American singer James Durbin isn’t a household name in the UK, but for those Stateside, his work comes with a certain amount of expectation. After a stint fronting veteran metal band Quiet Riot, he eventually launched a solo career that aimed to take his huge voice and a love of classic metal in an even more traditional direction. The resultant album, ‘The Beast Awakens’ (released under the name Durbin in 2021) was well received in some corners of the rock press, but despite a few great tracks, the bulk of the material valued volume and bombast over almost everything else. In addition, clichéd material like ‘By The Horns’ and ‘The Prince of Metal’ honestly didn’t do Durbin any favours. Although it was all well intentioned, the worst aspects of the album played too much like a broad parody of old school metal, leading to the kind of thing that a more discerning listener might spin twice and then move on.
By 2022, the seemingly ever restless vocalist had moved on to yet another new project. Cleanbreak, a band teaming Durbin with two members of Stryper, is another vehicle where trad metal influences pump the heart, but unlike ‘The Beast Awakens’, it has a far bigger concession to melody, and actually features some brilliantly crafted songs. Granted, it’s all still rather old fashioned, but the assembled musicians work pretty much flawlessly with Durbin, and as if realising this, Durbin himself seems far more assured in his role as vocalist. There are many times when he reaches for a big wail, but unlike before, that’s always tempered with a great melodic power, rather than being a metallic scream for the sake of it, as had been ‘The Beast Awakens’ ultimate undoing.
These strengths within Cleanbreak are almost immediately clear when ‘Coming Home’s opener (and title track) starts everything with best foot forward, when a massive, jagged riff emerges from the speakers. Pretty quickly, the overall mood falls somewhere between trad metal (eighties style) and the bigger end of a more melodic metal fare, suggesting a great band are in place. As Durbin begins to sing – first letting out a massive “whoah”, never shy of where things are headed – he latches onto a big but tuneful sound, not a million miles away from a far more melodic Michael Sweet, and as the verse takes shape, everything feels so natural. It takes all of a minute to realise that this might be great, and then the chorus hits. Armed with a huge, harmonic vocal hook, Durbin sounds like a genuine pro, and the guitars – supplied by Riot V’s Mike Flyntz – sound very impressive when recycling huge sounds that aren’t a million miles away from the classic sounds of Heaven’s Edge and the most melodic Dokken fare. Flyntz challenges Durbin for dominance via an extended lead break that shifts between metallic fretboard hammering and an odd rock ‘n’ roll groove in a truly impressive display, and in five minutes, Cleanbreak deliver the ultimate in melodic metal. Although it’s clear that their celebratory sound cares not for fashion, it doesn’t sound anywhere near as dated as some of their would be peers.
‘Before The Fall’ slows things down and offers a Dio-esque riff as opening bait, before branching out into a more melodic piece of metal that allows Durbin plenty of space to deliver a huge, very 80s vocal. The contrast of his higher tones and a dirtier guitar really advertises CleanBreak’s combination of melody and heaviness, and although it isn’t quite as impressive in the chorus stakes, there’s plenty to entertain a broad spectrum of retro metal fans throughout, while ‘Dream Forever’ flaunts a semi grungy riff delivered at a hard driving speed, never a million miles away from a 90s work from Glenn Hughes. In contrast, you’ll find a hugely melodic groove where Durbin’s full scale cry gets to soar, and obviously, in terms of melodic metal, it doesn’t break new ground, but as an advert for the newly assembled band and a talented vocalist, it’s great.
Venturing into something a little dirtier, ‘Dying Breed’ melds a heavier riff to an old Dokken influenced bassline, when Cleanbreak inject their classic metal with a much harder edge. Traces of Lynch Mob dance against a vaguely grungy tone, but as with ‘Dream Forever’, there’s still plenty to entertain the fan of classic metal sounds. Of particular note is the ease in which Flyntz switches between two or three very different styles throughout, and his featured solos – straddling a fine line between the bluesy and aggressive – almost sound like a man channelling peak Craig Goldy, while Durbin reaches a few massive wails seemingly without breaking a sweat. ‘Man of Older Soul’, meanwhile, absolutely thunders in the manner of an old style metal banger – a sort of Dio/Stryper hybrid, but with sharper guitar parts – very much allowing James to fly, vocally speaking. With a confident voice, he steers a high octane verse with a huge delivery, before a more harmonious chorus makes the full throttle rock a little more palatable. It’s a callback to the few half decent moments from his solo album in some ways, but with better songwriting and a meticulous lead guitar break used to bulk everything out, it’s still superior to anything ‘…Beast’ had to offer.
By the mid point of the album, it’s very clear that Cleanbreak has all of the right ingredients for a melodic metal powerhouse. And if most of it sounds as if captures Durbin adding his vocal prowess to a latter day Stryper album, then that description wouldn’t be too far wrong. The band’s title cut, ‘Cleanbreak’, throws out a world of riffs that mix elements of late 80s Judas Priest with some added speed. Its musical backdrop another appealing but retro tip of the hat to a classic metal past where Flintz drops some great harmonics, but isn’t always as good from a vocal perspective, since James seems hell bent on drowning out some great riffs with a spiky performance loaded with faux anger. Chosen as the lead single, it really doesn’t advertise the band at their best since there are moments that, perhaps, feel too much like an unwelcome throwback to Durbin’s past works. There’s still enough here musically to carry four minutes of solid metal, though, and especially so for the less demanding, and at the tail end of the record, ‘No Other Hearts’ brings another great mix of power and melody when drummer Robert Sweet works a hard rhythm against a huge multi-layered vocal that brings out the best in everyone, especially during hard edged AOR chorus. Like an old Dokken tune on steroids, it captures CleanBreak in a comfort zone, before being elevated by a terrific lead guitar break that moves between a barrage of melodic metal notes and into a harmonic twin lead sound, accentuating the bands melodic heart without diminishing their obvious grittiness.
There are no weak tracks on this album. Even the dated power metal of ‘Still Fighting’ features some fine guitar work which acts as a great distraction by the time the vocals become wearing, and the more macho ‘We Are The Warriors’ presents a great musical arrangement that balances a potentially bombastic lyric. Its opening riff, a taut twin lead that pulls the best strengths from both Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy circa 1983, captures a great sound from Flyntz, and throughout the four minutes, the assembled band work hard to keep up their 80s inspired perfection when a hugely chunky riff is used as a bedrock for a massive vocal. Although the metal influences stand firm throughout, the increased used of multi-layered voices accentuates a melodic heart, and a world of whoahs leading into a brilliantly played solo seems to capture the very essence of CleanBreak’s old school charm.
This is a million times better than ‘The Beast Awakens’. In fact, at the time of release, it’s easily the best thing to which James has put his name – Quiet Riot included. Most of the riffs are stellar; the choruses are big and brazen, but unlike before, have been written in a far less macho style. Most importantly, Durbin has been afforded a musical backdrop that’s almost always entirely sympathetic to his range – and it really shows. In the main, he shines brightly, like the natural descendent of Michael Sweet and Terry Ilous, often singing like someone who understands the value of taking the power of Richard Fleishman and Mark Slaughter, but without the need for as many histrionics. There’s very little here that genre fans won’t have heard before – nothing, in fact – but it’s a terrific debut, nonetheless. Even if you’ve been unsure of Durbin’s talents previously, Cleanbreak stands a fair chance of winning you over. ‘Coming Home’ is a carefree slab of melodic metal that’s not to be missed.