Friday, October 10, 2008

GRAND HALLS 8

U8 – “Pegasus 1001” LP ’82 (PPM, Austria)
U8 – “The Shaber” LP ’84 (EMI, Austria) – The thing I love about being into obscure metal and hard rock is that there’s always something to be discovered, something that has been buried for years that suddenly comes to light. Find it and you’ve got another cool album to add to your collection that stands on it’s own, with it’s own personality, style and sound. Every once in a great while, however, a record comes your way that goes well beyond being the typical obscurity. It’s the platter that not only is unknown and pretty good, but one that’s unknown and totally freaking amazing! Names like Winterhawk, Legend, Slauter Xstroyes, they come to mind – the elite of the elite, LP’s that are, yes, sacredly rare gems but are also as good as if not better than anything produced by the known masters. Several years ago, I came upon a situation like this. It’s one that takes things to an even higher level still, due to the fact that the band in question delivered not one but TWO collectible and obscure LP’s and both are awesome.

U8. A deceptively simply name, a letter and a number. Kinda like U2, only obviously one helluva lot heavier & better, after all, their number is 6 higher, right?! Anyway, a cool guy named Paul Rote from back in the old days sent me a tape of U8’s 2 albums many years ago and after playing it, I went on a quest to find these records at all cost. Listen as I explain.

U8 was from Austria, not a country known to be prolific in generating great metal or hard rock (although Gallows Pole is nothing to sneeze at…but that’s an article for another day). The band were a 4-piece, at the time of these records, composed of Gunter Maier – guitar, Erich Enzinger –vocals, Pter Werhan bass and Kurt Rumpf – drums. Their first full length effort was the strangely entitled “Pegasus 1001” issued in 1982 on the German label PPM (Powerplay Music, cat. # 400.152). This record has a classically primitive/obscure cover design. The black background is adorned by a simple pinkish-red drawing of the winged horse, Pegasus. To the upper left of the animal is the band name in block letters of the same colour and below, the album title. On the back is the same drawing in reverse, accompanied by the member’s names, song titles & technical stats. No band photos or lyrics are included. What is included is a barnstormer of an album!
Side One of “Pegasus 1001” opens with “God Of The Highway.” Instantly, it’s obvious that this is straight-forward world class metal. It’s nothing complicated, just kick-ass memorable riffs and slicing guitarwork courtesy of Gunter Maier. But this song, like “The Power and The Majesty” to follow, has the intangible element that sets it apart for me. It includes melodies that stick in your head and a powerful drive that makes you want to hit the open road with the windows down. Sort of like vintage Riot or Thin Lizzy, and yea, it’s THAT good. With the third song, the Sabbath-heavy “Sherpin’ Man,” another key element of U8 begins to emerge: the voice of Erich Enzinger. This guy is not an operatic wizard like early Halfor or the late David Byron, but just listen to his intensity on this song! A sick cross between early Klaus Meine and Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty is about as close as I can come. Purely original and wickedly cool. Side One closes with “Fly Away,” which, at nearly 7 minutes, unveils U8’s ability to stretch beyond typical song-structuring. Not lost among the changes and subtleties, however, are those all-important points – great melodies and killer riffs – the stuff that makes it rawk!
Blasting into Side Two comes “Straight Into The Night,” another kick-ass slice of metal/hard rock crossover. Speranza/Reale, Gorham/Lynott. Schenker/Mogg: they would all happily have led off any of their LP sides with a beauty like this. And, masters of versatility themselves, neither would they have minded authoring “Long Nights.” It’s a song that, while probably the least “heavy” per se, is still majorly cool in terms of melody and memorability. “Fantasy For Dreamers,” which follows, however, is an all-timer, something U8 would end up producing a few of before their days were numbered. It’s a heavy ballad, reminiscent of early Scorpions, that the whole band shines on. Still, as it metal’s nature, the vocalist and guitarist steal the show. Enzinger runs the gamut here, from pensive, quiet crooning over the acoustic sections to howling emotion when it gets heavy. Maier is on fire, his searing leads echoing the feelings dealt by Erich’s vocals. The saddest thing is that if this song had been given any airplay on the US FM stations that were playing Scorpions & Priest at the time, these guys would have probably become huge. Oh well…. Versatility is on the offer once again, as U8 switches gears for “Fast Driving Mama.” An up-tempo rocker, it reminds me quite a bit of Riot, circa. “Rock City,” with some more scalding guitarwork included. Finally, the album comes to a close with the massive title track. More akin to heavy progressive rock than metal, with maybe a little Wishbone Ash thrown in, “Pegasus 1001” is just one of “those” songs. Layered with lush melodies and ethereal lyrics, the vocals and guitarwork here are simply glorious. What a fucking cut, and with it U8 complete one of the hallowed obscurities of our time. The only thing is, unlike most bands who dwelt far beneath the surface, they would get the chance to do a 2nd. Incredibly, it would be even better!

Before we get ahead of ourselves here, however, it must be noted that around the time of “Pegasus 1001,” U8 also issued at least two 7” singles. Oddly (from what I’ve been told, as I only have the vinyl of the 2 LP’s) they both are composed of cuts from the album, and they are not alternative versions. Strange that there was not at least one non-LP b-side, especially with a band of this capability. Well, I guess we can’t be greedy!

We can talk about what was next on the agenda for U8, however. In 1984, they released their 2nd album, this time on EMI Records. This might sound like a great thing in that one may suspect such a label brought the band some exposure, at least in Europe if not the globe. Unfortunately, as has been seen in other instances, signing to a major does not always help. If the record is only issued in one country (in this case, Austria) and is not heavily promoted, with the band being sent out on a support slot with a bigger act…. Well, let’s just say they might as well have put this one out on PPM also, as today it seems just as rare as the debut.

U8’s sophomore offering is entitled “The Shaber.” On the front is a photo of a concrete floor with “The Shaber” scrawled graffiti-style in white and “U8” in a red box in the upper right. On the back FINALLY a group photo of the band is lain over the upper right corner and the songs listed toward the lower left. For some reason, this cover reminds me of about a hundred others I remember seeing in my travels through the metal import sections between Baltimore & New York in the early/mid ‘80’s. It’s nothing spectacular looking, just a sort of typical “threatening/heavy” design that would have blended in with all the others. I could easily see many people (including your’s truly) picking it up and thinking, “Been there, heard that” before sitting it down again. Of course, we all should know that a cover does not always represent the enormity of what lays within. In this case, that theory is borne out in exponential form.

“The Shaber” opens with with the rather basic cut entitled “’s I’m Ready.” Already the name of the song alone points out another thing I love about this band, their quirkiness. What the title means is that when you say “Yes, I’m ready,” you kind of gloss over the “Y” and “e” in “Yes” and the sentence comes out sounding like “’s I’m Ready.” Of course, it’s one thing for this to be just a part of speech but 999 out of 1,000 people would have simply called the song”Yes I’m Ready.” For these guys to have actually written down the title like that is just plain fucking weird and I love it! Musically, the number is a simple hard rocker with an almost AC/DC-ish feel, but the melodies injected into it by Enzinger’s vocals give it a life all it’s own. Of course, it just figures that U8 would follow this one with the 5 ½ minute “Song For A Lonely Werewolf.” I told you this bunch was not cut from typical fabric! Anything but simple or basic, this cut is one of those classic early ‘80’s metal epics, filled with twists & turns yet remaining totally memorable. The part where it begins picking up speed, like a steam locomotive, heading into Maier’s ripping solo is something out of a “Great Moments In Metal Art” textbook! Next up is “Out Of Control.” Shorter than it’s predecessor, it’s a mid-paced pulverisor, just heavy as total hell. There is a very odd thing about this song, however. It features a rhythm that calls to mind the guitar riffing in Budgie’s “In For The Kill.” Now you might say, “Ray, what the hell is so odd about that?” The weird thing is that on Hank Shermann’s (Mercyful Fate) side project Gutrix CD (self-titled, private ’97) there is also a song called “Out Of Control” and guess what? The main riff in it is also very similar to “In For The Kil!!!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Hank and by no means am I accusing him of intentionally copping a riff from a 13 year old album. But isn’t that weird, just the same?!? Personally, I just think it’s some kind of very bizarre coincidence and so strange that I had to mention it.

OK, OK, no I must address the last song on Side One and yes, I am dedicating an entire paragraph to it. A full page may actually be more of what it requires. Or come to think of it, if somebody actually could write a complete book about the song “Louie Louie” (no shit, somebody really did that) then what would this deserve? “The Shaber” is a 9 ½ minute epic that simply defines everything there is about the great band U8. I hesitate to say that it’s their “best” song because that can be such a misleading term. To say that it is their crowning achievement may be more appropriate. Opening with a ominous, slow drum beat and a demonically evil riff, the song finds Enzinger evoking a lower range than normal. The effect makes this segment nearly doom metal as he tells of this horrifying creature named “The Shaber.” Suddenly, U8 erupts inot a hard-riffing section which is about as infectiously catchy as it gets. In in, Erich pleads to be spared from the demon clawing at his door, “For the victims of The Shaber lose their sight.” I don’t know what “The Shaber” is, exactly, if this is part of Austrian folklore or just a product of some very creative imaginations but I don’t think I want to meet this thing any time soon! The band moves out of this butt-busting movement and slides effortlessly into a melodic, orchestrated part in which Enzinger is simply breathtaking. This is a mammoth vocal performance, and the hairs on my arms are standing up every time I hear it. Finally, the slow grueling pace of the opening piece returns accompanied by a blood-curdling scream and a hideous voice announcing "I AM THE SHABER!” as the number plunders to it’s conclusion. Whew, what a song! You may notice that during the discussion of this one, I never mentioned any massive solos by Gunter Maier. That’s because, believe it or not, there is not one traditional guitar solo within the nearly 10 minutes that comprises this cut! It’s a fact that puts this masterpiece in the unique company of another favourite of mine, also from Austria, Gallow’s Pole’s “In Rock We Trust” (which is also due for a Grand Halls write-up). In both of these, the respective guitarists exhibit their ability to rise beyond that of merely shredding machines and to the level of composers and musicians of the highest order. The creation of a song like this and the subtleties of his rhythms and chordal shadings make “The Shaber” a vast palette for Maier to display a deeper level of art than most metal guitarists ever dream of.

With the dawning of Side Two, U8 go back to good, old full-throttle metal with “Stop The War.” Maier overlays his rhythms for almost the entirety of the song with a biting single-note lead that emphasizes the driving power. Keeping the listener on their toes, the band next opt to cover the Led Zeppelin classic, “Rock & Roll.” While this has been done to death by bar bands the world over, I think it fits very well here. It serves to confirm a point that U8 so well understand: complexity is cool but you MUST have ideas that will stick in the listener’s head to be great. To further drive this point home, the band next unveil “Turn It On,” a punchy riff-rocker that, again, reminds me a bit of Scorpions, in the Uli days when they used to be truly great. Think “Virgin Killer” and some of the classic, memorable metal songs within it’s hallowed grooves. This is stuff on that level, not a copy by any means but worthy of equal status. At last, U8 lays their final gauntlet down with the mighty 7 ½ minute “Till The End Of The World.” Sort of a sister song to Side One’s lengthy ending opus, this is another complete classic. Beginning slow-to-mid-paced and laced with ominous lyrics about “signing the contract,” the song explodes and barrels home like a runaway train, Enzinger reaching a crescendo and Maier layering lead on top of lead. There is a point during this building, tidal onslaught in which Gunter inserts a chunka-chunka machine gun riff that brings me to my knees every time. It’s quick, only about 3 seconds of actual time but it’s the kind of flourish only the best bands think of and that only the elite among them employ with such impeccable timing.

U8 went on to record more material into the middle ‘80’s, cool songs like “She’s Already Ready” “Skyline,” “Touch of Fire,” “Sailor,” etc. Unfortunately, though great cuts, none of these reached the vinyl (or CD) stages and the band broke up in the late ‘80’s. However, brain trust Gunter Maier and Erich Enzinger have gone on to produce more cool music. Maier formed a band that played a scintillating mixture of power and traditional metal called (at their last formation) STYGMA IV who released several excellent releases, finally disbanding in 2005 due to their drummers debilitating back problem. All their discs (some under alternate, earlier names like STIGMATA IV) are worth hunting down. Erich Enzinger has been involved in several bands, including No Bros, Schuber, Speedy Weekend Band and Word Wild Web. I’ve got a CD by the latter and while no U8, it’s surely one of the most powerful examples of so-called “modern” metal I’ve yet to hear. People like Disturbed could eat their pathetic hearts out.

My conclusion, however, is simple. Austria’s U8 was one of the very greatest metal bands of all-time and their works are absolutely essential for anyone reading RAYSREALM. Hunt these down with no hesitation. This is hard-to-find vinyl, for sure, but worth every penny.
“Pegasus 1001” 9.5
“The Shaber” 10.0

3 comments:

S.E. said...

I've never heard these records, but I think I need to.

Mark said...

"The Shaber" is an absolute crusher. One of the best obscure killers of all time!

raysrealm said...

Yeah, absolutely mind-blowing. All the planets aligned on that one!