Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Before bidding farewell to the weird, wild, wacky & wonderful world of Alice Cooper, I want to direct my readers to the excellent SickThingsUK website, where you’ll find all kinds of information on Alice’s career. For me their discography provided more detail than any other site I visited, and you’ll also find tour information, photos, lyrics, musician bios, the latest news and so much more. Please show them some love…after reading this post, of course. Thanks.
Following the garage rock resurgence of The Eyes Of Alice Cooper and Dirty Diamonds, both of which are personal favorites, Alice (unsurprisingly) shifted gears with his next release, the concept album Along Came A Spider (2008). It was a highly anticipated return to the macabre tone of earlier works like Welcome To My Nightmare, Goes To Hell and even portions of Raise Your Fist And Yell, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. I was especially disappointed upon its initial release, and although it improved somewhat after numerous listens this past week, I still rate this as a misfire with a handful of noteworthy songs. The concept centers around a serial killer who dismembers his victims & wraps them in web-like silk to create a human spider (or something like that), and it comes across as the audio equivalent of a mediocre slasher movie that never really scares or shocks the audience. The second half of the album is where most of the highlights appear, so I’ll focus on those first. “The One That Got Away,” co-written with the late Jani Lane (of Warrant), is my favorite song here. It reminds me of Smashing Pumpkins, both in the dense music and Alice’s vocal delivery. You have to love a song that begins, “You look like you’d fit in the trunk of my car, I might let you live, I might go too far.
“Wrapped In Silk” has a catchy pop/hard rock chorus: ‘You should be wrapped in silk, you should be bathed in white…I’ll make that dream come true tonight.” “Killed By Love” is a power ballad that’s not far from Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” with strummed acoustic guitar. The weepy lead guitar and Beatle-y harmonies elevate this track from ordinary to excellent. “I’m Hungry” has a cool guitar riff that reminds me of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name.” It’s a glam-rock stomper with a bright, poppy chorus (“Gimme gimme gimme gimme something to eat…something so sweet”) and ecstatic “woo hoo HOO” backing vocals. “Salvation” is a moodier, piano-driven tune with synth strings, where the killer questions his choices (“Any chance of salvation, any chance for me, any chance of salvation for eternity”). One earlier track, “Wake The Dead,” is worth noting. It was co-written with Ozzy Osbourne, who adds subtle harmonica, and it’s got more of a ‘60s rock feel with a bass line that recalls The Beatles’ “Taxman” over a modern, synthetic rhythm, and tambourine giving it a lighter feel. Other than Slash providing lead guitar on the generic “Vengeance Is Mine,” there’s not much more to discuss. Lyrically, the story stays in one place (I’m a serial killer, watch out for me), and the music is mostly one dimensional. It’s certainly not a bad album; just unnecessary. Alice can still do better than this, which he would prove on his next studio album (to be discussed shortly).
Theatre Of Death: Live At Hammersmith 2009 (2010) captures a 27-song set recorded in England on the Along Came A Spider tour. With a lineup consisting of guitarists Kerri Kelli & Damon Johnson, bassist Chuck Garric and drummer Jimmy Degrasso, Alice’s voice is raspier than on any of the previous live recordings I’ve heard, often yelling or barking out his vocals. This is more of an observation than a criticism, since he had turned 60 the previous year and his singing style would be difficult for anyone half his age. It does, however, make for a relatively lackluster live album even though there are some excellent performances throughout. I noticed that a lot of songs were shortened, often segueing into one another. It’s a balanced set list, with 11 tracks from the Alice Cooper Band era and the other 16 from seven different solo albums (including just 1 from the most recent release). As someone who’s now very familiar with his catalog it’s an enjoyable listen, yet one I won’t go back to very often. It’s definitely not the right choice to win over new converts to his music.
I love numerous things about Alice’s music, such as his sense of humor, his knack for catchy melodies even on his heaviest tracks, the talented musicians he surrounds himself with, his ability to cover a lot of stylistic ground and his penchant for defying expectations. All of these qualities are on display on his most recent album, Welcome 2 My Nightmare (2011), a sequel to his 1975 solo debut. A number of artists have followed up iconic albums with sequels (Peter Frampton, Meat Loaf, Queensrÿche and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson come to mind), to varied levels of success, but I can’t imagine anyone delivering a more satisfying follow-up than this one. It’s especially impressive considering that 36 years separate it from the original. Alice re-teamed with producer & co-conspirator/songwriter Bob Ezrin, and even recorded three songs with the surviving members of the original Alice Cooper Band (Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway & Neal Smith; sadly, guitarist Glen Buxton died in 1997), which is a bit ironic since they weren’t part of the original Welcome To My Nightmare. The concept deals with another trip to Hell, making it just as much of a follow-up to Goes To Hell, and it may or may not actually be a nightmare. I’m not too concerned with the story, though, so I’ll just focus on my favorite songs (which comprise nearly the entire album). “I Am Made Of You” is a minor epic, building from an intense & slightly creepy piano intro (hints of “Steven”) to a more bombastic main section with military snare drum & a great guitar solo from old cohort Steve Hunter. Alice’s auto-tuned vocals are jarring at first but eventually become bearable. I’m guessing he used this modern production trick to make things sound current & radio friendly, and if he’s trying to create an aura of Hell, auto-tune would fit the bill for many old-school rock fans. Alice’s voice is actually very strong, especially at “I was shattered, left in pieces and I felt so cold inside.” “Caffeine” is a silly & fun driving rocker about needing to stay awake so he can avoid his nightmares: “I’m in a desperate way, I’m very near the end, and all I know’s a triple shot of joe is my only friend.”
“Something To Remember Me By” was originally written by Alice with Dick Wagner in the late-70s but never recorded. It’s a gorgeous, ELO-style ballad with traces of Cheap Trick as well. Alice’s vocals are strong with a slight rasp that adds poignancy to the track, and Steve Hunter’s tasteful guitar solo caps one of the best ballads in Alice’s catalog. “Last Man On Earth” is a Tom Waits-esque old-time stomping jazz tune, coming across like ghoulish Vaudeville (does that description make any sense?). It’s theatrical, offbeat fun, and features a great hook at “Don’t need to care about tomorrow, I got no pain I got no sorrow.” “The Congregation” is a loud, bouncy rocker with a chorus that’s power-pop meets melodic metal. Alice’s vocals have a late-60s John Lennon feel, as he sings about being welcomed into Hell by “The Guide” (voiced by Rob Zombie). “I’ll Bite Your Face Off,” co-written with Neal Smith, features the original band and sounds like an homage to The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” It maintains a single groove through most of the song, until a piano-led interlude that recalls Elton John’s “Grey Seal.” The lyrics describe his female guide in Hell: “She licked her lips, they were bloody red, she had the heart of the living dead.” This character also shows up, voiced by dance-pop diva Ke$ha, in “What Baby Wants,” an immensely catchy, glossy pop-rock song. This dance-oriented tune includes fuzzy rock guitar, coming across like a modern take on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (with Steve Hunter shredding on guitar). Some fans might be turned off by Ke$ha’s appearance, but she fits right in with this awesome, sing-along anthem.
The most divisive song here has to be “Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever,” with its programmed dance beat and deep “yo yo yo” vocal refrain. Even if you’re not a fan of dance music, it works within the context of the story, as disco is considered a form of punishment in Hell (“Disco who, disco what, get down on your knees & keep your trap shut”). It shifts gears at around 2:30, going into a driving rock section with John 5 wailing on guitar. “When Hell Comes Home,” co-written with Michael Bruce and featuring the original band, is a heavy, pounding song with serious lyrics about Steven and his dysfunctional family (his father abuses his mother, and at the end he decides to shoot his father). It’s not the catchiest song on the album but it is the darkest. “I Gotta Get Outta Here,” which was co-written by Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, is a Steve Earle-esque rootsy rocker, with country star Vince Gill on lead guitar. The lyrics reference other songs on the album as Alice tells the story of his nightmare. The twist before the final chorus comes when the choir asks him, “What part of dead don’t you get?” So, was it a nightmare, or is that the end of Alice? I guess we’ll have to wait for the threequel to find out. “The Underture” closes things out with instrumental quotes of various songs from the original album and this sequel. I also have one bonus track that appeared on my Classic Rock Magazine “fan pack” edition. “Under The Bed” is an effective creepy piano tune that morphs into a straightforward melodic rocker, and has a catchy chorus: “Save me, I can’t take anymore, cuz it’s happening again…” There are also a couple of songs that were exclusive to other versions of the album which I’ve yet to hear. I’ll be curious to find out if those are essential or just curiosities. Considering the quality throughout the album itself, I’m sure they’re worth hearing, so I might have to seek them out. I doubt Welcome 2 My Nightmare ends up being the final Alice Cooper studio album, as he’s still in peak form, but if that were the case it would be a fitting conclusion to a brilliant if often misunderstood discography. I really can’t praise it highly enough.
[For an excellent overview of Welcome 2 My Nightmare, please visit this post from my blogging buddy, Mike Ladano (aka LeBrain), and check out his other reviews & stories while you’re there]
No More Mr. Nice Guy Live! (2012) was originally released as an “Instant Live” recording immediately after this October 2011 concert in London, but was later released as a 2-CD set featuring 21 songs from 11 albums. It may not be in quite the same league as Live At Montreux 2005 or Brutally Live, but it’s still a great document of his current touring lineup that includes guitarists Steve Hunter, Tommy Henriksen & Orianthi, bassist Chuck Garric and drummer Glen Sobel (who, according to reader BeeDeeWarner, is rated as “one of the top 5 fastest drummers in the world”). The two most pleasant surprises are the 11+ minute rendition of “Halo Of Flies” (drum solo included) and a rare airing for “Clones (We’re All)” that’s more rockin’ than the new wave original. The performance of “Muscle Of Love” is particularly energetic, with a fiery guitar solo that’s a cross between Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and Van Halen’s “Eruption.” I like how Alice throws in a few bars from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2” into “School’s Out.” The final song is The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’s 1968 classic “Fire” with Brown himself on vocals. It’s not a particularly strong performance, but it must have been a blast for those who attended the concert. This is another live album that works better for existing fans than newcomers.
This has been a very rewarding journey through a lengthy discography that, so far, spans 43 years, 26 studio albums, several live albums and a comprehensive box set. As I’ve pointed out before, I think his stage persona has frightened off some potential listeners who probably pigeonhole him even though Alice Cooper (the man and the original band) is much more diverse than nearly all of his/their contemporaries. Sure, he’s had some missteps along the way, but the more I played each album the more I enjoyed them, and songs that may have passed me by the first time often became favorites after repeated listens. I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir at this point, since anyone who’s read this far is most likely already a big Alice fan. I hope I’ve helped to expose some of his/their lesser-known material and, in the process, made some of you even bigger fans in the process. I know that’s what happened to me over the past couple of months. Thanks for being a part of this series. I look forward to hearing from you.