The Phantom Tollbooth

The Mother of all Tribute Albums
Artist: Various Artists
Label: HM Records
Time: 15 tracks; 64:52

HM magazine mogul, Doug Van Pelt, has put together a tricky tribute record. Usually a tribute record honors one artist's work with cover versions by an assortment of admiring artists.  What has happened here, however,  is that Van Pelt has asked individual artists to pick any song by any artist they wanted to do, and put it on a multi-artist tribute album. He has ended up with a huge variety of artists and songs that somehow work together for an interesting record.

The songs are so diverse and the artists so varied that the record does not flow. The only apparent attempt at continuity is the song grouping.  For example, the two U2 songs are next to each other, as are the two Stryper songs. Other than that, the song styles and genres jump from here to there randomly.  Even the two Stryper songs that follow each other are so different in style that if you didn't know the originals you'd never know the similarity.

The first cut is by metal giant, Tourniquet, doing King's X's "Dogman", an appealing group and song combination.   Tourniquet has taken the low tuning on the original and tuned it even lower. It is cool when a band can take another artist's song and using their own style make it their own song.  Tourniquet has successfully done that with "Dogman".  Then Doug Pinnick from King's X clocks in, playing all the instruments on U2's song, "I Will Follow".  Pinnick credits U2's Bono for influencing his own approach to honesty in lyrics.  Next Echo Hollow offers another U2 song on cut three,  "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which is not quite as effectively rendered as the previous U2 interpretation.  Track four is Spy Glass Blue featuring Allan Aguire with his Bowie-like vocals doing a fine take on Keith Green's "Song to My Parents". The band has so carefully recreated the 70's glam rock of Bowie that the song sounds like it could fit on ...Ziggy Stardust.  Rich Mullins is honored, post mortem, by Reflescent Tide, then Justin Fox does a rendition of 77's great song "Do It for Love." Both of these treatments are fine but not as moving as the originals (who could improve on Mike Roe's vocals though, so that might not be fair). An unexpected but welcome contribution here is Rush's song, "2112 Overture", done very well by Paul Roraback.

The two Stryper songs come up next. First, Crimson Thorn roars through "Loud and Clear."  They have done a fantastic job taking the Yellow and Black boy's pop metal sing-along song and moving it into the death metal column.  From the swelling growl of the first measure, through a most interesting violin solo in the break, to the last vox crunch, this is now a heavy Crimson Thorn number and one of this album's highlights.  Guardian has picked "C'mon Rock" to cover out of genuine admiration for what Stryper accomplished, as it should be.  Guardian play "C'mon Rock" pretty straight, and come off sounding like they sincerely owe a lot to Stryper's ground breaking efforts.

Not all the songs are from guitar greats, or ground breaking Christian rock artists. The tenth song is from the Veggie Tales! The Channel Surfers must like kid's videos, too. They do a rocking reggae version of "God Is Bigger," which is followed by the reggae beat of the Police's impressive "Message in a Bottle", as performed by Blackball.  Even though they saw the Christian implications that one could transfer to the tune, Blackball didn't change much about the song to claim it.  This results in a less than impressive track from an otherwise impressive band. The Imperials "Water Grave" is fittingly done by Atomic Opera; slow, dark, moving. The new One Bad Pig decided on Barry McGuire's "Cosmic Cowboy," and play some good dueling guitars at the bridge as well as capturing the western spirit of the song. The underrated and all too unknown Violet Burning take a mostly underrated, unknown Beatles song, and hand in a truly wonderful interpretation of "It's All Too Much", a George Harrison song from the Yellow Submarine sound track album. To wrap up the record, a truly original Jesus Freak takes DC Talk's "Jesus Freak" and improves it with a twist. That Jesus freak is Larry Norman, and he has altered the original to a nearly industrial, dance style hymn. Good idea, Mr. Norman! It rocks! (The man is masterful!)

The record is uneven, but despite its flaws, this mother works hard. The bands did a good job of picking cool songs, and then dealing out a full house of entertaining high cards. Especially if you enjoy records that mix various artists, this is worth the effort to find.

By Tony LaFianza (8/14/98)

This is definitely one of the most interesting compilation ideas done yet. HM got a bunch of bands together and let them pick songs which influenced them to cover for the project. There's plenty to smile over here, as an eclectic mix of "hard" bands cover a wide variety of songs. So much subjectivity is involved--depending on one's taste for the original songs, one's opinion of Christians covering "secular" songs, and one's dislike/like of certain bands' sounds--that everyone will have their own favorites and disappointments. I was unimpressed by Doug Pinnick's U2 cover being a poorly-produced past demo, Tourniquet's awkward job on King's X's "Dogman," and Larry Norman's cheesy dance version of DCTalk's "Jesus Freak." Highlights were Echo Hollow's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" (U2) and Blackball's "Message in the Bottle" (The Police), possibly due to the original strength of the songs but also because they were the only two bands with vocalists who possessed comparable style and personality to the originals. Other pleasant surprises were Paul Roraback's (Grammatrain) loose organic version of Rush's "2112 Overture", the Channelsurfers' spooky-funky Veggie Tales song, and Atomic Opera's acoustic "Water Grave" (The Imperials).

Although the production goes up and down, the quality of the bands represented varies widely, and this will no doubt end up being one of those rarely-played novelty discs in many a collection, The Mother of all Tribute Albums is a must-hear for any fans of the bands playing or even the bands covered. Let's hope HM does it again.

By Josh Spencer (8/14/98)