Tuesday, April 15, 2014

album review: 'bang!' by gotthard

I've made no secret of the fact that I have an unironic love of hair metal and hard rock, the sort that was most prevalent throughout the 1980s. Sure, it was dumb, cheesy, and occasionally ridiculously chauvinist, but it was a genre that at least was willing to go over-the-top when it came to instrumental prowess, bombast, and sense of fun to elevate the material, which was a huge redeeming factor for me. And thus, I can appreciate the irony that the hair metal and hard rock I would come to love effectively died out around the time I was born, replaced by a grunge and alternative scene I never really embraced in the same way.

But the fun fact is that Nirvana and Pearl Jam didn't really kill that genre more than the genre simply killed itself through over-saturation and a lot of mediocre bands riding the trend, especially in the tail end of the 80s. And thus in 2008, off of listening to 01011001, the newest magnificent progressive metal project from Ayreon, I decided to check out the band of Steve Lee one of the singers associated with the project.

That band was Gotthard, a Swiss hard rock that started in 1992, a few years after its brand of hard rock was supposed to be dead and yet still managed to sustain a career... and they're one of my favourite bands of all time. No, I'm not kidding, a retro-hard rock act with a terrible pun for a name is one of my favourite bands, and they're also the act I point to when I say this brand of hard rock is worth defending over their decades-long career. Their cover of Bob Dylan's 'Mighty Quinn' has been my ringtone for five years!

So what makes Gotthard worth a damn? Well, in comparison to most hard rock, Gotthard had a melodic focus, which leaned towards killer hooks over displays of sheer instrumental prowess. And while the band had its fair share of cheesy ridiculousness, they also weren't bad songwriters and weren't afraid to take risks with their material or venture into different genres altogether. The combination of those two factors has meant Gotthard has made some killer rock ballads over the years, especially in their mid-period work in the late 90s and early 2000s. However, most people remember Gotthard for their frontman Steve Lee, who honestly might have been one of the best hard rock vocalists in the industry. It wasn't just that he had an impossible range that remained emotionally compelling and expressive, but he made it look easy.

Sadly, Steve Lee passed away in a motorcycle accident in October 2010, and Gotthard brought in a new replacement with Nic Maeder for their 2012 album Firebirth. And while that album is pretty good, it's also decidedly transitory, as Maeder is trying to step into some pretty big shoes and he didn't quite seem to fill them, at least initially. And thus, when I heard they were releasing a new album this year with Bang!, I was excited. Hopefully touring and songwriting with the band had improved their chemistry, and this new incarnation of Gotthard would impress me. So how's the album?

Holy crap, this album kicks ass. I'm not going to lie, I didn't expect a lot from Gotthard other than a measurably good album, but Bang! by Gotthard was a ton of fun and will easily end up high on my list of favourite albums of the year. At the same time, though, it's also very much a record that plays directly to my personal musical sensibilities: I mean, a hard rock record featuring killer melodic hooks, surprisingly strong lyrics, solid guitar solos, blues-inspired organ riffs, and then you add symphonic elements? Were they making this album just for me, because that's just a huge list of things I love in rock music!

Let's start with the instrumentation, and as I said, so much of it is vintage Gotthard at its best: strong memorable hooks, solid guitar solos that feel cohesive with the song, great keyboard riffs, and a lot of crunch in the varied guitar tones. In fact, on that basis, this is probably Gotthard's most rough-edged album since Dial Hard in the 90s, especially in the rhythm guitar, and the crisp clean production lets all of that come through. And yet unlike Dial Hard, it doesn't just wallow in chest-thumping debauchery and does switch up the tones, with 'Feel What I Feel' feeling it could have been pulled straight from Lipservice and 'Red On A Sleeve' could have been a solid cut from either Human Zoo or Domino Effect. And yet the band actually takes steps towards a richer well of instrumentation, with the blues/Whitesnake inspiration in 'Spread Your Wings'  to the naked symphonic elements on 'I Won't Look Down', 'Maybe', 'What You Get', and the eleven minute power ballad 'Thank You'. If I have a complaint, it's in the ballads - in that we don't have more of them. This was a problem with Firebirth as well, as the slower moments really do show some well-picked guitar and I wanted to hear more of it. On top of that, while I find the symphonic elements and the inclusion of female backing vocals welcome, I do think they could have had a little more richer depth in the production, with a little more grandeur.

This takes us to Nic Maeder's vocals - and honestly, if I was uncertain about his last performance, he won me over with Bang!, and for a reason I expected. Part of my issues with that last album was that he seemed to be trying a little too hard to mimic Steve Lee's vocal style - here, he sounds a lot more comfortable sticking in his own range and it pays big dividends. The big surprise for me was how great his lower range was - rich, expressive, emotionally compelling, it adds a lot to selling the emotions behind the songs. Unfortunately, his presence only highlights Melody Tibbits on the duet 'Maybe', and not in a good way - she's far from a bad singer, but there's not quite enough grit and passion behind her delivery to really sell her lyrics in the song.

Speaking of lyrics... oh boy, this is where I'm going to lose some of you, because to say the lyrics on this album are great or anything close to insightful, even by hard rock standards, would be stretching the truth. And arguably this has always been an issue with the genre, especially the elements that call back to the 80s: the lyrics are either cheesy as hell or don't even try to make sense, instead operating on 'Rule of Cool' and assuming the audience isn't going to care either. And right out of the gate with the title track, we get some of that and even though I really like the song, it really isn't about anything other than Gotthard being awesome. And yeah, they definitely back it up, but at the same time, as a fan, I know they'd made many songs in this particular vein many times before, which is arguably the bigger problem.

That said, the band does deliver some solid lyrics with some credible nuance here. 'Feel What You Feel' is about desperately trying to hold onto a one-night stand connection where the narrator feels sparks of love, 'C'est La Vie' is about confronting and still trying for dreams that feel farther and farther away, 'Spread Your Wings' is about letting an ex go and realizing he might have been the one holding her back, 'Maybe' is about indecision regarding change in a troubled relationship, and 'Thank You' is a heartfelt letter to the mother of guitarist Leo Leoni, who passed away. The weaker songs for me on this album are when the band gets defensive or gimmicky in their lyrics, with 'My Belief' being a shot at an ex that comes across a little too sour, and 'Mr. Ticket Man' coming across as nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. And while I definitely do like 'Red On A Sleeve', it feels a little like 'Janie's Not Alone' part two to be excused.

And yeah, you can say it's cheesy and hyperbolic and ridiculous and entirely two- or even one-dimensional when it comes to this album - and for the most part, I'd agree with you. Hell, I'd even expect the band knows some of it too - you don't make this many albums in this genre without developing some self-awareness. But what makes this album work - and indeed, the majority of Gotthard's discography work - is presentation and focus. They know exactly what they are, and they work to be the best possible version of it. It's the same reason I love AC/DC or Andrew W.K., and it works for the same reason they do - Gotthard embodies that ridiculous hard rock fantasy completely unironically, and not only do they nail it, they add different flavour along the way, and are talented enough to be taken seriously and with light-hearted fun at the same time. 

So yeah, I love this album. Is it Gotthard's best album? No, I wouldn't say that - Lipservice, Open, and Domino Effect are pretty difficult to beat in my books, and it'll take some time to see whether or not the singles from Bang! hold up as well as some of the classics, but that doesn't mean it isn't a goddamn great album that definitely deserves your attention if you're a fan of 80's inspired hard rock. Hell, even if you're not, the hooks, the rock edge, the great vocal delivery, and even some of the lyrics make this album definitely worth your time and worth defending. For me... yeah, I'm going with a 9/10, because Gotthard might not have been a band from the era where hard rock and hair metal ruled the radio, they deserve to belong near the top of the format. Check this out.

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