When thinking about 80s AOR, there are a few bands that immediately spring to mind: Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, and Survivor. Legends all, but rock’s most radio-friendly subgenre spawned a truckload of other great bands, and during the 80s, this most American sound even influenced a few British musicians. FM remain one of the best known and most successful exponents of the UK contingent; much has been said about Magnum’s most commercial period from 1986-90, and at the end of the decade, Little Angels scored chart success by taking an AOR core and injecting it with a couple of rockier influences. For all the hitmakers, there are several great bands that aren’t mentioned anywhere near as much. And the greatest of those? That, without doubt, would be Scotland’s Strangeways.
Over thirty years after his breakthrough with Yngwie Malmsteen, Jeff Scott Soto released one of the greatest albums of his career. At the point where most veteran vocalists could be accused of going through the motions, 2020’s ‘Wide Awake In My Dreamland’ was a rich, melodic treat; the kind of album that reminded audiences why they still loved AOR and melodic rock – despite many of the scene’s releases being so workmanlike. It also provided solid evidence that Soto still was still in possession of a fantastic set of vocal pipes. The global pandemic meant the album couldn’t be toured in the usual way, but Jeff filled the time with a surprise release, ‘The Duets Collection, Vol. 1’ a few months later, delighting the fans and cementing his place as one of AOR’s most beloved talents.
At the peak of AOR’s popularity in the 80s, there were a lot of great bands and artists whom, for whatever reason, never quite made the big time. They had the major label deal; they had the songs, and yet, struggled to make it into the first division with Journey and Survivor, and secure that place in record buyers’ long term memories. Perhaps it was just that in those days the melodic rock scene was over subscribed. The lack of sales for albums by Aviator, John Philip and Baxter Robertson – to give just three examples – certainly had nothing to do with a lack of talent.
After releasing two solid melodic rock albums, First Signal delivered a genuine masterpiece with their third disc ‘Line of Fire’. On that recording, the union between vocalist Harry Hess and versatile guitarist-for-hire Michael Palace was truly inspired, and the resultant set of songs rivalled the early Harem Scarem output. In many ways, setting such a high benchmark meant that any follow up would likely feel a little inferior, but there’s still plenty about First Signal’s 2022 release ‘Closer To The Edge’ that comes to the gold standard of melodic rock, at least in terms of both composition and musicianship.
This thirteenth studio release from FM, one of the UK’s best loved AOR bands, presents eleven tracks where Steve Overland and the lads barely deviate from their usual blueprint, barely break a sweat during their performances, or really offer their fans any material that would challenge them in any way. Such a massively predictable approach might seem half arsed coming from a lesser act, but with FM, such familiar territory is bound to bring a treat or six, especially since Overland still possesses one of the greatest voices in rock. At the point in his career where most of his peers are turning in deeper performances or even assaulting their fans with voices that should have long retired, Steve still sounds like a master performer; a gifted talent able to anything within a broad range; a man more than capable of delivering anything any of his various bands requires. Along with Jeff Scott Soto, he appears to be among a dying breed. In the rest of FM, there remains a truly solid band that conveys a classic sound. By 2022, their work is certainly formulaic, but few would deny that it often results in a winning combination of power and melody.