I’ve had an extended break from reviewing hard rock, although as a genre it remains my first love. There is a cynicism that comes with age and I simply struggle to get excited about most new releases. I find myself shaking my head (like the old man I am) and coming to the predictable but inevitable conclusion that they just don’t make rock records like they used to. I suspect that a similar sentiment was the starting point for Animal Drive’s new covers EP Back to the Roots.
This band of Croatian metalheads made waves with their 2018 debut Bite! for two good reasons: one, vocalist Dino Jelusic has one of those diamond-hard voices that effortlessly balances balls and precision and two, guitarist Ivan Keller’s mastery of monster riffage and lightning solos (along with a squealing harmonic on every in-breath) is second to none. However, even for the best of bands, the covers record is a notorious beast. It must be approached with great care. Animal Drive have wisely chosen the less-is-more path, offering just four tracks here. Within them we see a surprising breadth, though, from the pop of Roxette, through the cajones of Skid Row and classic rock of Whitesnake to the unsung heroes of hair metal, Warrant. Impressively, Animal Drive have brought these four unlikely bedfellows neatly into sonic line and have done so without significantly disturbing the spirit of each original.
We start with ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, which Warrant originally intended to be the title track of their second release. Of course, it was ‘Cherry Pie’ that made the Warrant name but it also simultaneously condemned the band as embarrassing, misogynist dinosaurs. Jani Lane and co. were understandably eager to break away from that tag and the traditional balladry behind ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ made for one of the band’s finest moments on an album that ricocheted frustratingly between the inspiring and the regrettable. Animal Drive’s take on ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is to play up the drama, with Jelusic amplifying Jani Lane’s already accomplished delivery (see Dog Eat Dog for why Mr Lane is a stone cold rock legend) and to pile on the pounding in the drum department with some hefty double kick drum action. Amid all the energy and unstoppable guitar work, the version is faithful, remarkably reverent and massively enjoyable.
Next is Roxette’s ‘The Look’ and Animal Drive’s crunchy, high-octane treatment of the chart smash illustrates the incredible thinness of the line that separated a lot of metal and pop circa 1989. Again, drummer Zvonimir Mihaljevic is instrumental in drilling in the extra energy and Dino is joined by Rosa Laricchiuta on vocals – where would we be without those na-na na-na nahs?
Skid Row’s metal masterpiece ‘Monkey Business’ follows and is nothing short of ferocious. Again, very faithful to the original, this must have been a real labour of love to recreate. No one can match Sebastian Bach (no arguments on that please) but Jelusic comes pretty darn close and everything about the execution here is spot on. This is the sound of a band in total control of their abilities, paying homage while clearly relishing every moment. Covering anything from Slave to the Grind would be both brave and dangerous. Covering anything from it this well, with so much passion and precision surely deserves of some sort of medal.
In the hands of Animal Drive, Whitesnake’s ‘Judgement Day’ is, as you might expect, laden with extra muscle and chug while the keyboards are dialled down. Otherwise, this is likewise a lovingly, if tightly, rendered version of a period classic. Jelusic’s ability to embody the spirit of yet another titan of rock is frankly getting ridiculous by this point but it’s easy to see why comparisons have been drawn between him and Mr Coverdale.
So, the only thing left for me to say is thank you. Thank you, Animal Drive, for inspiring me to actually say something about some hard rock. Thank you for showing so much love for these songs in a scene where records can often feel rather dashed out. They may not make rock records like they used to but perhaps I should just be happy that Animal Drive decided to make one like this.
Review by Rich Barnard