heavy metal

REVIEW: Twisted Sister – Come Out and Play (1985)

“Twisted Sister…come out and play!”  Happy anniversary to Come Out and Play released on this day 34 years ago.

 

TWISTED SISTER – Come Out and Play (1985 Atlantic LP & Spitfire CD remaster)

What was a band at the proverbial crossroads to do? Continue along the commercial path of the 3 million copy selling Stay Hungry?  Or revert to the tried and true heavy-as-an-SMF sound of yore?

There was only one dissenting vote.  Bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza felt that putting “Leader of the Pack” on the new album was a mistake.  The other four voted “yes” but some grew to regret it.  Both Dee Snider and J.J. French have since realized the error of their ways.  Today, Come Out and Play is acknowledged as the beginning of the end, though it has its fans and some sturdy tracks to support it.

Twisted Sister recruited Scorpions producer Dieter Dierks and enlisted high profile guest stars like Alice Cooper, Billy Joel, Brian Setzer and Clarence Clemons.  They were top-loaded onto a old-time rock and roller called “Be Chrool to Your Scuel”, and the gamble backfired immediately when MTV banned the music video for its zombies and ghouls.  It’s an interesting track at least.  You don’t hear a sax solo on a Twisted Sister song every day, nor the kind of plucking that Brian Setzer deals in.

“Leader of the Pack” was a failure as well, actually a re-recording of a track that debuted on the Ruff Cuts EP.  The video (starring the then-hot Bobcat Golthwaite) further painted Twisted Sister as a novelty band.

Tensions, especially between Mendoza and Snider, were amplified.  The songs that sound like they were meant to be “hits” fall far short.  The impression you get from “You Want What We Got” is that it was intended to be a specific kind of hit.  Unfortunately it’s just a repetitive anthem.  “Lookin’ Out for #1” is similarly filler, a song that never quite clicks.

Some tracks maintained a heavy rock presence. They include the anthem “I Believe In Rock and Roll”.  It’s a manifesto for the PMRC generation; a decent attempt that just misses the mark.  “Come Out and Play” features A.J. Pero nailing down a speedy beat, but the production of Dierks neutered the powerful drummer.  Dierks introduced keyboards to some of the tracks, watering them down needlessly.  “The Fire Still Burns” works better than some of the other songs, and despite the production you can hear A.J. is just crushing the kit.  If the backing vocals sound unusually lush, that’s Don Dokken and Gary Holland.  “Out on the Streets” trades the speed in for plaintive melodies, and is the better for it.  Finally “Kill or Be Killed” does what it promises.  Unbelievable that A.J. could play at such a relentless velocity, but he was an absolute beast.

Strangely, some of the best tracks are the ballads.  Dark ballads.  Ballads of depression, of loneliness, of alienation.  “I Believe in You” is the first of two, bolstered by strong melodies and Dee Snider’s enviable pipes.  The one that impresses the most is the CD and cassette bonus track “King of the Fools”.  Although “Kill or Be Killed” ends the album just fine, this coda adds some substance.  Sounding like a man destroyed, Dee sings the melancholy lyrics.

What kind of kingdom has no throne?
No crown or castle do I own,
I don’t have silver gold or jewels,
Yet I’m the king, king of the fools.

It’s surprisingly thoughtful songwriting, complimenting the mournful melodies.  Yet there is a defiant, powerful streak in the choruses.

King of the fools,
Who are these people to cast stones?
King of the fools,
Better a fool than just a clone.

Dee Snider has always resonated with the underdogs, the bullied, the downtrodden.  “King of the Fools” might be the most honest of all those songs.  Some regal guitar melodies by J.J. French and Eddie “Fingers” Ojeda show that they were picking up what Dee was laying down.

Here’s the catch though.  If you’re buying this album, you need “King of the Fools”.  To get it, you’ll want the CD.  But Come Out and Play might be most notable for the album cover you can only get on vinyl.  Open up that manhole cover and out pops Dee Snider in all his…all his…rags.

Heeere’s Dee!

Do what I did.  Get CD and LP, just for the cover.  Everybody needs a pop-up Dee Snider.

2.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Whitesnake – Slip of the Tongue (6 CD/1 DVD 30th Anniversary box set)

WHITESNAKE – Slip of the Tongue (originally 1989, 2019 (6 CD/1 DVD 30th Anniversary Rhino box set)

There’s a theme you may have noticed every time we review a Whitesnake box set:  David does it right.

Here’s another one:  Coverdale cares.

Slip of the Tongue gets the super-deluxe treatment this time, the third of the “big three” to go that way.  This is the album that divided fans the most.  Replacing Vivian Campbell was none other than ex-David Lee Roth stringbender Steve Vai.

“What the hell would that sound like?” we all wondered.

Longtime Whitesnake fans felt it was a step too far into the world nebulously defined as “hair metal”.  Others loved the guitar mania inside, with Vai stretching out in ways different from his prior bands.  Not the “definitive” Vai record that they still wanted (and would get a year later), but certainly a platter they could sink their teeth into.  And it was a weird reason that Steve was playing on Slip of the Tongue at all.

As you’ll see from a feature on the included DVD (“A Look Back: Whitesnake Chronicles with DC and Adrian Vandenberg”), the album was written and thoroughly demoed with Adrian.  They wouldn’t need a guitarist until it was time to tour.  At this point, Adrian injured his wrist and was unable to finish.  Steve Vai and David Coverdale found that they got along famously and the seven-string wizard brought his unique and advanced stylings to the blues-based Whitesnake.

What the hell would it sound like?

It sounds absolutely mental.

With the benefit of now hearing all the demos that Adrian laid down, it’s obvious Steve Vai didn’t just pick up his guitar and play the parts.  It’s clear right from opener “Slip of the Tongue”.  Compare the album to Adrian’s demos on the other discs.  Vai changes one of the chord progressions to high-pitched harmonics, and, let’s face it, improves the song.  Elsewhere there are unique trick-filled runs and fills that add another dimension to the music.  If Whitesnake was always 3D rock, Vai upped it to 4.  The guitar work is blazingly busy, never cliche, and always to the advancement of the song.  With all respect to Adrian Vandenberg who wrote these great songs, Steve Vai was more than just icing on a cake.  Slip of the Tongue arguably sounds more a Vai album than Whitesnake, even though he didn’t write any of it.

The beauty of this set is that if you’re more into ‘Snake than alien love secrets, you can finally hear the purity of Adrian’s vision in the multitude of early demos included.

Unfortunately, if you’re familiar with the album you’ll hear something’s up by track 2.  “Kitten’s Got Claws”?  That song used to close side one.  What’s up?  The album running order has been tampered with, and so has “Kitten’s Got Claws”.  It’s now missing the Steve Vai “cat guitar symphony” that used to open it.  It could be a different remix altogether.  My advice is to hang on to your original Slip of the Tongue CD.  You’re probably going to still want to hear the album and song as they were.

This running order puts “Cheap An’ Nasty” third, a song that structurally resembles the ol’ Slide It In Whitesnake vibe.  Of course Vai’s space age squeals and solos modernized it.  Listen to that whammy bar insanity at the 2:00 mark!  Up next is “Now You’re Gone”, a classy rocker/ballad hybrid that has always been an album highlight.  The demos on the other discs allow us to hear how much this song was improved in the final touches.  That cool answering vocal in the chorus, and the hooks that Vai added, came much later.  Strangely, this box set puts the other ballad, “The Deeper the Love”, up next.  Keyboard overdubs made it a little too smooth around the edges, but a good song it remains.

The Zeppelinesque “Judgement Day” is a track that used to piss off some fans, who felt it was an abject rip off from “Kashmir”.  The Vai touch of sitar (replacing guitar in the early demos) probably aided and abetted this.  Regardless it succeeds in being the big rock epic of the album, and a favourite today.  Another strange choice in running order follows:  “Sailing Ships”, formerly the album closer.  It’s quite shocking to hear it in this slot.  Again, Vai replaced guitar with sitar, and David goes contemplative.  Then suddenly, it gets heavy and Steve takes it to the stratosphere.

“Wings of the Storm” used to open side two; now it’s after “Sailing Ships”.  Some tasty Tommy Aldridge double bass drums kick off this tornado of a tune.  Vai’s multitracks of madness and pick-scrapes of doom are something to behold.  Then it’s “Slow Poke Music”, a sleazy rocker like old ‘Snake.

The new version of Slip of the Tongue closes on “Fool for Your Loving”, a re-recording of an old classic from Ready An’ Willing.  The new version is an accelerated Vai vehicle, lightyears away from its origins.  Coverdale initially wrote it to give to B.B. King.  Vai is as far removed from B.B. King as you can imagine.  The original has the right vibe, laid back and urgent.  This one is just caffeinated.

The only album B-side “Sweet Lady Luck” is the first bonus track on Disc 1.  By now it is the least-rare B-side in the universe, having been reissued on a multitude of Whitesnake and Vai collections.  Valuable to have to complete the album, but easy to acquire.  It’s basically a second-tiered speed rocker with the guitar as the focus.  Other B-sides from this era were remixes, and they are included here as well.  The Chris Lord-Alge mix of “Now Your Gone” is the kind that most people won’t know the difference. Vai said that Lord-Alge could make the cymbals sound “like they have air in them.”  Then there’s the “Vai Voltage Mix” of “Fool for Your Loving”, which has completely different guitar tracks building an arrangement with way, way, way more emphasis on the instrument.  The rest of the disc is packed with four more alternate remixes:  “Slip of the Tongue”, “Cheap An’ Nasty”, “Judgement Day” and “Fool for Your Loving”.  These mixes have some bits and pieces different from the album cuts.  Vai fans will want the alternate solo to “Cheap An’ Nasty”, though it’s less whammy mad.

Of course, “Sweet Lady Luck” wasn’t the only song that didn’t make the album.  In old vintage interviews, Coverdale teased the names of additional tracks we didn’t get to hear:  “Parking Ticket”, “Kill for the Cut”, and “Burning Heart”.  They’ve been safely buried in Coverdale’s vault, until now.  Additionally, it turns out that Whitesnake also re-recorded a couple more of their old songs:  “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” and “We Wish You Well”.  They’re all here in different forms on the demo discs.

Perhaps “Kill for the Cut” would have been one dirty song too many for the album.  It ain’t half bad, and has a unique little bumpin’ riff.  “Parking Ticket” had potential too.  Rudy Sarzo gave it a pulse that might have taken it on the radio.  The 1989 monitor mix would have been perfect for B-side release.  Why did Cov have to hold out on us all these years?  “Burning Heart” was a special song, a re-recording of an old Vandenberg track that David really loved.  Unfortunately the monitor mix is is only a skeleton of what could have been a sensational Whitesnake ballad.  “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” is heavily modernized, with keyboards sounding like they were trying to recapture “Here I Go Again” (which they were).  “We Wish You Well” is more contemplative, with piano as the focus.

All of this previously unheard material is scattered over several discs.  “Evolutions” (Disc 3) is a familiar concept to fans of these box sets.  Demos from various stages of completion are spliced together into one cohesive track.   You will be able to hear the songs “evolve” as the band worked on them.  Every track from the album plus “Sweet Lady Luck”, “Parking Ticket” and “Kill for the Cut” can be heard this way.  Disc 4 is a collection of monitor mixes with all the album songs and all the unreleased ones too.  These discs are the ones that allow us to really hear the album the way it would have been if Adrian didn’t hurt his wrist.  We would have got an album that sounded a lot more like Whitesnake.  It was audibly different even if familiar.

Perhaps the best disc in the entire set is “A Trip to Granny’s House:  Session Tapes, Wheezy Interludes & Jams”.  It’s just as loose as it sounds.  Enjoy the funk of “Death Disco”, the funkiest David’s been since Come Taste the Band.  If you’ve always wanted to hear David sing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”, now you finally can!  There’s a lot of goofing off in some of these tracks, but also a lot of rock.  It’s live off the floor as they rehearse the songs, as a four piece band with Adrian.  Not all the final lyrics or solos are set, but the songs are so raw and fresh.  Some of the jams show a side of Whitesnake we rarely got to see.  Kind of Purple-y in the way they just could take off and rip some blues.

 

Given all the rich audio extras, it’s OK if one of the CDs is a little impoverished.  That would be disc 2, “The Wagging Tongue Edition”.  This is a reproduction of an old promo CD, featuring the album Slip of the Tongue with a Dirty David interview interspersed.  This was meant for radio premieres.  It has the entire album in the correct order, but because it’s faded in and out of interviews, it’s really not a substitute for a proper copy of the original album.  At least the vintage 1989 interviews are interesting.  It saves collectors from buying a copy on Discogs.  (Coverdale claims “Judgement Day” was originally titled “Up Yours Robert”.  Ooft.)

There’s another disappointment here and it’s difficult to forgive.  In 2011, Whitesnake released the long awaited Live at Donington as a 2 CD/1 DVD package.  This brilliant performance finally gave us a permanent record of Whitesnake live with Vai.  In our previous dedicated review, we had this to say:

Musically, it’s a wild ride. It’s not the Steve Vai show. Adrian gets just as many solos, and his are still spine-tingling if more conventional. It is loaded with ‘Snake hits, leaning heavily on the three Geffen albums. In fact there is only one pre-Slide It In song included: The Bobby “Blue” Bland cover “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”.  And, since it is also the pre-grunge era, there are plenty of solos, which today seems excessive.  Aldridge does his drum solo at the end of “Still Of The Night”. Vandenberg gets his “Adagio for Strato”/”Flying Dutchman Boogie”. Most excitingly, Steve Vai performs two songs from his then-brand new (and top 40!) album Passion And Warfare: “For The Love Of God” and “The Audience Is Listening”, with Aldridge on drums. Coverdale even introduces him as “Mr. Passion and Warfare!” so I imagine there was no sour grapes that Vai’s album was doing so well. And lemme tell ya folks — the audience WAS listening, and going nuts too!

Unfortunately, to save a little bit of plastic, this set was reduced to a single CD for its inclusion here.  The Vai and Adrian solos were cut, though Tommy’s drum solo in “Still of the Night” is retained.  To cut the guitar solos in such a guitar focused boxed set is not only unwise but unforgivable.  Fans who don’t have Live at Donington are going to want to shell out again just to get the solos.  Fortunately, the whole show is uncut on the included DVD.

The DVD has plenty of added value; it’s not just a reissue of Live at Donington.  You’ll get the three music videos from the album (“Now You’re Gone”, “The Deeper the Love” and “Fool for Your Loving”).  There’s even a brand new clip for “Sweet Lady Luck” cobbled together from existing video. Then, you can go deeper into the album. The aforementioned sitdown with David and Adrian is really enlightening.  Another behind the scenes feature narrated by David is fantastic for those who love to watch a band create in the studio.  Coverdale’s not a bad guitarist himself.

These Whitesnake box sets also include ample extras on paper.  There’s quite a nice miniature reformatted tour program with the majority of cool photos.  A large Slip of the Tongue poster can adorn your wall, or remain safely folded up in this box.  Finally, there is a 60 page hardcover booklet.  This is a treasure trove of press clippings, magazine covers, single artwork, and more.  Lyrics and credits wrap it all up in a nice little package.

Because we know that David puts so much into these box sets, it’s that much more heartbreaking that this one is so slightly imperfect.  The shuffled running order and lack of guitar kittens on “Kitten’s Got Claws” is a problem.  The truncated live album is another.  It means I have to hang onto old CDs that I was hoping to phase out of my collection in favour of this sleek set.  Alas, I’ll keep them as they are my preferred listening experience.

Otherwise, in every other way, this box set delivers.  It makes a lovely display next to its brethren and it justifies its cost.

4.5/5 stars

MORE Slip of the Tongue?

REVIEW: Twisted Sister – Big Hits and Nasty Cuts (1992)

TWISTED SISTER – Big Hits and Nasty Cuts (1992 Atlantic – Canadian CD)

When Twisted Sister split at the end of 1987, they went rather quietly into that goodnight.  No big magazine articles, no solo projects incoming, not until 1992 when Dee Snider finally re-emerged with his new band Widowmaker.  It was a quiet five years, broken only by the low key release of Twisted Sister’s first “greatest hits” compilation in March of that year.

Big Hits and Nasty Cuts was a compilation that both fans and band deserved.  No careless cash grabs here.  In 1992 it’s doubtful that Atlantic thought they’d be making much money off “I Wanna Rock”, one of the biggest cheerleaders of the obsolete generation.  While Kurt Cobain cashed his biggest royalty cheque yet, J.J. French was writing the liner notes for this CD.  (Mark “The Animal” Mendoza did the remastering with Ted Jensen.)

For the era, Big Hits and Nasty Cuts was one of the most fan-friendly, value-intensive CDs on the market.  Even better for American fans, this time they got the bonus track!  The album was split into two sides — the hits and the “nasty cuts”, all rare B-sides recorded at the Marquee club in England.  Fortunately the entire show has since been issued by Rhino, but in 1992, very few fans had the original 12″ singles these songs were sourced from.  Another rarity included was Twisted’s first single, “I’ll Never Grow Up, Now!”  These were first releases for the CD format!  Good thing too, because “I’ll Never Grow Up, Now!” is indelible as any of the hits.

The hits portion of the album isn’t quite predictable.  Would you have expected the heavy metal uppercut “Under the Blade”?  Or the raw “Shoot ‘Em Down”?  Here they are, and thanks to the liner notes, you can find out why.  (Oh fine, we’ll spoil one.  “Under the Blade” was included because it’s been played at every Twisted show since it was written.)  The three biggest hits are present and accounted for.  “I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” would be the two hits that everyone knows, and “The Price” is runner-up.

Also present:  “I Am, I’m Me” and “The Kids Are Back” demonstrate Dee’s early knack for melodic songwriting, very punk-like in its simplicity especially when coupled with Twisted’s 4/4 rock.  “You Can’t Stop Rock and Roll” also had to be here.  Perhaps it’s Twisted’s best metal anthem.  Finally “Be Chrool to Your Scuel” featuring Alice Cooper ends the hits side with the last one chronologically.  (“Bad Boys of Rock and Roll” on the US version.)  There’s no “Leader of the Pack” and no “Hot Love”.  All hail the classic lineup:  Dee Snider – lead vocals.  J.J. French – guitar.  Eddie “Fingers” Ojeda – guitar.  Mark “The Animal” Mendoza – bass.  The late, underappreciated A.J. Pero – drums.  The lineup that set MTV on fire relied on catchy videos, yes, but the songs have survived equally well.

The nasty cuts may just be too heavy for the average listener.  Recorded to 2-track tape, there’s no fixing the mixes here.  The lengthy start to “What You Don’t Know (Sure Can Hurt You)” includes Lemmy’s intro and plenty of noise. There is no overlap with any other songs on the CD.  “Destroyer” grinds so hard it’s almost a parody of itself.  “Tear It Loose” is out-of-control fast, blowing away the album version.  The US got “Run For Your Life” right after “Tear It Loose”, another fast rendition once it kicks in.  (In Canada, “Run For Your Life” was only on cassette.)  The cover tunes “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Let the Good Times Roll/Feel So Fine” include plenty of crowd interplay.  Just the thing to turn off Joe Average Listener, but amazing to hear the energy of the band and audience that night.

The live cuts really highlight, with 20/20 hindsight anyway, the power of A.J. Pero.  The guy could really kill a drum kit, and his timekeeping is the cornerstone of what made Twisted Sister heavy.

Don’t buy this CD if you’re looking for a party CD.  Buy it because you’re intrigued and want to learn more about a band who doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the world’s most dangerous.  Buy it to check out the rarities and get a taste of what those in the know had in their collections back in 1983.  Buy it because you’re going to get liner notes and photos of band members you never even heard of before.  Buy it because this is a great compilation, done with loving care and value.

5/5 stars

Just Listening to…Whitesnake: Slip of the Tongue (30th Anniversary)

Sit down Sykes fans, because I’m a Vai kid and this is “my” Whitesnake.  The fact that this lineup existed at all is miraculous.  The most creative guitarist of all time joining one of the most successful commercial rock bands at the peak of their popularity?  Recipe for, at the very least, interesting history.  And absolutely perfect box set fodder.

So here we are buying Slip of the Tongue for at least the third time, and finally getting it (mostly) right.  At a quick glance, it appears the only detriment to buying this box set is that you will not get the complete Live at Donington concert on CD.  In order to fit the whole thing on one CD (disc 6), they axed all the solos.  Let’s face it folks.  When your band includes Steve Vai, you don’t cut the solos.  You’ll have to shell out for the original triple disc Donington set to get them on CD.  The good news is that the whole Donington concert is still here on video, on a fully-packed DVD (disc 7).  (The DVD also includes a detailed interview with David Coverdale and Adrian Vandenberg, touching on Adrian’s mysterious 1989 wrist injury.)

The running order of the songs on Slip of the Tongue, the 30th anniversary remaster, has been slightly shuffled.  It’s strange and off-putting enough that I’m keeping my old copy of the album, so I can still listen to it the familiar way.  “Sailing Ships” isn’t the last song?  “Fool For Your Loving” is.  The bonus track versions included, with alternate solos and guitar fills, are stunning additions.  Then there’s an entire CD, the “Wagging Tongue” edition, with the songs in the correct order but interviews with David interspersed.  This is a reproduction of a vintage 1989 promo CD, for contemporary perspective.   Disc 3, the “Evolutions” CD, is a favourite.  The “Evolutions” series of tracks, now a Whitesnake reissue trademark, mixes early demos with later demos and and even later versions, so you can hear the tracks evolve as you listen.  It’s deconstruction and reconstruction in one.  Importantly, you finally get to hear what the album would have sounded like before Steve Vai came in to record it.  Disc 4 includes 16 monitor mixes, including some superior rarities.  Finally, after 30 years of waiting and teasing, we get the unreleased tunes “Parking Ticket”, “Kill for the Cut”, and “Burning Heart” (originally by Vandenberg).  We also get “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” and “We Wish You Well”.  Verdict?  Worth the wait.  Oh, so worth the wait!  There’s no reason some couldn’t have been released as B-sides in 1989, and they should have!  “Parking Ticket” has a neat Van Hagar-like, and could have been a summer hit.

Disc 5 is “A Trip to Granny’s House”, actually the name of a rehearsal studio they used.  These funny tapes, “Wheezy Interludes & Jams”, are informal fun.  A highlight is the funky “Death Disco”, not unlike some of the stuff Purple were doing with Tommy Bolin towards the end.  These tracks predate Steve Vai’s involvement, so you’ll get the purity of Adrian’s original playing.

I look forward to investing more time with this box set.  Let us hope that David continues to empty the vaults.  Next up: Restless Heart?

REVIEW: Wolfsbane – Live Fast, Die Fast (1989 cassette)

WOLFSBANE – Live Fast, Die Fast (1989 Def American cassette)

Blaze Bayley did not emerge from out of nowhere when he joined Iron Maiden.  Six years before The X Factor, Bayley released his debut album with Wolfsbane, produced by Rick frickin’ Rubin of all people.  Presumably this means Rick laid on a couch and didn’t wear shoes.  Let’s have a listen, then.

“Man Hunt” is Van Halen meets Iron Maiden; as bizarre as that concoction may sound is half as much as it is good!  It’s EVH and DLR, “Back in the Village”, hunting for painted ladies.  Blaze shows off some impressive pipes, but guitarist Jase Edwards showcases all the good things you can do with a speedily-played six-string.  Dirty Blaze must have hooked up with a bird according to “Shakin'”, which takes the sound back into the pocket.  A Dokken/Halen hybrid with a touch of sleaze, and certainly harder edged than what most American bands were doing in 1989.  “Killing Machine” sounds a bit like a lost Van Halen demo from 1977 but with a 1980s heavy metal drummer instead of Big Al.  There’s no break between it and “Fell Out of Heaven”, acting like one big multi-parted song.  Blaze is on the make again, sounding like a big dirty Ian Astbury.  Add in the absolutely blitz of “Money to Burn” and you have a definitive “lust” trilogy.

Side two opens with a punchy tune called “Greasy”, possessing an unholy scream that you wish they would have utilized in Maiden.  “I Like It Hot” is the funny summer cruisin’ tune, one the most commercial song on the album that is decidedly not commercial.  You can sing along to the terrific chorus on “All Or Nothing” but the blitzkrieg speed makes it clearly radio unfriendly.  The only power ballad “Tears From a Fool” is harder edged with a long solo, uncompromised and remote.  And with not even a breath’s break, “Pretty Baby” concludes this album-length treatise on picking up chicks in an accelerated manor.

The sonics of this Rick Rubin production are typically dry and crisp, but with an annoying snare drum sound that makes you question his hearing.  He arranged some cool gang vocals with both melody and rawness, but Live Fast, Die Fast doesn’t have any special sonic qualities that scream “Rubin”.

Wolfsbane happened an interesting niche here.  They blended the best aspects of American hard rock, tossed it with some heavy fucking metal, and a singer who didn’t sound like everyone else (with a dirty mind).  It was dangerous and it was different.

Was it good?  Yeah!  To quote the Heavy Metal Overlord, even Rick Rubin couldn’t fuck it up.

4/5 stars.

REVIEW: Savatage – Fight For the Rock (Steamhammer remaster)

Part Five of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Fight For the Rock (Originally 1986, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Like many bands then and now, Savatage were led astray by bad management and poor direction by record company executives.  At least they tried.  Hoping to make some headway, Savatage leader Jon Oliva agreed with the record company’s plan for a change in style.  Steering towards hard rock and hoping to become the next Journey, Oliva and company said “what the hell”.  Meanwhile, Jon Oliva had submitted some songs to management to see if any other artists might be interested in recording them: “Lady in Disguise”, “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, and “Crying For Love”.  They turned around and said “No, we want Savatage to record these songs.”

New bassist Johnny Lee Middleton was lined up to replace Keith Collins.  They flew to England on a tourist visa to record the album, only to find Steve “Doc” Wacholz detained at the airport for five hours.  “I’m a golf instructor,” he claimed at customs, but most golf instructors don’t carry drum sticks and sheet music in their carry-on bags.  This is a perfect metaphor for the album Fight For the Rock:  a band masquerading as something they were not.

A big echoey 80s sound blunts the sharp edge that Savatage gained on Power of the Night (produced by Max Norman).  “Fight For the Rock” is a good song, but obviously toned down in comparison to title tracks past.  Most obtrusive are keyboard overdubs by a studio cat, very different from the keys that Jon Oliva would eventually bring into Savatage himself.  These sound like added afterthoughts, not structurally part of the song.  Still, as stated, a good song in that Dokken-Crue mold.  Only the Jon Oliva screams really connect it with early Savatage.

Keyboards return on “Out on the Streets”, a song from Sirens re-recorded.  As a ballad, you can see why the suits thought it would be worth another shot.  A great tune is a great tune, but the pipe-like keyboards don’t do it favours.  “Crying for Love” is a re-recording of “Fighting for Your Love” and one of the songs Oliva wanted another artist to record, perhaps John Waite.  It’s a heavier ballad, not as good as the Sava-demo, but retains some balls.

Hard left turn ahead:  “Day After Day” by Badfinger.  Oliva decided to do this track since he’d be playing the very piano from the original, so why not.  He’d already gone this far.  May as well go all-in.  “Day After Day” is perhaps the least “Savatage” song in their entire catalogue.  A very different Savatage would have evolved had this been a hit for them.  A Savatage more akin to Night Ranger or even Stryper!

There are only two songs that Jon Oliva considers “real” Savatage songs today:  “The Edge of Midnight” and “Hyde”.  They occupy the dead center of the album, closing side one and opening side two.  Although they too are infected by the awkward keyboard overdubs, they are both metallic Savatage lurkers, dark and shadowy.  “Hyde” hits all the right notes, with perfect OIiva lyrics:

“A good man to evil,
From the potion on the table,
Taken by mistake, but now it’s far too late.”

“Lady in Disguise”, which exists in superior demo form, was largely rewritten to be submitted to other artists.  It exists on Fight For the Rock as the third ballad, watered down and rearranged to accommodate a big keyboard hook.  “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” is a little more Savatage even though it too was not intended for their use.  It’s a hard rock Savatage, a little Dio-ish and one of the few songs with a recognizable Criss Oliva guitar riff.

Not particularly Sava-like but very good just the same is the Free cover “Wishing Well”.  It and “Day After Day” remain the only true covers that Savatage have ever recorded.  It’s a pummelling arrangement, well performed and strangely appropriate for the Sava-treatment.  It’s like their “Green Manalishi”.  Concluding the album, “Red Light Paradise” has a touch of that occasional Sava-sleaze.  Good track with a nice chug to it, and plenty of screamin’ vocals.

As before, Steamhammer added bonus tracks to the 2002 reissue.  From the Gutter Ballet tour and featuring an expanded lineup with second guitarist Christopher Caffery, it’s two live classics:  “The Dungeons are Calling” and “City Beneath the Surface”.  Could that year, 1990, have been peak Savatage?  That powerful lineup was short lived, as Caffery temporarily left the band at its conclusion.  When he returned, Criss Oliva was gone, killed by a drunk driver.  To the point:  these are killer versions, (and not the same as the live album Ghost in the Ruins).

Steamhammer also provided in-depth liner notes, housed inside a blurry reproduction of the cover art.  That is an unfortunately win/lose.  One is tempted to have two copies of the album, just to have clear original cover art.  Collectors need more that one copy anyway, just to deal with the maze-like bonus track situation through the entire Savatage collection.

As Jon Oliva says in the notes, Fight For the Rock is not a bad album, if you like hard rock.  It’s not really a good Savatage album.  Hey, they tried, right?  They swung for the fences.  And when they failed to hit the grand slam home run, they lost credibility with fans and the rock press.  Still, for those willing to check it out, there are a few rewarding tracks amidst the muck.

3/5 stars

The story continues with these previously posted reviews:

Part Six:  Hall of the Mountain King (1987)
Part Seven:  Gutter Ballet (1989)
Part Eight:  U.S.A. 1990 (live bootleg)
Part Nine:  Streets: A Rock Opera (1991)
Part Ten:  Edge of Thorns (1993) – New singer and death of Criss Oliva

 

 

REVIEW: Savatage – Power of the Night (Steamhammer remaster)

Part Four of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Power of the Night (Originally 1985, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Raise the first of the metal child!

If any fans were worried that Savatage would “sell out” after signing to Atlantic in 1984, those fears were swiftly cast aside.  Power of the Night, their first on a major label, was produced by metal-meister-to-be, Max Norman.  The band had plenty of material demoed (in a session with Rick Derringer) and were ready for the studio.

Nothing was toned down; if anything, Savatage turned it up.  Melting the speakers with the title track, a fancy keyboard opening might have fooled some.  When the patented Criss Oliva riff commences, you better hold on tight.

“Children of the metal movement,
The legions growing stronger,
Stronger than they believe.”

With Norman at the helm, Savatage achieved a sharp, biting sound.  Relentless beats courtesy of Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz helped them cement themselves as true metal competitors.  The foursome from Florida were not to be ignored.

Savatage were improving as songwriters.  “Unusual” puts atmosphere over headbangin’ riffs, and effectively so.  Singer Jon Oliva became increasingly interested in keyboards album by album until it eventually became the focus of the band.  Here it works to cloak you in a dark weave of ominous metal.  Then, if you were hungering for more riffs, bow down to the fuckin’ rad* “Warriors”.  Another Criss Oliva riff as only he could write them, “Warriors” rivals Judas Priest for absurd fantasy metal thrills.  It gets a little silly on “Necrophilia”, but the headbangin’ does not wane.   You might break your neck on “Washed Out”, a little speed metal ditty to cure what ails you.

Side two switches the gears a bit with a Scorpions-Dokken hybrid called “Hard for Love”, which generated some faux-controversy in the 80s.  It’s the most commercial Savatage song yet, but it works remarkably well due to the sharp edges; not blunted by improved production values.  Still riding high with quality metal, “Fountain of Youth” takes things to a wizardly world inhabited by Dio and his cohorts.  (Of note:  it’s one of the few Savatage songs with a Doc Wacholz writing credit.)

Savatage’s speed metal adventures can be hit or miss.  “Skull Session” is a miss, though you may enjoy the lyrics about an “X-rated lesson”.  There’s no real melody and the riff isn’t one of Criss’ most notable.  Plenty of screams though.  A mid-tempo “Stuck On Your” doesn’t get the car out of the mud.  It’s just a little dull compared to the scorchers on side one.

Ending Power of the Night on a ballad was a ballsy move, but “In the Dream” is one of the best from the early years.  Indeed, Jon Oliva re-recorded it acoustically for one of the many reissues of Sirens/Dungeons are Calling.  Dr. Killdrums does a fine job of punctuating the song’s drama with short bursts of swinging limbs.

Steamhammer included two live bonus tracks.**  From Cleveland in 1987, a spot-on “Power of the Night” is a furious rendition of a song already smoking hot.  “Sirens” live in Dallas three years later is just as furious, though Jon’s voice is more worn.  They also included excellent liner notes, lengthy and detailed.  Unfortunately the cover art on these Steamhammer reissues is atrociously blurry.

Power of the Night was the last Savatage album with original bassist Keith Collins.  Originally a guitarist, Collins’ bass wasn’t up to snuff at all times so Criss Oliva had to play on several tracks to fix portions they weren’t happy with.  Now that it’s encoded on a little silver disc forever, the final album is tight and punchy.

4/5 stars

Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well enough for Atlantic.  Bumpy road ahead!

* “Warriors” is “fuckin’ rad” according to Holen MaGroin

** Like all Savatage albums, different issues have different sets of bonus tracks.  These will have to be covered at a later time as a “complete” Savatage collection can be an expensive proposition.

REVIEW: Savatage – Sirens & The Dungeons are Calling – all bonus tracks, all editions

Part Three of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Sirens & The Dungeons are Calling bonus tracks

This is where things go a little off the rails, so make sure your seatbelt is fastened securely.  We are about to journey through 12 bonus tracks, which run the gamut in every vector.  In terms of quality and origins, it’s the proverbial “bumpy ride”.  Worst of all, if you wish to partake in this voyage, it will cost you dearly.  In order to acquire all 12 bonus tracks, you will need to purchase four separate CDs, and an Infinity Gauntlet.  Maybe.

When I first encountered the album Sirens and its accompanying mini-album The Dungeons are Calling in the mid 90s, they were on cassette, separately.  There were no liner notes but I surmised them to be the first two Savatage releases.  It was impossible to find quality discographies in 1993, so my first time learning they existed was when I bought them.  These were not the rare Canadian Banzai editions, but the standard US releases on Combat.  (Amusingly, the sides listed on Sirens were Side A and Side Z.)


Metal Blade CD (1994)

Just as nature has its rules, so does music collecting.  Everything owned on cassette must be upgraded to CD.  By 1994 I was working at the Record Store, and the day we received notice that these albums were being reissued on CD was the day I ordered them for myself.  The reissue, by Metal Blade, handily put both records on one CD, with four bonus tracks to boot.  The cover was even reversible.  You could display the CD with either Sirens or Dungeons as the front artwork.  On the back:  a live photo of late guitarist Criss Oliva just giv’n ‘er on a string-bending solo.

There are two bonus tracks tacked onto the end of Sirens, and two more after Dungeons.  They remain the champions of bonus songs in the Savatage ouveur.  One is a hellbent live take of “Sirens” from the Gutter Ballet tour in 1990.  It’s the same version as the bootleg CD U.S.A. 1990.  The amusing thing here is that Jon Oliva clearly addresses the crowd as “Hello Deutschland!”  Well, that ain’t in the U.S.A., just a note to you bootleggers out there!  It’s a little bootleggy and not the same lineup as the rest of the albums, but hey — it was 1994 and this “bonus track” thing was relatively new.  It’s a blistering memento with the classic version of the band:  Jon & Criss Olivia, Steve “Doc” Wacholz, Johnny Lee Middleton and Christopher Caffery.

The other three bonus tracks are studio demos, and two of them ended up reworked on the later album Fight For the Rock.  “Lady in Disguise” is thoroughly different, an acoustic-electric ballad superior to keyboard-inflected later version.  Similarly, “Fighting for Your Love” was reworked as “Crying for Love” on Fight for the Rock.  Demo quality aside, this original has more desperation & ferocity, while the remake sounds forced.  Finally “The Message” hasn’t been issued anywhere else in any form.  This very rough take sounds like a garage recording, but even through that you get one super-snakey Criss Oliva riff and a lung-bursting Jon Oliva chorus.  “The Message” flat out rocks, and could have replaced a number of inferior album tracks had it been better committed to tape.

Metal Blade did an awesome job with their 1994 CD of these albums, filling it to the brim with 76 minutes of metal including top-notch bonus tracks.  Eight years later, they decided to have another go at it.


Metal Blade “Silver Anniversary” 2 CD set – sold separately (2002)

Dipping their hands into the cookie jar once more, Metal Blade came up with seven more bonus tracks (though two are unlisted).  The tracks are remastered, and the covers updated to black & chrome, with the Savatage logo in bold, bright silver.  The original artworks are consigned to the CDs themselves, while the booklets contain (small) rare photos (in black & chrome) and half of a Savatage timeline.  Yes, half a timeline – driving the point home even further, you have to buy both CDs to get the entire timeline (and special note from drummer Steve “Doc” Wacholz).

The Dungeons are Calling

This time, Metal Blade placed The Dungeons are Calling first in line, before Sirens.  (You can tell this by the lower catalogue number and the first half of the timeline included.)  It contains three “lost tracks”.  The first, “Metalhead” has a slick vibe, like 80s Judas Priest on speed.  Criss’ solo is a burner, with these super-wide note sweeps that make your head spin.  “Before I Hang” is lo-fi, solid headbangin’ fun.  Nothing particularly memorable, but unquestionably Savatage.  Purely filler, the kind of track that didn’t get finished because they had better stuff to work on.  The last of the three “lost tracks” is a ballad, “Stranger in the Night”.  If you listen carefully, you can hear that this was completed as something else later on — a little epic called “Follow Me” on 1993’s Edge of Thorns!  Now that’s some serious cool.

Didn’t I mention unlisted bonus tracks?  This one is a gentle acoustic number with spare accompaniment.  It sounds like it was recorded much, much later.  You’ll find it at track #99.  How quaint.

Sirens

The second CD in the 2002 has two more bonus tracks, and one more unlisted…something.  It’s something.  We’ll get to that.

“Target” sounds like idiosyncratic Savatage from the start:  The Criss riff that can sound only like Criss Oliva.  The haunting vocals from his brother Jon.  It’s hard to say definitively when it could have been recorded, but it sounds circa Gutter Ballet in structure, tone and performance.  “Living on the Edge of Time” is sonically thin but is clear enough to deliver a screamin’ chorus.  If that chorus only could have been housed in a finished song!  It’s killer.

What is far, far from killer is the novelty rap that sits at #99.  It’s…about a fat old guy who sits around all day doing coke?  It’s…fucking terrible is what it is.  It’s the kind of terrible that actually stains the CD it’s on.  Like you will have to hit “stop” before anyone hears you listening to it.  One has to conjecture that this “song” originated when Jon Oliva was deep into the white stuff, but it’s the kind of all-advised joke that should have stayed on the inside.


Ear Music “The Complete Session” CD (2010)

Another eight years after Metal Blade butchered these releases, Ear Music took a shot with “The Complete Session”.  What does “The Complete Session” mean to you?  I’ll tell you what it means to me.  It means all the tracks.  All the fucking tracks!  Not “none of those tracks but oh here is a new acoustic version from Jon”.  Not that.

Ear music reissued the entire Savatage catalog in 2010 as an attractive looking set that, when combined, form a Savatage logo.  The albums are remastered by Dave Wittman and feature new liner notes by Jon Oliva.  What’s really pesky are the new acoustic bonus tracks recorded to make you buy these albums all over again, in this case the fourth fucking time.

Originally from 1985’s Power of the Night (their very next album in fact) is the ballad “In the Dream” performed on piano by Jon Oliva, with an (uncredited) acoustic guitar solo to match.  It’s a good ballad; great in fact.  There’s no critique being laid at the feet of the song or the new version.  Just at the damn record companies for not giving a fuck for how many times I’ve had to buy this to get “all the tracks”.


Most people only want to buy an album once and be done with it.  Here’s a rating system below to determine which suits your needs best, price notwithstanding.

  • Metal Blade 1994 – 5/5 stars.  Maxed out the CD’s time with four worthwhile bonus tracks.
  • Metal Blade 2002 – 2.5/5 stars.  Consumer forced to buy two discs separately instead of one to get new bonus tracks, but losing the four previous ones.  Felt like gouging.
  • Ear Music 2010 – 3/5 stars.  Artwork will match the rest of the CDs in the set, but thin in terms of bonus tracks.  Does not even contain a picture of the artwork for The Dungeons are Calling.

Purchase accordingly!

 

 

REVIEW: Savatage – The Dungeons are Calling (1983)

Part Two of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – The Dungeons are Calling (1983 Music for Nations)

More adventures in metal!  Savatage recorded Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling mini-album in just one day.  The 15 songs could not fit on a single record, so they released two.  Did you know you have to buy four separate CDs just to get all the bonus tracks?  Ridiculous but true!  The Savatage catalogue is a mess of reissues and bonus tracks, all but impossible to keep track of.  Yesterday we examined the debut LP Sirens.  Today we delve into the Dungeons, before finishing up with the bonus tracks in a separate review.

On their first four releases, Savatage always opened with a terrifying title track.  Dungeons is no exception.  Soft acoustic guitars lull you in, but eerie keyboards are your warning.  Like sleeping beasts disturbed and awaken, Steve “Doc” Walcholz (drums) and Criss Oliva (guitar) then bare their serrated teeth.   The Oliva riff is one that could only have been written by him.  Nobody else composes jagged guitar thunder like Criss Oliva did.  Ass thoroughly kicked, you are now ready to proceed… but only “By the Grace of the Witch”!  This slippery metal dirge boasts yet another unmistakable Criss riff.  The first side closes with “Visions”, manic thrash metal but with two hands firmly on the wheel.

A nice Priest-like chug serves as the foundation of “Midas Knight”, a song which easily could have been an outtake from Stained Class.  It is one of the best constructed songs of the early Savatage canon.  And just listen to those cannons they call drums!  Then it is time to journey to the “City Beneath the Surface”.  A deceivingly intro leads into another thrash ‘eadbanger.  Once your neck has recovered, you’ll probably be too worn out for “The Whip”.  Not the best Savatage tune, and possibly the worst from the first two records.  Nothing wrong with dirty sex songs, but they should be clever.  There’s nothing clever about “The Whip” and though it has an excellent riff, the chorus is a stinker.

The Dungeons are Calling is a more well-rounded listen than Sirens.  It’s shorter, which helps, but one wonders if all 15 songs were re-arranged, could you come up with a better running order?  Regardless, Savatage were off to the races.  Major label deals and MTV videos were still in the future, so Sirens and Dungeons are the clearest view of the young and not-so-innocent Savatage.  Renowned metal wordsmith Martin Popoff calls them “debuts of frightening skill and authority,” while praising Sirens as possibly the greatest indie album of the genre.  There is something here of massive substance that the band would only build upon, but Dungeons goes down easier.

3.75/5 stars

Next time we’ll look at all 12 bonus tracks, from the four CDs you need to get ’em all.  As you’ll see, some are quite significant.

REVIEW: Savatage – Sirens (1983)

WELCOME TO THE DUNGEONS!  It’s Part One of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Sirens (1983 Music for Nations)

Welcome to the early Savatage series!  The first two Sava-platters, Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling, were recorded together in one day.  The 15 songs could not fit on a single record, and so the songs were released on an album and an EP.  Did you know you have to buy four separate CDs just to get all the bonus tracks?

The Savatage catalogue is a mess of reissues and bonus tracks, all but impossible to keep track of.  The worst of them for scattershot releases are Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling.  As part of this series, we will examine the first album, the EP, and all the associated bonus tracks & where to find them.  Today, let’s have a listen to Sirens.

Low budget, borderline thrash metal — that’s Sirens.  There are no hints of the progressive rock to come, but plenty of Criss Oliva riffs, a treasured commodity that we haven’t had any of since his untimely death in 1993.  The title track packs in slick lightning guitar licks with a concrete riff.  You can certainly hear the outlines of massive songs to come, like “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Gutter Ballet”, but this is straightforward headbangin’ metal, with a slow section in the middle to catch your breath.  Beware the “Sirens” or you too might end up on the rocks!

“Holocaust” delivers an atom bomb riff, the kind only Criss OIiva could write.  A nuclear apocalypse was reliable 80s subject matter for metal lyrics.  “What will 2000 bring?  The war of a billion things.”  I sure wish I could go back in time and tell Jon Oliva about Y2k, the disaster that wasn’t!  Good song though, with lots of punch courtesy of original bassist Keith Collins, and Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz.  The end of the world continues on “I Believe”, humanity’s search for their next homeworld.  Another great metal tune, made effective by the hard core metal shrieks of Jon Oliva blasting over the riffs of his brother Criss.  When they hit the warp speed, “I Believe” becomes Starship Motorhead!  The metal blitz ends the first side on “Rage”, a song that sounds exactly how you think it should.

Mid-paced metal dominates “On the Run”.  It’s the first less-than-impressive song on the album, but worse is the BDSM-flavoured speed metal farce “Twisted Little Sister”.  Filler without hooks.  “Living for the Night” delivers some thrills via the splendid riffage, as does “Scream Murder”.  The second side is clearly inferior to the first, but fortunately it ends on a ballad called “Out on the Streets”.  They would later re-record this song for the ill-fated Fight for the Rock album, but the original has an innocence and vibrancy the re-recording doesn’t.

Everyone will have their own takeaways from Sirens, but to these ears, there are a few songs in the middle of the album that should have been replaced with others.  If Sirens and Dungeons are Calling were distilled into a single 10 track LP, it could have been a landmark of the genre.  (We’ll look at the EP next time.)  Instead we have an album you’d call “good”.  Not “great”, simply “good”.  Which is a shame because the tunes “Sirens”, “Holocaust”, “I Believe” and “Out on the Streets” really are great.

3.5/5 stars