Saturday, 16 May 2015

FM's 'Heroes and Villains' - Album Review

Since their 2007 reunion, FM have been a busy band. With a stable line-up since 2008 (newest member, guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick, joined the band then), the band have released three albums and toured rather a lot. While 2010's Metropolis was never a favourite of mine, it remains a popular album among the band's fanbase. The success of that album really kick-started their reunion proper; and three years later the band released the two Rockville albums to widespread critical acclaim. These two albums were much more to my taste, and brought back lots of the things that made FM great in the late 1980s. Releasing two albums together is always a bit of a risk, as the chance of some filler being on their albums is greatly increased, but luckily both Rockville and Rockville II are both very enjoyable albums - with a few excellent AOR anthems between them. Last year, FM were celebrating their 30th Anniversary of forming in 1984. It was also the year when I actually got into the band, having never really checked them out previously. I saw the band twice in 2014: once supporting Foreigner in April; and once headlining the Cambridge Rock Festival in August. Both of these performances were excellent, and made me a big fan of the band. All of these things meant that I was actively anticipating the release of ninth album Heroes and Villains. For the release of this album, the band have signed with the now-famous melodic rock label Frontiers Records, who seem to have the market on melodic hard rock and AOR music pretty much sewn up these days. Despite releasing two albums' worth of material in 2013, it only took the band two years to write and record a follow up. You could be forgiven to thinking Heroes and Villains would be an album of off-cuts, but thankfully this is not the case and this could be the band's best album since getting back together in 2007. The band's original members: frontman/guitarist Steve Overland; bassist Merv Goldsworthy; and drummer Pete Jupp; plus Kirkpatrick and long-time keyboardist Jem Davis (he originally joined the band in 1993 and appeared on 1995's Dead Man's Shoes, the only FM album I cannot seem to get anywhere for a sensible price!) have created another great melodic rock album that picks up where the previous Rockville albums left off. Expect plenty of soaring melodies throughout!

The album starts with the hard-rocking number Digging Up the Dirt, which has a similar feel to parts of the Metropolis album. A chunky guitar riff and stark keyboards characterise the song, but it is Overland's vocal melodies that really draw you in. The verse melodies have quite a unique rhythm to them, which helps them stand out. The choruses are much more standard, but the wealth of big harmony vocals and keyboards helps it to become very memorable. Kirkpatrick's guitar solo in the song is quite bluesy, which fits well with the tough overall sound. You're the Best Thing About Me is a much more overtly AOR number with some nice Def Leppard-type guitar patterns that sound like they came from the Hysteria sessions, but the chorus is pure modern FM. FM's newer material is not as in-your-face or obvious as their 1980s heyday, but they are infectious in another way. I really like the keyboards here, they have a rather playful sound and melody that helps to back up Overland's voice nicely. Life is a Highway continues in this vein nicely with a bouncy, uplifting opening musical motif that makes great use of soaring guitar leads and a tarted up Status Quo-like rhythm. It has the smoothness that makes AOR great, and focuses on Overland's tight vocal melodies. This is especially evident during the song's chorus. Layers of harmony vocals help to bulk out the sound, and create probably the catchiest moment of the album so far. I recently saw the band for the third time at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire, and this song came across really well live. Fire & Rain creates a laid-back groove and sits back on it for the entire duration of the song. Little bursts of lead guitar help to spice things up a little, which eventually culminates in a really enjoyable solo that is the flashiest moment of the song. It still works well however, and does not feel contrived as a result. I really like the overall vibe of this song, and how it effortlessly catchy. Incredible is the album's first ballad, and opens with some gentle strings and acoustic guitar riffing. All the hallmarks of a great 1980s ballad are present here: from the purposeful but restrained rhythm section; to the slightly dramatic chorus backed up by the strings. You will have heard this type of song hundreds of times before, but despit that this is still an enjoyable addition to the album. Call on Me get back to the business of rocking, and does so with a true AOR modern classic. If you imagine the verses of Tough Love from the band's previous album mixed with a chorus that could have appeared on their 1986 debut album Indiscreet, then you will have a good idea what this song sounds like. It is an upbeat, summery song that will be one of the overall favourites from the album by many people I expect.

Up next is Cold Hearted which has been around for a while as it was also on last year's Futurama EP. It is a good song that has a similar feel to Digging Up the Dirt actually, with some chunky guitar riffs and some dark-sounding keyboard arrangements. There are certainly better songs on the album than this, but it packs a punch mid-album which wakes us up again after the previous ballad. Shape I'm In has been played on Radio 2 quite a bit recently, which is unsurprising because it is a really big tune! Wordless gang vocal sections add to the overall memorability of the piece, while a soaring chorus with a huge retro keyboard really makes the song a sing-a-long must. This is one of the songs that really stood out to me on first listen, and it just gets better with each listen. Big Brother is another slightly darker number, but this is the best of the bunch. It is quite keyboards driven as Davis lays down some really tight patterns while the guitars crash around above them. The song's chorus is quite anthemic with lots of harmony vocals and melodies that you might not expect. Despite the song's slight heaviness - the band still manages to put some excellent AOR melodies into the chorus. Davis again dominates the sound with some really potent keyboard surrounds. Somedays I Only Want to Rock & Roll is probably my favourite song on the album however. Imagine The Quireboys playing a song written by Journey's Jonathan Cain and this is probably what you would get. All the staples of British bluesy hard rock are present here, but forces through an AOR filter that works surprisingly well. The instrumentation here is quite bluesy, with lots of big guitar chords and a rock organ sound that has a very 1970s feel. Overland's vocals however retain that 1980s smoothness and remind you who it is playing the song. There is even some saxophone lines towards the end of the song courtesy of George Boxley which adds to the feel of the song immensely. After that, the final two songs on the album feel somewhat anti-climatic. I Want You is enjoyable, but a little plodding. The synthesised horn section is a nice touch though, but the chorus reminds me a little too much of Burning My Heart Down is it has that same blues stomp to it. The album comes to a close with the acoustic ballad Walking with Angels which has a nice string backing but seems to fail to really go anywhere. Overland sings the song beautifully however, and it does act as a little coda to the end of the album. It does highlight the fact that, to me anyway, FM are at their best when they are rocking! Overall, Heroes and Villains is another really solid album from the band. A couple of blander songs aside, this is an album that I am sure will be enjoyed by their large fanbase, and goes to show that the band are still extremely relevant in the 21st Century.

The album was released on 20th April 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Digging Up the Dirt.

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