zak starkey

REVIEW: Hollywood Vampires (Alice Cooper) – Hollywood Vampires (2015 Japanese import)

NEW RELEASE

Scan_20150920 (3)ALICE COOPER / HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES – Hollywood Vampires (2015 Universal Japan)

Ignore the hype.  The press has been going ga-ga over this new supergroup featuring movie star Johnny Depp (rhythm guitar), Joe Perry (lead guitar), and Alice Cooper (lead vocals).  Just ignore the hype completely.  Cooper fans know what this is.  This is the covers album that Alice has been talking about doing ever since Welcome 2 My Nightmare in 2011.   Alice has even been playing a number of these tunes, in these arrangements, live.  Check out his Raise the Dead double live album/video for a few.

According to an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock earlier this  year, “I can’t tell you who’s on what right now, ’cause it’s not gonna be released yet, but it’s the ‘who’s who’ of everything.  It was one of those things where, at one point, I’m looking around in the studio and I’m going, ‘Holy crap! Look who’s in the studio.”  Bob Ezrin, Alice’s long-time producer and musical collaborator came up with the concept.  Alice continues:  “Bob came up with the idea, ‘Let’s concentrate it on all the guys that you drank with in L.A., the Hollywood Vampires, the ones that are all dead.’  I like the title All My Dead Drunk Friends. It’s just offensive enough to work, but all those guys would have totally got it. They had the same sense of humor. If you told them you were going to do an album after they were gone called All My Dead Drunk Friends, they would have died laughing.”  Ultimately the album was simply called Hollywood Vampires.  That’s also the name of this “supergroup” which is essentially just Alice with Depp and guests.

I have this album filed in my Alice Cooper section, and that’s how I’m treating this review.

Hollywood Vampires consists of 14 tracks, except in Japan who have 15.  Two of these are brand-new songs, and one is an intro called “The Last Vampire”.  Fittingly, this features the narration of Sir Christopher Lee, who passed away earlier this year.  Lee’s old friend from the Hammer horror days, Vincent Price, appeared on Cooper’s original Welcome to my Nightmare in 1975.  Today, Alice Cooper truly is the last vampire left from those old days.  Lee’s rich voice is backed by spooky keys and theremin by Ezrin, Depp and engineer Justin Cortelyou.  “Listen to them, children of the night…what music they make.”

Alice then kicks it with “Raise the Dead”.  Depp appears on every track, and Alice’s drummer Glen Sobol plays on this one and several others.  It’s an upbeat stomper of a track, and a perfect introduction to this covers album that is also a concept album.  The first of Alice’s dead drunk friends to be covered is Keith Moon on “My Generation”, an authentic and pounding version.  Alice Cooper is one of the few that does justice to it.  Bassist Bruce Witkin perfectly tackles John Entwistle’s signature bass solo.  One thing that is immediately obvious is how massive this album sounds.  Ezrin wrought a monster-sounding disc, so full and heavy, but textured when required.

John Bonham is up next.  “Whole Lotta Love” was handled in a completely different way than you’d expect.  Starting as a low, prowling Cooper blues it soon blasts into gear.  Alice isn’t known for hitting those high Plant notes, so who joins him?  None other than Brian Johnson of AC/DC, who kicks my ass completely.  Joe Walsh and Cooper’s former lead guitarist Orianthi play some jaw droppingly greasy guitars, but Alice’s harmonica work is also worthy of praise!  Even though very few can cover Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love” turned out to be my favourite track.  It’s also the heaviest sounding, like a skid of concrete blocks assaulting your face!  That’s Zak Starkey (son of Ringo) on drums.

Cooper has covered “I Got a Line on You” (Spirit) before, on the soundtrack to Iron Eagle 3, of all things.  That 1988 take is my preferred version, but Alice remade it on Hollywood Vampires.  Abe Laboriel Jr., Joe Walsh, and Alice’s old bassist Kip Winger join as guests.  Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction helps Alice out on the lead vocals, but his part isn’t prominent.  Then it’s time for the Doors, and a medley of “Five to One” and “Break on Through”.  Alice had been playing “Break on Through” live, but this version has Robby Krieger!  Alice heavies both of them up, but he is also one of the few singers who can do Morrison.

Farrell and Krieger return for a Harry Nilsson medley, joined by David E. Grohl on drums.  “One” is rendered as a haunting, creepy piece as if Alice himself wrote it.  This merges into “Jump Into the Fire”, a strangely upbeat companion which rocks in a vintage 70’s fashion.  It’s like guitar nirvana.  There’s also a cute outro of “Coconut”, also by Nilsson.

Sir Paul himself, rock royalty if there ever was one, shows up for Badfinger’s “Come and Get It”, which Paul wrote.  Joe Perry has spoken about how incredible it was when McCartney showed up in the studio with his Hofner bass, and actually allowed them to hold it!  “Come and Get It” is simple rock/pop, not the kind of timeless thing that happened when Paul wrote with John, but certainly a notch above what mere mortals can write.  I love hearing Paul’s “screaming” voice, and I’m sure everybody in the studio had a great time.  Sure sounds that way.

Marc Bolan’s “Jeepster” is one I could pass on.  Alice makes it sound like an original from 1972’s School’s Out, but if you’re only going to skip one song, it’s probably going to be “Jeepster”.  Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” featuring Joe Perry has more kick and grind to it, and it’s always a pleasure to hear Joe Perry do some Aero-jammin’ on lead guitar.  (I think it would have been amazing to get McCartney to play bass on this Lennon classic — shame nobody thought of it.  That could have been history made.)

Scan_20150920 (4)The Japanese bonus track is “I’m A Boy”, the second Who cover.  Once again, Alice nails it.  This is such a difficult song to attempt.  Alice makes it work, and if anybody can do it, it’s Alice.  “My name is Alice I’m a head-case…”  Just that one change makes the song work.  “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my mom won’t admit it…I’m a boy, but if I say I am, I get it.”  And he’s got the girl’s name.  It’s perfect!  This bonus track is worth tracking down if you’re a Cooper fan.  You’ll definitely need it in your collection.

Jimi Hendrix was a Hollywood Vampire, and “Manic Depression” is the song Alice chose to cover.  (He’d already done “Fire” back in the Hey Stoopid days.)  Like “Jeepster”, this is one that could be skipped.  Joe Walsh fans will enjoy his lead guitar work, but otherwise, it’s a stock cover.  Way, way better is “Itchycoo Park”.  Alice’s treatment of the Small Faces is far more entertaining, and its melodic base continue to deliver the hooks.

Brian Johnson returns to belt it out on the “School’s Out”/”Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” medley.  This arrangement is similar to the way Alice did it live, and it’s cool how the two songs work together perfectly.  It’s a genius mashup.  Guests include Slash, and original Cooper band members Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith.  “School’s Out”, of course, is here for Glen Buxton, of the original Alice Cooper band.  Buxton had suffered the consequences of alcohol abuse, and dropped out of music completely when the original band split in ’74.  Buxton died in 1997.

The final song is an original, “My Dead Drunk Friends,” the song that Alice wanted to use as a title track.  If you don’t mind some black comedy, you will love this tribute to all the lost Hollywood Vampires.  It’s irresistible, and also sounds vintage Alice.  So chants the crowd:  “We drink and we fight and we fight and we puke and we puke and we fight and we drink!”  Doesn’t sound particularly glamorous, but Alice isn’t about to have a mournful wake.  Alice is about entertainment, and even though a brilliant artist who drinks themselves to death is sad, Alice has thrown a party for them instead.  “My Dead Drunk Friends” ends the party on a darkly celebrating note, as only he can.  Job well done.

Hollywood Vampires is pleasantly surprising.  9/10 covers albums are not worth the money you paid for them.  Alice’s is.  They call it a supergroup for marketing purposes but it only takes one listen to know what this is.  This is a project that Alice, Bob Ezrin and friends have been passionate about for years, and has finally been finished.  It is an apt follow-up to Welcome 2 My Nightmare, and another killer concept album from the kings of concept albums.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Iron Maiden – No Prayer For the Dying (1990, 1996 bonus disc)

Part 13 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!

IRON MAIDEN – No Prayer For the Dying (1990, 1996 bonus disc)

Regrouping after a six-month break, Maiden returned to writing mode a changed Beast.

The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album was artistically rewarding but the band were eager to return to their stripped down heavy metal roots and make a live-sounding album more like Killers or The Number of the Beast, without the production values and ten minute songs that were becoming the norm.

Both Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson were coming off solo albums (A.S.a.P.’s Silver and Gold featuring Zak Starkey (Oasis, The Who), and Bruce’s Tattooed Millionaire).  Bruce’s was successful commercially and critically, Adrian’s less so.   Still, it came as a complete shock to the fans when it was announced that Adrian Smith had left Iron Maiden.

Or, perhaps, been nudged out.  Steve Harris was worried that Adrian was becoming unhappy, and it was especially obvious during the writing sessions for the next album.  While Steve, Dave and Bruce were contributing heavy songs, the usually prolific Adrian had nothing but a song called “Hooks In You” that he had written with Bruce.  He was clearly unhappy that Maiden were not progressing down the road pointed to by Seventh Son, and were going heavier.  Steve took him aside.

When asked how into it he was, the answer came “about 80%”.  Steve has always had a simple policy for membership in his band — you had to be into it 110%, or it wouldn’t work.  The fans wouldn’t buy it, and Steve couldn’t look them in the eye knowing somebody on stage wasn’t completely into it.  Adrian was out.

The band already knew Janick Gers, and he and Bruce had developed a successful writing partnership on his Tattooed Millionaire solo disc.  Janick was nevertheless shocked when Bruce phoned him up and asked him to learn some Iron Maiden numbers.  Janick initially said no, because he assumed Bruce was talking about his solo project, and they had already agreed to do no Maiden numbers.  When Bruce explained it wasn’t for the solo band, it was for Maiden, Janick was horrified.

Janick Gers was really the only guy I can think of that was right for Maiden, also being from the era of the NWOBHM bands (White Spirit).  He’d also been in Gillan (the incredible Magic album) and worked with Fish.  The songs for the album were already written, all Janick had to do was head over to Steve’s farm, where they were recording the album, and learn the songs.

But that’s all just background, just context.  That’s all important, especially to this album, but what is also important is the bottom line.  And the bottom line is that this is the first time Maiden turned in something that was almost universally received as a disappointment.

While some fans were clamoring for a return to basic heavy metal songs, short and bangin’ and to the point, others preferred the epic scale of Seventh Son.  And it was clear that you can’t just replace Adrian Smith.  The songs on the new album, titled No Prayer For the Dying, seemed less finished and not quite up to standard.  Not to mention Janick and Dave hadn’t had time to properly gel together, and never quite sync up on this album the way Dave did with Adrian.

The opening song “Tailgunner” is good enough though, not quite an “Aces High” but certainly adequate.  Being tailgunner might have been the worst job on the Lancaster bomber, since it didn’t have a belly gunner! (Neither did Enola Gay, tailgunner was certainly the worst job on a B-29)!  But Steve and Bruce failed to really nail it lyrically, with lines such as “nail that Fokker, kill that son, gunna blow your guts out with my gun” not living up to past Maiden historic glories.

Steve and Bruce also wrote “Holy Smoke”, the first single.  This reckless fast number showcased a manic Janick Gers solo, demonstrating how different he was from Adrian.  Where Adrian used to compose solos with beginnings, middles and endings, Janick just went for it!  Dave was also somewhere between the two approaches.  Now, without Adrian’s melodic touch, the band were moving sharply to a more live and spontaneous guitar style.

“Holy Smoke” is about TV preachers, and while they always make a good target in heavy metal songs (I prefer Ozzy’s “Miracle Man”) this one also fails to excite.  As a song it doesn’t have much in terms of melody.  On No Prayer, Bruce is shouting as often as he’s singing, and with the songs’ new emphasis on raw power, there’s less memorable melody to go around.  Janick’s manic gonzo solo does fit the vibe of the song!

The title track is third, a number that tries to be an epic in under 5 minutes.  It does indeed have all of the trademark qualities of a Maiden epic except the length:  Multiple parts, multiple tempos, soul-searching Steve lyrics, and ample anthemic guitar melody.  Yet the song fails to nail it home like, say, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” did.

Better is the badly titled “Public Enema Number One”.  This Dickinson/Murray rocker is riffy, straightforward with some decent melodic bits.  But again Bruce is hoarsely shouting the verses, and the song careens from section to section that don’t feel like they quite all fit together probably.  Like other songs on No Prayer, the song sounds slightly unfinished.

And better again is “Fates Warning”, this time written by Steve and Dave.  The opening soft guitar part is a nice change of pace, and a great example of Dave Murray’s tremendous feel.  Perhaps in a past life he was a bluesman.  Nicko then kicks the song into gear while Steve’s lyrics question the seemingly random nature of life and death.  In the middle, is an old-school dual Maiden guitar lead, before Dave nails another perfect one of his own.

Side two begins with the stuttery “The Assassin”.  Written solo by Steve, it is rhythmically complex as it is propelled forward.  It has a fairly decent chorus but it doesn’t quite resolve itself nicely.  Some of the guitar and bass melodies are reminiscent of “To Tame A Land” from Piece of Mind.

This is followed by the superior “Run Silent Run Deep”  Submarine warfare is a good topic for a Maiden song, and the song chugs forward like those big diesel engines.  This is one of the better songs on No Prayer.  Steve and Bruce wrote it together, and Nicko’s precise drum fills accent the song perfectly.

Next is the worst song on the album:  Bruce and Adrian’s “Hooks In You”.  Lyrically this is one of the worst things ever on a Maiden album. Judging by the opening line, “Got the keys to view at number 22,” it sounds like Charlotte is back to her old tricks.  Unfortunately, the band subjected people to this song live.  I’ll admit it’s got a great little riff, but Bruce’s shout-growl vocals, lack of melody, and lack of any lyrical intelligence just sinks this one.

And then the baffling #1 single, “Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter”.  This Bruce song is actually an outtake from his solo project.  He recorded and released the original version with Janick Gers on the soundtrack to A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.  I seem to remember that soundtrack being panned as “the worst soundtrack of all time” at one point.  Steve heard the song, went nuts, and said, “Don’t put it on your solo album:  I want to save this one for Maiden.”

Somehow, Steve was right, as it went straight to #1 in the UK, the first and only time this has happened to Iron Maiden.  I don’t get it.  I don’t get what people like about this song.

“Mother Russia” ends the album on a sour note.  Lyrically simple, musically pretty good, “Mother Russia” is certainly not up to the standards of past Maiden album closers.  Although it tries to be an epic along the lines of “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (featuring a similar keyboard section in the middle), it’s just not as great as past epics.  At five and a half minutes, “Mother Russia” is the longest song on No Prayer.  It is made up of excellent components; I like the melody and the solos big time, but it’s just…not comparable in quality.

Nicko McBrain said on MuchMusic that No Prayer was “the best Iron Maiden yet.”  Steve said that the album’s biggest problem is that it didn’t sound live enough without an audience track.  I disagree with both.  I think the album has an abnormally high quantity of unfinished songs and filler.

Even the cover art was substandard.  To go with the live, stripped down sound, Riggs too stripped his artwork of the symbolism and fantasy.  Instead, Eddie goes for the throat of a groundskeeper as he emerges (once again) from the grave.  All hints to continuity are gone, as Eddie’s lost his lobotomy scar, cybernetic implants, and that bolt that kept his skull on!  He even has his hair back.  I guess somebody wasn’t happy with the artwork, because it was heavily tweaked for the 1998 remaster, repainting much of it and removing the groundskeeper.

The B-sides to the first single, “Holy Smoke” were the excellent “All In Your Mind” (a cover from somebody called Stray) and Golden Earring’s “Kill Me Ce Soir”.  Both songs are pretty damn good.  I prefer both to some of the album tracks!

“Bring Your Daughter” had two of its own B-sides:  “Communication Breakdown” and “I’m A Mover”.  Maiden tackle Led Zeppelin and Free less successfully than they did they other two B-sides.  “I’m A Mover” ain’t bad as it allows Maiden to get into a groove they normally wouldn’t, and Bruce seems to have fun with the vocal.

3.5/5 stars