Ian Haugland

REVIEW: Europe – Best Ballads (unauthorized Russian release)

EUROPE – Best Ballads (1999 unofficial Russian compilation)

Ah Russian imports!  Those funky and cheaply printed covers, the lack of liner notes or label information…how quaint.  It is clear the Tempest Administration had no collusion with anyone in Russia.  Yet the Russians did hack their database and release Best Ballads anyway, a weird collection of 12 Europe songs and three solo tracks by Joey Tempest.  This CD originated during the period right before Europe’s triumphant reunion album Start From the Dark, so Best Ballads only contains music from the first five Europe discs.

Because it’s unauthorized and the Russians can do whatever they want, why not have both versions of “Open Your Heart” on one CD?  The sweeping 1988 version from Out of this World inaugurates the album, a brilliant version often forgotten in favour of the 1984 original.  What’s the difference?  John Norum played on the 1984 version from Wings of Tomorrow, and the re-recording has his replacement Kee Marcello.  The 1988 version also has more modern keyboards added.  Since both are included, you don’t have to pick a favourite.  We can all agree it truly is one of Europe’s Best Ballads.

What else is present?  The “big one” of course, which would be “Carrie”.  It’s the only track from The Final Countdown, because it was the only hit ballad from that album.  Other crucial Europe ballads:  “Dreamer” (Wings of Tomorrow), “Coast to Coast” and “Tomorrow” (both from Out of this World).  All timeless and flawless ballads.  From their first album (1983’s Europe) are a couple songs I wouldn’t have considered ballads.  In my review, I stated that “Words of Wisdom” has “an acoustic verse [but] that doesn’t make it a ballad!”  The other track, “Return of the King”, is “still pretty epic and wouldn’t be considered wimpy by anyone”.  Do they belong on a CD called Best Ballads?  Who gives a fuck; it’s just a Russian import!

You’ll even find a couple rarities included.  “Sweet Love Child” and “I’ll Cry For You (Acoustic version)” are both B-sides from the Prisoners in Paradise (1991) period.   The title track “Prisoners in Paradise” is also present but again, not really a ballad.  Either way…all the Europe tunes included are fantastic no matter how you classify them.  Each one has at least a foot in ballad territory so it all works out.

But what about those Joey Tempest “bonus tracks”?  Surprisingly good and un-Europe.  “Under the Influence” flies close to adult contemporary levels.  “Lord of the Manner” could have been a hit for Rod Stewart, but that’s not a bad thing!  This is more like soft rock than balladeering.  “Elsewhere” sounds more like a ballad, enhanced with strings and all the accoutrements.  All good songs and worth checking out.

Europe’s Best Ballads is not a bad little CD, but being an unofficial release, it’s difficult to reason out a rating out of 5.  I did the best I could.

/5 ЗВЕЗДЫ

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REVIEW: Europe – Almost Unplugged (2009)

scan_20161012EUROPE – Almost Unplugged (2009 MVD Audio)

Almost Unplugged“?  The devil is this?

This was a special show in Sweden, with Europe playing some of their best material (with a few covers) in a largely acoustic setting.  There are strings, but there are also keyboards and electric guitar.  The best of both worlds!

The band were riding a high wave then, which has really not dissipated since.  They had done a couple well received reunion albums (Start From the Dark and Secret Society) and were working on music that many fans consider a peak (Last Look at Eden).  Europe have long been an under appreciated band, but Almost Unplugged should win over even the staunchest critic.

“Got to Have Faith” opened Europe’s reunion album Start From the Dark, so it works triumphantly as a concert opener.  Here, it is laid back, bluesy with slippery guitars.  “Forever Travelling” from Secret Society follows hot on its heels.  The string quartet adds drama to this song, which works naturally in the acoustic setting.  From the same album is the killer track “Devil Sings the Blues”, highlighted by some splendid John Norum electric guitar noodling.

Every time Europe does a cover, it becomes an album highlight.  The acoustic “Wish You Were Here” is beautiful and not at all overdone.  Thin Lizzy’s “Suicide” is full on electric, and pretty spot-on, especially considering that Lizzy were a two-guitar band while Europe has a guitar and a keyboard.  Covering Led Zeppelin is always risky but “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is surprisingly great.  Joey doesn’t try to copy Robert Plant, but he certainly can sing the blues just fine.  (Hey!  Maybe the devil really does sing the blues!  Oh, you devil you!)  Just as importantly, Norum plays some electrifying guitar blues over this monster of a cover.  The most brilliant cover however is a UFO song:  “Love to Love”.  More than any other, this one sounds like Europe owned it.  It’s very well suited to their dramatic rock stylings, and they absolutely kill it.  If there was one track worth buying the CD for, you just found it.

The Europe originals that make up the bulk of the album span the entire history of the band.  From the first LP is “Memories”, which in its original version was a brutally heavy stampede.  Here, it is an acoustic gallop, just as aggressive, but with subtlety.  The piano ballad “Dreamer” comes from the second album, an unsung classic that was a few years shy of fame.  The fame and fortune finally came on 1986’s The Final Countdown, and of course the title track is played.  In its acoustic version there is no synth hook; it instead played by the string quartet.  It’s trippy to hear it done like this; a little strangeness for fun.  “Superstitious” (from 1988’s Out of This World) sounds more natural in this format.  It’s also refreshing to hear Joey’s voice crack in a couple places.  That means this is really truly live.

One should always familiarize with the originals first, but even if you don’t have them, Almost Unplugged should be well enjoyed by any discerning rock fan who doesn’t mind when the acoustics come out.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Europe – Out of this World (1988)

This one comes to you by request of Jompa Wilmenius!

EUROPE – Out of this World (1988 Epic)

So here I am, in the same place that I was 26 years ago when I first heard Out of this World, by a band I just loved:  Europe.  It was late August of 1988.  The location is a quaint wooden cottage north of Kincardine, Ontario.  I bought this album at the local records & tapes store while on summer vacation.  The problem with August in Kincardine is that it was a crummy time to be on vacation.  It started to get cool in late August, dark and rainy.  That August was a damp one, and I have lots of memories of being in this exact same location trying to wrap my head around Europe’s then-latest.

From the first single, it was obvious to my friends and I that Europe had mellowed somewhat.  It seemed odd to me that a band of Europe’s stature would release something mid-tempo and softer as a first single.  But there was no questioning the quality of “Superstitious”. It remains one of Joey Tempest’s greatest compositions.  This song has it all:  A soulful vibe, anthemic Europe keyboards, an absolutely blazing guitar solo by Kee Marcello, and plenty of organ to go with this darker mellow vibe.

I don’t think this video did them any favors.

That considered, I expected the next song “Let the Good Times Rock” to sound more like upbeat, “old” Europe (which to me was The Final Countdown).  Although it has some cool guitar hooks and fun lyrics, it’s more of a laid back dark n’ dirty grind.  This furthered the feeling that Europe were softening a bit.

None of us were then aware that “Open Your Heart” was a remake of a song from 1984’s Wings of Tomorrow. Kee didn’t play on the orginal, so it’s cool to hear his take on it.  Even though this song was a ballad, it was undoubtedly hit single quality.  When this song failed to get any airplay here, I began to worry that Europe’s fortunes in this country were over.  I could not fathom how the song had not become a massive hit.  Europe were being ignored by the mainstream.  It was a shame.  I still think the re-recorded version is great.  As I said in my review for Wings of Tomorrow, “I prefer the re-recorded version, because it includes an additional guitar part, really cool and catchy, immediately after the acoustic intro.”


“More Than Meets the Eye” has nothing to do with the Transformers, but it does consist of more dark, keyboard-oriented radio rock.  It’s a very good song, but again, I was craving something more upbeat.  There was still hit single potential here.  “Coast to Coast” is equally good, but very soft.  This is a mournful organ-backed anthem. It’s peaceful, just like this cottage by the lake.  Quality-wise, this is top-notch.  However we are now five songs into the A-side, without a really truly upbeat sounding rock song.  The young me found this all a bit too depressing, though today I don’t mind the laid back vibes.

Then, finally!  “Ready or Not”!  A smoking rock song.  Everything the album needed.  When Joey sings, “Then rock me just a little more,” that’s exactly how I felt!  Coming from Canada, I often wonder how Europe’s Swedish fans, who had been on board much longer, felt about Europe’s new musical direction.

Side B commenced with the elegant keyboards of “Sign of the Times”.  The song feels highbrow, and perhaps musically it was too sophisticated for the tastes at the time.  It’s an excellent song, another keyboard-drenched anthem.  The shame of it is, the production (by Ron Nevison) robs the song of so much power.  Some things he captures quite well, such as Mic Michaeli’s organ.  Other things are weak by comparison.  Kee’s lead tone sounds cold…just like this cottage used to be in late August…and the rhythm guitars are not present enough.  The song could have had much more dynamics, heavy and soft, if the instruments were just recorded a little differently.

“Just the Beginning” isn’t anything special to me, a chorus without a song.  This one you can skip, there are better songs to be had.  “Never Say Die” is pretty good.  It too lacks that upbeat feel that I’m craving on a Europe album, but it’s good enough for me.  It has some great parts even if the whole isn’t all it should be.  The organ and guitar solos, for example, are a lot of fun.  Unfortunately “Lights and Shadows”, which follows, is just filler.

“Tower’s Callin'”, the penultimate song, is back to quality songwriting.  Even though the song has a cool groove (badly recorded once again) and a killer chorus, the lyrics are completely incongruous to the mood of the music!  The songs seem to be about an air disaster:

All set ready to go but little does he know
He ain’t comin’ back no more, no
All set ready to fly into that deep blue sky
Like so many times before
Now the tower’s callin’, there’s no reply
And there’s nothin’ they can do
Now the night is fallin’ before their eyes
Still no one’s comin’ through, callin’ F12

Or am I reading this with too much 2014 perspective? Perhaps the song is supposed to be more Twilight Zone in nature, a disappearing plane?

The final track is “Tomorrow”, a Joey Tempest piano piece that once again has to be one of his best compositions. It does close the album on a sad, rainy note…much like that August in ’88.

It’s obvious that I can’t separate my listening to Out of this World from feelings of nostalgia. For that reason, take my rating with a grain of salt. Although many may feel differently, I like this album. It has a weaker second side and way too many ballads, but Ron Nevison robbed the guitars of their thunder. The songwriting shines through on many tracks, as does the talent of the players. For those reasons:

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Europe – Rock the Night: The Very Best of Europe

EUROPE – Rock the Night: The Very Best of Europe (2004)

Europe’s successful reunion was one of the most unexpected of the last decade, but thus far four awesome studio albums have been the result. A tougher more rock-oriented Europe emerged with Start From The Dark, but not before this appropriate retrospective was released. Containing music from the first era of Europe, from their debut album to their fifth, Prisoners In Paradise, this compilation is the ideal summary of the 80’s and 90’s era of the band.

All the casual fans need to know is that all the hits are here, in their original studio versions: “The Final Countdown”, “Cherokee”, “Superstitious”, “Carrie”, and the title track. That’s enough to make this worth buying for many. But also included are great lesser known tracks, many of which were also singles: “Open Your Heart” (the original version from Wings of Tomorrow), “Dreamer”, “Sign Of The Times”, “Heart of Stone”, “The King Will Return”, and many more. Two of my personal favourites are included: The rhythmically powerful “Girl From Lebanon” and the pop yet inspiring “Prisoners In Paradise”.

The diehards are also baited with B-sides and rare tracks. Many of these such as “On Broken Wings” and “Mr. Government Man” have since been issued on Europe remasters and other compilations, but there were a couple I never had before: live takes of “Time Has Come” and “Let The Good Times Rock” from the 1980’s. There’s also a studio track that I’m unfamiliar with called “Here Comes the Night”. This appears to be from the Prisoners In Paradise sessions, previously unreleased, and it’s a decent track. Best for me was a later B-side version of “Seven Doors Hotel”, with Joey Tempest enunciating a lot more clearly.

For my personal tastes, I didn’t like Prisoners In Paradise much. I found it overproduced and way too commercial and American-sounding. Europe were always much more European sounding, like a more radio-friendly Deep Purple or UFO. So there are too many tracks here from Prisoners for me, including a few that I just hate: “Got Your Mind In The Gutter” (dull blooze-rock) and “Seventh Sign” are not that great. But, it is what it is. I preferred a lot of the songs from Out Of This World and previous albums. I would have preferred to hear “Tomorrow”, “Ninja”, or “Paradize Bay”.

But hey, it’s two CDs of Europe, right?  And Europe were and are a good band.  In North America, I don’t think they ever got any respect.  They are remembered here for the big hair, and the big anthem.  That’s too bad.  As this collection demonstrates, Europe had a lot more to offer then.  There are ballads indeed, but there is also mighty heavy metal, many grand melodies, and hard rock performed with precision.

Good liner notes, decent photos.  Good comp.

 

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Europe – The Final Countdown (1986)

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EUROPE – The Final Countdown (1986, 2001 Epic remaster)

I remember back in 1986/1987, all the rock magazines were playing on the same angle: Who’s better, Europe or Bon Jovi? Hard to believe that the two bands were once considered on the same playing field, now that Bon Jovi are permanent megastars. Not to mention their music sounds nothing alike!

Everybody knows “The Final Countdown” which received a new life thanks to TV shows shows like Arrested Development. (Gob Bluth uses it as his theme song during his ill-fated magic acts.)  What you may not know is that this album had three other classic singles (“Rock the Night”, “Carrie”, “Cherokee”) and 6 great album tracks with no duds. As an added bonus, this remaster also includes three live tracks from 1987’s Final Countdown World Tour.  These may in fact be the same tracks as the Extended Versions release, but I don’t have that one to verify.

The synth-y title track kicks off the proceedings, its regal anthemic melody setting the mood. A science fiction themed song, the people of Earth have departed for Venus (let’s ignore that Venus is 460 °C). The lyrics…not super great on this album, but let’s not forget that English was their second language and they were still kids at the time. Regardless, “The Final Countdown” is a complete success as a song, from insanely catchy verses to chorus to intricate guitar solo courtesy of John Norum.

“Rock The Night” follows, another catchy song, this time with the guitar handling the meat of the tune. Then, the hit ballad “Carrie”. It’s a bit soft by today’s standards but is still a well written keyboard ballad with a great melody. This is followed by another great rock song, “Danger on the Track”. Vocalist Joey Tempest tells us of a journey followed by “strangers on my back”.  (See, because “back” rhymes with “track”.)  Again, not a great lyric, but it is a great song. Side One of the original LP was finished with the fantastic “Ninja”, which in my own personal world was a single in its own right. The lyrics: “If I were a noble ancient knight, I’d stand by your side to rule and fight.” OK then.

PHANTOM ZONE

Apparently the phantom zone wasn’t just for General Zod.

Side Two kicked off with a riff and a smile, and probably the best tune: “Cherokee”.  The lyrics here are not bad, a tale of the demise of the American Indian. However it is the riff that holds the song down, a typical Norum burner of great integrity. Still can’t tell what that voice says at the beginning of the song, though! The next track is “Time Has Come”, a mid-tempo soft one that I considered filler back then but like quite a lot now. “Heart Of Stone” has a bit more meat to it. This is followed by the fastest and heaviest song on the album, “On The Loose”, which has some of Norum’s best playing. In fact it was this song that brought Norum to my attention as a monster shredder in the first place. After hearing this song, I continued to watch his career with great interest, from solo albums to Don Dokken back to Europe. The album closed with another mid-tempo soft song, “Love Chaser”, which has a keyboard melody reminiscent of “The Final Countdown” itself, bringing us full circle. It is another great tune with killer melody and vocals from Joey Tempest.

The three bonus tracks are live takes of “The Final Countdown,” “Danger on the Track” and “Carrie”. Clearly, Europe could always cut it live.  These are from the Hammersmith Odeon in 1987, and feature Norum’s replacement Kee Marcello on guitar.  Marcello is no slouch, and had a different style to Norum’s, therefore adding another element to the songs.

The Final Countdown is the kind of album that I think should be owned, rather than just pick up a hits disc. You won’t go wrong with any of these ten tracks. The live stuff is just an added bonus.

5/5 stars