His input on the Virginia Wolf albums and Heartland’s debut release back in the 80s would have been enough alone to secure Chris Ousey a place in the AOR hall of fame. However, Chris Ousey’s musical journey did not end there: although from that point on, his career moved toward more of a cult following, throughout the 90s and beyond, Ousey continued to be one of the UK’s hardest working voices in melodic rock. Heartland’s career moved apace, releasing various albums for the Escape Music label throughout the 90s and beyond, and in addition, Ousey also embarked on a side project with Pokerface’s Kenny Kaos entitled The Distance (not to be confused with the similarly-named American band featuring Robert Hart).
Released almost two and a half decades after the Virginia Wolf debut put Ousey on the map, you could say his solo debut was a long time coming – and you’d be right. Some things, however, are worth the wait. 2011’s ‘Rhyme & Reason’ is not simply a continuation of the Heartland saga; it presents something far better. For this record, Ousey pits his instantly recognisable voice against some of melodic rock’s other premier talents. The respected Tommy Denander joins Ousey’s band on guitar alongside the absolutely legendary guitarist/producer Mike Slamer, while ex-Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray and sometime David Lee Roth/Joe Satriani drummer Gregg Bissonette fill the rhythm section. As far as session bands go, that’s quite a line up. Across this album’s dozen tracks they sound truly inspired, as if this bringing together of various talents yielded the kind of spark long lost in some melodic rock quarters.
There are no weak songs to be found here – all twelve tracks on ‘Rhyme & Reason’ offer something enjoyable for the discernable melodic rock fan. Naturally, of course, there are a few clear standouts. The stabbing keys and overdriven guitar riff which provide the heart of the opening track ‘The Mother of Invention’ are in a style which sets the tone for the rest of the record. Ousey’s lead voice sounds powerful and the music, in melodic rock terms at least, comes with a big presence befitting of such a vocal. The keyboards bring a mechanical muscle in places, and although this gives a late 80s feel to the track, it never feels fake in any way. The lead guitar work is of a great standard – as you’d expect from both Denander and Slamer – showy, but not too showy; these guys know that, first and foremost, this is Ousey’s record. The bar gets raised a little higher still on ‘Motivation’ which features some clean guitar lines during the intro which in turn give way to another great, slightly dirtier riff. The overall mood is funky without opting for a full-out funk rock workout and the band sounds tight throughout. Despite the dominant guitars, mechanical keys still provide the musical glue which holds everything together. Ousey doesn’t hit as many big notes as he is capable on this number, but in some ways there’s no need – the choppy rhythms speak for themselves and carry everything well enough.
Something softer, ‘A Natural Love’ really highlights Ousey’s top vocal skills as he stretches his lines with relative ease. Backed by a by a fairly predictable – yet still great – AOR arrangement, his voice sounds wonderful on a number which could have graced any number of Heartland albums in the past, except for one key difference: Mike Slamer is a far better guitarist than Heartland’s Steve Morris (sorry Steve!) and here, with the help of Tommy Denander he adds some great sweeping guitar lines which are absolutely perfect for the piece. Those looking for something punchy need look no farther than ‘Give Me Shelter’, a three minute burst of rock, which aside from carrying another driving, arpeggio filled riff, has plenty of pompy keyboards. Not to be outdone by such a solid musical backdrop, Ousey goes all-out here, delivering a vocal which could proudly stand alongside his best. His voice has held up well over the years and this only proves it.
‘Watch This Space’ offers something a little lighter in places once again, as Ousey lends his voice track which wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on Toto’s ‘Kingdom of Desire’ album with its slightly fuzzy guitar riffs. When it’s Ousey’s turn at the microphone, the guitars take a back seat as he places his vocal across a keyboard based groove – his voice every bit as strong as his more famous peers. As a piece of music, this uses all the hallmarks of classic melodic rock – the featured guitar solo providing another high point, while the clear separation between guitar, keyboard and voice allows Slamer’s almost faultless production a chance to really shine. In a similar vein, ‘The Reason Why’ showcases perfect performances from Ousey and band – the riffs and harmonies peaking in a great AOR chorus, topped yet again by a immaculate guitar solo, brimming with huge notes. Looking beyond melodic rock’s well worn (but still well loved 80s hits), this is a good example of why some people still love what is an often derided musical genre. ‘Rhyme & Reason’ is a great album all round, but this track is just fantastic.
Almost everything involving Mike Slamer is melodic rock gold, and this album is no exception. Although most of Chris Ousey’s output is of a reasonably high standard, parts of ‘Rhyme & Reason’ are a cut above, and certainly far sharper than a lot of the post-1997 Heartland releases. While Ousey’s fans are sure to lap this up, there are enough guitar chops here to potentially reel in a fair number of Slamer and Denander devotees too. With such a winning combination of musicians and some genuinely great songs (given a decent production job), ‘Rhyme & Reason’ is a melodic rock album that’s not to be missed.