Axe’s career never quite reached the epic proportions of those other bands, probably because their macho name and album art conjured up images of massive walls of heavy metal, when in reality their sound was much more melodic and MOR. While they did eventually toughen up and put out a more metal sounding album (their biggest hit Offering) it’s in this debut, in all it’s melodic MOR glory that Axe first shone bright.
Admittedly, the album starts off kinda dicey. “Life’s Just an Illusion,” is as strong an opener as you could hope for, but still only hints at the true treasures that lay inside. That’s not to say “Life’s” a bad song, it’s not. In fact, “Life” may be better than the entire output of most of the other melodic rockers of the time, and it displays some of what prove to be the best of Axe’s traits. Stuttering guitar work leads us into the main, truly bass heavy riff. Bobby Barth was a tremendously under-rated singer; his voice thick and gravelly enough to be interesting, but still intensely melodic in tone and capable of filling out enough range to match the emotional content of the songs. Of Axe’s three songwriters, Barth was also the most likely to search for meaning in his lyrics, digging for a deeper truth. While we’re not talking anything too heavy or mind-blowing here, there is a simple beauty to Barth’s gentle advice and spiritual truth, “Life’s just an illusion/don’t fill yours with pain.” The only real drawback here is the prominence of the keyboards which veer the song off into the pomp territory of a band like Zon, when in reality Axe was so much more.
Osbourne takes over songwriting and lead vocals for “How Come I Love You,” without the band missing a step. Every thing that they’ve revealed so far in “Life,” and “Sympathize,” is still there. Huge, bass-massive, staggering riffs and thrilling twin guitar lead breaks, all wrapped up in a melody so strong it stays in your mind as if it’d been carved their in stone. As opposed to Barth’s searching lyrics, Osbourne’s tended towards the more straight ahead “man love woman, woman leaves man,” variety, but he sings them with enough conviction and rasp in his voice that they don’t go down as saccharine. Barth finishes off the first side of the lp with “Forever,” as beautifully melodic a love song as their was never-heard in the ‘70’s. Forget Styx and “Lady,” this is the song that should’ve made the girls swoon at high school dances. From Edgar Riley Jr’s gorgeous piano work, all the way to the big guitar solo outro, this song was placed firmly in the power-ballad territory years before Poison was ever “credited” with creating the format.
What side one hinted at, side two delivers in spades. “Back on the Streets,” is a pure adrenaline-soaked scorcher, a rocker of fiery intensity with its terrorizing guitar leads and big thumping bass. Barth, as always, gives a masterful vocal as he plows a theme he’d later re-explore to staggering success with his biggest hit “Rock and Roll Party In the Streets,” off the Offering album. Here the song builds and builds. Check out that lead break midway through! Man, this song was the subject of hours upon hours of air guitar concerts in my bedroom through high school. “Doin’ the Best I Can,” follows next without missing a beat. If Loverboy or Survivor had produced this melodic rocking gem it would have topped the charts, but that wasn’t to be the case. Instead, Osbourne gives an honest, impassioned performance that still boasts enough meat to give it some headbanging moments. And again, no one ever matched that Axe guitar tone. Just listen for it on the lead breaks at the end of the choral verse.
Axe would go on to record one half of a great album- side one of On the Edge (side two is throwaway including a horribly ill-advised cover of “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”) - before toughening up their sound and finally breaking through to the national stage with Offering. And while that album clearly rocks, in the end, it lost some of the charm that made the debut so endearing to me. Like most of my favorite bands, Axe defied categorization. Too melodic to be hard rock, it was too hard rocking to be pop. But in the end, that’s what it was, a glorious starburst of hard rocking, heavy handed MOR pop, with melodies and savagery too spare.
For fans of big melodic rock, this one is well worth tracking down.
Buy here: Axe
You're Out of Line
Life's Just an Illusion