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Class ?

Main Category: Hard Rock
Also applicable: Folk Rock, Lush Pop, Arena Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1976
Overall rating =

Cheese, but one of the finest brands of the stuff to come from the cheesiest decade of the century.

Best song: MAGIC MAN

Track listing: 1) Magic Man; 2) Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child); 3) Crazy On You; 4) Soul Of The Sea; 5) Dream Annie; 6) White Lightning & Wine; 7) (Love Me Like Music) I'll Be Your Song; 8) Sing Child; 9) How Deep It Goes; 10) Dreamboat Annie (reprise).

Yes, the rating is probably higher than you could expect. But there's an explanation. The hit singles from this record - 'Magic Man' and 'Crazy On You' - have thoroughly overshadowed everything else it has to offer, and even for a strict non-radio-listener like me it takes some concentrated listening to get past the punch of these two and discover, for instance, the slinky pack of precious stones concealed on the second side of the album. Once that has been achieved, whammo, you suddenly realize just how much Dreamboat Annie had to be unique for its time; how it is, in fact, still unique after all these years for those willing to take things in perspective.

The Wilson sisters obviously loved two things when it came to music: the hard-rock scene of Led Zeppelin, Free, and the like, and the soft-rock scene of the Carpenters, James Taylor, and the like. Now I don't need to tell you that you didn't meet that kind of thing too often back in 1976. In fact, what you met was usually the opposite: hard-rockers despised soft-rockers for being sissies, soft-rockers shyed hard-rockers for being bullies. You could be a soft-rocker and do some "heavier" stuff, of course, but for the most part, that would amount to taking a couple more minor notes than usual on your trusty piano. Or you could be a hard-rocker and do some ballads, but they sure wouldn't boast family-friendly orchestration.

Dreamboat Annie is the first ever rock record, unless I've forgotten fifty more, to combine the two tendencies in a way that (a) sounds perfectly authentic and (b) molds the two extremes into an ideal whole. With two of the three singles being on the 'heavy' side, it's easy to understand the 'female Led Zeppelin' moniker, but fact is, 'female James Taylor' would have suited the ladies just fine as well, and that's not a minus, the way I see it, as long as their double identities fit together, which they do. It does, however, take much more than simply having sweet strings on one song and distorted guitars on another. It takes good melodies - which these girls, with a little help from the other band members, are willing to offer. It takes decent lyrics - which they offer as well; nothing special, but staying far away from starry-eyed meaningless mysticism a la 'Stairway To Heaven' sure helps a lot. It takes good singing - for the most part, adequately provided by Ann Wilson. And it takes good playing - which reminds me that guitarist Roger Fisher's talents are usually quite underrated, and we'll get to that in a moment.

Certainly there might be cause for some uneasy fidgeting once you spot a title like 'Magic Man'. I mean, it's like friggin' Russian roulette. Could be Rainbow, of course, with Ronnie James Dio's manic wailing and Blackmore's tremendous guitar punch compensating for the lyrical puerility; then again, could be Uriah Heep, and the name says it all. But hey, it's neither. It's just about passionate love with a hipster. Nothing too mystical about that - not even on a Stevie Nicks level. On the other side, the simplistic, but persistent riff that drives the tune forward definitely has a magic ring to it, one of those cases where, if you get the few notes you're playing well in accordance with your guitar tone (they use a bit of phasing throughout, which gives the song some well-needed extra creepiness), you're creating an unforgettable experience. Ann Wilson's vocal delivery rules, of course, but if you ask me, I'd say her general talents should better be appreciated on the softer numbers - here the main heroes are sister Nancy and Roger Fisher with the guitars. There's a lengthy instrumental jam in the middle which never becomes boring because it's not just a case of some pretentious guitar hack going off in one set naggin' direction for five or more minutes when thirty seconds would have been enough - it's a case of a technically limited, but creative guitarist trying lots of different things. There's a little bit of Page-like soloing, sure, but then there's a moody underwater-like minimalistic sequence, with the guitar tone changing several times, before it gives way to the synthesizer. This I think is lovely.

The one song that sort of "answers" 'Magic Man' on the second side is 'Sing Child', not as memorable, perhaps, but following the same formula: a bravado hard rock riff, defiant, sexy singing from Ann, and a light tinge of mystique in the echoey production and medieval vocal harmonies. But if these two songs can be thought of as representing the "typical" formula for Dreamboat Annie, then everything else is pretty atypical. In fact, the only other true hard rock tune is 'White Lightning & Wine', a delicious piece of boogie with great guitar interplay and Ann's raunchiest performance to boot, but one that can't help but be obscured by the more "eminent" stuff.

Even 'Crazy On You', another classic rock radio favourite, is essentially a normal folk-rock (read: soft-rock) tune disguised as a hard rock classic. So there's a fuzzy riff out there - but the song's backbone is all acoustic, and these vocals? Think Karen Carpenter sped up twice from the usual level. But does that make me feel bad? It doesn't. I likes me a great melody when I hears me one, and nobody who has ever once confessed a love towards something ABBA-related should disgrace himself by dismissing a melody that's just as good as anything ABBA has ever produced, no matter what kind of winter fur coat the song might be sporting. And just to stomp out some more of that grass, I'll tell you that I actually like the verse melody of 'Crazy On You' more than I like the chorus. The chorus is good solid anthemic folk-rock, but the verses have this peculiar dreamy quality to them that woo me over - it takes some kind of spiritual force to sing 'we may still have time, we might still get by' the way Ann Wilson does it in the opening lines. Maybe you don't see where I'm getting at, but I certainly see I've gotten there already, and for now, that suffices.

But now we're coming to the delicate stuff. The really dreamy stuff. 'Soul Of The Sea' is six and a half minutes long. Too big to be a single, true. Too small to be a major progressive epic or something. But just enough to suck in the following influences: (a) Led Zeppelin's acoustic ballads (the fairy-tale guitar introduction); (b) Carole King (the verse melody - that's her intonations!); (c) fantasy prog, Yes and Renaissance in particular (no need to elaborate on this one); (d) Led Zep again, singing this time (Ann Wilson is often compared to Robert Plant, but it's definitely the 'no smile, no sorrow, no laughter, no tomorrow!' part in the middle-eight that can serve as the best evidence); (e) Californian folksiness, like the Mamas & Papas (vocal harmonies) or Crosby, Stills & Nash (some of the instrumental textures). Now do you think I just named all these names to show off my ever-increasing musical knowledge? Well, yes, sure I did. But I also had it in mind to demonstrate that even if you don't necessarily have major new ideas of your own, something awesome might still come out if you took all the major old ideas of everyone else and just thought of a way to sew them all together without embarrassing yourself. After all, it was possible for the Beatles, wasn't it?

I'm also finding plenty of wonderful gas in the title track - or, rather, in the three title tracks scattered around (the Formless, Fully Formed, and Hyper Formed I call them), as well as in the cheesiest tune on the album, most cheesiestly encheesed '(Love Me Like Music) I'll Be Your Song'. The latter is marred by the little accappella bit - this, I'm a-guessin', could be the perfect moment for the sisters to tow their guitars away and lead the arena audiences on a feel-too-good around-the-campfire prancing - but the main melody is still Carole King quality, so whoever wants to slap me for this statement will have to scratch the entire Tin Pan Alley off his back, you hear?

Now then, taking one last look at the date... ah yes, well, given the date, I think it's fair to pronounce Dreamboat Annie as the last great gasp of typical Seventies pop/rock before the punk revolution came and somehow managed to leave us with Duran Duran and UB40. Well, Dreamboat Annie and Boston, I guess, right? Except that this record is much better than Boston. Normally, I don't have any serious qualms about calling things 'art', but if I had to draw a line somewhere higher than usual, then Dreamboat Annie would certainly qualify, while Boston would not. These girls might not have been revolutionaries, but they sure had artistic vision. Did Tom Scholtz have a vision? Now that's a question for no less than the entire Jedi Council to solve...



Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating =

Nice to meet two ladies who know what it is to be romantic without involving a herd of unicorns into it. Well, an occasional unicorn or two won't hurt, either.

Best song: BARRACUDA

Track listing: 1) Barracuda; 2) Love Alive; 3) Sylvan Song; 4) Dream Of The Archer; 5) Kick It Out; 6) Little Queen; 7) Treat Me Well; 8) Say Hello; 9) Cry To Me; 10) Go On Cry.

Once again the greatest female hard rock act in the world are there to show us just how much they really care about hard rock. Well, they do care enough to open the album with another hard rock blast - after all, if the scheme of Dreamboat Annie worked so well, why mess with a good formula? 'Barracuda' is even faster and more aggressive than 'Magic Man', not to mention having a much cooler title. In terms of first and second prizes, I'd have ranked the riff of 'Magic Man' higher, but heck, thy're basically the same song, except all the notes are different. In fact, it's fun to imagine 'Barracuda' as sort of a conceptual sequel to 'Magic Man' - first comes the charm and wooing, next the bitter disappointment, as the former "magic man", over the course of one year, evolves (or is revealed as) a "barracuda". And 'Barracuda' is bitter - see Ann Wilson hit off the line 'silly, silly fools!' with as much disgust as there used to be enthrallment in the line 'he's got the magic hands'. And tense - feel your blood chill at the howl she lets out as the song changes back into high-gear mode for the last time! And ass-kicking - isn't that guitar tone really something? And yes, the Led Zeppelin worship thing does strike again: the song's doom-laiden punch and its unpredictable guitar r-r-r-rings - don't they sound like they were lifted directly off 'Achilles' Last Stand'? Incidentally, that song came out in the open exactly one month after the release of Dreamboat Annie...

But hey, I'm not complaining. Zeppelinisms infest early Heart albums to the core, but the Wilson sisters tame them about as successfully as Jeff Lynne, at the same time, was taming Beatlisms. Take 'Dream Of The Archer', for instance. That song not only owes its existence to 'Battle Of Evermore' - it basically is 'Battle Of Evermore', slightly screwed over so as to fit Heart's playing and singing style. Same mandolins, same medievalisms, same dreamy vocal harmonies, same incurable romanticism. (Same silly pocketbook fantasy lyrics, devoid of any clear subject line to achieve pseudo-"depth" - thank God, the only case on the album).

But out of the two, I like 'Dream Of The Archer' better. It's cleaner, its melody is much more precise - particularly the main recurring mandolin riff, as catchy as anything Led Zep ever did and more so - and somehow Ann Wilson succeeds where Robert Plant could not, not even with the help of Sandy Denny. Well, er, hmm, apparently female singing gets me going faster than effeminate singing. (Hope I haven't earned myself any accusations of homophobia with that one. We're all well aware of Mr Plant's sexual orientation anyway, so save your arrows!).

But now I seem to have gotten off track. I was actually gonna talk about how this album is not at all a hard rock experience, and here I am making snide remarks on the vocal gift of Robert Plant instead. Anyway: 'Barracuda' totally rules, but the only other "rocker" on the album is 'Kick It Out', a song that's decidedly fun, but also quite decidedly 'un-Heartish', which makes it all the more curious to see it billed as a solo 'A. Wilson' composition. It's a rocker, but not an "epic" or a "mystical" or a "psychedelic" rocker - it's a barroom rocker, basically, a mini-slab of enjoyable, but un-outstanding boogie. The only reason for its existence, the way I see it, is for Heart to prove they could do barroom boogie. Well, they could. Still, Ann Wilson is no Joan Jett, and a song like 'Kick It Out' really presupposes torn jeans or, at the least, tight leather pants rather than Gothic-style black dresses and Middle-Earth-era red capes.

Yet a song is good when it is well written and well performed, after all, so count me puzzled, but well-fed anyway. Same goes for the title track. I personally do not remember any First Age prophecies that predicted Heart would go funky on our asses one day (well, don't blame me if I missed it - been a long time since I last opened The Silmarillion), and I am not sure their interpretation of funk could ever kick the ground from under George Clinton's feet, but they're not really in it for the groove, they're in it for the melody, and the melody is fine. No generic verse structures, no generic choruses - and plenty of emotional expression in every line. The lyrical matter is what's generic about the song, but then if Ray Davies could write billions of songs about the downsides of social success and get away with it, surely Heart could be excused for making just one attempt. Then there's the completely unexpected middle section, pleading and complaining and wailing and balladeering and much more in line with "formulaic Heart", and it contrasts nicely with all the funk-age.

The rest of the album is mostly acoustic-based, yet the overall atmosphere is quite 'Barracuda'-ish: bitter and fearful, much more so than the generally optimistic daydreaming of Annie. (Certainly may have something to do with personal relations between the girls and their lovers/colleagues among the rest of the band, but I've shed enough crocodile tears investigating the story of Fleetwood Mac already, so I'm not going to bother about details this time). This is also a serious factor in raising the Zeppelinism level, because the more bitter it gets, the more ground Carole King, James Taylor, and Karen Carpenter are ready to cede to Page and Plant. 'Love Alive', the big hit from the album, certainly sounds like it belongs on Led Zeppelin III rather than Sweet Baby James, a bit 'Gallows Pole'-ish in its mood and structure, although not nearly as desperate. (And much more memorable - hope you forgot to bring along the rotten tomatoes!).

Side B, after the title track has passed you by, gets seriously mushy, and that's my main reason for stealing that one lonesome point leading to Heart-level perfection. There's a feel-good send-up called 'Say Hello' which is truly out of place in every respect - not only is it way too demonstratively cheerful, it's also somewhat of a cross between country music and calypso, which makes it an even odder inclusion than 'Kick It Out'. Still, as usual, can't deny the extravagance and unordinariness of the vocal melody. 'Treat Me Well' and 'Cry To Me', the two ballads that surround this oddity, however, are far from being immediately rewarding. If you have enough free time in your pocket to wait for a couple of slow, subtle, lazy-moving, peak-less ballads to seduce you, be my guest. I personally don't. But since these early Heart records just seem to have a style that's overall to my liking, I'm ready to call this stuff "pleasantly mediocre" rather than "unpleasantly so", and for the moment, leave it at that.

It's possible that they didn't have enough material written to fill up the album, too, which is why there's this lengthy bloated instrumental ('Go On Cry', obviously intended as an extension of 'Cry To Me') occupying six minutes at the end. But it's a cool one. I like the way they're slowly building up tension, with Fisher playing these minimalistic riffs one by one and then, of course, Ann's climactic "merger" with the soft vocal harmonies, when the 'go on cry, cry, cry' screaming unexpectedly appears out of the regular din. It isn't special, but it's got some kind of dynamics, and, most importantly, some kind of purpose to it. The whole album, from start to finish, reads like one big lament, with a couple occasional shifts of atmosphere for comfort, and 'Go On Cry' is as natural a conclusion for this as 'Dreamboat Annie' was for the rose-coloured romanticism of the 1976 record.



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

"Magazine"? More like "exercise-book", if you ask me.

Best song: HEARTLESS

Track listing: 1) Heartless; 2) Devil Delight; 3) Just The Wine; 4) Without You; 5) Magazine; 6) Here Song; 7) Mother Earth Blues; 8) I've Got The Music In Me.

There's this funny feeling I can't describe - but y'all have probably experienced it, too, sometime or other, maybe in different circumstances. A certain piece of art goes down well and smooth for you, rich in form, rewarding in substance, something that brings you both enjoyability and inspiration. Then you take another piece of art by the same artist - and it seems like they got it all going on the same level, but the key is missing. Same style, same goals, same people - but it still feels like the pancakes have been stripped of the syrup. No, wait, that was a shitty analogy (and I don't even like maple). Feels like a Pulp Fiction stripped of the dialogue, I'd say.

Hearing Magazine for the first time right after Heart's first two albums was a severe letdown of that kind. All the elements are there: hard rock, folk rock, production lushness, Ann's powerhouse singing, Zeppelinisms, cool guitar tones... but it just doesn't seem right, and it takes a lot more time to get used to. It was almost unimaginable how they could so quickly have rolled down into mediocrity - and so my first hypothesis was that Magazine was forcibly rushed by the studio; indeed, on the whole it does give out an impression of having been recorded in one day. There are even covers on here, a thing to which the Wilson sisters had never stooped before. How's that for size?

Historical research, however, clears up the picture. Apparently, Magazine is not really Heart's third album - in a certain way, it is their first. What it contains are mostly outtakes from the band's early recording sessions; it is not quite clear whether the band really wanted to put it out or only did that in order to fulfill a contractual obligation to their early minor label, saving up the real "meat" like Little Queen for Capitol. Therefore, if you really want to have your Heart in chronological order, feel free to skip this one and move right on to Dog & Butterfly - and return to Magazine later if the band totally got you in its sway. This stuff has them young, inexperienced, derivative, and still finding their way.

That said, the record isn't really bad. It's fun, and has plenty of entertainment value - provided you can deal with the corniness, which might be a little overflowing at times. Besides, it's just a classic case of observing beginning songwriters slowly learning their craft; some of it is really bad in the "bad for beginner, but shows certain promise" way, and by merely observing the differences between this album and Dreamboat Annie it is possible to learn a few lessons if you, too, happen to be a beginning songwriter. The most obvious clue is the lyrics, I guess. Listen to this: 'Lover and fool, glass and jewel, the potion / Comedy, tragedy, making the game, emotion / On your toes, do the gambling roll for your fortune / We fall for love from up above the ocean'. Hopefully, you find this just as bad as I do - pretense incarnate, piling up cliches without having enough willpower to bring them to your service. Now compare this to some of the stuff on the band's official debut and see just how far they had gone in, what, less than a year or so? Or check out the difference between 'Just The Wine' ('waiting for the bus / will that be us?' - priceless!) and a similar-style lush ballad like 'I'll Be Your Song' - the latter sounds light years more mature and wisened up than its inane predecessor. Fun stuff!

According to the unwritten tradition, Magazine begins with a rocker - almost self-ironically titled 'Heartless'. You can, of course, feel the problems mounting already: you know you are in trouble when the first rocker on a Heart album does not begin with a classy, priceless riff; and you're in still deeper trouble when that song turns out to be the best tune on the album. Somehow even without a monster riff, 'Heartless' manages to cook, no doubt due to Ann's outstanding performance, especially during the chorus, which has her at her most powerful, more so than on both 'Magic Man' and 'Barracuda'. There's also a good use of the Moog synth, some nice guitar soloing, and that trademark abrupt ending that is so typical of Heart's "major" rockers.

After that, it's a long downhill ride, but, like I said, not devoid of its campy pleasures. The Zeppelin influence is much more pronounced on these early tunes than in Heart's 'mature', more independent days, which is best seen on tracks like 'Devil Delight' - a long mystical early-prog-metal indulgence with plenty of wailing guitar and wailing Plant-a-genet vocals from Ann. Some of the riffage, in fact, is carried over from 'No Quarter', although the song is consciously more fiery and hellish (and cartoonish) than Zep's cold-as-ice viking saga. Too bad that it's basically all attitude and too little in terms of songwriting; the coolest bit comes at the end, with a multi-tracked echoey Ann screaming 'DEVIL! DEVIL!' from different parts of your speakers.

It also turns out that in these early days the Wilson sisters and their professional male friends had a penchant for the classic blues form - gee, just like Zeppelin! - and were not even above inserting a few lines from 'You Shook Me' into a live performance of the traditional 'Mother Earth Blues' (provided that's really a live performance; it segues straight into 'I've Got The Music In Me' with a brief separation through audience applause, but it doesn't exactly seem to start off as a live performance, if you know what I mean). Their blueswailing is mostly perfunctory, but every time I hear Ann going 'you know you shook me baby, you shook me all night long', I can't help but wonder about how explosive a combination of Ann Wilson and Jimmy Page would actually have been. Hey, heretic thought, but maybe I would be a bigger fan of Zeppelin if the band had a real female lead singer instead of a male singer trying to sound like a female?..

The album's centerpiece, supposedly, is the title track, but that's one song I've never been able to make head or tails of. Lyrically, 'Little Queen' does the character-putdown thing much more effectively; and musically, it does not sound unlike one of those lengthy mid-period Eagles epics, very important and "deep" but smooth and sliding like a well-polished IKEA plastic panel. Some of the vocal lines are pretty, some of the guitar soloing at the end is nimble, but overall, there doesn't seem to be any direction; the band is just cruising around, playing meaningless, unmemorable roots-rock lines one after the other, desperately waiting until somebody gets the nerve to call it quits.

Pretty much the same can be said about ballads like 'Just The Wine' and 'Here Song' - pretty and smooth, but without a goddamn hook in sight; on 'Just The Wine', it doesn't look like there was any composing at all - the lyrics are inane, the verse structure is primitive, the entire point depends on whether Ann's vocal talent alone is able to pull the song through, but much as I respect Ann Wilson, there's plenty of great female vocalists out there, and many of these are willing to marry their vocal talents to good melodies. Well, so would Ann, eventually, but definitely not on here. As if in desperation, they fall back on cover material, doing a powerhouse version of Badfinger's 'Without You' almost two decades before Mariah Carey repeated the ordeal - and two things are obvious from it: a) at this early point in their career, Pete Ham was inarguably a much better songwriter; b) it is not a very good idea to take a potential power ballad - because in Badfinger's hands, it was exactly that - and turn it into a real power ballad. I admit that Ann's range and force knocks out the entire Badfinger team in less than one round, but the question is if a song like 'Without You' really requires that effort; and it definitely does not require power-ballad-style guitar playing, because we're entering Scorpions territory here, and I'd rather be devoured by lowercase scorpions than have anything to do with the uppercase ones.

In the end, I would have probably rated this lower, if it weren't for the delicious little funky romp at the end, the crowd-pleasing 'I've Got The Music In Me'. It's nice to know that Heart could give their listeners a real good dancey time without having to resort to 'We Will Rock You'-like sentiments, instead, going for a much more respectable soul/gospel/R'n'B-influenced tradition. It's not something you can easily hear on your average Heart album. In fact, if there's any obvious merits to Magazine, it's diversity - it has a little bit of everything that Heart were ever interested in during their glory and pre-glory days, and even when the songs are bad, they're usually bad in different ways, which at least makes the album easier to review, if little else.



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

Vying for the "Queens of MOR" status? Not a pretty picture, but at least they still write them songs.


Track listing: 1) Cook With Fire; 2) High Time; 3) Hijinx; 4) Straight On; 5) Dog & Butterfly; 6) Lighter Touch; 7) Nada One; 8) Mistral Wind.

Okay, so maybe they were fooling everybody with the outtakes thing. Because, no matter how you look at it, Dog & Butterfly only marginally improves on Magazine's song quality. It does have quite a different batch of problems all its own, though. And the main problem is not that the girls start running out of hooks - the main problem is they're somehow trying to keep up with the times. With Led Zeppelin way too busy about their personal problems to provide a guiding light any longer, the Wilson sisters can't help but start looking for other major influences on the commercially successful hard rock scene. And find them, they do - everywhere, beginning with Rush and ending with Foreigner.

Now let me get this straight: Dog & Butterfly is anything but close to the uber-slick, hornier-than-thou Heart of the mid-Eighties. The new styles and values have not arrived yet, and Heart always follow, never lead (except in the feminist sense, of course, but I'm not turning this into a discussion of Heart's influence on Liz Phair and Alanis Morrisette). It's a listenable, decent-sounding record, made by real living and breathing people playing normal guitars, acceptable keyboards, and respectable drums. So if you're a big fan of the first two albums, I wouldn't dream of blacklisting this stuff for you; it's much closer in scope to "classic" Heart than it is to the second phase of their career.

Unfortunately, style is not enough. And even if style is enough, I don't appreciate this particular twist on this particular style. All this newly-found funkiness ('Straight On', in fact, is almost disco!), the way I see it, serves only to mask the lack of good riffs. Second time in a row, they open a record with a ballsy rocker that doesn't have one, and this time around, there's no excuse at all, because these are all new songs. Second time in a row this ballsy rocker is the best song on the album (actually, fourth time, but the first two times there was some harsh fiery competition going on). The only difference is that 'Cook With Fire' was apparently recorded live, and thus manages to kick a bit more ass.

Another thing is I can't imagine, for the life of me, why they suddenly decided to pull a Rod Stewart and divide the album into a "hard" and "soft" side. It's hard to say whether the sequencing on preceding albums was perfect, but it's generally easier on the ears when you have ballads alternating with rockers rather than vice versa; I mean, the practice of such an alternation was hardly a random choice of the moment once LPs became a regular art form. I could at least tolerate the decision on a consistently enjoyable record, but not on a record where I am menaced by having to sit through several boring ballads in a row, begging for mercy and receiving none from these killer females.

On the plus side, I can just sit through the "hard" side and leave the "soft" one for the vultures, as they don't even begin to compare in quality. The hookiest song on here is 'Straight On', although that's not saying much; with the disco craze on, they just had to do something strictly and sternly rhythmic with funky licks on top, and the result is something so overtly fake, artificial, unauthentic, non-genuine, and whatever synonyms there are for this thing, that against this background, all of Heart's Led Zeppelin tributes begin to sound like they were written by Led Zeppelin themselves. That said, I'm pretty much used to soulless material, and in terms of pure form, I can appraise it. It is better than Foreigner, anyway, because the guitar tones are more human-like, and I'll take Ann Wilson's pipes over Lou Kilogramm any time of the eon. But whatever happened to the time when they could have hooks and feeling at the same time?

Elsewhere, they seem to be taking cues from AC/DC and Bad Company. The opening chords of 'High Time' sound just like those Young chords played at the introduction to a good chunk of their rockers, and the rhythmics is surprisingly AC/DC-like as well, although the general mood of the song is, of course, far more playful and optimistic than anything these grim Australians have ever essayed. In terms of atmosphere, it's basically 'Kick It Out Vol. 2', and the star of the show is Fisher, who is now preferring to steal it with broken up, heavily syncopated lead lines rather than epic post-psychedelic bluesy solos. As for 'Hijinx', I can really imagine it sung by the likes of Paul Rogers - the song is simple enough to be taken on by the classic lineup of Bad Company, and the vocal melody serves as a polygon for a lot of oohing, aaahing, and various other interjections stressing the groove potential.

So far, the entertainment isn't that bad. Repeated listens, in fact, have convinced me that this is not so much worthless as simply different. But then there's the second side, and a huge chunk of it is just plain Godawful. Sure, Heart have written and performed boring songs before; however, they have never yet stooped to offensive boredom, and now the taboo is broken with 'Lighter Touch', a bland, hookless, and yet tremendously overblown power ballad, with rote, perfunctory solos and fully predictable chord sequences - the kind of material that even the much-maligned ABBA would probably never have touched with a ten-foot white glitzy scarf. As if that wasn't enough, they quickly follow it up with 'Nada One', a less annoying, almost purely acoustic ballad that is nevertheless just as pompous and unmemorable. As if that wasn't enough, they conclude the infamous trilogy with 'Mistral Wind', which finally redeems the preceding crimes with a frightening, if overtly simplistic, guitar riff and a dark, brooding mood - but not before we've been treated to a two-minute acoustic prelude that's basically more of the same yawnfest.

It's not the lack of catchy moments that really throws my cross off its cathedral, though. It's the lack of face. At least these songs could have some of that old Heart mystique. 'Dream Of The Archer', 'Soul Of The Sea' - weren't those long, not always consistent ballads too? But they had that lovely energy captured within the acoustic instrument, and they had dynamics and progression and crap, and you actually cared about what was going on. Here, first I get a generic 'raise-your-voice-to-heaven' piece of shit power ballad; next, I get a so-so acoustic mantra that never goes anywhere I haven't been during its first fifteen seconds. You try reclining back in your chair, closing your eyes and romantically intoning 'nada one, nada one, nada one' for a few minutes, see if that's gonna get you some kind of positive effect aside from getting your brains rid of superfluous thoughts and ideas. I feel like going into a coma every time I try to concentrate on this stuff. And that's one thing I was never warned of about these Heart albums. If I want coma, I'll take it from somebody like Brian Eno.

So when 'Mistral Wind', for a few minutes, brings the dynamics and mystique back, it's a big relief, although the style of the song is more Rush than Zeppelin, and that can't be too positive. But when these big grungy chords are played at top volume and Ann's shrieking blasts come tearing them apart from the other side, it's a pretty strong emotional moment nevertheless. Which, I guess, makes 'Mistral Wind' a rather fitting epic to conclude the "main" part of their historical legacy. However, it is not 'Mistral Wind' that gets the honour of best song on Side Two; it's the side opener, 'Dog And Butterfly' itself. I sometimes think that the pseudo-Chinese picture on the album sleeve is the coolest thing about the whole experience, but the ballad matches it fair and square. Mostly acoustic just like 'Nada One', but contemplative rather than comatose, using a faux-Far Eastern parable (maybe a real parable, I'm not informed here) to illustrate the constant battle of the sexes, with an untrivial, complex chorus that actually grows upon you with time. Look at that chorus, treasure it, that's how a good folksy chorus is written: level, level, up, up, pause, pause - down and logical conclusion. Don't forget to bring in a singer as cool as Ann Wilson, though; what's the use of good dough if you can't find a suitable icing?

Scary, but true: it's not "debilisation" that killed off this band, it's their hunt for new sounds and meanings, which they had the misfortune to initiate during a particularly lame period for mainstream hard rock. After this album, guitarist Roger Fisher left, and I can't blame him, because I would probably have done the same, even if my reasons might have been different from his. That said, Dog & Butterfly does have a few gems scattered among the mediocrity, and a middle-of-the-road Heart album is still way better than so much of its competition.


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