hollywood records

REVIEW: Queen – Hot Space (2011 bonus tracks)

QUEEN – Hot Space (Originally 1982, 2011 Hollywood 2 CD set)

Once upon a time, a band called Queen put a note in the credits of their first album: “And nobody played synthesizer”.

By 1982’s Hot Space, this credo was long gone.  In its place, a slick new sounding Queen that did not resonate with Americans the same way old Queen did.  Hot Space still bore a fair share of hits, though very different sounding ones from the olden days.

“Staying Power” opens the album with blasts of horns and funky synths.  On tracks like this, without any bass guitar, John Deacon played rhythm.  “Staying Power” represents the shape of Queen to come.  It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1989’s The Miracle.  The horns give it the needed punch.  Then Brian May’s “Dancer” slinks over, a disco rock tune with some (just some) trademark layers of Queen guitars.

If you feel like gettin’ down on the dancefloor, then “Back Chat” is the song for you.  It’s in the same vein as disco Kiss, but with the kind of funky authenticity that Queen can bring to the party.  “Back Chat” is the album’s first completely memorable song, provided by John Deacon.  Fortunately it has real bass, to keep that groove dirty.  As a single, it didn’t perform as well as “Body Language ↑⬱”, though it’s a superior song.  “Body Language ↑⬱” is all synth with no meat.

Roger Taylor’s funk rocker “Action This Day” boasts a cool sax solo, but the synth drums are lifeless.  It’s much better live (find this version on CD 2) with real instruments.  Brian May’s “Put Out the Fire” is a welcome return to traditional Queen instrumentation.  “Put Out the Fire” is the only song that sounds like “classic” Queen.  If you heard it for the first time, you sure wouldn’t assume it was from Hot Space.  It’s what you would call a “stock” Queen rocker.  No embellishment, no quarter.

Going topical, Freddie tackled the difficult subject of the recently murdered John Lennon.  “Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” is composed like a John song, with piano being the main musical support.  May’s solo is one of his most tender and warm, but the song is not their most memorable.  Taylor’s “Calling All Girls” is far catchier, and would probably be considered a classic if it were better known.

Brian’s ballad “Las Palabras de Amor (The Words of Love)” received worldwide attention at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992, performed with Zucchero Fornaciari. In this case, the synths work with the song and not against it. They create a dreamy landscape, perfect for Freddie’s plaintive singing. This fantastic ballad is up there with the more famous Queen classics.

“Cool Cat” was recorded as a duet with David Bowie, who was unsatisfied. Although the Bowie mix made it to a test pressing, it was removed from the album and has yet to see a re-release. A dusky, slinky tune like “Cool Cat” would sound neat with Bowie aboard. David’s there for “Under Pressure” (obviously), which doesn’t need discussing because everybody knows that song. Or should. Immediately. It is rock magic, born of a jam between the five musicians. When magic happens, it can create songs as perfect as “Under Pressure”.

Hot Space is a bit wobbly, but the bonus disc evens things out a bit.  A soul ballad B-side called “Soul Brother” might have worked better on the album than some of the songs that made it.  The single remix of “Back Chat” gives us a chance to revisit the album’s most addictive song.  Check out the fast, very dexterous live version of “Staying Power”.  It is pretty impressive even if it’s not one of Queen’s greatest songs.  The performance on the live take is a lesson by the masters on playing live, so listen up.  Similarly, live versions of “Action This Day” and “Calling All Girls” get an injection of life on the stage.

Hot Space shouldn’t be too high on anyone’s Queen want lists, but it shouldn’t be ignored either.  Check out the 2 CD version for the worthwhile additions.

3.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Queen – Flash Gordon (with 1991 and 2011 bonus tracks)

Flash Gordon – Original Soundtrack Music by QUEEN (Originally 1980, 1991 and 2011 Hollywood CDs)

When mom and dad rented the movie Flash Gordon, we sat and watched it as a family.  “It’s terrible,” a family friend told us.  There were only so many movies available to rent at the local store (Steve’s TV), just one small wall of VHS and Betamax.  Flash Gordon came home with us one weekend, and because we tried to make the most of our movie rentals (including the VCR, also a rental) we watched it twice.

I have not seen Flash Gordon since that childhood weekend.  It really was awful.  Maybe we hoped for more because Max Von Sydow was in it.  Neither Sydow, nor Brian Blessed, nor a young Timothy Dalton could save Flash Gordon.

Flash Gordon, New York Jets

Queen also could not save the movie, though their soundtrack is certainly one of the best things to come of it.  (Another is the movie Ted, basically a love letter to the original Flash Gordon).   All four Queen members wrote music for the film, and recorded it as a band.  Brian May wrote the lion’s share of material, though Freddie Mercury was responsible for “Vultan’s Theme”, later ripped off for an Atari video game called Vanguard.  I wonder if Freddie ever saw a dime from that?  I knew Freddie’s song from the video game by heart, long before I ever heard the album by Queen!

The soundtrack gave us one Queen hit single, “Flash’s Theme” written by May.  The 2011 double CD has a single version, and a live cut from Montreal in ’81 (also on Queen Rock Montreal), as bonuses to the album track.  “Flash’s Theme” is sparse but catchy, featuring movie dialogue that makes it seem like the film should be much better.  Queen’s bombast was ideal for this.  When Roger Taylor sings the highest notes in the chorus, it’s sheer musical delight.

The album plays like a soundtrack, with lots of atmospheric keyboard instrumentals and movie dialogue.  Because of its ambient nature, you might not at first recognise some tracks as Queen.  Some is similar to the ambient work that closed their last album, Made in Heaven.  The music is far more grand than its onscreen imagery.

One of the most memorable instrumentals is “Football Fight”, a Mercury synth workout.  Perhaps sometimes we forget what a great keyboardist Mercury was, simply because he was such an amazing vocalist.  “Football Fight” is super fun, and you can also get it in a piano-based demo version on the 2011 CD.  Check out a Queen-tastic version of Wagner’s famous “Wedding March” performed by May on guitar.  Finally there is the rock track “The Hero”, a riffy song with full vocals by Freddie.  It reprises some prior themes from the soundtrack, such as “Vultan’s”.  Queen is augmented by an orchestra on “The Hero”, which is as grand as you would expect.  Like “Flash”, you can also get “The Hero” on disc two in live form, in Montreal 1981.

A long forgotten bonus track for this album was released on the 1991 Hollywood Records CD.  A remix by somebody called “Mista Lawnge” starts off well enough, with a grinding beat synched to May’s guitar.  It goes downhill when somebody starts rapping, “Flash, one time!  Flash, two times!”  Note to all remixers:  Never, ever add random rappers to rock songs.  Don’t.

Rest assured, no matter which version of Flash Gordon you pick up, there are some definite musts on the album.  Much of it will only appeal to fans of soundtracks.  If that sounds like you, take a ride with Flash to planet Mongo and get down with some Queen.  Skip the movie!

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Queen – Queen (1973)

Scan_20150816 (2)QUEEN – Queen (1973, 1991 Hollywood reissue)

I’m in a unique position for someone who was a newborn when this album came out.  By happenstance, this was my first Queen album.  My mom bought it for me.  She bought it at the store that I would one day spend over a decade working myself.  This just happened to be the one she picked.

A few weeks prior, I had been immersed in the latest issue of one of the big guitar magazines.  Queen were out there doing press for Innuendo, and this magazine did a run down with Brian May of the entire Queen discography.  I read it over and over again.  I knew the pop hits, but what of these other songs they were talking about?  “Stone Cold Crazy” had to be awesome for Metallica to cover it.  And this tune “Bohemian Something”…by the description alone I needed to hear it.

And then, only a month or two later, I was hanging out with my friend Andy watching music videos in the basement.  My mom came downstairs.  She had been up watching the news.

“Hey guys, sorry to interrupt,” she said, “But Queen just made an announcement.  Freddie Mercury has AIDS.”

“Oh no,” Andy and I said almost simultaneously.  The rumours were that he was very, very sick.  Although Brian May denied it only months before, fans feared for the worst.  Freddie hadn’t toured since 1986. He looked gaunt, frail, in the most recent photos.  We were both saddened to know the rumours were true.  The very next day, Freddie Mercury died.

That’s my story where it comes to the first Queen album.  It is an intensely personal love for me.

I was surprised how raw it sounds.  Yet although the guitars are rough by comparison to later Queen, the layering of vocals and instruments has already begun on “Keep Yourself Alive”.  It is one of the most brilliant Queen rockers of all time.  When I first heard this song, I recognized some gallop that was later ripped off by Iron Maiden.  Roger Taylor (credited as Roger Meddows-Taylor) even gets a drum solo!  First single, first song — drum solo.  Why not?  Brian’s layered guitar solos point the way to where he would go with the instrument.  It’s worth noting that Queen get a co-production credit.  I’m sure they had a lot to do with the way they wanted to hear the instruments and vocals.

“Doing All Right” begins as a tender piano ballad, but it soon goes into an acoustic section, before finally going fully electric and amplified.  The voices of Freddie, Brian and Roger have a distinct sound that is Queen.  Roger’s voice in particular gives it an edge.  All “Doing All Right” lacks is the intense focus that Queen would later acquire.

Queen’s first serious epic was “Great King Rat”.  Freddie wrote the song himself, and a complex number it is.  Vocally, melodically, and lyrically, it is a killer.  Brian’s wah-wah solo in the left speaker is an eargasm, but it’s fascinating to hear him playing against himself in the right speaker.  There’s a flamenco inspired part that hints towards a similar section on “Innuendo” many years later.  This song is dazzling in its resplendent luminosity.  Another Freddie song, “My Fairy King” follows, and shows of his operatic side.  Fingers dancing on the piano keys, Freddie leads the way through various tempos and textures.  There is nothing simple about it.  And so closed the first side of the first Queen albums.

Another Freddie epic opens the second side, which is “Liar”.  I always assumed “Liar” had to be a Brian song because of the heavy guitar riff, but it is a sole Mercury credit.  Roger’s drum work is stunning, but it’s Queen — everybody’s stunning.  Since we haven’t mentioned him yet, It should be noted that John Deacon (credited as Deacon John) is Queen’s secret weapon on the bass.  Not only is he always dead on, but he composes catchy bass lines that are subliminally absorbed into your cranium.  You’re not always aware of Deacon when you’re listening, but when you focus on the bass, you realize he’s always very melodic.  That’s probably important when Brian is laying down such heavy chords!

The acoustic guitar comes out again for “The Night Comes Down”.  It’s a pleasant ballad, nothing outstanding, somewhat lacking in focus in favour of atmospherics.  But is it possible that Queen invented punk rock with “Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll”?  Unlikely.  Still, there isn’t a better word to describe it.  It’s less than 2 minutes, direct, heavy and blazingly fast.  Taylor wrote it and sang it with his sandpaper raspy voice.  The only think un-punk about it is Brian May’s very rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo.  In no way is this a Queen classic, but I think it’s pretty fascinating.

Queen got some heavy groove going on with “Son & Daughter”.  “The world expects a man to buckle down and to shovel shit”, wrote Brian in the lyrics that Freddie sings.  Uncharacteristically Queen!  It’s heavy, short and to the point with great hooks.  Then comes “Jesus”, the story of Christ’s birth and performing of miracles.  Certainly this is unusual subject matter for a rock band like Queen.  Although it begins dramatic and hymn-like, it has a very heavy middle section with blazing May guitars; too many to count!  To me, this song proves that God loves rock and roll.

Queen closes with a preview for the next album, an interesting twist that you don’t see often.  “Seven Seas of Rhye…” is a short instrumental previewing the main piano hook.  Of course, “Seven Season of Rhye” as a full song on Queen II became a classic.  On Queen I it’s a curious but good closer.

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Every good CD reissue should have bonus tracks.  The 1991 Hollywood CD issue of Queen has three, while the cassette only had one, which was “Mad the Swine”.  This is an odd little song, an acoustic hippie track that you can sing along to but probably don’t want to.  “Corny” is an appropriate word.  Better is a remake “Keep Yourself Alive”.  The band tried out different instrumental bits on this version, especially noticeable in Roger’s busier drum part.  The vocals are also glossier and better defined.  The tapes were lost and then re-surfaced in time for the 1991 reissue.   I think it’s likely a track like this would have eventually been released as a B-side, had the tapes not been lost for so long.  It’s a great and very interesting version that can co-exist along with the original.

The unfortunate thing about the 1991 reissues were the inclusion of useless remixes.  If it were a vintage remix from an earlier period that’s one thing.  But these are 1991 remixes, done for the express purpose of creating bonus material for reissues.  The artistic value in them is questionable.  That said, “Liar” is pretty faithful to the original, but with mixing board tricks to draw attention to different parts.  There are some unheard guitar parts as well, which are fascinating.  Of the 1991 remixes, this is one of the better ones.  (Don’t even get me started on Rick Rubin’s remix of “We Will Rock You” with Chad Smith on drums and Flea on bass.  That atrocity was even released as a Queen single.  But I digress.)

That’s the last track on the CD.  I know what you’re thinking now.  “But LeBrain,” you are saying to yourself, “Isn’t there a more recent reissue with more bonus tracks?  Aren’t you going to tell us about those, too?”  Yes, there is a more recent version (2001, on Universal) with more bonus tracks (six total).  No, I’m not going to talk about that today.  Reason being, I don’t have it yet.  But Christmas is coming.

5/5 stars

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