Album Review: Harem Scarem – ‘Live At The Phoenix’

Harem Scarem are a hard rock band that have been surprisingly prolific. Forming in 1987, the band have managed to release thirteen studio albums since 1991 (that’s not counting a break up from 2008 to 2013 and a re-recorded version of one of their albums, so, if you don’t want to do the maths, that works out to fourteen studio albums in total released in just under 20 years as an active recording artist! If you’re like me and don’t actually own any of their albums, but want to catch up with them, good luck!), with their most recent being last year’s Thirteen. That these guys aren’t an instantly recognisable name in the hard rock scene to most people is probably going to be really surprising to Canadian or Japanese readers, but I think that a combination of factors have limited their exposure: firstly, the band, whose sound is very reminiscent of glam metal, happened to arrive on the international music scene JUST as glam metal was starting to get displaced by grunge in the public eye (in America, at least: as Mr. Big would be able to tell you, Japan still loved glam metal throughout the 90s!), so they didn’t really have a chance to catch on properly. Secondly, the band’s big break in Canada, the 1992 farewell television movie of both Degrassi High and Degrassi Junior High called School’s Out (through which eight of the songs from their self-titled debut made it onto the soundtrack), didn’t make a major impact outside of Canada (at the very least, the film has never been released in Region 2 and the first release of the film outside of Region 1 was in Region 4 in July 2006…over fourteen and a half years after it originally aired!), which limited their exposure mostly to a teen audience that was already starting to get caught up in the grunge explosion. Thirdly…well, the band never really had that big hit single to propel them to superstardom. While they have had singles which were popular in Canada, they haven’t actually charted outside of Canada, as far as I can tell.

Why do I say all of this? Well, mostly because I feel that Live at the Phoenix could serve as a very good case for why the band deserves to be better known. Their songs translate very well into a live environment, the band clearly still love performing their songs and (as far as I can tell, based on listening to snippets of the studio versions of their songs) they can still do them justice. All of these come together to make Live at the Phoenix a surprisingly good starting point for Harem Scarem, and it’s certainly got me interested in giving these guys a proper look into when I get the chance!

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From the very start of the album, you can really feel the energy of the gig come through. The band is clearly thrilled to be playing in their hometown (the gig was recorded on the 11th of July this year in Toronto, where the band hail from) and the audience is clearly glad to have the band there, because the audience sound great! They don’t really do any participation along with the band, sadly (they’re not Iron Maiden levels of volume, at least), but they make themselves heard in between songs and you can tell that the audience is loving the gig. The band equally put on a great show, playing every song with energy and enthusiasm and their interactions with the audience show a band just loving being on stage. A few moments even got a slight chuckle out of me, with my personal favourite being at the end of ‘Slowly Slipping Away’, when Harry Hess provides a brief moment of (probably unintentional) humor by acknowledging a delay leading into the next track (‘Troubled Times’) caused by lead guitarist Pete Lesperance needing some time to tune up through saying “We just edit this shit out, don’t worry” (I always find this sort of thing gets a chuckle out of me, as it gives the whole thing a more realistic feel to it than a flawless sounding live album does). These guys clearly feel at home on the stage, and it bleeds through even if you only have the live album to judge from.

The track selection, as always, is going to be a point of debate among fans, as some will just want the big hits and some will want lesser known tracks. I can’t say how well they strike that balance, but I will say that, as an outsider to the band, I found the breakdown of the setlist pointed towards a very noticeable focus on the band’s first two records and the most recent one, which seems like an odd choice to me as an outsider to the band’s music because it means that there’s not a lot of the rest of the band’s material which gets represented. This was a deliberate choice from the sound of things, admittedly, but it does limit the appeal of the show down to those fans who are already big fans of those three records as opposed to the more general Harem Scarem fan who might want a more balanced setlist.

I took the time to briefly listen to snippets from studio versions of the tracks to compare them to their live counterparts on Live at the Phoenix and, honestly, the only major change I could pick up is that everyone’s voices are a bit deeper and rougher than they were on the older records (which is a fairly natural thing anyway, so I wasn’t too surprised by this). The tracks do have a slightly different environment on the live record, lacking some of the more typical features that one would expect of a production job suited for glam metal and not having quite as many backing vocals, but they pretty much survive the transition to a live environment without any major issues of note, so huge credit to Harem Scarem for that! They also play the tracks live without any major mistakes that I could pick up on, so, again, huge credit to Harem Scarem for that!

Ultimately, as someone new to Harem Scarem, I found Live at the Phoenix to be a genuinely great listen! The band pull off their tracks well, the audience clearly is enjoying the show and, while the setlist does limit the album’s appeal, it does show that Harem Scarem have at least put out a minimum of three great records. It’s hard to recommend this to anyone who isn’t familiar with Harem Scarem already, but, if you are or just want a quick starting point with them, then this is definitely worth the purchase!

Live at the Phoenix will be released on the 4th of December by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.