NEAL SMITH: KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2014)

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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.

Neal Smith's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

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.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

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.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

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.

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

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.


ALICE COOPER: RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE FROM WACKEN

(DVD, BLU-RAY, CD; UDR MUSIC;2014)

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Most everybody who knows me and everybody that’s read my stuff for the past 20 years knows that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan – the band, solo stuff, Billion Dollar Babies… chances are good that if Alice, Dennis, Michael or Neal are involved, I have it. Even through the rough times (as far as I’m concerned, those rough times are called LACE AND WHISKEY, ZIPPER CATCHES SKIN and TRASH… though they are not without their own redeeming qualities). For the last fifteen years or so, Alice the man has mounted a substantial comeback, cranking out some fine albums and touring continually with a show that changes and evolves almost on a nightly basis. Alice always manages to surround himself with musicians of the finest kind and, the band he had playing behind him on August 3, 2013 before a mass of humanity at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany was no exception. Now, with RAISE THE DEAD… , we can experience the sights and sounds that have thrilled and shocked audiences for more than 45 years; both the Blu-Ray and DVD releases come packaged with a two CD set which, between video and audio, manages to capture Alice’s entire Wacken show.

Alice Cooper, flanked by Ryan Roxie and Orianthi (publicity photo)

Alice Cooper, flanked by Ryan Roxie and Orianthi (publicity photo)

As it was the music that always drew me in, let’s start by an examination of the CDs first. One of the cool things about an Alice Cooper show is the set list; with 26 studio albums worth of material (seven with the band and 19 solo), the Coop always manages to throw in a surprise or two. Even though he took time to open for Motley Crue’s farewell tour, among others, he’s spent a couple of years on the RAISE THE DEAD tour and, even though the set has remained fairly constant during that time, he’s only recently (in Alice time) brought back “Hello Hooray” as the opening number. The tune hasn’t sounded this good since the original band did it back in 1973, even though Alice’s vocals do get lost in the guitar mayhem a couple of times. “House of Fire” is pop star Alice from the TRASH album. It is one of the stronger tracks from that record, so I can live with it. Without stopping to catch their breath, the band (long-time guitarists Ryan Roxie and Tommy Henriksen, long-standing bassist Chuck Garric, drummer Glen Sobel and hot-shot guitarist Orianthi) rip into “No More Mister Nice Guy.” There’s a little bit of playful risk-taking with that familiar guitar riff that adds a new dimension to the song. One of the original band’s snottiest songs, “Under My Wheels,” sounds even more garagey with the three prong guitar attack. Unfortunately, Sobel is no Neal Smith… but, then, who is? His playing is fine but, he just misses some of those subtle nuances that Neal added. Speaking of Mister Smith, his co-writing credit from Alice’s latest, WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE, is up next. “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” was one of three songs on the record to feature the four surviving Alice Cooper members (with former solo mainstay, guitarist Steve Hunter, ably substituting for Glen Buxton); there’s not as much venom in this live version, but it’s still very much in the classic Cooper vein. “Billion Dollar Babies” is the song that finally has all players hitting on all cylinders at the same time, with Glen Sobel being particularly on-point with the complicated drum patterns.

Alice Cooper (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Alice Cooper (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Caffeine” is an odd little ditty that somehow works better than it should. The vocals are a bit muddy (must be all that coffee!), but it sure sounds like everyone is having fun. “Department of Youth” is one of – if not THE – favorite song from an album of great songs (WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE). This version is really good, though I did miss any mention of Donny Osmond or Justin Beiber or One Direction or whatever flavor of the month was hot in August 2013 when, at the end of the tune, Alice asks, “Who’s got the power?” and, then, “And who gave it to you?” A minor complaint, I know, but it’s the simple things in life that get me through. Alice kind of reasserted himself after TRASH with the more rocking sound of HEY STOOPID. The title track, an anti-drug message wrapped up in a snide Cooper lyric, is sorta in the same sarcastic vein as “Caffeine.” This live version sounds even better than the original studio version, which featured both Slash and Joe Satriani on guitar. “Dirty Diamonds” is the latest in a long line of spy and crime oriented songs (“Halo of Flies,” “Crazy Little Child” and “Man With the Golden Gun” immediately spring to mind) from Alice. It’s a solid rocker but, still, it just can’t compare to those earlier tracks. It features a duet with Garric and Sobel showing off their rhythm section muscles to great effect; near the end of the duet, Orianthi, joins in for a nifty little solo over the top. There’s a subtle shift in sound on the track that launched Alice’s solo career, “Welcome To My Nightmare.” Touring without a keyboard player and eschewing a backing track for the majority of the show gives much of the solo material a slightly different, beefier sound. I like it! The song rolls right into “Go To Hell” from Alice’s second solo outing. This version is relatively close to the original, with a killer guitar sound.

Alice Cooper begins his transformation into the Cooperstein creature (photo credit: OLAF MALZAHN)

Alice Cooper begins his transformation into the Cooperstein creature (photo credit: OLAF MALZAHN)

The second disc kicks off with the rarely performed “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask),” a track from Alice’s MCA days, which barely gets any love from the Coop (a situation that I really don’t understand, as there were some good tunes on both CONSTRICTOR and RAISE YOUR FIST AND YELL… especially side two of the latter). Anyway, gone are the cheesy ’80s synthesizer dance grooves, replaced by a heavier guitar sound, making it even creepier than the original version. Orianthi drops in a nice extended solo toward the end. “Feed My Frankenstein” may not be my favorite HEY STOOPID track, but it’s good theater. For a few tours, Alice would build a hulking monster out of body parts onstage. That worked really well but, now, he undergoes a “transformation,” turning himself into a Cooperstein; I like the idea… I’m just not too sure about that lumbering twelve foot tall Alice thing… looks kinda goofy to me. But, then, maybe that’s the whole point. The ultimate Alice Cooper song, “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” follows, as Doctor Alice is sent away for his crimes against nature. The traditional piano intro (a playback from the original recording) gives way to a haunting, reverb-drenched guitar from Roxie. Alice sounds even more schizophrenic and demented than usual, as “Nurse Sheryl” (named after Alice’s wife, who held the role until daughter Calico took over) torments the straightjacketed patient until he breaks free and chokes her. Now, that action is gonna get you punished, Alice… looks like you losing your head is gonna cause you to lose your head. The band plays the final, execution section of “Killer” (which doesn’t make it to the audio version of the show) as the guillotine does its thing, bisecting the villain at the neck. While Alice is dead, the band offers a truncated version of “I Love the Dead,” no verses just the chorus and the middle bridge section. It’s always been my favorite Alice tune and, after doing it this way for quite a few years, I’m kinda used to it.

Alice Cooper (Calico Cooper as Nurse Sheryl) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Alice Cooper (Calico Cooper as Nurse Sheryl) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

As Nurse Sheryl inspects the body, a voice from beyond calls: “Alice Cooper. Alice, you’ve cheated death once again. How fitting that you should end up in the graveyard of the Hollywood Vampires… here with all of your dead, drunk friends.” Cue Alice’s return from the dead and the unmistakeable riff of the Doors’ classic “Break On Through.” Alice has often recounted the legendary binges that he and his drinking buddy, Jim Morrison, would go on; Morrison was a Hollywood Vampire before the club existed and exited before the first “meeting.” There’s some really nice guitar and drum work on the heavier, funkier version that Alice and his band offer up. John Lennon was a member of the debauched drinking club (and the only one who didn’t die of some sort of substance abuse) and Alice’s rendition of “Revolution” is spot on, particularly the backing vocals. Even though Jimi Hendrix wasn’t a Vampire, I’m sure that he and Alice ran into each other quite often in LA, probably at the Whisky on Sunset Strip. Since we’re talking about Hendrix here, this may not make too much sense but, consider the original before reading on. The beauty of “Foxy Lady” lies in its simplicity. Three guitarists, all trying to be Jimi, is just too much; everything else, including the vocals kinda get lost in the six-string melee. The next song brings things back to earth. The Who’s Keith Moon was a Vampire; Alice salutes him with a great, punky take of “My Generation,” a tune that he’s been doing off-and-on for the past fifteen years or so. Of all the covers, it sounds like Alice had the most fun with this one. As the song ends, he surveys the headstones of his friends, these four legends, proclaiming, “My dead, drunk friends.” It’s a great lead-in to…

Alice Cooper (publicity photo)

Alice Cooper (publicity photo)

I’m Eighteen,” the band’s first hit single and the one that will always remind us why Alice, Glen, Dennis, Neal and Michael are considered one of the greatest rock anthem bands of all time. The next tune came very close to breaking my camel’s back as far as Alice Cooper is concerned. Oh, how I hate this song! It’s worse than “I Never Wrote Those Songs” and “(No More) Love At Your Convenience.” Combined. And, the most confounding thing about “Poison” is, he was dead sober when he wrote the thing; at least, when he did LACE AND WHISKEY, he had the excuse of living his life in a drunken stupor. For what it’s worth, the band sounded okay and the Wacken crowd (and everybody but me, apparently) really seem to dig this atrocity. As mentioned in a couple of other spots, the three guitar approach didn’t always mesh too well. “School’s Out” is an exception to that statement; the various styles of Orianthi, Ryan and Tommy (in order of their spotlight solos) work really well within the free-for-all confines of the traditional show closer. As he’s done for quite a few tours (probably as long as he’s done “My Generation”), Alice weaves Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall” into the fabric of “School’s Out,” offering a unique, utterly enjoyable mash-up of the two. It’s become somewhat expected of “Classic Rock” acts like Alice Cooper to release a live document of their shows, seemingly one or two a year. These affairs can, unfortunately, be hit or miss. I’ve never been disappointed with live Alice (“Poison” aside). RAISE THE DEAD… is no exception.

Alice Cooper's final bow (Glen Sobel, Ryan Roxie, Chuck Garric, Alice, Orianthi, Tommy Henriksen) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Alice Cooper’s final bow (Glen Sobel, Ryan Roxie, Chuck Garric, Alice, Orianthi, Tommy Henriksen) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

The accompanying video (available in DVD or Blu-Ray versions) sounds and looks great, though it is not without its problems. While we do have the entire “Killer” snippet leading up to the execution, both the Beatles and Hendrix numbers are cut. From “Break On Through,” the video jumps right to “My Generation.” Calico’s performance as Nurse Sheryl is magnificently over-the-top and the executioner’s post-beheading antics get a grin out of Chuck Garric. As Chuck exhorts the crowd to sing louder, the executioner holds the microphone up to the lips of the decapitated head, shrugs his shoulders and smirks, as if to say, “You ain’t got nothin’ to say now, do ya?” A great moment of sick humor. So, anyway, I mentioned problems. They are all directorial or editorial things that should not have happened since this was obviously a multi-camera shoot… meaning that they were all decisions made in post-production. It seems that the director had a very difficult time in finding, focusing on and following the solo or meaningful musical moment or cool theatrical moment. Examples include, but are definitely not limited to: A shot of Orianthi (granted, she is very photogenic), from behind, no less, when Ryan Roxie is playing a nice solo; a close-up of Garric behind his mic, before the chorus comes around and it’s his turn to actually sing… by the time he opens his mouth, the camera’s already off to the next incongruous shot; when we should have extended shots of Chuck, during his duet with Sobel, we see Glen and we see the crowd and we see long shots of the stage; during the climax of “Go To Hell,” Alice menaces Roxie and Tommy Henriksen with a whip… all we see is Alice flailing the weapon from one side of the stage to the other, either in close-up or from over Glen Sobel’s shoulder. Speaking of which, there are far too many such shots (over Sobel’s shoulder, I mean) and too many crowd reaction shots at integral points in the show (solos and such). These may seem like trifles to some but, to those of us who like to know what’s going on and who is playing which guitar part and what Nurse Sheryl is doing behind Alice, that’s what we wanna see, not a sea of indistinguishable faces in the dark. Having said that, problems aside, RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE AT WACKEN is a nice addition to your Alice Cooper collection.