Released: 2004, Sanctuary
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
If ever a project was set up to fail, Blackie Lawless’ THE NEON GOD, was it. After cutting short any promotion or touring for 2002’s DYING FOR THE WORLD, it was announced that Lawless would be releasing a two-part story that he had been working on for years, entitled THE NEON GOD. The story would be released over two CDs whose release dates would be staggered, surely to test the waters of the first CD, as well as to capitalize on the die-hard fans willing to shell out $30 to get the whole tale. Lawless’ mouth has gotten him in hot water countless times over the years and his bigger-than-life persona (and, if the rumors are true, ego) are legendary. He has boasted of THE NEON GOD being a fantastic saga, that if one were to believe the hype, is on par with the second coming of Christ himself. The spotlight has certainly shifted away from W.A.S.P. as this once legendary band has essentially been reduced to a Blackie Lawless solo project for the past 12 years, beginning with 1992’s THE CRIMSON IDOL. That sprawling recording was, in and of itself, a lot to take in and only in later years has it found a real audience. Being a die-hard W.A.S.P. fan myself since 1986, even I found THE CRIMSON IDOL a strange bird upon its initial release. Fast-forward to 2004 and the question is such: Will THE NEON GOD, an equally challenging and ambitious vanity project, once again divide W.A.S.P. fans, or be seen as the ultimate testament to the genius of Blackie Lawless? The answer is both.
The story of Jesse Slane is spread out over a ten-page (yes, TEN PAGE) treatment at the beginning of the CD booklet. Once you have waded through that, there are several loose ends that will, of course, be tied up when THE NEON GOD PART 2 - THE DEMISE is released in late summer 2004. To summarize the story in such a brief space is unjust, however the basic premise is that, while a young boy of eight, Jesse’s drunk, addict mother leaves him at an orphanage run by nuns. The situation there is the epitome of every evil religious cliche ever told and Jesse, in turn, leads a miserable childhood. The bane of his existence is the sadistic Sister Sadie, the headmistress of the Sisters of Mercy Boys Home, who emotionally and sexually abuses him. When Jesse cracks and tells of the horrific things done to him, a failed suicide attempt lands him in the hospital, where he meets other children suffering the fate. It is also there that Jesse makes a friend and mentor who takes him under his wing. Soon, Jesse becomes a voluntary test subject for various drugs and two years quickly pass. Upon learning of Sister Sadie’s death and the nuns desire to bring him back to the orphanage, Jesse leaves and his friend kills himself, despondent over his own reluctance to face the real world. Jesse lasts only one week at the orphanage before leaving for good. He remains homeless until he meets a magician named Judah, who teaches him ESP and telepathy. With his powers, Jesse becomes the leader of the downtrodden, who see him as some Messianic figure. Jesse’s apparent raison d’ etre is short-lived as he questions his own abilities and whether he is essentially good or evil.
As I said, this is dark, heavy and challenging stuff.
There are many parallels between this story and that of THE CRIMSON IDOL. The mentor figure of Chainsaw Charlie/Judah, the rise and fall of a false messiah, the character’s inability to escape his own past, and, of course, the autobiographical nature of Lawless’ own storied childhood and stardom. Those similarities aside, THE NEON GOD’s dark, twisted story is more disturbing than THE CRIMSON IDOL and is more intriguing, as well. Jesse Slane is more of an “everyman,” whereas THE CRIMSON IDOL’s Jonathan led the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. In other words, Jesse could be any one of us.
Listening to this first installment of THE NEON GOD is nothing short of breathtaking. Lawless has made it impossible to not get caught up in this character’s plight. The music enraptures the listener and the lyrics draw us in to see what will happen next. Despite missteps taken since THE CRIMSON IDOL (“Dirty Balls,” anyone?), Lawless’ return to “thinking man’s metal” is a welcome one. He can confidently meet his detractors’ accusations of resting on his laurels head-on, because this is an ambitious and, yes, vain piece of work, but it is so good, the point is moot. W.A.S.P. sounds like W.A.S.P. no matter how hard Lawless tries not to (see 1997’s K.F.D. album) and even when things slow down, there is always that unmistakable sound. Lawless has one of the most distinctive voices in metal and he is still able to handle the fast songs just as easily as the slower ones. Ever the control freak, Lawless handles full vocal duties, but also guitar, bass, keyboards and even drums at times. Hell, he even produced the album! Long-time collaborator Frankie Banali no doubt handles the lion’s share of drum duties, but seeing this long list of credits next to Lawless’ name only further leads me to question his continuing use of the W.A.S.P. name other than for commercial purposes.
“Overture” is an instrumental sampling of the album’s tracks and takes the listener by the hand for a 52-minute journey that is at times unpleasant and exhilarating, often at the same time. “Why Am I Here?,” “Why Am I Nothing?,” “Someone To Love Me (All I Need)” and “Me & the Devil” are quick segways that are inserted between songs, the first two of which are narratives where Jesse asks God why He has imposed such a wrath upon him. “Sister Sadie (And The Black Habits),” which could also be a great name for an all-girl, 50’s “doo-wop” group, is the standout track on the CD. At nearly eight minutes, this epic meanders through a brilliant vocal performance from Lawless and a memorable riff that begins the downward spiral of Jesse at the hands of the heartless nun, with the line, “I don’t believe in a God of love.” “The Rise” features that hockey arena organ found on many past W.A.S.P. classics. “Asylum #9” boasts the best verses and hook-filled choruses on the CD. The guitar solo that begins around 3:45 and goes on through the end of the track (done, I’m sure, by Darrell Roberts, and not Lawless) is enough to make the little hairs on the back of the neck stand up. “The Red Room of the Rising Sun” is an interesting turn towards the psychedelic. While the “Red Room” is explained as a hospital-controlled drug den, the music superbly transforms the listener into Jesse’s own euphoric state. “What I’ll Never Find” and “The Raging Storm” are slower tracks that allow Lawless’ vocal range to shine and convey Jesse’s own lost, pained voice.
While there really is not a bad song on this CD, THE NEON GOD is not without its faults. First and foremost, there are many characters that “speak” but Lawless is the voice of all of them. Without the lyrics, it can be a bit uncertain where a song is going and the narrative is certainly helped by seeing the sidenotes of exactly who is speaking to whom. Secondly, the scope of this CD requires the listener to begin with track one every time. This can’t be picked up halfway through and curse the blasphemer who chooses “shuffle” on his or her CD player. Thirdly, if THE NEON GOD fails miserably, and I highly doubt it will, will we still see the second chapter? Lawless couldn’t leave us with this unanswered cliffhanger, could he? Fourthly, can PART 2 even come close to being as phenomenal as PART 1? This is a tough act to follow! Finally, what else can possibly happen to Jesse Slane in his life without it becoming “too much?”
Blackie Lawless’ magnum opus was long considered to be THE CRIMSON IDOL and everything else he ever did, people claimed, would pale in comparison. In other words, he became a victim of his own success. However, Lawless somehow found it in himself to top one of the best metal concept albums/rock operas with THE NEON GOD. If a grade were given for ambition, Lawless would get a perfect five out of five. Unfortunately, other factors must be taken into account and while THE NEON GOD is no doubt something that should be included in Lawless’ own epitaph, it is as near perfect as he will ever do. Or is it?
KILLER KUTS: “Wishing Well,” “Sister Sadie (And The Black Habits),” “Asylum #9,” “What I’ll Never Find,” “The Raging Storm”