Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stingray's 1979 US Release- Ultimate AOR/POMP From More Than Unlikely South Africa

South Africa is a country that I always have had some serious issues with. Even as a child in the 1980s I was aware of Apartheid through songs like "Biko" by Peter Gabriel and " I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City" which both were big songs on the radio then. To me nothing is worse than bigotry of any kind and I have no room for ill-founded judgement of other people because of their race, class background, Nationality (although I admit it's here that I too have some prejudices- I don't like Ireland or Israel, but I'm not vehemently hateful of people from these countries on a "Take One Person At A Time" basis) or any other reason. What I have overlooked is that not all South Africans were/are racists and perpetrators of genocide.
            -From The Narrow Mind To An Open Door Looking At Stingray's Background-
     Whilst there hasn't been an amazing music scene out of South Africa they did have a very large music scene in the 1960s through to the mid to late 1980s and many of the bands were opposed to Apartheid. It was not the case with atrocious John Kongos, but it would definitely be the case with the part Black (Julian Laxton) part white Freedom's Children- maybe the only truly great South African psych band. Stingray, the band I'm writing about here, are produced by Julian Laxton and indeed he produced quite a few South African bands in the 70s. Also, Trevor Rabin came from South Africa and was opposed to Apartheid from the start- even attacking it during some of the worst times in the 80s when he was in the newly revitalized Yes. I've talked to South Africans who serve in the British Army years ago on the phone and none of them supported the racist beliefs of the South African government or the benighted people who were the supporters in the population. So I guess you can't prejudge anything or anybody.
    Stingray, who formed in the mid 1970s, are probably the peak of melodic AOR/pomp rock and came from South Africa. They made an album that came out in the States just named after themselves that I've known about since I had a book called The International Encyclopedia Of Hard Rock And Heavy Metal when I was just 13 years old. They were described as sounding a lot like Boston which is partially very true. Stingray had some huge success in their Native country, but unfortunately the US release didn't generate much of anything in terms of sales and it has gone on to be quite a rare record. I had heard it before I got it two years ago and overlooked the entire record- what a huge glaring error that was! After Stingray broke up their awesome lead vocalist/writer Dennis East had quite a successful solo career in South Africa, but his brilliance seems to be unheralded everywhere but in South Africa!!!! That is very unfortunate because this man had a great set of pipes and he could put to pen some killer AOR. Also, there is vast talent from the rest of the band with soaring guitars and keyboards which together with a powerful dexterous rhythm section  make this album essential for any collection of obscure 70s/80s bands. You can place this next to the other AOR/Pomp masterpiece records I've written up like Alliance, Painter, and Lionheart. I'm going straight into the music now.
Take hold and listen well.
            -Stingray From 1979 On The Usually Lame Carrere Label An Amazing Record-
   Stingray got at least one of their albums released in the States and worldwide on the usually horrendous Carrere label which only had one other great band I can think of on their roster- Saxon. Saxon played and now are playing again more melodically charged and lyrically interesting heavy metal and it's probably a good guess that whatever A&R man got Saxon their deal with the mainly worthless Carrere also signed Stingray. In the mid to late 70s early AOR bands like Boston, Styx, and Foreigner were making huge money and a lot of bands were signed in the wake of the success of such amazing bands. There is no resemblance to the bluesier Foreigner on this album, but Boston and Styx are good reference points for Stingray. However, that tells you less than half the story about what their brilliant 1979 international album just called STINGRAY sounds like.
       Stingray numbered six men with a whole lot of ability. Besides Dennis East on vocals (and he also was a huge part of the writing in the band penning or cowriting over half the material)
there is guitarist/vocalist Mike Pilot, organist Danny Anthill (from I believe Freedom's Children!), keyboard player Allan Goldswain, bass player Eddie Boyle, and drummer Shaun Wright. In a six piece band you'd expect there to be at least one guy in the band who isn't a musical maverick. That ain't so here. Right off I can tell you that both Goldswain and Anthill beat the living shit out of the horrible keyboard player Pat Leonard in the otherwise great band Trillion from the States. If Trillion's Leonard had learned not to masturbate with his synthesizers then Trillion would also be another good comparison just for how much positive energy is generated by the music made by Stingray. There aren't any songs on this album that are going to make you feel miserable. On the contrary you'll be feeling good when you hear Stingray.
        The first track "Better The Devil You Know..." is misleading. It's the longest track on the album and unlike the more laidback material on offer for much of the record is almost a melodic metal behemoth. Right from the beginning of the album Dennis East displays a superb range and a powerful voice to begin with which includes a lot of character. The relentless yet catchy guitars, soaring harmonies, and powerful keyboards are fantastic with a lot of energy and aggression. The lyrics are on the subject of cheating in a relationship of the kind of that he comes home and his wife is screwing another man, but they are clever enough to rise above the cliched subject matter. Mike Pilot unleashes some great guitar leads and also contributes excellent driving riffs. The rhythm section of Boyle and Wright is very strong and energetic with nothing coming up short. However, Stingray aren't a sort of more metallic Boston or Toto with pomp leanings so this track is more of a big overture and workout than indicative of the rest of the songs on the album.
     "Hard Headed Loner" is more what Stingray are about. Multitracked guitars that you can't believe are all one guitar player, catchy keyboards, and amazing vocals spur on a very melodic upbeat kind of AOR that sounds a little bit earlier than the release date and also perfect 1979 music with a very open sound. By that I mean what is the key to a lot of Stingray's music. They aren't just another band. The amount of melody in their music and their carefree vibe are most welcome when too many bands are either copying what's in the charts or too busy moaning and groaning to get anything done properly. Again, there is a compelling lyric to the song about an enigmatic female who needs no one else to satisfy her.  Most bands would bitch and slam a self-sufficient woman who doesn't need anything or anyone else. Instead Stingray leave you to your own interpretation.
  "Lucy" is another different sort of a track penned all by East with a keyboard heavy Pomp backing and wailing majestic vocals from this brilliant man. I can think of few singers who hold a candle to him. He appears to be coming from some other kind of background in most of the songs here than normal rock and roll singing largely because he is so down to earth and sounds like he would never be arrogant to anybody. He has the perfect AOR voice, but his lyrics and songwriting show a maturity seldom heard in a lot of rock music of all kinds. "Whole Lotta Fire" continues the soul influences of "Lucy" in a more upbeat way and drops the heavy mysterious approach of that song.  There's plenty of energy and fun with strong vocals and cool harmonies. Everything Stingray does is hyper professional. I get the impression that if anyone had auditioned for this band who was the least bit mediocre in some way or middling even they wouldn't have been part of the group. Big praise from finicky me. Also, there is the sense of fun. Stingray aren't gonna bring you down. They're really a polar opposite to the much too serious kind of music that clutters up so much of rock and like all great music from all eras an all-out professional carefree band like Stingray make one appreciate really meaningful melodies and songs a whole lot more.
    "Where Do We Go From Here?" is the first song to indicate the kind of direction much of this album, indeed the whole of Side Two, takes. It's highly melodic pop meets the rock foundation of the previous tracks with stellar vocal harmonies, nice acoustic/electric guitar combinations, and yeah there are a few similarities to Styx and Boston especially. Funny thing here is that I'd guess this was the work of an American band if I didn't know. It doesn't sound at all English, but I mean that as a compliment. "Where Do We Go From Here?" really is a fantastic track and Dennis East is amazing when his voice soars above the already up-in-the-heavens harmonies. A Pomp Rock masterpiece. If you like the songs of bands like Argent, Boston, Styx, and John Lawton era Uriah Heep this album belongs in your collection and your collection needs it if it isn't already there and on your regular playlist!
             It is the second side of the album from the first track "The Man In My Shoes" through to the beautiful closer "How Much?" that cements the brilliance of this record and makes it the best ever. I'm melodically oriented. As soon as songs fly out the window and become jack offs I lose all interest. The lack of melodic vocals and good songwriting is what kills bands like Judas Priest after the early stuff and just about all of Iron Maiden's music, but a lot of AOR/Pomp bands could have used a dose of the humour, craftsmanship, and songwriting prowess of Stingray. Frankly, compared to them a lot of other music is boring and does not get regular plays from me. That would be not just the AOR genre, but also I need there to be great songs and solid performances in any kind of the broad genre that rock is and Stingray are up there with the best. Oftentimes I'll go from a psych record or a progressive record or a pop record and plunge right into this one afterwards. That speaks highly of it.
    "The Man In My Shoes" has a really strong melody, smooth harmonies, excellent guitars, and soaring lead vocals from East in a song about a rock star who wants nothing more than to end his stardom to lead a normal happy sane life. You can't believe that kind of maturity on a first effort. It sounds more like what a band would close out with saying than begin by saying right away "You can have all the superstar nonsense I'm just a good singer and a good musician." How refreshing it is. The only other bands I can think of who are on the same level of melodic brilliance of Stingray are bands like Magnum whom I love, Sweet, Boston's 1st, Styx at their best, The Beatles, and some other ones that I've raved about here recently who are in a whole other genre closer to The Beatles and just post Beatles era.
    "Gonna Keep My Head Together" has a title that speaks for itself. It's a fuck off statement without any whining, groaning, or "Oh How You Broke My Heart" jilted nonsense. He is the one who knows from the song's start that the relationship has gone bad, but his response is to move on and walk away from the annoying behaviors that have led to the end of the love affair or friendship. This song doesn't have any romantic or sexual implications so it really is an anthem for all of us who have been tricked and used by other people. You don't need that person. Don't freak over them just get rid of them. Again, Stingray have maturity. The harmonies would make even Brian Wilson blush! There are only two credited with vocals on the album (Dennis East on lead and Mike Pilot guitar/vocals), but on a lot of tracks it sounds like all six of them are harmonizing! The production job from Julian Laxton is very impressive and everyone gets to show their various strengths from the vocals right through to the impressive rock drumming. "Gonna Keep My Head Together" has a great solo from Pilot where he never once goes off the rails and stays really melodic. I'm usually unable to get through a solo and do that! I seem to always end up showing off on the guitar and I know that strong melodies are really hard to come up with especially in a solo. As much as I love Angel and Trillion even they start to sound a bit indulgent compared to Stingray! There is nothing that is better than this album for the genre.
  "Lovesaver" together with "How Much?" is my personal favourite track on the album. It begins with a happy little electric piano and then the knock-you-out A Capella harmonies come in sounding like Queen meets The Beatles meets Boston meets Styx!  Then the band come in full blast and take you into the stratosphere. Awesome! The lyrics are full of emotion and are about finding the perfect loving sympathetic person in a relationship who saves the protagonist and fills their life with bliss. You get that big upbeat feeling from the song like you do from the best of a band who have the unusual surname of Stingray's guitar player as their name- Pilot. I have forgotten Pilot up til now, but they'd be another great band who I could say a lot of kind things about. Blue,  from Scotland like Pilot, are also a band who made enduring and endearing music of the best quality. The reflective verses in "Lovesaver" remind me a bit of Blue's early work and The Beatles making the chorus even more impressive. Sweet Paradise as the lyrics say indeed.
     "Breakdown" is the most adventurous vocal arrangement of the album together with the previous track and when it's put together with the solid no nonsense melodic rock of the song that is Stingray's trademark. Intricate harmonies, clear and precise lead vocals, and soaring guitars combine with non stop rock excitement to make for a masterpiece of an album that is great to listen to. "Breakdown" like "Lovesaver" begins with strong harmonies, but this time the lyric is about a love affair that goes completely sour and he just says to the bad person "dish it out." The carefree vibes are really great because a lot of AOR and all love oriented lyrics in rock tend to be full of unnecessary angst and tantrum throwing. Some bands and singers can make that brilliant, but not many. I would say skip right over the second Trillion record CLEAR APPROACH- ONLY because it has the worst "Poor Jilted Broken Ruined Me" song ever written on it complete with inept masturbating bass, synthesizers, and guitars and may be even worse than Gentle Giant! The song I'm referring to is "I Know The Feeling." You do? Well then I can thankfully say that I DON'T. I have had many bad endings to relationships, but after feeling sorry for myself I usually realize that I'm better than the person I was trying to win over. Trillion sound like amateurs compared to Stingray and that is saying something as I love Trillion especially their amazing first album just called TRILLION which also benefited from a very gifted lead vocalist/writer Dennis "Fergie" Frederiksen. Fergie was known as Dennis on Trillion's debut, but after that ever since joining the long lasting Louisiana band Le Roux then Toto for one album (the brilliant ISOLATION) he's been known as Fergie. If I were asked who had the most golden brilliant flowing silvery wonderful killer voice in AOR it would be Dennis East of Stingray and Fergie whilst his replacement in Trillion Thom Griffin is nearly up there. AOR is music and metal is mostly not. I find myself enjoying metal sometimes and thinking even some of it is really good music, but that's only the kind where it gets passionate. I think most metal is noise. Stingray are all about melody and great songs and they just happen to be virtuoso musicians. There isn't any showing off or upstaging of anybody on this record. Also, to get back to them being South Africans it sounds like they have great hearts and would never support Apartheid. Their working closely with a black producer is very indicative of that lack of bigotry and small minded thinking that was seriously damaging to all South Africans then.
    "How Much?" is a beautiful ballad of uncertainty. It is about someone who can't address the needs for a shared relationship where it isn't just taking it's also the giving to the singer of the lyrics. They need some time to work it out, but Dennis sings without straining and the lyrics are sophisticated and well-written. I love this song. It makes me feel better when I hear it. It has a soothing melody and beautiful harmonies. When I've gone through bad periods I've pulled this record out and "How Much?" and the whole record have given me the strength to go on with my life. Thank you Stingray, you may never have hit it huge here, but you're better than nearly any of the competition. Since Stingray are a great "Songs AND Chops" band you can listen to them with song bands as different from them as Honeybus whom I love and chops bands as brilliant as Yes. Stingray are amazing. Find this rare masterpiece and put it right on the turntable and bliss out like I do when I play it. Enough said.

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