ZZ Top

Warner Brothers, 1985

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


When you've been paying your dues for over a decade and you finally hit paydirt with your eighth album, wouldn't you want to try to repeat what you did the first time to capitalize on that success?

This is exactly what ZZ Top tried to do in 1985 with Afterburner, their ninth studio album. Following the massive success of Eliminator, the Texas trio decided to replicate their previous effort closely, only throwing more synthesizers into the mix.

Five words: Bad idea. Really bad idea.

Whereas Eliminator still maintained a rootsy rock sound despite the obvious use of things like electronic drums, Afterburner ditches any semblance of trying to hide the use of electronics and moves them to the forefront. This ends up destroying the sonic ambiance that they had perfected, and they reduce themselves to a third-rate New Wave band.

If it were only the overreliance on synthesizers, one might have been able to forgive ZZ Top, or at least overlook it. But the songwriting also has taken a hit on Afterburner; where their previous effort was solid from front to back, this disc just seems like it's made up of ideas which weren't worthy of inclusion on Eliminator.  “Sleeping Bag” just doesn't have the same lyrical punch that a song such as “Sharp Dressed Man” did, and burying Billy Gibbons's vocals under layer after sonic layer of sludge doesn't help matters. And while they've always been coy about their love of sex (see “Pearl Necklace,” or read the lyrics to “I Got The Six”), they reach the zone of “too much information” with “Woke Up With Wood.”

And I'm sorry, but can I be the only person in the world who absolutely, positively cannot stand the song “Rough Boy”? It's not that I'm against ZZ Top doing ballads – “Blue Jean Blues” is an amazingly powerful song from their past – but I am against poorly written, poorly executed ballads like this one. I don't care if it was a hit for them, this is one that, to me, should have been left if not on the cutting room floor, then relegated to a B-side.

Yes, you can say that Afterburner was ZZ Top's attempt to try and move away from the blues-rock genre and continue their pursuit of top 40 success. And, judging from the charts, one could even argue that they were successful in that regard. But for ZZ Top to deny their roots is a sacrilege, and no matter how much Kraftwerk-like electronics you pile on top of their sound, underneath all of that is still that lil' ol' band from Texas who likes their blues crunchy and their barbecue spicy – and, frankly, there is nothing wrong with that. Why they would think they had to change to be “hip” is beyond the scope of reason – though this is the music industry we're talking about, where they sometimes didn't have the greatest ideas.

However you look at it, Afterburner is a weak follow-up to Eliminator, and was a major step backwards for ZZ Top. Indeed, it’s one which they may never have fully recovered from, as they never again had the same kind of success (though not through any lack of trying).

Rating: D

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