When the Children Cry

REVIEW: White Lion – Fight to Survive (1985)

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0001WHITE LION – Fight to Survive (1985 Music for Nations)

Growing up in the 1980’s, there were a lot of new bands coming out that we latched onto pretty quickly. White Lion was one. My buddy Bob probably liked them better than I did, but I was a fan too. Back in those days, I was the guy buying all the rock magazines, while he was starting out in college. I’d tell him all the latest rock news, what albums were coming out, and so on.

One afternoon we were chatting, and I had something pretty major to tell him. I had read a White Lion interview in Circus magazine, and it revealed something neither of us knew before: Pride was not the first White Lion album! They had done a previous, independent (and rare) record called Fight to Survive that we didn’t know existed. Even back then, Bob and I were collectors, so we sought that album with great vigor.

It took years for him to find it on cassette, and then several more for me to get it on CD. Now I have it, so let’s talk about it.

The opener is “Broken Heart”, which was re-recorded in ’91 for Mane Attraction. Perhaps this early version, sans keyboards, is the better of the two. Regardless, this had hit single written all over it even back then. The chorus kills and even though it has ballady verses, it also has enough balls to pump the fist in the air.  “Cherokee” is another one with a killer chorus.  The songwriting here isn’t perfect, or polished.  It has some clunky moments, but it definitely had something.  Unfortunately, the title track is a lame-o Van Halen rip off, trying to be something like “Mean Street” or something, but missing the mark.  The lyrics about shields and swords are out of place on an album with a song like “Broken Heart”.  Vito Bratta is ripping off Randy Rhoads rather than Eddie Van Halen on the solo, but he had really yet to evolve into the player he became.

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0002“Where Do We Run” picks up on one of the albums themes:  great choruses (and guitar solos)  that don’t have a great song around them.  However, “In the City” has nothing much of anything going for it: it’s a real flaccid side closer.  Side two’s opener “All the Fallen Men” is much better, sounding something like a Dokken single.  This song is a standout.  The rhythm section of James LoMenzo and Greg D’Angelo had already established a good groove together.  Mike Tramp’s lyrics are not profound (nor would they ever be) but he’s trying.

“All Burn in Hell” is one of those choruses without a song.  “Kid of 1000 Faces” is a song without a chorus.  “El Salvadore” opens with a really cool classical guitar/eletric guitar duo.  This at least has an original sound, or at least for 1985 it was.  And the song itself?  Another great chorus just begging for a good song, a memorable riff — anything!  White Lion were really good at writing song fragments.  Finally, the piano-based ballad “Road to Valhalla” is one of the cheesiest, unconvincing “serious” ballads I have ever heard in my life.  Mike Tramp’s flat vocals don’t help the matter much, but this song is so cookie-cutter that it sounds as if taken from a handbook called How to Re-Write “Home Sweet Home” in Three Simple Steps.

Fight To Survive has a couple great songs, and several brilliant fragments.  If they’d tightened it up and put out five as an EP, we’d be on to something.  Unfortunately, Fight To Survive is only worth:

2.5/5 stars

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0003

REVIEW: White Lion – Pride (1987)

Enjoy this first of two White Lion reviews. Stay tuned for the second in a couple days!

PRIDE_0001WHITE LION – Pride (1987 Atlantic)

I’ve had some fierce arguments with some rock fans about this album.  Regardless of its flaws, I steadfastly defend it and especially the talents of one Vito Bratta, the best guitarist to never become a guitar hero.  After the breakup of White Lion in 1991, Bratta retreated from public life and music completely.  Some have argued to me, “If he was such a talent, he’d still be around.”  Such talk is ignorant of the facts.  Bratta spent many years as a caregiver to ill parents, and whatever decisions he made have to be respected.

I mentioned that this album is flawed, so I’m going to get that part out of the way first.  There are two things about this album that suck.  One is the production, by the normally awesome Michael Wagener (engineered by Canadian “Gggarth” Richardson).  It’s really muddy, echoey, and annoying.  It is indicative of the times.

The second thing that drives me nuts are the lyrics.  I know Mike Tramp is Danish and English is his second language, but there were three guys from New York (Staten Island and Brooklyn) in the band that could have helped.  As Exhibit A, I present you “Lady of the Valley”:

Lady of the valley
Can you hear me cry
In the stillness of the night
I have lost my brother
In the fights of the war
And my heart has broken down

I always stumble over that “In the fights of the war” line.  That’s one of the “serious” songs, something that White Lion tackled frequently (improving over the years).  For their flaws I’ll at least respect Mike Tramp’s willingness to present a personal point of view on specific issues (“Little Fighter”, “Cry For Freedom”, “Warsong”, “El Salvador”).  Unfortunately Pride is loaded with songs about young girls and what Mike Tramp would like to do with them.  Below, Exhibit B:

Keep your engine running high
When you take my love inside
But hold the trigger on my loaded gun (“Hungry”)

Little miss Dee’s got a dirty mind
All around the boys she’s one of a kind
If you wanna good time you can take her home
Cause everyone knows she is good in bed (“Sweet Little Loving”)

I’ll stop there.

Musically, and performance-wise, Pride is a joy to listen to.  What an untapped well of talent Vito Bratta is.  In the guitar magazines, he was noted for having captured some of the magic of Eddie Van Halen, and I agree with that.  Bratta has definitely mastered the Van Halen book of rock.  His riffs are much like Van Halen’s, with one guitar playing the rhythm and flicking in and out with tricky little licks.  It sounds difficult as hell.  “Hungry” is the most Van Halen-like.  The difference is that Bratta sounds like a much more schooled player.  Everything sounds meticulously planned and written.  When he takes a solo, it’s a combination of Van Halen and neoclassical discipline.  And every song is absolutely loaded with fills and tricks.  Pride is very busy guitar-wise, in a good way.

“Hungry” is a great song, a dark Dokken-esque opener.  Also similar to Dokken is the second track, the mid-tempo “Lonely Nights”.  It’s another strong track, and I find Mike Tramp’s raspy voice similar to Jon Bon Jovi’s from time to time.  Bratta executes a fluttery solo, and then it’s on to the next one, “Don’t Give Up”.  Again, I find the lyrics tedious.  I like positivity, but I don’t find, “Don’t give up, even when it’s tough,” to be very profound.  Thankfully this uptempo banger is another winner musically.  Once again I struggle to keep up with Bratta’s stunning fretwork.

“Lady of the Valley” is pretty impressive.  It’s the “epic” I suppose, 6 1/2 minutes in length.  The riff is choppy and smoking, and the rhythm section of James LoMenzo and Greg D’Angelo is spot-in.  Then Bratta gets his echoey acoustic guitar out and the song mutates.  An anthemic chorus tops a great song.

Side Two of the album was packed with singles:  the hits “Wait”, “Tell Me”, and “When the Chrildren Cry”.  “Wait” and “Tell Me” are both songs that Bon Jovi would have given their nuts to write.  Tramp’s raspy vocals are absolutely perfect, as was his blonde mane, and the girls went wild.  “When the Children Cry” was and still is an impressive acoustic performance.  Even in 1987 I was impressed that White Lion chose to forgo drums and backing instrumentation.  This simple, quiet song is the template for what Extreme would do three years later with “More Than Words”.  Bratta was a guitar player able to pull off such an arrangement without sacrificing integrity.

The album is rounded out by “All Join Our Hands” and “All You Need Is Rock N Roll”, two odes to the greatest music ever invented.  “All You Need Is Rock N Roll” is quite cool, beginning with what sounds like a drunken acoustic jam, and ending with with some killer bluesy playing from everyone.  Both songs are great.  I have always felt that the album tracks were as strong as the singles; like an album of 10 singles.

Shame about the sound and the lyrics, though.

 3.5/5 stars