REVIEW: ALCATRAZZ – “Born Innocent”
Beginning with his tenure under Ritchie Blackmore on Rainbow’s divisive ‘Down to Earth’ record, Graham Bonnet has long been associated with some of the greatest guitarists in metal history. Most notably, both Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai made pre-solo career stops in Alcatrazz. Michael Schenker is another notable collaborator, as Bonnet sang on the guitarist’s ‘Assault Attack’ record in 1982 before infamously being booted from the band for exposing himself during some alcohol-fueled stage antics. Compounding that with his stint in Chris Impellitteri’s namesake band in the late 80s gives Bonnet one of the most impressive resumes in metal history. It turns out that old habits die hard, as Bonnet and Alcatrazz add a gaggle of impressive musicians and guest turns to their reunion mix, including new band member and noted shredder Joe Stump, along with Steve Vai, Annihilator’s Jeff Waters, and more.
Full disclosure, I absolutely love ‘No Parole from Rock N’ Roll’ and think it’s a high point for 80s metal, so I admittedly wanted to like this record. As such, I was positively delighted when the title track rolled out of the gate with the kind of vintage neo-classical fury of their debut record. The song features a powerful vocal performance by Bonnet, to whom time has been particularly kind, and a stunning turn by his old bandmate guitarist Chris Impellitteri. With founding members keyboardist Jimmy Waldo and bassist Gary Shea in tow and offset by the aggressive modern metal leanings of drummer Mark Benquechea, ‘Born Innocent’ is a true return to form.
The excellent leadoff single “Polar Bear” adds a progressive bent to the proceedings and sets the precedent for some of the record’s best tracks. Featuring the fleet-fingered pyrotechnics of Joe Stump, the song shows that the current incarnation of Alcatrazz is not afraid to get heavy. “London 1666”, another Stump-led minor key rager, follows suit. Bonnet is in peak storytelling mode on this tune about the Great Fire of London that is appropriately all fire and brimstone. Lyrically, this record is at its best when Bonnet is in full rock n’ roll elder statesman mode, as he pulls up a stool to regale us with tales of the weird and wonderful. The delightful and unexpected power metal of the Irish folklore referencing “Finn McCool” is another excellent example. Featuring Japanese guitar hero Nozomu Wakai, the anthemic tune is a show-stealer.
When Bonnet sings “It’s not so hard to see why we love fantasy/rainbows are better than facts” on “Finn McCool”, I can’t help but wish he’d applied the same sort of lyrical reverie to “I am the King.” On an otherwise decent rocker, featuring one of the final turns by legendary guitarist Bob Kulick (RIP), Bonnet is in full-on V*agra mode as he rhymes “copulate”, “altered-state”, and “simulate” on a song steeped in sexual innuendo. I mean, just because the 72-year-old Bonnet can out-sing and probably out-hump most men half his age, I do not necessarily want to hear or think about it. Still, kudos to him for baring his soul (among other things), and lest we all forget that despite having a voice that was absolutely made for metal, Bonnet has always marched to the beat of his own drum. From his skinny-tied James Dean meets Miami Vice look to his often-unconventional lyrics, he has never been afraid to challenge the norms of metal or common decency.
“Dirty Like the City” reunites Bonnet with Steve Vai on a tune thick with Vai’s signature stamp. The good vibes of their reunion and Vai’s elastic guitar work decidedly outweigh an awkward, less than a stellar chorus.
The rock organ fueled “Paper Flags” kicks off a string of late record highlights. Featuring Riot’s Don Van Stavern on bass, the song finds Bonnet setting some of the record’s most memorable melodies to tape over Stump’s lightning-fast arpeggios. The band follows this up with the sublimely heavy chug of Bonnett’s strange ode to tattooed octogenarians in “Body Beautiful”.
The record’s final tunes “Warth Lane” and “For Tony” end the record on interesting and sentimental notes. They are both notable in that they stand at odds with Andy Haller’s otherwise unfussy minimalist meat and potatoes production. “Warth Lane”, the record’s best track, is a grandiose and sentimental elegy about the suicide of a sick childhood friend. On a track that marries welcome threads of British rock classicism to textured hard prog, Bonnet turns in a laudable vocal turn brimming with emotional abandon. Similarly, on “For Tony”, Bonnet wears his heart on his sleeve. Serving as what sounds like a sendoff to a lost friend, Bonnet, accompanied only by marching band brass, delivers a world-weary epitaph on a record that otherwise brims with life and vitality.
‘Born Innocent’ finds the perpetually coiffed and golden-throated Graham Bonnet and crew embracing their heavy roots on a star-studded record that does an admirable job of reclaiming the past majesty of Alcatrazz’s more metallic moments.