Released: July 10, 1990 by MCA Records
I haven’t done any in depth research on the subject, but near as I can tell the concept of the power ballad was first hatched right about the same time the first power chord was struck and dudes realized if they slowed the tempo they could entice chicks to slow dance and thereby increase their chances of getting lucky. Aerosmith had their first legit hit with “Dream On”, now considered a standard bearer of the form. And while they most likely had a higher purpose in mind when they wrote it, it’s not a coincidence that Led Zeppelin’s epic masterpiece “Stairway To Heaven”, with its slow acoustic build and legendary burning guitar solo, became the go-to song to close out a high school dance, with 7+ minutes of slow dance greatness. By 1985 the formula proved to be a considerable commercial success with both Foreigner (“I Want To Know What Love Is”) and REO Speedwagon (“Can’t Fight This Feeling”) hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 while Mötley Crüe was simultaneously dominating the MTV daily request chart with their “Home Sweet Home” video. For the next half-decade plus you couldn’t turn on top 40 radio without hearing about a dozen such bad boy ballads sprinkled in amongst all the Whitney Houston and Madonna. For numerous hairbands the power ballad was their one crack at mainstream recognition and many a one hit wonder was built on the strength of a soaring, over-the-top love song of the cheesiest order.
Of all the entries in that crowded field, perhaps none was more over-the-top or more soaring than Steelheart’s “I’ll Never Let You Go”. It was a formula power ballad to be sure, beginning with a gentle acoustic intro under a benign lyric before exploding into a chorus that scraped the heavens in a way that few bands could ever hope to match. The voice behind the ridiculously high and majestic notes belonged to Miljenko “Mike” Matijevic, a Yugoslavian born singer who was the driving force behind Steelheart. His outrageous vocal range, particularly for a hard rock singer, is what really set the band apart from many of its peers even though their chart success was limited to “I’ll Never Let You Go” and it’s follow-up ballad, “She’s Gone”, both of which appeared on this, the band’s self-titled debut.
It’s not surprising that this record found its way into my collection given my love for all things hairdbandy and my obsession with power ballads in particular. But whereas I own a number of albums for which the hit ballad represents the high point, Steelheart rose above the din for me in part thanks to Matijevic’s vocals and in part thanks to the sheer bombasticity of the album’s sound. Bruce Dickinson’s (no, not the Iron Maiden singer) production is cavernous and loose, creating a soundscape that is grander than most of their contemporaries who often went with a tighter, sharper feel. Chris Risola’s lead guitar work carries real weight, with big crunching riffs that echo throughout the recording, turning a simple blues number like “Sheila” into a marauding eight minute affair that walks all over the competition. “Everybody Loves Eileen”, even though it moves along in no particular hurry, does so with surprising heft (the main riff at the 29 second mark being the chief culprit).
And when they wanted to amp up the pace Steelheart was more than capable, as burners like “Down N’ Dirty” and “Gimme Gimme” can attest, once again Matijevic’s vocal histrionics taking their sound to a place few others could go. For a debut, the album is brimming with confidence and bravado and it’s kind of shame (to me at least) that they arrived on the scene as late as they did, their second album hitting just as grunge was making them obsolete. Because Steelheart really had a lot going for themselves in terms of ability and what they needed was a little time to get their songwriting into shape; some worldly experience to help the break out of the clichés they were mired in. But as with so many bands of the time, time wasn’t on their side and I’m left with a handful of albums of promise that I’ll bust out come summertime and crank the volume up on. Steelheart may not be at the top of that list, but it’s an overlooked gem that’s a worthy add to any hard rock fan’s collection.
ALBUM RATING: 8.
1. Love Ain’t Easy
3. Like Never Before
7. Gimme Gimme
8. Rock ‘N Roll (I Just Wanna)
9. She’s Gone
10. Down N’ Dirty
Mike Matijevic (V), Chris Risola (LG), Frank DiCostanzo (RG), James Ward (B), John Fowler (D)
Produced by Bruce Dickinson