City Paper is not for tourists
Astro-Creep: 2000, Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head
Terry Date is not a member of White Zombie. Nor is he a member of Pantera. Or Prong, or Soundgarden, or the late Mother Love Bone. But Date appears on albums by all these artists, and others. He’s a producer, the guy that assists bands as they record in the studio—twiddling knobs, tweaking amplifiers, directing the musicians’ efforts. Date’s specialty is conjuring a mix that is, succinctly put, ballsy. Huge bass. Huger guitar. Hugest drums. He produced last year’s No. 1 Pantera disc, helmed Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and so on. Now, he’s lent his style to the new album by groove-metal quartet White Zombie.
Three years ago, as copies of its Geffen Records debut La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 gathered dust on the shelves, White Zombie’s record contract was hanging by a thread. Then something weird happened: A year after its release, Sexorcisto started to sell, due in no small part to a push from noted music critics Beavis and Butt-head. An odd mishmash of power chords and B-movie samples, Sexorcisto eventually cleared a million units. White Zombie was a success, albeit a precarious one, considering the MTV demographic’s shifting loyalties.
So, with an eye on Pantera’s prosperity, Date was brought in to record White Zombie’s laboriously titled Astro-Creep: 2000, Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head. As usual, the producer’s technical expertise shines: Creep‘s mix is crisp, loud, and vicious, a gigantic improvement over the muddy strains of Sexorcisto. Unfortunately, Date was unable to prevent some of vocalist Rob Zombie’s more irritating indulgences, such as his penchant for repeatedly shouting “Yeah!” and his tendency to ruin a song’s momentum with extended horror-flick samples. The result is an album that sounds a lot better than it actually is.
Not that Astro-Creep is a dud. A few noteworthy tunes lurk amid its genre-mixing crunch. “Real Solution 9” growls with apocalyptic menace (Zombie is compellingly creepy as he whispers, “I’m already dead, I’m already dead”), while “More Human Than Human” skillfully fuses dance beats, slide guitar, and metal bombast. And the fact that “Blood, Milk and Sky”—with its sprawling rhythms and Middle Eastern accents—is a limpid “Kashmir” rip-off doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
But Astro-Creep has two major shortcomings. The first is its indefatigable pursuit of freak-show atmospherics. White Zombie has always cultivated a kind of shock-flick/splatter-metal ambience—the band’s name is taken from a 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle—and Astro-Creep continues the tradition. The concept even extends to the CD booklet, a lavishly illustrated tome that utilizes such diverse elements as phone-sex advertisements and the cartoons of fundamentalist nutcake Jack Chick. This works well enough for the packaging, but when the gimmicks appear in the music it’s a distraction that kills otherwise enjoyable tracks like “El Phantasmo and the Chicken-Run Blast-o-rama.”
Astro-Creep‘s other weakness is somewhat more formidable: Too many tunes, for all their strained flamboyance, are essentially uninspiring. The trundling lines of “Super-Charger Heaven” and “Creature of the Wheel” show promise, but lack the cataclysmic punch that distinguishes great metal, while the staccato “I, Zombie” and “Blur the Technicolor” flail noisily to little effect.
Granted, Astro-Creep sounds a lot better when you’re cruising down Beach Drive at two in the morning than it does when you’re, say, sitting in a wood-paneled basement in front of a computer screen. Date’s production, coupled with the spare, punchy musicianship of guitarist J. and drummer John Tempesta, make the disc consistently fun, even when the tunes are shallow. But if Rob Zombie really wants to scare his fans, he could learn from Slayer’s 1994 Divine Intervention, which, at just 36 minutes (no samples, hidden tracks, or funny stuff), is far more galvanizing than Astro-Creep, with all its melodrama, could ever be.
Skid Row, on the other hand, is not interested in scaring its fans. Just retaining them. Discovered by pop-metal kingpin Jon Bon Jovi in 1988, the New Jersey quintet’s first album sold mega on the strength of the repulsive preachy power ballad “18 and Life.” Since then, the band has also had a platinum album and a gold EP, but now it’s the mid-’90s, and alternative acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day rule the musicscape. It’s no surprise, then, that superproducer Bob Rock was brought in to oversee Subhuman Race, Skid Row’s first album in three years.
Rock is known not only for producing his trademark huge sound (somewhat warmer and liver than Date’s surgical style), but for single-handedly increasing the profit margins of bands and record companies. His greatest achievement is 1991’s Metallica black album, a chart-pulverizing behemoth that’s still selling briskly more than three years after its release. Rock has also successfully performed studio makeovers for the Cult (Sonic Temple) and Mötley Crüe (Dr. Feelgood). On Subhuman Race, however, Rock falters, as Skid Row teeters between metal’s past and present.
Like Skid Row’s last album, Slave to the Grind, Subhuman Race starts off strong, as the seething lines of “My Enemy” give way to the grim harmonies of “Firesign.” Guitarists Rob Affuso and Snake engagingly play off one another, and Sebastian Bach keeps his vocals restrained and vital. The quintet even breaks out a reasonably convincing punk song, “Bonehead,” an angry little number in which Bach growls, in apparent reference to Kurt Cobain, “Is all your anger force of habit/And keeping you alive/An empty shotgun shooting your mouth off/Something on your mind.”
But that’s about as lively as Subhuman Race gets. On the very next song, “Beat Yourself Blind,” Bach breaks out his arena-metal wail, and the album never recovers. In an effort to incorporate the modern-day ferocity of Metallica and Pantera with their own pop-metal roots, Skid Row comes off sounding unfocused and a little cynical. The epic “Eileen” ‘s spacey vocals and time changes are interminable, while the title track is a bland speed-metal knockoff. At its worst moments, Subhuman Race resembles the resurrected corpse of late-’80s metal: The singsongy “Into Another” recalls—gasp!—Dokken, while the transparent power ballad “Breakin’ Down” is even more awful than its ’80s progenitors.
While Rock, like Date, achieves a great mix for all of these tunes, he can only take the feeble material so far (although his desperation occasionally shows, as the odd acoustic guitar or sitar floats in to shore up a weak melody). This won’t be Rock’s first failure—he also produced Mötley Crüe’s recent comeback effort, which bombed—but he’s likely to bounce back with little difficulty. After all, the success of an album still comes down to a band and its songs, and Rock is not a member of Skid Row.