Guitarist Tony Hernando will be familiar to some melodic rock fans through his associations with powerhouse vocalist Ronnie Romero, and their work together as members of Spanish metal band Lords of Black. Although that band’s huge riffs helped to put Hernando in the spotlight across Europe, its with his side project, Restless Spirits, the musician really shines. When working under that moniker, Hernando’s work takes a far more tuneful approach as he tackles a broad variety of melodic rock styles. In addition, the band’s role call of guest vocalists on their debut from 2019 – including Hardline men Deen Castronovo and Johnny Gioeli, and the brilliant Dino Jelusic – helped to bring Tony’s work to an even broader audience.

For Restless Spirits’ second release, ‘Second To None’, Tony has gathered an even more impressive array of vocal talent. Helming three tracks, Gioeli makes a very welcome return, and although Castronovo doesn’t appear, these will be enough for Hardline fans not to feel short changed. Jelusic is absent (clearly busy with Whitesnake duties at the time of recording) and the lesser known Diego Valdez (Lords of Black) is AWOL, but in their place comes a pair of absolutely stunning performers: the UK’s Chez Kane (maker of one of the best AOR albums of 2021) and Electric Mob’s Renan Zonta, a man who reached a bigger audience ahead of this release as a member of Skills, an all-star project featuring Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis, Mr. Big’s Billy Sheehan and Giant drummer David Huff. In terms of line up, to call Restless Spirits’ second outing “not too shabby” would be an understatement.

…But what of the songs? Most of those are equally impressive. There are a couple of times when the album obviously falters, but when it hits the mark – which it does often and very confidently – it brings a selection of melodic rock numbers that feel really familiar, and always in a good way.

‘I Need A Lil’ White Lie’ (featuring sometime Giant man Kent Hilli) taps into some great AOR, not a million miles away from Giant’s own sounds on the ‘Shifting Time’ album. Armed with a chunky riff and mid-tempo groove, Restless Spirits set about a very melodic rocker to lead things off, and the performance immediately throws a spotlight on Hernando, as expected. His tones waver between dirty and melodic, and when it comes to a lead, he shows an easy gift for filling a few bars without obvious showboating. It may be his album, but he clearly understands that the guest vocalists are the real selling point here, and he allows Hilli plenty of space to deliver a huge vocal that conveys both a classic tone and timeless appeal. The repetition of the title as a hook could have erred on the side of clichéd, but between a strong melody and Hilli’s delivery, it actually has both a genuine power and infectiousness that makes it sound like an instant classic. ‘Dirty Money’, the second number with Kent, is actually one of the album’s weakest. With Hernando dropping in a few well toned leads and boasting the kind of chorus melody that calls back to several hundred AOR classics, it’s more than fine musically, but, once you scratch below the surface, it becomes a little irritating. The fact that the Swedish mouthpiece latches onto some terrible lyrics that make the protagonist sound like a cheap prostitute (“She’s a Mississipi honey / Counting dirty money for love”) and chews through too many quick and easy rhymes (“Turn me loose, ready or not / Here I come, I’m takin’ my shot”) would make it bad enough, but the fact that he insists on doing it all at full volume just makes it really cringe-worthy. Luckily, this track is at the end of the album, so it’s easily avoided…

Providing some continuity with the previous Restless Spirits LP, Johnny Gioeli supplies some great vocals on his chosen material. ‘Too Many’ taps into a slightly darker tone due to some muted chords colliding with a moody, ringing guitar sound on the verse – like Foreigner meeting an 80s Gary Moore ballad – and compounds an ominous mood with a massive, dirty sounding chorus. Naturally, Gioeli slides between the tones of the verse and into the hard rock roar of the chorus with ease. Although the slightly rougher edges of his voice are now present, he handles the performance very well throughout, resulting in something that’ll please fans of Hardline’s more metal infused material. ‘Always A Pretender’ opens in classic ballad style with a whole world of soaring guitar notes and aching melodies, and subsequently uses that approach to link some very downbeat verses. Gioeli’s stretches his voice over the semi-theatrical melodies, before taking things up a gear for a rock infused verse that calls back to the slightly tougher big haired rock sounds of 1990/91. Overall, it doesn’t push the envelope; this is melodic metal by numbers, but that doesn’t make it sub-standard in any way. What this lacks in uplifting or inventive melodies is more than made up for with some great guitar work, and Hernando’s chosen lead break – a Mattias Jabs-esque show of melodic flair – results in one of the album’s very best solos.

Best of all, though, and more in keeping with the tough AOR of the Restless Spirits debut, ‘Nothing Dirty Here’ blends another timeless guitar chug and harmonious chorus in a way that sounds like Hardline meeting with something from ‘Saints And Sinners’ by Kane Roberts, and as you might expect, both Hernando and Gioeli are very much within a comfort zone. On first listen, it sounds strong without being earth-shattering; subsequent listens uncover a tune that’s incredibly catchy, as well as being brilliantly arranged. The juxtaposition of slightly gritty vocal and melodic rock backdrop suggests a band that’s oozing with an easy confidence, and this definitely becomes obvious when, in terms of lead break, Tony manages to shoehorn a Marty Friedman-esque melter into a mid tempo groove without it sounding silly. Maybe he’s been taking tips from Pole Position man Lars Boquist…

The songs featuring Renan Zonta are an interesting mixed bag. ‘A Dream That’s Lost In Time’ adds something rather quirky to the album with its blend of huge power chords and rhythmic bounce. The main riff and chorus are of the melodic metal school, driven by some pleasingly busy drums, but elsewhere, there’s an unexpected Westcoast-ish quality to the piano work, flirting with melodies that appear to be on loan from early Toto. There’s more bright sounding piano work at the heart of ‘And Yet It Breaks’, but it’s Zonta that’s often the track’s star, thanks to a massive performance where he curls his big voice around some traditional sounding melodic rock/AOR with ease. The marriage of his semi-theatrical voice and Tony’s chopping guitar lines is almost perfect, despite being rather grand, and chorus-wise, this has all the makings of a fan favourite. ‘No Time Wasters’ opens with a grandiose organ filled intro – not a million miles away from ‘Abominog’ era Uriah Heep – but soon finds its feet as a massive, swaggering hard rocker where Tony throws out a few horsey squeals to lift a dirty groove. After a great start, it actually gets better when the chorus hits, but that’s purely because its melodic root comes dangerously close to being the Winger classic ‘Battle Stations’. Overall, it’s a retro banger that shares its big haired old style heart with pride, and with a fairly inventive lead guitar break thrown into the bargain, it’s very much an album highlight.

Most of this album is good to great (save for that Hilli track), but Chez Kane steps up to the mic for a trio of numbers that, if anything, are the album’s crowning glory. ‘Hey You’ takes on a blues rock swagger, sounding like a throwback to the days of Saraya, and as expected, Tony’s grubby guitar tones chew through such a riff with great style. In terms of musical interest, though, it’s Chez who wins here, working a huge cry that’s like a Robin Beck on steroids, which works brilliantly across a mid tempo verse before exploding on a sizeable, harmony driven hook. The gentler ‘Until The End of Time’ sounds like a cousin to a few tracks from the Issa and Angelica back catalogues, and Tony takes the tried and tested “Don’t Walk Away” AOR riff and makes it sing, whilst Kane curls her voice around a huge melody that calls back to the genre’s AOR heyday. Loaded with phrases like “after the rain”, “we’ll be holding on” and “no time to give up”, it almost sounds as if it were written to order using melodic rock cut-ups, but the end result is a near perfect example of the genre. Via ‘Dreams of The Wild’, Kane applies her natural talents to a tune that features both a sharp edge and pleasing amount of bounce, and although it’s very much “melodic rock 101” in the arrangement stakes, a strong vocal and well played lead breaks give it plenty of extra oomph. It’s definitely one of the times where Tony actually attempts to outshine the vocal talent, but there’s still a feeling of great musicians pulling together towards a common goal.

Between some very tasteful work from Tony himself and the return of Gioeli, ‘Second To None’ has a very strong core that’s guaranteed to please fans, but the addition of the brilliant Chez Kane definitely gives the album a lift. That’s not to do the other contributors down, of course, since this time around, Hernando has surrounded himself with an even better array of vocal talent, leading to the kind of album that should please a broad cross section of rock fans. For those who loved the debut, this second outing will certainly not disappoint, and for those who somehow missed the previous record, this will be a real ear-opener. Come for Chez, then stay for the rest: in the main, retro rock rarely sounded better.

July/August 2022