Foreigner – Complete Atlantic Studio Albums (review)

Foreigner – The Complete Atlantic Studio Albums (Atlantic / Warner Group) review

A great collection of riff-heavy rockers and soulful ballads

When a band gets played over and over on the radio, it’s easy to forget just how good they were.  Foreigner was one of the most successful hard rock bands of the late Seventies and early Eighties.  Yet, what set them apart from their contemporaries was how soulful they could be as well.  The Complete Atlantic Studio Albums chronicles the band’s rise to fame and peak years.  All their essential tracks are included in this 7-disc set.

The group’s debut single is a prime example of their duality: “Feels Like the First Time” is powered by a great guitar riff from Mick Jones.  Yet, if you really listen to the track, what makes it special is the deep, resonating vocals of Lou Gramm. For their first three albums, the band had six members, employing Al Greenwood on keyboards and Ian McDonald on rhythm guitar, flute, saxophone and keys.  The inclusion of these extra members gave the band depth, powering their ability to stretch with the expansive “Starrider” from their first album, or the cinematic instrumental “Tramontane” off Double Vision.

The band racked up an impressive list of hit singles, which always seemed to have an extra element – “Cold as Ice” is downright chilly, while “Head Games” has an underlying paranoia to it.  No other Top Ten hit rocked harder in 1978 than “Hot Blooded.”  Yet, album cuts like “The Damage is Done” off their debut, or “Spellbinder” off Double Vision show their ability to handle brooding, slow burners equally well.  Other album cuts off their early work include “Rev on the Red Line” and “Seventeen,” both from Head Games.

4 marked a turning point for the band.  McDonald and Greenwood were jettisoned and Robert “Mutt” Lange was brought in for production.  The result was Foreigner’s most successful album to date.  “Waiting For a Girl Like You” was a smash power ballad, but “Urgent,” with its surprise Junior Walker sax solo, and the anthemic “Juke Box Hero,” were also standouts.  A glance at the album credits reveals a secret weapon here – Thomas Dolby, who would later have a hit with “She Blinded Me With Science,” handled the keyboards for most of the album.

Agent Provocateur found the band unsure of where to go. “Reaction to Action” and “Tooth and Nail” were blistering hard rock.  But, cloaked in synth drums and chilly production, the tracks sounded forced.  “I Want to Know What Love Is,” complete with a Gospel choir, hit the top of the charts, yet muddled the band’s intentions, bringing hordes of new fans expecting more power ballads.  “A Love in Vain” is a good album cut from this time period.

Inside Information found the band diving head first into pop rock.  “Heart Turns to Stone” is a good rocker, but the edges have all been smoothed out.  “Say You Will” was the band’s last big hit, but “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” sounded too similar to their earlier ballads – the band was starting to repeat itself.  “Face to Face” and “Can’t Wait” are both decent album cuts here.

After that record, singer Gramm left and was replaced by Johnny Edwards.  The resulting album, Unusual Heat, was immediately forgettable.  The riffs were still there, but Edwards was a generic replacement – lacking any of the soulful delicacy that Gramm used to employ.  Gramm would reconcile with the band for 1995’s Mr. Moonlight (not included here), but their momentum was lost.

As an added treat, several discs feature bonus tracks which are quite good.  The demo for “Feels Like the First Time” and the unreleased “Take Me to Your Leader” feature the band in hungry form, before they were signed.

Because of their immense popularity as an “arena rock” band (I HATE that title), Foreigner will probably never be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.  Yet, listening to The Complete Atlantic Studio Albums, you realize how influential this band was on future generations of rockers.  This set is jam packed with great, memorable riffs.  How many Hall inductees can say that?  —Tony Peters