Novelty bands are a tricky proposition. If too heavily reliant on quick, easy laughs (as per early 90s oddballs Lawnmower Deth) any novelty is in danger of wearing off extremely fast; if played to deliberately offend (as was often the case with the early Bloodhound Gang recordings), the amusement is equally limited, perhaps even more so. It takes more than a few gags to make things work, too: broad musical talent is absolutely essential – and it’s often something a huge proportion of novelty bands lack. Just look at the Insane Clown Posse: there’s not much musical interest there…and there’s nothing insane about two middle-aged men daubed in clownface, impersonating Cypress Hill extremely badly, all the while throwing soda pop over adolescent males in some bizarre bonding ritual. They can keep their magnets. Indeed, novelty acts are an odd breed and often best avoided…but as always, there are exceptions.
Yes, Vanilla Ice. You know him. In 1990, ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was huge and people loved him. He sold millions of records – though it’s unusual to meet anyone who’ll openly admit to having owned either ‘Ice Ice Baby’, or its parent album ‘To The Extreme’. He faded from the public eye some time after and a follow up album, 1994’s ‘Mind Blowin’, went largely un-noticed.
In 1998, Ice returned with ‘Hard To Swallow’, a rap-metal album produced by Ross Robinson, a producer then very much in vogue due to his work with KoЯn, Sepultura and Limp Bizkit. It’s likely you’ll meet more people who’ve heard about ‘Hard To Swallow’ rather than actually heard it. Of those people, most of them will probably tell you they’d like to hear it, y’know…just out of curiosity. After all, Vanilla Ice has been treated as a bit of a joke for so long, could he actually pull off a decent rap-metal/nu-metal album?
Well, curious folks, let Real Gone help you out: ‘Hard To Swallow’ is nowhere near as bad as anything you’re expecting from Vanilla Ice.Nor is it as good as you’re hoping for, from something which fits neatly into its particular niche…and let’s be honest, the metal aspect is why most of you curious folk have remained curious over the years.Being one of the curious myself, part of me hoped this album would be great; thus giving the finger to all those who’d written off the project before it’d even begun.
Ross Robinson’s input as producer is blindingly obvious. The album sounds like you’re expecting, although possibly with a stronger bias toward nu-metal. There’s stuff here which could be compared to early Limp Bizkit on their ‘Three Dollar Bill, Y’all’ album (although about three times heavier); in part that’d be thanks to Robinson, but there’s another connection here in the shape of keyboardist and bassist Scott Borland, whose brother Wes is best known as Limp Bizkit’s sometime guitarist. There’s also a fair amount of KoЯn influence in the downtuned guitars. Again, this is likely the influence of Robinson and the other band members, since Ice claimed he never listened to any nu-metal bands prior to making the record. The drum stool is filled by Shannon Larkin of Godsmack and the heavy guitar work is provided by Snot/Amen man Sonny Mayo. Looking at those musicians’ previous works, the Limp Bizkit debut was enjoyable, if a little disposable, Godsmack have released some decent albums (although their best work was released after this) and the Snot album is an absolute classic of the nu-metal genre, so ‘Hard To Swallow’ is fairly solid from that point of view. It clearly sounds like the product of all the musicians involved – more than just a bunch of guys hired to back Vanilla Ice. Add to that some guest spots from Casey Chaos (Amen), Cyco (Insane Poetry) and Jimmy Pop Ali (Bloodhound Gang), the album has potentially got a lot in its favour.
Ice’s performances here are loaded with arrogance, as he shouts down his detractors and reminds everyone he’s sold millions of albums (hey, Ice, so has David Hasselhoff) but ultimately, this album feels like dozens of albums of a similar ilk, especially during the moments when the raps give way to nu-metal shouting. I still enjoy a lot of late 90s nu-metal stuff and have nothing against shouting, but for approximately half of this album, something doesn’t quite click. Ross Robinson carries a lot of clout as a producer, so why then, does ‘Hard To Swallow’ sound so laboured and generic? There’s plenty of heaviness for sure (maybe a little too much) and Ice does what’s required from him about as well as he can manage – but still, it’s lacking something.
Sadly, there’s very little variation in the material and by about halfway through, the sludgy sound and heavy handed approach starts to become wearing and doesn’t really let up. This isn’t a fun record and I feel it really suffers for taking itself too seriously. Maybe combining heavy riffage with a more light-hearted approach (like ‘Injected’ by Phunk Junkeez, for example) could’ve been a better route for Ice.
That said, there are a few clear standout tracks: ‘A.D.D.’ finds Ice accompanied by a sheet of downtuned sludge where the verses feel like Snot (quite understandably) and there’s more than a sliver of KoЯn thrown into the mix; ‘Stompin’ Through The Bayou’ is the bastard child of KoЯn and Disturbed and ‘Too Cold’ (a metal version of ‘Ice Ice Baby’) proves that Ice isn’t embarrassed by his past, even though many people think he ought to be (he really ought to be embarrassed by this album’s poorest effort though: ‘The Horny Song’ is tacky and frankly provides no entertainment).
All the guys involved with making this album supposedly had a fantastic time in the studio, but that doesn’t really come across when listening to the end product. If you’re still curious, you really ought to hear this album, just to say you have. The best advice I can give you is to not shell out any money in doing so.