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.
They were an unknown band at the time but that didn’t stop Manowar from securing the services of screen legend Orson Welles who (clearly recognising that he was in the midst of fellow geniuses) agreed to record narration for their debut album: 1982’s Battle Hymns. His narration was used on that album’s Dark Avenger but in the same session Welles also recorded two more pieces: a cool stage intro (that the band has used ever since) and narration for a strange and glorious second song, Defender.
Mostly spoken word set to music, it’s the kind of thing other bands would have used to flesh out an album. But Manowar are not “other bands” so Defender was released as a non-album single in 1983. Not the kind of stuff to tear up the charts but a great introduction to Manowar’s barbarian muscle metal. Windswept Conan tones in the mellow intro, Welles’ baritone gravitas, that killer “ride like the wind” chorus and goosebumps galore when vocalist Eric Adams finally chips in.
I slightly prefer the more direct, streamlined Fighting The World version from 1987 (which used the same narration but re-recorded and rearranged the rest of the song) but the original has its own appeal. It almost sounds like a metallized take on classic Kansas with Adams’ soaring vocals and Ross The Boss’ bluesier guitar solo. And best of all it has a longer, more epic atmosphere with the “Tree Of Woe” vibe that characterized the band’s early work. It’s a must-hear and a must-have rarity for any Manowar fan. This is the music God has sent.
The acrimonious split with original drummer Bun E. Carlos in 2010 was a disappointingly sour turn of events in the 27-year saga of Cheap Trick. But on 2016’s Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello, their first release without him, his absence isn’t felt too keenly. The album rocks and pops with a warm, vintage sound and Robin Zander’s wonderful voice seems impervious to the passage of time. But the chemistry is undeniably altered. Their old biting quirkiness is missing and this is fairly slick stuff, like a souped-up version of the poppier Lap Of Luxury/Busted era, with by-the-numbers lyrics and happy strumming in place of decent riffs. That said, it’s a fun album with a perky spirit and, although the ideas gradually dry up as the album progresses, there are a few songs that fans will enjoy: driving opener Heart On The Line, the sparkling No Direction Home, glammy stomper Blood Red Lips and jangly ballad Sing My Blues Away. But the album’s saving grace, and the song that keeps me coming back for more, is the ghostly When I Wake Up Tomorrow. Overall, it’s not destined to go down in history as a classic, but its definitely one of their more enjoyable modern releases. And the band do sound like they’re having a good time. They don’t seem to miss Bun E., and this is solid enough that you probably won’t either. But he must have been the guy coming up with the album titles because Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello?
Secret Treaties is the last and best of the so-called “black-and-white” trilogy of albums that kicked off Blue Öyster Cult’s career: a trio of mysterious, monochrome-covered rock albums that peaked with this 1974 release. It’s dark, esoteric and also a bit of a hoot. It’s an album of parodic garage-rock horror reminiscent of Alice Cooper’s Killer, full of psychedelic monster mashes like Career Of Evil, the oddly cute Cagey Cretins and the seismic, psychotic Harvester Of Eyes. And those aren’t even the best tracks. Overdriven boogie rocker ME262 puts you in the pilot’s seat of a Junkers Jumo 004 (“Hitler’s on the phone from Berlin, he’s gonna make you a star”) and Dominance And Submission has a superb, swinging groove, an unforgettable climax (“radios appear”) and some creepy interjections from Charles The Grinning Boy… “it will be time”. But the album truly peaks with its closing tracks, Flaming Telepaths and Astronomy. Both are grand, magnificent masterpieces with affecting muscianship and beautifully cryptic imagery. Astronomy in particular is a complete head-scratcher. I’d love to know what “the nexus of the crisis, the origin of storms” really means but then… I feel like not knowing is kind of the point. And the reason Secret Treaties remains so eternally fascinating and alluring.
Sad news today with the passing of Rush’s Neil Peart. On Facebook and Twitter I posted the track Afterimage as a tribute. It sprung to mind due to its themes of grief and loss… and because 80s Rush rules! But let’s have a song from another era here.
Ghost Rider is one of my favourite tunes of the band’s later work. Written as Rush were returning to action following Peart’s hiatus due to deaths in his family, it’s one of their most moving and emotive songs. The Canadians take to the open road with a breezy, motoring groove and a shifting landscape of layered guitars. Peart’s lyrics are searching and evocative and vocalist Geddy Lee responds with taste and feeling. But, as always, the engine driving the whole thing is Peart’s classy and dynamic drum performance. R.I.P Neil.