Monday, December 30, 2013

Desert Island 500 - Guardian's "First Watch"

For any music lover, there are some albums which are so ingrained in the mind that impartial judgment as to the album's true artistic merit and potential flaws becomes an exercise in futility.  All but the most ardent of logicists have a handful of releases that escape the microscope and are listened to proudly and without abandon, despite perhaps not containing material that marks the zenith of the artist's career, or even of the style of music present.  I'm guilty of this phenomenon just like the next guy, and while I know it's not logical, it's just the way it happens.  Some albums introduce us to music that becomes the "gateway drug" to the style as a whole, or opens up our world to something new and exciting, and those albums usually escape the harsher judgment we heap upon releases of the same style years later because they hit us at the right time in our lives so that their influence trumps their merits.  Such is the case for me with Guardian's debut, "First Watch".

I cannot understate how important this album is for me, personally, in terms of my introduction to proper heavy metal, or how it helped to shape my perception of what the style was, was supposed to be, and potentially could be.  Indeed, there are few albums in my collection more important and vital to me than this largely forgotten gem of a release.  For me to sit down constructively and try to write an impartial review of the album based solely on the music would be like building a skyscraper out of cheese puffs - an impossible task.  I may take that on one day, in the hope that my education in the ways of music has advanced enough that I could see this with more critical eyes, but for now, I can only heap praise upon the album for all it did for me as a fan of music.  Simply put, this was the first album of heavy metal music I heard from beginning to end with no preconceptions, no concept of what it was or was supposed to be, and no idea what my ears were to behold.  It was a glorious experience.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1991 when this album first graced my ears.  I was a silly kid, dorky and nerdy, uncomfortable in my own skin, perhaps more so than most kids my age.  I had very few friends, and my options were limited.  Thankfully, one of the kids in my church who was a year younger than me latched on to me and we became fast friends.  After all, he had a Nintendo Entertainment System, and his mom's boyfriend had a Sega Master System, so we spent plenty of time together playing video games.  But one thing we sort of discovered together was music.  Another guy in our church, many years older than us, had been following the edgier side of the "Christian Contemporary Music" scene for about a decade, and had gone from the early alt rock of The Seventy Sevens, Steve Taylor, and The Choir to the hard rock and metal stylings of Stryper, Whitecross, and similar artists.  Of the bands they had already "graduated" from was Guardian, and the band's debut came into the hands of my friend Casey in the form of an original Enigma cassette, sans sleeve.  Little did this older guy know that this cassette would become one of the most frequently listened to albums for the two of us geeks.

I had previously been exposed to the idea of "Christian rock" by a long-time friend and former school mate.  I used to hang out at her house after school sometimes while my mom worked part-time, and we'd often listen to an album called "Who Do You Love?" by the group Glad, who later became far more well known for a cappella recordings.  That sparked my interest in the electric guitar, in part because of a handful of skillful solos present on that record.  But when I heard Tony Palacios burning up the fretboard on "First Watch", my love affair with heavy metal was first ignited.  Even on Casey's cheap boombox, the guitar riffs came screaming out of the speakers at me, as if they were meant for my ears.  Paul Cawley's vocals spoke directly to me, because they were easy to understand and I could relate to the lyrics.  I didn't appreciate bass guitar then like I do now, but David Bach's bass work helped bring a bit of power to the sound that would have been absent otherwise.  And though Rikk Hart's drumming wasn't out-of-this-world incredible, it was solid, and helped to tie the whole thing together.

This picture just makes me want to go buy a denim jacket and leather chaps.

I dubbed that cassette from my friend because, by that time, Enigma Records had been swallowed up by EMI, and most of the bands either flowed over to Restless Records, or went their own way.  I couldn't get a copy via the local Christian book and gift shop, and I never saw it in the store anywhere, so that was seemingly my only option.  I listened to that dub countless times, and practically memorized every note.  Some time later, I had the opportunity to get the actual cassette from Casey, and sort of "borrowed it forever" from him.  I haven't seen Casey in years, but based on the last few conversations we had, I suspect he hasn't missed it much.  That's okay, because I have held on to it all these years, so if he ever wants it back he just needs to ask.  Needless to say, the cassette is probably nigh unlistenable due to the years of use and abuse, having quickly become a personal favorite.

Fast forward five years.  I'm in college, my musical tastes have expanded to where I like everything from Poison to Mortification, and I've branched out even more the first couple months in college.  I found out that Guardian themselves were re-issuing "First Watch" via their own independent G-Man Records label, and I had to have a copy.  I knew that this might be my one and only opportunity to score a copy on CD, so I ordered 2 copies.  When they arrived at my dorm room, I turned into that dorky kid again, and as I popped one into my CD player and began listening, a revelation overtook me - there were 2 songs on here that I didn't have on my cassette copy!  With the internet still in its infancy, I didn't have access to the boundless musical databases that we have now, so I had no idea that the CD version had 2 bonus tracks, "Hyperdrive" and "Marching On".  So I listened to the whole thing to hear the CD quality tracks, eagerly awaiting the "new" songs I hadn't heard yet.  While they didn't completely blow me away at that point (I had discovered bands like Dream Theater and Tourniquet by this point), they fit in perfectly with the rest of the material, and it was just one more reason for me to continue to love "First Watch".

Fast forward a few years later, and I'm married, working full time and living back in my hometown again.  I had been casually collecting vinyl for a number of years, having started during my senior year in high school.  My younger brother bought me a vinyl copy of the album (same track list as the cassette) as a Christmas gift.  It was awesome to finally have an original copy of the album that was my own and had the sleeve and everything.  And a couple years later, I nearly scored an original Enigma CD copy when my brother and I were browsing a used CD store, but he found it first, so he got it instead.  But it didn't take me long after that to finally have an original Enigma CD copy in my collection.  In 2009, RetroActive Records re-issued the album in a digipak format, with 2 bonus tracks, "Spiritual Warfare" and the 1987 version of "Marching On", both of which were culled from the classic "California Metal" compilation.  This features a remaster by J. Powell, which just gives the album a slightly "bigger" sound to it, but doesn't mess with the mix or feel of the record.  Save for CD and LP issues out of Europe via RoadRunner Records, and possibly a Japanese pressing via Enigma/EMI, I have at least 1 copy of each major issue of the album.  Yes, I'm a fanboy, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

Now more than 20 years from when I first heard the album, it's not overly difficult to put my finger on exactly why it thrilled me so much that first time, and why I still enjoy listening to the album frequently.  Sure, Paul Cawley is a bit of a Don Dokken clone, but honestly I think I like his voice a bit more, because I feel that his combination of gritty and smooth is so good.  I wish I knew who wrote which riffs on the record, because with Paul playing rhythm guitar, it would be interesting to know whether some of my favorite riffs on the album were written by him or by guitar whiz Tony Palacios.  My guess would be, Tony wrote most of the riffs, because his Nuno Bettencourt type of style is all over that album.  Tony has always been one that wrote and played riffs that did more than just chug away, often incorporating small licks and such.  As for recording, it would also be interesting to note whether Paul played the rhythm parts, or whether Tony tracked most (if not all) the guitars in the studio, and whether or not producer Oz Fox (Stryper guitarist extraordinaire) contributed any of his guitar magic.  And while Oz's production sounds a touch thin in places where either 70's full analog big budget production, or modern Garage Band methods would give the album a more "full" sound, it fit what other bands were doing at the time, and takes nothing away from the record's overall presence.

Now, if I had to pick a version to take with me, it'd probably be the 2009 remaster, if only because it includes all the tracks, the remaster, and the "California Metal" tracks as a bonus, but even the original Enigma version would be a perfect companion to a lonely man on a desert island.  I can think of few records I'd want with me more than this one.  I can't say it's my absolute favorite at this point, nor can I say that it'd be the one I'd take if I had to choose only one (I'll speak to that topic more in later posts), but certainly for a personal top 5 or top 10, this would most definitely make the cut.  And that is reason enough for me to add it to my list, and make it one of the first records I thought of when coming up with this Desert Island 500 idea.  I encourage all fans of melodic 80's metal and hard rock to seek out this one and give it a try.  You really can't go wrong with this quality platter.

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