guitar heroes

REVIEW: Poison – “Stand” (1993 promo cassette)

POISON – “Stand (CHR edit)” (1993 promo cassette single)

What is a “CHR edit”?  It’s a special single edit of a song specifically intended for “contemporary hit radio”.  In other words, Top 40.  So, when “Stand” by Poison was selected to be the first single from 1993’s brand new Native Tongue album, it had to be trimmed for length.  Getting Poison on the radio was going to prove to be an impossible task, so why make it harder by giving them a 5:16 long track that they definitely wouldn’t touch?  “Stand” was shortened to 4:21, with much of Richie Kotzen’s delightfully idiosyncratic guitar licks getting the axe, along with some of the choir.

The cassette you see here contains two edited versions of “Stand”:  the 4:21 “CHR edit” and another at 4:30 simply called “edit”.  The differences are in the guitar solo which starts to deviate at the 2:28 mark.  It’s in interesting curiosity, a peak inside the minutia of thinking that goes into marketing a song.  “Hey, this format needs another nine seconds of song, leave in some guitar solo.”  Is that how it worked?

The tape has both edit versions on both sides…twice.  2x2x2=8 times total, that you will hear “Stand” by Poison, if you play it all the way through.  Call the CIA and let ’em know I have this cassette; they can use it with their enhanced interrogation techniques.  I’ll sell.

On that note I can all but guarantee this cassette has never been played through, ever.  It was sent to the Record Store about a year and a half before I started working there.  The owner hated Poison.  Hated — with a passion.  There is no way he played this tape in store, ever.  I rescued it from a giant, forgotten stack of promos that were stuffed into a bin.  All garbage.  “Don’t take any of those,” said the owner.  Eventually all that junk was slated to be thrown out when the only location that sold tapes changed formats at the end of 1996.

This tape is valuable for one thing:  it reveals the true North American release date for Native Tongue.  Currently (August 2019), Wikipedia claims Native Tongue was released on February 8, 1993.  That’s impossible because the 8th was a Monday.  New releases came out on Tuesdays.  This promo cassette clearly states on the back that the forthcoming album Native Tongue was retailing on February 16 — a Tuesday.  You’re welcome, internet.

Otherwise, this cassette is fairly useless.

1/5 stars

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REVIEW: Poison – Native Tongue (1993)


NATIVE TONGUE_0001POISON – Native Tongue (1993 Capitol)

C.C. DeVille was let go from Poison after an embarrassing performance on the 1991 MTV awards.  Who can forget the pink-haired C.C.?  Drugs and alcohol had taken their toll on the guitar player.  There were musical differences as well.  Bret Michaels liked the bluesier direction Poison were going on; C.C. preferred basic sloppy rock.  A parting of ways was all but inevitable.

Poison were lucky enough to convince guitar prodigy Richie Kotzen to join the band.  Kotzen was from Pennsylvania, like Poison, and had released three critically acclaimed solo albums.  Richie Kotzen and Electric Joy were hard-to-penetrate instrumental albums, while Fever Dream introduced Richie’s soulful singing voice.  He had also contributed the bluesy rock of “Dream of a New Day” to the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack album.

Like many fans, I waited and wondered what the new Poison would sound like.  Kotzen claims that many of the songs were completely written, lyrics and all, before he joined Poison.  Regardless each song received a four-way songwriting split among the band members.  Fans in the know could tell right away that Kotzen’s impact on the songs was much greater than the other members.

Native Tongue was not as immediate as any prior Poison album, but what it lacked in instant hooks it made up for in musicianship and integrity.  Native Tongue was also a long album, at almost an hour not including B-sides such as “Whip Comes Down”.  It was a lot to absorb, and due to the changing winds of rock, not too many fans were willing to spend time with and get to know Native Tongue.

You couldn’t have asked for a better start to the album that the duo of “Native Tongue”/”The Scream”.  Tribal drums by Rikki Rockett and Sheila E. set the scene for one of Poison’s heaviest songs ever.  “The Scream” is killer:  a relentless driving rock song with aggressive playing and lyrics.  Bret Michaels merged this with his Poison singing style, creating a successful hybrid.  “The Scream” is one of Poison’s finest achievements, and a hell of a way to kick off the new album with the new guitarist.

“Stand” was the soulful, gospel-like lead single.  It didn’t do anything for me, but you have to give Poison credit for going all-in.  With choirs and Kotzen’s soulful guitar playing, it’s still an outstanding Poison song.  “Stay Alive” was another good tune, this time about bassist Bobby Dall’s struggles with substances.   That led into the ballad “Until You Suffer Some (Fire and Ice)”, one of the band’s best such songs.  The only weakness here is a grouping of slow songs on side one.  “Body Talk” and “Bring It Home” make up for that.  “Bring It Home” in particular had that heavy groove that you needed to have in the 1990s, as well as strong backing vocals from Kotzen.   “Bring It Home” ended the first side with the heaviest song since “The Scream”.

The one thing that I found difficult about Native Tongue was the aforementioned lack of immediacy.  Thankfully, side two had a few songs that maintained that old-tyme Poison singalong chorus.  They were “Seven Days Over You” (a horn-inflected goodie), the anthemic “Blind Faith” and, “Ride Child Ride”.  These tunes weren’t too much of a departure from earlier Poison of Flesh & Blood.  Perhaps if they had been released as singles, there would have been more chart action.  “Strike Up the Band” is similar, capturing the high octane rock that Poison were good at doing live.

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“Richie’s Acoustic Thang” and “Ain’t That the Truth” are swampy bluesy goodness, crossing Poison and Kotzen perfectly.  Where Poison failed to do decent blues before, they finally managed to get it done with Richie.  Likewise, “Theatre of the Soul” is a soulful ballad that acts as another album highlight.

The final song was “Bastard Son of a Thousand Blues”, and it is really the only stinker, despite Kotzen having plenty of vocal time.  It reminds me of “Poor Boy Blues” from the prior album, and unfortunately ends the album on a mediocre note, guitar pyrotechnics notwithstanding.

Kotzen didn’t last long with Poison.  “Strike Up the Band”?  More like “Break Up the Band”, when Richie started fooling around with the fiancé of Rikki Rockett.  He was immediately fired upon discovery, and replaced by Blues Saraceno, another highly rated shredder.  The ironic thing was that Blues Saraceno was in the running for the guitar slot in the first place, but the band chose Kotzen.  Saraceno recorded the strong Crack A Smile CD, an intentional return to good-time Poison rock, but were dropped by the record label before a release.  That’s a whole other story, with six years of delays and bootlegs before the album was out, eventually leading to a reunion with C.C. DeVille.

Fortunately, Native Tongue remains a reminder of a brief period in Poison where they were momentarily among the best acts in hard rock.  No shit.

4.75/5 stars

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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

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REVIEW: Alcatrazz – Disturbing the Peace (1985)

ALCATRAZZ – Disturbing the Peace (1985 EMI, 2001 Light Without Heat)
Released as part of Steve Vai’s The Secret Jewel Box

This is the only Alcatrazz album I own.  The reason I own it is Steve Vai.  I’m a Steve Vai fan before I’m a Graham Bonnet or Yngwie Malmsteen fan.  Plus, this album was reissued exclusively in Steve’s stunning looking Secret Jewel Box (2001) as CD 2.   The collector in me wanted that box set and I was glad Steve was so thorough as to include collaborative efforts like this one in his box set.  According to Steve’s 2001 liner notes, Alcatrazz was one of his favourite band experiences and I think you can hear that.

Disturbing the Peace, Alaztrazz’s second LP, is very idea-heavy.  It’s dense musically and conceptually while still being straight-ahead rock music.  It’s the same trick Steve pulled on David Lee Roth’s universally acclaimed Eat ‘Em and Smile record.  Vai is credited as a co-writer on every track, except the instrumental “Lighter Shade of Green” on which he has sole credit.  Clearly, his input on the album is tremendous as it is literally covered with his fingerprints.  His style is all but fully formed (he had already recorded and released his experimental first solo album, Flex-able).  His guitar sound was certainly well on its way, and the way it shimmers with multiple layers is omnipresent on Disturbing the Peace.  Hell, Vai even recycles melodies from Flex-able, which he would recycle yet again on Passion & Warfare!

(Note:  I’m referring to the melody from Steve’s “Answers” from Passion and Warfare, which is also in “Wire and Wood” on Disturbing the Peace and “Little Green Men” on Flex-able.  While this is strictly conjecture, I assume this melody to be among the many that Steve “heard” in his lucid dreams that inspired the Passion and Warfare album.  Another such melody is “Liberty”, which was based on recollections of a lucid dream.)

There are some really great songs on Disturbing the Peace.  “God Blessed Video” (which had its own great video that featured Steve extensively) is a great example of the kind of powerful, melodic hard rock Graham Bonnet can produce.  It superficially resembles Rainbow’s “Death Valley Driver” (surely a coincidence) and has the same relentless drum stomp and chugging riff.  This is all left in the dust by Steve who anticipates his role as the “Devil’s Guitarist” from the movie Crossroads by stewing up an unconventionally wicked guitar solo.

The more straightforward metal of “Mercy” is credited to the whole band, also including Gary Shea (bass), Jan Uvena (drums) and Jimmy Waldo (keyboards).  That’s probably why it’s much more standard in construction.  Bonnet’s pipes get quite a workout, and Steve’s solo is jaw dropping.  The solo section here absolutely sounds like a prototype for Passion and Warfare.  “Will You Be Home Tonight” is steamy, a bit more laid back and heavy with atmosphere.  None of this prevents Bonnet from wailing, nor Vai for throwing down some space-age bluesy licks.  This kind of thing would come in handy for Whitesnake, later on.

The aforementioned “Wire and Wood” is actually the most Rainbow-like of the songs.  At times it almost sounds like a leftover from Down to Earth, but then Vai reminds us that this it was now 1985 and there’s a new kid on the block.  Side one closed with “Desert Diamond”, Steve Vai on Choral sitar this time.  This time I’m reminded of a similar gimmick on “My Little Man”, which Steve co-wrote for Ozzy’s Ozzmosis album.

“Stripper” is pretty far from lyrically sophisticated.  While “A dark and crowded room / Warm beer that’s stale” does set the scene, it’s not really a story that needed telling, I suppose.  Similarly, “Painted Lover” could not misconstrued as poetry.  “She just wants that hard stash, hot from your pocket.”  I’m sure, Graham.

It’s kind of weird hearing trashy lyrics like this sung over Steve’s schooled and intricate melodies and tricks.  It’s like the smartest kid in class helping out a less talented classmate or something.  Nothing against Graham of course, he’s had more hits than I have, so what do I know?

SKYFIRE

“Skyfire”

Steve’s “Lighter Shade of Green” solo is a brief intro to “Sons and Lovers”, one of the most accessible hard rock songs.  It has a grand chorus, courtesy of Graham, the kind of thing he’s very good at.  “Skyfire” (surely named after the 1985 Transformers character, right?) is a very 1980’s sounding groove.  I like the fast chuggy parts, the strong melodies, and Steve’s guitar bits.  I also like that I’m going to start a rumor that it’s named after the Transformers character.  (It’s actually about a UFO that Graham sighted.)

The only song I kinda don’t like is the last one, “Breaking the Heart of the City”.  It’s here that I feel the Vai/Bonnet experiment fails somewhat.  It sounds like it wants to be dark, heavy, and ominous, but Steve is whimsical at times, space-y and too smart.  Meanwhile I’m feeling that the song needs something gritty, some more chug, a little bit of grind, you know?

After revisiting Disturbing the Peace, I now feel an urge to get No Parole From Rock ‘n’ Roll and compare.  Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen are polar opposites stylistically and it’ll be interesting to hear Yngwie’s version of Alcatrazz.

4/5 stars

Interestingly, Disturbing the Peace was produced by Eddie Kramer!

REVIEW: Brian May & Friends – Star Fleet Project (1983)

IMG_00000735BRIAN MAY & FRIENDS – Star Fleet Project (1983 Capitol Records)

This near-legendary mini-album is probably infamous for the wrong reasons.  Ask a friend if they’ve heard this record.  If they haven’t, they may respond, “But that’s the one with Eddie Van Halen, right?  And they did that song for Clapton, and he hated it, right?”  That’s how the story goes anyway.

The fact is that Star Fleet Project is actually really good, and so is “Blues Breaker (Dedicated to E.C.)”.  And yes, this is one of Eddie Van Halen’s rare cameos outside his eponymous band.  I am a fan of both Queen and Van Halen, but my love of Van Halen trumps my love of Queen.  As a Van Halen fan, it is really exciting to hear Eddie playing outside his band’s box.  On a technical level, I don’t know exactly how Eddie is torturing his guitar strings, but I sure love the sounds that come out of it.  I’m hearing Eddie at what many people consider to be his creative peak.  This is the era of 1984, “Jump”, and “Beat It”, considered by many to be the greatest guitar solo of the decade.  It’s sheer nirvana to hear Eddie tapping over Brian May’s trademark guitar sound.  It’s two things you never pictured together.  Once you hear them together, it’s like Reece’s peanut butter cups!

Eddie throws every trick he has into the bag.  Tapping, squeals and eruptions, it’s all here.  As for Brian, he does double duty on lead vocals as well, on two tracks:  “Star Fleet” and “Let Me Out”.  “Star Fleet” (8 minutes in its album incarnation) is a theme song that Brian covered, from a Japanese show that his son was a fan of.  It’s the most commercial of the songs, but I have to say I love it.  The chorus isn’t the best, but the guitar playing blows my mind every single time.

Queen fans may enjoy the piano blues “Let Me Out” best, as it sounds like it would have fit right in on News of the World.  I can imagine Freddie putting his spin on it quite easily.  Brian takes the first solo, but next time he says “Help me, Edward!” and it’s Van Halen playing the blues.  You don’t get this on Van Halen albums.  Brian and Ed alternate, and then Eddie blazes the fretboard shredder style.  To hear these two guys going back and forth over a blues progression is such a monumental moment.

The final track (and all of side 2) is the infamous “Blues Breaker”.  I’m not sure what E.C. didn’t like about it (I’ll just assume he was too humble to accept such flattery).  You don’t get to hear Eddie Van Halen nor Brian May jamming very often.  This is the second such jam, and this one well over the 12 minute mark!  You’ll wonder where the time went.  As an admirer of both guitarists, I’m constantly in a state of anticipation for what they will play next. The backing band are not slouches either: Alan Gratzer – drums, Phil Chen – bass guitar, Fred Mandel – keyboards.  They captured this stuff mostly live off the floor, and that’s the way the record sounds.

Finally, a word about the current status of this mini-album.  Used vinyl is probably your best course of action.  While this is easy to find on counterfeit bootlegs, official CD releases were scarce and confined to rare CD singles and Japanese imports, vinyl is much cheaper than any of those.  I first encountered this record in the collection of a creepy dude, as recounted in Record Store Tales Part 229:  Silent Knight.  That was 1994, and I still have never seen any of the CD releases of Star Fleet Project in person.  Besides, that big robot on the cover just looks better on an LP sleeve doesn’t it?

4/5 stars