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Nazareth: Malice In Wonderland - Album Of The Week Club review

Malice In Wonderland was perhaps Nazareth's most commercial album, but it was also a commercial disaster

Nazareth: Malice In Wonderland cover art
(Image: © A&M)
Nazareth: Malice In Wonderland

Nazareth: Malice In Wonderland cover art

(Image credit: A&M)

Holiday
Showdown At The Border
Talkin' To One Of The Boys
Heart's Grown Cold
Fast Cars
Big Boy
Talkin' 'Bout Love
Fallen Angel
Ship Of Dreams
Turning A New Leaf

Despite having been slickly produced by Doobie Brothers/ Steely Dan guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (a hero of the band), Malice In Wonderland was a commercial disaster for Nazareth

The album was the follow-up to 1979’s No Mean City, which had seen the introduction of a new guitarist, the band's old friend Zal Cleminson from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. The twin-guitar sound had worked well on No Mean City's May The Sunshine and Star, which both became hit singles, but the winning formula didn't last. 

It was this failure, accompanied by “commitment” issues and a more AOR-inclined direction – a jarring change of style after the No Mean City's heavier sound – that prompted Cleminson to quit the band. 

The departing guitarist at least offered the stirring ballad Heart’s Grown Cold as a sublime parting gift. Elsewhere, Showdown At The Border, Big Boy and Fallen Angel display a lighter touch, but the craftsmanship is undeniable.

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Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in February 1980

  • End of the Century - Ramones
  • Boys Don't Cry - The Cure
  • Bryan Adams - Bryan Adams
  • Bebe Le Strange - Heart
  • Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School - Warren Zevon
  • ...But the Little Girls Understand – The Knack
  • Earth & Sky - Graham Nash
  • Against the Wind - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
  • Argybargy - Squeeze
  • Colossal Youth - Young Marble Giants
  • Conquest - Uriah Heep
  • Soldier - Iggy Pop
  • Survivor - Survivor
  • That's What You Get Babe - Kevin Ayers

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What they said...

"Malice In Wonderland is one of the high points in Nazareth's career and the best-ever fusion of their hard rock and AOR tendencies. In short, it's required listening for the group's fans and also an album likely to please hard rock lovers and AOR fanatics alike." (AllMusic (opens in new tab))

"Guitar-lovers will enjoy the strong contribution from Zal Cleminson whose playing and writing give the album a witty, eclectic edge that is reminiscent of his work with Alex Harvey. So… no monster mascots here, but this is still killer stuff. An overlooked gem for rock fans that like it classic and classy." (Heavy Metal Overload (opens in new tab))

"Anyone who appreciates good rock music is insane if they don't give this album a chance. Don't take my word for it, the band themselves say that this one is a favourite and they include more songs from it in their live set than any other. So pick up a copy - it's a classic." (SortMusic (opens in new tab))

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What you said...

Mike Canoe: I have been a fan of the song Holiday since it got regular play on early MTV. Being barely out of my teens, Nazareth struck me as a band for grownups but with a good sense of humour. As with many, many, many other bands I always meant to circle back to the full album - and Nazareth's discography in general - but never did. So I was happy to see Malice In Wonderland pop up on the "request line" and get the nod as the next pick.

Listening to it now, it still sounds like music for grownups, but that's meant as a compliment not a knock. It actually reminds me a lot of a club pick from earlier this year, Phil Lynott's Solo In Soho. Interestingly, Solo In Soho was also released in 1980, a couple of months after Malice In Wonderland. In both cases, the mission seems to be to shake things up and stay relevant in a quickly shifting musical landscape.

Malice In Wonderland hits on new wave (Fast Cars), proto-glam metal (Talkin' To One Of The Boys), reggae (Big Boy), even - gasp! - disco (Talkin' 'Bout Love'). Holiday and Showdown At The Border are soft rock toe tappers that are fun to sing along with and closer Turning A New Leaf wouldn't sound out of place on The Long Run by the Eagles - also meant as a compliment.

If all this genre jumping sounds exhausting, it's not. Like Solo In Soho, it's held together by great musicianship and a great singer. Said singer, Dan McCafferty, shines particularly well on the two ballads, Heart's Grown Cold and Fallen Angel. Truth be told, I always found his performance on Love Hurts kinda screechy and had a subconscious policy of not seeking out any more Nazareth ballads. These two are great, however, and he’s great on them.

In closing, I'm glad I finally caught up with Malice In Wonderland. Makes me wonder if I should finally check out the albums behind other early MTV staples like Schon & Hammer's No More Lies or Joe Walsh's Life of Illusion.

Phil Wise: Great to listen to an album I'd never heard before (and great title!), but it was not something that grabbed me. Never mind!

Andy Ward: I still have this on vinyl from back around the time it was released but never listened to it since. Gave it another go but it didn’t really stand up. Comes out of the gate with Holiday and that really does hold up and still gets played occasionally on classic rock stations.

A couple of forgettable songs before Heart’s Grown Cold which, along with Fallen Angel are still pretty decent power ballads. The remainder of the album is a hodgepodge of songs looking for a purpose. A mix of disco, reggae, new wave and uninspired rock. A few good songs in a pile of meh. I gave it a 4 which is probably fair. Don’t hate it but could have used more work.

John Davidson: Interesting...

I know Nazareth because they were a local band growing up. I had No Mean City and Hair Of The Dog without loving the raw charms of either. And for whatever reason I've never heard this album before.

It certainly starts strong with Holiday, Showdown and Talkin'. Heart's Gone Cold has a touch of the Jim Steinman's about it but works none the less. The faux reggae of Big Boy dates the album somewhat but it's not offensive.

Overall it's an eclectic mix of songs, and, from a band that looked like a bunch of workies from a building site had run off with some gear to play raw cover versions of other people's songs, it's quite an ambitious and largely successful foray into more complex musical arrangements.

There's hints of UFO, Thin Lizzy and even Wishbone Ash in some of the arrangements - all bands I loved at the time so its a shame I missed out on this first time around. Still glad to add it to my collection now. 8/10.

Bill Griffin: I was going to say that this would be a disappointment for those who only know the band from Hair Of The Dog but, while more representative of their actual sound (Hair Of The Dog was the outlier), it's simply not up to their standard. It does have some good tracks but overall is not a great album.

Greg Schwepe: Solid album from the Scotland’s best kept secret; Nazareth. Another one of those “they should’ve been bigger than they were” bands. Was familiar with Holiday but had never listened to the entire album all the way through. And dang, I’ve been missing a decent album for years!

And here’s where I always feel the need to tell my backstory about the band and the album being reviewed: Never owned a Nazareth physical album, but the FM station I listened to played the standard two songs everyone knows; Hair Of The Dog and Love Hurts. And could recite their catalogue to you if asked. Flipped through their albums while exploring the “N” rack at the local record store.

For me this is just a very listenable album all the way through. We get the party started right away with Holiday, the catchy single from the album. After hearing that one played a lot when released, I then officially knew three Nazareth songs.

I totally like the gritty, gruff, raspy vocals of Dan McCafferty. His style just fits the vibe of their music.

Not a song I didn’t like on Malice. Was totally drawn in on the guitar solo in Talkin' 'Bout Love. The tone was exquisite. Maybe this had something to do with “Skunk” Baxter producing this and knowing a thing or two about guitar tones!

Album ranges from acoustic tones, to some standard rock grit. Female background vocals add a nice touch as well. For me, having since purchased a compilation CD and becoming more aware of their other songs, this album is a nice microcosm of their overall sound and vibe.

Warren Bubb: Not typical Nazareth but I really like it. Heart's Gone Cold is a classic track. It was a brave attempt to do something different.

Mark Tucker: A truly unique album. Lyrically a work of genius. Every song a killer, no filler. One of my top ten albums of all time. Shame about the album cover!

Chris Elliott: I found this in a Woolworths bargain bin as a 14-year-old and was disappointed. It's the problem of the weak album from the classic period - it's not awful - there are a couple of great tracks but otherwise it's just a bit dull compared to the "classic" albums.

Wade Babineau: Came into Nazareth via the Greatest Hits album and checked out their back catalog and while there are legit clunkers in there (looking at you Snakes And Ladders), I don't consider this one of them. Granted that while they were bringing in some AOR sound with Jeff "Skunk" Baxter producing, they still retain some of their hard edge with Talkin' To One Of The Boys and Showdown At The Border. Shame that Zal Cleminson only lasted two albums with the group. Holiday, Hearts Grown Cold, Fallen Angel and Ship Of Dreams plus the two aforementioned songs stand out for me. Even have a soft spot for the reggae-tinged sound of Big Boy (which sounded better live).

Gus Schultz: I really liked this LP when it was released. It was a bit of a shocker after No Mean City but the more I listen to it the more I liked it. Unfortunately this recipe didn’t work so well in the following album The Fool Circle, and I lost interest in the band after that. I think their popularity waned after as well.

This album proved that they just weren’t just hard rockers but they were talented musicians and songwriters, and with Jeff Baxter's help to polish things up it's likely one of their best overall albums, but very underrated.

Adam Ranger: I much prefer the previous year's No Mean City album with Cleminson and indeed the follow up studio album without him The Fool Circle.

But what about Malice? Well, it's different, a departure from their usual sound in many ways. I wanted to like it for that reason. Whilst I didn't hate it, and it's not a bad album at all.. I had difficulty really getting into it. Not a problem I had with No Mean City. The album jars a bit to my ears. But maybe I need to listen to it a few more times to see if it grows on me.

Michael Ladd: I have been a fan of Nazareth since I saw them open for Deep Purple in 1972. For me, this is the last “great” Nazareth album. It’s not as heavy as much of their earlier stuff but still excellent. Love Holiday and Talkin’ To One of the Boys.

Joe Moore: Always loved this album and still do. Saw the tour supporting it and thought Zal was a great addition to the band.

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Final score: 6.82 (67 votes cast, total score 457)

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