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The Oblivion Express

Whoever said that the classics never go out of fashion probably wasn't referring to popular music. In a field where styles date faster than President Clinton on a weekend fundraiser, it's hardly startling that for most artists, fame is as fleeting as the glow of a nearly spent spliff.

What is surprising, though, is the number of past-their-prime performers who've recently resurfaced to seek out one more hit of the limelight. From cochlea-crushing corporate rockers to preening pop poseurs, acts that have hardly sold a disc in a decade or more are suddenly proffering product like there's no tomorrow, courtesy of labels such as CMC International and the aptly named Deadline. The following list reviews ten of these releases, providing in the process the most compelling argument for the creation of a music-industry pension plan since the latest Stones tour.

LEGENDARY(?) LINEUPS
Quiet Riot
Alive and Well
(Deadline)

As is true with all of the groups in this category, the fact that Quiet Riot's roster has remained intact probably has less to do with the bandmembers' loyalties than it does with their inability to secure employment in surroundings that don't feature warm beer, diesel fumes and backstage blow jobs. To be fair, this package, billed as a collection of "new and greatest hits," reveals that the Riot squad has withstood the ravages of age better than most of its peers; at least the players haven't lost the shoulder-length coifs they've no doubt been wearing since the Reagan administration. Unfortunately, the group's musical abilities also remain best suited to that era. Each of the fifteen selections here is at least one guitar solo too long, and vocalist Kevin DuBrow's trademark stuck-pig squalling does for the band's occasional attempts at VH1-style balladry what the O.J. Simpson trial did for the Juice's odds of appearing in a new Naked Gun movie. But a more glaring fault is Quiet Riot's career-long lack of identity. The cover of "Highway to Hell" on the disc is so faithful to the AC/DC original that Bon Scott is probably yawning in his grave.

Night Ranger
Seven
(CMC International)

This release illustrates the dilemma facing many would-be resurgent rockers: Should they remain true to the musical approach that won them glory in the first place, or update their sound in an attempt to appeal to younger listeners? If Seven is any indication, the Rangers chose to pursue both strategies, thereby guaranteeing disaster on both counts. The act's songwriting schizophrenia surfaces most blatantly in "Sign of the Times," a tune that marries unconvincingly barked verses (complete with a plug for Jack Daniel's) with heavily harmonized choruses in a manner that will please neither the nose-ringed crowd nor onetime hair-band boosters still into acid-washed denims. (In a similar vein, "Peace Sign" attempts to capitalize on the neo-hippie trend, to laughable effect.) As for the band's occasional attempts at social commentary, it digs no deeper than the keyboard-heavy "Don't Ask Me Why," which offers the line, "What is this road called life?" For Night Ranger, that road should have ended years ago.

Dangerous Toys
Pissed
(Deadline)

Throughout Pissed, the members of this Austin-based combo party like it's 1989. Near-listenable numbers include the twangy, acoustic-guitar-driven "Screamin' for More" and "Promise the Moon," an arena-ready power ballad that might make Skid Row screecher Sebastian Bach cream his Spandex. But tracks like these are outnumbered by offerings such as the title cut, which suggests a humorless version of Faster Pussycat, a group of Dangerous Toys contemporaries who at least had the sense to disappear once their fifteen minutes of quasi-fame had elapsed. These guys, by contrast, persist in putting forward the kind of vocal and instrumental pyrotechnics that have been passe since Axl Rose got rich. Case in point: "Illustrated Man," a four-and-a-half minute ode to--what else?--tattoos. Hear it soon at a tractor pull near you.

Nazareth
boogaloo
(CMC International)

Give the members of this creaky quintet some credit: Approximately twenty years after their weepy rendition of "Love Hurts" became a senior-prom staple, they're still capable of making music that's halfway hip. Examples on boogaloo include "Robber + the Roadie," a spunky, Blasters-esque piano stomp that contains a gratuitous Jackson Browne reference that may or may not be a dig. Equally agreeable--if you can tolerate singer Dan McCafferty's painfully constricted snarling--is "Talk Talk," a pop confection propelled by a Celtic-influenced guitar lick. On the negative side, leering compositions such as the stereotype-heavy "Cheerleader" quickly wear out their welcome, and the pro-Dixie sentiments of "God Save the South" strike an even less-savory note. This last number might please audiences weaned on the musical wisdom of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but for listeners from the hip-hop generation, it's likely to be as welcome as a Klansman at a Jesse Jackson rally.

Blue Oyster Cult
Heaven Forbid
(CMC International)

At first listen, supporters of even moderately good taste may be unable to tear themselves away from this recording--but that's only because they'll want to hear how bad it can actually get. Those who hang in for Heaven's 45-minute duration won't be disappointed. Sporting absolutely no stylistic concessions to the Nineties, the CD is rife with numbers such as "See You in Black," which uses an alternately plodding and jerky time signature to propel a seduction fantasy that is set against the disturbing backdrop of an abusive husband's funeral. Elsewhere, "Power Underneath Despair" recounts a convict's plan to snuff a rival, while "Harvest Moon" attempts to bring out the warm-and-fuzzy side of these thinking-person's potheads by way of a convoluted farm-failure narrative that even John Mellencamp might reject. The most telling element of the last effort--and of the album as a whole--are the lines "I see the days grow shorter/I feel the nights grow cold/Young people feelin' restless/Old people feelin' old." Would that the members of Blue yster Cult were playing shuffleboard rather than making records like this one.

SHAMELESS SURROGATES
Judas Priest
98 Live Meltdown
(CMC International)

Proto-Priest shrieker Rob Halford left the combo that made him famous in 1992 to form an outfit called Fight; then, last year, while promoting a disc by yet another of his bands, Two, he officially came out of the closet--a move that failed to shock anyone with a double-digit IQ. (Let's face it: He penned fewer songs about pussy than Freddie Mercury did.) His former bandmates, on the other hand, have elected to continue carrying the Judas Priest flag--and currently helping them in this mission is vocalist Tim "Ripper" Owens, who was discovered imitating Halford in a Judas Priest cover band from Akron, Ohio. It's a scenario that could have been conceived by Horatio Alger, but this one doesn't have a happy ending. Throughout this two-CD live set, Owens proves he's capable of hitting all the notes his idol did, and then some. But for every selection such as "Electric Eye," during which Owens delivers a fairly restrained performance, there are at least six wherein he oversells the material through a combination of James Hetfield-type growls and superfluous octave leaps. Although his heroics might inspire charitable listeners to credit the thirty-something singer with adding a contemporary sensibility to the Priest shtick, devotees of original thought everywhere can only shudder at the impact Owens's leap from obscurity will have on tribute acts from Toledo to Torrance. If there's a sudden explosion in the number of these groups, you'll know who to blame.

Great White
Great Zeppelin: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin
(Deadline)

That the reconstituted Great White decided to serve up refried versions of material popularized by Led Zeppelin isn't what you'd call astounding; after all, Great White's resembled Zeppelin since the beginning. But at least the results of Great Zeppelin are fairly authentic. Singer Jack Russell delivers "Ramble On" and the like in a manner that sounds more like vintage Robert Plant than Plant himself does these days, and the guitar and keyboard parts are generally re-created with equal precision. But what's missing here is the passion of the original artists, to say nothing of their intelligence. When Russell mispronounces the word "reggae" during his introduction to "D'Yer Maker," it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. I can guess how Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones would react, though.

Jefferson Starship
Windows of Heaven
(CMC International)

Here's an explanation for why concept albums have gone the way of the dodo bird. On Windows of Heaven, the Starship, whose current incarnation includes a soullessly strident singer named Diana Mangano and former Tubes member Prairie Prince, deliver no fewer than ten iterations of the same tired theme--a pre-millennial screed that makes the writings of Ted Kaczynski appear rational by comparison. Topics assailed by the obviously drug-addled musicians include the Internet, Mike Tyson and Tammy Faye Bakker--and that's just on the title cut. There are more references to pseudo-mystical sources of light on the disc than you'll hear at a Boulder metaphysical fair--and to make matters worse, even the CD's more accessible numbers are marred by a myriad of flaws, not the least of which is the monochromatic croak that passes for Paul Kantner's voice. Judging by how worked up Kantner and his crew get on this full-length, they might want to spend less time preaching and more time stocking up on small arms and Spam.

POLYESTER PRINCES
Barry Manilow
Manilow Sings Sinatra
(Arista)

What becomes a deceased legend most? How about being allowed to rest in peace rather than having shoddy rehashes of his hits released before his body's even cold? Sorry, Frankie: That's Barry Manilow standing by your grave with a shovel in his hand. Never one to shy away from a marketing opportunity, the man who brought us "Mandy" (not to mention a famous McDonald's jingle) is attempting to cash in on everyone's favorite cadaver. The overall impression he creates, however, is one of an artist trying to make up through self-congratulatory schmaltz what he lacks in interpretive smarts. Granted, Manilow pulls off selections such as a "Come Dance With Me/Come Fly With Me" medley in sufficiently bouncy fashion. But on subtler songs like "All the Way," the singer weighs down the production with excesses that include a vibrato so wide you could drive a limo through it. Manilow's efforts are about as interesting as the swing revival, which, if you hadn't noticed, has been

fomented mainly by West Coast punks who can no longer get ska gigs.

BeeGees
One Night Only
(Polydor)

Pop this offering into your CD player, and within minutes you'll know why the success of disco had more to do with the studio than the stage. The 24 live selections on the collection make it painfully apparent that the falsettos of the Brothers Gibb have held up less well than has their appeal to middle-aged white women who wouldn't know talent if it bit them on the ass. Particularly problematic are up-tempo numbers such as "Night Fever," on which Barry Gibb's testosterone-free tenor alternates between annoying and inaudible. The group's ballads come off somewhat better, provided you can excuse their reliance on soporific tempos, cheesy keyboards and guest appearances by Celine Dion and their dead brother, Andy, who lends his pipes to "Our Love (Don't Throw It All Away)" via the miracle of tape-looping. Given the liabilities of One Night Only, it's no wonder the performance it contains happened only once.