Each week, The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they've faded from memory. This week's glimpse into the crates:
By the time 24-7 Spyz released their sixth album, they’d already had a bizarre, difficult, and convoluted journey through the major label system. In fact, so circuitous was the funk-metal band’s journey that said sixth album was simultaneously their fifth. Formed in 1986 in the South Bronx by bassist Rick Skatore and a guitarist who’d adopted the blatantly reverential pseudonym Jimi Hazel, the band made a name for themselves playing a head-spinningly eclectic blend of soul, funk, rock, hardcore punk/metal, and hip hop. A revolving cast of drummers and vocalists joined Skatore and Hazel on four albums between ’86 and ’92, each garnering significant critical acclaim (particularly 1992’s Strength In Numbers, produced by future Deftones collaborator Terry Date) before the grunge explosion rendered their breed of rock commercially unviable. At least, unviable in the States; the band retained enough of a European following to warrant reuniting their second line-up (Skatore and Hazel with vocalist Peter “Fluid” Forrest and drummer Anthony Johnson), which recorded and released 1995’s Temporarily Disconnected on that continent exclusively. The album title ended up prophetic, as Forrest and Johnson left the band again shortly after wrapping up their tour; however, its relative overseas success did manage to land the band a new American record deal (with Colorado-based independent label What Are Records?). Thus, in 1996, the band’s European label (Enemy) released the band’s sixth album, appropriately titled 6; rather than confuse the band’s American audience (many of whom still haven’t heard the out-of-print Disconnected to this day), W.A.R. released the album as Heavy Metal Soul By The Pound.
The band on the album is both different from and similar to its previous iterations. Replacing Johnson on drums for the majority of the songs is sole white member Joel Maitoza, the band’s third drummer (counting founder Kindu Phibes) who appeared on Strength In Numbers; rather than replace Forrest again on vocals (as they did on Strength with Jeff Brodnax), Hazel himself steps into the frontman role, albeit with a lot of help from Skatore. Fortunately, the decision works out in the band’s favor. While far from incompetent, Hazel is clearly a guitarist first and singer second; his imperfections add a rawer, grittier edge to the songs that wasn’t there with Forrest or Brodnax.
The album barely plays for a minute before the trained listener notices the subtle changes in the group’s sound. “Spyz In Da House” begins with a slow, churning bass line, with Hazel whispering menacingly until Maitoza’s snare claps the band into formation. The slow build to the song’s proper beginning ventures wholeheartedly into both doom metal and thrash (courtesy of a quadruple-time double-kick-pedal explosion from Maitoza) before, nearly two minutes in, settling into a funked-out groove, over which Hazel raps to surprisingly pleasant effect; “Spyz are still dope,” he says, “and still harder than you.” The latter is certainly the case on Heavy Metal Soul…except, of course, when it isn’t. Roughly half the album’s tracks are roaring, hip hop-inflected metal (clearly showing the influence of the times, as the band had inspired and/or toured with many of the so-called “nü-metal bands whose popularity had begun to explode in the mid-to-late-90s), with a strong melodic undercurrent. Skatore proves to be the surprising balancing element; his funk-honed bass chops are as powerful as ever, but his backing (and, occasionally, lead) vocals pair with Hazel’s beautifully, especially on more emotional numbers like “If I Could” and “Burned.” Not to be outdone, fellow Black rock icon/King’s X bassist Doug Pinnick throws in the odd backing vocal here-and-there, stepping up to trade verses with Hazel on chest-pounding anthem “Yeah x3.”
The band softens a bit midway through the album, beginning with anti-domestic abuse song “Eyes Don’t Lie.” The Skatore-penned “El Lame” skewers the Los Angeles social, musical, and law enforcement scenes in one six-minute burst of bluesy rock before, jarringly, the band goes full-on 1970s love ballad with “Free To Be” and “Let Your Fancy Flow.” The two softer numbers (the former featuring Hazel trading distortion pedals for acoustic guitars, and both featuring string arrangements) recall Terence Trent D’Arby as much as they do Living Colour. The American version also includes the soul-inflected “Earth & Sky,” arguably the best of the softer songs, even if it is a bit cheesy. Fortunately, the band ramps the energy level back up, first with Black rock solidarity anthem “No Hope For N*ggaz,” then eventually to one of the album’s highlights, “Clique,” which criticizes urban Black youth’s media-induced infatuation with gangsta culture. The latter song features drummer Carlton Smith, a friend of Hazel’s who also appears on most of the quieter songs; Smith would later go on to play in Hazel’s later band Black Angus.
After “Clique,” the American version of the album closes with “Save The World,” a slow-burning R&B/Rock number vaguely reminiscent of the Bus Boys. The European version, however, ends with two covers: first, a fantastically faithful version of Love’s classic “7 And 7 Is,” and then a rendition of The Association’s “Along Comes Mary” that, while entertaining, is hardly the kind of forgettable aside that really belongs at the end of a “comeback” album. Still, the song doesn’t dim 6 enough to make the listener forget about how awesome the first half is.
Fortunately, the band wasn’t quite finished. After breaking up yet again in 1998, Skatore and Hazel reunited once more in 2003, this time with drummer Tobias Ralph. The subsequent album—2006’s Face The Day, is a far cry from the band’s early work, but has given them reason to continue touring. Hazel turns up in a variety of his own projects—Black Angus and A.N.M. among them—and Skatore occasionally joins him even to this day, guaranteeing that songs from this album—both versions—still reach the ears of new listeners.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/Iowan/curmudgeon driving a bus in Portland, Oregon.