It’s a little hard to believe now but, twenty-five years ago, the music business seemed to be getting suddenly and violently pulled in several directions at once. At that time, glam metal and hard rock were still pumping out some pretty important albums. Guns N’ Roses would release both Use Your Illusion albums in ’91, Metallica released The Black Album, Van Halen released For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Skid Row put out Slave To The Grind. But alternative rock was beginning to rise at the same time with the releases of albums like R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden and Wretch by Kyuss. It was a really busy time which would be settled for many rock fans when Nirvana released Nevermind in September of ’91 and summarily marginalized most of the metal and hard rock bands on the scene in one fell swoop but, prior to that point, everyone seemed intent on staking their claim at mainstream domination.
Their’s may not have been the biggest name on the board, but among the contestants vying for the rock throne at the time was Sacramento, CA’s Tesla. The band released their third full-length album, Psychotic Supper, in 1991 which really made a valiant play for the crown. A little sleazy and dark – but not so dark that the lustre of their glam tendencies were obscured – and tight as an over-wound snare drum, Psychotic Supper really did look like it might have a shot at the title for a couple of weeks before Guns N’ Roses dropped their two-release Illusion bomb on September 17, 1991 and then Nirvana pretty much wiped the slate clean of all but the biggest names on September 24.
After that, precisely NO ONE was paying attention to anything other than the biggest entries on the charts and Psychotic Supper fell by the wayside at the time. But, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s no question that there was more than just a token amount of value about the album, and this reissue stands as proof of that.
Forgetting the events which would follow its original release less than thirty days henceforth, it’s really easy to get excited about Psychotic Supper – particularly when it comes to this double LP reissue. Even now, twenty-five years after the fact, listeners will recoil in shock as “Change In The Weather” opens the album’s A-side with a gang bark from all four band members – “Put this in your pipe and smoke it!” – before the song begins its epic chug to ecstasy.
After that first blurt, listeners will find that what the band has in “Change In The Weather” is absolutely worth attention. Right off, guitarists Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch set a very hairy, glammy and crunchy introduction which splits the sonic difference between Mick Mars and Zakk Wylde’s styles before locking into a very “Cali-rock” rhythm which is supported perfectly by bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Troy Luccketta.
“Change In The Weather” got a fair bit of attention when it first hit radio airwaves, but it actually feels raunchier in 2016. Removed from its chronological context, the initial spark of the song is fairly mesmerizing but it’s singer Jeff Keith’s vocal barrels a few bars into the song that instantly marks Tesla as a unique entity. Granted, it’s easy to tell that Keith is trying to mug a style similar to that of Axl Rose here, but what sets him (and the song, by extension) apart is Keith’s impressive vocal range. His pitch-perfect and refined tone here is undeniable, and listeners are left with the impression that he’s actually PLAYING DOWN to the form of the song rather than hamming it up, and that sense makes the song pretty captivating. Previously uninitiated listeners will quickly find themselves anxiously locked in to see what else the owner of that voice has in store for them.
While “Change In The Weather” is clearly not a slow or poor start, “Edison’s Medicine” follows it and passes it like it’s standing still. There, everything just seems to lock down; all four members charge forth with teeth and bravado exposed and, twenty-five years later, it’s a chore for listeners not to begin sneering sympathetically, involuntarily.
The guitar tones are absolutely classic and Keith’s vocal presents as a perfect, plastic snarl which inspires imagination, effortlessly. Lines like, “All that he saw, all he conceived/ They could just not believe/ Steinmetz and Twain were friends that remained/ Along with number three/ He was electromagnetic, completely kinetic/ “New wizard of the West”/ But they swindled and whined that he wasn’t our kind/ And said Edison knew best” sort of straddle a line between rock and academia (a line seldom balanced – unless you’re They Might Be Giants, and that came much later) which seems a little silly, but what saves the song from being too nerdy are the range-roving and raucous guitar parts interwoven throughout. Part refined-and-mathy and part perfectly-over-the-top, the guitars really serve to bolster Keith’s vocal and push it right into listeners’ collective face, FORCING them to feel it.
That tactile impression left by “Edison’s Medicine” carries over into “Don’t De-Rock Me” which, while sounding a little silly now removed from its original Hollywood Rock context, plays like a mother of a shred/skate squealer for those who are willing to just accept it. The guitars mix hair metal with shockingly tight and acerbic shred licks and come up with a very rugged combination which muscles its way through to fit perfectly with the cock rock of the day, but also translates well now, twenty-five years later too. In addition, Keith follows suit by offering couplets like “I ain’t no program on your television screen/ They only taught me what they wanted me to be/ Heard all your so-called facts, now hit me with the truth/ Takes a lot of nerve way you played me for a fool” which simultaneously keep the ‘bookish’ quality about them, but also throw in some Sunset Strip muscle as well. It’s not just solid, “Don’t De-Rock Me” is laced with the kind of hooks which can pull listeners who aren’t sure they want to go along for miles.
…And then it happens: just as listeners fall in and are ready to join the band as they crush some skulls, the A-side ends and the spell cast gets broken too soon. “Don’t D-Rock Me” marks the moment when even sceptics have started getting behind this reissue, and the whole thing is hobbled by the necessity of taking a second to flip the disc and start trying to build that vibe again. Worse – the B-side opens with a mid-tempo power ballad (“Call It What You Want”), which could stand very well next to a big and raucous brawler of a song, but doesn’t quite have the energy to open from a stop.
The going doesn’t get a whole lot better as “Song & Emotion” really sinks a little deeper into an overwrought mire, but does FINALLY spring to life when “Time” crosswires Pink Floyd histrionics with the shallow end of Motley Crue’s songbook before receding again as “Government Personnel” puts half an effort in for a short, acoustic (and pretty wimpy) jaunt to close the side. No matter how one would like to slice it, the B-side of this version of Psychotic Supper illustrates how awkwardly a vinyl reissue can play if the songs don’t line up right for any one particular side.
Happily, while the B-side presents itself as somewhat feeble, the C- and D-sides pick up the slack. “Freedom Slaves” rocks in a wild wild west or “Blaze of Glory” kind of way (the “I found good reasons for being bad” line holds up for the song), and the grooves get better when “Had Enough” aims a little truer to “balls out” and turns up the volume while “Can’t Stop” picks up and renews the album’s early rhythm for its late playing.
Overall, the second half of the Psychotic Supper actually plays as well if not better than the first half did, if only because it shows more dimensions of the band’s ability beyond the typical glam metal fare that the first half showcased and EVERY band was playing in the Eighties.
Needless to say, absorbing the vinyl reissue of Psychotic Supper is genuinely delightful. The additional frills attached to the reissue – the rethought album cover and the remastered mix – are great extra touches which do add to the presentation of the album, but they in no way threaten to overshadow the music at all. It sounds fresh and fantastic and, now no longer obscured by other releases or events to take away from it, it could easily be argued that this reissue offers the music the chance to shine that it didn’t get when it was first released.