NEVENA – Nevena

Serbian vocalist Nevena Dordevic came to the attention of Frontiers Records via her friendship with The Big Deal’s guitarist Srdjan Brankovic, whose own band released their debut album on the label in May 2022. Seemingly, his championing of Nevena was met with a huge amount of trust which was not misplaced.

A star in her home country, Nevena has already recorded several pop tunes, On her debut album for Frontiers, she approaches an old fashioned melodic rock style with a huge amount of enthusiasm, and the result much fits many peoples’ idea of the label’s stock sound. The bulk of its eleven chorus driven rockers have far more in common with the works of older bands like Perfect World than more recent Frontiers metal-based obsessions, and when Nevena takes the occasional European sounding pop-rock detour, there’s still far more melody at the heart of the material than your average Frontiers release from 2021/2022.

In some ways, Brankovic would have been the obvious choice to supply the guitars on this record, given his friendship with the artist and belief in her, but all musical duties are left in the hands of the multi-talented Michael Palace, one of the label’s go-to guys. This makes the album feel more like a quickly knocked out project – in a polished demo mould – rather than the work of a bunch of session guys who’ve laboured to create a perfect musical blend, but thanks to an upbeat sound and some fantastic songs, the album is still proof of how melodic rock can push all the right buttons to lift a mood.

As melodic rock releases go, it really isn’t short of highlights. ‘Bad Sun Rising’, in particular, captures a great late 80s/early 90s sound when Palace throws out a chunky riff that sounds like a cross between Survivor and Unruly Child, crossed with one of his own works. His arrangement is often simple and places the spotlight on his guitar work, but by supplying a brief chug just before the chorus and dropping into an occasional twin lead sound, he shows an understanding of how even a small flourish can lift an arrangement, even on such a cheap sounding recording. His featured solo here is immense: he’s not been shy in presenting a brief fretboard melter that quickly shifts a massive AOR tune into the realms of melodic metal, yet at the same time, none of his massive riffs ever take the focus away from this album’s star performer. Throughout the track, Nevena captures a vocal that sits happily between the bigger end of Euro pop and classic rock, showing a tone and range that’s perfect for the job. Her melodic cry is enough to make a catchy melody fly, but in classic style, it’s likely to be the massive whoah driving the chorus that leaves the strongest impression. If you like this, then the rest of the album certainly won’t sell you short on entertainment value.

‘Veil On The Mirror’ offers another strong number, where Nevena’s voice floats above a hard edged yet spacious riff on the verse, before morphing into something that sounds like a hard rock take on a female pop band on the chorus. The push and pull between crunch and sweetness is really effective, and Palace sounds really natural when sliding between the two extremes. Eventually arriving at a middle eight where Nevena gets to explore a few higher registers, the track continues to impress, before Mike teases with something that feels like an unfinished guitar solo. With a final round of the catchy chorus, this is a recording that really shows how well the performers compliment each other. Opting for something a little harder, ‘Fire In Me’ veers towards one of Def Leppard’s crowd pleasing stompers when a big vocal hook arrangement sounds perfect for crowd participation. Presumably this is Palace’s own fascination with massive poodle permed rock rising to the surface, but Nevena sounds entirely at ease when delivering some fairly cheesy lyrics, whilst the opening of ‘Brand New Heart’ explores a pop-ish backdrop where various synthy elements hint at the early recordings of Natalie Imbruglia, before a chunkier riff steers a great chorus into a place where classic melodic rock meets the light gothic tones of Lacuna Coil. As before, Nevena’s voice has plenty of melodic power even when delivering some fairly work-a-day rock clichés, but it’s Palace who steals the show here with a massive, angular lead guitar break which sounds as if it were written for a different song. It’s a little jarring at first, but for fans of Palace’s other work (whether with First Signal or issued under the Palace name), his busy style will certainly raise a smile.

The intro for ‘Too Late’ immediately suggests another rocky workout as per ‘Fire In Me’, but it’s actually a ruse before the verse explores some fairly mechanical sounds, and a brilliant, optimistic sounding chorus straddles light rock and some expertly arranged pop. More than ever here, Nevena’s previous pop works cut through the heart of the recording, and although the track sounds more like a guitar-based Eurovision entry from Eastern Europe at times, as opposed to a genuine AOR banger, the end result is excellent – perhaps, even, the truest example of Nevena’s range of talents. ‘Straight Into Madness’, meanwhile, supplies another slice of melodic rock that’s very much of Mike Palace’s expert hand, with a great harmonic guitar part during the intro and a huge melodic heart pumping a great chorus. There are moments when it all threatens to slide into a place where country meets pop meets AOR, but between a very radio friendly verse and a classic AOR hook, it has more than enough musical gold to make it work. It’s a pity that, like so much of this album, a loud vocal dominates over music that lacks a dynamic range, but in terms of song, it’s another winner.

Bookending a collection of often great songs, ‘Bulletproof’ adds another very old style melodic rock tune where Palace churns out some great riffs straight from 1987, whilst Nev explores various lyrical clichés about “going to the rock show”, “losing [her] mind” and “going into overdrive” on a tune that manages to fit at least three chorus hooks into one actual chorus, and ‘Outrageous’ stokes up the pulsing synths to bring an extra dose of pop beneath another of Palace’s big riffs. Neither quite match up to some of this album’s most enduring tunes, but both bring more than enough enjoyment in an undemanding way. It’s safe to say that if you’ve enjoyed other tracks on this album, there’s more enjoyment to be had here – clichéd or otherwise.

Frontiers Records’ previous attempt at turning a pop star into an AOR sensation went fairly terribly when they took the talented Lenna Kumaar (previously of Vanilla Ninja) and fobbed her off with the hired help of Alessandro Del Vecchio, some middling rock tunes, and another woefully small budget. With a lesser musical partner, Frontiers could have similarly cheapened Nevena’s talents (remember, not everything needs to be rocked up to be good, nor does it does automatically make a performer more credible), but despite a budget and mix that still leaves much to be desired, Palace’s playing is brilliant, and often very complimentary to a great vocal. It’s all shamelessly cheesy and sometimes hugely European, but this album celebrates old fashioned melodic rock with an underscoring of early 90s pop in a hugely enjoyable way. A recommended listen.

Buy the album here: NEVENA – Nevena CD

November 2022