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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Not on the Blandwagon : Compared to the Formulaic Bands That Abound Today, Badlands Takes a Refreshing Approach

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In its performance at the Coach House on Wednesday night, Badlands proved to be a damn fine hard-rock band, while at the same time being emblematic of just how moribund our musical culture has become.

Deep into the 1-hour, 45-minute set, singer Ray Gillen declared, “We play rock ‘n’ roll the way we want to--we’re no bandwagon band!” That’s basically true. Compared to the formulaic, demographic-inspired rock bands that abound today, Badlands displays a refreshing musicality and wallows in the joys of playing in real time, all with a minimum of posturing.

Guitarist Jake E. Lee’s quartet actually jams , taking chances and allowing much of their music to take shape in the moment. Their musical excursions covered some engrossing territory, thanks to ex-Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Lee’s remarkable command of his instrument, sparked by a melodicism and enthusiastic attack.

Immediacy has always been what rock is all about--well, OK, immediacy, shoes and money--and one would think it and a shred of personality would be the least to be expected of a band. But groups like Badlands are the rare exception in hard rock now. Just as unique, individual free-standing homes seem to be a thing of the past, rock and metal bands now appear by the score like South County condo tracts, as row upon row upon row of some profit-maximized corporate mass-consumption idea of “the good life.”

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That’s unlikely to change while the radio and video that disseminates music continues to make its choices based on demographic studies. Such surveys, not surprisingly, tend to show that people are accustomed to hearing what the radio is already feeding them, a cycle that gets to be just a bit like having your toilet hooked up to your sink.

It’s particularly telling that while Badlands stands head and shoulders above the pack, it is scarcely up to anything new. Rather, the group’s sound is a pastiche of Bad Co., Rory Gallagher and the 1969-period Led Zeppelin, with only its free-flying approach and Lee’s distinctive soloing to set it apart.

“Love Don’t Mean a Thing,” from the current “Voodoo Highway” album, sounds like nothing more than a splicing together of Zep’s “Moby Dick” and “Heartbreaker,” while the Bad Co. subsidiary “The Last Time” verged on turning into the much-covered Motown oldie “I’m Losing You.” The one actual cover from the early ‘70s, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” was given a scream ‘n’ crunch treatment that robbed it of all feeling.

Singer Gillen, who once served time in Black Sabbath, is a capable shrieker with a stage-eating presence, but the band’s best moments were the instrumental voyages on “Rumblin’ Train” and “Soul Stealer” that left him behind. Bassist Greg Chaisson (who also took the vocal on Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm”) and drummer Jeff Martin created a strong springboard for Lee’s bounding solos. The clean slide-guitar work he employed through much of the “Voodoo Highway” album only appeared once in the show, in an extended jam on the rockin’ boogie “Whiskey Dust.”

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Though Lee made judicious use of effects, most of his wide sonic vocabulary came from his fingers. His guitar lacked even the whammy bar requisite to metal music: He instead got dive-bomb effects by bending his guitar neck to extremes.

Most of Badland’s appeal is in its music, but the band does pay some attention to looks. Lee might, as Gillen claimed, have “the most beautiful hair in rock,” and an electric fan at the foot of the stage was used to make Lee look as if he were facing a tempest. In addition, the vintage Marshall amp heads atop his hulking speaker stacks were just for show. He was actually playing through more recent units to the side of the stage.

Of course, metal musicians love their amps the way Nazis loved their Panzers, and each of the evening’s three acts had its own wall of refrigerator-sized stacks. There was such an abundance of gear onstage that there was just barely room for the opening act, In Command, to find a place to stand. Not that they had much to stand on anyway. They and sub-headliner Saraya both typified the rote, corporate hard-rock bands that have turned the L.A. basin into a sea of hair extentions.

Sandi Saraya, a commonplace singer with commonplace material, has some good stage moves, if being nearly able to kick one’s own head counts for anything.

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