Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hair Apparent: Vain

(Editor's note: This is the latest installment in a series about albums that don't quite qualify in the Lost Classics category, yet still warrant a closer look.)

Vain, No Respect (Island, 1989)

The Big Idea: Glam rock gets mean, down and dirty

Choice Cuts: "Secrets," "Beat the Bullet," "No Respect" and "Without You"

Sonic Brethren: Spread Eagle, Skid Row and Guns N' Roses

Fun Fact: Davy Vain is the cousin of metal songstress Lana Lane

Like many bands from the era, San Francisco's Vain should have been more popular than they were. Charismatic frontman Davy Vain got his start as a producer on Death Angel's first album. But his eponymous outfit had nothing to do stylistically with the Bay area thrash sound. Instead, Vain offered a tough yet accessible mainstream sound that focused on hooks, while visually going for a dark glam image.

No Respect rips out of the gates like a winner with the first cut, "Secrets." As a brutal and jagged rhythm guitar riff erupts out of the right speaker, Vain himself starts cooing before abruptly erupting into a scream ("Nah-nah-nah-no secrets") as the rest of the band's syncopated slamming begins. This is raw, energetic rock from a band that sounds like it's been in the gutter for ages.

How do you follow-up an opening salvo like that? With "Beat the Bullet," the disc's first single. "Bullet" opens with a rumble of bass and slashes of wah-wah guitar, the interplay of guitarists Danny West and James Scott recalling that of Guns N' Roses axemen Slash and Izzy Stradlin.

By the time you get to the seventh cut -- the title track -- Vain are really hitting their stride and stretching out to encompass more sonic textures. "No Respect" opens with an element of mystery as chiming harmonics and somber acoustic fretwork obscures cryptic whispering. But the unplugged intro is just subterfuge; the song locks into a blasting guitar-and-drums groove soon enough and Vain's vocal delivery goes from hushed to dark and urgent. This is one vocalist who has a great command of dynamics.

Another nuanced vocal (and band) performance comes in "Without You." The only bona fide ballad on the album, "Without You" is also the longest cut on No Respect. Vain milks his voice for emotion, while the band adds a touch of orchestration for dramatic effect. But what it takes nearly six minutes for the act to say a better group could probably pull off in little more than half the time. The lyrics (see below) might be a little forced too, but they're very right for the time period.
"Like a candle in the wind / I'm easy to put out / Like the picture through your window / You see right through my heart"
Any momentum that might be lost on "Without You" is regained on the disc's final track, "Ready." At two minutes, 59 seconds, "Ready" is a punk-fueled romp through the "Johnny B. Goode" riff. It's a crucial cut that extols the virtues of partying and rock & roll at 140 beats per minute. This track would have made a great set closer in concert, with guitarists West and Scott trading off wild, reckless licks as the rhythm section kicks the tune into double time for a breathless finish. A perfect end to an almost perfect album.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Vintage Ozzfest Picture

I snapped this one in 2000 in Holmdel, N.J. Pantera's Phil Anselmo was a wild man and put on a great performance.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Europe's Secret Society CD review

Here's a track-by-track review of Europe's forthcoming Secret Society album. The disc hits stores Nov. 7 via Sanctuary Records.

"Secret Society"

The first words out of Joey Tempest's mouth on this album (literally) are "Runnin' against the line / against the time" delivered in a sing-songy a capella refrain before the tune kicks in. Indeed, those lyrics are something of a metaphor for this album as a whole. Secret Society finds the band bucking the trend of '80s bands reuniting to rehash the musical past; instead Europe go all guns blazing into uncharted sonic territory on this new album.

"Secret Society" is marked by an Eastern flavor, with Tempest using his voice as an instrument to deliver melodic wails like a mystic communing with God. The track is anchored by the Audioslave-like riffing of John Norum. The guitarist spices things up with some very trippy leads in the vein of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. Dynamics are the key to this cut, with the music making sudden stops and starts that allow Tempest's vocals to feel very expansive.

"Always the Pretenders"

This tune is the disc's first single, but doesn't expect some light fluff. "Always the Pretenders" would be at home on the airwaves of any rock radio station that values chunky guitars, memorable hooks and meaningful songwriting. The tune is angsty and edgy, while not losing sight of the melody. Norum rips into a tense solo that just heightens the drama. Best of all, this song has what I like to call iceberg lyrics -- those words that hint at just enough for you to create a narrative, but never fully reveal what lies beneath. Here's a sample of what I mean, culled from the refrain:

"All I can remember / All I can recall is you / Telling me there's been an accident / Always the pretenders / Always thought that love would do / Everyday I miss your innocence"

It all adds up to a very cinematic listening experience. It's been said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Well, I'll one-up that and say that if "Always the Pretenders" were a movie, it would be a nail-biter like Memento.

"Love Is Not the Enemy"

This is one for the real riff freaks among you, with its overtones of the Gothenburg sound. Of course, we're not really talking melodic death metal here; instead this is just a finely crafted pop tune with a riff that could almost pass for one from In Flames.

"Wish I Could Believe"

Now we arrive at the first mid-tempo song of the bunch. It's like a power ballad with keyboardist Mic Michaeli gently caressing his ivories and providing some synthesized orchestration. If I'm not mistaken, Norum also plays slide on this tune making it a little reminiscent of something off QueensrĂ¿che's Hear in the Now Frontier. Lyrically, Tempest details what sounds like either a crisis of faith or a failed relationship: "Wish I could believe in God / So I can move ahead." Definitely one of the most existential tracks on the album.

"Let the Children Play"

This song really encapsulates a lot of what makes this album so unique. First off, the riffs: they're rhythmic, angular, choppy and very modern. They do just about everything to distance themselves from the standard '80s sound that is possible. But they work because they lead into hooks that are built on familiar chord changes. Secondly, Europe aren't afraid to take a chance when songwriting. On this cut, that means including a children's choir to startling effect. Is this the best tune on the album? No way, but it really helped me gauge the kind of adventurous songwriting the band is practicing these days.

"Human After All"

Don't be fooled by the classical orchestration that fades in at the start of this track. This is one of the grittier numbers on Secret Society, both in terms of lyrics and overall sound. Tempest's vocals have a bluesy, tight feeling as if he's almost choking back some of the lyrics for dramatic effect. This is a rhythmically driven, bass-heavy cut that's highlighted by the orchestral strains of Michaeli's keyboard.

"Getaway Plan"

The riff here with its disjointed phrasing conveys a lot of tension and excitement. Couple that with the lyrical description of a man on a mission and "Getaway Plan" feels like it belongs in a James Bond movie. At first I thought this tune might be the nadir of the album because it feels a little too sonically similar to "Human After All" and comes right on the back of that song. But now I'll say that this is just another rocker that lays down a thick groove and should appeal to fans of Norum's meaty and mighty six-string attack.

"A Mother's Son"

After the frenzy of "Getaway Plan," the band kicks it down a notch with this song. It's very ballady, very dark and very morose. This is a particularly downbeat moment before the tempo picks up again for a trio of tunes that ends the album.

"Forever Travelling"

This song seems to be Europe's tribute to San Francisco. We're not talking sonically -- this ain't no thrash metal monster -- but rather lyrically. Tempest sings "Somewhere in my mind I'm under the Golden Gate / Somewhere in my heart I'm in the city by the bay / Sometimes I can feel the wheel in [the] sky, it's still turning" right before the solo. Perhaps the last line is a reference to "Wheel in the Sky" by Bay area band Journey?

"Brave and Beautiful Soul"

A lot of people say it's hard to take rock artists seriously these days. I think the opposite is true. Whether it's Tom Morello, Serj Tankian or Bono, everyone seems to have a political or humanitarian cause they support. They all want to be taken too seriously.

Well, count Europe among those who also seek to move hearts and minds with their music. But Tempest & Co. aren't self-righteous about their beliefs. It's hard to say exactly what cause or injustice "B & B Soul" addresses, if any. I could speculate that the song is about third world debt, Darfur or AIDS in Africa. After all, the lyrics are printed on top of artist Dan Abbott's sketch of the continent featuring a woman's face near South Africa.

But really "B & B Soul" is a song is about letting yourself care about others, and seems to be one of the more personal songs on Secret Society. Opening with a very crushing and modern riff, Norum's guitar work again has something of the Gothenburg sound here.

Meanwhile, Tempest isn't afraid of critics who think rockers should just shut up and sing. In fact, he has a pointed message for them: "Well here's to you all cynical / Here's the ammunition that you need / Here's another song about empathy / Please yourselves think what you will." Later he gives us a real chestnut of wisdom from the heart: "An emotional response [is] sometimes better than an intellectual one." Sing on, Joey.

"Devil Sings the Blues"

At last, the final countdown is over and here we are at the end of the album. "Devil Sings the Blues" opens with an arpeggio that sounds almost drop-tuned in the vein of grunge rock or Black Sabbath.

The opening line -- "Today I'm the dirt beneath your feet / at your beck and call" -- has shades of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Actually, Tempest's lyrical persona bears a lot of similarity to that of the Good Gray Poet himself. The singer is on a quest for unity with all things. And judging by the lyrics -- "And my heart is open / and my eyes are open / today I give my life to you / and my arms are open / and my faith is open / today the devil sings the blues" -- it sounds like he's found it.

This track is the longest on the album, checking in at five minutes, 24 seconds. It's the closest thing to an epic we get on Secret Society. Norum's axe is the last sound we hear as he rips a guitar hero worthy solo that goes for nearly two minutes before the tune fades off into the sunset. A great finish to a great album.

Whatdya Mean I Don't Support Your System

. . . I Go To Court When I Have To!

After spending Monday and Tuesday serving jury duty, I now hope to return to semi-regular posting. Look for that Europe review shortly.