Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Dare's 'Sacred Ground' - Album Review

Dare are a band that probably came to be too late to really make a dent in the melodic rock scene. In a world that was dominated by American bands, England's Dare never really stood a chance when it came to AOR and never really realised their potential. Formed in 1985 by singer, songwriter, and keyboardist Darren Wharton in the wake of the end of Thin Lizzy, the band had moderate success before splitting up in 1992. The two albums that were released during their original run, 1988's Out of the Silence and 1991's Blood from Stone, are these days considered minor classics of the genre, but they are always unfortunately forgotten when compared to the greats in the genre. That is not to belittle either of those albums however, as both are great and full of excellent melodic rock songs with Wharton's soft voice and Vinny Burns' soaring guitar leads. Wharton re-formed Dare in 1998 without any of the other original members, and continued to put out albums fairly regularly. They were mostly quite low-key affairs, and I have not heard anything they have released since reforming. That is, until now, when the band's seventh album of original material was released last month. For some reason, this album came on my radar, and I am glad it did as it is really very strong indeed. If this is typical of the band's more recent output, then I have some serious catching up to do! Not as upbeat or as overtly AOR as the first two albums, Sacred Ground is still a seriously melodic album. This is strictly a soft rock album however, and the songs never really pick up any energy or rock out. Vinny Burns, who is playing on his first album of new material since rejoining the band in 2010, uses his guitar in a much more subtle role here than traditional riffing. His playing is atmospheric throughout, to compliment Wharton's keyboards, but there are plenty of excellent lead sections where he really cuts loose with his precise playing. The tone on his guitars throughout is perfect too, and really adds to the mood of the piece. Bassist Nigel Clutterbuck, who played on Blood from Stone, also returns to the band for his first album since the early 1990s, and the band is rounded out by long-time drummer Kevin Whitehead. This is Wharton's band however, and on this album he sings, plays all the keyboards, writes all the songs single-handedly, and also acts as producer. Dare has always been his project though, as he was the 'name' that formed the band having already made his reputation as a member of the latter period of Thin Lizzy's legendary career. While I cannot compare it to any of the band's other more recent work, Sacred Ground has impressed me, and wants to make me go back and catch up on what I have missed.

The opening track Home really sets the tone for the rest of the album, with a delicate acoustic guitar melody and Wharton's husky voice starting things off, before the rest of the band come in with stabs of slightly distorted rhythm guitar and a driving drum beat. Despite the laid back feel of the whole album, there is a still a real rock pedigree here, and this song has a bit of a strut about it, especially during the chorus. There are shades of the band's early work here, and Wharton's voice shines despite Burns' efforts to upstage him with some excellent guitar leads. I really like the way Burns weaves leads amoung the vocals effortlessly without ever overpowering them. I'll Hear You Pray is less overtly rock, and showcases Wharton's songwriting perfectly. His emotional vocal delivery is brought to the fore here, especially on the chorus which is one of the album's best moments. The song does rock a bit more as it goes on, with dramatic guitar power chords coming in like claps of thunder. Burns has a chance to shine here too with a fantastic fluid guitar solo, There is little shredding on this album, and his lyrical playing is the perfect foil to Wharton's vocals. While the keyboards have mostly been used as atmospheric tool so far, Strength sees this change with a great opening piano run that forms the basis of the whole song. This is a real piece of classic AOR, with a more upbeat tone that has been heard so far on the album, but still fitting in nicely with everything else. It is easily one of the album's best songs, and could have been a big hit if released 30 years ago! After three memorable songs, Every Time We Say Goodbye fails to hit the mark. As far as power ballads go, this is rather weak and lacks the hooks of the greats in that genre. That being said, Burns still turns in a great performance on the guitar, with plenty of subtle leads throughout that add little moments of magic in an otherwise fairly bland song. From one extreme to the other, Days of Summer is easily my favourite song on the album, and could be a contender for my favourite Dare song that I have heard so far. This really has more than a few hints of the band's early work, with big soaring melodies right out of the 1980s. The are subtle orchestrations too, which add a sense of drama, and the best chorus on the album by far. The first time I heard this song I was blown away, and I still get that feeling still. Wharton has written an AOR classic here, and Burns adds his piece with a fantastic cutting guitar solo. On my Own is another good song, that opens out sounding a bit like Bon Jovi's Who Says You Can't Go Home with some big guitar chords and some slightly country rock elements. There is even a wordless vocal section that reminds of that other song, so you could accuse this song of being somewhat of a rip off! It still good though, and fits in with the rest of the album and adds a bit of upbeat rock to the proceedings.

Until has a real Celtic feel, with a bagpipe-type sound used to form the song's main melody, and probably borrows something from Wharton's time in Thin Lizzy! The song is very relaxed however, with lovely acoustic guitar arpeggios throughout, and walls of keyboards to create a warm sound. It is another very good song an album that keeps on giving and reveals more the more you hear it. At first the album seems very one-paced, but after many plays the true diversity of the songs start to show through their subtleties and that is what makes this an enjoyable album to revisit. All Our Brass Was Gold is another song with a real 1980s vibe and an uplifting feel. Built around another strong chorus, the song spends it's time during the verses building up to it, and the pay off is great with another good vocal display from Wharton. The ringing guitar notes are very catchy too, and give the song some sparkle that makes it stand out from the rest of the album. After a few genuinely excellent songs, You Carried Me is a nice piece of pop rock that does not do anything complicated but contains some strong melodies and a decent chorus. While not as layered or as interesting as many of the other songs here, there is something to be said for the song's ability to create a joyful melody with ease. It will never be seen as one of the album's best, it injects some pop into the more atmospheric mood of the rest of the album and it provides a nice change of pace. Like the First Time has a really folky vibe, at least in Wharton's vocal melodies. It sounds like he is singing one of those old traditional songs that have been sung by singers for hundreds of years, and incorporating these melodies into this song works well. Like many other songs on this album, the chorus is really rather strong, with plenty of guitar leads to boost the mood. The shredding outro is probably the most high-energy guitar moment of the album, and it comes out of the blue but it works well. The album comes to a close with the beautiful soft rock of Along the Heather that features Wharton's son Paris on guitar. This is another stand out song, with another great upbeat chorus that features some big ringing piano notes that cut through the mix to create a great contrast with Wharton's voice. Paris Wharton proves himself to a be a great guitarist too, with some soulful leads, and a great solo, which are in keeping with Burns' style on the rest of the album. It is one the album's best solos too, so I would not be surprised if we hear more from him in the future. It ensures the album ends on a high, and is one of the more memorable songs here. Overall, Sacred Ground is a great album from a band that never really got the press or critical acclaim that they deserve. It makes me realise that I need to go back and catch up on their more recent discography as, if they are all as good as this, there will be lots to enjoy!

The album was released on 15th July 2016 via Legend Records. Below is the band's promotional trailer for the album which features music from many of the songs mentioned above.

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