SUNSTORM – Emotional Fire

With two highly recommended albums under their collective belt already, Sunstorm’s third release is a cut above most twenty-first century melodic rock releases.  With a selection of well-chosen numbers written by well-known melodic rock songwriters from the 80s and beyond, this disc is a sharp reminder of how, when done absolutely right, the melodic rock subgenre can still thrill.   Despite being slightly marred by a woolly production sound,  ‘Emotional Fire’ is barely out of the starting blocks before it adopts a stance which harks back to classic 80s melodic rock – but perhaps just as importantly – delivered with the kind of enthusiasm such a release deserves.  ‘Never Give Up’ sets a fantastic tone for the disc. A fast paced romp straight out of an AOR past, Dennis Ward’s pumping bass coupled with a strong chorus would be enough to make it a more than creditable opening statement, but Sunstorm take things a step further… This well crafted tune is bolstered by some absolutely wonderful guitar work and an equally good vocal outing from the legendary Joe Lynn Turner.  The solos feature a selection amount of arpeggios throughout – though resting just on the side of good taste – while the blankets of keyboards are laid on thickly, adding to the track’s very full-on sound.

‘Wish You Were’ here – a mid-paced stomper, written by Xorigin’s Daniel Palmquist – is a superb number, with an almost perfect blend of choppy guitar chords and bell-like keyboard accompaniment.  Throughout the track, Turner offers another terrific performance, but it’s on a superbly memorable chorus he really comes into his own.  While few would deny the song’s tried and tested formula, it would take a very harsh critic to not enjoy its qualities.  The upbeat ‘Follow Your Heart’ (one of three numbers penned by songwriter Sören Kronqvist) begins with huge amounts of keyboards which, once again, present themselves in a very 80s bell-sounding way, which is clearly a knowing wink to the 80s from Justin Dakey; if you want a decent retro sound, those kinds of keys are the only way to go.  With another harmony filled chorus backed by an incredibly bouncy arrangement, Sunstorm take us back through their musical time machine back to the glory days of 1986. At a time where various band sound like they just going through the motions, Sunstorm make it all sound so easy.  With a slightly chuggy riff and dirty toned guitar solo, ‘Torn in Half’ showcases Sunstorm’s (slightly) harder edges, but there are so many keyboards and vocal harmonies on show, it’s still hugely melodic.  As with so much of the material here, JLT reinforces his position as one of melodic rock’s finest voices; a voice which, when backed by half of Pink Cream 69, sounds as good as ever.  …And on a release as consistent as this, any of his previous career misfires can be easily forgiven.

That handful of songs would be enough alone to ensure ‘Emotional Fire’ a worthy addition to the band’s catalogue, but it’s the three best-known compositions which pushes things up to almost classic status. This time around Sunstorm tackle a few tracks which are possibly already ingrained upon most AOR fans’ collective consciousness: ‘Gina’ [as featured on Michael Bolton’s ‘The Hunger’ – his last half-credible release before old “Two Haircuts” became the housewives’ favourite with his increasingly limp outings] and a couple of choice cuts from Cher’s ‘Heart of Stone’, namely ‘Emotional Fire’ and the terrific ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’.  Turner appeared on the original Bolton and Cher recordings as backing vocalist, but the opportunity to hear him sing lead on these well-worn tunes is a welcome one indeed.  As one of classic rock’s most enduring voices, Turner absolutely hits the spot on these as you may expect, but Sunstorm’s recording of ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ is particularly superb.  Turner’s strong vocal style plus an incredibly professional band of musicians combined with the award-winning pen of Diane Warren is a killer combination.  Make no mistake, it is gold standard AOR, as well as a timely reminder that Cher’s ‘Heart of Stone’ has worn rather well over the passing years.  ‘Gina’, too, is recommended listening, since Sunstorm take an opportunity to approach the song in a slightly tougher style than the Bolton recording from 1987, resulting in a track which sounds like it was tailor made for them.

The only potential weak link here is the closing number, ‘All I Am’, a track featuring a writing credit from Isabell Oversveen.  Although this power ballad has not been recorded by Issa herself at this time, it’s easy to imagine the Scandinavian songstress wrapping her vocal chords around the material.  The result isn’t quite so great for Turner, however.  On this track, poor Joe sounds like he’s reaching a little too far to achieve the required levels of emotion, resulting in a performance that sounds a touch uncomfortable, and certainly not up to the standard of the other ten tracks.  Musically, it’s all solid fare though, as you would expect, with Uwe Reitenauer laying down some rather tasty guitar work.

So, yeah, you’ll have heard it all before, but with so many bands and artists churning out second division albums on what appears to be little more than a factory production line – a lot of which are destined to get forgotten in the mists of time – it’s thrilling when a potential classic is released. ‘Emotional Fire’ is such a release.  Sure, the production should have been slightly sharper, but the material is top drawer stuff.

You need a copy of this album for a variety of reasons: (1) it ranks alongside Rainbow’s ‘Difficult To Cure’, Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Odyssey’ and his own ‘Rescue You’ as a career highpoint for Joe Lynn Turner; (2)  the versions of the Cher classics are marvellous and (3) it represents almost every reason you still love an often derided rock subgenre (it’s lacking production by Mike Slamer and/or a mix by the “hand of death” Neil Kernon, but you can’t have everything, as they say).   Honestly, go and buy this album; it’s one you just can’t afford to miss.

February 2012