If you meet people who were fans of melodic rock in the 80s, chances are, they’ll bang on tirelessly about how alternative music killed melodic rock at the beginning of the nineties. However, in 1994,a small UK based label called Now & Then Records provided a wave of genuine excitement with their first bunch of releases. After releasing an album by Gary Hughes (later to become the frontman with pomp/melodic rock giants Ten), the label released a string of fantastic melodic rock discs, some of which had been rescued from the vaults of major labels, destined to potentially never see the light of day.
One of these early releases was the debut album by Crown of Thorns, a black rock band made up of a handful of cult musicians. Featured in the band’s first line-up were ex-Plasmatics/Little Steven man Jean Bouvoir, drummer Tony Thompson, who’d previously worked with the Duran Duran/Robert Palmer vehicle The Power Station, and bassist Michael Paige. Rounding out the quartet was a rather unexpected musician: Micki Free, who’d previously been a member of Shalamar’s final line-up.
Right from the opening bars of the first track – the band’s self-titled song – there’s a sense that Crown of Thorns are a really tight unit. After a brief drum intro from Tony Thompson, lead guitars drive the track into its first verse where Beauvoir’s soulful vocal style adds plenty of melody, while retaining enough bite to still be very much a rock performance. While the chorus is strong and the band’s gift for solid arrangement should never be undervalued, it’s Micki Free’s lead guitar work which makes this a killer opener, as he strikes a perfect balance between melody and squealing rock chops. Lead single ‘The Healer’ offers similar rock stylings, though it’s perhaps a little punchier all round. Beauvoir’s vocal is turned up to eleven, hitting more high notes than elsewhere on the disc, but remaining totally professional, he understands the importance of melody and never overplays those rock elements. Again, the chorus comes with a big hook, but it’s the harmonies which really drive it home.
The album’s big ballad ‘Standing On The Corner for Ya’ is a match for many of the big, arguably more famous 80s rock ballads, with huge chords and fantastic use of harmonies throughout. Understated verses, featuring Beauvoir with piano accompaniment allow that big chorus to really make an impact. As with many other tracks featured here, Micki Free’s guitar solo – this time full of long, string-bent epicness – provides one of the high points, even though it’s fairly short in duration. ‘Winterland’ (co-written with Kiss man Paul Stanley) gives the impression of a track that’s more atmospheric at first, due to a soft intro featuring Beauvoir delivering a modest performance, backed by a clean sounding guitar. However, after a few bars Free chimes in with a few hard, rhythmic chords, which help give the number an extra bit of oomph. The verses are decent enough, but a chorus featuring Beauvoir in good form, singing against some great harmonies really lifts the track even farther. With such a simple and memorable chorus, it’s easy to forgive a guitar solo that includes a couple of odd, really jarring notes.
‘Dyin’ For Love’ moves away a little from the melodic hard rock sound and offers something closer to classic AOR. This is due to a more mid-paced approach and a keyboard giving an extra depth of sound in places. Tony Thompson’s drum line and Michael Paige’s bass work both provide solid simplicity, giving the band a fine anchor. The arrangement is spot-on throughout and the chorus one of the album’s absolute best. ‘Hike It Up’ is a track full of mid-paced paunchiness; while it doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, it’s a brilliant driving rocker featuring great harmonies, a couple of great key-changes and a whammy bar solo. If ‘Standin’ On The Corner’ and ‘Dyin’ For Love’ provide the album’s best examples of rock balladry and solid melodic song writing respectively, then ‘Hike It Up’ stands as one of the best examples of Crown of Thorns “the hard rock band”.
With an almost mechanical bassline, ‘Til The End’ has all the hallmarks of a Jim Vallance penned Bryan Adams number, though rather strangely, although Vallance is credited as co-writing a couple of numbers with Crown of Thorns, this particular track was written without his assistance. Jean Beauvoir can be heard in particularly strong voice here, and although his performances on this release are all good in their own right, it’s on the slightly softer numbers he really comes into his own. The harmonies used within this track are especially good. If there’s a weak link on this debut album, then ‘Are You Ready’ pulls the short straw. With its mix of hard rock, retro grooves and a tinge of funk metal, it was obviously designed as a live crowd-pleaser (and in the live setting it’s certainly rousing enough) but on record, its contrived efforts at creating good times do not translate quite as well in your average living room. That said, it’s definitely not a skipper.
Boasting so many strong numbers and decent production courtesy of renowned studio man Beau Hill, this debut is not only one of the best melodic rock discs of its time, it could possibly rank as one of the finest melodic rock discs ever. It still sounds great so many years later. Like a few of the other early Now & Then Records releases, it’s an album no decent melodic rock/AOR collection should be without.