ZZ Top – Afterburner

More ZZ Top

  • Bass and body are key to the best pressings, along with Rock and Roll energy, and here you will find plenty of all three
  • A syth-rock followup to Eliminator featuring hits including “Sleeping Bag,” “Stages,” and “Rough Boy”
  • “Afterburner presented ZZ Top as dystopian blade runners, ascending to the sterile environs of their space compound instead of running around the desert killin’ varmints.”
  • If you’re a ZZ Top fan, a killer copy of their album from 1985 might just need a home in your collection

This vintage WB pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What the best sides of Afterburner have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes even as late as 1985
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the studio

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.


One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

What We’re Listening For on Afterburner

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks for the guitars, keyboards and drums, not the smear and thickness common to most LPs.
  • Tight, note-like bass with clear fingering — which ties in with good transient information, as well as the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the players.
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The musicians aren’t “back there” somewhere, way behind the speakers. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt — Bob Ludwig — would have put them.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.


Side One

Sleeping Bag
Woke Up With Wood
Rough Boy
Can’t Stop Rockin’

Side Two

Panet of Women
I Got The Message
Velcro Fly
Dipping Low (In The Lap of Luxury)

Rhino Insider Review

Who could have predicted the enormous success of ZZ Top’s 1983 album ELIMINATOR? The “Little Ol’ Band from Texas” racked up five singles and sold 10 million copies by welding their blues and boogie to a bank of synthesizers and sequencers, then jamming the entire thing in the back of a 1933 Ford Coupe and setting off for wherever MTV programming executives were hiding out back then.

When it came time for a follow-up, the band made the astute business decision to give their new fans more of the same—more keyboards, more drum machines, more songs with even more euphemisms for sexual activity. And then when they were done with that, they added more keyboards. This was definitely not your uncle’s ZZ Top—the guys they imagined as blues-bustin’ rodeo escapees, chugging around the dusty back roads of Texas’ roadhouse circuit, soaked in mescal, tuned in to border radio, and exhaling barbeque smoke. AFTERBURNER presented ZZ Top as dystopian blade runners, ascending to the sterile environs of their space compound instead of running around the desert killin’ varmints.

They still manage to rock, though; they come out swinging with “Sleeping Bag,” which has enough Billy Gibbons attitude to compensate for the fact that there are more artificial sounds on the track than on any given Depeche Mode record, perhaps on all given Depeche Mode records. If Frank Beard were even in attendance at the session that produced this song, many would be surprised—the drums were absolutely played by robots. But in the song, Gibbons gives us a great new metaphor for getting it on, and his guitar solo at the song’s conclusion reminds us what a bad man he can be on the axe of his choice.

That guitar comes to back to slay in the ballad “Rough Boy,” a virtual rewrite of EL LOCO’s “Leila” that to this day remains anathema to most old-school ZZ Top fans. Yes, the song has a pulse generated by Korg and spooky keys approved by NASA itself, and Gibbons’ singing is hushed and vulnerable throughout. But his two guitar solos add some melt-yo’-backside Texas blues to the soothing calm of the synth bed on which those solos rest. Yes, this is Gibbons dialed back to maybe 6 or 7, but it’s more than enough to lift the song out of its digitized slumber.

And who could forget “Velcro Fly?” A new metaphor for sex disguised as a paean to the latest dance fad, “Velcro Fly” features what sound like actual live drums (mixed in with the drum machines) and two short bass solos, incorporated into yet another keyboard-forward track. There are other highlights—”Woke Up with Wood” (yes, it means what you think it means), the Dusty Baker-sung “Delirious” and others—that make AFTERBURNER worth another listen, after all these years.

Rhino Insider
May 31, 2017

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