IMPERA – Legacy Of Life

Headed by JK Impera, this eponymously named band brings together a few familiar melodic rock talents on their debut record. Joining the sometime Graham Bonnet/Brian Robertson drummer is Grand Design bassist Mats Vassfjord, ex-Jagged Edge vocalist Matti Alfonzetti and – perhaps of most interest to melodic rock afficionados – top session guitarist Tommy Denander.  Anything featuring Tommy Denander on guitar is always worth a listen…and this record is no exception.

This release doesn’t always push the much-loved guitarist’s talents to unchartered levels, but that’s understandable since some of his previous work has been pretty special.  As always, though, he knows where his strengths are and his melodic chug often brings out in Alfonzetti’s voice, who in turn, sounds as good here as he did over two decades previously.  Unsurprisingly, their combined talents go some way to make Impera’s debut, in the main, a very enjoyable offering.

The blistering, driving hard rock of ‘More Than Meets The Eye’ presents the band at their hardest, where the riffing is very much of the melodic Euro metal variety (just resting on the good side of Yngwie Malmsteen’s more soulless equivalent).  Over the riffs, Alfonzetti pushes his voice to the limit – though never sounding like he’s having to try that hard – and Mr Impera puts in one of his most energetic drumming performances, but it’s Denander’s solo which is the number’s best feature.  During that solo, he cuts loose on a fast break, with plenty of melodic metal picking topped off by a couple of squealy notes to finish – he’s capable of better (as evidenced elsewhere), but in terms of choosing the right solo to fit a space he proves to be one of the best, up there with Scorpions man Matthias Jabs.  ‘Shoot Me Down’ has a similar old-school musical attack, its verses carefully balancing a sharp rhythm guitar part with a strong lead vocal.  It fares a little better, though, thanks to a more melodic approach on a chorus.  While it’s a little “leather trousers” in its execution, Alfonzetti puts in a rousing vocal performance – that alone may be just enough to win you over and (hopefully) enough for you to pull out those long neglected Jagged Edge CDs.

That kind of upbeat rock is fun enough in the hands of Impera, but it’s when tackling material of a more mid-paced variety these guys often sound at their best.  ‘Dead End Street’ is such a number – while the very melodic vocal and pumping rhythm section hold their own throughout, it’s Denander who totally steals the show: his main riff is chock full of rhythmic tapping, while his lead break is nothing short of terrific, absolutely loaded with fretboard histrionics.  Adopting a meaty stomp, ‘Is This Love’ is a harmony driven rocker, akin to a heavier Whitesnake/Rainbow hybrid.  As expected, the lead performances are top notch, but it’s Vassfjord who plays the key role during this tune, his slow yet unmovable bassline providing the centre point from which Denander works his riffs and solos.  Given a slow and moody backdrop, Alfonzetti  stretches his voice in a very pleasing manner, the slight scratchiness on some notes adding further to a gritty but hugely melodic mood.  A touch faster, ‘Show Me The Money’ finds the whole band in fine form.  With a slightly funky groove, the cocky posturing driving this tune clearly comes naturally to these guys – and so it should, given their combined session pedigree.  Another combination of solid riff, good chorus and strong lead vocal make it stand up easily, but that said, this album has no obviously weak tracks.

The rest of the album’s material is built from similarly tried and tested melodic rock blueprints, but is none the worse for its “don’t fix what ain’t broken” mentality, especially given the great musicianship from each member.  Matti Alfonzetti sounds like the consummate professional throughout and with a voice that has stood up to the passing decades excellently, it’s somewhat of a mystery as to why he is not much better known, especially considering previous connections to Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham…

This release certainly doesn’t ever attempt to push any genre boundaries, but the combination of solid songs featuring both Afonzetti and Denander in fine form makes ‘Legacy of Life’ a disc which should certainly be enjoyed by many rock fans of a certain age.

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


Redline’s 2012 album ‘Vice’ is rooted firmly in the old school.  On this release, the Brummie five piece band have not just settled for a little retro – they’ve chosen all out, old fashioned 80s metal as their core sound.  The first song rips from the speakers with attitude, powered by the kind of riffs that would make their fore fathers very proud.

Within ‘Battle Cry’s opening two lines, vocalist Kez Taylor delivers lyrics which mention both “Running with the devil” and “the reaper” as if no time has passed since the days of Sounds Magazine and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal; its chorus (“Time to do or die / Shout the battle cry!”) fits the mood well with its brazen cheesiness.  The heavy staccato riffs show no sign of abating over the course of three minutes and taking in a fierce lead guitar break en route, Redline sets their musical manifesto out for all to see.  By the track’s end, you’ll either find yourself going with Redline for the (leather clad, motorbikes and demons obsessed) ride, or you be moving swiftly along…

‘King of the Mountain’ follows suit with a similar twin guitar attack.  No surprises from a band called Redline, this tune is celebration of heavy horse-powered two-wheeled greatness and comes with hi-octane riffs to suit the subject matter.  A number adopted as the official theme for the Isle of Man TT Races in 2009, on this particular track, Kez offers huge vocal (with some equally huge screaming notes on occasion) and the rest of the band sounds nice and tight.  The only weak point here is the one line chorus; considering the band loves motorcycles so much, it’s a pity that repeating “King of the mountain” ad nauseum was the best they could manage.   A second ode to the motorbike and open road, ‘No Limits’ is far better: a pumping bass lays the foundations for a fist-clenched slab of metal which recalls classic tunes by Saxon and their ilk.  Unlike some early Saxon tunes, bassist Redvers manages more here than a pounding open E, but all the same, ‘No Limits’ doesn’t pretend to be flashy.  With squealing guitars, full throttle riffing and a much better chorus, this pure and simple approach typifies the kind of tunes that would have placed Redline at the forefront of the studs-and-leather dominated scene had they been doing this three decades earlier.

‘The Edge of Falling’ and ‘Some Kinda Mean’ are numbers on which the band branches out a little farther, opting for a slightly more melodic edge.  ‘On The Edge’ is particularly enjoyable with its mix of acoustic and electric guitars; the punchy mid paced rock is slightly reminiscent of early Dokken and shiny backing vocals lend more of an American feel.  At the heart of it all, though, the guitars reign supreme and an old-school lead guitar break tops things off nicely.  ‘Some Kinda Mean’ has a riff which isn’t too far removed from something Glenn Tipton would have penned for Judas Priest circa ’84 and as such has a hugely classic sound.  Taylor, meanwhile, takes each line in his stride – his big voice an equal match for the riffs.  As with ‘King of the Mountain’, a one line chorus lets the side down a little, but everything else here is more than solid.

Interestingly, ‘Vice’s weakest track is ‘Cold Silence’ – and it is possibly no coincidence that the potential missteps happen during Redline’s only attempt at lightening up.  This particular track is an overwrought power ballad, at first led by piano and strings (arranged by Slade’s Jim Lea).  It’s wonderfully orchestrated, but that doesn’t stop its first half sounding like a poor man’s equivalent to a Queensryche ballad.  During the second half, things rock up somewhat.  The combination of strings and a well played lead guitar improves things considerably, while drummer Mark Biddiscombe also puts in a rock-hard performance.

Let’s not beat about the bush here: ‘Vice’ is uncool.  Not uncool in such a way that could be considered cool, just uncool.  However, it cannot be denied that Redline are great musicians and in Kez Taylor the band possesses a powerful vocalist with some serious old-school chops.  If you don’t care about fashion and want a metal album that hits you in the kind of way those old vinyl LPs did back in ’81, then this record is definitely for you.

September 2012

STEVE HARRIS – British Lion

Steve Harris’s place in the rock history books is more than secure.  As founder and driving force behind Iron Maiden, he has written more classic hard rock/melodic metal songs than most.  With that in mind, it is a pity that about seventy percent of his solo debut ‘British Lion’ fails to raise above mediocre.  With a bunch of previously unknown musicians in tow – including a couple of guys he mentored back in the nineties – this first outing under his own name is, frankly, not worth making a fuss about.   …And indeed, had ‘British Lion’ been the debut from a hitherto unknown band, EMI wouldn’t have given it the time of day.

The opening number ‘This Is My God’ has a strong musical foundation with an old-fashioned classic rock riff, slightly bluesy and heavy on the wah-wah.  As predicted, and somewhat comforting, Harris’s bass is quite high in the mix, and although he’s not tempted to launch into his trademark gallop, his rattling bass strings are more than audible.  Beyond that, there are some serious flaws: Simon Dawson’s drums don’t come with anywhere near the amount of oomph such music requires, while throughout the track – and most of the rest of the LP – vocalist Richard Taylor feebly delivers his lines in a manner which is best likened to any number of unprofessional pub rock vocalists.

Moving on, as the second track ‘Lost Worlds’ finds its feet, it becomes apparent that ‘British Lion’s second biggest fault is its overall mix.  Engineer Kevin Shirley (much beloved by many fans of classic rock) has given the album a very fudgy, almost woolly sound – similar to the mix he gave Joe Bonamassa’s ‘Black Rock’ – and as a result, there’s no real punch; just rumbling fuzziness with Harris’s bass leading the way and Taylor whining a bit. ‘Karma Killer’ is clearer, thanks to some top end on the lead guitars, but it still carries the general mood of a demo recording, far removed from the kind of perfection you’d associate with a member of one of the world’s best-loved metal bands.  On the plus side, during the verses of this number, Harris’s basslines are terrific.  Such a pity he or his chosen band couldn’t back them up with anything else vaguely memorable.

…And so, on goes the catalogue of disasters: ‘Judas’ is meat-headed rock where Richard Taylor’s vocals get swamped in a mulch of bass, while ‘Us Against The World’ has the charm of a poorly performed, poorly recorded Maiden reject with all the (lacking) fidelity range of Strangeways’ ‘Perfect World’. These Are the Hands’, meanwhile, is dirgy mid-paced affair that sounds like a second rate alt-rock band trying their hand at something in the classic rock genre.  Possibly worse, ‘The Lesson’ is a piano and strings power ballad that could have been good, but without a hook of any sort and a vocalist that’s hopelessly out of his depth, it represents the kind of tune that you’re not likely to return to after the first couple of cursory listens.

Although most of ‘British Lion’ hovers between average and terrible, there are three enjoyable tunes included – and it is probably not a coincidence that these aren’t of the dirgy hard rock style which forms a large proportion of the album. The upbeat ‘The Chosen Ones’ offers a  reasonable chorus, some nifty lead bass work and some pleasing ringing leads.  The strong AOR influence is very welcome, as is the brief moment of twin lead guitar evoking UFO, thus paying tribute to one of Harris’s favourite bands.  At six and a half minutes it is a little on the long side for such frivolous melodic rock, but there are some enjoyable moments en route.  ‘Eyes of the Young’, is a crisp sounding affair – again influenced by AOR.  Between a pumping bass and lovely clean-toned guitars, even Taylor sounds better, though his slightly flat delivery still struggles a little, especially with the bigger notes on the chorus.  ‘British Lion’ desperately needs more upbeat, shiny material such as this, but even then, this has the makings of a tune that would have been a hundred times better, if only Harris had Adrian Smith on hand to help make the hook bigger.  As history has proven with material such as ‘Wasted Years’, Smith is a dab hand at an AOR chorus.  More melodic rock fist pumping drives ‘A World Without Heaven’, a well-rounded tune with some enjoyable staccato guitar lines and classic sounding twin leads.  While it had the potential to be as strong as those AOR influenced numbers previously mentioned, it eventually winds up the weakest of the three due to Harris’s ability to over-egg the pudding.  At just over seven minutes, this would have been far superior clocking in at just over half that time.

Prior to the release, fans expected something delving further into progressive rock, but Harris quickly stated that ‘British Lion’ was to be  more in keeping with classic seventies rock, with influences from UFO et al.  Those three more melodic numbers aside, this is all too half-arsed and muddy to be considered in the same league as any classic rock fare, seventies or otherwise.   If this were a demo by an unknown band it would show a little promise, perhaps, but from a musician of Harris’s calibre, it is mostly forgettable.  ‘British Lion’ is one for the obsessive Maiden completists only.

September 2012

DOKKEN – Broken Bones

Dokken are not exactly well known for their classic album covers, but with regard to 2012’s ‘Broken Bones’ their sleeve art hits an all time low.  A retro skull and crossbones? The album may reference the word bones but, surely, they could have chosen something better?  As indie-rock band Ash once put it, pirates are so 2004.

Dokken can often be relied upon for some fantastic hard rock tunes, though [1997’s mostly awful ‘Shadowlife’ being the notable exception to the rule] and, fortunately, most of ‘Broken Bones’ delivers in spades.  In fact, the two potentially weakest cuts are those which bookend each of the record, where the band most obviously revisit the kind of full-on melodic metal riffs which filled their earliest discs.  ‘Empire’ chugs ahead at full throttle, at first sounding as if it favours riffs and general bombast over anything approaching memorable song writing.  After spending a while with the album, the chorus elements become more obvious, but even then, any chorus is more of a pre-chorus variety than killer hook.  With a moment of majestic twin lead guitar and a particularly ferocious solo, the fans who enjoy this side of Dokken’s work will find some enjoyment, while those more into Dokken’s mid-paced tunes are best advised to move along.  ‘Tonight’ fares better thanks to a more memorable chorus and enjoyable eastern sounding riff during the intro, but again, ‘Broken Bones’ offers far better material elsewhere.

With regard to the album’s other nine tracks, it is honestly very hard to find fault – the remainder of the material borders on being first rate Dokken fare.  The title cut takes on a darker tone, as ex-Doro/Warlock guitarist Jon Levin plays a simple but effective riff over which Don Dokken’s lead voice cries out softly at first, before gradually being joined by other equally melodic voices.  By the chorus, the band members can be heard singing in great harmony.  The hook itself is somewhat of a slow burner, but the melody is undeniably strong.  ‘Waterfall’ is short and punchy with a groove-laden riff carrying most of the song’s weight.  The slight eastern motif occasionally appearing is reminiscent of the best parts of ‘Dysfunctional’ (the band’s superb 1994 comeback disc).  With a strong riff, relatively powerful vocal and a general “no padding” approach, this may have already been good enough to stand out as one of the better tunes on ‘Broken Bones’.  There’s a little more up the band’s sleeve, however, since Levin’s featured guitar solo ups the ante.  Here, the rest of Dokken have no choice but to adopt a different tempo (and tune) to accommodate his fretboard antics!

Eastern influenced riffs are revisited and approached in a hugely unsubtle – but most welcome – way throughout ‘Victim Of The Crime’, a tune which has an epic quality.  Levin offers up various sweeping lead guitar parts, again with a little eastern flair.  It would have been easy for Dokken to extend this track to allow for extra flashy guitar solos, but have instead chosen to keep things vocal led.  Whether Don’s slightly filtered voice performs alone or with a small group of harmonies, his performance is impeccable – one of his best here – and while the general vibe is more Deep Purple’s ‘Perfect Strangers’ than Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’, Dokken proves that such eastern sounding grooves never sound tired…no matter how many times they’re dished out.

On the wholly melodic ‘Today’, Don Dokken’s vocal has a natural tone – the kind which befits a man whom (by this point) has been in the business for three decades – but even so, he still sounds at his absolute best when joined by a few trademark melodic rock harmonies.  While the solid vocal approach and even more solid chorus would have been enough to make this track stand up, Levin is the one whom – once again – brings the most to the table.  With a mix of clean tone and slightly dirtier playing, his riffs are fine enough, but a terrific lead guitar break attacks with a marvellous intensity while always remaining on the good side of melodic.

‘For The Last Time’ has a big drum sound, which sounds even bigger when pitched against semi-acoustic guitar work.   The guitars lay down a fine melody as a blanket of soft keys add to the overall atmosphere.  …And then the song opens properly with its chorus, the electric riffs creating a fine example of chunky melodic rock.  For the verses, things return to the more atmospheric sounds of the intro, over which Don sounds very confident.  This is an interesting tune in the sense that it sounds as if Dokken welded together two half finished ideas.  Both great individually, but they sound good together, too – although those softer moments are certainly preferable.  If you can make it past the initial jarring aspects of this song, it is a tremendous addition to the Dokken catalogue.

There will always be a few naysayers who feel that for best results both Don Dokken and George Lynch should be present, but Jon Levin does a first rate job on most of these tracks.  The combination of meaty (often) mid-paced riffs, great lead work and a few catchy choruses makes ‘Broken Bones’  Dokken’s finest hour since ‘Dysfunctional’.

September 2012