Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ratt's Infestation CD review (2010)

Ratt are back and sounding better than ever with Infestation (Loud & Proud/Roadrunner), their first album of new music in 11 years.

With three-fifths of the band's classic lineup -- singer Stephen Pearcy, guitarist Warren DeMartini and drummer Bobby Blotzer -- still intact and some new blood injected into the band, it's no wonder the Los Angeles veterans are in particularly rare form on this latter-day hair metal classic.

Robbin Crosby is, of course, RIP, while original bassist Juan Croucier has long been MIA and has since been replaced by four-stringer Robbie Crane. Joining the fold to give the band a dual-guitar attack is Quiet Riot guitarist Carlos Cavazo.

Having two legendary six-stringers like DeMartini and Cavazo in the studio must have presented at least some temptation to producer Michael Baskette (Limp Bizkit, Chevelle, Incubus) to push the guitars way up in the mix at the expense of the rhythm section. But that's not the case.

Sure, the guitars and vocals jump out at you, but Crane and Blotzer also stand out with a clean, clear rhythm presence. This is one record that you can actually hear the bass on! In fact, Baskette's studio style recalls the crisp production work on 1986's Dancing Undercover -- the last truly stellar Ratt record.

Below is a track-by-track review of Infestation.

1. Eat Me Up Alive

Infestation opens with an irrepressible blast of a song that almost borders on '80s power metal in the vein of Judas Priest. Pearcy's threatening opening lyrics -- "Tell me all your secrets now / as I lay you on the bed" -- recall Priest's "Eat Me Alive."

There's even a breakdown at 2:15 that's reminiscent of the one in Priest's "The Sentinel." Pearcy engages in some brief Halford-ian wordplay during the breakdown and then DeMartini and Cavazo use the solo to trade barbed-wire licks like they're Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing.

Who would've thought Ratt had a Defenders of the Faith moment in them?!

2. Best of Me (Metal Mixtape favorite!)

After the Birmingham, England-like metal blight of "Eat Me Up Alive," we go straight to sunny California's Sunset Strip for this stellar single.

From the moment the chunky, melodic riffing of the song's intro kicks in with a sublime DeMartini lead over top, you know you're in for something memorable. It's the kind of music that can appeal to longtime fans without sounding like a retrospective rehash. It's amazing that this storied L.A. act can sound this good after all these years.

3. A Little Too Much

Another energetic number that contains some of the most dense guitar shredding of the record. This is a tough trash-talking rocker. Love that tolling of the bell around 3:10, too! It's just a moment, but it's a nod to the history of the genre's roots that calls to mind AC/DC's "Hell's Bells."

4. Look Out Below

An almost "Way Cool Jr." style jam with some bounce and shuffle, and touches of wah-wah on the guitar during the hook. The band hits double-time to end this track on a high note.

5. Last Call (Metal Mixtape favorite!)

This is an almost AC/DC-like call to debauchery, with a riff that recalls the Antipodeans' "Riff Raff" filtered through the Sunset Strip. Things get loose as a goose when the bridge comes along and there's a blues shuffle à la Tora Tora before kicking into the driving hook.

The solo opens with another Priest-ish moment, as DeMartini and Cavazo hit some tandem ascending runs that conjure up Tipton and Downing all over again.

6. Lost Weekend (Metal Mixtape favorite!)

Here it is, another Holy Grail moment for the hair metal faithful. Opening with an accentuated rhythm borrowed from early Mötley Crüe, "Lost Weekend" is the real deal with big chunky slabs of melodic riffing and party-hearty lyrics that show us all how to let our hair down.

It makes Pearcy's opening question on this track -- "Are you ready for big fun?" -- a needlessly rhetorical inquiry. Ah, Stephen, we were born ready. Where were you through much of the '90s when we needed you, while most rock fans were turning into depressed coffee-drinking losers?! Welcome back, boys!

7. As Good As It Gets

Slow, sleazy grooves dominate this mid-tempo number as Pearcy pays tribute to making love to his wife. Is it just me or does Stephen's voice have an almost Lemmy-like hoarseness on this track? In fact, this song feels kind of like a slow, heavy blues that Motörhead might pull off.

8. Garden of Eden

Here the record, in my opinion, begins to hit a lull. "Garden of Eden" just doesn't seem catchy, despite the Sabbath-y stomp of the verse with its stops and starts à la "War Pigs." It's almost like Ratt trying their hand at stoner rock.

Checking in at a very short three minutes, "Garden of Eden" feels like it's missing something. What's missing, though, I can't say. But this song feels to me like it was an afterthought that would have been better as a B-side.

9. Take a Big Bite

Another raunchy rocker with some nice harmony runs from DeMartini and Cavazo in the solo. Viva la double-guitar attack of classic metal! "Take a Big Bite" reverses the dull trend that started with "Garden of Eden."

10. Take Me Home

This is as close as we get to a power ballad on Infestation. "Take Me Home" has a dreamy sound, with guitars that mimic violins during the verses (think Boston's Tom Scholz on Third Stage) and nice orchestration courtesy of producer Michael Baskette to heighten the sense of drama.

Sure, it's a little left field for Ratt, but it plays nicely into the sensitive side of the bad boy stereotype that Pearcy and the band cultivate. And that's a big part of what makes the hair-metal genre so appealing to men and women alike.

11. Don't Let Go (Metal Mixtape favorite!)

At last, the final send off to a great album. "Don't Let Go" was co-written with John Corabi (Union, Mötley Crüe) and has that daring, driving guitar sound that feels big, edgy and dynamic like vintage Van Halen.

Pearcy's opening line is "I'm gonna get me some leg tonight for sure / and I don't care who I'm with." Um, when was the last time you heard anyone say that since David Lee Roth did it in "Unchained"?! That was 1981, for chrissake!

Bravo, Stephen! A heartfelt "thank you" to Ratt for making us remember the good times and creating brand-new music for us to make memories with in the future.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Whitesnake, Slip of the Tongue CD review

David Coverdale must not have been a happy camper in 1989. With ace guitarist Adrian Vandenberg injured and Vivian Campbell out of the fold, the British frontman was getting mounting pressure from Geffen Records to follow up on the multiplatinum breakthrough success of Whitesnake's self-titled 1987 effort.

No wonder then that Coverdale tapped musical chameleon Steve Vai to handle all guitar duties on 1989's Slip of the Tongue. After all, Vai was the "go to" guy of choice for everyone in the hard rock world long before collaborations and guest appearances on other people's record became the norm in popular music.

Vai had filled Yngwie Malmsteen's sizable shoes after the Swede's departure from Alcatrazz, and David Lee Roth knew he was the only man who could play his foil after the blond-maned rocker's years with Eddie Van Halen & Co.

Below is a track-by-track take on this quintessential arena metal platter.

"Slip of the Tongue"

A heraldic keyboard intro and quick doses of Vai's harmonic flash open the record with a sense of drama and pizazz. The hook is relentless and rocking. Lusty lyrics conjure images of Coverdale cavorting with then-wife Tawny Kitaen on MTV in a million homes. Welcome back, boys.

"Cheap an' Nasty"

Coverdale gets the record's most awkward moment out of the way early. Maybe he was just playing to Vai's recent resume, but spoken Roth-isms like "Just to the left, love" and "Don't talk with your mouth full" during the song's breakdown sound very un-rock & roll when it's the Queen's English coming out of your mouth.

Even a guest appearance by an ad hoc singing mob called "The Delberts from Hell Chorus" -- featuring Coverdale's former Deep Purple cohort Glenn Hughes -- can't rescue this song from sounding trite and tired.

"Fool for Your Lovin'"

In order to score his first and only No. 1 pop hit, Coverdale dug deep into Whitesnake's history to reprise "Here We Go Again" -- a song that first appeared on the band's 1982 album Saints & Sinners.

So it was only natural that Coverdale would look back to 1980's Ready an' Willing to try to capture the gold again. However, it's the bluesy edges of this track that prevent it from being pop-metal paradise.

"Now You're Gone"

The first of two power ballad-ish moments aimed at the "Here We Go Again"/"Is This Love?" audience.

This mid-tempo number has all the hallmarks of what could be a classic: the keyboard heaven intro with a searing, melodic lead; a few plaintive lyrics about lost love to open the song over a bed of lush keys; a quick cut to a metallized bridge; and the payoff of an arena-rock-sized hook meant for singing along to.

But it all feels a bit "by the numbers" and like it's been piece together from disparate parts, more a product of studio stitchery than anything else.

While we're on the topic of studio work, it never ceases to amaze me that you can still hear unintentional noise bleeding through during the quiet parts on some of these big-budget major label releases.

Pop on a pair of headphones and listen at exactly :21 seconds during the intro to hear a muffled voice in the right channel. Later, at :26 seconds, you can hear an even fainter sound of what seems to be someone in studio laughing as Coverdale trails off from the song's opening lyric.

Perhaps studio whizs Mike Clink and Keith Olsen were too busy producing the Sea Hags' self-titled debut and the Lean on Me soundtrack (!) in 1989 to notice in the final mix!

"Kittens Got Claws"

Was Steve Vai the right fit for Whitesnake? Well, he certainly brings a sense of humor to heard-it-all-before material like "Kittens Got Claws" when he makes his guitar meow and purr during the intro and outro. His vibrato work on this one has that quintessential Vai sound -- as plastic and flexible as a melting watch in Salvador Dali painting.

"Wings of the Storm"

After the rockin' comic relief Of "Kittens," things gets deadly serious again with the driving metallic riffing of "Wings of the Storm." Anyone notice the musical similarity between this number and "Bark at the Moon"? No surprise really, considering that bassist Rudy Sarzo and drummer Tommy Aldridge both laid rhythm for that mid-1980s Ozzy Osbourne classic.

Of course, Vai makes "Wings of the Storm" his own during the solo. Check out the extended descending fretboard run at 3:17 for proof.

"The Deeper the Love"

While "Now You're Gone" may have been the heir apparent to "Here We Go Again," "The Deeper the Love" is my pick as the stronger of the two power-ballad singles.

Coverdale layers his airy vocals like cotton candy over dreamy keyboards. The guitar work rocks you gently with Vai getting extra texture out of what sounds like a bit of finger-plucking at the end of the melody line. And that simple, insistent drum beat is the bedrock for what might have been a wildly popular hit single.

It all comes together in a more organic way than "Now You're Gone," which has just enough moving parts to feel unfortunately forced. "The Deeper the Love", by comparison, just flows seamlessly. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, this one shoulda been more of a contender.

"Judgment Day"

Coverdale has often been accused of being a Robert Plant rip-off and "Judgment Day" does little to counter that belief. A vaguely exotic stampede of percussive chords and subtle sitar work call to mind Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

"Slow Poke Music"

This song has an interesting, stuttering rhythm during the chorus. But otherwise it's not too memorable, despite nice playing from Vai that almost recalls his gritty guitar work on "Tobacco Road" with David Lee Roth.

"Sailing Ships"

Opening with minstrel-like acoustic work reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore, "Sailing Ships" is the perfect end to Slip of the Tongue.

Toward the end, an extended electrified coda erupts in a flurry of Led Zeppelin-esque sonic stomping. Sublime, soul-searching lyrics like "You'll find that you're the only one / can sail your ship across the sky" leave you with a sense of wonderment and awe at the possibilities of life.

In the last moments of the song, Coverdale hits a dramatic high note that rivals the one in "Still of the Night," while Vai's guitar echoes off into eternity.

Could this be Whitesnake's "Stairway to Heaven," with its meld of unique styles into an epic songwriting structure? Perhaps. This much is certain, though: Like a class act, Whitesnake leave you wanting more with "Sailing Ships."