Saturday, 27 December 2014

NeonFly's 'Strangers in Paradise' - Album Review

Power metal is always seen as something that belongs in mainland Europe, with very few bands coming from outside of this geographical area. The UK has never really managed to successfully grow many top quality power metal acts, but with NeonFly we might finally have a band that can hold their own against the European masters. I first encountered the band touring with the now defunct 'ultra heavy hair metal band' The Morning After in Nottingham in 2012, and have loved them ever since. Their debut album Outshine the Sun that was released in 2011 is a really solid slab of melodic metal that is extremely catchy and full of uplifting melodies. I always thought the band were better live than on record though, as I have since caught them live twice more: once with Sonata Arctica last year, and once with DragonForce earlier this year. While Outshine the Sun is a good record, it failed to really catch the energy that the band have on stage, and this is something that Strangers in Paradise does in spades. This is a loud and fast album that really shows the best that NeonFly have to offer. I think some of this has to go down to Dennis Ward, who produced this album. His behind-the-scenes work with many of the big names in metal (Angra; Unisonic; Vanden Plas to name a few) makes him one of the most sought after men in power metal. I think he has really brought out the best out of NeonFly, and pushed them harder to make a really memorable record. While the think the songs on the first album had bigger choruses and were slightly catchier overall, the songs on Strangers in Paradise hit you right between the eyes and leave a bigger impact. This is a heavier album, but it still maintains the class and sheen of their debut. Bandleader and guitarist Frederick Thunder has managed to keep the same line-up intact between albums, which is always key. His writing partnership with vocalist Willy Norton has improved too, and sees Norton contributing to many of the songs on this album. The rest of the band is made up with guitarist Patrick Harrington, bassist Paul Miller, and drummer Boris Le Gal. G√ľnter Werno (Vanden Plas; Place Vendome) is also featured playing keyboards throughout the album, and his contributions help on some of the album's more ambitious pieces, and the whole album sounds fuller as a result.

Whispered Dreams really sets the tone for the album. It has a real urgency to it, with some really Iron Maiden-esque pacy riffing while Norton's crystal clear vocals ride over the top of the music with ease. The chorus is a fast affair, with plenty of quick-fire vocal lines; and a section that is sure to whip up crowds live with some rousing chanting. The Iron Maiden similarities continue with a harmony guitar section backed up by some clear and precise bass lines.  Thunder takes the main solo on this song and shows off his skills perfectly with some fluid runs. Highways to Nowhere starts off in a much more gloomy way with some slightly doomy clean guitar lines before the song proper starts. It is more of a mid-paced crunchy song that sits on top of a solid groove laid down by Le Gal's hard drumming. Occasional keyboard flourishes help to maintain the power metal element of the band's sound though, and a bass-led section mid way through the song hints at a more progressive vibe. There is a lot of music packed into this relatively simple sounding song, and repeated listens really reveal all the layers. Better Angels starts out with a heavy riff with added guitar harmonics, but it soon opens out into a really melodic verse set onto a lush keyboard backing that allows Norton's vocals to really stand out. This song is a melodic feast, with a really soaring chorus that brings back memories of their debut album. The song builds up as it progresses however, with the guitar interplay increasing and Harrington's guitar solo taking the roof off with his classic metal phrasing. Things calm down with the first of the album's ballads Rose in Bloom. There is a real 1980s hair metal vibe running throughout this song, and it recalls the great songs of that era. Norton's voice is just as suited for the quieter numbers as it is for the heavier songs, and the softer side of his voice is used to great effect here. The song ramps it up when necessary though, like for the over-the-top chorus that is designed to be sung loudly by a crowd. Heart of the Sun is the centrepiece of the album, and the most ambitious song the band has written to date. This is a true mix of symphonic, progressive, and power metal; and fuses those genres together to excellent effect. The orchestral elements really make this song, and sit well with the heavy riffs to add excellent counter-melodies that demand to be admired. This song shows NeonFly growing up and really realising their full potential, and what a way to do it! The instrumental mid-section has all the class of any Nightwish album, and the icing on the cake is Harrington's mature solo that mixes faster and slower sections together well to create something memorable.

The orchestral theme is carried on in the instrumental Aztec Gold that is build around a hypnotising drum pattern from Le Gal before Miller takes the lead with a matching bass line. Thunder and Harrington trade guitar leads throughout, but they almost sound more atmospheric than virtuosic, which matches the mood perfectly. The symphonic hook from Heart of the Sun is reprised too, which makes this song feel more like a coda to that than a stand-alone piece of work. Fierce Battalions is more of a straight forward metal tune. This sort of song is bread and butter for NeonFly, and sounds like many of the songs that appear on Outshine the Sun. Norton uses a slightly harsher side of his voice though, which gives the song added grit which is helped by the distorted drive of Thunder and Harrington. Thunder's guitar solo is probably the highlight of the song as, despite it's short length, it is very musical and gives the song a lift. Sons of Liberty sees the orchestral elements back in full force, but this time used in a much more subtle and supporting way. The song's intro is bombastic, but the song as a whole is much more humble and relies on Norton's catchy and charismatic vocal delivery to really carry it. His chorus performance is very strong and proves that he can hold his own against any of the European heavyweights. Chasing the Night is another longer, more complex piece that opens with some simple acoustic guitar but soon morphs into a much more progressive opus that is built around some almost-speed metal riffs that recall early Blind Guardian. This song is not all one thing though, and throws many surprises at you during it's six minute plus duration. There are plenty of excellent bursts of controlled lead guitar and a building instrumental section in the middle makes more use of the orchestrations and shows off Le Gal's drum skills. This is an impressive song, but does not quite live up to the epic nature of Heart of the Sun, which does this sort of thing slightly better! After all that bombast, the quieter Falling Star follows to bring an excellent album to a close. This is the album's second ballad, and it is a real winner. For pure infectious sing-a-long inducing melodies, this is probably the best song on the album and recalls David Coverdale at his mid-1980s peak. While there are better songs on this album, there is something about this simple little tune that really resonates with me, and it is a perfect album closer! Overall, this album is a real statement of intent from a band that could really go the whole distance. A full headline tour is needed now to bring this album to as many people as possible, and a couple more big-name support slots to further help this cause. This could be a late entry into my 'Albums of the Year' list!

The album was released on 1st December 2014 via Inner Wound Recordings. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Heart of the Sun.

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