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Rocking with a killer baby seal. - 84%

hells_unicorn, July 24th, 2012

There is a strong level of incredulity that all but must come with looking back at the early works of a heavy metal mainstay, particularly if they cross back to before the time when the genre had yet to fully separate itself from its hard rock roots. Among the more blatant examples of a now well-respected metallic outfit simply conforming to the practices of a different time are the very early works of Manilla Road, Motorhead’s debut album, and that of Judas Priest’s often overlooked “Rocka Rolla”. Nevertheless, for a real mind trip, a venture back into any or Ronnie Dio’s pre-Rainbow era will showcase a very different mentality, though his late 1950s doo-wop projects would probably turn the most heads given their dangerously close proximity in sound to the likes of Buddy Holly and Pat Boone (ergo a Ronnie that had yet to develop that gritty tenor that since became his staple).

It’s always good to keep in mind the time of a given album, be it Ronnie Dio’s old fashioned 50s ode to puppy love “An Angel Is Missing” in comparison to his 80s and 90s works, of the hard rocking debut of Riot after a healthy dose of “Thundersteel”. While Riot’s debut album carries with it a long time speed metal staple “Warrior” which has since enjoyed a good deal of modernization in subsequent live performances by the band themselves, let alone the much heavier interpretation recently conjured up by Axel Rudi Pell, the truth of “Rock City” is much closer to the title and campy 70s rock imagery than what the band has since come to symbolize. Then again, what can anyone expect from the era before such delights as Judas Priest’s “Exciter” and Motorhead’s “Overkill” but a rocking formula that has more to do with Boston, Steve Miller Band, Kiss, Ted Nugent, and all the other big acts that were burning up the charts at the time?

To be clear, this is probably among the harder rocking albums to hit the scene circa 1977, as it’s a bit faster and tighter than what was typical of the time. Particularly when considering the chugging, yet still mildly bluesy approach of “Overdrive” and “Angel”, two songs that are just a bit too percussive and Sabbath-like in their approach for AC/DC, yet nowhere near as dark sounding. The feel is further lightened by the vocal work of Guy Speranza, a singer that has much more in common with Tommy Shaw and Brad Delp than he does Ozzy Osbourne. Nevertheless, when focusing exclusively on the guitar work of a very young and lively Mark Reale (my he rest in peace), it’s clear that this is an album with an eye to the future, though obviously latched in pretty strongly to present practices, including a talk-box guitar thrill ride in “Heart Of Fire” that was likely inspired by Peter Frampton and Steve Miller.

Perhaps the best caveat to attach to this kind of an album is that it tends to make one smile rather than enlist emotions of irreverence and angst like the subsequent punk rock scene, thus culminating in the pissed off early 80s drag queen persona of Dee Snyder and Twisted Sister. At times, more particularly on the songs “This Is What I Get” and “Tokyo Rose” things are steeped in a commercial, arena oriented approach that would likely bring to mind images of early Styx (minus the keyboards), or even the Boston debut (minus the slick guitar sound and layered vocal harmonies). However, this isn’t the sort of sound that should be shunned even by the modern metal fanatic, as they do provide something of a view of how bands like Accept and Saxon would transition into the early 80s metallic sound from their more hard rock oriented roots.

As with anything else, it is important to keep in mind that an album is what it is, and when it carries a title like “Rock City”, one should not expect the missing link between Sabbath and Venom. Still, within the context of a classic hard rock album, this is a cut above the rest, owing perhaps to its underground status at the time, allowing it to be controlled more by the band and less by some hotshot producer whose job it likely was to make sure that every rock album sounded exactly the same. It’s not too much of a far cry from where Riot would end up in the early to mid 80s, but it’s definitely in a very different era than that of this band after Tony Moore came into the fold, and that tends to be the starting point for most familiar with this band. But for those who have an interest in old school rock or a desire to delve into the history of metal’s origins, this is definitely a keeper.