On their major-label debut, Every Six Seconds, Memphis hard-rockers Saliva split the difference between then-cresting nü-metal and the old metal, thriving on the metallic boom-bap of the convincing rap-rock single "Click, Click, Boom" and the glam-rock riffage of the hit "Your Disease." The follow-up, Back Into Your System, completely blanded out, making one wonder if it would be a short commercial ride for the group. But Survival of the Sickest is the band's best-sounding record yet. After time spent touring with arena-rock legends KISS and Aerosmith, Saliva seems to have settled on an old-fashioned, straight-up hard-rock record in the same vein, and it's a comfortable fit.
With local producer Paul Ebersold at the helm and partly recorded at Ebersold's 747 Studios here, Survival of the Sickest harnesses the basics of '70s and '80s hard rock with a ferocity that not only vaults the record past the band's previous efforts but shames most of the band's commercial rock competition.
The title track moves like crazy; it's gotta be the most danceable hard-rock record of the year. With an incredibly fluid bassline and snapping backbeats as a foundation, the band and Ebersold cram the song with old-fashioned detail -- Skynyrd-style backup vocals (from gospel-bred Memphian Jackie Johnson), a full-on arena-rock guitar solo, and even a great "Little Red Corvette" reference. It could be a hidden track on the last Electric Six album (the Detroit garage-rock pranksters who scored a disco-rock hit last year with "Danger! High Voltage"), except there's absolutely no irony with Saliva.
"Survival of the Sickest" isn't alone. A hidden track struts on a rockin' riff that could have been copped from an early-'80s Ratt record (and, yes, that's a good thing). "Razor's Edge" is a convincing slab of pure Southern rock that could point to another fruitful future direction for the band. "No Hard Feelings" boasts a blaring guitar solo. And "Two Steps Back" swaggers plenty --at least until you tune in to the reactionary, know-nothing lyrics.
And that's the catch: As much as Survival of the Sickest soars as pure sound, it threatens to take a nosedive when meaning gets added to the equation.
In an affliction common to touring musicians, Saliva seem only able to write songs about the rock-star life --the adoring crowds, the more adoring groupies, the grind, the glory, the lawyers, etc. These subjects would be fine if the band offered any real insight, but it's all pretty rote, the same rock-star cliches that began to feel like self-parody back in the '80s.
Self-parody is unavoidable in a 2004 song called "Rock & Roll Revolution," where lead-singer Josey Scott proffers the rhymed assertions "rock-and-roll is the only thing that's ever gonna save our soul" and "rock-and-roll is a revolution and it's taking hold." I'm sorry, but did Saliva not get the memo on this 50th Anniversary thing? I mean, "rock-and-roll" isn't exactly a new concept, y'know?
This is also the song where Scott lashes out at one of the record's many perceived enemies: "You hide and choke on all the issues of your time/You'll never save the world if all you do is whine." It's not clear whether Scott is talking about the post-Korn latchkey-kid rockers in his own subculture or condemning, Zell Miller-style, anyone who'd dare question their own government. (There's plenty of evidence throughout the album to support either notion.) If it's the former, Saliva contradict themselves with plenty of therapeutic metal of their own.
Indeed, what's most off-putting about Survival of the Sickest is its combination of self-aggrandizement and paranoid belligerence. Scott describes himself as "a miracle," "a superstar," the "number-one motherf***ing survivor" while attacking lawyers, "music business whores," and the "Dixie Chickens." On "Survival of the Sickest," he attacks some unnamed foe with the lines "When you fall off the horse you brought to the race/I'll be the one who's flyin' by you, kickin' shit in your face." Later, he bellows through a song called "F*** All Y'all."
Jeez. On a record where the guitars feel so good, maybe Scott should try to follow their lead. •