Sunday, March 10, 2019

RON KEEL BAND "Fight Like A Band"

(c) 2019 EMP Records

  1. Road Ready
  2. Fight Like A Band
  3. Rock N Roll Guitar
  4. Long Way Down
  5. Hearts Gone Wild
  6. Good Songs Bad Times
  7. Girls Like Me
  8. Fire In The Rain
  9. Just A Cowboy
  10. Old School
  11. Tears Of Fire
  12. Right To Rock
  13. Hey Man
Ron Keel--Lead Vocals, Guitar
Dave "DC" Cothern--Guitars, Vocals
Geno Arce--Bass, Vocals
Jeff Koller--Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Scott "Dakota" Schmitt--Keyboards, Vocals

Additional Musicians
Mike Dresch--Backing Vocals, Producer

Ron Keel is a busy guy.  Whether its authoring books, performing with KEEL or one of his other bands, or working on his Streets Of Rock N Roll podcast, the man always seems to have something going on.  So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that it has been 5 years since the singer/guitarist released his album, Metal CowboyBut now he's back with a new band, new album...and the same attitude!  Whether he is playing his own brand of metallic country rock, or blasting forth with 80s-era KEEL styled tunes, the man...and his band...are out to kick some serious ass!  And, with Fight Like A Band, the Ron Keel Band does exactly that!

The album starts off smoking hot, with "Road Ready", a song that could have easily come from KEEL's self-titled effort from back in 1987 (can you believe that?!).  Starting off with a nice, melodic piano which is partnered with some harmonic guitar work and simple drums, the song's introduction is misleading, because it is a matter of just a few seconds before the hard-edged guitars and Ron's unmistakable bellowing roar spring to life!  This is damn-near classic KEEL right here, and Ron seems determined to drive that point home, as he name-drops close to a dozen classic KEEL song titles within this one tune!  From "Right To Rock" to "Lay Down The Law" to "Back To The City", this track hits on them all...heck, he even pops his book title, Even Keel, into the mix, but it all works on this energetic and entertaining hard rocker!  For anyone who was concerned that the man and his band were simply going to be treading the hard-country-metal territory they plumbed on Metal Cowboy, take heart, for there is a LOT of classic KEEL here.  Ron may have shaved a bit off the top of his range, but the power is definitely still there, as is the lung capacity, and he sounds in fine form throughout the song (and record).  And, while there is no Bryan Jay to flash the guitar solos, DC Cothern more than holds his own, and with Ron, forms a fine twin guitar combo.  An excellent way to kick things off!

The title track, "Fight Like A Band" is up next, and the KEEL-esque material rolls on.  Yes, there is a bit of a hint of Nashville in the song structure, but the approach and the attack are more in-line with what KEEL was doing back on their later stuff, like on Streets Of Rock N Roll.  Again, Ron's big voice and excellent guitar work from Cothern really crank up the power on this track, with strong support from the powerhouse rhythm section of Jeff Koller on drums and Geno Arce, who has been with Ron in projects from KEEL (Streets...) to Iron Horse, and even the Rat'lers days, on bass.  Catchy with a big, anthemic, easy to sing chorus, my guess is "Fight Like A Band" will be one of the new tunes that garners the most attention live, along with "Road Rage" and the next tune, "Rock N Roll Guitar".

Speaking of "Rock N Roll Guitar", this track hits hard right from the start, with chunky guitars and a thumping percussion presence, before settling into a story-song style that tells a tale not entirely dissimilar to Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero", with the song's protagonist buying a pawn shop guitar and building himself into a rock n roll star!  The drums from Koller have a very big presence in this song, with a particularly ear-catching fill right before Cothern breaks into one of the best solos on the record, blazing through a six string tear that is reminiscent of some of the best stuff from KEEL.  Speaking of blazing guitars, be sure to check out the monstrous outro solo on this song, courtesy of 16 year-old phenom, Eli Dykstra!  I would have loved to hear this given some extended time, as he is simply melting strings as the song fades!  This and "Road Ready" are in a constant battle for top new song on this record for me, as both are instant winners that should have the rockers throwing their fists in the air and head banging along!

"Long Way Down" finds the album intentionally drifting into more of a country rock style, but the edge doesn't disappear in any way, and while the guitars have cleaned up some of the distortion, and the keys take on more of a piano feel, there is still a definite classic rock element to this song.  The thing is, a good song is a good song, regardless of style.  I know that not everyone shares this sentiment with me, but as someone who spent many years as the music director on a country radio station, I have an appreciation for the style that many may not have.  But I have long contended that 90s country is where a lot of the musicians that were originally headed for the Sunset Strip ended up once grunge hit, and country radio stole the look...and the hair metal power ballad...and turned out some of the best radio rock that many "rock and metal or nothing" people never got to hear.  That is where "Long Way Down" fits to me; excellent country-tinged classic rock with non-country radio vocals (Ron is just too gritty, too edgy for today's "Bro Country" scene), and enough attitude to keep the rockers happy.  I'll be honest, as much as I love classic KEEL, I could also take an entire album of songs like this and the follow up, "Hearts Gone Wild", and be perfectly happy.

"Hearts Gone Wild" is a more mid-tempo rocker with some southern rock and 80s radio rock sensibilities mixed in.  Easily a top 5 track on an album filled with great songs, "Hearts Gone Wild" is another story song that Ron delivers with a believable passion, especially on the acoustic section right before the final chorus.  Speaking of the chorus, big, gang-shouted backing vocals really beef up the sound here, and Ron cuts looks with one of his classic wails as the song comes to an end.  Again, just good hard rock here that would have found a home on mainstream radio back in the 80s, I'm sure.

"Good Songs, Bad Times" stays the mid-tempo course, as this heartland country rocker about how music is the soundtrack of our life, from the heartbreak of break-ups to the unforgettable great times of walking down the aisle or celebrating any of life's truly great moments.  As he does so frequently throughout the album, Ron interweaves classic song titles and bands, from "Take It To The Limit" to Tom Petty and AC/DC, but he does so without sounding cheesy, which so frequently happens on efforts such as this.

"Girls Like Me" is a barroom shuffle song complete with hard rock attitude, big, gang-shouted backing vocals...including vocals from several ladies, and rollicking piano as Ron sings about liking girls who have things in common with him.  Cothern lays into a pretty cool solo before the final runs through the chorus start, and the drum and bass work here really keep the tempo and swing of the song rolling along.  I could do without the Strip Club Emcee routine in the middle, but this is a fun song, nonetheless, and isn't designed to be taken seriously.

"Fire In The Rain" is reminiscent of the material Jon Bon Jovi recorded for the Young Guns II : Blaze Of Glory soundtrack,  with a hard rock take on the western sound, especially in the way the guitars are styled.  Catchy as heck, this song would have definitely fit on the Metal Cowboy offering from a few years ago, but the guitar solo from Cothern on this track is better than just about anything that was on that album...and I really, really like Metal Cowboy!  Cothern just has a feel for what Ron has written on these songs and his solos, as well as his extended outros, are spot-on perfect for these songs.  Again, a definite top 5 song from the record as far as new material goes.

"Just A Cowboy" is the most straight-forward country song on the record, sounding like something that would have been heard on the radio back when I was working in that industry.  It wouldn't surprise me to find a song just like this as an album cut from Brooks & Dunn, with Kix Brooks doing the singing.  Ron backs off the edge of his vocals a tad bit, and the guitars are completely cleaned up of distortion, adding even more to that 90s country feel.  I would imagine that the Rock-Or-Die crowd is going to skip this track every time, but again, for those open to good songwriting and performance, regardless of style, this is not a bad track at all. 

"Old School" retains a bit of countrified songwriting, but the hard rock attitude and edge starts to climb back into the song, as well.  The guitars are dirtied up just a bit again, with the gang shouts returning to the chorus, and Schmitt throws down on a classic rock Hammond organ section, just for good measure.  Not a KEEL song, but a good classic rocker, without question.

Speaking of KEEL songs, two of that band's better known songs are given the RKB treatment here.  "Tears Of Fire" remains pretty true to the original in all aspects, with Ron's vocals really turning back the clock here.  The music is pretty darn close to the way it sounded on The Final Frontier, but with a slightly cleaner sound, owing largely to different production methods, I would suspect.  Cothern's acoustic work here is excellent, and the solo is really good, as well.  Meanwhile, "Right To Rock" had me a bit worried, to be honest, as I was not sure how this band would handle that band's instrumental work.  I needn't have worried, however, as this is a blistering rendition of that classic KEEL track.  Again, Ron has lost a bit of the upper range of his vocals, most notable on the big scream that opens the song, but outside of that, very little has changed here.  Koller adds some extra double-time snare before the big "THE RIGHT TO ROCK" shout at the end of the song, and the guitar solo from Cothern is not identical to the original, but otherwise, not a lot of the music is all that different.  Even the gang-shouted chorus nails it for me!  Yes, I still prefer the original because that is the version my brain tunes to automatically, but if nothing else, this version proves without a doubt that RKB can pull off pretty much anything from the KEEL catalog that they would choose to work up.

The album closes with "Hey, Man", returns to that Blaze Of Glory style of song, but it wraps the album up in excellent fashion as this is just a well-written and well-performed western rocker.  In fact, the tempo of the song is very much like that utilized in "Blaze Of Glory", with some excellent slide guitar work done here, I'm guessing by Cothern.  As I stated earlier, I could do with an entire album of this style of music from the RKB should Ron choose to do such a thing.

As is frequently the case with albums that run more than 9 or 10 songs long, there are a couple of lesser tracks here, but nothing that ruins the overall feel of the album.  Sure, I would probably have left "Just A Cowboy" off, especially if I was really targeting my rock audience, but I don't think that is what Ron was doing here.  I think Ron likely wrote a bunch of songs, took the best 11 new tracks, threw in the two remakes, and put out an album that he would listen to if he was a fan.  Like he sings in "Hey, Man", "through the bad times and the good, we wrote the best songs we could".  And to that end, I think he succeeds in spades!  This is a really, really good album, with enough diversity to catch the ear of the whole scope of Ron's fans, and PLENTY of great hard rock to draw the KEEL fans that may have drifted away a bit back into the fold.

Rating:  Definitely crankable!!!   A solid 8.5 here!

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