Monday, January 11, 2010

Ace Frehley - Anomaly [music review]

* Released in September 2009
Never mind the 14 years it took Guns N' Roses to complete their Chinese Democracy album - Ace Frehley works even slower. Hot on the heels of his last solo studio album, 1989's Trouble Walkin', comes Anomaly. Mind you, Ace hasn't been completely inert during that stretch. There was a six year run beginning in 1996 with his original KISS bandmates for their highly successful reunion. In 2002, Frehley left the band, assuming it was done anyways as they had just completed their farewell tour. Many bands announce their farewell and stick to that decision for at least some amount of time before inevitably reforming and crankin' up the old cash machine once again (*coughTheWho*), but KISS mainstays Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley set a new low water mark in the category, barely missing a step between the end of the band's much-hyped final tour and ultimately deciding to stick it out as a group. The departures of Frehley and drummer Peter Criss posed little obstacle to the plans of the band - Simmons and Stanley simply replaced the two with other musicians and slapped their trademark makeup on them, rankling many members of the KISS Army (myself included).
So after literally decades of announcements promising new music, Frehley finally dropped his new album just two weeks before KISS released their first album of new music in 11 years, Sonic Boom. And though I find myself amazed to write it, Frehley blows his former group out of the water in terms of the better album. The Space Ace has always been a great raw talent, unpolished in his guitar technique, but with a signature style and sound. His singing voice was never strong, yet it has a unique charm and quirky quality to it that works, not unlike Keith Richards. Unfortunately, too many drugs, booze, and a dubious work ethic have always managed to throw a wrench into the stability and advancement of his career and life. Newly sober (for the umpteenth time), Anomaly is a welcome reminder of what he's capable of.
First, let's get the negative aspects out of the way: at 54 minutes, the album could have benefited from a little more editing to construct a tighter collection of music. Kind-of instrumental "Genghis Khan" is way too long at over six minutes, although it's still an impressively constructed patchwork of guitar gonzo nirvana. The clearly autobiographical "A Little Below The Angels" is a nice change of pace, rooted around a thick acoustic guitar sound. However, Ace should definitely have rethought his decision to include a cheesy mid-song spoken word interlude with a child's voice followed by Frehley's heavy Brooklyn accent. The aim is for a serious, father-daughter moment - unintentional humour is the unfortunate result from a song that deals topically with his life struggles and recoveries. Also, the Frehley-designed album cover is horrid. Other than these minor quibbles, as well as the fact the lyrics are mostly complete shite (which I guess is not so minor a fact, but if one approaches an Ace Frehley album expecting clever wordplay then they're not even in the ballpark of "misguided"), it's an impressive comeback.
Opener "Foxy And Free" pays homage to Jimi Hendrix and lays waste to the doubters, including myself, who figured Ace was no longer capable of churning out memorable riff rock. The in-your-face guitars set an appropriate tone for the rest of the album. "Outer Space" follows, revisiting Frehley's favourite topic, and it's the album's strongest track (including a smoke-spewing-out-of-his-Les Paul solo). "Pain In The Neck" keeps the momentum moving forward, despite it's dopey lyrics. The loopy breakdown section before the guitar solo even manages to make clever and humorous use of Ace on lead yodel (!). Sweet's "Fox On The Run" gets a faithful reworking, conjuring up memories of Frehley's other tasteful cover version of a 70's pop rock gem ("Do Ya" by Electric Light Orchestra, which he did on Trouble Walkin'). "Space Bear" and "Fractured Quantum" join "Genghis Khan" in the instrumental category, which feels like just the appropriate amount without invoking boredom. Of the three, "Fractured Quantum" is the best track, proving a worthy successor to its three forebearers that started with "Fractured Mirror" on Frehley's 1978 solo album. Using the signature bright sound of a 12-string acoustic guitar, Frehley manages to evoke echoes of the previous incarnations in the quadrilogy, while still injecting it with some fresh elements.
Frehley put some extra thought into the Anomaly CD packaging, allowing it to fold up into a neat pyramid design, an obvious throwback to the days when fans always got a little something extra with their newest KISS record. That's not the only backward thinking (in a good way) approach he took, though. After years of empty promises, he's finally delivered something that reminds fans of what it was about Frehley that first drew them to him, in a musical sense, way back when. His classic '78 album is regarded by most KISS fans as the strongest of the four solo albums released simultaneously by the band that year. 31 years later, he's bested the other KISS members again.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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