Until up until recent years, Bonfire has had sliding doors for members coming in and out in a pace that makes Whitesnake look like a stable unit. But since the hiring of Alexx Stahl as the replacement for Michael Bormann who replaced David Reece who replaced Claus Lessmann who Hans Ziller surprisingly and unexpectedly fired back in 2013. At first, a Bonfire without Lessmann seemed like a huge no-no, especially with a guy like Reece behind the mike. Nothing wrong with Reece – he’s a great singer – but his fit in a band like Bonfire was as natural and complete as his fit in Accept, which means none at all. Bormann felt like a better choice but he walked out after like five minutes and the singer roller-coaster ride felt like a never-ending story.
This new album is the fourth with Stahl as the frontman, if you include the mastodon yet quite unnecessary double covers album Legends (2018) and with that it really feels like Bonfire has finally found themselves at ease. As an outsider, it’s impossible to not think of Lessmann as THE voice of Bonfire, even still, but since Stahl’s voice is quite similar to Lessmann’s – and no, I’m not saying he’s a clone – it’s way easier to get a Bonfire vibe out the band. That was never the case with Reece at all. Personally, my relationship with Bonfire had faded after the release of the magnificent Knock Out (1991) even though there was some pretty good releases after that. Stahl’s debut Byte The Bullet (2017) wasn’t perfect but it was a good record that showed lots of potential and 2018’s Temple Of Lies was a surprisingly vital album, full of damn good songs and Bonfire’s best effort since Knock Out. This of course brought hope that they would deliver the goods this time as well.
Before its release, there was talk of Bonfire going total Metal with this album, something they tried out with the Judas Priest influenced title-track of the last album. It was a good song for sure but to me Bonfire aren’t a Metal band, they’re a Melodic Rock band with input from classic Hard Rock. This meant that I wasn’t really sure of what to expect here. A Heavy Metal Bonfire? The opening intro, the 1,5 minute long “The Joker” gives nothing of that kind away. It’s an acoustic piece with harmony guitars, cello and pan flute added which leads us directly in to the opening number “Gotta Get Away”. Metal? well, there’s an influence for sure but in general this sounds more like a classic Melodic Rock Bonfire tune. It’s upbeat with a punchy rhythm-section, a bit harder-edged but with hooks and big melodies at full force. Laid-back verses creates a dynamic when the more uptempo chorus. It’s pretty catchy but more written as an album track, an opener for the stage as well more than, say, a single. It’s a good albeit not great tune.
The Metal influences comes across more in second single “The Devil Made Me Do It”, a crunchy rocker that mixes the classic melodic Bonfire style with a heavier, grittier outlook. I wouldn’t put the tune in the Metal category, though, it’s more of a Hard Rock tune, upbeat with a pretty strong chorus but again, it’s good, not great. The utptempo “Ride The Blade”, however, strikes hard in a darker mood and a punchy and heavy headbang-friendly rhythm. Still, the classic Bonfire melodies with hitty hooks and catchy melodies makes it a bit less Metal, so to speak. It’s a really good song that will probably work like a charm when (if) the band hits the road, hopefully in the near future.
“When An Old Man Cries” is the album’s sole ballad. Being an 80’s melodic Rock band, I expected a huge power ballad but what they treat us with here is a sullen and melancholic – and quite heavy – tune surrounded by a somewhat darker ambience. Acoustic guitar laden, the big rhythm section plus electric guitars comes in and create a bigger soundscape but all the way through it’s a sombre tune that mixes “Nothing Else Matters” Metallica with late 80’s Scorpions. More of a powerful ballad than a power ballad, the tune’s delightful refrain makes the tune a winner. Leading single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivors” might be a bit lyrically cringy but it’s also quite forgettable musically. It’s an uptempo rocker that mixes back-when Bonfire with classic Hard Rock on a punchy beat but I keep looking for the hooks. Why is this a single?
“Fire And Ice”, on the other hand, is as Metal infected as it could be. While the recognizable Bonfire melodies are all present, this fast, hard and heavy track does its best to blow your head off. Big on sharp riffs and a thunderous, stone-hard rhythm, the tune sure takes a stroll down Judas Priest lane. I’m not sure that Heavy Metal is the way for Bonfire to go but this tune sure damn well rocks. I dig it. On the other side of the coin, we get “Warrior” which instantly brings on a combined guitar/keyboard riff, not a far cry from “Sweet Obsession”. The whole tune is an upbeat, straight ahead pop-metal stomper that takes us back to the days of Fireworks (1987). It’s sticky as glue, hit-laden and über-catchy and will stick in your brain whether you like it or not. Guys, here’s your single. Killer track!
As a bit of a curve-ball, we get a fierce guitar-shredding interlude, “Fire Etude”, mixing up neo-classical twists that says “Hi, Yngwie” with some “let’s try some cool Eddie Van Halen shit”. Does it work? Not really as it bored the eyes out of skull, but then again, shredding pieces isn’t really my set of strings. Said shredding piece leads us into the Metal fueled hard rocker “Breaking Out”, a bouncy stomper with some rough guitars that contains just as much Melodic Rock in case of melodies and Hard Rock as it does Metal. It’s an ok track with a striking refrain as the finest part. The title-track is a heavier version of the band’s classic Melodic Rock – upbeat, straight-forward with a chorus easy to chant along to.
With a piano, some guitars and a military snare march-rhythm, “The Surge” is another instrumental interlude, this time orchestrated, big and bombastic yet short. It takes us into “Gloryland”, a fast tracked Hard Rock song with a slight Metal twist, a metal twist that slightly – very slightly – reminds me some of Helloween. It’s along the lines of the title-track – straight forward with hook-laden melodies and a catchy, in-your-face chorus. Good one. As a closer we get an acoustic version of “When An Old Man Cries”, a version that is, to be frank, not a whole great deal different from the original version. It’s good but a bit unnecessary, if you ask me.
So how much of a Metal album is this then? Well, not much, actually. Sure, it’s heavier and harder than anything this band has done before and there are Metal-twists waved in here and there, but a Metal album? Apart from a couple of songs, nah! Most of it sounds like a rougher version of how Bonfire always have sounded – Melodic Rock and classic Hard Rock in a blender. Quality wise, the album feels a bit like a let-down after the hopeful Temple Of Lies. While it’s better than a whole lot of the band’s discography, this album holds a few fillers too many. That being said, I still have the feeling that the band is on the move forward and that they’re relevant in 2020, something I wouldn’t have written five years ago.
More Bonfire reviews:
1. The Joker
2. Gotta Get Away
3. The Devil Made Me Do It
4. Ride The Blade
5. When An Old Man Cries
6. Rock ‘n’ Roll Survivors
7. Fire And Ice
9. Fire Etude
10. Breaking Out
11. Fistful Of Fire
12. The Surge
14. When An Old Man Cries (Acoustic Version)