Thursday 11 April 2024

Thor - Ride of the Iron Horse (2024)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard and Heavy
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
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Apparently I'm late to the game again. I do know who Jon-Mikl Thor is and what he's done, so I'm not that far behind the curve, but his particular brand of way over the top hard rock/heavy metal antics were so quintessentially eighties in nature that I thought he'd hung up his metal hammer a long time ago. Instead, I keep bumping into his name in periphery. Last time he came up was when I read an excellent interview at the Rialto Report with his ex-wife, who was part of his band under the name of Queen Pantera. Before that, I rewatched Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, a cheesy '80s movie that starred him and his band. It's pretty awful but not without its merits.

And, realistically, that tends to describe what Thor does. While other bands only lean into clichés while they're in vogue and then shun then afterwards, attempting to distance themselves from a very deliberate set of choices they made at particular times, Thor always leans into them. He does what he does and it's always utterly unashamed. That tends to make his music often cringeworthy but sometimes he hits the motherlode and suddenly there are songs that frickin' rock. You might not feel entirely comfortable saying so, but you'll know it and you'll keep spinning those records.

Why I'm late to the game is that he hasn't remotely hung up his hammer and he's celebrating fifty years in the music business. I'm not sure which band he first recorded with, but he played glam in the early seventies in a number of bands like the Ticks, Centaur and Iron Falcon. His first album as Thor was the Keep the Dogs Away in 1977 and, while he's certainly taken breaks over the decades, he's apparently been going strong in the new millennium, with twenty albums out since 1998, in a few instances two or even three in a single year.

So, how does his fiftieth anniversary album sound? Well, as you might expect from everything I've said thus far, it's a mixed bag. There are fifteen tracks here but they're all done before it reaches the fifty minute mark. While eight seem to be new, the rest are either demos or outtakes, likely a set of songs that either didn't make albums or would have been albums that didn't happen. While some absolutely rock out in the hard and heavy mode we expect, others take a different approach and it's hard to see how Thor expected them all to work together here. Patchwork doesn't cut it.

For a start, there are songs here that take it slow and provide a backdrop for almost spoken word vocal delivery. The opening title track is one and it made me wonder if Thor had lost the ability to sing. Peace by Piece takes this approach too, perhaps more appropriately a story song given that it's all about a book that publishers don't want, only for it to be buried in a time capsule and dug up a thousand years later when it ends war and brings the nations together. It's the destiny of Bill & Ted in literature form explained in a song that's brimming with pride. Never mind the critics, it's saying, do your thing and it might make a difference down the road when the world catches up.

I can't help but like these, but they're cheesy as all get out in a way that the Canadians seem to be so good at, having produced not only Thor but Anvil and Helix. Lightning Rod seems to be a full on embrace of cheese, sounding like a Rocky Horror song with a rap section, set against the backdrop of gothic rock. It's like a Sisters of Mercy cover band tackling Rocky Horror but needing to tap into some sort of trendy mindset to get hip with the cool kids. It works as well or as poorly as you might expect, depending on your point of view.

It's 5-0 Let's Go where Thor finally settles down to the hard rock that we know he can do so well. It isn't Thunder on the Tundra and it isn't Let the Blood Run Red but that's the guitar tone I want to hear on a Thor song and that's the pace too. There's a cheesy chant-along section that's catchy as hell and it all ends up being a hard rock cover of an imaginary Suzi Quatro song that celebrates an incredibly long career with vim and vigour. Thor clearly means this and it's hard not to get behind him. I was celebrating along with him and generating and whatever else the lyrics want me to do.

The biggest problem the album has is that there aren't enough songs like 5-0 Let's Go. Bring It On is an eighties-style stomper with more excellent soloing from Matt McNallie, John Liebel or both, to match what they contributed to 5-0 Let's Go. The best song here is either Flight of the Striker or Thunder on the Mountain, both of which are older songs. The former dates back to 1987 so is likely to have been from a projected fourth album that never happened because the band split up, while the latter is from 1979, so stuck in the eight years between the debut and its follow up. It features an absolutely killer seventies organ solo.

So that's four strong songs and there are other worthies to back them up. However, there are odd decisions here and there that take the album in different directions. Thor channels his inner Elvis on Unlock the Power and shifts alternative on No Time for Games with post production effects to emphasise that. 100% is an acoustic demo that we'd know dates to 1979 even if it wasn't labelled, right down to its handclaps. To the Extreme is a rap metal song from 1999 that's about Thor but I doubt actually includes him performing. I've mentioned Lightning Rod already. These all feel like B-sides for singles rather than coherent album material.

Thus this is a mixed bag. There are multiple songs here that I'd happily return to. However, there are also multiple songs that I don't need to hear again. Some of the cheese works well but some of it really doesn't. Clearly Thor can still sing, in his unmistakably overt fashion, but sometimes he's just not interested in doing that and so tells stories instead. Take from all that what you will. What I think it boils down to is that I'm happy Thor is still with us and making music fifty years on from a debut I can't identify, but he's never made a lot of the right decisions and gets lucky enough with songs here and there to make his mark. Here, he's somewhat lucky but just as often not.

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