Sunday, December 18, 2022

Review: Skid Row, "The Gang's All Here"

 I didn’t see this coming.

Like many fans, I’ve longed for a reunion of the original lineup of Skid Row. While I enjoyed some of the band’s work with replacement vocalist, the late Johnny Solinger, it never quite stacked up with their earlier output. It’s become pretty clear, though, that the chasm between former vocalist Sebastian Bach and the rest of the band is too wide to bridge. So, I never expected to get a new Skid Row record that I considered on par with those first three albums.

Enter Erik Gronwall, former vocalist of the band H.E.A.T., a lifelong Skid Row fan despite being born only a couple of years before their debut album. His version of the band’s hit “18 and Life” on a Swedish TV singing competition helped earn him the nod from Skid Row after they went through a series of replacement vocalists for Solinger, including Tony Harnell (TNT) and ZP Theart (Dragonforce), and they seem to have made the right choice. Gronwall breathes new life into the band. He sounds enough like a young Bach to hit old guys like me right in the nostalgia, but he also brings enough of his own sound to not give off the tribute vibe.

I’ll admit that as Skid Row rolled out the singles ahead of the release of The Gang’s All Here, I had mixed feelings. The title track, which announced the new record, is honestly one of my least favorite songs – so it didn’t give me high hopes. But the tunes that followed all intrigued me just a little more and then I actually got to hear the whole album.

When that nasty riff that kicks off album opener “Hell or High Water” hit my ears, I was a 19-year-old kid again. Dave Sabo’s guitar is grooving, and Gronwall is screaming out the verse in his best Sebastian Bach impersonation. It was almost like getting another chance to experience the band’s landmark album Slave to the Grind for the first time. The song certainly would have been right at home on that classic. All of a sudden, I was way more interested in what the other nine songs would bring. Honestly, I don’t know why they didn’t lead with this one as they were rolling out the early tastes of the record. For me, it’s the best track on the album, but certainly not the last banger.

The other two songs that they released behind “The Gang’s All Here” have also become favorites. Initially, I was a put off by the gang vocals on “Tear It Down.” At first listen, I thought they were a little overbearing and that they stepped on the new guy’s debut. With repeated listens, though, they’ve turned into an earworm. Speaking of earworms, we move on to “Time Bomb.” Driven by Rachel Bolan’s bass line and Gronwall’s catchy little “tick, tick, tick, tick” whisper, the song builds up to a huge 1980s chorus hook that will absolutely have fans delivering the “tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, BOOM” at the top of their lungs.

One of the interesting things about this record is that the songs seem to visit all three of those first albums, from the more commercial approach of their debut to the heavier perfection of Slave to the Grind to the more aggressive and metallic style they tried on Subhuman Race. The title track obviously conjures up thoughts of that first record, both musically and with lyrical nods. The better example of the debut, though, comes on “When the Lights Go On.” Bolan’s bass and the swaggering strut of the song will almost certainly put fans in mind of “Piece of Me” from the 1989 album – and that’s not a bad thing at all.

As previously mentioned, “Hell or High Water” would have been a welcome addition to Slave, but “Not Dead Yet” also taps into the punkish energy that’s been a staple of the band’s sound on tunes like “Riot Act.” The appropriately titled “Resurrected” gives off the Subhuman Race vibes here with its bashing drums and guitar riffs. Though the chorus is probably a little more toward Skid Row’s first two albums, it’s one of the most aggressive tunes on The Gang’s All Here. And I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.

Elsewhere, they mix it up. “Nowhere Fast” opens with a pummeling guitar and drum combo that again evokes Subhuman Race, but then shifts gears for the chorus to something more at home on the eponymous debut. The only real disappointment on the new record for me is the ballad, “October’s Song.” If you’re familiar with my tastes from previous reviews, I know you’re thinking it’s because it’s the ballad – but that’s not it.

Skid Row has a legacy of incredible ballads – “18 and Life,” “I Remember You,” “Quicksand Jesus,” “In a Darkened Room” – all fantastic. I hear a little bit of the Slave to the Grind ballads in here, but it just doesn’t stack up to me. It’s more “Wasted Time” – my least favorite song on Slave – than the others. That said, it still has its moments. The instrumental section right before the solo is really cool, and the solo itself is nice, if a bit more understated than some of the others here.

The other issue that fans may have is that it’s very hard to hear some of these songs without imagining what they would sound like with Bach in his prime. It’s just the nature of what the band delivers on this album. As awesome as Gronwall’s vocals are, he’s still no Sebastian Bach in 1991 – far from it. To be fair, though, the 2022 version of Bach is pretty far from Bach in 1991 too. His return might have energized the fan base a little, but it’s unlikely that it would have injected the energy into the band that Erik Gronwall’s arrival seemingly has.

That energy is really the power behind The Gang’s All Here. While many of the songs will remind you of Skid Row’s glory days, it doesn’t sound like a band going through the motions to try to recreate their classic albums. The songs here sound genuine and honest – like a band that’s in a similar musical mindset to when they created those early records. I think Gronwall, as the new piece of the puzzle, has to get a lot of the credit for that.

Though Skid Row has done things that I liked since the split, particularly the United World Rebellion EP, I long ago gave up on them ever again being what they once were. I may have been proven wrong as I consider a year-end list where The Gang’s All Here likely lands in the Top 5.

It’s no match for Slave to the Grind – the list of records that are is short in my mind – but The Gang’s All Here certainly belongs in the conversation with those early albums. More importantly, it sounds like the Skid Row that I know and love, and I haven’t heard that sound in quite a while. It’s a very welcome return.

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