Sunday, September 25, 2011

Skid Row - Subhuman Race

Before anyone reads the words before them, I have a sneaking suspicion that some might think my timing for this review is somewhat dubious.  This is due, in part, to the fact that just days before I am composing this review, That Metal Show featured Skid Row guitarist Snake Sabo, and host Eddie Trunk went on and on about "Subhuman Race" and it became a running joke throughout the show.  So much so, in fact, that it's probably the most TV coverage the album has possibly ever had.  That's a shame, really, because this is quite possibly Skid Row's finest hour.  And I don't say that as a TMS fanboy or someone who has recently discovered this gem.  No, I've known this for years and have made it known to all I know who are even remotely fans of Skid Row that this was the best thing they ever did.  I've been spinning this monster album for some 12 or 13 years, and it's the one I go back to most often.

When most people think of Skid Row, they either hear the familiar chords and words of "I Remember You" or "18 and Life" running through their head.  Maybe they remember the video of the latter and it's (at the time) strong imagery.  Or perhaps they remember being wowed by how much heavier and more aggressive "Slave to the Grind" was compared to the band's eponymous debut.  If they though that was a jump, wait until they hear the oft-forgotten followup.  This album is absolutely teeming with aggression, power, riffs galore, impassioned vocals by the one and only Baz, and a sound so tight that it reeks of professionalism, despite some songs almost soundling like the band is about to come apart at the seems.  And indeed, after this record, it did.

From the roaring opening riff of "Enemy" it's clear this record will come out all guns blazing, and it doesn't disappoint.  All but one of the initial tracks pummel the listener into submission with heavy riffing, heavy grooves, and Sebastian Bach's screaming vocals.  While some may be initially put off by his increased use of screams, they shouldn't lose heart, because there's still tons of melody and it's plenty accessible, despite the harder exterior.  In the wake of the grunge movement, many hard rock and commercial metal bands either got heavier, wimped out and went full-on glam, or succumbed to the grunge sound, adopting that and attempting to "keep with the times", much like Candlebox did (though rather unsuccessfully).  Skid Row wisely avoids that pitfall, adopting only a bit of the "dirtiness" of the grunge sound, but keeping their identity in tact with heavy riffing and vocals that didn't reflect the quasi-dour and angsty vibe that many of the grunge bands put forth.  Rather, Baz sounds truly pissed-off here much of the time, as he rails against everyone and everything for any reason or no reason at all.  He glides seemlessly between smooth crooning and gritty, throaty vocals that sound like he's gargling driveway gravel and can belt out screams with the best of them and come right back down into a clean vocal again when the song requires.  When he double-tracks over himself it produced great results in many situations, like in the chorus of "Medicine Jar" (which could easily have been a rock radio single).

Snake and Scotti are at their most aggressive here on guitars, but they are no less tuneful than they are anywhere else.  In fact, on songs like "Eileen" and "Into Another" the band is as melodic and tasteful as they are in bigger hits, just with a slightly different approach.  But monster riffs in songs like "Empty", "Frozen", "Beat Yourself Blind", and "Face Against My Soul" are just some of the treats you'll hear in this outing.  This CD also has plenty of varied solo work, from the tasteful to the tasty - there are licks aplenty here.  The twin guitar attack in "Medicine Jar" is a nice treat.  Rachel Bolan thumps away on bass in the background keeping time with everyhitn well and never straying too far from the path, but the good production values on this disc allow you to actually hear what he's doing, and he sounds good underneath the heavier vibe Scotti and Snake lay down.  Rob Affuso beats the drums as skillfully as always, and has a good sense of dynamics here that allows him to pound the tar out of them when need be, but he takes the time to keep things low-key and quiet when it serves the song.  The extra use of double-bass is a nice touch in some songs, and Rob adds different flourishes here and there for effect, but his strength here is in really going after the pounding rhythms and accenting them slightly to give the songs additional weight.

While the album may have its fair share of lyrical clumsiness at times, no Skid Row album with Baz at the vocal/lyrical helm is without that minor issue.  There are moments where you feel like he's trying to hard to make a clever quip, but he misses the Steven Tyler mark sometimes, though what he ultimately comes up with fits contextually with the subject of the song.  Most of the time, however, he hits the mark, coming up with a variety of subjects he expresses well, from self-deprecating humor to social unrest and outcry, to more inward and personal topics.  While the album contains no "Quicksand Jesus" per se, it doesn't really need one because there's enough material here to stand up on its own.  As it sits, "Into Another" is probably the album's biggest contender for the single that missed, as this song should have performed nicely on hard rock radio, much like Motley Crue's "Misunderstood" the previous year.  And with massive grooves like those in "Enemy" and "Frozen", and "Ironwill", the album is stronger despite the lack of radio singles.  Oh, and yes, you can ignore the faux-industrial thing a couple minutes after "Ironwill" ends - it's a typical throwaway "hidden" ditty.

So what we end up with here is a highly listenable piece of work by a band that had more than their 15 minutes of fame, but should have had a few more to encompass this brilliant slab of molten hard rock and heavy metal.  Nothing this band put out before or since matches the heaviness, power, or raw emotion of "Subhuman Race", and I suspect that unless something lights a fire under Snake and the boys, nothing will.  I can't recommend this album enough to fans of hard rock, heavy metal, and Skid Row.  Fans who were disappointed that Guns 'n Roses' "Use Your Illusion" albums weren't as hard hitting as "Appetite For Destruction" will find plenty to love here, and this may be the fix they'd been looking for 8 years after that masterpiece's release.  I certainly did.  Highly recommended.


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