This album starts with an Intro featuring William Shatner. This fact by itself speaks volumes. Shatner, of course, exceeds even Gary Barden (whom we adore) for ham-levels. And yet, for that very reason, Shatner is loved world-wide. Nobody could parody Shatner, because he's already the perfect self-parody. It's a bit like Iron Maiden - so good at parodying heavy metal that they made Spinal Tap obsolete. To employ Shatner on a cheesy opener, then, is not bad taste, but supremely good taste. It's a way of proleptically predicting all possible criticism of what is about to follow - it's a way of saying: 'whatever criticisms you have concerning this genre - we've heard them all before. But we still love classic rock, so we're doing it anyway'.
In short, as anybody who has seen "Michael Schenker in the Studio for the recording of Unforgiven" already knows, Schenker likes to have a laugh. Against popular opinion, he is actually quite a happy soul. Schenker emerging from a pyramid on the cover of the album is not an egotistic statement about some kind of Nephilimic rock-god materialising from a star-gate. It's intended to be funny - a parody. For sure, Shatner's anti-war message commercially taps into a popular sentiment in the US. We're not blind. And yet, a major theme here is "fun". Schenker never did succumb to the "ominousness" stereotype of most heavy rock. His music is best summed up by his own phrase, "Back to Attack". It is upbeat, joyful, energizing, and infectious - and this album is no exception to that rule.
Anyway - what about the music? Well, after the Intro, we have "How Long". Typical for Schenker albums, this track is very up-tempo. Engine-room riffing beneath a very radio-friendly verse and chorus formula. Solid, original guitar-work for the solo. Unusual twists and turns and tonal changes within the solo. Shorter initial solo followed by an excellent outro. Completely unlike shred.
Next is "Fallen Angel", which is already one of my favorite rock tracks. Superb chorus-refrain between verses - oscillation between the melodic and the rhythmic and soloing experiments. It is as though Schenker is always trying new guitar ideas. Any yet, the "structured-flame" effect of Schenker's disciplined adherence to song-framework coupled with blistering outbursts continuously serves melody whilst at the same time ensuring unpredictability and excitement. This track, like the first, ends suddenly - no chance for boredom to set in.
Another lovely melodic start on the third track, "Hanging On". This good start then merges into a great driving chorus with continued good melody. Great percussion on this track. A great sing-along as Schenker gives the vocalist proper room. Very tasteful solo with an emphasis on melody. I wouldn't say that this material was "west-coast" though - quite different to the McAuley albums. Very accessible - again a sudden end.
"The End of an Era" is more thrashy - enter Schenker's trade-mark complex riffing. Less melodic, but still has a sing-along character. Great solo work - Schenker has taken to putting huge musical intervals into his soloing. Great trade-off licks between guitar and keyboards. Shred-velocities towards the end. Sudden termination - again, fast-moving with little chance to relax.
"Miss Claustrophobia" is next. Another radio-friendly anthemic number. Schenker tends to mix the formulaic with the unpredictable. So one ends up with solid structure, but also with some unexpected tangents. Thus, the solo is a complete tangent - quite shreddy and non-melodic. And yet, suddenly, a very melodic quiet moment comes in with some great tonal work in the background. Superb outro assertions on the lead guitar - yet another sudden ending.
On to the very unusual bluesy, ballady, smoochy number, "With You". Solidly melodic and a big improvement on the ballads on, say, Unforgiven. Lovely bluesy soloing. Schenker experiments with a staccato style - no filler. Every note is part of a composition. Trade-mark strong tune - great key-shift near to the end. Great mix, with the guitar well-forward. Really, this is soloing-vocals-soloing-vocals-soloing-vocals - with several soloing breaks (very beautifully phrased - Billy Gibbons after a few lessons) and several vocal interludes.
Back to the anthemic with "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". Great mix and production again - well done to Michael Voss. Reminiscent of rock classics from Rainbow, Sabbath, and Dio. In fact, Dio is the artist who comes to mind when listening to this track. Extremely cheesy lyrics - just the way we like it (but embarrassing if heard by non-rocker mates - may they be redeemed). If I were to describe Schenker's soloing on this track, I would say it was gutsy, industrial - more deep-south in picking style than West-Coast.
On to "Storming In" - which is a superb track that shows what Schenker can do composition-wise. Great mix between loud and quiet initially. Slow start - then suddenly, the pace and the power get turned on. Engine room on ramming-speed "into-the-fray" stuff this. Impossible not to rock out to this one. Absolutely superb soloing - full of unpredictable twists and turns, impossibly well-phrased. Usual angelic vibrato. Then, ends suddenly leaving you wanting more. I could have enjoyed another 10 minutes of this track. 10 out of 10.
"Scene of Crime" - another superbly creative mix of pace and loud and quiet. More ominous - but that's rare for Schenker. Almost reminds me of "Roll the Bones" by Rush during its stripped back moments. Great drumming on this album. Engine-room tendonitis-inducing riffage of metronomic evenness. Snatches of oblique eclectic soling. Amazing track this - absolutely 10 out of 10. Takes the best of post-structural unpredictability and mixes it with the best of rhythmic progression, melodic architecture, and coherence.
Next up, it's "Saturday Night". Very radio-friendly sing-along job. Schenker's lyricists are mostly clean-talking chaps, and this track is utterly without malice aforethought. Very happy, bouncy track with very rich tone on the guitar licks. Superb melodically. Again, all the music is written my Schenker - and it shows. Solid pop-rock.
Next up, it's Robin McAuley - making a guest-appearance on "Lover's Sinfony" (either badly-spelled or some kind of pun - it's not clear). The big difference between this track and the "McAuley Years" is the style of mix - this track is much more European, with none of the "fear of the guitar" which seemed to dog the mid-to-late 1980s period. Schenker is well-forward in the mix - although there are plenty of layers going on here. Solid, anthemic track. Sing-along - and for once does an outro-fade on very melodic soloing.
The pace goes up a notch in the bass-driven track "Speed". Superb front-mix beefy bass from Chris Glen. Good background colors added on the guitar - trademark Schenker sirenesque touches. Ironically, given the track-title, the pace is often not that fast on this track. Slower verses punctuate the more beefed-up driving parts of the track. Truly fantastic guitar-tonal variations. Wonderful soloing.
Then, it's back to the guitar-battle version of "How Long". There are lots of great touches here and there. During the guitar-battle, the guitar trade-offs are tasteful rather than shred-like. Superb outro solo from Schenker, though - punches through to a wonderful cathartic zenith-point before - suddenly - the track ends. An absolutely superb solo - my only complaint: it should have turned into a two-minute job!
On to the bonus track, "Remember" - a short punchy number. Upbeat and party-like, with great front-mix soloing. Trademark Schenker riffing in the background. Pleasant stripped-back moments in the middle of the track. Short and Sweet.
Finally, it's the radio-edit of "Miss Claustrophobia" - on which see above. All in all, this is another solid effort from Michael. As with most of Michael's albums, there'll turn out to be four or five true classics mixed in with solid material that's almost as good. So much better than other contemporary rock-music in my view.
A week or so later: Still don't want to put anything else in the CD player. Magnificent stuff! Many rock bands today are very short on melody or on melodic architecture. Many seem to offer tuneless rhythms with plenty of guitar-trick ornamentation, but with none of the melodic developments, structural layers, or tuneful ebb and flows that Schenker achieves. Many rock bands today are an in-your-face wall of noise that leaves no spaces for imaginative listener-involvement (unless you're imagining mindless violence or something demonic). Schenker, though, offers not so much a "temple" of rock as a "Cathedral of Rock" - the listener is invited into an expanding space of celebration and jubilant infectious imaginative variety, not shoved into a corner by an angry mob of red-necks will bull-mastifs. Many rock bands today play just a few notes within a reduced-scope minor scale of just a few chromatic intervals - with barely any composition. Schenker, though, gives you huge musical intervals mid-solo. You get the pillars, the alter, the bells, the tapestries, the flying buttresses, the towers, the nave, the chapter house, the crypt, the gargoyles. With Schenker, you get the whole Temple. Maybe this sounds well over the top for a pop-rock album that has some quite simple stuff on it as well. But put the whole thing together into one session, and you do indeed get the whole temple. A joy to listen to.