Maybe the only Gravy Train experience for the guys at the AMG was listening to the first fifteen seconds of the album, which is why they placed the band under the 'Electronica' category. Not that I blame them too much, but still, I personally have often been crucified for things far less significant.
Anyway, this record heralds more huge changes for the band. Apparently, this was their last conscious effort to become known to the general public - an effort of a win-or-lose nature, and unfortunately, they lost, and finally disbanded after the record's release in frustration over their own ineptness (my hypothesis). But the concern was mammoth-like indeed. The title of the album alone obviously draws associations with 'Stairway To Heaven'; surely, they thought, everybody would fall for the 'stairway' magic and grab it? The album cover, in stark contrast to the plain white sleeve of its predecessor, was painted by one extremely talented and versatile gentleman whom I won't even be naming because the style is immediately recognizable (hint hint: the same gentleman who decorated the epoch's most abominable album according to Rolling Stone). The album itself also features the only lineup changes in the band: the trusty Barry Davenport is gone, officially replaced by Russell Cordwell at the drum kit, but there's at least one other session drummer, and a couple extra session players to beef up the sound. And yes, the sound is beefed up through a significant reliance on synthesizers; the production is actually much fuller than on previous efforts, too. In all, they really went out of themselves to make the final product worthwhile.
And, well, they failed. Okay, so it is better than Second Birth, but you really didn't need a lot to improve that stinkin' pile of boredom: just a couple memorable riffs and maybe one inventive stylistic idea. The stylistic idea here is to preserve both the rockiness and the "soulfulness" of preceding albums, but also it's to return to a slightly more 'artsified' style, with more instrumental passages than before and more aptly sophisticated passages. Occasionally, it works, occasionally it doesn't. It was a good idea poorly carried out blah blah blah say can you finish that review for me? I'm tired and bored.
So fuck it, I'm just gonna concentrate on the two best songs, the ones that bookmark the album. 'Starbright Starlight', despite the pretentious and pleonastic title (I mean, starlight is starbright, right? Now you name a song 'Sunbright Starlight' and we're talkin'!), was really a major step forward in... in bringing the keyboards and synthesizers deeper to the core of hard rock. You could say that Rainbow owes something to these guys. Then again, nobody in Rainbow probably ever even heard 'em, let alone imitated. But fact is, there's this Synclavier or whatever (like the one used by Stevie Wonder on 'Superstition') dirty gruff riff going on and a couple of real guitar riffs accompanying it, and the melody sounds pretty cool as a result.
I think I can't actually do without mentioning 'Busted In Schenectady' either. Oh wait a minute... yeah, I just looked up the name of that instrument in the liner notes. It's proudly proclaimed to be 'Cosmic Clavinet', played by J. D. Hughes. Huh. Imagine that. Anyway, same 'cosmic clavinet' is also played on 'Busted', which stands as a pretty straightforward piece of b-b-b-b-b-oogie (riff-based), then it slowly builds up towards a chaotic metallic climax, then it goes out - boom! - and is replaced by this ultra-cool funky jam where Barrett feeds his guitar through some weirdass amp (yeah, I know he's using a wah-wah pedal but there's more than just the wah-wah to this part, I tell you), and the air guitar appears in my hands. Marvelous funky jam that never got any serious appraisals but deserves all of them, a great way to actually go out, you know.
The rest of the tracks I could live with or without, mostly, you know. It kinda bugs me that the album for the most part is structured strictly according to a "rocker" - "ballad" - "rocker" - "ballad" pattern, only breaking it once, because such a structure seems to whisper 'we're rigid, thus we're generic' in my ear, and it takes a whole lotta unbiased approach to get rid of the little smelly devil in my head. Anyway, 'Bring My Life On Back To Me' has an ugly screamed chorus, but in general is more or less a nice Southern-style ballad with good electric slide guitar work. The title track could be tolerable if it didn't convey Led Zeppelin associations; alas, it does, and it's also terribly monotonous (while we're on it, doesn't anybody actually suffer from the monotonousness of 'Stairway To Heaven' itself? Yeah, it's got the solo and the heavy part at the end, but as good as the acoustic riff it - stolen from Spirit or not - it's just a looooong part, isn't it? Ah, well, forget it). And out of the rockers, I could maybe only single out 'Never Wanted You', dumb as it sounds, as a relative melodic highlight.
It's still a bit better than its predecessor and not a thoroughly bad way to go out. And hey! You might not believe it, but they DID go out! The band had the wisdom to understand that they would never make it big and actually dis-ban-ded. The band members then all died out of nervous breakdowns and drug addiction by the end of the year and were then immediately reborn as the current members of Limp Bizkit. Well, whaddaya want? I warned them not to screw around with their karma, didn't I?
All Music Guide