Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Alcatrazz – PAROLE DENIED – TOKYO 2017 Sees 30 Year Sentence Overturned!

This will be my last post for Rock Guitar Daily, a labor of love which I have tended for the last eleven years. RGD was never a monetized endeavor. It was a tool that I’ve used for establishing my credentials as a writer, developing contacts across the industry, reaching a million readers (a steady fifty thousand a month without buying a single reader), and generally having a great time writing about rock without ever having to “go negative.” In fact, I could write about music from now until the end of time without having to crap on anyone. It’s fitting that this piece would be somewhat nostalgic, featuring the return of a band I first fell in love with in 1983 when Graham Bonnet exploded back on the scene after establishing himself as the go to vocalist with superstar guitarists Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow and a brief stay with the Michael Schenker Group in which he recorded the seminal classic rock album, Assault Attack.

Alcatrazz was an interesting proposal that saw Graham first recruit bassist Gary Shea and keyboardist Jimmy Waldo from America Hitmakers New England and drummer Jan Uvena from Alice Cooper’s Band after tryouts with guitarist Zal Cleminson and former Iron Maiden drummer, Clive Burr failed to gel. This unit was completed with the inclusion of one Yngwie Malmsteen, a hot shot shredder who had made great strides in America via Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records and the band Steeler.

In what would take a small book to explain, Alcatrazz ripped through three albums in quick succession with three startingly brilliant and very different guitarists. Yngwie had his vision and path to his own stardom and his leaving the band was carefully orchestrated with new recruit and ex-Zappa axe man, Steve Vai, writing music in Los Angeles for the band’s second album, Disturbing the Peace, as the remaining members fulfilled their touring obligations with the soon to be exiting Malmsteen.

With Vai aboard the band recorded what remains one of the most ambitious hard rock albums of the era. With Eddie Kramer at the board a stunning record on which the seemingly limitless musical imagination of the former six-stringer combined with Bonnet’s incredibly powerful and sophisticated vocals and lyrics and the brawny support of Shea, Waldo, and Uvena. The future would have hardly seemed brighter to the band before Vai was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse (read as: $$$). DLR’s offer to the guitarist to be his musical right hand man alongside super bassist Billy Sheehan for the ex-Van Halen vocalist’s first solo album.

Again, Alcatrazz went back to the drawing board and they ended up bringing on a more traditional, but equally brilliant guitarist in Danny Johnson with whom the band when in a more pop/commercial outing with renowned pop producer, Richie Polodor (Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Alice Cooper) for the sadly under promoted Dangerous Games LP.

In light of losing three great guitarists and sagging album sales, the band finally split up in 1987. In spite of an incredible succession of break ups and business fiascos, Alcatrazz remained a very influential band in the world of hard rock and roll and heavy metal, and over the years Bonnet kept the franchise alive to varying degrees of success.

In spite of hiring band after band, Bonnet never had tremendous success and it seemed that Alcatrazz’s small but hardcore contingent of fans were never going to see a conglomeration of inmates that were worthy of the name until now. Thirty-some years on. The band finally reconvened in 2017 with Waldo and Shea rejoining with Bonnet and augmented with Bonnet solo band members Conrado Pesinato (guitar) and Mark Benquechea (drums). After two days of rehearsals and several U.S. warm up dates, the band triumphantly returned to their stronghold in Japan, a territory had certainly helped put Alcatrazz on the map back in the eighties.

To say that the resulting CD/DVD package PAROLE DENIED (Nov, 7 2018, Frontiers Music Srl) is a successful return may just be an understatement. When the review stream of the DVD crossed my desk, I engaged it with a degree of skepticism, not wanting to be disappointed by another half-baked version of the once-loved and revered band.

As it turns out, PAROLE DENIED is the finest product to come from the Bonnet/Alcatrazz camp since the original three studio albums.

The key seems to be in the musical chemistry of Bonnet, Waldo, and Shea, but one cannot for a minute disregard for the stellar contributions of Pesinato and Benquechea. In Alcatrazz revisions of the past, it seemed that the sidemen selected for the gig were always great players. They either never had a chance to gel or tht their attempts to create the heartbeat heavy, signature Alcatrazz sound proved elusive. They always appeared as mere characters of the original outfit.

I’m thrilled to say that the beautifully shot and recorded, PAROLE DENIED, stands as a logical follow-up to the band’s original legacy, and in fact, may be the finest representation of the band in a live context that we have yet seen.

Playing before a sold-out audience in Tokyo, this band is majestic and shockingly accurate in its recreation of many classic Alcatrazz moments and memories, and is actually quite exciting. The chemistry between Bonnet, Shea, and Waldo is undeniable and there are many moments of shared smiles and obvious affection, but the shocker is what the new guys bring to the mix.

The Parole Hearing!
Since Alcatrazz is remembered as a band of guitarists’ guitarists, let’s start with Conrado Pesinato. His greatest attribute is that he has not only absorbed the actual notes and phrasing of all three original axe-slingers, but that he has a tone of his own that avoids any attempt to totally cop the sounds of Malmsteen, Vai, and Johnson, instead opting for a classic Strat-into-Marshall tone. His recreation of the original parts is accurate and admirable, but he manages to sound wonderfully organic in this setting. Previous Alcatrazz stand-ins here had a tendency to cover up a certain lack of authenticity while being wrapped in too much heavy metal posturing and over-distorted guitar tones. Pesinato nails the vibes and the notes, and he looks like he’s having the time of his life as he almost casually rips off huge shards of guitar artistry. He rings his own presentation to a classic tribute.

Behind the drumkit, Mark Benquechea displays a fierce countenance that brings to mind Cozy Powell. He never overplays, but he does show that he is both a powerful, chops driven drummer, as well as a guy who plays for the songs and he locks up with the rock-solid bass work of Gary Shea, who never loses sight driving the pulse of the band.

Jimmy Waldo is, as Gary Shea recently told me in a soon-to-be-published interview with the band, “the kind of keyboard player that guitarists love.” Being a guitarist himself, Waldo knows when and what to play, never forcing himself onto he music, but rather providing superlative arrangement details and extremely tasteful chops. When he does then choose to solo, it’s all the more impressive. He’s written much more of the Alcatrazz catalog than one would presume for such a guitar-oriented outfit and he produced the package’s outstanding audio alongside Giles Lavery, and he looks like he’s having a great time along the way, quite refreshing in a world that all too often seems reuniting bands doing so more for the quick buck than the love of the music.

That leaves us with Graham Bonnet. At the end of the day, Alcatrazz has always, for better or worse, been his baby. Through the band’s successful run in the eighties, and onward over the years, the prodigiously gifted singer from Skegness has alternately been landed for a limitless range and for being one of the most powerful vocalists of his ear, as well as being occasionally raked over the coals for the almost inevitable inconsistencies resulting from attempting to recreate his vocal gymnastics in a live setting.

PAROLE DENIED is unquestionably one of Bonnet’s best onstage performances. His recreation of Alcatrazz’s catalog is superb. While on tours with his solo bands over the last several seasons, Bonnet has depended heavily on some technical assistance to get him and his bands through the nights of poor monitors, sporadic scheduling, and propensity for globe-trotting that would battle any voice, this set finds him in incredible shape for a young man of nearly seventy-one years. If there are any fixes to be found here, they are well masked and not at all a distraction. Very few live rock records exist without some subsequent fixes, and grown up audiences and listeners understand this fact.

Then there are the songs and the music to be found on PAROLE DENIED. In spite of being a band known for almost ridiculous technical process, Alcatrazz is really all about the songs. Gorgeous melodies consistently wind themselves through and around the might of the band and he endless guitar wizardry. While its seldom discussed, Bonnet is amongst hard rock’s most uniquely talented lyricists.

From the opening greeting of “Ohayo, Tokyo,” to the infamous anti-war tome, “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” he emotional tribute to his mother, “Suffer Me,” and his James Dean homage, “Will You be Home Tonight,” Bonnet avoids any typical hard rock/heavy metal clich├ęs, or the typical dungeons and dragons territory so often trod out by the genre. Alcatrazz’s legacy may well be that they were always a little too intelligent for the genre.

The DVD is beautifully shot and the HiDef visuals are stunning throughout. If this package had come out in 1988 instead of thirty years later, the story of this band would be very different. If there was ever a lineup that should make another Alcatrazz studio album it would be this one. Everyone is firing on all cylinders and new guys Pesinato and Benquechea certainly prove to be up to the task.

The world of hard rock is rife with failed reunions and ill-fated attempts to recreate past goodies, but with PAROLE DENIED, Bonnet and his merry tribe of men had wildly superseded expectations.

Thrilling from beginning to end, PAROLE DENIED stands tall alongside anything in this sadly undervalued legend of a band’s catalog.