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"The Pack is Back" was one of the worst albums ever released in the 80's, and knowing how bad Bon Jovi and Culture Club are, that's saying a lot. It was a time when Raven was pressured by the infamous Atlantic Records to pursue a radio-friendly sound, and the result was a complete, unmitigated disaster. One album later, and all of that would change. Raven would return to its true NWOBHM/speed metal sound, and then some.
All the synthesizers; gone. The horn sections; gone. The horrendous song writing; gone. The outrageous outfits complete with a hockey mask; all gone! Now, we get the sound that we all wanted back; the band's true sound, the NWOBHM sound. John and Mark Gallagher have crafted some real aggressive stuff using their NWOBHM expertise, giving us gems like "The Savage and the Hungry" and "Juggernaut". They've got the riffs and driving time signatures that we'd expect to hear from Raven, and they really sound as though they've been recorded during their NWOBHM heyday. John Gallagher has his signature screaming back too, only adding to the nostalgia. We didn't really hear so much of those with the previous album, as the label probably thought that the screams would make teenyboppers dumb enough to buy any Raven album run screaming with their mascara running to their jock boyfriends, squeezing them half to death as they hug them.
Sure, there are a few songs on "Life's a Bitch" that appear to be somewhat radio-friendly, but we can let those pass, cos Raven had done that sort of thing before with even their debut album, "Rock Until You Drop". The title track is one example. It has a more moderate tempo and a rocking riff, but the lyrics, of course, don't fit well with the radio (That's just fine with us, cos we're used to that sort of thing!). Another song that is proof of this is "Finger on the Trigger", yet another song with a rocking riff and a moderate tempo. We hear that a lot with Raven, don't we? It's been with us ever since they formed. They did, after all, start off with a single entitled "Don't Need Your Money", which sounds a little like your standard hard rock song, hokey and silly, and songs like "Hard Ride" weren't all that aggressive either.
But the real gems of this album are of course, the fast and aggressive songs. The sort of songs that Raven had created that would inspire power, speed, and thrash metal bands, like Metallica among others. We had to go through two albums deprived of those awesome songs and the later of which, we all know, was absolutely disgusting. One of these truly magnificent songs is "Pick Your Window". Just listen to that hyper-fast tempo and that frighteningly aggressive hook! We haven't had that in a while! Not only that, but the song's opening riff is a bit more complex as well, consisting of a flurry of notes, much like the song "Read All About It" from their "Wiped Out" album. This proves that Raven has come quite a long way from producing hooks that were lacking in terms of complexity, and that's just how Atlantic Records liked them.
My favorite song on here, however, is unique in its own special way. "On the Wings of an Eagle" begins with a melodic bass riff thanks to John Gallagher. It then kicks into gear with an aggressive riff intro and then eventually, a fast-paced aggressive song featuring Raven's NWOBHM-style hooks. The chorus and the riff that plays between the two solos of the song are also melodic. That riff, in particular, having the same melody as the bass riff at the beginning of the song. It's a song that I feel borderlines on power metal, due to its melodic nature and fast tempo. The fact that it's about dogfighting Spitfires in the midst of the Battle of Britain during World War II, a topic that isn't so cliched, makes the song all the more epic. It's something that Raven normally didn't do in their past, but this is a great song, nonetheless, as opposed to (*sigh*) that previous album.
With the release of "Life's a Bitch", Raven had made a full recovery from Def Leppard's Disease. Unfortuneately, they couldn't have done so at a worse time, for this was the late 80's here, a time when most metallers were engrossed in more faster bands, such as Exodus or Slayer, and a few of them are embracing a few new subgenres of metal; death metal and grindcore. For obvious reasons, it's a shame that this album got so overlooked when it did. It totally is. Need I say more?
The previous two albums "Stay Hard", and "The Pack Is Back" would have any Raven fans completely dismissing the band as total whores, but thankfully Raven managed to wise-up, realize what they had done was wrong, even flat-out admitted and told the truth about their need for fame and fortune. Now I'm not a drama queen, but if you tell the truth when you know what you did was wrong, I'm very lenient and generous. Thankfully Raven pick-up their instruments and go back to what they were known for and it completely shines through.
'Life's A Bitch" is just straight forward speed-induced, NWOBHM-influenced powerful thrash metal. It perfectly sits right between the three mentioned genres and thank-fucking-god for guitarist John Gallager because outside of "Wiped Out", this features some of his fastest riffs. Bassist Mark Gallager also managed to get the force and command back in his voice.
The album is divided into two different types of songs; speedy-as-fuck NWOBHM-inspired thrash metal and hard-rocking metal tracks that are more mid-tempo that are more in touch with early Raven. The first three tracks "The Starved & the Hungry", "Pick Your Window", and the title track will make you completely forget the last two piles of commercial crap. If you're going to listen or even buy this album, it's worth it for the first 3 songs alone. "Overload", "Your A Liar", "Playing With A Razor", and "Only The Strong Survive" will have you head banging and remind you of early Overkill in some sections. "Juggernaut" reminds me a lot of Metallica's "Seek And Destroy" only the guitars are tuned down a notch and gives it a heavier tone.
Unfortunately for Raven, even though this was a back-to-basic sound and even some of the heaviest stuff they had written up this point in their career, they were starting to suffer from the fallout of their previous two albums which alienated most of their die-hard NWOBHM fan base and shortly after "Nothing Exceeds Like Excess", they would fall into obscurity in the 90's. Sad really.
Raven soon realized The Pack Is Back was a massive mistake, they were also aware of the fact Atlantic was trying to make cash from them and quickly disposed of all those elements that made their music so commercial and fashionable to bring back the original spirit of the NWOBHM, the trademark speed and aggression on the first 3 albums. John recalled they were doing again what they really wanted on the Mad EP, playing some truly ferocious tracks but velocity and brutality increased substantially on the following record Life’s A Bitch, on which the Newcastle trio was unleashed, absolutely pissed-off and determined to play as heavy and fast as possible without however losing control or direction (after all, we’re talking of remarkably professional, disciplined musicians). By November ’86 they quickly set about recording this album at Bearsville Studios with Chris Isca, using the mysterious “Total Death” method – a proper description for the attitude and energy displayed on these 12 songs. John says:
“A lot of tension in the air...most of the album was written in the studio, it was becoming obvious Rob was becoming unhappy but still he played ferociously on this, possibly our most aggressive album! All our frustrations came out on this one, some great songs and it holds together well, although our original track-list was changed (“The Savage And The Hungry” and “Overload” were swapped, we wanted “Overload” to start!). At the time, they were pushing cassettes so “Finger On The Trigger” was only on the cassette! (It appeared on CD on the Mayhem 1998 re-issues again). We were in Bearsville Studios (Woodstock, NY), this was in Nov./Dec. of 1986 as I recall – I remember we lived in the “barn” (a combination rehearsal/living area, pretty cool!)”.
Electrifying tunes of relentless riffing, rapid beats and malicious lyrics like “Never Forget” or “Pick Your Window” confirm Raven’s willingness to deny the cheesiness, simplicity and stupidity on the previous record, putting their efforts on making violent, raw music instead, stripped-down from the pompous production, childish lyrics, persistent choruses, synthesizers, horn sections, the click track and all that junk. Riffs are now sharper than ever, speed emphasized completely and John’s verses explicit and controversial, pushing away the politeness and commercial standards to recover their genuine identity. The passion and enthusiasm of the trio makes the music so intense, crude and dynamic as if it was recorded live – showing admirable precision on its execution. All that real aggression remains untouched during most of the album, notable on straighter tunes like “You’re A Liar” and “Playing With The Razor”, which feature a simpler configuration but including some concise, elaborated instrumental parts too. The group always composed difficult, ambitious tunes effortlessly before and this album is no exception as you can check on “On The Wings Of An Eagle” and “Only The Strong Survive”, which reveal considerable song-structure variety, lengthy intricate sequences and unpredictable instrumental shifts of absolute taste and technical ability. Velocity is predominant; the band rarely slows down in 50 minutes of energetic thrashy speed metal – though some weightier sections on the title-track for instance, discover bigger cadence and power created by pounding low-tuned, accented riffage on “Juggernaut” as well. But there are also more casual cuts here, “Iron League” and “Fuel To The Fire” are instrumentally proficient, yet less pretentious, emphasizing choruses you soon feel tempted to sing along – catchier and more accessible, without getting excessively repetitive, including insistent choruses which are just a complement at the service of instrumental section, not attracting all the attention this time.
The Gallagher’s & Wacko had learned the lesson, now doing what they wanted, composing music that ain’t intended to satisfy some greedy producer or passing trend, letting ideas flow naturally and spontaneously, not forced. Musically, these 12 songs are stronger than anything else Raven ever did, again proving their unique capability to write advanced music with adequate continuity and perspective, skilled arrangements and diversity of structures, putting emphasis on the coherence and evolution of riffs during the songs and the essential key & tempo changes as well. This is probably the most relentless album in their career, they had never played that fast and outrageous – the band’s dissatisfaction with their record company, all the pressure and restrictions gave the group some extra motivation to play heavier and rougher than ever before as redemption for their mistakes. And it seems these guys had been saving the brightest ideas for this record – deprived of the parameters and limitations the mid-80’s glam principles set for their music, they eventually come up with the most challenging schemes, the crudest riffs, the most rapid rhythms and nihilist lyrics, yet all that rage obeys a specific pattern, therefore all that velocity and technique is constantly controlled and rigorously focused. Raven’s sound has become more sophisticated with the years, here we find a more professional, experienced group in comparison with the Neat Records years, without excluding the original concept of thrashy speed metal but adding cleaner arrangements, bigger instrumental precision and greater dexterousness on the execution and progression of music. Particularly, Mark’s abilities have improved tremendously, displaying stunning virtuosism and creativity, coming up with imaginative riffs and hooks, easily designing competent variations and surprising us with more of his advanced string techniques and details.
Fortunately, they realized the commercial way was the wrong path before selling out completely, in contrast with their pals from Saxon who kept doing pop until the mid-70’s (no comments about Def Leppard) – yet we wouldn’t have the chance to enjoy such thrashy album like Life’s A Bitch if the group didn’t go through that experimental, cheesy radio glam phase. All the make-up, the synthesizers, the ambiguous sexuality never fitted the attitude of this band, it undoubtedly worked for others to make cash but you surely didn’t expect a Newcastle speed metal band to that go soft and sell out when their real essence was craving for aggressive, fast music. Commercial failure turned into musical success – the band didn’t sell millions of copies but were honest again to themselves and their roots, doing what they always did best: playing fist clenching, high power metal.
Raven is one of the many legions of bands in the "shoulda been bigger category" but a decade or more of poor business decisions and bad management have kept this powerhouse of NWOBHM underground even to this day. The bands midcareer release 'Life's a Bitch' is possibly their best, showcasing the bands talent not only as song writers, but as musicians as well.
The production is pretty good for a later period NWOBHM album. The guitars are heavy and fast. There is a lot going on as the riffs are very busy and fairly technical. The leads and solos are intense and soaring. There is an ungodly amount of melody from start to finish but it works very well. The guitars are tuned to standard.
The bass is surprisingly competent and doesn’t always follow what the guitar is doing. The drums are a little more than standard, but work all the same. The vocals are perhaps the bands selling point as John has an incredibly unique voice. It’s a case of you either love or hate it as it does tend to get obnoxious in some places. He is almost unmatched however for his high range.
This is a very energetic and fun album that has a lot of soul and feeling to it. This is by far the bands creative peak as everything before it was merely building up to this and everything after has been less than. Its albums like this that make one throw their hands up in confusion as to why band X never made it outside of their styles specific limits.