BOSTON: THIRD STAGE (1986)
1) Amanda; 2) We're Ready; 3) The Launch; 4) Cool The Engines; 5) My Destination; 6) A New World; 7) To Be A Man; 8) I Think I Like It; 9) Can'tcha Say / Still In Love; 10) Hollyann.
With all his perfectionism, delayism, disrespect for deadlines, and contempt for record labels, Tom Scholz ended up waiting for the most uncomfortable time to release Boston's third album — 1986, the Doom Year for Classic Rockers (just to remind you, Alice Cooper's Constrictor and Chicago 18 came out in the exact same month). Not that this should have derailed Scholz, who rarely trusted anybody's nose but his own: yes, you can sense that the Eighties are upon us from the production, but Scholz himself was responsible for the production in many ways, not the least of which was his own self-designed Rockman guitar processor.
So the bad news about Third Stage is not really its year of release, but rather the stylistic choice of its maker. As some of the old guys, such as second guitarist Barry Goudreau and bass player Fran Sheehan, eventually quit because they couldn't take the waiting any more, Scholz began sliding further and further into lyricism and sentimentality — the typical song on Third Stage is not a revved-up power-pop-rocker, but rather a heartfelt ballad, power or no power. In the place of ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and ʽDon't Look Backʼ, songs that had an aura of cheapness but could still be a great way to kick-start your day, we now have ʽAmandaʼ — a song that must have permanently ruined the life of every single Amanda on US soil. Just imagine yourself being a 12-year or so old girl called Amanda in 1986 and having to walk to school while all the radio stations for miles around blast "I'm gonna take you by surprise and make you realize, Amanda..."... oh, the horror. Hope they all hid in the basements while the heat was on.
Not only ʽAmandaʼ, though, but just about every other of these ballads is almost unbelievably lame — without the thunderous riff-blasts of his rockers, Scholz is reduced on the spot to pompous schlock where even the trademark Boston guitar tones do not redeem the material that rides on exhausted balladeering clichés all the way through. ʽMy Destinationʼ, ʽTo Be A Manʼ, ʽHollyannʼ — I am not even sure I can properly distinguish one from the other. The only good thing about them is the band's stubborn reluctance to use synthesizers or strings, which does give them a Boston-exclusive flavor. But the contrast between the primitively uninventive melodies and the immense atmospheric pomp is just too much to bear.
Unfortunately, the few rockers on the record do not redeem the situation. The album's loudest and brawniest track, ʽCool The Enginesʼ (formally the last part of a space-related trilogy), is a glam extravaganza, with Brad Delp screaming his head off and Scholz getting to play Zeus the Thunderer. Is it my fault, though, that the final result sounds stylistically similar to Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Elevatorʼ? With the same overloud, sleazy guitar assault as everything gets driven to eleven? Hilariously, even if Scholz never wanted to make a pop-metal anthem, he unintentionally produced one along the same stylistic lines as Aerosmith or Bon Jovi in their big hair days. I admit that it is catchy — but it is also rather silly, adding this «macho» edge to their cosmic music (yes, I know that «cooling the engines» is just a metaphor, but I don't even want to remember explicitly what for). At least ʽI Think I Like Itʼ manages to combine the album's lyrical sensitivity with a strong, but delicate pop-rock rhythm, and arguably comes out as the best track and the only one that I can currently imagine myself wanting to revisit.
Bottomline: tech savviness is one thing, understanding of how to juice up an already catchy hook is another thing, and a good sense of taste and measure is the little devil whose absence can mess you up even if you got the other two quite right. With Third Stage, Scholz shows us one and one thing only — namely, that he himself does not seem to quite understand what it is that used to make him so good. Yes, there are quite a few things in common between ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and ʽAmandaʼ, but there is also a wide gap. For Scholz, what really matters is what they have in common. For myself — and I hope to be speaking for quite a few other people, too — what really matters is the gap, and I hate this particular gap. Thumbs down with a vengeance, even if, on the whole, this is quite far from the worst record of 1986.