ISSA – Queen Of Broken Hearts

When Issa Oversveen made her big breakthrough on the AOR scene with her debut solo record ‘Sign of Angels’ in 2010, melodic rock fans were practically falling over themselves to praise the release. Although often likened to “a female fronted Journey”, the album had far closer connections to a European rock sound, and although an enjoyable listen in its own way, it wasn’t quite the classic that some proclaimed. The following year’s ‘The Storm’ showed a huge amount of growth and a more distinctive sound, but it wasn’t until 2012’s ‘Can’t Stop’ that Issa gave the world something unmissable. That album was a marketing master stroke from Frontiers Records: it took one of their rising stars – somebody already beloved by the core of their target market – and coupled her to a bunch of old AOR songs the record buyers already knew. This wasn’t a case of having Issa wheel out covers of old Journey and Survivor hits, either – that would be too easy. For ‘Can’t Stop’, the dustier corners of melodic rock’s history were explored, and the singer revived overlooked tunes by Aviator, Mystic Healer, Boulevard and Tower City, alongside many other great, truly cult melodic rock acts.

After a prolific three years, it would take Issa another three years to release her fourth album and three more again until her fifth release hit the shelves, but both ‘Crossfire’ (2015) and ‘Run With The Pack’ (2018) cemented her popularity with keen AOR fans. It would be a further three years until she released her sixth album, but 2021’s ‘Queen of Broken Hearts’ was more than worth the wait.

Although most of ‘Queen of Broken Hearts’ could be called AOR by numbers, there are so many songs featured that have the potential to win over genre fans in a heartbeat. By opening the lead track ‘Angels Calling’ with a barrage of bright, stabbed keys, the album quickly announces its sharp and very retro AOR credentials proudly, and while this more than suggests a comfort zone, the results are stunning. As those keys slide into a chunky guitar riff, the tune quickly finds its feet, sounding like a throwback to a lot of the more overlooked MTM Music releases of the 90s. The interplay between keyboard player Alessandro Del Vecchio and Simone Mularoni (on loan from Sunstorm) is great throughout and there’s a heart to this performance that certainly calls back to the earlier Sunstorm releases. Keen eared fans will hear traces of bands like Mystic Healer and Harlan Cage at the core of a great melody – supplying the arrangement with a far purer AOR heart than so many recordings at the time of release. Issa, meanwhile, appears in very strong voice. Armed with a huge chorus, she sets about taking fans back to the glory days of the genre, and her slightly accented delivery fuses the very American sounding music with a Euro charm, almost seeming to celebrate melodic rock’s worldwide appeal. A couple of listens to this track and it certainly feels like a potential classic of its style. Equally great, ‘Wait For Love’ offers a similar blend of chunkiness and melody as Mularoni steers the band through four minutes absolutely loaded with chunky riffs augmented with soaring leads. With a mid tempo verse and a world of stabbed keys underscoring a great vocal, things immediately feel familiar, but with Del Vecchio occasionally sounding as if he’ll launch into the intro from Bon Jovi’s ‘Only Lonely’ at any second and Oversveen latching onto a great melody throughout, this has the potential to outshine at least half of Issa’s previous recordings.

Taking more of a Euro stance, ‘I’m Here To Stay’ opens with the kind of multi-tracked lead guitar sound that suggests Mularoni had been listening to Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Odyssey’ album before entering the studio (something also obvious on the 2021 Sunstorm LP ‘Afterlife) and its a sound used to great effect during each of the track’s instrumental bridges. The slightly more bombastic style means that the chorus isn’t quite as sunny, but with a world of harmonies and a tried and tested lyrical hook it still has the power to stick, while the big ballad ‘Blue’ slows everything just enough to allow Issa an opportunity to stretch her voice. In terms of talent, she wouldn’t necessarily rival the scene’s true greats like Ann Wilson, but even without too much propping up musically, the quieter moments of the arrangement show off a strong and likeable voice. She really comes into her own, though, once the chorus hits and she’s able to reach for “fully overwrought” easily enough when she challenges a wall of guitars for dominance. Naturally, the more theatrical style here means there’s an absence of stabbed keys, but the band are in great shape. Likewise, the grand ‘Derive’ pits harmonic, huge guitars against a huge voice and a barrage of drums to create something that sounds more like a Eurovision rock ballad than melodic rock classic, but the performances from all concerned are great. Issa, in particular, seems especially unafraid to reach for a more bombastic performance, and although she’s occasionally in danger of being swamped by Mularoni’s wall of guitars, she appears unafraid to call upon the louder end of her voice which shows something of a confidence growth.

Also more than worth an ear, ‘After The Rain’ taps into a chunky melodic sound where a dirtier guitar sound and tougher guitar sound set up a great retro rock number. With multi-tracked guitar sounds used effectively and Issa appearing to enjoy every moment curling her voice around a great melody, there’s a lot to like here. After the initial disappointment of this not being a Nelson cover, fans should find more than enough reason to return time and again to a number that has traces of Matti Alfonzetti’s Revolution Road and a couple of other Euro greats, while ‘Without Love’ is equally effective in a different way. By melding a massive melodic rock chorus to a poppier verse, it gives the album a slight variation on the norm without drawing too much attention away from Issa’s voice. Although this track takes a few more plays to fully appreciate, before too long, though, it feels very natural hearing her vocal stretching out and leads to some very high highs on a chorus that features a couple of massive wails. Another great blend of US and Euro melodic rock from the early 90s, it should eventually become a fan favourite. The title track stokes up a little more of the Euro edge via an arrangement that’s much bigger on the guitars and speed, but even when tackling a driving tempo and semi-bombastic hook, Issa sounds like a very natural performer, leading to the kind of track that – although, again – never sounds a million miles away from something you’ve heard from Issa before, definitely has a much better production and feel in comparison to previous works.

Although, on the surface, Issa delivers a fair amount of AOR-by-numbers throughout ‘Queen of Broken Hearts’ (at least stylistically speaking), the songs are so well written and performed that fans will definitely discover an album they’ll love instantly and want to return to time and again. Sure, it’s the musical equivalent of a favourite woolly jumper: safe and comfortable, but it’s also so very satisfying. By employing some of the most traditional arrangements of Issa’s career, this certainly isn’t anything new, but she and her assembled band play the retro angle with an amazing confidence throughout. In terms of both performance and consistency, it’s Issa’s finest fifty minutes since the release of ‘Can’t Stop’ almost a decade earlier, except this has the benefit of showcasing all new material. If you’re a fan of very late 80s/early 90s sounding melodic rock, you’ll almost certainly want to add this to your collection.

March 2021