Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Dokken, "Shadowlife"
CMC International Records, 1997
After a layoff of more than five years, the classic lineup of Dokken (vocalist Don Dokken, guitarist George Lynch, drummer "Wild" Mick Brown, and bassist Jeff Pilson) seemed to be on the verge of a legitimate comeback when they reunited in 1994 and released Dysfunctional the following year. That album maintained the band's trademark melodic-but-heavy sound, with some darker undertones that modernized their music for the grunge crazed '90s. Reviews were positive and Dysfunctional reportedly sold a quarter of a million copies -- a surprisingly strong showing for a so-called "hair band," but not enough to please the suits at Columbia Records, who dropped them. Dokken was promptly snapped up by CMC International Records, a rising indie label who had been slowly building an impressive roster of '80s hard rock and metal acts jettisoned by the majors, and they went straight into the studio to work on their next album, to be titled Shadowlife.
The recording sessions for Shadowlife took place at a time of major turmoil not just in Dokken's own camp, but in the hard rock scene in general. Many old-guard '80s rock and metal bands were struggling to stay "relevant" in the '90s by tweaking their sounds to ride the "alternative" wave (see: Warrant's Ultraphobic and Belly to Belly albums, or Voyeurs, from Rob Halford's ill-fated experiment "Two").
While Dysfunctional had hints of the "'90s" vibe, it maintained enough of the band's "old" flavor to appease their long time fans. On Shadowlife, however, Dokken decided to throw their old sound completely out the window and gave themselves a full-on "alternative" makeover. The resulting album was a critical and sales disaster that nearly put the band on ice for good.
"Puppet on a String"
Trouble in Camp Dokken
Just glancing at the bizarre, arty Shadowlife album cover told fans that this was not the Dokken of old. The songs were dark, down-tuned, and melancholy, and aside from the trademark vocal harmonies on some tracks, they bore almost no resemblance to the classic Dokken sound.
Needless to say, reaction was a nearly universal "What the f***?"
Interviews with the band from that time revealed that they probably shouldn't have been making a new record at all. This was a "Dokken" album in name only. Don was absent for most of the songwriting process, suffering from a case of writer's block and dealing with his ongoing struggles with alcohol. The music for Shadowlife was written by Lynch, Pilson, and Brown and then sent to Don to add lyrics to it. Lynch and Pilson admitted afterward that much of the material had been written with a non-Dokken side project in mind. (Perhaps we can consider it to be an early draft of Lynch/Pilson's Wicked Underground album, which was released a few years later?) When Don received the music he struggled to write lyrics that fit it, saying "I had to write dark and that's not my trip."
The band also struggled with CMC's choice of producer for the album. Kelly Gray was a Seattle native who had previously worked with bland modern-rock bands like Candlebox and Brother Cane (he would later join Queensryche as a guitarist, aiding them in their further slide into mediocrity) and he was apparently not a fan of Dokken's earlier works. Don told Metal Edge magazine that Gray once told them to, "Knock off that harmony sh*t. It's my job to get you out of that '80s thing." The band frequently re-wrote and re-tracked parts after butting heads with Gray..
As you might imagine, a band disinterested in their own material and a producer with no clear vision of what the record should sound like proved to be a toxic combination. When Shadowlife arrived in record stores in April of 1997, the pre-release word of mouth on it was so bad that the album was pretty much dead on arrival.
The bad press that Shadowlife received upon its release was enough to convince me to avoid the album like an explosive device. The only positive review I read of the album was by Metal Edge magazine's Gerri Miller, which was a pretty major red flag since she was a well known record-label puppet.
Having a hole in my otherwise-complete Dokken collection started to bug me after a while, though, so when Shadowlife turned up in the "discount" section of the Columbia House Record Club catalog about a year later, I figured "ehhhh, what the hell" and ordered it.
Maybe it's because my expectations were extremely low, but when I finally heard Shadowlife it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd anticipated. I didn't love the album but I enjoy a couple of songs, particularly the opening track "Puppet On A String," the soulful "Here I Stand" (Jeff Pilson's debut lead-vocal recording), the moody "Cracks in the Ground" and the strangely upbeat (at least compared to the rest of the disc) "Sweet Life." There's a lot of King's X and Soundgarden influence in these songs. As a Dokken album it may have been a miserable failure, but as a "'90s rock" album I've certainly heard a lot worse. I actually think it's gotten better with age!
The drama continued after the album's release, as Lynch and Dokken's animosity towards one another began playing out in the press. Don blamed Lynch for the directional shift of Shadowlife while Lynch blamed Don for not doing his part during the songwriting process. Lynch eventually admitted that even HE didn't like the album, had "only done it for the money," and furthermore he refused to go on tour to support it. This was the final straw for the band, who released Lynch from his contract and continued on without him. With former Winger guitarist Reb Beach taking Lynch's place, Dokken released the return-to-form Erase the Slate album in 1999.
More than 20 years after its release, Shadowlife is still viewed as Dokken's worst album. I find it to be an interesting experiment, but not an essential piece of the Dokken discography unless you're a diehard, gotta-have-everything fan boy like me..
© 2019 Keith Abt