Through The Fire

Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve

Geffen, 1984

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


To paraphrase Charlton Heston in Planet Of The Apes: “Damn you, ’80s! Damn you all to hell!”

Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve (a.k.a. HSAS) is one of those ideas that must have looked great on paper. It began with the 1983 teaming of solo frontman Sammy Hagar—nine years gone from Montrose and two years shy of joining Van Halen—and restless Journey guitarist Neal Schon. The two Bay Area bucks shared both management and a taste for melodic hard rock and eagerly teamed up to start writing songs together. After a false start or two, the rhythm section behind them solidified with Kenny Aaronson (Derringer, Billy Squier, Foghat) on bass and Michael Shrieve (Santana) on drums.

Scheduling conflicts turned out to be a significant hurdle. With Schon tied up with a summerlong Journey tour, they didn’t get serious until late fall 1983, with a window only until the winter holidays. With little time to spare, they spent a month woodshedding and rehearsing 15 new songs and then elected to record them live on stage during a brief November residency at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater… except that Schon wasn’t satisfied with his sound and went back and overdubbed most of the guitars in the studio later.

The resulting nine-track release Through The Fire was a mishmash—a rushed yet heavily doctored “live” album with almost (but not quite) no crowd noise. Still, the greatest sin committed by co-producers Hagar and Schon was housing these songs inside a classic ’80s production and mix, with guitars and vocals heavily compressed and processed, bass buried, and drums tinny and flat. Whatever good things can be said about this album, production-wise, it sounds like crap.

Rant over.

If there’s been one recurring theme to Sammy Hagar’s career, it’s been the perpetual search for what it seems has always felt like home to him—the power-trio-with-vocals format he first experienced with Montrose. As with Montrose, Van Halen, Chickenfoot, and his current quartet The Circle, HSAS featured a hotshot guitar player backed by a super solid rhythm section, with Sammy wailing out front.

Speaking of the hotshot guitar player, HSAS was a great opportunity for Schon to get out of the ballad-heavy, melodic AOR formula that has always been Journey’s stock in trade. It was obviously a successful formula, and one Schon has long since recognized as his meal ticket, but here he’s freed from all restrictions and can just riff and shred. (It’s worth noting that on Journey’s current tour—Journey by this point being a euphemism for the Neal Schon Band—he’s my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 snuck bits of the HSAS song “My Home Town” into the current lineup’s rendition of “Wheel In The Sky.”)

Opener “Top Of The Rock” is just what you’d expect from Hagar and Schon: alternately bruising and stinging lead guitar heroics behind a “Heavy Metal”-derived lyric that’s laughably dim but good for a fist-pumping singalong. The best bit, though, has to be the verse where Sammy sings “I may not be a business man / I ain't no fast slick talker / But you just ask the kid in the street / He'll tell ya I'm a rocker.” I’d love to hear the CEO of Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum and the Cabo Wabo Cantina chain sing those lyrics today—mostly because, being Sammy, he’d probably sing his ass off and then laugh along with the joke.

“Missing You” is as close as this album gets to Journey territory, a ringing, earnest melodic rocker with abundant hooks. “Animation” is where the production goes from mildly annoying to actively intrusive, a flashy number full of stunt-guitar gimmickry and heavy echo on the vocals. They’re just getting warmed up, though! When they transition into the thumping, sky-hugging “Valley Of The Kings/Giza” suite there’s so much echo on Sammy that it starts to feel like parody—Spinal Tap did come out later that year—but it's exactly as serious as the fingers-flying solos Schon lays down.

At this point in the proceedings you may register a certain lack of attention to the rhythm section. That’s because there’s basically nothing to report there; this is the Hagar/Schon show, with Aaronson and Shrieve treated and mixed as anonymous session players, playing unobtrusive parts that never draw an instant’s attention away from the principals up front.

The album’s lead single was a cover of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” an odd choice given that it’s one of the most memorable Hammond organ-centric tunes in the Classic Rock songbook. Hand it to Hagar and Schon, though, because they actually do a nice job with it; it’s a reverent cover that honors the melody, cadence and tone of the original, with Hagar singing instead of belting, and Schon both recreating and embellishing the immortal organ solo on guitar.

The closing trio of tunes epitomize both the strengths and the flaws of this album. “Hot And Dirty” is a train wreck, a heap of hair metal cliches behind a sophomoric, baldly derivative lyric that makes its source material—Montrose’s “Rock Candy”—sound like a Shakespearean sonnet. “He Will Understand” is a generic, serviceable rocker with a nice shreddy solo, which for no apparent reason is celebrated with the first appearance on the album of crowd noise. Closer “My Home Town”—presumably a nod to the Bay Area crowds these songs were recorded in front of—is a stomping rocker where you can feel the boys having fun, the most live-feeling number here, with crowd noise again included.

Where HSAS succeeds is in teaming Hagar up with another ace guitar player to generate that back-and-forth creative tension, and in giving Schon a chance to rock out sans syrupy ballads. And in fact, Hagar and Schon tried again briefly in 2002, assembling the stillborn Planet Us project with bassist Michael Anthony (Van Halen) and drummer Deen Castronovo (Journey).

Through The Fire proved to be a one-off for HSAS, a fun side project for its two principals and a brief gig for the rhythm section. It leaves the listener with more questions than answers, to wit: will the six unreleased original songs ever see the light of day? Did the band cover any Montrose or Journey songs live? And what would this album have sounded like if they’d put more into the songwriting and recorded it five years earlier? It might have come out sounding like a jamming melodic rock supergroup instead of a rushed jumble trapped inside egregious ’80s production.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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