Enigma, 1987

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Chances are that quite a few buyers of Rhino’s 2002 release The Very Best of Montrose opened it up, took a closer look at the track list and went “Huh? There was another Montrose album after Jump On It?” Even this superfan lost track of Ronnie Montrose for a while during the ’80s, a decade that found the mercurial guitarist and bandleader in fine form creatively even as his work ranged farther and farther from the musical mainstream.

Although credited to Montrose the band rather than Ronnie solo, this 1987 release has nothing whatsoever to do with the renowned 1973-76 group bearing his last name. Rather, Mean found Montrose and bass player Glenn Letsch from his 1979-82 band Gamma teaming up with sandy-throated vocalist Johnny Edwards (later of Foreigner) and head-banging drummer James Kottak (later of Scorpions) for an album’s worth of frosty-cool ’80s metal.

As was often the case with Montrose, the group seemed to come together almost on a whim. Montrose connected with an up-and-coming band called Buster Brown that included Edwards and Kottak, hung out with them, talked about possibly producing them, guested for some live dates and, when the group eventually splintered, seized the opportunity to put together an entirely new band under an existing moniker that he just happened to have lying around.

There was some logic to this move; the Montrose brand has always had cachet in the industry thanks to the original group’s status as a major influence on a generation of American hard rock bands, and both the Buster Brown tour and this ensuing album saw Ronnie returning to his hard rock roots after a decade of experimentation highlighted by his jazz-rock solo debut my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Open Fire (1978), the futuristic Gamma, the even quirkier Ronnie Montrose - Mitchell Froom duo, and the all-over-the-map solo album Territory (1986).

Another factor at play was an invitation from the producers of the 1987 film RoboCop for Montrose to compose a track for potential inclusion in the movie’s soundtrack—a songwriting prompt that resulted in “M For Machine,” heard in slightly tweaked final form on this album. Like the film’s lead character, the sound Montrose took on for this self-produced album is cold, sleek, and hard, with heavy reverb, gated drums, and a metallic ’80s sheen on everything.

As for the songs, “M For Machine” and “Stand” share a sound and an attitude, featuring both acoustic and electric guitars and aggressive arrangements. Likewise, the Zeppelin-esque crunch and lively dynamics of “Ready, Willing And Able” entertain, even if the lyric is pure macho cheese. In that sense, it’s no surprise these are the three tracks that ended up on the aforementioned Very Best Of Montrose album; they’re easily the strongest of the bunch. There are also fun nods to past glories here and there, as when the closing bars of Montrose’s solo on “Flesh And Blood” paraphrase a similar bit from “Rock Candy.”

Beyond the above moments, though, the album sinks under the weight of pedestrian songwriting. If the lyrics were stronger, the Montrose-Letsch-Kottak power trio’s animated performances might be enough to hold interest, but the songs themselves are paper-thin constructions fished from a barrel of hair-metal clichés; “If you’re looking for trouble / She can give you double” is about as bold a lyrical flight as you’re going to find here. Even the ferociously positive Ronnie Montrose himself once described Mean as “A bunch of silly rock songs.”

The album was never toured; just as it was being released, Edwards was recruited away for a brief run as frontman for Foreigner, and Kottak moved on to Kingdom Come before enjoying a lengthy run with Scorpions. Meanwhile, Montrose kept Letsch on board for his hard-rocking 1988 instrumental solo album The Speed Of Sound.

Though energetic, Mean is hampered by subpar songwriting and sterile, unappealing ’80s production, a sound that perpetual sonic adventurer Ronnie Montrose never showed interest in revisiting. Strictly a one-off, and lacking the warmth and fire of his best work, Mean is for Montrose completists only.

Rating: C-

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