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A million cracks in a mirror - 89%

gasmask_colostomy, November 24th, 2015

I have some advice about listening to 'Virgin Killer': close your eyes. Keep them shut tight and don't open them as you handle the CD case (or vinyl, or purchase the download, or whatever), don't open them as you start to play the album, don't open them to read the lyrics, don't open them when the album finishes, don't open them as you put the disc away or close your computer. Ok, now you can open your eyes. And, wow, that was pretty good, wasn't it? Remember how you feel: maybe kind of euphoric, maybe a bit nostalgic, certainly full of energy and emotion...aaaand now look at the album cover. That's the correct order to experience 'Virgin Killer'.

For an album that goes out of its way to shock at first sight, Scorpions might seem somewhat tame and ordinary when judged from a purely sonic point of view. This is 1976 and hard rock is the order of the day, with some stomping rhythms, speedy riffs, and a couple of ballads. Oh, and there are lots of tasty solos too, courtesy of Uli Jon Roth. This era of the Scorpions probably has the pick of musicians and the highest level of creativity, eventually culminating in the standout albums 'Taken by Force', which has proven to be the pinnacle of the band's experimentation, and 'Blackout', which simply has the best set of tunes of any of the 80s rock acts. 'Virgin Killer' remains in the shadows of those two efforts, except for its controversial cover, which is probably more famous than all the albums put together - yes, that naked 10 year old girl you've been trying not to notice. Considering that conversation starter, most of the songs here don't stand out too far from the slew of Deep Purples, Judas Priests, and Rainbows that surrounded Scorpions back then. There's a song called 'Backstage Queen', a ballad which is far soppier than everything else, and even one number about a high-speed lifestyle. However, it's the exceptions that make this worth listening to.

The first thing I really noticed about this album was when Klaus Meine opened his mouth at the beginning of 'Pictured Life'. This was the first Scorpions album I ever heard, and that moment where he wheezes out "Ooh, dark meditation" erased all my preconceptions and earned my attention. He isn't your typical hard rock singer at all; he doesn't have a strong voice, his range isn't anything terribly special, although he's quite high-pitched, as was standard in the 70s, he doesn't even stand strong in front of the band, but he simply radiates quality and charisma to the point that I find myself ignoring some of the finer musical moments in total appreciation of his style. His voice is rough and uneven, every note sounds like an effort, and he has a slightly unusual pronunciation at times, yet once you hear him sing you will never forget it, even when he's doing the plain, flat "Ooh"s in 'Crying Days'. He understands what works and grabs a lasting hold of the listener's attention in subtle and complex ways. Roth takes over vocals on 'Polar Nights' and 'Hell-Cat' and, while those songs feature some pioneering guitar work, I can't enjoy them like the others, since Roth is - not the inferior talent exactly - the inferior personality. Also, the production of 'Polar Nights' has been fiddled with, spoiling a little of the quality of the tremendous jam section near the end.

Once you get past those small niggles, those two songs I just mentioned are a good reason to check out 'Virgin Killer'. The guitar work here is a cut above some of the merely attention-seeking guys vying for the same position as Scorpions, even if 'Sails of Charon' would ably wipe the floor with everything else the following year. 'Hell-Cat' has that fiddly riff that won't leave your head nor your guitar teacher's, while the lead work on a few songs is superlative, including the one that opens the album in joyous style. I feel that the riffs on this album are also well worth remembering, since the title track and 'Catch Your Train' are playing with speed in a manner that Accept might well have been watching closely, plus a few innovations in those Uli Roth songs that stand alone as experiments since left untouched. For bass fans, Francis Buchholz is pleasingly easy to detect and manouevres himself into some nifty positions in 'Yellow Raven', plus plugs methodically away at the catchy bottom-end of 'Pictured Life'. The production is good too, for the year, with some bouncy toms burbling away underneath 'In Your Park', which pulls itself out of mediocre ballad land due to Meine pulling off a great vocal line in the chorus and a couple of sterling solos that bring the song to its close.

If there are any disappointments, I would glance first at 'In Your Park', which doesn't quite achieve the emotional intensity necessary for such a bare first half, or the slightly generic 'Backstage Queen', although that's musically superior to the title and lyrics by about 50 miles, playing with a fun shuffling beat and something like two minutes of lead guitar in its three-minute length. 'Crying Days' bears some similarity to the later 'Animal Magnetism', which saw off the album of the same name in a weird and uneasy way; in this instance, the song is split between strong ballad and atmospheric terrorism, achieving both in some measure, though compromising the specific qualities of both. However, it's also Meine's strongest vocal performance and that means it rules, whatever is going on in the background.

I come back again to that cover image, just as I did with 'Lovedrive'. And, just as with that review, I ask "Why?" It's just not suitable for this music. Any band who can make a 35 minute journey so complete and varied can't be summed up by such a simple, stark, and - for some people - offensive image. But, maybe that was the point? How to express this kind of music with an image? Besides, that naked girl means so much just by using such a simple motif, while that shattering of glass is the final touch to ensure that we are always on one side or the other - rarely decided, always teetering. That's what happens to my emotions and my mood as I pass the mystic stomp of 'Pictured Life' and move towards the poignant nostalgia of 'Yellow Raven', coming to the edge and back again almost with each new riff and vocal fluctuation. 'Virgin Killer' is a really great album, just remember to treat it with caution and respect.