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Even back in 1989 when I would see advertisements for Lizzy Borden records in the rock press I always thought that the band looked a little rubbish, not only a sub Twisted Sister but a bargain bucket version of the likes of Crimson Glory. On the evidence from what I have heard in Master Of Disguise I have to change that initial opinion. I had heard an earlier track from ‘86 which lived up to my original opinions, but I must admit this album is pretty damn sweet.
Although not a concept album as such there is a loose story line which as far as I can make out revolves around a sexual deviant with a taste for blood. As ridiculous as that sounds, the band shows a maturity similar to Operation: Mindcrime-era Queensryche in numbers such the intricate double vocal tracked ballad Under The Rose, which has the band displaying epic grandeur for such songs with such a short running time. They try it again with less success on One False Move, but compared to the majority of power ballads released at the time Lizzy’s effort was at least on par with the likes of Warrant and Whitesnake.
Where the band exceed and why Master Of Disguise is included in this rundown of the best records of 1989 is its straight rocking songs. That’s not to say that there is nothing fancy on it; the technical guitar playing skill is quite brilliant and the solo on Sins Of The Flesh, for instance, gives Eddie Van Halen a run for his money. That backed with its early Motley Crue riff attack makes me realize I should have thought a little higher of the band when the record was initially released. Elsewhere, tracks such as Roll Over And Play Dead and Love Is A Crime remind me of Fastway at their very best. It’s great stuff.
According to the personal reviews listed on Amazon, this record is seen by fans as the first proper solo effort my front man Lizzy, but it's not labelled as such and there is a real lack of information out there both in print and on the web, yet I would recommend it to those who feel they’re missing the final link in the '80s rock chain. Lizzy Borden are well worth the investigation.
With such a towering achievement as Visual Lies underfoot, one that was simply unlikely to be reproduced or bettered by this particular group, it made a whole lot of sense to me that Lizzy Borden would try something different the next time, something even more ambitious. Enter Master of Disguise, a formidable and fulfilling work which is the most accessible of their career. The straight up melodic metal brilliance of the 1987 gem was subsumed into a more palatable, 'mainstream' sound involving simpler guitar riffs and a healthy dosage of rock opera orchestration which rears its head skillfully through a number of the tracks, and the result creates a healthy level of variation which is like no other album in their history.
To some degree, I can see that a certain subset of Lizzy Borden's audience might have found this record more or less a 'sellout' if compared to the more raucous early work like Love You to Pieces. It's not a sentiment I can completely disagree with. Clearly the Californians were reaching out to a broader cross section of rock fan with this statement, tightening up the production values of the music and reining in the riffs and vocals into an admittedly dryer delivery. But Master of Disguise is quality through and through, almost every song on the roster distinct and memorable from its neighbors (with just a few exceptions deeper on the bench). What's more, I view this as more of a 'fantasy' coming to fruition for the band members: who the fuck wouldn't want to work with an orchestra if given the choice? The fact that Lizzy Borden is able to adapt this symphonic element into the music without transforming the core of who they were is a testament to the restraint on this thing.
But the record is special for more than just this added instrumentation, or for having easier, catchier hooks than its predecessors. It's a deeply personal album which covers a lot of subject matter that just about anyone could relate to. An 'everyman' Operation: Mindcrime, if you will, which explores themes of love, sin, aging, and even the band's own status on the scales of history and rock stardom (or lack thereof), with a few nods to film and horror keeping in line with previous offerings. You can really feel the front man/first person's point of view here, his sorrow and wonder. The lyrics are mature, poignant and simple to browse, and the hooks throughout seem to mirror this intention. It reminds me a little of another album that was released in the same year, Savatage's Gutter Ballet, which had a similar emotional authenticity to it, even if certain components like the pianos, guitars and vocals were quite different.
Remarkably, the group had brought on two new guitarists here in David Michael Philips (of Icon and numerous other groups in the 80s) and Ronnie Jude. Perhaps their more hard rocking orientation lent itself to the general accessibility of the riffing, but to be honest I'm not sure that a more complex, wanking approach would have necessarily worked out in these songs anyway. Most of the rhythms here are simple, lightly muted patterns, cruise control for standard heavy metal in the trad, NWOBHM tradition; or in the more symphonic/ballad arrangements, like "One False Move" or the piano driven "Never Too Young", they just keep their cool with minimal presence in the notes and appropriately layered power chords. The leads woven throughout the songs aren't incredibly showy, they simply balance a bluesy, burning foundation with some more advanced dexterity and tapping, and it's more than enough.
As for the orchestra, it's used both in the more intense pieces like the thoroughly rocking "Psychodrama" where it creates a sort of 'haunted castle' aesthetic in the intro and then builds to a massive crescendo in the bridge; and the more subdued, moody spaces like "One False Move". Never intrusive, never even bordering on overwhelming the rock instruments, and tastefully implemented by composer William Kidd and his players. I even enjoy the use of the funky horns in the phone sex anthem "Love is a Crime", which might seem a little dated (like Extreme's sophomore Pornograffiti), but really help to make that chorus bad ass, beautiful and swaggering.
As for Lizzy himself, I can think of no other album in the group's history which allowed him so much space to breathe and let his intonation form each line, merely for the complacency of the riffing. That's not to say that I thought he was catchier here than on Visual Lies, but he runs up and down his range in tracks like "Waiting in the Wings" and "Never Too Young", proving he had what it takes to sing in a number of genres. You still experience the requisite, wailing fragility in his timbre, but he naturally had a huge part in the album's creation and he does not dispose of any opportunity to shine here. There were a few tunes here whose choruses did wax redundant: "Roll Over and Play Dead" seems a little close to "Be One of Us" and "Psychodrama", and there were already enough peaceful power ballad sorts that the acoustic "Under the Rose" might have been omitted.
Closer "We Got the Power" is the worst of the songs, though ,with ease. The hard rock riffs seem all too standard, without any sticking to the ear, and though the horns return, I didn't care for the vocals or the truly cliche title/chorus. Not that Master of Disguise is a particularly innovative or poetically charged record, but it feels like 45 minutes of brilliance capped off with a filler trilogy that reeks of 'B-side' material. Even despite the diminishing returns that fill out the near hour of material, though, Master of Disguise is a triumph, and the structure and joyous melodic eruptions through tunes like "Phantoms", "Psychodrama" and the title track are simply unforgettable. This is still a record I return to very often, and though it doesn't match the flawlessness of its predecessor, it deserved far, far more fucking attention than it ever received, even in such a masterful era as the late 80s.
If you happen to like polished heavy metal with some symphonic and progressive elements or simply some great hard rock opera music from the eighties, this album is something you might enjoy and really should listen to.
Lizzy Borden delivers anything a fan of the genre could desire. Epic, powerful and orchestral constructions like the amazing opener and title track "Master of disguise" that could have also found a place on the albums of "Savatage" and "Queensrÿche" of that time but would sometimes also fit to the music of "Elton John". The guitar play is clearly influenced by bands such as "Iron Maiden" or others coming from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal if its not buried under orchestral sounds and choirs. A part of the guitars, the album sounds one hundred percent American and sometimes a little bit too pathetic. Sometimes the band though descends into the ranges of overwhelming cheesy melodies that would fit to any European power metal band and reminds me of the humorous "Helloween" tracks of the same time. Those elements always come back on this album but the band keeps the tension high with many short and catchy songs like the catchy commercial single "Love is a crime" or the ballad "Never too young" that remind me of great hard rock bands such as "Europe" as well as the legendary "Aerosmith" and the less legendary "Poison" or even more visual show effect acts like "Alice Cooper". Some live samples, diversified interludes and sound effects underline the theatre topic of this record and the band proves that they truly are the masters of disguise in here. The album never gets boring and varies a lot without sound inconsistent. But I must admit that the band copies a lot and fuses multiple influences of the rock and metal genre to a potpourri of superficial entertainment without delivering something profound or unique. I though must admit that the copies are well done and that the songs are almost all catchy as hell and very addicting. The band has a talent to write twelve potential genre hit singles for this record plus two nice bonus tracks. Sometimes they remind me a lot of the glam metal scene and technically brilliant posers with commercial tendencies such as "W.A.S.P." or also "Mötley Crüe" to name two more obvious influences.
In the end, I can especially recommend this album to any fan of the mentioned bands that doesn't bother if a band copies his or her musical heroes if it is done in a solid way. I would also suggest this record to a newcomer that slowly gets into the metal or hard rock scene and would like to discover different and diversified styles from the most famous and important bands of the eighties in a quick way. Another potential client for this record could be somebody that simply doesn't have the money or time to buy the classics of the bands mentioned above and prefers to only choose one record that unites all those styles in a very entertaining way. But anybody that is already fully into metal music might only buy this record to get some light and nostalgic entertainment and shouldn't expect something groundbreaking or essential in here. Anyway, I still prefer the originals to the copy even if this one is of a rather high quality and a good alternative to the “Savatage”, “Helloween” and “Alice Cooper” records in my collection from time to time. It's somewhat a great compilation record honouring the best commercial hard rock and heavy metal bands of the mid and late eighties. I must finally admit that I somehow happen to eventually really appreciate this cute album with its cheap, sweet and charming failures and strengths which explains my rather elevated rating percentage that I wouldn't normally give to this kind of cover music.
First off - I just can’t believe that no-one has reviewed this album yet! How is that possible! I believe this album something like 100,000 copies so………well, hoorah for me then!
This is without a doubt Lizzy Borden’s best album. It is just so classy from start to finish, I think if it hadn’t been for the cull of Nirvana and all that shit that Lizzy might have made some serious strides with his next release. But alas it was not to be.
Leaving that aside, this album has nary a filler in sight and should appeal to all of you who like your Metal with a bit of polish. The production is really nice, glossy enough for mass acceptance but not so overproduced as to be limp….like say ‘March of the Saint‘. I could quite easily sit here and give you a track by track rundown of this one without even having the CD to hand, but I know track by track reviews are kinda frowned on here so I’ll just pick out some highlights.
Master of Disguise - a long song at about 7 minutes, this has something of the feel of the theatre about it (without descending into Savatage-esque pap!). It’s probably the intro that does it because really once you’re a little way in it’s just a top quality Rock song with the usual great vocals from Lizzy. The guy’s voice really improved over the 80s from his squeekings on ‘Give em the Axe’ and ‘Love You to Pieces’ to here were he learned to control his voice much better and put more guts into it.
One False Move - an unusual song in that it’s largely acoustic guitar and vocals with some effects going on in the background. Lizzy’s multi-tracked singing here is amazing and I guarantee once you know this one you will find yourself singing along. That’s one thing about this album, it’s a real singalong album, put this in your car and you’ll be happy as a pig in shit! (Not so sure about your passengers mind you…)
Love is a Crime - follows on from One False Move and we’re back into the quality rock. Again, it’s a simple song, not too light, not too heavy, perfect for the late 80’s but without the cheese that you might be afraid off. Another great chorus, what can you say?
Hmm, this is getting awful close to a track by tracker, and I said I wouldn’t do that. Okay one more, and this is my absolute favourite Lizzy Borden song ever.
Phantoms - This song is fucking awesome. The intro is just out of this fucking world, every time I hear this I just sing along til I’m hoarse. This track is the kind of track you hit replay on three times because you just can’t get enough of it. This would be a top ten song of all time for me. I just can’t express my feelings for this song, it’s so good. In fact it’s not even the song, it’s just the intro - it’s the best minute and a half in history. Fuck it’s good. Those harmony vocals make the hairs stand up on your neck like you wouldn’t believe. It almost reminds me of the vocal parts on ‘Dreamscapes’ by Third and the Mortal, not in style, but in the effect they have on me. Both give me the fucking chills, just like when Lombardo bands out those three notes at the start of Raining Blood - you know what I’m talking about right!
Sure you do.
What else to say?
Well the cover’s nothing special, but the music is just so kick ass fucking awesome that I don’t care. I can’t really pinpoint outstanding musicianship on here because this album is all about songs, not wanking off…and I see that as a strength, not a weakness. No that’s it I’m out of words.
Buy this album if you like polished 80s Metal I promise you won’t be disappointed!