KHYMERA – Hold Your Ground

Despite featuring no original members, Khymera’s fourth album ‘The Grand Design’ was a solid piece of melodic rock, and 2020’s ‘Master of Illusions’ was potentially even better. That record, although perhaps not up to the quality of the self-titled debut from 2003, showed how Khymera were able to steer their way through some great riffs and big chorus hooks, and they were still a great band under Dennis Ward’s guidance.

Three years on, ‘Hold Your Ground’ finds Dennis and his associates exploring a slightly more commercial set of songs, where AOR tropes mesh with a little pomp, and Khymera’s sounds often end up on the good side of familiar. Much like a streamlined version of Ten (a band who were having something of a creative resurgence at the time of this release) meeting with First Signal, their gifts for melody are often plain, and their belief in the material shines through. The whole album is proof that Ward’s songwriting and musical abilities retain a great strength, even though at the time of recording this is technically a side hustle, given that his role within AOR stalwarts Magnum has been more demanding of his time and talent.

There are a few immediate stand-outs here. ‘Don’t Wait For Love’ opens with a strident riff played in a solid mid tempo. Bright sounding guitars soar above a punchy drum part and the melody takes hold very quickly, presenting a classic 80s AOR sound. The chorus doesn’t let things slide; if anything, it stokes up the 80s cheese factor in the best possible way by introducing some big harmonies, before a very melodic lead guitar break tops everything off in style. Genre fans will own a thousand songs in this style – from bands like Boulevard and Aviator from back in the day, and a few Scandinavian acts in the twenty first century – but the familiarity such an arrangement offers plays to Khymera’s greatest strengths. The same goes for the harmony laden ‘Firestarter’ which marries a punchy bassline to a world of parping keys (never a million miles away from the likes of Touch), creating the perfect backdrop for more classic sounding AOR thrills. The real highlights during this track are supplied via guitarist Michael Klein who uses multi-tracks melodies in a way that recalls some of Iron Maiden’s more melodic sounds circa 1988, before applying the kind of busy yet melodic solo that would make label mate Michael Palace proud. Again, this is melodic rock 101 in so many ways, but never the worse for that, and those with a keen ear might even pick up on the odd melodic twist that sounds like an homage to the concurrent Ten material along the way.

Bigging up Eric Ragno’s keys, ‘On The Edge’ adds a little more of the pomp from Khymera’s early days, before slipping into a punchy melodic rocker where drummer Michael Kolar leads the charge into a world of rock where big harmony vocals brush against a marriage of big guitars and even bigger keys. The track’s punchy nature pushes Ward’s lead vocal a little harder, but it’s very clear that his sizeable, slightly old fashioned approach is perfect for classic sounding melodic rock. Likewise, the increase in tempo suits Ragno, who takes a golden opportunity to drop in a really busy solo. In an out in just three and a half minutes, it feels like the kind of track that’s perhaps a solo and a chorus too short, but in terms of showcasing some timeless AOR, it’s a genuine highlight. Turning up the guitar a little, Klein opens ‘Runaway’ with a brilliant melodic rock riff, before Ragno indulges in stabbed keys and melodic fills worthy of Night Ranger. In fact, this sounds like a vintage Night Ranger homage in so many ways: there are the bright keyboard moments, including another busy solo; an enthusiastic lead guitar break, and a simple hook where the harmonies really flourish. In those respects, this actually sounds more like Night Ranger than half of the band’s own ‘ATBPO’ album from 2021…

For those who still can’t get enough traditional melodic rock, ‘Am I Dreaming’ offers a great combination of chunky riff and yet more harmonies; ‘Sail On Forever’ recycles yet more stabbing keys and chunky guitars in the vein of Touch, before finding a sound that comes a little closer to Khymera tipping the hat to Terry Brock, and ‘Believe In What You Want’ adds another very obviously recycled 80s rocker to the album. All of these tracks are great, though without actually bringing anything new to the Khymera catalogue. That never makes any of them bad, of course; if anything Ward and co.’s affinity for the genre potentially sounds better than ever. Those numbers are ultimately outshone by ‘It Could Have Been Us’, a number that sounds like a Harem Scarem tribute with a better vocal, a pleasing and slightly pompy chorus groove and a barrage of harmonies. It’s the kind of track that repeat plays could elevate to “classic Khymera” status. The same could be said for ‘Hear What I’m Saying’, where a slightly more overwrought approach and spacious arrangement allows Ward to indulge in a much bigger vocal in places, and another Harem Scarem-ish chorus taps into a melodic hard rock sound that’s just perfect for the band. This doesn’t skimp in terms of harmonies, either: half the verse is bolstered by an extra voice, and by the time the chorus shifts into place, a big wall of vocals boosts an immediately great hook. With Klein choosing to slide between the busy and almost bluesy for his featured solo, it gives him a little more room to show off his talents, too. It’s a winner on all fronts.

It often doesn’t matter that some of that material works a very familiar seam, or occasionally sounds like a retread of the previous couple of records – the big factor here is that Khymera very much rock, and are capable of delivering some of the most celebratory hooks for their chosen style. The material shows that Ward is clearly the right man to helm the band, long after some people thought they should have called it a day, and fans will find plenty to enjoy. The even bigger concession to classic AOR means that those who might be approaching them for the first time will discover a hugely melodic act that are better than their second division status often implies. A highly recommended disc.

January 2023