Sunday, 7 June 2015

Ten's 'Isla de Muerta' - Album Review

It was only last November that Ten released their last album. That album, Albion, was a really solid and enjoyable melodic rock album that I listened to a lot throughout the latter stages of 2014 (see my review for it here). I am always wary when bands release albums very close together, especially an band like Ten who's live appearances are extremely sporadic. Sometimes there is enough inspiration to go around. A great recent example is The Quireboys who have released three excellent albums since 2013. Admittedly they had not released an album since 2008 prior to this, so probably had a lot of songs built during this time, but none-the-less they still managed to churn out three great albums in a very short space of time (all while touring heavily I should add!). Plus, it used to be the norm for bands to put out albums quickly. Led Zeppelin's first two albums both came out in 1969, and Black Sabbath did the same thing a year later. All four of those albums are considered rock classics - so it can be done! Ten, it seems, have not been as successful however. While Isla de Muerta is by no means a particularly bad album; it fails to live up to Albion - which was an inspired and very enjoyable piece of work. That is not to say that there are not some very good songs on Isla de Muerta, because there are, but there are also a lot of rather average songs that never really build to anything. Given the speed that this album was released, and the overall sound of the album, I would not be surprised if these songs were recorded at the same time as Albion. The band's line-up is the same on this album as the last (which is quite rare for Ten), and the production quality is almost identical. There are still plenty of redeeming features here though. Band leader and frontman Gary Hughes sounds great as usual. I really like his voice, and there are plenty of times throughout Isla de Muerta where he really shines. He has the knack for a subtly catchy vocal melody, and these are scattered throughout the album - but not as liberally as usual. Keyboardist Darrel Treece-Birch also shines during this album. His keyboard work seems to be much more prominent on this album than the previous one, which helps to elevate some songs above the others. Whether he is taking the lead with a 1980s-inspired riff, or surrounding the song in synthy goodness, he always does something worth hearing. As with all recent Ten albums, the production is lush and sounds excellent. The lack of any big harmony vocals is strange though. I had not noticed this about Ten before, but it suddenly dawned on me that this is something the band does not really employ. Maybe Hughes could consider this in future?

After the keyboard-driven instrumental Buccaneers, we reach the first proper song on the album Dead Men Tell No Tales. Given the album's title, artwork, and this opening duo of songs; I feel that Hughes missed the boat (pun intended) to make a pirate-themed concept album - that would have been awesome! That being said, these two songs really feel like classic Ten, and have a great piratey atmosphere to them with lots of folky keyboard melodies, and strong shanty-like melodies from Hughes. The song builds slowly with keyboards and Steve McKenna's bass guitar being featured heavily the in the verses, before the band's three guitarists come in for the chorus and lay down some excellent lead work. There is a really great neo-classical guitar solo in this song too, which highlights the skills of Dan Rosingana and Steve Grocott. Tell Me What To Do is up next, and this sees the quality from the previous song maintained. It opens well, with an excellent guitar lead and a powerful organ riff in the latter part of the verse that brings Deep Purple or Uriah Heep to mind. It is a very simple song, but possess a very memorable chorus that sees Hughes at his melodic best. Another lengthy and enjoyable guitar solo makes it's presence felt later on in the song, and is the icing on the cake of what is a very good slab of melodic rock. Acquiesce is less memorable. The great keyboard opening gives way to a muscular guitar riff that feels a little forced, and the song's chorus just does not really hit the spot. The pseudo-metal of the verses clashes with the AOR chorus, and as a result the song sounds rather disjointed. Plus, the lyrics are pretty bad; and this is not the only song that suffers from this curse. It would not be a Ten album without a sugary ballad, and This Love is the one for this album. As ballads of this type go, it is not bad. Hughes' vocals contain plenty of emotion, and uses his lower range to his advantage. Treece-Birch lays down some simple piano to back him up and, along with some strings, this sound is very effective. The song's chorus sees the rest of the band join in, and it is quite powerful with some soaring vocal melodies and big power chords. The Dragon and Saint George is one of the most instantly memorable songs on the album. McKenna and drummer Max Yates lay down a great groove in the song's intro, before the song gets going with more big chords and a driving piano melody that recalls early Toto. The song has a real energy to it because of this, and the chorus a real sing-a-long moment. This is the sort of song that Ten do really well, and when Hughes is on song he can churn out plenty of songs like this. It also contains a brilliant guitar solo!

Intensify then comes along and puts a bit of a downer on things. This another song that suffers from having some pretty questionable lyrics - not even David Coverdale at his most leering would consider such things! Musically, the song is not too bad, with more interesting keyboard work with lots of nice synth effects. It is a mid-paced rocker that is nice, but never really gets going. The chorus is not very powerful, and those lyrics just make it a rather frustrating listen. Things get back on track with another double whammy of the instrumental Karnak and the slightly progressive The Valley of the Kings. While the Egyptian/Eastern elements to the songs might be quite generic, they still work well to bring the album back around. There is plenty of great guitar playing across the two songs, with Eastern-influenced leads taking centre stage. Keyboards provide a great, swirling backing to the whole song, while the band's three guitarists lay down a myriad of riffs and solos on top of that backing. Rosingana and Grocott find plenty of chances to shred throughout this song, while long-time rhythm player John Halliwell lays down some excellent, crunchy riffs. The song's chorus is another winner, that sounds a little like fellow British melodic rockers Magnum. Revolution starts out with quite a heavy, grinding riff that seems a little out of character from the rest of the album; but it soon becomes a rather pacey melodic rock tune that does not really fit with the song's opening at all. While the song's verses have a great energy to them, the chorus fails to live up to them. This is one area on the record that could really have done with some huge harmony vocals to make Hughes' voice stand out during the chorus. The chorus fails to make an impact here, and this makes the song one of the weaker ones on the album. Angel of Darkness is better. Sometimes Ten move into that pseudo-metal territory, and this is good example of that. The song's riff is very memorable and the verses steam along with a good pace, and an excellent keyboard lead that sits just underneath Hughes' vocals. It also contains a really speedy metal solo that fits in with the song's vibe perfectly. While the song is no classic, it rocks hard, and that's what this album needed! The album's last song, The Last Pretender is another solid melodic rock song that ensures the album ends well. Again, the Magnum similarities are quite prevalent here, and it makes for a good mid-paced end to the album. The chorus could have done with being a little bigger though, if the band really wanted to end on a bang. Overall, Isla de Muerta is not a bad album. As you can see, there are plenty of enjoyable moments; but it is also let down in places by bad lyrics and uninspired songwriting. Ten fans, and fans of melodic rock in general, are likely to find things here to like - but beyond that I cannot see this album making much of an impact.

The album was released on 18th May 2015 via Rocktopia Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Tell Me What To Do.

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