GRAHAM BONNET BAND – Meanwhile…Back In The Garage

Graham Bonnet is the epitome of a hard working vocalist. Active since the 60s, whether solo or part of a band, by the beginning of 2018 he’d contributed lead vocals to a staggering twenty three studio albums. As with any artist with such a long career the results are variable, ranging from the essential (his own ‘Line Up‘, Rainbow’s ‘Down To Earth‘ and the Graham Bonnet Band’s ‘The Book‘) to the workmanlike (most of the 90s releases) to the flat out awful (Blackthorne, Impelliteri’s ‘System X’). Whatever the result, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by Bonnet’s work ethic and tenacity.

Although shamelessly old-fashioned in its “big rock” stance, 2016’s double set ‘The Book’ is a hard act to follow. While ‘Meanwhile…Back In The Garage’ is often predictable, it does a more than admirable job of adding to Bonnet’s legacy, with a selection of energetic workouts that often have a musical undertone of his time with Impelliteri and Alcatrazz. The title track, ‘Meanwhile…’ sets up a thundering drum line, over which the guitars throw out various ascending and descending scales, quickly suggesting the more obvious Alcatrazz influences, while a huge Hammond organ fills spaces with slabs of sound. Bonnet, meanwhile, is in slightly scratchy voice, presumably to accentuate the “garage” aspect of the recording, but even with the rougher style, he sounds a thousand times better than he did with Blackthorne in 1991. The track takes a few plays to really embed itself, but a reasonably strong hook and a tight band makes this a decent enough set opener. In terms of melody, though, ‘The Hotel’ beats it hands down, with a pompy sound that’s closer to the powerful sound present on ‘The Book’. More attention is paid to making sure there’s a great chorus and here, a wall of wordless backing vocals gives Graham far more to work with, while a tough but melodic guitar solo courtesy of one-time shredder Joey Tafolla provides a real highlight. If anything, it’s perhaps a chorus and coda too long, but the guts of a great idea ultimately see the track off successfully. The uptempo ‘Past Lives’ mixes the speed of old Impelliteri recordings with the broader appeal of a couple of ‘The Book’s best tracks, but quickly twists towards something more unexpected with the use of vocal filtering on the verses. Luckily, the vocal is allowed free rein without studio interference on the chorus and when reaching full belt, Bonnet sounds (almost) as good as he did back in the 80s. While a hit and miss number, the good far outweighs the bad and another great guitar solo really gives everything a lift. These tracks don’t really break any new musical ground for Bonnet or his long-time collaborators Jimmy Waldo (keys) and Beth-Ami Heavenstone (bass), but everyone sounds like they’re having a great time within that comfort zone, and if you liked their work before, there’s little doubt you’ll find plenty to enjoy here, too.

Taking that typical energy and turning it up to eleven, the melodic shred of ‘Man on The Corner’ is very much driven by Tafolla’s preference for speed, while a few odd chords thrown into the chorus tip the hat to his days as a virtuoso player on Shrapnel Records. Bonnet, meanwhile, takes all of the melodic quirks in his stride and applies his vocal in a way you’d expect after so many years experience. Despite the speed, there are times during this number where his voice reverts to the sounds of his younger self, with echoes of his time with Rainbow and the Michael Schenker group throughout. As suggested by the overall arrangement, Tafolla eventually breaks through with a pretty nifty solo. While this number might suggest a Malmsteen-ish knock-about that’ll cause a headache on first listen, given time to adjust and time to impress with great musical flourishes, ‘Man On The Corner’ eventually finds itself among ‘Meanwhile’s best tracks.

Dropping back into melodic metal, single ‘Sea of Trees’ settles into a perfect mix of groove, grit and melody, fusing bits of the trademark Bonnet Band sound with a very slightly downtuned edge in places. While it’s easy to see why this was earmarked for release as a digital single – it shows off something slightly different for Graham while not alienating old fans and the lead guitar work is stunning – an actual chorus might have been nice… For those looking for even more melody, the moody mid-pace of ‘The House’ makes great use of backing vocals on a reasonable, theatrical chorus, while the main riff echoes older material by the likes of XYZ and Dio. With darker tones within the music – and far fewer nods to the Impelliteri tinged Euro styles on show elsewhere – it comes with a great sound. Bonnet offers a fine performance too, constantly curling his by now very familiar gritty style over a superb, unfussy arrangement. For long time fans, this’ll become a favourite, while for the merely curious, it’s a great example of how good the Bonnet Band can be (…and if you like this, it’s time to back-track and listen to ‘The Book’ if you haven’t already done so).

If that’s not enough, the AOR moments reach their peak on the album’s cover tune, a rather brave – not to mention unexpected – take on Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’. Obviously, with its 80s sheen, studio perfection and a great vocal from Teen, the original will never be beaten. Nevertheless, Graham and the gang plunder on…and the result is much better than it had any right to be. Despite a slight vocal filter, Bonnet approaches the song with a deep moodiness that allows him to really rise when it comes to the chorus, which the band then set about heavying up. Not too much, though; just enough to give a once shiny affair a punch that’s closer to a Rated X or Scorpions record than Tina Turner. Thankfully, we’re spared singing children on this version, so surely that’s a plus for everyone…and the featured solos come with plenty of melodic flair. There’s enough here to raise a smile…and despite a couple of distinctly wobbly vocal notes in the middle and (especially) the end, it’s a great, fun addition to the album.

The first of a couple of angrier songs looking at the political car crash in the USA under the Trump neo-Nazi regime, ‘Incest Outcest USA’ takes a heavy swipe at proposed anti-immigration policies and the parallels between 2018 America and the Germany of 1939. Lyrics dealing with purity and one nation provide some scary listening, but the song was inspired by very scary times indeed. Musically, the Bonnet Band are on fire, especially in the way the track crashes in unapologetically with a lead guitar sound that could be on loan from a number of 80s classics. The other political swipe, ‘America…Where Have You Gone’ talks about schools no longer being safe zones and melds another sledgehammer of a lyric to similarly unsubtle riffs far more suited to Yngwie Malmsteen than the Graham Bonnet of the 70s. This neo-classical shred-fest will thrill fans of the style, while also boring those who value melodies over speed and flash. That said, of course, it’s hard to find fault with the technicalities from all concerned. ‘Long Island Tea’ shows the band excelling themselves on a few jagged riffs – with made more menacing by a slow-ish pace and more interesting via the use of stops. For the chorus, everything steps up a gear to reveal something that’s all driving riffs and clenched fist furies. Given the speed, Waldo steps up to the plate with a squirly keyboard solo, while Tafolla – once again – steals the show with some impressive lead work. For those who’ve followed Graham for a long time, this will surely sound fairly workmanlike on record, but everything gives the feeling it’ll be a belter in the live set, even though the vocals occasionally overstretch themselves.

A huge ballad, ‘The Crying Chair’ has a more spacious feel than the bulk of the album. With that space, Bonnet room to stretch out, but with that there also comes a tendency to over-sing. While his voice is still very good considering the many years of constant employment, the overwrought mood of the music doesn’t show him at his best. Even with a warm bass, thoughtful backing vocals and a rare acoustic guitar to steer the way, the effect is still more “stage” than rock ballad. With that in mind, unless musical theatre has a special place in your heart, this mightn’t make it past a couple of plays, especially clocking in at twice the length it probably should have been. It feels so long, in fact, that by the last verse you might find yourself despairing more than the song’s protagonist. By that point, the self pity really grates, but on the plus side, there’s a lovely solo along the way where Tafolla appears to be channelling Malmsteen impersonating Gary Moore…

While there are some great songs scattered throughout ‘Meanwhile…’ very little of the album is a match for ‘Heading Towards The Light’, a majestic and pompy workout that weaves slightly Eastern melodies into some fairly traditional Bonnet bombast. In doing so, there are traces of Bonnet’s former associations with Ritchie Blackmore, while the more metallic elements are a loving tribute to times spent with Impelliteri. Such styles come easy for Joey Tafolla, too, of course and his playing is superb throughout, but it’s Bonnet’s vocal that’s most impressive. Another essential performance, he brings a natural grit to the music; hearing him apply a tough lyric to a tune with a superbly quirky time signature with all the ease of belting over a four-four is an album highlight. Also, unlike some of ‘Meanwhile’, there’s a much better sense of scale and depth. It’s not all about big electric grooves – the main thrust of the track is given some lovely extra layers thanks to a droning sitar sound and a few semi-acoustic elements. With multi-layered harmonies bolstering Graham’s very best performance this time around, this track is essential listening.

While the majority of this album’s songs play safely to the Bonnet Band’s strengths with a set of gutsy old-school bangers, there’s very occasionally a roughness the music that’s more obvious than before, especially on the title cut. Overall, while it isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, it’s still much better than at least eight of the albums on which Bonnet has played a major role in the past, suggesting there’s plenty of life left in the aul’ bugger yet. …And with the inclusion of a full length warts ‘n’ all live DVD included as a bonus,’Meanwhile, Back In The Garage’ is still very much recommended to Bonnet devotees and fans of the heavier end of the classic rock spectrum.

June 2018