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The New Classic Rock 

You wanted the best but didn't know you had it: Westworld

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
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We should have been sick of Westworld by now. Instead, practically nobody’s ever heard of ‘em.

The process should have gone like this: We would’ve run across Westworld a few years ago on the car radio, where Tony Harnell‘s voice, like some intimate rocket, would have gotten inside our heads and spiraled us through the sunroof. We would’ve been singing along right away, because this is a band with so many hooks, you stab your fingers when you turn the volume up. We would‘ve gotten reckless-driving citations for slashing through traffic to the band’s galloping Zep Lite rhythms and Queenly riffs.

Then the programmers would have spun a dozen of their songs 50 billion times each, “Stairway” Syndrome would have set in, and today the very mention of Westworld would gag us raw. Garage bands would be doing joke covers of their hits. There would be rehab clinics named after them. Harnell would already have met and broken up with Sheryl Crow.

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Sorry, though, Westworld is a pretty new band, around for less than four years, and Classic Rock Radio only plays old stuff. There‘s a reason such stations can still maintain a playlist dating mostly from 1972 to 1977: A whole lot of that music reached undeniably impressive levels of craft. Even the snottiest punk iconoclast would admit that the Eagles, Paul McCartney, Labelle, Al Green, Elton John, Heart and Aerosmith could sing, play and write songs.

Westworld are in a league with those guys. The only question is: Does anybody know what to do with new classic rock?

They do if they hear it. In September of 2001, Ultrasound, a showcase for melodic metal, invaded the Burbank Hilton’s convention center. Attendance was wretched. Band after band, many of them quite good, cranked up their Marshalls and blasted through their sets to audiences of a couple dozen. One of the event‘s few buzzes surrounded an appearance by Westworld, which had established modest name recognition because Harnell had been the American screecher in the Norwegian ’80s hair band TNT, and guitarist Mark Reale had been in the perennial New York metal group Riot. It was a nostalgia thing. Since American distribution for both TNT and Westworld had been minimal (though they were more than a glimmer in Europe and Japan), few knew that in recent years Harnell‘s TNT had freaked out with an imaginative neopsychedelia that far outclassed their generic beginnings.

On the amped-up occasion of Ultrasound, Westworld appeared as a duo. An acoustic duo. The budget allowed only for Harnell and Reale to flap their wings in from the band’s New York home base, and Reale didn‘t even bring a guitar; he borrowed Harnell’s. Around noon, in the blazing sun, the two set up around a little hotel swimming pool.

And they killed. Artistically naked as babies, Harnell and Reale played a few songs that made you want to hear everything they‘d done together; as a reference point, they dipped into a little of Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Sea.” It was plain as pig iron that they had it all: riffs, dynamics, virtuosity. At one point, Harnell opened his throat and let out a long, rich, really high note, which floated between the concrete towers on either side, growing bigger and bigger till it hit the sky and faded. Then he shrugged, as if to say, “Well, that was kind of ‘80s, but I know you expect it.”

Five stories above, people hung from windows looking dazed. Before clapping, the 40 or 50 poolsiders stood there agape, the way you do when you turn a corner and run smack into the unexplainable reek of enormous talent. Later, Dave Tedder, the promoter of Ultrasound, said that Harnell nudged him after the set, asking if it was okay. Tedder just looked at him: “Yeah, Tony. It was okay.”

Ready to roll before the new Cyberdreamer, in the course of their two previous studio albums Westworld had already made a bushel of unknown classics. From the 1999 debut, Westworld, an impregnable songwriting fortress with a somewhat retro sound, there was the epic beg of “Bring the Water to Me” and the unforgettable, bouncing-off-the-ceiling chorus of “I Belong.” From 2000’s modernistic Skin, which has only recently received more than an accidental American release, there was the delirious “Uneasy” and the darkly grinding “Black Shadow Symphony”; the title track is a Led Zeppelin--meets--Eric Carmen pop masterpiece that everyone needs to hear. A live CD also features wall-to-wall winners, but glom on to any Westworld album and your favorites will change daily -- if you don‘t absorb a tune the first time, it’ll probably get all over you later.

Hitting the listener early, hard and often, Cyberdreamer raises doubts as to whether Westworld are even capable of screwing up. “When I Come Home” and “How Good It Feels” spurt so much zest and optimism, you‘d think you were hearing ignorant 20-year-olds on Ecstasy instead of veterans with decades of industry bootprints on their butts. The melodies pack the most instantaneous impact ever with the aid of bassist Bruno Ravel’s clean & crunchy engineering. Reale‘s guitar whacks and filigreed solos sound like they’ve been shot out of a Scud launcher. And indirect touches of R&B -- the Living Colour riff on “Righteous One”; funky Reale chord variations and shoogabooga rhythms from drummer John O. Reilly that nod to Stevie Wonder and the Doobie Brothers on “Misery Loves Company”; Harnell‘s sometimes soul-tinged self-harmonizations -- help the band come off less metallic and more human than before. If Josh Pincus’ keyboard sounds could stand a little updating to avoid a faint odor of stale cheese, they nevertheless add welcome body.

This is music that convinces you it‘s going somewhere. And Harnell, catching up by phone from New York, gives the same impression. He’s justifiably satisfied with his current simultaneous Westworld and TNT work, which betrays fewer and fewer Sunset Strip leanings. “Sometimes I like to do things that just step completely out of the hard-rockheavy-metal world,” he says. “I always felt a bit detached from it.” So he‘s champing at the bit to do a solo album, he’s thought of trying Broadway (!), and he‘s checked out some technique pointers from a teacher of opera (!!) at the suggestion of new acquaintance Phoebe Snow (!!!).

Harnell’s extremely rangy and supple voice needs no help, unless someone could clue him that the way he‘s taking care of it (periodic smoking binges) might not be ideal. It’s always been in demand: He was asked to audition for Black Sabbath in the ‘80s (no dice, too involved with TNT) and a decade later was considered by Judas Priest to replace his idol Rob Halford.

A San Diego surfer who became an international rocker, Harnell can claim the pipes as part of his bloodline: His mother sang opera. Another part comes from his grandmother, who’s a poet. Harnell‘s lyrics aren’t exactly sonnets, it‘s more that they perfectly communicate how he feels. No journalistic pretensions, no castles and dragons, just love, hate, faith and an occasional twist of humor. (“Everyone’s superficial here,” he sings, “just the way I like it!”) You always know that the words Harnell wails mean something to him -- “Whatever comes up for me on any given day tends to be written about” -- and that‘s a huge part of what draws you to him.

He has stuck around, and the obstacles are falling. “At one point I may have had a reputation as being really difficult,” Harnell says. “But I think that anybody who’s worked with me over the last four or five years would probably say the complete opposite. I‘m definitely not a diva.”

Harnell has occasionally written about falling apart; more and more, his music has kept him whole. It’s a goal he‘s closer to now. “That would be the greatest achievement of my life, maybe anybody else’s life -- to be genuinely happy every single day, no matter what comes at you.”

Vendors for Cyberdreamer include www.westworld web.com.

WESTWORLD | Cyberdreamer | (Crush)

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