In the mid to late 80s in Europe and just about everywhere there were an overwhelming number of glam/melodic metal/melodic hard rock bands eager to catch the same bus to success that had propelled Europe, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Dokken to superstardom. Some of these bands had their own very distinctively different take on melodic hard rock and surpassed many of the ultra successful "hair" bands. The two best from my point of view are Treat from Sweden and Skagarack from Denmark- both bands had killer songs and a really fresh take on riff and melody ready hard hitting melodic rock. Why, even Steve Perry himself couldn't sound more perfect than Skagarack's masterful mastermind Torben Schmidt who clearly was highly influenced by Perry's melodic Sam Cooke impressions. Treat came across with a similarly melodic and somewhat more dangerous sounding attack and a full on glam image that would have made even Motley Crue and Poison really afraid about losing their record contract. While Crue and Poison played faceless, derivative, unprofessional copies of 70s glam best left to the masteful Sweet and Slade Treat were and are just as serious about their music as their image. Yes, these bands both of whom I'll discuss in depth soon are the best.
The worst? Remarkably some of the more popular bands I really have an issue with. Winger always got on my nerves. I couldn't believe such an ugly and idiotic guy could go so far. Warrant were far from the worst- in fact they always were better than they were given credit for. Poison and Motley Crue would be down near the bottom, but nobody could be worse than the two worst bands ever formed- TNT and Return. Both bands hailed from Norway although TNT's whining screechy voiced Tony Harnell came from America. TNT still record with the undeserved addition of Harnell swapped for Shy's brilliant Tony Mills. TNT managed to go pretty far- they were championed by MTV, but they were all whimper and no bang. Guitar drool fool Ronni (Rolf Amrid) Letekkro is without doubt the worst failure ever to pick up the instrument and certainly if TNT were supposed to be any heavier than White Lion forget it.
Return were something different. They were a 4 man band from Norway who could play just fine and who were a sort of melodic metal hybrid, but what makes them the worst are their viciously graphic and morbid lyrics which owe more to Dark Metal than melodic rock and a particularly lame lead singer.
Clearly we can't all be winners can we? Mostly I love this music. I find it a nice little niche to curl up in when I'm in the mood for something hard rockin' yet with all the melodic elements firmly in place. China lie somewhere in the middle and are a bit of a curiosity in that they were slated for stardom, but it never came to be. China's first bad decision was their band name. I don't know why a hard rock band from Switzerland would call themselves China and I don't mean that as a knock against the Country or the band I just find the name strange. It doesn't sound believable for a hard rock group who are hailing from Europe. There really are two Chinas- there never has been such a huge makeover in so short a period as what happened to the band between their first album in 1988 and their followup Sign In The Sky in 1989.
More on that now. I expected China to be THE BEST having heard two killer cuts off their debut and two more off Sign In The Sky. China's first lineup was built around the fierce dual guitar attack of Claudio Matteo and Freddy Laurence, the steady heavy bass of Marc Lynn, and John Dommen's excellent drumming. However, the showstopper was lead vocalist Math Shiverow. At a time when Krokus were on their way out China if they just had had a US release and a little more knack for melody could have become Switzerland's major import to hard rock and chased Krokus out of the running. There was much help from that band and with Krokus guitarist and main writer Fernando Von Arb contributing the brilliant melodic rock anthem "Back To You" China weren't Chinese- they were all the way European. Shiverow had a high pitched voice that didn't scream it just soared. He took the band to heights of brilliance on the best tracks and even on the few in between to middling more metallic ones he gave them an edge that most bands would die for. The production on the band's self-titled debut by veteran guitarist Dirk Steffens of the excellent band Tollhouse (more of a melodic soul/rock AOR sound from the late 70s) is excellent and the European edge is exotic. Most of the songs are very good. The guitars are tasteful and zoom around the hard hitting music. Highlights are "Back To You," "Wild Jealousy," "Hot Lovin' Night," and the rollicking opener "Shout It Out" is pretty heavy- I'd say heavier than most straight metal. A little nurturing and a little more time and these guys could have made their next one a masterpiece. Shiverow was really one hell of a great singer with the brilliance of the best. If they'd kept him and gone a little more melodic than metal look out. That wasn't to be....
Greedy for more recognition outside their homeland, possessed to change with the hair metal trend of 1989, out of luck, or just plain wrong in their decision Shiverow and Lynn were gone by the time Sign In The Sky came about and replaced by an American I'd guess in Patrick Mason as vocalist and a different Swiss bassist. Whenever a band go through a major change that major change is a major gamble. Many one off bands have that question of "what would the second have been like" or "wish they'd made another record." With China I think I'd rather if this were the direction they were to go in to have changed the name of the band. That is how drastic a change there is here. Patrick Mason lacks charisma. His voice is one of those very American very attitude fueled voices where the perfectness is too clean and the emotion doesn't shine through enough. He can sing and there is no doubting that, but he doesn't have personality. Occasionally his vocals are bad and get on my nerves- too much Axl Rose and too much Poison all at once is never gonna work as on the hideous yet hilariously bad "Animal Victim." He means to say "I'm Tough I'm Cool I'm Nobody's Fool," but a fool he sure is on that track and some of this album. Let's not lay all the blame on him, however. In fact with the huge shoes to fill and the clarity of Mason's voice he does a stellar job and on the best tracks such as "In The Middle Of The Night," "Second Chance," "Take Your Time," and the beautiful finale "So Long" as well as a magnificent title track this album could have been great. No, do not blame Patrick Mason for a hugely uneven record. The problem is a lack of focus which was also a less irritating problem on the first album, but made much worse here as many of the tracks sound like carbon ripoffs of every L.A metal band who had made the charts that year. There is a tendency towards too much show and too little substance. Manager/Producer/Co-writer of all the tracks Stephan Galfas does a horrible job in the production seat. He makes China sound pushed into a box rather than a studio and I would compare the rankness of the production, the depressing come down after brilliant recording to the infamous disasters of Goodnight L.A the one bad Magnum record and Misspent Youth the one bad Shy album. However, unlike those two Sign In The Sky isn't a complete catastrophe. As I said some of the album is quite good, but I always feel a bit let down by it. The worst thing here along with the production is the horrendous guitar wanking. Never have I heard such a drastically wrong move on the part of musicians as I hear on this album. Neither Laurence OR Matteo is on his game and rather the two of them go off the rails on horrid speed and noise soloing that makes me think of all those here one day gone in a flash idiots who came after Yngwie Malmsteen, but this is clearly much worse. The bands and the guitarists China are ineptly emulating are George Lynch/Dokken and Warren DiMartini/Ratt. With a musician as high of stature as George Lynch I would say if you ain't Steve Harris of Shy don't even give it a try. Forgotten are the melodic structures and the tunefulness of Lynch's playing and in its place is just a lot of pinch-harmonic whammy bar noise. I could laugh, but I feel too sickened by all of it too. There are bad mistakes that are funny, but China's mistakes are all sad. I really wish that the band had thought about the consequences of what they were gonna do and spared us much of this album, but rather typically on the good tracks the playing is good too. This is real mixed record- a real hit or miss effort where when the songs are good they are great and when they are bad I feel sickened by it. China were never gonna make it with something this derivative and the production throughout sucks. I will say it that bluntly. The production is so bad, so empty, so over the top lame that China should have fired Galfas or never have had the lack of knowledge to employ him not just as producer, but as manager and co-writer. While some of this album is still so good it can survive one track springs to mind that seems to put the disturbing spin on what was afoot- "Don't Ever Say Goodbye." This track sums up China's decision- they don't want to be Swiss anymore they want to be American. They don't want to write songs they want to write product. It's all about how it can be marketed and not about music. I feel that around half this album is saved, The other half of it is so much rubbish I wouldn't recommend wasting your time. I am reminded of the staleness that crept in after the rush of inspiration in 1986/1987 when by 1991 everything changed for the worst and Grunge came right in and killed rock and roll. Blame albums like this.
So in my final assessment of China I'd say they were a band who also attended the melodic hard rock marathon, but sure as Hell Treat and Skagarack way beat them to the finish. China began as a band where they could have been front-runners and they could have been on that magical level, but they made all the wrong choices and what we are handed is so foul we ask to take it off the plate and only save the half of the album that isn't spoiled. Very sad, but very typical of a time and the changes in that time. They could have made the grade, but China fall short.