GROUNDBREAKER – Soul To Soul

FM frontman Steve Overland has always seemed to keep himself busy, but the release of the Overland album ‘Epic’ in 2014 kicked off an especially prolific period for the British rock vocalist. The new, eponymously named band didn’t necessarily offer anything radically different from his “day job”, but in guitarist Christian Wolff and drummer Jay Schellen, he found new collaborators that worked very well with his still great voice. Between making three excellent studio albums with FM between 2015 and 2018, Steve also found time to record a fifth album with Shadowman (his on/off project with Thunder members Chris Childs and Harry James), a second Overland album, and even join a new band, Groundbreaker.

The new band mined a further seam of classic AOR sounds, and their debut album – as with so many Overland related projects – was a great vehicle for his voice. In addition, it allowed Work of Art’s Robert Sall to work with some slightly tougher sounds on occasion, and it was clear from the start that this new musical union had a strong heart. Unafraid to recycle a lot of genre tropes and lyrical clichés in songs like ‘The Days of Our Life’, ‘Eighteen Till I Die’ (nowhere near as embarrassing as the Bryan Adams tune of the same name), and ‘Standing Up For Love’, the band’s moniker was certainly chosen for its tongue in cheek qualities, but the album gave genre fans a great deal to enjoy.

Three years on – and via Steve’s detour with yet another new band, LoneRider – Groundbreaker’s second album ‘Soul To Soul’ picks up almost exactly where the debut left off, but that will surely be to the delight of AOR fans everywhere. It takes all of twelve seconds for ‘Evermore’ to kick in with a massive “whoah” and some bright sounding keys, and with that, Overland leads his extra-curricular musical chums through a track that could’ve easily graced the first two FM albums in the 80s. The music is punchy and the mix of dominant keys and chopping guitars carry more influence from Work of Art than before, which is a surprise since Robert Sall has since moved on. His replacement, Lionville/Coastland Ride man Sven Larsson, is a perfect fit for Groundbreaker and does an excellent job of complimenting Overland with a great riff throughout, before rising with a hugely melodic solo that acts as a reminder of why Lionville are one of the best bands on the melodic rock circuit. Lyrically, it drops into the various old clichés (“we can turn a spark into a flame” and thoughts of “standing tall…as one” being among the more obvious), but in terms of classic AOR, it’s a near perfect example of the genre circa 2021.

…And the rest of the album follows suit, with several more retro rockers that unshamedly mine an 80s sound with superb results. ‘Carrie’ leads off with some bell like keys (courtesy of the omnipresent Alessandro Del Vecchio), and quickly finds its feet with a tune that mixes bits of FM with elements of Mike Slamer/Streets, allowing Overland’s voice to soar, eventually latching on to a great, harmonious hook. Just as importantly, the arrangement provides Larsson enough space for a some absolutely top notch lead guitar moments and at the end of an impressive middle eight, drummer Herman Furin really punches through with a hard beat that’s just enough to give this track an extra edge. Overall, of course, this results in some tried and tested melodic rock that, for all of its familiarity, is still hugely enjoyable. ‘When Lightning Strikes’ teases with a brief snatch of the main refrain, before placing Larsson centre stage via some multi-layered guitars, but it isn’t long before Overland asserts his position as the band’s major draw. When working through the kind of chorus that is an easy match for FM’s late 80s sheen, Steve and his bandmates find themselves waist deep in a great hook and harmony combo that’s more than enough to make the track truly fly. That’s fortunate since, at this point, Del Vecchio’s keys seem a little flat; he’s hammering out the kind of chords that should pierce through, but the typically compressed Frontiers Records production (for which he’s actually directly responsible!) reduces them to more of a mulch. It’s a minor point, though, since the song is great; it could just sound a little more urgent in places. There’s certainly more than enough to please fans of the style, without ever breaking new ground.

A little lighter, ‘Wild World’ leans even further towards classic 80s AOR and Overland’s in an obvious comfort zone. Such is its familiarity to so much stuff from his past, you might even feel it sounds a little too much like an FM leftover from 1989, but his voice is very strong and he actually reaches some impressively high notes with ease. With that in mind, he could never be accused of resting on his laurels or phoning in the performance, and although ‘Leap of Faith’ has a few moments where Overland could be accused of over-singing (a rare occurrence; he’s usually a man who knows just what’s needed for the job in hand), his over enthusiasm is balanced out by a great chorus and reasonably arranged harmonies. It’s AOR by numbers in so many ways, but when it hits the mark – as it does on a pleasing pre-chorus employing a great counter melody, and through a deftly executed lead guitar break loaded with sweeping notes – it does so in genuine style.

Elsewhere, the title cut ploughs a well worn AOR furrow. Another big vocal is joined by parping keys on the verse, but a shift into something a little grander for its chorus allows a busy lead guitar ro occasionally challenge Overland for a dominant role, and ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ delivers more big sounding melodic rock with Del Vecchio hammering a very retro keyboard riff, whilst Overland reaches for even more of a volume. Since some of the bigger vocals are set against a scaled down verse where the bass takes the lead, though, it’s all far more palatable than similar fare from Toby Hitchcock. It quickly has the makings of a solid track, but once Larsson drops in yet another great solo, it’s better than you might think.

An obvious standout, ‘Captain of Our Love’ shifts into huge ballad territory, and a more spacious arrangement allows bassist Nalle Pahlsson to be more audible than before as he helps to anchor the slow groove. The rhythm section’s work is moderate, but cruicial in setting the tone here, and the slightly mournful feel provides a great musical base for both Overland and Larsson to deliver some of their best this work time out. Larsson’s huge guitar sounds pull an enormous amount of emotion from a set of long, vibrato filled passages, culminating in a brilliant solo, and the more soulful side of Steve’s voice ensures the lyric and overriding melody carry more weight, making this feel more substantial than just another AOR throwback ballad. There are no obvious duds to be found on this album, but from a musical standpoint, ‘Standing On The Edge of A Broken Dream’ is far and away the highlight. Lovers of huge harmonies and even bigger whoahs aren’t sold short, as both make their presence felt in record time, and the main riff – driven by Furin’s drums – comes with plenty of drive, but also a huge amount of melody. It falls squarely between early FM and classic Shadowland – big on tune, bigger on confidence – and its four minutes presents Overland in perfect vocal shape. His long time fans will certainly consider that enough to win them over, especially since in terms of chorus hooks, this track is absolute massive. However, Steve is actually outshone by Larsson, whose lead guitar breaks and all round tone are absolutely brilliant. As well as demonstrating why Groundbreaker’s old style AOR will never actually get old, this track is a hard and fast reminder of Lionville’s similar melodic flair, resulting in one of the year’s very best classic rock tracks.

Rounded out by a couple of tunes that obviously recycle the finer points of an Overland past – with ‘It Don’t Get Better Than This’ sounding especially like an old FM staple – this is a great record. The combination of Steve in great form and music that falls between peak FM and solid AOR with a pleasing Swedish lilt brings so much to enjoy. As with so many of the releases featuring Steve front and centre, this shows not only how much better his voice has held up than so many of his peers, but also how he’s so often able to get the very best from material that might otherwise seem fairly generic. For lovers of classic melodic rock and AOR, this is a disc that’s not to be missed.

Read a review of the LoneRider debut here.
Read a review of FM’s ‘Heroes & Villains’ here.
Read a review of FM’s ‘Synchronized’ here.
Read a review of FM’s ‘Tough It Out’ here.

November 2021

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