American melodic metallers Axis (NOT to be confused with German hard rock band Axxis nor the British NWOBHM band by the same name) came to life in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1981 when drummer Brian Reidinger left high school and decided to start a new professional band. Reidinger´s influences where bands like The Sweet, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen among others. First he recruited his friend and locally well-known vocalist/guitarist Doug Bjerke. These two guys would remain the only constant members throughout the band’s 9-year career. The first line-up (Mark I) was also made up by guitarist/vocalist Dave Hagen, lead guitarist John Martin and bass player Jeff Heath making the band a quintet. This version of the band played a more pop-oriented version of hard rock and focused mainly on cover tunes. John Martin was let go in early 1982 and it also resulted in both Hagen and Heath leaving the band shortly after.
Jeff Heath was soon replaced by longtime friend David Schoenrock while David Ullrich was recruited as the sole guitar player reducing the band to four members, replacing both Hagen and Martin. Ullrich would later use the alias “Dave Marshall” and play guitar for both Fiona and Vince Neil. With this new line-up in place (Mark II) they took on harder edged music in their cover repertoire and started writing their own songs. Some songs included on this album were written during the Mark II days (“Over the Edge”). Other songs like “The Border” and “Street Life” appeared on a local compilation release. In the Winter of 1984, Ullrich relocated from Wisconsin to California, soon Reidinger followed suit and Axis was put on hold for the first time. The friends kept in contact with each other but did not work together to create new music. Brian Reidinger moved back to Eau Claire in the summer of 1984. He soon contacted Doug Bjerke again and they started talking about a guitarist they´d heard rumours about. It was a guy called Michael Schlenker (no to be confused with the more famous Michael Schenker) who at the time was playing for a rival band called Alex Sheel. Bjerke was also back in Wisconsin and Brian contacted Michael and invited him to jam with himself and Bjerke. They agreed to continue working together and they soon found a new bass player in John Kowalkowski. The Mark III version of Axis was born.
With Schlenker and Kowalkowski onboard Axis returned to gigging the club circuit trying to establish a reputation as a vital live act. Axis honed their songwriting skills and crafted another batch of originals. The band opened for such prominent international acts as W.A.S.P., Helix, Krokus, Head East and Blue Öyster Cult. They got back to gigging in the Minneapolis/St Paul area which at the time was a hotbed for new, up and coming hard rock bands. In their local area, Axis became the house band at the Trader & Tapper which was a high profile music venue at the time. Axis continued to pen new original material but there was a huge pressure from the promoters and music venues to play songs the audience knew and wanted to hear – in other words covers. It was really hard to get gigs playing only originals. In the autumn of 1986, John Kowalkowski opted to resign from the band to finish his college degree. That was the end of Mark III version of Axis and it was back to the drawing board for Reidinger and Bjerke.
Axis threw themselves into an extensive auditioning process for a new bass player. They finally settled on David Sailor as their new bassist and the Mark IV version of the band was born. Sailor added the value of having very supportive parents who provided the band with a school bus for the band to tour in. Axis almost immediately purchased a Yamaha 4-track mobile recording unit and they recorded their first album called Fire in Their Eyes. The album contained 10 songs which the band had written during their 6 years of existence. It was pressed only in a limited number and only on cassette. Personally, I find it a bit confusing why No Remorse Records has not picked up on the option to release this album as well. Hopefully, this album will see the light of day in the future. It is so rare nowadays and the sheer quality of the band and the songs demand that it be released someday. The band sold the cassettes at their shows. Axis continued to work hard and play a plethora of shows. Creativity was flowing and in 1988 Axis had written songs for a new album. They had earned some money through relentless touring and performing so they booked studio time in Hartwood Studios outside Eau Claire. The result is this album called No Man´s Land. It was also only released on cassette. The album was made up of several new tracks (“Bringin´Me Down”, “Desire” and “No Man´s Land”) blended with some self-considered “classics” (“Over the Edge”, “A Piece of the Action”, “Road to Somewhere”) that were included on Fire in Their Eyes as well. Axis spent the rest of the 1980´s touring intensively and clocked in at 200 shows a year. Eventually, that led to a burnout, fatigue and immense frustration. In the spring of 1990, both Bjerke and Reidinger had enough and called it quits.
The band was split up for only three months. Axis received lucrative offers to play festivals and select gigs and in the autumn of 1990 Bjerke and Reidinger decided to do a couple of more shows. David Sailor had moved on and was unavailable and the Mark V version of Axis was born. Reidinger recruited his close friend Eric Fratzke (ex-Happy Apple, ex-Zebulon Pike, ex-The Gang Font) for bass duties. The band played their final show at Miller Maritime Days on the shores of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee, Michigan. When they returned to Eau Claire both Bjerke and Reidinger agreed to push on and not quit Axis. Together with new recruit Jerry Smith (vocalist/lyricist) they recorded a collection of songs meant as a follow-up to No Man´s Land. Unfortunately, all of these recordings still remain unreleased. Axis was finally laid to rest….until the small Greek label No Remorse Records contacted Brian Reidinger and struck a deal to reissue No Man´s Land on CD for the very first time. Living in Europe with no internet and hardly any magazines covering smaller bands in the US it is not hard to understand why I missed out on Axis in the 1980´s. I took the chance and grabbed a copy of this CD after a couple of listens on Youtube. Here are my thoughts on Axis and No Man´s Land.
Track by track comments.
No Man´s Land kicks off with “The King” which is a mid-tempo rocker with some slight progressive elements and a cool vibe blended with a hooky chorus. Doug Bjerke shouts “Long live the king” in a convincing way and the lyrics seem to be about the immortality of an artist´s songs and the interaction with the crowd at a show. We are then treated with “Line of Duty” which gets off the ground with a funky bass riff that dominates and carries the song all through and through. Lyric wise it´s about being free and not use drugs, (my personal interpretation). After this moody rocker, it is time for one of my faves on this CD! “Bringin´ Me Down” steps things up one notch and starts with a great melodic riff from Schlenker before Sailor kicks in with a heavy bassline and Reidinger pounds it out on the drums. A very heavy, yet melodic mid-tempo rock song. Schlenker´s performance is top notch (including a great guitar solo) and this is a song I will play many times more. My heads start moving without my consent – irritating. The lyrics deal with the difficult situation of being in a one-sided love affair. Excellent stuff! We continue with the slow rocker “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”, a song title that immediately makes me think of the great US metal band, Keel. This song contains beautiful guitar work again from Schlenker and a nice vocal melody running throughout the song. A more melodic approach on this track with lyrics aiming at how uncertain the future is. It adds variation to the mix with an almost AOR feel in some parts. We are then treated with a “semi-ballad” and one of the highlights with the title track which is a monster that could have been written by the mighty Queensryche. The progressive side of Axis gets space to spread it´s wings fully and it is a song that changes tempo and mood from soft to heavy a couple of times. A great chorus makes this epic song the top of my list. Bjerke pushes his vocal chords to the brink of implosion coupled with a very emotional vocal performance on the “softer” parts of the song. The lyrical theme continues on from the previous song where the guys see us on the wrong path for long time survival on this planet. “Bewilderness” starts with an acoustic intro that gives the impression you are in for a ballad but the song kicks off and evolves into a melodic, mid-tempo rocker with a strong melody. Another great effort and the Queensryche vibes are clearly present once again. The lyrics bring up the subject of long lost love.
We have now been through almost half of the album and the second half starts with the up-tempo rocker “Top of the Hill”. It is a song with a nice chorus and a memorable hook and I realise I must have stumbled upon one of those hidden treasures kept deep in the vaults somewhere in the US. The music and the songs remind me a bit of another great US band previously reviewed by me for the Decibel Geek site, a band called Hammeron. The song is about setting your sights on the top of the hill and reaching it your own way. Ok, up next is “Desire”, a song about going for your own personal goals, which begins with a mighty scream from Bjerke. It follows suit in style with the rest of the songs but the strong chorus is missing on this up-tempo rocker. The next song “The Road to Somewhere” starts with a bluesy groove (bass and drums) and the guitar enters with a fitting bluesy riff. Bjerke´s vocals on the chorus remind me extensively of a young Geoff Tate. It is a heavy, nicely crafted, blues-drenched, mid-tempo rocker with a thunderous chorus backed by a huge gang type of backing vocal. The song’s theme seems to be about searching your way forward in life and taking it day by day as it comes. “A Piece of the Action” kicks off with a bombastic drum beat and a really heavy metal riff from Schlenker. My head starts moving back and forth again to the almost Judas Priest-like guitar riffs. The heavy and melodic verses are the song’s highlight in a song about standing your ground and keeping a watch out for yourself because everybody wants a piece of the action. We are then treated with “Faith” which is the album’s second longest song and another mid-tempo rocker with a slight progressive beat. The progressive influences flow through the whole song and Axis take a little bit of a different approach to this song which makes it quite exciting. The lyrics tell a beautiful tale on how love can evolve into life-long friendship built on faith. We are back in the traditional territory with “Right Combination” which is an up-tempo rock song with a driving riff carrying the song forward. A good rock song but not the strongest card in this deck. The lyrics tell the tale about a situation when you hit the right combination and love grows strong. Time to end the album on the high note with “Over the Edge” which features a blistering guitar performance by Michael Schlenker and some stellar vocals from Doug Bjerke. The lyrics are about going “over the edge” when your life is in a spin and you don´t know what is up and what is down. This mid-tempo monster has got a catchy hook and a great, infectious chorus that is highly contagious. Beware as it might stick in your head for a long time.
In a very strong offering, my top picks would be “Bringin´Me Down”, “No Man´s Land”, “Bewilderness” and “Over the Edge”.
No Man´s Land is somewhat of a lost gem or treasure that is really surprising and nice to uncover. You have a ton of memorable riffs, a bunch of musicians that really know how to write a great metal song and also have the ability to write intelligent and thoughtful lyrics. Together it´s a lethal combination! These guys know how to play and it is a bit hard to understand why all the labels at the time passed on them. This is not sleazy hair metal but more in the vein of melodic metal with slight progressive influences. I can think of bands such as Queensryche, Lethal, Keel, Bastille, Heir Apparent and Leatherwolf. The production is of course of 80´s decent and the sound quality does not live up to today’s standards but that is not expected with an archive release like this. The guys at No Remorse Records in Greece have a well-developed nose and can smell the scent of a hidden treasure from afar, that´s for certain. Vocalist Doug Bjerke has a great vocal range and can hit the high notes better than most frontmen. The vocals are clean and razor sharp and in parts remind of Geoff Tate of Queensryche fame.
The CD comes beautifully packaged with original artwork, lyrics of all songs reprinted and extensive liner notes from drummer Brian B. Reidinger. There is even info on what the different members are doing today so you couldn´t have asked for more. Great work – this is what a reissue should look like! An extra point for using the original artwork! I have to say this is a great album, better than most archive releases out there and if you are into some of the bands mentioned in this review it will prove well worth checking out. I would rate it to a full 8 geeks out of 10. I really hope there are plans to dig deeper in the archives and pull out Fire in Their Eyes as well as the latest material recorded in the early 1990´s. If it is anywhere as good as No Man´s Land it should be a criminal act hiding it from the public. My guess is that Axis is a rare and obscure band even in their native US. Do yourselves a favor and check them out!