You come across a lot of Mash-Ups on the internet. It seems like the cool, gimmicky musical viral video thing to do these days, and a lot of it is because the formula is so simple: take a well known song, find another seemlingly unrelated song that has a section or line in it with a similar chord progression and tempo (For instance, “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia and “Where’s the Love” by The Black Eyed Peas would be the first to come to my mind, as they’re so similar and should render the Black Eyed Peas guilty of plagiarism) and put them together. Usually the musical hybrid is just done with samples from pre-recorded songs by the original artists, but what I found this past week completely tore apart that notion and blew me away. Rock Sugar is a completely tongue-in-cheek but wholly talented 80s Hair-Metal/Pop mash-up cover band. You heard (read?) me correctly; they’re a band that plays 80s pop songs to the tunes of some of the most famous classic rock/hair metal bands ever. And they’re amazing at it. “Sharks don’t eat metal”. Left to their own extremely questionable survival skills, Rock Sugar managed to salvage several items from the sunken yacht. In addition to their instruments, they retrieved a hot pink battery powered boom box covered with stickers of Hello Kitty, a crate of batteries, 158 cases of schnapps and numerous articles of teenage girls’ clothing, most of which the band admit to trying on and several pieces of which apparently fit and looked “pretty frickin’ awesome”. But things got worse when the horrified rockers discovered that the only music available for them to listen to was little Lisa Rosenberg’s very pop, very 13 year-old girl’s, very ‘80’s CD collection.
And so, the hardcore degenerate heavy metal members of Rock Sugar spent the last two decades stuck on an island with nothing to do but drink schnapps, catch hard to digest wildlife, befriend monkeys and dream of their long LOST groupies while listening only to, and being slowly and systematically brainwashed by, every favorite pop song of a 1980’s preteen girl. Bored, full of schnapps and wasting away on a tropical oasis, they built a stage out of driftwood, bamboo shoots and tree sap and got to work. Against the odds, Rock Sugar was alive… and they were practicing.
But does a hilariously fictional backstory make for a good album? I think your level of interest in each song comes down to the following criteria. 1) How well does the band play each song? 2) Do you know/enjoy the songs they used? 3) How surprised are you when the songs come up? and 4) How well do the songs mesh together? We can tackle these questions individually.
1.) How well does the band play each song?
The musicians themselves are brilliant. Essentially, they’re a cover band with mostly great arrangements (see question 4), but they slip in and out of subgenres and vocal styles, flawlessly mimic and reinvent these classics, and can flat out play. Lead singer Jess Harnell (who, in the most bizarre part, is the voice actor behind Wakko Warner of the “Animaniacs”, and uses his chameleonic voice talent to mimic the vocal styles of a multitude of lead singers) is simply amazing. The band breaks out the “Journey” songs twice, and he manages to hold his own against (if not outdo) Steve Perry, one of the five greatest lead singers of all time.
In fact, the album’s second last track, “Round and Separated” (a mix of “Round and Round” by Ratt and “Separate Ways” by Journey) is an epic joy, almost entirely because of how talented the band is. The energy and technical proficiency here are high enough to elevate these two decent but not exceptional songs into something better than the sum of the two parts, into a cohesive whole that just might be better than either song ever was. Production level is solid. Every instrument can be heard cleanly, and the background vocal work is fantastic throughout.
2.) Do you know/enjoy the songs they used?
A large portion of enjoyment comes from whether you know these songs, but this knowledge isn’t completely necessary. “Voices in the Jungle” is a prime example. I’ve never heard “Voices Carry” and am only slightly familiar with “Welcome to the Jungle“. The song works though, because the source material is strong and appeals to me. Conversely, “We Will Kickstart Your Rhapsody” didn’t work for me, solely because I don’t think “Kickstart My Heart” is that great of a song. Other people I know have different opinions though. I just dont particularly like that style, I guess. But they can play it well, and sing the Bohemian Rhapsody harmonies. For the most part though, I enjoyed all the other songs. If you only know the pop (or relatively pop-py) songs, it works as an album of hard rock covers. You may miss the other musical references, but you won’t have any idea what you’re missing. Hard rock purists should find these songs funny at first, and then come to the realization that they aren’t bad, it was just the way that they were Hit Me Baby One More Time“) On the whole, the songs are extremely enjoyable and catchy, whether you knew them previously or not.
3. How surprised were you when the songs came up?
I suppose if you checked the track list before listening to each song, you’d be able to guess at least one of the songs used in each track, but I think a great amount of the album’s enjoyment comes from being thrown completely out of your element. You’re going along, listening to the opening chords of a song you’ve heard a thousand times, played nearly exactly how you’ve heard it all those times, and all of a sudden, something completely unexpected, but highly recognizable pops up. You can’t believe your ears! Why haven’t you ever thought of that?! These guys are geniuses, you think. These songs were made to be played together! Part of this goes to question four, though. If the songs don’t go well together, then this surprise aspect is just a gimmick, and a failed one. But when you’re surprised and shocked, I think this is the biggest impetus to share this band with your friends; to see the looks on their faces when “Don’t Stop Believing” comes in, instead of the “Enter Sandman” verse. The best example of this is the epic finale “Mashterpiece”, “Dreaming of a Whole Lotta Breakfast”. Again, you can probably guess what goes into it, judging by the title, but there are a lot of surprises in it, and they all fit perfectly. Whereas “Round and Separated” mostly works because of the band’s talent and charisma, this songs works because of the amazing arrangement and the element of surprise. Have a listen.
4. How well do the songs mesh together?
This is the most hit-or-miss question. “I Love Sugar on Me” works because very little had to be changed in each song for them to fit against each other. But when the first verse of “Workin’ for the Weekend” kicks in in “Prayin for a Sweet Weekend”, it sounds awkward. The playing of the “Sweet Child of Mine” riff under the “Weekend” chorus works well though. “Heaven and Heaven” works great, even if it’s more of a medley than a mash-up. “Here Comes the Fool You Wanted” is great, even if the “Nobody’s Fool” contribution is only a line from the chorus sung over and over (on top of two other vocal parts) at the end. I feel like the chords on the verses of “Shook Me Like a Prayer” aren’t the same as “Shook Me All Night Long”, but instead, just power chords, played AC/DC-style, that would normally fit under the Madonna verse. The same can be said about “Straight to Rock City”. Not to say that these tracks aren’t great, they just needed some re-arranging to “fit together”. The chorus part on “Straight to Rock City” while a brilliant melding of “Straight Up”, and “Detroit Rock City”, is a little strange, but it’s something I can’t put my finger on. Maybe something with accented syllables versus up/downbeats, but I have no idea. So in all, there are a bunch of songs where they took parts that work well, (a chorus section or something, where the two parts fit together) and built the rest of the song with the music from one element, and the style of another. This seems to be more of a style mash-up than a direct musical mash-up. Again, not that any of this is bad, but if you’re looking for straight mash-up goodness, some of these songs might not be what you’re looking for.
Most of these songs are epically awesome. A few of them though either don’t work (“Prayin for A Sweet Weekend”), feel like filler (“Breakin’ The Love”), or just didn’t appeal to me (“We Will Kickstart Your Rhapsody”). Everything else is fantastic though. The musicianship is great, the songs are entertaining, and come with an already built-in knowledge that doesn’t require people to listen to them over and over to learn the words and music. “Here Comes the Fool You Wanted” and “Dreaming of a Whole Lotta Breakfeast” are triumphs of arranging, and the sheer power of “Heaven and Heaven” and especially, ESPECIALLY “Round and Separated”, elevate this to an album that I will keep in my music circulation for a long time. I can only imagine how great they’d be in concert. Also, props go to the pristine production quality of the album itself. Everything is audible and clean. And the concept itself is completely brilliant. They take the idea of being a cover band and elevate it to something wholly different, adding a level of creativity, and injecting new life into songs that have been stale from overplay on classic rock stations for a long time. Truly this is a rock-tastic piece of confection.