Matt Starr

REVIEW: Ace Frehley – Origins Vol. 2 (2020)

ACE FREHLEY – Origins Vol. 2 (2020)

Three cheers for Matt Starr!  Ace Frehley’s drummer is the “starr” of the show on 11 of the 12 tracks on Origins Vol. 2.  This is evident immediately on the Zeppelin cover “Good Times Bad Times”.  There are plenty of guests on this album, but doing justice to John Bonham ain’t easy.  Starr nails it!  Fortunately the Ace Man himself is also able to tribute Jimmy Page ably on his solo.

In fact the weakest part of the album are the vocals.  As Ace ages, his voice has gotten lower.  Some of these songs are in a lower key than usual to accommodate.  It’s also, quite frankly, difficult to get excited about a second album of covers.  A lot of the same bands are covered, including the aforementioned Zeppelin, Kiss, Cream, Stones, Kinks, and Jimi Hendrix.

It’s an OK covers album.  It’s nice to get so much Ace-sounding rock.  Frehley makes Mountain sound like his own originals, as he does “Kicks” by Paul Revere and the Raiders.  He’s a bit heavy-handed on “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”.  But “Space Truckin'”?  Not necessary, or even wanted.  “Space-Ace truckin’!” he sings and it’s borderline cringe.  “Hey where’s Jendell?”  While it’s good to put your own twist on a song, dropping your own name in doesn’t cut it.  And Ace is no Ian Gillan.  (Ian Gillan is also no Ian Gillan, but that’s beside the point.)

Among the guests, John 5 rips solos on “I’m Down” (Beatles) and the thumpin’ “Politician” (Stones).  He executes both modern and traditional rock and roll guitar solos, but goes wild for the “I’m Down” outro, on which he shreds.  Lita Ford also appears, but not on guitar.  She sings on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.  While there’s no denying that’s a classic song that influenced Ace, how many people have covered “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”?  Lita’s voice has barely changed since the 80s and she is easily the charismatic highlight of this overplayed tune, and a highlight of the album as a whole.  One guy whose voice has changed a bit is Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, who sings on “30 Days in the Hole”.  He can still do it with power and range, but you can hear the years.  Speaking of voices, Ace doesn’t sing on the Kiss cover “She” but the vocals are split three ways among the backing musicians, and they capture a reasonable facsimile of that vintage Paul/Gene layered vibe.

The most interesting guest of the lot could be one of Ace’s replacements in Kiss, Mr. Bruce Kulick himself.  Of course, over the years Bruce and Ace have jammed a few times, and it’s sheer delight to hear them together.  Bruce has, arguably, the best guitar solo on the whole album, with “Manic Depression”.  The guy is greased lightning, extra greasy!  It’s warming to see Ace and Bruce put egos aside and just play some music.  Any time, guys, any time.

Giving credit to Ace for one more thing, “Lola” does sound like his kind of tune.  His vocal shortcomings are obvious here but don’t really get in the way.  Whether you like that song or not, Ace has a quirky side that “Lola” fits, just as sweet as Coca-Cola.

Bonus:  the album comes with nice liner notes by Kiss scribe Julian Gill.

Let’s hope Ace has the covers out of his system for now.  Another original album, hell even a live album would be cool, but no more covers Ace, please!

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Ace Frehley – Spaceman (2018)

ACE FREHLEY – Spaceman (2018 eOne)

Ace is back and he told you so!…with a new band.  It’s true.  One of the of the players on Ace’s new disc Spaceman (Scot Coogan) was in his band…until last week.  And that’s all we’re gonna say about that.  Anton Fig and Matt Starr of Mr. Big also handle drum chores.  Ace steps up with new songs, stacks of guitars, and bass too!

Perhaps the showcase moment of the new album is the first Simmons/Frehley co-write in forever, a stomper called “Without You I’m Nothing”.  Almost immediately, without even knowing the details, there is something “Simmons sounding” about it.  Probably because he’s also on bass.  There is something primitively unique about a Gene Simmons bass line.  Ace’s guitar solo, the first of the album, is pure wicked electricity, though he struggles a bit vocally.  It’s a solid opening though, followed by the old-styled “Rockin’ With the Boys”.  It sounds like something written for 1987’s Frehley’s Comet.  It’s all about the chorus.  Then Simmons is back with another co-write (no bass though) on “Your Wish is My Command”.  Ace’s guitars have a crunchy chime, and the focus is catchy melody.

Spaceman was preceded by an excellent EP, Bronx Boy with a brilliant title track.  “Bronx Boy” is back.  That’s Scot Coogan on drums and backing vocals…no wonder he’s pissed about being fired!  Make way for the crunchy stomp “Pursuit of Rock-N-Roll”!  You don’t have to read the credits to know that it’s Anton Fig playing that tricky rhythm.  His unique playing plus Ace’s crunch make this another album highlight (and a song that Ace wrote solo).  That’s followed by a song he didn’t write:  Eddie Money’s “I Wanna Go Back”!  When Ace covers a song, he tends to go for poppier things than you’re used to hearing from him.  Think “Do Ya” from Trouble Walkin’.  This one has the potential to be as fondly regarded.

“Mission to Mars” rocks.  It’s a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am rocket ride to the red planet.  Another potential album highlight.  “Off My Back” (Anton Fig on drums) is really strong as well.

Finally (technically) the next in the instrumental “Fractured” series:  “Quantum Flux”.  Technically, because the word “Fractured” isn’t in the title, but it could be considered a spinoff of “Fractured Quantum” from Anomaly.  It’s heavier than the usual, so “Fractured” doesn’t quite suit it.  The acoustic guitars are only a small part of this wide-ranging instrumental.  Songs like “Quantum Flux” are levels above the rest musically.  It’s a tour-de-force.  Ace Frehley is an instrumental genius.  Yeah, we said it!

For Ace Frehley in 2018, Spaceman is a delight.  It is a true fact that the human voice changes as we age, and Ace’s is lower and less dynamic.  Instrumentally he’s never been better, and as a songwriter, he’s done well.

4.25/5 stars

REVIEW: Mr. Big – Defying Gravity (2017 deluxe edition)

MR. BIG – Defying Gravity (2017 Frontiers CD/DVD edition)

I can still remember, very clearly, my thoughts about “To Be With You” when it finally became a hit in 1992.

“It’s a deserved hit,” I thought, “But that’s the end of Mr. Big having any chance of being seen as a serious band by the general public.”

Serious indeed.  Eric Martin had a previous career as a blue-eyed soul singer.  Paul Gilbert was in shred band Racer X with future Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis.  Pat Torpey was a well-known drummer for appearing on several shred rock albums, like Impelliteri.  And Billy Sheehan, of course, is generally listed as one of the top bassists of all time, with a period at the end.  These guys were not slouches.  But they did form a commercial rock band, and suffered the consequences that most commercial rock bands did in the 1990s.  They faded to obscurity.  Everywhere but Japan, where they continued to thrive as rock heroes.

It’s gratifying that 25 years later in 2017, Mr. Big have an album out that’s as good as any of their first four.  They even reunited with their original producer Kevin Elson.  But it’s all not peaches and cream.  Pat Torpey suffered a setback in 2014 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Undaunted, Torpey still worked with his loyal bandmates on Defying Gravity.  Just as before, he participated in shaping the songs, even though he was unable to play on them.  Ace Frehley’s drummer Matt Starr* has taken over live and recording duties, while Torpey wrote and produced the drum parts.  In the accompanying DVD, it’s very gratifying to see the band adapt seamlessly to this new reality.  They even have fun with it in the music videos, as Starr and Torpey play together and switch instruments.  Check out the lead single and title track for a great example of making it work.

Speaking of the lead single/video…holy shit, what a hook! Gilbert’s tricky and exotic timing and note choices are somehow bent and twisted into a pop song! It’s that schooled approach that makes certain Mr. Big songs completely unlike whatever is on the radio, but just as catchy.

All the songs have spark, and the solo work is untouchable.  Bluesy and funky hard rock is the basis of “Open Your Eyes”.  The second single (“Everybody Needs a Little Trouble”) stomps out a heavy blues rock beat.  On to “Damn I’m In Love Again”, Mr. Big take a drive into the country.  “Nothing Bad ‘Bout Feelin’ Good” is a hybrid, using the acoustics in a heavier way.  There are plenty more hit-quality highlights:  “Forever & Back”, and “She’s All Coming Back to Me Now”.  For the fans:  “Nothing At All”, the heavy rockin’ “1992” (a brilliant look back at the glory days), and “Be Kind” which is just a jaw dropping example of what these guys can do with just their voices, instruments and a song!

For a deeper understanding of this album, check out the deluxe edition with bonus DVD.**  Not only will you get all the music videos, but also behind the scenes segments on set, and the EPK (“electronic press kit”).  Finally there is a track by track analysis of every song featuring each member, and more behind the scenes footage.  This is where you’ll find the most insight.  Influences abound from the expected to the  unexpected.  From doo-wop to Christina Aguilera?  Why not.  The one with the beat cribbed from Aguilera is actually one of the heaviest and solo-dense tracks (“Mean to Me”).

Defying Gravity isn’t really a surprise, because Mr. Big have put out plenty of good albums over the recent years.  Perhaps it’s a bit more inspired.  It certainly has potential to be on a few “top ten of 2017” lists this year.

4/5 stars

* Matt Starr may in fact be a Klingon.  In the Original Series, Klingons looked much like humans, without their trademark head ridges.  What gives away Starr’s possible Klingon status is his dead ringer of a Klingon moustache and beard.

Matt Starr is the one with the drum head.

** I know what you’re thinkin’. “LeBrain, why didn’t you buy the Japanese edition with a bonus track?” This time out the only bonus track is a radio edit of “Defying Gravity” which, cost considered, I can live without.