Producer: Mike Varney
By Oscar Jordan
Transformation is Eric Gales’ fifth studio album (not counting the compilation record Layin’ Down The Blues) from Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records (Blues Bureau International). With Varney as co-songwriter and producer, this pairing has unquestionably done great things for Gale’s tumultuous career. Starting out as a teen prodigy with The Eric Gales Band, Gales was destined for greatness as the new Hendrix when life happened to him. Bad decisions, drugs, personal tragedies, jail, and eventually rehab, had earned him some serious blues cred, life cred, and a new found maturity.
The rebirth of Eric Gales on the Varney label starting with Crystal Vision in 2006 followed the truly inspired and painfully underrated rock album That’s What I Am (2001). It was a monster guitar record with powerfully soulful vocals that mixed incendiary rock guitar playing, with fresh grooves and production. It also contained some of the most inspired songwriting of Gales’ career. So when Crystal Vision was released, fans were ecstatic, but it was no That’s What I Am. Along with this rebirth came re-packaging. Gales was no longer being marketed as the new Hendrix. He became a bluesman.
The Psychedelic Underground mirrored the same thematic formula as Crystal Vision (“Wake Up Call,” “Day Of Reckoning,” “Dark Corners Of My Mind.”), and of course amazing guitar playing. The Story Of My Life, and Relentless, followed suit and included shuffles, ZZ Top style boogies, and straight-a-head blues bar band stuff. These albums also included lyrical themes about atonement, taking responsibility, and Alcoholics Anonymous speak.
Just to be clear, the aforementioned albums all contain smokin’, heavy, blues based rock tracks with blazing Strats, inspired riffs, righteous amp tones, and tracks that don’t sound like blues bar band stuff. Gales plays hellacious guitar even on the most generic blues shuffle. It’s just that those types of tunes stick out like an out of tune E string when you consider what he’s capable of. Songs like “Blue Misty Morning” from his earlier days is much more compelling than him wailing over standard blues progressions. Gales can play some mean blues, but let’s face it; he’s a rock guitarist. If you disagree, feel free to ask your neighborhood Blues Nazi. They’ll gladly set you straight.
Songs like “Liar” off Relentless, “She Shines” from That’s What I Am, or “Honey In The Comb” from The Psychedelic Underground is where Gales brings his “A” game as a songwriter. The blues material comes off as filler, but also gives the impression of seeking approval from the traditional blues community – a community that he isn’t welcome in. He’s much too post-Hendrix and out of the box, and doesn’t lean enough on 50’s era B.B. King, retro shirts, and regulation blues hats.
Transformation starts off with the slow blues “Railroaded” and the up tempo jump swing of “Double Dippin’.” To reiterate, I consider these traditional sounding tracks filler, but the playing is exceptional. Gales gets deep when playing a straight blues, and does so with more fire, freedom, and imagination than any of his contemporaries; but he’s coasting.
Finally we’re off and running with the blues-rock track “Tortured Mind.” Gales sings about his demons, loneliness, and the voices in his head. These types of songs really play up the archetype that Gales has created for us – the unhinged, rehabilitated criminal, who finally gets it together. The modern blues man. We get a scorching wah solo on “Altered Destiny,” and “Time Waits For No One” has the kind of idiosyncratic thumbprint that harkens back to his teenaged days with The Eric Gales Band. It’s one of the best tracks on the record.
Drummer Aaron Haggerty and Steve Evans on bass deliver psychic, on the money, rhythmic propulsion, and a sonic foundation so Gales can soar. The pocket is deep and the groove is hypnotic. On the slow blues “Sometimes Wrong Feels Right,” and the very funkalicious “Sea Of Bad Blood,” the subject is personal demons once again, but the performance is fervent and visceral. “Too Late To Cry” is the most impassioned track on the record, and contains many of his best signature concepts, unique to his songwriting. Muted arpeggiation meet dreamy chord voicings, beautiful chromatic ascension, and wonderfully spiraling guitar solos.
Transformation has no transformations going on in terms of musical style. Gales has covered all these bases before. But a musical transformation isn’t what this record is about. Gales does what he does extremely well, sticks to his comfort zone, and will kick your butt on guitar as well as on vocals. What Transformation is really about is yet another addiction/recovery album title, referencing his transformation from drug abuse to sobriety. We’ve heard these themes on the last four records. The only difference is that Gales went to jail last year, went through rehab, and now he really means it.
On the title track Gales sings, “How many times did I have to fail, until I told myself I can’t spend my life in jail.” Ok, we get it. You’ve experienced your moment of clarity and you’re writing about what you know…again. I guess we should be grateful. At least Gales is writing from personal experience rather than painting clichéd blues pastiches about trains, mojos, and Robert Johnson mythology.
Eric Gales sings about his reality, which is what the old blues masters did, but I’m anxious to hear him move away from AA confessionals and the blues, to do a proper black rock record. Transformation is a fiery groove based album with maximum strength guitar; but a true transformation would be Gales moving beyond his personal issues as subject matter, standing unapologetically like the gifted musician that he is, and finding other topics to write about.