I'll cut right to the chase: Extreme's new album, Saudades De Rock, is terrific. I've listened to it almost continuously for nearly three weeks now without getting a bit tired of it. It contains Extreme's usual Beatles and Queen influences, but the shadow of Led Zeppelin looms largest of all over this one.
It's definitely a rock album. There are a couple of quieter moments, but for the most part this album is meant to be played loud. Even the slower numbers veer toward power ballad territory, but not in the sense of sounding like clichés. They have a definite drive to them.
Before getting into the music, I'd also like to note that this album includes three-fourths of the original Extreme lineup - the same three-fourths that had appeared on their last album and most of their tours in the interim (Extreme frequently played one-off shows and brief overseas tours here and there during their hiatus, never quite coming back into the reunion spotlight). Bassist Pat Badger is back in the fold, after a nasty feud with his former bandmates had left him on the sidelines for a while. I'm always happy to see anyone reconcile like this, musician or not.
Possibly the best news: there is no More Than Words clone on this album! I repeat, there is no More Than Words clone on this album! (Actually, Extreme have never done anything resembling a clone, but the general public always expects one from them.)
Let's take a look, track by track.
1. Star - the opening track is also the lead single. If "singles" even exist anymore. Lead video? Lead download promotion on iTunes? Whatever you call it, it's the track that's being shopped to radio via promo CDs. So I hear - I haven't listened to more than five minutes of radio since I was on the air myself back in my university days, and even then I never listened to anyone else's show. But I digress.
Star is an upbeat, commercial-sounding track that demonstrates right off the bat that Extreme haven't forgotten about big Queen-style vocals. It stops just short of being too commercial for my liking, ranking somewhere around Hip Today in that respect. It's probably a bit too progressive for the mass market to latch onto.
Lyrically, Star covers much of the same ground as Hip Today and Kid Ego. It's about one of Cherone and Bettencourt's favourite subjects, the fleeting nature of fame and prestige. The last lines are chilling, the final words phased to have an ethereal, descending quality:
Don't look down as you're hanging on for your lifeThere's nothing celebrity worshippers like better than a dead idol.
Though you're better off dead than alive
Then they love you forever
2. Comfortably Dumb - this one has Jimmy Page written all over it, with an obvious nod to Pink Floyd in the title. It sounds like one of the best hard rock numbers that Led Zeppelin never released. This one's about information overload and how some people shut down and choose willful ignorance over the pressure of thinking. Cherone is pretty well known as a conservative / libertarian thinker, so this is a surely a theme that's near and dear to his heart.
Par for the course for Extreme, there's plenty of humour to be found on this album. For my money, this track, while not the funniest overall, has the single funniest lyric passage:
What, When, Why, Where, How come?3. Learn To Love - there may be some irony in the fact that this sounds like it could have been the best song on Van Halen III. It sounds even more so because when Cherone gets into the upper reaches of his vocal range, he sounds like Sammy Hagar. This song has Gary at the top of his range; frankly, I think it might have sounded a bit better if the chorus had been pitched lower so he wasn't straining so much.
Knock knock, who's there?
It opens with a fast single-note riff that sounds like the band could switch into Cynical (from Waiting For The Punchline) at any second. Yes, "Cynical" had a longer variant title printed inside the case, but for linguistic purposes I'll stick with the shorter, printable title that appeared on the back cover. The riff sounds even more like Led Zeppelin's The Wanton Song, if someone put their Physical Graffiti LP on the turntable at 45 RPM speed. (Readers under 35, ask your parents - or maybe grandparents - what that means.)
4. Take Us Alive veers into country rock. Don't worry, it's not as bad as that may sound - in fact, it's very good. It's played tongue-in-cheek, along the lines of Led Zeppelin's Hot Dog but without stepping over the line into parody. Sorry about the repeated Zep comparisons, but they're simply unavoidable when discussing this album. That's a good thing. The guys in the band are clearly having a great time all over this album, but this is the track where it shows the most.
5. Run - this track is blues-based hard rock, with more of Extreme's trademark big vocal harmonies. The track is so good that it took me a few hearings to notice that the drum pattern (bass on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, plus a steady open-closed high-hat pattern) played throughout is straight from the disco era.
6. Last Hour - this is one of the power ballad numbers, starting off slow and quiet but building in intensity as it goes. I find it quite similar in feel to Year To The Day, a number Gary recorded with Van Halen. Again, Gary sometimes gets out into the rougher areas of his range, but remains in control. One reason that I didn't like Waiting For The Punchline as much as some fans did was that Gary seemed to be tunelessly screaming on too much of that album, Naked being the nadir.
The guitar solo, which is fantastic as usual, starts off with some atmospheric echo effects, which I can't remember Nuno having explored much to date. Like Comfortably Dumb's title, it makes me think that the guys in Extreme spent some of their time off listening to Pink Floyd.
The buildup of Last Hour also clarifies why I still enjoy Extreme so much, including this album. Most of what I listen to is at least a couple of decades old. The "newest" artists whose work I enjoy, as figured from looking at the date of their debut album, are the Wallflowers and Matchbox 20, both of which owe much of their style to the music of earlier eras. The next newest, working back, would probably be Barenaked Ladies (although I haven't liked much of their work since Stunt) and Extreme, which means going back about twenty years.
I try listening to newer stuff sometimes, often by trying out various-artists compilations. I usually can't make it through very many tracks in a sitting before my ears simply get tired. This sensory fatigue is caused by two factors: the arrangement and the mastering. Most younger bands have no sense of dynamics. There's no buildup to their songs - the entire sonic spectrum is filled to the brim from the first note to the last. Then, the track is mastered to remove any volume variations that might have crept in. If you open up most newer rock songs in a program like Audacity that "shows" the sound waves, they'll look like a solid wall. Older, well-mastered songs have visible peaks and valleys.
The members of Extreme understand the concept of peaks and valleys. When your song starts with all the knobs cranked to eleven, you've got nowhere to go. You need quieter passages if the louder passages are to have any impact. Last Hour is a great case in point.
7. Flower Man - this is one of my favourites, largely due to its message. Or at least what I think its message could be.
On the surface, the lyrics seem to be a scathing rebuke of pacifism in the face of evil. Gary sounds like he has no patience whatsoever for people chanting "Give peace a chance" (the phrase is specifically quoted) in regards to what the military sometimes needs to do.
There's a possibility that the song is satire - Extreme has certainly expressed pro-peace sentiments in the past, both directly and through satire (Warheads, Peacemaker Die, and Rest In Peace come to mind). However, even in their satire, there was some ambivalence (" 'Make love not war' sounds so absurd to me / We can't afford to say these words lightly"), perhaps acknowledging that sometime unpleasant tasks have to be carried out. One of the great farcical tragedies of the modern era is the widespread belief, epitomized by high-profile Democrats in the U.S., that negotiation with thugs can yield results. Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe, Osama Bin Laden - these are not people who respect(ed) words. Talk to them all you like; all you will do is embolden them.
Unlike most of Extreme's satirical songs, though, Flower Man never takes a moment to wink at the listener. If it's a joke, then the band are certainly committed to it. Gary's acknowledgement in the liner notes, "Gary Cherone would like to thank the Soldier Samaritan serving overseas", certainly indicates that he understands and appreciates what the military (specifically the U.S. military, but they have allies, including Canada, who are also engaged) is doing.
It could all be a put-on, but I doubt it, and I prefer to think it isn't. We could use a good "Hippie, shut up!" song by somebody not wearing a ten-gallon hat.
Musically, it's an uptempo rock song, with some similarities to Nuno's solo "Two Weeks In Dizkneeland" but with much more controlled vocals. Back in the days when I ran a comic shop, I always had the stereo on, and Nuno's album often made the playlist. Invariably, if a "civilian" Mom / wife / girlfriend happened into the store, Dizkneeland would be the next song up. Hearing Nuno savagely scream "Help me!" over and over does not reassure a lady who's already uncomfortable about having ventured into The Court of the Crimson Nerds.
8. King of the Ladies - this is the overall funniest track on the album. It's a midtempo funk groove; many reviewers have described it as having a rap / hip-hop feel, but I don't hear it that way. That might be because I don't like rap or hip-hop, so I don't have much of a frame of reference for the genre. In any case, this might be my favourite track on the album, so if it has any rap influence, it's not much.
Nuno sings a lot of this one, and the feel reminds me of Fallen Angels from Schizophonic. The lyrics are full of eighties references, as the speaker tells how he would be a really smooth operator with high school girls if he could go back in time, retaining his adult sophistication. Which would get creepy if we thought about it for too long, so let's move on.
9. Ghost - this is a piano-based number that starts off slowly but gathers steam. It's got a seventies progressive feel, with a piano break in the middle that brings Wind And Wuthering-era Tony Banks to mind. A "radio edit" of this song appears on the Star promo CD, so hopefully it'll get some radio play.
10. Slide - this one is about, of all things, racing. "Sliding" apparently refers to skidding or "drifting" around turns. This is a pretty straightforward funk song, in the vein of Decadence Dance, and features my favourite backing vocals on the album (the glissando "slide...it...in" under what would be the chorus if the structure were more conventional).
11. Interface - this is a guitar ballad (strummed chords, not More Than Words plucking style) that was originally recorded by Dramagods, one of Nuno's four (!) bands during Extreme's hiatus. (Yes, I know that Dramagods was pretty much Population One with a new name. Don't care.) Nuno did the vocals himself on the original, and provides harmonies on this version. As much as I like Nuno's singing, this version with Gary taking the lead is vastly superior. It has the prettiest melody on the album by far (which is a compliment - I realize that with my normal snark levels, it can be hard to tell sometimes), and the potential to be a huge hit if the guys can get any promotion these days.
12. Sunrise - this is another love letter to Led Zeppelin. It would have fit in perfectly on III Sides To Every Story, or Houses Of The Holy for that matter. This one should dispel any doubt as to whether they chose their new drummer wisely. He can certainly channel John Bonham effectively. (These are getting much shorter because I'm hoping to finish up before Extreme's next album.)
13. Peace (Saudade) - this is the kind of big piano ballad that can't go anywhere except as the last track on the album. It's probably the least interesting song here for my money, but still a worthwhile effort.
Overall, this album is a solid home run. The band is in terrific form, and they sound like they're having fun being back together. If you've ever enjoyed any of Extreme's work (and if all you know are More Than Words and maybe Hole Hearted, then you really don't know them), you'll probably love this one. Hopefully it'll do at least well enough for them to keep going!
Enough rambling. Here's another picture of a river.