HOUSE OF LORDS – Precious Metal

House of LordsHouse of Lords’ self-titled debut from 1989 is somewhat of a melodic rock cult classic.  The combination of Chuck Wright’s meaty bass work, Lanny Cordolla’s nifty-yet-melodic guitar shredding, Greg Giuffria’s bombastic keyboards and James Christian’s commanding vocals pull together excellently – like listening to a melodic rock supergroup, even though the original project was never conceived as such.   Line-up changes for each of their subsequent recordings (1990’s ‘Sahara’ and 1992’s overlooked ‘Demons Down’) meant that the magic was never quite captured in the same way again, but these, nevertheless are enjoyable offerings.

Continue reading

EDGE – Heaven Knows

edge‘Heaven Knows’ may be the first outing for Swedish rockers Edge, but the more aware listeners among you will certainly recognise a couple of band members.  The core of this band features vocalist Jonas Forss and guitarist Tobias Andersson, both of whom have also plied their trade as members of Seven Wishes.  Upon first hearing of these guys, one thing is evident: when recording this album, they had a bigger budget at their disposal than most.  From a technical perspective, ‘Heaven Knows’ is a great sounding disc, with plenty of punch.  Since so many lesser-known melodic rock bands feel that demo quality records are fit for release as finished product, the near impeccable sharpness here is most welcome indeed.

Combining years of experience with the great production and a few huge choruses, it seems that Edge are set to push all the right buttons for a classic melodic rock release.  Toning down the glam edges of Seven Wishes in favour of something closer to classic sounding melodic rock, Forss delivers all of his vocals with conviction and a curly accent, while Andersson’s guitar playing is fairly solid throughout.  He may not have the chops of Pole Position’s Lars Boquist, but he tackles each number with enough gusto to add a little more flair to this set of otherwise workman-like tunes.  Some may consider the phrase “workman-like” to be harsh, but as yet another small fish in a pond full of other second division melodic rockers [most of whom seem to be signed to Edge’s label Escape Music], that’s how this album often comes across.

There is one main reason for this: despite knowing how to put together a melodic rock number which boasts a good chorus (nearly) every time, Edge aren’t quite as adept at crafting varied tunes. The main problem stems from their insistence on pounding most things out at just above a mid-pace.  Aside from an obvious ballad, they rarely break beyond the boundaries set out by the opening track.  This means, individually, each of the songs are fine, but when tacked as a whole – which should still be the preferred way of hearing an album – it all begins to blur.  The differences between each number become so indistinct in places; it even sometimes feels as if Edge are recycling the same tune on occasion.

While ‘Heaven Knows’ is well played and well produced, there’s no real reason to recommend this above any number of melodic rock albums you could pick up instead.  Although better than some, this album just don’t possess that “something special” that’s necessary in order to make a more indelible impression, which is surprising considering the number of years each of the band members have worked within the scene.  At its very best, ‘Heaven Knows’ contains some rather fine stand-alone tunes, but looking at the album as a whole, it never feels like much more than a time filler.  Some of the more undemanding among you may be okay with that, but in all honesty, if you have that much time that needs filling, there are literally hundreds of better melodic rock albums with which to fill it.

January 2013

RICK SPRINGFIELD – Songs For The End Of The World

In 1980, Rick Springfield’s fifth album ‘Working Class Dog’ shifted the Australian singer away from the teen market and into the pop/AOR market, its lead single ‘Jessie’s Girl’ subsequently propelling him to stardom.  During the next few years, he released album’s of a similarly high calibre, ending his most high profile period with the classic ‘Rock of Life’ in 1988.  Springfield then disappeared from the music scene for almost a decade, eventually returning with the band Sahara Snow, whose one album may (or may not) have been compiled from unused material written for ‘Rock of Life’s abandoned follow-up.

Releasing albums sporadically – under his own name – from then on, Springfield’s work adopted a slightly harder sound at times, but essentially retained many of the kind of pop/rock hooks which proved a winning formula back in the eighties.   In that respect, 2012’s ‘Songs For The End of The World’ will provide the longtime fan with few surprises – but those only familiar with Springfield’s eighties work may be surprised at the relative chunkiness of a few of these tunes.

Each of the album’s core twelve songs are all superb.  A huge production sound plus some well-written pop/rock material proves a winning combination. Following some crisp sounding guitar chimes, Rick chooses to open ‘Our Ship’s Sinking’ with some huge and very welcome whoahs.  In contrast, the verse which follows, at first, sounds a little lower key than such whoahs may have suggested. The real clincher comes with the chorus: harmonies are abound on a rather catchy hook, where – guitar sound aside – everything follows the classic Springfield mould, so much so, this could have fit happily onto ‘Rock of Life’.  With a slightly new wavish edge – perhaps as a nod to ‘Jessie’s Girl’, though just as likely an extension of Springfield’s natural style – ‘I Hate Myself’ is punchy and poppy all at once, while a gang vocal choir hammer home a chorus which only needs to be heard once before making an impact.  Similarly Ready for radio, ‘Love Screws Me Up’ is nice an simple, a chiming guitar part paving the way for a shameless chorus of “na na nas” – if you like things cheesy (in a good way, obviously), this is a tune you’ll love. If you’ve followed Rick Springfield’s career thus far, you’ll know what you’re in for.  If you’ve never been swayed by the man’s prior work, well…you’re probably not actually reading this.  [As an aside, is there any chance of power pop man Kurt Baker recording a cover, please?]

More reflective, ‘Gabriel’ has a strong acoustic basis, but it’s not long before a ringing guitar boosts everything into bigger sounding melodic rock territory.  It’s all very much of a tried and tested musical formula, but that doesn’t weaken its overall impact.  In terms of writing unpretentious pop/rock fare, Mr. Springfield makes it sound so effortless…but then, at this point in his career, he’s had about four decades of practice.  The big power ballad ‘You & Me’ is loaded with rhythmic guitars and keyboards, shined up to the max without sounding unnatural.  While a slight filter has been applied, this tune boasts one of Springfield’s most distinctive vocals, instantly recognisable as the voice behind ‘Jessie’s Girl’, ‘Living In Oz’, ‘Alyson’ and many other eighties classics.  In terms of musical arrangement, there’s nothing new here, just old-school pop/rock with a strong AOR bent.  As with most of ‘Songs For The End of The World’, fans will not be disappointed.

With regard to the albums (slightly) rockier outings, ‘Wide Awake’ blends Springfield’s pop core with edgier elements perfectly, since the verses are incredibly angry by his usual standard, but the chorus ushers in studio-treated choirs of vocals which may as well be singing any number of his straight-up pop tunes from decades past.  My Last Heartbeat’ is a guitar-driven winner, featuring a chuggy riff which is balanced out by a techy multi-tracked vocal and a world of keyboard noises, while ‘Depravity’ is a fast paced offering where slightly muddy guitars power away, while cleaner leads provide a great compliment.  Of greatest interest on this number is the lead guitar break which, instead of taking the usual tuneful approach, fills a few bars with tortured squeals and a few technical effects.

This album has only one fault – and it has nothing to do with any of the material, but rather more to do with marketing and record company greed surrounding its release.  There has been four different versions of ‘Songs For The End of The World’ pressed, each with a different sleeve and content.  Three of the issues include bonus tracks: a UK/Euro CD (exclusive bonus track, ‘My DUI’), a CD available from Best Buy stores in the US (three exclusive bonus tracks, but ‘My DUI’ is absent) and a version sold via iTunes includes another bonus track that’s also exclusive.  For those keeping score, this means that in addition to the album’s twelve songs, there is another half a disc’s worth of songs floating around out there.  Adding further insult to injury, all versions come with downloadable content partly exclusive to each edition.  Whatever happened to music actually being a genuine art form as opposed to some kind of fan-fleecing business model? This kind of marketing rip-off must stop!  [See also the Daughtry debut: 9 bonus tracks spread across four editions…just ridiculous.]

Not wishing to let corporate greed sour what is a near faultless collection of tunes, ‘Songs For The End of The World’ is recommended listening to nearly everyone who enjoys chorus driven singalongs.  It absolutely stomps over any other similar(ish) radio-friendly pop/rock you care to name…and that’s no lie.  Releases this sharp and exciting from such “veteran” performers are rare and it deserves to put Springfield higher up the ladder in terms of public recognition. Since he was 63 at the time of making this recording, though, it might be a little late to make a pop idol “comeback”…

November 2012

ISSA – Can’t Stop

Instead of capitalising on her very enjoyable second album (2011’s ‘The Storm) with another set of specially written melodic rock tunes, on this third outing, Norwegian songstress Issa and her band venture into the wobbly world of the  covers album.  It would have been easy for Issa to wheel out a few of AOR’s best-loved tunes and consider that a job well done, but the results on ‘Can’t Stop’ are more interesting than that.  Instead of plumping for the genre’s hits, Issa puts her mark on the near misses, the should-have-been hits.  The choice of material is excellent – this dig through the archives of melodic rock offers tunes just obscure enough for some listeners to be hearing a few of these songs for the first time, while reminding the more seasoned melodic rock fan of a few overlooked gems in their treasured vinyl collections.

Although the highlights on this disc are many, ‘Can’t Stop’ is a release that preaches to the converted, but with that in mind, many long-term AOR fans will enjoy hearing these tunes covered almost verbatim.  Although a near faultless selection, it’s possibly ‘If You Ever Fall’ which stands up the strongest. Originally recorded by Mystic Healer – a project helmed by AOR legend Mark Mangold (released via the now defunct MTM label in 1998) – it already had a decent pedigree.  In the hands of Issa, an already superb number is given a great rendition.  Harnessing the song’s power and delivering it at a slightly different pitch, Issa’s vocal gives the track a very Robin Beck slant.  Almost as good – and one of the records most obscure picks – ‘Heat of The Night’ (a tune released by Worrall in 1991) is a vast improvement here.  The Worrall recording showed promise but was low-budget and very trebly sounding.  Issa’s 2012 recording has a wonderfully full sound with plenty of bass, a truckload of classic sounding keyboards tinkling away in the AOR tradition and, perhaps most importantly, a powerful vocal.  Making the best of a memorable hook, Issa takes a once okay tune and pushes it up to a level worthy of her female melodic rock predecessors.  …And, of course, if you’re interested in this project, that’s exactly what you’d want from it.

The title cut originally appeared on the Aviator album back in 1986, and since that album is somewhat of a cult classic, it’s great that the team behind this release have chosen to resurrect it.   The eighties production has been downgraded to the slightly woolly sound present on a lot of Frontiers releases, meaning the drum sound isn’t so crisp and there’s little to no separation between the rhythm guitars and bass, but the lead vocal is strong and the unashamedly 80s keyboards are present and correct. Production quibbles aside, each of the band members does their utmost to try and make this as memorable as the Aviator recording, particularly keyboard player Allesandro del Vecchio and guitarist Mario Percudani who launch into a musical duel for the instrumental break.

Sadly, Issa’s recording of Tower City’s ‘I Won’t Surrender’ doesn’t fare quite as well as most of the tunes here.  It’s nothing to do with the performance, since the brilliance of the song still shines through; the big issue here concerns the production values.  The crisp brilliance of Akron, Ohio’s finest Def Leppard impersonators has been compressed somewhat, almost reduced to a second division mushy sounding recording in comparison.  Thankfully, much like the Worrall and Regatta tunes, ‘State of Love’ (originally recorded in the mid 90s by Mark Free for Now & Then Records) stands up well to both a female vocal and the slightly compressed production.  One of the tougher songs from Free’s slightly drippy solo album, it sounds just lovely here – the combination of stabbing keys, noodling bass and occasional twin lead guitars embodying something close to genre perfection.

A hugely underrated band (especially considering they had Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham at the helm), 21 Guns are represented by two numbers ‘Just a Wish’ and ‘These Eyes’.  Regardless of the outcome, anybody wishing to applaud the genius of Scott Gorham should be applauded in return, but thankfully, both tunes fare extremely well.  On ‘Just a Wish’, Issa’s style really suits the power ballad format, but it’s not her fist-clenched emotion that’s this track’s strongest feature: although brief, Percudani’s guitar solo has plenty of presence.  …And as he launches into a string of long and emotive notes during the song’s fade, you may find yourself wishing they’d let him play just a little longer. ‘These Eyes’, in contrast, was a great emotionally charged rocker in the hands of 21 Guns and very little has changed here.  This cover version includes a fatter bassline than the original recording could muster, while the main keyboard riff – played in a slightly lower register – sounds more like a sampled xylophone!   Despite best efforts, Percudani’s guitar solo isn’t quite up to Gorham’s original take, but that doesn’t detract from both 21 Guns covers being among ‘Can’t Stop’s highlights.

Elsewhere, Issa pays tribute to other works wholly unknown outside the AOR community with covers of songs originally by Unruly Child, Atlantic, Tangier and Boulevard, each with a deserving reverence, adding a few extra reasons for most melodic rock fans to give ‘Can’t Stop’ a listen.

Given the improvement between Issa’s first album (2010’s by-numbers ‘Signs of Angels’) and her second release (2011’s ‘The Storm’), the odds were quite high on Issa’s third album being a winner.  It’s not quite up there with the genre’s very best, but some carefully picked songs and solid band performances makes it one of 2012’s melodic rock highlights.  If nothing else, ‘Can’t Stop’ should be enough for genre buffs to dig out those Aviator, Mystic Healer and Regatta albums they have pugged away…

October 2012

BONRUD – Save Tomorrow

Eight years is a long time between albums, especially for a band that is less than established, but that’s how long it took Bonrud to follow up their self-titled record from 2004. While it is unlikely Paul Bonrud and his chosen band spent all of the intervening years working on this sophomore release, the end result does not sound like it was rushed.

In those passing years, Bonrud changed labels from Frontiers Records to Escape Music and prior vocalist David Hendricks stepped aside for Rick Forsgren (previously of Conditioned Response), but essentially the band’s core sound of big and beefy melodic rock remains unchanged.  ‘Save Tomorrow’s twelve songs may not bring anything new to the melodic rock/AOR genre, but the songs are well crafted for their type and given plenty of life by noted Fleetwood Mac/Journey/Whitesnake/REO Speedwagon producer Keith Olson.

On the title cut, Bonrud go straight for a classic AOR sound.  The staccato rhythm guitars and driving quality echoes the 80s greats, with a particular nod to Journey in the way the vocal rises during its chorus and the lead guitars beaver away throughout.  It’s strictly by-numbers, but Mr Bonrud’s technical abilities are such that this tune holds its own.  A similar influence is at the heart of ‘I’d Do Anything’, a harmony-driven workout which echoes the kind of albums on which Olson made his mark in the past.  The vocals are powerful – enjoyable too, provided you can grasp Forsgren’s John Schlitt-esque top end wail – while, once again, Bonrud’s lead guitar work during the outro tips the hat to Neal Schon.  Interestingly, it’s not actually until that outro he plays anything too distinctive, preferring instead to let Forsgren’s voice and an old fashioned slab of keyboards carry the song.

Exercising the band’s harder chops, ‘Bullet In The Back’ really delivers the goods.  The riff is chunky and Paul Bonrud’s sweeping lead guitar lines top said riff nicely.  While Forsgren’s vocal delivery is a little full on, he’s complimented by a thunderous bassline, which favours meaty simplicity over anything complex. While not technically flashy, Olson’s production really brings it out – so much so you can hear the strings rattling on occasion.  A noticeably weaker cut, ‘Blinded’ mixes sharp lead guitar work with a mid-paced riff which occasionally sounds like it might break into something more interesting but never really does.  Despite Bonrud’s best efforts in the lead guitar department, this tune is a little ploddy all round.

While it’s somewhat of a coup to have First Signal/Takara keyboard player Eric Ragno guest on a couple of tracks, he isn’t given the opportunity to make the most of his talents.  On ‘We Collide’ in particular, after about two seconds of synthy keyboards, there aren’t that many audible keyboards to speak of.  No sooner is it out of the starting blocks, the music smashes into a piece of hard rock/melodic metal with a huge presence, with barely any room for keyboard flourishes.   One of Bonrud’s toughest tunes, even with the addition of harmonies, most of the vocals are more of the Tony Mills/Geoff Tate mould than straight up AOR.  As with most of the album’s best moments, it is Paul Bonrud who is the real star: during his couple of lead breaks, he shreds enough for this tune to be considered metallic, but his playing has just enough finesse to remain melodic.   It would have been a definite plus to hear more of Ragno, though.

Although ‘Save Tomorrow’ features strong material almost throughout, the band closes the disc with one of its strongest tracks.  ‘End of Days’ combines crisp rhythm guitars with a blanket of keys during the intro, before  quickly finding its feet as a punchy mid-paced rocker. Forsgren’s curling vocal combined with the keyboards and a pompier tone hints at influences from classic (‘Mindcrime’ era) Queenryche.  Again, it’s the kind of thing that won’t be new to any melodic rock buffs, but a good performance, solid song writing and sharp production from a legend in his field makes a winning combination.

Fans of the slightly harder end of the AOR spectrum will enjoy ‘Save Tomorrow’.  Despite Forsgren’s tendency to over-sing on occasion, the production is fine and each of the performances are often more than solid.  Although recorded at various different sessions – with different guest keyboard players and bassists – it has a surprisingly consistent feel too.

It’s a minor point, but it seems that Bonrud’s weakest element is their choice of band name:  In the summer of 2012, Real Gone poked gentle fun at Wigelius for having a vanity moniker – but at least we never had any trouble remembering it!  For some reason, “Bonrud” took a long time to stick… Prior to writing this review, they got called Bodman, Bodrun, Bodrum and often Bodnar… Only two syllables and yet it just would not sink in.  Since the band has two Pauls at its core and Paul #1 insists on naming project after himself, may we suggest “PAUL!” [exclamation mark optional] next time?

Okay then…

September 2012