KING KOBRA – We Are Warriors

When it comes to consistency and quality, a new record from King Kobra doesn’t come with any guarantees. Their 1984 debut is a fun melodic metal affair, and its timely delivered follow up ‘Thrill of A Lifetime’ is a decent melodic rock LP, but beyond that, their catalogue is largely pretty bad. 1988’s ‘King Kobra III’ is loaded with tuneless metal fare that’s blighted further by terrible vocals from Johnny Edwards (a poor substitute for the absent Mark Free), and the band’s first two reunion albums (2011’s ‘King Kobra’ and 2013’s ‘King Kobra II’) are heavily weighted towards party metal workouts full of really embarrassing and clichéd lyrics.

Fact is, initially, the idea of any new product from King Kobra offers little to get excited about. The chances of the band – whatever the line-up – recording an album as good as ‘Thrill of A Lifetime’ ever again are slim to none, and with Paul Shortino handling vocal duties, everything’s going to be far more weighted to tired old metal fare than any decent melodic rock. That said, at least half of the bombastically titled ‘We Are Warriors’ is better than the three previous albums combined. It isn’t a genuine classic, but it shows how the veteran band can still turn out a decent hard rock tune or six when they really try.

‘Music Is A Piece of Art’ sets things off in a surprisingly positive mood when the band latch onto a Zeppelin-esque swagger, complete with Carmine Appice turning in his best John Bonham impersonation behind the drum kit. His drums are massive in the end mix, and this is a good thing, since he totally drives the groove throughout. The rest of the band – this time featuring Quiet Riot’s Carlos Cavazo and ex-Dio man Rowan Robertson filling the twin guitar ranks – certainly don’t slouch here, either. During these very punchy four minutes you’ll encounter a chunky rhythm guitar sound, a chorus bolstered by natural harmonies and a couple of very angry lead breaks. With Shortino tempering his metallic vocal tendencies with more of a blues rock lilt, this also strikes a decent balance between a retro hard rock melody and bombast. Even a lyric championing a love of music sits just right. Instead of wallowing in bad clichés, it appears to be heartfelt in its celebratory stance, which coupled with a slab of rock that could have been written at any point post-1980, creates one of the best KK album openers to date.

Equally good in an old fashioned sense, ‘Secrets & Lies’ cranks the speed to something much closer to Dio’s ‘Stand Up & Shout’, but mixes a few metallic edges with more of a driving rock ‘n’ roll sound. This allows Carmine to settle into a brilliant drum part where the Bonzo obsessions give way to a hard, rattling groove and the guitarists get a much broader musical canvas with which to work. This results in a mix of strong, chugging rhythms and a few grubby riffs not far removed from ‘Soul Destruction’ era Almighty and – eventually – a huge lead where a call and response approach allowing for some strong, howling tones. It’s the kind of thing the shamelessly retro hard rock KK are able to play well; it’s just a shame they don’t do a little more of it. Taken at a slower tempo, ‘Darkness’ opens with a metal/blues hybrid riff that sounds like it wants to launch into Zeppelin’s ‘Custard Pie’ at any moment, but even with an obvious musical root, Cevazo and Robertson wield a massive sound, and happily slip into an even bigger Zeppelin homage on a pre-chorus where a couple of harmonic tones sound even more like Jimmy Page chugging through a semi-sloppy riff. With Appice’s massive drum sound being the perfect match for the swaggering bluesy hard rock, it makes its mark on a timeless sound with ease, and by giving Shortino a little more room to carry a tune, this number shows off a veteran vocalist who’s still able to cut it on a tough arrangement.

Although its blighted by a slightly fudgy production sound, the brilliant ‘Side By Side’ takes an unexpected detour into AOR territory, and although nowhere near as shiny, it’s possible to hear a little of ‘Thrill of A Lifetime’ coming through a buoyant verse where clean guitar tones join a confident vocal. Shortino sounds like a tuneful Paul Sabu, and that makes his vocal choice a perfect fit for the rising melodies of a great 80s-tastic chorus, and although long-serving bassist Johnny Rod is way too low in the mix, it’s just about possible to pick him out as he adds an anchoring groove beneath the guitars. It seems a pity to hide such a gem at the end of the album, but since the previous three releases suggested this part of KK’s musical history was dead, to close this record on such a positive note gives a spark of hope for any future releases.

‘One More Night’ stokes up the slide guitars for a heavy blues rock intro, sounding like Tangier with massive boots, before taking a sidestep into huge, harmony driven rock where a predictable hard rock crunch gives Shortino the perfect vehicle to wail. At times, this sounds a little like a lumpen Whitesnake, and although that sounds like a criticism, it sort of isn’t. It’s purely that Carmine’s ridiculously loud drum sound mars some great rock with bluesy undertones – everyone else is great, particularly Cavazo and Robertson, who fill several bars en route with a mix of jagged, finger picked notes and soaring blues metal tones, sounding as if they’ve been a part of KK’s history for far longer.

As for the rest? In the main, it’s not as good, but still much better than half of the King Kobra back catalogue. Things slide into expected cliché with ‘Turn Up The Music’ when Shortino bellows through a chunky rocker that occasionally sounds like a sub-Sammy Hagar tune. There’s a pleasingly big chorus and very 70s riff to match, but unfortunately Paul overstretches his vocal to the detriment of the song. He doesn’t have the chops for the 70s AOR tones the chorus deserved, and a very unsympathetic end mix which makes Carmine three times louder than anything else manages to smother any melodic charm the track intended to have. With Cavazo noodling aimlessly over a later chorus whist a piano clanks with no aim other than to further clutter a messy arrangement, it’s the kind of well meaning track that should’ve been far better. The title cut introduces more of an 80s guitar sound, but doesn’t ever lose sight of the massive drum presence, and in many ways, features a riff that’s the most traditionally Kobra. The general mood is good, driven by a pleasing confidence, but that’s a far as any goodness goes. The minute Shortino starts to preach about “warriors ready for action in the dark” and recount various tales about the band’s heavy metal past shared with Quiet Riot, it descends into pure cheese. “There is rock tonight, for the old and young”, he squeals, in between mentions of waking up with groupies and sneaking out of back doors, doing his best to offset some great music. Thankfully, there are a couple of fretboard melting lead breaks, so if you’re happy to ignore the lyrics – or you’re one of those weird people for whom lyrics don’t matter – there’s enough meat in the music to carry everything off, as ridiculously overblown and dated as the concept might be.

The album’s heaviest cut, ‘Dance’ should have been brilliant, since Carmine’s drum sound is perfect for something that sounds like an overspill from Dio’s ‘Angry Machines’ LP, but instead of creating something with a little spark, the drummer fills several minutes with a cut price ‘When The Levee Breaks’ groove and the guitarists lumber through something that starts with a real intent, but eventually sags under its own weight. There’s a great mood here, but at five and a half minutes, there’s about two minutes too much. At the point where things switch gears to accommodate a great solo and chunky coda, chances are, your attention has already drifted.

An obvious improvement, though hardly a classic, ‘Drive Like Lightning’ opens with a riff that sounds like an old Motley Crue tune played with less flair before finding its feet as a predictable Zeppelin derived love in. Despite being made from stodgy fare, it gives Robertson plenty to work with throughout as he unleashes tones that sound like a Frankenstein creation of Jimmy Page and second division metal six-stringer, clearly relishing the opportunity to rock out. It’s lucky the music is strong, as the lyrics are predictable/terrible [delete as applicable], reminding everyone that the KK of 2013 isn’t always that far away. Despite the title cut’s rather unfortunate lyrics, and a few other tracks not being up to scratch, the only genuine dud here is an unnecessary recording of ‘Love Hurts’ – best known as a hit for Scottish hard rockers Nazareth – on which Shortino’s ravaged voice sucks all joy from the melody, whilst Carmine smashes his drum kit into oblivion, as if he’s playing on a cover of Zep’s ‘The Ocean’. If the obsession with making this as Zep-ish as possible was too subtle, there’s even a mellotron melody at the start that brazenly rips off ‘The Rain Song’. Things improve when Shortino shuts up long enough for a wonderfully melodic guitar solo to take centre stage, but it isn’t enough to save a crashy and rather dull trudge through a well worn number from sounding too forced. In all honesty, this is surplus to requirements; with twelve songs and a running time of approximately 52 minutes, ‘We Are Warriors’ is a little too long, and would’ve certainly feel the benefit from losing this cover tune.

At its best, this fifth outing from King Kobra delivers some strong old school melodic metal with Paul Shortino sounding more comfortable than ever as the band’s frontman. The new guitarists are a good fit for the band, but unfortunately sometimes seem to be playing second fiddle to Appice and Shortino, which gives the end mix a distracting imbalance at times, but even this flawed album is a huge improvement on a couple of the band’s previous recordings and shows a reasonable amount of spark. For better – and occasionally worse – ‘We Are Warriors’ is the kind of no-nonsense album that King Kobra fans will love. It won’t necessarily make much of an impact with anyone else, but that’s hardly a surprise.

July 2023