Tribe Of Gypsies - 'Dweller On The Threshold'
Rating - 10/A
All of a sudden, I am awash in covers of Van Halen's 'Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love'. The oddest is probably the bluegrass version on the Strummin' With Devil tribute. The most downright embarassing was Velvet Revolver's sub-pub band rendition at the Rock N' Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. Listening to that last tragedy, where the least Van Halen-esque guitarist of his generation plays a song that is just a little too far beyond his range, aided and abetted by a man who used to be an ersatz grunger and has now moved on to be a faux hard rock singer, it's all too easy to shake one's head sadly and conclude that the great days of real hard rock are over. It's all downhill in a barrel now, with nothing but cheesy nostalgia-wanking and parodesque eclecticism to look forward to.
And then there's Tribe Of Gypsies. A little over halfway through their latest album, the Lovecraftian-titled Dweller On The Threshold, the band trots out a cover of that Van Halen classic that had me not just shaking my head amusedly or worse yet, cringing, but grooving along, a big goofy grin plastered over my furry face (I need a shave). Like everything on this album, it's ballsy, rockin' and brilliantly played - and it has a solid dose of Latin music running through it! What amazes me is that ToG have mixed in those Latin elements - the percussion, a general sense of added grooviness, and even some Spanish vocals in the chorus without producing something that sounds like a novelty version. Instead, it's a compelling, valid reading of the song by a band that both loves the original and is confident enough of their own musical identity to take the song into a couple of new places.
Oh, it also helps that ToG guitarist/bandleader, Roy Z (producer to the Metal Stars) is a kickass lead guitarist. I know him as the chap who gave Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford their best-sounding solo albums, as guitarist/songwriting partner and producer to one, and just producer to the other, and definitely a guitar whizz in the grand old dino tradition. I was aware of his own band, Tribe Of Gypsies, all these many years since they provided back-up on Dickinson's Balls To Picasso album, but I just never got around to checking them out until now. My loss.
With the singer from John Bonham's band on vocals, and a crack squad of musicians doing the needful, ToG are the very epitome of great rock music - they can groove, they can get pretty heavy, then can go soft and soulful, and the music is always full of melody, attitude and hooks. Their music keeps getting compared to Santana, and that's perfectly fair, if you bear in mind the Santana of the first three albums, which were basically hard rock being adulterated by Latin music and hints of jazz (as opposed to the more forthright fusion elements Santana moved onto immediately thereafter). The groovy, soaring instrumental 'Flying Tigers, Crying Dragons' could be a modern answer to 'Singing Winds, Crying Beasts' of Santana's Abraxas album in more ways than just the title. 'Hola' merges some pretty heavy riffing with Latin rhythms and Spanish chants, and a fiery guitar workout by Roy Z in a manner that's just a little remniscent of things like 'Soul Sacrifice'.
But there's a lot more to the band beyond the Latin/rock crossover. The songwriting is as versatile and accomplished as the musicianship. 'Ride On', 'Desolate Chile' and 'Hands To Eternity' are great, groovy rockers with huge riffs and hooks, the ballads 'Halos', 'After The Summer' and 'Never Will Be Mine' are filled with poignant melodies and heartfelt vocals, without wimping out and compromising on the groove. The funky grooves and gospel touches on 'Stop Bombing Each Other!' make for an instant anthem that the Woodstock crowd only wish they could have written. And, needelss to say, Roy Z just brings the juice everywhere, always serving the song and stretching out where it's appropriate - which, fortunately is enough times to satisfy the unreconstructed guitar freak that dwells on my threshold.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: A brilliant slab of hard rock shot through with Latin grooves and great guitar playing. The songwriting and musicianship are equally impressive, there's a bit of everything, from driving rockers and soulful balladry to mind-blowing instrumental workouts - what else do you need to call an album a Perfect Ten? Not a thing.