FM – Thirteen

This thirteenth studio release from FM, one of the UK’s best loved AOR bands, presents eleven tracks where Steve Overland and the lads barely deviate from their usual blueprint, barely break a sweat during their performances, or really offer their fans any material that would challenge them in any way. Such a massively predictable approach might seem half arsed coming from a lesser act, but with FM, such familiar territory is bound to bring a treat or six, especially since Overland still possesses one of the greatest voices in rock. At the point in his career where most of his peers are turning in deeper performances or even assaulting their fans with voices that should have long retired, Steve still sounds like a master performer; a gifted talent able to anything within a broad range; a man more than capable of delivering anything any of his various bands requires. Along with Jeff Scott Soto, he appears to be among a dying breed. In the rest of FM, there remains a truly solid band that conveys a classic sound. By 2022, their work is certainly formulaic, but few would deny that it often results in a winning combination of power and melody.

Between a great vocal presence and some superb choruses, ‘Thirteen’ hits the mark right from the very first listen, with tracks like ‘Waiting On Love’ working a classic 80s sound with a soundtrack worthy intro, circular riff and massive “yeah” used brilliantly at the outset. Its poppy verse, very much capturing the greatest elements of FM’s Indiscreet days sounds really sharp, and between classic AOR hooks and great riffs, the track stands as a great example of FM’s wonderfully reliable core sound. Likewise, ‘Be Lucky’ isn’t shy in working some huge harmonies and a very retro mood – never a million miles from sounding like a ‘Tough It Out’ deep cut with a rumpty tumpty rhythm augmented by bright, busy keys and uplifting harmonies. In terms of tapping into a very 80s sound few are still able to do so as effectively as FM, and with Jim Kirkpatrick offering a semi-blusy solo – closing with some smart twin leads – this has a little of everything needed to make it an instant classic and fan favourite.

Elsewhere, ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ might boast a clichéd title, but musically, its mix of harmonic guitars, pompy keys and wordless harmony vocals quickly whip up a world of decent melodic rock. The warmer sound of the verse and almost funky drum part (supplied by Pete Jupp) occasionally makes Overland sound a little out of place – proving that he isn’t perfect – but in terms of melodic drive and band tightness, it’s another standout cut. The way the final arrangement is confident enough to dial back some of the guitars, enough to showcase the close union between Jupp and bassist Merv Goldsworthy but not lose any of the rock edge, demonstrates a band utterly brimming with self belief. It takes a little longer to adjust, but a few plays suggests this is another great track, especially with a harmony driven hook and sweeping melodic solo going into the fade. A lot of bands would have pushed harder for a massive climax, but believing in the old showbiz maxim that suggests “always leave them wanting more”, FM take it very naturally, bowing out at the point where things could’ve probably sustained a longer instrumental and/or another chorus.

On the rockier front, ‘Shakin’ The Tree’ boasts a very muscular heart and band opts for a chunky, mid tempo workout that values mood as much as melody. The main riff carries a lot of weight which, when augmented by some very pompy sounding keys, conveys FM as a solid musical unit. As the tune progresses, a few more AOR traits emerge, and between a huge chorus and more melodic undertone within the verse that calls back to Strangeways circa ‘Native Sons’, there are hints of past FM classics, as well as a definite confirmation that these veteran rockers still remain relevant to the melodic rock scene in 2022. Overland, as expected, holds everything together with a huge, old school vocal that’s as much about confidence as melodic ability, and by the time the instrumental break rolls around with a brief twin lead lifting the stomping groove, this becomes a near perfect tune, even with a few tougher edges present. ‘Talk Is Cheap’ is another chunky rocker, this time drawing a little more from its harder riff. Via an opening melody that’s strongly reminiscent of Lou Gramm’s ‘Ready Or Not’, it immediately grabs the listener but, as things move on, the number takes on a little more of its own identity. Long time fans will love hearing Overland in full flight, but just as much goodness comes from a groove-laden melody within a busy pre-chorus, and the way a shimmering guitar cuts through the chorus lends an unexpected depth to what could’ve been a very simple workout. There’s obviously very little that’s new here for FM or their fans, but between Jim Kirkpatrick wielding a great riff throughout – eventually dropping into a smart, melodic solo – and Overland in very good voice, it has all the makings of another standout.

With those tracks supplying a strong core, you might think the rest of the album would struggle to keep up, but there really aren’t any weak tracks here. Another piece of punchy pop/rock, ‘Turn This Car Around’ comes with a pleasing pre-chorus and a world of whoahs which shamelessly load up the most retro of hooks. From a musical standpoint, it could be any number of AOR bands from the previous thirty five years – especially with Jem Davis’s keys sounding straight out of 1987 – but Overland’s strident presence ensures this can be recognised as FM from the very first verse. It’s one of those tracks that instantly sounds like an old classic – almost like a genre standard – and the recording conveys a sense of camaraderie that so many modern day melodic rock bands seem to lack. With ‘Love & War’ adding a little of a rootsy edge and sounding a bit more like an off-cut from Overland’s Lonerider project, and ‘Long Road Home’ venturing into semi-acoustic ballad territory, FM almost pay tribute to the Brian Howe era of Bad Company. In stripping things back a little without losing their melodic rock heart, these tunes convey an almost timeless sound which provides a perfect backdrop for yet more soaring vocals. Although each member of FM brings their own talent to the table, as the years pass, it’s increasingly hard not to be completely drawn in by Steve’s voice. In an almost impossible feat, he sounds almost exactly like he did thirty years earlier. This is fairly obvious on any number of tracks from ‘Thirteen’, but due to ‘Long Road Home’s more natural, stripped down sound, his amazing talent is abundantly clear.

Every FM album comes with a certain amount of expectation, and ‘Thirteen’ is no exception. If anything, it’s even better than you’d hope for due to more of a classic AOR sound than a couple of their twenty first century releases. With eleven tracks and no obvious duds, it’s a must-have. That’s a pretty amazing feat considering Overland’s prolific output, and considering that his last album with Groundbreaker (the truly excellent ‘Soul To Soul’) was still wet behind the ears at the time of this album’s release. It goes without saying that if you’re a fan, you’ll certainly want this in your collection. …And if – somehow – you lost track of the band sometime in the early 90s, ‘Thirteen’ is strong enough to reignite any interest. In melodic rock terms, it’s a genuine crowd pleaser.

March 2022