Liberty ‘N’ Justice is a Christian hard rock/heavy metal band formed in 1991 by Justin Murr and Patrick Marchand. They released four albums as a band, but in 2002 the group broke up. Only Justin Murr, a bassist and songwriter, decided to keep Liberty ‘N’ Justice going by enlisting a who’s who of hard rock and heavy metal artists to guest on their next album, which ended up being called Welcome to the Revolution. Vocalists who appeared on the album included A-list Christian rockers like Michael Sweet of Stryper and Jaime Rowe of Guardian, but Murr was also able to get mainstream artists to appear on the album as well, the most noteworthy being Lou Gramm of Foreigner. From then on, Murr continued to make Liberty ‘N’ Justice albums, always enlisting top notch hard rock and heavy metal artists to not only sing on the albums but play some of the instruments as well. That said, the Cigar Chronicles, a double album, is the final all-star Liberty ‘N’ Justice release, as Murr has joined forces with some friends to once again make Liberty ‘N’ Justice a normal band. The new line up is: David Cagle (vocals), JK Northrup (guitars), Justin Murr (bass), Eric Ragno (keys) and Michael Feighan (drums).
The Cigar Chronicles is divided into two volumes, each 13 songs. Volume One is an album of covers. Volume Two is an album of original Liberty ‘N’ Justice tunes, all of which Justin Murr and JK Northrup wrote or co-wrote. I’ll cover each volume separately.
Perhaps it’s partially because I hadn’t been listening to as much metal during recent months, but the first song that impressed me here was Kip Winger’s gorgeous acoustic rendition of “Stayin’ Alive.” Most of these covers have been completely transformed into metal songs by JK Northrup, who produced and arranged both discs with the exception of two tracks, but there’s nothing metal about this fantastic version of “Stayin’ Alive” aside from the fact that it’s Kip Winger singing it. Kip has tackled everything from new age to acoustic rock with excellent results on his solo albums so I wasn’t surprised to find myself liking this track. But even if you hate Winger you’ve got to admit that he did a fine job here. He probably doesn’t go quite as high as The Bee Gees during the chorus, but he does go pretty darn close and his voice never cracks or seems the least bit strained. Quite to the contrary, he has complete control on the high notes and throughout the rest of this track. Not many singers with as much grit in their voices have that precision but Kip always had it and still does, which is especially impressive when you consider how awful many of the gritty metal singers sound nowadays.
The second track that I fell in love with here is “Ice Ice Baby.” Yes, the Vanilla Ice song. One of the reasons this album is so fascinating is that Murr and company have taken on more than a handful of songs you never would have thought could be turned into metal. Not only that, some of these are songs by artists that a lot of metal fans probably hate, including N’Sync, Hanson and The Village People. And Vanilla Ice. Now, you’re probably assuming that L ‘N’ J just took the part of the Queen and Bowie classic that Ice sampled and built on that. That is not the case. They tossed the sample and turned it into a grinding, chugging metal song. In fact, this version, which features Seann Nicols of Adler’s Appetite on vocals, isn’t even a rap song. Nicols simply sings it like a sleazy metal tune. And it’s awesome. It’s also noteworthy for a killer guitar solo courtesy of Twisted Sister’s Eddie Ojeda, whom I’ve always thought to be one of metal’s most under-rated axe slingers.
Another track that has been done the sleazy way with great results is Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance” with Stevie Rachelle of Tuff on vocals. Tuff started out as more of a glam band than a sleaze rock group but there really isn’t anything glam about Stevie’s vocals here, which are down and dirty and delicious. Less impressive is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” with Phil Lewis of L.A. Guns on vocals. Phil’s vocals aren’t bad, but in this case the arrangement just didn’t quite work for me. It didn’t feel as inspired as most of the other tracks. It felt like they were chopping it up and rubbing it raw just for the sake of being different. Perhaps that’s because they didn’t want their rendition to sound too much like Faster Pussycat’s, which I never quite liked in spite of being a Faster Pussycat fan.
Former TNT vocalist Tony Harnell, who’s gone on to do great things with Starbreaker and solo projects, delivers an uplifting rendition of “Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls. Tony has always been one of my favorite metal vocalists and his passionate performance here is top notch, showing great precision. Equally passionate is Selena McVey’s turn on Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night.” The original was pretty rockin’, but this version shreds much, much harder and Selena’s vocals are almost as powerful as Whitney’s.
The song that’s probably undergone the greatest transformation here is Lionel Ritchie’s “Dancing On The Ceiling,” which is now fist-pump-worthy with James Christian of House of Lords on vocals. He’s always been one of metal’s best singers and his voice is just as powerful as it’s always been, which is pretty darn strong. And he manages to make Ritchie’s classic totally sound like a House of Lords song.
An awful lot of metal bands have done albums of covers during the past decade. And most of them have sucked. They’ve been paint-by-numbers bullshit, quite frankly. You’d think metal bands would want to impress their fans by turning normal rock and pop songs into gleaming metal tracks, but instead the majority of them have played it safe and most of them have sounded like they phoned it in. That is certainly not the case here and I’m quite thankful for that. And, you know what? I’m not the only one. I’ve read at least a dozen reviews of the album on various metal sites and I’ve yet to find a single negative review. So, you really should check it out. If you’re a die-hard metal fan, it just might get you to reconsider other genres. And if you’re normally not a metal fan, it might give you a new appreciation for the genre.
This volume opens with “Devil His Dues” which features Derrick LeFevre on vocals. Derrick was Lillian Axe’s singer after Ron Taylor. For some reason this song really reminded me of Winger’s “Can’t Get Enuff.” Which, I know, I know, is probably Winger’s worst single. But this song is like “Can’t Get Enuff” on steroids and it’s much, much better. I found Derrick’s vocals here to be especially interesting because when he was in Lillian Axe he sounded almost identical to Ron Taylor most of the time. But here, surprisingly, he doesn’t sound much like Ron Taylor at all. He still sounds fantastic, mind you, just different. Perhaps we’re just now finally getting to hear his “normal” voice. That said, Lillian Axe should be doing everything they possibly can to get LeFevre back because the album they did after they parted ways was terrible. It was as bad as a Creed record, quite frankly.
The most noteworthy song here is also its best. It’s called “Sin” and it’s the final studio recording of the late Jani Lane of Warrant fame. I’ve always been a fan of everything Jani’s done — especially Warrant’s under-rated latter day records — and this song is as impressive as anything he ever released. Sometimes I find it hard to listen to, however, because the lyrics, which Jani had a hand in, would seem to be about a battle with addiction, which is ultimately what killed him. And his vocals here are rather haunting and would be even if Jani was still with us. The eerie chorus: “Let me be the man I could’ve been / the one you first breathed your life into / deliver me, deliver me from my sins.”
David Cagle, who’ll be L ‘N’ J’s only lead vocalist from now on, sings “The Greatest,” which is easily one of the album’s best songs, his vocals like a cross between House of Lords’ James Christian and Kip Winger. “Love thy neighbor, most of all love your God,” he sings, reminding us that L ‘N’ J is still a Christian metal band at its core. But many of the group’s songs aren’t religious, or aren’t so obvious, so don’t let that keep you away.
One of this volume’s greatest songs is also its worst. It’s called “Cupid’s Gonna Bleed” and it was co-written by Gunnar Nelson, who performs the lead vocals. You see, someone — I don’t think it’s Gunnar — sings this bloody awful part at the beginning and end that goes “I’m sick of eating crow, I’m sick of eating crow, all I really know is I’m sick of eating crow.” And that part is terrible. It sounds half-slurred, like a drunk guy making fun of metal. And it’s such a sin because the rest of the song is fantastic. Gunnar sounds great, the melody is ripe — it would probably be my favorite song on the album without the “sick of eating crow” parts and I hope the band will someday re-release it without those parts.
Other highlights include the touching ballad “Under Construction” with Eric Dover from Slash’s Snakepit on vocals, the ode to getting saved “Been There Done That” featuring Danger Danger’s Ted Poley on vocals, and the ode to hot women with “Daddy Long Legs” featuring Louis St. August of Mass on vocals.
These days it seems like every heavy metal band that ever existed has re-formed. Dozens of bands that broke up or otherwise went into hiding during the grunge era have finally reunited now that flannel and whining have grown as out-dated as spandex and Aqua Net. With all of these bands on top of the bands who never went away there’s certainly no shortage of metal. In fact, the market is getting flooded, which is one of the things that killed the scene to begin with. While most of these bands are supporting themselves by touring, plenty of them are also putting out new music. And that’s great — I hate it when bands do tour after tour, riding high on nostalgia, and don’t release new music. In fact, I generally avoid seeing bands who no longer put out new material. BUT a lot of these bands are, sadly, putting out really bad albums. Often they try too hard to sound like it’s still 1989. (There’s nothing more embarrassing — or creepy — than when 50 year old guys start writing songs about teenage girls again.) Sometimes they go the opposite route and try to sound too modern. (It’s bad enough there are so many new bands trying to sound like Nickelback — we don’t need old bands doing that.) Suffice to say there are a lot of shitty new albums out there. But Liberty ‘N’ Justice’s albums never disappoint. It’s probably to their benefit that they weren’t around in 1988 and never had any big hits because that means they’re not trying to rewrite old hits. Their songs always sound fresh and original. Admittedly, they do sound more old school than modern, but it doesn’t feel forced or out-dated either. They’re just a great band making superb albums. It’s ironic that so many of the guys who’ve sang on their tracks are releasing such terrible music in their own bands.