Artist: A-Z (Alder/Zonder)
Album Title: A-Z
Label: Metal Blade Records
Date of Release: 12 August 2022
I’m well aware of the fact that the artwork of an album is not the most important thing. However, as I’ve chirped on many times, as a music lover in the pre-Internet days, it was one of the biggest elements for me when rifling through the shelves of my local record shops. Old habits die hard for this middle-aged curmudgeon and so when I laid eyes on the cover of the self-titled debut from a new outfit A-Z, I have to be honest and say that I recoiled. Hugh Syme is a talented guy and has produced some killer covers in the past. However, this one isn’t my cup of tea, and it set the wrong tone from the outset upon receipt of the promo. Others will disagree, and that’s fine, because all art is subjective.
Taking things back a step, A-Z is the name of the band that is the brainchild of ex-Fates Warning and ex-Warlord drummer, Mark Zonder. He is joined by the inimitable Fates Warning and ex-Redemption vocalist Ray Alder, as well as keyboardist Vivien Lalu (Lalu), bassist Philip Bynoe (Warlord, Steve Vai, Ring Of Fire, and guitarist Joop Wolters. For any fans of progressive metal, this line-up is a mouth-watering prospect, and I am no different, salivating at the prospect of Zonder and Alder reunited once more.
A read of the press release though, started a distant alarm bell in my mind. The outspoken and incredibly bullish Zonder makes it clear from the outset that he started composing the music on this debut with one thought in mind: dial down the prog, dial up the melody, and pitch the music at the beer or car commercial market, meaning that he wanted to create music that would be instantly memorable, with big hooks and a sense of fun no doubt. I actually fully respect the honesty here and can understand the fact that Zonder wants some measurable success from his music. But the fact remains that this knocked me a little off kilter from the outset, especially given the musicians involved. How would this music sound?
The answer, after a multitude of spins and plenty of time, is ‘mixed’. This probably sounds like I am sitting on the fence, suffering a plethora of splinters in the process. But no, it’s because I find the end result to be slightly hit and miss and ultimately, lacking a single, true identity. Within the eleven songs on ‘A-Z’, you get all sorts of styles, from some prog, to gentle AOR, to metal, to more mainstream rock, and then back again. And, truth be told, the majority of it works well; it’s just not quite consistent enough.
Positivity first, and the opening track ‘Trial By Fire’ is the only place to start, after a nod to the production, which is as clear and strong as it can possibly be. So kudos there. When Zonder said that the hook is the priority, this is one of the examples of where he has thoroughly succeeded. The chorus comes out of nowhere to smack us around the face with a delightfully strong hook and a breeziness that’s utterly infectious. In and around it, the assembled band deliver a hard-hitting song, with some nice riffs, powerful drumming as you’d expect, and meaty, throbbing bass, with Lalu lacing the material with some subtle but lovely sounds – on this record, aside from Alder who can do no wrong, Lalu is the not-so-secret weapon. It’s more of a muscular melodic metal song with a few prog-lite elements, but it’s a great beginning, especially when the 80s-esque lengthy guitar solo hits later, to bring a smile to my face.
I then want to fast forward to the ninth track, ‘Borrowed Time’ because it’s my other personal favourite. It opens with a darker, brooding edge before delivering the sickest (yes, I occasionally will use a phrase to be down with the kids!) riff; it is so groovy and heavy, it raises a sinister grin, especially when joined by the intense wailing delivery of Alder. I also like the way the chorus is a more chilled-out affair and softer, to better accentuate the heaviness in other places. Altogether, it gives me chills in all the right ways. Did I mention that riff?
Elsewhere, there are plenty of growers too, songs that I was less enamoured with at the outset, but now really appreciate. The first of these is ‘The Far Side Of The Horizon’, which is arguably the most technical as ‘progressive’ of the bunch. The driving riff and rich pianos at the start are added to by some overt 80s style electronic drums, providing an intriguing soundscape upon which Alder can let rip with his usual passion and skill. The chorus also gets better with time, now refusing to leave my head, the stubborn little so-and-so.
‘Rise Again’ is a gorgeous ballad-like track with a devastating performance from Ray Alder, so delicate, but so full of passion and power. It might be a tad soft and mushy for some, but there is something about it that makes me fall for its soft-centred, AOR charms regardless. And, on the subject of AOR, the chorus to ‘Run Away’ is more hook-laden goodness, albeit with a slightly harder edge.
For all these positives, there are those other tracks that I don’t find hit the spot as hard though. ‘The Machine Gunner’, for example, is a strange composition that falls between several stools, not certain about its identity. The melodies aren’t as strong as they could be, whilst it gallops away with a hint of early Maiden, only to culminate in a slightly weak, underwhelming chorus compared to others on offer here. The musicianship throughout, is fantastic mind you, of that there is no doubt, the bass and keys really standing out in particular. ‘Window Panes’ is another that falls a little flat for my tastes too – I’m not feeling the drawn out chorus or the early hard rock bravado as much as I perhaps should.
I’ll be the first to admit and concede to the fact that I am probably being overly harsh with this record simply because of the clientele involved. But it is hard not to, because when I saw the line-up, I salivated like mad, chomping at the bit to wrap my ears around it. And overall, it’s not quite as stellar as I was hoping and I’m not sure its identity is 100% clear. I also wanted it to be a bit more progressive than it actually is. That’s as much my issue as it is that of the music, but such is my honest appraisal. Nevertheless, there is more than enough great material on ‘A-Z’ to explore, so I suggest you do so as soon as possible and draw your own conclusions. Just make sure you put a paper bag over the album when you play it though, so that the cover doesn’t put you off!
The Score of Much Metal: 85%