strangewaysDespite some over-excitement by many aging rock fans, Strangeways supposed “comeback” album, 2010’s ‘Perfect World’, was far from perfect.  So far from perfect, in fact, it couldn’t even stretch to being called average.  The record featured eleven tracks which had the little life they possessed sucked from them courtesy of one of the most appalling production jobs to ever grace a melodic rock disc.  The sound of a band desperately trying to be heard through a muddy dirge, ‘Perfect World’ was an insult to melodic rock fans and a bigger insult to vocalist Terry Brock, lending his great voice to the band for the first time since the 1980s.

It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the band had faded back into the shadows following such a disaster, especially considering Brock’s almost simultaneously released solo record ‘Diamond Blue’ was a bona fide gem.  However, you can’t keep a good band down – as they say – and Strangeways returned with another album at the tail end of 2011.

Without the backing of Frontiers Records (the AOR label which issued ‘Perfect World’), ‘Age of Reason’ finds the band going it alone, much in the way they had during their wilderness years of the 90s (a period which yielded a couple of cracking releases in ‘And The Horse’ and ‘Any Day Now’).  From the off, it seems to be an improvement from the disastrous previous release in terms of some of the material.  At least this time around Strangeways have had a good crack at writing stronger choruses, even if production-wise it’s another record which is decidedly iffy.  At least this time around you get a reasonable sense of what the songs actually sound like, rather than just forty minutes of appalling cassette demo quality treacle.

‘The Sentinel’ kicks things off with a solid piece of mid-paced rock, with Jim Drummond’s drum kit high in the mix.  Brock’s vocal is strong, (though not a patch on his best performances from his aforementioned solo disc) and while Ian Stewart’s lead guitar work is buried too far in the back of the mix once again, this track is possibly much better than any of ‘Perfect World’s misfires.  On the big notes, Brock sounds particularly assured – though a touch rough around the edges, due to the ravages of time – and the closing guitar solo brings an extra edginess (albeit edgy in a safe middle aged sense).  A good start, certainly, and by the time the chorus appears on the second track ‘Run’, there’s an even stronger sense that – production aside –  this is a stronger outing than Strangeways’ previous effort.  ‘Run’ features a tried and tested combination of ringing rhythm guitar work and big vocal, both of which do a sterling job in breathing life into a chorus that’s in constant danger of being suffocated by the dodgy projection.  As with ‘The Sentinel’, Ian Stewart comes to life about two thirds into the proceedings to drop in a lead guitar solo which has just the required amount of flair without upstaging everyone.  The chorus makes a reappearance to flesh out the last couple of minutes, but despite being a reasonable one, it feels like padding.  This would have been a superb four minute number in the AOR tradition, but it seems unnecessary for it to clock in at six and a half…

With a couple of reasonable rockers under the belt, ‘Playin’ It Over’ offers the album’s first ballad.  The intro is lovely, with Ian Stewart laying down vibrato leads over simple chords and the sound of Brock’s voice warming up.  During the opening verse, the band sounds superb in such an understated fashion…and sound equally as good by the time things rock up (albeit gently) for a chorus.  Although his voice isn’t as pure as it had been back in the 1980s Brock still manages a good performance throughout, and although the arrangement is somewhat formulaic, it results in another great track.   Keeping with the power ballad mood, ‘As We Fall’ wanders nicely enough thanks to a great riff, but when the chorus rolls in, it becomes a potential classic by 21st century Strangeways standards.  Looking beyond the poor mix, there’s a cracking, moody piece of AOR waiting, strong backbeat and harmonious vocal lines; what’s more, the track’s coda rocks things up a little by way of a vibrato fuelled solo and a slight edginess – a very welcome climax on an already great track.  The production means nothing sounds anywhere near as sharp as it really ought to, but at least – unlike most of ‘Perfect World’ – most of the lead guitars are actually audible.  A similar mood, yet again, cuts through ‘Call’, where Brock stretches his slightly ragged vocal over some great, long notes achieving the desired effect to a more than reasonable standard, and while it does not really offer much variation after its first verse and the slightly too simple chorus, it maintains a solid level of enjoyment for over five minutes.  This is good…but you’ve already heard better from this album prior to this, despite best intentions.

After the intro of ‘At The End of the Day’ – featuring some of the cleanest guitar on this record – there’s a nagging feeling that Strangways really aren’t pushing themselves and, perhaps, the record needed re-sequencing, as four power ballads in a row is, surely, two too many by most people’s standards.  That aside, a relatively strong chorus and nice harmonies carry an otherwise unremarkable tune, and Ian Stewart throws in a couple of nice guitar leads.  With the obligatory key change present and correct, it’s AOR by numbers and – while not a patch on the band’s 80s heyday – the results are often pleasing enough, if never outstanding.

After four ballads, the band seems long overdue to take things up a gear, and ‘Alive Again’ brings respite. An enjoyable pop-rock workout, its mid-paced drumming and riffs are underpinned by an effective guitar part driven by an effects pedal.  Atop an already strong musical base, Brock offers one of his best performances this time out.  Sounding as if it were recorded at a different time, this track is far better produced than most; the clearer separation between the instruments gives the material a lift throughout.  With that slightly sharper edge, there’s finally some music truly worthy of Brock’s vocal range and on a great chorus, he sounds like he’s putting in the extra work required to make this a great track.  Strangeways struggle to keep up such momentum though, since it’s swiftly followed by yet another ballad.  As far as ballads go, ‘Silver Moon’ is okay with some nice melodies lurking throughout, but the mushy – almost demo quality –  sound stops the guitars being a suitable match for the vocal and at seven and a half minutes, it just meanders for far too long.

‘Frozen’ brings another much needed rock riff where drummer Jim Drummond hits hard, but never in a way which pushes his talent.  Brock sounds like he relishes another rare opportunity to sing harder and louder too.  The chorus could be accused of being a little empty and repetitive, but then, melodic rock never claimed to be the bringer of deep and meaningful lyrics and if you just want good time rock, then this track delivers.  Granted, you’ll find better stuff in a similar vein from Brock’s ‘Diamond Blue’, but in relation to this Strangeways outing, it makes a refreshing change from those overwrought ballads.  Speaking of which, there’s another to finish things off!  ‘Long Road’ doesn’t bring anything new to the table – you’ve already heard Strangeways in a similar form four or five times on this album already.  On the plus side, Ian Stewart’s guitar work has a few nice flourishes, but on the whole, there’s not much here which will be enjoyed in the long term.

‘Age of Reason’s initial promise on those first four tracks soon gives way to a feeling that Strangeways should have leant a bit farther towards the rock end of the spectrum.  Also, rather unfortunately, once again from a technical perspective, it leaves much to be desired. By the time you’ve heard this album a few times, even listening to the best tracks, you’ll find yourself wishing they’d spent more money on making a record which sounds clean and sharp instead of either fuzzed up or washed out.

There are some good songs here, potentially even a couple of great ones.  It’s a pity they’ve all been pushed to the front of the album and then presented in an audio form that (again) sounds like a demo…  Why can’t whoever makes Strangeways’ executive decisions just look at Terry Brock’s ‘Diamond Blue’ and realise it sounds so much better than this?  If only they’d given producer/songwriter Mike Slamer a call to assist them with its creation and production, ‘Age of Reason’ could’ve been a record to remember, rather than just a half promising chapter in the Strangeways story.

February 2012