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.
It’s tempting to see 1992’s Angel Dust as a deliberate and contrarian attempt to confuse fans following the unexpected success and “funk metal” pigeonholing of 1989’s The Real Thing. But that album was already weird enough, with its vibrant range of styles and Mike Patton’s darkly humourous lyrics. So, with Patton now fully involved in the band’s musical direction rather than just vocals and lyrics, Faith No More were really just evolving naturally: becoming weirder and more eclectic than ever before. Scathing, metallic rockers like the sarcastic Land Of Sunshine and the jackhammer Caffeine mingle with the sample-heavy melodic genius of Midlife Crisis, Everything’s Ruined and A Small Victory. But the album is at its best when it goes all Alice Cooper. RV‘s quirky portrayal of a trailer park slob has moments of soaring pathos and the album’s choicest deep cut Crack Hitler is a funky soundtrack for the best 70s TV action show you’ve never seen. It’s not all perfect. The cover of Midnight Cowboy is a pointless coda and I find the noisemare tracks Malpractice and Jizzlobber a bit uneventful. But even they still contribute to the dark, weird totality and I doubt Faith No More wanted anyone to like all of this. The contrary buggers. Like the cover’s pairing of a majestic egret with images of a slaughterhouse… Angel Dust is both beautiful and hideous. A challenging masterpiece. So sing and rejoice, sing and rejoice.
Saxon had enjoyed a return-to-form with 1991’s Solid Ball of Rock and moved fast to keep the momentum going, releasing the follow-up Forever Free just over one year later. As well as hurrying, the band also skimped on costs, recording in Vienna with unknown, cut-price producer Urwin Hersig. It probably comes as no surprise, then, that Forever Free sounded rushed and cheap.
For the most part, Forever Free comes across like a collection of leftovers from Solid Ball of Rock. It continues that album’s mix of Euro-metal and AC/DC raunch but many of the tracks stray too far into forgettable territory. Songs like Cloud Nine, Get Down and Dirty, Grind and the cyber-metal cover of I Just Want to Make Love to You sound like the band are jamming out ideas: working versions rather than the finished product. This isn’t helped by the sound: much of Forever Free sounds like a demo, a decent demo but a demo all the same.
On the positive side, these weaknesses give the album a sense of charm. The under-cooked tracks have a playfulness about them and the loose, jamming approach throws up some truly inspired playing from the Quinn/Oliver guitar duo (check out the hot solo on Night Hunter). And, while the bungled production wasn’t going to cut it for casual listeners and airplay, it results in the rawest, most metallic album the band had put out in years.
There are only a couple of real keepers though. The title track is the album’s enduring classic, a “wind in your hair” biker anthem that turns the clock right back to the band’s classic NWOBHM days. Iron Wheels is an enchanting folky strum and, if the lyrics sound familiar, it’s because you already heard them on Destiny’s Calm Before the Storm. The blue-collar imagery works much better here in this rustic setting and makes for one of the albums more affecting and creative tracks. The albums best, and most overlooked, deep cut is the stunning Hole in the Sky, with its spellbinding chorus and Ozzy-ish riffing.
Forever Free is a mixed bag that only committed Saxon fans will enjoy. It’s not a disaster and, unlike previous Saxon missteps, at least it sticks to the band’s core style. But it is still a misstep and did real damage to the band’s regeneration. Coming off the back of its well-received predecessor, Forever Free sold well but this rough and patchy effort ensured that many of those customers wouldn’t be back for more. Saxon had lost a crucial battle in the war to re-establish themselves but, as their next album would prove, these old dogs weren’t about to surrender any time soon.
What makes a great cover version? There’s only one question you have to ask: does the band covering the song make it their own? Skyclad’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s Emerald is excellent. It’s faithful to the original song but the more metallic, aggressive and threatening delivery along with the clever use of violin to handle the chorus riff and bridge ensures the song fits perfectly in Skyclad’s folk metal oeuvre. Extra points awarded for guest guitar from Lizzy’s ‘Robbo’ Robertson and the fact that this version is responsible for me getting into Thin Lizzy in the first place! Even if I (and probably you) ultimately prefer the original there is no denying this is an inspired and enjoyable cover version.
Emerald opens their 1992 EP Tracks From the Wilderness and is followed by two studio cuts that sadly don’t keep up the standard it sets. A Room Next Door is a decent ballad with beautiful, rustic acoustic guitars but When All Else Fails is forgettable thrash. Neither are in the same league as the Lizzy cover or up to the quality of the tracks on the band’s previous two albums. The lack of Fritha Jenkins’ violin on these suggests they were probably off-cuts from the band’s debut album. The EP closes out with three energetic and endearing live tracks from the Dynamo festival. The band are tight and Martin Walkyier delivers each song with zeal. These excellent performances round out a worthwhile stop-gap release but there’s no denying this is mainly worth buying for Emerald. For fans only.