For the record, there are five CDs that have had to be surgically removed, reluctantly, from my CD player from too much wear and to make room for others to be reviewed: Seal’s second album, Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime, Bone Machine’s Dogs, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Badlands, originally released in 1989.
I don’t know what late Badlands singer Ray Gillen had more of, sex appeal or a kick ass voice — both ingredients that are somehow missing from the rock scene in tandem now. Gillen had stints with Blue Murder and Black Sabbath (no relation to Ian Gillan) and was actually good (i.e. mainstream) enough that he was set to go to Broadway for a prominent role in Cats before joining Badlands. There’s no way to tell, definitively, if he made the smarter move. But he didn’t really come into his own as far as creativity goes until this album. Someone once referred to him as the most famous nobody• you’ll never know.
Badlands had generous airplay of its two videos, “Winter’s Call” and “Dreams in the Dark,” on MTV. The band’s album had reached number one on the Headbanger’s Ball album chart and a respectable No. 57 on Billboard, remaining on its charts for 26 weeks. But band tension and Gillen’s death in 1994 has kept the band at rock trivia status.
It’s a shame that someone’s wings had to be clipped before having a chance to fly, because on this album, however briefly airborne, Gillen really soars. In fact, every single band member on this CD does. Two of them, Eric Singer (who went on to play with Kiss and Alice Cooper) and Jake E. Lee (Ozzy Osborne’s former axe-man) have enjoyed auspicious careers — Singer’s since Badlands — but they were surrounded by enough established bands with egos that their own true talents were stifled.
Despite the birth and death of grunge and hair bands (the era of Badlands’ original emergence), and hip-hop mania, it’s still hip to compare this and other bands to old school veterans like Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin. But Gillen had a sensuality and urgency to his voice, and he reinterpreted Lee’s obvious blues ties differently enough that Badlands became its own entity, worthy of being called an influence.
Being an opera singer myself, I could hear a more extensive range and a control in his voice that Robert Plant, during his heyday (forgive me, Led Zep fans), didn’t possess; yet Gillen, probably not wanting to stray too far from formulaic, hovered in Plant’s same gritty delivery when he went for that raw, New Orleans swamp feel, such as on “Rumbling Train.” The heavily rock/blues-influenced “Winter’s Call” is certainly the best song on the album, and inarguably one of the top ten songs on my list of baddest — as in good — songs ever. It’s strong enough that it carries the whole album, unsettling the hair on your back in the process. But the whole album is worth the listen and a reissue.
Koch Records, 740 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10003