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Glam metal for the 21st century - 85%

GOOFAM, September 13th, 2017

As hostile as ‘80s glam metal bands must have found the alternative-happy musical climate of the 1990s, those that stayed together into the new millennium found themselves in perhaps an even tougher spot. Almost all of the surviving AOR/glam acts from the late ‘80s did something to their sound to try to fit in with ‘90s trends, but very few had any success (creatively or commercially) in doing so, alienating their previous fans while failing to rope in new ones. As the alternative waters receded a bit in the 2000s, a lot of these bands eventually turned back toward some approximation of what had worked for them over a decade earlier, and that shift was almost always for the better.

Norway’s TNT certainly are one of the most dramatic examples of this fairly typical path. Always one of the most talented glam metal bands in their 1984-92 heyday, they put out two late-‘90s albums (Firefly and Transistor) that mashed up a bunch of 1990s influences, from grunge to alt-rock to Goo Goo Dolls-esque pop, into a chaotic presentation further harmed by abysmally unbalanced production. The albums were not well-received by the fanbase and garnered the band very little additional press. With this direction seemingly played out, vocalist Tony Harnell, guitarist Ronni Le Tekrø, and bassist Morty Black managed to get original drummer Diesel Dahl back in the band, but they still took some 4½ years before releasing their eighth album, My Religion.

Like so many metal bands (glam or otherwise) did around this time, TNT’s goal on My Religion seems to be wiping the slate clean, erasing memories of their grungy follies and returning to a sound untouched by post-Nevermind influences. This alone is cause for a huge sigh of relief—just hearing the opening sound effects give way to a big Harnell high note and an upbeat, well-produced guitar riff rather than muddy cacophony immediately establishes that this is not going to be a venture in the same sort of futility.

That said, while this is a conscious return to roots, these guys were in their twenties at the end of their glam run, and here they’re on the other side of forty, so expecting an album that fit in seamlessly with any of their work up through Realized Fantasies was a bit of a stretch. Harnell, while still possessed of excellent range and power, doesn’t really see fit to go on epic runs of stratospheric belts a la “Purple Mountain’s Majesty” or “Tell No Tales,” and the band’s overall sound here leans even further in a slick AOR direction than their old releases, rather than their power metal roots or mid-career edgy glam bombast.

While those temperings sound like negatives, the advantage that age and experience have brought to this band is a refinement in songwriting that allows this material to shine a lot brighter than a lot of the AOR filler that populated the worse half of an album like Intuition. There is a sense of pacing and craftsmanship that allows songs like “Invisible Noise” and “Everybody’s Got a Secret” to work effectively, with Harnell’s emphatic high notes and Le Tekrø’s guitar flurries breaking through the arrangement at the right moments to give the songs real highlights. The title track is perhaps the best song in this vein: even with an overt pop approach to melody, it works extremely well thanks to Harnell’s energy and vocal dynamics. While the ‘80s version of this band might’ve been able to come up with that chorus, it’s doubtful they would’ve surrounded it with such a fitting arrangement.

The biggest strength of My Religion, though, is the frequency and effectiveness with which the band breaks away from the poppy AOR and varies their sound some. There are two effective ballads here that might have some superficial similarity to a typical glam metal power ballad, but actually create quite unique atmospheres. “Perfectly” is the better of the two, with Le Tekrø’s effects-heavy guitar, an impactfully understated performance from Dahl, and Harnell’s airy delivery giving the song a huge, floating feel before a transcendent climactic finale. “Song 4 Dianne” is similar in its building structure, but takes a more folk-influenced path with flute and female backing vocals; while it’s less of an overt highlight, it works well and adds welcome character to the album.

The strongest song here, though, and perhaps the best of this band’s career, is “Give Me A Sign,” which is interesting, because it’s the closest the band comes here to moving back toward their ‘90s approach. This manifests not only in the slight alternative tinge in the verses, but also in the general eclecticism of the arrangement. However, unlike the crude cut-and-paste jobs that typified the dregs of their previous two albums, “Give Me A Sign” flows well from its processed alt-rock verses into the AOR of the prechorus and the layered glory of the huge chorus, because it’s one of the best exercises in utilizing a wide vocal range. Harnell builds the song from low almost talk-singing in the verse, up to midrange for the prechorus, and then a full-on high assault in the chorus, and the instruments build in a suitably fitting sense behind him.

Further diversity is found on the bonus tracks, which are highly worth tracking down. “Satellite” is the most typical of the three, as it’s still firmly in the AOR realm, but it’s the fastest song here, so it's a useful change of pace. “Hey Love” goes halfway back to their ‘90s sound but is far more effective than anything on Firefly or Transistor. The main riff of the song actually brings in a doom metal flavor, the verses sound like a power ballad halfway between Cinderella and Nevermore (if you can imagine where on earth that halfway point is), and again there’s a wonderful building arrangement. Dahl’s drumming is unusually active here, Harnell adds a dynamic vocal performance, and Le Tekrø’s wah-drenched solo is highly effective. Finally, “Destiny” is an outtake from the 1987 Tell No Tales sessions, but its approach hearkens back even further, to Knights of the New Thunder. Frankly, the song might out-metal even much of that album’s material, as its employs a strikingly neoclassical post-Yngwie approach highly unusual for even this band’s early days, sort of a European answer to No Exit-era Fates Warning.

My Religion is thus a rarity: a glam metal album worth a 55-minute runtime (counting the bonus tracks). If the displays of talent are a little less prodigious than those of this band’s youth, it’s made up for by the increased purpose to which their still-considerable remaining talent is put to. Just as TNT served as one of the best examples for how this sort of music could be fun and (at least moderately) intelligent during the glam metal boom, here they managed to set a high bar for their peers once again, over a decade later.