The Very Best Of Montrose

Montrose

Warner Brothers / Rhino Records, 2002

http://www.ronniemontrose.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/04/2002

First, a confession. Whatever journalistic detachment I may be capable of -- and after six years of doing this, I'm still not sure the concept is even applicable when the topic is something as subjective as how a piece of music strikes you -- it fails me when the subject is Montrose. I have been not just a listener, not just an admirer, but yes, a fan of this band for more than a quarter of a century. I've got so many personal memories wrapped up in these songs that listening to them is like stepping into a time warp. To top it all off, I've been fortunate enough to meet and get to know Ronnie Montrose himself in recent years, which has only reinforced the sensation that perspective is a far-away mountaintop when it comes to exploring The Very Best Of Montrose.

That lengthy mea culpa aside, here's the basic pitch: if you have ever at any point in your life enjoyed chord-crunching, head-banging, good old-fashioned fist-pumping heavy-duty rock and roll, this band is your Moses, the leader come down from the mountain in 1973 with the Ten Commandments of American hard rock.

The First Commandment: thou shalt honor thy mother and father. As retold by guitarist/bandleader Ronnie Montrose himself, when hand-picked producer Ted Templeman first sat down with the group and asked them what other bands they liked, the answer was unanimous: "Led Zeppelin! Deep Purple!" A pair of British bands who loved the blues and had a strong ear for melody, but who were busy experimenting with the brash, muscular, undeniably weighty strains of the genre that was becoming known as heavy metal. Montrose took up the torch and became the first homegrown heavy metal band in America to make the charts.

And they started out with a bang, producing an album -- the self-titled Montrose -- that remains very much in print 29 years after its release, a landmark piece of work that was the initial sonic blueprint for future superstar bands from Van Halen (whose first album was produced by, drumroll please, Ted Templeman) to Kiss. It's a monster, represented here by just four tracks, barely sufficient even if it does represent half the album. First there's the electrifying "Rock The Nation," a headbanger's anthem whose slightly silly lyrics disappear behind a lightning bolt of electric guitar. Then comes the similarly appealing "Bad Motor Scooter," with its "signature motorcycle-rev-up intro," as Montrose himself puts it in the liner notes. Next to ride out is the positively blistering "Space Station #5," astride what is surely one of the top ten metal riffs of all time. And then there's a little number called "Rock Candy," featuring drummer Denny Carmassi doing his best John Bonham as the band wails through an alternately grinding and thundering blues, an immortal monument to whatever heavy metal gods there be.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Montrose's first album was -- as truly ground-breaking albums can often be -- tough to match. And it didn't take long for this band - Montrose on guitar and Carmassi on drums, along with Sammy Hagar on vocals and Bill Church on bass -- to start feeling the effects of the heady success they achieved at a very young age. Friction among the players soon triggered a series of comings and goings that have been part of the band's legend ever since. First to depart was Church, replaced for the band's follow-up album Paper Money by bassist-keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald.

Paper Money, as suggested in Martin Popoff's liner notes for this disc, was to some extent the band's Led Zeppelin III, an expansion of and experimentation with their sound. The tracks culled here show much greater sonic diversity than the first album, from the thoroughbred guitar heroics of "I Got The Fire," featuring one of the most memorable solos in hard rock history, to the gentle, introspective blues of "We're Going Home," Ronnie Montrose's only recorded lead vocal performance. Also featured here are "Spaceage Sacrifice," a steady-building number with prototypical Hagar sci-fi lyrics (drinking, dating and rocket ships, that's about 90% of Sammy's lyrical range right there…), and the percussive "Paper Money," a fine Carmassi-Montrose workout.

From there things get murkier. With the departure of first Hagar (replaced by the less bombastic but more pedestrian Bob James) and then Fitzgerald, Montrose's last two albums of the '70s ( Warner Brothers Presents and Jump On It) represent an undeniable fall-off in the memorability quotient. Nonetheless, both had some strong moments, effectively captured here on tracks like the party-starting "Dancin' Feet" and the thumping slide-guitar extravaganza "Let's Go."

Thrown in for good measure are three tracks from the band's brief 1987 incarnation, in which Ronnie Montrose got together in the studio with Johnny Edwards (Foreigner), James Kottak (Scorpions) and Glenn Letsch (Gamma) to pound out a one-off of sleek '80s metal. Again, solid, meaty stuff, just not up there with the likes of "Space Station #5."

On the whole, this is a terrific package. While I personally couldn't do without my copy of Montrose as well, this album has all the best tracks from every subsequent Montrose album, several of which have been out of print from time to time in the U.S. It also offers excellent packaging (one of Rhino's strong suits) featuring band photos, a guitar gallery and extensive track-by-track notes from Montrose himself.

A closing note: after occupying himself for many years with a variety of solo projects, producing and session work, Ronnie Montrose recently returned to his musical roots, assembling a fresh incarnation of Montrose. What could have been a tame little nostalgia wallow, however, has instead emerged as a promising new era for the band. New lead vocalist Keith St. John is a darkling Robert Plant, a twenty-something classic rock savant who's already shown a propensity for not just nailing but blowing away Hagar's original performances on the tracks captured here. If you've been wishing for years you could hear The Very Best Of Montrose played live in all the glory these songs deserve, now is your chance. (For dates, check either Pollstar or the concert review found elsewhere on this site.)

Rating: A-

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers / Rhino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.