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Wednesday 17 March 2021

Reviews: Ronnie Atkins, Secret Sphere, Enforcer, Sunstorm (Reviews By Simon Black & Matt Bladen)

Ronnie Atkins – One Shot (Frontiers Music) [Simon Black]

In Hard Rock circles, Ronnie Atkins is little short of a legend. Having fronted the shamefully under-appreciated Pretty Maids forever (well, since 1981), Atkins had more recently reached a much wider global audience with his presence and huge contribution to Tobais Sammet’s Avantasia project. He’s contributed many vocal contributions to these records and has been huge part of the touring backbone of this act for their last three Global Tours and finally got some of the wider recognition that his talents deserve. So the discovery that this solo album might well be the last thing we ever hear from him is little short of devastating. This album is the man saying goodbye to us.

Atkins has been battling cancer for some time and announced last year that having previously thought to be all clear, that he had received the devastating news that he it was back, in stage four and now terminal. With the world locked down due to this fecking pandemic and unsure of how much time he had left, he threw his all into producing a solo record that had been on a back burner for some time. The recording process was unusual, starting with the lyric lines laid down as a click track from ideas he has captured for some time and the other musicians adding their contributions remotely. It’s a tribute to his song-writing abilities that this would not have been at all obvious if he had not drawn our attention to it in the press release.

Opening with the heart-warmingly uplifting Real, this album starts as it means to go on – catchy songs, with warm and melodic hooks and lyrics that touch the heart. Scorpio is a straight out up-tempo rocker, which keeps the pace going before we get to the quite frankly outstanding title track. This song is all about the central message of this album – that you have one life to live and should make the most of it. This is a realisation so many cancer sufferers go through as their diagnosis and coming to terms with the possibility or imminence of death, that they realise that perhaps they have spent too much of their lives focused on things that do not actually matter and not enough focusing on the things that do – enjoying life and sharing that joy with the people you love most in the world. It’s a beautiful and heart-rending piece of music with an anthemic chorus that’s screaming for a huge festival crowd of raised phone lights – a sight which sadly we will never get to see.

The album continues to alternate between the upbeat and up-tempo and the songs that pull the heart strings and you are left with the sense that this is a man with few regrets on a life well-lived. It’s an incredibly moving and emotionally challenging listen, but frankly a fantastic record with some of the best song-writing he’s produced in his career and a hugely polished production sound. Without doubt a resounding but bitter sweet 10/10.

Secret Sphere – Lifeblood (Frontiers Music) [Matt Bladen]

Secret Sphere have been one of the leading bands on the Italian power/prog metal scene since the late 90’s, at nearly 25 years of playing music they have toured with some massive names and yet still manage to retain a distinctly central European audience, never really crossing the water to the UK (which has suddenly become less likely now). However if you have ever managed to catch the band live or listened to any of their records you’ll know they play an extremely technical yet very melodic style of power prog. Lifeblood is only their second album on Frontiers but it sees a major change since The Nature Of Time as original vocalist Roberto Messina returning to the band replacing Michele Luppi who is now keyboardist in Whitesnake. The return of the bands founding vocalist has meant that the other two remaining founding members Aldo Lonobile (guitars), Andy Buratto (bass), have a chance to create an album that will appease long term fans of the band who were weaned on Roberto’s soaring vocals.

So musically Lifeblood is probably the bands most diverse offering, both contemporary and classic sounding, this reunion has resulted in sounding more vital than ever. The heavier riffs driven by Buratto’s basswork and Marco Lazzarini’s perpetual motion drumming, even on a song like Life Survivors his percussion never slows, it’s a powerful engine room ready for the neo-classical keys, synths and orchestrations from Gabriele Ciaccia who adds the cinematic sounds to this record while Lonobile unleashes fretwork up there with your Petrucci and Romeo, his virtuoso playing adding an extra level to Lifeblood. I for one was quite excited to hear Messina return as vocalist as for me he is a core part of Secret Sphere’s sound, so when he really gives it some on Alive I felt a warm feeling in my chest as his melodic refrains were counterpointed by the expert playing of the instrumentalists. A new (old) start for these Italian veterans, who hopefully we will see more of here on the back of this great record. 8/10

Enforcer - Live By Fire II (Nuclear Blast) [Simon Black]

So this whole NWOTHM thing has been going a while now (that’s New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal if you blinked at the wrong moment) and certainly seems to have reached a peak last year – so much so that the latest crop of retro-influenced acts seems to have started to move on to the 1990’s. For those of us who lived through this period, we would rather you didn’t – that’s when it all went to shit for far too long. Fortunately Enforcer are still firmly of the opinion that the early 1980’s were what it was all about and this album shows their brand of Heavy and Speed Metal in the style of early Anvil and Exciter in its purest form.

The live show was recorded in Mexico before the world went to hell in a hand cart in 2019. The previous volume was split between a couple of shows in 2015, so it’s nice to hear a full show in its entirety and a 70 minute cut down video version is also due to be available on Nuclear Blast’s YouTube channel from the 19th of March. As always, these energetic young Swedes deliver a full throttle blistering rip-roarer of a show, with the mood and energy pushed up to 11 and beyond by the rabid mania of the audience, as only South American fans seem to be able to achieve.

The set list is pretty good too, with all the live favourites and a few of the more melodic and less frenetic tracks from 2019’s Zenith album. The older tracks really get things moving though, with an audience that knows every word and wants you to hear that and I can imagine them drowning out any hope the band had of hearing themselves on the monitors during Take Me Out Of This Nightmare, Undying Evil, From Beyond, Mesmerized By Fire, and the utterly bonkers rendition of Live For the Night. Even the more even-paced tracks from Zenith take on another level of energy, with One Thousand Years Of Darkness deserving a special mention here. As always, we can live without the instrumental solos, which as I’m always saying are best left in the history books (although the band in this case wisely keep them mercifully short). 

Solos aside, otherwise this blistering double album keeps the attention and energy all the way through, with spot on note for note performances from all concerned and vocalist Olof Wikstrand’s voice on absolutely top form. This was an hour and sixteen minutes of absolute Speed Metal joy. 9/10

Sunstorm – Afterlife (Frontiers Music) [Matt Bladen]

Sunstorm has probably been one of the longest running projects in the Frontiers canon, overseen by Serafino himself it was initially brought together as vehicle for the vocals of ex-Rainbow man Joe Lynn Turner, however when planning the fifth record that eventually became Afterlife, Turner dropped out of the recordings leaving a gap behind the mic. It seems that a straight swap was required as JLT has been replaced by Ronnie Romero the ‘current’ Rainbow vocalist and hard rock project extraordinaire. Afterlife is distinctly aiming at the sound of those early Sunstorm releases Alessandro Del Vecchio (production/keys) wanted to bring back the AOR sound of those records and with the breezy opening duo of the title track and One Step Closer, it’s pretty much spot on for those early records. 

Romero is a versatile vocalist in the hard rock/metal style he has cultivated as a genre base, there he has a Dio-like edge whereas his first foray into the lighter AOR songs that are featured here, he is part Bonnet, part JLT and even has some Eric Martin too. There’s a pretty much mix of driving rockers and ballads on the album Swan Song is probably my favourite number on the record, with that name you’d expect a Zep clone but you actually get that Rainbow sound with Del Vecchio adding Airey/Lord organs and DGM’s Simone Mularoni going full Blackmore. If you’ve liked what’s come before from Sunstorm, or indeed love AOR at its slickest then you’ll find a lot to like from Afterlife, especially because Romero slots in almost incognito, reminding you of his vocal talent. 7/10

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