Try as they might, Jersey’s Legend just couldn’t rise above the myriads of NWOBHM bands all competing for attention during the early 80s. It didn’t help that they were stuck out in the Channel Islands, removed from the scene’s industry hotspots and gigging circuit. But their proggy brand of metal was also intropspective, dark and dour. Great stuff for fans of gloomier fare; not the kind of music that was going to stand out alongside anthems like Angel Witch, Let It Loose, and Blitzkrieg.
Legend eventually gave up the ghost but on their final release, 1982’s Frontline EP, they went out in style: taking a more direct and melodic approach. The title track and Open Up The Skies are on the slight side in terms of song structure but are packed with catchy melodies and Peter Howarth’s masterful guitar work. The latter song in particular features the kind of axe heroics that would have gone down a storm if the band had been based in LA rather than Jersey. The ballad Sabra & Chatila gets back to the darkness of their previous work but its dreamy quality and lush Bill Nelson-esque textures make it a highlight.
But best of all is the awesome Stormers Of Heaven. It’s the kind of anthemic, hook-laden rock song that would have graced any compilation of the genre. If it had appeared on any. But sadly, it remains criminally overlooked. Legend might just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time all along.
Having made a promising studio comeback with 1994’s From Now On… the newly-sober Glenn Hughes then set out to prove his reliability and viability as a live performer. Burning Japan Live, recorded in 1994 over two nights in Kawasaki, captures Hughes and his band (now including three members of Europe) in spectacular form. The album kicks off with a red-hot version of the Deep Purple classic Burn and continues with a revelatory run of non-Purple tracks. There’s a swaggering take on the Hughes/Thrall classic Muscle And Blood and the new solo tracks like From Now On… and The Liar sound magnificent. A cluster of mellow tunes causes a mid-set lull but the versions of Coast To Coast and This Time Around are classy examples of Hughes’ versatility. The chilled interlude also provides a nice breather before the show switches gears for a hard rocking climax that’s loaded with Purple anthems from Glenn’s MkIII and IV days. Burning Japan Live proved Hughes was back at the peak of his powers and also celebrated his long and storied career. It’s a vibrant, dynamic and sophisticated live album that cemented his reputation as the “Voice Of Rock”.
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.
Following their 2014 masterpiece London was bound to be a daunting prospect but, despite what the title might suggest, with 2018’s Frightened Voices responded fearlessly. The UK devils cannily rising to the challenge by simultaneously taking their music in a brave new direction while retaining their core character. The viciousness of their debut and the neurotic extremity of London toned down to a dark and gothic mix of post-metal, prog and pop. Songs like Unknown,IWSYA and the wonderful closing track Footsteps have a dreamy Anathema-like quality and their music breathes like never before with a diverse range of tones and instruments. But the band’s patented blasting urbanity remains. The primal Dead Feelings and marauding Manipulator have all the nightmarish obsession, paranioa and eroticism of previous releases. The album’s experimentation brings some inevitable mis-steps: there are some hollow lyrics, occasional forays into shouty metalcore and the off-kilter Rabbit’s Curse places a hurdle in the album’s early stages. But the restless hustle and bustle of the band’s arrangements mean even the tracks that misfire have moments of wonder. Take Funeral Day‘s shift from grimy groove to shimmering mellotron beauty. Frightened is a bold and captivating new chapter in the band’s story but also feels like it’s leading somewhere… Voices investigating new and dark back-alleys that will very likely lead to another masterpiece.
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.
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.
After the U.S. the most important country in the story of thrash metal has to be Germany. And in Germany it all started with the debut EP from Sodom. Where German thrash initially differentiated itself from its American counterpart was in crude, primitive blackness. And it doesn’t get much cruder, blacker or more primitive than 1985’s In The Sign Of Evil. It’s all very Venom-inspired with similar levels of punkish ineptitude. Most songs alternate between two caveman riffs and the performance, even on stupidly basic riffs like those in Sepulchral Voice, often unravels. But it was all chaotically evil enough to ensure that Sodom played a crucial role in the “first wave” of black metal and countless black metal bands still draw from this well. Outbreak Of Evil and Witching Metal are catchy-as-hell bruisers, Burst Command ‘Til War predates war metal with its howling pack of dogs chaos and Blasphemer ramps up the evil with Vincent Price laughs and entertainingly crap satanic lyrics… “masturbate to kill myself”. It’s the kind of entry-level simplicity that means new bands still fancy their chances at emulating it. But few have. In The Sign Of Evil is still a cut above with songs that live in the memory and in the band’s set-list to this day.
Blitzkrieg only managed to release one official 7″ single before splitting up in late 1981. Otherwise, they had some demos in circulation and a song Inferno on the Lead Weight compilation. Luckily for Blitzkrieg, their solitary release was impressive enough that Metallica ended up covering its eponymous B-side. This bestowed infamy and cult credibility to the defunct band and ensured their return in 1985.
But luck didn’t really have much to do with it cause Blitzkrieg is superb. The unforgettable opening riff might have been purloined from the Focus classic Hocus Pocus but it doesn’t matter because Blitzkrieg conjure up their own metal magic here. The mega-chunk guitars, deadly hooks (“let us have peace, let us have life”) and a dynamic rifferama climax make this mandatory listening. And the less-famous A-side Buried Alive isn’t too shabby either. Stark, driving metal with a piercingly catchy chorus. Just ignore the Bolanesque nonsense lyrics “the Leather Prince, turned to mince”… I can see why Metallica steered clear of that one.