FIRST SIGNAL – Face Your Fears

First Signal began life as a side project for Harem Scarem singer Harry Hess, but with the arrival of session guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Michael Palace and drummer Daniel Flores for the second record ‘One Step Over The Line’, the melodic rock band took on a little more of its own identity. It wasn’t until 2019’s ‘Line of Fire’, however, that First Signal finally found their feet, but with that record, they became far more than just an extra-curricular hustle – they were now a band to rival some of the scene’s greatest acts. That album even outshone most of Harem Scarem’s work since the mid 90s.

Compared to their previous releases, First Signal’s fifth album, ‘Face Your Fears’ is a mixed bag, but when it’s good, it’s very good. At its best, ‘Dominoes’ mixes a distinctive First Signal sound with a slight Scandinavian tinge on the verses, where Palace drops a few clean guitars against a punchy rhythm. The spacious arrangement gives Hess plenty of room for a croon, and although he sounds comfortable with immediate effect, it isn’t until the chorus where he comes into his own. With the band hitting more of a rock groove and shifting into a higher key for dramatic effect, Hess throws out a massive cry akin to the best moments of Harem Scarem’s ‘Mood Swings’, whilst a choir of backing vocals fill the space with a counter melody. With Palace offering a typically on point lead guitar break, this track is First Signal by numbers in so many ways, but therein lies so much of the magic. This is definitely a track that comes close to reaching those highs set by ‘Line of Fire’, and the same goes for ‘Rain For Your Roses’, a mid paced, very retro sounding melodic rocker where Palace chugs through some solid chords, occasionally dropping in a more inspired fill or two, and Hess taps into another Scarem-esque hook with a very natural flow. A closer ear will pick up on a deep bass sound that gives this melodic track some serious heft, and for those who remain unconvinced by the mid point, Palace is there to win over any doubters with a superb twin lead riff and solo that harks back to a great 80s sound. By the time you’ve heard the chorus a few times, there’s no shaking it either. Like revisiting Harem Scarem at their early 90s best, this is a solid example of First Signal at full power.

Equally good, ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’ sounds like a mix of First Signal and classic Def Leppard. A wall of filtered harmony vocals runs the risk of bringing out the inner Leps of any great melodic rock act, but in this case, its a perfect stylistic choice. It leads to something that’s retro, but still sparky; a loving homage to those AOR/melodic rock glory days where big hair and bigger choruses reigned. Naturally, it’s also sort of a First Signal on autopilot – the kind of track that lovers of their first three records will find over-familiar, yet at the same time, will absolutely love. Enjoyable but in a slightly different mood, ‘Never Be Silenced’ works a great pop/rock hook with an 80s undertone. It affords this album another strong melodic rocker where some great drumming and jubilant guitar work show that First Signal still sound superb when hitting their stride, and although it has a rather flippant attitude, its blend of AOR harmonies and huge guitars eventually win out in a way that’s almost guaranteed to please the average fan.

In contrast to these great tracks, ‘Face Your Fear’ also features some (occasionally heavier) workouts that require a little more patience before the listening rewards are reaped, assuming there are any. The title track is particularly scrappy since it attempts to fuse First Signal’s busy yet melodic style with a grubbier edge, and although the force in Palace’s guitar work is evident, it’s a sound that just doesn’t work for them. Armed with an opening riff that falls somewhere between the heavier end of the melodic rock scale and a driving garage rock, it just doesn’t sit right when heard in close proximity to the likes of ‘Rain For Your Roses’. As the track gathers momentum, it becomes more of a standard, hard driving rocker. As a stand alone listen it has an occasional charm – there’s a taut lead guitar break, and drummer Daniel Flores clearly relishes another chance to cut loose – but, unfortunately, it isn’t especially good. It sometimes plays like a band rocking out purely for the sake of it, and on material like this, it becomes clear that Hess’s slightly cracked delivery really isn’t up to the job. His voice is also something of an issue throughout the stripped down ‘In The Name of Love’. Every good rock album needs a big ballad, but a big ballad needs a great voice. Whilst its clear that Harold is still capable of some strong longer notes, the phlegmy rattle he’s acquired in later years cuts through most of this track in the most distracting way. It makes parts of it almost painful to endure, and it isn’t until Palace delivers a fine soaring solo and the arrangement beefs up a little for a final bow, that it really comes into its own. It’s frustrating, since – as any Scarem fan of old will know – it should be great.

A fair bit better, but not classic First Signal, ‘Undefeated’ crashes in with a massive guitar riff where Palace adopts a ringing tone against a punchy drum part. Almost immediately, the typical Frontiers Records production style presents something with only half the dynamic range the band deserves, but looking past that, the playing is solid. The verse introduces a fairly big vocal from Hess, a man whom – at least on some of the bigger notes – sounds pretty much the same as he did twenty years earlier. Closer inspection, especially on the busier parts of the chorus, it again shows a man whose voice is rather cracked around the edges. Not that that’s stopping him giving his all here, whilst Palace and Flores work through a musical backdrop with an equal amount of energy. Naturally, any comparisons with latter day Harem Scarem (2002’s ‘Weight of The World’ onward) are entirely valid, since this could be an old Scarem leftover. Despite First Signal being capable of more, for the Hess fans, of course, that’s more than an endorsement. The even tougher ‘Situation Critical’ opens with Palace neck deep in a dirty riff where he hammers through some particularly low notes. The slightly grungier sound sounds like a call back to Harem Scarem’s ‘Voice of Reason’, and certainly isn’t First Signal at their most melodic. However, the heavier sound has its uses, since it definitely makes the big shift into a massive AOR driven chorus seem even bigger, and with that, Hess latches onto a suitably big melodic where the remainder of his voice truly soars. This is change, at least musically, from prior First Signal rockers, but isn’t entirely out of character for the musicians. For Hess, it provides a superb tribute to part of his past, and a few listens actually elevates this semi-heavy track to being more enjoyable than first impressions would ever suggest.

‘Face Your Fears’ is very much an album of two halves. When it’s good, it’s great…and when it isn’t, there’s a feeling of a band just trying that little too hard to impress. All too often, the musicians are clearly trying to compensate for the obvious cracks in Hess’s voice, but that said, for his long term fans, and those who’ve gravitated towards Palace’s guitar work over the years, the album should still offer enough treats. It’ll be those die-hards who glean the most listening pleasure here, but the fact that such a fatally flawed work could still include material as fantastic as ‘Dominoes’ ‘Roses’, ‘Never Be Silenced’ and ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’ – numbers still strong enough to interest the more casual melodic rock fan – says a lot about First Signal’s combined talents.

February 2023