self-titled 1989 album had proven to be a difficult birth, with Badlands’
manager usurping the producer’s chair, and with Atlantic Records A&R
“whiz” Jason Flom demanding a more commercial-sounding (i.e. trendy)
sound from the band, Voodoo Highway would, in the end, be the band’s undoing.
touring for the better part of a year in the wake of Badlands, long-simmering
tensions within the band would boil over at the end of the road. Singer Ray
Gillen and guitarist Jake Lee were determined to eject drummer Eric Singer from
the fold, with only bassist Greg Chaisson speaking on Singer’s behalf…a strange
turn of events as Singer and Chaisson had been at odds from day one. Badlands
found a new drummer in Jeff Martin, who had fronted L.A. speed-metal outfit
Racer’s X as their vocalist. Other changes were afoot, as the band kicked
manager/producer Paul O’Neil to the curb, Lee taking over the controls for the
production of Voodoo Highway.
at the helm, recording for Voodoo Highway started out better than the debut album, but would soon be undermined when
Gillen went behind his bandmates’ backs to tattle to Flom that the band had
more commercially-oriented songs that they were neglecting to record. It made
for an uneasy vibe in the studio, production was eventually halted and then
re-started, and by the time that Voodoo Highway actually hit the streets in 1991, Atlantic Records had officially washed its
hands of the band.
shame, really, ’cause the label may have been able to bank a little dinero had
they shown the slightest interest in the success of Voodoo Highway.
The band’s overt musical worship of Led Zeppelin was tempered in favor of a
more streamlined metal-edged sound with just a bit of Southern-fried twang and
a little good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll funkiness. Gillen’s voice still soars menacingly like a
hungry bird of prey, and the new rhythm section of Chaisson and Martin meshed
nicely into a solid foundation that, while not as bombastic as Singer’s eardrum
assault, had enough big-beat bluster to shame any hard rock pretenders. As for
Lee’s guitar, the man remains one of the most underrated of guitar heroes, Voodoo
Highway displaying a wide range of the man’s
off with chiming guitars and a swelling tsunami of rhythm, Gillen’s
leather-lunged wail opens “The Last Time” with a spark, the song’s
lyrics referencing, in passing, the Temptations/Rare Earth Motown gem “(I
Know) I’m Losing You” in building an emotionally-draining performance.
Gillen’s tortured vox are complimented by Lee’s raging fretwork, Badlands
sounding more like a bluesy Guns N’ Roses than a Zeppelin clone. Things quiet
down somewhat for “Show Me The Way,” the acoustic-strum intro leading
into a muscular mid-tempo rocker with Gillen back into Robert Plant mode while
Lee fills in around the edges of the bass/drums stomp with shards of
Mississippi funk of “Whiskey Dust” takes the band to its
stripped-down, swamp-blues roots with a swaggering vocal performance by Gillen,
an amped-up riff copped straight from Tony Joe White’s “Poke Salad Annie”
– perhaps the best since Jason & the Scorchers mangled the song a
half-decade earlier. Lee’s chicken-pickin’ is the greasiest you’ll hear outside
of the Delta, each note lovingly covered in blood and mud. The instrumental
“Joe’s Blues” is a showcase for Lee’s nimble-fingered fretwork, a
lively country-blues number that is immediately steamrollered by the metal mastodon
that is “Soul Stealer.”
powerful vocal performance that cleverly blends Plant and Jim Morrison for a
little grimy transcendence, “Soul Stealer” is the kind of
evolved-in-a-straight-line-from-Zeppelin number that the Cult, Kingdom Come, or
a dozen other clones would have liked to record. Lee’s guitar shakes and
rattles like a wild boar stuck with a hunter’s arrows, while the rhythm section
hits harder than a B-52 on a bombing run, the song’s blues roots all but
obliterated under an explosive rock ‘n’ roll sunburst.
taut guitar riff blasts the dust from your eardrums before Gillen’s blustery
vocals kick in on “Love Don’t Mean A Thing,” the song displaying a
little o’ that whiteboy foot shuffle that everybody from Humble Pie and Jo Jo
Gunne to even GN’R had tried to perfect with varying success. Lee’s riffing
here is monster, blasting out of your speakers like that hungry alien
facesucker leaping like a fiend from its host belly to attach itself to
Sigourney Weaver’s goodies. The title track lives up to its top-o-the-line
billing with a dark-hued blues romp firmly rooted like cypress in some Louisiana
swamp, Gillen’s slinky vocals assisted by Lee’s slithering Dobro pull.
Voodoo Highway contains the only cover song of Badlands’ two albums, a spirited take of James Taylor’s
“Fire And Rain.” While Gillen’s voice lacks the warm sensitivity of
Taylor’s, he does a fine job of connecting with the material, bringing a little
rock ‘n’ roll energy to the lyrics while the band’s high-octane arrangement
builds upon the original with emotional fretwork and a loose-knit rhythm track.
Lee, again, brings out the best in the song with a nervy solo that cuts to the
quick. This performance is echoed again in the album-closing “In A
Dream,” an R&B-tinged ballad with gospel undertones, Gillen’s soulful
vocals carrying the song until Lee’s subtle, high-lonesome guitar strum kicks
in and underscores the emotion of the lyrics.
Icarus soaring too close to the sun, Badlands’ defiant approach to their music
would fly in the face of contemporary trends and eventually unravel the band’s
delicate chemistry. By the time that Voodoo Highway was released in 1991, the juggernaut that was grunge would dominate the charts.
While Badlands’ rootsy blues-metal would have creatively fit in perfectly
between Pearl Jam’s arena-rock dreams and Nirvana’s complex punk-metal hybrid,
label indifference and eventual hostility would put the band on the street within
would be sacked, then re-hired for an ill-fated U.K. tour when the band was
unable to find a suitable replacement…in the end, Gillen was as essential to
the Badlands’ sound as guitarist Lee, and after recording a slate of demos for
a possible Sony deal in late 1991, the band would break-up for good when Gillen
seemingly sabotaged the deal by refusing a label-mandated physical exam. Gillen
would be gone for good after dying of AIDS-related illness in December 1993.
casualty of label hijinx and the demanding rock star lifestyle, Badlands had
its shot at the brass ring, only to see the rug pulled out from beneath them
time after time. Between band in-fighting, creative tensions, and unrealistic
label expectations, Badlands was doomed from day one…and still, they managed to
deliver two classic albums of influential hard rock and blues-metal, all of the
band’s artistic battles and macho turf-fighting resulting in a rare and unique
musical chemistry. With the long overdue re-release of both Badlands and Voodoo Highway, Badlands’
often-overlooked musical legacy is ripe for rediscovery.
DOWNLOAD: “Heaven’s Train,” “Whiskey
Dust,” “Fire And Rain” REV. KEITH A. GORDON