When Stardust released their debut album in 2020, it came as a pleasant surprise. ‘Highway To Heartbreak’ arrived amongst a glut of average melodic rock discs, and by comparison, Stardust sounded far more enthused. Their overall sound had a little more punch than most, and in the song writing department, their gifts for penning big, old school choruses in the AOR tradition were huge. It was the kind of album that suggested a bright future, even for a band trading in sounds from yesteryear.
Their second release ‘Kingdom of Illusion’ opens in an uncharacteristically heavy style when ‘War’ kicks off with a combination of synth strings and militaristic drums. Unfortunately, the keys are no replacement for the full orchestral treatment such things need and sounds a little cheap, but once the rock elements arrive – with a massive riff in tow – everything improves rather drastically. The main riff combines the old bombast of Dio with the crunch of top tier melodic metal and shows off Stardust’s very old school chops, whilst a deftly played lead guitar break full of sweeping notes calls back to the work of Craig Goldy. If this seems a little more metal oriented than parts of the debut, vocalist Adam Stewart is on hand with a tuneful performance that brings a decent amount of balance, and his approach on an equally big chorus is a reminder that, even in their heavier boots, Stardust clearly know how to arrange a great song.
Adding some massive AOR keyboards to ‘The Fire’ immediately sets off the number in brilliant fashion, and the easy transition from a chunky verse into a pop-ish chorus provides an obvious callback to the band’s debut album. Armed with an arrangement that sounds something from Harem Scarem’s debut coupled with an early FM chorus , the track definitely has roots in a classic style, and the way keys man Dave Legrant beavers away with a pompy tone beneath the main riff suggests timeless influences from great bands like Touch. Overall, it plays fairly safely in a melodic rock vein, but therein lies its true magic. The busier tones of ‘Sarah’, meanwhile, pay homage to an even brighter early 80s sound and the pure AOR of Maxus, as imagined through the Swedish prism of Work of Art. Its use of choppier riffs gives the Stardust sound a real bounce, whilst the expected bell-like keys do not disappoint. The use of synth brass is a little unfortunate and an unwelcome nod to 1988, but that cheapness is more than made up for by a very strong chorus and a brilliant lead guitar break where Facey very obviously tips his hat (rather cheekily) to a Neal Schon classic. Overall, it results in another tune that genre fans will love.
All great AOR albums need a huge power ballad, and in ‘Make Me Feel Your Love’, Stardust pull out one of the very best. It has a vocal melody during the opening verse that carries a trace of Def Leppard’s similar material – especially in heavily filtered vocals – but the rest of the arrangement and production is far more American sounding. The bulk of the keyboard led melody harks back to the Sir Arthur Payson sound, along with touches of Robin Beck, The Storm and a swathe of Bryan Adams styled balladry. Sounding like something from a feel good blockbuster film of yore, it comes absolutely loaded with bright sounding keys and sweeping melodies that would suit a montage. Stardust have never been shy in celebrating the past, but with this track they’ve absolutely nailed their retro sound. This could be a lost classic.
In full rock mode, ‘Love Sells’ thunders forth with a world of jagged chords and huge parping keys, capturing an energetic feel that gives the whole band plenty to work with. Peter Horn brings a thundering drum part, and from that, a punchy melodic metal groove springs into life, like one of Heavens Edge’s stronger workouts, while Adam’s vocals work effortlessly to give a more aggressive track a big melodic rock heart. There’s a small mis-step when ‘Heroes’ reintroduces the synth strings and sampled voices for a bombastic intro that doesn’t sit very naturally, but much like the earlier ‘War’, things improve once the main melody settles in and Facey delivers a decent melodic metal chug, and Adam soars above a heavier arrangement with a lyric taking an anti-war stance. It isn’t a patch on Stardust’s softer material, but those who are attuned to the melodic metal sound will definitely find something to enjoy here, since the guitar playing is spot on, and a massive chant used on the hook shares a pleasingly simple melody in a rather direct way.
Almost as punchy, but playing in a more 80s melodic rock vein, ‘One First Kiss’ casts bassist Ben Martin in a leading role as he uses his deep tones to drive an upbeat verse. The way his rhythmic style underscores intermittent crying guitar sounds and yet more bright keys gives the band an immediately strong sound, and a harmonious chorus hook brings the album another AOR banger. Again, you’ll hear more than a trace of FM and other greats here, but Stardust recycle those classic influences in a far more effective way than a lot of their Frontiers Records label mates, making a tried and tested sound seem vital again. Martin plays another key role on ‘Losing Me’, a track where Stardust appear to have ingested the best bits of the Strangeways back catalogue, bringing forth a great combination of atmospheric keyboard work, pulsing bass grooves and choppy guitars. As with most of the band’s work, it plays very safe in terms of the genre’s sound, but that shows a great confidence in the song writing itself. The melodic core is left here to shine without too much musical clutter, and by the time another impeccably played lead guitar break is reached, this track becomes another of the album’s standouts.
As before, Stardust make no attempt to be contemporary here. ‘Kingdom of Illusion’ delights in working some very 80s musical tropes, and delights in sharing some massive choruses that’ll please fans of a big haired melodic rock/melodic metal sound. Forget any notions of “difficult second album”; this is as sharp as the debut, and in ‘Sarah’, ‘Make Me Feel Your Love’,‘The Fire’ and ‘Losing Me’, you’ll find a few of this band’s best songs. Since even some of its second tier material is good enough to mark out Stardust as one of the melodic rock scene’s most talented bands at the time of release, this album is definitely recommended listening.
Buy the CD here: STARDUST – Kingdom of Illusion