Harry Hess

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Rubber (Domestic and Japanese versions)

HAREM SCAREM – Rubber (1999 Warner Japan)
RUBBER – Rubber (2000 Warner Canada)

Time hasn’t been too unkind to Rubber, the experimental Harem Scarem album where they actually changed the band’s name to match.  Except in Japan where Harem Scarem were huge, a strange album by a band called Rubber emerged in the summer of 2000.  A generic, low budget rubber duckie adorned its cover.  No picture of the band on the back, but the mixing credits of Harry Hess and Pete Lesperance revealed the connection.  In Japan, the album was released in 1999 as a full-on Harem Scarem album, with all four band members depicted on the back, including Barry Donaghy and Darren Smith.  (Notably, Smith is not pictured nor listed as a band member on the domestic CD, as by the time it was released, he had left the band.)

What’s the fuss, then?  Harem Scarem had released a series of excellent albums with rarely a dud, but little impact in Canada or the United States.  Their albums had been skewing progressively more pop as the 1990s wore on.  By Rubber, it could almost have been considered a complete re-invention to a pop rock sound, heavily influenced by the simplicity of 90s pop-punk bands.  So the band was relaunched in hopes that some people thought they were a new hot group on the scene with a sizzling debut.

The Japanese and domestic CDs had different running orders, but since it was released in Japan first that’s the track list we’ll be following, including exclusive bonus song “Enemy”.  To its merit, the domestic CD includes an exclusive remix of “Sunshine” by noted producer Arnold Lanni.

“It’s Gotta Be” opens the album with a very 90s-sounding simple descending guitar riff.  It stands upon a catchy chorus, which Harry Hess delivers with the usual melodic expertise.  There are stronger tunes on the album, but “It’s Gotta Be” sounds very much like what was on the radio and video at the time.  Bands like Marvelous 3.

The oddly titled “Who-Buddy” is more like it!  Fast-paced (again, think pop-punk), with twang and candy-coated melody.  The build-up to the chorus can’t be resisted.  So very different from Harem Scarem of old, but the same four guys do it well.  Hess and Lesperance have always had a foot in pop, as demonstrated on the very mainstream Harem Scarem debut.  Pop changed quite a bit from 1990 to 2000, and “Who-Buddy” is a reflection of that evolution.

“Coming Down” is a different kind of pop, more lush with Spanish-influenced guitar twang.  Slower paced, but just as focused on melody, “Coming Down” is a lovely song that reminds of the melancholy music of the time.  “Didn’t know the grass is always greener, and then those blades cut my own hands.”

Thing really go pop-punk on the outstanding single “Stuck With You”.  As Hess sings, “There couldn’t be anymore anarchy if we tried,” you believe he’s 22 years old.  Smith’s busy drumming is on the mark, and the chorus just soaks into you until it’s just…stuck with you!  On the cover for the CD single, the three remaining guys are depicted with contemporary short spiky hair.  If not for the lack of neck tattoos they could have been Blink 192.  There’s even a reference to the current events of the time.  “The killer bees, casualties, everybody’s paying a price.”  Remember the killer bee scare of the late 90s?  The bees never came.

Unfortunately the hit never came either.  Though a brilliant song, it was impaired by a truly terrible music video about a kid who eats a variety of objects including a rubber duckie (seemingly containing the band), a doll and his little sister.  Somebody should have deep-sixed that idea.

“Sunshine” opens with typically late-90s skippy sound effects and adornments.  The Japanese version is 4:56 in length; Arnold Lanni trimmed his mix down to 3:54.  A slow pop song with distorted watery vocals on the Japanese mix, it’s a unique sounding track that fit into the alterna-flavours of the era.  Motley Crue made a whole album mixed like this, except it was shit and called Generation Swine.  The Lanni mix on the domestic CD retains the sound effects but ditches the vocal distortion, in favour of a clean mix that is easier on the ears, including additional backing harmonies.  Both versions have their merits, with the Japanese as a more spacey, experimental track and the Lanni version more aimed at radio.

Next up is the rockabilly “Face It”, continuing the twang of previous songs.  Unfortunate album filler compared to the others.  Smith’s drumming up a storm though!  “Trip” is more fun with a bendy 90s riff, and lead vocals by Pete Lesperance.   The chorus is suitably snotty.  Another odd title, “Pool Party” conceals an interesting if not quite memorable enough song.  The music is a little off-kilter, hinting at the band’s truly excellent schooled musicianship that was largely simplified for this album.

Back to the upbeat, “Headache” is pure bangin’ fun, with influences from rock to punk to ska.  Then an understated ballad called “Everybody Else” sits in the penultimate slot, building tension with a stealthy backdrop of strings.  Similar to past dark Harem Scarem ballads though wildly different in production.  Then we close on the Japanese exclusive “Enemy”, an upbeat track with a big chorus.

Harem Scarem continued with the dual identity for a few more albums before reverting back to their original sound and name.  As Rubber, they next released Ultra Feel, Weight of the World and Live at the GodsWeight of the World was a return to their classic, slightly progressive hard rock sound and so the name change back to Harem Scarem was sure to follow.  By 2003 the Rubber experiment was fully exhausted and the album Higher was the first to have no connection to that name.  From the Rubber era, only Weight of the World was included in the expansive Harem Scarem box set.

Rubber the album isn’t bad though.  It’s better than the followup Ultra Feel, and though dated, still contains a number of good songs that are fully enjoyable today.  The best track is clearly “Stuck With You”, despite the atrocious music video.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Change the World (2020 Japanese import)

HAREM SCAREM – Change the World (2020 Frontiers Japanese import)

One of the greatest melodic rock bands in the world is Canadian and 30 years since their inception, they still got what it takes.  Pete Lesperance, Harry Hess, Creighton Doane and Darren Smith can be counted on to deliver some great professional singalong tuneage every time.  Not every album has been brilliant (some people don’t like the Rubber era, I’m not big on Voice of Reason) but with their latest Change the World, Harem Scarem is back on top.

The upbeat title track opens the celebration with chiming guitar notes wrung from the neck.  “You and I are gonna change the world,” sings Harry with an uplifting melody.  Pete’s got his back with hooky guitar fills.  A track like this could have easily come from peak period HS, like 93’s Mood Swings.  “Aftershock” has a little more bite, but the same kind of killer chorus.  For those unfamiliar, expect thick, heavily layered choruses with all four guys singing multitracked backing vocals.  It’s like Def Leppard with more balls.  Yet it’s also their own song because Harry Hess’ voice has not changed one iota.  It’s just as powerful as it was on 1985’s Blind Vengeance debut, only better!  “Searching For Meaning” hearkens back to the pop sensibilities of Rubber, but richer in tone and with a heavier slam.

Things go darker on “The Death of Me” without losing the edge.  It’s not about defeat, it’s about keeping up the fight.  “I know you won’t be the death of me!”  An apt tune for 2020.  “Hit the panic override!” urges Harry.  Keep calm and carry on!

The piano comes out for the first ballad “Mother of Invention”.  The vocal arrangement here is quite nice though the song isn’t all that memorable.  The bass-driven “No Man’s Land” is more unique, and has one of those choruses that is so hard for forget.  Then head for space on “In the Unknown”, a softer burner of a track that launches into the stratosphere, fuelled by killer hooks.  This is Harem Scarem’s bread and butter.

If you think a song with a title like “Riot In My Head” should be faster and more intense, then you got your wish.  The riff sounds as if lifted from a classic 80s racing song.  Great track, as is the ballad “No Me Without You”, with its slight nods to the Beatles.  It’s back to the racetrack with “Fire & Gasoline”, an absolute smoker of a song.  There’s a classic Lesperance guitar solo to savour and a bangin’ beat to bash your head to.  The standard album then concludes on “Swallowed By the Machine”, another defiant fist pumping rocker.  Get psyched with lyrics such as “We all have dreams, we all have doubts, be careful which you feed, and don’t get swallowed by the machine.”  A rip-roaring guitar workout a-la Nuno Bettencourt takes it to another level.  Talk about ending the album on an up!

Of course, those who go the extra mile and purchase the Japanese CD get the extra track, an acoustic recording of “No Man’s Land”.  It’s an interesting alternative though not as impressive as the original.  Still a cool little coda, and still ending the album on an up note.

For a humble band from Canada that a lot of people aren’t even aware of, Harem Scarem have a remarkably huge discography.  There are more peaks than valleys, but Change the World is definitely evidence that this band has more to give.  One of the finer rock records of 2020.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Big Bang Theory (1998)

scan_20170218HAREM SCAREM – Big Bang Theory (1998 Warner)

Never give up, never surrender!  That should be Harem Scarem’s motto.

As big-time success continued to elude them despite some great albums and singles, they evolved for the times.  1998’s Big Bang Theory is the first major step in a more commercial direction.  This meant incorporating popular pop-punk sounds:  short, fast simple melodic songs with minimal soloing.  “Turn Around” is a perfect example of this new direction.  There is a guitar solo, albeit brief.  These qualities don’t have to be a bad thing if they’re done right, and Harem Scarem did them exceptionally well.

“Wasted Time” sounds more like Karma Cleansing material from the last album, which is nice as an anchor.  “So Blind” combines the two worlds.  It has the speedy pop-punk vibe but with a traditional sounding Harem Scarem song.  “So Blind” is the first slam dunk of the CD, its irresistible verses nailing it straight to your head.  Peter Lesperance’s solo is short and to the point, yet still tasty.  Time for a ballad?  Check out “Without You”, a terrific and sweet little number with irresistible “bop bop bop bop” backup harmonies.

The second bonafide home run on Big Bang Theory is “Climb the Gate”. It’s in the same mold as the single “Die Off Hard” from the prior album, but brand new. The stuttery hook in the riff slays it. “Climb the Gate” is an essential song for any Harem Scarem collection. It is one of their catalog gems. It doesn’t get much better than “Climb the Gate” for these guys. If you don’t like this tune, you won’t like this album.

There’s a natural break for a side change here.  “What I Do” brings the focus back to the added 90s-isms.  Programmed percussion sounded modern at the time, mixed in with the real drums.  Decent song, but the next one up “Sometimes I Wish” is notable as being the lead vocal debut of bassist Barry Donaghy.  Its pop-punk chorus keeps it in synch with the album, and if you didn’t know it was someone else singing, you might never have noticed.

“New Religion” is the final power play goal of the album.  Another powerful little riff backs up one of Harry Hess’ strongest choruses.  He’s going to start his own religion, demi-gods, there’ll be none.  This unforgettable number ranks among their catchiest, but Pete Lesperance’s speedy picking gives it an aggression you don’t get otherwise.  But wait!  “Lying” keeps the speedometer in the red, with another power-pop killer.  Like the direction or not, at least Harem Scarem did it well.  It’s also notable that Big Bang Theory has only one ballad, which is the closer “In My State of Mind”.   This gentle track is just Harry Hess and a piano.  Ending an album with a ballad is a gamble, but not when you have the goods.

Big Bang Theory maintained the Harem Scarem momentum.  It delivered three standout must-haves and an album’s worth of good material.  It began to move Harem Scarem into a direction that some fans didn’t quite get.  More changes were ahead, some more drastic.  Big Bang Theory is a grey area between the future and the past, but important to the journey.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live in Japan (1996)

scan_20170221HAREM SCAREM – Live in Japan (1996 WEA)

Three albums seems to be the industry standard before you can release a live one.  Harem Scarem followed suit and issued Live in Japan right after their third LP, Voice of Reason.  It was their first with new bassist Barry Donaghy, replacing Mike Gionet.

Live in Japan is a safe, fairly compact selection of tunes from the first three.  It could use less Voice of Reason, an album which never boasted the killer tunage from the first two.  In fact if one edited out “Blue”, “Candle”, “Breathing Sand”, and “Paint Thins”, you could make a pretty tight set.  Leave in “Warming a Frozen Rose” though; it was always the best of the Voice of Reason tracks.  You can also leave in the title track as it’s pretty heavy.  Most of the real firepower comes from Mood Swings.  The opening salvo of “Change Comes Around” and “Saviours Never Cry” are a rousing start to the proceedings.

Live, Harem Scarem were tight.  Their harmonies are handled easily by the four guys, all capable singers.  Harry Hess’ roar is not lessened by the road nor jet lag.  He’s as powerful here as he is on record.  This is necessary for amped rockers like “Had Enough” and “Empty Promises” from Mood Swings, both very strong.  There is only one song from the 1991 debut album Harem Scarem. Representing Harem’s early pop rock roots is “Slowly Slipping Away”; call it a power ballad or just call it a song.  It feels like it has too much guitar to be a ballad, so call it what you want: it’s great.  You can clearly hear Barry Donaghy’s contributions on backing vocals, an essential part of the song’s hookiness.  The live set closes on “No Justice”, the best known track from Mood Swings and an obvious crowd favourite.  The vocals are just outstanding from the whole band.

There are two bonus studio tracks on this album, a nice little unexpected treat.  The first, “Pardon My Zinger” is a peppy instrumental the likes of which you expect from guys like Joe Satriani.  Not so much for guitar trickery, just in terms of composition and hooks.  The last track is a new ballad called “More Than You’ll Ever Know”.  It has since been reissued on Japanese compilations such as Ballads and B-Side Collection, but this live album is the easiest place to get a copy.  As far as ballads go, this one’s not bad.

For fans who didn’t get into Voice of Reason the way they did the first two, Live in Japan offers a bumpy ride.   There is little question that the recorded performance is freaking amazing.  It just comes down to the songs and personal taste.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live and Acoustic (1994 EP)

Part 1 of a Harem Scarem triple play!

live-and-acousticHAREM SCAREM – Live and Acoustic (1994 Warner EP, autographed cover pictured above)

Nothing wrong with releasing an EP in between albums, right?  Certainly not.  In Harem Scarem’s case, they collected some rare stuff and released it as an EP to tide fans over until album #3.  A strong album like Mood Swings deserved a little follow-up, to present some of its material live.  Recorded in Toronto, “No Justice”, “Hard to Love” and the instrumental “Mandy” kick it hard.  Here is the proof that Harem Scarem could pull of their thick harmonies live.  Having four singers in the band didn’t hurt, and Pete Lesperance’s guitar flourishes add the necessary pyrotechnics.  His solo spot on “Mandy” is a nice moment to spotlight a very under appreciated player.  Accompanied by drummer Darren Smith, “Mandy” is transformed live into something a little bigger.  “Hard to Love” is beefier than the version from the band’s first album, thanks in no small part to Smith’s ample backup singing.

The three live tracks and the included single edit of the ballad “If There Was a Time” are all taken from the CD single for that song.  “If There Was a Time” is one of the band’s most complex ballads, so an edit probably made it a bit more digestible to the masses.  For added value, two acoustic versions and one more single edit “Something to Say” from the first album) are also included.  The single for “If There Was a Time” is much rarer, so it was nice of Warner to release these things on something with better distribution, according to the back cover, this seems to have been done in collaboration with Warner Music Japan, which would explain why the it looks like a Japanese import from the side.

The acoustic tracks are fantastic:  “Jealousy” always seemed like it would be great in the fully-acoustic format.  It’s a great little acoustic jam, with Harry Hess showing off his impressive pipes much more so than the album version.  The other acoustic version is “Honestly”, which is cool, because that hit ballad was original arranged for piano and keyboards.  This version is done for acoustic guitars, which makes it less lush but more (pardon the pun) honest.

Looking back to 1994, it was reassuring to see new Harem Scarem product on the shelves at a time when there was no certainty for bands of their ilk.  Live and Acoustic was no exploit EP, as was unfortunately common.  It presented a smattering of rarities collected together in one easy package.  The single edits are not crucial, but it’s a seven song EP so it’s easy to look at these as just an added bonus.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Karma Cleansing (1997)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

Today is Part 2 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161202HAREM SCAREM – Karma Cleansing (1997 Warner)

Against all odds Harem Scarem kept on givin’ er.  They were big in Japan but couldn’t get arrested in Canada anymore.  Their fourth album Believe (following the monumental Mood Swings and the experimental Voice of Reason) saw release in the Land of the Rising Sun, but in Canada the track listing was tweaked and put out as Karma Cleansing.  Original bassist Mike Gionet was out, replaced by Barry Donaghy who was also capable of singing lead.   And while three of the guys now had short hair, drummer Darren Smith stubbornly left his long.  Awesome.

Although their entire discography has highlights and standouts, many fans feel that Karma Cleansing was at once a return to sound of Mood Swings, and also the last Harem Scarem album before they began adding pop-punk elements.  There is nothing wrong with albums like Big Bang Theory and Rubber, and you can’t blame the guys for trying out some changes for greater success.  Fans who have stuck around since the start prefer the more progressive elements of Mood Swings and Karma Cleaning.

One can see parallels between Harem Scarem and bands such as Extreme and Van Hagar.  “Karma Cleansing”, the title track could have been an outtake from Van Halen’s Balance LP.  However, Harry Hess has a unique and powerful voice that is identifiably him.  When the band join him on those thick Harem Scarem harmonies, they hone in on that sound that makes them special.  “Karma Cleaning” kicks it off hard, melodically and with just a touch of exotic progressive influences.

One after another the strong songs roll on:  “Cages” hits the heavy buttons that you wanna hit to get the blood pumping fast.  Then “Hail, Hail” has Queen verses with pompous hard rock choruses.  And while one can hear that Harem Scarem continue to bring new and interesting elements to their songs, you can also identify that the guitar work is simplified.  It’s less busy, less showy.  This was a trend that continued into the next albums.

“Morning Grey” then conspires to bring Beatles sounds into the picture, but like its title, it’s dreary though hugely complex.  The adrenaline starts to flow again on “Die Off Hard”, a brilliant anthem that kicks every ass in the room.  Harem Scarem managed to write a few of these over the years, usually a couple per album.  Songs like “Die Off Hard” are immediate, but never get old.  Interestingly, the bridge to the song (“It’s been a long time coming…”) is ancient.  It appeared on Harem Scarem’s earliest demos before their first album as a part of other songs.  It only took four albums to finally use it!  Fortunately it found a home in “Die Off Hard”, making it one of the most luminous diamonds in the Harem Scarem catalogue.

This sounds like a nice place for a side break.  “Rain” is a light ballad, refreshing and cleansing the palette.  The mood gets darker on “I Won’t Be There”, somewhere between ballad and mournful dirge.  The band’s knack for melody keeps it all above the water: yet another brilliant song.  The beat gets harder on “Victim of Fate”.  Chunky guitars and a groovin’ foundation make this a winning combination.  Unmistakable Harem Scarem harmonies bring the chorus to the top level.  Then comes the Van Halen style boogie of “Believe”, an unexpected twist.  There are no words to describe how much this song kills it.  It also feels like it’s building up to an ending, as the side plays on.  That finale is “The Mirror”, a theatrical ballad which serves to end the album with a musical statement.  Not a ballad in the “radio hit” sense, but that it’s a slow track with light and shade, keyboards and emotional singing.

What an album.  You can see why the fans in Japan got it.  A lot of the rock artists that make it big in Japan are melodic rock bands with incredible musicians.  Harem Scarem fit that bill, and Karma Cleansing is another jewel in their crown.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Mood Swings (1993)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

Today is Part 1 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161201HAREM SCAREM – Mood Swings (1993 Warner)

Most bands have that one benchmark album.  You know the one: the album that all others are compared against.  Every time the band releases a new album, you usually hear, “Best album since blank!”  For Harem Scarem, Mood Swings is that album.  Only two records into their long and prolific career, and they already put out their magnum opus.

Harem Scarem were (and are) better than the average hard rock band.  With Pete Lesperance on guitar, they had a guy who was able to do Nuno-like shreddery.  They had two guys — Harry Hess and Darren Smith — who can sing lead.  They also had two great backing singers, Lesperance and Mike Gionet.  (Darren “DJ” Smith was even the oft-criticized frontman for Jake E. Lee’s solo band Red Dragon Cartel.)  Together though, the four guys were able to create Queen-like harmonies that added depth to the music.  Fact is, Harem Scarem put out a better album in 1993 than many of the top selling rock records of that year.  I saw the band live in early 1992, and they were still doing covers in their set at that time.  They really impressed with two unusual covers that showed off their talents:  “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.  Impressive stuff.  The prospects for the next album were promising.

As if to say “Check THIS shit out,”  Lesperance opens the CD with some pretty impressive licks, before diving head first into the riff to “Saviors Never Cry”.  (I’m sure Negan agrees with that sentiment.)  With the pomp and circumstance of a band trying to expand its horizons, “Saviors Never Cry” provides the thrills & chills.  Slight keyboard accents and tricky licks proved that this was not a band of pretty boys, but a group of musicians taking no prisoners.  When “No Justice” commences with those layered harmony vocals, your ass will be sore from all the kicking.  You can’t find a stronger chorus anywhere, but it’s not wimp rock.  As a first single, it drove home the band’s growth since LP #1. Their trajectory was much in line with their American counterparts, Extreme, who were growing album by album.

Backwards guitar lulls you in for “Stranger Than Love”, a radio ready track with more of the powerful patented Harem Scarem vocals.  Hess looks like a lion with that curly mane of his, and he roars like one too.  While songs such as “Stranger Than Love” are completely accessible to anyone, “Change Comes Around” is full throttle.  With the speedometer in the red, yet harmonies intact, Harem Scarem blazed the tarmac clean.  Unlike their grunge opponents, Harem Scarem focused on the positive in their lyrics.  “When all your faith is gone, don’t let it pull you under.  Change comes around, sail on to higher ground.”  Generic inspirational rock nonsense?  Absolutely.  Great fun to sing along with?  Definitely.

Harem Scarem are a diverse rock band, and “Jealousy” is the first change of pace.  A sparse arrangement allows the instruments to stand out more, which Lesperance uses to lay down bluesy lick after bluesy lick.  It’s not a blues song, but it’s influenced by blues.  It was a brilliant side closer, fading out and making way for the lead vocal debut of Darren Smith.  The drummer nails “Sentimental Blvd.”  He sounds a bit like the late Eric Carr (Kiss) on this pop rocker.  Boppy piano provides even more melodic backbone to an already strong song.

Lesperance is a talented enough player to earn an instrumental solo track, which is the ballad “Mandy”.  A good guitar instrumental should be both melodic and adventurous.  It should be memorable, but hopefully the soloist is pushing their own talents.  “Mandy” succeeds in both technique and songwriting.  It gives way to one of the heaviest album tracks, “Empty Promises”.  Without losing their sound or harmonies, Scarem’s “Empty Promises” manages to crack the concrete with a wrecking ball of heavy rock.

“If There Was a Time” is one of the most impressive ballads on the album, possessing both darkness and light sides.  Once again the harmonies sell it.  The musicianship isn’t busy but it’s eloquent just the same.  At this point the CD really seems to be building towards a conclusion.  The climax is acappella:  “Just Like I Planned” is as splendid as it is ingenious.  That’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” rubbing off on the album, I’ll wager.  How many rock bands outside Queen attempt full-length acappella songs?

You just need to blow off some steam at the end, and all this builds up to “Had Enough”, a bright track that reeks of Van Halen (or Hagar).  It has a great bottom end and some final thrilling chops from Pete Lesperance.  This completes the journey of Mood Swings, which is an apt title given the diversity of the songs.  Not only are the tunes all great numbers, but the album does have a start, middle and ending.  There are sentimental moments, and action packed interludes.  It’s more than the sum of its parts, and that’s one reason why Harem Scarem keep having to live up to it.

So much so, that they even went as far as re-recording Mood Swings.  According to Superdekes, in his review of Mood Swings, “In 2013 Harem wanted to release a 20th anniversary edition of Mood Swings, but their old record company said ‘Nope’. So Harry and Pete said ‘Fuck you’ and re-recorded Mood Swings with three extra new songs.”  That’s why today you can look for the original Mood Swings, or the reasonable facsimile and update, Mood Swings II.  It is so close to the original in sound and even lead vocals that conspiracy theorists believe that Harry Hess has indeed finally solved time travel.

No matter which version you ultimately choose, Mood Swings will continue to reveal new joys every time you play it.  If there is such a thing as a perfect hard rock record (smart, memorable, surprising, exemplary) then Mood Swings is one of them.

5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Voice of Reason (1995 Japanese import)

HAREM SCAREM – Voice of Reason (1995 WEA Japan)

Voice Of Reason marked the end of an era for Harem Scarem. It’s the last album by the original lineup before Mike Gionet departed, and the band got huge in Japan.  I always found it difficult to understand how their home country of Canada could leave them obscure while the Japanese couldn’t get enough of them.  In-the-know melodic hard rock fans point to Harem Scarem’s 1993 album, Mood Swings, as a high water mark for the band and genre. Although the band stretched out far and wide, Mood Swings remained the album that fans pined a return to.  Voice of Reason had the difficult task of following that album.  Harem Scarem had to both take it up a notch, and retain what made them great at the same time.  Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Mood Swings had a slightly progressive edge to its hard rock, with lush multitracked Queen-like harmonies and a diverse set of influences. They turned that up on Voice of Reason, attempting to become more Queen-like it seems.  More vocal harmonies, more guitar layers and flourishes, more complex song structures.  Those are all good qualities.  I think one could do a lot worse than to be compared to Queen.  But Harem Scarem weren’t able to summon forth another batch of perfect hard rock songs to go with it.

Although the direction this time out is mellower and more ballad-oriented, none of the tunes are particularly bad.  You would not listen to Voice of Reason and point out bad songs.   Instead it just goes through your brain like a foggy haze, without really retaining any of it.  Perhaps they went too far with the layered vocals.  This was self-produced so there would be nobody there to reel it in.  There are still a few standouts, which are “Warming A Frozen Rose”, “Blue”, “Breathing Sand”, and “I’ll Be Brief”.  These tracks are more memorable and stand out a little from the others.


The music video for “Blue” didn’t help matters.

MVP: Guitarist Pete Lesperance is the band’s Nuno Bettencourt.  He is a skilled, creative player able to make his guitar do seemingly anything he needs it too.  The wah-wah he throws into chorus of “Warming a Frozen Rose” helps make the song, and his shredding everywhere else is top drawer.

Those lucky fans in Japan got a bonus track on their version of the CD. “Candle (acoustic version)” is  actually superior to the regular album version by being a little more unique and memorable. Very cool bonus track.

2.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Harem Scarem (autographed)

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HAREM SCAREM – Harem Scarem (1991 WEA)

Harem Scarem didn’t emerge from the Toronto rock scene fully formed.  Rather, they first appeared as an AOR pop rock group, assisted by pro writers such as Marc Ribler, Christopher Ward (“Black Velvet”) and Honeymoon Suite’s Ray Coburn.   My sister Kathryn liked Harem Scarem because their singer’s hair made him visually resemble a lion!  It would take them until album #2 to shed the outside writers and find their feet as a progressive pop rock band more akin to Extreme than Bon Jovi.

They did, however, create a buzz by selling loads of copies of their demo CD.  This was a rare thing, since most bands released demos on tape.  Very few had the resources to put together a CD, and this got them signed to Warner.

The result is Harem Scarem, a somewhat faceless but incredibly hooky pop rock record waiting for radio play.  It spawned five singles, including the huge (Canadian) hit “Honestly”.  “Honestly” might be most notable today for its video, a cheesy affair starring Judge Reinhold!

What makes Harem Scarem special is the vocal work of lead singer Harry Hess.  The man has a powerful voice, and when teamed up with drummer Darren Smith, the result is a big thick layered harmony.  The band was rounded out by bassist Mike Gionet, and virtuoso guitarist Pete Lesperance, who really didn’t get to properly show off his chops until album #2.  He does shred here, but sparingly and somewhat buried in the mix.

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The debut album is loaded with mid-tempo rockers and ballads.  A few too many ballads if you asked me, side one of the album has three ballady tracks in a row.  It was 1991, grunge had yet to appear, and a mixture of ballads and rockers was the tried and true path to radio and video play.   The best ballad isn’t the hit “Honestly”, which I find incredibly boring, but the closing song “Something To Say”.  It’s an acoustic winner, and features plenty of Pete’s enviable chops.  Harry sings passionately; this is a song that fits in with the acoustic hits of the day such as “More Than Words” and “To Be With You”.

Rather than the ballads, I keep coming back to the rockers.  “Hard To Love”, which opens the album, is one of those AOR tunes that Bon Jovi only wishes he could have written.  “How Long” is similar, catchy as hell, a singalong rocker that begs the windows to be rolled down on a hot summer day.

The centrepiece of the album was “Slowly Slipping Away”, the debut single/video.  Still a great song today, this straddles the boundary between rocker and ballad.  Opening with acoustic guitars, it soon works its way into a killer chorus, with guitar hooks and powerful harmonies galore.  This is the song that got me into the band, as soon as I heard it, I knew this band had something uniquely theirs to offer.  Unfortunately it took them a while to fully expand upon their sound.

I saw Harem Scarem live at Stages in Kitchener early in 1992.  They played most of this album, some new material, as well as a couple covers:  “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.  They complained that the bar owners made them play covers, but it was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” that underlined their potential.  They absolutely nailed it and proved that they had a lot more to offer than the simple AOR of their album.

I signed up to be a member of the fanclub, and I still have my membership card.  I’m glad I was on board from the ground up, since the band grew by leaps and bounds in the years to follow.

The Japanese import version of this album had three bonus tracks:  acoustic renderings of “Slowly Slipping Away”, “How Long”, and “Hard To Love”.  Those songs were available on a limited edition Acoustic Sessions EP, which I reviewed here.

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If you’re into AOR rock, with lush harmonies, ballads, and melody, then you need to add Harem Scarem to your collection, particularly since the band have recently reunited.  If that’s not your thing, fear not:  I have a feeling you’d be into their later material such as Mood Swings and Karma Cleansing.  This band had a lot more to offer than just rockers and ballads.

2.5/5 stars