Saturday, November 30, 2019

QUIET RIOT "Hollywood Cowboys"

(c) 2019 Frontiers Records

  1. Don't Call It Love
  2. In The Blood
  3. Heartbreak City
  4. The Devil That You Know
  5. Change Or Die
  6. Roll On
  7. Insanity
  8. Hellbender
  9. Wild Horses
  10. Holding On
  11. Last Outcast
  12. Arrows And Angels
James Durbin--Lead Vocals
Alex Grossi--Guitars
Chuck Wright--Bass
Frankie Banali--Drums, Producer

Quiet Riot has returned with yet another new record, the last (most likely...who knows...) to feature former American Idol stand-out, James Durbin, on lead vocals.  In fact, Durbin had been dismissed/left the band before the record even came out this month, but rather than go to the extreme expense and delay of re-recording the lead vocals (ex-Love/Hate singer Jizzy Pearl is BACK in the band...again...), band leader Banali decided to release Hollywood Cowboys as is.  Returning to the fray are long-time members Grossi and Wright, both of whom have spent considerable time in the band, though neither was around for the music world-changing Metal Health album (although, Wright has been in-and-out of the band since '85; Grossi has been on board since 2004).

Musically, this new effort finds itself very much in the same vein as the previous effort, Road Rage, but with one exception: Durbin sounds far more at home here than on his QR debut.  Grossi remains, for my money, a seriously underrated talent that I enjoy hearing every time I run across something he has worked on.  His soloing throughout the record is top-notch, and his rhythm work is excellent.  Wright, who has never been an overly flashy bassist, is still a strong presence throughout the record, and Banali is rock solid, with that big arena sound that he has long brought to not only Quiet Riot, but also to the 90s-era WASP albums that I love so much.  And, as I mentioned, Durbin is a far more powerful performer here than he was on the last studio effort...or the live record the band released with this lineup.  

As far as standout cuts, there are a few, to be sure.  Personally, my favorite track would have to be "In The Blood", which has a killer Grossi solo, a big hook, and some of that early 80s magic to the songwriting.  Note that I did not say it was a return to Metal Health, because that is not the case.  But, between Durbin's strong vocals and the afore mentioned performance from Grossi, there is more than enough punch on this strong, mid-tempo rocker to warrant the video treatment Frontiers afforded it.  Check it out below.



Banali produced the record, and while the production is not terrible, it lacks something to my ear.  There isn't a ton of energy in the production here, and the record sounds like a lot of the mid-90s independent records that 80s metal bands...like Quiet Riot...were putting out.  Along the same lines, the cover art is atrociously bad, again reminiscent of the cheap looking stuff these bands were forced to work with when they had no major labels (or major label cash).  Ugh...the cover is just...BAD!

In the end, all in all, this is a decent record...not spectacular, not amazing, not earth-shattering...but most certainly not bad.  Probably 3 or 4 songs too long and nothing that fans of the Metal Health through QRIII trilogy (nor the criminally underrated, Paul Shortino-fronted Quiet Riot album) are going to accept as really being worthy of the legendary Quiet Riot name, but how many "retro" bands can actually meet the expectations of their past (well, except for Stryper, I suppose)?.  I, personally, have decided to set aside my own opinions about whether or not Banali should still be recording under the moniker and accept new recordings by this iteration of the band for what they are:  a means for Frankie to stay on tour, playing the songs he loves for the fans who still love him and the Quiet Riot aura.  If you go into this record expecting Durbin to sound like DuBrow, and for the songs to have that same 1983 Metal Health magic, you will be sorely disappointed.  But if you give Hollywood Cowboys a fair listen, you will likely hear a band that is musically solid and as relevant as pretty much any 40+ year old band can be in this day and age.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the rather dire circumstances facing Mr. Banali at the time of this writing, as he has made it publicly known he is fighting Stage IV cancer at this time.  Here is truly hoping and praying that Banali is able to recover in some way and continue to make music and interact with his fans, which he is currently out doing at this time.  The man is a metal legend, both with Quiet Riot and sitting at the kit for some of my favorite WASP albums ever.  G2G wishes only the best for Frankie Banali and his family.

Rating:  Rock this at a respectable 6.5 and enjoy it for what it is.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

*RETRO REVIEW* FOREIGNER "Unusual Heat"

(c) 1991 Atlantic Records

  1. Only Heaven Knows
  2. Low Down and Dirty
  3. I'll Fight For You
  4. Moment Of Truth
  5. Mountain of Love
  6. Ready for the Rain
  7. When the Night Comes Down
  8. Safe In My Heart
  9. No Hiding Place
  10. Flesh Wound
  11. Unusual Heat
Johnny Edwards--Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Lead Guitar ("Mountain Of Love")
Mick Jones--Guitars, Keys, Backing Vocals
Rick Wills--Bass, Backing Vocals
Dennis Elliott--Drums

Additional Musicians
Terry Thomas--Keys, Backing Vocals, Additional Guitar, Producer, Mixer
Richard Cottle--Keys
Tommy Mandel--Keys
Tony Beard--Electric Percussion
Felix Krish--Additional Bass

As any rock fan is keenly aware, the musical landscape of 1991 was VASTLY different than it had been just a year or two prior.  Grunge and 90s alternative rock was starting to sweep aside all the hard rock and metal bands that had been taking ownership of the Billboard charts for the past several years.  And bands, such as Foreigner, who had feet in both the classic guitar rock 70s and the melodic AOR style of the 80s were going to take some of the most serious hits, as not only did they no longer have any radio play, many of these groups were starting to really shuffle through members as money and recording contracts became much more difficult to come by.  So in many ways, the fact that Unusual Heat even managed to surface is something of a minor musical miracle, and I have to wonder if Atlantic didn't release the record simply to end their contract with Foreigner (although there were three new studio tracks on the 1992 best of collection, The Very Best...And Beyond).

If you spend much time talking to Foreigner fans (which is a pretty easy thing to do with Facebook groups and internet forums), most will point to Inside Information as the lowest point of the Lou Gramm-era...and then they list Unusual Heat as even lower than that!  If Inside Information was the bottom of the barrel, then Unusual Heat was the dirt that Inside... was sitting upon.  

Sorry, but that is simply wrong.  

For the uninitiated, Unusual Heat was the first Foreigner record to feature a lead singer other than Lou Gramm who had departed after a falling out with Mick Jones.  Gramm went out and recorded the fantastic Shadow King record with Vivian Campbell and Bruce Turgon, while Jones decided to continue on with Foreigner.  But, without the iconic lead singer in the band, Jones was in a tight spot, and needed a new vocalist.  Enter one-time Montrose and King Kobra frontman, Johnny Edwards.

Unusual Heat starts off with a bluesy guitar riff from Jones and a nice bass line from Wills (along with some pulsing keyboards), before Elliott drops in a simple kick-snare-kick-snare rhythm that sets the tempo for the opening track, "Only Heaven Knows".  Then, the moment fans were anticipating/fearing hits just 27 seconds into the song as Edwards vocals kick in.  Sporting a rich tenor with a bit of a sassy snarl in places, Edwards' voice fits the song (and the album) in excellent fashion...but he's not Lou Gramm, a fact which doomed his tenure in Foreigner from the start.   Still, if the listener were to spin this track with unbiased ears, Edwards does an excellent job, showcasing a solid range, a powerful scream when necessary, and plenty of power and projection on this uptempo rocker that showed the band had plenty of rock still left in the tank, despite the overly keyboard-saturated sound that had been utilized on Inside Information and more than half of Agent Provocateur.  

From there, the rock hits even harder with the lead single for the record, "Lowdown And Dirty", which has a lot of punch to the guitars, a great bass line, and some excellent backing vocals that really enhance the work done by Edwards.  I remember the first time I heard this track on the radio.  I was actually home from college, listening to the local rock station's "Outlaw Radio" weekend evening program.  This track and Skid Row's "Monkey Business" were facing off against each other in some sort of listener poll...not sure why they were paired up, but "Monkey Business" won, but according to the DJ, it was a suprisingly close vote.  The song packs a pretty good punch for a post-"Jukebox Hero" Foreigner single, and I was immediately determined to hunt down the CD when I got my next paycheck.  Unfortunately, I was apparently one of the few who was so taken by the song...or album...as the track didn't managed to make the Billboard Hot 100 (although it did hit number 4 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart), and the album peaked at number 117 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.  

The album's next track was also itss next single.  "I'll Fight For You" is a big Foreigner power ballad, still punchy enough to be a rock track (which probably hurt its crossover appeal on the Adult Contemporary charts), but also featuring a strong piano presence.  Edwards really pours himself into the track, fueling the song with a lot of emotional power, but I think rock fans had already moved on from this type of song, which likely would've been a Top 40 hit had it been released a handful of years earlier...and with Gramm singing.

The rest of the album is mostly solid classic guitar rock, with Jones' songwriting sounding more inspired than it had in more than a decade.  The keyboards are used more as supporting instruments on this record than on the synth-sappy Inside Information, and Jones guitar has more bite to it than on all but a smattering of tracks during the 80s.  Edwards also gets a turn at lead guitar on "Mountain Of Love", and he represents himself well.  Despite the title, which suggests a possible ballad turn, "Mountain Of Love" is actually an uptempo rocker that has a hook very similar to Damn Yankees' "Coming Of Age". 

The next track up, "Ready For The Rain" is a song which I have always felt should have been released to radio, and it is one of my two favorite tracks on the record (along with "Lowdown and Dirty").  The song, which was co-written by Edwards and Jeff "JK" Northrup, is a great mid-tempo number that again allows the blusier edge of Edwards voice to really shine through.  And since I'm fortunate enough to have the ability to pick his brain from time-to-time, I asked Northrup about this song.  "That song, musically, was written by me in 1984.  When Johnny joined up with me in 1987, it was one of the first songs we wrote together.  When it was recorded by Foreigner, Mick (Jones) and Terry (Thomas) made some arrangement changes, enough to credit them as writers."  He went on to tell me, "When the album (Unusual Heat) was first released, an article in Rolling Stone said that song 'will carry the album'.  But, Mick refused to release it as a single because he only had 15% writer's share."  So...apparently Rolling Stone and I have/had the same opinion of the song (something that rarely, IF EVER, happens...), and one of the best tracks on the record remained just another (great) album cut.

Not everything here is a winner, however.  "When The Night Comes Down" is just flat out cheese, with overwrought keyboards and a melodramatic storyline that just doesn't fit with the rest of the album.  Edwards tries his best to revive the track, but it is basically dead on arrival and honestly should have been dropped from the record.  The same can be said of the next track, "Safe In My Heart", which just lacks any soul or...errr...heart, and just kind of sits there on the record.

Things right themself with "No Hiding Place", which ups the tempo and the guitar edge, which really shows up on the rocking "Flesh Wound", which has a simple, catchy, punchy chorus that just sticks with the listener.  The rhythm guitars on "Flesh Wound" sort of remind me of Jetboy's "Feel The Shake", which is odd, but serves to show that Jones (or Thomas) could still grind out a rocking guitar track when they he/they wanted to.

The title track closes things out in generally solid form.  The hard rocking track has some really solid rhythm guitars and nicely layered backing vocals, but it is hampered a little bit by some decidedly mid-80s keyboards metriculating below the surface of the song.  There is also a SYNTH SOLO that just SCREAMS to be replaced by a ripping guitar solo, but Jones really fell in love with those keys and synths in the 80s and just doesn't seem ready to let them go.  Edwards again offers up a really solid dose of melodic hard rock singing that should have garnered him a lot more praise, and a lot less trash talk, as he truly sports a powerful, soulful tenor that I enjoy listening to.

For the majority of this record, there is a definite comparative line that can be drawn between 1991 Foreigner and the material that fellow 70s classic rockers, Bad Company, were releasing during this same time period, also with a new vocalist (Brian Howe).  And there is very little doubt that producer Terry Thomas has a LOT to do with the similarities.  Thomas co-wrote all but one track on Unusual Heat, as well as contributing some keys, rhythm guitars, and backing vocals.  He did the same for Bad Company on their best albums of the Howe era, Dangerous Age, Holy Water, and Here Comes Trouble.   Incidentally, both bands were also on Atlantic Records at the time, so perhaps the label had a sound and style in mind during this time period.  If so, that style and sound was definitely fully in place with these two bands.  And the ties between the two bands start to really expand during this time period.  Former Foreigner toruing guitarist/keyboardist Larry Oakes toured with Bad Company for the Dangerous Age tour.  Felix Krish, who plays "additional bass" on Unusual Heat (according to the liner notes) was the bass player on Holy Water.  Then, in a weird twist, Foreigner's soon-to-be-ex-bassist, Rick Wills, will become the touring bass player for Bad Company on that band's Here Comes Trouble tour.  If you have the time, the ability, and the inclination, put Unusual Heat on shuffle with Holy Water and Here Comes Trouble and you will hear exactly what I am talking about.

(For what it's worth, I am a BIG fan of the Howe era of Bad Company...)

In the end, Unusual Heat is a major turning point for Foreigner, really no matter how you look at it.  Yes, Gramm would return for three new tracks on The Very Best...And Beyond, and then one final full album with 1994's excellent, but commercially-disappointing, Mr. Moonlight, but other changes for the band were in store.  Unusual Heat would also be the last studio record for Wills who had been in the band since '79, and for Elliott, who was actually a founding member of the band.  Gramm would then leave for the final time, ushering in a revolving door of members of a Foreigner that, to most fans, is truly foreign.

So is Unusual Heat the horrible album so many people make it out to be?  Absolutely not.  In fact, from simply a songwriting standpoint, I would argue it was the most cohesive record the band put out since 4, with far less filler material and a lot less reliance on synthesizers, and more guitars and more grit than Foreigner had shown in quite some time.  And while no one would mistake Edwards for Gramm, I honestly feel his is unfairly bashed by "fans" of the band who fail to recognize that this record was going to fail, regardless of who was singing, as the musical landscape had simply changed too much for a band like Foreigner to thrive.  And, as for me, I would gladly take Johnny Edwards as the frontman for Foreigner over Kelly Hansen...and I love what Hansen did with Hurricane, so that is saying something right there.  

Rating:  Not quite crank-worthy, but still a really solid album.  Rock this at 6.5.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

FOREIGNER "The Complete Atlantic Studio Albums 1977-1991" Boxed Set

(c) 2014 Rhino/Atlantic Records

For anyone who knows me, or who reads G2G with any regularity, it is no secret that Foreigner is one of my all-time favorite bands, hands down.  Additionally, I am a sucker (it seems) for buying just about anything that Foreigner releases, even in their current "only-one-original-member-left" version, despite constantly vowing not to do it.  However, this purchase was an intentional one, as when I first heard that Foreigner was releasing a boxed set, I knew it was something I was going to own.  And, while I realize it was released 5 years ago, I never got around to reviewing it until now.

First off, let me make a tiny correction here, as the title of the set is actually incorrect.  It is called the "Complete Atlantic Studio Albums" but there are two problems here.  One, Records isn't included.  Yes, I know that it is a greatest hits package, but it is also technically a studio album.  Second, while speaking of greatest hits packages, the superior The Very Best...And Beyond is also not included despite being an Atlantic release.  This one is the biggest omission, which I will get to in the CONS section.

PROS

There are definitely some pros to this collection.  I mean, it's Foreigner, so right away there is a pro!  But as to actual pros...

PRO 1:  For starters, it is nice to have all of the band's Atlantic releases in one, easy-to-access boxed set.  If the mood strikes, I can just grab the set, toss it in the Tahoe, and be off.  And the box is a pretty solid one, I have to admit.  Even after owning it for several years, there is still nary a scratch, nick, or ding in the package, which says something about its construction, I think.  It is something of a clamshell box, ranther than a lid-and-base box, and the spine of the box is jointed in such a way that it is easy to get the individual CDs out without having to dump them all out.  (I do still dump them all out, however, which I will cover in the CONS section)

PRO 2:  As tempting as it may have been, the underrated/unfairly bashed Unusual Heat was not left out of the package.  I know a lot of Foreigner purists (which I woul probably be considered to be) absolutely hate this record, but I never really understood why.  Sure, it is obviously not Lou Gramm on vocals, but how can someone say they like what Kelly Hansen does on one hand, and then turn around and say they hate what Johnny Edwards does on the other hand?  Personally, I think Edwards did a solid job and the songs on Unusual Heat had more grit to them than the majority of Agent... or Inside Information.  

So, ummm....yeah.  That's pretty much it for me as far as PROS go.  
CONS

And now on to the CONS section, and believe me, there are several.

CON 1:  First, and most glaring to me, is that there is absolutely NOTHING in the way of a booklet here.  Nothing.  No band bio, no backstories, no interviews, nothing.  To me, this is inexcusable, especially when we are talking about one of the most successful bands in American classic rock/hard rock history.  Heck, there aren't even liner notes to any of the albums!  Why?

CON 2:  The label thought it would be a good idea to package each of these CDs as if they were small vinyl records.  Now, while this may have seemed like a cool marketing gimmick, it's actually not only limiting (due to the size), but kind of redundant with the resurgence in ACTUAL vinly records over the past 5 years.  If you want a vinyl record, you can buy it.  No need for nostalgic packaging.  Plus, if you are really going for the nostalgic vinyl look, why wouldn't you make the CDs themselves look like they were vinyl records?  These are just your typical CD faces, so it makes the vinyl packaging style all the more silly, in my opinion.  Also, the ultra-thin packages (we're talking your basic slip cover packaging here) make it impossible to determine which CD you are pulling out, with the exception of Inside Information, which is presented here in full, gatefold fashion.  But again, even on this one, there are no liner notes despite the fact that one of the cover's sides is empty and would have easily held a nice little booklet.  Just a botched job on the packaging overall.

CON THREE:  This is actually a pretty big issue for me.  There is no indication anywhere that anything here is remastered.  NONE.  In fact, when listening to them side-by-side, I am pretty sure these are NOT remastered.  Why would you go to the work of making a set like this without properly remastering it?  

CON FOUR:  There are no new songs here.  In 2002, the band's first four albums were reissued, and each of those contained a handful of bonus tracks, mostly in the form of demos and live cuts.  Now, if you didn't get those reissues, then, sure, it's cool to hear a live-version-only song such as "Love Maker" on the Double Vision record, or the demo-only track "Take Me To Your Leader" from the debut,  Foreigner album.  But other than those songs, there is nothing here that makes the set a required purchase.  I was honestly expecting a full disc of unreleased material, as that was at least initially hinted at when the collection was being put together.  (Perhaps this did happen in foreign markets; I am not sure.)  Heck, there could be almost an entire disc worth of radio edits and remixes just from the Agent Provocateur record, and yet there is not a single bonus track to that album.  Not one.

CON FIVE:  Missing tracks.  Why in the world would you not include the three new songs that were included on The Very Best...And Beyond release?  "Soul Doctor", "Prisoner Of Love", and "With Heaven On Our Side" are all completely ignored.  And yes, I realize those tracks came out in 1992, and this boxed set covers 1977-1991, but it also claims to be the Atlantic studio years, and these three tracks were clearly recorded in the studio.  Just baffling to me.

In the end, this is an okay-at-best attempt at a Foreigner boxed set.  There is just so much left to be desired by fans of the band.  Now, I don't need a boxed set with hours upon hours of live shows from the Kelly Hansen-fronted version of the band, but I would be completely content with a set that includes ALL of the band's studio albums (including Gramm's last band record, the underrated Mr. Moonlight, and the relatively blah Hansen-voiced Can't Slow Down effort), the missing studio tracks from Gramm (and 2011's "Save Me", the last Hansen studio track) plus a disc of demos, B-sides, remixes, etc., all remastered and with a nice, color booklet with history, facts, interviews, photos, etc.  And if live sets were to be included, I'd take one each from both Gramm and Hansen (heck, throw in an Edwards set, also, if a good quality recording exists!).  I'd actually pay pretty good money for a pacakge like that.  But until then, I guess this is all that we are going to see as far as a boxed set goes, and it mostly sees shelf-time from me.  I just grab The Very Best...And Beyond when I want to have a Foreigner package to take with me.

Rating:  A disappointing 4 here, simply because of the poor execution on what should have been an 8 or higher package!