By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
BADLANDS – VOODOO HIGHWAY (1991)
Back in August 2019, I wrote about the self-titled debut album from Badlands. I loved it and said it was one of the best debut albums of “The Metal Years”.
While there might be some kind of expectation for a second album slump, the release of Voodoo Highway instead only served to confirm just how great the band was. But what made this album seem that much more of a great thing is the circumstances it was made under.
I didn’t know it until I started looking up information about it for this article but the creation of Voodoo Highway was not without its problems. There was friction between guitarist Jake E. Lee and singer Ray Gillen. I’m not sure if the problems extended to bassist Greg Chaisson and new drummer Jeff Martin (replacing the departed Eric Singer) but when your singer and guitarist aren’t getting along, it can make for many a troubled day in the recording process. At least that’s what I would guess.
But for whatever behind the scenes problems the band had, it didn’t carry over to the music. It’s not much of a spoiler alert but I loved this album a lot! I’ve listened to it so many times over the last three decades so I’m quite familiar with the material. But I did find myself getting a new appreciation for a trio of the songs while I played the album for this piece.
The album opens with the song “The Last Time” and it does a pretty succinct job of getting the listener primed and ready for everything that is coming on Voodoo Highway. With Jake E. Lee producing the album with James A. Ball as well as co-writing most of the material with Gillen (Chaisson and Martin had a couple of co-writing credits mixed in as well), there seems to be a pretty clear-cut vision for how the album would sound.
The down-and-dirty hard driving blues rock sound that fuels “The Last Time” bleeds into the majority of the songs. That consistent feel makes for quite the entertaining start to finish listening experience.
The song “Show Me The Way” starts off a little bit slower with Ray Gillen’s voice taking on a kind of silken quality in the first lyrical verse. But that restraint quickly gives way after the first verse and the song takes on a sharper musical edge from that point forward. The song “Shine On” is a solidly energetic track as well.
The first song that I gained a new appreciation for is the track “Whiskey Dust”. It’s a full on rocker but the tone of the music and Gillen’s vocals give the track an extra dimension. Living up to the first half of its title, there’s a boozy, bluesy blast to the delivery and re-discovering that made this song stand out a lot more to me.
The brief Lee instrumental “Joe’s Blues” had a nice vibe to it and the song leads into the foot-stomping rocker “Soul Stealer”. There’s such a powerful undercurrent to the song that even all these years later, this one track stands out to me as one of the band’s better (if lesser known) songs.
When you flip the cassette over to the second side, you start things off with “3 Day Funk”, a real kick you in the pants uptempo number. And I love the scattershot musical delivery of the opening on “Love Don’t Mean A Thing” too. These two tracks really get the rock out for the listener.
Meanwhile, you’ve got Jake E. Lee providing a killer dobro guitar on the album’s title track. The song runs less than 2-and-a-half minutes but between the sound that Lee’s guitar has going for it and the whiskey soaked throaty rumble of Ray Gillen’s voice, the song packs more into that short time than some songs that are double in length.
That dobro guitar from Lee returns on the album closing track “In A Dream”. The song is probably the most different from the other tracks on the album given that it features just some slight guitar and a little bass from Chaisson playing along with a mostly a capella vocal turn from Ray Gillen. And the best thing about it is that it is just an incredible song. I liked it so much when I first heard it that it was one of the more instantly memorable tracks on Voodoo Highway. In fact, it might be the most well known of the Badlands songs because a version of it was performed on the American Idol TV show and people went kind of bananas over the song when Bo Bice sang it.
Speaking of cover versions, Badlands provides their own cover on the album when they perform a rendition of the James Taylor song “Fire And Rain”. I’m not sure how any Taylor fans that may have heard this version feel about it. But for me, the way the band turned this into a much heavier sounding rock and roll song really worked. It fit right into the way the whole album sounded and though it is markedly different from the original, it is a fantastic cover version.
I mentioned before that listening to the album for this article gave me a new appreciation for a couple of songs and both of those songs show up on Side Two. To be clear, it’s not like I didn’t pay attention or didn’t like these songs before. It’s just that listening to them at this point, something about them caught my ear in a way that I’d either forgotten about or they just hit me right this time out.
The first song is “Silver Horses”, a rocker that has a racing pace to the music and another great vocal take. The other song is “Heaven’s Trains”, which is just an all-out blistering rocker that finds the band just shredding all over the place and blowing away any preconceptions a listener could’ve expected before the song started.
According to what I read online, there were four singles released from the album. But none of them made any noise on the charts. The album itself only managed to peak at #140 on the album charts. But for all the in-fighting, bad timing and lack of mainstream success, the Badlands Voodoo Highway album strikes me as a completely immersive in-your-face hard rock musical experience. This is simply a FANTASTIC release that should’ve made the band a huge success!
NOTES OF INTEREST: After the immediate release of Voodoo Highway, Ray Gillen left the band. According to the band’s Wikipedia page, Badlands hired a replacement singer in Debby Holiday. However, by the time the band got ready to head out for a UK tour, they had gotten Gillen back in the lineup for said tour.
The “Joe’s Blues” was reportedly inspired / written about future Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Joe Holmes who was working as Jake E. Lee’s guitar tech during the recording of Voodoo Highway.
Bassist Greg Chaisson came back on my radar in a big way in 2020. He was part of the band Kings Of Dust. The band released a self-titled album that sounded like a cross between a modern day rock and roll album and like something you could’ve heard from a 1970’s classic rock group as well. It was so good that it made my Top 10 list in 2020. Sadly, the band split up without recording another album when they parted ways with singer Michael Beck.