recorded this well before; he should be very proud of his rumble. Scott Rockenfield’s back to playing some serious metallic drumming as well, leaving behind some of his tribal influences for the moment.

So, the actual sound of Mindcrime II is amazing. The songs however are not up to the very high standards that Mindcrime I set. There is no “I Don’t Believe In Love” or “Eyes Of A Stranger”, although some songs like “The Hands” come pretty close, with an amazing metallic riff and great chorus. (Did anyone else notice a few bars of music from “I Don’t Believe In Love” within “The Hands”? Listen again.) “I’m American” is lyrically fantastic, and angrier than anything Queensryche has done since Q2K. “Chase” is the one featuring Dio, and the one I keep coming back to.

The thing about Queensryche albums is, they do tend to get better with time.  Maybe they were always slightly ahead of the curve, or more likely they just take a few listens to absorb.  It’s been a decade now, and few of the Mindcrime II songs remain lodged in the my brain.  Meanwhile, I could hum any song from the first one.  In particular, the second side of Mindcrime II really takes a drop.  Tracks like “Fear City Slide” do not have the impact of “I Don’t Believe in Love”, and the closer “All the Promises” fails to deliver.  It’s a concept album after all, and the last song is like the last scene in a movie.  It should be memorable.

Will Mindcrime II ever become classic like the original? Doubtful. As soon as you name something with a “II” behind it, you’re painting yourself into a corner, but Queensryche have done about as good a job as the fans could have expected.  It seems many fans have warmed up to it over the years, though it certainly cannot be considered equal with the original.

3/5 stars

Scan_20160510 (4)

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – From the Inside (1978)

ALICE COOPER – From the Inside (1978 Warner)

In 1978, Alice Cooper’s health had hit a low point.  His excessive drinking was causing bleeding ulcers.  Alcohol always seemed to help before, but now it was time for Alice himself to get help.  He found himself in one of the strangest places he’d ever been in his life:  a sanitarium.

Alice got sober, for a short while anyway, and hooked up with some new players.  He wrote the lyrics for his next album with Bernie Taupin (Elton John) and got David Foster to produce him for the first and only time.  The inspiration for his next concept album was the sanitarium.  The people he encountered there inspired the characters on his album:  Millie, Billie, Nurse Rozetta, Jackknife Johnny, and more.  He amalgamated their stories and and personalities into the characters on the record, and with Bernie Taupin wrote some of his most interesting lyrics.  The horror themes of the past have been replaced by the real life madness of being locked in that place.

Musically, From the Inside is a hard pill to swallow.  Like a dose of Thorazine, it’s a sedated and subdued form of rock and roll, mixing Disco production and David Foster’s soft rock tendencies.  The sound of the album is clean and clear, but it is a dated a product of its time, the compression being the dead giveaway.  From the Inside is far more interesting lyrically than it is musically.  Bob Ezrin used to add strings, orchestras and choirs to the Alice Cooper mix, but David Foster’s version of the same is much more saccharine; much more easy listening without the weirdness.  Few of these songs are still in the live set.  Last time I saw Alice in 2006, he played “Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills” with his daughter Calico playing a Paris Hilton type character on stage.  The Disco-stompin’ title track, and one of the only hard rockers (“Serious”) have also been performed in recent years.  For the most part, From the Inside is too much of a departure for these songs to having any staying power in Alice’s incendiary live show.

The title track is Alice’s story, and there are subtle references to Alice’s drinking club the Hollywood Vampires.  “Proposed a toast, to Jimi’s ghost.”  There also seems to be just a touch of bitterness about his situation:

Y’all got your kicks from what you saw up there,
Eight bucks even buys a folding chair,
I was downing Seagram’s on another flight,
And I worked that stage all night long.
You were screaming for the villain up there,
And I was much obliged,
The old road sure screwed me good this time,
It’s hard to see where the vicious circle ends.

It’s actually a fun Disco-rock tune, but now it’s time to meet Alice’s friends from the sanitarium.   The aforementioned “Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills” boasts a catchy chorus (“I wish I could drink as much as she spills!”) and some nice Dick Wagner guitar harmonies.  For haunting music, “The Quiet Room” fits the bill.  It’s clear that the sanitarium was a serious place, and Alice and Bernie paint it clearly.  “They’ve got this place, where they been keepin’ me, where I can’t hurt myself, I can’t get my wrists to bleed.”  The character in this song questions why he wants to kill himself, but laments that he can’t even try in this place, “my Twilight Zone”.  He has spent so long there, alone with his thoughts and memories that “the quiet room knows more about me than my wife.”  It’s a strangely affecting tune.  Alice’s character driven lead vocal is the highlight; musically it’s pretty safe stuff.

The funniest track has to be “Nurse Rozetta”.  The lead character, clearly a priest, seems to really have a thing for Nurse Rozetta.  “I’m suddenly twice my size, my pants are all wet inside.”  Or my favourite line, “She popped the buckle off my Bible belt.”  The perverted priest fantasizes about the nurse on a string-laden but unremarkable tune, once again overshadowed by the words.  Alice and Marcella Detroit duet on “Millie and Billie”, a standard ballad, about a killer “criminally insane” couple to close Side One.

The only really killer hard rock track on the album is “Serious”, commencing the second side.  Foster’s production adds carefully arranged backing vocals, which matches the sound of the album, but dates the music to the time it was recorded.  Ezrin had a way of pulling off similar tricks and making them sound weighty.  Foster turns it around and produces a celebratory, gleeful sound.  I prefer the Ezrin approach, but one time the David Foster style works was the single “How You Gonna See Me Now”.  Something about this schlocky ballad works. The character in the song is writing a letter home to his wife, accompanied by this cheesey 70’s AM radio ballad. That’s the perfect way to do it.

“For Veronica’s Sake” and “Jackknife Johnny” are both good but unremarkable, although it seems Alice and crew really tried! They get an “A” for effort, but this brand of late 70’s adult contemporary rock has not aged well. The playing is the highlight, organ and guitar both. What the album was really missing up to this point is a suitably psychotic Alice Cooper song, but the final track “Inmates (We’re All Crazy)” scratches that itch. With all the pomp and circumstance necessary, this song delivers the dose of drama and strangeness that you need on an Alice Cooper album. It’s a disturbing lyric, too. “It’s not like we did something wrong. We just burned down the church, while the choir within sang religious songs.” Another inmate derailed a train. Then, the child-like sing-song chorus of “We’re all crazy, we’re all crazy, we’re all crazy…(Lizzy Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks)…” Such a contrast, the child-like innocence and the horrendous deeds, but this is nothing new for Alice. The picture is now complete, and the album is over.

The cover art really pops on LP. Alice’s face is painted on hospital doors, which fold out to reveal the characters inside. Too bad all I have here at LeBrain HQ is a little CD booklet.

Alice, Bernie Tauper, David Foster, Dick Wagner, and the rest of them made an accomplished album with From the Inside. It’s a left-of-center artwork that isn’t immediately appealing, but does have the knack of drawing you back for another listen. I recommend doing just that.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976)

Happy Halloween, folks!  And what better way to celebrate this day than with the king of horror rock, Alice Cooper?

ALICE COOPER – Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976 Warner)

Last time, he welcomed you to his nightmare.  Now, journey with Alice as he takes you straight to hell!  Subtitled (in the inner booklet) as “A Bedtime Story”, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is another concept album, to follow a concept album.  Steven is back.  It’s a pretty mad concept, and one that ties into not only Nightmare, but also Nightmare 2, decades later.  Steven will fall asleep, and follow Alice down a dark endless staircase, “the pit where he doesn’t want to go, but has to.”

Written and produced by Alice, Bob Ezrin, and Dick Wagner, Goes to Hell features a backing band with a name you might recognize: The Hollywood Vampires.  It’s not the same band, obviously (Johnny Depp was 12 years old), but it does demonstrate just how long Alice has been using that name for a band.  Among the many musicians herein, you will recognize many:  Steven Hunter, Dick Wagner, Tony Levin, and Allan Schwartzberg are probably in your record collection many times (credited or otherwise).

Goes to Hell doesn’t have the fire, or the reputation, of Welcome to My Nightmare.  It is the beginning of a long slide that did not fully right itself until after Alice had kicked the booze for good.  It is, however, an under-appreciated album with fun and nuance in the dark shadows.  The title track is one song that still graces the live stage.  Here, Alice seems to be paying for his crimes committed.  “For criminal acts and violence on the stage, For being a brat refusing to act your age, For all of the decent citizens you’ve enraged, You can go to hell!”  You’ll never have so much fun on the road to H-E-double-hockeysticks, this side of an AC/DC album.  Quintessential Alice, this is, and indispensable too.  Anyone who has ever liked the biting humour and celebrated riffs of Alice Cooper will love “Go to Hell”.  Bob Ezrin adds the usual accompaniment to the mix:  horns, keys, and gang vocals condemning Alice to hell!

A full three years before Kiss, Alice Cooper went disco.  If you like disco rock metal music, then “You Gotta Dance” to this one.  This is a track that some Alice fans would probably love to bury, but it has its moments.  Steve Hunter plays a wicked funky guitar solo.  There is always instrumental integrity.  “I’m the Coolest” slows the pace to a jazzy drawl.  At this point I imagine the character of Alice is meeting various people down in hell, perhaps the man in charge himself.  “Didn’t We Meet” suggests this.  “To look at you, deja vu, chills me to the core.”  Then, “They say you’re the king of this whole damn thing.”  These three tunes are all quite a departure from hard rock, but Alice has always been so diverse.  The hit ballad “I Never Cry” (#5 in Canada) is very pretty, unusually so for Alice.  It is, according him, an “alcoholic confession”, and not the only moment on the album that touches on his drinking.

The first side of the album has some great tracks, but only the first (“Go to Hell”) really rocks.  Side two is similarly diverse and dark.  “Give the Kid a Break” is a campy musical number, with Alice pleading his case before the judge.  “I don’t know why I’m down here, I don’t deserve to roast or bake.”  Predictably, things don’t go well, since the next song is called “Guilty”!  “Guilty” is the hardest rocker on the album, and one of the only songs to be played live occasionally through the decades.   Not that all the other songs on the album suck; Alice just sounds right when he’s rocking like he always has.  And the lyrics rule:

Just tried to have fun, raised hell and then some,
I’m a dirt-talkin’, beer drinkin’, woman chasin’ minister’s son,
Slap on the make-up and blast out the music,
Wake up the neighbors with a roar,
Like a teenage heavy metal elephant gun.

If you call that guilty, then that’s what I am.
I’m guilty, I’m guilty!

This is right up the alley of a tune like “Escape” from the last album.  It’s a shot in the arm and just when you need it.

With “Wake Me Gently”, we are back in ballad land, and it is unfortunately the longest song on the album.  It sounds like an Ezrin creation, but in comparison to his other works, it is among his lesser creations.  The string section is the highlight.  Then he turns up the funk again for “Wish You Were Here”, with the help of Wagner on funky gee-tar.  “Havin’ a hell of a time my dear, wish you were here.”  Sounds like Alice has more than enough of hell by now.  Steve Hunter plays the blazing Lizzy leads at the end of the song.

In a surprising-but-not turn, Alice pulls “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” out of the hat, an old Vaudeville song (1917) once performed by Judy Garland in 1941.  It actually works within the concept of the album, and predictably, Alice perfectly camps it up.  It blends splendidly into “Going Home”, with Steven finally escaping his nightmare.  Was it a nightmare?  “I wonder what happened to Alice,” he ponders.  This is pompous, overdone Ezrin, just the way you like it.  Orchestration and thunderous percussion lend themselves well to this dramatic close.

It’s pretty clear that the reason Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is not as fondly remembered as Welcome to My Nightmare is the sudden change in direction to balladeer.  There are only three rocking songs on an album of eleven tracks, and Alice was always primarily a rock artist, albeit an experimental one.  You still found his records in the “rock” section of your friendly neighbourhood record store.  Three rockers aside, the rest is a diverse assortment of music, well put together and played.  Clearly, that has to be the key.  But there is more to it than that.  Nightmare seemed a more celebratory affair.  It felt lively; it felt alive.  Goes to Hell sounds less so.  Alice’s lungs seemed weakened, just a smidge, from how they used to bellow.

Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is worthy of praise, not derision.  Just remember — it’s not a rock album.  At best it’s rock opera.  Proposed analogy:  Goes to Hell is Alice’s Music From the Elder.  They even have the same producer!

3.5/5 stars

Happy Halloween kiddies!

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)

WELC0ME TO_0001ALICE COOPER – Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)

My sister used to have a tradition.  Because I’ve always been a collector, she would have an easy time buying gifts for me as a young rock fan.  When I was 17 years old,  I only had a few albums by certain artists.  She’d sneak into my room and go over my collection.  She saw that I only owned a few of Alice Cooper’s:  Trash, Prince of Darkness, Billion Dollar Babies, and Greatest Hits.  For Easter of 1990, she got me Alice’s Welcome to My Nightmare.  Not knowing what to except from the Coop, it was pretty much instant love.

I played that cassette a lot and grew to know its track sequence, which was completely different from CD.  Later on I purchased the original CD release, but what Welcome To My Nightmare needed (and the rest of the Cooper catalogue needs) is a proper remaster with bonus tracks.  Rhino took care of that in 2002.

Now the album itself sounds so much better than the original CD. This sounds more like vinyl, the way it should, rich and deep. The liner notes, unfortunately, are somewhat crappy. They basically just explain to the youth of today why Alice Cooper is cooler than the bands they like. There’s not much about the genesis of the album, which is disappointing. This is, after all, the very first solo album by Vincent Furnier aka Alice Cooper. By 1975, the Alice Cooper band (Furnier, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, Neil Smith, and the late Glen Buxton) was no more. Never again would they share a stage or a recording studio, at least the original five.  The four survivors did finally re-team for a couple songs on 2011’s sequel, Welcome 2 My Nightmare.

Welcome To My Nightmare was a revelation to me when I received it, and it is still mind-blowing today. I think that is due to the production talents of Bob Ezrin. The man who later produced Destroyer and The Wall really came into his own on this album. His production is, for lack of any better words, jaw dropping. You can totally tell it’s him, if you know his style well enough: that creepy horror movie piano, all the orchestrations, sound effects, the kids singing. Those are trademarks. My favourite moment for the kids was in the song “Department of Youth”. Cooper and the kids sing in the fade-out:

Together – “We’re the Department of Youth, ahh ahh, we got the power!”
Alice – Who got the power?”
Kids – “We do!”
Alice – “And who gave it to you?”
Kids – “Donny Osmond!”
Alice – “WHAT?”

Loosely, this is a concept album about the kind of nightmares Alice would have.  The result was a collection of remarkably timeless and classic songs:  “Only Women Bleed”, “Black Widow”, and “Escape” for example. “Escape” is the most straightforward rocker on the album, and a joy it is. The rest is often more complex, arrangement-wise and lyrically.

The title track is a fun rollercoaster ride with epic horns.  Same with “Devil’s Food” and “The Black Widow” which work together as a creepy classic featuring Vincent Price.  I would not want to live my life without these songs.  Alice is nothing if not diverse, and then “Some Folks” sounds showtune-y.  “Only Women Bleed” is the famous ballad, often misunderstood, but respected enough to be covered by artists such as Lita Ford, Tina Turner, and Etta James.

“Department Of Youth” and “Cold Ethel” are more rock and roll, and why not?  What better genre to sing about rebellion and necrophilia?  It’s worth pointing out the guitar charms of Steve Hunter and the late Dick Wagner.  These two incredible players, under the guidance of Ezrin, lent Welcome To My Nightmare the rock edge that it needed, lest it be swallowed up by the dramatic tendencies.

Of course, Welcome To My Nightmare features the first-ever appearance of the character of Steven. “Years Ago” has Alice singing in this incredibly creepy little-kid voice, as Steven. Then the song “Steven” kicks in, and it’s even creepier, but very epic in scale. Alice is at his most effective here.  Steven would pop up many times, such as on the next album Alice Cooper Goes To Hell, 1991’s Hey Stoopid, 1994’s Last Temptation, and the more recent Along Came A Spider.  Whether it’s supposed to be the same guy, or just a character who shares the same name, I do not know.

The bonus tracks are alternate versions of “Devil’s Food” (much extended), “Cold Ethyl”, and “The Awakening” with alternate lyrics and more Vincent Price! Not available on the Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper box set! These three tracks alone, to the Cooper collector, necessitate a re-buy.  The improved sound probably would have hooked them in anyway.

I could never say, “If you only buy one Alice Cooper album, buy this one.” The reason I can’t is that almost every album by the original Alice Cooper band was monumental, particularly School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies. However, if you buy two or three Coops, please make one of them Welcome To My Nightmare, remastered!

5/5 stars

* There is also a DVD Audio of this album mixed in 5.1 by Bob Ezrin himself!

REVIEW: Steve Vai – Passion and Warfare (1990)

PASSION AND WARFARE_0001STEVE VAI – Passion and Warfare (1990 Relativity)

Passion and Warfare was released in 1990.  I didn’t expect it to chart, but it did!  It was an exciting time for instrumental guitar records.  Joe Satriani had recently become a household name with albums such as Surfing With the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream, but Flying had vocals on some songs.  Now his student Steve Vai was on the charts with his own solo album.

Different from Flex-able, which was basically just released demos, Passion and Warfare was a fully realized piece of art.  Some consider it to be Steve’s “real” debut album.  Some of the music dated back almost a decade.  “Liberty”, said Steve, was a melody he heard in a lucid dream and tried to recall.  Of the dream, Steve remembered saluting a flag he didn’t recognize, with an anthem playing.  “Liberty” opens the CD, which is actually a lyricless concept album.  Steve Vai is nothing if not ambitious.  There is some dialogue on and between songs (some performed by Steve’s then-Whitesnake bandmate David Coverdale), and the liner notes trace out some of the dreams that inspired the music.

Lyrics for a song that has no lyrics!

Lyrics for a song that has no lyrics!

“Erotic Nightmares” is self-explanatory.  Steve composed a chunky rock track with so much guitar that I doubt he even knows how many tracks of shredding is on it anymore.  Guitars build layer after layer, playing melodies that don’t seem possible to perform with fingers.  It’s not mindless shredding for the sake of shredding.  The “concept album” aspect means that the songs have movement and go to different places, trying to convey these ideas to the listener.  Steve used an Eventide harmonizer to give his guitar flute and keyboard-like tones.  Those bizarre sounds compounded with Steve’s impossible fretwork means this is one hell of an ambitious song and album.

Steve was using his new Ibanez 7-string guitar exclusively now.  I believe he stated in an interview that there is hardly any 6-string on Passion and Warfare at all.  It’s that 7th string that enables Steve to dig low on the groovy “The Animal”.   With the expert rhythm section of Stu Hamm (bass) and Chris Frazier (drums), there is no way this would suck.  Steve remembers to throw enough melodic hooks down to keep it listenable for laypeople.  “Answers” is less accessible, a cute dance of strange munchkin-like melodies.  There is a melody here, however, that recurs through the length of the album.  It’s an old melody, and part of it appeared on Flex-able and an Alcatrazz album as well.  Clearly these ideas had been gestating a long time before they were fully realized on tape.

After a brief dialogue snippet (a tape of a preacher that Steve recorded off the radio many years prior) comes the track “The Riddle”.  That’s right — the answer came before the riddle.  I love stuff like that.  It sounds like there are backwards guitars on this song, but who knows!  I’m sure Steve can make his guitar sound backwards.  “The Riddle” is a long epic that goes to exotic territories, and many textures.  “Ballerina 12/24” is a short transitional piece that shows off the Evontide harmonizer – the notes are moved up a few octaves making it sound unlike a guitar at all.  Then a deep breath and it’s onto the serious album epic — “For the Love of God”.  Considered by some as one of the greatest guitar songs of all time, you can hear what all the hype is about.  The melody that it is based on becomes increasingly more complex and expressive as the song progresses.  That’s not a sitar on the song either, just Steve wrenching sounds of the guitar that it was not intended to make!

You can’t close a side better than with “For the Love of God”.  The second half of the album commenced with the jokey “The Audience is Listening”.  While this is a smoking track, the dialogue (performed by Steve’s actual grade school teacher) doesn’t stand up to repeated listens.  It’s amusing but it has a short shelf life.  The school room theme had some comparing it to “Hot For Teacher” by Van Halen, but there’s no similarity beyond that.  It was an obvious choice to release as a single/video, with Thomas McRocklin playing young Stevie.

“I Would Love To” was the most accessible track on the album, and it too was chosen as a single/video. This is as mainstream as Passion and Warfare gets! An uptempo rock track like this is an easy point of entry for the uninitiated. That’s not to say anything is sacrificed for the sake of simplicity. Steve’s guitar is as dropping as ever. I’m not sure where it fits into the concept of the album. The liner notes tell us that the next song, “Blue Powder”, depicts a scene “high above the trees. Everything was more vivid than I thought was ever possible. I saw things from all sides. Then I realized I wasn’t perceiving things through human eyes.” Deep stuff, but musically it starts as a slow blues. Through the fingers of Steve Vai of course, so that means different from any slow electric blues you’ve heard before. And then it goes to outer space, anyway. It’s incredible how well Steve can play the blues, as well as the space-age stuff, and make it sound authentic. “Blue Powder” also boasts a freaky-funky bass solo from Stu Hamm.


I love that they make fun of New Kids on the Block in this video

“Greasy Kid’s Stuff” serves as an upbeat track with the smoking-guitar quotient at max.  “Alien Water Kiss” is another brief demonstration of how a harmonizer could make the guitar sounds like a not-guitar.  “Alien Water Kiss” actually sounds like what it’s supposed to sound like — assuming aliens have lips.  You get the feeling that a lot of Steve’s lucid dreams were wet dreams!   “They must have sensed that my actions and thoughts were harmless, being that they induced a union between us.”  Yikes!

Sometimes Steve Vai doesn’t get too weird and just writes beautiful music.  “For the Love of God” is one such song, and so is “Sisters”.  This soft ballad showcases a side of Steve Vai that some don’t know.  His technique is flawless, but so is his feel.  It doesn’t hurt to have Hamm and Frazier playing with him, who are also able to wrench feeling from their instruments.  The final song, “Love Secrets” is just Steve, at his most bizarre.  It’s a dramatic close to a confusing concept album, that leaves you with the feeling that you just heard something really significant.  You don’t know what that is, but it has a weight to it — and that’s what draws you back.

I’ve been listening to and enjoying Passion and Warfare for 25 years now.  Although Steve’s guitar tone sounds a little thin by comparison to today’s standards, I am just as enthralled as I was in 1990.  Passion and Warfare remains a genius album, and to this day it is still my favourite.

5/5 stars

PASSION AND WARFARE_0003

REVIEW: Jon Bon Jovi – Blaze of Glory (1990)

JBJ BOG_0001

JON BON JOVI – Blaze of Glory: Inspired by the film Young Guns II (1990 Mercury)

Billy the Kid was a fascinating character.  Perhaps he was the embodiment of the Old West itself: a charismatic outlaw, who reportedly had a hair trigger temper but also a heart of gold.  Unfortunately, the film Young Guns II seems more about a person called Brushy Bill, rather than William H. McCarty, also known as William H. Bonney, but best known as Billy the Kid.  Having killed his first man at 18, the Kid earned his nickname with his boyish looks.  He looked nothing at all like his screen counterpart Emilio Estevez, but it’s because of Emilio that Jon Bon Jovi recorded the soundtrack to Young Guns II.

A popular theory from the 1990’s was that Billy the Kid was not killed by Sheriff Patrick Frank Garrett in 1881.   In 1948, a character called Brushy Bill Roberts emerged claiming to be the Kid, alive and well.  There was enough facial resemblance, and also sworn statements from five people who knew the Kid. Roberts never proved that he was actually William McCarty, and today historians have dismissed his claims due to the number of facts that do not match (such as dates of birth).   Young Guns II, the film, operated on the popular theory that Billy survived, and that he faked his death with the help of Pat Garrett.

In fact Garrett did shoot the Kid and lived a life of shame afterwards, as the details of the shooting of the popular Kid didn’t paint him in a positive light.  Oddly enough, Garrett himself was shot and killed in 1908 by a rancher named Jesse Wayne Brazel, in New Mexico.  The interesting coincidence about this is Brazel was uncle to a Mac Brazel, also a rancher in New Mexico, near the town of Roswell.  It was on his ranch that something strange (almost certainly an actual UFO) crashed and was covered up.  It is an amusing intersection of two of the great folk tales in American history.

So along came this movie.  Emilio Estevez asked Jon Bon Jovi if they could use “Wanted: Dead or Alive” in the film.  Jon declined and said, “The lyrics don’t make sense.  That song is about touring, let me write you something more appropriate to the old west and Billy the Kid.”  This turned into an entire album.  Essentially Blaze of Glory is not a soundtrack album (since none of Jon’s songs are in the movie until the end credits) but a concept album based on the film.

The album begins with a snippet of dialogue:  “Yoo-hoo!” says Emilio/Billy.  “I’ll make ya famous.”  A gunshot and the song “Billy Get Your Guns” begins.  That’s Kenny Aranoff on drums in case you were wondering.  “Billy Get Your Guns” isn’t a hard rock song like Bon Jovi was doing at the time.  But it’s still rock and roll, featuring some great slide guitar riffing by Waddy Wachtel.  Jon’s voice is young, strong and loud.  It’s a sound I miss.  I think it’s impossible to dislike the excellent “Billy Get Your Guns”, especially when topped by a Jeff Beck guitar solo, who plays on pretty much the whole album.  (The album also features two Journey bassists:  Randy Jackson and Bob Glaub.)

Jeff even appeared in the music video for “Miracle”, the hit ballad from the album.  The lovely accordion and spare arrangement gives it quite a different feel from old Bon Jovi ballads. Once again I am reminded that Jon once possessed quite a powerful voice.  It’s also worth noting that Jon wrote every song himself.

“William H. Bonney, you are not a god.” – Keifer Sutherland as Doc Scurlock

“Why don’t you pull the trigger and find out.”  – Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid

I still love “Blaze of Glory”.  It’s timeless, more so than a lot of Bon Jovi’s hits from the time — “Bad Medicine” and so forth.  I remember seeing Aldo Nova on TV playing the riff on an acoustic guitar, and it is perfect in its classic simplicity.  Aldo is one of Jon’s oldest friends and he plays on the whole album as well.  This dynamite hit song has become so loved that Bon Jovi play it live and included it on their greatest hits compilations, even though only Jon was part of it.  Jeff Beck’s smoking solo is as much part of the song as Jon is.  I cannot understate how great this song is. From quiet acoustic strumming to bombastic aplomb, the song is a great achievement.

“Blood Money” is a short ballad, with spare acoustics, tambourine and accordion.  Jon sings as Billy the Kid, directly to Pat Garrett.  Historically we don’t know if Garrett and McCarty were friends as they are portrayed in the film, but likely they were not.  Regardless, even though the lyrics are implausible historically, it is still a powerful little song.

This leads into “Santa Fe”, which is from the perspective of Doc Scurlock.   You want epic?  Look no further.  An album highlight, “Santa Fe” boasts strings, powerful Aranoff beats, and Jon’s most vivid lead vocal.  If it had been on a Bon Jovi album, I think it would be regarded as highly as a song like “Dry County” which it resembles slightly.

JBJ BOG_0003

Side two opened with Lou Diamond Phillips (Chavez y Chavez in the film) singing a native chant.  The song “Justice in the Barrel” refers of course to the barrel of a gun, and Jeff Beck’s playing in the opening reminds us why he is one of rock’s most legendary gunslingers.  The song however is more laid back, a slow rock groove.  “Never Say Die” is the most straightforward rocker on the album, and it features Robbin Crosby of Ratt on electric guitar.  This song most closely resembles Bon Jovi, the band, even lyrically.  It is followed by a song that sounds nothing at all like them, and also my favourite:  “You Really Got Me Now”.  From first listen, way back in 1990, to today, this is a song that always puts a smile on my face.  Imagine Jon Bon and Little Richard building a time machine, travelling back to 1881, and jamming in a saloon.  That’s “You Really Got Me Now”.  Richard plays piano and sings the second verse, and I love it.  It’s a shame this little tune is only 2 1/2 minutes long, but I guess it was a bit of a novelty.

“Bang a Drum” is a pleasant soft soul rock anthem, but the Hammond organ and Jeff Beck help maintain its integrity.  The soul comes from the backing vocals of Julia and Maxine Waters.  This is the climax; the denoument is “Dyin’ Ain’t Much of a Livin'”.  The delicate piano is provided by one Elton John (before he would become Sir).  Elton also joins Jon on backing vocals.  “All this fame don’t bring ya freedom,” sings Jon, a line that may apply to a rock star life as well as an outlaw.  The powerful song is a natural ending to a story such as this.

There’s a brief coda, an orchestral piece from the movie by composer Alan Silvestri called “Guano City”.  I always wondered why this piece (as good as it is, sounding like some of John Williams’ more exciting segments) was on the album.  Nevertheless, there it is, and the album is done.

Jon was very emphatic in stating that Blaze of Glory was not his true solo album.  It was 10 songs written specifically for a movie, to fit that movie.  His solo album would come seven years later with Destination Anywhere, but first it was time to get Bon Jovi, the band, back on track.  This began with a 1991 live performance of “Blaze of Glory” at the Academy Awards, by the full Bon Jovi band, augmented by additional guitarists Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar.

If you consider solo albums and soundtracks as part of the overall catalog, Blaze of Glory still clocks in as one of my absolute favourites.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – The Last Temptation (1994 CD, comic books)

Warning:  image heavy review!

LAST TEMPTATION_0001ALICE COOPER – The Last Temptation (1994)

When this album first came out, the local music geeks and I spent a lot of time discussing it. The foremost argument was, “What influence did grunge have on The Last Temptation?” While this is by no means a grunge album, I think there is a subtle grunge influence, and The Last Temptation is all the better for it.

The Last Temptation was heavier…more serious…more raw in production. These are all trends that grunge helped usher in. Alice had taken a bit of a slip, quality-wise, in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The Last Temptation was the album he needed to release in 1994.  While it was not a commercial success, it excited the long time fans.  It was the kind of thing we’d really missed from Alice, since the 1970’s.

The most obvious grunge influence is that Chris Cornell of Soundgarden wrote two songs and co-sings one. “Stolen Prayer”, the best song on the album, is Cornell’s, and his pipes have never sounded so good. Grunge forced a lot of hard rockers to drop the glossy production sheen of the 80’s, get serious a little bit on the lyrics, and write harder songs. This is evident in the world of Alice. This album spends a lot of time on the temptation of drugs, and while many rock fans might cringe at the idea of Alice delivering a “message” to us, this really is nothing new for our favourite masked rock star. He’s been serious before, on some of his finest moments in fact, but he always makes his messages fun to listen to and sing along with. West Side Story has always been a huge influence on Alice as fans know, and The Last Temptation is another album that shows this Broadway influence. “Bad Place Alone”, for example, has a chorus that sounds influenced by musicals.

LAST TEMPTATION_0007Alice is nothing if not ambitious. The Last Temptation was Alice’s first “true” concept album since DaDa in 1983. In fact there was a even three-part Neil Gaiman comic book available at the time to help flesh out the story. One edition of the CD came with issue #1.  Here you can find images from all three issues.

Marvel went all out on these comics.  The covers are hard stock, and the artwork inside by Michael Zulli is detailed and, at times, horrifying.  The colour palette evokes autumn (the story is set in October).  Even Alice himself appears as the Showman character, but the protagonist is (of course) Steven.  These comics were later reissued in a trade paperback, but all are affordable today, running at about $4 each.  The most desireable edition is probably the rare one that came backed with the CD:  issue #1, with a white border.

Musically, Alice is at the very top of his game here. Gone is the gloss. In fact, the opening track “Sideshow” sounds so much like the 70’s that you could swear it’s from the original Welcome To My Nightmare record. Awesome horn sections, great riff, killer lyrics; you’ll be singing this one for days after hearing it. “Nothing’s Free” rips off “Billion Dollar Babies” somewhat with the opening drum hook, but you won’t be complaining when you hear it. Most likely you’ll be pumping your fists to it. The first single “Lost In America” is a fast, tight rock song with insanely catchy lyrics, very different from a lot of stuff Alice had done in the 80’s.

The rest of the album is strong, with “It’s Me” being the sole ballad. “Stolen Prayer” is an absolute diamond.  Chris Cornell sings on the choruses with that classic, incredible 90’s Soundgarden voice.  Although the song is largely acoustic and mellow, the best word I can use for it is “epic”.  It’s a classic, and I believe that to be the reason that Alice used it to close his comprehensive box set, The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper.  (Cornell also wrote the track “Unholy War”, solely — even the lyrics, which Alice used without modification.)

Overall the direction of the album is dark and catchy, with great playing from the entire cast and Alice spitting out the words as only he can. The fact that most of these songs were played live on tour is a testament to the strength of the material and Alice’s confidence that he had made yet another classic album.

The Last Temptation is a record that is sadly unknown to many casual rock fans. However, anybody who loved Welcome To My Nightmare would be well advised to pick this up. They might find that Alice has built a musical time machine, an album that sounds timeless despite its 1994 release date. It may not be a grunge album, but I think we owe a thanks to the grunge movement for helping Alice make the strongest record he’d done since 1975.

What happens to Steven? You’ll just have to listen and find out.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Queensryche – Promised Land (Japanese import)

QUEENSRYCHE – Promised Land (1994 EMI, Japanese import)

I’m sure the pressure was on to top Empire, so what did Queensryche do? They retreated to an isolated but luxurious cabin on an island, and wrote & recorded an introspective atmospheric masterpiece of a record.  Far from record companies and hangers-on, the band focused on the art. By their own admission, the isolation (plus smoking pot and drinking wine) were catalysts for this great album.

I spoke to bassist Eddie Jackson about 13 years ago regarding this album, and I told him I thought it had a lot in common with Rage For Order. He didn’t see it at first, but both albums feature loads of sound effects and atmospherics. Neither album is a true concept album, but both have recurring themes and ideas that run the course of the CD. Promised Land is a deeply personal CD, mostly slower-paced, and one that must be listened to with headphones on.

Drummer Scott Rockenfield came up with the opening piece, “9:28 a.m.”, which is a collage of tones and sounds, ending with some shattering chimes and a baby’s birth. This melds into the first song, “I Am I”, not a typical Queensryche rocker by any stretch but certainly one of the most brilliant things they’ve ever composed. Tate’s lyrics begin the introspective theme of the album, backed by odd percussion instruments, voices, sitar, cello (by guitarist Chris DeGarmo) and droning power chords. There is so much going on beneath the surface of this song; that is why I say that headphones are required.

A skipping CD sound leads straight into the next song, the heavy and dark “Damaged”. “Damaged” is about psychological damage, the effect that bad relationships and experiences have on the self. At various times, Tate’s voice doubles and triples and quadruples, seemingly indicating multiple personalities, or perhaps voices in head. At one point it sounds like his voice has short circuited. Eddie Jackson told me that effect was a total accident in the studio that they couldn’t duplicate.

DeGarmo’s “Out Of Mind” follows, an acoustic piece regarding mental illness. It is a nice quiet composition with spare drumming and a beautiful DeGarmo guitar solo. This break in the pace continues with the next acoustic song, “Bridge”. DeGarmo’s shattered relationship with his father is the theme here. He has hinted before at issues with his father, (“Are you my father? The one that was promised?” from “Screaming In Digital”) but here we get more of the story. His father wishes to mend bridges, but DeGarmo tells him, “You never built it, dad.” A sad tale, and an odd choice for a single, but a single it was.

Side one ended with the powerful epic title track which is nearly 9 minutes long. Anchored by Eddie Jackson’s rumbling bass and Geoff Tate’s atmospheric sax, this is a mindblowing song. The lyrics deal with the fact that as youths, we are told that the world is our oyster, and a promised land is waiting for us. But it doesn’t pan out that way for everybody. There are many voices and sound effects in the background of this song, and Tate’s vocal is wracked with feeling. You can hear that this is taking place in a bar (“Drinks for all my friends!) Again, use headphones!

RYCHE FULLYou hear a person leaving the bar, walking across a gravel lot. This melds into industrial city sounds. Soon the next track has begun, “Disconnected” (writted as “Dis con nec ted” in the lyric sheet). Tate’s vocal is spoken, to great effect. When he speaks in a staggered manner (“I must…release…my…rage…”) it is so understated; yet another mindblowing moment. Again, this song is anchored by Eddie Jackson’s deep bass lines, underscoring.  Due to the odd staggered vocal, this song will not be for everybody. On the surface, it sort of resembles “Della Brown” from Empire. This song seems to be about feeling disconnected from the world around us, despite the technology that supposedly brings us together.

“Lady Jane” follows, revisting the mental illness theme. This is a dramatic piano-based song; the piano is played by Chris DeGarmo. The next track is the most straightforward song on the album, “My Global Mind”. A rocker with few frills, this is perhaps the most Empire-sounding of all the tracks. The plaintive “One More Time” comes next, with some amazing melodies and a fairly standard song structure.

All this leads into one epic final song, “Someone Else?” which is simply piano and voice. The lyrics, as with all of Promised Land, are incredible and Tate’s vocal is among the best he’s ever sung. Looking back, the person he is seems to have been someone else all along. This look back ends the album, which of course started with the birth sequence. Very nice bookends.

LASTThe Japanese got bonus tracks (of course), one of which is “Real World” from the Last Action Hero soundtrack. Strings are the main feature here, by the late Michael Kamen. The arrangement is a little too saccharine for me, but that’s Kamen for you. Then we also have the “full band” version of “Someone Else?” which adds an entire verse, but loses the piano arrangement that made the song special in the first place.

The remastered edition of Promised Land (which I don’t have and don’t need) has two additional live tracks, which were “Damaged” and “Real World” recorded in ’94. There were, of course, lots more live tracks available on singles at the time, but for those you will have to track down the actual singles. Some of them, such as “Dirty Lil’ Secret” which was issued with the Empire remaster, for whatever reason.  And of course there was the ultimate rarity, an acoustic song called “Two Mile High” which was recorded specifically for the Queensryche’s Promised Land video game.  This too is not included on the remastered CD, leaving the song frustratingly unavailable today.

On a final note, when I saw ‘Ryche live in Toronto on the final date of the Promised Land tour, they played the entire album live (albeit not in order), a good 10-15 years before doing so was in vogue. That’s how strong this album is, and that’s how good this band is.

Headphones are a must. Multiple listens are a must. Queensryche have never been deeper or more trippy. A masterpiece.

5/5 stars

PROMISED LAND_0003

Gallery of CD singles below!