Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Alice Cooper Killer (1971)


Continuing on a rather winning streak, the band is now getting more serious – and more complex.

There’s still enough powerful garage rock on here, to be sure, but there are also psycho freakouts like ‘Halo Of Flies’ and the title track, which are way more involving and way more well-developed than ‘Black Juju’. Not that I have anything in particular against ‘Juju’, but you gotta admit, it did produce a rather laughable effect. It was sort of just this one simple riff repeated over and over, you know? But ‘Halo Of Flies’, while hardly being any more understandable or meaningful, is far more attractive and diverse in the musical sense, with shakey, psychotic riffs, goofy vocals, and extended instrumental sections, some of which even recall the Nice’s ‘Rondo’. The track never really loses the attention of the listener (me).

The funny thing is, there’s still very little professional musicianship involved, it’s the kind of stuff Steve Howe could probably play while still sitting on his chamber pot, but somehow the band manages to keep it relatively simple and emotionally involving at the same time, plus it rocks and it ain’t all that pretentious. And it all culminates in a series of guitar climaxes and funny “tumbling” organ lines!

What’s even funnier to consider is they most probably did all these lengthy instrumental workouts mostly in order to give Furnier enough time to savour all his scenic debauchery – sort of a basic soundtrack to the shock-rock show. Mark my words, then: the shock-rock show will fade away (it already has, at least as far as ‘Halo Of Flies’ is concerned!), but the music will definitely stay, a soundtrack that outlives whatever it’s supposed to accompany. Which only further confirms the talents of the Cooper band.

Overall, Killer is the band’s most Doors-like sounding effort, with Alice himself often sounding like Morrison and a lot of riffs, atmospheres, tones and sound effects that seem to have been taken straight out of the minds (and sometimes, out of actual songs) of their predecessors. This is not at all a coincidence: apart from the fact that the Doors were this band’s main guru, Killer was being recorded in the wake of Morrison’s death, and at least one song – ‘Desperado’ – is said to be directly dedicated to Jim’s memory, even if all the actual references there (‘I wear lace and I wear black leather’, etc.) were probably always taken by the public as referring to Cooper himself.

Yet once again, the album is rather well-balanced: the challenging “dirty rockers” and the spooky tunes take more or less the same space. The spooky tunes take the cake here: the instrumental diversity and interesting melodic twirls put them among the band’s best ever material. ‘Halo Of Flies’ is great, like I said, and ‘Killer’ actually demonstrates signs of, er, ahem, good taste: I think the Latin funeral chanting in the middle is expendable (way too cheap for a morose trick), and the chaotic ending is just one big question mark (although I did jump right out of my chair when it first came on), but I like the contrast between the laid back ominous growl of the main part and the stern organ dirge which the song develops into later on.

And again, mark the greatness of simplicity: the three-note riff played by the lead guitar while the funky rhythm chugs in the background is so goddamn effective I marvel nobody ever used it anywhere before. Probably has. So goddamn simple, it couldn’t have not been used earlier. Maybe by somebody like the Chocolate Watchband.

Meanwhile, ‘Dead Babies’ earned the band its first serious accusation of necrophilia and “pedophobia” (is it a real word?), even if it’s just a simple, attractive, hook-filled gothic ditty about parents not caring for their children. Nothing but that. It wasn’t until a bit later, with stuff like ‘I Love The Dead’, that Alice started descending into real kitsch that he couldn’t explain right away as a “misinterpretation of his good motives”.

The garage rock part is not nearly as well-developed, I think, as on Love It To Death, but only because nothing out there is nearly as great as ‘I’m Eighteen’; yet it still deserves enough attention due to consistency. ‘Under My Wheels’ is a great power-chord-based intro to the album, with saxes adding the necessary glam touch (come to think of it, the song would have easily fit onto something like Aladdin Sane) – and another excellent teen anthem… notice how every Alice album of that period has one, dedicated to various essential rock’n’roll themes? Growing up on Love It To Death, driving around on Killer, and, er, education problems on School’s Out – right?

‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ is great groovy pop with some more monster hooks, pretty indistinguishable from contemporary Sweet material, but whoever accused Sweet of never having penned a supercatchy ditty? Not me, that’s who. ‘You Drive Me Nervous’ is quite a good tune to drive somebody nervous indeed, with a wonderful choo-choo train riff and excellent use of feedback throughout (it gets a bit of flack for muddy production at times, but hey, this is a Detroit-based group, buddy, they’re supposed to be muddy). In fact, ‘Be My Lover’ is just about the only song on the entire album that hardly does anything for me, but even this might eventually change.

The only problem is that I fully agree with those who say Killer is not as obviously excellent as the previous album; it’s more consistent, actually, and shows significant growth even if it was released only months later, but it takes some time to grow on you. Once it does grow, though, you’d really be surprised that dear Alice Cooper once used to put out two prime quality records per year, when in more recent times it took him a decade or so to release a bunch of prime crap.

But then again, I’m running ahead here, ain’t I? Truth is, shock rock doesn’t really get any better than this; the “goth numbers” feel so damn appropriate in their places when they’re spread among exciting garage rock, and the lyrics are all clever and never trite or completely straightforward. Hell, even the album cover (with a nice-looking snake named Kachina on it!) feels far more interesting than all the childish spookiness Mr Furnier would decorate the sleeves with afterwards.

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Alice Cooper Killer | | 1 Comment

Montrose 1st Album (1973)

Montrose - FrontFrom

Arguably the greatest American hard rock album ever, Montrose’s 1973 debut is a stunning display of instrumental and vocal prowess.

As the prototypical 4-piece – guitar/vocals/bass/drums – they recorded one of the all-time essential slabs of heavy rock. Ronnie Montrose makes a tremendous leap from in-demand session musician to bandleader and legit guitar hero, Sam Hagar (wasn’t even Sammy yet) sets the standard for American rock vocals, Bill “the Electric” Church lays down some amazingly fat basslines, and Denny Carmassi smacks his drums with intense precision and manly vigor.

Track by track rundown: 1) Rock the Nation is the boldest possible statement of purpose – fast, super hard, and highly energized. Like all the songs on this album, it features fiery guitar, strong vocals, walloping drums, and solid bass. 2) Bad Motor Scooter starts out with the guitar imitating a revving motorcycle, as Hagar wails about how bad he wants to see his girlie. Seething with energy. Brilliant lead playing. 3) Space Station #5 burns with intensity! Epic multi-tracked soloing, cool sci-fi lyrics about leaving a dying planet, and a crazed hi-speed ending. 4) I Don’t Want It – an in-your-face rocker sporting immortal couplets such as “…just quit my job/makin’ toothpicks outta logs” and “flowers make me sneeze/and prayin’ hurts my knees”. Hagar sings like he means it.

Starting side two on the original LP, 5) Good Rockin’ Tonite revamps the old Elvis hit in a live-wire fashion. The overwhemingly massive 6) Rock Candy has the heaviest drums since When The Levee Breaks. Thick yet fluid bass, titanic drumming, powerful vocals, highly-sexed lyrics, massive Ronnie riffage. Big rock indeed. 7) One Thing On My Mind is a lightweight party song, advancing the literature on chicks and rockin’ out and kickin’ back. The anthemic 8) Make it Last closes out the album in a more “philosophical” mode, with some trademark Hagar lyrics about growing pains, loss of innocence, blah blah etc.

Montrose is a truly groundbreaking album, wildly influential on future generations of hard rock and metal bands. Incredibly tight, musically exciting, with relatively short songs (for the era) Montrose forged a new, bracingly kinetic sound, fresher than the competition. Eschewing the lengthy jamming of Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, much less crushingly heavy than Black Sabbath, not needing the theatricality of Alice Cooper or Kiss or Queen, more talented and less over-reaching than Grand Funk, tighter than BTO or The Amboy Dukes, less overtly boogie/blues oriented and more streamlined than Foghat or the James Gang, less ponderous than Rush or Uriah Heep, less myopic than Mahoghany Rush, not at all scary like early BOC, more catchy than Cactus or Crow, harder rocking than the southern rock bands. Note: I honestly adore all (well, most) of the above-mentioned bands, I’m just using them for contrast.

Important precedent – Their brand of commercially viable (yet still diamond-hard) rock and roll was the template for Van Halen. Van Halen used to cover Montrose songs in their LA club days. Montrose actually shares much more with VH: several albums released on Warner Bros Records, produced (with great clarity) by Ted Templeman and engineered by Donn Landee. The influence made it across the Atlantic – Iron Maiden covered at least two different Montrose songs.

Sammy Hager and Ronnie Montrose managed one more album together (1974’s fine Paper Money, also including Carmassi) before collapsing under the weight of the two competing gigantic egos, but the debut album is the real classic. Montrose has always had a permanent high spot on my top-ten “desert island disc” list. Perpetually a steady catalog seller for Warners, a remastered cd version is long overdue. At least three songs (tracks 1,2 and 6) on this album still make frequent rotation on most hard rock and classic rock stations, at least on the west coast. Both Hagar and Ronnie Montrose admit it was a career peak. Say, how about a reunion album and US tour while we’re dreaming? Crank it on up!

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Montrose 1st Album | | Leave a comment

Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You (1970)


Well, it’s not as heavy as Black Sabbath, I’ll give you that. But it is pretty heavy and pretty gloomy.

It’s also the best Atomic Rooster album, most consistent and most idiosyncratic before Chris Farlowe came and turned the band into a heavy, but generic funky outfit. Here, though, the band is again a trio, with John Du Cann excepted as a full-time member and finally rising to Crane’s challenge in all his might. In fact, this just might be the most obvious example of a heavy rock album which is based on a direct and full-force competition between the organist and the guitarist – Deep Purple immediately spring to mind, but even that band wasn’t so obstinate about overshadowing each other all the time. Here, it’s just one mind-blowing guitar riff after another desperately trying to push out the organ, and one warp-speed organ solo after another desperately trying to overcome the guitar. All that in an atmosphere of peace and contention, tho’, and without any possible traces of too much show-off-ness.

So anyway, you can think of Death Walks Behind You as a sort of ‘Black Sabbath for the intellectuals’: subtler (the heaviness is not so acutely perceived because ultimately Du Cann’s guitar tone is lighter than Iommi’s), with less cliched lyrics, less straightforward instrumentation, a far more professional rhythm section (well, rhythm player, because there’s no bassist this time, and all the bass parts are played by Crane on his organ, who thus follows the Ray Manzarek pattern), and less emphasis on overtly ‘evil’ vocal intonations.

And the songs? They rule. Riff-based, solid, fat heavy monsters that are unfortunately a bit saddled down with monotonousness. Which is probably why it’s a low 12 for me as opposed to something like Deep Purple’s In Rock. The only ‘half-ballad’ of the album, ‘Nobody Else’, is nice-sounding, but not too memorable, because Crane isn’t particularly good at vocal hooks and when I want a crooner sitting at a piano, I’d better take Elton John. Everything else is the same heavy sludgy R-O-C-K; fortunately, at least Du Cann varies his guitar intonations from time to time and some of the songs are taken at different tempos.

The one acknowledged classic here is the title track. You like slow atmospheric ‘art-metal’ played at maximum loudness and slowly beating you into the ground with every following tact? The song’s for you, and if the opening chorus riff doesn’t do the trick, you may be sure that the gradual alternation of that riff with the speedy descending guitar lines of the verses will. The song doesn’t even seem overlong to me at its eight minutes: it’s one of the earliest and best British examples of Goth rock, doom-metal, whatever, done in an extremely artistically satisfactory way or whatever you’d like me to say. It might be just a tad slow for some, though. You speed it up a bit, then.

Likewise, a song like ‘Tomorrow Night’ is also essentially saved by Du Cann’s riffage, and it’s also maddeningly slow. I swear, a bit more speed and the thing’s an MC5 classic worth of Back In The USA! Sometimes I actually think that the old rough equation of slow = metal, fast = punk actually works. Maybe the best part about the song, though, is its fadeout, when Du Cann plays a series of weird echoey ‘scraping’ licks, some of which he probably learned from Ritchie Blackmore, but others remind me of trhe sounds that would later be copped by Brian May, then Dave Gilmour, then the Edge, then just about anybody. I tell you, there ain’t nothing more delightful than tracing something back to its roots!

Another absolute highlight, with some of the most aggressive guitar playing of the year 1970, is ‘Sleeping For Years’ – pay attention to the opening guitar barrage, which actually anticipates the frantic high-speed guitar posturing of the New Wave of British Metal a decade later. Only where bands like Judas Priest would make those finger-flashing guitar barrages the culmination of the song, Du Cann is probably well aware of how cheesy this stuff would have sounded at the center of the sound, and instead assigns it the function of ‘atmospheric introduction’, playing a far more restrained middle-song solo instead. It still rules. As does ‘I Can’t Take No More’ with its galloping rhythm that sounds tremendously familiar to me but I can’t remember where from (that’s what happens when you had a bit too much to listen to!), and the two instrumentals, particularly ‘Vug’ with one of the most fantastic speedy organ solos I’ve ever heard, maybe only beaten out by some Emerson and Jon Lord stuff on occasion. The second instrumental has a drum solo, so it can’t be perfect, but I guess when you’re dealing with that time period, the drum solo is a necessary evil you just have to learn to live with.

Anyway, the obligatory recommendation is that every respectable metal fan should track down this sucker. Dark, dreary and highly professional, this is the way you combine your artsy inclinations (there’s still a lot of jazz elements here, in particular) with a penchant for heaviness, not the Uriah Heep style crap when a bunch of stoned talentless amateurs decide they have enough guts to serve the High Purpose of Art when all they know is to pound out ‘energetic’ Jon Lord imitations over a two-chord riff. Heh, heh, gotta vent out some frustration.

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You | | Leave a comment

Yes Keys To Ascension (1996)


Finally, not a moment too soon, the ‘prog come back’ movement seems to have reached Yes as well. Quite suddenly, we find out that the Eighties Yes are gone! It’s almost as if 1983 and its weaker follow-ups never existed, along with Rabin, Kaye and Horn. Instead, what we have on this record is the ‘classic’ Yes line-up minus Bruford plus Alan White (and indeed the record could have featured Bruford if he were not busy touring with the ‘double trio’ of King Crimson).

More importantly, they throw away all the unnecessary garbage they’d collected all the way – like electronic drums, heavy metal riffage and cheesy hi-tech synths. Those who threw away all hope that Yes would eventually go back to its roots again, rejoice! This is a three-quarters live album plus two new studio tracks that run for the good old standard Yes running time – respectively, one for nine and the other for nineteen minutes. To be honest with you, though, I’m not as overtly pleased with the album as everybody else is, for my own specific reasons. First of all, whatever you might object, its release was totally predictable.

Everybody with at least a decent sense of the laws of the genre should know that, if Yes were ever to continue (and they were to continue – all the famous bands that work according to the ‘revolving door’ principle are close to immortal), they were bound to return to their roots. Nostalgia sucks people in, you know. Show me a band that exists for more than twenty years and still hasn’t gone back to the source, at least once. So I really wouldn’t run around crying, ‘Hey! Isn’t it a wonder they’re back?’.

Second and worse, the live tracks are utterly dispensable. Oh no, they’re not bad at all, on the contrary, they’re fantastic. Not all are my favourites, of course: I still don’t like some of the bombastic numbers like I didn’t like the originals. ‘Siberian Khatru’ and ‘Awaken’, for one, still don’t do anything for me. And ‘The Revealing Science Of God’ is just as mind-numbing as it was in 1974. But ‘Onward’ never ceased being pretty (and here, in its tasty acoustic rendition, it’s even more pleasant than in the studio version), ‘Roundabout’ never ceased being catchy and rockin’, and ‘Starship Trooper’ never ceased being impressive, especially the ‘Wurm’ coda, of course.

Plus, they do a ten-minute version of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ (previously only available on the Yesterdays compilation that otherwise featured excerpts of the band’s first two studio albums) that sounds totally great: Steve Howe plays some of the most polished, sharp, crystal clear guitar lines in his career, once again showing us that at heart he’s just an exuberant lightning-speed jazz/boogie ‘shredder’; and the re-interpretation of the song as a whole, from a romantic, sad ballad into a soaring hymn is at the least amusing. Isn’t it? It actually reminds me of the way Yes used to reinterpret all those Beatles and Byrds songs at the beginning of their career… Nostalgia again.

What I really meant to say when I mentioned the word ‘dispensable’ was that most of the songs sound not a bit different from the studio versions. Okay, I don’t claim full responsibility to this phrase: I’m not in the mood to pick up the originals again and to spend a whole day comparing the versions. But even if there are differencies, they’re minimal. There is none of that brilliant spontaneity and improvisation that made Yessongs sound so involving.

My major complaint lies with Steve again: he seemingly hasn’t lost anything, but he just refuses to liven up the atmosphere. Instead, everything is screwed and tightened up to the utmost level, so that at times it’s damn impossible to tell the original from the copy. So who needs this copy? And why? No, I’m not telling you not to buy this – there is a guilty pleasure in collecting such undistinguishable live versions, and the game ‘Find Ten Differences’ is also fun to play. But you know, one could expect more creativity from these guys than the live material actually suggests.

So you understand, of course, that I was really curious about the two new tracks (not that I expected something which I’d fall in love with: if I don’t even like ‘Close To The Edge’, how could I expect to love ‘That That Is’?) Sure enough – they do sound like classic Yes more than anything else since Tales From Topographic Oceans, at least if we judge by the instruments and the atmosphere. The generic Rabin Riffs and the robotic hi-tech synths are gone, replaced by more acoustic guitars and more keyboard diversity from Wakeman (who actually overdubbed his parts after the recording, never playing with the band at all). But there’s just nothing exciting about these tracks – ‘Be The One’ gets duller and duller on every new listen, and ‘That That Is’, even if it does have a beautiful Howe acoustic intro and lots of twists and turns typical for the usual Yes complexity level, is little better.

The instrumental work isn’t stunning – nothing like a ferocious guitar solo or keyboard workout is presented; the riffs are almost non-existent; and the lyrics are in the best tradition of ‘Close To The Edge’ (as in, ‘raving nonsense’). Perhaps, well, I don’t want to be mean, but perhaps they should have started their ‘studio revival’ with a bunch of shorter tracks, don’t you think? Or is it now a general presupposition that the first desire of any Yes fan is a new ten-minute Yes composition? Do five-minute compositions qualify at all?

What this actually means is that the guts are still there but the flame is gone. Get me? They are still able to get together and make up a complex, multi-part composition, but they’re unable to make it come alive, to get it lighted up with the same youthful flame that they shared long ago. Nobody really wants to play this stuff – they seem to think that writing it is enough. Let me just tell you that if their material from the early Seventies had been played with the same level of ‘energy’ and the same carelessness as on the original tracks on Keys To Ascension, no way they’d become the leading stars of progressive rock. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to give the album anything less than an 7 because if this doesn’t get a 7 then what does? A fine effort, lads.

And maybe I forget the ‘psychological’ effect – how does it feel to listen to this after listening to Union? Let us appraise the album for the psychological effect! Okay?

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Yes Keys To Ascension | | Leave a comment