Rock ‘n’ roll is a fickle beast. You’ve got so many fads, trends, scenes, and sub-genres that it’s hard to keep track of it. And it can get even more convoluted when one genre begins to fade from popularity, only to be derided by the new guard coming up on the scene. But in the end, it all comes down to whether you like it or not, and it may eventually come back into popular view once the befuddled masses forget why they no longer liked it to begin with. What makes it interesting, though, is the interconnectivity of certain trend cycles. And the concept of cause and effect can also come into play .

Case in point: the media positioned punk as a direct reaction to progressive rock, which had enjoyed about a decade of success here and abroad but had been waning a bit by the time punk hit in 1976. In reality, punk didn’t kill prog, it just helped push it out of mainstream favor for a spell. But prog never really went away and enjoyed massive popularity in different variations throughout the ’80s to this day. About 15 years later, similar things happened when pop-metal and hard rock had run their course on MTV and the like after a successful 10-12 year run, and a new flavor of heavy music known as grunge became the new critics’ darling and thus, the favorite son for a few years.  

But, a funny thing happened on the way to virtual obscurity, similar to the punk/prog showdown, hard rock never went away, it just wasn’t as prominently acknowledged in the mainstream media, But think about it, would someone who grew up listening to the pomp and bombast of Queen or Led Zeppelin really be willing to chuck it all for Mudhoney and Screaming Trees? Probably not. And that was one thing hard rock had that so many other genres didn’t—staying power. And now, some 30 years later, hard rock still rules festivals, tours, classic rock radio airplay, the vinyl resurgence, T-shirts sales, and more.

Recently, a new clutch of hard rock reissues and new releases have hit the shelves as of late, that fans of stuff need to know about.

Hitting the scene in 1988, The Almighty was Scotland’s answer to The Cult from England or Hollywood’s LA Guns. While The Cult had graduated from the post-punk school of gothic rock and LA Guns had been an underground punk/glam institution in the seedy clubs of LA, in the late ’80s, several of these seemingly disconnected scenes came together with a singular intention to rock hard. Sometimes referred to as sleaze metal, street rock and a host of other semi-menacing monikers, bands from different stripes traded in their spandex, studs, nail spikes, and other accessories for biker jackets, ripped jeans, and headscarves and looked back to the arena rock classics for inspo—especially AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith. As several of these musicians also had punk roots, it often made for an interesting combination.

The Almighty had the requisite leather jackets and bad attitudes, but the band also had a few other elements that set it apart from others in the scene. Led by frontman Ricky Warwick, the band also featured Stump Monroe (drums), Floyd London (bass), and Tantrum (guitar). Initially signed to Polydor Records, the band would go on to release eight studio albums, change record labels, go through a couple of hiatuses, and switch lineups, all while maintaining a loyal, almost cult-like following.

One of the elements that set the band apart was Warwick’s down-to-earth presence and lyrical prowess—all things that would serve him well in his later solo career, the revamped version of Thin Lizzy and his current band Black Star Riders. The Almighty made some headway with the debut album Blood, Fire and Love, in 1989 garnering some positive reviews and scoring major tours across Europe. After its first three albums, the band parted ways with Polydor and signed with major label Chrysalis Records—no easy feat for a hard rock band at the onset of grunge—and would release several more offerings.

The new box set Welcome To Defiance – Complete Recordings 1994-2001 (Cherry Red) features the band’s catalog from the point it signed with Chrysalis to when it finally called it a day in 2001. 1994’s Crank sees the band veering heavily into grungier territory—as many other hard rock and metal bands did to far less success—especially on the single “Wrench,” with its sludgy guitars and bleak tone. But Warwick’s upbeat delivery ensures that The Almighty still rises throughout the apocalyptic sounds. Just Add Life (1996) brightens things up a bit with a more animated and punk-inspired sound, as evident on numbers such as “All Sussed Out” with its punchy horn section and chain-gang refrain and “Look What Happened Tomorrow,” which bears a spidery riff that recalls The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A Rollin’.”

By the turn of the century, the band had released two more offerings including its eponymous The Almighty album (2000) and Psycho-Narco (2001), both of which saw a return of sorts to its more raucous hard rock and punk roots.

Aside from the band’s final four albums, Welcome To Defiance also includes a bevy of extras including B-sides, remixes, cover songs from punk legends Eddie & The Hot Rods and G.B.H., rare studio sessions and a live set Crank and Deceit – Live in Japan from 1995. The remastered sound brings it all back in high-fidelity and the entire set comes neatly packaged in a glossy clamshell box — making it a must for fans of hard rock and metal with a twist.

Another recent release that fans will undoubtedly rejoice in is the self-titled offering by super-duo Smith/Kotzen (BMG). “Smith” is actually none other than Iron Maiden icon and lead guitarist Adrian Smith, while Richie Kotzen is known for his massive canon of guitar-based studio outings, not to mention brief stints with pop-metal bands Poison and Mr. Big. A giant in guitar circles, Kotzen is renowned for his feel and versatility ranging from heavy shredding to blues and jazz.

The duo’s recent self-titled release showcases the talents of each vet in spades, from the killer vocal chops of each one to their extra deft fretwork. Standouts include the groove-heavy “Taking My Chances” and the hard-driving blues-infused “Solar Fire,” which features drums courtesy of Smith’s full-time partner, Iron Maiden bandmate Nicko McBrain. Sounding like a well-worn, earthy hybrid of Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, this one should easily endear itself to fans of metal, classic radio rock, and guitar buffs alike.

Last up on the hard rock hit list is Southern California’s Bullet Boys. Honestly, a few folks I know who are heavy into this stuff tend to have mixed feelings about this band. On one hand, they hit the scene during pop-metal’s late ’80s heyday, ticking all the boxes for gargantuan riffs, huge hooks, and infantile titles like “Smooth Up In Ya” and “Hard as a Rock.” But on the other hand, the band had natural talent to burn—especially in singer Marq Torien and guitarist Mick Sweda—plus, flashes of originality that helped distinguish the band from the hordes flooding the airwaves and MTV at the time.

Torien, who was also an accomplished guitarist in his own right, had been playing in bands since his teens and was even signed to Motown Records as the guitarist of funk-rock hybrid Kagny & the Dirty Rats. He’d later audition for Ozzy Osbourne after Randy Rhoads died. Now, a few years later, Torien was playing in the Van Halen-flavored Bullet Boys alongside Sweda, who had also been signed earlier with pop-metal stalwarts King Kobra.

LA hard rock bands were largely split at the time; many were still adhering to the fluffy pop-metal stylings of Bon Jovi and the like, while others were trying to be hard and “street” à la the new guard led by Guns N’ Roses. Bullet Boys fell somewhere in the middle and instead, wore their obvious love of early Van Halen on their tattooed sleeves, especially where Torien was concerned. With looks and a presence that recalled vintage David Lee Roth, Torien had a set of pipes like no other. In spite of an animated image that could be seen as off-putting to some of the more serious musos out there, the front man’s soulful croon—sounding like a hybrid of Janis Joplin, Bon Scott, and Ray Charles—was more than enough to help set the band apart. And the band’s obvious appreciation for different styles of music was also pretty unique—on the three major-label albums for Warner Bros., the band covered songs from the likes of the O’Jays, Tom Waits, and bluesman J.B. Lenoir.

The new set, The Warner Albums 1988-1993 (HNE Recordings) compiles all of the band’s major-label releases. From the self-titled debut featuring MTV hits “Smooth Up” and the funky, incessant O’Jay’s cover “For the Love of Money,” to second album Freakshow and its unusual cover of the aforementioned Waits’ “Hang On St. Christopher” to its final outing Za Za, released in 1993 to a music world that had largely moved on from traditional hard rock for a spell. Each CD comes in shiny new remastered form, sounding louder and crisper than ever, and packed in a svelte wallet cover with expanded liner notes and bonus tracks. The Bullet Boys were on the more flamboyant side of the later ‘80s hard rock scene but could easily back it up with a higher level of musicality, even if some of their song titles might not fly these days.

For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a line at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz

Author

Jim Kaz writes about music and film with work spanning various media sites and national print magazines. When not spinning tales on his long-suffering laptop, you can find him scouring the bins at used record stores and copping unneeded vintage stereo gear.

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