Full disclosure: I am not a fan of 80s AOR, 80s hard rock, or the 80s retro pastiche that briefly birthed the unwelcome return of the mullet. In fact, I hold a great deal of contempt for these styles and all their trappings, and am eternally grateful for the grunge and college rock scenes that effectively wiped them from the public consciousness all those years ago. While I do deeply revere 80s non-glam metal and enjoy the hell out of the current 80s metal revival (I’m looking at you, Iron Kingdom), I am constitutionally incapable of offering that same grace to the poppier offerings of that era, and I consider its extinction a lesson well learned.
That’s exactly why the eponymous debut from A-Z is so frustratingly delightful. Boasting an impressive roster of prog-rock and shred veterans, this unlikely ensemble apparently took notes while learning those aforementioned lessons and does the 80s AOR thing the way it should have been done in the first place – focusing on engaging, hook-laden songs that neither insult the listeners nor attempt to drown them in a deluge of stale Velveeta.
Given their lengthy histories of writing completely natural melodies over incredibly complex metal and adding just enough electronic flair to ridiculously capable drumming, it’s not terribly surprising that Fates Warning alumni Ray Alder and Mark Zonder are behind this. The pair have lost absolutely none of their chemistry since Zonder bowed out of Fates nearly two decades ago, and with the aid of Vai bassist Philip Bynoe and longtime collaborators Joop Wolters (guitar) and Viven Lalu (keys), have concocted a collection of concise, no-frills, retro-inspired hard rock that’s leagues more catchy than it is kitschy.
“Trial By Fire” sets the tone for the album, opening with a thick, meaty guitar tone that would win Eddie Van Halen’s approval and Zonder’s immediately identifiable trickery that somehow never loses pulse. Alder’s distinctive howl soon greets us and vows that his performance will be free of forced platitudes and over-emotive pomp. All the while, Wolters and Lalu layer their expertise with the precision and grace of a finely trained chef, applying just enough of their spice to complement the entrèe without ever attempting to overpower it. Hell, we even get to the chorus in under a minute without it feeling rushed, and once we’re there, we realize we have no choice but to be all in for this ride.
“The Far Side of the Horizon” ups the subtle undercurrent of technical wizardry, with Lalu and Zonder strutting their stuff but remaining solidly in service to the song. Their performances are completely devoid of unnecessary flashiness or superfluous gimmickry, even as Zonder hits those electronic pads more in this one song than he would on an entire Fates album. Even when A-Z lets off the gas, the guys take great care to not lay on the inevitable cheese that’s all but inseparable from 80s-style ballads. “Rise Again,” for instance, actually benefits from Lalu’s consciously retro tones he gently lays over the refrain and bridge, while Alder wisely abstains from singing about love or relationships or whatever, and instead offers encouragement and consolation to whoever might need it. Good move, bro.
None of this is to suggest that A-Z are following the path of Night Flight Orchestra, that Swedish ensemble led by prominent death metallers who are ably recreating a style of their parents’ generation. A-Z very deliberately flaunts contemporary production sensibilities that toe the line between polished and organic, and is graciously denuded of the gated snares, robotic guitar tones, and insufferably cheesy synths that polluted the decade that inspired this album. The sounds on this album are as warm, lively, and welcoming as A-Z’s whack at overhauling an aesthetic I (perhaps wrongly) considered best left interred.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Easily the most morose cut on this collection, “Borrowed Time” is an existential warning to those who aren’t fully living their lives where the verses and bridges echo Alder’s old groove band Engine and are by far the most modern-sounding moments on the album. For such a surprisingly welcome respite from the cold realism for which Fates Warning is known, it’s oddly heartwarming to find Alder and Zonder have it in them to still view life through different, disillusioned eyes.
Fully aware of their legacy, Alder and Zonder are unafraid to occasionally reference the mighty Fates. The mostly chill “Sometimes” actually manages to fluidly quote three Fates classics within the first minute with no trace of desperation or force. Meanwhile, Wolters and Lalu occasionally go full throttle and let their shred shine, as on the breaks in “The Machine Gunner,” which would not sound out of place on a Stratovarius or early Yngwie Malmsteen album. Unlike that cartoonish Swede, though, Wolters, Lalu, and crew are wise enough to know when enough is enough. Despite being rich in virtuosic panache, “A-Z” never once becomes a mere vehicle for its dexterous personnel to show off. That idea is never even broached.
In fact, the only flaw I can find in this album is that its undisputed King of Earworms is relegated to bonus track status. I get that there’s only so much music that can fit onto two sides of wax, but “The Silence Broken” is just too damn great a tune to not be included in this collection. Every buyer should be grateful that it’s included on the digital releases, because it is one of those rare ear-worms that’s damn near impossible to tire of. It also brilliantly encapsulates everything A-Z achieves on this refreshing debut: it is upbeat and uplifting without being insincere, limber without ever resorting to wankery, and stresses The Mighty Hook without ever relying on it. Leave it to Mark and Ray to take a style of music I profoundly detest and make me enjoy it.
Pre-order “A-Z” HERE.
Released By: Metal Blade Records
Released On: August 12th, 2022
Genre: Prog-Rock | AOR
- Ray Alder / Lead and Backing Vocals
- Philip Bynoe / Bass Guitar
- Vivien Lalu / Keyboards
- Joop Wolters / Guitars
- Mark Zonder / Drums
1. Trial By Fire
2. The Far Side of the Horizon
3. The Machine Gunner
4. Rise Again
5. Window Panes
6. Run Away
8. At the Water’s Edge
9. Borrowed Time
11. The Silence Broken (bonus track)
Addictively hooky without once being hoaky, “A-Z” bravely launches into potentially hazardous waters and resists the urge to sail into the seas of cheese. Packed full of infectious riffs and melodies, as well as the ingenious interplay of a rhythm section seldom heard in such direct music, the band this household defiantly pronounces “A through Zed” delivers an absolutely narcotic variation of a genre I'd previously met with great derision. Can't. Stop. Listening.