Sound — 8
Throughout the past three decades, it's been difficult to be a Billy Idol fan; the debut 1982 studio album from the then-former leader of punk rockers Generation X generated a unique sonic template comprised of elements from hard rock and new wave, that when propelled by Idol's angst-driven lyrical delivery and the combustible guitar work of Steve Stevens made for a defining chemistry which carried through four largely memorable studio albums. The release of 1993's "Cyperpunk" abandoned that trend, instead adopting a frequently bizarre concept album approach which instrumentally leaned towards the electronica music genre that, when fused with a surplus of computerized sound effects and strange spoken word tracks, left many established listeners dazed and confused.
Fast forward to 2005, and redemption arrives in the form of his sixth studio effort, "Devil's Playground," which reverts back to a familiar rock-propelled chemistry, but just as fans are celebrating his return, Idol essentially drops off the face of the planet in regards to new material (aside from a wayward venture into holiday songs on 2006's "Happy Holidays"). Now it's 2014, and news of Billy Idol's first all-original album in nine years is met with optimism from longtime listeners, and a lot of that can be accredited to the effort's insightive lead single (more on that later on), but what we ultimately find on "Kings & Queens of the Underground" is a frequently varietal outing which shows Idol caught somewhere in between the early '80s and present day in regards to his musical approach.
The album opens into neutral territory as far as the two time periods are concerned; "Bitter Pill" sounds like what a diehard Billy Idol fan would expect to hear from the punk rocker more than three decades following the release of his self-titled debut. A hint of southern twang surfaces in Stevens' main riff throughout the track, which notably bears some apparent resemblance to "Dancing With Myself," while soaring synthesizers, choice vocal harmonies and familiar primal screams allows the outcome to remain appealing to his rock-oriented audience while maintaining enough of a pop character that could earn the song a spot in mainstream radio rotation. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the following number, which also serves as the lead single on the album; the first thirty-seconds of "Can't Bring Me Down," aside from an increasingly popular digital effect found in pop music, disguises itself as a striking new rock anthem, before transitioning to entirely different territory altogether which is more resemblant of Neon Trees than Billy Idol.
"Save Me Now" is a more familiar composition, which maintains a form of revived new wave but still embodies the synth-pop character of the previous track. "One Breath Away," oddly enough, introduces an adult contemporary pace fused with an R&B percussion line, which serves no real benefiting purpose on the album. Just as we're getting ready to delete the album from our digital library, however, Idol reasserts his identity with the knockout "Postcards From the Past," which easily stands as one of the main highlights on the effort. In some ways this song serves as the hybrid of "White Wedding" and "Mony Mony," especially with it's kick into rip-roaring distortion guitar during the refrain. Steve Stevens has always maintained his reputation as a rock guitarist; his recent collaboration with Sebastian Bach reinforces this point, however it's only here where Stevens is given permission to go ahead and kick some serious a-s.
From this point forward, the attitude of the entire album is directed away from the overtly pop elements of the first half and towards something entirely different altogether; "Eyes Wide Open" is a solid mid-tempo acoustic rocker which could have easily stood out during Idol's original reign in the '80s, while "Ghosts in My Guitar" reinforces this same emphasis on the guitar work above any synthesizer arrangements while reincorporating the modest country feel of the opening number. "Love and Glory" and "Nothing to Fear" keep the fist set on the tempo while still packing enough of a punch to maintain the momentum set by their predecessors, whereas "Whiskey and Pills" is a high octane rock anthem driven by pounding bass lines during the verses and impressionable guitar playing highlighted by a blistering arpeggio and natural harmonics.
Lyrics — 7
While he seems more hesitant to finish a verse with compelling throat-singing or conclude a verse with a glass shattering scream, Billy Idol still manages to achieve these vocal feats throughout "Kings & Queens of the Underground." Now age 58, the fact that Idol still manages to kick out these characteristic qualities is commendable, however his performance would be more appreciated if he could manage to maintain the musical approach he first established back in 1982 without the frequent ventures into commercially-acceptable musical territory.
Overall Impression — 8
Albeit to a lesser degree than the atrocity we found on "Cyberpunk," Billy Idol still has an overwhelming need to remain relevant in the current musical environment, and that is widely apparent on his first all-original album in nine years, "Kings & Queens of the Underground." Idol still has the ability to crank up memorable tunes, such as the aforementioned "Postcards From the Past," however it's the apparently uncontrollable urge to head into relevant territory that sets the album back.