Thursday, December 31, 2009

Zoetrope - A Life of Crime (1987)

If Amnesty would serve as a Great Train Robbery for Illinois' Zoetrope, then A Life of Crime was their Godfather, their Goodfellas, their Untouchables, and perhaps the ultimate street metal album of the Midwest in the 80s. That doesn't mean it was perfect, just a lot better than other bands of the time and place performing with the urban aesthetic, and a leg up on the debut album. There is a bit more hardcore influence on this effort, and it's all around heavier than Amnesty, even in the vocals and drums of Barry Stern. There was a single lineup change, as Louie Svitek (Lost Cause, M.O.D., Mindfunk) replaced Ken Black on the 2nd guitar, but otherwise the core remains the same.

"Detention" breaks the prison gates with a volley of punkish riffing, enough energy to get the combat boots kicking in the heads of whatever mohawk or longhair was unfortunately to cross their path. It's not nearly as memorable as "Seeking Asylum", probably my favorite Zoetrope track overall, with an immediately catchy, classic metal riff that you'd expect more from some NWOBHM act that went on to legend. Pounding speed and flurries of unscrupulous leads help round out a pleasurable track that belongs on any compilation of great 80s speed. "Promiscuity" is also catchy, with a playful, driving guitar melody that breaks down into a thrash thrust. The song also features El Duce and Sickie Wifebeater of The Mentors doing brief backup vocals, as does the following "NASA", an obvious critique of the Challenger disaster, which chugs along with a punky swagger below the occasional lead or melody. "Unbridled Energy" is one of the band's faster tracks, Stern barking out vocals at a lower pitch than normal, and explosive like a more metal Sick of It All, with some pretty hardcore-styled lyrics. "Prohibition" is another fast as hell piece, a tribute to the gangsters of days gone by. The rhythm guitars beneath the lead are fucking intense, as are the leads themselves.

In an abandoned warehouse late at night in the shipping yards
The gangsters keep a watchful eye for the man in blue
As a loaded semi pulls up to an empty dock
The rear door opens to reveal the demon alcohol

"Company Man" is another Zoetrope track to feature a solid Motorhead influence, balls deep rock & roll with some harmonics in the verse and clapping percussion, plus a kickass punk mosh breakdown for the chorus, very catchy. "Pickpocket" has a lot of bounce to the bass and a decent, faster paced guitar in the verse, but it's not one of the better tracks here. "Hard to Survive" compensates with a searing melodic intro and drumming momentum, the melody returning post-chorus as it thunders into the next verse. Rinse and repeat, until Barry Stern screams and the album ends.

A Life of Crime features some truly awesome songwriting, and then a few filler pieces between, which don't really disappoint, but don't blow me away either. "Seeking Asylum" is so good that I'm surprised it did not gain the band a greater recognition outside the Midwest thrash scene and radio underground, especially with a Combat Records deal in place. But, I suppose sacrifices had to be made in order to afford Anthrax and Metallica concert t-shirts, so Zoetrope never made the splash it could have. At any rate, this is their finest hour, so if you're checking the band out for the first time, begin here. It's a great album for caving someone's skull in with a pair of brass knuckles.

Highlights: Seeking Asylum, Promiscuity, Prohibition, Hard to Survive

Verdict: Win [8/10]
(bullets slam into your eyes)

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