Outrider

He couldn't have timed it better. The high priest of heavy metal, the pontiff of power riffing and probably the most digitally sampled artist in pop today after James Brown, guitar shaman Jimmy Page returns to the rock wars with his debut solo album — not counting the so-so '82 soundtrack of Death Wish II — just as the Eighties Led Zeppelin renaissance goes into overdrive. What better opportunity to reascend to Big Rock supremacy while giving impudent pups like Kingdom Come and the Cult a taste of the lash?

Too bad timing isn't everything. Because Outrider, to be painfully honest, is a whole lotta muddle, a bewildering amalgam of trademark Pagey rifferama, utter lyric banality, thundering instrumental tracks topped off by hammy vocals, tantalizing hints of steaming futurist Zeppelin and sudden U-turns back to the Seventies. The album reiterates familiar gifts and well-documented strengths yet lacks any clear-cut direction or sense of aesthetic mission. Too often Page echoes his past without transcending or building on it.

The opening numbers, "Wasting My Time" and "Wanna Make Love," summarize everything that's right, and wrong, with Outrider. Working from the old "Black Dog"-"Dancing Days" schematic of muscular, choppy riffs layered with greasy slide guitar over jolting rhythm changes, Page kicks up a quintessential Zeppelin storm, abetted by drummer Jason Bonham, who does his old man proud throughout the record. The three-way collision of skidding bottleneck sounds, growling wah-wah and stabbing lead work over Bonham's angry whack in "Wanna Make Love" is classic Page guitarchitecture. John Miles's lemon-squeezer wail, though, has nothing on Robert Plant, and his generic lyrics edge dangerously close to parody. More satisfying are the instrumentals "Writes of Winter" and "Liquid Mercury," which concentrate on riff alchemy and the glorious sound of Page's guitars dogfighting with each other in overdub.

Side two, which features the veteran English white-soul howler Chris Farlowe, is just as problematic. Instead of torching Leon Russell's "Hummingbird," Farlowe practically incinerates it, and his idea of sexual innuendo on "Prison Blues" ("I got my weasel in my pocket.... I'm gonna stick it right down that little hole") makes David Coverdale sound like the Byron of barroom erotica. Fortunately, Page uses "Prison Blues" to just go ape crazy on guitar. It may sound like Seventies old hat, but it's great old hat.

Were it only matched more often by the shock of the new. What distinguishes "The Only One" from the rest of the album, besides Robert Plant's guest vocal appearance, is the element of risk. Maybe it was just too much to expect a Zoso for the Nineties on Page's first solo excursion. But Outrider is as much a victim of underachievement as of overexpectation. As a guitar record, Outrider proves Page is still the sultan of slash, the kaiser of krunch. But where he once held the hammer of the gods, he now sounds a bit dazed and confused.

x