Cherry Red [Release date 28.08.20] 5-CD set
The Cherry Red label has established a reputation for moving across genres in resurrecting high quality material, suitable for repackaging and reissuing. With this one, they’ve recognised one of the classiest, if short lived, eighties’ “Pop Metal” bands to come out of the USA.
White Lion formed after Danish musician, Mike Tramp travelled to the USA in the pursuit of fame and fortune, and immeditately teamed up with similarly ambitious guitarman, Vito Bratta, c.1983.
First album, Fight To Survive, recorded and ready to roll in 1984. Label (Elektra) shelves it. Wise man at Grand Slamm Records buys it, licenses it to Japan and Europe. Overseas success encourages an eventual US release.
That was an ignominious beginning for White Lion, born of the pop metal, bandana rock generation, and clearly with ideas and ambitions beyond genre conventions.
While their peer group were pouting and swaggering around them, White Lion were talking up issues, large and small. From broken nations (‘Cherokee’) and broken hearts (..er, ‘Broken Heart’), to war dead (‘All The Fallen Men’) and more war dead (‘El Salvador’). Worthy, yes, but unlikely chart material. Even the title track was a narrative on the socially marginalised.
Still, Mike Tramp’s lightly accented voice gave his vocals subtle inflections that are instantly appealing. And Vito Bratta’s guitarwork made all axe freaks swoon and cheer in equal measures. He can shred with the best. His guitar bites and wails through ‘In The City’ and ‘Where Do We Run’, and his Flamenco styled intro to ‘El Salvador’ along with the rising and falling chord work on the title track show a prize winning skill set that was yet to be widely recognised.
The band learned from Fight To Survive’s poor commercial performance, and used all that they had discovered about themselves, songwriting and the recording process on their next album.
Now signed to Atlantic Records, the band went into the studio with legendary producer, Michel Wagener. All he had to do was shine the production torch, illuminating the path the band was to follow. That faith is rewarded by Tramp and Bratta’s individual and collective contributions. Pride was the result (1987).
Bratta’s endlessly inventive guitar work sprays acoustic strums all across the amped up electrics, creating the kind of light and shade subtleties on songs like ‘Lonely Nights’ and ‘Lady Of The Valley’ that fit seamlessly with Tramp’s keening vocals and grown up lyrics.
‘Wait’ was the breakout track. It comes about half way through the album, a fine example of expert sequencing, allowing the preceding tracks to build climactically toward this point. And by the time we reach it, we know we’re really onto something big. The emphatic urgency of ‘Tell Me’ and the muscular, melodic positivity of ‘All Join Hands’ in the second half, measure up to our heightened expectations.
For many, closing track, ‘When The Children Cry’ is the one they remember. Bratta’s sympathetic acoustic playing and Tramp’s aching vocal touched more hearts that many care to admit. It was the perfect AOR FM ballad, and broke into the Billboard Top Ten.
You know the story. Band has successful album – Pride sold 2 million – band goes out on tour for 18 months. Label forces band back into studio to record lucrative follow up. Band have no new material. What to do? Easy, write an album’s worth of songs in 3 days. And thus Big Game was pushed out into the world, breathless, ill prepared, but considering the context of its conception, skilfully delivered (Wagener again produced). And again, some of the best songs are written in spontaneous bursts of creativity.
Against that backdrop, Big Game was a triumph of will. It’s perhaps not as uniformly good as Pride, but it bristles with great rock songs, more stunningly diverse guitar work from Bratta and another batch of thoughtful lyrics and considered vocal performances from Tramp.
Top Ten hit, ‘When The Children Cry’ from Pride demonstrated that Tramp was not afraid to politicise his song-writing. He never underestimated the intelligence of his audience, and with ‘Cry For Freedom’ he lyricised the hope and the despair of the world’s disenfranchised.
It proved to be an MTV hit and you could argue it was a win for real sentiment over the usual, chest beating clichés of popular AOR ballads. Memorably melodic slice of hard edged AOR, ‘Little Fighter’ too – a reflection on the events surrounding the sinking of Greenpeace vessel, Rainbow Warrior – brought inspiration from the real world into the lexicon of melodic rock.
Notable at least for its continuation of punny album titles, Mane Attraction (1991) sounds a little tired. Yet, there are glimmers of an evolving sound shining from a few of the album’s better tracks. ‘Love Don’t Come Easy’ and ‘Lights And Thunder’ aren’t exactly hulking bruisers, ready for the fight, but are great examples of beefed up heaviosity, looking for a primal response rather than an intellectual one. It was another side to the band.
The set peaks with ‘Warsong’, a crowd pleasing rock concerto, not perhaps as lyrically sharp as the previous anti-Vietnam war material that Tramp has written, but its driving, elemental riff creates a suitably intimidating war zone, and Tramp’s blazing vocal inhabits it with vigorous intensity.
The band toured the US in 1988 on the back of “Pride”s popularity, adding the better material from “Fight To Survive” which subsequently appeared as Live At The Ritz 1988.
It’s something of a revelation. Many bands flourish in a studio setting, but just can’t hack it in a big arena. White Lion could do both.
Bratta combined guile and fearlessness on stage, cresting wave after wave of powerchords on the big production numbers, then moving away from spectacle toward a more intimate style when needed. His Glamrock Glimmer twin, Tramp, knew how to work a crowd, rising above the clamour, keeping a firm grasp on the vocal melodies, delivering with emotion and conviction.
The CD is a fine finale to a fine anthology. ***1/2
Review by Brian McGowan
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