(RETROWREK RECORDS; English import, 2014)
To most here in the States, the name Bernie Torme probably means very little. First of all, he is not the son of “Velvet Fog,” Mel, but, if you are one of the legions of followers of one John “Ozzy” Osbourne’s particularly lucrative solo career, you will remember Bernie as the hot-shot gun-for-hire brought in to continue the DIARY OF A MADMAN tour after original (and much lauded) guitarist Randy Rhoads found himself on the receiving end of a gravedigger’s hole-filling shovel in early 1982. Before saving Osbourne’s bacon, Torme had made a name for himself with Gillan, the band led by former and future Deep Purple frontman, Ian, appearing on three albums between 1979 and 1981 (including the UK chart-topper FUTURE SHOCK) and subsequent tours for each.
After leaving the Ozzy Osbourne situation behind (it was never the guitarist’s intent to be a permanent replacement for Rhoads), Bernie formed Electric Gypsies, eventually renaming the group Torme (and bringing ex-Girl singer, Phil Lewis, along for the change). After a total of six albums (including an excellent solo record called TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, just re-released on Bernie’s own Retrowrek label and worth picking up), and experiencing minimal success, Torme hooked up with Dee Snider and Iron Maiden’s original drummer, Clive Burr, in the band Desperado. 1999 saw the release of WHITE TRASH GUITAR, credited to Bernie Torme’s Electric Gypsies, but for all intents and purposes, a solo record; in 2005, Bernie teamed with powerhouse drummer Robin Guy and his old Gillan bandmate, bassist John McCoy to form GMT (Guy, McCoy, Torme). The trio released two great studio albums and one live document in five years. Now, some fifteen years after his last studio album of new solo material, Bernie is back with FLOWERS AND DIRT, a two disc set with 20 totally unique Torme tracks.
The first track, “Crash and Burn,” is a chugging rocker, reminiscent of Bernie’s guitar hero, Rory Gallagher; the lead and solo work, however, are unmistakably Torme. Once a distraction on early releases, Torme offers a solid vocal performance, no doubt refined by his years leading GMT. A muddy sounding bass and a noisy, stick-in-your-skull riff fuels “Partytown,” allowing Bernie to run off some high-register solos. The lyrics, as the song’s title implies, are of the basic, throw-away variety. The vocals, again, are rock solid. “Blood Run Cold” blasts in with a hefty power chord that has you imagining a BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY type scenario where some unfortunate (oh… Death, let’s say) standing in front of a massive stack of Marshalls is blown completely off the stage (and, maybe, through the back wall). As usual, the guitars are top-notch, the rhythm section (bassist Chris Heilmann, drummer Simon Jeffrey) is rock hard, the lyrics are a vast improvement over “Partytown” and, somewhere, buried deep in the mix is a bluesy harmonica (could it be Bernie’s old boss, Ian Gillan, making an uncredited guest appearance?)… this song just sounds LOUD! Slamming into your earholes with a Zeppelin-like riff and a John Bonham bottom end, “Your Voodoo” features Torme as a veritable guitar army, with finest-kind slide work and swirling, buzz sawing, psychedelically influenced runs thorughout. “Mister Fixit” has a great, bluesy “Train Kept A-Rollin’” kinda feel, with Phil Spalding offering up a nice, strolling bass line and Bernie delivering some awesome hair band inspired solos. Overall, this is one fantastic song. With Jeffrey playing on the rims and Torme’s funky, grooving guitar, “No Lips (Tsunami Blues)” has a slow-burning ZZ Top thing happening. There’s great interplay between the rhythm guitar, bass and drums and another awesome, slashing solo from Bernie.
“Devil and the Deep Blue” is flat-out Americana – bordering on new country. Even the shredding multi-layered guitars have that certain down-home vibe. The lyrics are a notch above and Torme’s vocals add a suitably menacing touch. Fellow Irishmen Bono and U2 have attempted songs like this, but they just manage to sound condescending (okay… to be fair, Bono ALWAYS sounds condescending); Bernie, Chris and Simon make it work and make it sound right. The guitar on “Lockjaw” has a kind of Chuck Berry-cum-John Sykes dichotomy thing going on. The tune itself is of the “storming-the-beaches,” chugging rocker variety. “Everybody Needs Love” has a distinct “Give Me Your Money Please” (Bachman-Turner Overdrive) vibe, with heavy drums (by Torme’s regular skin-pounder, Ian Harris) and another great guitar melody. The slow, near-balladic “Good Man Down,” while totally Torme, features an uncharacteristically understated guitar that still manages to bite, heartfelt lyrics and one of the most passionate vocals of Bernie’s career. The track leads into “Warpaint,” a swampy, foot-stomping blues number with Torme heating things up on the dobro. The major problem with the song is its length; it’s only two-minutes long and seems to just be hitting its stride before an all-too-soon end.
I think that “Bad Juju” is what they mean by “gut-bucket” rock and roll, with echoey bass and drums, a staccato descending riff from Bernie and a slide guitar lead part. “Mister Bad Luck” is a noirish strolling blues track. Torme’s guitar is about two parts CORRIDOR OF POWER era Gary Moore (another of Bernie’s early influences) and one part Ritchie Blackmore bombast… rather a nice combination. There’s more homage with “Highway Chains,” as Gallagher and Eric Bell (a solid blues player who formed Thin Lizzy and played on their first three albums) are referenced. The highlight of the tune is a fuzzy, over-modulated solo. Bernie’s vocal delivery on “Out in the Cold” has a distinct Bob Dylan feel, as do the symbolic, allusory lyrics: “Wanted you to believe/That you could always leave/Make your move and head on down the road.” Bernie unleashes a wicked, atmospheric minute-long solo over the slow but powerful groove, which reminds me of Epic-era Alice Cooper (maybe “Love’s a Loaded Gun” from HEY STOOPID). “Garden of Earth’s Delight” is a straight-out rocker with lewd, smarmy sounding vocals. Chris Heilmann offers up an intriguing bass sound and Torme does a cool “solo-as-rhythm” kinda thing that works really well within the context of the song.
Though Bernie has skirted around the issue a bit throughout the entirety of FLOWERS AND DIRT, it isn’t until “Spirit Road” that he lets his more adventurous side appear. The number has a distinctive mix of African and Asian influences, with Harris introducing djembe and Torme approximating the sound of a sitar on his guitar; a very psychedelic offering. At first blush, I was thinking of English highwaymen but, once all of the instruments were introduced, they became Moroccan robbers. The track is topped off with a beautiful acoustic solo from Bernie. “Turn of the Tide” starts off as a gently swaying folk tune and the vocals keep that folky feel throughout as brutally heavy drums and bass – not to mention some blistering guitar runs – drive the song home. The epic “Stoneship” has a big, heavy Black Sabbath feel with lyrics that are vaguely reminiscent of Sabbath’s SEVENTH STAR record. There’s a weird kind of swing in the doomy, dirge-like tempo that gives a feeling of dread. That feeling is only heightened by a monolithic guitar break. The final track, “Outlaw Blues,” is an honest-to-goodness cowboy song, featuring campfire harmonica, a semi-acoustic guitar and a twangy vocal turn from Bernie. It would seem as though Mister Torme waited for the last fourth of the album to veer away from the bluesy hard rock that he does so well, proving that he is most capable of just about any style. A couple of the more “standard” heavy rockers bog down a bit, but the rest of the record more than makes up for any shortcomings. The twenty tracks here-in have reminded me why I always loved Bernie Torme; it’s music that should be in everybody’s home.