Eric Gales – “Transformation”

Gales continues on his long journey back to prominence with “Transformation”

by Tango Sho’Nuff

Time has not been kind to Eric Gales.  Throughout his now 20+ year professional career, Gales has had to travel a long and bumpy road filled with more twists, turns, triumphs and tragedys than any musician should have to endure.  Some self-inflicted, some not, nonetheless all contributing to his constant uphill battle to get where he’s going.  To understand where that is, one must look back and start at the very beginning, the year the Eric Gales Band released their self-titled debut album when Gales was just 17 years old.

1991 was a year of transition in music.  In the rock world, Glam metal was out as Grunge occupied the throne while Metallica and Guns N Roses began their respective climbs to superstardom.  Meanwhile, Garth Brooks was taking country music into the mainstream flanked by Brooks and Dunn’s debut release, and Contemporary Christian Music began it’s ascension into the pop music world.  Add in debut albums from Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill and 2Pac along with monster records from Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen and U2 and you have one seriously eclectic mix of culture.

However, one genre of music stood alone in mourning, left hopelessly searching for a savior.  In October of 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the man who in the 1980’s became the torch-bearer for the blues, bringing it screaming back into the mainstream spotlight after years of turmoil…had passed away, leaving fans searching high and low for someone who could fill his shoes (a search that still continues to this day).  Not that there was any shortage of fine players on the scene, as 1990 also brought Eric Johnson’s landmark release “Ah Via Musicom”, and Robert Cray was still very much-present in the public eye, however, people were clamoring for a new, fresh young talent to come along and set the scene on fire.

Enter The Eric Gales Band.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a young, all black power-trio with a teenage guitar prodigy that visually and sonically conjured images of Hendrix exploded into the Top 10 with their debut single “Sign of the Storm”.  Remember, this is close to 5 years before Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang and Chris Duarte and almost a decade before Joe Bonamassa, Lance Lopez, and others began their careers.  With Eric’s older brother Eugene on bass/lead vocals and Hubert “H-Bomb” Crawford on drums, The Eric Gales Band’s sound was riff based rock with deep grooves and gospel-tinged vocal harmonies.  Two years later the band followed up their debut with 1993’s eclectic “Picture of a Thousand Faces”, which proved to be an even more diverse and focused LP than it’s predecessor.

Alas, the band’s album sales did not show the same growth.  To put it bluntly, it seemed the band’s sound was a bit too ahead of it’s time for mainstream audiences to fully embrace.  Nonetheless, Gales’ stayed in the public eye, performing with Carlos Santana during his Woodstock set in 94′ and reuniting with brothers Eugene and Manuel (aka Little Jimmy King) for 1996’s outstanding “Left Hand Brand” under the moniker The Gales Brothers.

Then, 5 long years of silence.

Gales eventually resurfaced in 2001, this time on MCA Records with “That’s What I Am” , an inspired if somewhat uneven collection of songs that seemed to be aimed at no specific demographic what-so-ever.  At times brilliant, other times confusing, the album was a commercial flop.

Then, 5 more years of silence.

While he would pop up sporadically on various tribute albums and compilations throughout this period, it wasn’t until 2006 that he released another full album of material, this time on Mike Varney’s Shrapnel label.  This is where the current chapter of Gales’ career begins.  Since releasing “Crystal Vision” in 2006, the Gales/Varney partnership has produced an album every year since, seemingly making up for lost time.  While Gales’ playing has continued to evolve and flourish, much of the material on these releases has felt stale and uninspired, almost as if Gales’ well-documented personal problems and bad habits have left him spinning his wheels, constantly re-treading the same sounds and styles repeatedly on each subsequent release.  Not that the albums have been bad per-se, (as each have had some flashes of brilliance on par with his earlier material) it just seemed fairly odd that a player of Gales’ caliber would be content on releasing what seemed like the same album every year.  But, if it ain’t broken, why fix it?  Besides, Gales’ guitar style is so refreshingly unique that it’s just a pleasure to listen to him burn through any material, be it killer or filler.  In short, it has been nice not having to wait 5 years in between records.

Which brings us to his newest release “Transformation”.  While not quite living up to it’s title, “Transformation” finds Gales in fine form and willing to step out of his comfort zone.  The material here is varied and well executed.  Even the more familiar sounding tracks, which stay within the confines of the tried-and-true muscled-up Blues Rock formula have a certain spark to them while other tracks allow Gales’ versatility to shine through, only this time, unlike 2001’s “That’s What I Am”, Gales seems more comfortable and focused.  His playing has always been a mixture of numerous different influences and styles but here his approach seems less focused on peeling off countless licks and riffs in each song and more on finding what works best for each individual track, making for quite possibly his best release in recent memory.

One of the standout moments early on is the uptempo romp “DOUBLE DIPPIN”, which balances sweet, tasty lead lines with some seriously hip jazz voicings that at times resemble both George Benson and Brian Setzer.  “I PITY THE FOOL” harkens back to Gales’ “That’s What I Am” era with it’s King’s X meets ZZ Top vibe, while the songs 2 guitar solos offer a glimpse of Eric’s more concise yet still unpredictable phrasing and note selection, proving that while staying in his comfort zone song-wise, his soloing is as impressive as ever, constantly evolving yet un-mistakably Eric Gales.  “SOMETIMES WRONG FEELS RIGHT” is the closest thing to a straight-forward slow blues here, but Gales again stretches the boundaries of his material with unorthodox chord voicings and rhythmic delay repeats.  Eric also seems to be stretching out tonally as well by letting his hands and amp do most of the heavy lifting.  Digital delay and hints of fuzz are still apparent as Wah-Wah abuse is kept to a minimum, while the Hendrix approved combo of Octavio and Uni-Vibe is missing entirely.

Some of the real highlights come in around the album’s halfway point, starting with the surprisingly dynamic “ALTERED DESTINY”.  Harmonically sophisticated in its arrangement, the track gets downright furious during the solo section as Gales delivers one of his best leads in years over a crushing riff reminiscent of Pantera covering a James Gang tune.  Wow.  Next up is “TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE” a delightfully refreshing song with powerful dynamics and a great hooky chorus.  Also worth pointing out is the uber-cool intertwining guitar lines in the verses that succeed at mimicing the sound of a ticking clock (not to mention another outstanding solo section).  THIS is the type of material I’ve been waiting for from Gales, as it bears no resemblence to anything else in his back catalog.  The title track “TRANSFORMATION” follows suit with another melodic chorus bookended by prog-rock inspired verses and a middle section that slowly builds into a stratospheric climax.  Also of note is the impressive interplay of the album’s rhythm section, Steve Evans (bass) and Aaron Haggerty (drums), who seem to have no trouble following Gales whatsoever, in fact, one almost gets the impression that on tracks like the breakneck funk showcase “SEA OF BAD BLOOD”, Evans and Haggerty’s explosive chops are actually inviting Gales to stretch out his rollercoaster like runs and phrases.

As we get into the final tracks, Eric treats us to another unique gem, the R&B tinged “TOO LATE TO CRY”.  While Gales has never been accused of being a great vocalist, his voice is nicely suited for tracks like this.  Dreamy arpeggios, melodic fills, and a psychedelic interlude that sounds like Ty Tabor dueting with Joe Satriani.  “TOO LATE” is a fine example of Gales’ potential when he’s thinking outside the box.  My only complaint is that there aren’t more tracks similar to these.  Cliched, run-of-the-mill tracks like the album opener “RAILROADED” and lyrically inept closer “I WOULDN’T TREAT A  DOG THAT WAY” could have easily been dropped from the LP while more standard fare such as “TORTURED MIND” and “CATCHING UP WITH THE PAST” serve as harmless filler.  Again, these are small complaints as there’s more than enough fireworks throughout the disc to keep old-school fans satisfied while showing just enough growth and progress to keep nit-picky people like me happy.

Overall, while “Transformation” may not be the giant leap forward that it’s title suggests, it is surely a bold step in the right direction.  In the months following it’s release, Gales has done some session work with Raphael Saadiq that has surfaced in a few major motion picture soundtracks, he’s toured with R&B star Lauryn Hill and is currently on the road with the Experience Hendrix 2012 Tour.  All this, along with rumors of Varney & Co. releasing a companion Transformation Live DVD in the near future, lead many to believe that 2012 will be the most productive year of Eric Gales’ career since his early 90’s heyday.

While Eric Gales’ long and storied battle with demons, addictions, and bad decisions has over time diminished his role in the music industry, “Transformation” makes it painstakingly clear that his past has left absolutely NO signs of wear and tear on his abilities.  Sheer raw talent can only get you so far, and Gales’ possesses more of it than most, if he can stay in the public eye and out of trouble while at the same time continuing on the path set by this release, the skys the limit.

7.5 / 10

TRACK LISTING:

1 – Railroaded
2 – Double Dippin’
3 – Tortured Mind
4 – I Pity the Fool
5 – Altered Destiny
6 – Time Waits For No One
7 – Catching Up With the Past
8 – Transformation
9 – Sometimes Wrong Feels Right
10- Sea of Bad Blood
11- Too Late to Cry
12- I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog That Way

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