Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Why Enuff Z'Nuff Is THE Band to See Live

Photo by Alex Ruffini

It ain’t always easy being one of the best bands in Rock ‘n’ Roll.

As seen in this website’s coverage of Enuff Z’Nuff in recent years (links below), this long-running band is still out there releasing stellar albums decades after their late-’80s commercial heyday. Fronted for nearly a decade now by bassist/singer and sole original member Chip Z’Nuff, the quartet (completed by former Ultravox frontman Tony Fennell on guitar, drummer Daniel Hill and guitarist Tory Stoffregen) recently hit Laconia, NH on the Glam Slam Metal Jam Tour with Pretty Boy Floyd and The Midnight Devils. Thirty years ago, Enuff Z’ Nuff was on Arista Records and playing on Late Night with David Letterman. Now, the fellas are signed to an indie label in Italy and just played in the Granite State for about 30 people on a rainy (and surprisingly cold) June night. Now, there are plenty of still-running bands from the ’80s Glam Metal scene whose lack of substance deserves such a cruel fate, but Enuff Z’Nuff isn’t one of them.

While some releases in the band’s 20-plus album discography are stronger than others, these guys – regardless of the lineup – have never once written a bad song. And these aren’t just disposable Glam/Hair Metal songs, folks. At its best, Enuff Z’Nuff gives its Illinois brethren Cheap Trick a run for its money. Take a close listen to 1991’s Strength, a masterclass in Powerpop songwriting and an album that stands up to – and, in terms of quality, often eclipses – the most celebrated records of the decade. (There’s a reason why Rolling Stone named Enuff Z’Nuff “The Hot Band of 1991.”) Hell, if Nirvana hadn’t dropped Nevermind about six month after Strength’s release, there’s a very strong chance Enuff Z’Nuff would have ended up filling arenas instead of playing mostly to the bar staff in Nowhere, New England in 2022. Enuff Z’Nuff’s lack of long-lasting mainstream success is one of the biggest crimes in music history.

Fortunately, the small crowd size didn’t seem to matter in the slightest to Chip and Co., who delivered a flawless headline set that leaned heavily on Strength, 1989’s Enuff Z’Nuff and last year’s Beatles tribute album Hardrock Night with a couple of deep cuts (including “The Love Train” off 1993’s Animals with Human Intelligence) thrown in for good measure. Musically, the band was in top form. (Full marks to Hill, whose solid, meat-and-potatoes drumming kept the energy flowing throughout the set. Any band would be lucky to have him.)

Image has always been a blessing and a curse for Enuff Z’Nuff. The dayglo Glam of the classic video for 1989’s “New Thing” earned the group plenty of attention, but it also stuck the guys in time. Unfortunately, most music fans listen with their eyes first, which has made everything this band has done in the past 30-plus years an uphill climb. Interestingly, today’s Enuff Z’Nuff looks almost nothing like it did way back in the ’80s. Sure, Chip still dons the big sunglasses and dresses like an acid trip in corporeal form (and I love him for that!), but the rest of the band’s look is decidedly low-key. If anything, they look like any other bunch of nondescript musicians you’d find at a local club on a Saturday night – and this is actually a great thing. With the pomp and poses stripped away, the current incarnation of Enuff Z’Nuff has only the quality of its material to win over a crowd – and that is and has always been more than (ahem) enough.

Do yourself a favor and see this band live at your earliest opportunity. This is as real as music gets.

More on Chip Z'Nuff/Enuff Z'Nuff on This Site:

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

'18' Again: Johnny Depp Rediscovers the Spirit of Youth with Jeff Beck

Photo by Christie Goodwin

Here’s some news on Johnny Depp that’s infinitely more interesting than… well… you know…

Although Depp is best known as a world-class actor, the guy’s history as a musician dates back decades. Long before he became a king of the cinema, he was an early member of Rock City Angels, legit and brilliant (and, naturally, criminally underrated) Glam Metal almost-weres who had a sound that mixed the filthy swagger of Appetite For Destruction-era Guns N’ Roses with the pristine songwriting sensibilities of Hanoi Rocks. A few years and a few million dollars later, Depp joined forces with Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes for P, a short-lived project that issued a one-and-done album (produced by Pigface/Butthole Surfers/Rollins Band bassist Andrew Weiss) in 1995. In more recent times, he has played alongside Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry as a member of the supergroup Hollywood Vampires. More than just a famous actor indulging his inner rock star, Depp is actually the real deal who was writing and performing music long before he found fame on the big screen (and even on the small screen, as his stint with Rock City Angels roughly coincided with the early days of his eventual breakout role on the show 21 Jump Street).

Now, Depp is making music-related headlines via his collaboration with none other than Jeff fucking Beck. After first meeting six years ago, the duo quickly bonded over cars and music. Beck soon urged Depp to strap on a guitar and record some music with him. The result is 18, an album of covers (plus two original Depp compositions) recorded over the past three years and out July 15. The album’s track listing is as unexpected as the collaboration itself: Covers range from The Beach Boys (“Caroline, No”) and The Everly Brothers (“Let It Be Me”) to The Velvet Underground (“Venus In Furs”) and (get this!) Killing Joke (The Death And Resurrection Show”).

“When Johnny and I started playing together, it really ignited our youthful spirit and creativity,” Beck says. “We would joke about how we felt 18 again, so that just became the album title, too.”

To drive the point home, the album cover – drawn and designed by Beck’s wife, Sandra – is an illustration of Beck and Depp as 18-year-olds.

Naturally, Depp is quick to express his enthusiasm over working with such a musical giant.

“It’s an extraordinary honor to play and write music with Jeff, one of the true greats and someone I am now privileged enough to call my brother.”

Beck wastes no time in returning the compliment.

“I haven’t had another creative partner like him for ages! He was a major force on this record. I just hope people will take him seriously as a musician, because it’s a hard thing for some people to accept that Johnny Depp can sing rock and roll.”

So…what does this record actually sound like? Well, based on the two advance tracks supplied to this writer, not bad at all. The pair’s rendition of “Venus In Furs” pays due respect to the primitive eeriness of the Velvets’ original while simultaneously restructuring it in more palatable terms for mass consumption. The track also features some of the most incendiary playing that Beck has put on disc in quite some time (especially once the tune hits the 3:16 mark). And while Depp is certainly no Lou Reed, his Gothy vocal delivery adds enough dark charm to make the whole thing work.

The album’s first single, the Depp-penned “This Is A Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr,” finds the former Edward Scissorhands channeling Hunky Dory-era David Bowie as he ruminates on the downside of fame. (As Depp forlornly sings in the songs chorus: “I don’t believe humans anymore.”) While it’s not quite a Tom Waits-quality lyrical examination of a fallen lady, it’s still a fascinating listen that shines a worthy spotlight on a revolutionary actress whose life was utterly fascinating in and out of Hollywood. (Love having WiFi? Well, Hedy’s largely responsible for its very existence. Really. Look it up.)
The verdict so far? These two tracks are certainly good enough to pique my interest, and I look forward to hearing the rest of this album. Also, anything that gives due props to Hedy Lamarr and Killing Joke deserves an approving nod. (Despite being largely underwhelmed by the recent live video of Beck and Depp taking on the Killing Joke number, I’ll reserve my final judgment on the merits of this Herculean effort for when I hear the recorded version on 18. Godspeed, gentlemen.)

Johnny Depp has seen his fair share of controversy in recent years. If nothing else, 18 will give him (and his supporters) a welcome palate cleanser and an opportunity to simply rock – something the guy’s been doing for decades with or without the glare of the media’s spotlight.

Bring it on, Captain Jack.

JEFF BECK AND JOHNNY DEPP: 18 – Track Listing:

1. Midnight Walker (Davy Spillane cover)
2. Death And Resurrection Show (Killing Joke cover)
3. Time (Dennis Wilson cover)
4. Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade (Johnny Depp original)
5. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Beach Boys cover)
6.This Is A Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr (Johnny Depp original)
7. Caroline, No (Beach Boys cover)
8. Ooo Baby Baby (The Miracles cover)
9. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye cover)
10. Venus In Furs (The Velvet Underground cover)
11. Let It Be Me (The Everly Brothers cover)
12. Stars (Janis Ian cover)
13. Isolation (John Lennon cover)*

*Available on digital and CD version only

Jeff Beck

Johnny Depp

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Friday, June 17, 2022

Catching Up with Chip Z'Nuff, the Hardest-Working Man in Rock 'n' Roll (Really!)

Way back in late 1983, Chicago multi-instrumentalist Chip Z’Nuff and his then-musical partner, Donnie Vie, began recording primitive demos of tunes for what would become the band Enuff Z’Nuff. With a sound more akin to The Beatles and Squeeze than Bang Tango and Sleeze Beez, the duo crafted a deep well of material that stood out like a sore thumb among their Glam Metal contemporaries. Sure, Enuff Z’Nuff looked the part themselves (especially via their videos for “New Thing” and “Fly High Michelle” off 1989’s eponymous Atco Records debut), but the band always had extraordinary Pop sensibilities hidden under all that makeup and hairspray. In an era that produced more style than substance, Enuff Z’Nuff was always a cut above the rest. (Just take a listen to the slice of utter Powerpop perfection that is 1991’s “Baby Loves You.” Case closed.) Enuff Z’Nuff is a band with songs, which is precisely why it is still alive and well after nearly 40 years and 20-plus albums.

That’s not to say that it’s been an easy career for these guys. After a major label run that left Enuff Z’ Nuff in debt more than it made it a household name, the band has spent the past two-plus decades slugging it out in the indie world amidst frequent lineup changes (including a stint with former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee in tow). Vie jumped ship nine years ago, leaving Chip – the group’s sole original member – to carry on in the vocal position in addition to playing bass. With Chip at the helm, Enuff Z’Nuff has released a series of albums on Italy’s Frontiers Music that stand up to – and often eclipse the quality of – the records released during the group’s glory years. In fact, the past 12 months alone have been one of the most active and creative times in the band’s history.

In June 2021, Enuff Z’Nuff joined Faster Pussycat for the Straight Outta Quarantine Tour, which gave fans a much-needed dose of live Rock after far too many months away. Not surprisingly, Chip was thrilled to finally get back on the road.

“We were probably the first band to go out there and do a substantial tour this whole shutdown, and it was fabulous.”

Last November, Enuff Z’Nuff wore its Beatles fandom on its sleeve like never before with the release of Hardrock Night, a collection of covers of some of the Fab Four’s greatest hits.

“We looked at stuff off Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. We thought there were enough songs on just those three records to put together a whole Beatles reinterpretation,” Chip recalls. “I think we’re the first Rock band that’s ever taken the approach of doing a whole album of nothing but Beatles songs. I know Stone Temple Pilots, Styx, Cheap Trick and countless other bands have covered a song or two, but I don’t think anyone’s covered [an entire album of] songs. Perhaps it was a difficult task to get the licensing for all these songs, but Paul and Ringo have given us the thumbs up. Whenever you get the endorsement of the kings, you can’t go wrong right there.”

The seeds for Hardrock Night were planted years ago when Chip was approached by a tour promoter to participate in a proposed Beatles tribute supergroup alongside former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke, Mr. Big’s Paul Gilbert and drum legend Mike Portnoy (Winery Dogs/ex Dream Theatre). Although the plan never came to fruition, the bassist decided to put the idea down on record when COVID-19 prevented Enuff Z’Nuff from properly touring in support of its 2020 album, Brainwashed Generation. As a result, Hardrock Night was actually done and dusted more than a year before its release.

“In the old days, bands would put out a couple of records a year. We didn’t want to rest on our laurels; we wanted to put this record out right away. We weren’t lazy; we went into the studio and kept recording as much as we could. The biggest fear of any artist is running out of songs. How many can you come up with? All the great bands take a long time to put a record together. It’s not easy, but I felt that with this Beatles record, the songs had already been written. It was just a matter of getting some great performances and laying them down in just the right way. It took that much time for our label, Frontiers, to find an open window – because there’s so much product in this day and age – to get the album out in the streets.”

In addition to Enuff Z’Nuff’s spin on several Beatles classics, Hardrock Night gives a nod to the solo careers of Lennon and McCartney. In fact, Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” was the first song recorded for the album.

“I wanted to get some solo stuff on there as well because I think those songs really speak to the fans out there. A lot of people love John’s solo stuff, and they love Paul’s stuff as well.”

For this writer’s money, there’s probably no other band on the planet better suited for a Beatles tribute album. Naturally, Chip is quick to share my enthusiasm for the finished product.

“Every single song is a juggernaut! It’s a great Hard Rock record. If you like Hard Rock and Pop mixed together, you’ve got to check out this album. It’s The Beatles on 10! There’s nothing but smash Hard Rock beyond belief, in-your-face recordings.”

Only four months after the release of Hardrock Night, Chip was back with another record – his second solo release, Perfectly Imperfect. A Rock/Powerpop masterpiece and easily one of the year’s finest albums, Perfectly Imperfect is Cheap Trick, The Beatles, Third Eye-era Redd Kross, The Posies, Squeeze, Jellyfish and Enuff Z’Nuff all rolled into one. (Frankly, the songwriting on this thing is downright stunning – among Chip’s best, and that’s really saying something.) Guests on the album include former Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler (on the album’s sole cover – Mott the Hoople’s “Honaloochie Boogie”), Whitesnake’s Joel Hoekstra, Daxx Nielson of Cheap Trick and current Enuff Z’Nuff drummer Daniel Hill.

"All songs are written as I see the world through my rose-colored glasses,” Chip says of the album. “It’s my heroin letter to the new generation!”

That’s not all, folks. The summer of 2021 saw the release of Never Enuff: Rarities & Demos, a three-CD/four-LP box set on Deadline Music/Cleopatra Records that collects previously unreleased recordings from back when Enuff Z’Nuff was just Chip and Donnie Vie putting down rough songs on four-and-eight-track recorders. (Chip plays guitar and live/programmed drums on several tracks in addition to bass.) Although the recordings obviously don’t boast the sheen of an Atco Records production, Never Enuff is still quite possibly the only box set in existence that doesn’t have one second of filler. Chip was thrilled to see these early numbers finally hit the public.

“We never thought that would see the light of day. Songs are like embryos; you hang on to them and you don’t want anybody to see them until they’re ready and fully developed. So, those tracks were just sitting in a vault in my library. Brian Perera at Cleopatra Records approached me and said, ‘Hey, we want to put out your catalogue.’ I talked to Donnie’s management company. After many trials and tribulations, we released a record of all the stuff I saved. It has a great energy to it! Remember – these were all done on little DAT tapes and stuff. There was no adding or subtracting; all we could do was go in and master the record. We listened to the 60 or so songs that we had, and we picked the best 40 of them and put them all together on three discs.”

In addition to Chip and Hill, the current lineup of Enuff Z’Nuff features guitarists Tony Fennell (also known for his stint as vocalist for Ultravox) and Tory Stoffregen. The band is currently ripping it up on the road on the Glam Slam Metal Jam Tour with Pretty Boy Floyd. Last month, Chip, Hill and Stoffregen toured the US as the backing band for Chicago rocker Steve Ramone, who served as the opening act for UK legends The Quireboys. Since Chip presumably never sleeps, he also filled in on bass for The Quireboys for the trek. In 2022, you’d be hard-pressed to find a harder working man in Rock ‘n’ Roll. And of course, a new Enuff Z’Nuff studio album is right around the corner.

Nearly a decade after Vie’s departure made him the frontman of the band he co-founded way back in ’83, Chip Z’Nuff is still in the game and shows no signs of slowing down – proof that the real thing will always persevere despite the odds.

“The Good Lord works in mysterious ways. It’s a blessing from above for sure. I’m not a super-religious guy, but that’s the truth. The songs come from somewhere, and it’s a blessing that we’re still going after all these years. Nobody puts a band together and gears it up for failure, okay? I always thought we’d be going for the longest time. The last [other] original guy left, and it’s certainly been tough dealing with that throughout the years, but I think I’ve found my footing. I wear this dress well now.”

The Glam Slam Metal Jam Tour with Enuff Z'Nuff hits the Granite State Music Hall in Laconia, NH tomorrow night. Go here for tickets.

More on Chip Z'Nuff/Enuff Z'Nuff on This Site:

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Sunday, June 5, 2022

A Diamond Star Comeback: Def Leppard Still Matters

“If alcoholism, car crashes and cancer couldn’t kill us, the ’90s had no fucking chance.”

When Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott spoke these words during his band’s acceptance speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in 2019, he added an air of levity and confidence to one of the rockiest narratives in music history. In addition to losing one member to addiction (guitarist Steve Clark, who left us in 1991) and almost losing one in a devastating car accident (drummer Rick Allen, who lost an arm in 1984) and another to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Clark’s replacement, Vivian Campbell, who’s still very much with us), the band struggled to overcome another near-fatal calamity at various points throughout the 90s and well into the early 2000s: Declining public interest. This writer will never forget the sight of Def Leppard playing to a crowd of… hundreds… in San Bernardino, CA in 2005 as the opening act for Bryan Adams. It was a far cry from the band’s arena-conquering heights of yesterday and a clear sign that things were not going particularly well for one of the leading bands of the 1980s.

Of course, anyone remotely familiar with Def Leppard’s history should have known it would come back swinging one of these days. After all, 1987’s mega-selling Hysteria – the band’s major comeback following Allen’s accident – came out 35 years ago. The very fact that the band’s still in business after all this time is certainly enough reason to still have faith.

Well, great things come to those who wait.

After a string of fairly lukewarm albums that did little to elevate the band back to its past glories, the lads from Sheffield have finally delivered a (mostly) molten course correction with the recently released Diamond Star Halos.

Before diving in, let’s first get two critical things out of the way…

1. Def Leppard ceased being a dirty Rock band after 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry. Full stop. No amount of yearning for the past – and nothing on Diamond Star Halos – will ever reverse this fact.

2. Does Diamond Star Halos measure up to the band’s first four albums? Of course not. Is this still the best record these guys have put out since 1992’s Adrenalize and a helluva lot better than anyone could have reasonably expected the band to be at this stage of the game? Without question.

The members of Def Leppard have always readily acknowledged the internal impact of the ’70s Rock era that spawned them. Although they frequently displayed this fandom on their previous 11 albums – just listen to the clearly Thin Lizzy-inspired twin guitar opening to 1981’s “Bringing On The Heartbreak” and the music-hero-name-checking lyrics to 1987’s “Rocket” for starters – the fellas wear their influences on the sleeves in full force on Diamond Star Halos. Hell, even the album title is a reference to T-Rex’s “Bang A Gong”!

Fans got a taste of the new album’s sonic direction in March with the release of the single “Kick,” an absolutely brilliant throwback to the days when music fans bay city rolled their way to the record shop to purchase Sweet 45s.

While the brightest spots on the rest of the record embrace this retro vibe with great aplomb, they also dig deep into the band’s own classic sound to mine new treasures.

An all-out rocker as good as anything the band did in 1983, album opener “Take What You Want” could easily fit on Pyromania (really!), while “Liquid Dust, “Gimme A Kiss,” “From Here To Eternity,” “All We Need” and the fantastic “SOS Emergency” remind the listener of Hysteria’s strongest tunes without reinstating the heavy layers of synthetic studio magic that often oversaturated that album’s production. In fact, much of Diamond Star Halos – especially in the drum and bass departments – showcases a considerably more organic sound than the band’s standard post-High ‘n’ Dry fare. (Let’s be honest here: As great as Hysteria is and will always be, most of it sounds about as human as an ’80s video game soundtrack.)

The album’s bona fide left-field moment, the midtempo near-Grunge stomper “Open Your Eyes,” finds Def Leppard stretching its musical legs via some of the most impressive interplay between Allen and bassist Rick Savage ever captured by the duo on record.

On paper, “Goodbye For Good This Time” and “Angels (Can’t Help You Now)” – both featuring former David Bowie sideman Mike Garson on piano – should be terrible: Requisite ballads replete with heavy orchestration and cringe-worthy lyrics that could have been scrolled on a napkin 30 seconds before the “record” button was hit. But when these tracks work, they work: The stringed breakdown at the 2:20 point of “Goodbye” is simply breathtaking, while Elliott’s slightly strained vocal performance on “Angels” adds enough edge to balance out the saccharine.

Unfortunately, not everything could be similarly saved. “Fire It Up” is disposable singalong fluff that would have been better served as a b-side than as the pre-album release single it inexplicably became. Despite its unfortunate title, “U Rok Mi” is okay enough – perfectly passable ’90s-era Leppard but not really much to write home about. The same goes for “Unbreakable,” a potentially killer number hamstrung by a head-scratching Pop production better suited for a Katy Perry song.

The two songs that feature Country-Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss range from somewhat tolerable (the appropriately named “Lifeless”) to downright insufferable (the horrendous “This Guitar”). Crossover tracks aren’t inherently bad when the combinations add something of value – both creatively and commercially – to the participants (and Krauss is certainly brilliant in her own right as an individual artist), but including these steam-depleting tracks on Diamond Star Halos is a concept that falls flat. When it comes to Diamond Star Halos’ low points, I suspect that at least some of this record was conceived in a boardroom.

From a marketing perspective, Diamond Star Halos hits all the necessary beats without challenging the listening public too much. From a lifelong fan’s perspective, I wish the band had dumped at least five of the album’s 15 tracks.

To be fair, Diamond Star Halos has the lofty task of appealing to three vastly different groups within Def Leppard’s current fanbase: The casual music fans who only know the hits, the middle-aged Pyromania/Hysteria fanatics and the old-school Metal headbangers who will always think “Wasted” off 1980’s On Through The Night is the best song the band ever wrote. Despite its occasional missteps, Diamond Star Halos largely succeeds in keeping everyone happy – and that’s all we should ask of any veteran act still releasing new music in 2022.

Flawed but still highly recommended.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Saturday, June 4, 2022

REVIEW - The Ancients: Leveler

Although former New Jersey/current Nashville-based singer Fred Schreck is not a household name, he has been the voice of some of the most exciting American Alternative music of the past three-plus decades.

Way back in 1991, Schreck made a name for himself in New York City’s then-thriving underground music scene via the eponymous debut album by his band, The Ancients. Regulars at CBGB and the Luna Lounge and championed by none other than Joey Ramone, The Ancients seemed destined for greatness. Unfortunately, the band never gained widespread attention outside of its local scene and imploded before achieving mainstream success. Schreck soon re-emerged as the singer for Crush, a short-lived supergroup circa 1993 with former members of Killing Joke and Siouxsie and the Banshees that released a stellar self-titled major label album before suffering a similar fate. Schreck’s inability to break through the second time around said more about the fickle nature of the music business than it did about the man’s gifts at the mic. In a marketplace consumed by Grunge at the time, Schreck’s soulful, Goth-tinged voice was too easily overlooked.

Shortly after the Crush era, Schreck worked on a second Ancient album with longtime collaborator Morgan Visconti and a host of guests (including Killing Joke/Crush drummer Big Paul Ferguson) before the sessions were put on the shelf for nearly 20 years while Schreck relocated to Nashville and pursued an Alternative Country route with a group called The Billygoats. (Schreck’s return to more Rock-oriented sounds roughly a decade ago as a member of the fantastic Satellite Paradiso is also of note.) This long-lost Ancients album, finally released in 2015 as Mind, was easily one of the best records of that year and served as a reminder of Schreck’s strengths as a songwriter and singer.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about Mind at the time:

It would be a shame if the Schreck/Visconti partnership doesn't take advantage of Mind's arrival to create new sounds in the future. The world needs more music as perfect as this.

Thankfully, we finally have it. Released on May 13, The Ancients’ Leveler finds Schreck writing, arranging, producing and performing virtually every note. Initially conceived by Schreck as a solo project during lockdown, the album became the third official Ancients album upon Visconti’s return to co-write and perform various sonic duties on the track “Nihilist.” With help from Nashville-based engineer Joe Costa (Ben Folds/Amanda Palmer) and occasional contributions from drummers Frank Coleman (Satellite Paradiso/Bentmen/Secret Agent) and David “Pup” Roberts and guitarist Rich Pilger (perhaps best known among New Jersey music scene aficionados as a member of ’80s glam rockers Monroe), Schreck has created a solid new chapter in The Ancients discography and perhaps the most musically varied album in the group’s history.

Here are a few of the release’s many highlights:

The album charges out of the gate with a title track (co-written by Schreck’s old friend and pre-Ancients bandmate David Landolin) that showcases the singer’s exquisite guitar playing - a stunning blend of Schreck’s Satellite Paradiso bandmate John Ashton (The Psychedelic Furs) and the late Andy Gill of Gang of Four. This album opener is followed by the beautifully somber “Blue Seventeen,” a perfect 3am driving song that inspires thoughts of what it would be like if Robert Gordon sang in a David Lynch film. The lush, elegant and multi-layered “Tanto” falls somewhere between the best moments of Peter Murphy’s solo work and Country Life-era Roxy Music, while the brooding “Nihilist” is the track on Leveler that most reminds this writer of The Ancients’ classic ’91 debut. (A reissue of that first album is said to be in the works. I can’t think of a collection of songs more deserving of new life.)

Leveler’s greatest moment, the extraordinary “Blow,” harkens back to the vibe of New York City’s glory years. You can practically smell clove cigarettes and feel the sweat of a packed crowd within the old Limelight’s former church walls as the song – fueled by Schreck’s soaring vocals in the chorus and some truly outstanding drumming by Coleman – plays on. Album closer “The Eastern Sky” (co-written by Pilger, another one of Schreck’s old Jersey pals and pre-Ancients bandmates, who also makes a guest appearance on guitar) brings the proceedings to a rousing conclusion thanks in large part to impressive, effects-laden lead fretwork.

In a 1993 Swedish television interview, Andrew Eldridge of The Sisters of Mercy said the following when discussing why his band hadn’t reached the same level of sales as Roxette and other more successful bands of the era:

“We might not mean as much to as many people, but we mean more to the people that we reach […] Ultimately, if I have to choose between reaching more people or reaching a few people deeper, I would choose to reach a few people deeper every time.”

For my money, there’s no better series of words to also sum up The Ancients’ sporadic existence over the last 30 or so years. The previous two albums released under that moniker didn’t get anywhere near the attention and acclaim they deserved, but those listeners who know Schreck’s work have experienced an artist (italicized for a reason, folks) whose output never fails to intrigue and excite. Leveler is an incredible addition to the Ancients canon and easily one of the strongest albums of 2022. If you’re new to what Schreck has to offer, this is an excellent place to start.

Leveler is available on all streaming platforms.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com