ALCATRAZZ – Rock Justice: The Complete Recordings 1983-1986

When it comes to reissues, the first three Alcatrazz albums have been more than well served. 1983’s ‘No Parole For Rock N Roll’ was reissued in 2011 with a slew of live tracks, and again in 2015 with a bunch of unreleased instrumental demos; 1985’s ‘Disturbing The Peace’ was given the deluxe treatment in 2016 when it was reissued with bonus tracks and a full length live DVD, and that same year, even 1986’s lesser appreciated ‘Dangerous Games’ was appended with bootleg live recordings.

That hasn’t stopped Cherry Red’s metal subsidiary HNE Recordings reissuing all three yet again, and this time, giving the albums the low priced, clamshell box set treatment. It might seem a little like overkill to the more casual observer, but all the reissuing in the world doesn’t diminish the power that can still be heard within those albums’ strongest cuts.

At the top of the essential listening pile, ‘God Blessed Video’ (from ‘Disturbing The Peace’) introduces Steve Vai to the band with a most unsubtle blast. His choppy opening riffs and frenetic soloing is so much stronger than Yngwie Malmsteen’s earlier work with the band, and combined with Graham Bonnet’s tongue in cheek lyric about the price of fame and the exploitative nature of MTV, the track’s absolute ferocity can still be felt years after the fact. The earlier ‘Jet To Jet’ sounds a little thin by comparison, production wise, but it’s a still a number where Alcatrazz’s sheer power comes through in massive waves, with a speed driven riff falling somewhere between the last gasps of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the power metal boom of the 90s. Across four minutes, Malmsteen hammers a sharp riff against Bonnet’s biggest wail, and when you think the band couldn’t take any more bombast, the Scandinavian guitar hero launches into a lightning fast neo-classical shred akin to Ritchie Blackmore played back from an old 78 rpm acetate. In capturing the band’s bombast, these are two very different tracks, but both perfect examples of the sheer force Alcatrazz could summon at their peak.

Also excellent, ‘Island In The Sun’ and ‘Starcarr Lane’ (also found on ‘No Parole…’) temper some of the musical fury with an AOR chorus, or a more melodic lick or three, in turn helping Bonnet to unleash a more natural voice that works with the music, rather than battling it for dominance. Deeper into the early catalogue, ‘Undercover’ and ‘Double Man’ (highlights from ‘Dangerous Games’) cast Alcatrazz as the perfect melodic rock band, completely in sync with the mid 80s as they scale down the speed and make a much bigger feature of Jimmy Waldo’s keys and a couple of radio friendly choruses. Tunes such as these have a much bigger connection with Bonnet’s solo work – in particular the strong AOR tones of 1981’s excellent ‘Night Games’ LP – but still bring some great music to the Alcatrazz catalogue.

Other highlights – of which, the three albums offer many for melodic metal fans – can be found via the title cut of ‘Dangerous Games’, offering a bigger insight into the lighter touch brought by guitarist Danny Johnson’s brighter tones, and the same album’s chunkier hard rock fare (‘It’s My Life’ and ‘No Imagination’) further demonstrates how he was a great running mate for Bonnet, despite showing off very little of his predecessors’ showmanship. In fact, his partnership with the ex-Rainbow vocalist was far more sympathetic due to his subtler style. For heavier sounds, ‘No Parole’s darker ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ blends an apocalyptic lyric with a moody riff, both of which Bonnet chews through with the ease of a hard rocker with years of experience, and ‘Painted Lover’ (a ‘Disturbing The Peace’ deep cut) sounds like Vai’s own twist on a Zeppelin banger, delivered with equal parts 70s bombast and 80s flair. Even a rockier reworking of ‘Only One Woman’ (an earlier success for Bonnet in 1968, as a member of The Marbles) holds up well with a chunkier guitar and AOR synth accompaniment.

It’s fair to say that about eighty percent of this hard rocking trio of treats supplies the goods, musically speaking. There are a few tunes on the albums that don’t work quite as well, as with ‘Stripper’, a ‘Disturbing The Peace’ era tune that marries four minutes of pure bombast with wanton misogyny; the same album’s ‘Mercy’ which takes a reasonable riff and subjects it to too much of a heavy handed approach, both rhythmically and vocally, or ‘Suffer Me’, where the band’s desire to create a big ballad just slips too far into the realms of ugly wailing and stodgy hard rock parody. However, even these can show off Bonnet’s vocal range – and natural style – very well, and as part of a four of five year musical journey captured within this tiny box, they don’t weaken the overall quality too much.

None of this will be a surprise to anyone who’s owned those three albums since the 80s. You know the records inside out and love them for better or worse. For those people, this set actually has an ace up its sleeve. It’s a slightly crumpled trump card; one that doesn’t necessarily provide the most exciting result, but for the Alcatrazz fan who simply must have everything – and you know you’re out there, because somebody spent good money on those box sets of bootleg recordings – it can still be seen as a sweetner, if the price is right. A fourth disc, subtitled ‘Capitol Crimes’, rounds up a few rarities, and a selection of previously unreleased tracks. Naturally, none of these are either in pristine quality or in any way essential, but at the same time, if you’re heavily into the works of Bonnet and his chums, you’ll still find something of interest here.

A “new master” of the previously unused ‘Emotion’ sounds a little brighter than the previously released version on the ‘Parole Denied’ CD/DVD set (Frontiers Records, 2018), and five further demo tracks credited from 1986 actually appear to be the same as those from that earlier release, despite ‘Parole Denied’ crediting them from a year earlier. There’s no need to feel utterly cheated here, though, because assuming they are the same – and if they aren’t somehow, any differences in the actual performances are incredibly slight – they’ve been taken from a better source. There’s a warmth to them that wasn’t as obvious before, and each one – ‘Losing You Is Winning’, especially, – sounds like the kind of track that should have gone on to better things.

Where the bonus ‘Capitol Crimes’ comes into its own, however, is through its remaining material. A few tracks remixed by Jimmy Waldo in 2020 really shine a light on the potential a fourth Alcatrazz LP would have had, circa 1987. The mid tempo ‘Set Me Free’ shows off a great blend of guitar and keys, furthering the AOR sounds of ‘Dangerous Games’ and gives Graham a huge chorus to work with, whilst a strong melody lurking beneath the main riff and vocal allows for some solid bass work. An even more melodic middle eight and a busy, chopping groove throws Alcatrazz even further into an 80s sound, and overall, its the kind of track that makes the band really shine. The same goes for ‘Rider’, a track with a great combo of blanket keys and soaring vocals that come together on a chorus that sounds like a welcome throwback to ‘Abominog’ era Uriah Heep. Despite ‘Parole Denied’ including demos of tracks bearing the same names, these tapes absolutely aren’t the same ones, and its great to hear a couple of things that sound halfway finished, as opposed to Alcatrazz bashing through them in a rehearsal space.

‘A Love Like Yours’, another leftover from 1986 remixed by Waldo, sounds as good as ‘Set Me Free’ from an audio perspective, but no amount of post production would make it a better song. Graham’s in good voice, but he’s not got a lot to work with here. Jimmy honks on some keys with a strange oriental bent – presumably to please their Japanese fans, whom at this point were the last majorly interested market – and a dodgy AOR chorus sounds decidedly second division up against similar fare from ‘Dangerous Games’. Given time to adjust, it isn’t quite as terrible as first impressions suggest, but it’s unlikely to ever be considered the ultimate in buried treasure. A cover of ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, meanwhile, will offer no surprises. Bonnet wails his way through the old classic in a way that makes his version of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ seem like genuine winner, and the rest of Alcatrazz work through a demo arrangement that sounds like a track from a cheap karaoke disc with guitar augmentation. It’s the sort of thing you’ll spin once, then move on. It doesn’t quite have the decency to be flat out terrible – and subsequently funny in the process – but as covers go, it really isn’t very good. Working through ideas in the studio is one thing, but it’s hard to imagine a version of this propping up what could’ve been the fourth Alcatrazz LP…

All three of these Alcatrazz albums are worth owning if you don’t already, and this box provides a convenient way of getting all of the Bonnet era essentials in one package, and even a couple of those unreleased bits and bobs come under the category of “nice to have”, despite earlier reissues including superior bonus materials. As far as reissues go, it never quite reaches the realms of being a must-have set, and despite the title, isn’t complete, but ‘Disturbing The Peace’ is mostly classic – worth the price alone – and ‘Dangerous Games’ shares some smart AOR, meaning that for anyone not too fussy about having all the bells and whistles of the previous deluxe sets, ‘Rock Justice: The Complete Recordings 1983-1986’ is still an impulse priced treat.

Buy the box set here: ALCATRZZ – Rock Justice Box Set

November 2023/January 2024