Saturday, 9 July 2016

Vega's 'Who We Are' - Album Review

While AOR is very much a thing from the 1980s, there are plenty of new bands around that are writing plenty of high quality soft/melodic rock songs in the 21st Century. Much of it can be found on the Frontiers Records label, who seem to specialise in the genre. Many of the best current AOR bands found a home on the Italian rock label, alongside many of the studio projects and supergroups the label has become (in)famous for. Tom and James Martin are part of the Frontiers furniture these days, and many of their songs have wound up on various albums by the label's studio projects. In fact, the pair even co-wrote a whole album for Danger Danger's frontman Ted Poley, Beyond the Fade, which came out on the same day as the album I am reviewing here! Vega is the pair's main creative outlet however, and they hold back their best work for this band. Tom Martin, who plays guitar and bass, and James Martin, who plays keyboards, are the backbone of Vega, and they write the songs alongside frontman Nick Workman. Rounding out the band is guitarist Marcus Thurston, who plays the majority of the band's lead guitar work, and drummer Daniel Chantrey. Since forming in 2009, Vega have released four studio albums the most recent of which, Who We Are, is the subject of this review. While the band are fairly prolific in the studio, live appearances have always been relatively scarce. The band have more active live this year however, with a large UK tour supporting Magnum that no doubt won them some new fans. I have been aware of Vega for a couple of years or so, but finally decided to properly listen to them last year when I got their third album Stereo Messiah. That album never really grabbed me at the time, but since I saw the band with Magnum I have re-listened to it and it has made  greater impression second time around. Sometimes you need to see a band to really get them, and the energy they have live has never really been captured on their polished studio albums. I got Who We Are in the run up to that show, and listened to it a fair bit beforehand. Vega are not as instantly catchy or memorable as the best AOR bands from the 1980s. James Martin's keyboards play more of a supporting and atmospheric role than the over-the-top leads and stabs of bands like Survivor, and Workman's vocal melodies are not as stand-out as others, but the band have a certain class about them that makes them enjoyable to listen to. The production from Harem Scarem's Harry Hess is also top notch. This is AOR for the 21st Century, and the songs open up over multiple listens rather than hit you right away. There is lots to enjoy on Who We Are, and fans of any for of melodic rock ought to check it out.

The album opens with the powerful hard rock of Explode, which is more riff-based than much of the rest of the band's material. The song is based around a riff that comes straight from the 1980s hair metal book of songwriting, and this forms the basis of the chorus, while the verses are a mix of atmospheric keyboard sections and driving rock. Workman really owns the choruses, and his vocals are at his strongest. He unleashes a pretty impressive high note just before the song transitions into Thurston's first shredded solo. His style is much more flashy than many other AOR guitarists, but it still suits the songs. We Got it All is an extremely memorable song, that would have been a huge hit if it was released in the mid 1980s. The verses start off with a sparse keyboard arrangement, but they grow all the time with the addition of some chugging guitar lines. The chorus is very catchy, with fast-paced poppy vocal melodies, with plenty of big harmonies, which suits the polished overall feel of the album. The strong melodies continue in Every Little Monster which is another soaring 1980s throwback with probably the best chorus on the album, and plenty of strong guitar work throughout. Thurston's solo really stands out on this song, as he starts off slow, with lots of note-bending, before slowly speeding up towards a shredded climax. This song was one of the highlights of the band's set when I saw them supporting Magnum, and it is not hard to see why as it instantly sticks in your head with those strong melodies. After three rockers, Nothing is Forever slows things down somewhat with a piano-led ballad which shows a different side of the band. The piano creates a moody atmosphere, while Chantrey's big, booming drums drive things with rock-solid groove. The chorus is very theatrical, almost Queen-like, with Workman unleashing some seriously flamboyant vocal gymnastics with a string and subtle choral backing. The Queen feeling is mirrored in the song's short guitar solo, which has a very thin tone and a majestic melody which is very reminiscent of Brian May's style. White Flag, which the band filmed a video for, is more of a rocker but still plays the atmospheric side of the band's style too. While James Martin's keyboards are never in your face, his subtle textures and soundscapes are a huge part of the band's sound. The verses here are very heavy on the atmospherics, as the keyboards weave themselves around Workman's voice. The chorus is more upbeat though, which is a good contrast to the verses, and helps to make the song stand out.

For Our Sins could be my favourite song here, and it has quite a different sound to anything else on this album. It is quite a moody song, with a cutting guitar lead that heralds it's arrival and a dense synth arrangement throughout. The song's chorus is very catchy, the does not require huge melodies to do so. It sticks with the moody blueprint of the rest of the song, but somehow manages to be extremely memorable. This song shows the real classy songwriting the band are capable of, and I would like to see more songs like this in the future! Opening with a chugging guitar line with a huge keyboard backing, Generation Now promises to be an anthem. While there are better songs here, you cannot deny that the song has an extremely powerful chorus which the whole song is based around. Everything here is made to be building up to that chorus, and when Workman sings it you know why. It is a powerful piece of rock, which is enjoyable even if the rest of the song is pretty forgettable. Ignite has a very modern pop sound, with lots of repeating backing vocals throughout which feel like many of the big chart toppers of the moment. The slightly dancy synths and the overall groove of the piece only enhance this feeling. I am not sure it quite works for the band however, and it ends up sounding quite different from the rest of the album. There is a very strong guitar solo here though, which does stand out quite a bit, but overall I feel that this song is one of the weaker moments on the album. Savin' Grace gets things back on track and is very similar to the trio of songs that opened the album. The song is an upbeat rock number with some excellent vocals throughout and a strident rhythm that makes the song very easy to get into. This is another song that I remember standing out when I saw them, and it is easy to see why. There is another excellent chorus here too, and that helps to make this song instantly memorable. If Not You is another very strong and classy song that has a very mature sound, but that still really rocks. James Martin's keyboards dominate again, with some tasteful piano melodies in the verses, but it is the song's chorus that really makes it special, with melodies that are pretty unique. Songs like this one and For Our Sins really show what the band are capable of, and that they have the potential to take melodic rock into new territories. The album's closing number, Hurts so Bad, is somewhat unremarkable after the excellent previous song, but it has a good upbeat feel to it that makes it a good song to close out the album with. Overall, Who We Are is a good album from Vega that contains lots of enjoyable songs. The band are capable of writing songs for lots of different moods, and it is their darker songs on here that I actually prefer. I would like to see more of those sort of songs in future!

The album was released on 13th May 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for White Flag.

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