In the new documentary ‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas’, the band’s engineer Robin Brian states that ZZ Top “never sang the blues, they turn the blues into party music”. But on ZZ Top’s First Album the party had yet to get started. This is more of a hangover album with plenty of certified blues running through it. Billy Gibbons’ guitar playing and vocals bring Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green to mind and his deft playing is supported by a tight and ballsy rhythm section. However, the band hadn’t really gelled as songwriters yet. Songs like Squank, Back Door Love Affair and Bedroom Thang have a satisfying boogie vibe but are ultimately forgettable and the album often drags. There are some hints of the band’s future greatness though. Brown Sugar‘s lonesome Hendrix-meets-Mac blues boosts into a gutsy, grooving rocker, the down-and-dirty Goin’ Down to Mexico shows off Dusty Hill’s rollicking vocals and Neighbour has a formative stab at the kind of heavy riff you’ll hear later (and better) in songs like Precious And Grace and Cheap Sunglasses. With its bluesy mood, ballsy sound and confident musicianship, ZZ Top’s First Album is a good album to go with a beer or two. Just don’t expect it to inspire any hellraising.
Nazareth made their name with thumping hard rock but were too creative and versatile to stick to a heavy formula for any length of time. The ballsy attack and monster-mascot covers of 1977’s Expect No Mercy and 1979’s No Mean City primed them for the early 80s heavy metal boom. But while Motorhead, Saxon and the like were hammering out their leathery biker anthems, Dunfermline’s finest went soft. They teamed up with producer (and famed Steely Dan/session muso) Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter for the sun-kissed adult rock of 1980’s Malice In Wonderland. Flirting with reggae on Big Boy? Getting disco fever on Talkin’ Bout Love? You might question the band’s decision-making, but the end result was one of Nazareth’s most enjoyable albums.
Holiday and Showdown At The Border are tasty Lizzy/UFO-ish rockers with sublime hooks. Heart’s Grown Cold is a beautiful, affecting gospel-tinged ballad and Ship Of Dreams has a West Coast hippy vibe right out of Love’s Forever Changes. Baxter’s production tones down the band’s guitar heft and reduces Fast Cars to a boring plinky-plonk but the album sounds lush and the focus on song allows vocalist Dan McCafferty to shine. And guitar-lovers will enjoy the strong contribution from Zal Cleminson whose playing and writing give the album a witty, eclectic edge that is reminiscent of his work with Alex Harvey. So… no monster mascots here, but this is still killer stuff. An overlooked gem for rock fans that like it classic and classy.
In the mid-80s Canada’s Cobra Records reckoned that, as long as you put a wild cover on it, any old metal shite could sell 20,000 copies easily. So they set out to create a bunch of pretend metal acts and whack out some albums. One of these was Piledriver.
Although Piledriver boasted various fictional members (including “Knuckles” Akimbo on guitar and “Former” Lee on drums!) all the backing tracks were written, performed and produced by Leslie Howe with vocals handled by Piledriver himself (real name: Gordon). But by second album Stay Ugly, Leslie was gone and Piledriver was assisted by none other than Virgin Steele’s David DeFeis (writing and producing as “The Lion”) and Edward Pursino (writing and playing guitar as umm… “Bruizer” Bernette).
The Fire God is one of the album’s standout tracks. Leathery speed metal with a blasphemous flavour of Venom. It’s crude enough that it sounds a bit bashed out but it’s not just any old metal shite either. It’s got heart, hooks, harmonies and ripping guitar. It was good enough that Virgin Steele did their own version years later and it’s proof that good music can come out of the the most crass and contrived circumstances.
If you’re going to trudge through a slow doomfest you need quality riffs and lyrics, depth of feeling and strong atmosphere and Black Sabbath’s God Is Dead? falls flat on all fronts. It goes on way too long, the brickwalled production has zero atmosphere, the vocals are flat and the lyrics are either boring or clumsy light/night, doom/tomb stuff. The chorus is pretty good, especially the second time round where it is extended out in a moment of rousing emotion. But the band don’t capitalise on this flash of brilliance and the song continues with a series of unremarkable riffs and an unusually uninspired solo from Tony Iommi. Not sure if God has snuffed it or not but this song is disappointingly bereft of life.
Alice In Chains’ 1992 album Dirt is widely associated with heroin addiction and features many great songs ridden with anguish, turmoil and death. But there are actually only three songs on it that specifically reference drug use. And you’re not getting any points for guessing that God Smack is one of them. It’s got the woozy, sick Layne Staley vocals and an upbeat wah-drenched chorus but musically it’s one of the album’s least remarkable tracks. However, the title and its unflinching portrayal of someone for whom heroin has become everything, gives it a thematic and lyrical importance that makes it a key deep cut on the album even if it’s no great shakes when listened to in isolation.
In the early 90s, it seemed like everyone and their dog was recording covers of classic KISS. And death metal pioneers Death were no exception, taking a break from the complex technicality of their 1991 Human album to throw down a cover of God Of Thunder. Originally used as a Japanese bonus track, the cover was presumably intended more as a bit of fun than an important artistic statement as the band don’t do anything radical with the track. Outside of Chuck Schuldiner’s tortured vocals, the relentless double-bass drums and a flashier guitar solo, it’s all pretty faithful to the version on KISS’ Destroyer album. What I find interesting is that, despite the extreme metal growls and drumming, the KISS version remains darker, heavier and cooler. So, although it’s a fun listen in its own right, it also does a good job of reminding you just how powerful KISS were. I guess all those bands were covering their stuff for a reason.
Following short-lived but inspired stints with both the volatile Ritchie Blackmore and the mad axeman Michael Schenker, vocalist Graham Bonnet decided to form his own band, Alcatrazz, with hot, upcoming guitarist… Yngwie M. F. Malmsteen. Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. Unsurprisingly this pairing proved just as short-lived, ending in a blaze of egos and fisticuffs, but it also proved equally inspired with both musicians delivering at their peak on Alcatrazz’s superb debut album, 1983’s No Parole From Rock N’ Roll.
Alcatrazz was conceived as a Rainbow-style outfit. And with songs like the parpy AOR opener Island In The Sun and the Spotlight Kid rerun Jet To Jet, their debut definitely fits the bill. But there’s something more sophisticated at work here. Yngwie’s neo-classical riffing adds an intricate, frosty edge and his soloing on tracks like Kree Nakoorie is impossibly exciting. And Bonnet responds with a forceful and acrobatic vocal performance that thrills on tracks like General Hospital as well as contributing to the album’s cerebral edge with intelligent, quirky lyrics on tracks like the phenomenal Hiroshima Mon Amour (“the fireball that shamed the sun”). The languid Big Foot drags a bit and the bluesy Suffer Me is a little anti-climatic but there is no escaping the fact that No Parole From Rock N’ Roll is a dazzling, state-of-the-art, riot in the dungeon.