Bat Out OF Hell, The Musical - A Steingasmic Operatic Experience
I recently procured the soundtrack to a musical I didn't know existed, but was incredibly awed once I found out that it did: Jim Steinman's "Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical." This. Is. The. Coolest. Thing. On. Earth. Well, okay, maybe not the coolest thing — there's still Orange Julius and Mongolian Grill, and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and the macOS operating system — but you get the idea, right? It would appear that good ol' rock composer Jim Steinman finally achieved his lifelong dream of creating a Peter-Pan-like, dystopian, sci-fi romance for the stage — and a musical, at that — featuring a number of his epic, Wagnerian rock-operatic songs, almost all of which have been taken from his past oeuvre of work with Meat Loaf. When I found out this was really a thing, I was ecstatic. (See elsewhere on this website for my fanboyish obsession with Steinman and his work.) I was like, "Holy shit! He actually did it!" So, without further ado, a quick review of the two-disc soundtrack album, recorded by the original cast:
The album is very slickly produced. The sound is very open and clear, with every instrument very clearly hearable within the mix; the guitars are lightly used, but when they do show up in the arrangements, they are really effective. They add a great rock 'n roll edge to the arrangements, and are really loud in some of the songs (such as the version of "Bat Out Of Hell" that appears here). So, that's good. The "solo" guitars are a little thin, though; they could've used some beefing up, I think. But then again, this is for a theatre audience, not a rock concert audience, so I can sort of understand the guitars not being balls-out loud and distorted. The orchestra sounds great and very full, with the brass and string ensembles both getting a good workout here and there, especially the strings in some songs. The choir that accompanies some of the arrangements is in full voice as the backup singers for many of the songs, and they sound gorgeous. The mix is exceptionally good; like I said, every instrument and part seems clear and separate, and very "visible" in the mix. Nothing is muddy and there is no clipping or overbearing loudness, and you don't have to turn the speakers up to hear any instruments, as everything is evenly spaced in the mix. That's some good engineering, right there. Finally, the vocals sound sensational, and that's good, especially because there's a large cast involved, and sometimes they sing together, and one on top of the other, or several all on top of one another . . . but again, nothing ever gets muddy or muddled in the mix; the voices remain distinct and listenable at all times, and high notes and long, sustained legato notes don't feel like they're firing your speakers up. And the bass . . . good god, there's a lot of great bass in the soundtrack, and it plays and resounds smoothly, even on crappy speakers. I feel like this thing was produced by freaking Alan Parsons, but it wasn't; it was produced by a tag-team of Steven Rinkoff, Michael Reed, and Jim Steinman himself. Say what you will about his songwriting, but Steinman knows how to twiddle knobs and adjust faders. He's a dynamite producer.
The young cast's performances are likewise stellar. And "young" is good. I emphasize the word "young" because really, Meat Loaf is 70, and Steinman himself is 69. We don't need to see them on stage performing these songs anymore. It's time to pass the Bat Out Of Hell and Bad For Good torches, guys. Really, it is. And this amazing young cast are the perfect new vehicles for Steinman's grandiose, Wagnerian rock stylings and his beautifully deranged, bombastic romanticism. I say let them run with it! The kid who plays "Strat" — the main protagonist of the musical, Steinman's Peter Pan stand-in — has an incredible voice, and he's very much what I think a younger Jim Steinman might've sounded like had he been gifted with a stronger set of pipes to carry the day back in the epoch of Bad For Good, Steinman's solo album released back in 1981. And the girl who plays "Raven" — the leading lady, and Strat's love-interest — has a great set of lungs and vocal cords on her as well; she can really pack a punch when she belts out Steinman's soulful operatic tunes, and I'd love to see her launch a solo career singing his works. Of course, we probably won't see too many more new, original works from Steinman in the coming years; his career seems to be in a winding-down phase just now, and at this point, he shows more interest in revisiting his past — take the recent Meat Loaf album, Braver Than We Are, as evidence of this — than he does in inventing anything new for us. But if Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical is a revisitation of the past, then it's revisitation that's damn well worth the trip down memory lane. It's a colossal, epic orgy of "Steinmania," as Steinman's die-hard fans refer to it, and it's terrific, over-the-top, gothic, and fantastic in every way that there is. You get the feeling that this is how Steinman always wanted these songs to be performed: In an actual theatre, on a stage, with impressive set-pieces, by an entire cast of performers dressed in wild costumes, with an orchestra and a rock band together in the pit, complete with savage dance routines and epic monologues, and with whiz-bang special effects, lighting effects, and giant video screens to boot. The show is light on plot and story — the story mostly serves as a skeleton upon which to hang the muscle of Steinman's songs — but that's okay; if you're going to see Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical for it's story, you're in the wrong theatre, folks. The book is by Steinman, and his dialogue skills aren't the greatest, as evidenced by the snippets of dialogue you get to hear between some of the songs . . . because oh yeah — unlike some of Lloyd Webber's soundtracks, this one doesn't include any dialogue from the show (or at least, not much of it). It's just the songs. How daffy is that?
All in all, I'd say this is a great two-disc album to own. Especially if you're a Steinman and/or Meat Loaf fan. The songs are fantastic, the performances are great, and the quality of the mix and the recording itself are terrific. The arrangements are a little wimpy in places, so if you're looking for all of the songs to stay true to their hard rock roots, well, sorry. The songs here are also — and peculiarly for a Steinman project — mostly pretty short; whereas the album versions of some of these songs can stretch on for seven or eight, or even ten, minutes sometimes, some of these versions are barely four or five minutes long. But that's for the best, I think; it adds to the immediacy of the soundtrack and helps the whole thing flow better. Your mileage may vary with this concept though. Me, I kinda liked it, kinda didn't. I miss the gargantuan excess of the longer, more elaborate versions of the songs from the original albums, but at the same time, these smaller, more scaled-down versions can be a breath of fresh air, especially since they also tend to have sparser, less full-bodied arrangements. Most of the time, they work. Sometimes, though, they leave you pining for their longer, album-cut cousins, as is the case with the version of "Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through" that appears here. It's way too short, in my opinion, and deserved a place of greater prominence in the show.
Bottom line: If you're a Steinman and Meat Loaf fan, this is an album you can't afford to miss out on. Go buy it today, right now. You can thank me later, if you can get the songs unstuck from out of your head.