Mike Stone

REVIEW: Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime II (2006)

QUEENSRYCHE – Operation: Mindcrime II (2006 Rhino)

10 years ago, when this project finally saw the light of day, a lot of fans were expecting it to be 1988 all over again. However, there were many reasons why they shouldn’t have.

1. Longtime guitarist/songwriter Chris DeGarmo, such an integral part of the original Mindcrime, had been out of the band for quite some time.
2. Geoff Tate’s voice didn’t have that high-note power it once had.
3. The band never intended to pretend it was still 1988. This album is a continuation, 18 years later, and as such the music has changed somewhat as well.  The albums are meant to complement each other, not duplicate each other.

Scan_20160510 (2)The story picks up with Nikki, the anti-hero from the original Mindcrime, finally being released from prison, 18 years after the events of the first album. He begins to piece together his memories of what happened. He decides to pay Dr. X a visit (“X marks the spot”, goes the lyric), who is deliciously played by the late Ronnie James Dio.  For die-hard Dio followers, this was a real treat. Dio sings as if in a stage production, which I’ve never heard him do before. Pamela Moore reprises her role of Sister Mary, playing a larger role and appearing on more songs. She’s a great complement to Geoff Tate, who clearly revels in the chance to do something dramatic like this.

New second guitar player Mike Stone (ex-Criss) gels very nicely with Michael Wilton, playing dual guitar leads that Queensryche of old would have been proud of. At the same time, modern technology has creeped into the production in the form of sequencers and samples, to remind us that this was 2006.  Still, Eddie Jackson’s bass had never been recorded this well before; he should be very proud of his rumble. Scott Rockenfield’s back to playing some serious metallic drumming as well, leaving behind some of his tribal influences for the moment.

So, the actual sound of Mindcrime II is amazing. The songs however are not up to the very high standards that Mindcrime I set. There is no “I Don’t Believe In Love” or “Eyes Of A Stranger”, although some songs like “The Hands” come pretty close, with an amazing metallic riff and great chorus. (Did anyone else notice a few bars of music from “I Don’t Believe In Love” within “The Hands”? Listen again.) “I’m American” is lyrically fantastic, and angrier than anything Queensryche has done since Q2K. “Chase” is the one featuring Dio, and the one I keep coming back to.

The thing about Queensryche albums is, they do tend to get better with time.  Maybe they were always slightly ahead of the curve, or more likely they just take a few listens to absorb.  It’s been a decade now, and few of the Mindcrime II songs remain lodged in the my brain.  Meanwhile, I could hum any song from the first one.  In particular, the second side of Mindcrime II really takes a drop.  Tracks like “Fear City Slide” do not have the impact of “I Don’t Believe in Love”, and the closer “All the Promises” fails to deliver.  It’s a concept album after all, and the last song is like the last scene in a movie.  It should be memorable.

Will Mindcrime II ever become classic like the original? Doubtful. As soon as you name something with a “II” behind it, you’re painting yourself into a corner, but Queensryche have done about as good a job as the fans could have expected.  It seems many fans have warmed up to it over the years, though it certainly cannot be considered equal with the original.

3/5 stars

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REVIEW: Queensryche – Tribe (2003)

FLAMING TURDS

“Flaming Turds” artwork courtesy of SARCA at CAUGHT ME GAMING.  Thanks Sarca!

We continue with the WEEK OF FLAMING TURDS!  We’re looking at a collection of malodorous music.  Strike a match, you’ll need it for these stinkers!  Today, please welcome to the stage, Mr. Geoff Tate.

Scan_20160228QUEENSRŸCHE – Tribe (2003 Sanctuary)

Queensryche fans have had a lot to deal with over the last 20 years.  Uneven albums, lineup changes, framed by occasional flashes of brilliance were the norm up until recently.  The most significant obstacle was the 1997 departure of Chris DeGarmo, their chief songwriter and beloved guitarist.  Overall burnout caused by band turmoil led DeGarmo to retire from music altogether and follow his dream of becoming a pilot.  Later statements from the band (during their legal battle with former singer Geoff Tate) claimed outright that he left because of “Geoff Tate’s personal demeanor” with the guitarist.  In his absence, Tate took over the role of primary songwriter and began leading the band.  Their first post-DeGarmo album was 1999’s Q2k, a pretty heavy record that was largely dismissed by fans for being a departure from style and quality.  DeGarmo’s replacement guitarist Kelly Gray was let go shortly after the Live Evolution album.  Struggling to come up with material for another album, Queensryche called Chris DeGarmo up on the telephone.  The guitarist softened his stance and readied himself to make a full return to the band.  He wrote, played guitar in the studio and even took part in photo shoots.  Fans hoped for something special that would live up to the Queensryche legacy from this reunion.  It was not to last.  The same old strains returned between DeGarmo and Tate, and it was over before it started.

Fandom felt the wind taken out of its sails, and eyebrows were raised at the sudden second departure.  The released album Tribe featured five co-writes from Chris DeGarmo, and one from new Queensryche guitarist Mike Stone (ex-Peter Criss), who was hired shortly after.  Both Stone and DeGarmo receive credit as special guests.  Upon listening, best hopes for the album were dashed.  Tribe‘s 10 songs come off as half-baked outtakes from a better album that was  never made.  Some of the blame must go to the production, a flat and dry sounding affair.  However that cannot explain the dull songs.  It’s not all bad — “Open Your Eyes” features a damn fine, exotic sounding riff, probably contributed by DeGarmo.  They just couldn’t construct a memorable song around it, and Tate couldn’t seem to get his singing into gear.

The sole Mike Stone co-write, “Losing Myself” is a programmed mess of samples without a song.  The chorus sounds like an outtake from the dreary Hear in the Now Frontier album.  Same with the acoustic “Falling Behind”, which is too bad because it’s one of the songs on which you can hear Chris DeGarmo’s playing.  In fact, Tribe in general might be considered Hear in the Now Part II, so similar are they.

The only real quality musical moment happens on the DeGarmo co-write “Desert Dance”.  Exotic and heavy but with an actual song built out of it, “Desert Dance” gets you moving.  Drummer Scott Rockenfield throws a lot of percussion tricks into it, emphasizing the exotic (this is true of the album in general).  Tate actually sounds alive on this, becoming the cheerleader of the album.  “Desert Dance” was the only song that had me reaching for the volume knob to turn it up.  One other decent track is “Rhythm of Hope”, a co-write with Eddie Jackson and Scott Rockenfield that sounds like it was an effort to be the second “Silent Lucidity”.  Unfortunately that moment has passed.

It’s worth noting that the only member to have a songwriting credit on every song in Geoff Tate.  I place the blame for Tribe‘s lack of life at his feet.  The album is only 41 minutes, but it is a long 41 minutes.  Difficult to finish, hard to like and easy to forget, Tribe remains a chore today.

2/5 stars

REVIEW: Queensryche – Take Cover (2007)


Scan_20150801 (4)QUEENSRYCHE – Take Cover (2007 Rhino)

As bad as things got at the end of the Tate era for Queensryche (cabaret, anyone?), Take Cover was a musical low.  Queensryche were busy in 2007, with a double live performance of both Mindcrime albums (Mindcrime at the Moore),  a double best-of (Sign of the Times featuring a new song called “Justified”), and Take Cover, a covers album.  Considering the number of releases in 2007 (double CDs no less), Take Cover looks all the less necessary.

The five members of Queensryche each chose some songs for the album, and you have to admit that most of these choices are pretty cool.  Where things go sideways is in the recording of them, and it usually comes down to Geoff Tate’s voice.  Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine”, which opens the album, should have been a slam dunk.  The dark musical backbone is there, but Geoff’s shaky multi-layered vocals do not send shivers up the spine the way Gilmour’s did.  It’s nice that Geoff threw some of his trademark sax in here, and the solos (Michael Wilton and Mike Stone) are great.  The problem is the vocal and that’s a big problem.

“Heaven on Their Minds”, from Jesus Chris Superstar, was chosen by Mike Stone, who left the band after this album.  Musically this works, and I never would have guessed its origin just from its metallic riff.  Thumbs up for this one, no complaints about the singing.  CSNY’s “Almost Cut My Hair” is a dud though, and they should have left well enough alone. Following that is a flat “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield), a double whammy of stinky renditions of hippy anthems.  Thanks Geoff, for picking those two….

When I spoke to Eddie “edbass” Jackson back in 2001, he told me “I love funk, I really like a really hard driving sound. I tend to focus more on the sonic end of it than the performance end.” That’s a great way to describe his take on the O’Jays “For the Love of Money”. Even Geoff’s sour singing fails to sink it, such is the relentless groove. Queen’s “Innuendo” is another brave choice. Long I have loved this Zeppelin-esque Queen classic. This masterwork of beauty, elegance and strength is rendered limp as a noodle by the vocal chords of Mr. Jeffrey Wayne Tate. This is painfully bad. It reminds me of Bad News’ version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Now my head hurts, and I must now do an ear-cleanse by playing the immaculate original as sung by Freddie Mercury. [Note: I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what I did! Here you go.]

From Freddie Mercury to Ronnie James Dio, there are some difficult vocalists here to cover. Right there are two of the greatest of all time, without question. Geoff struggles a little less with the Dio approach on “Neon Nights”. But he’s absolutely screwed on “Syncronicity II” by The Police. Scott Rockenfield, who I have always thought must have been a Stewart Copeland fan, picked this song. One of the things about the original was how effortlessly Sting sang it. He hit each note perfect and cleanly. Geoff is wavering all over the place, and it robs the song of all its biggest hooks.

Geoff Tate recovers on “Red Rain” by Peter Gabriel…oh man, what a song! Edbass shines on this one, as does Scotty Rock. “Red Rain” is one of the album highlights. Tate then indulges his every fantasy on “Odissea”, part of an Italian opera. It’s up to you whether you hit the skip button or not. Just keep in mind what Geoff Tate did to poor defenceless Freddie Mercury. He sings in Italian, so kudos for him for doing this, but the end result is an experiment that doesn’t need repeating. Finally, the live take of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” is by far the best song. This is a recording from the Q2k era featuring Kelly Gray on guitar before he was replaced by Mike Stone. It’s a 10 minute extended workout complete with an epic Tate rant.  “Don’t step outside of that box!  Don’t step outside of that box!  It’s dangerous there…outside that box.”

As much as Take Cover is a slog to get through, “Bullet the Blue Sky” is arguably enough to make it worth it.

2/5 stars

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REVIEW: Criss – Cat #1 (1994)

CRISS CAT 1_0001CRISS – Cat #1 (1994 Tony Nicole Tony)

I am a Kiss fan, and I am also a Peter Criss fan. I like his first bunch of post-Kiss solo albums, Out of Control and Let Me Rock You just fine. They are not perfect but they have some good songs and are enjoyable, if dated, slices of the era.  I think most fans would grudgingly admit that Let Me Rock You isn’t bad.

Cat #1 (terrible title!) was supposed to be Peter’s comeback, after a decade of working with bands that went nowhere such as Balls Of Fire and The Keep (with Mark St. John). He later assembled the Criss band, which included Mike Stone (who would later end up in Queensryche). Cat #1 was also preceded by a mail order EP simply called Criss, with some exclusive songs.  That release was marred by an incompetent record company who took close to a year to mail out the orders.

Unfortunately, Peter did not need a record company to tank this release.  This CD tanked itself.  The problems with Cat #1 are three-fold:

1. No great songs.
2. Bland, uninspired performances and terrible singing by the backing band.
3. Bad production and plastic sounding drums.

The one good song is “Blue Moon Over Brooklyn”, the heartfelt ballad written for Peter’s mom who had passed away recently.  This song, though imperfect, justifies me having it my collection.  (Well, that and it’s Kiss related.)  Phil Naro co-wrote this one, and diehard fans know he’s a talented guy who has written some pretty good songs.  It’s just too bad that “Blue Moon Over Brooklyn” wasn’t fully realized by an ace band and producer.  Somebody to help Peter know when he’s singing flat, you know?

Naro wrote two tunes here, “Bad People Burn In Hell” is the other.  It’s not bad either.  It’s a fun rocker where Peter gets to sing in his Elvis voice for a bit. But that’s basically it. The rest of the songs sound like a hodge-podge of unrelated bits stuck together, and wouldn’t even pass as filler on the worst Kiss albums. You could probably Frankenstein bits and pieces from these songs to make one good song out of the bunch of them, but that’s all. For example, the chorus from “Strike” is decent, put that with the verses from “Bad Attitude”…you know what I mean?  Maybe you could make one good song out of them.   (“Bad Attitude” by the way seems to be about that homeless man who claimed to be Peter as documented on the Phil Donahue show. Remember that?)

CRISS CAT 1_0002The production though is terribly bland, and Peter’s drums sound like triggered samples.  They really sound terrible.  The drum sound alone robs Peter of the swing.  It’s distracting.  His singing is good in spots, and he actually wails pretty good on tracks like “Bad Attitude”.  “Bad Attitude” is vintage Kiss vocally, but shite musically.

Mike Stone sings lead on a couple tracks, and his voice is like…how do I describe this? He’s like Glenn Tipton meets an asthmatic Dave Mustaine or something. Not a good singer at all. When he takes the lead on tracks like “Show Me”, it sinks the song. Even when he backs Peter up on songs like “Bad Attitude”, it’s weak. A third voice is singing on “We Want You”, who I assume from the writing credits is Mike McLaughlin. His voice is even weaker, it’s like a raspy whisper.

Finally Peter recycled “Beth”, yet again.  It was great to finally have an unplugged acoustic version of the song, but he has really milked that one, hasn’t he?  It’s a good version, and it’s a slightly different mix from the one used on the earlier EP.

As marked on the cover art itself, Ace Frehley plays guitar on three songs: “Bad Attitude,” “Walk the Line,” and “Blue Moon over Brooklyn”. But you can’t really tell.   Let’s talk a moment about that cover art. Actually, let’s not: You can see it for yourself, so you decide what you think.  Challenge yourself to come up with one-word descriptions and post them in the comments.

1/5 stars

REVIEW: Criss – Criss (1993 EP)

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CRISS – Criss Special Limited Edition (1993 EP, TNT Records)

At long last, Peter Criss was releasing new music, for the first time since 1982’s Let Me Rock You, over a decade prior.  Tellingly, it was a mail-order only release, on a small California label called Tony Nicole Tony Records.  It ran me over $40 Canadian (with shipping) to order it.  It was a limited edition, all copies to be numbered and signed by the Cat himself.

An angry letter and six months later, I finally received my Criss EP to find that the hyped signature was just printed on.  Yes, it was numbered (mine is #2408), but for $40…come on.

I overlooked the sad artwork of Peter’s face, half painted in his old cat makeup, and hair bleached blonde.  I cracked the seal, put the disc in and hit play.

I was struck immediately by the poor production.  The drums sound awful.  For a solo EP by a drummer, I was hoping for better sounding drums than this.  Peter’s singing was OK, but the lyrics?  He does this section near the end of the the first song, “The Cat”, that was just…stinky.

Listen to this one now.
Gene and Paul went up the hill to fetch a pail of water,
Gene fell down and broke his crown,
And Paul came tumbling over.

And then his does this weird high pitched shriek that is so embarrassingly terrible, that I couldn’t believe it made it only to the album.  Well, it could only get better from there.

Nope.

The same awful sounding drums, rapping, and another awful lyric:

Planes, trains and limozines,
So what? What does it mean?
We’re burning down like Mercury,
God bless the Killer Queen.

This time the singer isn’t Peter, but a fellow with a mohawk called Mike Stone.  This same Mike Stone would later end up in a band called Queensryche.  And if anything was worse than Peter’s shrieking on track one, it’s Mike Stone’s singing on track two.  And the song sucks, too.

“Good Times”, an electric ballad with a soulful vocal from Peter, is pretty good.  It has the vibe of something that would have fit onto Peter’s 1978 solo album, without the schlock.  OK, one good song.  At least there’s one.

But then Mike Stone rears his ugly mohawk again, on a song called “What You’re Doing”.  No, not the Rush tune.  It’s not a bad song, but Stone’s truly awful singing renders it unlistenable.  Finally, Peter saves this drowning EP with an acoustic remake of “Beth”.  It must be remembered that up to this point, an acoustic version of “Beth” had never been released.  It was presented that way in the Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park movie, but until this EP, you couldn’t buy it like that.  So this is cool, and slightly different from the version that later ended up on the Cat #1 album.

I have no doubt this is very rare today, and I’ve never seen another copy.  If you can find it, great.  But you may not need to listen to it.

1.5/5 stars