KING KOBRA – King Kobra

KK2011For some people, Carmine Appice will be most famous through his work with Vanilla Fudge, followed by a shortlived Blind Faith-eque collaboration with Jeff Beck (a collaboration which, aside from not being especially good, also featured Vanilla Fudge’s bassist Tim Bogert). For others – and mostly those whose musical tastes favour a more metallic approach – Carmine will be known as the older brother of Dio/Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice and founder of the cult melodic metal outfit King Kobra.

King Kobra’s first two albums -‘Ready to Strike’ and ‘Thrill of a Lifetime’- are cult classics. Granted, they’re a little hit and miss, but the great moments on both albums are among the best that 80s melodic metal has to offer. This is, in no small part, due to the then unknown Mark Free being the featured vocalist on both albums; a performer whom would go on to become one of the melodic rock scene’s best-loved voices, achieving greater accolades with cult AOR bands Signal and Unruly Child. Sadly, by the time King Kobra issued their third album a couple of years later – the appropriately titled ‘III’ – bassist Johnny Rod had joined W.A.S.P., Mark Free had moved on, King Kobra’s sound had toughened up…and new vocalist Johnny Edwards just wasn’t up to the job. [Edwards would face a similarly hard task replacing Lou Gramm in Foreigner a couple of years later]. King Kobra threw in the towel after that third album, with Appice joining ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes to form Blue Murder. Appice left Blue Murder in 1992 to move on to other projects.

Thirteen years after King Kobra’s third album, Appice resurrected the band name and released ‘Hollywood Trash’ – a King Kobra album in name only, with Appice being the sole original member. For this third incarnation of King Kobra, Kelly Keeling was enlisted on vocals (a man, whom coincidentally, had also been Blue Murder’s frontman sometime after Appice’s departure). While ‘Hollywood Trash’s material was patchy and had the audio quality of something recorded in a shed, Keeling did his best to deliver decent vocal performances. The end result, unsurprisingly, wasn’t really any better than ‘King Kobra III’; it seemed that no matter how hard they tried, this band were never going to match their early days with Mark Free.

A decade later, King Kobra announced they were to make a comeback. With Appice gathering together most of the original line-up (excluding Mark Free, now Marcie), it would certainly be seen as a step in the right direction. The resulting self-titled album – their first to be released on Frontiers Records – is marginally better than the worst bits of ‘King Kobra III’ and better sounding than ‘Hollywood Trash’, but in reality, that’s not difficult.

The riffs are chunky and the choruses are suitably big and the energy on show could possibly equal parts of ‘Ready To Strike’, but the album lets itself down with average song writing, full of absolutely brazen clichés. Their attempt at making a deliberately feel-good record is hampered throughout by an average vocal performance, courtesy of ex-Rough Cutt/Quiet Riot man Paul Shortino. A quick look at the track-listing ought to give you some indication of where the disc is headed: ‘Tear Down The Walls’, ‘Turn Up The Good Times’, ‘Screamin’ For More’, ‘This Is How We Roll’ – and even worse – ‘Rock This House’.

On the plus side, the band turns in some solid, if predictable, musical performances. A few of David Michael-Philips’s guitar solos really hit the spot and, naturally, Appice’s hard rock drum style is great throughout. It seems a shame that the decent moments are often let down by Shortino’s slightly rough delivery and even rougher lyrical content. ‘Top of the World’ is helped by some solid harmony vocals and a cracking guitar solo, only then to be let down by a lazy one-line hook, but even so, it at least hints at the better material from King Kobra’s early albums, while the Whitesnake-with-an-average vocalist approach of ‘You Make It Easy’ surprises with the inclusion of a nifty acoustic guitar solo.

The best track on offer is certainly ‘We Got a Fever’, where King Kobra attempt to put away their “rock clichés 101” bible and mix their brand of hard rock with a gentle bluesy tone. The slower, slightly more brooding feel allows David Michael-Phillips and Mick Sweda an opportunity for their playing to stretch slightly beyond King Kobra’s usual melodic metal confines, and the end result is far more sympathetic to Paul Shortino’s vocal style. Even though the big ballad ‘Tears Turn To Rain’ is an improvement over most of the material here, any passion it could have had gets flattened by Shortino’s approach – his husky tones are really at odds with the kind of huge, effortless delivery it really needed.

While some will praise this return of King Kobra after a decade away, this release is little more than okay at best, while at worst, it could possibly rival Paul Sabu’s 1995 outing ‘In Dreams’ as one of the most embarrassing, clichéd offerings imaginable. If you’re an undemanding rock fan who’s never really let go of the past, you may still be happy to “tear down the walls” or “turn up the good times”, but for everyone else, this album is about as fresh as Carmine Appice’s leather trousers from 1989.

April 2011