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Tim Owens has always been a bit of an oddment in the metal scene since he hit the big time with Judas Priest in the late 90s. A phenomenal vocalist, it’s hard to challenge the man’s talent, or indeed to grudge him a second of the success he has enjoyed after seemingly missing the boat with Winter’s Bane at the beginning of his career, but at the same time it’s probably fair to say that he has yet to sing on a truly excellent CD since ‘Heart of a killer’ came and went way back in 1993.
The debut from his own band Beyond Fear a couple of years back was a mild disappointment, as Owens’ first forays into writing songs proved as inconsistent as the work he had done up until that point with Priest and Iced Earth, but after SPV more or less forced his hand into recording the next CD as a solo project with an impressive assortment of guest musicians and writers, it looked like this might finally be the time for him to take the step up.
Sadly, and sometimes almost painfully, this has proved not to be the case, and only a couple of impressive songs and guest performances save ‘Play my game’ from being an unreserved disaster. The same setback that inflicted itself on the weaker moments of the Beyond Fear debut is spread all over the place here; Owens simply does not know how to write a good riff, and unlike the preceding CD where John Comprix provided some agreeable songwriting, most of the assembled collaborators have failed to do so either. Simplistic, repetitive grooves make up the biggest part of the music in a sea of sluggish midtempo songs that very rarely offer any of the metallic riffing expected from a vocalist whose biggest career influence is purported to be Judas Priest. Despite opening and closing in reasonable fashion, and with a couple of average to decent songs in between, a full half of ‘Play my game’ is unreserved, abhorrent crap.
Things get off to a deceptively promising start with “Starting over” – though totally unsuited as an opening track, it’s atmospheric, washed-out guitar sound (actually quite reminiscent of Saxon’s “Crusader”) and an emotional performance from Owens give, in retrospect, a fleeting glance of what could have been. It is a bit of a damning indictment of the CD as a whole though that a song like this is shoved to the very front to cover for the lack of quality in rest of the material, and exposes the writing process for it is – an unconnected bunch of songs written with no thought to continuity or cohesiveness.
The following song, “Believe”, is a reasonable effort, though already a little short on real inspiration and reliant on too few ideas to be in any way memorable. Certainly in a collection of higher quality songs this would probably stand out as one of the more forgettable ones, and again, that really tells its own story.
“The cover up” is the first indication of some of the nonsense that is to follow – it opens on a typically stunning, but more or less completely unconnected solo by Jeff Loomis, then quickly settles into a song absurd in its childlike simplicity and wince-inducing lyrics. Loomis pops up again at the end to add another coat of sheen, but all efforts at resuscitation are in vain.
The rather average “Pick yourself up” follows on from this and is at least a bit of an improvement, but from then on, you can more or less write off the next 25 minutes or so, as the odd moment of quality aside, things just get progressively worse and worse until a slight fillip towards the end.
By the time it gets to “The light” your teeth ought to be grating in frustration as yet another song makes its intentions clear from the very outset as the next in an endless queue of lazy grooves unwraps itself and drags on and on and endlessly on. I’m not even going to bother reaming off the endless list of musicians that contribute to the individual songs – just like on Annihilator’s 2007 ‘Metal’ CD, half of them just seem to have been roped in to add something to the advertising campaign rather than for any sort of unique contribution. After all, when the tag on the front of the CD advertising the assembled guests is actually part of the (bloody awful) cover art rather than stuck on the jewel case, the alarm bells start ringing.
“The world is blind”, to be fair, offers a brief respite in the middle of all this sludge – just a decent song at best, really, but one where the guest musicians offer something that actually makes any odds to the quality of the song, with the great Billy Sheehan offering some wandering bass playing that differs from the norm just a little, and former Dio guitarist Doug Aldrich peppering the song with a clutch of impressive solos. It’s just as well really that this song crops up next to the ballad “To live again”, because things then hit an all-time low with both “The light” (lazy, groovy, etc) and the utterly wretched title track. This is actually one of 2 songs co-written with Comprix, and it’s disappointing to see the usually reliable guitarist lending his name to what is a handy summation of all the worst aspects of the CD in just 4-1/2 minutes.
But just as things begin with a reasonably strong double-hander, the, er, sandwich is completed with another decent pairing at the conclusion. “Death race” finally, finally hands in a ‘Defenders of the faith’-style riff and the CD just about gets out of first gear for the first time and Owens at last sounds like he is fronting the right band. It’s a pretty decent effort that would probably be more appreciable if it was surrounded by a few more of its brethren rather than a collection of red-headed stepchildren, and it is pretty sad that a decent song is more or less neutered by the ineffectiveness of the preceding amorphous mush.
The closer, “The shadows are alive” is a bit more of a perplexing affair. The music written by Chris Caffery is suitably dark and menacing, and of course his solos are nothing short of magnificent, and along with “Starting over” it is the only song to properly distinguish itself from the rest of the CD. It is Owens who turns in a strangely off-the-pace performance where he sounds as though he isn’t really sure what he is supposed to do with music of this sort, resorting to blasting at his usual top volume when guile and subtlety have escaped him. Still, compared to most of the stuff that precedes it, the song is a masterwork and at least ends the CD on some sort of positive.
Trying to pinpoint exactly what went wrong with the writing of ‘Play my game’ is as infuriating as actually putting the damn thing in the CD player – most of the cast of writers are genre stalwarts, and experienced collaborators like Bob Kulick have to take as big a share of the blame as Owens for the shoddy assortment of C-rate trash to be found here. What once was sympathy for Tim “Ripper” Owens’ perpetual status as an underdog is beginning to turn into frustration at his continuing misfires. Assuming he goes back to Beyond Fear after this calamitous misadventure, things are going to need to improve quick sharp for him to convince he has anything to offer as his own man in the music world – and going by this evidence he’s going to need to surrender the writing of the music to someone else.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)