Alice Cooper - Along Came A Spider
We've been waiting for this one for quite a while. Alice gave us the title a long time ago (two years?) in interviews and originally it was scheduled to be recorded and released in 2007. The delay, apparently, was because the producer Alice wanted wasn't available. Over the last year more tidbits of information surfaced, mainly from small comments by Alice. 'ACAS' was to be a concept album, about a serial killer, 'Spider', who wrapped his victims in silk, before falling in love with an intended victim. Each song was to be like a letter to the police, taunting them to catch him. It was all very tantalizing.
Closer to the release there was even more to wet the appetite. The cover looked (and is) really good, and then trailer videos continued the good word with dark, atmospheric images, along with some amazing promo photography from Gabrielle Geiselman. It all suggested that Alice had really pulled out all the stops to make this a dark masterpiece. The first track to surface, 'Vengeance Is Mine', didn't do any harm either. A Dragontown-esque heavy song with Slash solo.
So now we have the album proper, and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. So, I'll start at the beginning and see where it takes me.
The packaging is excellent. A fold out cover with blood splattered disc, and a booklet packed with more of Gabrielle's excellent images. Far and away the best packaging for an Alice album since 'The Last Temptation' at least (I'm a big McKean fan).
Slot the disc in the player, and this is where the problems start. 'Along Came A Spider' is not the album I was anticipating from the build up. For a start, 'Spider' must be the happiest serial killer ever! The general vibe to most of the tracks is a very up tempo glam-rock 3 minute tune type of thing with lots of sing-a-long-a-Alice choruses and barely a trace of darkness outside of the lyrical subject matter. Now it's possible Alice has done this on purpose, as part of the character of the story. But, well, it wasn't what I was expecting. Score one for Alice I suppose. Why should he give us what we expect?
Opening with a prologue we have a women telling us about Spider's diary and the detail he went into describing his crimes. And then in comes the first riff... all good. Then it's gone, dropping out to just Alice's vocal, drums, and some dirty synth chords for the first verse before hitting straight to the chorus... with handclaps and tambourine, which seems to be louder then the vocal, drums and guitars put together! Any menace is instantly lost. And this is my conundrum. The song itself is quite catchy with a chorus fit for singing along to, and it sticks in your head, but in your head it actually sounds better then on the CD as you mentally block out the tambourine etc and just remember the hook. Lyrically we find Spider as a voyeur, creeping into women's rooms and going through their things, even watching them in their sleep.
Second up is 'Vengeance Is Mine', a far more satisfying track that to me as mentioned above has a certain 'Dragontown' feel. Slash solos all over it without really hitting any sort of melodic theme, but it sounds cool. It seems someone has done something to Spider and he wants revenge. It's not very clear, at least to me, who he want's vengeance against. Maybe he feels society has wronged him, kept putting him down, and he wants to get back at it. I really don't know. Rather then the 'Notes to the police' type of lyric suggested before release, there really seems to be little in the way of detail to the story. A few lines here or there to drop clues, but more often then not Alice is content to simply repeat the chorus or title over and over with little variation. It seems to me to be a missed opportunity, as a wordsmith of Alice's caliber could surely come up with something.. well.. better. Not that there is anything exactly wrong with what we have, but it could be so much more..
'Wake The Dead' starts with a dancy drum pattern and, we are to understand from the promo material, Ozzy on harmonica, although he isn't credited for it on the cover (only as co-writer). This is a really un-Alice type of track (not a bad thing generally speaking) as it sounds more like something some indie band would produce. My initial thought was actually Madonna circa 'Ray Of Light' but heavier, although Beck (who I'm not that familiar with) has also been mentioned. The first time I heard this I thought it was dreadful. It has grown on me by repeated listens. but I'm still not keen. This is not what I expect from Alice. "Shake my head, wake the dead". Hmm.. Spider is killing people (by the end of the album it will be seven as one gets away?) chosen randomly depending on opportunity and nothing more.
'Catch Me If You Can' sees Spider collecting the body parts and saving them until his "work is done". He's an "arachnophobic psychopath", which may suggest he's scared of himself? 'Schemin' with the demons" suggests he's hearing voices in his head. Musically it's much better then 'Wake The Dead'. A brooding verse makes way for another catchy chorus. This could be really good live. Some nice keyboard washes before the music drops out for a acapella chorus (as with 'I Know Where You Live') and then comes back. A good one.
'(In Touch With) Your Feminine Side' slightly amusingly opens with the BBC TV cricket theme rhythm (you'd only hear it if your a English) for a few seconds before the guitar come in with a sleazy slide riff. This bumps along nicely and sounds like it could have been and outtake from 'Dirty Diamonds'. As with many of these songs it hits into the chorus pretty quickly. A nice melodic solo before it's basically the chorus to the end again, with the 'acapella' one. An okay b'side but no classic. It seems Spider has certain cross dressing tendencies?
'Wrapped In Silk' seems to be Spider talking to his dead victim while, well, wrapping them in silk, his trademark. It has an okay verse and rather awful chorus which I just don't like. A shame that it basically gets repeated a lot. The "yes tonight" bit actually reminds me of early Twisted Sister... And the less said about the "bye bye bye" bit the better, or the final high pitched "turn off your lights". Surely there were better songs available then this (in fact there were, as they are iTunes only bonus tracks).
'Killed By Love' is the ballad for this year. Every Alice album seems to have to have one, and as Alice is so good at singing them why not. This one's not bad actually and brings back memories of 'You And Me' and 'I Never Cry' without recreating those songs. It's no classic but it'll do. It seems Spider has fallen for one of his intended victims, but of course she doesn't feel the same. Presumably she doesn't even know he exists! This really could be taken completely out of the concept as it doesn't seem to make any direct references to it and I only say the above as that is what Alice has said in interviews.
'I'm Hungry' shows some promise but is castrated firstly by a iffy "gimme gimme" tambourine bridge section, before a dreadful chorus which sounds like a cross between an food advert and Spinal Tap's 'Hellhole'. Even a cool Who-ish backing can't save the vocal line. Backing vocals 'Whoo whoo' through the first solo but then it actually gets pretty good as it hits into a stonesy beat and solo spot before the chorus comes in again (acapella first of course). The end section is pretty great (apart from the whoo whoos) but never really goes anywhere as we fade out. It IS strangely catchy (as with many of the songs here) and you'd be tapping your foot if it was on the radio, but when you actually listen to it, it really isn't more then average. Storyline? Alice is looking for fresh meat?
'The One That Got Away' opens with probably the best line on the whole album. This is the song originally written by Keri and Warrent's Jani Lane for the 'Saints Of The Underground' album. It's also one of the best tracks on the album. Spider fights with his instinct to kill his final (?) victim (the one he's in love with?) or to let her go, which he appears to do.
I have a real problem with 'Salvation'. The opening part, with it's delicate piano and Alice's great voice is simply wonderful. It brings back the sound of 'Lace And Whiskey's' ballads like 'I Never Wrote Those Songs' or 'My God'. It really has the foundation of something really classic. Unfortunately the chorus can't keep up that standard. For some reason it just doesn't live up to the beginning. There's a middle section which is also great, but then the chorus (acapella first time round) pretty much repeats to the end. This could have been so much more. Spider is questioning what he's doing, are the voices in his head leading him down the wrong path (Duh!). He wonders whether he'll go to heaven or hell, and if there's a chance he can turn things around and be saved. His change of mind presumably brought on by his love for the victim. This would seem to bring the story to an end to a degree, however the running order of the CD continues with..
'I Am The Spider'. Story wise this seems rather in an odd place. Surely if he's searching for 'Salvation' in the previous song, he isn't, or doesn't want to be, the serial killing Spider anymore. Or maybe he has relapsed and realised the Spider is who he really is and no longer wants salvation. I'm not sure. What I do know is 'I am The Spider' is possibly the best track on the album. It's creepy (love the background effects) and Alice sounds in great form. THIS is more what I expected the album to sound like. We even get treated to Alice's classic child-like voice (wisely never overused to keep it so, so special). This is a really powerful piece with nice strings and a powerful chorus which actually works in the same way the one in 'Wind Up Toy' worked even though it was at odds with the rest of the song. A great end which could be a dramatic finale live, and even has a outro that could allow for the theatrics.
The Epilogue brings our story to a conclusion, kinda. We find that Spider is in a cell (with Steven, who apparently is a spider in the corner of his cell, or so I've heard) and has been for 28 years. Was all this in his mind? Did he simply write a story? Alice isn't really telling.
But the story wouldn't really be complete without mentioning the controversial iTunes bonus tracks. It's now not unusual to offer extra tracks with certain versions of an album. It started with the Japanese getting them to encourage domestic sales, then moved to CD reissues to get fans to buy an album they already had. Now it's become almost normal with some bands adding different bonus tracks depending on which store you buy it at! Many people don't like iTunes, but that's where they are so what can you do. Hopefully they will turn up later on a special edition (another common marketing ploy nowadays), better yet in the correct place in the running order.
The first is 'Shadow Of Yourself'. Why this isn't on the album is a mystery to me (replacing lesser album tracks), unless it's because it covers some of the same ground as other tracks lyrically. It's a pretty good song that bounces along very nicely. Not earth shattering, but a good one and worth getting hold of.
As is 'I'll Still Be There'. It has a kinda 'Detroit City' feel to it, and again is better then the likes of 'Wake The Dead'. An album of this quality could have made this review easier to write! Cool guitars, some nice strings. Good stuff.
The final bonus track is an 'unplugged with strings' version of 'Salvation, which to my ears seems to basically be the album track without the guitars and drums.
This has been a hard review to write. I love Alice's work, and I want to love this as well. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't report what I felt. To be clear, while the above may seem overly harsh, I really don't hate the album. I have been listening to it endlessly since I first got it a few weeks ago, at home, in the car, and even at work (on headphones). I'm just rather disappointed by it and think it could have been so much more then it is. There are some really excellent moments, some good songs, and Alice is on good form vocally, but there are also in my opinion some rather ordinary moments. I also question some of the production/arrangement decisions, whether they were by the producers or Alice himself. Who thought it was a good idea to have the tambourine so loud in a couple of songs? Why stick so solidly to the same song structures? All the acapella chorus moments.
The album seems to have really split the fans, with some absolutely loving every second, and others hating every note. I'm kinda in the middle. I just think all involved are capable of something much better. The story line is vague with the bare minimum of unrepeated lyrics, but could have been a real page turner. Alice is certainly capable of it. While there's a lot to be said for leaving things to the listener's imagination this didn't seem to me to be the one to take that approach with. Could I have done better you maybe ask? I'm not a professional musician/Songwriter/producer so I doubt it. But that isn't the point. In the end we have another Alice Cooper album (for which we should all be grateful at this stage of the game), but not a classic Alice Cooper album.
Hopefully if the promised full blown theatrical Spider show next year happens many of these songs will come alive. I truly think that it's possible. Until then 'Along Came A Spider' will probably get fewer and fewer plays, until it rests on the shelf, forgotten and covered in webs...