Jo E Donner

REVIEW: Feel – “I Become You” video (1994)

FEEL – “I Become You” (1994 independent VHS tape)

Not all great bands make it, and Feel was a great band.  Formerly Russian Blue, Feel were active on the Toronto rock scene in the early 90s.  When things went grunge, they adapted their melodic rock to the times.  The result was dark, not-quite-mainstream hard rock that could appeal to both sides of the aisle.  Their album This (get it? Feel This?) had a number of memorable tracks.  They also released a home video for lead song “I Become You”.

The video arrived personally autographed by all four band members; a nice touch.   In addition to being a top quality song, “I Become You” is also a slick looking, well-edited music video.  It utilises tricks like slow and fast motion, still photos, and plenty of camera movement.  The result is a briskly paced video with a band always in motion.  The guitar solo segment is particularly good.  Feel were television ready, if only the chips had fallen differently.  Frontman Joe Donner had the chops and certainly appeared ready to be the next rock sensation.

4/5 stars

Make sure you watch the video to the end, as I added some bonus content!  In 1993 Feel released a sampler cassette called A Taste Of….  I included the “Introduction” track at the end of the video, as it has a sampling of the album and even an unreleased riff that didn’t make it.  Check it out and let me know what you think of Feel!

 

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REVIEW: Raw M.E.A.T 1 – Various Artists (1990)

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RAW M.E.A.T 1 (1990 M.E.A.T Magazine)

Drew Masters’ legendary metal magazine M.E.A.T took a lot of pride in promoting Canadian talent.  The next logical step was putting out a CD featuring the best of the best in unsigned Canadian rock and metal.  The flagship band was Toronto’s Slash Puppet.  On this first volume, only groups from the province of Ontario signed up.   Even though the talent all came from a small region in and around Toronto (with one exception), it’s a surprisingly diverse selection of styles.

I look at Raw M.E.A.T as a first tapping of an oil reserve.  It was a gusher.  So much untapped raw talent, unheard in suburbs.

“Slow Down” by Slash Puppet was previously issued on their indi tape, but Raw M.E.A.T 1 was its first issue on CD.  The track has been described as Motorhead meets Faster Pussycat and that still fits the bill.  Lead singer Anthony J. Mifsud was the sandpaper throat to go with the rough and tumble music.  You can hear why there was such a buzz around Slash Puppet.  They had pro-level tunes and performance. All they needed was a break.

Most Raw M.E.A.T buyers knew what they were getting with Slash Puppet. The rest of the tunes were uncharted territory.

Eiffel Power, from Taranna, knocked it out with “City Action”.  Singer Lionel Lois  had ample range and lung capacity for this fun metal shuffle, very current for the time.  Think of Extreme’s first album but with more muscle.  Then there’s the instantly likeable “Feel Me Sweet” by Brampton’s own Ragadee Anne.  Yes, it’s true:  coming up with names for bands isn’t always easy, but “Feel Me Sweet” kicks.  One reason they sound so professional is due to the production by Tom Treumuth (Triumph), surely an advantage in the studio.  Glam rock with bite and youthful innocence sure sounds good.

Blackglama (Toronto) take it to the streets with the rock/rap hybrid of “Playin’ Hardball (With the Big Boys)”.  This was just a year or two ahead of its time, though director Bruce McDonald used it in his 1991 film Highway 61  (but not the soundtrack CD).  The next group, Washington Wives, bring it to immaculately composed AOR rock.  “Memoirs, Etc.” has backing vocals from Phil Naro, from just across the border in Buffalo.  Naro is best known for Talas and his work with Kiss’ Peter Criss.  “Memoirs, Etc.” is vaguely familiar, as if you’ve heard its like on the radio before (Journey? Night Ranger?), but there’s no question this track was hit-ready.  Zero fat content, this is all meat of the most melodic variety.

Short Avenue has another “name” attached, that being “Scarpelli”.  Guitarist Gene Scarpelli is the son of Gino, of Toronto’s Goddo.  Short Avenue sounds nothing like Goddo, rather more like some tough street punks ready to mix it up.  With hindsight, they sound like precursors to The Four Horsemen.  “Push Comes to Shove” is right in the same vein as the Horsemen’s “Rockin’ is Ma Business”.  From the Horsemen to the Cult:  The Cult have always been big in Canada.  First impressions are that Trouble In Mind (Toronto) were very inspired by Ian Astbury.  Regardless, their track “Sweet Addictions” is album quality.  Lead singer Beau (just “Beau”) turned up on a later instalment of the Raw M.E.A.T series, but that’s another story.

We depart Toronto momentarily for a trip to the nation’s capitol.  Ottawa’s Antix had been self-releasing vinyl since 1986, and “Kick It Up” was a new track.  With a Van Halen shuffle, their track hits the right spots, but suffers from inadequate production.   It’s unfortunate that the most experienced band has one of the poorest sounding tracks on the CD.

Russian Blue received their first major exposure via Raw M.E.A.T, and thanks to their incredible song “Once a Madman”, they gained a cult following.  They were a double threat:  a magnificent singer and a terrific guitar player.   Vocalist Jo E. Donner found himself compared to a young Robert Plant.  Richard Gauci backed that up with memorable guitar hooks.  “Once a Madman” gets the job done in just 3:15, leaving behind an unforgettable and unique rocker that begs for repeat listens.  One reason it sounds so good?  Produced by a pre-fame Harry Hess of Harem Scarem.

The next band, Zyle, sound like they were going for a traditional metal sound.  The Scorpions come to mind immediately, as does fellow Canadian rockers White Wolf.  They needed a bit more originality.  The guitar solo directly quotes Randy Rhoads, too close for comfort.  But then it’s The Remains with something a little more street punk.  A variation of the classic Peter Gunn riff, “Too Much” is actually never enough.  It’s the right mixture of middle finger and middle eight.

Hanging out just down the QEW are Hamilton and Oakville, from which come the last two groups.  Cathouse prove that you can never have enough permutations of the classic Van Halen shuffle.  “In For the Kill” nails it, with a vocalist who seems like equal parts Skid Roper and Rob Halford.  Finally, Oakville’s Johannes Linstead is best known today for his flamenco guitar albums.  He didn’t start there!  Wildside (later to become Gypsy Jayne) are about that sleaze rock.  You can hear that the guitarist is something special, though you wouldn’t predict the future from this one track.

It’s difficult to be objective, even though so many years have passed since Raw M.E.A.T 1.   Many (if not most) of these bands had potential.  Toronto in the early 90s was ready to explode as “the next Seattle”, but there was no “next Seattle”.  12 of these 13 songs are really fondly remembered, with one just needing a little more originality.

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Feel – This (1994)

FEEL – This (1994 Feel)

Russian Blue followed their critically acclaimed demo tapes with a full length CD, but perhaps it was the long wait that killed their chances.  Between 1991 and 1994, the entire musical landscape had turned itself upside down.  A name change was in order to suit the new climate, and after using the name Deadmoon for a little while, they settled on Feel.  Simple: one word, one syllable, and trendy.  Would they be able to maintain a level of quality over a full-length CD?

Almost.  There is very little dead weight on Feel This.

“I Become You” is brutalizing, menacing, grooving detuned grunge.  The presence of the bass is felt on this heavy recording.  What Feel had that was different from other bands was the Axl-like screech of frontman Jo E. Donner.  Indeed, when Donner multi-tracks his high voice with his lower register, the overall feeling is very Axl.  Donner bellows forcefully, blowing out the speakers but not without help.  Guitarist Richard Gauci and drummer Mike Willerding were capable of playing challenging rock.  The drum patterns are busy and and Gauci is able to both shred like a hero, and also create the kind of noise that you needed to do in the 90’s.  The band were between bassists.  Robo was no longer in the band, so there are a couple session players on the CD.

Several smouldering tracks in a row occupy the first half of the album.  “What You Made of Me”, “Wild Eye” and the lengthy “Brotherhood” all boast heavy guitar and vocal hooks.  Wimps need not apply; Feel go for the throat even with a slower tempo.  The songs sound well thought out, with attention given to every shriek and guitar noise manipulation.  The bass grooves are absolutely key to all of this.  Rumbling and shaking like a good Soundgarden line, they deliver the bass chills that fans of such sounds love.  But was it all too similar to the chilly winds that had blown in from Seattle?  Feel had been growing heavier and groovier on the demo tapes already, so I believe this to be a natural evolution that happened independently from the Seattle scene.  Witness other Canadian bands such as I Mother Earth, who also evolved on their own into something that fit into that 90’s box.

Scan_20151014 (6)

The centerpiece of the album has to be “I Am Your Mind”.  Long with a droning, irresistible chorus and cool lyrics — what’s not to like?  This tune takes only one listen to bore its way deep into your medial temporal lobe. Building dramatically, every guitar hook will sink in hard, only for Donner to hit everything home with his powerful larynx. Everything is perfect — a song of this quality could easily have been on Badmotorfinger or Superunknown. Hyperbole? I don’t think so.

The second half of the CD has fewer highlights. After being slammed in the face with so much heaviness, Feel were wise to put on an acoustic number next. “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong” is good, and shows off the band’s Zeppelin influences especially in the vocals. It’s just that Feel unplugged doesn’t have the kick that Feel does fully electrified. On the other hand, another listener might say it’s the best track. The first skipper is “Under My Wing”, too slow and boring. Not enough Sabbathy slow, just stuck in the wrong gear. Back to the groove is the killer “Drip Sweet Blood”. Making use of trendy 90’s vocal distortion, Donner blows the speakers especially around the 3:15 mark with another hair-raising bellow — just awesome. “Stand on Walls” sounds something like a Skid Row outtake. It’s nothing outstanding, but it’s only 3:38. Closing the disc is “All”, which was formerly known as “Black” on the second Russian Blue demo. The psychedelic intro from the demo was axed, tightening up the song and amplifying its power. Alternating from soft to loud, “All” kind of does have it all, at least for 1994.

Feel could have got themselves off to a great career with This as a debut album. Unfortunately I think by 1994 it was already too late.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEWS: Russian Blue – Demo #1 and #2 (1990-91)

RUSSIAN BLUE – Russian Blue demo #1 (1990), demo #2 (1991)

Russian Blue were a Toronto hard rock act fronted by the talented Jo E. Donner who, in a perfect world, would have been signed to a major label deal had not the roof caved in when grunge arrived.  They first rose to national awareness as part of the legendary Raw M.E.A.T Vol 1 compilation of Canadian indi rockers.  Upon hearing that first song, “Once a Madman”, I was immediately hooked on this band!  Donner had the pipes (often compared to a young Robert Plant) and the looks (also Plant), and the band clearly had the writing chops to crank out at least one world class rock song.  Its slow build was unusual in hard rock at the time, as was the lack of an actual chorus.  I had to hear more, so I wrote the band and ordered a tape.

RUSSIAN BLUE_0004Demo #1 (1990)

The first self-titled tape came in a professionally printed three colour J-card, with printed stickers on a white cassette.  Pretty pro for the time.  The J-card itself is a three panel fold out, with a black and white photo of the band and lyrics too.  Four songs, same both sides.  Let’s give’r.

The familiar tamborine and guitar licks of “Once a Madman” open the first tape.  M.E.A.T editor Drew Masters always advised bands submitting demo tapes to keep it short (three to five songs), professional looking, and top-loaded with the best songs.  Someone listening to a tape was likely to hit eject after the first half of the first song if they weren’t feeling it.  Russian Blue must have been paying attention because they hit all three marks.  (Masters’ other major beef with bands was not listing the song titles, the name of the band, or any contact info on a demo tape!)  The second strongest song “Likkin’ Dog” (ugh, come on, spelling) is suitably next in line.  Digging into a heavy groove and solid riff, I’m reminded of early Skid Row or Guns N’ Roses.  Donner truly had the voice of a rock star.  The other members (guitarist Richard Gauci, drummer Mike Willerding and bassist “Robo”) are also up to the task.  Gauci in particular boasts an impressive arsenal of tricks and licks for a guy you’ve never heard of before.

“Miss Precocious” enters with the same drum drum hook as “Dirty Weapons” by Killer Dwarfs which came out earlier that year.  Coincidence or inspiration aside, it’s a demo so it’s not a big deal.  “Miss Precocious” is an OK sleaze rocker that David Coverdale would have been comfortable taking a spin with.  This could have been on Slip of the Tongue as one of David’s randy odes to young ladies.  The generic “Had Enough” is the weakest of the four tracks, and is last on the tape for that reason.


A brief history of M.E.A.T Magazine

RUSSIAN BLUE_0005Demo #2 (1991)

Russian Blue added me to their mailing list and sent updates as to their current goings-on.  A second demo tape with four all-new songs was put up for sale and I ordered mine forthwith.  I was disappointed that the second demo didn’t come as professionally packaged as the first, but I suspect that the band spent all their money on that first tape and the spot on Raw M.E.A.T Vol 1.  The second tape came in a hand-made J-card with a photocopied band photo on the front and a sticker with the song titles inside.  Unfortunately the second song is misspelled “Balck” (“Black”) and this carried over to the sticker on the cassette shell as well.  The tape, a TDK D50 (50 minutes was a specialized length) was of good quality and has the same songs on both sides.  The tape also came with a little Russian Blue paper logo.  At least they tried.

The second demo showed the creeping influence of darker alternative tendencies.  “Mama’s Love” was different from anything on the first demo, taking a swampy minimalist approach to the verses.  When Donner rips out some rock shrieks, things kick up on a notch or two on the chorus.  The song is almost equal to “Once a Madman” in terms of quality, but traversing a different more menacing direction.  Keeping the stronger tunes up front, “Balck”…err, I mean “Black” is second in quality.  It opens with a psychedelic lullaby-like opening, before creeping into another swampy groove.  The vibe is nastier, including the first “F-bomb” of the album: “Nothing lasts forever, except the words to this fuckin’ song.”  It’s a good track and though it didn’t really last forever, it did get re-worked into “All”, a song on Russian Blue’s only full length CD, after they changed their name to Feel.  The album was called This (1994).

sam_1568“Child of the Ocean” has a drony, spare riff and a cool exotic sounding guitar solo by Richard Gauci.  It continues Russian Blue’s journey into less mainstream sounds, as this is a dreamy rocker.  The final song, which is the F-bomb  laden “Bleed”, is the most old school.  This one is basically a Guns N’ Roses B-side wannabe, but who gives an F-bomb?  Russian Blue had ability to pull of a ballsy song like “Bleed”, false ending and all, without sounding like douchebags.  Good on them.

In closing

A few years back, I posted a chapter of Record Store Tales (Part 146) about my cassette collection called Cassettes Part II – The Indi Years.  I showed off these old Russian Blue tapes, and less than a month later, a fellow enthusiast found the post and contacted me.  He was really excited about this second demo, because he had never seen it nor even heard of it before.  He didn’t know that Russian Blue had anything out between the first demo tape, and Raw M.E.A.T Vol 3 (1992), to which they contributed “Mama’s Love”.  It’s always a pleasure to be able to bring content like this to the internet, finally shedding light on the dark crevasses of rock and roll that were previously obscure.  The reader told me, “I was really into these guys back in high school. I pretty much bought a cowbell because of ‘Once A Madman'”.  How awesome is that?

Given that you have to allow for certain deficiencies in demos, especially from the cassette era, I am giving Russian Blue a grade based on the reasonable expectations from the period.  That considered, the Russian Blue demos come in at:

4/5 stars each.