Greg Smith

REVIEW: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow – Black Masquerade (2013)

RITCHIE BLACKMORE’S RAINBOW – Black Masquerade (2013 Eagle Rock from a 1995 TV broadcast)

It’s a damn shame it took so long for this recording to get a release. Recorded in 1995, this CD release was a German TV broadcast, and is the only live Rainbow album to feature singer Doogie White. The only difference from the recent Stranger In Us All album lineup is the drum seat. John O’Reilly was jettisoned in favour of Chuck Burgi who was with Rainbow from 1983 to 1984.

There are some clear mixing problems on some tracks, notably the opener “Spotlight Kid”.  The backing vocals sound as if they are from another song, or audio leakage from another broadcast.   There’s little else wrong, aside from those things that happen in a real live setting.

In some respects this lineup of Rainbow was rather faceless, but Doogie White was an entertaining and versatile frontman.  He’s comfortable in all eras of Rainbow, and he does them all, plus two eras of Deep Purple.  That means Doogie White not only sings his own material (seven tracks from Stranger In Us All) but also must sing the songs of Ian Gillan (“Black Night “, “Smoke on the Water” and “Perfect Strangers”), David Coverdale (“Burn”), Ronnie James Dio (“Man on the Silver Mountain”, “Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll”, “Temple of the King”), Graham Bonnet (“Since You’ve Been Gone”) and Joe Lynn Turner (“Spotlight Kid”).  White even does a classic Ian Gillian singalong in “Black Night”, imitating Ian’s “Doo doo doo doo doop!”, before breaking into a traditional drinking song with improvised lyrics.

What about Ritchie?  Brilliant as ever, and even though he is notorious for…not enjoying…being filmed, it doesn’t seem to inhibit his performance here.  Extended solo sections sound like joy.  Perhaps having his true love on stage with him, Candice Night on backing vocals, soothed the savage Man in Black.  Regardless he sounds as flawlessly and quintessentially “Ritchie Blackmore” as ever.  There’s only one.

Live albums from obscure, buried periods like this often yield solid hardened gems.  “Hunting Humans” and “Ariel” are better live than they were on album.  Things are looser and livelier.  “Wolf to the Moon” has guitar and keyboard interplay that takes it further than it went on album.

The most intriguing track is the Dio-era classic “Temple of the King”.  As Doogie tells it, when the band were recording in America, they’d often pop out for a drink.  Sometimes they’d play music in bars and “Temple of the King” came from those times.

Given that there is so much bloody live Rainbow out there (with another brand new live album just announced!), Black Masquerade can understandably go fairly low on your want lists.  If you see it though, don’t hesitate.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow – Stranger In Us All (expanded edition)

RITCHIE BLACKMORE’S RAINBOW – Stranger In Us All (originally 1995, 2017 Sony expanded edition)

Blackmore said “adios” to Deep Purple for the second and final time in 1993.  He beat them to the punch with new music, in the form of a resurrected Rainbow…sort of.  As he is prone to do, Blackmore assembled an all-new Rainbow of unknowns.  The only familiar face was bassist Greg Smith who happened to be in Alice Cooper’s band when Wayne’s World was filmed.  The new singer was the smooth-voiced Scot, Mr. Doogie White.  White’s career almost broke in a completely different direction earlier, when he was one of two finalists in the running to replace Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden.  It went to Blaze Bayley.  Signifying new beginnings, Blackmore reverted the band’s name to Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow once again.

Back in 1995, my impressions of Stranger In Us All, the new album by Blackmore’s Rainbow, were significantly underwhelming.  It has taken its time, but over the years the album slowly penetrated my stubborn refusal to accept it as legitimate.  By now I think we know all Rainbow needs is the Man in Black.  And there he stands on the front cover, pilgrim-hatted again, gloriously silhouetted against a cloudy sky.

The only serious weakness in Stranger In Us All has nothing to do with the lineup.  The production (by Pat Regan and Blackmore) sounds low budget and the drums sound muddy.  Blackmore’s guitar tone is thankfully impeccable and his neo-classical leanings on the first track “Wolf to the Moon” were refreshing.  “Wolf to the Moon” is one song that has stood the test of time.  It is thoroughly still enjoyable today, and Blackmore is unleashed.  And the singer?  It is true that Doogie White stands in the shadows of some great lead vocalists.  I’ll resist ranking and comparing.  White has a very smooth voice with impressive power and range, and he doesn’t sound like any of his predecessors.  Where White really impresses is in live renditions.  He is an entertaining and amicable frontman.

Track two brings a slower grind to Rainbow, and White slinks along with him, adapting perfectly to every vibe.  Going slower still, “Hunting Humans (Insatiable)” really prowls.  It is spare, dark and sweaty.  Moving on to inspirational hard rock, Rainbow brings the harmonica-inflected “Stand and Fight”.  What is not to like?

Rainbow ended the first side in typically epic fashion.  “Ariel” was quite a track, featuring backing vocals from the lady who is now Ritchie’s wife, Mrs. Candice Night.  She co-wrote a number of the album’s tracks including “Ariel”.  This kind of thing is Ritchie’s bread and butter, he’s been writing epics like this since “Child in Time” back in 1970.  As an added bonus, the extended edition of Stranger In Us All has the single edit of “Ariel”, trimming it to a tidy format-friendly 4:00.  This is more like a re-edit, moving parts around and making it more compact.

They step on the gas again for “Too Late for Tears”.  Side two has a couple “stock” rockers — “Too Late for Tears” and “Silence”.  Good blood-pumping tracks, nothing to save for your greatest hits album, but decent enough.  “Black Masquerade” is better, as it has a dark neo-classical edge.  Thing go kind of goofy when they cover Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” and add lyrics.  They also have another go at the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad”, this being the second time.  The first Rainbow version was an instrumental.  This one has vocals, and it’s pretty good.  Just like with lead singers, I don’t think it’s worth comparing this version to the 1975 one.  It’s unique enough that it’s almost two different things.

Back in 2013 I found the Japanese edition of Stranger In Us All at the 2013 Toronto Musical Collectibles Record & CD Sale for $15.  Instant no-brain purchase right?  Now that this expanded edition is out, I no longer need it in my ever-expanding collection.  I am passing it on to massive Rainbow fan Brian over at Boppinsblog.  Now that CDs are worth nothing, I like to pay it forward with my retired music.  The expanded edition contains the Japanese bonus track, “Emotional Crime”.  It has a cool, “smoove” groove and a bluesy feel.  Think Purple’s 1988 remake of “Hush” in terms of vibe.  The other extra tracks are the aforementioned “Ariel” edit, and a live take of the old Rainbow classic “Temple of the King”.  This is and the “Ariel” edit are taken from the old out of print CD single.  “Temple of the King” was recorded in Stockholm October 2 1995, meaning it is not the same as the one on the double live CD Black Masquerade.  That was recorded exactly a week later in Germany.  (Thanks to Scott the Heavy Metal Overlord for pointing this out.)  It’s a brilliant arrangement giving Candice Night and Doogie White a chance to harmonize over a very quiet backdrop.  The Man in Black whips out a solo that surely must be considered one of his most passionate.

That’s how this version of Rainbow succeeds — by a putting a fresh spin on it.  You avoid trying to compare to other versions of the band and just enjoy.  Ritchie reveals in the extensive liner notes that he wanted to call the band Rainbow Moon.  And speaking of the liner notes, there are also recollections from Doogie White.  In short this expanded edition is worth every penny, even if you’ve bought it before.

3.75/5 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