Artist: Ray Alder
Album Title: II
Label: Inside Out Music
Date of Release: 9 June 2023
Back in 2019, Ray Alder, one of the most important voices in progressive music released his debut solo album, ‘What The Water Wants’ – that’s if you ignore the albums released around the turn of the Millennium under the ‘Engine’ moniker of course. In any case, I really enjoyed ‘What The Water Wants’, and came to Alder’s follow-up, ‘II’ with a fair amount of excitement. After all, the guy has a killer voice, which has fronted some brilliant albums over the years with Fates Warning, Redemption, and ZW.
I’m bound to lose a few friends who consider themselves die hard Alder fans, but after living with ‘II’ for a while, I am struggling to fully take it to my heart. The album starts off strongly with a collection of great tracks which I’ll go into a little more shortly. The record is also well-produced, sounding smooth and crystal clear, just like Alder’s voice which once again delivers in spades throughout; it will come as no shock to learn that ‘II’ doesn’t suffer because of the vocals. Instead, it is because of Ray Alder’s performance that I have stuck with the record so long, in the hope that I will finally click with it, and discover the hitherto hidden gems lurking within.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened, certainly not to the extent to which I was hoping it might. I’m reminded of my feelings towards some of James LaBrie’s solo efforts in that with his main band, he helps create some brilliant music, but less so as a solo artist. As I listen to ‘II’, I’m of a similar opinion. I’d rather be listening to Fates Warning or Redemption. Like many of those collaboration records that seem to find their way onto the Frontiers Records roster, a new Ray Alder solo release sounds much better as an idea on paper than the reality delivers.
This isn’t to say that ‘II’ is a bad record, it’s just that I find it a little one-dimensional and a bit bland overall. The music, created again by Alder alongside guitarist Mike Abdow (touring member of Fates Warning), guitarist/bassist Tony Hernando (Lords Of Black), and drummer Craig Anderson (Ignite, Crescent Shield) is perfectly well-executed, but after the first few songs disappear, so does the energy and the focus, leading to an album that, for the most part, lacks moments that genuinely make me sit up and listen. There are heavy riffs, solos aplenty, and driving rhythms. However, for the most part, the choruses and melodies fall a bit flat upon my ears. This is not the review I was hoping to write given how much I like and respect Ray Alder, but if I am to maintain any integrity, it’s the one that I must write.
And things get off to such a solid start, too. I’d say that the first four songs, three at least, are the best that ‘II’ has to offer, and are likely to see the light of day again in the Mansion of Much Metal. ‘This Hollow Shell’ kicks things off with a quiet but moody intro, Alder’s vocals front and centre, around him the song building slowly, only increasing the moody introspection that’s dripping from the song throughout its length. The explosions of passion and intensity in the choruses are great, and the melodies chosen are insidious. The soulful, almost bluesy guitar solo is great, too.
There’s a noticeable increase in heaviness for ‘My Oblivion’, as the guitars are really ballsy, chunky, and downtuned. They chug with authority through the verses and the chorus is really rather excellent. Again, not immediately so, but with time, the chorus makes more of an impact, whilst there are a few more subtle moments littered in and around the guitars that carry a similar tone to recent Evergrey material.
However, the best of the bunch has to be ‘Waiting For Some Sun’. It is another quiet starter, allowing those smooth tones of Alder to take full effect; you can hear every inflection, every breath, every syllable as if you’re living his performance with him. I love the fact that we even get a first listen of the chorus before any instrumentation kicks in other than the minimalist notes that accompany Alder from the outset. From there, the heavy guitars kick in again, and almost djent-like proggy rhythms ensue within a stop-start framework until they flourish in the chorus. Again, those vague Evergrey comparisons come unbidden to my mind as the chorus delights me, more than any other on this record.
From here, though, I’m afraid the material is much more forgettable and, try as I might, little of it makes any kind of lasting impact. In fact, there have been several occasions when I have said to myself, ‘Matt, pay attention’, only to switch off yet again. It is perfectly inoffensive music that sits in the background as I work, take my dog for a walk, or drive from A to B. But it’s no more than that. Given how some of the early tracks began to grow nicely on me, I hoped the same would happen on the second half of ‘II’. But no, I don’t engage with the melodies, and there’s a definite feeling that the songs are very much of a muchness, blending into one another, without much of a change of direction, or killer moment to stir me from my reverie.
That is, until the final song, ‘Changes’ tries one more time to grab my attention. I’d not suggest that it’s as good as the aforementioned songs, not quite, but the intro is delicious, and I like the way that there is more of a pronounced ebb and flow to the composition. Plus, Alder sounds great, just as he always does to be fair. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with ‘II’. Aside from a clutch of songs, the material presented on ‘II’ does not match the quality of the voice that fronts it. I’ll take away a few of the songs and add them to a playlist I’m sure, but more than that, it’s unlikely that I’ll be stirred sufficiently to dive back into this record. I hate that this is my conclusion, but so be it, I’m afraid
The Score of Much Metal: 69%
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