heavy metal

#860: We Stand Alone

This chapter is dedicated to Michael LeFevre

GETTING MORE TALE #860: We Stand Alone

On a recent road trip with Jen to the lake, I chose the music according to my recent modus operandi:  80s retro rock.  The stuff I used to listen to at the lake when I was 15 or 16 years old.  This time I decided on the Killer Dwarfs’ Big Deal album from 1988.  I didn’t get the cassette until the cottage season of ’89.  I have a lot of nostalgia for that year.  I turned 17, I had friends, and I even met a girl that liked me.  We held hands once!

The title Big Deal referred to the Dwarfs’ signing their big record deal with Epic.  This was their major label debut.  After two indies, they finally signed the “big deal”, and even made a music video lampooning the idea.  The album is a solidly hard rock album with a melodic side and a dash of dreams.  Big Deal‘s theme is dreaming, and making it come true.  Self determination.  It doesn’t sound like the band had to compromise too much in making the album. While a tad softer than the predecessor Stand Tall (1986), it sounds like a natural evolution from that point.  Better background vocals, cleaner production, and more considered arrangements.

Epic Records even funded a jokey video for “We Stand Alone”, though unusually dark.  It was very much a sequel to “Stand Tall (Stick To Your Guns)” from the prior album.  This time, the band sign to a label (in blood!) who forces them to change their image and name to the “Cuddly Dwarfs”.  They are forced to cut and style their hair.  They give it a go, but by the end Russ Dwarf breaks his puppeteer’s strings and re-emerges with wild hair, tricycle and goofy stage shenanigans.

As the album played in the car, my brain immediately began flashing back to those times (as has been routine lately). Like an old film projector, images appeared in my mind. I was sitting in the basement, hand on the remote control of the VCR, ready to hit “record” on the new Killer Dwarfs video. Bob Schipper may have been watching with me, or he may have come over later. Either way, we both enjoyed the song, which was their most melodic yet. I can remember my thoughts and feelings watching the video, which had a tenebrous edge. I seem to have a reaction to videos where people have goey stuff dumped on their heads, like in Gowan’s video for “A Criminal Mind”. Killer Dwarfs had similar imagery in “We Stand Alone”, when faceless record company suits issue new haircuts for the Dwarfs. As such I’ll always see the video, and thus hear the song, with a sense of…shadow.

As the Dwarfs themselves have said, the videos may have been comedies, but the music and lyrics have always been dead serious.  The album in general has a similar dark vibe for me. The records before and after were more aggressive, but Big Deal seems to have a different focus.  Songs like “Power”, “Lifetime” and “Tell Me Please” have a certain foreboding to them for me.  Others are different, like the accelerated “Burn It Down” which recalls the Dwarfs of old.  There are no real duds on the album, which is a workmanlike slab of granite to seek out if you like 80s metal or Canadian rock bands.

The Dwarfs did well enough but didn’t have a major breakthrough.  They were always respected, tending to get better album after album.  I read a few critiques of Russ Graham’s voice, calling it too nasal like fellow Canadian Geddy Lee.  If that’s a dealbreaker for you, it’s best to move on.  While Russ is more aggressive than Geddy, I do hear the resemblance they are referring to.  But don’t forget guitarist Mike Hall, who doesn’t get enough credit for his solo work and tasteful use of the whammy bar.  On drums, the Dwarfs boast the heavy hitting Darrell Dwarf (Millar), an animated character who provides the ever-important thump.  And of course Bad Ronbo Mayer on bass and backing vocals, keeping it together.

Peak Dwarfs for me was 1990’s Dirty Weapons, a seriously good heavy rock album with attitude and riffs.  I have a whole different set of memories of that album, but not as nostagic.  Dirty Weapons came at Childhood’s End, a period of rapid change.  There it remains emblazoned in that part of my memory forever.

#856: Why Metal?

GETTING MORE TALE #856: Why Metal?

As you’re aware, I’ve been doing a lot of introspection lately.  I hope you don’t mind.  A lot of my reflection has been to my distant past.  As I look back, I am reminded how music was always there in my life.  One of my first truly beloved records was the original soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back.  The bombast, drama and power of those pieces really appealed to me.  It’s safe to say that I discovered music through Star Wars and John Williams.  Until they came along, music was just something that was around me.  It wasn’t inside me until Star Wars.

They stopped making Star Wars movies (or did they…?) in 1983, coincidentally the same year that Quiet Riot released Metal Health, and Styx came out with “Mr. Roboto”.  I simply jumped from one train to the other!  They were both going in the same direction so it wasn’t much of a leap.  Rock music was very much about bombast, drama and power.  And it stuck with me, bonded at a molecular level.

But why metal?  There were other trains I could have boarded.  At school, every other kid was into Duran Duran.  I couldn’t have given a crap about Duran Duran, even if they were in a James Bond movie!  So why metal?

The first factor to examine would be peer groups.  Essentially, I had two:  the school kids and the neighbourhood kids.  The school kids were, frankly, assholes.  But none of them lived in my neighbourhood.  It was like growing up in two separate worlds.  My classmates weren’t near me and I was fine with that.  Every time I came home, it was like I had entered a safe zone.  The older kids in my neighbourhood were legends.  Bob Schipper, Rob Szabo, and George Balasz.  They were the ones I looked up to and they were all rocking the metal.  Szabo’s favourite bands?  Motley Crue and Stryper.  Balasz liked Kiss.  Schipper was into Iron Maiden.

We would gather on front stoops with boomboxes powered by D-cell batteries.  Van Halen cassettes would be passed around like a joint.  I heard Maiden Japan by Iron Maiden on my front patio for the first time because George brought it over.  The guys were eager to educate me.  Quiet Riot, Helix, Judas Priest, W.A.S.P., Black Sabbath were names I was trying to memorize.  I had a few things mixed up though.  I thought the song “Sister Christian” by was Motorhead, because when they sing “Motorin’!” I heard “Motorhead”.  So sure.

On the other hand, the peer group at school was mostly what we called “wavers”.  They liked Mr. Mister and Michael Jackson and whatever else, I simply wanted nothing to do with it.  At an instinctive level, I think these people repulsed me.  I had witnessed and been victim to their cruelty.  I wanted nothing to do with their music or their sports and I think that was largely unconscious.  I would have loved if they liked me instead of mocking me; it would have made life easier.  Obviously I had given up trying.  So why not?  Heavy metal music was like Musica proibita in Catholic school.  There were a few headbangers — I didn’t like them either — but just a few.  Those guys thought it was hilarious that I was still into Quiet Riot in 1985 when they had moved onto Van Halen.  They would challenge me to “name three songs by Helix” to see if they could trip me up.  That was the difference between the rock guys at school, and my friends at home.  The guys at home would have just taught me what songs were by Helix.

Fucking school assholes.

An other notable factor on the road to heavy metal that has to be mentioned is the one nobody wants to talk about:  puberty!  But it is true that the bands I was discovering were (mostly) masculine manly men, and soon I would be wanting to attract a mate like they taught us in sex ed class.  To exude masculinity, I chose metal.  I am certain that was a conscious decision.  Despite the long hair, the guy in Iron Maiden was clearly a tougher dude than the guy in Duran Duran.  If there was going to be a fistfight, I wanted to be on the Maiden guy’s side.  Easy choice.  It seemed that simple in grade seven.

Of course, heavy metal music had the opposite effect in trying to attract girls.  It absolutely repelled them, every single one of them.  The fact that I just went double-down on the metal showed that my love for the music was genuine.  Girls didn’t like metal, but I did, and I was already too committed to discovering all the bands I could.  I was living in the rabbit hole.

A gleaming, riveted stainless steel rabbit hole.  With a million watt stereo system.

Parental approval?  Not really.  Though they liked Bob Schipper, they didn’t know what to make of this metal music.  They tolerated it, and never gave me a hard time about any of the bands I liked.  They probably would have preferred Springsteen like the family across the street listened to.  But hey, they bought me the tapes I wanted for Christmas, and they let me tape the videos on TV, so a big applause to my parents.  I think my dad was worried that I was becoming such an introvert.  I remember him telling me “Garnet Lasby doesn’t sit in his room listening to tapes all day.”

When he said that, all I could hear in my head were the Kiss lyrics, “Get me out of this rock and roll hell, take me far away.”  I was so confused.  I loved listening to music in my room.  The only thing better was listening to music with my friends.  Was it bad?  I really thought about it, but obviously decided to follow my heart.

One more factor in my journey to metal that is easily overlooked but must be accounted for:  the fact that rock and roll is one big soap opera with enough drama, violence and musical brilliance to fill an entire Star Wars trilogy.  As my friends taught me the songs, they also introduced me to the stories.  “This is Randy Rhoads.  He was the greatest until he died in a plane crash.”  And Kiss?  Woah nelly, there was every kind of story within Kisstory!  How many guitar players?  And crazy costumes and characters to go with the story?  Buying a Kiss album was never just “buying a Kiss album”.  It was always buying a issue of a comic book.  What would Kiss sound like this time?  What seedy subjects would they be wrestling with on a lyrical level?  What would the cover look like and what colour would the logo be?

It seems obvious now, but the only way for me to go was metal.  In every single alternate universe, I am a metal fan.

Music allowed me to rewrite my persona a bit.  I hoped that, instead of that nerdy kid with the Star Wars fetish, I would be remembered as the nerdy kid that was really into music.  (Music that is still popular today, incidentally.)  Why metal?  Because it really only could have been metal.

 

#852: On The Loose

GETTING MORE TALE #852: On The Loose

Though they formed in 1979 and were already on their third album, I didn’t notice Europe until 1986.  Even then, I managed to ignore their first few airings on MuchMusic’s Pepsi Power Hour.  Host J.D. (John) Roberts made a big deal out of the fact that they were from Sweden, which I didn’t understand since Yngwie Malmsteen was also from Sweden and nobody mentioned that as the most interesting thing about him.  Roberts warned us that Europe didn’t really sound like heavy metal but they were playing them anyway.

After the second or third run, the hook to “The Final Countdown” was stuck in my head and I decided that I liked the band.  I asked for their album for Easter of 1987.  What did I think about this new band from Sweden when the Easter bunny granted my wish?

Didn’t care for it much. The title track still had me hooked, and a song on side two called “Cherokee” was a sure-fire hit.  The rest of it sounded like awkward filler.  “Rock, now, rock the night!”  What kind of chorus was that?  I knew English wasn’t their first language but it didn’t hook me. Likewise “Stranger on the Track”, which I still envision as a guy running around on a 400 meter track & field course.  Even the mighty “Ninja” slipped past me with lines like, “If I were a noble ancient knight, I’d stand by your side to rule and fight.”  As for “Carrie”, it was just too soft.

But I was committed now; I had received this cassette tape as a gift and I had to give it a fair chance.  “Ninja” did rock, and so did a song called “On the Loose” on side two.  It was this song that rocked the hardest.  It also featured some amazing shredding by guitarist John Norum, which turned me into a fan.  That and his cool guitar strap.

By summer it was safe to say that I really liked the album.  Once the big singles wore themselves out on me, I found favourites on side two.  “Love Chaser”, “Heart of Stone”, “Time Has Come” and of course “On the Loose” were great songs.  As I learned more about the band, I discovered that John Norum had already departed and been replaced by Kee Marcello, who was in the video for “Rock the Night”.  But all anybody remembers about “Rock the Night” now is Joey singing into a ketchup bottle. the band miming their instruments on silverware in a diner.

Though clearly dated to a specific part of the 80s, The Final Countdown still stands as a thoroughly enjoyable album. Every song is fondly remembered.  It’s brighter and more instantly appealing than its following Out of This World.  Though they burned out by ’92, they have enjoyed a quality second era with Norum back in the fold.  Who could have imagined that back in ’87?

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Screaming For Vengeance (30th Anniversary Edition)

JUDAS PRIEST – Screaming For Vengeance (Originally 1982, 2012 Sony 30th Anniversary Edition)

While people recognize British Steel as a platinum Judas Priest landmark, it was Screaming For Vengeance that went double platinum.  It introduced Priest to the MTV generation and opened them up to bigger American audiences.  But before we get to Screaming For Vengeance itself, a cornerstone Judas Priest album in anyone’s books, the “Special 30th Anniversary Edition” must first be addressed.  The extra content is a full concert DVD, and four bonus audio live tracks from the same DVD.

To have Priest live at the US Festival is a wish fulfilled for many.  The daylight show with full classic costumes (Rob decked in silver) is a nostalgia blowout.  The band look lethal although drummer Dave Holland appears overwhelmed by the demanding tunes.  The setlist isn’t half bad, with “Green Manalishi”, “Diamonds and Rust”, and “Victim of Changes” being highlights and filling the need for old classics.  The bulk of the set is made up of more recent material from the three 1980s Priest albums thus far.  Tempos are fast, cowbells are in the air, and Rob is at his confident shrieking best.  The audio is great and the video is well reproduced.  Owning this edition of Screaming really is a must since it’s the only official release of this show on DVD.

Unfortunately only four tracks from the DVD are included in CD form, to keep costs down.  Otherwise it would have to be a triple disc set.  (Which is probably coming for a 40th anniversary edition anyway.)  The re-imagined cover art is nice, fitting in with other Priest deluxe reissues (see images at bottom).  In an unfortunate oversight, the clean and sharp original artwork is included nowhere inside this set.  They did include the two bonus tracks from the previous remastered CD release, which we’ll get to after we discuss the album in full.

Screaming For Vengeance was a sudden change of style for the Priest, after two rather soundalike albums.  Similarly the next album Defenders of the Faith would be cast from the same mold as Screaming.  All these albums were produced by Tom Allom.  Tempos were turned up, guitars sharpened, and as per the title, Rob Halford screamed.  A lot.  The refined 80s Priest was evident on the opening duo “The Hellion/Electric Eye”.  The guitars are sleeker, the vocals processed and robotic.  The riffs are just as sharp.  Priest were going for the throat.  This opening one-two punch was more punishing than any music I ever heard at that time.  Though you could not claim it’s heavier than a Priest oldie like “Saints In Hell”, the production is louder and more in your face than ever before.

Drummer Dave Holland sprays a bloodbath of bashes at the start of “Riding on the Wind”, Priest speeding on the highway once again.  With Rob in high register, this catchy tune is perfect for keeping the wind in your face.  The first respite in terms of tempo is “Bloodstone”, though its glorious riffs need no accelerant.  Halford’s scatting at the end is classic and a rare reappearance of his old sassy self from Hell Bent for Leather.

“(Take These) Chains” is one of the most immediately accessible tracks, a mid-tempo delight as Priest do so well.  They end the side with a slow metal grind called “Pain and Pleasure”, drums soaked in echo.  Rob alludes to an interest in BDSM again, but with music this heavy most people just headbanged and ignored.  (In another sad oversight, the lyrics are not contained within this edition, but were reproduced on the previous CD remaster.)  Don’t assume that because it’s a slow one it’s weak.  “Pain and Pleasure” is a resounding an d memorable side-ender.

The second side opens with the sudden shock blitzkrieg of the title track.  Speed metal turned up to 11, “Screaming For Vengeance” is over the top and almost self-parody.  It’s one of Priest’s most overdriven blasts of might, but it also verges on mindlessness if not for a spirited solo section in the middle.  But then in another jarring shift, the sleek mid-tempo groove of “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” rears its familiar head.  When I was a kid, there was no question this was Priest’s “big hit”.  It was the song everyone knew, and the music video was on constant rotation.  Classic clip.  The man pursuing Priest is meant to represent the tax man.  When Rob essentially yells at him “no tax man, you will not take my money,” his head blows up.  They used a little too much TNT on the mannequin, and so the tax man’s pants fell down in an added humiliation.  Such is the power of heavy metal, folks.  Got tax problems?  Rock and roll right in that tax man’s face.  Eventually his head will blow up.  If you’re lucky the pants might also fall.  This is what Priest have given the world!

“Another Thing Comin'” is a brilliant song.  Radio super-saturation cannot dull its simply-constructed hooks.  Its placement (second song, side two) is odd but that didn’t stop it to #4 on the US Billboard rock chart, nor did it impede the album rising to #17 on the Billboard 200.

The album begins drawing to a close, with an echoey tremolo effect on “Fever”, one of the album’s best cuts.  Then the echo ends, and a clean guitar accompanies a plaintive Rob.  Mid-tempo, powerfully built and loaded with hooks, “Fever” is a late-album winner.  Then, three quarters in, Halford turns on the high voice and the song transforms into something else equally cool.  Finally the echo-guitar returns to help bring the song to its dramatic end.

“Devil’s Child” is the last hurrah, a fun and heavy indictment of an ex-lover who’s “so damn wicked” and “smashed and grabbed all I had”.  The album ends as suddenly as it begins; jarring transitions being a sonic theme on Screaming For Vengeance.

Tom Allom’s production is often maligned as inferior to the more raw and loose sounds of Priest on their 70s albums, and there’s certainly an argument to be made there.  Screaming For Vengeance is not a warm album.  It is cold, sharp and steely.  It has a precise, digital undertone.  But it’s also heavy, considerably more so than Point of Entry which preceded it.  The cover art indicated that we were entering a new phase for Judas Priest; a simpler streamlined 80s phase but still deadly enough for the old fans.

The live bonus tracks included on the CD were not chosen willy-nilly.  Instead of including the best hits from the US Festival DVD, they use the ones from Screaming For Vengeance:  “Electric Eye”, “Riding On the Wind”, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” and “Screaming” itself.  Watch out for the squealing feedback!  Finally the original bonus tracks from the 2001 CD are edition are tacked on so you don’t have to own two copies.  These include a raspy, smoking “Devil’s Child” live from another concert, and a demo from the 1985-86 Twin Turbos sessions called “Prisoner of Your Eyes”.  I hate when Priest use bonus tracks from the wrong era, but the Screaming For Vengeance reissues are the only place you can get this song.  In a stylistic shift, this slick ballad sounds more like “A Touch of Evil” from Painkiller, but far tamer.  (The guitar solos were overdubbed and tracks finished in 2001.)

Good special edition, but not great.  As these things go I’m sure we can expect a better 40 anniversary edition.  It won’t be long now.

5/5 stars for the album

3.5/5 stars for the 30th Anniversary edition

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Point of Entry (1981, Remastered)

JUDAS PRIEST – Point of Entry (1981, 2001 Sony remaster)

Point of Entry will always be one of those “other” Judas Priest albums. It wasn’t a ground breaker and wasn’t a massive seller. It will always just be “the album that came after British Steel” or “the one that came before Screaming for Vengeance“.  It did fine (500,000 US sales) and spawned a killer single called “Heading Out to the Highway”, but it didn’t make history like the other two records.

Coming after British Steel, Priest continued with producer Tom Allom and drummer Dave Holland, and it doesn’t sound like they were overly interested in taking chances.  Sonically Point of Entry is a carbon copy, though with less impactful songs.  In 2001, it was issued remastered by Sony with two bonus tracks.

For me, Point of Entry occupies an interesting space.  Listening to it on a recent road trip took me back to 1987 or 88, when I was in the midst of seriously trying to collect “all the Priest”.  From the perspective of a kid in 1988, Point of Entry was what I thought 1981 must have sounded like, though it wasn’t that long before.  So Point of Entry takes me back not to the early 80s, but the late 80s.  And in the late 80s, it sounded good.

Sure, I was aware that it sounded a lot like British Steel before, but without the massive landmark tracks like “Metal Gods”.  But what about “Desert Plains”?  Why wasn’t it as important as “Metal Gods”?

To this day, I don’t know.

Point of Entry does boast a few songs that could go toe-to-toe with any on British Steel.  Certainly “Desert Plains” and “Heading Out to the Highway” can stand up to the prior album.  “Highway” has one of those riffs so classic that I sometimes find myself humming it in a grocery line wondering what song was in my head.  As a mid-tempo road song, it does the job.  One could argue it’s just a sequel to “Living After Midnight”, but you just try and resist this one.

“Heading Out to the Highway” was made into an unintentionally funny video, mixing on-set with on-location footage in an obvious way.  Worse though were the two videos that followed:  “Don’t Go” and “Hot Rockin'”.  “Don’t Go” features the band playing trapped inside a small room, with a door that leads various impossible locations including outer space.  Fortunately the song is better:  slow and plaintive, yet with that solid rocking beat and a killer guitar solo.  “Hot Rockin'” is high-speed but tends to be forgotten because Priest have better material at this tempo.  The video is situated in a sauna, and then a concert stage where Rob’s flaming feet light fire to his microphone, and the microphone to a couple guitars.  Funny to look at, but I think it’s one of those cases where we’re laughing at the band, not with them.

“Turning Circles”, and a lot of the rest of the album, fall into various categories.  This one fits alongside “Don’t Go” as a slow but hard track.  “We’ve all got somethin’ wrong to say,” sings Rob in this song that seems to be about ending a relationship.  The “ah ha, ah ha” break in the middle is an album highlight, and to me it sounds exactly like my bedroom in 1987.

It’s “Desert Plains” that really brings it home.  There is a pulse to this song, created by Dave Holland and Ian Hill.  You don’t associate those two guys with awesome rock beats often, but here it is.  “Desert Plains” is an instant classic, and it’s alive with movement.  From the verses, to the choruses, to Holland’s drum “sound effects” (like “wild mountain thunder”), this is a Priest classic and shall forever remain so.  This side one closer should have been a video way before “Hot Rockin'”.

The second side opens with “Solar Angels”, another track with an interesting rhythm (slow drums, fast guitar chug).  The song feels like it could use some more substance, but it’s still enjoyable albeit in a “Metal Gods” knock-off kind of way.  Though heaviness is always celebrated, who doesn’t enjoy when Rob Halford gets sassy?  That’s “You Say Yes”, an outstanding shoulda-been hit.  The verses verge on punk rock as Rob spits out the words as only he can.  Then the airy “what I do, what I do, what I do” middle section goes right to heaven — or my room in ’87, I’m not sure which.

Point of Entry ends on three decent but unremarkable mid-tempo tracks, which perhaps always served to weaken the album’s impressions.  “All the Way” might be an attempt to rewrite “Living After Midnight”, and although it’s a cool track we all know Priest have better stuff in this vein.  “Troubleshooter” might even be more of a rewrite, with that opening drum beat sounding a little familiar.  But Rob’s vocals kill it.  Finally “On the Run” is a screamy album closer where Rob is once again the star.

As with previous CDs in this Priest remasters series, there are two bonus tracks, one of which has nothing to do with Point of Entry.  “Thunder Road” sounds a lot like Ram It Down era Priest, so you can safely assume it’s from those sessions in the late 80s.  Clearly outtake quality, almost like a prototype for “Johnny B Goode”.  Then there is a live version of “Desert Plains” from what sounds like the 1987 tour judging by the big echoey drums and Rob’s added screams.  It’s much faster than the album cut, all but destroying the pulse of the original.  Yet the song still kills!  Somehow it didn’t make it onto the Priest…Live! album, which was already stuffed full.

In the late 90s, a guy sold a used copy of this on CD to me, but he left something inside.  Something I wish I’d kept because it was so bizarre and funny.  The back cover features five white boxes in the desert.  The guy left a little white piece of note paper inside, explaining what he thought the back cover was about.   “Maybe they are graves,” said part of it.  I wish I could remember the rest.  (I always thought the five boxes represented the five band members, with the large one in the back being Dave Holland and the drum kit.)  And speaking of the cover, this album does look better on vinyl.  I have vinyl for almost all the Priest up to Ram It Down, and they all look better on vinyl.

Although Point of Entry will always live in the shadows of the towering albums that came before and after, it still leaves a glow behind.

3.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Sin After Sin (1977)

JUDAS PRIEST – Sin After Sin (Originally 1977, 2001 Sony reissue)

“SIN AFTER SIN, I have endured, but the wounds I bear are the wounds of love.”

This lyric from “Genocide” on 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny would have been little more than a throwaway, if Priest didn’t recycle the words “sin after sin” for their next album title.  Though the song may have appeared to be the same, much had actually changed.  For the first time, they had a producer that understood that kind of aggressive rock that the young band were trying to create:  Roger Glover, ex-Deep Purple, who had already recorded several albums for Elf, Ian Gillan and Nazareth.  Perhaps even more significantly, for the first time they had a serious drummer creating the beats:  the not-yet-legendary Simon Phillips, who had still already played on a Jack Bruce album.  This was just a session for Phillips, but it enabled Priest to break the shackles of rhythm and really start exploring.

Opener “Sinner” might have been the same kind of tempos that Priest were working with before, but there is a new slickness to the drums; an effortless drive with increasingly interesting accents.  With a solid backing, Priest sound more vicious.  “Demonic vultures stalking, drawn by the smell of war and pain.”  The apocalypse has never sounded cooler.  As Phillips drops sonic bombs left and right, KK Downing goes to town on what would become his live showcase solo.  His growls and trills sound like a beast inflicting wounds on a struggling combatant.  At almost seven minutes, “Sinner” is the album epic, and it’s the opening track!

Priest previously recorded a cover of Joan Baez’ “Diamonds and Rust” for Gull records; that early version can be acquired on The Best of Judas Priest or Hero, Hero.  The Glover-produced track is the more famous and better of the two.  Radio play for “Diamonds and Rust” helped push the album to eventually sell 500,000 copies.  Rob Halford’s high pitched harmonies gleam like polished silver.

Ironic observation:  I hope by now we all know a light year is a measurement of distance, not time.  It is the amount of distance that light can travel in one year (9.46 trillion kilometres).  So, really really far.  Joan Baez playfully used it as a melodramatic measure of time in “Diamonds and Rust”.  (“A couple of light years ago”.)  On the next track “Starbreaker”, Halford refers to “light year miles away”, a crudely worded hyperbole for distance.  So with Sin After Sin, you get it both ways.  Regardless of scientific accuracy (or not) “Starbreaker” is a good track with a slightly flat riff.  Though Phillips is brilliant, it could just use a little more pep.

Like with Sad Wings of Destiny, you gotta have a ballad in there somewhere, and on side one that’s “Last Rose of Summer”.  This softie isn’t bad, though Priest have done and will do better.  Using a ballad to close a side isn’t always wise either, but on CD nobody really notices except us nerds.

“Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest” is a pretty epic side two opener, with harmony guitars playing an opening instrumental anthem.  Then a choir of Halfords joins in, and the band break in to what could be their fastest song yet.  From the wickedly fast dual guitar solos to the powerful rhythm, this song is a blitzkrieg of metal trademarks.  It’s relentless and all over the board, something that 80s Priest rarely was.

Side two keeps getting better with the groove of “Raw Deal”, which was Rob’s real “coming out” to fans in the know.  Today he calls it a “heavy metal gay rights song”.  It’s actually one of Halford’s best lyrics.  Instead of mashing together science fiction words and singing about battlefields, this time Halford paints a hazy picture of what is probably a gay club in Fire Island, New York.  It’s vivid but vague:  “The mirror on the wall was collecting and reflecting, all the heavy bodies ducking, stealing eager for some action.”  It’s also backed by some seriously cool Priest music, almost funky but always heavy.  “The true free expression I demand is human rights – right?”  It was all there in the lyrics all along.

A second ballad, the dirge “Here Comes the Tears” brings a cloudier mood.  An ode to loneliness, “Here Comes the Tears” is the one to play when you just can’t take it anymore.  When Halford starts givin’ ‘er at the end with the wildest screams in history, it sounds like an exorcism.  The guitars howl, a hint of piano can be heard, and there is an underlying choir of Robs singing sadly in unison.  Finally “Dissident Aggressor”, famously covered by Slayer, concludes the album on a violently fast note.  “Stab!  Fall!  Punch!  Crawl!”  This song is not for amateurs and might be the heaviest thing Priest have ever done.  There are plenty of contenders, but “Dissident Aggressor” must be in the Top Five Heaviest Priest Songs Ever.  But that being said, they still have the balls to end the song with another multi-layered harmony of Halfords.

The 2001 Sony remastered CD has two bonus tracks, and the first is the best in the entire series:  “Race With the Devil”, a cover of a track by The Gun.  This version, recorded for the next album Stained Class (Les Binks on drums) could easily have been a B-side all this time.  Why it went unreleased until 2001 is unknown.  Perhaps it was lost, but now that it has gotten a proper mastering job it is available on CD.  This is un-retouched, which cannot be said for other unreleased tracks in the Priest Remasters series.  “Run With the Devil” is raw, riffy, fast, and wicked.  All it really needed to make it album quality is a better guitar solo.  The second bonus track is a live “Jawbreaker” (Dave Holland on drums) from the Defenders of the Faith tour.  Out of place, but an excellent song regardless.

Incidentally, Sin After Sin is the last album before Priest adopted the first version of their current logo design.

4/5 stars

RE-REVIEW: Judas Priest – Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)

I was listening to Sad Wings of Destiny recently and wrote up a brand new review before realizing I already reviewed it.  Fortunately, I had lots more to say.  For my original 2015 review, click here.

JUDAS PRIEST – Sad Wings of Destiny (1976 Gull, 1998 Snapper Music)

1974’s Rocka Rolla didn’t set the world on fire, so back to the drawing board for album #2.  Having rid themselves of most of their early bluesy material, Judas Priest went heavier, and more diverse simultaneously.  The resulting album, 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny, is considered an early classic by the band.  Some feel they rarely reached these heights again as they took their metal more mainstream in the 80s.

“Victim of Changes”, which opens the album, introduced the world to the high notes that Rob Halford was able to hit.  “Whiskey woman don’t you know that you are driving me insaaaaaaaaaaaaaane!”  Yet that note is nothing compared with Rob’s final shrieks.  This track combines an earlier unreleased Priest song titled “Whiskey Woman” written by original singer Al Atkins with a track called “Red Light Lady” brought in by Halford from his old band Hiroshima.  You can hear the moment the two songs are welded together at around the 4:45 mark.  Together at almost eight minutes they form a complex, classic Priest track that represents a high water mark.  Twisting from a metal groove into ballady territor-y and back again, this is drama the way Priest do it.  And they never do it better.

“The Ripper” boasts similar high notes but it’s almost a parody.  This riff-based shorty (2:51) is from the perspective of Jack the Ripper (or if you like, Jack the Knife).  With a galloping beat from new drummer Alan Moore (who was eventually replaced by the far superior Les Binks), “The Ripper” is as metal as things got in 1976.  Its placement as second track is perfect because the next two, “Dreamer Deceiver” and “Deceiver” form a single 8:34 epic.  “Dreamer Deceiver”, which forms the majority of the song, is an epic ballad about a supernatural being who tempts those below.

“Saw a figure floating, ‘neath the willow trees.
Asked us if we were happy, we said we didn’t know.
Took us by the hand and up we go.”

They follow the dreamer through the purple hazy clouds into the cosmos.  The intricate acoustic guitars let Rob Halford dominate with his story.  Though the track is haunting, it seems the people in the song find “complete contentment” and live without worries.  But as the song builds, adding piano, Rob’s vocals become more urgent (and high).  Though it seems like a heavenly paradise, the second part “Deceiver” changes the mood considerably.

“Solar winds are blowing, neutron star controlling.
All is lost, doomed and tossed, at what cost forever?”

There is always a price when temptations seem too good to be true.  This song brings another heavy gallop, the kind which Iron Maiden would later perfect.  Solos blast, as Halford warns us all of the “Deceiver”!  This is the kind of metal that people associate with Judas Priest, though its’ far more impressive if you consider it part of a larger composition.

Side one can be viewed as just three songs:  two epics and a hard rocker.  Side two has more to offer, though it opens in epic enough quality.  Glenn Tipton’s piano piece “Prelude” is foreboding.  As a Sabbath-like instrumental, it serves to set the scene for “Tyrant” (though “Tyrant” is always performed live without “Prelude”).  Overdubbed vocals make for a cool chorus, but this one is just a molten metal burner.  It wastes no time in laying waste, with guitar solos galore, in both single and dual formations.

“Genocide” is a slower, cooler groove that doesn’t seem to match its violent title.  But this is from the perspective of a survivor.  “Save me, my people have died, total genocide.”  This is the song that gave us the next album title, Sin After Sin:  “Sin after sin, I have endured, but the wounds I bear are the wounds of love.”  Cool track and a necessary one to give the album balance.  Songs of this tempo and style would make up the bulk for Priest albums in the future, yet it’s not simple or blockheaded like some 80s Priest tended to be.  It retains some complexity and traverses multiple musical landscapes through its length.

Next:  a complete left turn.  “Epitaph” (written by Tipton) is a piano-based funeral dirge that sounds a heck of a lot like Queen.  It’s beautiful though.  With Halford’s vocals layered as a choir, it’s a daring change of pace even though Queen were pretty much the biggest band in the world in 1976.

“Epitaph” fades directly into the final track “Island of Domination”, another metal chug but with an apocalyptic bent.  Rob’s lyrics are unusually styled with archaic sounding lines like “‘Twas as if all hell had broke loose on this night.”  This could be Rob’s first BDSM-themed song with lines like “Lashings of strappings with beatings competing to win.”  If not, then it’s just a brutal battle set to the tune of speedy Priest metal.

It must be said that Sad Wings has a striking album cover, with the angel depicted burning in hell.  School teachers worldwide would have loved this cover back in 1976.  The angel character would return 14 years later as the Painkilller.  The “devil’s tuning fork” necklace that the angel is wearing would become Priest’s symbol on later albums as well.

Though Sad Wings is an essential album for a serious metal collection, and stuffed full with riff after riff of majesty, it is frustrating hard to find good versions on CD.  Priest’s albums on Gull records have never been officially reissued by the band.  The 1998 CD release by Snapper music is usually rated fairly well.  If you’re unsure then get an original Gull vinyl copy.  But do get Sad Wings of Destiny and prepare to hear a young, vital and daring Judas Priest just beginning to learn what they can do.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Jackyl – Jackyl (1992)

JACKYL – Jackyl (1992 Geffen)

This is one of the CDs I inherited from my late Uncle Don Don.  I always wanted the first Jackyl for two songs:  “She Loves My Cock” and of course “The Lumberjack”.  Now that I finally have it, I thought it would be fun to review it “live” on first listen.  The first thing to notice is that all of the songs are under five minutes.

Jackyl, starring Jesse James Dupree on lead vocals and chainsaw, signed to Geffen at the tail end of the hard rock era in 1991. It wasn’t too late though as Jackyl scored a platinum with their 1992 self titled debut. Even though they never reached those heights again, Jackyl have continued on to the present day with relatively few lineup changes.

With a song called “She Loves My Cock”, you can probably understand why why K-Mart refused to stock this album. In protest, Jackyl filmed their video for opener “I Stand Alone” in a K-Mart parking lot. An AC/DC vibe is imminent, but Americanized with shout-along chorus.  Dupree certainly has the Brian Johnson pitch and grit, as well as certain vocal inflections.  Good track, solid groove, great catchy solos.  The shouted bits are dated, but the song is otherwise pretty slick.

Then Jesse James starts squealing about a “Dirty Little Mind”, a sleazy rocker with more of the shouting, and then it gets really dirty.  Not a classic in any universe, but it sounds like it would be fun singing along in a bar.  A stuttery riff, like those popularized in the late 80s and early 90s, starts off “Down On Me”, catchy midtempo heaven with a soulful southern slant.  Apparently “Down On Me” was their biggest charting hit, even surpassing “The Lumberjack” and “When Will It Rain”.  I remember “When Will It Rain” from the music video, a darker and stormier concoction.  It seems an unlikely single, but thus far it’s the most serious track.  Certainly more serious than “Redneck Punk” which sounds like its name.  Sped-up punk beats infused with a Dixieland vibes.  And then as if to make the “redneck” point even further, it’s “The Lumberjack”.  I love found objects in music as a general concept, and it’s awesome to hear a sleazy rock band like Jackyl executing such highbrow concepts, going as far as to play an actual chainsaw solo and still keeping it musical. The contrast of the highbrow with the brutally juvenile lyrics strides that ever-so-fine line between clever and stupid.

It sounds as if this would be a natural place for a side break, as “Reach For Me” has a completely different vibe.  A choppy riff and dynamic verses really set up a cool song.  Without missing a beat we’re on to “Back Off Brother”, a tough little number with a minimalist riff.  “Brain Drain” has a slightly funky feel emphasized by the cowbell.  Not an album highlight, but a strange cross between AC/DC and Def Leppard.  Dupree expresses a clear preference for alcohol.  “It’s not the ‘caine, not the Mary Jane, but the golden grain.”  It’s good to know what you like.  A slick one called “Just Like the Devil” starts to wind things up with a tough riff and speedy beat.

Finally and wisely the album ends on “She Loves My Cock”, the track that got them banned from K-Mart.  There are clean versions of this CD available without the song, but what’s the point?  This album without that song like like a sentence without the exclamation mark!  The lyrics are not repeatable here but you can use your imagination.  Fortunately there is a solid foundation to this heavy track to support the ridiculous words.

And that’s the album, thoroughly enjoyable with minimal filler.  I could probably live without “Brain Drain” and “Dirty Little Mind”, but stuff like “Reach For Me” and “Down On Me” are like newly discovered treasure.  A good album that stretches out just enough, but never exceeds its ambitions.  Jackyl wants to be a party album with humour and balls, so that’s what it is.  It couldn’t exist without AC/DC or gasoline-powered wood-cutting implements, and there are few albums you can say that about.

3.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes (1994 Japanese version)

BLACK SABBATH – Cross Purposes (1994 EMI Japan)

Cross Purposes catches a lot of crap from fans, and maybe it is the softest Sabbath, but it ain’t bad.  The Tony Martin era was unfairly derided when he was the singer in Black Sabbath.  “Only Ozzy or Ronnie — no Tony!” complained some fans.  Well, we had Ronnie for Dehumanizer and that didn’t last.  Tony Martin was probably always the backup plan in case things went south with Dio.  It is said that Tony Martin recorded his own set of vocals for the Dehumanizer album in case Dio left abruptly.  It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that Tony Iommi called up Martin when Dio did inevitably walk.

Ronnie brought drummer Vinny Appice with him, which meant Sabbath were replacing two members.  In a genius move, Iommi snapped up ex-Rainbow heavy-hitter Bobby Rondinelli.  Bassist Geezer Butler stayed put, but not without regrets.  He would later say that he thought they were recording an album for a new band, but that Iommi decided to use the name Black Sabbath.  This seems hard to believe given that Iommi always returned to the Sabbath name in the past.

Tony Martin & Bobby Rondinelli

Whatever the case may be, Cross Purposes was met with mixed reactions when it was released in 1994.  While some welcomed the return of a classic sounding band, others called them irrelevant in the face of grunge.  Indeed, Sabbath were accused of copying the style of Alice in Chains on “Virtual Death”, featuring a double tracked vocal similar to the Seattle band’s trademark sound.

True as that may be, there is no question that opener “I Witness” sounds like no band other than Black Sabbath.  From Iommi’s squealing guitar shrieks to Geezer’s slinky bass, only one band sounds like this.  Yes, on the surface Tony Martin sounds like Dio, but that sells him short.  Dio has more grit, while Martin takes it smooth.  “I Witness” is one of those blazingly fast Sabbath openers, and Rondinelli’s massive snare sound just kills it.  I’ve always enjoyed how Black Sabbath worked their name into certain lyrics, like “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”.  Here, Tony Martin (an underrated lyricist) refers to the “pilgrims of Sabbocracy”, a word that doesn’t seem to exist outside the Black Sabbath pantheon.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons this album was poorly received is that two of its best songs are ballads.  People forget that Sabbath have many classic ballads — “Solitude”, “Changes” and “Born Again” come to mind.  “Cross of Thorns” is a vocal workout for Martin that darkens the sky and shakes the seas.  An acoustic riff begins the journey, but it transforms into something bigger and more dramatic.  It also includes one of Iommi’s most memorable guitar solos from his entire career.  Special mention goes to late keyboardist Geoff Nicholls who provides much atmosphere for this dark burner.

“Psychophobia” is an interesting song; not the most memorable but with a tricky riff that’ll get the heads banging.   The middle section exactly halfway into the song is outstanding.  It’s also a gas to hear Martin singing “It’s time to kiss the rainbow goodbye”.  A sly jab at Dio?  Fans will probably always see it that way.  But then comes “Virtual Death”.  Its possible grunge inspirations stick out like the sorest of thumbs on side one.  This slow song drags too long.  The whole “virtual reality” trend was well worn out by 1994, so that did not help matters much.  Fortunately the first side redeems itself with a resounding closer called “Immaculate Deception”.  The beguilement here is that the song seems like trudge at first, until Rondinelli puts it in turbo on the choruses.

Side two opens with the second ballad (more of a blues really) called “Dying For Love”.  This is reminiscent of “Feels Good to Me” from the Tyr album.  Interestingly, Geezer’s bassline sounds like the one Bob Daisley played on “The Shining” in 1987.  (Geezer was around when “The Shining” was written, possibly under the name “No Way Out”.)  It must be said that, as great as Tony Martin is on this song, it would have sounded out of this world had Dio sung it.

“Back to Eden” is a skipper.  Nothing particular wrong with it, just not as good as other tracks.  We resume on the single, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”.  A keyboard opening gives way to a killer Iommi riff, one that sticks in your brain for days.  Top it off with an excellent chorus and this track is a winner.  Shame it never had a chance as a single.  “Cardinal Sin”, like “Back to Eden”, isn’t much to talk about, though it does have a cool keyboard line.

The standard album ends on “Evil Eye”, a song that incredibly came about through an unlikely 1993 jam with Eddie Van Halen.  Van Halen laid down a solo, but the band weren’t recording properly.  According to Tony Martin, the Van Halen recording is simply too poor in quality to release.  I don’t think fans would mind, but that is wishful thinking considering they couldn’t even give Eddie a writing credit due to contractual wranglings.  This song just grinds, like a mountain over the aeons.  Tony Martin wails on the chorus, and Tony Iommi lays down several minutes of guitar licks that may or not have been inspired by Van Halen’s original solos.

A big thanks must go out to Harrison the Mad Metal Man for locating this Japanese printing of Cross Purposes that you are looking at.  A Sabbath collection that began in earnest back in 1992 was finally completed in 2020.  The bonus track here is “What’s the Use”, a song that doesn’t quite sound like the rest of the album.  The short choppy Iommi riff sounds more like Judas Priest than Sabbath, but it’s a welcome addition because it’s unlike the usual.

Had Cross Purposes come out under a different band name (something anonymously 90’s…like, I dunno, Carpet or something) with “Virtual Death” as the single, who knows what might have happened?  Probably nothing, because just as there were too many glam rock acts in the late 80s, the 90s were choked to the gills with alterna-bands.  A Japanese copy is expensive to come by, so don’t hesitate too much if you find a gently used domestic CD in the wild.  The album is, of course, out of print.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Akira Takasaki – Tusk of Jaguar (Take Another Bite) (1982)

AKIRA TAKASAKI – Tusk of Jaguar (Take Another Bite) (1982, 2009 Columbia CD reissue)

In 1982, Loudness guitarist Akira Takasaki and a Japanese keyboardist named Masanori Sasaji teamed up to record an album of music that was different from the usual Loudness rock.  Though the cover art and title Tusk of Jaguar screams “pure metal”, this is actually a combination of rock, pop and jazz fusion among other influences.  The cool thing about the album is that Loudness play on almost all of it, including singer Minoru Niihara on a couple of vocal tracks.  Some songs are all but considered part of the Loudness discography.

Certainly the opening title track sounds like Loudness.  That speed metal pace can only have been set by Munetaka Higuchi on drums and Masayoshi Yamashita on bass.  “Tusk of Jaguar” is a strange amalgam of shredding metal and jazz-rock interludes.  It sounds a bit like the Ian Gillan Band but with Eddie Van Malmsteen on lead guitar instead of Berne Torme.  Tremendously enjoyable, but way over the heads of most of the masses.

Minoru makes his first appearance on “Steal Away”, a song difficult to describe.  It’s Styx-like and has a big organ sounds like Dennis DeYoung.  Cinematic, progressive pop dance rock?  Then it goes pure Burn-era Deep Purple!  I don’t know what it is, and even with Minoru it sounds little like Loudness.  It’s also one of only a few songs without Higuchi and Yamashita.

“Macula (Far from Mother Land)” is based on synthesizer until it transforms into a more traditional guitar instrumental, with clear Brian May influences.  The way Akira Takasaki stacks his guitar harmonies can only be described as Queen-like.  For that reason, this song is the most accessible to rock fanatics, who will eat up every note that Akira celeverly lays down.  For those curious to know more about the critically acclaimed guitarist, check out “Ebony Eyes”, a serious hard rocker on which he takes lead vocals himself!  His voice is higher in timbre than Minoru’s, and while he is not an amazing vocalist, he does have some pretty incredible guitar solos on this track.

“Wild Boogie Run” is an interesting tune, sounding almost exactly like Dixie Dregs.  The violins, the acoustic & electric guitars, and slight western leanings make this a track that will make your friends wonder what Dregs album it was from.  This could be the track worth buying the album for.  Rock returns on “Gunshots” but even when Akira is just riffing, the rhythms beneath are complex and jazzy.  Hard to describe, but heavy!  A jazzy funk opens “Mid-Day Hunter”.  Takasaki is nothing if not diverse on Tusk of Jaguar, but even if the rhythms throw you for a loop, you can surely dig into his always memorable lead work.  In their early pre-Steve Perry days, Journey wrote songs like this.

Minoru Niihara returns on a song that is basically a Loudness track:  “Show Me Something Good”.  Though it also has Masanori Sasaji on keyboards, it is the entire Loudness lineup otherwise.  A pop rock track like this could have sat on an album like Lightning Strikes if it was produced with heavier intent.  The album closer is called “Say What?” which you might in fact be saying by the end of it.  Blazing tempos and synth solos adorn a track that is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

This is a challenging album, no word of a lie.  It’s certainly not immediate, and though parts of it sound familiar, it takes a bit of listening to really start to penetrate.  Loudness fans, and anybody into challenging progressive rock should give it a go.

3/5 stars