Jack Starr’s Burning Starr: The Ongoing Wave of American Heavy Metal (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

But by 1984, a restless Starr had formed a new group, Burning Starr. “I was very lucky,” he says. “I was able to get a very good record deal right away with Passport Records, an offshoot of Arista Records. Here I was: totally unknown two years earlier, and now I’m on a label with Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones!”

Burning Starr’s Rock the American Way was released in 1985 to positive notices. And that record began a metal legacy that continues to present day. The band has seen musicians come and go, with Starr the musical center of gravity but “Ned Meloni has been my bass player for 100 years,” Starr says with a laugh. In 2017 the band released Stand Your Ground, the band’s third album to the powerful lead vocals of Todd Michael Hall.

But Hall eventually left the band for what Starr describes as “greener pastures.” Hall competed on television as a contestant on The Voice, and eventually joined Riot, another metal band with a cult following. “So to make a long story short,” Starr says, “we didn’t have a singer any more.” For some bands, that kind of loss could have easily spelled the end.

Starr recalls asking himself, “how are we going to find a singer equal to Todd Michael Hall, who’s like a vocal god?” The answer came from Bart Gabriel, a friend of the band who Starr calls “Mr. Metal.” Gabriel contacted the guitarist via Skype, telling him, “Jack, I think I’ve found the singer for you.” He recommended Alexx Panza, a young singer from Turin, Italy.

Panza was already a huge fan of Burning Starr, especially the band’s first singer Rhett Forrester (who passed away in 1996). Starr recalls Gabriel telling him, “Alexx is a fan of all of your previous singers, but let’s add one more thing. He saw you guys, and he met you when you were performing at a festival in Germany in 2014.” Panza even waited on line after the show to get the band’s autographs.

Starr was intrigued. And he laughs as he recalls seeing a photo of the singer. “He works out like a maniac: washboard abs and all that.” And Panza had the chops, too. “He’s got a great stage presence, and a four-octave vocal range,” Starr enthuses.

When bassist Meloni heard some recordings featuring Panza, he was nearly as excited. But he did have one reservation. Starr recalls him saying, “Jack, you know, I love this singer. Great voice, but I don’t know. When he sings in English, he’s got this accent.”

So Starr suggested that they send a Burning Starr instrumental track, “Souls of the Innocent,” to Panza and ask him to record his vocals on top of it. “He sent it back [with vocals], and it was amazing,” Starr says. “I didn’t hear the accent, and if I did, I didn’t care. It was incredible!” Meloni was equally impressed. Panza was in, and the band continued work on Souls of the Innocent, released in July 2022.

Souls of the Innocent serves up the thunderous metal that Burning Starr fans treasure, but it takes things a step beyond: it’s a concept album. “The album is very clearly about good versus evil,” Starr says. The title track is about the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.

“These people that were killed were doing something very benign, very innocent,” Starr says. “They were enjoying a beautiful night of music. They were victims in the purest sense of the word.” The song is Burning Starr’s way of honoring those who lost their lives in that tragic event.

The other tracks on Souls of the Innocent explore similar themes. Echoing “Living in Sin,” a standout cut on that Virgin Steele debut album from 40 years ago, “I am the Sinner” even quotes Jesus. “We’ve been mistaken for a born-again Christian metal band,” Starr says with a laugh. “We’re not, but I don’t know if there’s an official form you have to fill out.” He says that in any event, he’d sooner that Burning Starr be tagged as born-again rather than be lumped in “with all the other devil-worshiping idiots that are out there.

“Metal does not have to be silly,” Jack Starr emphasizes. “If you want to sing about goblins and demons, I’m here to tell you, ‘You know what? There’s real evil in the world.’ If you want to have fun with it, go right ahead. If you want to wear vampire makeup and go on stage and have a cape or whatever, go ahead, have fun. But just know that that ain’t the real evil.”

And even with its serious themes, at its core Burning Starr’s Souls of the Innocent is an exemplar of the ongoing wave of American heavy metal, 21st century style. And it’s built on the guitar prowess of Jack Starr. With due modesty, he notes that he has a worldwide cult following of fans. “That’s how they relate to me: ‘Jack Starr? Yeah, he’s an old-school guitar player, but he does it well.’”