Sunday, 16 April 2017

Night Ranger's 'Don't Let Up' - Album Review

The 24th March 2017 shall for ever now be known as AOR Day, as no fewer than four great new melodic rock albums were released! AOR fans like me were like a kid at Christmas with new albums from Eclipse, One Desire, and Brother Firetribe to pick up and enjoy. Not wanting to let all the new younger bands have all the fun, genuine legends of the genre Night Ranger also released a new album on that day in the form of Don't Let Up, their twelfth studio album. Originally forming as Ranger in 1982, Night Ranger have enjoyed continued success throughout their career and are still a popular draw on the live circuit. They have always been a band on the rockier end of the AOR spectrum, and it was on the twin-lead guitar pairing of Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson that the band built their sound. Keyboards have always been a feature of Night Ranger's music, but they have never been as prominent and overbearing as those used by many of their peers. This gave Night Ranger a sound closer to traditional classic rock than many of their peers, and this is something they have continued with throughout their career. Their 1982 debut album Dawn Patrol (they had changed their name to Night Ranger by the time it was released) perfectly displays their signature hard rock sound, but it was 1983's Midnight Madness that saw the band break into the big time with a couple of big-selling singles and a slightly more polished overall sound. More success followed and, despite a hiatus in the early 1990s and a few line-up changes of the years, Night Ranger have remained busy and maintain popular around the world. Unlike many of their AOR peers, Night Ranger also still seem to have the drive to write new material and Don't Let Up seems to be the third in a trilogy of new albums the band have put out since 2011. 2011's Somewhere in California and 2014's High Road are similar albums and both emphasise the hard rock roots of the band perfectly. Both are very enjoyable listens, and both have a somewhat tougher sound than the band were known for in the past but still are packed full of plenty of melodic rock songs. Don't Let Up follows on from those two albums perfectly and continues on that hard rock trend. Gillis is joined by a new guitar partner on this album in the form of veteran player Keri Kelli (Pretty Boy Floyd; Slash's Snakepit; L.A. Guns; Adler's Appetite; Alice Cooper) who became a permanent member of Night Ranger when his predecessor Joel Hoekstra left in 2014 to join Whitesnake. The band's signature dual-lead vocal approach from bassist Jack Blades and drummer Kelly Keagy is present here as always, and the songwriting triumvirate of Blades, Keagy, and Gillis has created another album packed full of memorable riffs and choruses. Kelli is no songwriting slouch either, and has jumped right into the band's creative process co-writing a handful of the album's songs with the three founding band members. Keyboardist Eric Levy, who has been part of Night Ranger since 2011, rounds out the line-up.

The album opens without any real fanfare, as Somehow Someway kicks off with a driving hard rock rhythm that instantly shows off the chemistry of the band's two guitarists with subtle leads and interweaving rhythms. For whatever reason I have always struggled to distinguish between Blades' and Keagy's vocals when listening to Night Ranger, but I believe Blades tackles the lead vocals here with grit that the rocking nature of the song needs. Despite this tougher edge, the song still possess a strong chorus with tasteful melodies and enough backing vocal harmonies to create that 1980s AOR sound but not enough to smother the harder edge of the song. A riffy instrumental ending adds to the heavier sound of the song, and the subtle leads from the intro return to see the song to a close. Running Out of Time opens with another strident riff, perfectly backed up by Blades' bassline, and the song continues in that muscular fashion throughout. Despite the strong guitar riffs, it is actually the bass that stands out here with some really melodic playing that provides the main rhythms of the song while the guitars add colour with clean melodies and effects-heavy chords. Another strong chorus sees both Blades and Keagy take centre stage vocally with some lovely harmonies which helps to enhance to simple, but strong, vocal melodies to create a catchy refrain. A fairly lengthy guitar solo section is another highlight, and it sounds as if both Gillis and Kelli get a chance to show off as the section ends in a shredded climax. Truth is a bit more of a downbeat song, but it retains the strong melodies that filled the opening two numbers. Going by the slightly smoother vocal delivery here, I would guess that Keagy takes the lead here vocally, and that would suit the band's established form of him singing the majority of the ballads. While this song does not quite reach 'ballad' level, it is certainly more laid back and not as in-your-face as the previous two numbers. Levy's keyboards are a little more prominent here and his gentle synths provide the song with a constant, warm glow; while the two guitarists shine elsewhere with lots of subtle dual-guitar leads too add extra melody. Day and Night is a song that will be familiar to anyone who has heard the band's most recent live album, as the song was debuted at the show in Chicago that was recorded for that release. It is another hard-hitting rocker with vocals from both Blades and Keagy who trade sections with ease above the heavy guitar riffs. The song does not really have the AOR sheen that the opening three numbers of this album have, and instead goes for a full-frontal hard rock attack with Keagy's hard-hitting drumming and tough riffs. Levy's retro organ sounds help this hard rock feel, and an impressive guitar solo section is the icing on the cake. The title track returns to the slightly more polished AOR of the opening couple of numbers and rocks a little less harder than Day and Night, but delivers in other ways with probably the album's best chorus and lots of excellent twin-lead guitar riffs that ooze out of the speakers in an almost Thin Lizzy-esque way. Again the keyboards provide warmth throughout without ever dominating the sound, but that does help to provide depth. Don't Let Up is one of the most instantly catchy songs on the album, and is certainly one of the best recent efforts.

(Won't Be Your) Fool Again takes the album off into a more bluesy territory with barroom piano, a raw guitar sound, and even the odd burst of slide guitar. Blades' southern twang helps the vocals to fit in perfectly with the music, and the overall rawness of the song makes it stand out on what is otherwise a fairly polished album. Levy really stands out here, and his piano playing really is the backbone of the song. He does not get many chances to really shine on this album, with his role mainly being a supporting one, but his greater role here allows him to show off his skills a little more with an impressive display of honky piano. Keeping up the energy established on the previous number, Say What You Want comes roaring out of the speakers with a tight opening guitar lead and a driving drum beat that keeps the song steaming along throughout. The song is similar in style to Somehow Someway and has that polished, upbeat hard rock vibe that opened this album in such style. The piano from the previous song remains, although in a much lesser role, and the chorus is another strong one with lots of harmony vocals. There are lots of bursts of lead guitar throughout, and some of them almost take on a neo-classical vibe which is something different for Night Ranger. We Can Work it Out is the first real ballad on the album, and sees both Blades and Keagy taking the vocal lines together with some nice harmonies that sit well atop Levy's subtle piano playing. The song mostly stays in the relatively gentle groove that it opens with, but some well-chosen drum lines help to give the song a bit of an edge despite the low-key mood. Acoustic guitar chords and soaring synths help to add depth, especially during the Eagles-esque chorus. A gorgeous acoustic guitar solo is another highlight, and the almost-classical playing style really suits the song and again shows something different from the norm. Despite opening with what seems like it will be a heavy riff, Comfort Me is another polished rocker but one that maintains a driving rhythm throughout with some muted power chord chugs. It is not one of the most stand out songs on the album, but it is still enjoyable. The chorus especially is a good moment, with some high energy almost-gang vocal sections which I am sure will go down well live if the band choose to ever play it. The melodic bridge section before the guitar solo, which I am sure Keagy sings, is another good moment too; and there are some 1980s-style synth runs during the guitar solos which again is not something that is heard often in the band's recent output. Jamie is a tougher song, with some really screaming guitar leads intro which really epitomises the modern Night Ranger sound. Blades and Keagy again sing many of the vocal lines in perfect harmony and this is an approach that works well here. This is one of the high energy songs on this album, and plenty of shredding guitar sections help to emphasise this. Both Gillis and Kelli shine here as they trade off riffs and solos with each other throughout. The chorus is another good one with soaring harmonies and melodies. The album's final song, Nothing Left of Yesterday, has somewhat of an epic feel and mixes acoustic-driven verses with heavier choruses. This approach works well and it acts as a great crescendo for the album. Unlike many of the songs on the album, the song actually has quite a modern rock feel which also helps it to become a strong closing number. There are lots of excellent bursts of lead guitar throughout too, and this is a song that I am sure would work really well live. Overall, Don't Let Up is another solid entry into the Night Ranger canon and is an album that shows the band still have plenty left to say and still feel fresh in the 21st century.

The album was released on 24th March 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Day and Night.

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