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