Larry Gillstron

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Vices (1984, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Three

Part Three of a series on classic KICK AXE!

KICK AXE – Vices (1984, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

The loud Canadian quintet from Saskatchewan, Kick Axe, went from indi to major label in 1983 when they signed with CBS Canada.  They also had a new singer in George Criston, a guy with incredible range and rock sensibilities.  Everything was in place.  With a couple solid metal releases already under their belts, they were about to go big league.  The next step after the record deal was a hookup with the American producer behind Quiet Riot, Spencer Proffer.  Spencer offered them the chance to write with him and record in his own studio, Pasha.  They would have been foolish to turn down the opportunity considering what happened with Quiet Riot in similar circumstances.

In fact, Kick Axe’s debut album Vices is so similar to Metal Health, you probably could have heard it was Spender Proffer at the desk without reading the credits.  The drum sound is exactly identical to that of Frankie Banali.  The backing vocal arrangements are also very similar, even though the singers are different.  The comparisons go further, but we’ll discuss them as we go.

“Heavy Metal Shuffle” sounds immediately like, who else, Quiet Riot!  That is until George Criston starts croonin’.  What a set of pipes on that man.  He could scream with the best, but there’s more to Criston than just high notes.  There’s a blue-eyed soulful trill in his screechin’, hard to pinpoint but there nonetheless.  Another part of the Kick Axe sound is bassist Victor Langen, who has a solid metal chunk but with creative, busy melodic accents.  Of course another major factor is the capable backing singers.  Langen, Ray Harvey, and brothers Brian and Larry Gillstrom created an 80s tapestry of metal harmony.  This is especially apparent on title track “Vices”.  It’s a pretty irresistible song even if it sounds exactly like the year 1984.  At least how I remember it sounding.  Big, echoey, mushy, loud!

By the third track, “Stay On Top”, we’re really cookin’.  You might cringe at the clichés, like the gang vocals or the big drum fills, or you could just chill out and rock with it.  Ballad “Dreaming About You” pours on the rock standards, but the problem is…it’s good.  It’s a great 80s ballad.  Helix could have done it.  Great White could have done it.  Dozens of bands had songs like this, but at least Kick Axe wrote a good one.  Up next, “Maneater” opens with some ferocious guitar wang-dang, although the song is more a slick rocker than a headbanger.  It’s the chorus that differentiates it from the average.

When side two opens with the “big hit”, hopefully you’ll say “Oh yeah, I remember this one!”  The memorable music video for “On the Road to Rock” introduced Kick Axe to a much larger audience.  Listen to that chug!  Langen had a killer sound, even with that huge axe bass that quickly became a symbol for the band.  “On the Road to Rock” delivered an anthem the kids could get behind.  The video also turned their cover art of the “Vices Guy” into a fully-fledged mascot.

My buddy Bob Schipper loved the music video.  Especially when “Vices Guy” yells “Stop that you wimp!” at one of the legendary composers.  Me, I liked that bass. I also liked that the drummer was a virtual hulk, who kicks down not one but two doors in the video. I didn’t understand why the singer was running around in bare feet.  You’re gonna stub a toe, or step on some door shrapnel, guy.

Next up, “Cause For Alarm” sounds at first exactly like the song “We Were Born to Rock” by Quiet Riot.  It soon becomes its own beast with a thunderous chorus.  Yep, Kick Axe could write a chorus.  They could also execute them via those thick backing vocals and the golden Criston pipes.  The tempo takes a step back into the pocket on “Alive & Kickin'”.  It’s another one of those choruses that the boys seemed to have an endless supply of, although a bit too heavy on the backing vocals this time.  Langen really lets the bass groove on “All the Right Moves”, boasting one of those shout-choruses that are perfect for the live concert setting.  It’s the kind of song Motley Crue would have given their nuts to be able to write at that time.

The final song on the standard album was a song with a certain epic “closing” quality.  “Just Passing Through” makes it sound like the album just might have been a concept record on the theme of vices.  Indeed, Spencer thought of it as such: “Living in our vices, we watch the rise and fall,” repeating some words from the title track.  Regardless, it just sounds like an album closer.  There’s a certain climactic quality to the melody and riff.

On CD (and strangely enough, also the original Canadian cassette) is the bonus track “30 Days in the Hole”, starting a custom of Kick Axe putting a cover song on every album.  Spencer Proffer wanted to do it, since he had so much success with “Cum On Feel the Noize” earlier with Quiet Riot.  It’s not the best version of “30 Days” that you’ve ever heard.  It sure does sound like they’re playing the same amps as Carlos Cavazo, though.

As per usual, Rock Candy deserve extra thanks for the brilliant liner notes featuring interviews with Proffer and Langen.  Also for including the bonus track, though we often take those for granted these days.  Of course, Kick Axe deserve the lion’s share, for writing and performing a “kick ass” Kick Axe debut.  Not an easy thing to accomplish, but with Proffer they had a good team.  It shouldn’t overshadow their innate talents, of course.

The proof of Kick Axe’s talent was their progression, album to album.  There were also some misadventures with Black Sabbath and giant transforming robots, but we’ll get there.  Vices would be a fine Kick Axe album to satisfy your curiosity, but be prepared to get hooked and want to go deeper.

4.5/5 stars

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#773: Rock Candy + Internet = Kick Axe!

GETTING MORE TALE #773: Rock Candy + Internet = Kick Axe!

Like many things, it started with a story.

I have liked the music of Kick Axe since I first heard them back in 1984.  “On the Road to Rock” was a Power Hour (not yet the Pepsi Power Hour) staple.  I knew the video off by heart.  A Vices button was among the first handful I owned.  I think it was a birthday gift from my best friend Bob.  As it turns out, I never got the album, or any Kick Axe for that matter, until now.  So how did it turn out that I’m doing this Kick Axe review series?

I. ENCORE

In July, I scored two Kick Axe remastered CDs by Rock Candy records.  This occurred at the best Record Store in town, Encore, who had both Vices and Welcome to the Club in stock.  I had been looking for these in Toronto (“Taranna”) for years.  No luck.  The Encore visit was my first time finding them in store.  Vices has a bonus track.  I always intended to get the Rock Candy version for that reason.  Aaron and I found Kick Axe vinyl in Taranna before, but I was holding out.  The bonus track made the Rock Candy reissue my preferred version.

II. ROCK CANDY

Another thing about Rock Candy:  the liner are, shall we say, goddamn essential.  Featuring original interviews, untold stories, and assorted documented details, you will absolutely learn something from the liner notes in a Rock Candy CD.  One thing I learned before even opening the booklet was that the third Kick Axe album was also available from Rock Candy.  Already having the first two, it seemed dumb not to get the third.  Especially since the liner notes said that Rock the World was, in some regards, their strongest album.  As I read the notes, I recalled they did two songs for The Transformers soundtrack under the name Spectre General.  The notes confirmed that Spectre General was Kick Axe, not some side project.

Thanks to Rock Candy, light was shed on early Kick Axe history previously unknown to me.  I discovered they had an early 7″ single called “Weekend Ride”, with a singer earlier than George Criston.  They also had a live track on a compilation called Playboy Street Rock.  When Bob and I were kids, we used to be fascinated by the early history of bands.  Like finding out White Lion had an album before Pride, or that Iron Maiden had something called The Soundhouse Tapes before their first album.  I wanted to get the early Kick Axe stuff I just found out existed!

III. AMAZON and DISCOGS

If I knew about those early Kick Axe songs as a kid, it would have taken me decades to find them.  Today, I had most of them within a week.

Amazon had Rock the World in stock, and it was at the house two days later. Discogs had “Weekend Ride”, The Transformers, and Playboy Street Rock from different sellers.  I hesitated on Transformers but pulled the trigger on the other two.  I would have preferred a remastered Transformers CD with bonus tracks.  They were way too rich for me.  I couldn’t get one for much less than $50.  Even the reissued vinyl without the bonus tracks was pricey.  Ultimately, I settled on an original CD, which was still not cheap.

“Weekend Ride” and Playboy Street Rock arrived within a few days.  Wonders of the modern world.  What would have taken years before happened in under a week.

IV. KICK AXE

Fortunately, it turns out that I quite like my Kick Axe purchases.  So much so, that I was inspired to do a Kick Axe review series.

Kick Axe have a fourth album (Kick Axe IV) from a Criston-less reunion.  I’m undecided if I’ll go that far, but in the mean time you can look forward to learning more about Canada’s own metal proponents.  I’m delighted to discover a band that could really sing, and play like big leaguers.  I hope you’ll enjoy them too.

REVIEW: Kick Axe – “Weekend Ride” (1981 single) – Kick Axe series Part Two

Part Two of a series on classic KICK AXE!

KICK AXE – “Weekend Ride” / “One More Time” (1981 Swyne Song single)

When we last met Kick Axe, it was on the surprisingly great live track “Reality is the Nightmare“, from a very obscure compilation by Playboy magazine.  It seems the guys at Playboy thought they should get into the music business too.  They put out an album featuring recordings by unsigned bands, and among them was Kick Axe.  At roughly the same time the live track was recorded, Kick Axe were also working independently on a single.

This early Kick Axe lineup still featured Charles McNary on lead vocals, a capable singer.  The rest of the classic band was set:  Victor Langen (bass), brothers Larry (guitar) and Brian (drums) Gillstrom, and guitarist Raymond Harvey.  Recording in Vancouver, they managed to get the late Brian “Too Loud” MacLeod to co-produce, he of Headpins and Chilliwack fame.

“Weekend Ride” was the A-side, a slick track that already had the trademark Kick Axe rhythm.  It’s largely based on Victor Langen’s thrumming bass.  Solid chorus, interesting guitar hooks, and a screamin’ lead vocal — the essential stuff — are all present.  There’s even some wild, prototypical metal soloing.  The band were also fortunate enough to have capable backing vocalists, not fully exploited until their major label debut.  On “Weekend Ride”, you can hear the start of that.

The interesting thing is the B-side, “One More Time”, a song written by Ray Harvey.  This sounds like a different singer from the A-side, and it’s probably Harvey.  It also features extensive keyboard solos, something they never did again.  It sounds like a different band.  Suffice to say, Kick Axe pursued the sound of the A-side when they made an album.  “One More Time” sounds like a poor man’s Styx!

A few more years of hard work and a critical lineup change would prove to be the key for Kick Axe.  Spencer Proffer of Pasha records was about to change their fortunes in a big way.

If not for this small handful of early Kick Axe recordings, we’d have no record of what they sounded like before Spencer stepped in and added his own ingredients to the stew.  As it turns out, they were already good.  They didn’t need a big namer to write good songs.  They even had a good singer, before the lineup change that would bring George Criston’s golden pipes to the fore.  They were on their way…for a “Weekend Ride”.

3.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Kick Axe – “Reality is the Nightmate” (1981) – Kick Axe series Part One

Part One of a series on classic KICK AXE!

KICK AXE – “Reality is the Nightmare” (1981, from Playboy Street Rock on Nightlife Records)

They were originally called Hobbit.  Formed in Regina Saskatchewan, the core was Larry Gillstrom and the Langen brothers, Victor and Gary.  They were playing mostly covers, but by mid-1976 they changed their name to Kick Axe.  What is a “Kick Axe”?  The name represented rock band instruments – kick drums and axes.  Members came and went, including Gary Langen, until they settled on a five member lineup:  Larry Gillstrom (guitar), his brother Brian (drums), Victor Langen (bass), Raymond Harvey (guitar) and Charles McNary (vocals).

It was this lineup that recorded the first Kick Axe releases.  (Though not the very first Kick Axe recordings — an earlier album was scrapped and has never been heard.)  The first two records that were available were a single called “Weekend Ride” (to be reviewed next time) and a live song called “Reality is the Nightmare”.  This was recorded in Vancouver and released in April 1981 on a most peculiar LP.

Street Rock was a compilation by Playboy Magazine of new, unsigned bands.  Kick Axe were one of two Canadian bands to make the cut, the other being a group called The Remedials.  According to the back cover, which prominently features the “rabbit head” logo, these are the bands that won a Playboy “music poll talent search”.  It appears Kick Axe were the only group here who went on to bigger things.  I’ve never heard of Snake Rock.  Have you?  The singer’s name was Snake Rock (no relation to Kid or The), and he had a snake tattoo and a snakeskin vest.

Kick Axe clearly had talent even back in 1981.  “Reality is the Nightmare” boasts a solid riff and accompanying groove.  Charles McNary was a decent singer, too.  Kick Axe got lucky later on when they landed the golden pipes of George Criston, but McNary could hold his own.  He could scream and carry a melody.  The guitar soloing and drumming on this track is quite exceptional.  The track was written by McNary and Larry Gillstrom, and whadayaknow? — they could write a good song!  It’s a well constructed heavy rock song, not breaking any new ground, but doesn’t have to.  Listening to the individual instruments, it’s clear that Kick Axe could always play and always write melodically.  Victor Langen is a melodic bassist and combined with Brian Gillstrom’s almost tribal drums, you get a song that is more than the sum of its parts.  That’s pretty impressive for such early material.

With a quality track like this right from the start, Kick Axe were off to the races.

4/5 stars