Open Fire

Ronnie Montrose

Warner Brothers Records, 1978

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The worst thing I can say about guitarist Ronnie Montrose's moody, inventive 1978 solo debut is that it's too damn short. At just under 36 minutes, Open Fire invariably leaves me wanting more.

Fresh from the second of three incarnations he's attempted of the Zeppelin-ish rock band bearing his last name (the first time around in '73-'74 having been Sammy Hagar's big break), Ronnie went into the studio to make Open Fire with former Montrose players Jim Alcivar and Alan Fitzgerald in tow and old pal Edgar Winter in the producer's chair. (Montrose himself had his own big break on Winter's huge They Only Come Out At Night album.) Stepping completely outside of the hard-rock formula he'd been locked into up to that point, Montrose created in Open Fire one of the truly memorable instrumental albums in rock history.

A lot of talented guitar players have tried and failed to make all-instrumental albums that sustain the listener's interest all the way through. I inevitably groove hard to two or three tracks on every Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson album -- but the rest usually feels like a waste of my time and their considerable talent. Even the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan conceded he needed some words to go with those awe-inspiring solos.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Montrose succeeded where so many have failed by defying expectations from start to finish, and doing it with as much subtlety as flash. After five years spent seemingly begging to be compared with Jimmy Page, playing virtually nothing but huge, pounding, angular riffs, Montrose opened his solo debut with an orchestral piece.

And not just some cheesy "see how hard I'm trying to be different" snippet, either, but a driving, dynamic horns-and-strings piece ("Openers") that sounds like nothing so much as the soundtrack to a downhill skiing movie (Montrose would later contribute to just such an album, 1991's Born To Ski). At the climax, Montrose cleverly and almost seamlessly segues into the next track, with a theremin taking over the melody as the orchestra peaks out until the song is broken open by the ripping good electric riff that propels you into "Open Fire," theremin thrumming away underneath the entire time. It's a hell of a ride, and it's only the beginning.

Next up comes probably the album's highlight and as unique a sound as I've ever heard achieved. "Mandolinia" is a three-ring circus of layered, cascading mandolins and mandocellos, the impossibly sweet high notes bouncing off Winter's swirling, pulsating bass synthesizer, with occasional, precise guitar fills unobtrusively occupying the middle ground. I don't use the word "masterpiece" very often, but here, it applies.

"Town Without Pity" is the one song that got any airplay off the album, a number borrowed from the soundtrack of the old movie of the same name. Straightforward as it basically is, Montrose sells it by incorporating the orchestra's horn section and wringing the drama out of every sweeping note of his solos.

The album also features two very enjoyable fusion pieces -- "Heads Up" and "Rocky Road" -- and two wonderful acoustic numbers, the circling, hypnotic "Leo Rising" and the almost pastoral "My Little Mystery," featuring Winter on harpsichord.

Open Fire closes with a minor opus, the shifting, startling six-minute "No Beginning/No End." After a solid minute or so of bizarre sizzling/shearing studio effects, it without warning cuts into a sublime acoustic guitar meditation that builds over the course of the next three minutes into a series of gently soaring electric solos. It is, like the album it caps off, utterly unique and masterful.

If you play guitar -- or even if, like me, you just love music that's got real spark and creativity behind it -- your music library is not complete without this album.

Rating: A

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© 1998 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.