Album Review: Briar tell us of the “Hard Times”!

Briar Front CoverClassic Cult NWOBHM act Briar is to open it´s archive and for the first time ever release their 1992 album Hard Times on CD with no less than six bonus tracks! I might be a little bit biassed because this is one of my favourite bands and I really enjoyed their previous albums. This reissue is mainly available due to the work of Briar drummer Dean Cook in cooperation with the German labels Battle Cry Records and Mighty Monster Records. Hard Times, originally recorded in 1992, was the last recording Briar ever did as a band before disbanding permanently in 1993.

In 1990, Briar had been dropped by major label CBS/Sony. They released a 7″ single on their own in 1989 but soon big changes were about to happen. Briar completely revamped their line-up. They added Kevin Billington (ex-Shadowlands, ex-China White) as their new frontman and lead vocalist but, as if that wasn´t enough, they also added Jez Prosser as a permanent keyboard player. This line-up, the Mark IV version of the band, entered the studio and recorded the Cleveland House Demo from which sessions three of the bonus tracks on this album are taken. The band toured extensively and many of the shows were recorded. The other three bonus tracks are taken from these live recordings. However, this version of the band was not to last long and both guitarists left the band, Dave Fletcher and Darren Underwood, along with frontman Kevin Billington. The last line-up, Mark V, was born when Kevin Griffiths took over lead vocal duties again and new guitarist Mark Carleton was recruited as a replacement for Dave and Darren

The genesis of Briar:

Briar Mark 2
Briar Mark II: Rogers, Smith, Griffiths, Underwood and Cook. Picture courtesy of Briar Facebook page

The origins of Briar can be traced back to Birmingham, England in 1979 when four school friends decided to have some fun and start a band. These guys were Kevin Griffiths (vocals and guitar), Dean Cook (drums), Dean Rogers (guitar) and David Tattum (bass). The guys were all big fans of Motörhead at the time.  From the beginning, the band had names like Lucifer, Ark & Emerald before settling on Briar and the Mark I version of the band had been established. The band took off for real when they met manager to be, George Bond, at a gig at the Solihull YMCA where Bond was the vocalist for a band called Streetcruiser. Dean and Kevin were certain they had found the right man for the task of managing Briar. It was not long before Dave Tattum left the band and the guys found a new bass player in John Smith and the Mark II version of the band came about. Briar started playing gigs all over The Midlands and supported bands like Cryer, Bandanna, Shy and Trouble.

In 1982, there were big personnel changes within the band when first guitar slinger Darren Underwood and then Dave Fletcher were brought in for the departing Dean Rogers. John Smith opted to leave the band as well and Kevin Griffiths took over the bass, switching from guitar, as well as handling the lead vocals. The classic line-up, the Mark III version of the band, was now in place. This roster would prove to be the most successful and long withstanding version of the band. Later that year Briar would release their first record when they released the 7″, “Rainbow in the Skies/Crying in the Rain“, on the Worcester indie label Happy Face Records owned by producer/writer Muff Murfin. This single was very well received by media and fans alike. Classic metal mag. Kerrang! even predicted Briar was on their way to stardom. A huge step forward was taken when top radio 1 DJ Peter Powell gave the band a BBC radio session and a TV appearance on The Oxford Roadshow. The TV appearance was a huge success and now they played venues like The Marquee and Dingwalls, among others. Briar also won a competition for Hottest Band in Town in their hometown of Birmingham and soon they also inked a deal with FM records subsidiary Heavy Metal Records.

The debut album:

Briar with Iron maiden
Briar with Bruce Dickinson. Picture courtesy of Briar Facebook page

The classic debut album, Too Young, was released in 1985 and was filled with top notch British metal but with a twist. The power chords and the pop-style of choruses made them stand out from the rest of the pack and made Briar real contenders for the crown of the commercial side of NWOBHM along with bands like Def Leppard, Shy, Tobruk and Heavy Pettin´. The album was recorded in UB40´s DEP Studio and received rave reviews from the united UK rock press. Briar went back to touring and gigging to support the album and played gigs with classic NWOBHM bands like the Tygers of Pan Tang, Statetrooper and Angel Witch. The band continued on and released their sophomore effort already in 1986 called Take on the World (released on CD by Battle Cry Records in 2012). This led to a new record deal with PRT Records and they soon found themselves recording the Bon Jovi penned song “Edge of a Broken Heart” which was released as a single in 1987. The video for the song featured great artists like Bruce Dickinson, Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy. This single went to number 1 in the national rock charts and edged songs by Def Leppard and Whitesnake at the time. In the national singles chart, it peaked around place 50.

Briar earned the support slot for Stryper when they played The Hammersmith Odeon. They were now playing to full houses and in 1988 a deal was struck with CBS/Columbia Records.

Major label deal and demise:

Briar Mark 1
Briar Mark I:  Tattum, Rogers, Cook and Griffiths. Picture courtesy of Briar Facebook page

Briar were very prolific in their songwriting at the time and demoed many originals at their rehearsal studio, recording the Reach Out demo. Soon they entered the studio and recorded an album full of covers and four originals that would be released in the latter part of 1988 as Crown of ThornsThe single “Frankie” was released and received plenty of rotation on MTV. The band were eager to enter the studio once more to record all those demos they had recorded. However, the album did not sell as well as expected and Briar started to get disillusioned with things. The Reach Out demos were shelved and never released. Many thought a major label re-release of the Take on the World album would have been a huge success but that was not to be either. Briar opted for releasing a  7″ single from the Reach Out sessions on George Bond´s own Shotgun Charlie label. Things went quickly downhill for this classic version of the band. The band´s last major label release was the 7″ single “One Monkey” which was released by A&M records in 1990. It was time for a change…and for the hard times to begin.

So what does Hard Times sound like. Let´s just examine it a little closer for a while…

Hard Times album:

Kev Griffiths
Front man Kevin Griffiths in a classic pose. Picture courtesy of Briar Facebook page

The original Hard Times album contained eight songs and was recorded way back in 1992. At the time, Briar manager and producer George Bond had built a studio for the band to record in and this is where Hard Times came to life. The album kicks off with one of the highlights and the title track. This is a mid-tempo rocker that reminds me heavily of melodic rock/AOR firmly rooted in the 1980´s. The style is close to fellow British countrymen FM and Tobruk. This is a finely crafted song with a catchy chorus and an astounding guitar performance by Mark Carleton including a melodic guitar solo part. It gets my attention right away and the song is hard to get out of your head. “Breaking Away” starts with a nice keyboard riff and sees Kevin Griffiths put on a great vocal performance. This is also definitely one of the stronger cuts of the album and this might well have been a potential first single. The song has a strong commercial potential and well suited for mainstream radio. The problem was only that it came out three years too late….and by 1992 times were hard for this kind of melodic hard rock. The song is like many other mid-tempo rockers with a melodic and catchy chorus with a huge hook. Up next is the album´s ballad called “Chance in a Million” and the FM vibes reach their maximum height. A heartfelt ballad with a massive choir, it earns it place on the album and adds variation to the mix.

The fourth song on the album is called “All She Wants”, another great slab of melodic hard rock with a couple of nice licks from Carleton and plenty of keyboards from Prosser. Even though not as strong as the first two songs, this is a really nice and catchy mid-tempo rocker. We move on to “I Know You´re Lyin´” which kicks off with a keyboard intro before the rest of the band join. This is the fastest song on the album. There is still plenty of keyboards that dominate the sound and Dean Cook really pounds it out on the drums, providing a steady beat. A fast and catchy rocker with a memorable chorus. Mark Carleton shows he knows his craft with a fast and cool guitar solo. We move on with “Burnin’ Down” which has these “Def Leppard – vibes” all over it and when Kevin Griffiths sings I could swear that it is Joe Elliot, which of course it isn´t, but it says a lot about the quality of the song. The performance from the band is top notch and all you can do is surrender….there is sheer quality written all over it.  Up next is “To My Door” which is another mid-tempo rocker with a chorus I find myself singing along to without thinking about it. There is, yet again, plenty of keyboards on this song which is completely in the vein of 80´s British AOR. The album ends with the punky “My Generation” and you can hear that the band has been listening to Ramones or Motörhead but the song is still delivered in the shape of a melodic hard rock song.

Hard Times is a feast in high quality melodic hard rock and although it represents a little bit of a deviation from previous efforts by Briar, the talent these guys possess cannot be denied. This kind of effort was of course completely wrong when it came out in 1992 – it was truly the Hard Times for melodic hard rock. Nirvana had just released their epic Nevermind which changed the course of the entire music industry. This kind of melodic hard rock/AOR with an 80´s feel had been thrown out the window and committed to the historical wasteland. Of course, Briar did not get a new record deal and they wouldn´t have regardless of how talented or how good this album was. The timing was to say the least, wrong. Therefore, it´s great that German labels Battle Cry Records and Mighty Monster Records picked it up from the shelves, dusted it off and decided to release it almost 25 years after the recording. My top picks from the album would certainly be “Hard Times”, “Breaking Away” and “Burnin’ Down”. Still, there is not a bad song on this album and it´s definitely well worth checking out if you are not familiar with Briar or this album.  You will not regret it!

Mark IV
Briar ca 1992 with Billington, Cook, Griffiths, Prosser and Carleton

Bonus features:

There are no less than six bonus tracks on the album. Three of the songs were take off the Cleveland House Demo which is the only studio recording that features lead vocalist Kevin Billington. Kevin has a completely different vocal style compared to Kevin Griffiths and has a smoother, more polished and less raw voice. Track number nine on the album (beware that the tracklist on the back of the album is wrong) is “Take the Money and Run”. It is a really strong mid-tempo rocker with a heavy AOR vibe.  The sound quality is excellent and well up to par with Hard Times. With this song, you also get the classic guitar duo Dave Fletcher and Darren Underwood ripping it out on guitar. “Take the Money and Run” is a hook-laden song with a nice keyboard riff on the chorus. A really strong effort that I am glad they decided to include on this release. We move on with a slow rocker called “Let it Fade” that would have fit nicely on Def Leppard´s Hysteria and I involuntarily start banging my head listening to this song. It features a strong performance by Underwood/Fletcher on guitar and a great vocal performance from Billington. Another song with a great commercial potential and a strong proof of the band’s immense talent. The guitar parts take on a larger place in the overall sound compared to Hard Times which I think is a positive thing.  We move on with the last song from the Cleveland House Demo called “Mona Lisa”. It is another soft rock song with a great melodic feel running throughout the song. Although not reaching the heights of the two previous songs it is still a nice, feel-good rocker.

Briar today
3 Briar guys reunited: Dave Fletcher, Kevin Griffiths and Dean Cook today. Picture courtesy of Briar Facebook page

The last three songs are live songs recorded at Birmingham Irish Centre and Cardiff Bogiez. It starts off with, in my mind, the weakest song on the entire CD. “Rip it Down” is an ordinary mid-tempo song recorded live in Cardiff in 1992. It´s not bad, just nothing spectacular, which I have become spoiled with. Better move on to one of the strongest songs on the entire CD. I am talking about “To the Moon”. It is a song with an infectious hook and a melody to kill for. The only flaw is the raw live sound and it makes me wonder if the band have ever demoed this song? Time to pull it out of the hat if that is the case.  If they have recorded it as a demo I would love to hear that demo! The chorus is great and extremely well crafted and it makes you yearn for more! This song (and the last one) were recorded at Birmingham Irish Centre in 1990. We close this CD with “Love Comes Down” and we are again treated with a real gem. A great hook and a fantastic chorus. It makes me think of what this would have sounded like if Briar would have had the chance to track these songs in a professional studio. Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question.

Summary 

I will admit it at first, Briar has been one of my favourite bands since I purchased Crown of Thorns sometime in the mid-1990´s. I did not catch them while they were still active which is a pity. With only one major label album that was out on CD only in Japan it´s easy to understand why they went below my radar at the time. Still, I must admit this will probably be the strongest archive release of the year and one of the top album releases of the year already in January. I have been trying to locate a flaw on this CD and, I admit, the guitar could have been pushed forward in the mix of Hard Times where the keyboard dominates a little bit too much at times. One of the live songs is just average but the rest of the material is nothing short of brilliant. There is no way for me to give this album a lower grade than 9 out of 10 geeks and that is a grade I do not use too often. To be extremely picky it would have been better to use the demo version of the live songs (if they exist that is).

The CD comes with a tasteful re-design of the awful original cover and liner notes from drummer Dean Cook. You also get an 8-page booklet with the lyrics to the Hard Times songs. Thumbs up to the guys at Battle Cry Records and Mighty Monster Records for bringing this baby out in the light and out of the cellar. Let´s hope they continue to scavenge the archives and bring us more goodies in the times to come!

BUY “Hard Times” here! / BUY “Take on the World” here!

Briar on Facebook / Briar on the world wide web

Battle Cry Records homepage / Mighty Monster Records homepage

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