Akercocke – Antichrist

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Antichrist
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Antichrist
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH347CDL

After four albums of increasingly progressive and free-wheeling death metal, Akercocke clearly felt that it was time to rein in the experimentation, and instead of continuing to expand their sound by incorporating additional outside influences into their increasingly diverse sound, the band apparently felt that the time was right to narrow the focus and deliver what is, at least by Akercocke’s standards, a fairly straightforward death metal album. Of course, straightforward death metal in the hands of Akercocke is still unfeasibly intricate and dynamic in comparison to the more atavistic elements of the genre, but it does mean, for the first time in their career, that the band take a step, if not exactly backwards, certainly sideways. In terms of the quality of the music itself, it is of course significantly better than functional – the band may be cruising in fourth gear, but they are running on an engine built by master craftsmen from the best available materials. For listeners such as myself, however, that had followed the band’s increasingly wild sound with enraptured interest, Antichrist cannot help but be tinged with a small amount of disappointment that Akercocke have not ventured further still into the unknown, instead preferring to revisit familiar vistas and well-trodden paths.

Setting aside the question of whether this is the Akercocke album I want it to be, and focussing instead on the Akercocke album it actually is reveals a core of molten death metal, contained within a succinct and streamlined package. The frivolities and fripperies of their third and fourth albums have been excised completely, and the psychedelic satanic warriors seem to have had the idealism and exoticism knocked out of them, responding with a taut set of muscular and largely memorable songs. The first track proper, following the de rigeur intro, is a perfect example of this. Exploding into life on the back of an extended tom fill that acts as a perfect tip of the hat to the master, Dave Lombardo, ‘Summon The Antichrist’ dissolves prime Floridian death metal into an already heady solvent of technical, but grooving Suffocation-style riffery, and the resulting compound is absolutely explosive. Vocalist Jason Mendonca pours his scornful vocals across the band’s hellish soundtrack, and once again Akercocke demonstrate their mastery of the form, successfully blending vicious aggression with unforgettable hooks, and viscous, chunky rhythmic motifs in a way that is simply beyond the reach of most bands. Where Choronzon or Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone might have used this foundation to build new worlds of progressive metal though, their tendrils reaching out to pull in sounds and tones from more esoteric sources, this track (and the majority of its counterparts across the rest of the album) is a fairly linear journey, the usual twists and turns confined to some fiddly Absu-inspired riffing working in contrast with an unusually rudimentary drum pattern, and a brief foray into the kind of haunting atmospherics that offer a slightly nostalgic throwback to the spectacular days that gave us their career-best The Goat Of Mendes. As undeniably exhilarating as this more sleek incarnation of Akercocke is, it is difficult to avoid posing the question of whether, in casting off the experimentation, something essential has been lost from the core of the band?

This is a question that I return to throughout Antichrist, a loose thread that I can’t help absentmindedly playing with, despite the attendant ever-present and irreversible risk that pulling it too hard could destroy the entire structure. The case for the defence rests on a clutch of tracks that, simply put, are unimpeachable Akercocke classics, and spectacular additions to a back catalogue that needs little burnishing. The first of these is the magnificent ‘Axiom’ which would be a fine candidate were one required to select a single track from the band’s discography which most effectively encompasses all dimensions of the band’s wide-ranging sound. Akercocke’s metallic credentials have never been in question, but were a particularly dim-witted listener to challenge them, the punchy, galloping thrash riff that surges into life in a flurry of legato runs and pinch harmonics part way through the track would be the perfect riposte. As ever though, part of the impact of such a thrilling riff is the contrast that it draws in comparison with that which precedes it. Rarely a band to simply put their pedal to the metal in a heads down race to the end, ‘Axiom’ pulls the listener in via the intriguingly incongruous combination of pretty, clean guitar arpeggios and constantly rumbling double-bass work, courtesy as ever of the extremely proficient David Gray. A soaring vocal melody continues this juxtaposition, working against a churning post-metal chord sequence in a way that is obviously Akercockian, but simultaneously somehow novel for the band, before the aforementioned grin-inducing thrash sees the band move from 0-60mph in a fashion marginally quicker, but significantly more satanic than a high performance sports car. If this were not enough, the latter part of the song sees the band giving free rein to their predilection for squelchy electro and dissonant guitars, and this is augmented by an elastic bassline from new member Peter Benjamin. ‘Axiom’ welds clever composition to immense groove and feel in a way that cannot but satisfy even the seasoned Akercocke obsessive. Moreover, the lyrics also stake out a clear philosophical position that compliments the musical vision of the band, elegantly quoting Bertrand Russell with the lines “I believe that when I die I shall rot / And nothing of my ego shall survive”. One might mistakenly read nihilism into a statement that in fact opens up endless possibilities and removes limitations, urging humanity to maximise the pursuit of pleasure during the only life that we have.

Similarly inspiring is ‘The Dark Inside’, which experiments with a much more rough and ready sound than the progressive precision that Akercocke have become known for. The heavily rhythmic, almost mechanised d-beat of the verse is redolent of classic Ministry, spliced with an aggressive punk-metal feel that approximates Chaos A.D. era Sepultura, minus the tribal elements. The unstoppable forward momentum of the propulsive riffing suggests that the guitars are locked on to a track from which there is no escape; every note, every beat is as inexorable as it is powerful. As if to underscore this more animalistic approach, Mendonca’s vocals are some of the most feral that he has ever committed to tape, approaching the intensity of Blasphemy, or even Revenge, not bands that Akercocke typically belong in the same sentence as. Generally speaking, when Blasphemy are desecrating cemeteries in preparation for their nefarious rituals, Akercocke are more likely to be found reclining in the drawing room with a full-bodied Bordeaux, discussing Rimbaud and Flaubert, and it is gratifying here to observe Akercocke briefly allowing prominence to the beast that inhabits all of us, a beast that has perhaps been a little repressed of late. As they tend to at their best, Akercocke then move effortlessly from the bestial to the beautiful, as shimmering indie guitars and honeyed clean vocals transport us immediately into more tranquil climes, before the band return to their roots, unleashing a pulverising syncopated death metal riff of the kind that is positioned in the exact midpoint of the admittedly minimal distance between Morbid Angel and Slayer. The stampede becomes a lumbering lurch, the sound of an awoken giant learning to walk, before destroying everything in its path as the berserker metal of the earlier part of the track returns for a triumphant conclusion.

‘My Apterous Angel’ is further evidence of Akercocke’s mind-boggling versatility, and distinguishes itself with the most jaw-dropping segment of the entire record, a staggeringly clever instrumental section, as a brutal single note caveman riff is dramatically spun into a dissonant and considerably more complex version of the same progression, to ridiculously exciting effect. Were the entire album this dazzling in scope and execution, Antichrist would perhaps take The Goat Of Mendes‘s crown as the band’s greatest achievement. However, although the tracks which complete the album are well-performed death metal, they are not very much more than that, contenting themselves with replicating their influences, as opposed to transcending them. ‘Man Without Faith Or Trust’ demonstrates Akercocke’s enduring ability to compose memorably sinister death metal riffs, but offers little more than catchy brutality, and although ‘Footsteps Resound In An Empty Chapel’ improves on this in a dizzying technical blitzkrieg of prog-thrash, it’s difficult to avoid the nagging feeling that the band are breaking no new ground here. Where once every track promised to journey to unexplored realms, this time round they are returning to familiar destinations, albeit displaying the benefits of the intimate knowledge of the regular visitor, although the wide-eyed wonder of the first-time traveller is now lost. Even the atmospheric interludes feel like a somewhat lazy retread of the evocative sounds of Choronzon, and consequently cannot reach the heights that they ascend to on that album. Even the selection of the tracks covered on the special edition of Antichrist are somewhat obvious – Morbid Angel’s ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’ and the title-track from Death’s Leprosy. There is of course nothing wrong with paying tribute to your forbears, and I suppose it’s possible that these covers introduced some fans to these untouchable giants of the genre, but apart from some spooky synths added to the former, Akercocke play it disappointingly straight, delivering admirable but uninspiring versions of unimprovable songs. How much more interesting it might have been to hear them cover something from outside the genre, identifying and honouring a kindred spirit in ideology, if not in sound.

It is important to clarify in conclusion, that Antichrist is not a poor album. It is in fact an excellent piece of work that even at its most generic conceives and executes extreme metal at a level well beyond the abilities of the majority of death metal acts. However, for the first time in their discography, the only real surprise to be found here is the fact that there is very little surprising about Antichrist, and for a band as ambitious as Akercocke, this feels like the first retrograde step in a career that has hitherto only moved in one direction. Perhaps they felt like they had taken the experimentation as far as they could under the Akercocke banner, and it’s easy to understand the attraction and challenge of creating such a tight and concise statement after several albums of increasingly intricate and progressive music. Seen in this light, Antichrist is indeed successful – an easily digestible blast of pure Akercocke, each track reduced only to its most integral parts. Were this the first of their albums that I heard, it is easy to envisage the delight with which this listener would have embraced such an overwhelming display of death metal dominance. However, in light of the greater triumphs that came before Antichrist, it cannot help but marginally pale in comparison, the band scaling Kilimanjaro, having summited Everest previously. A harsh judgement certainly, but then Akercocke have earned the dubious right to be judged to a higher standard than lesser bands. Expectations were met, but this time, they were not exceeded.

Score: 82%

Abigor – Orkblut – The Retaliation

Author: BD Joyce

Abigor – Orkblut – The Retaliation

Artist: Abigor
Album: Orkblut / The Retaliation
Year of Release: 1995
Country: Austria
Label: World Terror Committee
Format: Digipak CD
Catalogue Number: W.T.C. 181

There are some bands that seem to progress at an accelerated velocity, where significant leaps are made from one album to another in such a short space of time, that it barely seems credible that they can have had the opportunity to internalise the lessons of the previous recording in time to turn theory into practice for its follow-up. At the risk of over-exaggerating Abigor’s development from their debut Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age to it’s follow-up, barely a year later, I would posit that they are one such band. Perhaps the improvements made between that record and Orkblut – The Retaliation are not quite enough to persuade the more critical listener, but even if that were the case, the ground traversed in four short years from the debut to the virtually flawless Supreme Immortal Art is surely the clincher for this particular argument. One imagines that there are two main factors at play here. Firstly, although Verwüstung may have been the band’s first official release, they had already issued a spate of demos prior to its recording, and indeed these demo tracks continue to pop up (some in reworked forms) throughout their early career. This meant that not only had the band gone through the difficult trial and error process of discovering how best to translate their inspirations into musical form, but that they were also sitting on an extensive cache of ideas to mine for their early full-lengths, like extreme metal prospectors with a very precise map. When this is overlaid with the fact that, at least in the rather niche world of underground esoteric music, black metal was both literally and figuratively catching fire, one can imagine that finding oneself in the eye of a cultural tornado might create exactly the kind of crucible needed to forge such art, in the kind of fevered activity that many of the bands of the time were stimulated into. Bands of the time excluding Thorns, of course, who took several (admittedly incarceration-interrupted) years to produce a single incredible album, which has sadly not been supplemented by a follow-up in the two decades since its release.

Although it is, in many ways, a similar album to its predecessor, at the same time, Orkblut takes everything that was good about Verwüstung and supercharges it, while at the same time adding a degree of coherence and fluidity that allows the songs to feel more natural, and less contrived. As good as many of the individual moments were on the previous album, listening to it is a little like walking into a newly constructed house, which has not yet been decorated. The structural integrity is sufficient, the floors, walls and ceilings are all intact, but the joins are visible, and the services are exposed for all to see. The months between the debut and its follow-up have allowed Abigor the time to paint the walls and hide the pipes and wires, and even add a touch or two of luxury. This time, the listener can enjoy the full force of the Abigor barrage, with less awareness and visibility of how it’s been assembled, and this allows for a fuller immersion in their dark and evil world.

Their dark and evil world seems to be something that Abigor have applied a substantial level of diligence to creating on Orkblut, and the album as a whole benefits hugely from this attention to detail. The sub-title of their debut, Invoke The Dark Age, was perhaps coined more in hope than expectation, as if to instruct the listener to experience the album in a specific way, but on Orkblut, this is something that they come much closer to achieving. It is partially achieved through the structure of the album, which deliberately connects each metal track to the next by way of short interludes. It is not uncommon for black metal albums to utilise dark ambient segments to add atmosphere to their music, but that is not what is happening here. Although the interludes are largely synth-based, they develop clear melodic ideas, and utilise tonal choices and harmonic intervals that enhance the medieval feel of the album. This is most literally seen on the excellent ‘Medieval Echoes’, which roots the band right back into the foundations of classic metal in the way in which it recalls ‘Orchid’, from Black Sabbath’s none-more-classic Master Of Reality. On an album as earth-shatteringly heavy as that record, ‘Orchid’ reflects a timeless quality on to the band’s apocalyptic doom, somehow connecting it to the elemental forces of creation, as if Sabbath are channelling the movement of the tectonic plates, and pushing these world-rending forces through their instruments. ‘Medieval Echoes’ does the same thing, suggesting a lone minstrel telling a sorrowful tale, accompanied by his lute, at least until the short track develops the main figure, adding deft melodies, interweaving a spellbinding web of sound over swelling orchestral keyboards, and once again underscoring Abigor’s level of ambition, an ambition that their capabilities are rapidly rising to meet.

Although the more structured use of the predominantly instrumental interludes does a superb job of setting the mood, and enriching the overall atmosphere, the album of course ultimately lives and dies by the quality of the metal tracks, and in this respect Orkblut is certainly not found wanting. On the whole, the album transcends a slightly under-powered production, due to the quality of the material, which takes the brilliance found in patches on its predecessor, and stretches it out across much longer passages of music. Although the kind of tinny sonics that characterise the album sound in retrospect like the kind of black metal shibboleth that is now a staple of the genre, one suspects that for a band as visionary as Abigor, this was as much a necessity as it was a choice, the equipment available to a niche underground metal band in 1995 not being quite what it is today. The prevailing musical themes see Abigor piling neoclassical riffs and melodies on top of one another almost to breaking point, separated by serrated flurries of more conventional tremolo work. The savage guitars are expertly underpinned, as always, by T.T.’s hyperactive drum performance, which mixes a furious and unabating double-bass battery, with churning tom rolls and quickfire fills. Where Verwüstung only really had one instance of elite, unparalleled magic though – the dramatic riff that lights up ‘Weeping Midwintertears’ – virtually every track on Orkblut features sections that match this for quality. ‘Bloodsoaked Overture’ pulls off the trick twice in two minutes, firstly with an unforgettable mid-tempo riff that cuts its way mercilessly through the synth backdrop, and then again when a climbing melody builds a majestic path heavenwards over a scaffolding of half-time rhythms, which unusually for the band, allows space for the captivating guitar figures to dominate what is usually a dense and claustrophobic mix.

Across the majority of the album, reference points are broadly similar to their debut – the whirlwind symphonic black metal of early Emperor, Satyricon and Limbonic Art, but Abigor’s take on this sound is set apart by the familiar, and slightly haphazard way in which percussion and synth effects jump in and out of the mix, which brings a satisfyingly warped aesthetic to the Abigor sound. This is perfectly aligned with their chaotic aesthetic, and also prevents them for ever getting too close to the more sanitised symphonic sound that was perhaps the inevitable result of the growing popularity of the sub-genre in the late 1990s / early 2000s. The embodiment of this is the utterly bizarre and impenetrable screed of what sounds like backwards-masked guitars that introduces the otherwise monumental ‘Battlefield Orphans’. Perhaps this is Abigor’s own nod to the ‘Satanic panic’ of the 1980s, during which a number of metal acts were accused of inserting secret messages into their music, designed to initiate unsuspecting youths into the occult, although if this were the case, it would be rather superfluous, given that fact that Abigor are not exactly trying very hard to hide their anti-Christian allegiances. With or without this strange initial bombardment though, ‘Battlefield Orphans’ would represent the high point of Orkblut. The initial mid-tempo, slightly dissonant surge is solid enough, recalling early Burzum, particularly with Silenius’s howling screeches placed high in the mix. However, following a transition through a section layered with spectral voices, which add an intriguing texture, an utterly exultant classic metal melody carries the song into a glorious new realm, before the guitars drop out altogether, the same melody carried only by the synths, creating a moment of wonder in which the the beauty of the refrain becomes truly apparent, stripped of the band’s usual bombast, before the drums and crunching guitars join in once more through to the conclusion of a masterful track. The band’s versatility is further demonstrated by the ease with which jackhammer death metal riffs, strangely close to the kind of barrelling rampages that pepper early Amon Amarth albums, are integrated into the otherwise raging black metal of ‘The Rising Of Our Tribe’ and the closing track proper, ‘Severance’, which is an exhilarating blast of pure speed, generally unencumbered by the convoluted complexity and stop-start changes of much of Abigor’s material, showing that they are equally as proficient in dealing in rudimentary orthodoxy as they are confounding with intricacy, when the mood takes them.

This particular version of Orkblut is reinforced by a 1995 recording of an old demo track, ‘Shadowlord’, which did not feature on the original pressing of the album. It’s difficult to see why it did not feature on any of the band’s contemporaneous albums, representing, as it does, the perfect consolidation of everything at which Abigor excel, together with the fascinating addition of a clean baritone vocal, which supplements the band’s black metal attack, as well as giving rise to the amusing image of a corpse-painted Peter Steele adding his significant presence to the Austrians’ ranks. The inclusion of ‘Shadowlord’ only bolsters the calibre of an already extremely good record though, and there are very few serious criticisms to level at something that is both reassuringly a product of its time, and also an enduring example of the appeal of mid-90s black metal. The odd twists and turns of the band’s idiosyncratic approach to composition and arrangement adds mystery and intrigue, but never at the expense of razor-sharp, scything riffs, and raw aggression, and even the interludes augment the flow of the album, rather than destroying it in its tracks. Camus said that retaliation is a product of nature and instinct, it is not a concept that is contemplated by law. Similarly, Abigor’s own Retaliation is a product of their chaos and disorder, and by following their own instincts, and remaining true to their nature, the band produced a second album of domineering might and magnificence.

Score: 88%

Abigor – Verwüstung / Invoke the Dark Age

Author: BD Joyce

Abigor – Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age

Artist: Abigor
Album: Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age
Year of Release: 1994
Country: Austria
Label: World Terror Committee
Format: Digipak CD
Catalogue Number: W.T.C. 180

Spinning Abigor’s debut Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age in 2021, it would be simple to dismiss them as derivative imitators of the giants of classic second wave Black Metal (most obviously Emperor, who they share the most significant similarity with). However, the chronology places them much closer to the epicentre of that particular cultural earthquake than they are generally given credit for, this album arriving in the same year as Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse debut full-length, as well as a host of other classics of the black metal canon, not least Transilvanian Hunger, and De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. It is clear that, in fact, Abigor should be considered alongside the masters, rather than classified alongside the many also-rans of the genre. It’s possible that Abigor’s geographic displacement is partially responsible for some overlooking their contribution to the development of the genre, black metal existing as a relatively insular and outsider scene in 1994, some way removed from the global phenomenon that it is today. Where Scandinavian passports and even the most tenuous links to Euronymous’s inner circle conferred instant credibility on a host of bands, Abigor’s Austrian heritage meant that they were operating in something of a vacuum, even if their membership of the Austrian Black Metal Syndicate was presumably designed to create the same kind of mystique and self-mythological atmosphere that hung like a (funeral) fog around the Oslo and Bergen bands.

The other factor that may have contributed to Abigor’s second tier status is the fact that unlike Emperor or Ulver, they didn’t arrive at their first official release fully-formed and with a perfectly realised sound, and in fact took a few albums to develop their idiosyncratic brand of black metal into its richest and most sophisticated iteration. This is not to criticise Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age unduly, and in some respects its flaws form part of its charm and appeal, but we should also acknowledge that although many of the band’s component parts are present and correct from the outset, they have been assembled here in a somewhat haphazard way, without the kind of unlikely fluidity that characterises Nachthymnen, or the outstanding Supreme Immortal Art. The prime example of this is the track that is in many ways the highlight of the album as a whole, ‘Weeping Midwintertears’. The arrangement is utterly frustrating; the first half of the song dominated by an overly melodic and slightly jarring guitar figure that falls a little short of the frigid and frostbitten atmosphere that one feels the band are shooting for, before the tranquil piano and martial drum tattoo instantaneously transport the listener to a pre-modern battlefield setting, conjuring images of a band of pagan soldiers preparing to defend themselves from crusading hordes. The early morning mist settles, until it is brutally lacerated by the scything blade of a tremolo riff so dramatic and rousing that it could drive the most peace-loving hippie straight to the front lines. A riff to fill the heart of the most apathetic with righteous fury and fighting spirit, it is simply a masterful display of metallic supremacy, and a moment unequalled on the rest of the album, but indicative of the kind of inspiration that Abigor are clearly capable of. One can only imagine what Abigor might have achieved with this track one or two years down the line, but as it is, the final two minutes of ‘Weeping Midwintertears’ are the apex of an album full of impressive moments, even if it fails to cohere into a unified piece of work as one might hope it would.

Another integral feature of the Abigor sound, at least during the early phase of their career is the almost romantic yearning for a reversion to medieval times. We see this at various points during this album and the next, not least in their stated titular desire to invoke the dark age, but most overtly during the lengthy intro to second track ‘Kingdom Of Darkness’, which recreates the sound of weary soldiers drowning their sorrows in ale, within the confines of a medieval tavern, before heading once more unto the breach. While not exactly anomalous in the context of the wider black metal scene both then and now, Abigor’s devotion to this aesthetic was especially dedicated, and certainly across their first three albums at least, it was an echo that constantly reverberated throughout their work. For Abigor, this yearning seems to be embodied, both sonically and thematically by an embrace of chaos, which also provides a link with their otherwise difficult to reconcile devotion to theistic Satanism. Indeed, the first part of their dual-pronged title, Verwüstung translates to ‘havoc’, or ‘chaos’, and the way in which the band embrace unconventional song structures, containing numerous tempo changes, together with intricate riffs and counterpoint melodies in the guitars assailing the listener from an array of unpredictable angles is as tumultuous as their grim lyrical content. This restless compositional approach is frequently striking, the band rarely sitting on a riff or melody for very long, and the thrillingly scattergun drum performance of Abigor mainstay T.T. plays a substantial role in a musical backdrop that is constantly arranging and re-arranging itself, a sick kaleidoscope which never stops turning, every beat an opportunity for a lightspeed fill or a slight variation on the double-bass pattern that underpins much of the band’s barrage. This does mean that the band rarely drop into a groove in the way that some of their peers are able to, but it also makes for a fascinating listen, and demonstrates the sheer level of musical ambition latent in Abigor’s early material, an ambition which will ultimately flourish a couple of short years into the future.

It’s worth considering at this point exactly what it is about medieval, or at least pre-modern themes, that continues to resonate so strongly across metal as a whole. A nostalgic, or even sentimental longing for the past can be found throughout much pagan folk metal, with bands across Europe mining pre-Christian (and occasionally nationalist, sometimes unfortunately racist) folk mythology for lyrical content and personal philosophy, and the same can be said for the sword and loincloth end of traditional heavy metal and doom, even if this is frequently blended with a hefty dose of fantasy, and a greater emphasis on conventional notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In black metal (although this does not especially apply to Abigor themselves), this longing often takes the form of a reverence for nature, turning the face of mankind away from technology, and towards the forests and mountains, totems invested with such value-laden concepts as wisdom and purity. In some respects, possibly the simplest explanation for this ongoing fascination is simply that bands such as Ulver, Emperor and more recently Panopticon and Wolves In The Throne Room were and are unavoidably roused by the awe-inspiring nature of their surroundings. Although there is surely some truth in this hypothesis, it also seems possible that there is something deeper at work here. Perhaps metal (and maybe humanity more widely) is most comfortable in a simple, Manichean world; a world in which God battles the Devil, ‘we’ define ourselves in opposition to ‘them’, and morality needs to be no more complex than ‘kill or be killed’. Possible these archetypes represent an escape from a modern world in which intersectional identity politics throw up intractable questions for the masses to squabble over, while we conspire to ignore the inescapable impact of the inevitable climate apocalypse. Before we travel too far down this theoretical road, however, we should note that some of the most exciting extreme music of the 2020s is being made by bands and individuals that address precisely some of these issues, from the folk-noise of Lingua Ignota, to the ambient doom of Divide // Dissolve, by way of the anti-racist spiritual-metal of Zeal & Ardor. Clearly, the different thematic facets of metal can co-exist, and metal itself is capable of becoming a vehicle for a plurality of ideas and identities, although it is likely that the pull of the darker ages will never be something that the genre completely escapes, even if it is just as a contrarian reaction to modernity.

Irrespective of Abigor’s national heritage or philosophy though, on the musical front, their debut is an uneven, but thrilling, mix of everything that characterised second wave black metal in 1994, with a few unique touches that ensure the band occupy a niche entirely of their own. The aforementioned ‘Kingdom Of Darkness’ (once the intro eventually fades) is a riot of treble-heavy buzzsaw riffing and propulsive, clattering drumming, and although the band’s songwriting isn’t as mature as it will eventually become, they already have a good feel for when to rein in their penchant for neo-classical flourishes in favour of the kind of ragged minor key thrash that the band drop into part way through the track, before more intricate guitar work rides the rolling thunderstorm of T.T.’s relentless blasting. This particular track also excavates some classic death metal influences, utilising the kind of infernal harmonies that light up Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness to ever so briefly create the kind of sound that might now be referred to as ‘blackened death metal’, although like many of the band’s ideas, it is mercilessly killed almost as soon as it is conceived, as the band are unable to staunch the endless flow of riffs and melodies. At this point in the eruption of black metal, the tectonic plates of metal shifting irrevocably, many of the key players were, of course, distancing themselves from their death metal roots (although Emperor, among others, would ultimately revisit the genre before long), so it is interesting to witness Abigor allowing themselves such a freedom at such an early point in their discography.

‘My Soft Vision In Blood’ is another magnificent highlight, and sees the extensive use of what will become something of a trademark for the band. As if the artillery blast of T.T.’s snare and toms were not warlike enough, the band frequently accentuate their drum patterns with huge, booming timpani hits, for additional dramatic effect. The only band approximately in the same field that do something comparable would be Summoning, a band that also feature Abigor’s sometime vocalist Silenius, but although that band nominally operate within the black metal genre, mainly as a result of their relatively orthodox debut Lugburz, their later use of similar sounds within their Tolkien-obsessed orchestral extremity provides a totally different context to Abigor’s bestial backdrop. As intriguing as this peculiar touch is though, and as much as it contributes to the overall feeling of esoteric weirdness, the real excitement comes from the spidery twin harmonies, building fractal paths to a fiery underworld, brick by brick, each note a step closer to Satanic deliverance. The song is also draped in diaphanous veils of lush and expansive synths, and although to modern ears the somewhat plastic sounds of the keyboards may sound a little hokey, to this listener it is an immediate and goosebump-inducing line straight to the heart of everything that made mid-90s black metal so simultaneously bewildering and appealing, an appeal only deepened by the terrific Burzum-aping keyboard coda.

Even in Verwüstung‘s not quite so spine-tingling moments, it’s maintains a more than serviceable quality. Opening track ‘Universe Of Black Divine’ is hampered by the clunky transitions between sections, and at times feels a little like unrelated riffs and melodies simply stitched together in a way that reveals a clear lack of maturity and experience, but it doesn’t make the classic metal harmonies of the closing lead guitar lines that dominate the latter part of the track any less majestic. Abigor here are a crumbling castle on the precipice of a vertiginous canyon, epic grandeur teetering on the edge of collapse. Similarly, even if the more than adequate ‘Eye To Eye At Armageddon’ sees a more prominent use of synths that lead it a little bit close to Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse for comfort, the icy blasts are still very nearly as awe-inspiring as their Norwegian peers. Furthermore, the slower elements of the song, grinding and oppressive like a gradually spreading plague, combined with the folky melodies that occupy the guitars add something different enough to ensure that Abigor rise above the ranks of mere imitators. The closing track proper, ‘Diabolic Unity’ is one song too far, however; generic black metal that adds little individuality to a Taake / Gorgoroth-style blitz, but on an album that is not particularly lengthy, it is a distant memory before it can create any serious damage to the overall impression of the album. Verwüstung utterly embodies the appeal of mid-90s black metal, at a time when the strangeness inherent in the anti-commercial sounds and tempos, and labyrinthine song structures, had yet to be erased by narrowing genre conventions and stratifying norms. It may not be the kind of iconic work that some of the giants of the genre would release at around this time, and it may not be the band’s most definitive work either, but it is nothing less than a curious and rewarding window into what was happening in the slightly more obscure reaches of the nascent black metal genre in 1994, and still sounds startling and exciting today.

Score: 70%

A Lifetime Of Music: 2 Years In

Author: BD Joyce

Just over two years ago, I started working through my CD collection in alphabetical order. I am yet to hit the letter ‘B’, but I’ve got a lot of enjoyment out of getting as far as Alice Cooper. I’ve struggled a little to maintain my stated aim of a review per week – this cadence was reasonably simple to hit at the height of the pandemic when I rarely left the house, but has proven a little more difficult as other commitments and interests have intruded more regularly on my time in 2021. When I do occasionally feel that I’m falling behind though, it’s instructive to remind myself that part of the attraction of this task in the first place was to willingly establish an activity that was likely to prove impossible to finish, given the fact that my writing generally fails to keep pace with my buying, and the available time to complete the task diminishes with every passing day. Furthermore, on the basis that this is an entirely self-indulgent pastime only ever intended to be for my own fulfilment, any deadlines are entirely self-imposed, and can just as easily be un-imposed, with absolutely no consequences.

At this point 12 months ago, I wrote about what I had learned from my inaugural year of writing, all of which still applies. I’m not sure I’ve learned anything new as such, but I do have a few remarks on what the last year has brought:

  • As per my previous statements, the blog was started with no view to it being a stepping stone to anything else, or with any concern as to whether anyone else reads a single word of that I write. However, for all that I endeavour to stick to this purity of intent, it is impossible to deny that there is a tingle of satisfaction when my writing does stimulate a small amount of engagement with the outside world, or there is some indication that others have enjoyed my work. The most satisfaction that I get comes from scanning through the list of countries that readers have accessed the blog from, whether from search engines or my social media links. Although the majority of my hits come from the UK, as I would expect, the US isn’t far behind, and Germany sits in third place. What really puts a smile on my face though, are the much smaller number of hits from another 35 countries on top of these, and to know that there are people in places as disparate as Japan, New Zealand and Guatemala coming into contact with my words and thoughts is mind-boggling, whatever their actual opinion is of my work.
  • 2021 also brought an unexpected development, which saw the kind of coincidences described above coalesce into something more exciting. I generally post the metal reviews that I write for the blog to https://www.metal-archives.com/. Metal Archives, for the uninitiated, is probably the most comprehensive and encyclopaedic heavy metal resource on the planet, listing almost any metal band (admittedly conforming to a slightly elitist definition of what constitutes metal in the first place) that have ever released so much as a demo. This year, much to my astonishment, and on the back of my Metal Archives posts, I was contacted by https://metalbite.com/, a website that had actually pre-dated metal-archives.com, initially aiming to develop a similar idea, but which now tends to focus on review and interviews. They were keen to reproduce some of the blog content on their own website, which I agreed to, and impressed by the passion of the team that run Metalbite, as well as the talent of some of the other writers, I have also covered new releases for them on a semi-regular basis this year, writing which is not hosted on this particular blog. Although this comes with its own challenges, it has been a wonderful and unexpected by-product of A Lifetime Of Music, and I look forward to writing more for that website when I can. I never dreamed of achieving the kind of access to music and artists that Metalbite is able to facilitate, as well as a greater level of reach for my work, reach that simply would not be achievable under my own limited steam, and I am immensely grateful for the fact that Tom and the team are happy to publish what I can send them when I have the time, with no pressure to contribute any more than I am able.
  • Indeed, the piece of writing that I was most proud of in 2021 was not actually posted here at all, but on Metalbite, even though it derived from my Twitter links to the reviews hosted here. In another serendipitous coincidence, in early 2021, a period during which I was working through the Akercocke discography, it came to my attention that Peter Theobalds, their bass player across their first few albums, had read and enjoyed my writing about the band. A few messages later, Peter agreed to what became an intriguing and wide-ranging interview covering his time in Akercocke, and much else besides. It was a great experience to have the opportunity to test some of my theories and thoughts on their influences and creative processes, and Peter was extremely courteous and helpful throughout. That interview can be found here: https://metalbite.com/interviews/1568/akercocke-with-peter-theobalds-bass
  • Finally, much as 2020 was all about deepening my already significant love for AC/DC, 2021 has done the same for Alice Cooper. It’s been an enlightening experience spending so much time with the discography of another band that have been part of my life for such a significant amount of time, and the most satisfying facet of this has been moving beyond my long-held love for Billion Dollar Babies and School’s Out to really familiarise myself with the albums that surround those classics, before the dissolution of the original Alice Cooper band. It is reasonable to state that Alice Cooper are not quite as crucial to the development of the hard rock genre as AC/DC, but the breadth of their output makes them, in some respects, a more interesting proposition, and exploring some of the further reaches of this in 2021 has been a joy that I look forward to continuing in 2022.

Finally, we reach the current standings. After two years of listening and rating, my top 10 albums look like this:

ArtistAlbumYear of ReleaseRating
AC/DCBack In Black198098%
AC/DCHighway To Hell197994%
Alice CooperBillion Dollar Babies197393%
AkercockeThe Goat Of Mendes200192%
AborymFire Walk With Us!200191%
Acid BathPaegan Terrorism Tactics199691%
Acid BathWhen The Kite String Pops199490%
AbigorSupreme Immortal Art199890%
AC/DCLet There Be Rock197789%

Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic and AC/DC’s Ballbreaker have been pushed out of the Top 10, in favour of Alice Cooper and Akercocke, although the latter’s Back In Black remains unchallenged at the top of the tree. Incidentally, I had the opportunity to see Akercocke play The Goat Of Mendes in its entirety in Leeds this year, and it was every bit as transcendentally spectacular as I hoped it would be, two decades after the album originally blew my mind on its release in 2001. The next year of writing will see the continuation of Alice Cooper’s discography, with enough big hitters following throughout the rest of the first letter of the alphabet to create the potential for further movement in the above list over the next 12 months. I look forward to checking in at the end of 2022 to see how things have changed once again.

Alice Cooper – Muscle Of Love

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Muscle Of Love

Artist: Alice Cooper
Album: Muscle Of Love
Year of Release: 1973
Country: USA
Label: Warner
Format: Jewelcase CD
Catalogue Number: 7599-2622-2

It is perhaps the inexorable fate of any commercially successful rock ‘n’ roll band to fall apart in a blaze of recriminations, torn apart by petty jealousies and internecine conflict, the music itself becoming a desultory sideshow. Due to the incredibly prolific nature of Alice Cooper (the band’s) career, and the speed of their ‘School’s Out’-assisted ascent to stardom, their path to destruction spanned just 5 years, the original line-up going their separate ways at the end of the Muscle Of Love tour a few months after the album’s release in late 1973. Bassist Dennis Dunaway remembers the band as feeling “exhausted” during the recording sessions, and although Glen Buxton is credited as lead guitarist on the sleeve, and the co-writer of a number of tracks, this was (at least according to drummer Neal Smith) about the extent of his presence on the album, pre-occupied as he was by the kind of substance abuse issues that sadly often accompany stardom. It was also the band’s first album without the sure touch and steady guiding hand of Bob Ezrin as producer since their breakthrough album Love It To Death. Ezrin’s skill as a producer and arranger had been key to that breakthrough, his influence an integral component of the band’s success, and his absence is keenly felt on Muscle Of Love, a somewhat erratic and uneven piece of work.

Muscle Of Love isn’t exactly poor, but it is a curious beast. In some respects, this makes it all the more intriguing, as the listener tries to get a handle on something that stubbornly and obtusely remains incoherent, however many good individual moments it contains. It is also hard not to compare it directly with the album that came immediately before, Billion Dollar Babies, so complete and and perfectly formed was that particular record, a hermetically-sealed package of utter inspiration. In comparison, Muscle Of Love is a rambling mess, which sees the band switch from one sound to another, not because they were simply choosing the best vehicle for transporting their ideas from a gleaming fleet, but seemingly because they were in desperate search of any method of getting from A to B. No single song on the album best represents this befuddlement than The Man With The Golden Gun, which appears towards the end of the album. One’s first instinct is that it must be a cover of Lulu’s theme to the James Bond film of the same name, but that seems unlikely even before a cursory check reveals that Muscle Of Love was released the year before the film. It seems too much of a coincidence for there to be no Bond connection, however, and this proves to be the case. ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ was in fact written by Alice Cooper for the soundtrack of the film, but was either submitted too late, or passed over in favour of Lulu’s track, before the band then decided to include it on their own album, regardless of how out of place it is in its surroundings. And on an album that, by the band’s own admission, was intended to be the result of eschewing the growing theatricality and eclecticism of their work, it is undeniably out of place. Not outright bad – the John Barry-aping horns are quite stirring – but out of place. While the band are (bizarrely) no strangers to swinging lounge-pop, ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ is so derivative of the Bond sound, that it simply can’t sit comfortably on an Alice Cooper album, or at least this particular Alice Cooper album.

Even more disappointing though, are the tracks that betray what seems to be the band’s jaded and fractious nature, and even more troublingly, their clear lack of ideas. The worst offender is the awful ‘Working Up A Sweat’. A pedestrian 12-bar blues, the song sounds like something that a past-their-best version of Status Quo would knock out on a lunch break, and still reject as a B-side, due to its lack of quality. Furthermore, Cooper puts his occasionally formidable and reliably nimble lyrical skill in service of a song that appears to be an account of a teenage boy’s early masturbatory experiences, written nauseatingly in the first person. The band were thankfully still just about young enough to write about this, and if we were being especially charitable, we could chalk this up to Cooper’s taboo-challenging tendencies, but none of that makes the imagery any more welcome or less unpleasant.

For all of Muscle Of Love‘s flaws though, Alice Cooper’s back to basics approach does pay off across some of the album. The muscular opening track ‘Big Apple Dreamin’ (Hippo) is a riotous blend of proto-metal riffs and portentous tempos, as well as confidently stating that “New York is waiting for you and me, baby”, quite the show of self-belief considering that, not unlike time, New York waits for no man. ‘Never Been Sold Before’, which follows, is even better, adopting the kind of swaggering classic rock sound that is second nature to a band with the kind of telepathic connection that Alice Cooper have, and fills out the sound with layers of triumphant Stax horns and a satisfyingly arrogant vocal performance from Cooper. What really elevates the track though, is the way in which it switches almost unnoticed from the straightforward boogie of the verses to an achingly good chorus melody filled to bursting with an unexpected yearning. The additional emotional weight that this generates expands the scope of what could have been a strong, but one-dimensional track, and demonstrates that the band are not completely spent. The title track mines a similar sound, the guitars leaving plenty of breathing room for a pounding drum part, and although the chorus is comprised primarily of sub-AC/DC euphemisms, the infectious melody makes up for it, as does the relentless bassline, which recalls Noel Redding’s hyperactive runs in Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depresssion’, Alice Cooper having moved on from the ‘Foxy Lady’ lift of ‘School’s Out’ a couple of years prior.

The slightly confused nature of an album that never quite hangs together though, is embodied by the fact that on an album which is ostensibly the band’s toughest and most aggressive musically, the best tracks are the ones on which they actually ease off the gas and allow their innate melodicism to carry the songs, rather than simply the fevered intensity of the delivery. First comes ‘Hard Hearted Alice’, on which Cooper seems slightly regretful of the persona that he has created, a straitjacket of a character that is bound to give their many fans what they want, trapping the man and the band into an existence that they perhaps feel they cannot escape: “Hard hearted Alice / Is what we want to be / Hard hearted Alice / Is what you want to see”. It’s an interesting insight into the internal monologue of a band that so often seem to be presenting the listener with a fictional narrative, and an intriguing peek behind their compelling facade. The thematic intrigue is matched by the swirling psychedelic majesty of its soundtrack, booming congas and layers of organ offering a very different feel to anything the band have attempted previously. This is English prog viewed through a US jam-band lens, and the entire song weaves an eerie magic, time and space warping the sound through different dimensions, all anchored by the mannered harmonies of a delightfully solemn chorus melody. The penultimate track, ‘Teenage Lament ’74’ matches ‘Hard Hearted Alice’ step for step, employing the kind of storytelling that characterises the band’s best work, together with lilting vocal melodies, the sort of guitar motifs that can be found all over Frank Zappa’s magical Hot Rats, and a soulful, gospel-enhanced chorus that shoots for the stars, and ends up flying way past Alpha Centauri. ‘Teenage Lament ’74’ peaks with a brilliant guitar solo, carved from God’s frozen tears, and the song as a whole is the kind of perfectly-formed classic rock epic that deserves the wider audience that only some of the band’s most popular singles achieved.

Were Muscle Of Love to conclude there, we would see the original line-up of Alice Cooper bow out on the kind of high that the members were habitually chasing at that point, contributing to the imminent dissolution of the band. Sadly ‘Woman Machine’ is a song too far, a stilted and grating rocker, which sounds not unlike the band were asked to recreate ‘Play That Funky Music’ from only an incomplete description of that track, and the effect is about as inspiring as that sounds. In some respects though, it is perhaps the most appropriate ending to a confounding album. Several tracks compare favourably with anything in the band’s armoury, the majority are better than average, and a handful are truly dire, the worst material that Alice Cooper have put out since they were finding their feet on the first two records. What is most conspicuously absent though, is the kind of all-encompassing atmosphere that is so abundant on the Ezrin-produced albums. Muscle Of Love sounds like a collection of tracks that the band pieced together in the studio from half-formed fragments of ideas, some of which thrived under the pressure to meet the release date that they had presumably promised to the label, and some of which withered on the vine as the cantankerous atmosphere of interpersonal dysfunction sucked the air and light from the room.

It can be hard not to feel oneself drawn towards the darker, more ineffable chapters of a band’s career. There is sometimes a dark and dangerous magic in the sound of a band of human beings falling apart itself falling apart, as authentic misery is plumbed, and raw emotion is revealed. Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and Nirvana’s In Utero are just three of the many examples of this phenomenon, all classic albums despite, and because of the circumstances that compelled them to exist. It is a little tempting to force Muscle Of Love into this category, simply for the contrarian pleasure of praising a record that is not held in particularly high repute by the listening public. But the reality is that it does not breathe the same air as those records, or indeed the four Alice Cooper albums that preceded it – the bewitching nature of its dank and distracted sound cannot mask the fact that on the whole, the songs are simply not strong enough. And the difference between Muscle Of Love and the classic Billion Dollar Babies is stark. The latter is a nearly flawless display of composition and arrangement of the highest quality, but a few months later, it seems the band’s wellspring of ideas had been exhausted on that record. Instead, one imagines that the scramble for inspiration transformed out of necessity into retrospectively justified ‘back to basics’ approach which unfortunately lacks the thrill of the records that they made when the basics were not yet something that they had decided to revisit. It is a frustrating end to Alice Cooper the band, although, as the catalyst for the re-invention of Alice Cooper the man that would soon follow, it nonetheless occupies a pivotal position in the band’s discography.

Score: 63%

Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Billion Dollar Babies
  • Year of Release: 1973
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Warner Bros.
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 7599-27269-2

In the space of 4 short years, Alice Cooper had gone from wide-eyed psychedelic wannabes, hanging on to the coattails of Pink Floyd and The Doors, to bona fide hard rock superstars across the globe, all the while developing their sound from the dark, economic rock ‘n’ roll of Love It To Death to the overtly diverse and theatrical School’s Out, which embraced Broadway, jazz and R&B in its broad re-imagining of the band’s sound, a confident and expansive group clearly looking to the horizon and seeing no boundaries in their wide-ranging musical quest. Arguably though, the one thing that Alice Cooper lacked at this point was a truly classic, totemic album that could stand toe to toe with any of the canonical works of rock, their Pet Sounds, Revolver, or Highway 61 Revisited if you will. The three albums that immediately preceded this one are more than deserving of the acclaim that they have received and still stand up to scrutiny many years later, but their reputation tends to be restricted to a narrower audience than the aforementioned and legendary works by The Beach Boys et al. With the release of the staggeringly good Billion Dollar Babies, Alice Cooper would no longer find their discography wanting, producing a wonderfully realised and fully-formed album that maintains an outstanding level of songcraft throughout it’s run-time, as well as perfectly-judged arrangements and career-best performances from musicians now at the top of their game.

Ironically, where School’s Out seemed to be a deliberate, but flawed, attempt to insert Alice Cooper’s already theatrical music into the framework of a concept album, Billion Dollar Babies actually achieves the effect much more convincingly, by dint of a perfectly sequenced set of tracks that effortlessly conveys a widescreen, cinematic quality. There’s something heroic in the tone of this particular album, an air not quite of desperation, but of a collective understanding that for all of the success that the band had enjoyed to date, they instinctively know that with the set of songs that they have up their sleeve, they have a final shot at immortality, one last arrow to loose from the quiver, their bow trained directly on the very centre of the bullseye. The opening track ‘Hello Hooray’ is the embodiment of their approach, although curiously, and indeed courageously, the song is actually a cover of a song written by a somewhat obscure songwriter named Rolf Kempf for American folk singer Judy Collins. Collins’ version is very pretty, breezily recalling a less intense Joni Mitchell, but the Alice Cooper overhaul is considerably more interesting. Retaining only the soaring chorus melody, the band sculpt Kempf’s song into a more dramatic piece of work that becomes entirely their own, which assimilates seamlessly with the original material that comprises the rest of the album. As ever, when Alice Cooper are at their best, their music draws its power from the duality at its core. The spectral synths and atmospheric guitar leads are solemn and stately, the essence of class and sophistication, contrasting with the raw and animalistic vocal provided by Cooper. As he wraps his voice around an especially apposite chorus “I’ve been waiting so long to sing my song / I’ve been waiting so long for this thing to come”, Cooper sounds like the lunatic prophet assailing passers-by on the street corner, who has finally been proven correct about the coming apocalypse, investing his madness with a strange dignity, an impression that persists throughout the entire record.

Like many of the great rock albums, Billion Dollar Babies owes much of its appeal to the way in which it draws you in firstly with the big, catchy pop songs. Once the initial appeal of these tracks starts to wane a little though, the deeper connection is forged by the less immediate songs that reveal their wonders more slowly, the whole thing ultimately coalescing into the totally satisfying experience that it remains today. At the top of the big, catchy pop song pile is the immortal ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’, possibly the biggest, catchiest, and poppiest that the band ever got. Opening with the kind of sparse, open-chord riff that AC/DC built a career from, lyrically, the song is deliciously sarcastic, amusingly combining the quotidian with a messiah complex: “I used to be such a sweet, sweet thing / ‘Til they got a hold of me / I opened doors for little old ladies / I helped the blind to see”. The jewel in the song’s crown however, is a chorus which, once heard, can never be forgotten. This chorus is a perfect demonstration of how something incredibly memorable can be built from the most minimal combination of notes. The main melody carried by the opening line “No more Mr Nice Guy” is a fine starting point, flowing logically from the pre-chorus in exactly the way the listener would expect, but it’s the ascending falsetto scale the concludes the second line “No more Mr Clean” that is the unexpected twist that delights because of the fact that it fits so perfectly, despite the fact that it arrives with no warning. The same scale used elsewhere could easily go unnoticed, but its placement as the climactic element of the chorus is a breathtaking sleight of hand that is almost completely responsible for the song’s classic status.

Holding that same status is the superb ‘Elected’. Perhaps not quite as ubiquitous as ‘School’s Out’, the track feels, however, like it is cut from similar cloth. Nakedly anthemic, the martial feel of the drum tattoo that propels the verses coupled with the brass section joining for the chorus evokes images of a punk-rock marching band, uniforms artfully ripped, trouping sardonically through Main Street USA, Cooper’s cavalcade trailing behind them, the man himself proclaiming his manifesto from atop a dais built into the back of his gold Rolls Royce: “Kids want a saviour / don’t need a fake / I wanna be elected / We’re all gonna rock to the rules that I make / I wanna be elected”. While ‘Elected’ very much succeeds in its own right, it is even more of a fascinating to behold it in contrast to its estranged parent, ‘Reflected’, released a few years prior, on second album, Easy Action. ‘Reflected’ was one of the better tracks on that record, but demonstrated a diffident band still too much in thrall to their inspirations, despite early signs of their deft way with a melodic or vocal hook. ‘Elected’ on their other hand is the cocksure sound of a band who have harnessed their ability to combine disparate influences into an intoxicating brew all of their own. So convincing does Cooper sound in fact, that, were he to have stood against Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election that occurred during the writing of this album, he might just have persuaded America to vote him into The White House.

It’s a mark of the quality of Billion Dollar Babies though, that songs as good as ‘Elected’ and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’, do not put the surrounding tracks into the shade. In fact, it is the less immediate songs mentioned above that represent the true highlights of the album. ‘Generation Landslide’ is utterly magical, perhaps the best song on the entire record. The strummed acoustics bring the kind of intimacy and warmth that suffuses Lou Reed’s Transformer, and they also share the glamorous flamboyance of that era of Reed’s career, as well as the mid-Seventies output of his close friend David Bowie. The guitar work is captivating throughout, but the descending arpeggiated figure that effectively forms the chorus is woven from threads of pure gold, accentuated by the way in which the rest of the band drops out to allow the listener to enjoy the section unencumbered by any distraction, a testament to the power of a clever arrangement to enhance an already powerful song. ‘Raped And Freezin” belies its unpleasant title and subject matter, by ploughing a similar furrow. Joyful, sun-dappled West Coast Americana brushes up against louche rock ‘n’ roll, and a magisterial vocal performance from Cooper which reminds us that the singer’s theatrics and live showmanship were never a substitute for talent, but simply another mode of expression. Once again, the focus on ensuring that every component part of each song contributes to the whole results in some spellbinding moments, from the perfectly-formed vocal melody of the verse, to the Queen Bitch-style clean chords that populate yet another unfairly catchy chorus. That something as good as the telepathic jamming of the title track, on which duelling metallic guitars suggest Television playing Led Zeppelin, is one of the lesser tracks on the LP speaks to just how stacked Billion Dollar Babies is with world-class music.

Only in the final throes of the album does it even wobble slightly. ‘Sick Things’ boasts an interesting horn arrangement, but is more intriguing than it is essential, and ‘Mary Ann’ is a mediocre slice of swinging lounge music that seems to function primarily as a palette-cleanser, a spoonful of cold, sharp citrussy sorbet, before the closing necrophiliac love song and staple of the Cooper live show ‘I Love The Dead’. Lyrically, it seems rather tame these days, but Cooper’s fairly graphic horror was pretty extreme for 1973, glorying in its depiction of the central character’s depraved pecadilloes: “I love the dead before they’re cold / Their blueing flesh for me to hold / Cadaver eyes upon me see nothing / I love the dead before they rise / No farewells, no goodbyes / I never even knew your now rotting face / While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave / I have other uses for you, darling.” The musical soundtrack is a fitting accompaniment, creepy piano walking daintily upon the listener’s spine, sinister cello adding range and depth, before the track opens out into the fin de siècle bombast that brings a monumental album to its conclusion.

Billion Dollar Babies is without doubt the best thing that the original Alice Cooper band ever put their name to, existing on a plain of brilliance that few bands are able to access, and indeed the band were never again able to locate the route that led them to that peak, finally disbanding after the more prosaic and at times average Muscle Of Love. Ezrin’s production is beautifully-judged; where Love It To Death and Killer were sonically claustrophobic, squeezing the listener in a vice-like grip, Billion Dollar Babies revels in its space and scale. Sounding paradoxically loose and organic, but ferociously well-drilled and controlled, Ezrin captures the feel of a band at the height of their powers playing to a baying crowd, inside some kind of ancient coliseum, or Roman amphitheatre. All of which would be so much window-dressing, were it not for outstanding quality of a set of tracks which are the perfect vehicle for Ezrin’s wizardry. The culmination of all of Alice Cooper’s experimentation and musical dilettantism to date, Billion Dollar Babies is the complete and definitive statement of what was, at the time, a spectacular band, and is worth every cent of its title.

Score: 93%

Alice Cooper – School’s Out

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – School’s Out
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: School’s Out
  • Year of Release: 1972
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Warner Bros
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 7599-27260-2

By the release of School’s Out in 1972, Alice Cooper had found a style and musical personality of their own, with the ghosts of their original Pink Floyd-inspired psychedelia exorcised almost entirely, save for the occasional spectre flitting ephemerally through the two albums that preceded this one, both released shortly after the slightly false start of their debut, and its improved follow-up, Easy Action. The confidence and cocksure swagger that is the unmistakeable marker of a band in the ascendency manifests here in one of Alice Cooper’s most playful and theatrical albums, the band clearly feeling able to stretch out once again, grasping their beloved Broadway musical influences tightly to their chest, as well as utilising R&B and 50s rock ‘n’ roll influences to broaden their sound, as well as allowing them to sonically match the lyrical subject matter in a more direct way than ever before. The end result is undeniably huge fun, but not totally successful, at times lacking the punkish intensity and relentlessness the made Killer such a career highlight. Perhaps there is a degree of hubris at play here. After all, Alice Cooper were undoubtedly on one of the great rolls in classic rock history at this point, releasing a succession of high quality albums within an incredibly short timeframe, which all, to a greater or lesser degree, achieved something approaching the holy grail of album composition, effortlessly combining anthemic hits made for mainstream consumption with the kind of intriguing album cuts that secure the long-term devotion of the hardcore fan. Indeed, so sharp was the band’s songwriting at this time, that not only did they write a number of their greatest songs ever, but some of the greatest and best-loved songs in the entire hard rock canon, some of which are regular staples of rock radio to this day.

School’s Out, of course, opens with one such track, popular enough to be a UK Number 1 single at the time of release, and still a ubiquitous feature of the rock ‘n’ roll landscape half a century later. This very ubiquity makes the title track slightly difficult to evaluate. Suffering from the kind of over-exposure that afflicts the likes of ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath and ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica, there is a strong likelihood that many rock fans would not be especially disappointed never to hear the track again, so familiar is every note played by the guitars, every beat of the drum, and every iconic word delivered by Cooper himself. The seasoned rock listener may find themselves questioning why ‘School’s Out’ continues to receive radio and rock-club play in preference to a number of tracks that would appear to be its equal or superior, and the only way to answer this question is to try and cast aside the thoughts that have accumulated over many years and listen with callow and impressionable ears once more. And when we take this leap of imagination, we realise once again that (not unlike its many peers), the song has attained its huge popularity for good reason. Firstly, there’s the simple but effective riff, two downstrokes of proto-metallic heft followed by bright sustaining chord, which repeats itself until it resolves the melody the third time round, using minor variation across the riff cycle to create the satisfaction of tension and release, not unlike a less funky version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’, but this time with the absence of the kind of groove and swing emphasising the pounding nature of the rhythm, accentuated by Dennis Dunaway’s thumping bassline. The riff alone is worthy of significant acclaim, but when this is multiplied by the unforgettable vocal melodies of the verse, and then the undisputedly classic chorus, the product is a monumental rock monster for the ages. The bow tied around this very presentable package, and probably the factor that tips ‘School’s Out’ over into classic territory though, is the subject matter. Love It To Death‘s ‘I’m Eighteen’ touched on the sort of juvenile emotions that this track also taps into, but where that song was a swirling morass of conflicting thoughts, with gleeful naivety ultimately trumping self-doubt, ‘School’s Out’ has total conviction in its celebratory rebelliousness, with Cooper thumbing his nose at the authority going down with the burning shell of the school now “blown to pieces”. ‘School’s Out’ is the embodiment of the kind of anarchic, but still relatively safe, insurgency that popular culture feels comfortable embracing, in full knowledge that just imagining the kind of wanton vandalism that Cooper gives voice to largely represents a vicarious rite of passage for young people, all the while knowing that the summer break will conclude with a return to normality, just as it always does. If the grim reality of the similarly excellent ‘Dead Babies’ and ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ was perhaps too close to home to reach the widest possible audience, the Sunday matinee mutiny of the youth running wild at the end of school was a topic tailor-made to deliver on the kind of promise that the arrangement and melodies of ‘School’s Out’ were making. It feels a little played-out in 2021, particularly when the American High School experience is now an everyday venue for the kind of reality that ‘School’s Out’ represented an escape from, but if one can manage the feat of hearing the track again for the first time, we can indeed appreciate once more the qualities that enabled it to make such a huge impact on its original release.

The title track, in concert with the extremely recognisable artwork, suggests that School’s Out might be that most-1970s of things, the concept album. Neal Smith’s superb ‘Alma Mater’, the penultimate track of the album certainly suggests that there is a thematic thread which runs all the way through the record, but if it is indeed intended to be a coherent concept album, the concept becomes rather confused almost immediately. The main contributor to the confusion is the way in which the band also use School’s Out as a vehicle to realise their Broadway ambitions, by way of the recurring West Side Story quotations and allusions. This is not the first time that the band have used their recordings to express their admiration for Bernstein and Sondheim’s masterwork – Easy Action is the first example of this – but where that album utilised lines from the films almost as part of a sound collage, School’s Out seems unable to decide whether it is simply West Side Story transposed into a rock ‘n’ roll setting, or a conventional hard rock album with an underlying theme of youthful rebellion. The case for the former is made by the supremely odd ‘Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets’, The Jets being one of the warring gangs in the aforementioned musical. Supremely odd, but oddly compelling; the enjoyable stoner-gone-calypso sounds of the first part of the song are rudely interrupted part way through the track by swirling carnival organs, culminating in the same instrument feeling its way through the leitmotif that is used in the musical as the Jets theme, before a gang-chorus of voices intone the line “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way”. The whole thing is a disorienting departure from the rudimentary hard rock that the listener initially takes School’s Out to be, but it works well enough to make the whole thing a slightly queasy success. Despite this though, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere conceptually, other than to the segment of the album that, musically at least, is far and away the heart of the record.

Concept or not, the run of four tracks that follow the unnecessary, but mercifully brief interlude of ‘Street Fight’, presumably designed to support the idea that School’s Out is after all a musical in the mould of the productions that inspired its creation, are some of the most unimpeachably brilliant music that the band ever created. A testament to Alice Cooper’s sometimes overlooked versatility, each of the tracks show a very different part of the band’s musical arsenal, but, in the same way that every identical grain of sand appears completely different under a microscope, they are all recognisably the work of Alice Cooper. The first of the quadrilogy is ‘Blue Turk’, a bizarre title that is not rendered any more sensical by the lyrics. This is late night Cooper, finding himself thrust on stage in a smoky basement jazz club, and trying to build a bridge between the hard rock with which he has made his name, and the more laidback sounds that are traditionally associated with such a venue. The almost easy-listening swing of the track showcases the band’s perfectly observed playing, stabs of jazzy chord voicings leading into a glorious chorus that sees Cooper channelling Jim Morrison once again, but with a panache that he lacked during his earlier attempts at impersonating The Lizard King. The smooth and fluid musical soundtrack is neatly juxtaposed with some amusingly creepy lyrics. Cooper once again employs benign sonics as a vehicle to deliver sinister poetry: “You’re so very picturesque / You’re so very cold / It tastes like roses on your breath / But graveyards… on your soul.” ‘Blue Turk’ is a real departure for Alice Cooper, but they pull it off with such poise and style, that it also marks the welcome arrival of yet another side of this majestic act.

Alice Cooper’s multi-valency is immediately expanded upon by the outstanding ‘My Stars’. Although the band were some way from reaching the limits of what could be achieved with conventional hard rock instrumentation, ‘My Stars’ sees them opting for the rich depth of the piano as the lead instrument for the track, and once again their experiment is expertly judged. Following the atmospheric wailing guitars of the soulful intro, this multi-part epic briefly displays the band’s progressive bent, with guitars and piano falling upstairs in unison via a quicksilver chromatic run, ascending up a narrowing stairway before we arrive in a vast room, occupied by an infectious and highly addictive chorus, dominated by the sonorous piano chords working through a bluesy chord progression that demands to be revisited again and again. It’s the sound of 1970s Elton John at his best, if he had found the piano only after growing up in the raucous and righteous world of the Detroit punk scene, and it’s clever without being pretentious, high and low-brow meeting in the middle and getting on famously. And the fun doesn’t end there – ‘Public Animal #9’ is swaggering Rolling Stones-style R&B of the highest quality, elevated by the resounding gospel harmonies of the chorus, and a knowingly feral lead vocal performance from Cooper, just about straddling the line between performance and derangement. In the hands of a less capable group, the track could tip over in pastiche, but Alice Cooper have the skill to assimilate their outside influences in a way that feels ever so natural. It is as if the different facets to their musical personality are always there, and the band simply pull them into the foreground as required by the song. Finally, ‘Alma Mater’ completes the magical run of songs, and pulls us back into the quasi-concept of School’s Out. Not as immediate as the tracks that precede it, the tender 50s doo-wop ballad is at first affecting, and then ultimately triumphant, as the McCartney-style vocal and Stax horns culminate in a tearful, but necessary valediction.

‘Alma Mater’ would be a fine way to conclude the album, but instead it is the very literally-named ‘Grande Finale’ that provides the musical accompaniment to the falling curtain. It’s a little incongruous, but the bombastic horns and strings are immensely enjoyable, and the fact that the track hasn’t already been sampled to death is something of a surprise – pairing the final coda with a John Bonham breakbeat would make for a stunning production for a dextrous MC to weave their rhymes over. ‘Grande Finale’ underscores once again the attempt at creating an overarching concept for the album, even if, as previously mentioned, it is not a concept that the band adhere rigidly to throughout the album. Perhaps it is better to see School’s Out as a collection of loosely-themed tracks, which recognises both the freedom of a youth no longer encumbered by the strict rules of the school day, even if it also imbues this embrace of young adulthood with a certain nostalgia for the High School experience. As ever, Alice Cooper both represent and undercut the American Dream, although perhaps they err in favour of the former more so than ever before this time round. Irrespective of the success of the concept or theme of the record, however, its most impressive achievement lies in the fact that it is a good enough album not to be over-shadowed by the timeless status of its title track. School’s Out could so easily have been a collection of filler sold on the back of a gigantically successful hit single, but in fact, despite the somewhat uneven nature of the material, that is emphatically not the case. They made better albums before and after it, not least the magnum opus of the original line-up the very next year, but School’s Out sits proudly on the tier of albums directly below the band’s absolute best work, and given sheer volume of their early-1970s output, that is something to be more than proud of.

Score: 77%

Alice Cooper – Killer

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Killer
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Killer
  • Year of Release: 1971
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Warner
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 243650-2 / 075992725521

There are not a vast number of bands that have released rock ‘n’ roll albums that are as good as Alice Cooper’s third record Love It To Death. So productive was the band’s early seventies purple patch, however, that Alice Cooper managed to release one such album the very same year. That record is Killer. After hitting their stride in dramatic fashion with the lean and moody Love It To Death, the band correctly took that view that what was not broken was in little need of repair, and the result was another album of dark and gritty, but hugely anthemic and very slightly off-kilter hard rock. Once again assisted by Bob Ezrin, who had more than proven his worth the last time out, Killer simply picks up where the previous album left off, and does not loosen it’s vice-like grip on the listener until the title track concludes the record in a blizzard of jarring noise. Although Killer arguably does not contain any songs that quite scale the heights of ‘I’m Eighteen’, or ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ (although ‘Dead Babies’ comes within an atom or two), taken as a whole, it is marginally the superior album. There is nothing here as throwaway as ‘Sun Arise’, the average calibre of the songwriting throughout the album remains extremely high, and as a coherent statement, Killer benefits from a completeness of vision that seems to be more sure-footed and well-realised than that of its predecessor. The coherence is also evidenced by the near perfect sequencing of a record that benefits hugely from the fact that in 1971, albums were very much compiled in full knowledge of the fact that the listening experience would involve the attentive listener getting up in order to flip from this particular slab of wax through 180 degrees, before resting the needle in the groove in order to start all over again. Killer is split masterfully into two clear halves, that follow similar patterns, but combine wonderfully to create a dynamic record, full of peaks and troughs, changes in tempo, and crescendos of wild noise, and which across the 8 tracks which make up the total running time, traverse a huge amount of ground in a relatively short space of time, while simultaneously holding enough depth to reward endless repeat visits.

One of the more unfortunate flaws of Love It To Death remains that fact that Alice Cooper selected none of the three or four obvious contenders for the opening track, and instead hit the ground jogging gingerly rather than running, with the adequate, but only moderately exciting ‘Caught In A Dream’. Perhaps because their judgement had simply improved, or perhaps because of the fact that ‘Under My Wheels’ just makes no sense placed anywhere else in the track-listing, but either way, the band mercifully rectify their past mistakes in style, with a juggernaut of an opening track that represents the perfect statement of intent for this iteration of Alice Cooper. A little reminiscent of the driving, glam-tinged boogie of David Bowie’s magnificent ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Under My Wheels’ is dominated by Alice Cooper’s outstanding vocal performance, the listener hanging on his every word, as his insouciant sneer gradually reveals the darkness at the heart of a record that holds a black mirror up to the American Dream: “The telephone is ringing / You got me on the run / I’m driving in my car now / Anticipating fun / I’m driving right up to you babe / I guess that you couldn’t see yeah yeah / But you were under my wheels honey / Why don’t you let me be”. Not unsurprisingly, given the band’s general outlook and the very title of the album, this is a theme that returns throughout Killer. What appear on the surface to be innocent tales of young lust wrapped in the sweet sound of bubblegum-chewing rock ‘n’ roll quickly sour, like fresh milk left in the summer sun for just a little too long, and the band ably turn classic pop music tropes to their advantage across the entire record. Between the very capable band, and producer Ezrin, Alice Cooper have by this point mastered the art of producing the kind of controlled chaos that characterises the best hard rock of the era – the composition and arrangements are tight and concise, but at the same time, each track has a live, improvised feel, and appears on the edge of implosion at various points, without the gravitational pull inwards ever quite overwhelming the band’s ability to keep the show on the road. This is all very much in evidence throughout ‘Under My Wheels’, as wailing lead guitar lines assail the listener from all directions, like indiscriminate infantry fire, and subtle blasts of R&B horns augment the more conventional guitar and drums set up, adding a celebratory quality to the track that is only enhanced by the triumphant key change part way through, a triumph only slightly marred by the fact that it’s the only one in a track that feels like it could keep burning its way through modulations and false endings until the band run out of notes to modulate to. Once we have forgiven Alice Cooper for their failure to invent the key of H, however, we can see ‘Under My Wheels’ for the barnstorming opener that it clearly is, and the only question remaining is whether the rest of Killer can possibly vault over the very high bar that it sets.

The satirising of the traditional features of Americana that ‘Under My Wheels’ represents is in many ways the single factor that makes Alice Cooper so much more than just a hard rock band to get drunk and high to. The band make no secret of their love of the Broadway musical for example. This paragon of American middle-class culture is assimilated into the Alice Cooper sound, utilising the musical and lyrical motifs of the form to their own ends. Witness, for example, the way in which the melody from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘My Favorite Things’ is quoted in the epic ‘Halo Of Flies’, whereby the sweet optimism of the original source is turned on its head as it is re-purposed for one of the band’s darkest songs. Alice Cooper are the seedy underbelly of the American teenage experience, reminding us all that on the flipside of prom queens, chaste dates at the movies and girl-scout cookies, are stratospheric levels of gun violence, endemic racism and misogyny, and a society polarised by class and wealth. Alice Cooper roll all of this into a febrile mix of traditional rock ‘n’ roll sounds and insidiously creepy lyrics, with this album’s ‘Be My Lover’ a perfect example. On the face of it, a classic doo-wop ballad, with impeccably arranged guitar parts combining sad, sparse minor chords, and heart-breaking lead melodies evoking images of clean cut boys taking girls to the dance in their soft-top muscle cars. Scratch the surface though, and the lyrics are not quite the romantic plea that we might expect, and instead we get a sardonic take on the band’s lonely on the road lifestyle, where it appears that the opposite sex are not exactly falling over themselves to shack up with the admittedly dishevelled Cooperites: “Told her that I came from Detroit City / And I played guitar in a long haired rock and roll band / She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice / I said ‘listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand”. It’s a genuine moment of light relief and self-awareness on what is in parts a bleak journey into the heart of darkness, and matches perfectly with it’s soundtrack, a soundtrack that concludes with a grandstand flourish, Cooper hitting a series of majestic high notes, in a closing cadence that brings the metaphorical curtain down on the track in grandiloquent style.

As gleeful as ‘Be My Lover’ and the similarly excellent ‘You Drive Me Nervous’ are though, the cold, undead heart of Killer is to be found via the twin peaks of the aforementioned ‘Halo Of Flies’ and the best track on the record, ‘Dead Babies’. The former contributes hugely to the album’s staying power, a slow-burn multi-part epic that initially raises the unwelcome spectre of the band’s earlier psychedelic work, but despite its somewhat experimental arrangement, the band prove that their ability to reduce their songs to only the bare essentials needed to induce the desired effect on the listener can be maintained even when they flex their not-yet-atrophied progressive muscles. The seductive latin scales and note choices that are a surprisingly frequent presence in the band’s work, given the often linear rhythms typical of hard rock, are found here in a majestic bassline that initially wanders around the roomy low end of the track, before ultimately forming the main theme of the song, reminding us once more just what a powerful ensemble the original Alice Cooper band were. The telepathic relationships borne of hour upon hour spent in the sweaty confines of the rehearsal room allow the kind of instinctive instrumental interlock that is needed to make something as potentially free-form as ‘Halo Of Flies’ coalesce into the sublime track that it is. Picking up the trail of the wandering bass, the watery guitar line, fashionably imitating the trebly timbre of the sitar as was the vogue at the time, especially once The Beatles returned from India suitably inspired, is the restless sound of creeping dread, accompanied by lugubrious toms that presage a destructive final segment of the track in which more punchy guitars combine with understated organ work showing the kind of dexterity and sophistication that could pass for early Yes or Rush, but with an eerie undertone that neither of those bands could convincingly convey. ‘Dead Babies’ is another satisfyingly menacing piece of music, and not just because of subject matter that raised more than a few eyebrows in the early 1970s. While it is probably disingenuous to suggest that the track was unfairly misunderstood at the time – Alice Cooper were deliberately provocative, and both the song’s title and disarmingly anthemic chorus were likely intentionally ambiguous to the casual and easily-offended observer – the admittedly heavy-handed lyrics actually reveal a moralistic message, imploring neglectful parents to be less selfish and more responsible: “Little Betty ate a pound of aspirin / She got them from the shelf up on the wall / Betty’s mommy wasn’t there to save her / She didn’t even hear her baby call”. One imagines that Alice Cooper were not particularly quick to correct listeners who got the wrong end of the stick, however; the audience for baby-killing drug-fiend being that much more rabid than the audience for rock ‘n’ roll-based parenting advice. Aside from the magnificently infectious singalong chorus, however, what really secures the position of ‘Dead Babies’ in the pantheon of Cooper classics is the superbly paced and brilliantly arranged instrumental track, which builds from reverb-heavy arpeggios, to proto-metal twin guitar lines that wouldn’t be out of place on a Judas Priest record, finally joined by expertly mixed layers of classical instrumentation augmenting the grandiose conclusion. These adornments complement without overwhelming the band, in the same way the George Martin’s strings and horns on the mid-period Beatles records enabled that band to re-purpose sounds that pre-dated rock ‘n’ roll in new and exciting ways. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’, and one certainly could make a convincing argument that it is the equal of that outstanding highlight of Love It To Death, it certainly runs it close enough, and an impressive display of the band’s ability to combine quality and quantity during the stellar period that they were enjoying in the early 1970s.

This impressive ability to produce a substantial array of serious quality material means that even the occasional trough is more of a barely noticeable dip, another step forward from their previous work. Only the mediocre ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’, sporting uninspiring guitar work, lacklustre vocal melodies and lyrics that aspire to the kind of clever-dumb brilliance that The Ramones excelled in, but attain only dumb-dumb, could be described as inessential, but every other song contains at least moments of wonder, and frequently much more than moments. The genius descending guitar figure that follows the second chorus of ‘You Drive Me Nervous’ might be the single most thrilling element of the entire album, and the string arrangement that decorates the excellent ‘Desperado’ is the kind of heart-stoppingly beautiful melody that can be found throughout Love’s Forever Changes, an album that holds the kind of rank in the mainstream rock ‘n’ roll canon that Alice Cooper’s image and reputation has largely and unfairly precluded them from reaching. The latter track also sees a chilling vocal performance from Cooper, in which he convincingly inhabits the persona of a killer on the run, again displaying the kind of theatricality that would become a more significant part of the band’s armoury across their next three albums, which would ultimately prove to be the final three before the original line-up was to splinter, with the band’s vocalist taking ownership of the Alice Cooper name. Even the oddity of the title track which closes the album hits its target, despite the fact that it revisits the band’s earlier improvisatory psychedelia, an organ-heavy jam in which Alice Cooper sound more like The Doors than themselves, at least until the doomy final minutes, which are legitimately heavy and horrifying in the best possible way, giving rise to a truly occult atmosphere, as if Jimmy Page were playing ‘Dazed And Confused’ in a satanic temple, before pastoral synths see the dark clouds finally part, allowing a ray of light and hope to permeate the gloom. ‘Killer’ is the end credits of an immersive horror film, reminding us that for all of the genuine ambience created, this is an artifice and Alice Cooper are putting on a carefully crafted show. It is, however, a mightily effective show, and Killer is a remarkably strong album that remains an unfuckwithable jewel in the band’s storied discography.

Score: 88%

Alice Cooper – Love It To Death

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Love It To Death
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Love It To Death
  • Year of Release: 1971
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Warner
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 07599271872

1971 saw Alice Cooper approaching something of a crossroads, with perhaps their long-term career dependent on them choosing the correct path. Following two albums of adequate psychedelic rock, which showed glimpses of what they could become, not least in their innate ability to craft a melodic hook within a framework of wild, unrestrained rock ‘n’ roll, continuing straight down the road immediately in front of them might represent the path of least resistance, but at the same time, it was likely that the band would struggle to travel fast enough to escape the pull of their influences. Fortunately for the rest of the hard rock universe, before Alice Cooper made their decision on which way to turn, they met a young man by the name of Bob Ezrin. Ezrin was nineteen years old, and boasted little track record in the music industry that Alice Cooper were trying to navigate their way through. As out of demand then, as he is in demand now, Ezrin was not the band’s first choice to produce Love It To Death, but the band were the beneficiary of the lack of interest on the part of Jack Richardson, who sent the rookie Ezrin in his stead. Ezrin’s presence in the control room was considerably more than incidental, however, and indeed so integral did he become to Alice Cooper, that the man himself has referred to Ezrin as their “George Martin”, and his influence on the band was as profound as Martin’s own influence was on The Beatles. It is, quite simply, impossibly to imagine Alice Cooper’s storied discography and enduring career without the input of man who may have had no production credits prior to Love It To Death, but did his job so successfully, that just a decade later, he had manned the desk for such luminaries as Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and, most importantly of all, the Rock Horror Picture Show‘s Tim Curry.

Ezrin’s biggest contribution to what became the unmistakeable sound of Alice Cooper lies in his unstinting dedication to persuading the band to ditch their psychedelic jams in favour of a more straight-to-the-point take on the kind of Detroit rock ‘n’ roll that the band were now surrounded by, after their relocation to Michigan, from the rather less sympathetic climes of Los Angeles. It was not that the band didn’t have it in them – a handful of tracks from their first two records present clear evidence that Alice Cooper could adopt a more focussed and aggressive approach when the mood took them, but it seems that they needed a certain amount of encouragement to convince them to stop hedging their bets on the more eclectic, genre-hopping sound that characterised their early work. Ezrin was prepared to persuade, and his lengthy, enforced rehearsal sessions eventually saw the band come round to his way of thinking, and recognise not only the power of tight, concise songwriting, but the power that they were able to generate when they devoted their energy and considerable talents to the conventionally-structured pop song. With the dynamic of the band shifted accordingly, and their avant-garde sensibilities used as adornments to decorate the song, rather than as the central framework on which the melodies were hung, Alice Cooper attained their final form, a versatile hard rock band, with a penchant for the theatrical, and a weird streak just wide enough to intrigue, but not to repel the masses.

Although ‘Caught In A Dream’ exhibits all of elements that come together to make Love It To Death the superb album that it is, it’s a blockbuster chorus away from being the song that Alice Cooper so badly want it to be, and is ultimately one of the less memorable tracks on the album, and a very slightly false start, despite the half-smiles that begin to form as the listener recognises the potential latent in a glam stomp reminiscent of the sound that the Mick Ronson-assisted David Bowie will adopt in a few short years. If ‘Caught In A Dream’ sees the engines started and the countdown commencing though, this particular oddity blasts into the stratosphere as soon as the downbeat, but unmistakeable opening chords of ‘I’m Eighteen’ ring out. Without doubt, the first truly canonical song of the band’s back catalogue, ‘I’m Eighteen’ sees the band’s longstanding ability to craft infectious vocal melodies meet their new-found enthusiasm for conventional song structures head-on, and the results of that highly successful union is a track that sounds both classic and fresh half a century later. There’s more to the song’s enduring appeal than simply a catchy hook though. What makes ‘I’m Eighteen’ such an achievement is the way in which Alice Cooper’s lyric and vocal perfectly express the petulant alienation of small-town youth. There are, of course, numerous songs which celebrate the carefree nature of teenage existence, but ‘I’m Eighteen’ seems, in some respects at least, more authentic, for the way in which it gives voice to anxieties and difficulties inherent to a segment of the population that are perceived by the rest of the adult population as naive and innocent, while at the same time they are dealing with incipient adulthood, outgrowing the childhood that so constrained them. As Cooper sings, “I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart / Took eighteen years to get this far / Don’t always know what I’m talking about / Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt”. His intonation of the excellent chorus is both defiant and weary, a true portrayal of the human experience, and as such, although Cooper himself may be much closer to 80, ‘I’m Eighteen’ remains a timeless classic that speaks to each successive generation of teenagers anew.

‘I’m Eighteen’ is not the only utterly essential Alice Cooper classic housed by Love It To Death. At the other end of the record, penultimate track ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ may not have had the gigantic commercial success of ‘I’m Eighteen’, never having been released as a single, and lacking the immediacy and pop nous of that particular track, as well as showing a more progressive and darker side to the band, but it is at least that track’s equal in terms of pure quality, and indeed it is the band’s ability to write classic album tracks such as this that have allowed Alice Cooper to remain at the top of the hard rock tree for so long. Their breadth gifts them the ability to craft live sets that reward the hardcore fan with a mixture of the easy pleasures of the singalong anthems designed to rouse the entire crowd, together with the depth of the lesser-known album tracks, which are compelling in a different way. Indeed, ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ became a key set piece in the band’s shocking (for the time) live show, during which Cooper was dragged off stage by a ‘nurse’, only to re-appear in a straitjacket that he ultimately escaped from, no doubt to the acclaim of the baying mob. Taking inspiration, once again, from the Broadway shows that so inspired the band as teenagers, it is the obvious theatricality of the song that enabled it to be used in such a way during their live show, a quality that set Alice Cooper apart from many of their hard rock peers in 1970. These peers, Steppenwolf and Humble Pie for example, tended to minimise the differentiation between band and audience, presenting themselves as bands of the people, as opposed to high concept artists, whereas Alice Cooper emphasised the other-worldly qualities that set them apart from the crowds. Although the theatrical rock show would become an all-conquering cultural phenomenon later in the decade (turbo-charged by Kiss’s larger than life characters and thermonuclear pyrotechnics), perhaps only David Bowie at this time offered the rock ‘n’ roll youth a similar avenue of escapism. In its use of an insane asylum setting, with a disembodied voice appearing in the introduction to wonder aloud “Where’s Daddy?”, one can draw a direct line from Alice Cooper to the heavier side of the musical spectrum that would pick up some of the threads woven by the band, and King Diamond in particular shows a clear debt to Alice Cooper’s creepy storytelling, even if the music itself owes rather more to NWOBHM and thrash than Alice Cooper’s more conventional hard rock. Quite apart from what it allowed Alice Cooper to do with their live show though, the track itself is a great example of the kind of interesting and sophisticated work that listeners familiar only with the slightly more basic likes of ‘School’s Out’ and ‘Elected’ may be completely unaware that Alice Cooper are capable of. The initial sections of the song combine acoustic strumming and electrified open chords to great textural effect, before a sky-scraping chorus with heroic lead guitar melodies takes the song to unexpected places, veering away from the obvious in a way that surprises and delights. Cooper’s vocal is staggering, hitting the notes with ease, but imbuing every line with enormous personality. When Cooper adds a stutter to the line “I’d give her back all of her play things / Even… even the ones I stole”, it speaks of the attention to detail that the band (along with producer Ezrin) are now in a position to apply to their composition and arrangements, and ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ as a result is a towering example of classic rock that stands alongside anything else released during that era, and continues to shine with undimmed lustre today.

Aside from the bizarre and unnecessary inclusion of the band’s cover of Rolf Harris’s ‘Sun Arise’ that closes the record in a shower of happy-clappy hippie bullshit, the only charitable reading of which is that Alice Cooper are satirising the kind of sentiment embodied by flower power, by setting the naive optimism of such a song against a backdrop of real-world darkness, there is very little fat on Love It To Death. Not all of the tracks can credibly be claimed to be classic, but the vast majority of them are at worst extremely good, and show Alice Cooper for the first time to be a band that are capable of the kind of coherent statement that their first two albums failed to get within a universe of making. The jaunty, organ-augmented 60s workout of ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is huge fun, Cooper’s vocal rhythms and phrasing elevating the song to a level that the music alone would not quite merit, and the expert and elegantly wasted rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Second Coming’ contains the kind of brief snatches of twin lead guitar work that would become commonplace in the heavy metal that would shortly take many of the components of the Alice Cooper sound, and recast as part of a sonic framework that prioritised the riff above all else. Best of all though, is the riotous noise that constitutes ‘Is It My Body’, which combines a Cooper vocal that is by turns domineering and amusing, with a filthy garage-rock riff that sounds like The Stooges playing The Rolling Stones, and creates a primal magic that is every bit as glorious as that description sounds like it should be. Of particular note is Neal Smith’s outrageously groovy drum part, which swings with sibilant hi-hat hisses, and precision snare cracks in a way that would not shame a Motown rhythm section; the perfect demonstration of a drum part which sits squarely in the pocket, adding the final irresistible element to a display of rock ‘n’ roll supremacy that would be enticing enough without it.

The very title of Love It To Death demands the acclaim that the music thankfully merits, and the leering band of misfits that populate the front cover of the record almost dare the listener to try and deny the raw and majestic power that Alice Cooper are now able to draw upon. No true student of rock ‘n roll could realistically play Judas Iscariot to Alice Cooper’s messianic pull however, and after two records that showed promise and a degree of songcraft, but little appetite to edit their own worst impulses, the band have produced their first virtually unmitigated triumph at the third attempt. Indeed, Love It To Death was to be the start of a short golden period for the band up to the point at which they went their separate ways, following the classic Billion Dollar Babies, only two years later. Even the best songs on Easy Action, however, gave little clue of the stunning leap in quality that the band would be capable of, once their freewheeling eclecticism was given a little discipline by the twin influences of Bob Ezrin and their Detroit-based peers, and their rapid development is a salutary tale for all of the record labels that have ever written off talented, but wayward bands on the back of an underpowered debut, or a rushed follow-up. The album absolutely shines with the confidence and conviction of a band that realised that they had found their sound, and were determined to ensure that every single person on the planet would have the opportunity to hear it, and the vibrancy and vitality that explodes from the speakers with every note played means that Love It To Death is an ageless, deathless work of art.

Score: 87%

Alice Cooper – Easy Action

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Easy Action
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Easy Action
  • Year of Release: 1970
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Bizarre / Straight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 8122 79927 0

In the days before the marketing of albums was extensively planned, with the release date selected to maximise the impact of a record in a crowded marketplace, and an extensive touring cycle designed to wring every last drop of value out of a new set of songs, it wasn’t unusual for productive writers to release records within months of each other, each one hanging on to the coattails of the last. Easy Action, Alice Cooper’s second album, was released only 9 months after the interesting, but inconsequential, Pretties For You, to another collective shrug of the shoulders, and a general lack of acclaim and commercial success. Indeed, had it not been for the stratospheric success that the band (and post-1975 the man) enjoyed, thanks to the stellar run of albums that immediately followed this one, it is unlikely that anybody would be writing about it 50 years after its release, the album contributing, as it does, very little to the canon of rock ‘n’ roll. If the band’s output from Love It To Death onwards is a substantial tree trunk, with numerous bands and careers sprouting from it, inspired by the sound and striking image of Alice Cooper, Easy Action is but a small branch, connected to the trunk, but stunted, and growing no new life itself.

None of which is to say that the music is not enjoyable in and of itself, but simply that with the benefit of five decades of distance, we can see that Easy Action has cast no real shadow, it is but a translucent totem, bending, if not breaking in the wind. Viewed with that same distance, however, the importance of the album to the band’s career is clear. Easy Action is the slightly rickety rope bridge between the Syd Barrett worship and clumsy psychedelia of the band’s initial attempts at songwriting, and the lean, lithe hard rock that they would hitherto adopt wholesale, although the brief journey from the crumbling promontory that they are reluctantly vacating on their way to the continent that they would shortly conquer does at least, however transiently, offers some glorious views. The same bridge also contains a handful of rotting planks to be avoided on the route across, lest they give way and send the band and listener hurtling towards the abyss, but the thrill of imminent danger at least lends the album a frisson of excitement that is more fully developed on Alice Cooper’s next release, and arguably enhances the enjoyment of what is again a somewhat uneven and incoherent album.

The rather unbalanced nature of the album is perfectly encapsulated by the first three tracks, all enjoyable shorn of their context on this particular record, but so different in tonality and feel that the listener would be hard-pushed to identify Alice Cooper as the artist for all of them. Such heterogeneity doesn’t automatically have to been seen as a negative attribute of an album – The Beatles self-titled ‘White Album’ is perhaps the best example of successfully blending virtually the entire gamut of popular music to that point into a single release, but where The Beatles unerring ability to bend sub-genres to their will ensures that tracks with as little in common as ‘Piggies’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ somehow all retain a common thread which ties them all together, this is not the case with Easy Action, the huge stylistic jumps from track to track feeling unavoidably jarring and uncomfortable. One suspects that this is because the band are still in search of their true voice, and indeed, once they locate this, they are able to demonstrate how adept they become at replicating The Beatles’ trick on Billion Dollar Babies, which feels totally coherent, not just despite, but because of its variety.

So although the piano-led shuffle of ‘Mr. & Misdemeanor’, the breezy West Coast latin-inflected rock of ‘Shoe Salesman’ and the Beefheartian psychedelia of ‘Still No Air’ fail, perhaps unsurprisingly, in spite of their not inconsiderable charms, to hang together, there are a number of facets to Easy Action that form a lasting connection to the band’s later career. Firstly, the band’s predilection for Broadway musicals comes to the fore, most specifically Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s magisterial West Side Story. Inspired by the ‘us against the world’ gang mentality, Alice Cooper will return to the soundtrack that so inspired them on School’s Out‘s ‘Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets’, but at this point in their career, their devotion is shown by the naming of the album itself, a direct quote from the film version of West Side Story, while the aforementioned ‘Still No Air’ injects a finger-clicking interlude into the jittery tension of the rambling acid-rock, throwing out yet more quotes from the film. Although the cinematic scope and dramatic dynamics of the music itself are clearly huge influences on the band, it is no coincidence, given their attachment to Broadway, that Alice Cooper (the band, and then the man) would become known for their theatricality, from the make-up and gaudy stage-clothes of the early days, to the highly-choreographed set pieces of Cooper’s arena-filling show that endure to this day.

Moving away from the theatre, Easy Action also features several tracks that bring us, for the first time, the Alice Cooper voice that becomes the Alice Cooper voice from Love It To Death onwards. Still not confident enough to completely discard the Syd Barrett imitations wholesale, or the Lennon and McCartney harmonies that pepper the album, ‘Mr. & Misdemeanour’ does provide a glimpse behind the curtain at least, Cooper’s raw lasciviousness pre-figuring the leering style that he is now known for, still melodic and at times unexpectedly affecting, but his and his alone. We hear the same on the superb ‘Return Of The Spiders’, the track on the album that most signposts the way to the sound that they will soon popularise, but elsewhere, the band’s inveterate inclination to experiment, and utilise other voices as if they were running through options for wearing their hair, sees Cooper adopting an understated and even camp tone on the slightly bizarre ‘Beautiful Flyaway’. This curious song sounds not unlike an outtake from Sparks’ Kimono My House, a sound utterly natural for the Mael Brothers, but ill-fitting for Alice Cooper, even if, as ever, their knack of creating a catchy melody out of the most unpromising components ensures that the song is certainly not forgettable.

Despite the odd miss-step though, much more so than previous album Pretties For You, the best songs are both a huge step forward in terms of both pure quality, and also in terms of the band’s slightly circuitous voyage of discovery that ultimately resulted in them locating the sound that had been waiting for them to arrive. The first indication that something more interesting is within the band’s grasp is the fantastic ‘Below Your Means’. Although Alice Cooper’s vestigial tendency to lapse into aimless psychedelia means that the final minutes of the track travel rather too near to dreary ‘jam’ territory, it is not enough to undo the work of the rest of the song, which seamlessly combines a latin-inflected take on mid-period Beatles, with a heart-wrenchingly delicate slide guitar line, opening out into the kind of spindly lead work that Tom Verlaine based the entirety of Marquee Moon around, all floating on a thrusting garage rock groove. Clearly realising they were on to something, ‘Return Of The Spiders’ takes a similarly pulsating garage sound, but ratchets up the aggression and excitement. Thematically a nod to one of the band’s previous incarnations, The Spiders, the track is pivotal not just to Easy Action, but to the rest of Alice Cooper’s career. Having upped sticks from Phoenix to Los Angeles, in search of the patronage and record deal that they did indeed secure, by the release of their second album, the band had become disillusioned with life in the city of angels, and were on the verge of a fateful move north-east to Detroit. That city may be little more than a post-industrial wasteland these days, but in 1970 it was busy acting as a crucible for the invention of punk by The Stooges and the MC5, a good half a decade before The Damned released New Rose. Paradoxically, by looking backwards to pre-Alice Cooper days, the band in fact found their way forwards. Their electrifying take on 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, shot through with the kind of reckless nihilism that was the inevitable result of the 1970s bleak riposte to the hippie dream, makes it clear that a stripped back sound heavy on groove, but light on the kind of whimsy endemic to Easy Action and its predecessor, was absolutely where Alice Cooper’s talents lay. Although this facet of their sound failed to re-appear on this album, mere months later, they would mine this sound for gold on Love It To Death, and a legend would be born, only a little overdue.

Easy Action is a better record than Pretties For You. It repeats some of the same mistakes, and although the most egregious homages to early Pink Floyd have mostly been excised, what is left is still a mediocre hodgepodge, which covers a lot of ground, but without staying in any one place for long enough to truly establish a home. All of which is perfectly acceptable when everything falls into place, as it quite often does, and coincides with the nascent songwriting ability of a band that clearly have great potential. Too often though, the band’s impact is stymied by Alice Cooper’s almost self-sabotaging inability to play to their obvious strengths, not to mention the slightly contrived nature of some of the more freakish moments, even if they are less self-consciously off the wall than elements of the previous record. The high points of the album are worth discovering though, and although it would be an exaggeration to suggest that Easy Action is an underrated triumph, it is not outlandish to suggest that it is under-appreciated, and very much worth seeking out, assuming the listener is already familiar with Alice Cooper’s more obviously essential output.

Score: 64%

Alice Cooper – Pretties For You

Author: BD Joyce

Alice Cooper – Pretties For You
  • Artist: Alice Cooper
  • Album: Pretties For You
  • Year of Release: 1969
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Bizarre / Straight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 08122799271

Alice Cooper. A man who transcends the hard rock scene with which he is synonymous, recognisable to millions whether they are familiar with his music or not, perhaps more famous as a personality than for the undoubted quality of his songs. A man who embodies so many contradictions. A fearsome frontman with a name that conjures images of innocent young maidens, a shock rocker that was once the living embodiment of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle who has been living clean for over half of his career, and a figure often derided by the ignorant as simply a heavy metal singer, who not only pre-dated, but inspired the metal that he is associated with, while all the while sitting on a stupendous a back catalogue of glorious diversity, that at its peak stands comparison with the best music ever committed to tape. Above all, Cooper is a man to be treasured; a classic songwriter who has never stopped touring and recording new music, and represents an unbroken link back to the astounding creative explosion of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, when the established forms of rhythm ‘n’ blues and popular music that had generated such excitement in the youth of the western world met the free-wheeling experimentalism and widely available narcotics of the more permissive Sixties and music splintered into the universe of infinite possibilities that continues to expand to this day.

Even despite Cooper’s ongoing musical restlessness though, which has seen him embrace hair metal, new wave and industrial sounds across over a career lasting more than fifty years, while returning periodically to the theatrical hard rock that has generally defined his greatest moments, referring only to the man overlooks another integral part of the early phase of his career. For, although Alice Cooper is the name that the listener can trace down the spine of one’s chosen medium from Pretties For You onwards; at the time of release, the name referred to the whole band, not simply the stage name of Vincent Furnier. And although, to an extent, Cooper’s band have been hired hands since the onset of his solo career with 1975’s classic Welcome To My Nightmare, it would be grossly unfair to apply the same description to the musicians that played such a huge role in the stunning development of the band’s songwriting across 6 albums in a barely credible 4 years. Lead guitarist Glen Buxton and bassist Dennis Dunaway, in particular, show themselves to be outstanding and versatile musicians, as well as writers and co-writers of some of the songs that remain Alice Cooper (the man)’s most enduring works, and although they may not have the recognition that Alice Cooper (the man) enjoys as a result of his striking image and continuing commercial success, they deserve to be remembered as significantly more than a footnote in the story of how Alice’s wonderland was created.

And it was very much something that was created, through experimentation and trial and error, rather than something that arrived fully-formed and ready for mass consumption. Pretties For You is never less than interesting, but it is fundamentally an uneven document of a band in thrall to their influences, and struggling to find their own voice. By the time that their third album Love It To Death was released just two short years later, this voice had been well and truly located, and amplified magnificently, but on their debut, the voice is sometimes more of an impersonation. Most frequently, it is Pink Floyd’s wayward genius Syd Barrett that Cooper is channelling, but the spectre of The Beatles (most obviously, their album Revolver) also looms large throughout the record, although the overall effect is endearing, as opposed to off-putting, as Alice Cooper’s obvious devotion to those that inspired them comes through as a warm-hearted tribute more than anything more cynical. Although Alice Cooper’s off-kilter psychedelia may seem an odd starting point for their more conventional later direction, it makes considerably more sense in light of the fact that alongside the two albums that followed, Pretties For You was released on Frank Zappa’s fairly short-lived Straight Records imprint, itself a part of the rather less unconventional Warner Brothers corporation, despite the impressive nature of the Warner roster at that time. Despite some similarities between Zappa’s own early material and Alice Cooper’s sound at this time, Zappa is said to have signed the band on reputation rather than because he was especially taken with their direction, and it did little harm to Alice Cooper’s long-term prospects when Straight Records was fully subsumed into Warner in 1973.

Pretties For You may be inconsistent in some respects, and this includes the calibre of the songwriting as well as the wild sonic variations that occur from track to track, but there is plenty to enjoy, as well as a few well-hidden clues that help the listener to retrospectively track the circuitous path that the band took to the 1970s hit-making hard rock behemoth that they became. The clues are none more obvious than those provided by the song that was released as the album’s first single, ‘Reflected’. The titular similarity to the rather more well-known ‘Elected’ from the majestic Billion Dollar Babies is no coincidence. In fact ‘Elected’ lifts and recontextualises the chorus melody of its gentler and less strident predecessor, refashioning the promising, but aimless, ‘Reflected’ into a pounding rock classic. Comparing and contrasting the two songs is the perfect demonstration of how Alice Cooper mutated from an entertaining, but haphazard psychedelic journeymen into a tight and focussed outfit, discarding many of the signifiers of the late-60s acid-fried sonics, such as the layers of sound effects swirling around the mix and the improvised feel of the arrangements, in favour of a lean, mean groove, and a greater emphasis on simple, but outrageously catchy vocal and lyrical hooks. ‘Reflected’ is the primordial soup from which the later version of Alice Cooper evolved; all of the elements required to build the band already existed, not least the keen melodic sense that would only be sharpened over time, but they had not yet been moulded into a viable form.

Although the scattershot nature of Pretties For You ultimately means that the album as a whole fails to coalesce into a single clear musical statement, in some respects the way in which the record jumps between different styles gives it a certain charm, and when this charm coincides with interesting ideas, and memorable vocal lines, which it frequently does, the results are difficult to resist. ‘Swing Low, Sweet Cheerio’ belies its irksome title with a driving take on the kind of latin-inflected West Coast folk-rock sound typified by Love’s Forever Changes, shot through with elements of the British invasion bands, while Cooper’s vocal is pleasingly sincere and restrained, a world away from the Syd Barrett impressions that crop up at various points on the album. Similarly, the excellent ‘Fields Of Regret’ is one of the heaviest things on the album, hefty rhythms propelling a Spector-like wall of sound, with blazing lead guitar work pulling the whole thing together into an authentic slice of psychedelia, which would comfortably soundtrack a montage of clips of that swinging decade, images of bubbling lava lamps bleeding into shots of the beatific faces of idealistic hippies, before the psychotic break of the latter section of the track sees Woodstock transformed into Altamont, as whispered voices and unconventional guitar sounds presage a fevered climax in which the band allow themselves free rein to explore the outer limits in a way that is rarely heard during the rest of their discography. In fact, Alice Cooper’s nomadic approach to song composition begs the question of when sonic experimentation in mainstream rock became so frowned upon. Even the best rock ‘n’ roll records released in the 21st century tend to rely heavily on unchanging guitar sounds, modern guitarists evincing a strange aversion to altering any of the dials on their rig, real or virtual, for fear that they will never again chance upon the perfect tone that they place so much faith in. This stands in stark contract to the kind of unfettered exploration that Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and even Kurt Cobain made such a key component of classic rock, guitar tones mutating wildly from song to song, to the point where textures and experimental effects produced by patched together equipment often became the hook that a song was built around. This kind of approach to the instrument does of course still exist, but the kind of heavy rock and metal that is ultimately derived from these trailblazing artists is often mystifyingly conservative given the ingenuity of those that they seek to emulate.

The best and most enduring moments on Pretties For You are the ones which see the band’s own inchoate personality transcend their clear influences. Outside of the loping hard rock of ‘Reflected’, already discussed at length, ‘Levity Ball’ is a mature and memorable song which develops a skittish instrumental introduction into sing-song verses of almost childlike simplicity, before the trenchant chorus emerges through the cloak of static and distortion which surrounds the track to deliver the kind of triumphant majesty that would become the band’s default setting only a few years later. By the time Alice Cooper released Billion Dollar Babies in 1973, their composition and arrangements had become considerably more conventional and linear, but the wonky, homespun experimental rock of their debut shows the number of paths available to the band at any given point. The murky blues of the Led Zeppelin-playing-‘Astronomy Domine’ latter half of ‘Levity Ball’ is the kind of moment that would be selected against as the band evolved, but here it delights with an unrestrained ferocity, as well as being genuinely creepy, and very much the product of a time when the hippie dream was beginning to turn sour in the wake of Altamont and the activities of Charles Manson’s family, events that, it could be argued (reductively), ultimately begat the hard rock and metal that Alice Cooper influenced, and later became.

Not unlike the imaginary human that the band’s name is taken from, Alice Cooper’s development could be said to mirror the development of a maturing boy or girl, as they try on a number of incarnations for size, discarding some elements and retaining others. The less successful moments of Pretties For You see the band trying to squeeze themselves into poorly fitting attire – the obvious Lennon and McCartney cribbing of ‘No Longer Umpire’, for example, or the hackneyed Animals impression of ‘Changing Arranging’ which closes the album on a frustrating note. But ultimately, the thrill of Pretties For You is to witness the birth and awkward first steps of a band that would become behemoths of the hard rock world for half a century. It’s not all brilliant. In fact, it’s not even all good, and no doubt the band look back on some of their more gauche Syd Barrett plagiarism as slightly embarrassing in hindsight, but it’s also a necessary step in the journey of a band that became rather more sure-footed in a remarkably short space of time, as well as a fascinating document of the time that is easy to enjoy for what it is. The band had not yet honed their songwriting tools to the fine point that they would soon wield with precision, but their knack for a hook is already apparent, and ensures that the majority of the album is listenable at the very least. And not only that, but it should be celebrated as the album that brings to the world, for the first time, one of the most compelling and fascinating characters in the rock firmament. Alice Cooper.

Score: 61%