Album Review: John 5 - "Careful With That Axe"

By and large, anyone who has listened to a guitar album knows that there’s a certain acceptance bound into the very act of listening; that the ‘songs’ on the record will not be so much songs in the traditional sense, but rather long stretches of creative fretwork and mixing that makes something resembling a high-class tech demonstration crossed with an introspective poetry reading.

Into that ethos we see another solo entry from John 5, the representative guitarist for Rob Zombie and erstwhile axe man for Marilyn Manson. His new record “Careful With That Axe” endeavors to do what few solo guitar records have done before – break the cycle of masturbatory guitar exhibition in favor of giving fans something they can glom on to.

Let’s get right to it – “Careful With That Axe” is a smashing success in terms of crafting an aura and a sound that avoids the pitfalls of so many other virtuoso records. Yes, his solos (solos within the solos, more precisely,) are of high fidelity and creative caliber. Yet, it’s not his flair that draws a listener into the package so much as it the meat on the bone. This record flings songs that sound like actual songs, which sounds like a small thing but is an exceptionally difficult feat in a medium with no words or choruses. The moment to moment payoff of real opener “This is My Rifle” tells the story in no uncertain terms – “Careful With That Axe” will possess myriad impressive guitar theatrics, but it will be paced by the proper cadence and pounding rhythms that John 5 lays down for everything else to stand on. It’s an ambitious statement given the virtuoso records from others we’ve heard before, but this new effort lives up to the billing with aplomb.

Furthermore, John 5 keeps the pace moving by making sure that his record doesn’t drag a point too far. There are nine songs proper on this record, and they collectively weigh in around twenty-nine or thirty minutes total, which means, you can do the math, he’s slamming through pieces in three minutes and change. The effect on the album’s pacing is immediate – sure, he could have dragged out the space-y, funky bass idea of “Villisca” for another couple minutes, but why? The song is a complete idea as it is, equipped with intriguing melody and a trick that sounds just a little like Buckethead-style use of a kill switch. (Sidebar: the album occasionally lets other instruments shine, which is a great touch.) Each track gives you its central idea, imprints the point on your ear drum and them moves on from strength to strength before your mind can tire of any single theme. Nevermind the fact that John 5 uses layering and open space in his riffs to create a palpable sense of crescendo and drama. The re-listenability here (word I’m pretty sure I just made up,) is staggering.

For that matter, John 5 gives his songs a theme; intentional or not, they all sound like something. A battle, an alien invasion, a tango, a sitcom theme song, a party, the aftermath of a Charlie Daniels song, whatever. Heck, “Flight of the Vulcan Kelly” is a not so subtle play on the ubiquitous “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with an appropriately buzzy guitar tone to match. Some of the hints are more subtle but still present, as it’s not entirely a stretch to suggest that the country tinged “Jerry’s Breakdown” is a nod to John 5’s idol Jerry Reed.

The country aspect is going to get overlooked in metal circles, but don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap. The country roots of John 5 are somewhat well known, and his blending of those songs into the mix of “Careful With That Axe,” such as the easy going stroll of “Jiffy Jam,” lend the album a sense of comfort and belonging. They tie you into the album by giving you a pleasant melody that soothes the soul and welcomes you home just after hammering your senses flat with the chugging war and whiplash pacing of “Portrait of Sidney Sloan.”

This space could be used at great length to talk about John 5’s compelling use of chromatic phrasing and all other high-end guitar jargon, but that would be above our pay grade and isn’t really important to the album’s central thrust. These are songs, plain and perhaps not so simple, meant to function as songs and infect the listener with hooks that he or she will tap on a desk later. The virtuosity and versatility of John 5 is the subtext of the record and the decision to put melody first is a great one. “Careful With That Axe” is a guitar album, yes, but a highly enjoyable one and an easy recommendation for fans of just about anything.

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