Pasha

REVIEW: Kick Axe – Welcome to the Club (1985, 2016 remaster) – Kick Axe series Part Five

Part Five of a series on classic KICK AXE!

BONUS: Check out Superdeke’s concert review from this tour by clicking here!

KICK AXE – Welcome to the Club (1985, 2016 Rock Candy collector’s edition)

Kick Axe may have had a slight identity issue.

They certainly didn’t benefit at all when two of their songs (“Hunger” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stand In Our Way”) were released under another name on The Transformers soundtrack.  Nobody knew that “Spectre General” was in fact Kick Axe.  Unicron may have been defeated, and Rodimus named as the next Prime, but Kick Axe didn’t gather any of the spoils.  There’s also the issue of their critical second album.  Vices was clearly a metal album and the band had an obviously heavy image, complete with toothy mascot.  When the second album saw its release, the mascot was gone and the lead video was a ballad!

The twist in the tale is that Welcome to the Club is considered by many fans to be Kick Axe’s best album; and they may be right.

The record label Pasha was trying to steer Kick Axe in a lighter direction.  Producer Spencer Proffer couldn’t be there, so staffer Randy Bishop was sent to Toronto to write and record the next album with the band.  They did this at the legendary Metalworks, and then the album was sent to Proffer in California to mix.  You’d expect this kind of operation to be detrimental to the music.  You’d be wrong.

The songs are tighter than those on Vices.  Yes, opener “Welcome to the Club” lacks the full-fisted punch of “Heavy Metal Shuffle”, but they are traded in for a dusky, cleaner vibe.  This is an older, wiser band and the lyrics reflect that.  “If you’ve had your share of heartache…welcome to the club.”  The drums are still thunder on tape, and George Criston could bellow like few others, so the “softening” of Kick Axe was actually quite minor.

“Feels Good – Don’t Stop” lets the bass lead the way, for a bangin’ chorus that any band would have given their nuts to write.  Another flawess chorus is found on the powerful “Comin’ After You”, which may in fact be the perfect 1985 hard rock song.  Softer verses build up to the kick of the first chorus, with backing keyboards providing unobtrusive texture.  “Make Your Move” is another expertly written rock song, something like Bon Jovi circa 7800° Fahrenheit.  Did Sambora spend time studying this album?  Then a dramatic “Never Let Go” has a creeping, dark vibe that makes one wonder just what Black Sabbath would have sounded like with George Criston on lead vocals.  When Ian Gillan left to join Deep Purple, Criston was one of the singers that Tony Iommi was very interested in.  This song is a glimpse into what that might have sounded like.

The side two kick-off, “Hellraisers” is a cold steel classic.  A signature guitar lick and a chorus plumbed straight from the most melodic depths of hell is all it takes.  Well, the solo cooks pretty hot too.  “Hellraisers” is most likely the best tune on Welcome to the Club, which goes a long way to making it the best Kick Axe song, period.  By the next track, “Can’t Take It With You”, Kick Axe discovered a time machine and somehow came up with a cool wah-wah riff right out the 2000s.  There is no way we’ll ever know for sure, but it’s not out of the question that this riff was lifted by time travel from John Norum of Europe during the sessions for Start From the Dark.

Anyone who felt Welcome to the Club underdelivered in terms of heavy metal probably thought “Too Loud…Too Old” was the best song.  Heavy groove and speed co-mingle, and the result is one of the heaviest hard rock tracks in the history of the genre.  “Feel the Power” dials it back in terms of heavy, but is no slouch of a track, not with all those Brian Gillstrom drumquakes.  Guitarists Larry Gillstrom and Ray Harvey had a knack for harmony guitar solos, as heard on “Feel the Power”.  Not to mention the capable backing vocals by the entire band, rounded out by Victor Langen on bass.

The oddball ballad goes last, and it really is a surprising one.  Continuing a tradition that would follow through on all their albums, Kick Axe did a cover.  This time it’s the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends”, but via the Joe Cocker arrangement.  The good news:  George Criston was more than capable of handling the difficult song without sounding like an asshole.  Not an easy task!  He is accompanied by Canadian stars like Alfie Zappacosta, Lee Aaron, Rik Emmett, and Andy Curran which gives the song some authenticity and serious star power.  Lee Aaron in particularly kicks the song right in the nuts when she steps up to the microphone.

It was this track that was chosen as the lead video, and immediately confused all the kids sitting at home watching MuchMusic.  This was the “On the Road to Rock” band, clearly, but they didn’t sound like that anymore.  The music video almost looked like a charity single, with everybody singing together in the studio.  We didn’t know what to make of it, and the clever but tame Hugh Syme cover artwork really didn’t speak like Vices did.

It is always a shame when a great album by a deserving band gets ignored.  Thanks to Rock Candy and their awesome CD reissues, it’s not too late to get into the Club.

5/5 stars

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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

REVIEW: Quiet Riot – QRIII (1986)

For Aaron’s KMA review of this CD, click here!

QUIET RIOT – QRIII (1986 CBS)

A short while ago, longtime LeBrain reader Deke and Jon from E-tainment Reviews brought up QRIII as a contender for Worst Quiet Riot of All Time.  Digging into the discussion, I mentioned 1995’s Down to the Bone as another possible contender.  Jon also mitigated QRIII by reminding us of the teriffic single “The Wild and the Young”; the only reason to own it.  So the jury is technically still out….

QRIII  certainly sucks.  I knew that I could do one of two things for its review:  Take a shit on the album cover and post a picture of that as the review, or lambaste it verbally and harshly.  Unable to decide between the two approaches, I instead decided on a first for mikeladano.com:  the very first Choose Your Own Review!(™)  Choose A) The Short One, or B) The Long One!

REVIEW A: The Short One

QRSHIIIT

REVIEW B:  The Verbose One

QRIII (actually Quiet Riot’s fifth album) did nothing to revitalize their career. DuBrow was fired shortly after, leaving no original members. Quiet Riot soldiered on for one more album and tour anyway (with Paul Shortino on the creatively titled album but redeeming QR), before breaking up.  In ’93 they finally reunited with Dubrow intact, on the decently heavy Terrified CD.

QRIII, released in 1986, was a sign of desperation closing in.  Rudy Sarzo was out, and in was Chuck Wright. The band had flatlined commercially, so what did they do? They copied everybody else’s formula for success. That means they incorporated an overabundance of keyboards, buried the guitar way down in the mix, sampled everything, recorded sappy and faceless ballads, glossed it all up, and basically snuffed out any spark that this band once had. I felt that they also copied Kiss somewhat in image, with bouffant hairdos and sequined gowns that looked like hand-me-downs from Paul Stanley’s Asylum wardrobe. DuBrow’s new wig didn’t help things.

There is the one song that rises above the stinky, putrid toxic morass that is QRIII. “The Wild and the Young”, despite its reliance on samples, is actually a really strong hard rock rebellion.  On this track, the studio techno-wizardry did its trick.  The song is irresistible, and remains a personal favourite.  The drums kill it, and the gang vocal chorus is catchy as hell.  The song was accompanied by a creative video, so I was suckered into buying the tape.   If I had only known there was just one good song, I wouldn’t have spent my hard earned allowance on QRIII.  More to the point, if I had known just how bad the rest of the album actually was, I would have steered way clear.  Everything is choked down in a mechanical slop of keys and samples.   These songs are so nauseating, so tepid, so embarrassing, that I really can’t say it with enough vigor.

The lyrics:  mostly pathetic nonsense.  “The Pump”:

Well let’s pump pump pump pump,
Strike it rich what you’re dreamin’ of,
Let’s pump pump pump pump,
We’re gonna hunt for gold, Gonna dig for love.

Then, throw in a Plant-esque moan of “Push, push, push, oh! oh! oh!.”  Serious.

Lastly there are the sadly misguided attempts at a “soulful” direction, which crash and burn gloriously. I’m sure in the studio, producer Spencer Proffer assured Quiet Riot that he was producing a hit album.  This would get them on radio and MTV, he might have guaranteed.  Meanwhile, the real situation was more like, “Let’s throw anything and everything to the wall and see what sticks, because this band’s asses are on the line this time.”  But it was the band who wrote this slop with Proffer, so they bear equal responsibility for the calamity.  I’m sure there were so many drugs in the air that “The Pump” actually seemed clever at the time.

QRIII will be remembered not as the album that knocked Quiet Riot down, (that honor goes to Condition Critical) but as the album that flat-out buried them. They would never be a serious commercial property again.

Do you enjoy the crash and burn of an astonishing train wreck? QRIII is for you.

0.5/5 stars

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