(c) 1991 Atlantic Records
- Only Heaven Knows
- Low Down and Dirty
- I'll Fight For You
- Moment Of Truth
- Mountain of Love
- Ready for the Rain
- When the Night Comes Down
- Safe In My Heart
- No Hiding Place
- Flesh Wound
- Unusual Heat
Johnny Edwards--Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Lead Guitar ("Mountain Of Love")
Mick Jones--Guitars, Keys, Backing Vocals
Rick Wills--Bass, Backing Vocals
Terry Thomas--Keys, Backing Vocals, Additional Guitar, Producer, Mixer
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 Turgeon, 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.
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 its 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 matriculating 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 he 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.