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Racer X were one of the foremost groups when it came to pure unadulterated 80’s shred metal, but then POOF! They disappeared from the face of the earth. Guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert went off to form Mr. Big (blech) while drummer Scott Travis went and joined Judas Priest (hoorah). And the others…well honestly I wasn’t even paying attention. But then, just as suddenly as they dissipated, they returned sans second guitarist Bruce Bouillet to release 1999’s Technical Difficulties. Despite over a decade of inactivity, their third album surprisingly proved to be a worthy, if commercially ignored, comeback.
The funny thing about this album is how remarkably consistent it is with the earlier Racer X albums. It’s as if the band members were cryogenically frozen in some freak stage accident way back in 1989, only to be unfrozen some ten years later, and then set about recording this album as if it never happened. The songwriting is total 80’s metal: the hook-laden riffs you’d expect from Racer X, Dokken, Van Halen, etc. are available in surplus, all sales final. There’s the rampant speed metal of old, the brain-bending instrumentals, the catchy anthems, a touch of balladry, everything. Gilbert and bassist John Alderete are still one of the most complementary instrumental forces in shred (both of them are fucking ridiculous at times) and Scott Travis is just as titanic a performer as you’d remember him from Painkiller. Only singer Jeff Martin seems to have aged at all; utilizing a generally lower-range than on the old albums. He still gives it the old college try though, so only those rigorously acquainted with their early material will have cause to complain. Altogether: a third dose of that good ol’ Racer X brand speed metal that many of us have come to enjoy.
However while the band members have been fairly well preserved, their equipment has been given an overhaul for this recording. The biggest advantage to this is the benefit of modern production. Their old albums suffered from that thinner “80’s sound” that resulted from technological limitations. Technical Difficulties, either from being born too late or proper immunization, avoids this pitfall, featuring a beautiful mix that highlights the talents of all four members equally for the first time in their career. The biggest disadvantage associated with the album’s late 90’s release date is the low-tuned guitars that Paul Gilbert uses for many of the songs on here. Whether this was done to accommodate Martin’s diminished vocal range or simply because Gilbert had developed a fascination with those thick modern-sounding guitars (it was bound to happen eventually, just as with Satriani, Vai, and Petrucci before him), his use of them might be a turn-off for some. If it’s any consolation, they’re only really evident for a few tracks (“17th Moon” particularly) and besides, he’s still shredding and writing actual riffs as opposed to noise solos or chugga chugga bullshit. You can take Paul Gilbert out of the 80’s, but you can’t take the 80’s out of Paul Gilbert. Hopefully this will continue to ring true for future efforts.
Did you enjoy the first two Racer X albums? Do you enjoy guitar-intensive metal songs that are as heavy as they are catchy? Then you’ll probably enjoy this too. I could have done without the “Children of the Grave” cover (it’s not awful, it’s just….not a song they’re suited for) and the gimmicky samples that appear from time to time, but it’s otherwise a solid release.