Robin McAuley’s 2021 album ‘Standing On The Edge’ was unexpectedly good. With that release, the veteran rock singer not only managed to turn in one of the year’s best melodic rock albums, but one of the year’s best albums – period. Although McAuley has only ever taken a sporadic approach to recording as a solo artist, the record’s huge choruses and swathes of late 80s inspired melodies showed his talent hadn’t waned since his heyday, and if anything, it suggested his voice was stronger than ever. The following year found Robin moonlighting with hard rock supergroup Black Swan (also featuring ex-Dokken man Jeff Pilson and guitarist Reb Beach), which allowed him to apply his voice to a few chunkier arrangements on occasion. It wasn’t the kind of album that achieved massive worldwide success, but was well loved by the dyed in the wool rock fans who actually heard it, continuing something of a winning streak.
That hard rocking band’s tough but lean approach has carried over to parts of ‘Alive’, another solo set from McAuley that’s absolutely brimming with big choruses and even bigger vocals. Despite some of its material sounding substantially heavier than ‘Standing On The Edge’, Robin’s voice remains unmistakable, and he’s clearly able to handle any different musical moods with ease throughout another great long player.
Kicking off with the title track, a floaty piano line introduces something of an AOR persuasion before everything takes a massive left turn to introduce a heavier riff than expected. A chunky guitar sound and a deep, grumbling bass give McAuley more than enough to contend with, but his opening vocal refrains adapt accordingly, and he sings with a huge confidence, steering everything into a slightly more tuneful verse. As the melody finds its feet, it explodes into massive mid-tempo rocker, where guitarist Andrea Seveso appears to be having a super time throwing out a continuous deep chug, and Robin’s massive wail reinforces any ideas that he’s one of the best – if underrated – performers of his generation. As songs go, it’s more about a big riff than an easily digestible sing-along, but in time, the chorus gets under the skin with its simple refrain, and with Robin in great shape – no matter where the music goes – it signifies some great hard rock over the horizon. …And sure enough, with the arrival of a crashy drum part, a round of shameless whoahs and Seveso stepping forward for a sharp sounding but old fashioned lead guitar break, that “great hard rock” begins to materialise further, before a final outing for a chorus that grows over time. All things considered, ‘Alive’ marks its place as a strong opener.
There are a few much better tracks on the album, however, and ‘Dead As A Bone’ supplies the first genuinely classic track when a hard edged riff worthy of Heavens Edge, Dokken and Mike Slamer collides with a massive AOR tinged chorus where McAuley channels his musical ghosts from 1989. On the surface, it sounds like so much big haired rock from a pre-grunge era, but that doesn’t lessen its impact, and Robin’s massive voice curls with ease around a superb guitar tone. It’s the kind of number where a couple of listens is enough for it to stick, and although the vocals dominate, it’s worth keeping a close ear on the rest of the band. Drummer Nicolas Papapicco hits with a genuine weight throughout, and for those keeping a much closer ear, the heavier moments are peppered with some busy bass fills that lift everything just enough. In terms of lead guitar work, it’s another very strong track since Seveso is very keen on filling an extended coda with a few fretboard melting antics that are well suited to the slightly heavier approach.
‘Can’t Go On’, meanwhile, reverts to the cleaner, AOR-centric approach that gave ‘Standing On The Edge’ its easy appeal. A massive power ballad, it sounds like so much great melodic rock from the late 80s, and coupled with a harmonic backdrop for the chorus, McAuley sounds at his best here. His sizable talents are matched throughout by guitarist Seveso, who supplies plenty of multi-layered, harmonic work that constantly lifts a great tune to higher places. Those being a little mean might spot this as being not far removed from a second rate Scorpions knock off, but it’s worth remembering that most things so heavily Scorps derived are still a cut above most other retro rock fare. This is seriously good, and along with the good time chunky rock of ‘Who I Am’, where Robin happily works his way through something else that sounds like an 80s Scorpions/McAuley-Schenker hybrid, it makes ‘Alive’ a worthy addition to any melodic rock collection.
In terms of pure heaviness, ‘Feel Like Hell’ is a real stand out since it comes loaded with a riff that carries traces of Godsmack, conveying a really hard edged late 90s sound. Had this come from the Black Swan camp, It would easy to believe that Pilson has had a sturdy hand in the riff’s creation as Dokken experimented with similar sounds in the past, but bassist Alessandro Del Vecchio (him again) brings a huge bottom end to the track. There’s plenty here for those hoping for a little more melody too, since the track pulls through on a big chorus where Robin applies a clean vocal to a chunky yet jubilant groove. The marriage of heavy and melodic occasionally sounds a little too heavy handed – especially given how purely melodic ‘Standing On The Edge’ had been – but with a semi-catchy hook and an absolute cracker of a guitar solo to lend some important balance, this eventually grows into the kind of heavy hitter that sounds better over time.
Opting for another chunky rocker with dominant guitars, ‘When The Time Has Come’ features another near flawless vocal set against a mid-tempo rocker that sounds like another mix of classic Scorpions and Black Swan, and as a result, McAuley finds himself in a comfort zone. That’s not to say his performance is in any way phoned in, of course; the chorus is arranged in such a way that it manages to be both punchy and spacious, allowing his voice to really stretch out. Even now, in his veteran years, this is a man able to sing pretty much anything, and he hits all of the huge notes required with a genuine ease, a natural talent probably only matched by Joe Lynn Turner and Glenn Hughes from his peer group. Simply put, original or not, this is fine retro rock which fans of the genre will love. Even when ‘Stronger Than Before’ moves back into slightly heavier moods, Robin’s vocals are first rate, and another big hook allows him to cry with abandon, before Seveso drops in a fretboard mangler worthy of Michael Palace, resulting in another hard rocker that’s a brilliant addition to this album.
Teasing with a bluesy stomp during its opening riff, ‘Fading Away’ switches the mood once more and allows Seveso to experiment with something more groove led, before the verse injects a little dirty funk. The end result falls somewhere between the Stevie Salas Nickelbag project and the Freak of Nature debut – a most unexpected blend – before topping that with an AOR-centric chorus allowing Robin another chance to hit maximum croon. In terms of melodic hard rock, it’s another number that really hits the mark, whilst ‘The Endless Mile’ brings an extra compliment of busy keys (courtesy of Alessandro “Hired Help” Del Vecchio) to something that sounds, again, like a mid 90s Dokken throwback. Those who love the chunkiest end of melodic rock and metal will love this – especially its Pilson-esque bassline, and its audacity of melding a Cheap Trick-ish chorus melody to something closer to ‘Ultraphobic’ era Warrant. It really shouldn’t work, but its testament to the talent involved – and McAuley’s massive vocal confidence – that it does. By the time the track’s second half pushes forth a classic sounding lead guitar, everything sounds more natural, and overall, this is a striking mix of classic hard rock and 90s grubbiness that deserves to be played very loudly.
Overall, ‘Alive’ isn’t quite as sharp as ‘Standing On The Edge’ and is a fair bit heavier in places, but it’s still very much the kind of muscular melodic rock record that captures a great talent. You won’t find much filler within its eleven hard rock numbers, and McAuley really sounds like he believes in the material, rather than acting as singer for record company hire. Those factors alone make ‘Alive’ a winner. As rock albums go, it especially inventive, or out to change the world, of course; this is about good time melodic hard rock with a massive and sometimes heavier heart – and on that score, Robin and his assembled crew hit the mark pretty much every time.