Agnostic Front – Liberty & Justice For…

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – Liberty & Justice For…
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: Liberty & Justice For…
  • Year of Release: 1987
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Century Media
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 9962252

Just 12 months after the landmark Cause For Alarm album, Agnostic Front surprisingly decided against the obvious progression into psychedelic prog-funk, and instead chose to solidify their position as leaders of the New York hardcore scene with the release of their third album, Liberty & Justice For…, curiously released in the very same year as Metallica’s similarly-titled …And Justice For All. A little like the genre in microcosm, there are no surprises here, just a slight refinement of the formula that served the band so well on their previous record. Some of the youthful exuberance and ramshackle thrill of Cause For Alarm is lost in this process, but in its place comes a greater emphasis on song-writing and vocal hooks, which means that the best songs found here are more considered and fundamentally more impressive than the standout tracks on its predecessor. This is reminiscent of the sort of development (albeit not quite the same quantum leap in quality) that many of their more conventional thrash contemporaries made between their first and second albums. Not unlike, for example, Metallica from Kill ‘Em All to Ride The Lightning, or Anthrax from Fistful Of Metal to Spreading The Disease, the impact of night after night on the stage has contributed to Agnostic Front becoming unavoidably more technically proficient, more professional, and more confident in recording a sound less derivative of their influences, instead settling on the singular and recognisable noise that they would deploy with some alterations for the remainder of their musical career.

Part of this change was perhaps down to the evolving line-up of the band. While the core of Agnostic Front (Roger Miret on vocals, and Vinnie Stigma on guitar duties) has remained unchanged throughout the now-veteran band’s career, one has to imagine that the more extensive supporting cast that have come and gone over time have profoundly impacted the band’s sound, particularly given the paucity of Stigma’s own songwriting contributions. Although he may be a totemic presence, much beloved of longtime fans of the group, and remains a key component of their live show, the composition is usually shared between Miret and whoever else happens to be swelling the Front ranks at any given moment. This time round, Louie Beatto, who was a dextrous and even quirky presence behind the kit on Cause For Alarm is supplanted by Will Shepler, who would remain Agnostic Front’s drummer until their mid-90s hiatus, during which he joined part of their literal extended family, Madball. Steve Martin (not that one) joins on lead guitar for his only studio album with the band, and the line-up is completed by Alan Peters on bass, who sadly passed away in 2020. Martin and Peters are a relatively small part of the band’s history in terms of the time that they spent as members, but their contribution to Liberty & Justice For… was significant. Between the two of them, they wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of the material, outside of a cover of ‘Crucified’, by Washington DC skinheads Iron Cross.

From almost the first notes of the almost title track ‘Liberty & Justice’, which kicks in after a sardonic intro featuring a chorus of young voices intoning their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, it is clear that this is a different album to its predecessor. If one strips away some of the punk elements of Cause For Alarm, what we are left with is often sonically indistinguishable from a thrash metal album, albeit one occupying a space at the less polished and technically proficient end of the thrash spectrum – more Overkill than Megadeth. It’s importance to the crossover thrash movement is undimmed, and the likes of D.R.I. and Corrosion Of Conformity ploughed a similar furrow to similar effect, before themselves evolving and exploring more straightforward thrash and stoner-metal territories in the late 1980s and beyond. Liberty & Justice For…, while still deploying in parts the tremolo-picked thrash riffs and punk chord sequences that defined their earlier sound, is recognisably a hardcore album, in that it more successfully synthesises these elements to create something that is both at once thrash and punk, but simultaneously something distinct from either. ‘Liberty & Justice’ demonstrates this as well as any of the other tracks on the album – an S.O.D. style thrash riff, underpinned by the rumbling double-bass attack of the drums, gives way to multiple stylistic and tempo changes, with an almost oi! punk breakdown slotting seamlessly into the mid-section of a song whose lyrics decry the state of an America divided by racial violence and inner city poverty. One imagines that the band didn’t imagine that all of society’s problems would be resolved a quarter of a century later, but it’s still disappointing that such tales of rage and hate (“Race wars fed by prejudice and hate / The love of a nation for its people burned through the night”) are still so relevant in 2021.

As Liberty & Justice For… continues to regularly disgorge its 3 minute blasts of hardcore across a run-time barely over half an hour, one of the most noticeable differences in the band’s sound, aside from the already-mentioned crystallisation of the hardcore style that the album embodies, is the increased prominence given to Roger Miret’s vocals, and also the clear shift in the style of these vocals. On Cause For Alarm, although the singing is considerably less audible, Miret deploys a rapid-fire bark; perfectly serviceable, but not terribly distinctive. Whether a conscious choice, or simply a natural evolution, Miret adopts a different approach this time round, a much more stylised delivery that sounds strangely like a more intelligible version of John Tardy’s vomiting vocals that make Obituary’s death metal so extreme. Where before, it was tough to discern Miret’s lyrics from the chaotic blur of a voice that was predominantly used as another tonal texture, his now more controlled, but idiosyncratic offering, is clearly addressing the listener, hectoring even, ensuring that his message is no longer lost in the maelstrom, like a lone voice shouting into the wind. It takes some getting used to, and it’s difficult to imagine that at some level it did not start as an affectation, an attempt to represent more realistically the street thug persona that Miret’s lyrics so clearly portray. However, for better or worse, this has become the definitive sound of Agnostic Front over time, and it undoubtedly fits well with the band’s overall sound, as well as creating a clear counter-point to the music which is particularly beneficial when the riffs stray into the kind of more mundane and generic territory that crops up a little too often in the middle third of Liberty & Justice For….

None of the tracks on the album could be characterised as poor, but the highlights generally come at the front and back ends of the record. ‘Strength’, which follows a one minute crash through the rudimentary adrenaline of ‘Crucial Moment’, shows both some musical growth in terms of its comparatively complex structure, and also an increasing ability to fashion rough-shod hooks that serve to make the stand-out tracks that much more memorable, and likely to stand the test of time. Lightspeed thrash bleeds into a mid-tempo march, which evidences tremolo-picked riffs working deftly with rhythmic variations which maintain interest throughout, and frequent modulations into different keys enable new harmonic possibilities, before the whole thing culminates in the kind of rolling riff that Sick Of It All perfected on their own seminal New York hardcore release Scratch The Surface. If ‘Strength’ provides a sonic template for the Koller brothers’ crew, the arrogantly named ‘Anthem’ does the same for another giant of the somewhat incestuous scene, Hatebreed. While it’s clear that at this point the band have found a formula that works for them, and are keen to replicate it over and over – a mid-tempo punk breakdown is bookended by two bursts of breakneck thrash – the brute force of the gang vocals working their way through a chorus which proffers the almost mafia-like importance of the kind of concepts that hardcore bands revisit repeatedly “The Blood / The Honor / The Truth” succeeds in making ‘Anthem’ one of the stand-out tracks of Liberty & Justice For…, not to mention one that cries out to be experienced in the sweaty, and possibly homoerotic, confines of a small club, with stage-divers flinging themselves from the monitors with limited regard for themselves and less for others, with older gig-goers strategically placing themselves just close enough to the surging throng to absorb the atmosphere, while at the same time minimising the considerable risk of injury.

Liberty & Justice For… loses some momentum in the middle section of the album – ‘Another Side’ grinds away rather ineffectually, and although ‘Happened Yesterday’ is an enjoyable throwback to the snotty crossover of Cause For Alarm, it fails to linger long in the memory. Thankfully, the same cannot be said for the excellent trio of tracks that follow, and which ensure that things end on a high, even if final track ‘Censored’ doesn’t quite reach the same heights. ‘Lost’ revisits the kind of downbeat hardcore that the previous album utilised more often, recalling the hopeless despair of Discharge for the only time here, and intriguingly intimating the existence of some internal conflict with respect to the unstinting tales of violence and aggression that the band generally peddle with the line “Man finds himself trapped in aggression” which sits among a set of unusually tree-hugging lyrics that pre-figure the Buddhist hardcore of Shelter by a good few years. ‘Hypocrisy’ is even better, eschewing metal altogether for bright and sparky punk rock, complete with a cathartic singalong chorus that effortlessly raises both fists and smiles. The aforementioned Iron Cross cover ‘Crucified’ is similarly melodic, and the ease with which Agnostic Front slip from metal-thrashing mad into punk rock mode and back is hugely impressive, and a great demonstration of the way in which they are able to straddle underground genres with such authority.

This album is less obviously thrilling than Cause For Alarm, and arguably less important to the development of underground music as a whole. What it does represent, however, is Agnostic Front solidifying the sound of modern hardcore, exhibiting all of the traits that are now so familiar, so well-worn, by the legions of bands that Agnostic Front and their peers inspired. A hardcore checklist including tough guy vocals, singalong choruses augmented with gang chants, weighty mid-tempo leaden (and sometimes lumpen) riffs, would find all boxes ticked in short order during any play through of Liberty & Justice For…, although it is considerably more enjoyable and less generic than that makes it sound. Song for song, with the peaks a little bit higher, it is in fact marginally the superior album, and yet another landmark moment in the development of the hardcore movement.

Score: 78%

Agnostic Front – Cause For Alarm

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – Cause For Alarm
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: Cause For Alarm
  • Year of Release: 1986
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Century Media
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 9962242

Cause For Alarm is the second full-length from New York hardcore pioneers, Agnostic Front. Although it has to be said that full-length does not quite mean the same to Agnostic Front as it might do to Iron Maiden, or Tool. The band’s first album, Victim In Pain, ripped through 11 songs in a shade over 15 minutes, and although Cause For Alarm is positively epic by comparison, it still clocks in at a Reign In Blood-beating 24 minutes. Of course, brevity is not an issue here. Short and to the point is absolutely the intention for the kind of raucous crossover thrash peddled by Agnostic Front, and what Cause For Alarm lacks in sophistication and variation, it more than makes up for in its fevered energy and totally authentic delivery. More than that, along with its predecessor, and similar albums issued by their contemporaries and fellow New Yorkers Cro-Mags, Crumbsuckers and Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front were helping to create a genre that endures to this day, and could even, in its boundary-smashing integration of punk rock with embryonic thrash metal, be said to have contributed to the later success of metalcore (in both its pre- and post-2000 senses), and even deathcore.

The musical content of Cause For Alarm is far from poor, but it’s primary value is to be found in its historical significance, having been released at a time when punk and heavy metal were both musically and socially more insular music scenes, an insularity that was occasionally transformed into outright animosity and even violence. That said, it’s important not to overplay this antipathy. The (at the time) underground metal scene of the 1980s made no secret of their love of punk, with Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth all releasing a number of covers of classic punk and hardcore tracks, and even early black metal progenitors Bathory were heavily inspired by the harder-edged sounds of GBH and The Exploited. In addition, Motörhead were of course the band that united punks and headbangers alike, with their super-charged version of rock ‘n’ roll, even if Lemmy frequently, and unsuccessfully, attempted to distance himself from the metal scene that he claimed to disdain. Still, although there was a certain amount of musical interdependence between apparently opposing musical movements, Agnostic Front were undoubtedly a prime mover in knitting together the loose strands of thrash metal and punk rock in a way that gave almost equal weight to both genres, and at the same time created something distinct from either. Cause For Alarm is consequently one of the earliest examples of the New York hardcore sound, a sound that may have been initially confined to a relatively small geographical area, exemplified by the likes of Warzone, Leeway and Sheer Terror, but eventually exploded in popularity thanks to the international success of Sick Of It All, Biohazard and Madball. Decades later, New York hardcore is essentially the recognised sound of hardcore globally, with thriving scenes in London, Belgium and Germany all adopting the aesthetic signifiers of the New York scene as their own, alongside the obvious musical similarities.

It is important to understand the context in which Cause For Alarm was released, as well as its enduring impact. This is because evaluated purely on musical merit, although more than competent, it is difficult to sustain the argument that as the thrash album that it often resembles, it can compete with the more sophisticated and grandiose classics that were released around the same time. Master Of Puppets, Reign In Blood and Darkness Descends were all released in 1986, and all are superior thrash albums. However, none of them combined the low-E chugging and double-bass drum battery of metal with the speedy major key chord sequences and vocal patterns of punk rock as Agnostic Front did, to create a brand new sub-genre, and it is for this reason that Cause For Alarm should be considered a landmark release.

Opening track, ‘The Eliminator’ very much sets the tone for the rest of the album – it’s safe to say that if your interest is not piqued by the brutish punk-thrash of this raging beast, which sounds not unlike Exodus and Minor Threat falling down a staircase together, Agnostic Front are probably not for you. This album is not a journey through changing moods and diverse textures, it is a one-paced howl of rage at society, and that pace is rarely anything lower than extreme velocity. Presumably as a consequence of their twin influences of punk and thrash, the Agnostic Front sound is highly rhythmic, and linear in its riff structures. This is not to say that there is no variation at all – ‘The Eliminator’ contrasts a pounding d-beat snare tracking the verse riff, with a short twin-guitar breakdown which sees Louie Beatto’s drums switch to a more metallic double-bass attack – but across the album as a whole, very similar-sounding riffs crop up repeatedly, and the album’s run-time works in its favour here. It is probably the most significant factor holding this album back from elevation to classic thrash status. Lacking the ability and melodic ingenuity to turn their palpable energy into the kind of unmistakeable and eternally memorable riffs that pepper the early works of Slayer, Metallica and even the slightly less-heralded likes of Testament and Dark Angel, Agnostic Front have to rely on Cause For Alarm succeeding primarily on the emotions it evokes at the time of listening, as opposed to song-writing skill. That it mostly does indeed succeed as a truly visceral experience is down to the authentic intensity that they are able to summon without apparent difficulty.

The songs that leave the biggest impression are those in which Roger Miret’s vocals, a little buried in the mix compared to their later albums, are able to generate the hook that is generally not found in the guitars. The unusual phrasing of the rapid-fire ‘Time Will Come’, which operates as a counterpoint to the simplistic Misfits-style thrashing of the rest of the band, ensures that this track stands tall as a highlight of the album, as do the menacing gang vocals of the excellent ‘Growing Concern’. The latter is something of an outlier; bearing a distinct lack of metal influence, and instead recalling the skate-punk of early Descendents, combined in the chorus with the kind of one-string descending riff that Greg Ginn frequently utilised throughout the middle part of Black Flag’s career, before he decided that utilising any notes at all was passé, and progressed to composing albums made entirely from differing tones of feedback. Similarly good are the anthemic ‘Your Mistake’, (covering this was apparently a contractual obligation for any band signed to Roadrunner Records in the 1990s) making its second recorded appearance on an Agnostic Front album, and the thrilling ‘Bomber Zee’, which recalls Discharge, with its relentless sheet-metal guitars. Discharge, in fact, are an interesting point of comparison for Agnostic Front. A UK band also inspired by punk, they combined an admittedly more primitive version of hardcore with a progressively more metallic bent, and in so doing, were a major influence on the putative thrash scene of the early 1980s, the same thrash scene which saw its chugging riffs coalesce with punk rock on this Agnostic Front record.

Of course, one of the major differences between the two bands is their political outlook. Where Discharge were unapologetic anarcho-punks, Agnostic Front (somewhat counter-intuitively) embraced a more conservative viewpoint. Cause For Alarm contains probably the most unpleasant lyrical example of this – ‘boasting’ such lines as ‘How come it’s minorities who cry / Things are too tough / On TV with their gold chains / Claim they don’t have enough / I say make them clean the sewers / Don’t take no resistance / If they don’t like it go to hell / And cut their public assistance’. Agnostic Front did not actually write these words themselves – the late Peter Steele from Type O Negative (Carnivore at the time), is unfortunately the responsible party – but they had no qualms about including it on the album, and as such they deserve the criticism that they have correctly received for the racist stereotyping and generalisation embodied by the awful lyrics. The most charitable interpretation of this song is that it represents the misplaced ire of uninformed young men, angry at society, and looking for someone to blame for their own benighted lives. That may be the case, but it is nonetheless a stain on the band’s reputation, and a long way from the kind of ‘community’ that hardcore sometimes hypocritically likes to claim it offers its adherents.

The violent, but raucously enjoyable blast of ‘Shoot His Load’ immediately follows, and closes the album in fine style, and at just the right time. Much longer, and the undoubted homogeneity of the chugging riffs would erode their effectiveness fairly quickly, and the huge impact of Cause For Alarm would dissipate. And, once more, it is worth restating that the impact of this album was and is huge. Agnostic Front successfully transferred the sound of the New York streets firstly to wax, and then took that sound to the world. Most of the characteristics of the modern sound of hardcore can be located somewhere on the record, from the dizzying speed of the high-octane punk-rock chord sequences, to the chugging thrash riffs, to the dragging breakdowns, all topped with violent lyrics and chanted gang vocals designed both to ensure that the odd memorable phrase is turned into a hook-laden chorus, and also to provide obvious opportunities for crowd participation at the legendarily chaotic live shows that have always been a huge part of hardcore culture. The songs themselves are good; frenetic slices of pure anger, albeit in a way that sounds less intimidating in the 21st century, when bands such as Converge have taken the hardcore template and twisted it into ever more horrifying shapes. But these songs, together with the knowledge that not only were Agnostic Front one of a small group of innovators, but that they laid the groundwork for any number of bands that came after them, means that it deserves a level of respect that outweighs the music alone.

Score: 77%

Aerosmith – Permanent Vacation

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Permanent Vacation
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Permanent Vacation
  • Year of Release: 1987
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Geffen
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 924 162-2

Done With Mirrors was supposed to be Aerosmith’s glorious comeback album, but due to the generally poor quality of the songwriting, and an insipid production, it fell a little flat with fans and critics alike, excluding a small core of contrarian diehards, who are fond of claiming that it was the last great Aerosmith album. The band’s second attempt, however, was everything the band wanted it to be. And failure was not an option. Thrust back into the zeitgeist by Run-DMC’s immensely popular version of ‘Walk This Way’, ably assisted by a collaborative video that was beamed directly into the homes of millions via the hugely-influential MTV, it was now or never for the Toxic Twins and the rest of their errant siblings. A Done With Mirrors sequel would likely hasten the band’s decline, possibly terminally, but if they were able to get finally clean and grasp the nettle, a clear opportunity presented itself to capitalise on their new-found popularity and a rabidly consumerist market for popular culture. So successfully did the band seize the day, that if you have one single Aerosmith album in your collection, there is a better than even chance that this album reads Permanent Vacation down the spine. Part of its success undoubtedly arises from the fact that the band agreed under pressure from their label (presumably holding all of the aces in that particular confrontation given the result of leaving the band to their own devices a couple of years earlier) to work with external songwriters, primarily Desmond Child and Jim Vallance, both among the most sought after collaborators in rock, given their track record of delivering huge hit singles for Bon Jovi, Kiss, and Alice Cooper.

Some might argue that it was at this point that the soul of Aerosmith was lost forever. Certainly it solidifies a real and permanent shift in the band’s sound that had been in development since Rock In A Hard Place, to something much slicker and poppier than the lean, mean and reckless days of the mid-70s. It also marks an apparent change in the power balance of the band, with the helm seemingly moving from Joe Perry to Steven Tyler, as the songs begin to rely more on the strength of the melodic and flamboyant delivery of Tyler’s vocal melodies, as opposed to the raw power of the guitars and rhythm section that had dominated Toys In The Attic and Rocks. Where once the band had graciously allowed Tyler one song per album to pursue his more eclectic proclivities; from Permanent Vacation onwards, the new emphasis enables Tyler to really spread his wings, and begin to dominate the band’s sound.

Regardless of any misgivings concerning the changes within the Aerosmith camp, it is difficult for any listener not to concede that, in stark contrast to the muted and at times almost apologetic sounds of Done With Mirrors, from the opening seconds of the intro to ‘Heart’s Done Time’, it is clear that this is An Event. The feedback gradually fades in, as if Joe Perry and Brad Whitford have just plugged their guitars into enormously powerful amps, and Joey Kramer’s drum roll announces a barnstorming blues riff which commences the album in the best possible way. Aerosmith sound utterly focussed and revitalised, the sharp and metallic guitars sound as good as they have ever sounded, and the confidence and swagger is such that any doubt over the musical direction are instantly eliminated. There have been false dawns before, but the factor that ensures that is not the case this time round is Tyler’s magnificent vocals, and the immediately memorable melodies that he imbues with such zest and élan. After a decade of bored and apparently uninterested performances, this is quite the rebirth, and a reminder of the wonderful vocal talent that the man possesses, and it is surely the brilliance of the soaring verse and chorus melodies that allow Tyler to really enjoy inhabiting his role once more. Perhaps there is something a little artificial about Aerosmith as a band employing the outside help that they do on Permanent Vacation, but the passion and enthusiasm that Tyler displays throughout the album simply cannot be faked.

The album is littered with excellent songwriting, although throughout it is charting a treacherous course through the narrow channel which separates triumphant, exuberant rock ‘n’ roll from its close relative, cheesy pop-rock. On the right side of this waterway, and despite the dated guitar tone, is ‘Magic Touch’. Reminiscent of early Thunder, the snappy riffing is propelled by energetic drumming, and once more, the chorus is effortlessly infectious. The whole thing is brimming with a confidence that cannot help but convince even the most sceptical of mid-70s Aerosmith enthusiasts. Illustrating the result of straying to the wrong side of the graphene-thin line is the title track, faintly embarrassing sub-Ugly Kid Joe fare, complete with calypso steel drums hammering home in the most boneheaded way possible the subject matter of the song (“I really need it, really really need St Tropez”. The admittedly unforgettable chorus cannot rescue this holiday from hell.

While the album tracks are generally of a high standard, the album’s success was really built on the back of the singles, staples of classic rock radio to this day, and which showcase the various elements of the modern Aerosmith sound very effectively. ‘Rag Doll’ is a mid-tempo bluesy rocker, which employs a simple, but captivating, blues lick as a recurring leitmotif throughout the track, coupled with an understated Tyler vocal, which gradually builds in intensity as the song develops, constructing layers of woodwind and horns on top of the band’s admirably loose jam. It is possibly slightly pedestrian, but the way in which the song moves seamlessly through its various sections, every note perfectly judged, is emblematic of the new-found conscientious approach to composition, in which the band and their songwriting partners work hard to optimise the impact of every component of the arrangement – nothing is wasted, everything has a purpose. The most delightful example of this is actually found in the outro, as the band and horns fall away from Tyler’s improvisational scatting, leaving him accompanied only by a lone clarinet, at which point the listener realises that the clarinet line was there all the time, inseparable from a powerful ensemble performance, but essential to the overall feel of the song.

Even more celebrated is Dude (Looks Like A Lady), which it is now difficult to hear without picturing Robin Williams, dressed as Mrs Doubtfire, flamboyantly hoovering and air guitaring his way around his family’s house. Again, it’s undeniably middle of the road fare, lacking the exhilaration of the band’s younger incarnation, but it’s also a supremely well-constructed song, not dissimilar to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, and containing a satisfyingly blazing Joe Perry guitar solo. Given some of the band’s overly misogynistic lyrics in the past, and overlooking it’s somewhat clumsy execution, Tyler’s ambiguous reaction to what appears to be transsexual experimentation is a pleasing development. Again, it’s the minor details which indicate the level of thought that has been poured into the creation of the album – the drum fill and harmonised vocal accent on the off-beat that precedes the final chorus is something that it’s hard to imagine early 80s Aerosmith would have bothered with.

The final single is surely the most divisive. While ballads have long been a part of the Aerosmith sound, dating right back to their debut’s majestic ‘Dream On’, ‘Angel’ marks their first foray into true power ballad territory. As we know, this is territory that they have violated on numerous subsequent incursions, but ‘Angel’ is their original, and arguably best, attempt at a simultaneously much-reviled and much-loved subset of the hard rock genre. The appeal of the power ballad is a mysterious thing. Conventional rock often relies on the delight of the unexpected – a leftfield note or chord that spins the melody off in a novel and ingenious direction, or even a singular tone, rhythm or lyrical phrase that triggers repeated listening. On the other hand, much like a Hollywood blockbuster, the power ballad relies on manipulating the listener’s emotions through a series of tropes that are totally expected, and succeeds in spite of the fact that all parties know exactly what is coming. It’s not perhaps true, empathetic emotion, but a kind of ersatz emotion that is nevertheless somehow cathartic to momentarily experience, despite the level of self-consciousness that accompanies it. The power ballad stands and falls on the execution of an agreed formula, and it is in the execution that ‘Angel’ really flies. It is musically cheesy, and thematically sappy, but the way in which it moves so deftly from the initial wall of guitars, to the twinkling piano supporting a delicate minor key vocal, to huge power chords heralding an unbearably catchy, string-laden chorus, before modulation into an emotional bridge section, finally arriving at the tasteful, slightly overdriven tone of the perfectly pitched guitar solo, means that it is impossible not to marvel at what the band have created. ‘Angel’ could of course have been recorded by Bon Jovi, Journey, Whitesnake, or any number of contemporaneous one hit wonder also-rans, but the fact remains that it represents an almost flawless example of a specific sound, even as the listener is aware of almost every element of the song being a coldly calculated decision, intentionally taken orchestrate a very specific response.

In truth, away from the singles, there is some filler here. ‘St John’ is an oddity – a theatrical soul track, combining a finger-clicking rhythm track with stacked Michael Jackson-esque harmonies and a walking bassline. The hooky nature of the vocals ensure that it is insidiously memorable, but the faint whiff of novelty is unpleasant. The 60s R&B goes funk pastiche of ‘Girl Keeps Coming Apart’ has plenty of vigour, and is breezy enough, but ultimately lacking in real substance. Possibly worst of all is the Beatles cover ‘I’m Down’. It’s a perfectly serviceable version of what is far from a great Beatles track, and may have been a appropriate fit on an earlier album, but surrounded by the slick pop-rock of the rest of the album, it is incongruous and jarring. It is even more odd when one considers the numerous alternatives available that would be a more sympathetic match to the rest of the track-listing. Instead, we are left with a song that would have been better utilised as a B-side, and which contributes to an underwhelming conclusion to a good album. The choice of ‘The Movie’ as the closing track is also a strange one. A vaguely psychedelic instrumental, it has a Jane’s Addiction / Faith No More feel, and despite the fact that it is more than competently executed, as the closing statement, it’s somewhat limp.

Still, the final three tracks should not detract from what is overall a good album made by a reinvigorated band, which stands up to scrutiny even deprived of the comforting context of the 1980s rock scene that it helped to define. It is fair to say that a fan’s response to Permanent Vacation will likely be defined by the degree of their fondness for the band’s earlier work, and their tolerance for 80s rock cliches. But I would suggest that those who dismiss it on the basis of its AOR sonics are missing out on the first Aerosmith album in many a year that is delivered with the kind of unassailable self-confidence and swagger that distinguished the likes of Rocks and Get Your Wings. If numerous under-performing Aerosmith albums have foundered on formulaic songwriting and lazy performance, Permanent Vacation fixes these issues, albeit at the cost of a certain amount of the thrill and spontaneity that makes the best rock ‘n’ roll so exciting. This is the sound of a mature band delivering hooks a-plenty, and singalong choruses in abundance, across a strong and enjoyable rock album, which is utterly deserving of the enormous success that it achieved.

Score: 81%

Aerosmith – Done With Mirrors

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Done With Mirrors
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Done With Mirrors
  • Year of Release: 1985
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Geffen
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: GFLD 19052

1985 saw Aerosmith reach a crossroads, Joe Perry having returned to reunite the original line-up, and the band as a whole making a partially successful effort to put the substance abuse that had derailed their career during the previous decade behind them. And, a little like Robert Johnson’s infamous and apocryphal satanic agreement decades prior, it’s clear that Aerosmith did their own deal with the devil to commence a resurgence that would see them exceed the success of the halcyon days of the 1970s. Done With Mirrors itself would not prove to be the album that put them back on the top of the rock ‘n’ roll pile, riddled as it is with flaws and an unfortunate lack of memorable songs, but the transition to the slicker, more pop-oriented sound that they would more fully develop on the albums that immediately followed is clearly audible, and as a result one senses that this stepping stone was a necessary one for the band, a way of working out the creases and revitalising the working relationship between Tyler and Perry, the key songwriters and emotional heart of the band.

Underscoring the sense of rebirth and renewal that is embodied by Done With Mirrors, Aerosmith found themselves on a new label (Geffen, who would surely be congratulating themselves on their foresight 12 months’ later as Run DMC scored an enormous crossover hit with ‘Walk This Way’), and also holed up in a studio with Ted Templeman, rather than their long-time associate Jack Douglas. Douglas had been intimately involved with almost everything the band had released, classic and less-than-classic, since their self-titled debut, but clearly both parties felt that the time had come for a change. Templeman came with quite the pedigree, most notably having produced the first two Van Halen records, but it was not to be a productive partnership. Done With Mirrors fails to capture the kind of organic feel that ensures that Aerosmith’s best material leaps from the speakers with such vibrancy on their earlier records. Instead, the album is sonically and compositionally an awkward compromise that combines occasionally raw and powerful, but more often anaemic sounding guitars, with a hint of the slicker radio-friendly sound that was gaining traction in the contemporary rock scene of the time. Although the band would sound far more convincing a few years later when they fully embraced everything that state of the art production could offer, Done With Mirrors betrays some uncertainty about how the band should sound in 1985, and the end result suffers accordingly.

This compromise is evident from the very first track, ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’. The quality of the music itself is not in doubt – it is by some distance the best thing on the album. It was not, however, composed for Done With Mirrors. The song had in fact been released by Joe Perry’s solo venture, The Joe Perry Project, 5 years earlier, a venture that he had embarked upon on leaving Aerosmith part way through the recording of Night In The Ruts. It’s not clear whether the obvious excellence of a song that had passed under the radar with little fanfare simply lead to its resuscitation by the band, or whether it was a gesture of reconciliation to feature a Perry contribution so prominently as the lead-off track. A less charitable interpretation might be that Aerosmith were aware that they were not overburdened by great songs this time round, and rescuing this track from obscurity was ultimately just the expedient thing to do. An additional factor may also have been that it enabled the band to make a clear statement about how they wish their reunification to be perceived, suggesting an inflated level of confidence in the musical output that they were asking to be judged on. This confidence looks a little misplaced by the conclusion of Done With Mirrors, but based on the opening track alone, the band were right to feel optimistic.

‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ employs a variation of the admittedly well-worn AC/DC ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ riff, itself directly inspired by Chuck Berry, although this is less plagiarism and more a reflection of the relatively limited options available to bands who continually mine the pentatonic blues scale for inspiration. Joey Kramer’s pounding four on the floor rhythms drive the band forward with growing momentum, which is maintained through a fantastic chorus, which cleverly inverts the standard call and response guitar and vocal interplay, with the vocal line this time answering a thrilling guitar lick, showcasing Perry’s never less than listenable slide playing. In all honesty though, it’s inferior to the original version, lacking a little of the energy and intensity evident on the 1980 release, but in the context of an album generally lacking in fully realised songs, it is a more than adequate start.

Much of the rest of the album takes it’s cue from the sound of the first track – serviceable rockers, but little sign of the divine inspiration that once elevated the band above the chasing pack. Too often, a perfectly acceptable musical idea is forced to carry the burden of the entire song, which lacks either an ingenious hook to implant the song deep in the listener’s subconscious, or the kind of musical development that holds the attention once the lustre of the initial idea is dulled by repetition. ‘My Fist Your Face’, ‘Shame On You’ and ‘Shela’ all show that the cause is not lost, but it’s certainly been misplaced by a band whose short-term memory is understandably not what it once was. The chorus of the first of this trio shows a glimpse of what the band are capable of when operating at full power, and the Living Colour-style funky groove displayed on the second is a joy to behold – there’s something simply unimpeachable about a sparse riff built on a rhythm section operating in lockstep, leaving space for a lone snare to mark each off-beat with a crisp crack, that will never feel stale, but sadly the song as a whole feels a little aimless.

Outside of the odd burst of concerted riffery, it’s also clear at this point that the band have made a conscious decision to make a clean break from the fire and brimstone of their early work, in favour of slicker, poppier sonics. The overall lack of quality song-writing prevents the band from successfully transitioning their sound this time round, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the band realised this once the finished product had been released, succumbing (not unlike their peers Bon Jovi and Alice Cooper at the same time) to the lure of collaboration with external songwriters by their next album, the not uncoincidentally hugely successful Permanent Vacation. This is no more apparent than on the uptempo ‘Gypsy Boots’, which has all of the raw ingredients of an aggressive rager in the same mould as ‘Toys In The Attic’ or ‘Back In The Saddle’, but is sadly emasculated by a production that smooths the raw edges a little too enthusiastically. A little friction has always been central to the Aerosmith sound and personality, and it’s not hard to imagine a more raucous and ramshackle version of this song which would have surpassed the more fun, but less magical version that they end up with on Done With Mirrors.

The majority of the record is perfectly competent mainstream rock that fails to solicit an especially strong emotional reaction, but there is one exception to this. Unfortunately, it is not a lone lost classic in the mould of ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’, which so delightfully adorned Rock In A Hard Place. Instead, it is a song so awful that it is almost amusingly dire. Musically, ‘The Reason A Dog’ is unremarkable, a mid-tempo dirge that has fingers reaching for the ‘Skip’ button, but lyrically it is utterly risible. Based around the faux-profound line “The reason a dog has so many friends / He wags his tail instead of his tongue”, the mental image of just how satisfied with himself Steven Tyler must at the belief that he had discovered some kind of novel and poetic insight into the human condition is excruciating. The reality of course, is that this is a song which incorporates the lyrical equivalent of your distant relative posting cliched homilies on their social media, just before they finish stencilling ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ on their living room wall. Despite the cringeworthy nature of they lyrics, it is possible that the song still could have worked, had it been performed with a modicum of playfulness, but, save admittedly for a blissful keyboard-driven bridge section, we’re wading through treacle here.

In common with even some of their better work, the album runs out of steam long before the final notes fade. ‘She’s On Fire’ is a genuinely good rootsy acoustic blues, oddly reminiscent of Alice Of Chains’ work on Jar Of Flies and Sap, but the original closing track ‘The Hop’ is a basic 12-bar which flogs the dead horse of a stock riff until it’s no more than dust. As if realising that this breaks the long-standing Aerosmith tradition of rounding things out with a Steven Tyler piano-led composition, the CD release nudges the world back on to its axis with the addition of ‘Darkness’. In contrast with the numerous lacklustre attempts at re-writing the ageless ‘Dream On’ that litter previous albums, this is surprisingly and unusually good, intriguing chord voicings and a strong vocal performance embellishing a theatrical rock opera that adds a layer of gloss to the album that is sorely needed.

Despite its enumerated flaws, Done With Mirrors is an important album for Aerosmith, bringing the original line-up back together, and laying the groundwork for the huge commercial success that would sustain them for the next quarter of a century, but it is more important than it is enjoyable. The predominant feel is of half-formed ideas cobbled together into semi-listenable songs, and paradoxically it is almost if simultaneously the band have spent both too much and not enough time on the recording. The overall production and mix strips away the intensity and spontaneity that characterise Aerosmith at their best, but there is a lack of laser-like focus on the kind of songcraft that is a pre-requisite of a more pop-oriented direction. A huge part of the blame must be attributed to the lazy vocal melodies that rarely coalesce into the kind of memorable motifs and confident phrases that are needed to set each song apart – it’s no coincidence that when the band really get their shit together a couple of years later, single after stratospheric single is the result of the kind of attention to detail with respect to the vocals that is only infrequently apparent here. Also absent, is any kind of joie de vivre, which could just about carry the sub-par material, a critical problem for a band that has previously been the soundtrack to the hedonism of millions of fans. Instead, it’s as much of a chore getting through the album as one imagines it must have been making it in the first place. There is arguably a good album somewhere in here, and perhaps some of the better ideas could’ve been repurposed by a resurgent band had they held them back for the next album, but it’s hard to consider the end result of Done With Mirrors as anything other than a mild disappointment.

Score: 56%

Aerosmith – Rock In A Hard Place

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Rock In A Hard Place
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Rock In A Hard Place
  • Year of Release: 1982
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: 474970 2

1982 saw Aerosmith in not just a hard place, but a difficult place, and probably at the lowest ebb in their career. The Toxic Twins were estranged, Joe Perry having left part way through the recording of Night In The Ruts three years earlier, and the runaway commercial and critical success of Rocks had been tempered in the intervening years by a series of missteps and ill-judged decisions. Each successive album contained music of merit, some intriguing experiments, and even the occasional blockbuster song, but the overall trajectory of the band’s career was undoubtedly downwards, hastened by the interpersonal issues and chemical dependencies that so often afflict bands that rise to such lofty heights so quickly.

Despite being the only Aerosmith album not to feature Joe Perry, Rock In A Hard Place (yet another transparent title) is actually reasonably good, and far better than the disaster that it could so easily have been. The main issue with the album though, is the palpable effort that it took to complete what is ultimately not much more or less than a moderately good rock album. An issue because the best rock ‘n’ roll should sound like it’s been channelled from the ether with insouciant ease. The best rock ‘n’ roll should be spontaneous and immediate, even a little ramshackle, regardless of the fact that if one were to lift the veil, one might discover that it has taken significant toil to produce this impression. The auditory version, if you will, of Dolly Parton’s oft-quoted line that it costs a lot of money to look so cheap. Think of the Rolling Stones circa Exile On Main Street, AC/DC’s Back In Black, or Motorhead’s Bomber, and the thread that joins them all together is the uncomplicated clarity of a recorded output that comes from following intuition wherever it leads, and trusting in the outcome. It’s not uncommon for successful bands, perhaps because the wellspring of inspiration has run dry, perhaps because other pursuits have become a distraction, to start second-guessing their own music, moving between expanding their sound before retrenching to a self-conscious facsimile of what made them successful in the first place, and this undoubtedly afflicts Aerosmith at this point in their career. As good as parts of this album are, the band’s instinct for what makes great rock ‘n’ roll has been lost at this point, and the listener can hear how desperately the band are searching for their muse throughout, which cloaks the majority of the record with a vaguely dispiriting air, which only occasionally disperses.

One thing that Aerosmith haven’t forgotten though, is their formula of commencing the album with an up-tempo riff-rocker, and, of course, concluding things with a largely unnecessary ballad that attempts to replicate ‘Dream On’ for the umpteenth time. ‘Jailbait’ is the rocker in this pairing, ‘ Push Comes To Shove’ is the ballad, and both are underwhelming, the latter in the extreme. When evaluating ‘Jailbait’, it’s impossible not to address the extremely distasteful subject matter. What may have seemed risqué in the early 1980s, is now a depressing tale of the kind of abusive power imbalances that many bands even in the post-#MeToo era still take advantage of. And this is no fictional fantasy – Tyler’s 3 year relationship with Julia Holcomb during the 1970s began when Holcomb was 16, and it’s difficult to imagine that there were not other similar dalliances, especially given the more permissive (at least with respect to this kind of behaviour) social climate of the time. All of which paints Tyler’s lyrics in a more sinister light – “Girl’s a lover, never knew she’s jailbait” – and repeated references to ‘Daddy’, a recurring feature in lyrical depictions of the kind of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ subject matter that litters the hard rock of the time. Musically, ‘Jailbait’ is reasonably good; although the rest of the song fails to fulfil the promise of a brilliant pounding, bass-led intro, the barrelling riff and punchy guitars of the chorus wrest momentum back from an awkward verse in which thin-sounding guitars follow an unsatisfying vocal melody, but the song as a whole never quite coalesces into the kind of masterful magnificence that marked their earlier, more impressive work. Still, there’s enough of interest here to suggest that the album as a whole may be salvageable from the wreckage of a band on the brink.

Although the confused, keyboard-driven scuzz of ‘Lightning Strikes’ immediately suggests that these hopes will be dashed, to the band’s credit, things do get much better quickly. Jimmy Crespo, for all of the success he has had in carving out a career as a solid session live and session player with other artists, will never have much more than cameo walk-on role in the Aerosmith story, but in the absence of Joe Perry, he takes up the slack, delivering a strong contribution that deserves more recognition than he has (understandably) received. The first true sign of life is the excellent ‘Bitch’s Brew’. For perhaps the first time since Rocks, some real musical development is apparent, the band channelling the darkness and existential dread stalking their lives outside the studio into a harder-edged and more gritty sound. In fact, not just on this track, but also on ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ which immediately follows, the heavy, rolling grooves are reminiscent of the kind of metallic melodicism that Soundgarden would make a core part of their sound over a decade later. Another reminder that the grunge explosion of the 1990s, often positioned as some kind of rebellion against, and reaction to, mainstream hard rock, was actually in many ways a continuation and development of the sound of the bands that had inspired them to pick up guitars in the first place, albeit combined with inspirations from punk and hardcore, and a more introverted and at times socially conscious lyrical bent.

Even better, following the inconsequential atmospheric spoken word interlude ‘Prelude To Joanie’, is ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the single best song of this part of the band’s career, that being the run of albums between Draw The Line and Permanent Vacation. Too often across these records, a single acceptable riff or melody is stretched to breaking point, carrying the song in the absence of any compelling vocal line, the band presumably hoping that the listener’s memory of what Aerosmith once were generates enough sentimental attachment to ensure that the band is forgiven for what is realistically rather lazy songwriting. On this track though, everything comes together so magically that it triggers something more than a false memory; an authentic experience in fact, the band genuinely recapturing something that it seemed had been lost forever. What really stands out here is the lightness of touch that allows the folky acoustics and jazzy chords of the intro to transform with a flourish into a theatrical mid-tempo rocker. Tyler’s vocal is, for once, majestic, the catchy descending vocal melody of the chorus integrating perfectly with stabbing guitar chords in a way which feels supremely natural, with Jack Douglas’s organic production allowing plenty of space for the rhythm section to fill the space left by the economic guitars. A baroque string line is integrated seamlessly into the mix, subtle enough to avoid drowning the band in syrupy schmaltz, but prominent enough to provide another layer of composition that, unusually for Aerosmith, culminates in a deceptively complex, but euphoric anthem that exudes pure joy. That it happens to be included on one of the band’s less heralded releases means that it is not more widely known, a shame for such a life-affirming and life-enhancing track.

As good as ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’ is though, it stands out in part, because it is nearly drowned in the sea of mediocrity that surrounds it. Both the title track and ‘Jig Is Up’ are practically the definition of filler. The former, leaving aside a self-plagiarising riff that harkens back to ‘Uncle Salty’ from Toys In The Attic, appears to be an attempt to develop their sound into the kind of brass-augmented glossy pop-rock that would prove so successful for the reunited band later in the decade. It is possible that although they were unable to fully realise their ambitions here, the band registered the potential buried somewhere within the track, and that this contributed in part to their eventual commercial renaissance. If these tracks are average, both the cover of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’, and the closing track ‘Push Comes To Shove’ that round out the album are a hideous affront to music and should never have found their way on to the album. One can only assume that at this point, such was the paucity of available material, and so low was the interest in the band from their label, that no one had the courage to tell truth to waning power. On the former, it is possible to divine what Tyler was aiming for, even if the target is missed by a wide margin. One imagines that he envisaged himself on stage in a smoky basement bar, a lone stagehand sweeping the broken glass and spent cigarettes from the floor, as a tearful crooner pours his heart out to the tiny audience that can’t quite tear themselves away. The latter is simply bizarre, a strange showtune pastiche from which no one emerges with any credit, and which is best forgotten.

In some respects, Rock In A Hard Place is an improvement on it predecessor, which is absolutely the sound of a band falling apart committed to tape. At its worst, it is grimly fascinating, and at it’s best it is superb. However, much of the album is the sound of a band knocking on the door of excellence, but fumbling for the keys, when they should quite simply blow the door off its hinges. Also missing from large stretches of the album is any real feeling of joy and excitement. This would be less of a problem were Aerosmith playing funeral doom, or blackened death metal, but for a band that should be the life of the party, this is more of a problem. This means that Rock In A Hard Place is best viewed as a document of a difficult period of the band’s career, and a small and essential step in the right direction, when it could so easily have been a step into permanent obscurity.

Score: 64%

AC/DC – Blow Up Your Video

Author: BD Joyce

AC/DC – Blow Up Your Video
  • Artist: AC/DC
  • Album: Blow Up Your Video
  • Year of Release: 1988
  • Country: Australia
  • Label: Epic
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: 510770 2

The title alone dates Blow Up Your Video, which would presumably be called Blow Up Your Streaming Service if it were released in 2020. The slightly disingenuous intention, given the band’s indulgence in the glossy clips that had been made for Fly On The Wall singles, was to remind fans that AC/DC were best experienced in a live setting, and not through the attenuating barrier of the front of a cathode ray tube. While this is undoubtedly true, given their still undimmed reputation as nothing less than a scorching live attraction, this album is not quite the stripped down set of songs that the listener might be expecting, or that is slyly suggested by Angus Young’s short blues lick at the start of ‘Heatseeker’. In fact, over 3 decades later, it sounds very much like the kind of slightly over-produced stadium rock album that was pumped out in huge volumes during the 1980s.

The aforementioned ‘Heatseeker’, while not being immune from the flaws of the album, is a good start, bringing exactly the kind of vitality and vigour that has always come so easily to the band, although unfortunately without the smart, catchy chorus that would elevate to things to the kind of rarefied altitude that they are still capable of reaching, albeit not with the unerring regularity they managed 10 years before. The opener is followed by ‘That’s The Way I Wanna Rock N Roll’, one of the more frustrating tracks on the album, and the most obvious victim of an overly fussy production. At its heart is a playful tribute to 50s rock ‘n’ roll, with a supercharged Chuck Berry riff the main feature. Where the late-70s AC/DC would have relished the tension created by the space in Young’s economic riffing, the late-80s AC/DC fill the space with reverb-heavy drums that fail to generate the kind of gritty groove that they once specialised in. What we end up with is good fun, but some way short of what it could have been.

This is something of a recurring theme across Blow Up Your Video. ‘Some Sin For Nuthin”, for example contains a magisterial groove strong enough to nod the head that doesn’t nod, ‘Kissin’ Dynamite’ (the letter ‘g’ is criminally underused throughout AC/DC song titles) is a welcome return to the more sombre, minor key sounds of For Those About To Rock…, and contains a skyscraping vocal performance from Brian Johnson, wringing out the high notes from his vocals chords with only slightly less effort than it would take to produce blood from a stone; and even yet another lazy chorus on ‘Go Zone’ cannot ruin the sensationally subtle staccato riffing of the verse, coupled with a blazing Angus Young solo. However, as competent as all of these songs are, they represent a clutch of missed opportunities. A more stripped-back and gritty sound, together with a higher degree of song-writing creativity focussed on vocal melodies could have generated something considerably better than the ultimately average output comprising most of the album.

What highlights there are on Blow Up Your Video come from the tracks on which AC/DC take a more circuitous route to the rock ‘n’ roll summit, introducing just enough experimentation to add interest, without straying so far into new territory that their sound is transformed into something unrecognisable. The Living Colour-style funk-rock of ‘Meanstreak’ absolutely could’ve gone either way, but the pile-driving chorus keeps all four wheels on the road when the precipice beckoned, and the unusual (for ‘DC) arpeggiated verse of ‘Ruff Stuff’ combined with the most memorable chorus the band has produced since ‘Sink The Pink’ produces a song that is comfortably the best to be found on the album. The latter in particular is a throwback to the effortless melodicism of the Bon Scott days, and makes this listener pine for the days when AC/DC could produce entire albums of this type of transcendent brilliance, and with an astonishing frequency too.

Sadly though, the more recent theme that Blow Up Your Video instead adopts wholesale from their previous post-Back In Black efforts is their habit of closing out the album with the most tedious compositions of the entire set. Very much like Fly On The Wall three years before, the final two tracks are more of an apology than a triumphant valediction and it’s hard to imagine even the most forgiving fan listening to ‘Two’s Up’ very often, particularly when given the other sparkling options available across a storied back catalogue.

There’s not an awful lot to choose between this and Fly On The Wall, which are very much the lowest point of the band’s career, with something of a recovery commencing on the band’s next effort, The Razors Edge. On both records, it is evident that something of the band’s personality is lost as they try to straddle the deep crevasse between energetic and unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll, and the kind of polished stadium rock made by bands that they likely inspired, but lack the pop nous to emulate. In the final analysis, Blow Up Your Video is marginally better than the album that came before it – the best songs are not quite of the same stature, but it’s slightly more consistent in its mediocrity, and contains nothing as truly dreadful as the worst points of that record. It will forever stand as a rarely listened to curiosity for the AC/DC completist, and realistically, an unecessary acquisition for anyone else.

Score: 65%

AC/DC – Fly On The Wall

Author: BD Joyce

AC/DC – Fly On The Wall
  • Artist: AC/DC
  • Album: Fly On The Wall
  • Year of Release: 1985
  • Country: Australia
  • Label: Epic
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: 510768 2

Fly On The Wall find us in 1985, in the middle of one of the most excessive decades of modern times, and one in which style is arguably prioritised over substance. The stratospheric success of MTV in the US has vastly changed popular music, and hard rock in its various forms is enjoying mainstream acclaim in a way that it probably hasn’t before or since. Although their major artistic successes pre-date this explosion in popularity of the genre as a whole, AC/DC’s wagon is unavoidably hitched to the rock ‘n’ roll train driven by the likes of Bon Jovi, Poison and Mötley Crüe, and there’ss no doubt that some of the influences of the time (musical and otherwise) seeped into their own output. Although the sales achieved during this era insulated the band financially when the more casual fans moved on with the tides of fashion in the 1990s, some of the music itself does not quite stand up to scrutiny with the benefit of the distance of time.

Ominously, and unusally for an AC/DC album, Fly On The Wall does not start especially well. Although the standard clipped intro riff, joined by pounding four on the floor drums, raises eyebrows and expectations, the rest of the title-track does not fulfil the early promise. A common theme across the album, the track contains the germ of something good, but fails to develop it into anything especially compelling. The vocals lazily follow the guitar line throughout, as opposed to offering any kind of counterpoint, and without the benefit of a lyric sheet, it is difficult to get a handle on what Brian Johnson is singing about, as the vocals are generally buried in a mix that is kind to the lead guitars, but little else. This is lethal to a band whose career is built on making the most out of relatively limited ingredients, acting as an unnecessary constraint on the songwriting ambition.

Thankfully though, the album is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Following the title track is a succession of four songs that represent the salvation of the album, and could’ve formed the core of a better record, had the band had the courage to ditch the weaker material found elsewhere. ‘Shake Your Foundations’ pairs a crafty Young riff workout with comfortably the most infectious chorus to be found on the album, even while straying into slightly cock-rock territory, and the stadium-blues of ‘First Blood’ (despite the lyrics dashing any hopes of a Rambo-inspired track) demonstrates that the band haven’t completely lost their ability ingeniously twist their well-worn template just enough to delight. The beautifully slow and slinky ‘Danger’ overstays its welcome, but offers a musical lightness of touch to contrast with Johnson’s gravel-gargling vocal and ‘Sink The Pink’ overcomes a frankly cringeworthy title to deliver a blast of prime ‘DC that, alone on this record, could fit comfortably on Highway To Hell or Back In Black. The two bar guitar lick that precedes the chorus showcases the kind of attention to detail and precision songwriting that is largely absent on Fly On The Wall, and it is no surprise that the result is perhaps the most memorable song to come out of this period of the band’s career.

Sadly, with the exception of the sparkling and deft ‘Stand Up’, the rest of Fly On The Wall is the first sustained misstep of AC/DC’s career. Occupying the middle lane of the road like an annoying driver, there is little to love about the self-plagiarising ‘Hell Or High Water’ or the horrible ‘Playing With Girls’, which sounds like an Aerosmith outtake, and isn’t even rescued by a raucous chorus riff which it would have been nice to have seen redeployed as the cornerstone of a much better song. ‘Back In Business’ is perhaps the worst song on both the unfortunate run of anti-classics that close out the record, and indeed of the band’s career as a whole, and ‘Send For The Man’ is presumably a request for someone to put us all out of our misery, as it closes Fly On The Wall with a whimper that barely registers on an AC/DC richter scale topped by the use of actual cannon fire only a couple of albums previous.

Fly On The Wall is essentially a failure. Commercially it would see the band continue to maintain their place as one of the genre’s key players, headlining large venues and festivals globally, but artistically it is forgettable and indeed the nadir of the band’s output thus far. It contains a handful of enjoyable songs, and still more moments of inspiration. Regrettably, these moments are stretched to breaking point, with the band clearly lacking in ideas and instead resorting to releasing something that they hoped ticked enough boxes to qualify as good enough, rather than aiming to excel their previous work. Nowhere is this more obvious than the lyrical and vocal contributions of Johnson. Where once the band offered creative filth delivered with a nudge and a wink via soaring melodies, on Fly On The Wall the band make do with well-worn cliches and facile rhyming couplets repeated ad nauseum, via forgettable melodies that too often fail to add another dimension to the songs themselves. It’s a far cry from Back In Black.

It’s not all bad, but it is workmanlike and lacking in grit and intensity, as if assembled on a production-line by workers that just failed to give enough of a shit to add the effortless magic that distinguishes the band’s best work. On Fly On The Wall, AC/DC transition fully from the world’s most exciting rock ‘n’ roll experience to a competent stadium rock band, a transition that would give them the longevity to ultimately come back in the 21st century with something more musically impressive, but with the disappointing trade-off being the mediocrity of this particular album.

Score: 64%