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Michael Schenker – A Decade of The Mad Axeman

Be good to yourself and give it a listen…

Available via Inakustik from 26 January 2018 and reviewed by Paul H Birch

Pretty much like the title reads, a retrospective collection of recordings covering the last ten years of rock guitarist Michael Schenker’s career. A decade in which he’s managed to regain credibility in an industry that had tagged him “mental” and become a popular and frequent live act on the UK scene and elsewhere. That he’s also brought out some good records shouldn’t be sniffed at, as this collection shows; though there are omissions that I would consider better placed not featured, and the live CD of this two set collection naturally takes in a set of UFO classics that will outrank in popularity whatever the German virtuoso produces no matter how good they are.

That’s the nature of the game, what grabs us in our youth stays with us, so for those who’ve not been following his work of late, this may the best of both worlds and a way to catch up on what he’s been up to. The line-ups are pretty consistent too, and that helps overall musically, with at one end of the market the core of his original or early MSG line-ups regrouped, and at the other his Temple of Rock band featuring The Scorpions’ most famous rhythm section; that we also get guest appearances including his brother and Scorpions co-founder Rudolph Schenker (a relationship since gone sour regarding royalty and credit disputes), fellow ex-UFO sparring partner Pete Way, vocalist Jeff Scott Soto and one of Schenker’s obvious early influences in Mountain’s Lesley West tend to be rather anonymous in the mix however.

The first CD opens with a batch of songs from Schenker’s In the Midst of Beauty album from 2007.  It features the original MSG recorded gathering of Don Airey (keyboards), Simon Phillips (drums) plus new kid on the block at the time Gary Barden, with Neil Murray replacing Mo Foster here. First track ‘I Want You’ is a right old bit of rock ’n’ roll going on down at the casbah because whether intended or not there’s a tongue in cheek feel to this brisk little rocker, from its cute riff to its clichéd lyrics, and a solo that slides casually off the end of a chorus and takes off in a sprint effortlessly. No rules broken but fun good time rock guaranteed.

‘Night To Remember’ follows chugging away in a more earnest mainstream manner. It’s that pre-requisite life on the road type track every album feels honour bound to bear, with ‘Cross Of Crosses’ following a similar musical route but heavier and with a greater sense of determination, from Barden’s lyrics through to Schenker’s squealing guitar, and when it slows down there’s some added melodrama of the Uriah Heep variety, before speeding up again with a right stinger of a solo leaping out to bite you. Whereas, there’s an unusual solo guitar feeding backing on the intro, evoking an almost football chant feel, for ‘Ride On My Way’, returning anthem like throughout on what again reminds me of Heep (ye olde Byron version) on this bumpy minor rocker with some interesting neck wrangling solos that somehow fit within the context of the song.

Schenker’s Temple Of Rock band takes up the rest of the disc, but it’s worth noting the first album under that title features a variety of players, with Michael Voss co-writing and singing most of the songs. An incredibly fast keyboard and guitar melody shifts into a pounding modern metal sound with heavy beating drums and scowling guitar howls for ‘Miss Claustrophobia’. It’s a moody, sometimes dark little fantasy wherein Voss’ voice is semi-treated with effects and an impressive, and unexpected, scream at the end. The studio version of ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’ features Doogie White on vocals and is a little more mannered than the live versions people would come to know but it’s a grand tune and really builds up near the end, with a piano coda you either don’t get or forget about when played live. Having not heard the album these tracks are taken from before, ‘Storming In’ wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack for some big sci-fi adventure flick, opening with broken chord acoustic before pummelling drums and subtle riff takes over, incorporating musical asides before breaking into a hard rocking charge that fits its title. ‘How Long’ is apparently the “3 Generations Guitar Battle Version”. I’ve no idea what that means, whether it’s different from the Temple of Rock album version or not. It’s rather good whatever, initially AOR flavoured but with a strong hard rocking beat, descending into a slower heavy dirge with deep chanting and wailing guitar that takes his personalised style forward onto a modern plateau, then racing furiously at the end.

Two years later, the Temple of Rock band is firmly established as Francis Buchholz (bass), Herman Rarebell (drums), Wayne Findlay (keyboards, seven string guitar), Doogie White as sole vocalist, and Schenker apparently starting to have the time of his life with the release of 2013’s Bridge The Gap.

There is a wonderful dichotomy to be found in ‘Lord Of The Lost And Lonely’ with White’s first person narrative about a malevolent dark fantasy character sung over a joyous Stravinsky-jig of a riff. White’s background aside there are moments akin to classic Rainbow heard musically here, while ‘To Live For The King’ might lyrically be a song that bridges that band’s ‘Temple Of The King’ with its ‘Stargazer’ moving from doom metal blues to propeller-sped riffing. Rarebell and Bucholz drive Schenker hard to deliver some cheeky spirited guitar throughout ‘Land Of Thunder’ and at times it makes you wonder if it’s not Saxon while this selection closes with ‘Black Moon Rising’ a slow to mid-paced heavy mood piece with extended guitar workouts.

“I’m back on the road again!” sings White on ‘Live And Let Live’ for 2014’s Spirit On A Mission, a more entertaining rocker of the sort, with some fiendish guitars solos thrown in. For ‘Rock City’ White sings a truckload of similarly themed clichés, the kind of song Schenker wrote for UFO’s No Heavy Petting album with its duck ‘n’ dive riff.

Co-written by keyboard player/seven string guitarist ’Saviour Machine’  features a slow heavy grinding guitar, while another wails in the distance, White screams out like a muezzine calling Muslims to prayer. This down-tuned epic approach begins to question the folly of war, while the saviour being God, love, or good old rock and roll remains enigmatically obscure.  As with some of the other songs on this album there is also something of a futuristic dystopian feel to the lyrics, akin to but not as fantasy lead as Rush’s 2112. Half way through the mood changes with keyboard textures appearing like an oasis in a desert only for a Strauss like melody to ensue from Schenker until he starts to attack his Flying V in a neo-prog manner, the band sound building monumentally with a little industrial nuance thrown in for good measure.

The mid-paced mend-a-broken heart theme of ‘Bulletproof’ doesn’t really grab me until  two minutes in when there’s an eloquent classical guitar statement followed by an electric six string winging its way in to solo, where after on returning to the main song it seems to gain energy.

CD2 in this retrospective are all live cuts. Bookended by tracks recorded in Tokyo, the earliest from 2010 and the later from 2016’s Michael Schenker Fest – Live in Tokyo recording (of which the DVD versions are certainly worth watching) plus selected European shows from years in between.

‘Welcome Howl’ is two minutes of squealing, feedback, and Arabesque phrasing on guitar intercut by crowd cheers followed by the elongated hard riffing and melodic variations of ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ with raw emotive howling vocals courtesy of Barden. I’m not familiar with ‘Rock My Nights Away’ but with a single listening you can tell it was the blueprint for the way Iron Maiden would craft their singles once they had Bruce Dickinson on board. The version of ‘Attack Of The Mad Axeman’ is sleek funk affixed to a metal guitar beat, Barden in excellent form, Schenker and his Flying V offering us sweet loving and ruthlessness in equal measures. All these track being taken from The 30th Anniversary Concert – Live in Tokyo recording.

Next up we get a batch of numbers from Temple of Rock – Live In Europe. The first three are from 2011’s High Voltage Festival 2011 with Voss on lead vocals. Their cover of The Scorpions ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’ is interesting, initially with a classic UFO guitar feel and some really pleasing echoed melodic soloing later, it’s much lighter than the version the band would be playing a year or two later. ‘Hanging On’ flows well, Schenker offering an infectious nagging riff, Buchholz looping about on the deep end underneath and Voss crooning AOR style. Playing with the familiar, there’s a rather prog like approach to the instrumental opening of ‘Doctor Doctor’ before it goes for the head bang, though you’re suddenly aware of Voss’ German accent and when he name checks those playing you realise this is where most of the name guests put in an appearance, with both White and Soto on backing vocals. The regular White-fronted version of the band take over for the next two tracks recorded a year later in Tilburg, Holland. ‘Armed And Ready’ is three chords of jubilant hard rock, White’s different emphasis on various lyrics worth noting, and Schenker coming over all uber-Chuck Berry with a rocket up his backside on his first pass at a solo then a rampaging monster looping and bending notes all over the shop come his next one. ‘Rock Bottom’ is the version most people have come to know since UFO put out their Strangers In The Night album with its extended entrance before its unrepentant octave jumping riff ensues. With White rolling his Rs to sing the title, Schenker adding touches of colour to the middle eight and orchestrated sections of its long solo.

Temple Of Rock – On A Mission: Live In Madrid came out in 2015, also available on DVD like Live In Tokyo, and it’s worth listening and watching both, a year in difference, different bands of which the former’s more tightly honed, but the difference in the way in which Schenker takes flight on the same tracks is astounding. From the Madrid record we get the fun rock boogie of ‘Horizons’ and UFO’s ‘Lights Out ‘. That classic lacks a little oomph early on but is played well and as the song gets harder and we’re into its main signature guitar solo there are little runs and added tweaks that are most melodious, and come its third guitar solo Rarebell is hitting his drums hard as Hell while looking cool as a cucumber on the DVD version. The chugging ‘Vigilante Man’ concludes a trio of tracks from the Madrid recording with Schenker reaching for notes of Viennese waltz complexity while White pours out biblical asides; informing us “Seven is the number of the deadly sins.” Hey, who wants to be a saint!

Michael Schenker Fest – Live in Tokyo features early MSG and Sensational Alex Harvey rhythm section Chris Glen (bass) and Ted McKenna (drums), with Steve Mann on keyboards and an assortment of vocalists. The first track offered from that recording is ‘Desert Song’ There are complex changing melodic thrusts and asides laid out by Schenker, with Mann’s keyboards entering melodically and Glen’s bass digging into the treble register. Graham Bonnett is the featured vocalist hear his voice remaining clear like a raw razor blade above it, which is welcoming as I’ve caught the singer live a couple of times in recent years and his voice can fluctuate. ‘Love Is Not A Game’ is a mid-paced AOR pump featuring Robin McAuley on vocals and the final track is the inevitable ‘Doctor Doctor’. Schenker emits seagull-calling echoed guitar notes; Mann playing the arpeggio background melody as the guitarist varies the main theme prior to the song’s familiar chord sequence erupts. Bardens, Bonnett and McAuley are all featured vocally, each taking an old familiar line and turning it into a conversation, though overall it’s sung rather rowdily. It’s a party time rendition, best appreciated for the fun evident on stage on the DVD version.

Given the choice I might have chosen a few different songs, but ‘Lord Of The Lost And Lonely’ is a keeper, and the live version of ‘Rock Bottom’ should be given a good airing. ’Saviour Machine’ proves the guitar hero remains a contemporary heavy metal act, and throughout his playing displays numerous surprises, subtle and bombastic alike. The last ten years have been good to Michael Schenker there’s much evidence here that can prove that so be good to yourself and give it a listen.

Michael Schenker – A Decade Of The Mad AxemanThe Studio Recordings [CD1]:

  1. I Want You [2007]
  2. Night To Remember [2007]
  3. Cross Of Crosses [2007].
  4. Ride On My Way [2007]
  5. Miss Claustrophobia [2011]
  6. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead [2011]
  7. Storming In [2011]
  8. How Long (3 Generations Guitar Battle Version) [2011]
  9. Lord Of The Lost And Lonely [2013]
  10. To Live For The King [2013]
  11. Land Of Thunder [2013]
  12. Black Moon Rising [2013]
  13. Live And Let Live [2014]
  14. Rock City [2014]
  15. Saviour Machine [2014]
  16. Bulletproof [2014]

The Live Recordings [CD2]:

  1. Welcome Howl [Tokyo 2010]
  2. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie [Tokyo 2010]
  3. Rock My Nights Away [Tokyo 2010]
  4. Attack Of The Mad Axeman [Tokyo 2010]
  5. Rock You Like A Hurricane [High Voltage Festival 2011]
  6. Hanging On [High Voltage Festival 2011]
  7. Doctor Doctor [High Voltage Festival 2011]
  8. Armed And Ready [Tilburg 2012]
  9. Rock Bottom [Tilburg 2012]
  10. Horizons [Madrid 2015]
  11. Lights Out [Madrid 2015]
  12. Vigilante Man [Madrid 2015]
  13. Desert Song [Tokyo 2016]
  14. Love Is Not A Game [Tokyo 2016]
  15. Doctor Doctor [Tokyo 2016]

 

Michael Schenker 2018

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