Rock Album of the Year – 2009 Phoenix Music Awards – 19th Annual LA Music Awards “Falling In Line” “Cut and Paste”
Chris Powers, Chris Catero, Jordan Ziff, Paul Sullivan, Eric Bongiorno
It’s a muthafucker!
“It’s a motherfucker…”
Referencing the chorus lyric of “It’s a Mutha” might just prove to be the best way to describe the new album from rock quintet Razer. Residents of the blistering desert city of Phoenix, AZ (in the summer the city is thought of by many as Satan’s vacation spot – hot as hell with an over abundance of sinful distractions), Razer spent the better part of the last two years crafting their new album. The self-titled affair is a steamy cup of authentic rock-n-roll mo-jo: the swaggering spirit and musicality of 70’s/early 80’s hard rock fused with modern sonic horsepower, all making for a decidedly contemporary yet timeless feeling rock album.
The album is exactly the sort of thing one might expect from a band guided by musical maverick Alan Niven, the legendary producer/composer/manager who’s career credits include giving a kickstart to the likes of Motley Crue, Dokken and Tesla, turning an Orange County bar band named Great White into a multi-platinum selling machine, and perhaps most famously, taking a gang of unwanted street urchins named Guns N’ Roses and steering one of the most brilliantly fabulous disasters in hard rock history straight into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. On the new Razer album, Niven’s contributions helped spark a perfect musical storm within a band loaded with hard rock sensibilities and talent. “Alan was the ideal muse in getting everyone to buy in to the idea of making a rock record on our own terms,” says bassist Chris Catero, who co-produced the album with Niven. “We wanted to do something real, and without any dumbed down musical expectations that all must sound alike and be neatly packaged in a little box. Alan was the absolute perfect partner in making that happen.” Adds Niven, “I wanted to find the authentic heart of this band, its own unique collective sonic consciousness, an identity without musical restrictions or the need for contemporary cliché convention.”
Niven had something to work with in an unassuming group that has still flexed some considerable musical muscle before: vocalist Chris Powers, an absolute powerhouse rock singer, whose prowess is on full display throughout the album, has appeared on various significant tracks. He was, for example, the voice on “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” from the uber popular “Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock” video game. The track was featured in the game’s finale and went on to be downloaded more than 10 million times. Bassist Chris Catero, the band’s primary writer, has served on and off in guitar god Marty Friedman’s touring band as well as having worked with an abundance of rock guitar titans as the head of artist relations at the now defunct Krank Amps. Drummer Eric Bongiorno and guitarist Paul Sullivan, along with Catero, were members of the Metal Blade recording act Wardog. Guitar hero-in-waiting Jordan Ziff, whose soaring and tasteful leads on the album recall the platinum age of rock guitar histrionics, will also be joining the ranks of Marty Friedman’s touring band later this winter.
Razer’s new album was born, phoenix like, from a near band ending experience. Their previous album, “Dark Devotion”, was a solid, radio friendly collection that met with some success at both satellite and terrestrial radio in the U.S. However the frustration of trying to fit in with the vanilla American rock radio format had taken it’s toll – the band fragmented, losing one original member while everyone else was on the verge of calling it quits. Taking some time to step away, Catero started writing music that was near and dear to his heart: 70’s and 80’s hard rock, without an ounce of pretense that any of it had to “fit” into anything – style or format. Knowing that, not only did his bandmates share that same musical love, but that he also had the considerable talent of Powers’ vocals and sensing that the newly joined Ziff would bring a true element of real deal guitar prowess to the stew, he proceeded to craft and present tunes that naturally played directly to those strengths.
The initial album demos showed promise…enter Alan Niven. Catero had befriended him during his Krank Amps tenure and somewhat baited Niven with those demos, knowing the new tunes were right in his wheelhouse and might just lure him into the project. Indeed he became intrigued after a listen, and then, oh so tentatively, dipped his toes in the proverbial water with a tester vocal session. Niven was blown away hearing Powers sing in front of him in a room. Seeing the band live shortly after sold it for him. Tracking for the new album got underway in earnest immediately.
One of the more interesting aspects of the new Razer album is how organically it was recorded. Drums were done in a couple sessions in Detroit with the band’s longtime friend Chuck Alkazian of Pearl Sound Studios. Alkazian, a hotly sought after producer, was initially going to work with the band on the album but scheduling conflicts proved to be too much of an obstacle to dedicate the time needed, especially since the band was in a fluid state of reinvention. However Alkazian’s Pearl Sound features one of the best drum rooms in the U.S. and all of it’s bombastic, Bonham-y goodness was captured in the drum takes, providing an excellent initial framework. Catero engineered and recorded guitars and bass at his home studio, an ideal situation that gave the band the ability to evolve the dimensions of the music without time constraints. For the vocals Niven wanted to remove all the familiar surroundings and do them 100 miles north in the arty western town of Prescott, AZ, where he lives. True to his cavalier style, Niven commandeered a garden shed-turned-drum rehearsal room, tucked neatly back into an outlying plot of land adjacent to a friend’s house. The room was cozy and had a lively sound, and came complete with a few “it’s just fucking rock-n-roll” characteristics – like seeing your breath while singing in the cold of winter or conversely drenched in sweat from the Arizona summer heat. Sometimes one had to evade strange electrical noises from the room’s ad hoc wiring, and sometimes the property owner’s goats, in the paddock outside, would chime in with squeals and head butts against the walls. Somehow, however, the environment was perfectly conducive to getting arguably the best vocal takes Powers had ever laid down. It was all thrills and no frills.
Tracking took place over the course of about a year and Niven and Catero then mixed the album together, harkening back to the old production methodology during Niven’s Great White days. The result is an authentic rock album – no auto tuned vocals, no drum sampling, no digitally perfecting performances en masse as seems to be a production norm nowadays … just five guys playing music and making a record. The album had no budget and was made in the digital format, but it brims with serious analog attitude. And with the songs having been tracked at various times and in various places, there’s something of a rollicking Led Zeppelin II vibe to the record since every track sounds unique in structure and production.
The album features 10 songs, each standing on it’s own but all accumulating into an atmospheric sonic flow – it is a genuine journey. The opener “Blood For Blood” sets the pace, a brooding affair with an earth mover of a riff, cascading into a crescendoed chorus woven out of Power’s vocals and Ziff’s guitar lines – a seemingly forgotten aspect of the singer/guitarist interplay in rock that Razer skillfully displays throughout the album. “It’s A Mutha” sneers with a style that Niv’s old Gunners would be proud of and features some fleet fingered guitar/bass unison lines between Ziff and Catero. The beautiful ballad “Into The Light”, an ode to loved ones lost but remembered, produces some truly magical moments of emotion wrenched out by both Powers and Ziff. “Ironborn”, lyrically inspired by the George R.R. Martin novels, is a pounding epic with plenty of dueling guitars between Ziff and Sullivan. Meanwhile tunes like “The Last One” and “The Chosen One” stomp with Bongiorno’s glorious groove, the latter also featuring tour de force wah abuse from Ziff.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing tracks is the dark and sexually charged “The Things You Do”. Both lyrically and sonically it sways between the quiet lamenting and howling pain of a jilted lover, and is another perfectly climaxed back and forth interplay between Powers and Ziff. The instrumental “Scordatura”, gleefully Schenker-esque in nature, puts Ziff’s fret board skills on full display, while “Better Time” sounds like a sunny day spent at Bron Yr Aur. The album closes with “Shattered”, an engaging minor key acoustic piece that shifts into a lush heaviness and lighter-lifting chorus before returning to end in it’s acoustic solitude (where too some of Ziff’s tastiest guitar lines on the album soar over the outro). Ten songs, 45 minutes of rock, that will have you reaching for the “play” button again. And again.
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