Since Michael Schenker finally got sober for real some 10+ years ago, he has become more creative than in a long, long time. It all began with his his Temple Of Rock project which spawned four albums since 2011 and with his latest project, the Michael Schenker Fest, he has released two studio albums – including this one – and one live effort, plus an extensive amount of touring. When Schenker goes into reunion mode, it’s not only with one of his old singers but almost everyone of them – Leif Sundin who sang on 1996’s Written In The Sand excluded. Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley and Doogie White are all present. This album also features Ronnie Romero (Rainbow, CoreLeoni, The Ferrymen, Lords Of Black) as lead vocalist on one track. Romero has no connection to Schenker what so ever so why he is on the album, I’m pretty clueless of.
Due to the sad passing of drummer Ted McKenna, Schenker, his vocalists, guitarist and keyboardist Steve Mann (he was in the band when they were called the McAuley-Schenker Group) and bassist Chris Glen hired drummers Simon Phillips and Bodo Schopf (McAuley-Schenker Group) to play the drums for the new album but it looks like it’s the latter who will take the place on the drum-stool when this ensemble hits the road in the near future. With only one year since the release of the better than expected, debut MSF record, the risk of rushing things quality-wise is certainly present. I mean, when did he find the time to write and record this record with all that touring taking place? My expectations are on the rise here since the last record was such a solid piece of music.
Opening with the slower paced leading single “Rock Steady”, a groovy and rhythmic number that lands somewhere between Classic Rock and Schenker’s Melodic Hard Rock of his MSG days, all four singers onboard. Soundwise, this goes back to the 80’s – but not in the more AOR-ish way of McAuley-Schenker – and it brings on a big, hooky refrain that’s catchy without going into radio flirtation. Very good. In a fast pace with chugging guitars in a straight-forward manner, “Under A Blood Red Sky” heavies things up. White sings it alone and it takes the route of classic, 80’s Hard Rock – punchy on a beefy rhythm and pretty much in-your-face. I like the tune albeit the refrain doesn’t cut it all the way. Good but not great. The McAuley sung “Silent Again” takes us back to the Save Yourself (1989) MSG days. On a chunky rhythm, crunchy guitars and a memorable refrain with lots of hooks, the song is a clear winner here. McAuley really is an awesome singer.
Second single “Sleeping With The Lights On” brings back the singing four-some. It starts out on a softer and laid-back note and I thought we had a ballad on our hands here. However, the tune continues in a mid pace on a stompy rhythm and some good, meaty riffing from Schenker. A big, melodic – yet not poppy – refrain brings the tune home as another winner. It’s followed by the uptempo and energetic “The Beast In The Shadows”. Graham Bonnet lends his pipes to this one and much because of that, the song takes me back to the 80’s and Assault Attack. Musically too, this kicking and punchy rocker goes back to those days. It holds one of those very memorable but not sugary refrains that Schenker and Bonnet created together with such brilliance back then. Very good.
With Doogie White back at the mike, latest single “Behind The Smile” starts out with a medieval influenced guitar-line done with a Rock arrangement only to continue rhythmically stompy with crunchy guitars and striking melodies all over the place, very much in style with MSG. The big, catchy chorus makes it quite obvious why it was chosen as a single. Very good. Barden takes the vocals for “Crazy Daze”, an upbeat, punchy rocker with a groovy and pumping bass-line, some fat and meaty guitars and a honky-tonk piano in the background. It’s a Classic Rock tune from the mid 80’s with a very catchy chorus that sticks right from go. However, I’m not that sure about Barden, to be honest. I was never a big fan of his voice in the first place, but the truth is that his voice hasn’t aged as well as the others and unfortunately, it brings this song down. It would have worked lots better with McAuley or Bonnet.
Chunky riffs and an edgy guitar sound kicks off “Lead You Astray”. It’s a ballsy, tough and in-your-face rocker in uptempo, straight-forward Hard Rock on a tough beat. Unfortunately it’s a forgettable tune with a refrain that never make much of a fuss. Robin McAuley’s vocals is what saves the song from being a complete throwaway. Then it is time for Ronnie Romero, the album’s guest-vocalist. Why he’s on the album, I’m unsure of and not to be an ass, but it kinda ruins the concept. That said, his performances on “We Are The Voice” is superb. He always is, though. It’s a fast track – rowdy and heavy Hard Rock with a slight twist of Metal waved in. A steady rhythm-section and some neat guitar riffage puts a solid ground for the tasty melodies and the spot-on refrain. Another killer track. Barden is back for the uptempo, melodic Hard Rock number “Headed For The Sun”. It’s a striking and straight-forward rocker, very memorable with a catchy-as-hell chorus but again, Barden’s voice isn’t not strong enough to carry its refrain. McAuley’s voice would have taken this tune on a home-run.
Slightly on the ballad side, “Old Man” brings out all four vocalists for the last time on the album. It goes in a mid tempo but it holds a stompy rhythm with bouncy drums and a beefy bass. For a ballad, it’s quite heavy and groovy. The verses throws a nod back to his earlier MSG days but the contagious refrain is all McAuley-Schenker. Both Bonnet and McAuley sings away splendidly, White is good but a bit anonymous here and Barden’s the odd man out – side by side with the rest of the gang, it shows here more than ever that his voice really isn’t all that anymore. Fast and rough in classic MSG Hard Rock way, “Still In The Fight” brings on some chunky guitar lines and goes for the throat still with lots of memorable melodies and a spot-on refrain on which Bonnet shines. Good one. The record ends with the fast and bouncy rocking instrumental “Ascension”. With slight Metal tendencies, Schenker brings on some amazingly melodic and fine-tuned playing. There are some twists of Blackmore-isms in the solo but the melodies here are so memorable, even hummable which makes me think of his golden days. Brilliant.
After the first spin, my impression was “hmm, ok”, not more. But it grew on me fast and with each listen I liked it more and more. The idea to have a whole bunch of his ex-singers is a really good one. By doing so, there’s a whole lot of diversity going around without giving the album a schizophrenic outlook – they all know how to interpret a Schenker tune. Song-wise, Schenker has managed to come up with his finest work since the oh so underrated McAuley-Schenker days. While the production might be a bit vapid at times, by no means does it sound bad or powerless. To complain about Michael’s playing would be both unfair and pointless – the guy still is an ace on the fretboard but I must stress that I miss his song-within-the-song soloing from the old days, that only really shines through in the last song. Other than that, the fact that Barden doesn’t cut it all the way and the odd filler song-wise are my only complaints on this solid, stellar record. The seven is very strong and really close to an eight!
More Michael Schenker Fest reviews:
1. Rock Steady
2. Under A Blood Red Sky
3. Silent Again
4. Sleeping With The Lights On
5. The Beast In The Shadows
6. Behind The Smile
7. Crazy Daze
8. Lead You Astray
9. We Are The Voice
10. Headed For The Sun
11. Old Man
12. Still In The Flight