Sunday, November 26, 2017

GALACTIC COWBOYS "Long Way Back To The Moon"

(c) 2017 Mascot Records

  1. In The Clouds
  2. Internal Masquerade
  3. Blood In My Eyes
  4. Next Joke
  5. Zombies
  6. Drama
  7. Amisarewas
  8. Hate Me
  9. Losing Ourselves
  10. Agenda
  11. Long Way Back To The Moon
  12. Believing The Hype (Bonus Track)
  13. Say Goodbye To Utopia (Bonus Track)
Ben Huggins--Lead Vocals
Dane Sonnier--Guitars,Vocals
Monty Colvin--Bass, Vocals
Alan Doss--Drums, Vocals

Seventeen years ago...let's see...well, I wasn't married, I had no kids, I was considering returning to college to get out of a job I strongly disliked, and I hadn't bought my first house yet.  But...I did buy the last Galactic Cowboys record!  That much I am sure of!  Its crazy to me to think that 2000 was the last time the Galactic Cowboys, in any version of the band, recorded an album, with that last effort being Let It Go on Metal Blade Records.  It was a decent album, to be sure, but it was definitely not the same as the spectacular first two records the band recorded, 1991's self-titled debut, and the criminally overlooked, underappreciated 1993 release, Space In Your Face.  That album, by the way, is the last time that all four original members recorded together, and I am not even going to try to remember what I was doing 24 years ago!  

What I do remember is first hearing about this band in 1991 from some friends of mine who were, like me, big fans of the Christian metal scene.  While never considering themselves to be an overtly Christian act (although all members considered themselves to be Christians), Galactic Cowboys, much like their friends, King's X, were given the Christian Metal label and garnered some publicity in magazines from that scene, with Heaven's Metal being particularly high on the band if memory serves me correctly (man, I'm having to remember a lot for this review...).  Regardless, I picked up the debut album and was immediately hooked by the huge, heavy riffage and the quirky, ultra-harmonious vocals that sounded more like they belonged to The Beatles or their distant 80s musical cousins, Enuff Z'Nuff, than they belonged to a metal band as heavy as Galactic Cowboys.  I loved what I was hearing and turned a few of my friends onto them at the college radio station I was working on at the time (you're welcome, Matt K!).  

I don't need to get into the demise of the Galactic Cowboys, and so many other great hard rock and metal bands of the time that were strangled by the wave of grunge that swept across radio and MTV in the early-to-mid-90s.  However, the situation had to be particularly frustrating for Galactic Cowboys, as their label mates, Nirvana, were largely responsible for that slow, agonizing death that choked the life from so many great bands.  

Well, here it is, 2017, and while I have no idea of what spurred the reunion, the Galactic in the original four members...have come back together and released Long Way Back To The Moon on relatively unheard of label, Mascot Records.  Sounding like they never left the scene at all, Galactic Cowboys have crafted an album that is uniquely GC and certainly nothing like anything the majority of hard music fans of the past 15 years have likely put ears to.  Combining riffs that are as heavy and, at times, as thrashy as some of the things Metallica or Anthrax have done in the same 15-20 year time span, with progressive song structures and melodies, the band continues to keep their signature vocal style intact, featuring strong leads from Huggins, and insanely tight harmony support from the rest of the guys in the band.  Mix in the tongue-in-cheek humor of the lyrics and the huge bass work of Colvin, and it quickly becomes apparent what it was about Galactic Cowboys that got the attention of so many people all those years ago, and what should draw that attention back.

The album starts off in properly heavy fashion with "In The Clouds", a track that on some levels reminds me...musically...of Metallica's "The Thing That Should Not Be", especially in terms of tempo and tone.  Once those vocal harmonies kick in, however, it is evident this is nothing that Hetfield and Co. could, or would, ever attempt to pull off.  The longest track on the album, clocking in at just under 7 minutes, "In The Clouds" is more in line with the type of music the band was doing on their first two albums.  Colvin's bass gets a serious workout in the middle section, where Sonnier also gets the chance to bend and stretch the strings, and even Doss gets to flex a bit of muscle, as the band reintroduces themselves to the metal community.  Huggins is in fine form here, a bit of an edge present in most of his vocals here, but buffered by the support of his long-time pals.    "Internal Masquerade" really plays on this vocal harmonization exceptionally well, really adding that Beatlesque quality that I mentioned before without sacrificing the heft of the track.

Five of my six favorite tracks all pop up in the first seven tracks here, with back-to-back-back sarcastic rockers, "Next Joke", "Zombies", and "Drama" likely occupying the top three slots.  "Next Joke" starts off with a monstrous bass riff from Colvin and some absolute machine gun drums from Doss, before the guitars and Huggins work their way into the track.  There's a really cool guitar solo embedded in the track, and Colvin's bass is a dominating presence throughout the song, but it's the humor of the chorus that sells the track, as Huggins wryly intones, "The sky is the limit, when you put your mind to it, you can be anything...NEXT JOKE!", which is, in so many ways, classic Galactic Cowboys.  The same can be said of "Zombies", an apocalyptic love story set to an Anthraxian rhythm during the verses before stepping back during the chorus section to layer in the vocal harmonies with "It all makes sense to me now, that I would find you...on the last day of the world....ZOMBIE ATTACK!"  Speaking of humor, the next track, the life observations made by Huggins in the opening verse, alone, make this song worth the price of admission, and the ear candy of the vocal harmonies is enough to dang near give you a sugar high, they are THAT sweet!  Seriously, nobody in rock does this...not even such notable harmonizing hard rockers as Winger, the previously mentioned Enuff Z'Nuff, or even fellow Texans, King's X.  I honestly think you could strip away the music and I would still be perfectly happy listening to several of these songs in acapella form....although I'm plenty happy to have the metal still fully included!

Some cool scale work introduces the semi-ballad, "Amisarewas", which really showcases the band's ability to change up not only pace, but also style and tone.  A far deeper song lyrically, "Amisarewas" reaches back to the band's faith for inspiration but doesn't beat the listener over the head with chapter and verse lyrics, relying more on real world observation about the world around us to get the point across.  The solo section here is more laid back and prog in nature, particularly in the structure and the mixture of the instruments, with no one instrument being the dominant voice for quite a long stretch before Sonnier's guitar steps up in gritty fashion and demands the listener's attention just before the chorus returns, with the backing section singing "all that has been done, all that's left to come" as Huggins sings "amisarewas, bebeenbeing" before ending each chorus with "Thy will be done!" as the tag.  The title track is the other real stand-out track to me, with some more stellar bass work from Colvin and some nicely interspersed shouted vocals leading into the chorus sections of this humorous track that really hearkens back to the band's earliest records.  

There are absolutely no bad tracks here at all, which is quite a feat for a 13 track album.  Even when approaching a song that is not necessarily in their wheelhouse, Galactic Cowboys prove they have the musical chops to tackle just about anything.  Aggro-rocker "Hate Me", for example, has furious rhythm guitars and some sharp drumming and reminds me a bit of something Suicidal Tendencies was doing in their more artistic stretch, particularly in the way Huggins uses a rapid-fire, spoken word style at the outset of the track, and the rest of the verse vocals come out more snarled/barked than sung, although the backing vocals...well, let's just say that Suicidal would have ZERO chance at the execution of this type of harmonizing!  "Losing Ourselves" is a uptempo-yet-downtuned, grungy number that again features Huggins exploring some different vocal techniques and delivery styles, particularly on the verse sections, which somehow manage to work and not sound disjointed when played alongside the other, more melodic tracks here. 

My promo copy comes with two bonus tracks, and I have no idea if they are for import versions only, or if they will appear on all versions.  Both are excellent songs that could fit into the album proper with no problems at all, so I am not sure what led to these two tracks being labelled as "bonus material".  Of the two, I probably prefer the aggressive "Believing The Hype" the most.  Again, Huggins slips slightly into Mike Muir (Suicidal Tendencies) mode at the beginning of the track and during the choruses with his spoken rant-styled vocals as he exclaims "now you're a sucker for believing the hype"!  I can't help but wonder if this song is a bit of a swipe at the grunge movement that killed off their career...and then disappeared nearly as rapidly as it appeared....referring to the record labels that pushed this style of music as the "suckers".  Who knows, but it seems to fit in my mind.  "Say Goodbye To Utopia" is also a relatively aggressive track with a really cool downshift in tempos about midway through before it gives way to some furious bass work and one more guitar extremely breakneck solo.  And then, as if giving a final wave to the listener, the band showcases its true charm and its calling card as those those layered harmonies glide across the chorus one final time before slightly echoing out, allowing the Galactic Cowboys to ride off into a musical sunset that only they could create.

The production on this record is raw and dark, particularly in the sound of the drums and the voice that is given to Colvin's bass.  While many find this type of production a bit off-putting, I think it fits the tone of the album well, giving it a more live feel...especially in the drums...and clearly giving the vocal harmonies a chance to shine, which I feel is given a strong contrast on this record that would not be possible if the album was given more gloss and shine.  Yes there is grit, yes there is darkness, yes there is depth, all things that I think give Long Way Back To The Moon some musical relevance in today's hard rock scene without compromising who they are and what they bring to the table.

Seventeen years...twenty-four years...however you look at it, it has been far too long since Galactic Cowboys graced the hard rock/metal scene with their brand of musical uniqueness, and I sincerely hope we don't have to wait anywhere near that long again before we hear from the guys again.  The band has so much to offer to a scene that is rife with sameness and cookie-cutter bands, and they offer a musicality that is desperately missing from the scene.  I don't know that this record will be the one that "breaks" the band to the world, as I'm not sure that is even a possibility now, with the way radio and internet music outlets operate.  But it is a record that should give musicians and artists hope that creativity still counts for something and that perhaps perseverance can be its own reward of sorts.  They may not have exploded into the stratosphere like so many music executives thought they would in 1991, but with Long Way Back To The Moon, the band can at the very least provide an excellent bookend to their recording career should they choose to call it a day at this point.

Rating:  Top 10 for 2017 for sure, crankability is not a question here.  Crank this to 9!

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