Alice cooper is rightly credited as a pioneer of “shock rock”: He’s always had a penchant for the sinister and the macabre, and his catalogue is filled with songs that are alternatingly ghoulish and lecherous. To characterize him solely by his creepy lyrics, though, is to shortchange his gifts. Consistently undergirding his campy titillation is a foundation of churning, riff-heavy hard rock, every bit as significant and as influential as his theatrical songwriting. That’s why an album like Paranormal, released more than 40 years after Cooper’s debut, packs a punch: His brand of shock may have long congealed into camp, but the music itself is as vibrant and muscular as ever.
The album’s appeal boils down to the fact that Cooper still sounds like he’s having a blast. Here he channels all his vim and vigor into making music that connects with his past but also feels rooted in the present. Though it mines a familiar aesthetic, Paranormal is played with conviction and produced with a modern flair. The music’s onslaught of thunderous drums and buzzsaw guitars feels immediate. Cooper can still sing with youthful clarity, but he also goes for the primal growling when the songs call for it.
There are some blasts from the past here, including—on two songs—a full reunion of the original Alice Cooper band lineup. There are also some assists from famous friends, like U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who plays with a raucous primitivism he hasn’t displayed since his own band’s War. For the most part, though, Paranormal represents Cooper doing what he does best, cranking out the sinister riffs and turbocharging his power pop with gleaming metal. Yet there are also some surprises throughout, which stand out all the more for the album’s consistency: The title track has grandiose riffs and dark, brooding synths that toe the line of prog-rock, while the subversive “Genuine American Girl” boasts sashaying rhythms and girl-group harmonies.
It goes without saying that the album’s lyrics are ridiculous, though they’re often charming in their panache. “Paranormal” sets the stage for everything else here, offering a litany of strange and unexplainable phenomena that’s less X-Files than late-night B movie. “Dead Flies” draws a shaky connection between Cooper’s grotesqueries and tentative cultural criticism, hopscotching from cannibalism to the privacy concerns of the digital age. “Fireball” burns with gleeful apocalyptic fervor, while “Paranoiac Personality” chews on the suspicion that we’re all hiding deep, dark secrets.
If anything, the album’s stabs at social relevance are what make the songs feel too timid and tame. The Twilight Zone fantasies in these tunes are all goofy and in good fun, but Cooper’s multiple cellphone references and digs at celebrity culture—as in “Private Public Breakdown”—can sound curmudgeonly. Otherwise, he sounds like he’s still enthralled by the din of squalling guitars and throbbing bass—and he and his supporting band kick off an unrelenting ruckus. For anyone who thinks Cooper’s music has lost its edge, Paranormal is a reminder that loud, lumbering rock never goes out of style.