“Why would I carry you across the river,” the frog asks of the scorpion in the oft-referenced fable (which is not actually entirely Aesop’s). “You’ll just sting me.” “Why would I do that,” the scorpion responds. “We’d both die”. This parable might, in some smarting, semi-subversive fashion, describe the relationship between the Scorpions and the purists and various other self-appointed gatekeepers of ‘acceptable’ heaviness. For a good portion of this cuckolded contingent, it has become good form to dismiss (if not keel over laughing at the mere mention of) the stalwart stingers – a band without whom it’s doubtful, nevertheless, whether their own comprehensions of rock music – or lack thereof – would even exist. Why would those toads carry the Scorps across the river this time?
Sure, the totemic Teutons have taken a number of questionable if not downright odd (Eye II Eye) turns over the course of the past few decades which, despite the Scorps’ indisputable etching into the Mount Rushmore of the rock ‘n’ roll aether, have condemned the band to perpetual exile among a hard core incapable of forgiving certain admittedly regrettable transgressions (of the 11 songs on 1996’s all-new material studio album Pure Instinct, for instance, 9 were ballads…). Alas, this has also meant not a snowball’s chance in hell was given to solid twilight years efforts such as 2007’s Humanity: Hour One, even as these have often still been saturated with one or two too many throwaway winds of strange. But here’s some good news up front: Rock Believer contains only one ballad (really! OK, recorded in two versions, but still…), as well as the finest Metal drummer on the planet: Motörhead’s Mikkey Dee. What could go wrong?
Not much, really (but that’s also Rock Believer’s Achilles’ Heel…). Deprived of by-now legendary producer-engineer Greg Fidelman (Metallica, Slayer, Black Sabbath, Slipknot…) for COVID-related reasons, the Scorps hunkered down with sound engineer Hans-Martin Buff, who has serviced the band since 2010’s Sting In The Tail and is here elevated to co-producer. This was clearly a wise decision under the circumstances, as Rock Believer boasts a sound fresh enough to convince you these septuagenarians still have a ‘love drive’ more potent than a gen Z’er’s encephal[l]ic hair trigger. Meanwhile, the revised approach to songwriting (Rudolf Schenker composing music from Klaus Meine’s lyrics, apparently, and not the habitual other way around) and the inestimable presence of Sir Dee on drums (an odd combination, to say the least, but a most welcome one for the Scorpions, following the lamentable [on a human level] – or is that ‘deplorable’? – James Kottak), means that the shuffling of the deck has yielded at least some tangible results, certainly by comparison to Rock Believer’s immediate predecessors.
Rock Believer kicks off with a “Gas In The Tank” clearly premeditated to be a live opener which, despite its title and Matthias Jabs’s luminous soloing, sputters a bit going on empty with its debonair groove and almost nursery-rhyme chorus. This gives way, much more favourably, to the sprawling ‘80’s arena rock of “Roots In My Boots” (you can literally visualise a slowed-down video of spandex pyramid posing unfolding before your eyes in the song’s embrace) and, especially, the deviously playful “Knock ‘Em Dead”, which has us squarely back in circa 1984 (albeit in a supporting album track role, which still ain’t bad). That triumvirate of openers obviously designed to suggest that not only is the sting in the tail renewed with the fine wine of matured venom, but also that self-confidence is something that is earned and not pathetically ejaculated in the digital Children Of The Corn rat race, the album starts to acquire its gravitas with the eponymous title track.
A part-melancholy, part-celebratory ode to the fundamental meaning of music across generations (“Scream for me, Screamer/I’m a Rock Believer – Just like you”) the track underscores a certain resignation as to the assumption that rock ‘n’ roll can only be a young person’s game; indeed, that the joke is on those who, well, scream a lot, but don’t stick around to earn their stripes. Like the Scorps, it would appear they’re suggesting, it’s even better in old age (pro tip: correct; no greater elixir of youth was ever found, if not necessarily by the Scorps themselves). The real delight for old(er)-timers, though, will be “Shining Of Your Soul”, a reggae riff-subtended ditty that immediately – and deliberately – recalls Lovedrive’s “Is There Anybody There”, which is probably what your parents conceived you to in 1979 on a company-sponsored holiday (remember those? No, obviously, but your parents do) to pre-climate apocalypse sun-smacked Mallorca. Now this is good stuff, if smattered with a darker foreboding that suggests that in 2022, it’s Ibiza, and you go home broke, alone, and childless. And with sunstroke before even landing there.
Which is fitting, because up next is the ‘imaginatively’ titled, but crushing, “Seventh Sun” (ha, ha), probably the best track on the album, interpellating all the best Scorpions hallmarks from “The Zoo” through to “Alien Nation”, and suggesting some vague pilgrimage through the vast dunes of North Africa (or, well, Dune), recalling the glory days of “Coast To Coast” blasting from adolescent boom boxes via dubbed cassette tapes (‘google it’, kids; the joy of the kind of effort that took exposes streaming for the existential fraud that it is). “Hot And Cold” is more ice-cold shower shrinkage than the hot, feverish stuff of being tantalised, being the dull, throwaway track on the album proper which could easily have been replaced by one of the deluxe version bonus songs, but “When I Lay My Bones To Rest” is a nice, fun, up-tempo corrective in that typically inoffensive Scorpions way that still tickles your toes, if not your absolute toe-licking fancy.
First single “Peacemaker”, the first album contribution courtesy of long-time bassist Pavel Maçiwoda (putting him on a par with classic-era bassist Francis Buchholz in terms of writing credits, so there’s that), is a nice, fast, aggressive – certainly by Scorpions standards – assault on today’s warmongers (from the Keyboard to the Kremlin), and is another nice lesson in how rock is about far more than ‘screaming ‘n’ streaming’. “Call Of The Wild” is like the reverse mirror image of “Rock You Like A Hurricane”, more of a lazy Sunday morning reflection on the joys of the chase than the actual, er, ‘give her inches’ part; not bad, but not more enjoyable than its “ooh-ooh” take on Humble Pie’s (oh, and W.A.S.P’s) “ooh-ooh” take-in-turn on Ashford & Simpson’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor”. And finally, the dreaded ballad “When You Know (Where You Come From), strategically sequenced at the end of the album like another “Still Loving You”… is not so bad either (though it’s not the latter – but certainly not as bad as this), combining a statement of intent in terms of the band’s deserved achievements on the rock ‘n’ roll pecking order with a lament in the archetypal German Romantic philosophical tradition that home is not a physical place, to boot.
The deluxe version of Rock Believer is the version to be recommended, as it features a full 5 bonus tracks, at least two of which should have replaced the more flaccid moments on the album proper. Of the two faster tracks, “Shoot For Your Heart” is a bit of a half-hearted attempt at sounding half one’s age on Tinder, but the more sombre “When Tomorrow Comes” more than makes up for it with its poignant megaphone castigation of the internaught victim-credit generation, which manages to make both music and lyric (“You look so angry…”[not quite as pleasant as “Du Bist So Schmutzig” 20 years ago, with good reason]) sound remarkably current. Of the two mid-tempo tracks that follow, “Unleash The Beast” cryptically exhorts us in an effective chorus to “Unleash the Beast/In the East/Sharks are coming” (Oh, dear), while “Crossing Borders” has more melodic swagger than almost the entire album proper and should have been its second lead single. The acoustic version of “When You Know…” adds little, other than the knowledge that this was the original composition, mercifully upgraded to acceptably electrified status on the definitive release.
At the end of the fable, the scorpion stings the frog mid-river. “Why’d you do that,” asks the frog. “Now we’ll both die.” “It’s in my nature,” the scorpion replies. So, does the frog believe the Scorpions this time? Well, yes, because it’s also in the frog’s nature to do so. The biggest misstep on Rock Believer is the missed opportunity that Mikkey Dee isn’t permitted to make a noticeable difference (live, one surmises, it will be another matter) – an almost criminal compositional dereliction of duty and misuse of what by now must be the band’s greatest (salaried) asset. The medium-level sin is a problem at the level of sequencing and, as the bonus tracks reveal, song choice – but this is par for the course across numerous Scorpions albums, and not really a big deal.
But the great news is that this is an above-average Scorps album, and certainly one of the better ones in the last 30 years by Scorps standards, not least because it successfully eviscerates arrogant agism with the kind of grizzled-yet-pure, real-world emotion the Scorpions have spent their 50+ year career perfecting. If, as seems likely, this is their final outing, the Scorpions will die on their own terms (while the nameless toads float down the river). It’s in their nature.
Welcomely formulaic while refreshingly vital, Rock Believer teaches you that what separates men from boys is that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. 7/10
The Scorpions’ Rock Believer was released on February 25th, 2022, via Vertigo.