GENE THE WEREWOLF – Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal

When a press release uses a phrase like “[we] play music that’s as ridiculous as it is awesome”, it’s enough to strike dread in the heart of the potential listener.  After all, if it’s not awesome, then it’s just ridiculous…and if it’s just ridiculous, it’s then bordering on being a novelty – and novelty is not for everyone.  Luckily, on this international debut release, aside from a truly terrible choice of name, there’s nothing novelty about Pittsburgh band Gene The Werewolf.  While not really awesome either, the five man band does a great job pulling various elements from classic rock’s past, yielding an album which is surprising enjoyable.  Actually, despite all the things they think they are, most of the time on this release, what they actually sound like is a KISS tribute band, specialising in tunes from the ‘Dressed To Kill’ era.  With that in mind, if you hate KISS, there’s (almost) nothing for you here.  If you’re a KISS fan but hate people who spend half their time desperately wanna be KISS, there’s (almost) nothing for you here.

Never were the KISS influences more obvious than on parts ‘I’ve Got The Love’ when frontman Drew Donegan really channels his inner Paul Stanley, so much so, he could probably pull off being in a tribute band (assuming he’s not already tried that for a career prior to forming GTW).  The falsetto ‘oohs’ set the dials for fun, while the hard rock drumming and glammy guitar chords rock out like it’s the mid 70s all over again.  It’s not until the chorus hits that this tune offers anything truly brilliant, however…and for that chorus GTW impersonate their heroes as best as they can muster.  The hook may be trashy, but it’s fairly instant; although this is good enough, it’s the emergence of  Drew’s near-perfect Paul Stanley impersonation which leaves the biggest overall impression.  There are similar Stanley-esque leanings during parts of the feel-good ‘Superhero’, although any obvious KISS influences get offset by some rather lovely new wave keyboards set high in the mix.  Here, a few hair metal edges meet with an almost Cheap Trick level of confidence that, once again, shows this band off as great musicians in the “classic rock” sense.

When the KISS obsession is at its lowest ebb, there are gentle nods to late 70s AC/DC – though any potential influence never comes with the sledgehammer intent of Aussie rockers Airborne.  ‘I Only Wanna Rock N Roll’ mixes three chords worthy of Angus Young with a simple hook that the fledgling Poison may have killed for.  It’s totally old school – right down to relying on enormous whoahs for half of its impact – but often, the simpler the better.  By the track’s end, when things beef up a little and the gang vocals really hit home, it’s not quite so AC/DC influenced anymore, but rather more in the glam rock field – which is clearly where these guys feel most musically at home.  Perhaps better, ‘Rock N Roll Animal’ follows a similar tack, only with a guitar riff that is in danger of lapsing into AC/DC’s own ‘It’s a Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N Roll)’.  It may be largely borrowed, but that really doesn’t stop the professionalism of GTW’s own musicianship shining through – the guitar leads which busily fill the last few bars of this particular homage to classic rock are first rate.

As for the best of the rest, ‘Light My Fire’ features yet another great chorus, some Def Leppard-esque harmonies and the obligatory nod to KISS, while ‘Heart of Steel’ sounds like classic power pop in places, but is pushed back into the classic rock sphere thanks to a full compliment of 80s glam metal guitars.  Perhaps better still, ‘Ruffneck Woman’ takes another obvious KISS influence, mixes it with a couple of other key notes from classic rock’s glory years and comes up with yet another predictable yet enjoyable winner.  Despite adding nothing new to the Gene The Werewolf repertoire (or indeed, absolutely anything previously unheard within the much-loved glam rock, hair metal or classic rock subgenres) one thing is guaranteed: like everything else on ‘Rock N Roll Animal’, GTW play this with the kind of huge self-belief their music demands of them.

The KISS-isms may be far too obvious at times – right down to the name Gene in the name, a choice that is certainly no coincidence – but at least with Gene The Werewolf, you don’t have to live with the threat of Mr. Simmons delivering thinly veiled references to his penis.  Although Gene The Werewolf are short on original sounding thrills, purely and simply, their various homages result in a decent record.  Overall, it’s more enjoyable – and far less crass – than the stupidly over-rated Steel Panther, while retaining a similar vibe of good-time trashiness. Though this album is no contender for “genre classic” status (due its being little more than systematic pillaging from actual genre classics), the band’s claim of wanting to offer music of a “ridiculous” nature could have turned out far, far worse.

November 2012

TSAR – The Dark Stuff EP

Back in the early 2000s, an acquaintance gave me a CD-R of tracks by undervalued power pop/melodic alt-rock bands he loved – bands he felt deserved more attention.  While the exact contents of the homemade disc are now just a fuzzy memory, it introduced me to Far Too Jones and Sugarbomb – two sadly missed bands who released a couple of superb records.  Also included was the Tsar track ‘Kathy Fong Is The Bomb’ – a stupidly, stupidly infectious tune that mixed power pop and glam, ultimately delivering an absolute suckerpunch of a chorus which, once heard, was never to be forgotten.

I quickly sought out a copy of Tsar’s self-titled debut on the sheer strength of that track, only to be bitterly disappointed.  Despite numerous attempts to get into it, none of that album’s tunes hit me in the way ‘Kathy Fong’ did.  In fact, I found nothing else to be particularly memorable and eventually, I gave up trying to like it.  Tsar, meanwhile, released a follow up record a couple of years later and recorded demos for a third in 2008, before taking a brief hiatus.

The band reformed in 2010, some ten years after ‘Kathy Fong’ first lodged itself inside the heads of a few unsuspecting power pop connoisseurs.  In 2012, they released ‘The Dark Stuff’, a five song EP of brand new material, celebrating their brand of glam rock chops and power pop hooks as if they’d never been away.  In honesty, it’s fair to say that if you liked Tsar before, then ‘The Dark Stuff’ will be a welcome addition to your power pop collection.  If they never clicked with you first time around, even though parts of this EP have a more mature sound, chances are, they still won’t.

There are a couple of occasions where Tsar sound great, as they do on the lead track ‘Police Station’.  A combination of twin guitar leads and trashy pop collides to create something brilliantly disposable, while a wordless chorus adds to its overall dumbness and a rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo appears in danger of going totally off the rails…  It’s a great track, evocative of the wondrous Redd Kross.  ‘White Lipstick’ is an upbeat fuzzy, glammy affair replete with distorted vocals, where again, Tsar bear more than a slight resemblance to Redd Kross – but frankly, if this were the work of that band, the McDonald brothers would have taken things up a notch and absolutely smashed their audience into oblivion.  For Tsar, despite best efforts, such attitude seems to come far less naturally.

Less instant, ‘Punctual Alcoholic’ blends downtuned acoustic guitars with a harmony driven – though not especially memorable – hook, which when pulled across almost five minutes just wanders into indifference, while ‘Little Women’ brings similar harmonies to a slightly reverbed tune that never quite kicks in.   A little better, ‘Something Bad Happened To Me’ is a decent pop-rocker with a late 70s/early 80s influence, loaded with a a radio friendly hook and a great – if a little raggedy – guitar break.  Although the music is well arranged, it’s on this track that the vocal limitations become more apparent; as before, Jeff Whalen has one of those nasal voices which, if not approached in the right frame of mind, can grate fairly quickly.

Overall, ‘The Dark Stuff’s weaker moments make Tsar sound more mature than they did before, and obviously, that’s a plus.  And even though those weaker songs don’t have the chops to stay in on the mp3 player for the long term, they’re far from objectionable.   As for its two killer cuts, despite going in with all guns blazing, they may just not be killer enough to make ‘The Dark Stuff’ a favourite.  While the Redd Kross influence that powers those numbers is very, very welcome, after a few spins you may find yourselves reaching for a Redd Kross record instead…  [and if you’ve not already done so, make sure you check out their comeback disc ‘Researching The Blues’ – it’s one of 2012’s finest releases].

September 2012

WARRANT – Rockaholic


For a lot of people, glam metal band Warrant peaked with their third album, the 1992 release ‘Dog Eat Dog’. It took Warrant’s trademark sound and toughened the edges resulting in a near perfect mix of glam and hard rock. Then frontman Jani Lane said at the time it was the first Warrant album he’d been completely happy with and as a result, he wanted “to burn their first album and re-record the second”. In many ways, those who hold up that album as the band’s peak are correct to do so, although it’s successor, 1994’s ‘Ultraphobic’ has some interesting moments – most notably the King’s X inspired ‘Followed’. From that point, Warrant’s career certainly came off the rails… ‘Belly To Belly Part 1’ attempted to recapture some of the magic delivered by ‘Ultaphobic’ but had none of the memorable hooks or charm and Warrant followed that with a re-recorded greatest hits package which is best avoided. Vocalist Jani Lane subsequently quit and Warrant were never really Warrant again.

Longtime members Jerry Dixon (bass), Steven Sweet (drums), Joey Allen (lead guitar) and Erik Turner later teamed up with Black ‘n’ Blue vocalist Jaime St James on the appropriately titled ‘Born Again’ in 2006. ‘Born Again’ was a workmanlike hard rock record, certainly not terrible, but not worthy of the Warrant name either. St James subsequently returned to Black ‘n’ Blue, while the core of Warrant enlisted the help of ex-Lynch Mob/Cry of Love vocalist Robert Mason.

The resulting album, 2011’s ‘Rockaholic’ (released in the same week as the 2011 release from Black ‘n’ Blue, possibly not coincidentally), is a decent hard rock record, much better than ‘Born Again’. The opening numbers offer solid hard rock thrills, with heavy slide guitar powering ‘Sex Ain’t Love’ and guitar tapping and classic 80s riffing making up the core of ‘Innocence Gone’, which also features a great, pumping bassline from Jerry Dixon. On the rousing ‘Show Must Go On’ and ‘Cocaine Freight Train’ Warrant get in touch with their heavier side and on the latter, particularly, they appear very spiky indeed. The riffs are big; but more impressively, on the verses, Steven Sweet’s drumming occasionally resembles something more than a little Motörhead inspired. By the time the chorus rolls around, though, things settle in to more traditional glam/hard rock, with plenty of gang vocals; on an instrumental break, a harmonica line gives things a much needed blues-rock touch.

Elsewhere, there are a couple of outstanding mid-paced rockers: ‘Life’s a Song’ showcases Robert Mason’s less squealy vocal talents (and here it becomes obvious why he’s clearly the right man for the job) and a really classy guitar solo from Joey Allen. Throw in a bunch of harmony vocals and the track is a definite winner – near classic Warrant. ‘What Love Can Do’ has a great rhythmic punch on its verses, but as always, it’s on another harmony filled chorus Warrant really shine.

No matter who’s in the line-up, a Warrant release wouldn’t be complete without a couple of huge ballads, and on ‘Rockaholic’s soft numbers, lots of Warrant’s old magic can still be heard. ‘Found Forever’ is the kind of rock ballad Warrant excelled at in the late 80s, and even in 2011 – sans Jani Lane – they prove rock balladry is possibly their greatest strength. Robert Mason’s softer vocal style appears sympathetic to the arrangement, which comes full of understated guitar chords (courstesy of Erik Turner and Joey Allen) and a nice bass line. The keyboard fleshes everything out and makes it sound bigger than it actually is, while Joey Allen’s lead solo is brief but well placed. Despite lots of decent elements, it’s the huge chorus vocals and harmonies which make it really stand out. Similarly, ‘Home’ is an archetypal Warrant ballad. With an upfront bass line and clean guitar work underpinned by a keyboard string section, this sounds like a distant cousin of the excellent ‘Heaven’ from the band’s 1989 debut ‘Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich’. This track has the spirit of Jani Lane all over it, but then, It’s written in such an old Warrant style, it’s almost impossible not to hark back when listening to it.

Throughout most of ‘Rockaholic’, the band really delivers the goods. Robert Mason fits in very well and Warrant sound like a cohesive unit once again. It may suffer from a couple of weaker tracks and a horrible album title (“-aholic” is NOT an acceptable English language suffix), but this is about as good as you’re going to get from a Lane-less Warrant.

May 2011

HELL IN THE CLUB – Let The Games Begin


Although ‘Let The Games Begin’ is Hell In The Club’s debut release, a few of the band members are well-known faces on the Italian metal scene. Vocalist Davide “Dave” Moras is best known as for his work with fantasy metal outfit Elvenking, while bassist Andrea “Andy” Buratto and drummer Federico “Fede” Pennazzato are both members of power-metallers Secret Sphere. Rounding out the line-up is session guitarist Andrea “Picco” Piccardi. This side-band was put together after Andy decided he wanted to move away from the sound of Secret Sphere and perform sleaze-rock anthems inspired by Skid Row, Mötley Crüe and Ratt.

For the most part, if that’s the spirit they were attempting to capture, then this album is a success. Although some tracks work better than others, the love of the band’s original influences shines through – and often without sounding like flat-out imitation.

Of the best numbers, ‘Raise Your Drinkin’ Glass’ is a mid-paced stomper, where Dave gets to stretch his vocal a little. The opening riff has a slight AC/DC vibe, but as the song progresses, it carries a great amount of the spirit from ‘Shout At The Devil’ era Mötley Crüe. Underneath the crunching riff, an acoustic rhythm overdub has been added, thickening out the final sound; Andy’s bass work is rock solid and very high in the mix in places. Throw in a decent solo and and a slightly groove-oriented bridge and it makes a great rock workout. A funky riff lies at the heart of ‘Daydream Boulevard’ where Hell In The Club are extremely tight. The rhythm work is unfussy but great, the solo work even greater. The band already packs a hefty punch, but Fede’s occasional drum fills are immense. Dave’s vocals more than hold their own against the verse riff, while during the chorus, there’s an effective interplay between his lead and the backing vocals. I could point out that a few of the lyrics are a might sexist, but there’d be little point. If you’re still reading (and interested), you’ll already have a fair grasp of Hell In The Club’s schtick and know what to expect!

‘No Appreciation’ is much harder with heavy riffing on the verses, giving way to a shout-along chorus driven by gang vocals. It’s impossible not to think of early Guns n’ Roses on occasion, especially as Dave slips the words “Sunday dress” into the first verse! The funky mid-section has a G N’R slant also – which is very welcome here – and Picco’s soloing is fluid, if a little short. ‘Natural Born Rockers’ carries another sledgehammer riff that’s pure eighties sleaze rock and, like ‘No Appreciation’ the reverbed shouting gang vocals which creep in from time to time really capture the mood. While there are better numbers on ‘Let The Games Begin’, this one highlights the energy the band are capable of generating, as does ‘Rock Down This Place’ with its sweary refrain. I’m not a fan of songs with the word “rock” in the title, but it’s clear such numbers here have been designed to energize a live audience.

Among the no-nonsense rockers, the album features couple of slightly lighter numbers. ‘On The Road’ highlights more melodic leanings. The clean-toned guitar work during the verses is superb, against which the lead vocals are well delivered. The chorus itself contains another big hook, making it one of the best tracks on offer. Although the influences are obvious, ‘Star’ showcases another fantastic group vocal arrangement. For the opening section of the song, Picco’s electric guitar work rings out over the acoustic base, while during the numbers closing moments, the group vocals collide against a full-on, electric melodic rocker, where Picco’s soloing is top notch. It may never gain the accolades of Poison’s Every Rose Has It’s Thorn’ or Mötley Crüe’s ‘Home Sweet Home’, but this track certainly deserves to find a home among cult classics like Tuff’s ‘I Hate Kissing You Goodbye’.

I must confess, when I saw the band name and album art, I expected leather-trousered 80s metal played in a tired fashion with nothing much to recommend it. I take it back. While my album collection contains a whole bunch of albums which sound not unlike this – mostly purchased between 1987-92 – Hell In The Club deliver almost as well as those heroes and inspirations. If the sound of the late 80s LA scene still does it for you, then hopefully, most of this album should really hit the spot.

January 2011