A devisive album indeed...
I'm happy to see Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic (not exactly the world's leading heavy metal critic!) describe this as "undoubtedly is the worst album released in the history of rock & roll -- hell, the history of recorded music itself", and Billy Joel himself is reported to have sought out every vinyl copy he could over the decades in order to destroy them.
It gets better - I read somewhere that Joel hislef described the album as "psychedelic bullshit", and tried to kill himself with furtniture polish after the complete failure of this album.
It must be really, really awful then?
Yes and no.
First, we never take much notice of music critics, especially when a non-metal fan is attempting to review a metal album, as they always get it wrong. For example, the review in Smash Hits, 1979, of AC/DC's mighty "Highway To Hell" read something like "An awful mix of chainsaws meeting piledrivers" - 3/10 (in a magazine that rarely gave less than 5/10).
That review made me buy "Highway" just to find out how bad it was - and guess how much I hated it? Enough to catapult AC/DC to the top of the list of my favourite bands, buy every album they've ever put out, and see them as much as possible. Too bad I missed out on seeing Scott - but what a treat witnessing them playing the Back In Black album live for the very first time in 1980.
All of which says nothing about the album in question whatsoever.
So let's dig in, metal heads - what horrors await?
Well, it's not so bad, at first - a kind of curious mix of Deep Purple, Sir Lord Baltimore and Hendrix.
See, Billy Joel stuck his Hammond B3 through a Marshall Stack, with a Wah Wah (yes, really!) in the effects loop alongside the obligatory fuzzbox - and you'd swear blind that organ was a guitar in places.
This is utterly primaeval stuff - Joel was clearly on a mission - and the lyrics are so freakin' bad they're accidentally brilliant in places - and that's a fair summary of the album. So bad it's awesome. The kind of album that gets dragged out once in a while when you're bored with everything else and need a blast of air.
I hesitate to say "fresh" air, as the gas that wafts out of this recording is that of a putrid cesspit of paleantological dimensions.
This album pillages your taste buds and rapes your ears. It thrusts swords of distortion through your hifi and drowns your neighbours' complaints at 50 paces. There's a kind of queasy sickness that runs right through the core, and those big slabs of meat on the album cover are only the start.
I can tell some of the more hardcore metal fans are liking this already.
We kick off with one of the album's highlights, an amazing song called "Wonder Woman". At least, it will leave you amazed that anyone could write lyrics like that...
Joel does a fair Hendrix imitation with his Hammond, before the Deep Purple-alike sounds kick in - and check out the wah-wah - you'll swear that can't be a B3. The various sounds of the B3 are over-exploited, there's the big fuzzed out of Lord, then there's the more percussive sounds - and if I'm not mistaken, the bass is via the pedal board. It almost sounds like a band - although it's kinda like someone's produced the guitar sounds via MIDI. Yes, some of it's bad in a not good way. Yet somehow, this song works in a novel way, and crunches and grinds its wild way well past the torpid debut of Atomic Rooster - if you can take Joel's rather nasty vocals.
Next up is "California Flash" - and I really, really advise listening closely to the lyrics on this, despite Joel displaying his more syrupy vocal tones. Some of the riffs in here RULE - never mind the crappy sound, these are metal riffs of the highest order for 1970 - straight out of the Deep Purple catalogue, but with more attitude. "Suddenly we all heard a crash, and everybody hid all their hash" - man, I don't know whether to laugh, cry or choke, but I'm totally diggin' it for what it is.
The key, as usual with metal, is volume. At low volumes it does sound very nasty, but at high volumes, and (this is important) with BEER, it sounds AWESOME. A true test of metal, ladies and germs.
"Revenge is Sweet" is pure, pure metal attitude, and you'll hear this kind of theme resurfacing in many obscure NWoBHM demos, but not sung like this - not only is this totally from the black, rotten core of the heart, but it's so melliflous, as Joel screams "I'LL KICK YOUR FACES IN, I'LL KICK YOUR FACES IN!!!!". I feel kinda dirty listening to this - but hey, metal does that to me sometimes - like it's digging into a place deep inside me that I want to reject. I applaud you Mr Joel, for allowing me to fully embrace the blackest parts of myself, coz I sure as hell have never sunk to the sickening depths expressed here! This is psycotheraputic brilliance!
Next up, "Amplifier Fire", a tasty jazz/rock fusion vamp a la metal, padded out with studio effects and ever so tastefully done - see, I'm not describing it as either "good" or "bad" taste - but, in a guilty way, I do rather enjoy it. I've read about it being "ham-fisted", but it's no more ham-fisted than much I've heard by the Hammond greats, and both less messy and more articulate and experimental than Vince Crane on Atomic Rooster's debut BY FAR.
The B3 is tortured within an inch of it's life - there's more cacophony to follow than on an entire Nice album - it's kinda like the intro to Speed King fuelled by anyone's guess of a drugs cocktail. As Godzilla segues into March Of The Huns, this is a very "right" moment - stellar noise, horrible, crashing, strident - FANTASTIC!!!! UNBELEIVABLE!!!!
I'm just turning the volume up and up and getting lost in the sound - despite having heard the album a few times before, it's like I just missed this the first times around. I take back what I said about accidental brilliance - this is fantastic, much better than anything I've heard Rooster do.
I will be killed by my neighbours - if I don't do it to myself first... "Rollin' Home is back in less comfortable territory - I should be hating this, but the energy is a massive blast, like a rampaging horde of Huns battering their way through my skull. The song is probably awful, and moments of crapness drop through - but I must've been battered into not caring or something.
The low point comes in the highly melodic "Tear This Castle Down" - which is no worse than anything I've heard on a Wynder K Frogg album - and in no way particularly bad.
"Holy Moses" and "Brain Invasion" wrap the album up in similar style - there are NO BALLADS on this album, no crappy half-assed blues or heavy psych numbers - this is all massively dischordant proto metal music, much more together than Blue Cheer - and in no way the utter mess that some critics would have you believe.
I think that some people find it hard to tell the difference between dissonance for it's own sake and ham-fistedness. There is no ham-fistedness here - it's all intentional, like it or not.
And I LOVE it - even the cheesey Emerson piss-take at the end of Brain Invasion (possibly a tribute to "Brain Salad Surgery").
Billy Joel has proven himself a Hammond GOD on this album, way better than Vincent Crane, and Jon Small's aggressive jazzed-out drumming is a real treat. Welcome to Hell, boys and grills. This is metal, and should be listened to at FULL volume, ON REPEAT until you understand it. You may only stop when you scream out "OK, OK, I LIKE IT, NO, I LOVE IT - NOW MAKE THE PAIN GO AWAY!!!".
Brilliant. Don't listen to the "Music Ciritcs" - what do they know?
Furniture polish, indeed!