horror

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – Constrictor (1986)

EPIC REVIEW TIME.

Scan_20160207 (2)ALICE COOPER – Constrictor (1986 MCA)

Alice Cooper’s bizarre DaDa album was the end of an era.  It marked the last album Alice recorded for his Warner Brothers contract, now complete.  It was also the end of his experimental period that ran from 1980’s Flush the Fashion through to DaDa.  It was the the last album Alice would make that he couldn’t remember making.

Alice mostly disappeared for the next three years.  His activities were so low key that most people didn’t even notice them.  He was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver caused by his blackout drinking.  He got sober, for good.  He also dealt with a divorce.  Musically there was very little going on.  In 1984, Alice starred in a very low budget horror movie called Monster Dog.  He recorded two songs for the soundtrack:  “Identity Crisises” and “See Me in the Mirror”.  These two tracks are very much the conclusion to Alice’s early 80’s art-rock persona.  “Identity Crisises” has a lo-fi, garage-y Iggy Pop sound.  “See Me in the Mirror” is in the synthpop direction of DaDa:  creepy, atmospheric and mostly electronic.  These two songs were finally released for purchase on the legendary Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper boxed set in 1999.

Alice next emerged with one of the bands he inspired:  Twisted Sister.  Along with Brian Setzer, Clarence Clemens and Billy Joey, Cooper accompanied Twisted Sister on their single “Be Chrool to Your Scuel”. A very clever zombie-filled big budget horror-inspired music video was made for the song, which Alice co-starred in, as did Bobcat Golthwait (who was also in Sister’s “Leader of the Pack” clip).  It should have been a big deal, with Alice getting equal screen time with Dee Snider.  Unfortunately hardly anyone saw the video. MTV barely touched it. As a result it did nothing to aid Alice in terms of a comeback.  It was good to note that Alice looked healthier than he had in years.

Alice regrouped and re-invented himself in a new persona. Taking inspiration from his Welcome to My Nightmare period, Alice went into “slasher film” mode. He recruited a massive muscle-bound heavy metal guitarist and songwriter, Kane Roberts, to be his co-pilot for this adventure. Also along for the ride was a hot new bassist and singer named Kip Winger, whose large mane hid the fact that the man was a classically trained musician. With producer Beau Hill, they made an album in tune with what was happening in 1986, and that meant heavy metal. Alice had always been a diverse, experimental artist, but this time the mission was pretty simple and the lines were clear.

Another horror film served to launch the next official Alice Cooper music: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Alice appeared in a brief cameo, but more importantly contributed two new songs to the movie soundtrack. They were the anthem “Hard Rock Summer”, and “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”, which served as the movie’s theme song. “Hard Rock Summer” was a bit of a throwaway, and was not used on the next Alice album. You can really hear the backing vocals of Kip Winger and Kane Roberts on it, but a classic it is not. “He’s Back”, and its very cool music video became synonymous with this new period of Alice Cooper’s life.

The new album, Constrictor, was finally released in September of ’86. With a snake in his mouth on the cover (not really; you can see it’s cheaply cut and pasted) it was pretty clear that Cooper was going for the scares. Opening track “Teenage Frankenstein” continues the horror theme, but combines it with Alice’s teen anthem style from the early 1970’s. “Teenage Frankenstein” is essentially an “I’m 18” for 1986. It’s not as memorable, inventive, or as good, but it gets the job done. It’s an Alice Cooper heavy metal anthem for pounding your fist to in concert. In lieu of a proper music video, a clip from his live show The Nightmare Returns was used, featuring Alice building a living robot monster on stage, which then turns against him!  Alice was still one of the best live acts in the world.

It’s funny that DaDa is remembered as Alice’s “drum machine” album when it’s clear on “Give it Up” that a lot of the beats are programs and samples.  “Give it Up” is a radio friendly hard rocker, nondescript but at its core not that different from the music Alice made in the 70’s.  It’s even has some rock and roll piano.   It’s just dressed up for the 80’s.   There’s not much going on with “Thrill My Gorilla”, just a forgettable song with the shrill production that was so popular in the 80’s.  Much better is the somewhat epic “Life and Death of the Party”.  Slower, creepier and much more effective, “Life and Death of the Party” is the kind of song I like to point to as proof there was some mighty good material during this period.  Unfortunately “Simple Disobedience” isn’t among that material.  Like “Thrill My Gorilla”, there is little here to attract listeners today.  The electronics and samples really are a drag.  It is like there is a layer of distraction over the song that you have to penetrate through.

Flipping the record over (or pretending to since I own this on CD), “The World Needs Guts” isn’t a bad start to the second side.  It could have been much heavier.  It verges on the speedy power metal tendencies of bands like Accept, but the production keeps it from going all the way.  As such it kind of sounds like a thin Judas Priest Turbo outtake with the synths stripped off.  “Trick Bag” may sound familiar.   It actually started life as “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”.  There’s a demo version of “He’s Back” on the aforementioned Alice Cooper box set musically identical to “Trick Bag”.  “He’s Back” was re-written, but the original music ended up as “Trick Bag”.  It’s a decent album track but like much of Constrictor not particularly classic.  “Crawlin'” is pretty close.  With all the melody and hooks of an old 70’s Alice Cooper track circa Goes to Hell, “Crawlin'” is pretty good stuff.

“The Great American Success Story” is fantastic for two reasons.  One is that it was originally written for the Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School.   Second, it’s like an updated “School’s Out” for the 80’s.  Instead of celebrating the end of school, this time we are celebrating going to school.  “He’s gonna take that plunge, gonna jump back in there.”  Which, if you’ve seen the movie, you know is also a reference to Dangerfield’s character joining the diving team.  “He thinks about the teacher in his literary class,” and I don’t blame him; it was Sally Kellerman!  “Always been a brat, don’t get no respect” is another obvious reference to Dangerfield.  But it’s a good song! It really should have been a single, and it probably would have been if it were in the movie.

Closing the album, we go full circle back to Friday the 13th and “He’s Back”.  There’s little question that “He’s Back” is the best song on Constrictor.  It actually bears more similarity to the synth-pop of DaDa than it does to the rest of the album.   It’s brilliant because they stripped the song down to a very basic frame, which is a creepy digital pulse.  There’s a little guitar but it’s mostly just horror pop of the finest quality.  Ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha…don’t turn out the lights.

Part of the problem with Constrictor is that Alice had a faceless, fairly bland group backing him.  Kane Roberts can play guitar, and Kip Winger can play the bass, but did they have their own identities?  No.  Dennis Dunaway played bass on those early Alice Cooper albums like no other bassist in the world.  Michael Bruce, Steve Hunter, Dick Wagner, and the other great players Alice worked with all had their own sound.  There is none of that on Constrictor.

I want to give Alice and company an A for effort: for finally getting sober, for finally getting back there on tour, and also for going heavy this time.  Unfortunately Constrictor was a comeback album that needed a bit more comeback in it.  The good news is that Alice did eventually get back to full quality, but Constrictor is only about half an album.  Therefore:

2.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976)

Happy Halloween, folks!  And what better way to celebrate this day than with the king of horror rock, Alice Cooper?

ALICE COOPER – Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (1976 Warner)

Last time, he welcomed you to his nightmare.  Now, journey with Alice as he takes you straight to hell!  Subtitled (in the inner booklet) as “A Bedtime Story”, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is another concept album, to follow a concept album.  Steven is back.  It’s a pretty mad concept, and one that ties into not only Nightmare, but also Nightmare 2, decades later.  Steven will fall asleep, and follow Alice down a dark endless staircase, “the pit where he doesn’t want to go, but has to.”

Written and produced by Alice, Bob Ezrin, and Dick Wagner, Goes to Hell features a backing band with a name you might recognize: The Hollywood Vampires.  It’s not the same band, obviously (Johnny Depp was 12 years old), but it does demonstrate just how long Alice has been using that name for a band.  Among the many musicians herein, you will recognize many:  Steven Hunter, Dick Wagner, Tony Levin, and Allan Schwartzberg are probably in your record collection many times (credited or otherwise).

Goes to Hell doesn’t have the fire, or the reputation, of Welcome to My Nightmare.  It is the beginning of a long slide that did not fully right itself until after Alice had kicked the booze for good.  It is, however, an under-appreciated album with fun and nuance in the dark shadows.  The title track is one song that still graces the live stage.  Here, Alice seems to be paying for his crimes committed.  “For criminal acts and violence on the stage, For being a brat refusing to act your age, For all of the decent citizens you’ve enraged, You can go to hell!”  You’ll never have so much fun on the road to H-E-double-hockeysticks, this side of an AC/DC album.  Quintessential Alice, this is, and indispensable too.  Anyone who has ever liked the biting humour and celebrated riffs of Alice Cooper will love “Go to Hell”.  Bob Ezrin adds the usual accompaniment to the mix:  horns, keys, and gang vocals condemning Alice to hell!

A full three years before Kiss, Alice Cooper went disco.  If you like disco rock metal music, then “You Gotta Dance” to this one.  This is a track that some Alice fans would probably love to bury, but it has its moments.  Steve Hunter plays a wicked funky guitar solo.  There is always instrumental integrity.  “I’m the Coolest” slows the pace to a jazzy drawl.  At this point I imagine the character of Alice is meeting various people down in hell, perhaps the man in charge himself.  “Didn’t We Meet” suggests this.  “To look at you, deja vu, chills me to the core.”  Then, “They say you’re the king of this whole damn thing.”  These three tunes are all quite a departure from hard rock, but Alice has always been so diverse.  The hit ballad “I Never Cry” (#5 in Canada) is very pretty, unusually so for Alice.  It is, according him, an “alcoholic confession”, and not the only moment on the album that touches on his drinking.

The first side of the album has some great tracks, but only the first (“Go to Hell”) really rocks.  Side two is similarly diverse and dark.  “Give the Kid a Break” is a campy musical number, with Alice pleading his case before the judge.  “I don’t know why I’m down here, I don’t deserve to roast or bake.”  Predictably, things don’t go well, since the next song is called “Guilty”!  “Guilty” is the hardest rocker on the album, and one of the only songs to be played live occasionally through the decades.   Not that all the other songs on the album suck; Alice just sounds right when he’s rocking like he always has.  And the lyrics rule:

Just tried to have fun, raised hell and then some,
I’m a dirt-talkin’, beer drinkin’, woman chasin’ minister’s son,
Slap on the make-up and blast out the music,
Wake up the neighbors with a roar,
Like a teenage heavy metal elephant gun.

If you call that guilty, then that’s what I am.
I’m guilty, I’m guilty!

This is right up the alley of a tune like “Escape” from the last album.  It’s a shot in the arm and just when you need it.

With “Wake Me Gently”, we are back in ballad land, and it is unfortunately the longest song on the album.  It sounds like an Ezrin creation, but in comparison to his other works, it is among his lesser creations.  The string section is the highlight.  Then he turns up the funk again for “Wish You Were Here”, with the help of Wagner on funky gee-tar.  “Havin’ a hell of a time my dear, wish you were here.”  Sounds like Alice has more than enough of hell by now.  Steve Hunter plays the blazing Lizzy leads at the end of the song.

In a surprising-but-not turn, Alice pulls “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” out of the hat, an old Vaudeville song (1917) once performed by Judy Garland in 1941.  It actually works within the concept of the album, and predictably, Alice perfectly camps it up.  It blends splendidly into “Going Home”, with Steven finally escaping his nightmare.  Was it a nightmare?  “I wonder what happened to Alice,” he ponders.  This is pompous, overdone Ezrin, just the way you like it.  Orchestration and thunderous percussion lend themselves well to this dramatic close.

It’s pretty clear that the reason Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is not as fondly remembered as Welcome to My Nightmare is the sudden change in direction to balladeer.  There are only three rocking songs on an album of eleven tracks, and Alice was always primarily a rock artist, albeit an experimental one.  You still found his records in the “rock” section of your friendly neighbourhood record store.  Three rockers aside, the rest is a diverse assortment of music, well put together and played.  Clearly, that has to be the key.  But there is more to it than that.  Nightmare seemed a more celebratory affair.  It felt lively; it felt alive.  Goes to Hell sounds less so.  Alice’s lungs seemed weakened, just a smidge, from how they used to bellow.

Alice Cooper Goes to Hell is worthy of praise, not derision.  Just remember — it’s not a rock album.  At best it’s rock opera.  Proposed analogy:  Goes to Hell is Alice’s Music From the Elder.  They even have the same producer!

3.5/5 stars

Happy Halloween kiddies!

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)

WELC0ME TO_0001ALICE COOPER – Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)

My sister used to have a tradition.  Because I’ve always been a collector, she would have an easy time buying gifts for me as a young rock fan.  When I was 17 years old,  I only had a few albums by certain artists.  She’d sneak into my room and go over my collection.  She saw that I only owned a few of Alice Cooper’s:  Trash, Prince of Darkness, Billion Dollar Babies, and Greatest Hits.  For Easter of 1990, she got me Alice’s Welcome to My Nightmare.  Not knowing what to except from the Coop, it was pretty much instant love.

I played that cassette a lot and grew to know its track sequence, which was completely different from CD.  Later on I purchased the original CD release, but what Welcome To My Nightmare needed (and the rest of the Cooper catalogue needs) is a proper remaster with bonus tracks.  Rhino took care of that in 2002.

Now the album itself sounds so much better than the original CD. This sounds more like vinyl, the way it should, rich and deep. The liner notes, unfortunately, are somewhat crappy. They basically just explain to the youth of today why Alice Cooper is cooler than the bands they like. There’s not much about the genesis of the album, which is disappointing. This is, after all, the very first solo album by Vincent Furnier aka Alice Cooper. By 1975, the Alice Cooper band (Furnier, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, Neil Smith, and the late Glen Buxton) was no more. Never again would they share a stage or a recording studio, at least the original five.  The four survivors did finally re-team for a couple songs on 2011’s sequel, Welcome 2 My Nightmare.

Welcome To My Nightmare was a revelation to me when I received it, and it is still mind-blowing today. I think that is due to the production talents of Bob Ezrin. The man who later produced Destroyer and The Wall really came into his own on this album. His production is, for lack of any better words, jaw dropping. You can totally tell it’s him, if you know his style well enough: that creepy horror movie piano, all the orchestrations, sound effects, the kids singing. Those are trademarks. My favourite moment for the kids was in the song “Department of Youth”. Cooper and the kids sing in the fade-out:

Together – “We’re the Department of Youth, ahh ahh, we got the power!”
Alice – Who got the power?”
Kids – “We do!”
Alice – “And who gave it to you?”
Kids – “Donny Osmond!”
Alice – “WHAT?”

Loosely, this is a concept album about the kind of nightmares Alice would have.  The result was a collection of remarkably timeless and classic songs:  “Only Women Bleed”, “Black Widow”, and “Escape” for example. “Escape” is the most straightforward rocker on the album, and a joy it is. The rest is often more complex, arrangement-wise and lyrically.

The title track is a fun rollercoaster ride with epic horns.  Same with “Devil’s Food” and “The Black Widow” which work together as a creepy classic featuring Vincent Price.  I would not want to live my life without these songs.  Alice is nothing if not diverse, and then “Some Folks” sounds showtune-y.  “Only Women Bleed” is the famous ballad, often misunderstood, but respected enough to be covered by artists such as Lita Ford, Tina Turner, and Etta James.

“Department Of Youth” and “Cold Ethel” are more rock and roll, and why not?  What better genre to sing about rebellion and necrophilia?  It’s worth pointing out the guitar charms of Steve Hunter and the late Dick Wagner.  These two incredible players, under the guidance of Ezrin, lent Welcome To My Nightmare the rock edge that it needed, lest it be swallowed up by the dramatic tendencies.

Of course, Welcome To My Nightmare features the first-ever appearance of the character of Steven. “Years Ago” has Alice singing in this incredibly creepy little-kid voice, as Steven. Then the song “Steven” kicks in, and it’s even creepier, but very epic in scale. Alice is at his most effective here.  Steven would pop up many times, such as on the next album Alice Cooper Goes To Hell, 1991’s Hey Stoopid, 1994’s Last Temptation, and the more recent Along Came A Spider.  Whether it’s supposed to be the same guy, or just a character who shares the same name, I do not know.

The bonus tracks are alternate versions of “Devil’s Food” (much extended), “Cold Ethyl”, and “The Awakening” with alternate lyrics and more Vincent Price! Not available on the Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper box set! These three tracks alone, to the Cooper collector, necessitate a re-buy.  The improved sound probably would have hooked them in anyway.

I could never say, “If you only buy one Alice Cooper album, buy this one.” The reason I can’t is that almost every album by the original Alice Cooper band was monumental, particularly School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies. However, if you buy two or three Coops, please make one of them Welcome To My Nightmare, remastered!

5/5 stars

* There is also a DVD Audio of this album mixed in 5.1 by Bob Ezrin himself!

DVD REVIEW: The Wicker Man (1973, Anchor Bay limited edition)

Rest in peace, Christopher Lee — one of my favourite actors. Please check out Sean Munger’s excellent tribute to this fine performer.  Weirdly enough, he had a heavy metal career too.  Check Sean’s site for the scoop.

THE WICKER MAN (1973, Anchor Bay numbered box)

Directed by Robin Hardy

Please, whatever you do — do not see the Nicholas Cage “remake” (I use that term loosely) of The Wicker Man. Do not waste your time. See this version, the classic Christopher Lee/Edward Woodward original.

Police Sgt. Howie (a young Woodward) receives a tip about a missing girl on Summerisle, a fictitious island in the north of Scotland. He takes a seaplane to the island where he is greeted very cooly by the locals. Strangely, none of the elders claim to know of the girl, Rowan Morrison. Howie is not dissuaded and refuses to leave. He sets up in a local hotel to learn more about the island and the girl.

Nothing adds up, as he finds her desk at the school and her name in the school registers, proof that the girl did exist.  Howie, a devout Christian, is horrified to find that there are no Christians on Summerisle — only Pagans. Their rituals are strange and disgusting to him, and the local church is rundown and obviously unused for quite some time. The things he witnesses on Summerisle are some of the most interesting images in the film, qualifying it a work of true art, and impossible for serious cinema fans to ignore.

Howie finds the grave of Rowan Morrison and wishes to exhume the body, but to do that he needs permission from the owner of the island, Lord Summerisle (Lee). Lee’s presence in this film is magnificent. Some consider this to be the best work of his career. As Lord Summerisle, he is regal, mysterious and dignified. But is he guilty of obstructing justice, or even accessory to murder? What is the secret history of Summerisle, which has suffered failed crops in the recent past? Who sent Howie the tip about the missing girl, and why?

Disturbingly and suddenly, Howie’s seaplane will not start and he cannot return to the mainland. As the plot slowly begins to unfold, and stranger and stranger things are witnessed upon the island, Howie comes to believe that young Rowan is not dead, but soon will be if he does not act. He aims to stop her sacrifice, and comes face to face with the wicker man himself. (If you don’t know what a wicker man is, look it up.) By the end of the movie, you will be haunted by the song “The Lord is My Shepherd” and the words, “Oh Jesus Christ!”

WICKER MAN_0004

Movie card included in the box set

The horror in this movie is not gore, or monsters, or traditional horror frights. It lies in the situations that Howie gets himself into, by refusing to leave. The film is not for everybody. I know some people who watch it regularly, and others (like my dad) who have found it so chilling that they will never watch it again. Check it out cautiously. Only then will you know if you have the fortitude to face The Wicker Man!

This DVD edition by Anchor Bay is excellent. Two cuts of the film are included. The extended cut features some of the once-lost footage that enhances the experience. The extended version is the version to watch. There is also documentary footage on the DVD, including speculation as to where the last, lost bits of film may be hidden!

The only thing about The Wicker Man that I find hard to swallow is some of the music (some). Music is critical to the film, yes, but face it…Britt Ekland couldn’t sing!

This is a work of fiction. It is not meant to offend anybody of any religion. It is a simply a horror movie, or more accurately a thriller. The only thing offensive about The Wicker Man is that an American film studio thought it was a good idea to try to remake it!

5/5 stars