Hailing from India, About Us play a variety of rock styles, but often centre their songs around hard edged melodic rock with proggy flourishes. Despite their desire to give AOR a kick, the proggy moments won’t be enough to win over the average prog fan, and might be a little distracting for the melodic rock purist. However, if you’re able to get your head around their sometimes very busy and occasionally quirky sound, their debut album presents some very strong melodies and great songs.
Keen to make a good impression from the off, ‘Right Now’ opens in fantastic style with a massive keyboard riff worthy of Jonathan Cain, before branching out into a guitar riff that feels as if it could slip into Journey’s ‘Be Good To Yourself’ at any second. A chunky, jagged guitar borrowing from metalcore’s pneumatic style provides a brief diversion – the first of many within the next forty minutes – before the chorus delivers some huge AOR, loaded with harmony vocals and a strong 80s melody. The push and pull between heaviness and melody is very much a loved style for About Us, but the AOR slant remains at the forefront here, especially during the instrumental break where guitarists Renlamo Lotha and Pona Kikon indulge in some fantastic soaring lead work, showing a great love for more late 80s fare. Tailing off with another outing for a superb chorus and an unexpected foray into prog metal riffing, before a huge round of “whoahs” creates a fine climax, there’s a lot here to take in, but it’s to the band’s credit that it never seems cluttered.
‘Gimme Gimme’ ventures deeper into a classic 80s melodic metal landscape when the bulk of the music seems to mix elements of Judas Priest circa ‘Defenders of The Faith’ with the Icon debut when driving forth a really chunky verse. This gives the track a solid base, supplying something very chunky for lead guitar work to slip between a vocal with ease. Chorus-wise, it’s all change when the melodic root seems less than shy in accentuating the harmonised, multi layered vocals – almost Def Leppard style – on a great, cheesy hook. Although this sounds like two very different songs glued together, again, it doesn’t sound clumsy – it merely offers a brilliant insight into this band’s gifts for an unfashionable, yet wholly enjoyable style. More pure AOR can be enjoyed elsewhere on the album when ‘Love & Affection’ (sadly not a Def Leppard cover) presents some fine chugging guitar lines against soaring vocal melodies, and eventually sets about thrilling the listener with a harmony drenched chorus straight from the glory days of 1987. It’s when approaching this shameless melodic rock – worthy of Airrace and Boulevard – About Us sound at their most broadly appealing, especially when Lotha and Kikon are able to share a couple of perfect solos en route. Even with the odd twist into pneumatic drumming, as per the opening track – very clearly an About Us staple – there’s more than enough retro sounding melodic rock here to please even the most demanding fan.
Following an insanely busy intro where lead guitars widdle with sheer abandon, ‘Lead My Heart’ works some superb melodic metal with a couple of proggy twists linking the verses. Those occasionally heavier quirks are in danger of derailing a great tune at times, but it’s always clear that these guys are superb musicians. Luckily, any musical unease is more made up for when the chorus brings some absolutely huge AOR hooks, leaving the listener with one of the album’s very best melodies. The vocals come with a slight “helium balloon” approach in places, but once you tune in, their full on tones are well suited to the job in hand, especially with Kikon stoking up the guitars, creating something pleasingly busy. There’s a much bigger musical twist than before, too, when the mood changes entirely to accommodate a very short guitar solo. The punchy rock subsides, and in its place, the band drop into a slower, almost bluesy mood. As unexpected as this might seem on first listen, the style is approached with a weight and confidence that feels surprisingly natural, which helps lift this beyond your standard melodic rock fare.
The album’s first ballad ‘Loaded Love’ also takes a different turn than most. Instead of opting for the predictable “Journey inspired power ballad #378”, the track shows off more of a love of an 80s pop/rock, with elements of John Waite’s ‘Missing You’ providing the heart of a great musical workout. Over a mid tempo groove, cleaner guitars throw out occasional notes while lead vocals cry with ease, but this is more about melodic heart than pure emotion, and after hitting the chorus, it becomes the kind of thing you’d expect Robin “Coca Cola” Beck to have taken to glory in 1987. With another terrific guitar solo waiting to be discovered and some clean, bell-like keys gleefully propping up the track’s second half, it’s the kind of tune that rewards on successive listens, really making good on the carefree twists that About Us seem so very keen to employ. Potentially even better, ‘Our Fairyland’ drops into some great melodic rock worthy of peak Takara/Jeff Scott Soto – another case of About Us playing safely, but coming up with some musical gold. The melodic but punchy approach is definitely where they fare best as it’s far more conducive of tight lead guitar work, and in this case, the featured solo revisits the sound of a few late 80s greats and gives the track a slightly busier kick. Fans of the style will surely discover an instant favourite.
After a very strong first half, the album takes a briefly unfortunate turn with ‘Rock On Top’. Going for something a little heavier, this kicks off with some proper metal riffs, 80s style, drawing the best elements from early Icon and Y&T records. It’s a style that seems to come very naturally to all concerned but, unfortunately, a great riff is forever spoilt by lyrics that Ron Keel might have even considered too much of cliché. “Rock on, let’s rock on ’til we die” cries frontman Sochan laughing in the face of any perceived rock fashions, setting this tune on a more than wary path, before some unintentionally funny backing vocals and an even funnier “atmospheric” voice over (warning of a prophecy and proclaiming the awakening of “the spirit of rock”) ensures it’ll never be taken seriously. Everything about this should be terrible – it’s the kind of thing that Paul Sabu would consider classy on an off day – and yet, it’s almost impossible not to be swept along with the band’s enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for a good riff… Also from the pile of tunes marked “acquired taste”, the prog metal/melodic rock hybrid ‘Rise’ features some good, pompy keyboard work, some brilliant twin lead guitar and a superb lead break, but the strong musical elements are held back by a slightly clumsy arrangement that wavers between melodic prog metal and huge pomp, without a clear identity. Anything here that might’ve had a chance of working is made borderline unlistenable by more helium induced vocals. It’s the sound of a band at full tilt and, as such, there’s far less concerned about chorus hooks and user friendly aspects, and although a some of the metal riffs are undeniably great, it’s the sort of track that’s much harder to love.
For full on metal thrills, ‘Golden Troops’ fares much better with its pure approach where About Us abandon all AOR intents and drop into something that sounds like an overhang from Skid Row’s ‘Subhuman Race’ crossed with the slower moments from Joe Lynn Turner’s very heavy ‘Belly of The Beast’ album, released just a week or two before this LP. It’s majorly heavy in a semi-old school way. It’s also hard to imagine that this comes from the same musicians that gave the world ‘Losing Love’ barely ten minutes earlier, but it’s great for what it is. Across four minutes, drummer Yanni Ennie really hammers at his kit while dropping some great double bass drums, and bassist Soren Kikon anchors a really chunky groove. The contrast between the riffs and Sochan channelling his inner Seb Bach is always interesting, but his full on roar is eventually outshone by solos worthy of Glenn Tipton and a raucous gang vocal that provides a sheer force at the heart of the track. It won’t be for everyone, and it’ll certainly cause raised eyebrows from those who take an immediate shine to the band’s lighter sounds, but it’s great for what it is.
‘Open Your Heart’ reverts to ballad territory with the help of a sappy melody, a strident piano, some Spanish guitar and a Casiotone orchestra. Sochan cries passionately like an AOR giant from 1989 and it’s easy to hear what the band were hoping to achieve, but unfortunately, the keyboard orchestration really lets the band down here – it’s a signifier of a modest budget at work – and sequenced directly after the huge ‘Golden Troops’, it actually sounds worse than it is. A second guitar solo with a slightly bluesy tone is definitely the high point, but the song certainly deserved far better than it ultimately gets here. That said, if you can make it past the fact that it sounds like a working demo, you’ll discover some reasonable old style melodies and songwriting that’s solid, but without being flashy.
Apparently, Frontiers Records were attracted to About Us since their earlier singles displayed “a non-traditional approach to melodic rock”. Whether those non-traditional elements refer to a couple of prog twists, an unexpected foray into full scale balls out metal, or something else entirely, isn’t entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that it doesn’t matter what route the band’s music takes; there’s almost always something to recommend it – even the riffs during ‘Rock On Top’ are great, despite the song itself having the potential to be terrible. It can seem uneven, but in the main, this is a great album: it’s (mostly) well produced, with plenty of punch – especially for a Frontiers product – and the choruses are invariably huge. In addition, so much of the guitar work evokes rock and metal’s past in a really cool and loving way. It might sometimes feel like a CV of all of the band’s musical interests as opposed to a coherent work, but this is a very strong set of songs from musicians who appear more enthused than most. For those who love solid melodic rock fare, that ensures plenty of enjoyment, even with the occasional wobble. Highly recommended.