Review Summary: Axl Rose joins Sebastian Bach for his first album of original material since splitting with Skid Row
It was a match made in heaven, one for the ages. Jagger and Richards bonded over gritty American blues; Elvis and Liberace bonded over repressed sexuality; and former Skid Row
screamer Sebastian Bach bonded with Guns N’ Roses
survivor Axl Rose over a common interest in not releasing albums. Rose’s cautious
(read: non-existant) approach to the commercial music market is well known, while Bach’s chosen to remain, for the most part, off the map since acrimoniously parting company with the Skids in 1996, limiting his creative output to cover albums and the odd original composition with low-key side projects. As public personae, they could hardly be more different: Rose is quiet and withdrawn; Bach, a loudmouth party animal (in the nicest way possible). When he was invited to support Guns N’ Roses during the band’s first successful European tour in a decade, Sebastian set aside plans to record his first solo album of original material, Angel Down
, and laid it down it on his own dollar in the gaps between performance runs. His virtual ever-presence on successive tours was likely a major reason why there were tours plural, and his own raised profile earned him a major label deal with EMI subsidiary Merovingian Records as a result. The irony will no doubt be lost on his former bandmates; they’ve suffered from limited distribution and limited interest since resurrecting the Skid Row name in 1999.
As Skid Row frontman, Sebastian Bach pushed the “metal” in pop metal just about as far as it would go with the landmark 1991 album Slave To The Grind
- the scene collapsed shortly after. Angel Down
pretty much picks up where that album left off, except in place of the punk-influenced players of old, Bach’s assembled a squad of revered old school heavy metal players: virtuoso bassist Steve DiGiorgio (Death
); progressive drummer Bobby Jarzombek (Painmuseum
, Demons and Wizards
); and powerhouse guitarists Metal Mike Chlasciak (Halford
) and Johnny Chromatic. Their skills are immediately apparent with opening pairing ‘Angel Down’ and ‘You Don’t Understand.’ The title track is a dynamic, crushing number which somehow reconciles the notion of the cowbell with the 21st Century and boasts one of Bach’s most incisive, piercing vocals, though, at an almost constant scream, it’s difficult to make out the words. Changing tack completely, standout track ‘You Don’t Understand’ is a highly melodic NWOBHM number, hinging upon harmonised lead guitar lines and the singer’s Dickinson-like higher register theatrics.
Continuing in the chronological vein, three tracks featuring Rose follow, the first sanctioned recordings of the singer to emerge since 1999. Aerosmith cover ‘Back In The Saddle’ (or should that be ‘Bach In The Saddle’) is laced with double meanings for both singers, but that’s not the only reason it sticks out. Stylistically it’s different from everything else on the album and, while in retrospect Joe Perry’s aggressive funk-blues riff seems tailor-made for its metal makeover, the band are subdued and seem to play within themselves. It would be the dullest of covers were it not for the riotous vocal performances of both Bach and Rose, trading lines and raucous screams with a carefree abandon 1970s Steven Tyler would be proud of, and 2000s Steven Tyler would kill or be killed for. Lead single ‘(Love Is) A Bitchslap’ is one of five tracks co-written with producer Roy Z, of Bruce Dickinson fame. A braindead stadium rocker in the ‘Riot Act’/‘Big Guns’ mold, it’s burdened with lyrics so bad they almost can’t be ignored and another unusually disinterested instrumental showing, but it’s catchy and instantly memorable. Rose himself requested to be featured in the sludgy rocker ‘Stuck Inside,’ and his raspy supporting melodies during the track’s final phase add depth to the sub-Alice In Chains refrain.
Aside from a few hiccups, Angel Down
is instrumentally and vocally superb. Bach sounds more confident and more agile than he’s ever been, while the drumming in particular stands out as an important feature in the mix. Roy Z’s touch is so deft as to be scarcely noticeable; the mix is clear and distinct without sounding polished, and bassists will be delighted to know that Steve DiGiorgio’s talents are well accounted for. His nimble-fingered watery bassline opens ‘Negative Light’ which, alongside Metal Mike’s ‘American Metalhead,’ ‘Stuck Inside’ and ‘Our Love Is A Lie,’ highlight the central fusion of styles which define the album: the dynamic intercourse between aggressive Bay Area thrash and grungier, Sabbath-esque sections. While technically impressive, the formula becomes a little predictable after a while, and its limits are glaringly exposed when the melodies themselves fall short of the required standard, most notably with ‘Our Love Is A Lie’ and ‘Live & Die.’
The album’s one great track is a throwback to the best of Skid Row’s ballads. ‘By Your Side,’ co-written by Sebastian and Roy Z, bears a vague resemblance to 1991’s ‘I Remember You’- which, coincidentally, Bach had no role in writing. Sparsely arranged and mostly acoustic, the five-and-a-half minute track is carried by the strength of the melody and a stunning vocal which, though not technically perfect, is deeply passionate and physically felt. Closing ballad ‘Falling Into You,’ written with Bon Jovi’s unofficial fifth member Desmond Child, doesn’t even come close. Similarly, Angel Down
is a little too inconsistent to consider the equal of Skid Row’s classic first two records, but with strong songwriting and one of the best instrumental sections in modern metal, it’s a big step in the right direction.