(KACHINA RECORDS; 2014)
As I’ve undoubtedly mentioned elsewhere, anyone who has read any of the various publications that I’ve been involved with over the past twenty years, knows that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan; anyone who has known me personally for the past 42 years (give or take), knows that I have a particularly soft spot for the band, especially drummer Neal Smith. I own a copy of virtually every recorded project that Neal has been a part of. Most recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (class of 2011) has recorded the KILLSMITH trilogy, including the slutty KILLSMITH: SEXUAL SAVIOR (2008), the slightly more approachable KILLSMITH TWO (2011) and the final installment, the brand-spankingly new, progressive-leaning (in a totally non-political, musical sense) rock opera, KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE. The album shows an amazing growth in the writing and arrangement skills of the solo Neal Smith entity, with keyboards, ballads and even a Christmas-themed tune to close the proceedings. Neal has expanded his own instrumental involvement on these albums, too, adding guitar and keyboards to his standard repertoire of percussion instruments and vocals.
“Blessings and Curses” introduces the character of Diablos, the Emerald King, a South American drug lord from lowly beginnings who discovers an ancient drug known as GreenFire, as deadly as it is addictive. The song itself is full-on Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies (the band), PLATINUM GOD down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Neal’s gravel-throated voice has aged quite well over the course of his solo career and, of course, he is THE man as far as rock drummers go. The guitars (Doug Wahlberg on lead and Smith on rhythm) definitely have that old Buxton/Bruce fire that made those original seven Alice Cooper records so great. Neal steps out of the spotlight for “Good Morning Blue Soul Land,” casting Hubert Martin, of the What Up Funk Band, in the lead as a ’30s crooner. The track is a very cool and unexpected divergence from the hard rock that the boys from Alice Cooper are best known for; think “Crazy Little Child” (from MUSCLE OF LOVE) without all the crime and death. It has it all: A bluesy tack piano (courtesy of Pete “Keys” Hickey), some doo-wop style vocal backing and a snaky Joe Meo sax part that comes in for the last minute or so. “Screaming Bloody Murder” features a chiming, piercing Wahlberg lead, a direct contrast to the heavy, pounding drums and dark subject matter, with a chorus of “Screaming bloody murder/It was a murder, murder Christmas/Screaming bloody murder/For Christmas.” The song ends with Neal intoning those famous words of ol’ Saint Nick himself (well, kinda): “Merry Christmas to all and to all, a deadly night.” Listen for a wonderfully sloppy solo (Wahlberg again) as it slices and dices its way through the bridge.
With “The KillSmith Overture,” Neal shows his guitar-slinging chops with a reverb-drenched intro that also features some very cool flamenco guitar from Mister Hickey, who also adds some very progressive sounding synthesizer parts. Neal provides the castanets and Lady Elizabeth Dellinger (of the upstart soul/jazz conglomerate Snooty Garland) offers a dream-like vocal intonation, somewhere between humming and scatting. There are points where the cut almost has the feel of a field recording, with wind, thunder and rain intermingling with the music. This is definitely one of the more effective pieces on the album. The showers that end “The KillSmith Overture” bring new life on “Palacio de Esmeraldas,” with birds, frogs and crickets all chirping away. Despite the exotic name, the song is far less Latin sounding than the previous track; there’s a distinct Blue Oyster Cult vibe, with tales of a lost South American treasure, voodoo spells and zombie slaves. Neal’s vocal growl is back out front, with his heavy, chunky rhythm guitar and rock-steady drumming driving the tune. And, lest we forget, there’s another great solo from Wahlberg. “Greenfire Born of Poison” is total ’90s hair metal bombast, with absolutely brilliant soloing from Doug and Kevin Franklin (on loan, like Hubert Martin, from the What Up Funk Band)… think of a heavier version of Damn Yankees. The tune features a typical Alice Cooper meltdown at the end, as everything collapses in on itself.
Gigantic, Leslie West worthy power chords open “I Want Money” before Smith’s massive drum sound comes in; Lady Elizabeth is back on vocals, dueting with a slightly subdued Neal. Pete Hickey’s synth is featured more prominently here, with a weirdly effective solo dropped in mid-song. This tune is where we learn the Emerald King’s true motives behind the decisions he’s made in his life: “I Want Money.” On “Pandemonium,” the frantic drums, frenzied feedback-heavy guitars (this time, with leads by Rick Tedesco), and heavily processed vocals really do have the sound of the number’s title; sound effects and a crazed, backward Tedesco solo add to the vibe. Even though we haven’t called his name yet, the bass work of Peter Catucci (who has become Neal’s rhythm section partner of choice, as Dennis Dunaway has increasingly busied himself with other projects) is the rock that anchors the groove here and throughout the record; the bass/drum interplay – especially here – actually rivals that of Dunaway/Smith… no small feat.
A beautiful acoustic guitar from Tedesco opens “I Remember Blue Soul Land,” with a much more subdued Smith vocal (showing that his voice is much more than the growl we are most familiar with… the guy can actually SING!) and Hickey’s piano adding to the overall balladic sense of the song. As the drums, bass and electric guitars are introduced, the track takes on more of a metal power ballad feel; the number really takes a stratospheric leap with the introduction of a choir (compliments of a synthesizer, perhaps?), led by Catucci’s solo voice as a counter to Neal’s lead and a Wahlberg guitar solo that’s definitely worthy of the great Dick Wagner/Steve Hunter tandem from Alice’s early solo career. “Death To the King” is a kind of slow blues with Lady Elizabeth again sharing vocal duties with Smith; while Neal sings, “Hail to the king,” Lady E counters with “Death to the king.” This is the song where Diablos gets his just desserts, as a vengeful “subject,” KillSmith, takes revenge for the death of his wife, Noelle. Aside from a great Joe Meo sax line weaving in and out of the mix, this is a classic type of early ’90s HEADBANGERS’ BALL tune, with power chords, sound effects and keyboards aplenty. All in all, a catchy little number. I went to great extremes to tell you the name of the wife from the last cut because it directly relates to the final piece of the album, the Christmas song, “Noelle No Wonder.” It would appear that Neal really was paying attention to those first two or three solo outings from Alice, as he softens the feel with an orchestra (synthesizers again), a very nice piano lead by Pete Hickey and not a lot else… except, of course, those drums! I think that Neal’s decision to feature Peter Catucci as the lone vocalist was brilliant, as Peter delivers one of the greatest performances you’re likely to hear on a Christmas song this year. Billion Dollar Babies could have rode this one to the top of the charts about 35 years ago, though I’m not sure that Michael Bruce could have done it justice, vocally.
KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE is available at nealsmithrocks.com, in CD and digital versions. Neal has also written a story of the exploits of KillSmith, available in a limited edition 30 page book that also includes the CD version of the album; he personally autographs each copy of either version of the CD purchased from his site.