The Michael Thompson Band’s 1989 album ‘How Long’ is often considered one of the landmark releases of 80s AOR. A near perfect release, its slick pop-rock sound and songs co-written with Mark Spiro captured the ears of a generation of fans. The album became increasingly hard to find on CD until a Frontiers Records reissue made the masterpiece available to all once again in 2007. Such a reissue should have been met with much enthusiasm. However, not only did the reissue sound inferior compared to the master used for the original Geffen release, but it was also sullied by the addition of a few contemporary bonus tracks which only lessened the overall quality. A brand new release the same year – TRW, teaming Thompson with vocalist Mark Williamson and noted session man John Robinson (one time of AOR band Bridge 2 Far) – was enjoyed by some fans, but in terms of sheer quality it just didn’t equal Thompson’s late 80s peak.

Thirty years on from ‘How Long’, Thompson’s 2019 album is a record that, although enjoyable in a few places, is another record that just sits in the shadow of any former glories. Its best tracks are okay AOR fodder – well played, reasonably produced – but still come across as a mite stodgy in direct comparison with something similar from three decades earlier. ‘Love And Beyond’s biggest issue, though, is that almost everything sounds pretty much the same throughout: anything that isn’t presented as a musical interlude comes with a semi-acoustic strum fleshing out the sound and nothing ever rises beyond an ambling mid-pace. Approaching this material a couple of songs at a time disguises its inherent samey-ness, but in all honesty, if you find yourself having to do that with an album, there’s obviously a problem…

‘Supersonic’ taps into semi-acoustic pop-rock that quickly settles into a pleasant mood. The basic tune often sounds like one of Def Leppard’s more sedate affairs (circa ‘X’), and that’s something that’s reinforced by the vocal affectation applied when singing the title word, while a strong melody and reasonable chorus carry the lion’s share of the weight. The use of vocal filters is a little irritating, but if you can make it past those then this could end up being a favourite if you’re not too demanding, especially considering the presence of a cracking guitar solo. Likewise, ‘Where Will I Be’ isn’t shy in throwing various acoustic elements atop of a solid rock drum, a few 80s synths and something that often harks back to a very 80s style. Perhaps what’s most obvious here is that the chorus has as almost as much in common with certain strands of contemporary country as it has with old-school AOR. It manages to be moderately rousing without being too cheesy and the presence of a very strong, tried and tested melody goes a long way to covering for any vocal short-comings. As before – perhaps predictably – the best part of this number comes when Thompson steps forth for a soaring and emotive lead guitar break. His clean tone cuts through everything and his playing is as good as it ever was… Also worthy of an ear, ‘Passengers’ opens with some lovely new-agey noodles and a couple of pleasing harmonics showcasing some fine work from Michael before the rest of the band crash in and everyone finds a space in a shiny pop-rocker that comes across like a blend of Bryan Adams and Brett Walker. It’s hardly an effort for Thompson and doesn’t add anything new to his oeuvre, but a few plays more than suggests this is has the makings of a genuinely great track. It’s easily this album’s best; Thompson’s lead guitar work is lovely throughout, even if a touch underused.

Failing to reach the heights of most of those tracks – which in turn aren’t anywhere near as good as even Thompson’s worst work in 1989 – ‘Starting Over’ is no more than old melodic rock by numbers, often sounding like a third rate Magnum cast off, complete with a husky vocal that’s about as convincing as Bob Catley post-2004; ‘Far Away’ has the strong AOR echoes of ‘How Long’, but is hampered by production that’s not far above a polished demo with a fudgy mix and dodgy drum sound and ‘Don’t Look Down’ hovers somewhere between a stodgy bar-room rocker and melodic rock throwback. An uninspired arrangement is ultimately saved by some fine lead guitar work and a few vocal harmonies applied to a chorus that, perhaps, should have been set aside for a much better song. It would’ve been nice if someone as legendary as Michael Thompson could put his stamp on material that’s much better than these all-too-obvious fillers, but all of this suggests his best days are gone.

Being somewhat pacier than so many of this album’s songs, ‘Save Yourself’ not only should’ve been a highlight, but the highlight. With a great vibe, somewhere behind the driving pop-rock, you’ll hear Thompson adding some classic guitar fills and, eventually, a great melody that absolutely screams late 80s before he launches into a flawless solo. This has all the makings of a classic MTB number in 2019, but some heavily applied vocal filters absolutely kill any enjoyment. If ever there was a cast-iron example of something very strong being weakened by production/mix choices, then this is definitely it. ‘Flying Without Wings’ opts for a soft AOR style, taking the kind of rhythm that should be applied to a song called ‘Don’t Walk Away’ and works that into another semi-acoustic rambler. The lead guitars that occasionally assert themselves actually sound terrific and the chorus is lovely, but instead of being another rightful highlight, it’s just another great tune that’s been smothered in so many vocal effects that you just have to despair. What were they thinking?

Thompson is obviously still very handy when it comes to lead guitar work that compliments everything around him; at no point on this album could he be accused of show-boating or upstaging the rest of his band, despite his name being emblazoned across the sleeve. Further evidence of his timeless skills can be heard during the various aforementioned interludes scattered throughout the disc. Whilst there is obviously a joy to be gained from hearing Thompson relying heavily on long, vibrato laden notes, the fragmented presentation of these musical sketches only highlights an inability to expand on some great ideas which, obviously, can be somewhat irritating. Aside from anything else, these snatches of great music will never sound quite as good in the long-term. If only he could’ve saved these for pride of place within proper songs…and better ones than we’ve all too often been given here.

Obviously, it would’ve been unrealistic to ever expect this to be as good as ‘How Long’, but something with a bit more variety would certainly have been an improvement. Still, if you’re happy with melodic rock that largely goes through the motions and are keen to find out where Thompson had settled musically by the spring of ’19, there’s possibly something for you to enjoy here, especially if you don’t set your expectations too high. Sadly, though, even with a lot of good intentions, ‘Love And Beyond’ never gets beyond average at best.

March 2019