Review Summary: Industrial synthesisers and wailing guitars gel (somewhat) to create a strange new sound, and one that works well when the band is putting any effort into it. No intellect required.
God, why is this any good? Why is this fun? Why is it good to sit down and listen to three blues rockers shed every bit of blues they had? This thing is a relic from the Reagan era, a reminder of how things were back in the '80s, when the big hair was flying and the drumsticks flew along with it. This album should have failed miserably. But it didn't. It's just too damn good for that.
Unquestionably the strangest success in my record collection, 'Afterburner' is a collection of burbling, metallic synthesisers, electronic drums and bleeding, Rio Grande guitar, sounding off on song after song written like some strange mixture of dance-pop and flat out rock-and-roll. The exception to this is 'Rough Boy', a ballad, and not a particularly successful one at that; the band simply tries too hard, and neither Billy Gibbons' voice nor his style of guitar playing is suited to the song. The rest of the album, however, is pure fun from start to finish.
'Sleeping Bag' sets the tone for the rest of the album. The first thing that you'll notice is that the drums are completely mechanical, and that the bass never quite seems to kick in. Is it hidden behind something, or is it just not there? You won't be figuring this out for the whole of the disc, but it doesn't really matter, because its sonic area is obliterated by Dusty Hill's keyboards whether it's there or not. The synths are all over this disc. As 'Sleeping Bag' continues, Gibbons' guitar comes in, and starts to drown out the keyboards a little too. If I had any major complaint about this album, it's that it is simply too much most of the time - it's loud, and everything seems sort of piled on top of everything else. Whether everything works is a different story, but there's almost no interplay with the band here. The keyboards have been laid on top of Frank Beard's programmed drums, and Gibbons seems to have come in and soloed over it all. The elements are all fun - but how well do they work together?
The first song ends on a bit of an unremarkable note. The song simply isn't as memorable as some of the others - it's a strange opener. 'Stages' follows, and you become aware that the band has abandoned the blues for this disc - the song is pure pop rock, 100% commercial stuff designed for the airwaves. But it's fun - there's that word again! Thankfully, a couple more substantial (to some extent) pieces follow. 'Woke Up With Wood' is just a rip-roaring good time, sounding perhaps the most like their previous records; the lyrics are the best on the disc, with the band clearly laughing at what they could get away with by now. 'Can't Stop Rockin' ' is even better - or at least it is musically. The lyrics are pretty thin, although Hill is in good vocal form as always; however, the song is just driving, with the keyboards working in a near percussive fashion to push the song along. The song (and, in a sense, the album) is nearly industrial - the drums and synthesisers sound together to bang out rhythms, over which Gibbons can lay his guitars and solo maniacally. It's a fun formula, and ZZ Top made it work.
Unfortunately, the second half of the record is much less distinguished. 'Planet of Women' and 'Velcro Fly' are mostly notable for having loud and ultimately grating drum tracks; 'I Got The Message' has very little to recommend it; and 'Dipping Low in the Lap of Luxury' is so close to material from 'Eliminator' that it might as well be a cover. The closer, though, is much better. 'Delirious' is a bit of a summary of the rest of the album: driving keyboards and percussion with wild guitar, and lyrics designed not for thinking, hardly even for listening - just for experiencing. Maybe a little dancing too. This is music meant for men drinking Bud Light and laughing with their buddies. But at the same time, it's music meant for rock lovers who like a propulsive beat and a lighthearted, fun atmosphere. And it's meant for the airwaves. And it's meant for people who don't like the blues.
I'm not sure where I fall into all of that, because despite its shortcomings, I like this album. I really do. It might even be my favourite ZZ Top disc. Whether that says more about me or the band, I'm not sure. But if you can open your mind enough to not expect the blues, then shut your mind off enough so you're desensitised to lyrics like "I can't stop rockin'/Baby, till I lose my mind" and "Things were getting pretty serious/'Till everybody got delirious", then you'll be fine. You might even like it. I just strongly suspect that, unlike the band, you'll be able to stop rockin'.