By Adam Waldman
Spring training is upon us. It won’t be long before the baseball season starts, and we will once again be reminded how much the game has changed in recent years. The way things have shifted, “small ball” is no longer in vogue. What does that have to do with Ugly Melon? More than you think…
Most hard rock bands these days tend to play “small ball,” chipping away with singles as they try to score radio airplay. They toil away in the minors (small clubs) as they try to build a following. All the while, they’re hoping to get a call from the majors (a record company and/or a meaningful opening slot). This is the most practical way to launch a career in rock these days, but it doesn’t mean that all bands follow the same roadmap to find success.
While other bands are just hoping to make contact, Canada’s Ugly Melon came out swinging for the fences from the moment that they hit the scene with their debut release. Their shows in Canada feel more like headline performances than newcomers working to build a following. The phrase “go big or go home” comes to mind when you listen to this band. The fact that they’ve done all this already without radio support is amazing.
Often times in baseball, a hot rookie will suffer from a sophomore slump the following season. In music, the concept of sophomore jinx is more than just a cliché. There is plenty of proof to back this concept up throughout the history of rock. Ugly Melon, on the other hand, went from swinging for the fences on their debut to hitting grand slams on their sophomore effort, Just A Man.
Once upon a time, the leadoff hitter in baseball would just try to get on base and let the power hitters that followed do the heavy lifting. These days, every batter seems to be swinging for the fences. It’s the reason that there are so many more strikeouts than there used to be. When you swing for the fences, you are more likely to miss. But when you make contact, it is a thing of beauty. Ugly Melon falls into the latter category for sure.
Their latest album – Just A Man – leads off with a mystical keyboard sound that harkens back to the early days of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career. Rather than following down the same path as “Mr. Crowley,” “Father’s Eyes” obliterates you with the dark doom of the formative years of Black Sabbath. The abrasiveness of this sonic sledgehammer is smoothed out by the soulful, tortured vocals of frontman Tony LaSelva.
“It’s My Time” is a high-octane rocker that features guitar hero-era leads of Lu Cachie, the driving force of Franklin Wyles’ drumming, and the heavy groove of John Liberatore’s bass playing. Last, but certainly not least, guitarist Joey Talotta rounds out this ferocious rhythm section. The song quickly transitions from a “Heaven And Hell” vibe into a fierce melodic track with just the right amount of gloom. The song takes me back in time to W.A.S.P.’s 1993 concept album, The Crimson Idol.
“You Want More” is the first single off of the album. Though the underlying rhythm has an “Enter Sandman” vibe, the song is signature Ugly Melon. That’s one of the things that I love about this band. They take the best of what hard rock and metal has offered through the years and incorporate it into their own sound. This allows them to simultaneously feel familiar and new (which is no easy feat).
Even when they pay direct homage to one of their heroes, they do so with an interesting, unexpected twist. After five songs of unadulterated heavy metal, you expect more of the same when you arrive at Ugly Melon’s interpretation of the Dio classic, “Rainbow In The Dark.” What you get instead is a thing of emotive beauty drenched in melancholy that is the polar opposite of the original.
The familiar, bright ‘80s keyboard intro is replaced with sullen acoustic guitars. As the song progresses, a soft piano in the vein of “The Angel Song” by Great White provides a backdrop for poignant vocals. LaSelva has proven himself to be one of the best vocalists on the hard rock scene today with the band’s up-tempo tracks, but it’s songs like this where he really gets to shine as he makes you feel the emotion of the lyrics. This is especially impressive on “Rainbow In The Dark,” a song that has fallen squarely into the feel-good category for over three decades. In the context of the album, it feels like an interlude to allow listeners to catch their breath before the real drama ensues.
The album’s title track – “Just A Man” – blends the haunting darkness of the song “Black Sabbath” with the band of the same name’s more modern “God Is Dead?” Musically and lyrically heavy, “Just A Man” has a mystical ‘70s epic hard rock feel. It’s probably too dark for most radio stations, but remember, this band is swinging for the fences, not trying to hit singles anyway.
Wearing influences from Sabbath, Ozzy, Dio-era Rainbow, and Metallica on their collective sleeves, Ugly Melon takes you back in time with a sound that feels too big for theaters, much less small clubs. This is an old-school arena rock band in every sense of the word.
After the retirement of Rush, there is an opening for someone to step up and become Canada’s next big rock band. Listen to Ugly Melon’s sophomore effort and judge for yourself whether they have what it takes to ascend to the vacated throne. There is no doubt in my mind that, with the right breaks, Ugly Melon will be the band that takes over The Great White North.