Serious Commentary on bands that matter.

Bill Leverty

Music First

by Michael Aronovitz

(Dedication and thanks to Liss Casler for R & D)

When I watch Firehouse videos that would be considered vintage (and historic) representations of pop metal in its finest form, I always get a feeling of “team” more than “gleam” even though it was more than clear that C.J. Snare was absolutely stellar on vocals and Bill Leverty could “shred” with the best of them. Of course, they had the costumes, the big hair, some signature choreography, flash, pomp, and circumstance, but the most notable issue with this particular project was always the way they never upstaged each other, nor tried to.

This was quite odd actually, considering the fact that the power-trio with vocalist always seemed to invite a brand of glorious narcissism by design, as demonstrated to us over the years by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and scores of others giving us four diverse performances going off in different directions and making us choose favorites as if from a given gang of super heroes. In terms of the former list, I always gravitated toward Keith Moon, Robert Plant, and Eddie VH, just like I chose to focus on Freddy Mercury, Randy Rhodes, Tommy Lee, and Serj Tankian.

When I enjoy the old Firehouse videos, however, I do not see sales presentations advertising various super powers. I see perfection. I see subtle discipline, musical cohesion, and a clear vision that would celebrate the song before the performance, though the latter was, and still is, highly engaging. In terms of the band members and their management during the writing phase and the particular moments in the 90’s when these songs erupted as mega-hits, this took intelligence, maturity, patience, and possibly one of the greatest (and rare) talents in the human condition: true vision and leadership.

Considering the timeline, it is no secret that Firehouse was a bit of an anomaly, taking a pure glam pop metal feel into a period where the Grunge influence seemed to drift into everyone’s artistic process if even in the corner-shadows, and one must take a moment here to acknowledge Bill Leverty, guitarist and founder of Firehouse, for the architecture. He built an elegant fortress based on a selfless vision of the whole that stood the test of time and trend, yet instead of constructing its walls of mortar and stone, he made archways and open doors. For us. Forever.

Bill Leverty

Currently, Leverty is rocking with Firehouse on their 25th Anniversary Tour, but since 2004 he has been working a solo project that has become a significant part of the landscape that would define American music both historically and aesthetically. Most solo records, especially by guitar players, offer a distinct brand of instrumental wizardry that surfaces again and again within similar scaffolding, in the end leaving us with modified brushstrokes inside a repeating mosaic. Moreover, solo albums usually remain solo in terms of the math. One and done. Bill Leverty, however, has created a continuous and vibrant portrait of Americana (four albums and counting) that not only celebrates rock and the blues, but provides us a way to redefine our own personal journeys.

Each of Leverty’s solo records offers a diverse musical narrative, but more specifically, the albums simply feel different from one another. Wanderlust (2004) is an absolute must for rock connoisseurs: an uplifting collection of kick-ass tunes featuring Leverty’s extraordinary guitar work in a funk and blues framework thematically designed to celebrate the American tradition of the road and the traveler, while Southern Exposure (2007) is an instrumental record written and performed with the kind of down-home hard-edged licks, riffs, and runs that would please everyone from old school southern rock die-hards to modern metal enthusiasts. Deep South (2009) is a different sort of cover album, giving heart-felt, modern renditions of classic folk songs from our deepest roots and bringing us back to the railway, the meadow, the sunset, and porch with songs like “Boll Weevil” and “Nine Hundred Miles,” and Leverty’s tribute album Drive (2013) is simply spectacular. Listen to it, and tell me that you don’t get chills, for example, when this exceptional guitarist unleashes his lead between the first two verses of “Fortunate Son.”

Of late, Bill Leverty has been working on a new record, building it one piece at a time and releasing songs individually. Moreover, he is the guitarist in another project called Flood the Engine, featuring Keith Horne on bass, Andre La Belle on drums, and Jimmy Kunes on vocals. La Belle delivers in a big way on some of the new Leverty material, as one can see in the striking video “Ace Bandage,” and it becomes clear at this juncture that the breadth of Bill Leverty’s ever-growing portfolio is so expansive that furthering the overview might be an exercise in sweet futility.

In response to this, I would argue that maybe the best way to celebrate the work of Bill Leverty is to focus on one current release, and through close analysis we might possibly determine more specifically what makes this artist so crucial a thread in the broadcloth of American music, both technically and thematically.

Of the awesome songs Bill Leverty has been compiling for the new record, a favorite of mine is titled “Strong,” that which illustrates by example the three staples Leverty has put in place with his solo work that would initiate his unique and intricate paradigm for success. First, he plays with outstanding percussionists, in this particular case Michael Foster, who was with him from the very beginning in Charlotte, North Carolina, making the demos soon to become the Firehouse sensation that would take the world by storm for decades. Pop metal drummers are often under rated, but Foster is a true thumper, playing not only with taste but with feel, translating the peaks and valleys and bringing the listener onto the pathway with him in an intimate way that remains exciting, rich, and dramatic.

Watch Video – Bill Leverty – Strong

The next staple in the Leverty module echoes the first in a couple of significant ways that make for a natural segue. The solo project is stripped down, brought back to its roots, like Leverty and Foster first collaborating, but they have added prior-mentioned bassist Keith Horne, who wears his instrument up high for the purpose of precision and unveils clever, intricate runs that don’t just mirror Foster’s snare and bass drum work, but provide texture and depth. In other words, these two don’t out-play, out-shine, or upstage one another. They fortify the project from the baseboards to the rafters, somehow keeping it both “cool” and “popping” in a manner that is fresh and unassuming.

And last, there is the music. I do realize that in naming the “first two lynch-pins” and personifying them as the primary members of a power trio, one would expect Bill Leverty to be recognized as the third and most important cornerstone. But we don’t quite go that way, and this is Leverty’s magic. He was the lead guitar player in the most powerful and famous pop metal band of the 90’s and did it unselfishly, always contributing to the whole before the self while at the same time providing guitar work worthy of mention alongside the masters of modern metal, like Paul Gilbert, Zakk Wylde, and Slash. In any solo project, one would expect the “solo artist” to be the feature, but Bill Leverty isn’t about featuring solos and leaving them there on the platform alone like a mascot. That is not to say that the sections featuring Bill Leverty’s leads are not exceptional, but I believe we all can agree that this particular artist is more about the music, the overall song, and the idea that the one listening to the music is the star of his show.

We see this quite clearly in “Strong.” It is filmed in a small space walled-up with pallet racking, in a clear testament to roots, to beginnings, to the basements and garages where dreams are made. The camera plays it daringly close, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to grasp the idea that the band wants you right in there with them, down in the trenches where you can see everything in razor-sharp detail and feel the vibe straight through to your backbone.

Bill Leverty 2

Foster begins the song with a fill that is all power and burst, and as previously mentioned, it feels as if you walked straight into a session, stepping right between the musicians and taking your place directly in front of Foster’s ride cymbal. The guitar sound is full, rich, and bluesy, and while you are standing there with the band, alongside the band, and in the band, you can’t help but start moving your hips. Horne plays it cool off to the left, accenting Foster and establishing the ornate, tasteful floorplan, while Leverty is revealed to us during this introductory phase in and out of visual focus. Ironically, the band is playing under the glare of bare lightbulbs, so the combination of the camera work and the lighting seem to indicate that this is Bill Leverty’s moment of unveiling if you will, approaching the microphone as the front man from the gauze and the blur, but doing it under bright lights that hide nothing, keeping it real.

And Leverty’s vocals are superb: accessible, smooth, and heartfelt. The song itself is one of triumph, celebrating strength as indicated in the title, but as always, Leverty doesn’t over cook the product. He is wearing sunglasses, but he is smiling. He interprets the lyrics with physicality, but never in a manner that seems melodramatic or overly choreographed. Music first, always, even in a project where the singer / lead guitar player must manage most of the stage-time visually, audibly, and conceptually.

Moreover, Leverty does not play this so “quiet and cool” that the presentation comes off low keyed or soft-sold. On the contrary, the song is upbeat and surprisingly fun, filled with interesting chord changes and a driving chorus that fill the viewer with joy. But that’s the point, isn’t it? By the second verse we are not only nodding our heads in rhythm and humming along. We are smiling. Like Bill. After all, he invited us into the box with the bare bulb lights, his garage, his playing space, his world, and he is a confident, gracious host. Music first. For us. Always.

Of course, we are not naïve. This is a lead guitar player from an historic project in the 90’s when lead guitar playing reached new levels of virtuosity and complexity, currently presenting for us a key song in his solo project that is named for him. There is going to be some axe grinding here. And subtle or not, Leverty owes it to himself and his fans to show something in the section of the song where we expect him to shred. Something potent and profound.

Leverty does not disappoint. He takes that maroon guitar with the lucky “13” on it, and makes it tell stories. And while many of these lead-spots in most songs feature either fast acrobatics or lots of bends for feel, Leverty offers a three-section composition that is ultimately compelling, first and foremost, in terms of the writing. Of course. This is Bill Leverty, and it is always architecture first…ornamental ironwork, decorative trim, and dazzling flashing to come later in a tasteful blitz.

For set-up, Leverty begins his lead section with syncopated half-chords, both relevant to the running musical theme and strategically placed on auditory grounds as a technical transition, a clever shoehorn if you will, so there isn’t such a stark difference between the full chords and bared notes to come.

Leverty moves smoothly then into a melodic, bluesy lead that closes the phrase with an absolutely blistering four-finger run up the middle of the fretboard. At this point in the solo one would expect the “norm:” a series of mirror-runs up the neck, right to the point where the frets are so close together the guitar pitches and squeals. But that wouldn’t fit this particular context, so in place of gymnastics for the sake of gymnastics he gives us a subtle and seamless lead-in to the song’s climactic moment. A hint. A tease, dotting the hammer-ons with his pick hand and holding the notes for feel.

Bill Leverty 3

In the third section of his lead, Bill Leverty more than delivers. For another measure or two he gives us an anticipatory thrill by doubling the speed of the hammer-ons and then holding them out in the breeze if you will: “one-and-a-two-and-a-one-and-a-two,” and he next unleashes what I would call the climax of “Strong” in the form of his signature, insanely rapid and dexterous version of “Tapping,” introduced on ukulele in 1932 by Roy Smeck and popularized in modern rock by Eddie Van Halen in 1978 with “Eruption.” Leverty’s version, however, contains some fascinating and unique work with the pick-hand, utilizing the two middle fingers alternately as opposed to solely the middle or the index. And while we saw this particular move, or versions of it, in Firehouse, I do not think I have ever seen it pulled off this fast, in this particular manner, and with this level of precision. From any guitarist. In any genre or timeline.

In closing, I feel it is necessary to mention that this review series titled “Goblet of Shock” usually highlights the link between metal and horror fiction, yet when I review a project with no overt or emblematic ties to terror, I expand the thematic definition of my column by putting the given players in more comprehensive literary and historical perspective. Clearly, Bill Leverty does not translate to the horrific, yet I might suggest here that in reference to his work I see a connection with modernist Ernest Hemingway, and most notably, his last published piece before his death in 1961, titled The Old Man and the Sea.

In brief summary, the above-mentioned classic shows us an old man who catches a huge marlin that drags the tiny rowboat out to sea for three days and three nights, and while the fisherman is successful in harpooning his catch and roping it to the gunwale, by the time he reaches shore his prize has been eaten by sharks. The irony is that no one on land besides a couple of other fisherman understand that the bones belonged to the biggest fish any of them would ever see. The question is whether we need the confirmation of others to validate success, and the theme is that tragically, we reach levels of expertise in our professional lives that few can relate to on a deep level, leaving us unable to communicate our triumphs and left to a position of isolation.

I see a lot of metal guitar players trying to communicate their expertise note for note, ripping ultra-long solos and multiple arpeggios and tricky pentatonic scales so fast, so hard, and so long it would all make our heads spin. Bill Leverty never needed this kind of affirmation. To him, it was always about the journey, about the sun coming out from behind the clouds, the gentle sound of an oar sliding through the surf, and the sun making shimmers and sparkles on the waves. It was never about the marlin, though Leverty never came home empty handed. It was never about the glory and the recognition, though Leverty has certainly earned both. It was always about the music, and the way this brilliant musician could take you on a journey, not as a passenger, but right up next to him, there at the wheel.

 

Michael Aronovitz has always loved hard rock music, and fronted a heavy metal band that played Philadelphia and New Jersey clubs in the mid 80’s. He is a Professor of English and currently co-hosts a radio talk show linking horror and new metal called “The Wikked Goblet of Horror” with DJ WikkedLiss on her station WCR247 WikkedChikRadio.

Aronovitz’s latest novel titled Phantom Effect was just released February 2nd, 2016 through Night Shade Books.http://tinyurl.com/jcg59wo

Past Publications:

Seven Deadly Pleasures (collection), 2009

The Voices in Our Heads (collection), 2014

Alice Walks (novel), 2013

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Comments
  1. midnightfurie says:

    What a well thought out and written article, so refreshing in this day of #this and ‘text-speak’. Also informative, well-rounded and a pleasure to read. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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