Karma Cleansing

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Karma Cleansing (1997)

ontario-bands-weekWelcome back to Ontario Bands Week, presented by BoppinsBlog,  Keeps Me Alive, Stick It In Your Ear, 1001 Albums in 10 Years, and mikeladano.com.  

Today is Part 2 of a Harem Scarem double-header!

TORONTO.

scan_20161202HAREM SCAREM – Karma Cleansing (1997 Warner)

Against all odds Harem Scarem kept on givin’ er.  They were big in Japan but couldn’t get arrested in Canada anymore.  Their fourth album Believe (following the monumental Mood Swings and the experimental Voice of Reason) saw release in the Land of the Rising Sun, but in Canada the track listing was tweaked and put out as Karma Cleansing.  Original bassist Mike Gionet was out, replaced by Barry Donaghy who was also capable of singing lead.   And while three of the guys now had short hair, drummer Darren Smith stubbornly left his long.  Awesome.

Although their entire discography has highlights and standouts, many fans feel that Karma Cleansing was at once a return to sound of Mood Swings, and also the last Harem Scarem album before they began adding pop-punk elements.  There is nothing wrong with albums like Big Bang Theory and Rubber, and you can’t blame the guys for trying out some changes for greater success.  Fans who have stuck around since the start prefer the more progressive elements of Mood Swings and Karma Cleaning.

One can see parallels between Harem Scarem and bands such as Extreme and Van Hagar.  “Karma Cleansing”, the title track could have been an outtake from Van Halen’s Balance LP.  However, Harry Hess has a unique and powerful voice that is identifiably him.  When the band join him on those thick Harem Scarem harmonies, they hone in on that sound that makes them special.  “Karma Cleaning” kicks it off hard, melodically and with just a touch of exotic progressive influences.

One after another the strong songs roll on:  “Cages” hits the heavy buttons that you wanna hit to get the blood pumping fast.  Then “Hail, Hail” has Queen verses with pompous hard rock choruses.  And while one can hear that Harem Scarem continue to bring new and interesting elements to their songs, you can also identify that the guitar work is simplified.  It’s less busy, less showy.  This was a trend that continued into the next albums.

“Morning Grey” then conspires to bring Beatles sounds into the picture, but like its title, it’s dreary though hugely complex.  The adrenaline starts to flow again on “Die Off Hard”, a brilliant anthem that kicks every ass in the room.  Harem Scarem managed to write a few of these over the years, usually a couple per album.  Songs like “Die Off Hard” are immediate, but never get old.  Interestingly, the bridge to the song (“It’s been a long time coming…”) is ancient.  It appeared on Harem Scarem’s earliest demos before their first album as a part of other songs.  It only took four albums to finally use it!  Fortunately it found a home in “Die Off Hard”, making it one of the most luminous diamonds in the Harem Scarem catalogue.

This sounds like a nice place for a side break.  “Rain” is a light ballad, refreshing and cleansing the palette.  The mood gets darker on “I Won’t Be There”, somewhere between ballad and mournful dirge.  The band’s knack for melody keeps it all above the water: yet another brilliant song.  The beat gets harder on “Victim of Fate”.  Chunky guitars and a groovin’ foundation make this a winning combination.  Unmistakable Harem Scarem harmonies bring the chorus to the top level.  Then comes the Van Halen style boogie of “Believe”, an unexpected twist.  There are no words to describe how much this song kills it.  It also feels like it’s building up to an ending, as the side plays on.  That finale is “The Mirror”, a theatrical ballad which serves to end the album with a musical statement.  Not a ballad in the “radio hit” sense, but that it’s a slow track with light and shade, keyboards and emotional singing.

What an album.  You can see why the fans in Japan got it.  A lot of the rock artists that make it big in Japan are melodic rock bands with incredible musicians.  Harem Scarem fit that bill, and Karma Cleansing is another jewel in their crown.

4.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Harem Scarem (autographed)

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HAREM SCAREM – Harem Scarem (1991 WEA)

Harem Scarem didn’t emerge from the Toronto rock scene fully formed.  Rather, they first appeared as an AOR pop rock group, assisted by pro writers such as Marc Ribler, Christopher Ward (“Black Velvet”) and Honeymoon Suite’s Ray Coburn.   My sister Kathryn liked Harem Scarem because their singer’s hair made him visually resemble a lion!  It would take them until album #2 to shed the outside writers and find their feet as a progressive pop rock band more akin to Extreme than Bon Jovi.

They did, however, create a buzz by selling loads of copies of their demo CD.  This was a rare thing, since most bands released demos on tape.  Very few had the resources to put together a CD, and this got them signed to Warner.

The result is Harem Scarem, a somewhat faceless but incredibly hooky pop rock record waiting for radio play.  It spawned five singles, including the huge (Canadian) hit “Honestly”.  “Honestly” might be most notable today for its video, a cheesy affair starring Judge Reinhold!

What makes Harem Scarem special is the vocal work of lead singer Harry Hess.  The man has a powerful voice, and when teamed up with drummer Darren Smith, the result is a big thick layered harmony.  The band was rounded out by bassist Mike Gionet, and virtuoso guitarist Pete Lesperance, who really didn’t get to properly show off his chops until album #2.  He does shred here, but sparingly and somewhat buried in the mix.

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The debut album is loaded with mid-tempo rockers and ballads.  A few too many ballads if you asked me, side one of the album has three ballady tracks in a row.  It was 1991, grunge had yet to appear, and a mixture of ballads and rockers was the tried and true path to radio and video play.   The best ballad isn’t the hit “Honestly”, which I find incredibly boring, but the closing song “Something To Say”.  It’s an acoustic winner, and features plenty of Pete’s enviable chops.  Harry sings passionately; this is a song that fits in with the acoustic hits of the day such as “More Than Words” and “To Be With You”.

Rather than the ballads, I keep coming back to the rockers.  “Hard To Love”, which opens the album, is one of those AOR tunes that Bon Jovi only wishes he could have written.  “How Long” is similar, catchy as hell, a singalong rocker that begs the windows to be rolled down on a hot summer day.

The centrepiece of the album was “Slowly Slipping Away”, the debut single/video.  Still a great song today, this straddles the boundary between rocker and ballad.  Opening with acoustic guitars, it soon works its way into a killer chorus, with guitar hooks and powerful harmonies galore.  This is the song that got me into the band, as soon as I heard it, I knew this band had something uniquely theirs to offer.  Unfortunately it took them a while to fully expand upon their sound.

I saw Harem Scarem live at Stages in Kitchener early in 1992.  They played most of this album, some new material, as well as a couple covers:  “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.  They complained that the bar owners made them play covers, but it was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” that underlined their potential.  They absolutely nailed it and proved that they had a lot more to offer than the simple AOR of their album.

I signed up to be a member of the fanclub, and I still have my membership card.  I’m glad I was on board from the ground up, since the band grew by leaps and bounds in the years to follow.

The Japanese import version of this album had three bonus tracks:  acoustic renderings of “Slowly Slipping Away”, “How Long”, and “Hard To Love”.  Those songs were available on a limited edition Acoustic Sessions EP, which I reviewed here.

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If you’re into AOR rock, with lush harmonies, ballads, and melody, then you need to add Harem Scarem to your collection, particularly since the band have recently reunited.  If that’s not your thing, fear not:  I have a feeling you’d be into their later material such as Mood Swings and Karma Cleansing.  This band had a lot more to offer than just rockers and ballads.

2.5/5 stars