Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Alice Cooper's "Welcome 2 My Nightmare"

When I first heard that Alice Cooper's new album was going to be called Welcome 2 My Nightmare, I thought, "oh no, not a sequel album!". If you really think about it, how many sequel albums are any good, or, for that matter, well known? One that might come close is probably Kiss Alive II, but calling that a "sequel" is a bit of a stretch. I suppose that Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell II actually was successful, back in '93, but that's the exception, not the rule. (Operation: Mindcrime II, anyone?)

Well, this is Alice, so I figured I'd cut him some slack, even though I knew full-well that there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that "2" could hold a candle to the original 1975 album, and I decided that I would try really hard not to view the new album through that filter. The original is a masterwork of both Alice and producer/songwriter Bob Ezrin, who has produced some huge albums over the decades (Kiss' Destroyer, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Lou Reed's Berlin, just to name a few). Bob is back for the new one, and lends his producing and songwriting talents to this effort as well.

Knowing that Ezrin was on board, I felt that this album had a fighting chance of being at least a decent recording, especially when compared to Alice's more recent lackluster efforts like the so-so Dirty Diamonds (2005), the industrial-sounding Dragontown (2001), and the disappointing Along Came a Spider (2008). The other intriguing bit of news regarding this album was that, not only was original Nightmare guitarist Steve Hunter going to be all over this thing, but the original Alice Cooper lineup would be on the album, too. (That's the band called Alice Cooper, minus late co-guitarist Glenn Buxton. Remember: Nightmare was Alice's first solo album.)

The opening of "2" begins in a way familiar to Cooper fans, with the opening piano line from the original Nightmare's "Steven", leading into the first song, "I am Made of You". The first thing one notices about the opening track is the use of a Vocoder effect (often mistakenly thought to be "Auto Tune", though I'm willing to bet it could be used to make this vocal sound). This is the same effect that Cher used on her big hit "Believe" back in 1999. (Come on, I know you know it! We all know it!) The effect gives Alice a very robotic-sounding voice, while accentuating the melody of the vocal line. I wasn't too crazy about the idea, and I think the song would have been better without it, still, at it's crescendo, the song does manage to muster a decently thematic quality, kind of like the opening to blockbuster film.

Next is "Caffeine", the first "rocker" on the disc. It starts off well enough, but quickly stalls-out as a mediocre rocker with a silly-sounding, squeaky-voiced chorus of "caffeine, caffeine/amphetamine/a little speed is all I need..." Supposedly, the protagonist is trying hard not to slip back into the "nightmare", but this is kind of a cheesy way to get the point across. I know that Alice can be cheeky, and to great effect at times, but he's done better.

"The Nightmare Returns" is merely a vignette, but is possibly the only song on "2" that truly captures the feel of the the original album, right down to Alice's creepy little-old-lady voice.

As if Ezrin didn't have time to write and record any nice transitional pieces of music for the spaces between songs (in fact, there are no segues on this album whatsoever), the next song, "A Runaway Train", begins with what's supposed to be a "creepy" train conductor welcoming us aboard the "nightmare express". Please. Are we twelve? The whole thing sounds like some dude cupping his hands over his mouth, in place of modern recording technology. Maybe Bob was off that day. The song has just about every hackneyed rock-train-song cliche you can think of, including the "whoo-whoo" guitar riff. Ugh. The one thing that saves this tune? Vince Gil's guitar playing. You read that correctly: Vince Gil! I guess I've been out of the loop on country music, but the guy is a monster player and does his best heavy metal meets Nashville fast-picking on this number and, for that alone, it's worth a listen.

The next track, "Last Man on Earth", borrows it's main riff from "Some Folks" from the the original Nightmare album, but somehow manages to sound new. The riff is campy by design, and the use of a farty-sounding tuba helps to drive this point home, and is juxtaposed with the dire nature of the lyrics which find the protagonist trying to look on the bright side of being the only person to survive the apocalypse. Though not quite as clever as it could be, the song does feel like a well-formed idea, successfully executed.

"The Congregation" follows next, with a very "School's Out" sounding chorus. Man, I wish old school rockers would stop copying the best ideas of their past for "new" material. We're not all so stuck on past achievements that we need to hear them rehashed to feel young again. That said, the song is decent enough, but Alice has a penchant for putting thinly-veiled born-again Christian lyrics on his albums these days, and I can't stand it. The last thing I need from a "shock-rocker" are lyrics that talk about sin and redemption and suggest a moral path for me, or the fictional characters in Alice's story.

The song "I'll Bite Your Face Off", which is the album's first singe is, by Alice's own admission, an "homage" to the Rolling Stones. If by "homage" he means, rip-off of "Street Fighting Man", I would tend to agree with him. There's not much to hang your hat on with this tune; it's just an average song with overused phrases like "burning bed" and "killing floor" throughout.

"Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever"? Yeah, okay, I get it: hell is a disco. Hmmm, where have I heard this concept before? Oh, yeah, that's right, on the 1976's followup to Nightmare, a little album called Alice Cooper Goes to Hell! He rehashed his own freakin' joke! Not only that, but "Disco"? I'm sorry, but can someone please check a calendar and tell me what year this is? And, Alice raps on this one! Oh, so many things wrong with this song. Now I'm not stupid; I get that this is supposed to be campy and fun, but I'm not buying it. Good comedy is clever; it doesn't have to scream, "hey everybody, this is comedy, isn't it funny?!" If you want a great example of Alice's sardonic wit, check out "Cold Ethyl", a song about necrophilia from the original Nightmare.

Next up in the hodge-podge of "nightmarish" tunes is "Ghouls Gone Wild", which is basically a hard-rock version of a 1960's surf-rock song. Though Alice is a little behind the times with his take on the "Girls Gone Wild" franchise, he and the band manage to pull off a decent, fresh-sounding jam with a catchy hook. In this case, the campy lyrics work due to the fact that the song just keeps moving along without giving you time to dwell upon their meaning, but the fact is, this would make a good Halloween song.

Given the odd sequencing of the album thus far, I guess it should be no surprise that the next song, "Something to Remember Me By", is the album's only ballad. Ballads are one area in which, for whatever reason, Alice always seems to be able to hit a home run, and this song is no exception. He's probably an old romantic at heart, because the song seems to flow very naturally and the lyrics sound sincere. Though this tune would never be accused of being very original, it doesn't call to mind any of his previous ballads, or those of any other major artist; not an easy accomplishment, by any means.

"When Hell Comes Home"?, Now we're talkin'! I can honestly say I've been waiting for something like this from Alice for many, many years. The theme of the song centers around the protagonist's abusive farther, which is truly creepy, and the accompanying music is the epitome of the classic Alice sound. Why? Because it's the original band doing the writing and playing! Just fantastic. It has that sound. It's such an obvious departure from the rest of the album, it begs the question, why doesn't the original band just get back together and do a full album? This is easily the best song on the album, with a genuinely dark sound that only the original band could create. Alice's vocal delivery is far more sinister on this one and it compliments the slow-dirge riff of guitarist Michael Bruce's melody line, augmented by his surprisingly heavy-sounding doubling of the riff on piano. Even the use of the pitch-shifter on Alice's voice on the chorus hearkens back to the days of "Sick Things" from Billion Dollar Babies (1973). I can't say enough good things about this song, and I wish the whole album was this good, alas...

"What Baby Wants" features pop singer Ke$ha as the "Lady in Red" (which is code for "The Devil"; yup, he's back in hell). Clearly, Alice could not afford Lady Gaga and chose the next-most-edgy female pop-star of the day. Alice had professed his admiration for Gaga in the recent past, and was even photographed with her donning fake blood all over her body, but I don't remember Alice ever mentioning that he liked Ke$ha until after she appeared on his album. This is another thing Alice doesn't need to do: try to stay current by including the likes of Ke$ha on his new album. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but that feeling probably wore off before the ink dried on the CD booklets. This collaboration already seems dated to me. I will admit though, the part she plays in the song does add something, and the song isn't half bad, it's just that it sounds like a good pop song for another artist. But hey, I guess I can't blame him for trying.

"I Gotta Get Out of Here" is the last "real" song on the album, summing up all of the previous songs' themes, as if trying to say, "see, there was a theme". Apparently, the theme is this: you do bad things, you die and go to hell. This is overly simplistic, especially when you consider that the protagonist ("Steven") is supposed to be insane, and have an abusive father, but I guess these things land you in hell; either that, or I'm really missing something here, but I don't think so ("what part of dead don't you get?" is repeated over and over in this one). Again, an okay song, but Alice really seems to want to preach salvation and redemption to a rock audience that remembers him for songs like "No More Mister Nice Guy" and "Dead Babies".

"The Underture" wraps up the album, but it is not what I would consider a "real" song, simply because it is Bob Ezrin's masturbatory assemblage of all the orchestral bits from the first Nightmare album. Why was this included, so we'd say "oh yeah, right, this is supposed to be a sequel"? I just don't get it. The album should have ended with the previous song; at least it would have had a "creepy" total number of tunes, instead of 14.

Overall, the album is a really well-produced, so-so effort from Alice and Ezrin. I know they had hoped to recapture the magic they had 36 years ago, but not even Paul McCartney can pull that off any more. I applaud the effort, but I will probably end up just replaying the 3 or 4 songs on this album that I enjoy, and leave the rest out of the iTunes shuffle.

If you want a really good recent album from Alice, I highly recommend 2003's, The Eyes of Alice Cooper, which features some really great songwriting and playing from Alice and his bandmates.

Friday, September 30, 2011

My M3 Experience: Day 2

After spending the night back at the local Hampton Inn after the festivities of M3: day 1, along with what seemed to be an entire hotel of M3-goers, I was about as well rested as a middle aged guy who partied and went to a 5 hour concert the night before could be.

This was to be a much earlier start, since day 2 would feature a lot more bands than day 1. Good thing the free breakfast at the hotel provided an added incentive to get up a little early. Once my friend Mike and I got back to the venue, we quickly decided that we would be fine missing out on main stage opening bands Modern Superstar (who?) and Danger Danger in favor of a little tailgating. I made a point of dusting off my old 1988 Whitesnake tour shirt for the day, in honor of the nights headliners, but they were a good 10 hours away.

The first band we saw that day was Firehouse who, with 3/4 of the classic lineup intact (minus the bassist), I considered close enough to be "original", especially in a sea of bands missing many founding members. Since it's been 21 years since their debut, it's easy to forget how many hits they had, or memorable songs, at least. The band did an admirable job of warming up the crowd as the first real "name" band of the day. Though not able to hit all of the ridiculously high notes of "Don't Treat Me Bad", vocalist CJ Snare brought great energy and a good-time party vibe that has been absent from hard rock music since the grunge era. The fact that most of the band now have short haircuts makes me think they probably all have day jobs, but if I closed my eyes, it brought me back to the time I saw them opening for Tesla back in '92; very little in their sound and delivery had changed.

Up next on the main stage were Slaughter. (Ever notice, their name is one letter away from "laughter"? Just sayin'.) Now I've never been a big fan of theirs, and this performance certainly would not do anything to change that. It was a little freaky seeing a pudgy Mark Slaughter screeching on stage when, last I saw him, he was the cute pin-up boy all the girls had up in their lockers. (I had to break the news to my sister gently.) To me, they sounded just as pedestrian and uninteresting as they did when they opened for Kiss back in the summer of '90, but I watched their entire set, just the same. Call me lazy, but I just couldn't bring myself to walk up to the second stage to watch Pretty Boy Floyd instead.

The next main stage act was Great White. Great White?. Pass. There's just too much bad karma with that band for me to even be interested in their existence any more. I know some people think I'm too harsh when it comes to my opinions of them, but I just can't get past the whole Station Nightclub fire incident. In light of that horrible tragedy (and yes, I know the band lost a member in the fire), I find it ironic that vocalist Jack Russell is having all kinds of health problems, and that Jani Lane was supposed to be their fill-in vocalist, but apparently that was an ill-fated combination, too (and I still don't know the name of the Brit who was fronting the band). The band is just cursed and the less that is said about them, the better.

Instead of Great White, I checked out Gary & Marcus Cherone's new band Hurtsmile on the second stage. It was a little bizarre seeing Gary perform in front of about 500-1000 people in a parking lot behind the lawn seats. I mean, this guy was in Extreme and Van Halen! Not surprisingly, the band kind of sounded like Extreme. Though their material wasn't particularly memorable, the band was tight, professional and, in a different era, might actually have a chance at success. Really though, it's just something for Gary Cherone to do while he waits for Nuno Bettencourt to finish touring with Rhianna.

Afterwards, I went back to the main stage to see the newly reunited Mr. Big, who were just starting out on their first tour of the states in many years. Just one word: superb! They were almost perfect in every way and they were possibly the most talented and professional sounding group of the festival. Every aspect of their performance was spot-on, with 3-part vocal harmonies so good, you would have sworn they were prerecorded, but we all know better, don't we? The most surprising part of their set, however, was the incredible lack of interest from the large crowd watching them, even during "To Be with You" and "Green Tinted 60's Mind". This was rather puzzling to me. It's as if there weren't enough f-bombs or crotch grabs coming from the stage to satisfy the audience. How dare they try to impress us with talent! It's a pretty sad day when Slaughter gets more applause than Mr. Big, but what are you gonna do?

Between fruit smoothies, beers, southwestern wrap sandwiches, and more beer, I managed to sneak back to stage #2 to see a little of Black and Blue & Faster Pussycat's sets. B&B, though sounding great (minus Tommy Thayer, who is too busy playing in that other band to reunite with his old mates), had way too much bad-boy, f*ck-you attitude for a bunch of aging rockers playing a friggin' parking lot. Seriously. I don't want to hear how we're not loud enough, etc. etc.; you should be happy that people want to watch you at all. I suppose it all could have just been a put-on, but that schtick is a little tired in 2011. Perhaps singer Jamie Saint James was just bitter about having been fired from Warrant in 2008 to make room for Jani Lane, the guy he replaced.

On the other hand, Faster Pussycat seemed to have the bad-boy attitude thing down; everything's done with a wink and a nod. In other words, it's all in good fun. By the time they got to playing their signature power ballad "House of Pain", there were so many of us watching that many, including myself, were behind the stage. When singer Taimie Down turned around and noticed all of us, he acknowledged our presence with a Cheshire cat grin that showed us he was having as much fun at that moment as we were.

Sebastian Bach was next on the main stage. Having never seen him, or the original Skid Row perform, I thought his sometimes childish, douche-bag-like personality would have gotten in the way of his performance; boy, was I wrong! I can't explain why but, live, somehow it all works. If you've seen him perform, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. It's as if his larger than life persona cannot be contained in traditional media formats, but is right at home on that stage.

Opening with Skid Row's "Slave to the Grind", Baz meant business, and he was quite the showman, with a crack band that sounded raw, yet tight, and bristled with the energy of a classic metal show, without sounding dated, whether playing songs from his solo effort "Angel Down", or anything from the Skid Row catalog. Oddly, Baz and his band may have been the only true "metal" act on the bill at M3.

Following Baz were Telsa, the true road warriors and one of the few "real rock" bands of the 1980's, who made their presence known in grand fashion on the big stage. They certainly benefited from the growing darkness of night, which gave their entrance a very big, arena-rock feel that transported the audience right back to 1989. The band didn't really seem to be any different than they were back then, in spite of the fact that newest member Rick Rude replaced a troubled Tommy Skeoch a few years back on rhythm guitar. Jeff Keith's voice, though raspier than in the past, still conveys the feel and flavor of the unique Tesla sound, seamlessly blending a set consisting of old and new material. Again, right on queue, the big moment for the boys was during their signature power ballad "Love Song", which always goes over really well live. In addition, songs like "Heaven's Trail" and "Modern Day Cowboy" showed why their twin guitar attack is still fantastic, and used to great effect. By the time they were done, I couldn't help but think that it was nice to see them back on a big stage where they deserve to be, if only for one night.

I had one last opportunity to sneak off to the second stage and, by that time, it was starting to rain, but that didn't do much to stop those who wanted to see Lita Ford. She easily drew the largest crowd for that stage, but I think she really should have been on the main stage earlier in the day.

I only had a chance to listen to Lita perform 2 songs (I say "listen" because the geniuses who set up the second stage put it at the top of an incline, making it impossible for anyone under 6 feet tall to see the stage when a large crowd was present). Both of the songs I heard were classics: "Falling in and Out of Love" & "Close My Eyes Forever". From what I understand, Lita is trying hard to get out from under the shadow of her now ex-husband, former Nitro & Tuff singer Jim Gillette. Her 2010 "comeback" album was, by all accounts, something that sounded nothing like a typical Lita album, and it's monumental failure was blamed on Gillette's Svengali-like influence. Clearly, her performance was meant to help her get back to basics and to her core audience. So far, so good.

At long last, the final band of the night was Whitesnake. As most people know by now, the 'Snake is not really a "band", per se, rather, it is a musical vehicle for David Coverdale. This is nothing new, in fact, over the years, the band has had dozens of members. The most famous lineup of the band was the late 80's version, that was featured on the tour for the 1987 self-titled album (though that was not the same band that actually recorded the album). That's the album with all the big hits that we in America know and love, including "Still of the Night", "Here I Go Again", "Is this Love?" and "Give Me All Your Love". I know that Whitesnake's music and history are viewed very differently in Europe (with more emphasis on their late '70's/early '80's material), but whether DC likes it or not, his legacy in the US is comprised of 1984's Slide it In, 1987's self-titled, and 1990's Slip of the Tongue albums, yet a total of only 6 songs from these 3 albums were included in the set. I understand that he feels the band has a rich history, but the US is simply a different market, and there are probably very few "die-hard" fans in the US that even know any of the material recorded prior to 1984. That's not to say that the deep cuts are not any good, in fact, "Ain't no Love in the Heart of the City" is a great, bluesy Coverdale tune, if ever there was one, but the singalong DC was hoping for was anemic, because nobody in the US knows it!

The band also featured a few new songs from their current album Forevermore, which were fine, but they just can't stand up to the songs that Coverdale wrote with guitarist John Sykes for Slide & 1987. Unfortunately, that songwriting team will likely never work together again, though they are at least on speaking terms. At least Coverdale's current band is a great-sounding lineup. Guitarists Reb Beach (also of Winger) and Doug Aldrich (formerly of Dio) have both been with DC for nearly a decade, and it shows in their comfort level and overall performance. At this point, both players know the material inside and out and, along with rest of the seasoned band, and they gave Coverdale the foundation he needed for his performance. I'll give the guy credit, though his voice is not in top form, it still has a very cool, bluesy quality and he can still let out a good scream, when called for. I wasn't too pleased with the fact that the drummer and both guitarists got extended solos, though. The very idea seems dated, and it's not like these guys are the stars of the show but, then again, given Coverdale's vocal issues in recent years, I'm guessing that they are a built-in resting period for his pipes.

The extended solos notwithstanding, DC never left the stage, unlike many other singers around his age (59, at the time of the show) who don't seem to have the stamina. He preened and strutted, and performed many a mike-stand-over-the-head twirl, just like old times. It also has be said: the guy has damn fine hair! Now that's a true survivor for you!

All in all, M3 was a great experience, and well worth the money. I'm sure that, at some point, if the festival continues on long enough, many bands will make return visits to the show and the format will begin to repeat itself but, as long as they can have a healthy amount of lineup differentiation from year to year, I will be back, again and again.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My M3 Experience: Day 1

Hey everyone. Long time, no post.

I can't believe how long it's been since I've written a new "Throwing Forks" entry (well over a year). So much has gone down in the world of hard rock and heavy metal since then, that it's almost impossible for me cover all of the possible topics, so I won't even make the attempt, I'll just try to update the blog over the coming weeks and months with some of the more interesting stuff from the recent past. And, to that end, we begin again...

M3 2011: Day 1

Back in May, I had the pleasure of attending the M3 Rock Festival in Columbia, MD, about 20 miles south of Baltimore. Now that I'm living near Philly, it's less than a 2 hour drive to the venue, called the Merriweather Post Pavilion, where the event is held annually (this being the 3rd edition of the event).

For those of you who don't know, M3 is strictly an 80's hard rock/metal festival (now expanded to 2 days) held in late spring in an outdoor shed-style amphitheater. Fortunately, it's not your typical outdoor shed, as this venue has a 40+ year history and was designed by architect Frank Gehry. The facade is made entirely of wood and the grounds are nestled in the forest, making Merriweather the antithesis of your cheesy, cookie-cutter concrete and steel concert venues. It more closely resembles Tanglewood than, say, PNC Bank Arts Center or the Comcast Center (aka, Great Woods, to those of you from MA). The point is, this is a nice place to see any show, never mind a metal show.

Another good thing about the event: the folks who put it on are smart enough to know their market and not make it traveling show that would, ultimately, result in its own demise. Simply put, having a one-off destination festival makes it that much more "special". Think about it: Lollapalooza was once a traveling festival, but became less and less successful over time, to the point where it was scrapped all together, only to be reborn years later as a destination festival in Chicago, which is now, once again, one of the bigger rock festivals in the world. Besides, when something only happens annually, people tend to want to see it that much more, i.e., great concert attendance!

M3 proved, once again, that this model works. The festival which, for the first time, was held for 2 days, had the venue nearly sold out for both of those days. This, in an era when 80's metal is only just beginning to reveal a hint of nostalgia in the public consciousness. What makes the possibility of a near sell-out seem even more unlikely is the fact that the first night was headlined by none other than Maryland natives Kix. That's right: Kix, you know, "Don't Close Your Eyes", "Cold Blood", "Blow My Fuse"? Remember?

Arguably a "fringe" band of the 80' hard rock era, the group enjoyed support from openers Jetboy (whom I missed, due to tailgating festivities), LA Guns, with "Stacey Blades" replacing founding guitarist Tracii Guns (cute, huh?) and a Jani Lane-less Warrant.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much from LA Guns, but I was pleasantly surprised. I never got to see them "back in the day", but to my ears, they sounded as they should, with Phil Lewis' voice soaring over the top of fan faves like "Never Enough" and "Rip & Tear". Can Phil still hit all of the high notes? No, of course not, he's in his friggin' 50's! That said, the quality & tone of his voice remain intact and the overall sound of the band was what you would hope for. Their big moment was, of course, during "Ballad of Jayne" which many would agree is a pretty damn good ballad, "power" or otherwise.

Warrant followed LA Guns, their lineup now consisting of 4/5 of the original band. At the time of the show, former lead vocalist, and chief songwriter Jani Lane was still living, but had infamously been replaced by Robert Mason (formerly of Lynch Mob) when a newly sober Jani fell off the wagon in front of YouTube nation on the ill-fated 2008 Warrant reunion tour. Sadly, Jani died a couple of months ago, most likely from his long-term battle with substance abuse. That notwithstanding, Warrant's performance at M3 would feature Mason on vocals, especially considering the fact that that version of the band was promoting a new album.

This was the first time I had seen the mostly-original band since 1989, and the first time without Lane. The result? Meh. Admittedly, the original 4 guys (Sweet, Dixon, Allen & Turner) sounded great, were clearly playing well and were well-rehearsed. Mason? Great vocalist, to be sure but, sorry folks: the magic is gone. Their new single "Life's a Song"? Forgettable, and regrettably so. Clearly, so much of what Warrant was, was about Jani Lane's voice and songwriting. So many great songs! But hearing them with someone else on vocals is like hearing a tribute band and, ironically enough, they had more original members than several of the other bands at M3. Well, I can't blame them for trying, but I can't imagine that they'd be able to make a good living at this for much longer.

As for headliners Kix? What can I say? I was, once again, pleasantly surprised. I wasn't sure what to expect because, frankly, the Friday show was the "add-on" day this year, with the more lightweight bands on the bill to warm things up for Saturday. Billed as the "Kix-off Party" (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk), the band clearly were the featured act, and they took full advantage.

Front man Steve Whiteman came across a bit as a poor man's Steven Tyler, but the guy was funny, had great stage presence, and still has a great voice with a good amount of power left, even after all these years. To hear him tell the story of his reaction when he was told that Kix was going to headline the first night of the festival was priceless; even he felt it was ridiculous, but the formula worked! There had to be about 15,000 people there having a great time. So what if they weren't Motley Crue? Unlike the Crue, they actually worked for your applause and deserved it. And who knew they could fill a 2 hour set? Personally, I would have been happy with 75-90 minutes, but you can't blame them for carrying on, after all, it was probably, literally, one of the biggest gigs of their career, nearly 30 years on.

A fine warm-up show, indeed. And, with a ticket price of a measly 25 bucks, well worth the money.

Up next: M3 2011, Day 2.