Ugly Kid Joe debuted at an odd time. It was a transitional period between the dirty metal world of Guns N’ Roses and the rise of alternative music pioneered by Nirvana, R.E.M., and Jane’s Addiction. Even odder was the band’s commitment to keeping classic metal and hair metal alive, even when flannel shirts outclassed leather vests. Ugly Kid Joe proved successful in their love of hard rock and metal, catapulting the band from California startups to radio heavyweights. The band’s legacy is easily one of the most underrated of its time, so it’s all the more exciting that the band has reunited after over 15 years of silence. While Stairway to Hell isn’t going to make any new fans for Ugly Kid Joe, the fact that the band can still make their music sound so potent and full of soul is something that any band, new or old, can definitely learn from.
Lead vocalist Whitfield Crane is a talented singer, one whose snarl harkens back to that of Ozzy Osbourne’s during the early Black Sabbath years. To complement Crane’s vocals is some excellent guitar lines from axemen Klaus Eichstadt and Dave Fortman. Opening track “Devil’s Paradise” will ravenously rip and tear through your speakers with razor-sharp precision. The opener doesn’t sound dated in the least, only showing that Ugly Kid Joe still possess the chops to put many of today’s rock newcomers in their place. Conversely, the more subdued “No One Survives” is a haunting track that mixes in just as much Metallica composition as it does Black Sabbath. It’s creepy and very atmospheric, standing out amongst the in-your-face anthems of the rest of the album.
Interestingly enough, songs like “I’m Alright” and “You Make Me Sick” are recordings that detail a very different vibe in Ugly Kid Joe’s sound. The band’s reverence for the works of 70’s Black Sabbath is clear, but there’s always a dirty filthiness in the band’s sound, not unlike recordings by Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses. Ugly Kid Joe were never afraid to mix their grinding loves of Sabbath with the faster and more energized rock of California 80’s metal. Stairway to Hell retains that reverence at every opportunity; it’s like they never left at all.
However, Ugly Kid Joe’s weakness lies in the songwriting itself, which drags its feet more than it should. “Love Ain’t True” possesses a trumpet line during the chorus, which feels out of place among the sheer metal that permeates the rest of the album (it might work in the world of ska rock, but it doesn’t work here). The acoustic tracks like “Another Beer” fare better, but are brief interludes between Ugly Kid Joe’s ferocious and grubby heavy metal. While many of the songs themselves are fine and keep their sounds alive, there aren’t many surprises on Stairway to Hell. The inclusion of an acoustic rendition of their hit cover of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” is a fond throwback to their most commercially successful single, but the album thrives in the fact that Ugly Kid Joe can still perform their music with such precision and resolve. It’s just a shame that Stairway to Hell doesn’t make any left turns throughout its tracklist.
Ugly Kid Joe’s first recording with new material in over 15 years holds true to its promise. Stairway to Hell demonstrates a resolute control of their many, many influences. The traces of sludgy Black Sabbath rhythm sections, the dirty 80’s heavy metal guitar solos, Whitfield Crane’s slithery wail: they’re all there and they all sound great. The songs themselves, however, don’t possess the refinement that the band’s musicianship does; the compositions just don’t reach out far enough to be surprising. Stairway to Hell doesn’t break new ground for the band, but the fact that they still sound so strong and intense even after 15 years is remarkable. Expectations be damned: Ugly Kid Joe are back.
Categories: Music review