Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mr Mike's High School Record Collection: GTR (1986)

One of the worst, if not the worst, single of the 80's. The Hunter!
GTR - the abbreviation for Guitar, was a mini super group from the mid 80's centered around two guitarists. Giants in the Prog rock field, Steve Howe (Yes, Asia) and Steve Hackett (Genesis) were brought together by manager Brian Lane following Howe's departure from Asia. Being a big fan of Steve Howe aka Maestro, and hearing the killer lead single "When The Heart Rules The Mind", I was sold on this band and snapped up their tape in the Summer of '86. After the disappointment of Asia's 1985 effort Astra, I was ready for some proggy arena rock. And the two Steves did not let me down. Between Howe's angular patterns and Hackett's wild yet complex fretwork GTR was a dream of an album. Surprisingly produced by Howe's Asia cohort keyboardist Geoff Downes, GTR features no keyboards but instead has guitars made to sound like synths.

1. When The Heart Rules The Mind

Is there such a thing as a perfect song? After hearing this, maybe there is. The two Steve's get their shots in both on electric and acoustic. From the imperial sounding opening to the Asia styled chorus to the acoustic breakdown and the sad wah wah guitar at the end GTR served up magic. Max Bacon's relentlessly happy sounding voice adds an extra special layer of cheese, the guy sounds insanely cheerful regardless of the lyrics. "Mother, protect me, protect me from myself" never sounded so positive. A Top 20 hit single, "When The Heart Rules The Mind" was the band's lone hit and a testament to refined 80's rock. And hey, check out bassist Spalding's neck snap action at the 4:40 mark. Whiplash!

2. The Hunter

Is there such a thing as a horrible song? After hearing this, maybe there is. Penned by producer Geoff Downes, I spent part of the closing months of my high school life ridiculing this song. I couldn't believe so much talent could produce total crap. Well, not total crap. The acoustic guitar work of Howe and Hackett is really nice with all the intricacies and detail that a fan would expect. Just the melody and lyrics were incredibly dumb. "He's a tiger, he's a swan, he's the one I'm counting on"? "He's a fighter, he's a friend. always winning in the end"? Add Bacon's chirpy delivery and you've got a real fey version of "We Are The Champions" on your hands. It's like being trapped in a campfire sing along on a religious retreat you didn't want to go on.

3. Here I Wait

One of my many favorites off this album, I thought the main guitar part was badass with what I suspect to be one of those sharp, choppy Howe riffs accented by Hackett's sinister sounding fills. Drummer Jonathan Mover does a nice job of keeping the beat lively particularly with the stop and go sections before the chorus. My college roommate was annoyed with Mover's playing in the GTR documentary he had because Mover looked at where his cymbals were before hitting them. You should hit them without looking is what he said. I figured as long as he hit what he was aiming for it was all good. Also, unrelated I thought the synth guitars had a slightly Asian feel to them here, but that could just be me.

4. Sketches In The Sun

Steve Howe's acoustic solo I was very familiar with before I had this album because it was the same solo he played on MTV's Asia in Asia concert. It's classic Steve Howe meaning it's awesome how it alternates between a specific pattern of notes followed by pleasant Renaissance Faire style strumming.

5. Jeckyll And Hyde

Not to be confused with Men At Work's minor hit "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive", GTR had some skyscraper high guitar structures on this song. In a sign of pure corporate rock worship, I read a review at the time that said they could imagine a boardroom of music execs getting excited about this song and I took it as a compliment. The dueling guitars of Howe and Hackett are fantastic as they build on each other's riffs and fills like madmen. Ha Ha Ha, madmen I tell you! It's about here that the album's theme starts to take shape, though I don't know if it's intentional. The first two songs are about seeing your passion and being great. Then you wait, go to a Renn Faire and then have a decision to make - are you the refined Dr. Jeckyll or the crazy Mr. Hyde? Back in the day, this is were side one ended.

6. You Can Still Get Through

Bassist Phil Spalding earns his keep with a thumping, insistent bass line. You know the kind of music in the 80's movies you heard when jet fighters are about to take off and they show the radar guy and the air traffic controller and the flag guy on the ground as the jet taxis to the runway? Sounds dead on like that. Thematically, once you've decided if you're Jeckyll or Hyde you have to know that you can still get through to...something, it never really says. Just know that you can. Get through, that is.

7. Reach Out (Never Say No)

Decades before Jim Carrey became a Yes Man, Steve Howe was a Yes man reaching out for new adventures in sonic thunder. Howe does double duty here, playing both guitar and bass because he's just wicked awesome like that. This was the B side to the "When The Heart..." 45 single so I played this one a lot before I had the full album.

8. Toe The Line

Someone should have kept GTR away from ballads, but I guess that should have been Downes job and since he wrote the other slow song his position was compromised from the start. Again, really nice acoustic guitar work back some crappy words. Unlike the self adulating "The Hunter", "Toe The Line" is total self pity. It would seem once you've reached out and not said no you have to be ready for life to smack you down. And even with depressing lyrics like "What a waste of time, trying to change the world, so toe the line," vocalist Max Bacon sounds as gleeful as a five year old with a banana split. Conform...conform! Toe that line because it feels soooo good.

9. Hackett To Bits

Because I knew Howe's solo backwards and forwards before this album, I played Steve Hackett's solo a lot more often off this tape. That plus Hackett's proggy nature didn't get in the way of some totally gnarly carnage as he gets all Joe Satriani with his full band guitar solo. It is an awesome awesome solo, Hackett kicks ass!

10. Imagining

Always felt like this song was a bit of a cheat because it closely copied the main riff to Paul McCartney's "Live And Let Die". Still, it's great to hear the two Steve's get down on a four on the floor rocker.

GTR went on tour which I skipped because to be honest I just couldn't get excited about having the Max Bacon experience live. Bacon has a great voice, it's just he sounds so innately cheerful that it's insane. When I read a review of the concert in the local paper, it commented that Bacon sang Yes' "Roundabout" like he had no clue of what was going on or what the song was about. I felt vindicated at the time, though I guess I did miss out on a once in a lifetime deal. It's not like GTR is going to reform any time soon.

GTR did try to continue after the tour minus Steve Hackett who left. Guitarist Robert Berry came in but a second album didn't get off the ground so the group split. Berry would later resurface with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer in the band 3. Howe would return with former Yes buddies Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford to make ABWH. Jeez, do these prog rockers belong to some kind of exclusive club or something? They always end up in each others bands sooner or later.

To wrap up the full GTR experience, the documentary that my college roomie had is actually on line in part one, part two and part three. Just want to be sure you get the electronic press kit experience. And to close, hear Max Bacon innocently wail his way through "Roundabout".

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