DOKKEN – Broken Bones

Dokken are not exactly well known for their classic album covers, but with regard to 2012’s ‘Broken Bones’ their sleeve art hits an all time low.  A retro skull and crossbones? The album may reference the word bones but, surely, they could have chosen something better?  As indie-rock band Ash once put it, pirates are so 2004.

Dokken can often be relied upon for some fantastic hard rock tunes, though [1997’s mostly awful ‘Shadowlife’ being the notable exception to the rule] and, fortunately, most of ‘Broken Bones’ delivers in spades.  In fact, the two potentially weakest cuts are those which bookend each of the record, where the band most obviously revisit the kind of full-on melodic metal riffs which filled their earliest discs.  ‘Empire’ chugs ahead at full throttle, at first sounding as if it favours riffs and general bombast over anything approaching memorable song writing.  After spending a while with the album, the chorus elements become more obvious, but even then, any chorus is more of a pre-chorus variety than killer hook.  With a moment of majestic twin lead guitar and a particularly ferocious solo, the fans who enjoy this side of Dokken’s work will find some enjoyment, while those more into Dokken’s mid-paced tunes are best advised to move along.  ‘Tonight’ fares better thanks to a more memorable chorus and enjoyable eastern sounding riff during the intro, but again, ‘Broken Bones’ offers far better material elsewhere.

With regard to the album’s other nine tracks, it is honestly very hard to find fault – the remainder of the material borders on being first rate Dokken fare.  The title cut takes on a darker tone, as ex-Doro/Warlock guitarist Jon Levin plays a simple but effective riff over which Don Dokken’s lead voice cries out softly at first, before gradually being joined by other equally melodic voices.  By the chorus, the band members can be heard singing in great harmony.  The hook itself is somewhat of a slow burner, but the melody is undeniably strong.  ‘Waterfall’ is short and punchy with a groove-laden riff carrying most of the song’s weight.  The slight eastern motif occasionally appearing is reminiscent of the best parts of ‘Dysfunctional’ (the band’s superb 1994 comeback disc).  With a strong riff, relatively powerful vocal and a general “no padding” approach, this may have already been good enough to stand out as one of the better tunes on ‘Broken Bones’.  There’s a little more up the band’s sleeve, however, since Levin’s featured guitar solo ups the ante.  Here, the rest of Dokken have no choice but to adopt a different tempo (and tune) to accommodate his fretboard antics!

Eastern influenced riffs are revisited and approached in a hugely unsubtle – but most welcome – way throughout ‘Victim Of The Crime’, a tune which has an epic quality.  Levin offers up various sweeping lead guitar parts, again with a little eastern flair.  It would have been easy for Dokken to extend this track to allow for extra flashy guitar solos, but have instead chosen to keep things vocal led.  Whether Don’s slightly filtered voice performs alone or with a small group of harmonies, his performance is impeccable – one of his best here – and while the general vibe is more Deep Purple’s ‘Perfect Strangers’ than Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’, Dokken proves that such eastern sounding grooves never sound tired…no matter how many times they’re dished out.

On the wholly melodic ‘Today’, Don Dokken’s vocal has a natural tone – the kind which befits a man whom (by this point) has been in the business for three decades – but even so, he still sounds at his absolute best when joined by a few trademark melodic rock harmonies.  While the solid vocal approach and even more solid chorus would have been enough to make this track stand up, Levin is the one whom – once again – brings the most to the table.  With a mix of clean tone and slightly dirtier playing, his riffs are fine enough, but a terrific lead guitar break attacks with a marvellous intensity while always remaining on the good side of melodic.

‘For The Last Time’ has a big drum sound, which sounds even bigger when pitched against semi-acoustic guitar work.   The guitars lay down a fine melody as a blanket of soft keys add to the overall atmosphere.  …And then the song opens properly with its chorus, the electric riffs creating a fine example of chunky melodic rock.  For the verses, things return to the more atmospheric sounds of the intro, over which Don sounds very confident.  This is an interesting tune in the sense that it sounds as if Dokken welded together two half finished ideas.  Both great individually, but they sound good together, too – although those softer moments are certainly preferable.  If you can make it past the initial jarring aspects of this song, it is a tremendous addition to the Dokken catalogue.

There will always be a few naysayers who feel that for best results both Don Dokken and George Lynch should be present, but Jon Levin does a first rate job on most of these tracks.  The combination of meaty (often) mid-paced riffs, great lead work and a few catchy choruses makes ‘Broken Bones’  Dokken’s finest hour since ‘Dysfunctional’.

September 2012


‘Immortal’ is the fourth studio album from Pride of Lions, the melodic rock project pairing one-time Survivor keyboard player Jim Peterik and vocalist Toby Hitchcock.  Right from the release of their debut in 2003, the band have received almost constant praise from the melodic rock community – somewhat unsurprising, since Peterik is considered one of AOR’s finest songwriters.

On this 2012 record, Peterik’s ability to write eighties influenced melodies and hooky choruses is, as always, almost unparalleled.  Sadly, however, ‘Immortal’ suffers the same fatal flaw as all of Pride of Lions’ previous works: the listener has to endure the overbearing presence of Toby Hitchcock.  If you love his voice, you’ll love this, but if not, his purely theatrical approach can be very hard to take over prolonged periods.  Hitchcock’s voice is huge, but in many ways, it is just too huge. More suited to live theatre performances than singing on a melodic rock record, in terms of actual ability, he’s almost wasted here.

Across the album’s first three numbers, Petrik and his session guys (including Night Ranger’s Kelly Keagy) pull out all the stops to create rather fine AOR tunes, only to have their efforts dwarfed by Hitchcock’s booming voice at almost every turn.  By the intro of the fourth track ‘Shine On’, Toby’s voice borders on the unbearable.  Backed only with a piano at first, he booms and wails in equal measure, the stripped back music only highlighting his over-performing tendencies even further.  By the time the rest of the band join the arrangement and ‘Shine On’ actually finds a solid footing, various tried and tested melodic rock elements pull together effectively.  There are some great melodies, a strong chorus and a short but well played lead guitar break along the way – everything you’ve come to know (and love) from the AOR subgenre.

‘Everything That Money Can Buy’ takes Pride of Lions’ love of all things huge that step too far, as Hitchcock gets his vocal chops around a particularly nasty tune that sounds like the rock ballad equivalent of something from a Disney musical.  All strings and over-emoting, it takes melodrama to unchartered heights with its levels of pleading and reaching out to the listener.

One of the album’s better tracks ‘If It Doesn’t Kill Me’ has all hallmarks of Survivor’s eighties greatness: an instantly likeable chorus sits atop a superb mid-paced arrangement, over which the staccato lead guitar parts and occasionally stabbed keys (both played by Peterik) are impeccably played.  With a backing vocal fleshing out the chorus, even Hitchcock’s voice approaches something tolerable.

Of greatest interest to long time Survivor fans (and it’s likely those guys making up 90% of Pride Of Lions’ record buyers) is the song ‘Vital Signs’.  As you may expect, the song has roots in Survivor’s 1984 sessions.  Despite various attempts, Peterik never managed to finish the upbeat rocker to a satisfactory level…until now.  Its chorus section hits harder and faster than most of Survivor’s output, but the eighties origins are unmistakable in places.  The bell-like keyboard work during the opening verse has a very welcome eighties tone in particular.  Overall, although it’s a tad bombastic, it’s the absolute high point of this disc.

Toby Hitchcock has been heralded by many as AOR’s wunderkind, but his ability to over sing nearly every note in a purely theatrical way actually works to the detriment of at least half of these songs.  Rather frustratingly, on the flipside, the tunes are often fantastic, bordering on the best standard the genre has to give.  If only Peterik would take those tunes and work with somebody else, they’d be much easier to swallow.  There are hundreds of great rock vocalists out there – most of them would be more sympathetic than Mr. Showtune Foghorn.

September 2012

WIGELIUS – Reinventions

Maybe it’s just pure association, but some eponymous band names just seem to work well: Dio, Slaughter, Danzig and Dokken are all fine examples of this theory.  Others fall short of the mark: see Newman (sounds more like an estate agent), Naro and Shortino – band names chosen more out of vanity or, perhaps, a lack of imagination.

Frontiers Records signings Wigelius – named after two of their band members – are in danger of falling into the latter category, since the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue… Luckily, for this young Swedish band, their album ‘Reinventions’ is without a shadow of doubt one of the finest AOR/melodic rock discs to be released in 2012.  It’s twelve songs are delivered with abundant amounts of melodic power and classy musicianship (given a great studio sound by producer Daniel Flores) to create what is a “must-have” disc – even despite a slightly wobbly start.

While certainly expertly played – great guitar line, strong vocal, pompy keys –  opening track ‘Angeline’, is so close to ‘Emilie’ by fellow Swedes Work Of Art it’s almost scary.  While AOR stopped being about originality long ago, the similarities are such that it would be easy to dismiss Wigelius as mere copyists.  While some will love ‘Angeline’ (the band themselves have even chosen it as a lead track), it doesn’t quite reach full potential.  From then on, though, Wigelius really deliver the goods.

Bringing in a little more melody, finesse and a far less obvious point of inspiration, the album’s second number ‘Talking About Love’ is much better.  Beginning with dreamy 80s keyboard washes and a solid vocal, it immediately promises great things ahead…and then, as the rest of the band crash in with a classic AOR arrangement and a killer chorus, there’s no looking back.  A great chorus, full of superb harmonies and bell-like keyboard work makes this a near faultless track, especially considering the powerful lead voice and polished arrangement. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to even suggest this is almost an equal match for the kind of much-loved melodic rock that filled a decade of great discs between 1984-94.  ‘Next To Me’ and ‘Cassandra’ follow similarly tried and tested musical blueprints (with the former resembling Swedish melodic rockers H.E.A.T., only much better) but once again, through a mix of genuine talent and a fine producer at the helm, Wigelus come up trumps.  There’s little more to say, but if you’re someone who’s a sucker for a hook, these tracks should more than appeal.

Moving back into a more hard rock structure for ‘Do You Really Know’, Wigelius show no sign of weakness, as Jake Svensson’s staccato riffs lay down a solid foundation and his sweeping lead work comes with a great tone.  As far as fist-pumping melodic rock is concerned, genre buffs will have heard this kind of thing time and again, but this is a band who sound so truly enthused – streets ahead of the genre stalwarts offering another by-numbers affair from tired old bones.     On the acoustic number ‘Love Can Be That Much’, the simple melodies may feel a little like a Mr Big cast-off at times, but the song gives Anders a chance to shine vocally without the rest of the band competing for attention.  In the quieter setting, his slightly accented voice sounds very natural.

A barrage of great vocal harmonies sits at the heart of ‘Right Here Right Now’.  A main riff which could almost pass as the ‘Don’t Walk Away’ riff [AOR fans’ joke], is brought to life by an unwavering rhythm section, over which some of the lead guitar work is superb, particularly during an intro awash with showy tapping moments.   As with ‘Next To Me’, there are few musical surprises, but for those who’ve loved the classic AOR strains within Wigelius’ work thus far, this is potentially another favourite. The album’s most uptempo offering ‘Piece of the Action’ works through a world of rock clichés – musically and lyrically – and although it’s one of the weaker tracks, it somehow manages to sound sparky and wholly enjoyable.  The melodic hard rock riffs are solid, Anders Wigelius’s lead voice has plenty of power, but there’s no doubt the best moments come from a couple of unashamedly old-school lead guitar breaks.

No AOR album is complete without a big power ballad, and on ‘There Is No Me Without You’, Wigelius channel their inner Richard Marx, as a piano base allows Anders to belt out an emotive vocal.  As with most of the band’s other material, it’s when the rest of the band pull together that things really hit their stride, and here, a classy backing vocal and (relatively minimalist) soaring guitar lines give this track a great send-off.  While it’s of the by-numbers variety, it’s not any the worse for that.

Given the sheer amount of well-known talent that has passed through the Frontiers stables over the years – Journey, Foreigner, Jeff Scott Soto, Def Leppard, Whitesnake and so many others – Wigelius may not be considered a premier league band by many, and understandably so.  Fact is, however, ‘Reinventions’ is far, far stronger than most melodic rock discs being released by other bands who began their careers long after the scene’s heyday.  Much like Work Of Art and Brazilian band Auras (both also Frontiers signings) Wigelius are cast-iron proof that there are still classic records to be heard from a genre that’s often considered past its best.

July 2012

PRAYER – Danger In The Dark

Finnish rockers Prayer issued their debut album ‘Wrong Address’ on the Escape Music label in 2005, before subsequently disappearing.  In 2012, the band name was resurrected, but only vocalist/chief songwriter Tapani Tikkanen remained from the band’s previous incarnation.  On this second album ‘Danger In The Dark’ – and with a completely new backing band in tow – Tikkanen reinforces any ideas that he’s the man in charge here, and while his songwriting chops are the kind which ought to please a fair few fans of the melodic rock genre, his vocal style may not be to everyone’s tastes.  Luckily, after a few plays, his slightly accented, warbling vocals take second place to the fact he clearly knows how to pen a good chorus.

Although Prayer have been likened to Canadian giants Saga, you won’t find a great amount of prog influences within the tunes that make up this release; the overall tone is more of the unashamedly pompy variety, offering a bunch of songs which combine reasonable amounts of power and melody.  Yes, the vocals could be a touch more melodic, but if you have a liking for twin guitars and blankets of keyboards, Prayer’s sound could still be strong enough to reel you in.

The melodic punch of the title cut recalls work of many AOR bands from the last gasp of the genre’s classic years (circa 1993), with the bass and keyboards taking a strong lead.  Throughout the number, those keyboards – played by Prayer’s second guitarist Valtteri Tikkanen – are used purely for musical colour, and as such, do a very good job.  Without them, the arrangement would seem somewhat lacking.  While the lead vocals aren’t the most tuneful, a strong chorus ensures Prayer begin on the right foot with a strong opening track. ‘Nobody Loves You’ has a striking intro, making excellent use of a twin lead guitar riff that recurs throughout.  It’s a shame more couldn’t have been made of it, since the moments between are a touch predictable, not moving too far from the blueprint laid down by the first track.  On the plus side, the lead guitar break – full of sweeping notes and a great tone – provides a little more enjoyment.   Although it provides no musical surprises, ‘Never Let Your Dreams Die’ is chockfull of hooky melodic elements, as Prayer ring as much power from a well-crafted chorus as possible and the band deliver another solid tune.  Once again, it’s the work of those guitarists which really makes the song stand up, with their twin riffing and some top-notch solo work.

After an intro where the music briefly takes a back seat, pushing Tapani’s voice to the front (sadly, the weakest element of Prayer’s sound), ‘Find Another Fool’ eventually blossoms into the one of the album’s strongest cuts.  An almost mechanical upbeat pulse replaces Prayer’s oft-favoured mid-paced approach; the guitars ring, the keys move between pompy chords and pure AOR tinkling, while again, the chorus is very strong.  By the time a twin lead guitar break fills the mid-section, it’s obvious that Prayer have a fair amount of talent: it’s just a shame the song couldn’t be tackled by someone with a stronger vocal.  That aside, it’s a great melodic rock track.  Another enjoyable offering, ‘It’s Not The End’, allows the bass more room in the mix, as Mika Pohjola leads a mid-paced, slightly swaggering rock number.  The vocals are a touch more restrained, the keyboards add an extra eighties vibe (always welcome), while the guitars bring a simple (slightly Thin Lizzy-esque) riff, topping things off nicely.  It’s not very complex, but therein lies most of the charm.

Although songs with the word “rock” in their title have the potential of being gut-wrenchingly embarrassing, Prayer manage to come up trumps on the unashamedly cheesy ‘Heart Wants You To Rock’, as they bring their listeners another (slightly different) variant of twin lead guitars and melodic keyboard work.  Without doubt here, the most enjoyable element comes from the track’s intro which is pure Thin Lizzy.  Still, if you’re gonna borrow something, borrow from the best!   Although this album has no obvious standouts, it’s not an album that includes anything truly awful either, but ‘KP’ – with softer sections which feature just vocals and keyboards – is somewhat trying.  Since those sections are designed to come across as the most emotive on this album and Tapani’s voice just isn’t strong enough to stand up with such minimal musical backing, it really lets this track down.  A lack of obvious chorus also works to the negative, making this particular four and a half minute number feel as if it is overlong.

Although not a classic release, ‘Danger In The Dark’ has solid enough foundations.  If you’re the kind of person who sets their expectations high when it comes to melodic rock, this will be an album you’ll likely spin a couple of times and then move on.  If, however – like the chaps at Escape Music – you have a fascination with lesser-known Scandinavian hard rock bands (and there are plenty of people out there over a certain age to which that definitely applies), you’ll probably find more than enough enjoyment here.

July 2012

DEPARTURE – Hitch A Ride

Led by multi instrumentalist Mike Walsh, Departure released a couple of reasonable records via Escape Music in the late 90s/early 00’s.  Following the release of 2001’s ‘Corporate Wheel’, the band went on hiatus for a decade. During that long period of radio silence, AOR fans have had plenty of other melodic rock discs tickle their fancy, though it is doubtless that those who enjoyed Departure previously will welcome their 2012 comeback disc with open arms. With only Walsh and drummer Duey Ribestello the only mainstays throughout the band’s career, Departure may have suffered a little from instability, but Walsh’s guitar sound is what previously gave the band most of their heart, and ‘Hitch a Ride’ is no exception.

On this fourth outing, the vocalist’s spot is filled by Andi Kravjaca, best known for his work with Swedish progressive metal outfit Silent Call.  While Kravjaca is a great performer (his work with his regular band is well worth investigating), he is not always a great fit for Departure.  Walsh’s compositions occasionally hint at old fashioned US melodic rock and yet, the presence of Kravjaca gives things a distinctly Scandinavian feel…so much so, that (for most) this could pass for any number of Scandinavian hard rock discs released after 2001 by Escape Music or the like.

So, on the surface, the guitar work is often decent and the vocals have a Scandi tinge – making this particularly run of the mill for the Escape stable – but looking deeper, does ‘Hitch a Ride’ have much to recommend it?  Based on the first track, the answer would be “not really”, since ‘No Where To Go’ [sic] sounds incredibly thin: so thin, in fact, the bass and drum parts could pass for being programmed.  For a supposedly “finished album”, this sounds like another product from AOR demo city.  The song itself is okay, but not really up to the gold standard we should expect for something given pride of place as an opener.   Although there are two or three tracks which are performed far, far better, from a sonic perspective, rather sadly, things don’t really get much better for this release.  The production (also handled by Walsh) and mix (courtesy of Escape Music studio regular Martin Kronlund) just has no warmth.  Even played through a good amp and speakers, you’ll really have to strain your ears to hear any bottom end.

The best track, ‘This Is My Time’ has a jaunty pop/rock quality, with a hint of pomp provided by organ; AOR fans will take a shine to some pleasing twin lead guitar work, a big chorus and bags of melody.  Each of the band members offers their best performances to make this an enjoyable four minutes in an almost Boston-esque way.  If only they’d turned the bass up and made it sound more professional (and more inviting…); as good as this track may be, the lack of warmth within the recording is a massive, massive drawback.  ‘Travel Through Time’ delivers old school rock vibes via a punchy rhythm.  While the trebly sound may grate, yet again, it’s here that Kravjaca is able to show off his vocal talents.  While he may not always sound like the perfect voice for Departure, on this particular track, his accented voice sounds relatively powerful against some decent guitar chops.  ‘Outside Looking In’ also can be picked as another high point: here, you’ll hear another good hard rock vocal, the required amounts of melody and harmony befitting of AOR/MRM and a mid section providing an enjoyable instrumental break devoted to a guitar/keyboard duel.  With best foot forward musically, it is a great pity, therefore, things couldn’t be stretched beyond a one-line chorus.

While a couple of the uptempo numbers are enjoyable on their own merits – provided you can accept the limitations of this release – the two big power ballads really aren’t anything to get excited about.  Any AOR/melodic rock fan knows that the power ballad often provides a high spot for many classic releases; unfortunately, Departure’s couple of efforts really are “efforts”.  On ‘Fly’, the vocals are slightly overdone to the point of becoming an irritant, but even then, they don’t manage to damage this track as much as the overly loud keyboard which swamps everything.  The acoustic ‘Without You’ occasionally threatens to become a poor man’s version of Bon Jovi’s ‘Bed of Roses’ via a familiar vocal melody, but ultimately doesn’t appeal.  The chorus raises the bar in the way you’d expect, Walsh’s guitar fills provide a few nice flourishes, but it’s not enough to get this bloated vehicle soaring in quite the way it needs to.  After one or two spins, the overwrought nature of the whole affair begins to have even less appeal than it did to begin with.

Given that Walsh has had long enough to create a potential cult classic – maybe even a melodic rock masterpiece – ‘Hitch a Ride’ is not anywhere near as good as it could have been.  Still, lack of bottom end aside, what we have here is a competent AOR record in lots of ways: the playing is mostly fine enough, and the tunes are catchy enough in places; but there is an overriding vibe of “another album off the AOR production line” and “that’ll do for now”.  For some, this will indeed fill a musical hole, but why settle for something this ordinary after a ten year wait?

May 2012