ISSA – Run With The Pack

Issa Oversveen made her first notable appearance on the melodic rock scene back in 2010. Her debut release ‘Sign of Angels’ quickly got attention from the AOR die-hards, with some proclaiming the album “a female fronted Journey”. An odd claim, since the songs neither had a particularly 80s shine and it had a distinctly European flair. That of course seemed only fitting with Issa hailing from Norway and her hired help all being European; it was a little better than most of the second division melodic rock being released at the time, but was still quite workmanlike. A follow up, ‘The Storm’ appeared surprisingly quickly in 2011 which, on the surface, promised more of the same but upon closer inspection boasted a better production and bigger and better songs. It may have accentuated the Euro slant a little more, but the results were enjoyable.

Keen to promote Issa as the new queen of a purer AOR sound, Frontiers Records pulled a master stroke in 2012 when ‘Can’t Stop’ presented the vocalist with a selection of melodic rock covers from the 80s and 90s. Obviously the big hitters like Journey and Survivor weren’t accounted for, but the choice of second division material made the album all the more interesting. For melodic rock buffs, it was fun to hear cult material originally recorded by the likes of Aviator, Tower City and Mystic Healer re-interpreted by new hands. It also was a welcome reminder of a golden period when now defunct labels like MTM Music were cranking out interesting albums on a monthly basis. Following a three year hiatus, 2015’s ‘Crossfire’ was well received by the faithful but, predictably, didn’t make any kind of impact beyond the melodic rock fraternity. As melodic rock albums go, it was a reasonable listen – the upbeat style of ‘Long Time Coming’ harked back to 1990 and was very much a highlight – but after the covers album, it never felt like it deserved as much stereo time.

Three years on from ‘Firepower’ – two three year gaps seems to be at odds with the lightning speed those first three albums were released – Issa’s fifth release ‘Run With The Pack’ brings essentially more of the same but, despite a fairly predictable approach, is actually her best album of original material to date.

An instant classic, ‘Irreplaceable’ isn’t a cover of the Beyonce hit (as covered by The Genuine Fakes), but a brilliant melodic rock ballad that isn’t a million miles away from something Robin Beck or Cher could’ve turned into a global hit back in 1989. With more than a touch of the Diane Warrens in the songwriting stakes, the verses really latch onto a great rhythm guitar part (the one that lots of AOR fans will recognise as being associated with three dozen songs called ‘Don’t Walk Away’), while the contrast between guitar and keys is very strong throughout. Chorus wise, it might be one of the best shameless melodic rock hooks since Anjelica released ‘Thrive‘ five years previously, and in terms of performance Issa is more than up to the job. She pushes her voice from soft and melodic to having a real presence with no real effort and when hitting the big notes, she drives this number to glory. Yes, it’s entirely unoriginal, but when the style is done this well, it’s hard to dislike.

Also on the top tier, ‘Closer To You’ borrows a choppy guitar style from Icon, before throwing out a world of bell-like keyboards in classic style. Issa’s voice seems to latch onto the material with ease and she takes the selection of fairly clichéd lyrics and in turn does her absolute best with each line. The 80s sound on the verses really escalates for a great chorus which, while holding on to a great melodic root, doesn’t sound a million miles away from something Goran Edman might have sang on one of Yngwie Malmsteen’s more melodic tracks, circa 1990. Following a brief keyboard intro, the fat bass sound and soaring guitars that sit at the heart of ‘How Long’ recall second division 90s rock bands like Mystic Healer and Captive Heart. Although it’s shamelessly recycled is recycled with love. Behind the kit, drummer Marco Di Salvia lays a measured but tough beat and from this, some great moments grow: with a thoughtful mix of soaring notes and a couple of sweeps, Simone Mulroni’s featured solo is tastefully played – never upstaging Issa’s vocal performance, which in turn is fine but doesn’t necessarily stretch her talent, while more tinkling keys (excellently played by producer Allesandro Del Vecchio) help to push more of an 80s agenda. All things considered – much like the mid-paced heart-wrencher ‘The Sound of Yesterday’, boasting another Robin Beck friendly hook and superb guitar solo – this is decent melodic rock fare all round.

Elsewhere, ‘Am I Really Losing You’ opens the album with a typical “late period” melodic rock arrangement. The mid pace has all the hallmarks of an eighties classic, but it’s bolstered with the kind of crunch that great AOR albums had, circa 1991. It only takes a few seconds before Mulroni’s guitars really assert themselves. As with a lot of rock albums at the time of this release, there’s not much separation between the instruments, but the guitars come with plenty of crunch, which when tempered by a fairly pompy keyboard, really works to the band’s advanntage. In a vague effort to make this stand out, the verse comes with a spacious moment where the drums push forth, but more likely than not, it’ll be the chorus that’ll keep you coming back. Finding a safe space between 90s melodic rock and something a little more Scandinavian, the full arrangement allows Issa to push her voice just a little and while there’s a fine line between melody and bombast, this gets the balance just right. For something a little bouncier, ‘Come Back Again Now’ comes across like a loving tribute to the first Tall Stories album (a record no melodic rock collection should be without), especially in the way the rhythm guitar really takes charge. A fine blend of chug and bounce, this sounds like the greatest hit from 1988 that never was and while Issa is clearly enjoying the job in hand, once again it’s Mulroni that steals the show with some solid, old fashioned guitar chops.

As for the rest, you’ll find at least a few more reasonably enjoyable rockers, from the over-emoting but could be Eurovision entry ‘Talk To Your Heart’, to the rock-by-numbers meets Joe Lynn Turner era Rainbow of the title cut, through to ‘Bittersweet’, a huge ballad that allows Del Vecchio more time in the spotlight. As with a lot of the other material, there’s nothing particularly original, but much more than Issa’s first two records, the balance between power, melody and decent material is far more obvious. But then, Frontiers Records and Allesandro Del Vecchio have had almost ten years to get this right with her… It’s nice to hear that this time – without relying on covers – they’ve mostly succeeded. There are a couple of times the album falters: a duet with ex-Journey/Bad English man Deen Castronovo is hampered by Deen’s past-its-best voice being not as good as he thinks it is, and ‘Everything To Me’ is just that little bit too saccharine in the ballad stakes…but luckily that’s at the end of the album, so you’ll have found lots to enjoy by then.

Obviously, ‘Run With The Pack’ doesn’t break any new ground – right down to borrowing its title from an old Bad Company LP – but those who’ve already been charmed by Issa in the past will love this. 2012’s covers album aside, it is easily Issa’s finest hour and more than worth some listening time.

March 2018