Michael Starr

REVIEW: A Tribute to Ace Frehley – Return of the Comet (1997)

Part 6 in a series on Ace Frehley! Missed the last part, “Cherokee Boogie”? Click here!
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RETURN OF THE COMET_0001A Tribute to Ace Frehley – Return of the Comet (1997 Shock Records)

Last time we talked about a tribute album with a new recording by Ace.  This time, we’re talking about a tribute album with new recordings by the Comet!  Return of the Comet even features some of the same artists that were on Spacewalk:  Tracii Guns, Gilby Clarke and the brothers Abbott (Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul) are on both albums.  And like Spacewalk, this one also comes with a guitar pick.  This time it’s a Bruce Kulick pick, because the CD also features a cool bonus: Bruce’s debut solo track, “Liar”.

This is a pretty good tribute CD.  Somebody called Bruiz does a faithful reproduction of the “Rock Bottom” intro, which seques directly into Brian Tichy’s “Rip It Out”.  I was familiar with Tichy from Zakk Wylde’s Pride and Glory, but he sings and plays every instrument on this.  Everybody knows today how talented he is, but this was a revelation to me in 1997.  Do I need to say that he does an excellent job on it?  He also nails Anton Fig’s drum solo.

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L.A. Guns is next, but it’s not Phil Lewis.  It’s Ralph Saenz.  You might know him better as Michael Starr from Steel Panther.  So how’s their “Cold Gin”?  It’s perfect for this band and this singer.  Eric Singer and Karl Cochran take a shot at “Strange Ways”, but I don’t like their take on it too much.  Eric’s vocal doesn’t suit the song in my opinion, and this version is too chunk-chunk-chunk.

“Getaway” was always a bit of a throwaway Kiss track, but I like the lesser known songs.  Seattle’s Tubetop speed it up a fair measure, but that’s not the problem.  I always identify this song with Peter Criss’ gritty voice.  Who doesn’t?  The singer, Gavin Gus, takes a smooth approach to the song, but sometimes Kiss songs aren’t meant to be tampered with too much.  It improves as it gets harder at the end.

RETURN OF THE COMET_0007Then we have the Presidents of the United States of America.  OK band I guess, but their stripped back sound is totally wrong for “Shout It Out Loud”.  Having said that, the brilliance of the song itself still shines through.  The album is immediately redeemed by a remarkable performance from a remarkable guitarist:  Dimebag.  He and Vinnie Paul stomp through “Snowblind”, a sludgy Ace classic.  Wisely, Dime changed nothing about the song, except adding some trademark Dime guitar shrieks on top.  It’s a totally appropriate touch.  Even though his singing voice is nothing like Ace’s (he’s more Zakk Wylde than Ace Frehley) he still lays down a lead vocal that fits.  Then his guitar solo rips your head off, end of story.  Mind blown, the album can end here thank you very much!

We’re not even half through yet.  Tod Howarth (ex-Frehley’s Comet) turns up with his own solo version of “Dancing With Danger”.  It’s a Streetheart cover that Frehley’s Comet also did on Second Sighting.  Tod tries to update the song for the 1990’s but fails.  His voice is also noticeably lower.  Then, Karl Cochran and Eric Singer are up with “Love Her All I Can”, a song originally sung and written by…Paul Stanley?  Why?  According to the liner notes, Cochran used to sing this song when he was in Frehley’s solo band in the 90’s.  Cochran and Singer perfectly nail this one, right down to the guitar solo and those Simmons/Stanley harmony vocals.  A winner.

Filler is “Speedin’ Back to My Baby” by Lee and Dallas (?).  As great as the original song is, I didn’t need to hear a jazzy country version of it.  It’s old-school country, swinging and authentic, but no thanks.  Thankfully Gilby Clarke comes to the rescue with the classic “Rocket Ride” from Alive II.  I love it.  I like it better than his version of “Shock Me” from Spacewalk, actually.

Richie Scarlet from Frehley’s Comet teams up with Beatlemania’s Mitch Weissman on Ace’s “Remember Me”.  It’s great and much like the original.  Then the Presidents are back for a second term, this time adding members of Tubetop and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden to the mix.  They do a cool campfire version of “New York Groove” that sounds live.  This is much better than “Shout It Out Loud”.  Well done.

A Frehley’s Comet reunion is the climax of the album.  Alumni Richie Scarlet, John Regan, Steve Werner and Arthur Stead are back to redo two unreleased Comet classics.  These songs are Vinnie Vincent’s “Back On the Streets”, which is, in a word, awesome.  It’s a dark ominous song with balls.  Then they do “Animal” which was written by Regan and Stead (perhaps the reason it was never released before?).  It has a funky little riff before it breaks into a cool anthemic chorus.

RETURN OF THE COMET_0005It’s best to think of the last two songs as bonus tracks, because they have little to do with Ace.  From a forthcoming Howarth album named Cobalt Parlor is a lacklustre song called “California Burns”.  I wanted to like this, really I did.  It’s just a really nauseating attempt at being modern and heavy, and no sir I don’t like it.  Sorry Tod.  “The Liar” by Bruce Kulick is much better.  I am a real fan of Kulick as a solo artist.  He is an articulate, skilled player with a knack for melody.  “The Liar” is a great instrumental, alternating between light and heavy, but always very lyrical.  Just sing a lead vocal of your own over Bruce’s guitar, and you can imagine this as a “I Still Love You” rock ballad.  This song was Bruce’s first ever post-Kiss solo release, and according to the liner notes, it serves two purposes.  One: to end the album with an instrumental as Ace always did.  Two: to tip the hat to the guy who succeeded in filling Ace’s shoes for over a decade.

I would recommend this tribute album to any serious Ace/Kiss fan, simply because it has some great cover versions of some obscure classics.  That to me raises it above most cut-and-paste tribute albums that are out there on the market.  There is a real sense of passion to this CD.  John Regan put it together and you can tell by the attention to detail.  Kudos, John.

3.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Alice In Chains – Jar of Flies / Sap (Double EP)

Click if you missed my review of the new Alice in Chains album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here!

ALICE IN CHAINS – Jar of Flies / Sap (1994 double Columbia EP edition, originally 1992 and 1994)

For a little while, Alice In Chains were in the habit of releasing an EP before each studio album (We Die Young preceded the Facelift album albeit it was a promo). This ended after Layne’s death, but these two EPs — 1992’s Sap and 1994’s Jar of Flies — represent some of the best work of this pioneering band. Acoustic in nature, these two recordings are crucial to rock fans who need to know more about one of the most interesting bands of the 1990’s.

I snagged a European import of this set many years ago, for less than the price of either of the two EP’s separately.  Great score, and it was in great condition.  It even contains all the artwork from the original releases.  Although Jar of Flies is the first disc in the set, I will review Sap first since that’s how they came out.

JAR OF SAP_0004Sap is very low key. I remember reading an interview in RIP Magazine with drummer Sean Kinney.  He stated that they were writing songs for the next album (Dirt), but all this acoustic music started pouring out instead.  He had a dream about it one night, and told the band, “Guys, we have to release these songs as an EP, and we have to call it Sap.”

The opening track, “Brother” is sung by Jerry Cantrell with Ann Wilson of Heart on the choruses. Very powerful understated song. Both “Brother” and the next song, “Got Me Wrong” (another standout) were released live on the band’s Unplugged CD. These songs are followed by “Right Turn” by Alice Mudgarden: essentially Alice In Chains with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Mark Arm of Mudhoney on guest vocals! It is a great contrast: Cornell screaming at the top of his lungs, and Arm down low. Great song.  I remember Jerry Cantrell once said that Mark Arm’s vocal on it “scares the shit” out of him every time he hears it.

Layne Staley’s “Am I Inside” follows, another understated and mellow slow-burner. Everything goes to hell though with the final track, the unlisted “Love Song”. The band switched instruments for this chaotic joke song, with Sean Kinney on megaphone/vocals. Hilarious track, but it must have taken people by surprise.  “Rae Dawn Chong…Rae Dawn Chong…”

JAR OF SAP_0003Jar of Flies was written and recorded rather spontaneously in just a week. When I first heard it, I felt like some of these songs were under-written, that they could have used more work. As you listen to it more, that feeling disappears.  It feels more complete. Just about every song on Flies is a total winner, but the best thing about it is that it grows on you. As a result, it has a longevity that similar EPs sometimes lack. Here I am, still playing it 19 years later and loving it just as much.

“Rotten Apple”, which is one of the best tunes anyway, kicks off the CD.  It’s hypnotic, even though the lyrics really feel unfinished.  Who knows what Layne was trying to express at the time, perhaps it’s with intent. It just feels like the fragment of a lyric. Perhaps that’s what makes it so hypnotic to me.  None of this changes the fact that this slow one is both warm and forboding at the same time; a cool thing.

The opener is followed by “Nutshell”, which I like even better.  It’s my personal favourite tune on Jar of Flies. It always takes me right back to summer 1994.  The single “I Stay Away” features strings to emphasize the powerful chorus.  It’s a cool tune because it has sections that sound like they don’t go together, yet they make it work.  Alice seem to ignore songwriting convention most on songs like “I Stay Away”.

“No Excuses” was another single (the first one, actually).  It’s an almost-happy sounding song with some sweet rolling basslines from Mike Inez. The instrumental “Whale and Wasp” is up next, so named because Jerry felt it sounded like whales and wasps talking to each other. That should put you in the ballpark.  Jerry wrote it when he was in highschool, finally recording it on Jar of Flies.

“Don’t Follow” is probably the least experimental of the songs. It is a straight acoustic ballad with some nice harmonica.  After five tracks  of music that doesn’t always follow the beaten path, “Don’t Follow” feels like a reprieve.  The final song is the pretty wild “Swing On This”.  It’s the only song that tends to lose me, but some people I knew held it as their favourite. From the most conventional song to the least conventional; such is a journey on planet Alice.

Commenting specifically on the version I own, the dual EP, I bought this at my own store used several years after initially owning both releases.  My logic at the time was that T-Rev and I were usually always trying to own the “coolest” or “most complete” or “rarest” version of things.  When I traded up the two separate EPs, I broke even, plus I made space for one for more disc on my shelves!!  Space is always a rare commodity to a collector.

Together, these two EPs together create a fantastic listening experience. The cool thing is that although both are acoustic, they are really nothing alike. Listen and you will see.

5/5 stars