Portly Politico – A Very Dokken Christmas, Part I:  Breaking the Chains (1983)

To celebrate the Christmas season, I’d like to explore 80s hair metal giants Dokken’s first three albums, starting with their 1983 debut, Breaking the Chains.  The story of this album is curious in itself, as there are actually two versions:  one recorded in 1981, then in another with the classic Dokken line-up of Don Dokken, George Lynch, Mick Brown, and Jeff Pilson (Pilson played bass on the tour, but not on the album).  The best treatment of that story is The Rageaholic’s Metal Mythos: DOKKEN video; indeed, that video first turned me on to Dokken, a band I’d almost entirely missed in past forays into 80s metal.

 

This review will cover the 1983 album, as that’s properly when “Dokken” as such began (some pressings of 1981’s Breakin’ the Chains—note the dropped “G” in the ’81 version’s title—listed the artist as “Don Dokken”).  Also, I haven’t heard enough of the ’81 cut to comment upon it adequately.

 

Breaking the Chains kicks off with its excellent title track, a tune that’s both rockin’ and sleek.  It’s central riff—built around a persistent transition from E minor to D to C, and back again—is simple but effective, and resolves nicely into the G major of the distinctive chorus.  Like much of 80s hair metal, the tune effortlessly combines a brooding sense of rock ‘n’ roll machismo with a catchy, radio-friendly chorus.

 

The album’s second track, “In The Middle,” is another mid-tempo rocker, but feels like a missed opportunity.  The opening track itself, while exquisite, is already a slower tune.  The decision to follow that up with another andante selection makes for a lackluster double opener.  Dokken would perfect the “rockin’-double-opener” approach on future albums, but the best tracks on Breaking the Chains await.

 

Really, the album doesn’t really get cooking until the fifth track, “Live to Rock (Rock to Live),” an unapologetic rocker all about, well, rockin’ out.  I’ve yet to give this track the “drive test” I referenced in my Down to Earth review, but I’m sure it would pass.  Speaking of the drive test, Dokken follows “Live to Rock” with “Nightrider,” which sounds like driving a sports car with a panther on the roof through the rain-slick neon of an 80s night.  These two tracks should have appeared a bit earlier on the album.

 

The album closes with a live recording of “Paris is Burning” from a 1982 show in Berlin.  That track rips open with a George Lynch guitar solo that sounds like Van Halen’s “Eruption.”  That kind of guitar pyrotechnics is missing from most of the record, so this live recording is a welcome addition to the album.

 

Much of this initial effort is enjoyable but forgettable, but there are some real gems on Breaking the Chains, not just the title track.  All in all, it’s a solid record that points to the intensity and power of future Dokken releases.

The Portly Politico’s Review of Rainbow’s Down to Earth

The good folks at Orion’s Cold Fire have generously allowed me the opportunity to contribute to the site.  I write primarily about politics, economics, and history at https://theportlypolitico.wordpress.com, but as a “semi-pro” musician (and a full-time music teacher), I enjoy occasionally critiquing music.  The purpose of this feature is to review classic 70s and 80s-era hard rock and heavy metal albums.  Why such a specific genre and time period?  Essentially, I believe this genre represents the pinnacle of rock music.  With its confluence of blues, acid rock, country-western, and all the other distinct musical “flavors” of the mid-twentieth century, rock and roll reached its greatest artistic and technical summits during the “classic rock” era.  I’ll write further about that contentious claim at a later date; but now, let’s boogie!

When considering an album to review, I more or less use this criteria:  does it sound like hard rock/heavy metal?  Have I listened to it enough to comment upon it?  And does it rock?  That’s not the best criteria, as it predisposes me to writing glowing reviews of every album, but there you have it—the highly unscientific approach I take to writing about music I generally love.

All that aside, my first album review for Orion’s Cold Fire was a no-brainer:  1979’s Down to Earth by Rainbow.  This album perfectly encapsulates the direction of rock music at that crucial turning point between punk and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Down to Earth was the first and only Rainbow album to feature Graham Bonnet on lead vocals, who replaced legendary metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio.  Rainbow’s guitarist and mastermind, Ritchie Blackmore, was notorious for sacking musicians on a whim, so most of the album’s personnel was wildly different than even the previous Rainbow release.

Regardless, this album rocks.  While he’s no Dio, the songs on Down to Earth are uniquely suited for Bonnet’s vocals—probably because he wrote the melodies after the band had already recorded all of the tracks.

The album’s big hit—and Rainbow’s first hit single—is “Since You Been Gone,” a Russ Ballard-penned tune that strikes the right balance between rock and pop.  The chorus is catchy as the flu, but like any good hard rock song, the pre-chorus build really sets up the triumphant release of the chorus beautifully.  Listen to the bass and guitar after the line “Your poison letter, your telegram” and you’ll see what I mean.

That said, my favorite tracks are the opening and closing numbers, “All Night Long” and “Lost in Hollywood,” respectively.  Musically, they rock, and “Lost in Hollywood” passes what I call the “drive test”—I drive much faster when listening to it.  It also features some of Rainbow’s signature neoclassical embellishments, pointing to the rise of neoclassical metal.

Lyrically, they’re fairly depressing commentaries of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, not to mention the Sexual Revolution.  “All Night Long” is sung from the point of view of a jaded, lonely rocker, searching the crowd for a babe to spend the night with him (the most poignant line, from the third verse: “I know I can’t stand another night on my own”).  “Lost in Hollywood” describes a man so dedicated to rock, he’s lost the woman who makes it all worthwhile.

There are some less memorable tracks—the neoclassically-inflected “Eyes of the World” is a commentary on humanity’s rapacious capacity for violence and waste, but is a bit ponderous; “Makin’ Love” has its moments, but is forgettable—but, from start to finish, Down to Earth is as good an introduction to classic hard rock as I can conceive.  Crank it up!