The time was 1979. It had been six years since Montrose gave America its first real taste of homegrown heavy metal. It had been three years since the already vastly-transformed Montrose band imploded. And it had been a year since highly-regarded guitarist/bandleader Ronnie Montrose had issued his first solo album, the diverse, innovative Open Fire. It was time -- and no one who's followed his story should be surprised by this phrase -- for Ronnie Montrose to try something new.
In a career defined by testing boundaries -- of musicianship, creativity, record labels' oversight and audiences' ability to adapt -- Ronnie Montrose once again pushed the envelope with Gamma. Yes, there's an element of accessibility and familiarity to this band -- sandy-throated Scotsman Davey Pattison's soulful vocals have a definite Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) feel to them, and the band did work the same general melodic/progressive rock territory as contemporaries like Rush, Foreigner and the Alan Parsons Project.
But Gamma had an edge. This was a band that for four years charged ahead like an angry racehorse, straining at the bit applied by their record label. The more pressure they got to stay in the middle of the track, the more they insisted on riding the rail.
That edge shows up right away on Gamma 1 in three key elements. First was an evolution in Ronnie Montrose's style away from the fat power chords that made the original Montrose band hard rock icons and toward extended, intricate soloing that was anchored in melody, but aspired to steadily greater invention and tone. Second was heavy use of synthesizers for texture and drama -- sure, plenty of hard rock bands (including Montrose) were adding keyboards to the mix in the 70s, but few made the leap to the wild, evocative, purely electronic synth tones adopted by Gamma. Third was a distinctly moody/futuristic tone to both the album graphics and, in many cases, the lyrics.
Gamma 1 was the band's first try at making this formula gel, and as with many first tries, it's thoroughly energetic, if not entirely successful. The guitars ring, the synths swirl, and Pattison wails, but there's something missing - in particular, a producer who knows how to play to this band's strengths.
For evidence, you need go no farther than track one. "Thunder & Lightning" launches with a dynamic guitar/synth duet that's full of promise; then the rhythm section comes in and you ask yourself what the hell is going on here. The guitars and synths are strong and sharp, but the drums are shallow and tinny and Pattison sometimes sounds like he's singing through a box of coffee filters. The song itself has enough drive to make an impact in spite of the production, but damn! Coulda, shoulda, woulda…
"Thunder And Lightning" and "I'm Alive" give the album steady energy up front, as well as decent commercial appeal - both are ringing hard rock tunes put in a basic pop framework, but punctuated by exotic electronic accents and extended, dynamic Montrose solos. This approach reaches a high point here on the atmospheric instrumental "Solar Heat" and its complement, the furious rocker "Ready For Action."
The rest of the album can't quite match up to the punch of these four tunes, though. "Razor King" and "Fight To The Finish" each have strong instrumental passages and fabulous solos, but the lyrics are tough-guy poses that don't really sell. Meanwhile, "No Tears" and "Wish I Was" are a pair of ballads that, while well-executed, feel out of sync with a band that's clearly built for speed.
The strengths of this debut album -- Montrose's adrenalized soloing, Jim Alcivar's atmospheric synths and Pattison's passionate vocals -- would be the foundation of their second effort a year later. The weaknesses -- Skip Gillette's somewhat pedestrian drumming and Ken Scott's counter-productive production -- would disappear (as would bassist Alan Fitzgerald, off to start Night Ranger with Jack Blades).
Gamma 1 was a wobbly but distinctly promising debut, whose promise would be fulfilled on Gammas 2 and 3.
[ Editor's note: Gamma's initial three studio albums, 1 , 2 , and 3 , were out of print for years but were recently reissued on Wounded Bird Records. For more information on Gamma and Ronnie Montrose, visit Ronnie's site at www.ronniemontrose.com.]