Monday, September 17, 2007

Review: Mountain/Leslie West "Masters of War


Leslie West Puts his Dean Signature Model
to Good Use
CD Review

by Tony Conley

“The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” and across the grooves of Leslie West and Mountain’s latest disc Masters of War. When I told Leslie that this was maybe the best rock guitar album I’d heard in the last five years, he said, “Man, Tony that blows my mind. You just made my day. I’m really so happy to hear you say that. I worked my ass off for two years on this record”

Masters of War is comprised of eleven Bob Dylan penned tunes that sounds like nothing Bob ever imagined. Unapologetically hard rocking, Dylan’s tunes are completely rearranged with gigantic walls of guitars, vibrant vocals, and thundering drums. West and longtime fellow Mountaineer Corky Laing are joined by bassists Kenny Aaronson (ex-Dylan, Derringer, Billy Idol), and Ritchie Scarlett (Ace Frehley, Sebastian Bach). Mixed by legendary Brit boardsman Chris Tsangarides, the production is bombastic and beautiful.

Commenting on co-producing an album with someone an ocean away in England, Leslie states, “I’d be on a cross-oceanic phone call telling Chris “Hey, these guitars aren’t loud enough, push the vocal up a little here.” Man, I’m telling you it was hard work. But it was worth it. Tsangarides did a great job.”

West recorded almost the entire album using his new Dean Guitars signature model. Last year West was contacted by Dean Zelinsky, one of the original custom guitar builders of the seventies, about the possibility of a West model. Since his return to guitar making several years ago, Zelinsky has produced signature guitars for Dave Mustaine, Michael Schenker, and the late Dimebag Darrell. Together they set off to re-invent the unicycle of guitars. Based on the design of Gibson’s single cut, single pickup Les Paul Junior, made famous by West back in 1969 when Mountain played at Woodstock. West wanted more than just a relic with his signature affixed. With it’s 5A flamed maple top and gorgeous appointments, I told Leslie that I thought the Dean was “the Lexus of Les Paul Juniors.” West replied, “No man - it’s the Lamborghini. It’s the first guitar with my name on it and it blows me away. The V-shaped neck fits my hand perfectly. It’s remarkable!” Its lone pickup is a specially designed Dimarzio, the Leslie West Megadrive. The stellar guitar tones on every cut shows what can be accomplished with great wood and one pickup. This record sweats great tone.

“Masters of War” kicks off the album with an appropriate shot over the bows of evil politicians and warmongers. Where Dylan’s version sounds like a paean to Woody Guthrie’s folk-ish stylings, West’s is more of a hard rocking challenge to war profiteers. In duet with Ozzy Osbourne, the pair turn Dylan’s tome upside down in the most righteous fashion. The immense sounds that emanate from this disc literally explode out of the speakers. These guys sound closer to sixteen than sixty. West is singing and playing like a man whose soul is on fire. His voice though always strong, never sounded this powerful, tuneful, and exuberant. When the strength of his vocal chops was mentioned, West responded, “Thanks, man, glad you noticed. That’s completely because I don’t do narcotics anymore.”

Warren Haynes is featured on two cuts, offering his reknowned slide licks to “Serve Somebody”, and the astounding “The Time They Are A-Changin’.” “Times…” starts off as a piano ballad, with Leslie West doing some excellent vocalizing. Haynes joins in on slide and the tune takes on a mournful, yet beautiful slant. The dual guitars on the stately outro tag are sublime. West joins the Allman Brothers on stage occasionally, and there is obviously great deal of respect and admiration between the two.

“Serve Somebody” is a prime example of West’s skill at re-engineering the Dylan catalog. Laing’s military snare is commanding and propels the tune forward. Meanwhile, Haynes blisters the grooves with wildly inspired slide and lead playing. On the original version, the then recently re-born Dylan sounded somewhat tentative and unsure. West makes “Serve Somebody” sound like the eleventh commandment.

“Blowing in the Wind (Heavy)” is another old classic given a Mountainous treatment. It will be interesting to hear what Dylan says about this record. The beauty is, none of this sounds contrived. I asked what made him do a portfolio of Dylan covers and Leslie said, “I was at a Neil Young show in Belgium a few years back. Neil was doing a beautiful acoustic version of “Blowin’…” and I just started singing along. It really inspired me. Then I got the idea to re-do a few, and from there it just grew. Two years later, here we are.”

“Mr. Tambourine Man” is taken from its Byrds nest and turned into a heavy romp that sounds like the Van Halens missed the boat when they were doing covers. If there were still singles, this would be the smash. “Seven Days,” is a tune that Dylan never recorded in the studio, instead opting to give it to The Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood for his first solo outing. Here, given a Stones-y going over, it makes one wonder what the Stones may have sounded like with a more muscular lead player. Kinda like Mick Taylor on steroids. This is the definitive “Seven Days.”

West talked about two rock guitar gods who are currently missing from the trenches, Michael Schenker and Eddie Van Halen. “Without Michael Schenker, I wouldn’t have my own Dean guitar. The idea grew out of Mike telling Dean how much I influenced his playing. We were scheduled to do two tours together in the last two years and they were both canceled at the last moment. Maybe someday…” On the topic of Eddie Van Halen, “I love that guy, I first saw him in Minneapolis when I was actually in rehab. They were playing with Montrose, and Journey. It turned my life around and made me want to play, and to live” West is grateful for where he’s at and is proving it by doing the most inspired work of his young 62 years.

I almost forgot “Highway 61.” Aggressive is an understatement. Here, West sounds absolutely belligerent. The arrangement sizzles with electricity. His playing is authoritative, perfectly matching the heart felt vocal. Scratchy guitars, thick rhythms, and searing fills and leads surround West’s impassioned vocal, making this yet another definitive reading.

The guitars are perfect on every cut of this amazing record. Every budding recorder of rock guitar should use this as a litmus test to check guitar tones. This record wants to be played LOUD. The best straight ahead rock guitar album of the last five years. But it’s more than that. It’s a great record in a time where there are few great records being made. And we need more great records.

1 comment:

Ron McCullough said...
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