heavy metal

REVIEW: Testament – The Ritual (1992)

TESTAMENT – The Ritual (1992 Atlantic)

This may have been the first thrash metal album I ever bought.  I was late to the mosh pit, but I think I chose a good first thrash.  Lead video “Electric Crown” was in rotation on the Power 30, and I loved the speed combined with melody and a virtuoso guitarist.  To me, “Electric Crown” blew away any of the Metallica singles I’d heard so far.  It was way superior to the overly simplistic “Enter Sandman”.

One of the coolest sounds I ever heard came from Alex Skolnick’s guitar. In that melodic, four-note descending lick, the fourth note…just shakes. I sat there in my bedroom with my guitar, trying to make the same sound, failing every time. Skolnick was increasingly interested in jazz, and you can hear that in some of the soloing and tubey tone.

The Ritual is the most commercial Testament album.  That made it an easy gateway to thrash.  Did they sell out?  By all accounts, The Ritual is the album on which Alex Skolnick stepped up in terms on contributions.  As a schooled musician he wanted to try some different things, and indeed he left the band shortly after to grow as a player.  This isn’t a sellout, but it’s the album on which the guy who was trained by Joe Satriani had a lot more influence.  (After he left, the band went hard back to the extremes of thrash with Low and Demonic.)

Not a sellout, then.  But there are definite parallels to the contemporary Metallica album.  The slower metal chug of “So Many Lies” is this album’s “Sad But True”.  The Ritual also has a modern, crisp production (by Tony Platt) though not as fully stuffed as Metallica.

Immediately after “So Many Lies”, drummer Louie Clemente goes into a gallop on “Let Go Of My World”, an angry testament to independence.  See what I did there?  The longest song on the album is the title track, an anti-drug anthem that rocks it slow and forboding.  “Kill yourself, killing time.”  Vocalist Chuck Billy has a mighty set of lungs, the kind that make you listen up.  These lungs are put to great effect on “Deadline”, the mid-tempo banger that finishes side one.  There’s something just slightly different about the beat and there’s nothing equivalent on the Metallica album.  “Deadline” is arresting, kickin’ and menacing all at once.

“As the Seasons Grey” continues the blistering metal, not as fast as yesteryear but more measured.  Dig that false ending.  “Agony” and “The Sermon” offer some variety, but Testament are best when served fast.  Right?  Right?  No – check out the ballad “Return to Serenity”!  Testament were of course no strangers to ballads.  “The Ballad” and “The Legacy” worked out well for them previously, but “Return to Serenity” blows them away.  Alex Skolnick’s clever, echoey guitar hook is spellbinding.  This incredible ballad really should have been a hit.  That’s why they included it again on 1993’s Return to the Apocalyptic City EP.  It should be as well known as hit ballads by another big name thrash band.  The Ritual closes on a stampeding “Troubled Dreams”, an album highlight and as persistent as the wandering nomad in the lyrics.

There are more important Testament albums than The Ritual, such as their landmark Practice What You Preach.  It still remains a high water mark in the catalogue.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Judas Priest – Angel of Retribution (2004 CD/DVD)

“Sabbath are heavy, but Priest are metal.” – K.K. Downing

JUDAS PRIEST – Angel of Retribution (2004  Sony CD/DVD deluxe set)

Like Iron Maiden before them, Judas Priest pulled off a successful reunion tour before venturing into the studio to record a new album.  When the new music finally came, a deluxe package was made available featuring live videos from the reunion tour.  In this deluxe-sized review, we’ll take a close look at both the CD and DVD content.


The CD

Pure anticipation preceded the arrival of the Angel of Retribution.  Two underwhelming albums with Tim “Ripper” Owens on lead vocals caused Judas Priest’s star to diminish in the 90s and 2000s.  The return of the Metal God, Rob Halford, meant a reunion of the successful 1990-1991 Painkiller lineup.  The new album cover even featured the return of the Painkiller character, now the Angel of Retribution.  But a long time had passed.  Could Priest hope to live up to the hype, and their legacy?

The answer is mixed.  While Angel of Retribution contains enough classic Judas Priest metal to consider it a success, it also has some truly legendary filler, of sub-Ram It Down quality.  Instead of running through the album track by track, let’s break it down in terms of song integrity.

Priest wrote a natural sounding album, with elements from virtually all eras of Priest past.  They say it came about organically, and it does sound that way.  Some of the best material are the songs that sound like variations of classic Priest.

The opening song “Judas Rising” brings it back to 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny with that fade-in opener inspired by “Victim of Changes”.  Then it transforms right into the Painkiller era, with something that sounds like a far more intense “Hell Patrol”.  Solid 5/5.

The slightly psychedelic first single “Revolution” ranks among the better songs, although perhaps it’s actually most similar to “Little Crazy” by Rob Halford’s Fight.  It has flavours of Rocka Rolla and Killing Machine, and is far from what anyone expected Priest to put out for a first single.  Dig that slide guitar bit in the solo!  Solid 5/5.

Worth Fighting For” isn’t a ballad; it’s a little harder edged than that.  It’s the one song that is unique in the Priest catalogue, and remarkably strong.  The riff has a nice chug to it, while Rob ably carries the melody to a higher place.  A special song, and a 5/5.

Demonizer” is Jugulator meets Painkiller, faster than a hellriding devil dog (whatever that is), but “the Painkiller rises again!”   So testifies Halford.  It’s so ridiculously over the top that it can only be worth a solid 5/5.  Likewise the similar “Hellrider” on side two.  Both feature double bass so fast that it’s almost a parody of itself, but both rock so hard you’ll break your neck keeping up.  “Hellrider” is also notable as the song where Rob Halford inexplicably name drops “Megatron”.  Similar songs, both solid 5/5’s.

The ballad “Angel” is a little soft, unexpectedly so on an album with so much heavy metal.  Yet, Priest can do anything.  The acoustic “Angel” could be the quietest ballad since the early days.  “Put sad wings around me now,” sings Rob to the angel, an appropriate callback.  As his voice aged it acquired more depth.  That helps make “Angel” a respectable 4/5.

Deal With the Devil” and “Wheels of Fire” fall in a netherworld of pedestrian Priest.  These both feel like filler from Point of Entry or Ram it Down.  Less explosive, less memorable.  The autobiographical “Deal With the Devil” is amusing for its many lyrical callbacks: “Under blood red skies”, “Took on all the world”, references to razor blades.  Likewise the short one, “Eulogy“, which is really an intro for another song that we’ll get to.  “They remain still as stained class”, “Guarded by the Sentinel”, and so on.  3/5 each.

The worst of all songs is “Loch Ness“, a mess so atrocious that we had to devote an entire entry just to that one song.  Combined with its intro “Eulogy”, it’s over 15 minutes of mire that has no reason to exist.  Many people simply stop the album after “Hellrider” and leave this foul turd to rot unheard.  “Loch Ness” could very well be the worst Judas Priest song of all time.  A flaming turd to extinguish all flaming turds.  The worst of all putrid, rancid filler songs ever foisted upon the faithful.  0/5.

 


“Reunited” DVD

It’s worth getting a copy of this album with the bonus DVD.  For one, there’s a documentary from the Priest Reunited tour.  Secondly, there are seven uncut live songs here for you to enjoy, and it’s the only official video release from the Reunited tour.  The live footage is something to see, especially if you own the robotic Rising in the East DVD.  In that concert, Rob Halford was a stiff mannequin instead of a frontman.  Here, he comfortably in charge and engaged.  The entire lineup is energized.  “Breaking the Law” sees them powered up and working hard.

But how did the seemingly unlikely reunion begin?  According to the documentary, the band and Halford met to discuss the forthcoming Metalogy box set.  Glenn Tipton states that they decided to reunite later the same day.  It was like they’d never been apart.  Terribly British, says Rob.  “Have a cup of tea, see you later.”  Rob does express regret for his actions (reportedly he gave Judas Priest his notice in 1992 by fax), but it seems all was forgiven over time.

Beware which version you buy.  This CD/DVD combo set contains the documentary plus the full live songs:  “Breaking the Law”, “Metal Gods”, “A Touch of Evil”, “Hell Bent for Leather”, “Eletric Eye:”, “Diamonds & Rust”, and “Living After Midnight”.  The DualDisc version does not; it only includes edited fragments of those tracks.  Which is a shame, because the band sounded fantastic and Rob was in full-lunged form.  This is probably the best live version of “A Touch of Evil” available, for example.  Not everyone likes the acoustic version of “Diamonds & Rust”, but it’s certainly different. The only bonus to DualDisc is that you also get the album in “enhanced stereo”.  Avoid that; get this.


Although Angel of Retribution is overall a very strong Judas Priest album, “Loch Ness” is impossible to ignore.  It does serious damage to an album that was otherwise an impressive listen.  In the included DVD, K.K. Downing says they had to pick and choose from an overabundance of songs.  Can you imagine how bad the leftovers are if “Loch Ness” made the album?

3.5/5 stars

#779: Loch Ness

GETTING MORE TALE #779: “Loch Ness” – A Lyrical Analysis

Judas Priest are known not just for their incendiary riffing, but also vivid lyricism.  It’s often a winning combination.  Witness such metal concoctions as “Blood Red Skies” or “Metal Gods”.  When it works, it works.  When it fails, it fails gloriously.  Let’s have a look at Judas Priest’s most epic failure.  That would be the 13:28 long “Loch Ness”, from 2005’s reunion album Angel of Retribution.

Musically, “Loch Ness” is utter garbage; lethargic rock for the sleepy.  The lyrics are a little better, though not enough to save the song.

Judas Priest usually create their own mythology.  Characters such as the Painkiller, the Sentinel and the Jugulator are three such examples.  This time, Priest dipped into cryptozoology and Scottish legends for their subject matter.  Today, the general consensus is that there is no monster in the depths of Loch Ness.  It’s still fun to speculate and imagine what might have been.

The first verse of “Loch Ness” sets the scene.  The loch is the largest (by volume) in the UK, with an incredible depth of 755 feet.  Because of the loch’s depth and murkiness, long has there been uncertainty about what may be down below.  Using sonar and other modern technologies, nothing of any great size has ever been found.  Though legends remain strong today, it is highly unlikely that a large monster lives in Loch Ness.  What say Judas Priest?

Grey mist drifts upon the water,
The mirrored surface moves,
Awakened of this presence,
Dispelling legends proof.

Stories of a beast in the loch date back almost 1500 years.  A definitive modern day sighting would indeed be the proof needed to move the monster from legend to reality.  Rob Halford references the grey mists, and how the movements of the “mirrored surface” can look like a creature is swimming beneath.  This is how most sightings begin.  Then “Nessie” rises from the water:

A beastly head of onyx,
With eyes set coals of fire,
It’s leathered hide glides glistening,
Ascends the heathered briar.

Physical descriptions of “Nessie” the monster vary wildly.  A head attached to a long neck is a defining characteristic.  It is usually described as dark, which Halford here exaggerates as “onyx” (black) in colour.  It’s eyes being “coals of fire” seems to be a Halford invention.  Likewise the hide, which is usually not described in much detail.  Out of necessity, Rob had to elaborate on the myth in order to describe the beast.  An interesting line is “ascends the heathered briar”.  Indeed, in some of the older sightings, the beast is seen climbing onto land – once even crossing a road.  When seen in full, the creature is often described as similar to a plesiosaur.

This legend lives through centuries,
Evoking history’s memories,
Prevailing in eternities,
On and on and on.

More interesting than the physical descriptions of the beast are the old legends. Water beast legends were not uncommon.  Why was Loch Ness always such a hotspot for such tales?  There is no simple answer.  Recently, large eels were filmed in the loch.  A mistaken sighting of an eel could account for many of the stories.  With the advent of modern media in the 1900s, tales of the monster spread worldwide and stories were reported with more frequency.  Proponents of the monster theory point to the oldest legends as proof that there was always something mysterious about the loch, though there is no proof that there is any connection to the “Nessie” of today.

Loch Ness confess,
Your terror of the deep,
Loch Ness distress,
Malingers what you keep,
Loch Ness protects monstrosity,
Loch Ness confess to me.

This chorus is a contender for the worst on any Judas Priest album.  There is nothing here to sing along to.  The words are awkward and juvenile with overly simple rhymes.

The speaker is addressing the loch itself; asking the loch to give up its secrets.  But “Terror of the deep”?  Few today find the idea of the Loch Ness monster to be terrifying .  True, early sightings would have been quite scary. Even if the creature spotted was only an otter or an eel, in the dusk or fog it could have been startling.  As you’ll see, however, it is implied this song takes place in the modern age.

The most interesting word choice here is “malingers”, meaning to pretend to be sick in order to avoid something.  It’s possible the word is being intentionally misused because it simply sounded good.  Insofar as meaning goes, “distress”, “malinger” and “protect” all imply the creature isn’t actually threatening.  Perhaps it or its young need protection.  Halford begs the beast for the truth, but the truth is not to be found.

Somehow it heeds the piper,
From battlements that call,
From side to side it ponders,
In passion in the skirl.

Scottish imagery here, implying that the monster will appear if a piper plays its song.  “Skirl” refers to the shrill sound of bagpipes.  “From side to side it ponders, in passion in the skirl” is a variation of the old saying that music soothes the savage beast.  Otherwise, the connection between the pipes and the monster seem to be a Halford construction.  There is also an old joke:  “Bagpipes and the Loch Ness Monster have two things in common – they both attract tourists and terrify little children.”

This highland lair of mystery,
Retains a lost world empathy,
Resilient to discovery,
On and on and on.

“Resilient to discovery” isn’t the most accurate phrasing.  “Resilient” means to recover quickly.  The Loch Ness monster is more “resistant” to discovery than “resilient”, though the legend certainly is resilient.  It goes on and on regardless of a narrowing scope of possibilities.  “Retains a lost world empathy” probably refers to the age of the beast.  It is so old that it comes from a simple time when people had more empathy than today.

This legend lives through centuries,
Evoking history’s memories,
Prevailing in eternity,
Your secret lies safe with me.

These lines simply refer to the age of the old legends, which will live forever.  Rob assures the beast that if it reveals its secrets, he will not tell.

This creature’s peril from decease,
Implores to mankind for release,
A legacy to rest in peace,
On and on and on.

Finally the last verse goes back to the idea that the creature is in some sort of distress.  It’s unclear what the peril is, but mankind is a part of it.  Is it the call of the pipers?  The monster simply wants to be at peace. Perhaps this is a hint of an environmental message, for conservation.

The lyrics to “Loch Ness” are not overly complex. Their simplicity, combined with slow monotonous music, make the 13 minute song seriously drag.  A few unusual word choices tend to obscure meaning, but “Loch Ness” is otherwise a fairly straightforward Judas Priest lyric.  When sung aloud, it begins to sound a little foolish.  “Loch Ness, confess, your terror of the deep” is not poetry.  It’s something you would have written in highschool English class.  While the words mostly stand up to analysis, they are not resilient to singing aloud.  In this manner (perhaps the only manner in which rock lyrics really matter), “Loch Ness” flounders.

“Loch Ness” has never and will never be played live.  It’s a shame that one of the greatest cryptids in all of legend has been given such a weak heavy metal song!

 

REVIEW: Jim Crean – Gotcha Covered (2019)

JIM CREAN – Gotcha Covered (2019 Visionary Noise)

Jim Crean is steeped in hard rock tradition.  He’s worked with some of the legends, and he’s covered the rest of ’em.  Atypical covers.  Not the usual “hits” but interesting tracks you might know and remember, or will be exposed to for the first time.  In 2019, Crean’s come out with an original album The London Fog, and a covers CD called Gotcha Covered.  Lets see what surprises there are in store.

Right out of the gates, it’s a shocker:  “Hall of the Mountain King”.  You don’t hear Savatage covers every day, and fortunately Crean has the necessary scream abilities.  He sounds like a man possessed by lust for the Mountain King’s gold!

Unpredictability is the theme for this album.  Up next:  Melissa Etheridge.  It’s an oldie from her landmark first debut, “Like the Way I Do”, and you’ve never heard it so heavy.  It sounds as if it was written to be played this way because it’s completely natural.  White Lion are a little more centerfield, and “Hungry” is a killer choice.  Jim Crean can easily handle mid-80s Mike Tramp songs, as they are right in his pocket.  John Corabi is another singer who Crean is naturally suited to cover.  The Scream’s “Outlaw” is definitely an obscure but inspired choice.   Tasty riff.  Badlands get the next nod, with “The Last Time”, the first single from the second album Voodoo Highway.  The high notes are no problem, and the chorus goes on for lightyears.

Then it’s back to left field, with Bryan Adams’ old (pre-Reckless) classic “Lonely Nights”.  You don’t hear Adams covers very often, and usually they suck.  Not this one.  Crean transforms it into a hard rock anthem, something Sammy Hagar could have recorded.  Another shocker is Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, converted into a classy rock ballad, utterly different from the original.  The Cars’ “Bye Bye Love” is another brilliant choice (not that you can go wrong with any Cars).  It works well as hard rock.  “Falling In Love”, a Scorpions oldie written by Herman Rarebell, adds a heavy kick at the right time.

“Saved By Zero” is the only track that doesn’t sound overly metalized.  The Fixx cover reveals some more new wave roots, and a good song choice it is.  The complex backing vocals sound fantastic.  Crean does justice to his hometown boys The Goo Goo Dolls next with “Lazy Eye”.  This non-album Goos song was on the soundtrack for the ill-fated Batman & Robin.  As you’d expect, it boasts a strong chorus, but the chunky riff may surprise you.  Another obscurity is “The Warning” by Victory, a strong 80s chug.  Onto the 90s next:  Ratt’s Stephen Pearcy and Cinderella’s Fred Coury had a band called Arcade.  “Cry No More” is a ballad from their debut.

The last few songs include Dokken’s slow burning “When Heaven Comes Down”.  Nothing wrong with some Back for the Attack era Dokken.  The Sweet’s classic “Love Is Like Oxygen” brings that pop edge back.  But it’s the closer, Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” that really slams it home.  No horns, just guitars and heavy beats.  The original arrangement is untouchable, but a heavy rock version?  Sure, why not.

A good covers album is hard to come by.  It all comes down to song selection.  In this regard, Jim Crean knocked one out of the park.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988/2003 remaster)

QUEENSRŸCHE – Operation: Mindcrime (1988, 2003 EMI remaster)

After Pink Floyd made history by releasing The Wall in 1979, concept albums fell out of fashion.   Almost a decade later, two heavy metal albums brought the artform of the full-length story back:  Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche.  Of the two, Mindcrime had the more coherent linear story, but both remain high water marks for each band.

The Queensryche album sold slowly at first, as the band refused to make music videos to let the album speak for itself.  They changed course in 1989 when “Eyes of a Stranger” made it to MTV and MuchMusic.  Fortunes changed dramatically for Operation: Mindcrime.  The album eventually went platinum.

The reason Mindcrime was better suited as an album than music videos was the connected storyline running through each song.  Employing a classic frame technique, we begin at the end with “I Remember Now”.

“I remember now.  I remember how it started.  I can’t remember yesterday.  I just remember doing what they told me…”

The anti-hero Nikki is an angry, aimless addict who fell in with a radical political group called Operation: Mindcrime.  He is a disheartened young American. “The rich control the government, the media, the law.”  Mindcrime’s modus operandi?  Using drugs and brainwashing, would-be assassins are sent out to kill strategic political targets, building to revolution.  Inequality, corruption and the media have made the country an ugly place.  Dr. X, the mastermind behind Mindcrime, has total control over Nikki.  He also uses the nun Mary, a former prostitute, to feed Nikki’s needs.  Nikki and Mary grow closer until he receives the order:  “Kill her.”  She knows too much.

The first two tracks are just setup before you get to the meat.  “I Remember Now” and “Anarchy-X” create a powerful set of images, with anthemic guitars and the sound of massive crowds rallying to a cause.  “Revolution Calling”, the first real song, begins the narrative.  “Then I heard of Dr. X, the man with the cure, just watch the television, yeah you’ll see there’s something going on.”

Nikki is indoctrinated on the title track, an ominous riffy behemoth of a song.  Dr. X uses Nikki’s drug addiction to control him.  With nothing to lose, Nikki falls for the doctor’s words.  “There’s a job for you in the system boy, with nothing to sign.”  Nikki has no use for the government or politicians.  It all sounds good to him.  On “Speak” he receives his first assignment.  “I’m the new messiah, death angel with a gun.”  On a blazing fast track with a thick chorus, Nikki falls into his new life.  “Eradicate the fascists, revolution will grow.”  On “Spreading the Disease”, another kickass track with a chorus that goes on for miles, Nikki tells the story of Mary and his distaste for the church.  “Religion and sex are power plays, manipulate the people for the money they pay.  Selling skin, selling God, the numbers look the same on the credit cards.”

Queensryche take it slower (though not soft) on “The Mission”, as Nikki starts to feel disillusionment.  “I look around, my room is filled with candles, each one a story but they end the same.”  He keeps telling himself that he’s doing what’s right.  “My mission saved the world, and I stood proud.”  But then he is given the order he dreads:  Kill Mary.  This instruction opens album epic “Suite Sister Mary”, 10 full minutes of riffs, choir and orchestra (by Michael Kamen).  The riff alone stands like a monolith.  Vocalist Pamela Moore sings a duet with Geoff Tate as the character of Sister Mary.  As for that riff?  Chris DeGarmo was the master riff composer in this band, a hole they have never quite filled.

The second half of the story commences with “The Needle Lies”.  Nikki wants out, but finds that it doesn’t work that way.  There is no “out”.  Meanwhile Queensryche strafe the speakers with a thrashy blitzkrieg.  Drummer Scott Rockenfield cannot be contained.  Then on the quiet filler track “Electric Requiem”, Nikki discovers that Mary had made his choice to disobey orders irrelevant.  Dead by her own hand, Nikki is broken and tailspins into a mad depression.  This is portrayed on “Breaking the Silence”, another stone cold winner of a song with a mighty chorus.  The chunky guitar riff is to die for.

With his memory failing him, Nikki doesn’t even know if he killed Mary himself or not.  He questions everything on the ever-cool single “I Don’t Believe in Love”, one of the most remarkable of all Queensryche songs.  Once again the writing partnership of Tate and DeGarmo struck heavy musical gold.  Two shorter tracks (“Waiting for 22” and “My Empty Room”) fill in some story points, and Nikki is eventually caught.

Operation: Mindcrime’s biggest song is its final track and first single, “Eyes of a Stranger”.  Memories are but fragments.  “I raise my head and stare into the eyes of a stranger.”  It’s one of Queensryche’s most incredible recordings, a perfect storm of guitars, vocals and melody.  It’s neck deep in drama, with Geoff Tate at his most emotive.  The story ends with some questions left unanswered.  At least until 2006’s unnecessary Mindcrime II….

Operation: Mindcrime took Queensryche to an artistic level that fans and critics always knew they could achieve.  Their debut EP showed promise.  They didn’t live up to that potential until Mindcrime.  Though good, The Warning album wasn’t a stunner like MindcrimeRage For Order was brilliant but alienating.  Even when it was first released, Mindcrime did not blow all the critics away.  Only after it had been digested slowly over time did the masses realize they were sitting on something very special.  Queensryche had done conceptual work before, but more abstract.  Nothing as well-hewn as Mindcrime.  Musically it was like they distilled everything they had accomplished thus far, and concentrated it into pure rock majesty.

The 2003 CD reissue had two live B-sides as bonus tracks.  “The Mission” was originally released in 1991 on the B-side to “Silent Lucidity”.  It is a different recording from that on the live album Operation: LIVEcrime.  “My Empty Room” is a later acoustic recording, released in 1995 as a B-side to “Bridge”.  It’s interesting for its acoustic setting and percussion, but is best heard in the context of the “Bridge” single with its other acoustic counterparts.

Is Operation: Mindcrime a masterpiece?  The story is a bit Hollywood and a tad juvenile, but the broad strokes are remarkably still valid today.  Mindcrime is rivalled by only a few.  It’s a worthy, nay, important addition to any metal collection.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche (1983 EP/2003 remaster)

Part I of a Queensryche two-parter.

QUEENSRŸCHE – Queensrÿche (1983 EP/2003 EMI remaster)

Sometimes a reissue is done so right you just gotta “Take Hold of the Flame”.

The 1984 debut EP by Queensryche is one such release.  The original vinyl runs shy of 18 minutes, leaving plenty of space for bonus tracks.  For this, they included the audio for all 10 songs from their first home video, Live in Tokyo.  Wishes fulfilled.

The original four track EP put the quintet from Seattle on the map.  Opening with “Queen of the Reich”, the young band showcased their knack for riffs and screaming vocals.  Geoff Tate’s opening scream cannot be touched.  Tate seemed embarrassed of these songs later on (all written by Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo with one lyric by Geoff).  Though the songs are clearly a starting point, they’re nothing to be embarrassed by.  “Queen of the Reich” remains simple, majestic and powerful.

The “Nightrider” sails away but the riffs go on with pneumatic precision.  Early Queensryche were not that dissimilar from early Iron Maiden, but at least they were doing that sound well.  Curiously enough this self-produced EP was not recorded with the intention to release it.  Queensrÿche is actually just a demo, but the band were starting to make waves on the live scene and so the four songs were released as an EP.  It eventually went gold; very rare for an EP.

Flipping over to side two, “Blinded” is screamy and raw.  Not one of the bands’ most memorable tunes, but soon arrives “The Lady Wore Black”.  This is a metal ballad in the classic vein of “Beyond the Realms of Death” or “Remember Tomorrow”.  Tate’s voice cascades while the band weave a backing track of guitar thunder.  Along with “Queen of the Reich”, it still turns up on live setlists.

The live set in Tokyo, recorded in 1984, contains all the tracks from the EP, a non-album song called “Prophecy”, and several from the debut full-length album The Warning.  Opening with the “Nightrider”, Queensryche don’t let up through a generally fast and heavy set.  “Prophecy” keeps up the brisk pace, with a chorus that is miles ahead of “Nightrider”.  And this DeGarmo-penned smoker was a non-album track!  “Deliverance” from The Warning follows in its ashy footsteps.  It’s an onslaught of Warning tracks:  “Child of Fire” and “En Force” rolled out in heavy fashion.  This trio of Warning songs might be considered the slow part of the set.  They have a soundalike vibe as they steamroll the ears.

“The Lady Wore Black” brings a slower, dark atmosphere.  Tate’s sustain is unbelievable!  Then it’s a blast of classics to close the set:  “Warning”, “Take Hold of the Flame” and “Queen of the Reich”.  Magnificent metal through and through, with “Take Hold” being an unequivocal high point.  From Tate’s vocal to the exalted riffing, Queensryche nail it.

Don’t just get the EP.  Make sure to get the 2003 CD reissue with the glorious Tokyo show included.  You’ll be happy you did.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Jim Crean – The London Fog (2019)

JIM CREAN – The London Fog (2019 Visionary Noise)

Vocalist extraordinaire Jim Crean is back with two new solo albums.  Not only is there a 16 track covers album called Gotcha Covered, but also The London Fog, a new original CD.  As usual, Crean boasts a killer hitlist of special guests, including Carmine & Vinny Appice, Mike Tramp, Rudy Sarzo, Chris Holmes, Steph Honde and plenty more.  Buckle up — it’s a heavy duty trip.

The London Fog goes wide open from the start, with the two new songs Crean released on last year’s Greatest Hits:  the excellent “Scream Taker” (tribute to Ronnie James Dio) and the riffy “Conflicted”.  “Scream Taker” features Dio alumni Vinny Appice and Rudy Sarzo.  These tracks follow the traditional blueprints of classic 80s metal, particularly “Conflicted”.  (The dexterous bassist that I initially mistook for Billy Sheehan is actually A.D. Zimmer.)

Want more riffs?  Then get “Broken”!  There’s a great chorus here: Melody and power, with some tasty licks from Steph Honde.  “Aphrodisiac” takes things to a more nocturnal place, but more menacing.  Still, there’s always room for some dirty rock, and that would be “Lady Beware”.  If Dokken’s classic lineup released another song today, it would probably sound a lot like “Lady Beware”.  This is the kind of rock we all miss, and have a hard time finding today.

Jim Crean is equally at home on rockers and ballads.  “Let It Go” (with Honde on piano and keyboards) has an epic quality for a ballad.  It might be a bit Scorpions, Whitesnake (circa 1987) or Guns N’ Roses…the comparisons are up to the listener.  The keyboard solo is a cool touch.  Then heavy sounds circulate on “Loaded” (more Zimmer on bass), but yet Crean maintains a knack for melody.

A familiar voice welcomes you on “Candle”, a Mike Tramp (Freaks of Nature) cover featuring Tramp in a duet.  The song is new to these ears, and I like how the parts shift and change moods.  A riff for the ages follows, on an original track called “1981”.  Again I’m reminded of Dokken, the classic era.  It’s hard to recapture a time period with such clarity, but Jim Crean has a talent for writing that way.  Some of his originals could very well be from another time.  (Drummer Colleen Mastrocovo gives “1981” a serious kick.)

Another obscure cover:  Robin Zander’s 1993 solo track “Time Will Let You Know”, a classy ballad from an underrated album.  Jim doesn’t try to sound like Robin Zander, but does it justice.  Then it’s Rod Stewart’s dance classic “Passion”.  Very few singers have the right rasp to do Rod Stewart justice, but Jim Crean is one of them.  That’s the always slick Tony Franklin on bass.  And get this!  Franklin’s Blue Murder bandmate Carmine Appice, the same guy who played on the the original “Passion”, also plays on this cover.  He approaches both versions very differently.  Rod’s version is slick dance rock, and this is more like metal that you can dance to.  Same song; familiar but a completely different arrangement.  If John Sykes ever played with Rod Stewart, maybe this is what they could have sounded like.

“Passion” could have closed the album and you’d be completely satisfied, but there’s more.  A funky “Fool” sounds like Aerosmith, and who’s that on guitar?  Ray Tabano, the original Aerosmith guitarist before Brad Whitford joined the band!  This song is more Aerosmith than anything that band has recorded since 1993!  Then it’s another lesser-known cover and duet:  Angel’s “Don’t Take Your Love” featuring original Angel singer Frank DiMino.  Great melodic rock songs are always welcome, and this one is truly great.

Finally comes the metallic closer “Tears” featuring Chris Holmes (W.A.S.P.).  The contrast between the heavy riffs and Jim’s melodic vocals is what makes this style work so well for him.  The riff has a W.A.S.P. vibe, but Crean takes it in a totally different direction.

Another fine album from Jim Crean and friends.  Fans of hard rock “the way they used to make it” will thoroughly enjoy.

4.5/5 stars

Check back for a look at Gotcha Covered, coming soon.

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Rock the World (1986, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Six

Part Six – the final chapter of the classic KICK AXE series!

KICK AXE – Rock the World (1986, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

Though Kick Axe had the power of the Matrix on their side, it could not conjure up sales without support from Epic, the record label.  With only one music video and no real marketing plan, Welcome to the Club fizzled out in sales.  This resulted in three major changes.  First, the band were dropped by Epic, though still signed to CBS in Canada.  This resulted in an end with their relationship with producer Spencer Proffer.  Guitarist Raymond Harvey quit, eventually joining up with Bob Rock and Paul Hyde in Rock & Hyde.  Kick Axe decided to carry on, but as a four piece with guitarist Larry Gillstrom handling all the six strings himself.

Without big label money, the quartet produced and mixed their third album alone.  The record, initially titled Fuck the World, is bassist Victor Langen’s favourite to this day.  Ultimately, the album called Rock the World was met with split opinions among fans.

Lead single “Rock the World” opened the album with an intense blast of guitars, drums and bass.  On the verge of thrash, Kick Axe had obviously abandoned the overtly commercial tone of their last LP.  First comes the guitar histrionics, then a blast of stampeding drums, and a blitzkrieg bassline.  Shrieking in peak form, singer George Criston and his perfect pipes maintain the melodic metal standard.  Somewhere between Maiden and Motorhead lies “Rock the World”.

Every Kick Axe album has a cover tune, and for this album they bravely selected Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”.  Though the album generally suffers from a stuffy, echoing sound (due to the low budget production), “The Chain” manages to make that work to its advantage.  It adds to the ominous, foggy tone.  According to the liner notes, Kick Axe still play “The Chain” live today.

Finally going for that good-time rock and roll sound that they were founded on, it’s time for the “Red Line”.  This track proves that Kick Axe could write quality, catchy hard rock classics without Spencer Proffer or Randy Bishop’s help.  Then it’s the ambitious “Devachan”, a Maiden-esque volley of fire with multiple riffs and tempos.  It’s a very busy song, far more advanced than you’d expect.  It’s highly unlikely Spencer Proffer would have let them release a track this far left of mainstream rock.  With the band in control they were able to explore more epic arrangements like “Devachan”.  The side one closer is a track called “Warrior”, with Criston’s steely vocals leading the battle cry.  Its deliberate stomp is similar to a much later Rainbow song called “Hunting Humans”.

“We Still Remember” leaves smoking ruins in its wake on side two.  It seems like Kick Axe were aiming for something more than just melodic heavy metal.  There are intricate bass parts, well written solos, thoughful lyrics and complex changes.  Cookie-cutter metal, this is not.  It’s intelligent rock, the kind that fans of the genre take pride in owning.  And then, “the chase is on”, it’s “The Great Escape”.  This hurried rocker borders again on Iron Maiden, but things go slower for “Medusa”.  A rolling bass riff is the main feature for this slightly progressive composition, perhaps a bit too highbrow.

“The Dark Crusade” is, appropriately, more metal.  The beat, courtesy of Brian Gillstrom, is Priest-like circa Defenders of the Faith.  It’s a sound representative of the era.  Meanwhile George Criston takes the vocals to near-operatic levels.  A clever bass-led song called “Magic Man” ends the album with an atmospheric tone, and George Criston even ends it with some Ian Gillan screams a-la “Child In Time”.

Unfortunately but predictably, Kick Axe broke up in 1988 and the members went their separate ways.  After a number of side projects, a remarkable thing happened:  Kick Axe reunited.  They even made an album, called Kick Axe IV.  The only catch:  George Criston didn’t participate.  Instead, Victor Langen’s brother Gary (who happened to also be the original drummer in Kick Axe) stepped up to the microphone.  That era is outside the purview of this series, based on the classic original period, though perhaps after a few Discogs purchases, we’ll continue the story.  Today, Kick Axe continue with capable young singer Daniel Nargang.

As the final album in the original Kick Axe triumvirate, Rock the World delivers on a lot of promise.  Most bands tended to go more commercial album to album in the 1980s.  By being dropped by Epic, Kick Axe were able to unlock some serious heavy metal ideas, combining them into something a little more original.  The sonics could have used some more tender loving care, but they only had a month to make this thing.  It is the best thing they could have produced by themselves at the time, and probably the most pure.  The right producer could have tightened up the songs just enough to make each one a classic unto itself.  Rock the World is an indulgent Kick Axe album, just going for it, and fuck the world!

4/5 stars

 

 

Part One:  “Reality is the Nightmare”
Part Two:  “Weekend Ride”
Getting More Tale #773:  Rock Candy + Internet = Kick Axe!
Part Three:  Vices
Part Four:  The Transformers soundtrack (as Spectre General)
Part Five:  Welcome to the Club
Part Six:  Rock the World

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Welcome to the Club (1985, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Five

Part Five of a series on classic KICK AXE!

BONUS: Check out Superdeke’s concert review from this tour by clicking here!

KICK AXE – Welcome to the Club (1985, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

Kick Axe may have had a slight identity issue.

They certainly didn’t benefit at all when two of their songs (“Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”) were released under another name on The Transformers soundtrack.  Nobody knew that “Spectre General” was in fact Kick Axe.  Unicron may have been defeated, and Rodimus named as the next Prime, but Kick Axe didn’t gather any of the spoils.  There’s also the issue of their critical second album.  Vices was clearly a metal album and the band had an obviously heavy image, complete with toothy mascot.  When the second album saw its release, the mascot was gone and the lead video was a ballad!

The twist in the tale is that Welcome to the Club is considered by many fans to be Kick Axe’s best album; and they may be right.

The record label Pasha was trying to steer Kick Axe in a lighter direction.  Producer Spencer Proffer couldn’t be there, so staffer Randy Bishop was sent to Toronto to write and record the next album with the band.  They did this at the legendary Metalworks, and then the album was sent to Proffer in California to mix.  You’d expect this kind of operation to be detrimental to the music.  You’d be wrong.

The songs are tighter than those on Vices.  Yes, opener “Welcome to the Club” lacks the full-fisted punch of “Heavy Metal Shuffle”, but they are traded in for a dusky, cleaner vibe.  This is an older, wiser band and the lyrics reflect that.  “If you’ve had your share of heartache…welcome to the club.”  The drums are still thunder on tape, and George Criston could bellow like few others, so the “softening” of Kick Axe was actually quite minor.

“Feels Good – Don’t Stop” lets the bass lead the way, for a bangin’ chorus that any band would have given their nuts to write.  Another flawess chorus is found on the powerful “Comin’ After You”, which may in fact be the perfect 1985 hard rock song.  Softer verses build up to the kick of the first chorus, with backing keyboards providing unobtrusive texture.  “Make Your Move” is another expertly written rock song, something like Bon Jovi circa 7800° Fahrenheit.  Did Sambora spend time studying this album?  Then a dramatic “Never Let Go” has a creeping, dark vibe that makes one wonder just what Black Sabbath would have sounded like with George Criston on lead vocals.  When Ian Gillan left to join Deep Purple, Criston was one of the singers that Tony Iommi was very interested in.  This song is a glimpse into what that might have sounded like.

The side two kick-off, “Hellraisers” is a cold steel classic.  A signature guitar lick and a chorus plumbed straight from the most melodic depths of hell is all it takes.  Well, the solo cooks pretty hot too.  “Hellraisers” is most likely the best tune on Welcome to the Club, which goes a long way to making it the best Kick Axe song, period.  By the next track, “Can’t Take It With You”, Kick Axe discovered a time machine and somehow came up with a cool wah-wah riff right out the 2000s.  There is no way we’ll ever know for sure, but it’s not out of the question that this riff was lifted by time travel from John Norum of Europe during the sessions for Start From the Dark.

Anyone who felt Welcome to the Club underdelivered in terms of heavy metal probably thought “Too Loud…Too Old” was the best song.  Heavy groove and speed co-mingle, and the result is one of the heaviest hard rock tracks in the history of the genre.  “Feel the Power” dials it back in terms of heavy, but is no slouch of a track, not with all those Brian Gillstrom drumquakes.  Guitarists Larry Gillstrom and Ray Harvey had a knack for harmony guitar solos, as heard on “Feel the Power”.  Not to mention the capable backing vocals by the entire band, rounded out by Victor Langen on bass.

The oddball ballad goes last, and it really is a surprising one.  Continuing a tradition that would follow through on all their albums, Kick Axe did a cover.  This time it’s the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends”, but via the Joe Cocker arrangement.  The good news:  George Criston was more than capable of handling the difficult song without sounding like an asshole.  Not an easy task!  He is accompanied by Canadian stars like Alfie Zappacosta, Lee Aaron, Rik Emmett, and Andy Curran which gives the song some authenticity and serious star power.  Lee Aaron in particularly kicks the song right in the nuts when she steps up to the microphone.

It was this track that was chosen as the lead video, and immediately confused all the kids sitting at home watching MuchMusic.  This was the “On the Road to Rock” band, clearly, but they didn’t sound like that anymore.  The music video almost looked like a charity single, with everybody singing together in the studio.  We didn’t know what to make of it, and the clever but tame Hugh Syme cover artwork really didn’t speak like Vices did.

It is always a shame when a great album by a deserving band gets ignored.  Thanks to Rock Candy and their awesome CD reissues, it’s not too late to get into the Club.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Kick Axe as “Spectre General” – The Transformers soundtrack (1986) – Kick Axe series Part Four

KICK AXE as SPECTRE GENERAL – “Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”
from Transformers: The Movie original motion picture soundtrack (1986 BMG)

Although the recordings were not released until 1986, it makes sense to talk about “Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way” now, in terms of storytelling.  After the Vices album was completed in 1984, Kick Axe were tasked to contribute to another project.  And it wasn’t a movie soundtrack.

Producer Spencer Proffer was scheduled to go into the studio with Black Sabbath — a Black Sabbath still fronted by Ian Gillan, though not for long.  Proffer felt that Sabbath needed fresh ideas and recruited Kick Axe to write some.  Though details are murky, we do know that Gillan left Black Sabbath abruptly to record Perfect Strangers with Deep Purple.  Kick Axe frontman George Criston was one of the singers that Tony Iommi was interested in as his replacement.  Whatever happened, no recordings of Sabbath with Criston have surfaced, but we do have the songs Kick Axe wrote for the sessions.

In a strange coincidence, they all first came out on November 9 1985, on two separate albums.  W.A.S.P.’s The Last Command (produced by Proffer) featured the Quiet Riot-like “Running Wild in the Streets”, though without proper writing credit.  Another album produced by Proffer was released the same day:  Ready to Strike by King Kobra.  “Piece of the Rock” and hit single “Hunger” were written by Kick Axe for the Sabbath project.

Ultimately, “Hunger” by Kick Axe did finally come out in the summer of 1986.  Too late, perhaps, considering people assumed it was a generic cover of a King Kobra song.  Especially since no one had ever heard of…Spectre General?

Who the hell is Spectre General?!

For reasons unknown but said to be contractual, Kick Axe couldn’t release their own song under their own name, so Proffer invented Spectre General, and that’s how they’re credited in Transformers: The Movie.  The band didn’t even know about it.  They had two songs on the original 10 track album:  “Hunger”, and a new song called “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”, written for their next record Welcome to the Club.

Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the King Kobra recording, but this version of “Hunger” does stand in its shadow.  Both Mark (Marcie) Free and George Criston are stellar vocalists, and the Free version just had more…weight.  Kick Axe’s original is heavier and chunkier, so perhaps in that way it’s actually superior.  “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way” is an upbeat number, hook-laden, with the trademark Kick Axe “chug” and backing vocals.  It’s pretty essential to have both these tracks to augment a Kick Axe collection.

Besides not getting their real name in the album, other contributions by Weird Al Yankovic and Stan Bush were featured more prominently in the movie than the two “Spectre General” songs.  The band Lion got to do the movie theme song.  Those were some memorable movie moments to any kid in the theater, particularly the Stan Bush selections.

It’s pretty amazing that Kick Axe came up with “Hunger” but were never really recognized for it.  It’s a great song and their original version of it is the proof.  Also strong, “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way” would have made a fine addition to the next album.  Clearly, the Canadian quintet had big league talent the whole time.

4.5/5 stars