by Don Higgins
– Columnist —
Thrill of a Lifetime was King Kobra’s second album in two years. Unfortunately, it caused more head scratching than head banging. In the early 1980’s drummer, Carmine Appice formed the Hard Rock band King Kobra. He, along with four other talented musicians released their first album in 1985 titled Ready to Strike. This was a solid offering similar in style to other Hard Rock/Metal bands of the time such as Y&T and Whitesnake. Although the album had some decent songs and quality musicianship, it didn’t set the Billboard charts on fire. One year later the band released their sophomore album Thrill of a Lifetime and it was clear they were trying to change that.
The problem was that the band changed too much. The sound and style are so different from the first half of the album that it sounds like an entirely different band altogether. This certainly alienated many fans of the first album who may have even given up on this album before reaching the few songs that do sound reminiscent of the first. All of the members who played on Ready to Strike are back for the second album but there is an obvious addition of a new member: Duane Hitchings on keyboard. Where Carmine Appice’s drums and the dual guitars of David Michael-Phillips and Mick Sweda shined brightly on the first album, the keyboards are the dominant instrument on much of the second release. Luckily the amazing vocals of Mark Free can be heard on both albums. This was the last album he recorded with King Kobra; however, the band found another strong vocalist in Paul Shortino (Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot). Mark Free has gone on to record some fine material with Signal and Unruly Child.
Thrill of a Lifetime actually contains a fair number of decent songs when considered individually. However, the album is terribly inconsistent on styles considering the number of overall songs. So what does the album sound like? Well, if you remember the song “Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)” from the movie Iron Eagle (and chances are, you don’t) then that’s a good indication of where most of this album resides style wise. The first six songs are not Hard Rock or Metal at all. They fall more comfortably in the Melodic Rock category. This doesn’t mean they are bad, it’s just much different than what was offered on the band’s first album. The sound is more like Survivor or Starship than Saxon or the Scorpions. And if their fans of the first album weren’t confused enough, the band adds a Rap/Rock song on track seven. By this time loyal fans may just have taken their record or tape and thrown it against the wall or given it to their dog to use as a chew toy. This would have been unfortunate because tracks eight through ten are all great and would have fit perfectly on the first album. Finally, to add even more confusion and variety to the mix, some copies of the album contained a bonus eleventh track by their record label mates The Jon Butcher Axis called “This Raging Fire” which also appeared on the Iron Eagle sound track. A strange choice indeed.
The album starts off with the appropriately titled “Second Time Around.” The change in direction is obvious right off the bat with the Melodic Rock tone and abundant use of keyboards. Once you get past the change in style, this is actually a very good song. It’s got an infectious melody and a strong vocal performance by Mark Free. This could have been a big hit for a different artist or if it had been marketed properly. The second song is “Dream On”. This is not a remake of the classic Aerosmith song. This song was written by Russ Ballard who wrote a number of hit songs for bands like Argent, Kiss, Rainbow, Ace Frehley, Three Dog Night and America. It’s a solid Pop-rock song as you might imagine. The dual guitars are a nice addition to this song. Track three, “Feel the Heat” continues along the AOR path with the keyboards right up front. This song is more of a ballad and sounds like it was custom made for a 1980’s movie soundtrack. This is yet another song that could have been a commercial success depending on circumstances. Next, comes the title track which follows along the path that’s been established for this album. It sounds like something that could have been a hit for Richard Marx. The song contains strong musicianship and even a decent guitar solo. It’s a pretty good song, but again, just very different from the first album.
The middle of the album stays the same stylistically but the next few songs are weaker than the opening tracks. “Only the Strong Will Survive” is a decent pop song but a track with this name should rock harder. Marks’ vocals stand out but the electronic drums are distracting. Next up is “Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)” which was on the Iron Eagle movie soundtrack. The song is so formulaic and lackluster that even among the melodic, pop rock songs on the album, it gets lost. After six tracks of heavy keyboards, catchy, radio-friendly, melodic rock songs, fans of King Kobra’s first album are sure to be shaking their heads. Then track seven appears and their heads just might rotate 360 degrees, like Linda Blair. As if they didn’t feel abandoned enough by this talented, “hard rock/metal” band, King Kobra decides to switch gears even further by delivering a rap song. “Home Street Home” may have seemed like a good idea in 1986, it’s hard to say. Other rock bands dabbled with Rap such as Anthrax (theirs worked), Danger Danger (theirs just seemed to be silly but fun) and to a lesser extent, even Rush on “Roll the Bones.” “Home Street Home” just sticks out so much that you get the feeling that the band was wandering around lost trying to find themselves. Now, in 2017, the song sticks out like a sore thumb and makes the entire album feel even more dated than it already does, especially with the video game sound effects. To Mark’s credit, he sounds more like Melle Mel than Vanilla Ice which is good. Perhaps the most unusual thing about the song is that it features the most aggressive guitar playing up to this point on the album, particularly the soloing at the end.
It’s easy to imagine that a lot of fans may have given up on this second release by this point. After the obvious change in direction of the band and then the surprising rap song, fans may have understandably just hit the eject button and that would have been too bad. Once again the album does a 180-degree turn and suddenly the great, hard rocking King Kobra from the first album decides to show up. Tracks eight through ten would have fit in perfectly on Ready to Strike. All three songs are great and make you wonder how the album would have fared if the entire album sounded like this. The first of the three is “Overnight Sensation”. From the first note, you can tell this song is going to be different than all seven previous ones. It starts out with the guitar and drums in an almost ominous fashion, and then Mark comes in with a guttural scream. Then it morphs into a high energy rocker. No keyboards to be found. This song showcases everything good about King Kobra. It has a catchy melody, strong lead and harmony vocals, tight musicianship and great guitar soloing. If this song had been released as a single, then King Kobra themselves may have become overnight sensations. Track 9 builds from the previous song and revs ups the tempo even more. The chorus states “Raise your hands to rock! Rock! Rock! Rock!” On this track, the band certainly follows this motto with great success. This anthem should have been as familiar to the Rock and Roll community as “Rock and Roll all Nite” by Kiss or “I Wanna Rock” by Twisted Sister. The Hard Rock sounds continue on track ten. It’s not quite as high tempo but it has a cool shuffle beat and has the most interesting drumming on the album. It’s another sing along anthem “We’re the party animals, riding through the night…” The instrumental section at the end featuring the guitars, drums and even a harmonica solo makes this a really awesome song. It’s amazing how different the last three songs are from the rest of the album and are clear stand outs.
The bottom line is that this second album is very inconsistent yet features a number of really good songs. If you like melodic AOR Rock then the first half will make you happy. The songs are well constructed and well produced. If you like hard rock and are a fan of the first King Kobra album then you will definitely like the back end of the album. The heavy keyboards and electronic drums do make the album sound dated though. No doubt that it was recorded in the late 80s. And that’s okay. If you are a fan of the first album and are listening to this one for the first time you just have to be patient. You will most definitely have to listen to the album all the way through at least a couple of times before you can really appreciate it. You’ll still probably skip track seven but then you’ll probably enjoy the other tracks once the ‘surprise’ factor has worn off. This is an unusual yet decent offering from a talented, underrated band.
Genre: AOR, Glam Metal, Heavy Metal
Carmine Appice – drums
Mark Free – vocals
David Michael-Philips – guitar
Mick Sweda – guitar
Johnny Rod – bass
Duane Hitchings – keyboards
01. Second Time Around
02. Dream On
03. Feel the Heat
04. Thrill of a Lifetime
05. Only the Strong Will Survive
06. Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)
07. Home Street Home
08. Overnight Sensation
09. Raise Your Hands to Rock
10. Party Animal
Label: Rock Candy Records, Capitol Records
Hardrock Haven rating: (8.5 / 10)