Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 My Nightmare
The new Alice Cooper album comes with a lot of baggage, not least of which is the fact it follows 'Along Came A Spider', an album that split fans as to how good it was, or was't in many peoples view. It's also the sequel to one of Alice's most loved and respected albums. It has appearances by the original band on select tracks, and sees the long prayed for return of Bob Ezrin, the man who transformed Alice Cooper from a little garage band to global superstars with 'I'm Eighteen" and 'Love It To Death'.
Coop does't really release bad albums. Every album he releases has classic moments and great songs, even "...Spider" had a few. But personally while I love them all there is always something missing. Something that isn't quite "all it could be" and we, the fans, accept that. Very few, if any, artists with a forty year career can honestly claim they make their best work towards the end of it, regardless of what they say in the promotional interviews. There is something about the classic period they went through (often the 70s) which, no matter what they record, will never quite be beaten. Is it familiarity? Nostalgia? Or were they simply at their very best at that point for some reason. Who knows.
Alice has released something like 25 studio albums now, with and without the original band, and it is generally recognised that the 70s, specifically the 1970-1975 period, are his classic years. This was the period that Alice Cooper took over the world with a series of truly classic albums and shows that have influenced pretty much everything that has come after in one way or another.
So what has been missing? Many thought and still think it was the original band, but as much as we dearly love Neal, Dennis, Michael and Glen that wasn't it. We thought we knew the real answer. Toronto Bob Ezrin. But as clear as that was to us, it was tempered with the thought that it was an Ezrin from the 70s we needed, one that may no longer even exist. Every person changes over the years. They grow older and see things differently, feel things differently. Would or could a reunion between the two actually fill in the blanks and create another masterpiece?
When the news came late last year that Alice's new album would, finally, see Bob return to the producers chair it was heralded as the best news ever, at least until it came to light that they had been recording with the classic band in the studio! How much better could it get for the long time fan? Answer: it couldn't, but this also set the album up with impossible expectations. How could anything ever satisfy them?
See what I mean by baggage? No wonder airlines don't want you to take too much.
So here it is. "Welcome 2 My Nightmare", the continuing adventures if Alice, Bob, and Steven with cameos by the cream of the Cooper world. Pressing play for the first time is kinda daunting. Dreams can be crushed in just a few handclaps and tambourine crashes.
And then you hear it.. that oh so familiar little tune quietly coming through your headphones and trickling down your spine... Getting louder.. oh.. my.. God...
In the beginning I was just a shadow
In the beginning I was alone
In the beginning I was blind
Living in a world devoid of light
In the beginning there was only night....
I thought about how I would write this review for a couple of days. Do I go with my gut, my heart, or do a take a step back, protect myself and, while being honest, avoid being too committed in case time isn't kind. I made a decision while listening to this opening track, entitled 'I was Made Of You', for maybe the twentieth time today.
This meets expectations. This is glorious. This is what has been missing. Bob you have been sorely missed. 'I Am Made Of You' is possibly one of the greatest songs Alice has recorded EVER. It's slow, quiet and a surprising choice to open a hard rock album, but it works sooo well because the song and the performances are simply that good. It references 'Steven' through the famous keyboard phrase but really sounds unlike anything Alice has done before. Alice's voice sounds fantastic as he sings what, to me, seems like could be his most overtly personal song ever. Is he speaking about his relationship with God? Is it simply only part of the story. Probably both. In fact how this one song fits the concept is a little unclear to me, but I'm sure Alice will spell it out at some point.
And then the guitar comes in. Steve Hunter puts in what could be the performance of his career with leads that tingle down the spine and bring tears to the eyes. Breathtaking.
Ezrin has lost none of his magic touch making the music throughout the album sound so natural, powerful and alive. Often you only notice the production of an album when there is something wrong. Here nothing is wrong, everything is clear. You don't even think about it.
The nightmare story for me really starts with track two, 'Caffeine', which most people have probably already heard by now. The up tempo rocker with a vocal twist has Steven trying to stay awake (he fails of course) and screams out of the speakers with a sound a little reminiscent of the best "Eyes..." songs. The middle break has a little of 'Clones' but basically this is a straight ahead rocker which should be great to bounce around to if it makes the live set.
'The Nightmare Returns' sounds like it's made to serve the same function as 'Years Ago' did in the original nightmare. Alice recreates his little 'Steven' voice to perfection before the 'Steven' keyboard returns and the band hits in. Brilliant but, oh, so short. The only way to better it would be to make it longer! If they do use it in the show it could easily be extended and manipulated as a theme linking songs, as 'Years Ago' was.
I don't have all the credits for the album yet so can only reference what I already know. 'A Runaway Train' is the Dennis Dunaway song on the album. A remake of the Dennis Dunaway Project song 'Subway' from their 'Bones Form The Yard' album this was the song that Alice played a lot of his radio show when the DDP album was released. He obviously liked it so much he's stolen it! The lyrics and arrangement have changed a little but it's still a great song that takes you (and Steven) on a ride aboard a rumbling freight train heading for its doom. Guitar on this is provided by country star Vince Gill who's hillbilly picking fits the song perfectly, building and building as the train runs out of track.
Climbing from the wreckage Steven is confronted by 'The Last Man On Earth'. This is the sequels 'Some Folks'. Although not the same style it's the non-rock/pop track on the album, and it's brilliant! Think of old songs like 'Crazy Little Child'. Alice brings back his 'King Herod's Song' voice as he comes across like an old western medicine man with an ommpah band and banjo (?) backing. The 'man' seems to be overjoyed he is all alone at last ("everything is mine!), despite the fact you hear an audience applauding as he finishes. Is someone watching him? "I can smoke, I can drink, I can swear and I can stink, There ain't no one to bother me". It's worth mention as well that the lyrics throughout the album are often brilliantly funny and this is a prime example. It has the Cooper stamp all over it, simply great fun, and will be fascinating if they want to do this one live! Proof positive that Alice is NOT a heavy metal singer!
Having listened to the old mans story Steven finds himself amongst 'The Congregation' and we're back in "Eyes..." territory again, but better. Opening with slow acoustic chord before it changes gears to a pounding rocker that some has likened to Oasis. Don't really hear it that much myself. It's much better then that! A certain Mr. Robert Zombie makes his appearance here as 'The Guide' (my name for his character), briefly standing in for sadly now unavailable Vincent Price. His speech is MUCH shorter then the legendary 'Devil's Food' but is very funny. Possibly making it any longer could seem too forced and predictable so this is just fine. "Welcome to the congregation, I hope we meet your expectations". Yep!
After asking what could be the funniest question you will hear on a record all year Steven escapes again, only to be caught by the black widow who says "I'll Bite Your Face Off' little man! A great slice of Stonesy rock that is just infectious and has been such a success already live. In fact it is arguable that the live version isn't a touch better then the studio version, but that could be simply because I'm more used to it. The way they do the middle section live is a little longer and packs such a punch when it comes back to song that you miss it a little on the studio version. This, we know, is the Neal Smith song and if he has more like this up his sleeve I wanna hear them!
Escaping (you see a theme forming here?) again, Steven finds himself in a disco, which of course makes perfect sense, as Alice has told us 'years ago' that disco is hell! This is where the album starts going seriously weird. A pure 80s disco beat comes in with a Rammstein like male choir chanting. And Alice raps over the top. Seriously. "Disco this, disco that, When disc-gos to hell, that's where we're at". Before you recoil in horror I promise you it works. It shouldn't, but it does. In fact the way all the songs switch styles left, right and center yet still flow from one to the other is quite frankly astounding. Of course Alice can't allow the disco fever to continue so two thirds of the way through it switches gear again and the music reverts to pounding fast rock with a shredding solo from Zombie guitarist John 5 as the disco revelers are ripped apart by the musical gunfire.
That was all pretty messy, so it's time to relax by the sea and party as we head to the beach to meet the 'Ghouls Gone Wild'. Unfortunately it appears they just "came in for a bite" but the rest of us can dance, dance, dance to the Beach Boys' like pop rock. Pure fun which could be a blast live if it makes it.
Next up is Dick Wagner's ballad 'Something to Remember Me By' which I struggle to fit into the concept to be honest [Alice has since explained the connection, but it's still more a visual connection then lyrical). This is a classic Alice ballad. There had to be one on the album and who better to supply it the Dick. It says a lot about the album that this is one of, if not the only, more or less predictable song here. It's good, but it honestly doesn't stand out. Maybe we're just having too much fun for a sappy ballad! And if a ballad doesn't kill the party mood what comes next certainly will!
'When Hell Comes Home' is the Michael Bruce song, based on a song he wrote around 2002 called 'Hellhole #9'. It's dark, brooding and plain evil. If current information is correct this is a song the whole original band play on and it is certainly the heaviest thing on the album, almost 'Brutal Planet' in it's slow burn intensity. Alice has highlighted abuse before ('Dead Babies', 'Only Women Bleed') but not with this intensity. Are we seeing another side of Steven's childhood, where his father abused him horribly while his mother, scared for her life, stood by and watched? Father arrives home calling "Steven.. Steven... STEVEN!" and Steven has to stop him once and for all. Musically this just growls with menace from start to finish, but listen to the final few seconds and say it doesn't have a certain ACG sound there. He escapes only to confront the ultimate evil, the Devil him/herself.
Now, the Devil is evil, and what is more evil to the average rock fan then... popstars! The vacant conveyer belt teen stars that appear and disappear in an instant. So instead of going all death metal for the devil, Alice, ever wanting to confuse and confound, makes the sexed up dance singer Ke$ha (apparently a huge fan) the Devil of his nightmare on a pure Michael Jackson rip. Be honest, this is 'Beat It', but you know what Alice will say.. "Michael stole from me so now it's my turn' haha. If this was released as a single he would be crucified but in context it's works great. KE$ha can sing just fine and the call/response between them is perfect. You even get another little Alice rap along with a cool guitar solo! This would definitely be interesting for the band to perform live with Chuck and Tommy boogieing to the beat!!
A tolling bell sounds (the same one as on 'Cleansed By Fire'?) as Steven decides he's had enough. He's "Gotta Get Outta Here'. The country rock swing flows along nicely with more tasteful guitar by Gill before we get the pay off. We find out what is really going on in the most brilliant way as a choir comes from nowhere and chants the best single line on the album! It's pure delight as Steven starts to argue with the heavenly voices in pure '75 nightmare style. And no, if you don't know what happens, I'm not telling!
The album proper closes with an instrumental, which in some ways really should have been a bonus track, or an overture rather then an 'Underture'. As an intro it would have really built the tension, but we would lose the stunning revelation of 'I Was Made Of You'. At the end it comes over as a little of an after thought. However it does sound fantastic in itself, basically running through all the main instrumental themes from both Nightmare albums in orchestral/band form. It really makes you wonder whether it would be worth doing a purely symphonic (plus Hunter's guitar) version of the original nightmare's main songs like 'Welcome...', 'Black Widow', 'Only Women Bleed' and the 'Steven' trilogy, along with new classics like 'I Am Made Of You'. With Bob at the desk it could be incredible.
The main bonus track on most versions is a cover of The Animal's 'I Gotta Get Out Of Here' which is good but not really essential compared to what has gone before. Not a disappointment as such, but just a cover song that Alice obviously felt like doing, enjoyed and wanted to share with us. That's cool. I don't have the other bonus tracks so can't comment, although I have heard that 'Under Your Bed' with the original band is huge!
So there you have it. Baggage or no baggage this is a monster album for Alice which sees him aiming high and pretty much hitting his target every step of the way. I could go on and on pointing out little things in the background that you hear on repeated listens but it's far better for you to discover them yourselves. Ezrin has returned and performed his magic again. Steve Hunter has excelled, Tommy Henriksen (who co-wrote half the album with Alice and Bob) and Glen Sobel nail every note and every other guest plays their part to make this the best AC album since....
Hmm.. that is the question isn't it. Everyone likes to say things like "oh it's his best album since..."
How far do we need to go back? It's certainly the best overall Alice Cooper album since 'The Last Temptation' which many see as the last truly great Coop album. But then that album, while great, didn't have the diversity and wit this has.
Many of a certain age may suggest 'Trash' but that wasn't a real Alice Cooper album. It was custom made by Desmond Child (who, by the way, co-wrote on this record) as a hit album, with Alice singing. And it WAS a huge hit, but a great album? I don't think so.
That takes us back over twenty years already. You know, I could be sticking my head in the noose with this one, and time will tell, but I think this could well be the best album since 'Dada', or 'From The Inside', or maybe, just maybe 'Welcome To My Nightmare' itself...
Yes, it's truly THAT GOOD.