KENT HILLI – Nothing Left To Lose

Kent Hilli is one of the best rock vocalists of his generation. Wherever he appears, you’re pretty much guaranteed some top quality melodic fare. He even managed to make Giant’s ‘Shifting Time’ album entertaining, despite a Dann Huff-less Giant being Giant in name only. Such is his vocal gift that he took on a “dead man’s shoes” role and gave it life, offering something on a par with his own Perfect Plan. This solo album, released in August 2023, continues something of a gold run for the Swedish singer. Presenting eleven melodic rock tracks, the featured material makes the very best of a great voice once more.

At the album’s most shamelessly 80s, ‘Stronger’ opens with a barrage of 80s keyboards, stabbing frantically, which instantly sets up a familiar feel. The arrival of an accompanying guitar part accentuates the 80s feel even further, with a combination of solid, rhythmic chugging and a brief soaring lead. As expected, Hilli takes this and completely runs with it, exploring a vocal performance that’s equal parts David Coverdale circa 1987 and Paul Sabu singing in tune. With a perfect marriage of melody and grit, the track has solid foundations, but sounds even better when the chorus hits, thanks to a melody that occasionally sounds derived from a couple of old Journey hits, with more than a passing resemblance to ‘Separate Ways (World’s Apart)’. In terms of no nonsense melodic rock, you’d struggle to find better in 2023, although fellow Swedes Streetlight are on a par with Hilli when it comes to both quality and an authentic sound.

The title cut isn’t shy in exploiting a wall of filtered vocals during the intro, but listeners shouldn’t fear anything too synthetic, as the arrangement comes with a reasonable amount of crunch once it kicks in. The combination of huge vocals and big guitar sounds is sometimes reminiscent of Frontline, sometimes Signal, occasionally even the Harem Scarem debut. Whatever mood the very 80s rock takes, though, it sounds great, showcasing some pleasingly bright sounding keys from Jussi Vuorijaa, and providing a guitar playing highlight from Jimmy Westerlund. The One Desire six stringer fills several bars with a roaring solo worthy of Michael Palace, shifting effortlessly between soaring sounds and melodic metal fills, but still doesn’t upstage Hilli, whose vocals are especially on point throughout. Everything is in a higher register, with occasional helium tendencies akin to Rob Moratti, but Kent always keeps an ear on a very strong melodic core, creating another near perfect melodic rock performance in the process.

Released as a single ahead of the album, ‘A Fool To Believe’ gives a strong indication of the rest of the record, since it sticks to a formula of “huge keyboard driven opening, combined with chugging guitar”, but the formulaic approach brings out the very best of Hilli and his band once more. This becomes especially clear when Hilli throws himself into a chorus that sounds like one of Jeff Scott Soto’s more AOR-centric affairs, and Westerlund peppers a great late 80s rocker with another thoughtful guitar part. If this doesn’t sound like a near perfect tribute to the melodic rock glory days by the end of the second chorus, a brilliant key change is on hand to hammer the point home, before another complex lead break allows Jimmy to mangle his fretboard. If the greatness of this retro tune still hasn’t become apparent by the time a final round of the chorus rolls around, the band even drop in a brief a cappella moment to hammer home a brilliant hook. Had this been released at the tail end of the 80s, it could’ve been massive.

Equally strong, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ sounds like AOR you’ve known forever, mixing elements of ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ era Michael Bolton with a time honoured ‘Don’t Walk Away’ tempo. Sure, this is as close to by-numbers melodic rock AOR as you’ll ever find, but for lovers of the style, it’ll have more than plenty of charm due to a big chorus making its presence felt, and even more bell-like keys to compliment a powerful vocal, whilst ‘Saving Us’ blends AOR keys with an even bigger hard rock crunch. Westerlund clearly relishes the moments where he gets to throw out a meaty chord or two. There are harder edges, but these are balanced out by a brilliant vocal melody and chorus arrangement that is very Swedish. The blanket of keys and layered vocals also ensure this number is a perfect fit for Hilli’s style, and although a choir of filtered voices seems keen to drown him out on the chorus, he makes up for it elsewhere, sharing a lead vocal that would’ve suited Snakes In Paradise and Stefan Berggren back in the 90s. Again, you’ve heard it all before, but there’s something about Kent’s pure enthusiasm that ensures that his old fashioned AOR and melodic rock sounds really sharp.

‘Start It All Over’ opens with a wobbly sounding piano put through various effects, but then retreats into a very safe musical space where more top flight AOR with a strong 80s core casts Hilli in a similar mould to Terry Brock, whilst the guitars add a strong musical counterpoint throughout. In many ways, the track plays like a very standard rocker – recycling the best sounds from the genre’s past – but for Hilli’s fans, that’ll be enough to make it stand. With a brilliant chorus and a spot on riff augmented by another big solo where Westerlund offers some smart sweeping notes, it’s easily another highlight on an album with no duff tunes. ‘Heard It All Before’ wastes no time in reaching for that big hook when its intro smashes it immediately via some unaccompanied vocals, before sliding into a very Swedish sounding AOR number where Hilli’s voice is joined by a solid bassline (supplied by Ulrich Lonnqvist) and another predictable-yet-enjoyable guitar riff. The transition between punchy verse and slightly slower, vaguely bluesier chorus is very much taken at ease by the musicians, again showing how well versed they are in this well-worn style, but it’s Hilli who wins out with one of the album’s larger vocal performances. He hits a couple of bluesy wails – again, never far removed from a late 80s Coverdale – but also shows off a full range of melodic chops en route, leaving behind a solid, retro tune that’ll hit the mark with his supporters.

Elsewhere, both ‘Too Young’ and ‘Only Dreaming’ play much safer, and even resemble melodic hard rock by numbers, but it’s impossible not to be pulled in thanks to a shiny sound that celebrates the legacy of big haired 80s sounds. Lonnqvist’s filtered bass sound on the former comes straight from 1989, and with Kent wallowing through very familiar lyrical tropes about being too young and free forever, it could easily pass as a forgotten deep cut from melodic rock’s heyday. The slower ‘Only Dreaming’ shares much cleaner guitar work on a very Whitesnake derived number, along with a simple call and response pre-chorus, and latterly a moody chorus that’s a little darker than the bulk of the record. The slight tonal shift is welcome; it closes an already great LP with something rather grand, giving most of the band a moment or two in the spotlight. It’ll all sound very familiar, but Hilli proves yet again that if classic/melodic rock can still be handled this well – and this confidently – there’s really no need for any kind of modern twist.

For those who’ve followed Hilli’s progress over the previous few years, ‘Nothing Left To Lose’ won’t offer any big musical surprises, but that in itself, is one of the record’s strengths. Kent doesn’t want to change the world; he instinctively knows what he’s best at, and as predictable as a lot of the material ends up sounding, he makes most of these songs truly shine. Along with Stardust’s ‘Kingdom of Illusion’ and Streetlight’s ‘Ignition’, this is easily one of 2023’s best melodic rock/AOR discs – the poster child for why those who loved this sort of thing in 1987 have continued to do so. Despite sounding like a thousand other things in your collection, this album comes highly recommended.

KENT HILLI – Nothing Left To Lose

July/August 2023