by Rick Rockwell
It seems ludicrous but at 60 years old, Alice Cooper seems poised for yet another comeback.
The question though is not whether he will succeed, but whether it matters at all.
This return of Alice Cooper (original name: Vincent Furnier) is being fueled by the release of a new concept album, Along Came a Spider, out this week on Steamhammer Records (a division of German label SPV GmbH).
The tale of Alice Cooper takes fans on a ride down the long road through the valley of shock rock. And that ride, like any at an amusement park, brings you right back to where it began. Today, Cooper is a cult act; he gets little radio airplay and exists on the margins. Disc jockeys may actually get a thrill in unwrapping his forbidden delights late at night when their bosses aren’t listening, just like in 1969 and 1970, before Cooper and his band erupted full throttle into the zeitgeist. (This reviewer actually heard a disc jockey doing just that on commercial radio in the Washington, D.C. area and playing a cut from Cooper’s 2005 release Dirty Diamonds, a few years back.) And although Along Came a Spider is Cooper’s latest attempt at grabbing the spotlight again, the truth is he never went away. The record is his 25th studio outing, including his work with the original Alice Cooper band, before he went solo.
What happened to Cooper is he burned brightly for a very few years and then sank into near-obscurity, a sort of Nora Desmond of rock. He was everywhere in the 1970s. And the question today is whether Cooper’s managers and producer Bob Ezrin (who worked on and off with Cooper for 30 years) were the ones mostly responsible for his fame: creating both his sound and a rock ‘n roll horror show to frame it. Cooper peaked commercially in 1973 with Billion Dollar Babies, before going solo, and it has been a long downhill slide since. Some of this is attributable to his battle with alcoholism in the 1970s and 1980s: something he beat, but his career has never fully recovered. Or perhaps Cooper became passé when he decided to tame his shock rock for an appearance with the Muppets in 1978. (Full disclosure: this critic officially wrote Cooper off during a series of published negative reviews in 1980 of Cooper’s tour at the time, and his album Flush the Fashion.) By then, most realized Cooper was mostly schtick, a Halloween sideshow rather than true rock innovation.
Although categorized by some now as a heavy metal act, Cooper has returned to his 1970s sound on Along Came a Spider, a mix of searing guitars, growling vocals, and dark themes. (Cooper is considered a metal act today, because his stage show was so influential to many metal bands, although his sound is still 1970s glam-rock. Rolling Stone also wrongly calls Cooper the world’s “most beloved metal entertainer.”) The new album is a rock opera built around the story of a serial killer. Cooper has done this so much better before, (see “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” from the superior Love it to Death) that a listener can’t help thinking this is just a faint echo of his glory days. Lyrically, Cooper compounds this problem by linking at least two of the new songs to his solo debut Welcome to My Nightmare. Certainly, the guest stars are here to bolster Cooper’s attempts at revival: Ozzy Osbourne co-writes “Wake the Dead” and plays harmonica; Slash (of Velvet Revolver and Guns N’ Roses fame, who is also known as Saul Hudson) blisters through impressive guitar lines on "Vengeance is Mine." Although proficient at providing some over-slick rockers, Cooper and his crew have built a façade: enter the doors of this creepy funhouse and the inside is rather empty.
Unlike his heyday, Cooper seems out of synch with the times. An album like Along Came a Spider might have struck a nerve if Cooper had come out with this in the early 1990s when America seemed more fixated on serial killers than ever. At that time, serial killers were raised to high art with Silence of the Lambs (which Cooper borrows from liberally) winning a basket of Academy Awards, and great actresses like Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver teaming in a film like Copycat. Instead, these days Cooper’s latest plays like a bad knock-off of Saw III. But maybe that’s all you can expect of a theatrical rock star past his prime.
(The promotional photo shows Rob Zombie and Slash accompanying Alice Cooper during a performance in 2007; the photo is from Steamhammer Records. To see a trailer for Along Came a Spider, please go here. Alice Cooper and his band play tonight, Aug. 31, in Redmond, OR, as part of his world tour.)
Along Came a Spider
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by Rick Rockwell