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Shrapnel's trademark during many years has been the stuff of guitar virtuosos. You can find Malmsteen's Steeler and MacAlpine's stuff, just to mentioned the most well-known artists of the label, but in the first half of the '80s a four member project had released a very powerful album.
The project is really astonishing with MacAlpine on guitars, Aldridge on drums, Rock on vocals, and Sarzo playing bass. It is much more than a project, but a dream team. Sadly, they just released this album.
Describing its sound, it has the atmosphere of a space-themed power metal album with influences from bands like Queensrÿche, Fates Warning, and even Crimson Glory (the well-known white collar USPM sound) with a touch of MacAlpine, who with no doubts marked the difference in the sound of the album. Years later, you'll find traces of the atmosphere of this band with German power metallers like Scanner and Forced Entry.
In the first part (the power metal side), you'll find the hard speed metal hitters "Nations on Fire", "Stand Up and Fight", and "Unknown Survivor". These songs, of course, have the sound I mentioned, very effective speed metal with the neoclassical solos MacAlpine plays and Rob Rock vocals being the ingredients that the songs needed. Another important song is the ballad "Nostradamus". In this song, MacAlpine shows another talent he has: keyboard playing. In a more traditional vein, the second part is more relaxed. They explored a more romantic theme, leaving the space, power, and war lyrics of the first part. It isn't really one I enjoyed a lot, but another a good song is "Fantasy".
So the album is a very good release. Maybe it isn't cheap (at least in this country), but if you have a chance, just buy it. If you would like to know a similar album, search for Forced Entry's (Ger) self-titled. The album has a similar sound (except for keyboards).
About the worst thing you can accuse the men of M.A.R.S. for would be their miserable fashion sense, sporting a number of glam-fros, elfin glam boots and all manner of castoff 'chic' poseur threads. In this case, 'chic' of course means 'retarded', and even Tony MacAlpine cannot pull off this hairstyle. When posing together, the band look like they're wearing extremely bad wigs, or some sort of fuzzy protection from alien mind probes. They might have just been animal enthusiasts, letting a few critters hibernate on their scalps. It's an image that could scar a man for life, and while I'd be willing its horrid grasp slip free and laugh the band down to oblivion, they did produce this one, decent album called Project: Driver in 1986 that shoves a pair of elfin boots right into my mouth.
It's not a stretch to guess that the acronym M.A.R.S. represents the band members' names, and this is a sort of primordial super grouping of emergent talents from various metal spectra of the 80s. Tony MacAlpine is not only a noted shredder of his own right, but has also performed with others like Vinnie Moore, Joey Tafolla, and more recently the band Ring of Fire. Drummer Tommy Alridge has rather enormous credentials, having performed in Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, and the personal retinues of Ozzy Osbourne and Yngwie J. Malmsteen. Rob Rock is known for fronting his many solo offerings of traditional Christian metal, but he's also fronted a great number of other bands like Driver (related to this, of course), Warrior, Impelliteri, and Axel Rudi Pell. Closing the quartet is bassist Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne and Dio fame, to list a few.
The Project: Driver album was released through Shrapnel Records in 1986, and the sound had some similarity to other Shrapnel acts like Vicious Rumors, Cacophony, Racer X, and Apocrypha, that being in the thick and hollow tone of the guitars, impressive lead guitar capabilities and melodic vocals. The vocals, in fact, are my favorite part of this album, and perhaps some of the best in Rock's entire career. He's got the perfect mix of soaring power and is very much able to hang on to his cool when he nudges into higher pitched territory. He's also got that commercial appeal that the band are mixing in here with the more serious, fast paced traditional metal, and without his charisma, the record might have been something far less. Listen to him on the cheesy but potent power ballad "You And I", or the wailing "I Can See It In Your Eyes" and you'll get a good impression of his capabilities. Of course, there is also MacAlpine, whose leads pepper the album like whorls of leaves on a brisk, breezy autumn afternoon, occasionally self effacing through excess indulgence, but just as often kicking asses to the moon (they could always climb back via his hair).
Naturally my preference is for the more raging, Shrapnel-worthy fare here like a "Nations on Fire", "Writings on the Wall", and the excellent "Unknown Survivor", but the band also show their chops at more progressive metal material like the ascending "Nostradamus" or dreamy "Slave to My Touch", which burns like hot lead through the chest. If you're seeking cheese, though, these elements also pervade the experience, like the crunchy radio friendly rock of "Fantasy" or the aforementioned progressive power ballad "You And I", which delights despite itself thanks to the scintillating clean guitars and Rob Rock's orbiting melodic gravity. The album is dowsed in thick 80s production values like most of the label's roster, but I personally would not have it any other way; it captured a specific, pre-digital edge that most of the other bands of this period were not yet so fanciful of, and thus the records would stand clear of many peers.
Project: Driver is absolutely worth the pain in tracking down if you enjoy other Shrapnel efforts, in particular the Cacophony pair-up of Jackson Becker and Marty Friedman, or the first two records by Vicious Rumors. It vividly skirts the border between intensity and accessibility, and offers an accurate crossroads of where most of these guys' careers were at in this one moment. You don't need to be some Guitar "whatever" magazine subscriber who hangs out at the local instrument shop far too often for his own sake to appreciate it, since the shredding is far from omnipresent. I'm not sure why the band never recorded a second helping of this material, but my guess is they looked at themselves in the promo shots and then went into hiding for a few years, or the glam-fros wore off and they were abducted by extra-terrestrials at last.
M.A.R.S. is a great and incredibly obscure power metal project that was collaboration between several well-known and influential heavy metal musicians in the 1980s. This is their only release and is pretty rock solid from start to finish, with a sound that is reminiscent of Racer X and Queensryche.
‘Nations on Fire’ is a strong opener with a thunderous pace and and an often repeated chorus that’s pretty easy to sing along to. There’s some pretty showboating guitar stuff particularly towards the end, as you would expect from someone like Tony MacAlpine. This one isn’t the best track however.
I really enjoy the second track ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ which gives us some excellent Rob Rock vocals, as well as the anthemic uplifting power metal anthem ‘Stand Up and Fight’ which has an incredible majesty to it. Rob Rock is again on form in this phenomenal piece which has a distinct Judas Priest-esque feel to it. There are some great keyboard effect, and the guitar solo passage in this one is absolutely minblowing and definitely has some ‘Priest-ish qualities. This one’s a lot of fun and showcases a lot of technical skill. Of particular note is the epic and drawn out ending, which shows off some great drumming which is pretty ‘tech’.
The fantastical and progressive piece ‘Nostradamus’ is evocative and epic. I don’t know if Judas Priest realized that this historical figure had been tackled by various other metal acts; an in this case, tackled pretty well. The great production and keyboard touches in this one add to the epicness while the lyrics evoke plenty of emotion. There’s some great backup vocals in the chorus “who holds the key, who knows the future”, and a lot of skilful guitar play in this cinematic, majestic number.
M.A.R.S. play a technical, accomplished and majestic from of metal. There are similarities to Leatherwolf and Racer X with progressive touches here and there for good measure. There’s plenty of aggression in tracks like ‘Unknown Survivor’ another standout track which follows the bands tradition of great choruses with strong backup vocals. Speed metal touches are apparent in tracks like the one I’ve just mentioned, and there’s a tonne of guitar wizardry throughout the entire album - Tony MacAlpine is really on form.
Overall a brilliant, technical and ambitious release with this album. A lot of strong numbers, few weak points and original sound make for a winning combination – but you’re likely to get that with a staff that consists of legends like Rob Rock and Tommy Aldridge et al. Excellent short-lived project that only has their release to their name – it’s kind of a must have in my opinion. Good Stuff.