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Whenever a noted instrumental guitar virtuoso decides to make a vocal oriented album, the fans are always quite apprehensive, particularly when it's the guitarist in question doing all the lead vocals. After all, there's been many examples of failed attempts at this (Steve Vai, Uli Jon Roth, Michael Angelo Batio etc.) and it's usually because they simply aren't particularly good singers, and they don't know too well what goes into writing a solid vocal song. Usually they just resort to being as conventional as possible, and it usually kills whatever made them special.
So it was 1999, and the time had come for Tony MacAlpine's turn to give his shot at the mic. Now, when I first became aware of this album I was unsure what to think really. On one hand, the 90's had shown numerous players incorporate vocals very unsuccessfully, but on the other hand Tony's always been known for his wide variety of talents and who knows maybe singing is one of them. I mean, his instrumental material has always been very melodic and at times lyrical, perhaps it will turn out to be really good!
Well, as it turns out the album just kind of exists. Initially you are amazed because MacAlpine has a very good singing voice, like a combination of Tolkki's vocals in early Stratovarius and John Arch. VERY unexpected. But once you get past that, the majority of the songs on the album just don't stand out that much, certainly not as much as a MacAlpine album should.
The opener "Maker is King" is one of the highlights of the album. It's a pretty fast paced, power metal type track with some rather unconventional vocal melodies that somehow work. It's not that long but still manages to pack quite a bit into it's brief running time, including a rather cool bass solo section by Larry Dennison. It's not amazing, but MacAlpine's voice is filled with conviction and overall it's a solid opener.
The general ingredients in "Tears of Darkness" would make for a show stopping instrumental, but it actually turns out to be the top song of the album (along with the title track) and the vocals don't make it feel overcrowded which I've noticed happens with some of these songs. It's a got a colorful, somewhat unusual chord progression and a rather long solo that fits the song like a glove. It's got a bit of a mysterious feel to it, and lyrically it's pretty good too, which the majority of the album is not. The odd vocal melodies are also present here, as they are for the majority of the album and I can't figure out how to explain how odd some of these melodies sound, but you can tell when you hear them.
The only songs that have conventionally catchy vocal melodies are "Circus", "Imagination", and parts of the title track. The former is the catchiest by far, with some very cool keyboard parts and quite a unique solo for MacAlpine (it's got the shred, but he also has some slower moments that are phrased in a different way than he usually does), while "Imagination" is catchy but ultimately dull. It does have some of the most over the top soloing though. The worst song here is "Time" which has some cool drum fills, and a nice soulful solo, but is SO dull and meandering as far as ballads go and certainly not worth the listener's time.
The rest of the material here just doesn't stand out except for the title track. It's a full out neo classical shred fest accompanied with some powerful vocals which make it a lot of fun, but it doesn't stack up to some of his other songs in this same style. And in the end that's the main problem with this album. There's nothing really wrong with it per se, it just drags too much (which is bad since it's pretty short) and even the highlights aren't among the better moments of his catalogue. It's cool how lengthy and involved the majority of the solos are, but they don't quite work because the songs themselves aren't building up to them that well. He also doesn't dabble much with the jazz fusion elements that appeared in some of his other 90's albums, which I don't mind that much but it would vary this album up in a nice way because it's a little too static.
I should also probably mention that there are two instrumentals on the album. "Final Hour" being the only traditional MacAlpine instrumental on here, and it's pretty phoned in. It just sounds like he put it there to appease his old school fans without giving much thought into it. However, I must say that his piano showcase here is probably my personal favorite of his. It's Liszt's "Au bord d'une source" and it's a few minutes longer then his average piano showcase, and being a big Liszt fan and a fan of that piece in general it's great to hear him play it the way he does.
So yeah, not one of MacAlpine's better efforts. "Maker is King", "Tears of Darkness", "Circus", and the title track are all good songs though, and his voice is quite good so it's not a complete failure. It just doesn't stack up against a lot of his catalogue, and he in general doesn't sound very inspired.