After humbler hard rock beginnings, Finland’s Oz metalled up and dropped an overlooked gem in 1983’s Fire In The Brain, a Scandinavian stab at NWOBHM guitar-driven OTT glory that tipped the hat to the likes of the actual Britons in Raven and Savage. Following Fire with the stellar non-album single “Turn The Cross Upside Down,” the band soldiered through the decade with two more records with diminishing returns before losing three-fifths of their line-up. And now, twenty-plus years later, Oz comes back, with original vocalist Ape De Martini (not his real name) reuniting with drummer Mark Ruffneck (also not his real name) and bassist / songwriter Jay C. Blade (not his real name either). Like the band that spawned it, Burning Leather is half new and half old, and it pretty much picks up right where the band’s glory days ended. Former Hanoi Rocks guitarist Costello Hautamaki and rhythm guitarist Markku Petander round out Oz c. 2012, replacing the long-departed tandem of Speedy Foxx and Spooky Wolf. (Those are likely not their real names.)
Opening with “Dominator,” one of the five brand new tracks on hand, Burning Leather establishes up front that these old dogs know no new tricks. Nevertheless, “Dominator” dominates, one of the album’s best moments and proof that, long smoldering or not, the fire still burns – the dueling guitar riffs are strong, and De Martini’s voice is soaring and every bit as over-the-top now as it was then. After “Dominator,” all of the album’s highlights are classics – the title track from Fire In The Brain is recreated down to its “Fire In The Brain… Take One!” intro, while “Search Lights” still rips along on its simple but powerful main riff. “Turn The Cross Upside Down” retains its edge and fury, easily amongst the band’s best numbers from long past. While none of the new material is deadweight, of the five, only “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and the almost Helix-esque rock-gladiator theme and arena-ready chorus of “Enter Stadium” rise to the occasion to match the energy of ye Oz of olde.
But even as these time-tested songs are still strong and solid, there is a catch – as is often the case in these types of releases, the new recordings don’t always benefit the older tunes. The Fire In The Brain material sounds better in its classic form – the newer mixes are hotter, brighter, punchier, more modern, but in the update, they lose some of the rawness and warmth that fit the originals so well. Of the old material redone, only the two closing tracks (originally taken from III Warning) are improved in their new incarnations. Admittedly, the reasons for re-recording are understandable – merely taking half of Fire and placing it in Burning Leather would’ve been a sonic trainwreck, as well – but I’d be remiss not to mention that one should seek out the original Fire In The Brain to hear Oz’s finest hour, even still.
All that said, Burning Leather sparks enough to catch fire, and in that, it’s a welcome return for a band many (myself included) missed out on back in the day. Though these Finns could only muster half a record’s worth of new material, that half is balanced by the quality of the older tunes, and there’s always a place in my heart for the NWOBHM-tinged sounds of yesteryear, especially when brought back from the brink by the old guys themselves. Not perfect, but certainly fun enough.