Sunday, 2 July 2017

Jorn's 'Life on Death Road' - Album Review

Norwegian heavy metal singer Jørn Lande has been flying the flag for good old-fashioned heavy metal since the early 1990s. He has fronted many different bands over the years, including Vagabond which featured TNT's guitarist Ronni Le Tekrø and The Snakes which featured Whitesnake founders Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody, but it is probably with the progressive metal acts Ark and Masterplan that he is most known for in the metal community. Ark in particular are a very underrated band, and Lande's powerful vocals are a big part of what makes them so enjoyable. Throughout his career, Lande has been compared to the late great Ronnie James Dio and it is fair to say the two share similarities. It is no secret that Dio is one of Lande's idols, and it is true that throughout much of his career Lande has channelled his inner Dio. While a member of his various bands, Lande has usually been paired with an already-established songwriter which have usually steered the ship, so it is on his solo albums which his love for true unadulterated heavy metal really shines. From his first solo effort, which was called Starfire and released in 2000, Lande has shown his love for artists like Dio, mixed with his love for all things bluesy, in a further seven studio albums. His last true solo album, 2013's Traveller, was certainly no classic. While the album contained a few strong numbers, it definitely failed to live up to some of his great moments of the past, particularly 2006's The Duke and 2008's Lonely are the Brave which are particular favourites of mine. Two years later Lande did redeem himself with the excellent Dracula: Swing of Death (which I reviewed here), a concept album based on Bram Stoker's gothic novel Dracula which was a collaboration with guitarist Trond Holter who at the time was also a part of Lande's solo band 'Jorn'. Last month however, Lande released his first true solo album under the 'Jorn' name since 2013. There was a covers album Heavy Rock Radio released last year, but this album, titled Life on Death Road, is his first solo album of original material since Traveller. Life on Death Road sees Lande working with a whole new bunch of musicians and the results are excellent. His current backing band, which is basically the entity of German hard rockers Voodoo Circle (without their singer for obvious reasons), is made up of guitarist Alex Beyrodt (Silent Force; Sinner; Voodoo Circle; Primal Fear), bassist Mat Sinner (Sinner; Primal Fear; Voodoo Circle; Silent Force), keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio (Edge of Forever; Hardline; Eden's Curse; Voodoo Circle; Silent Force); and drummer Francesco Jovino (Edge of Forever; U.D.O.; Hardline; Primal Fear; Voodoo Circle; Sinner). As you can see from the history of these four musicians, there is a lot of shared history here and that familiarity has made this band a tight unit for Lande to work with. Del Vecchio also produced the album with Lande, and acted as his main songwriting partner on the vast majority of the songs found here. Simone Mularoni (DGM; Empyrios) also co-wrote a number of the songs here, and special guests include guitarists Gus G. (Firewind; Dream Evil; Mystic Prophecy; Nightrage; Ozzy Osbourne) and Craig Goldy (Giuffira; Dio; Resurrection Kings). This collection of musicians and songwriters, all fronted by the epic vocals of Lande has made for a really strong album, and one of the best slabs of pure heavy metal you are likely to hear all year.

The album kicks off with the seven minute plus title track, which is classic Jorn and really gets the album off a strong start. A murky clean guitar intro sets the mood, before Beyrodt explodes into a powerful riff as Del Vecchio's keyboards swirl around to create that dark, 1980s metal atmosphere. Lande's solo ventures have never featured keyboards as prominently as they do on this album, and if anything their presence only increases the Dio comparisons! From the outset, it is clear that Lande is really up for this album and his vocal performance is his strongest in years and is drenched with raw emotion and full of grit. The song's chorus really packs a punch, before a lengthy guitar section, featuring licks from Goldy, G., and Beyrodt in an explosive display of virtuosic metal soloing. Any lover of classic heavy metal will instantly fall in love with this track, and it is played with such finesse by the band that it is a perfect tribute to the genre. Hammered to the Cross (The Business) is a slower, heavier piece that recalls Dio-era Black Sabbath perfectly with a dark riff and moody keyboard backing. A strong mid-paced verse follows with chugging power chords from Beyrodt as Lande howls the lyrics with a sense of melodrama that only he can muster up quite so convincingly. The chorus is an extremely catchy one, and incorporates those subtle AOR sensibilities that Lande has always done in his songwriting. Del Vecchio's presence has definitely helped to increase those elements further however, and has made this album one of Lande's most instantly catchy as far as chorus melodies go. Love is the Remedy exemplifies this enhanced AOR feel, and you cannot help but feel Lande was tapping into his love of his Whitesnake while writing this one. The verses are quite heavy, with a great drumming performance from Jovino, but the choruses really shine with strong vocal melodies and a big organ backing from Del Vecchio. G. once again contributes a guitar solo to the song, but this time he takes the spotlight along and unleashes a fluid run of shredding that shows why he is so highly regarded in the metal world these days. After three fairly heavy numbers, Dreamwalker comes along and offers a little bit of respite with a delicate piano intro and a verse that is backed up with acoustic guitars and keyboards. The song does pick up as it goes along, with a heavier pre-chorus and chorus sections, but with a slower pace and the strong keyboard presence the song still feels somewhat like a ballad. Beyrodt throws in lots of bluesy leads throughout to add to the song's emotional weight and helps to make the song a strong one. Lande excels more at the heavier material, but his ballads have always been enjoyable too and this is one of his better efforts. Fire to the Sun, co-written with Beyrodt instead of Del Vecchio, definitely has a strong Voodoo Circle feel (which is unsurprising) and takes its cues from late-era Whitesnake with a strong organ presence and a driving bluesy riff. Jovino really plays his heart out on this song with some excellent double bass drumming throughout that syncs up well with Beyrodt's riffing. A lengthy, shredded solo takes up a fair chunk of the song's section half, and shows what a great guitarist Beyrodt is and why he is so in demand at the moment. The Sabbathy feel is back with Insoluble Maze (Dreams in the Blindness) which has a riff so evil that it could have come from Tony Iommi himself! While the song does pick up the pace somewhat when the verses kick in, the song still retains that devilish feel and you feel this could have sat quite happily on Sabbath's 1992 release Dehumanizer. I particularly like the keyboard-heavy bridge section towards the end, which is the only part of the song that does not sound much like Sabbath, but it works well to add a bit of light to the rest of the song's shade.

The bluesy hard rock of I Walked Away sees Lande once again plundering his love of Whitesnake and the result is an organ-heavy slab of classic rock with another strong guitar performance from Beyrodt that shows him focusing more on leads than titanic riffing. The song is lighter in tone than much of the material on this album, and definitely recalls David Coverdale's band circa 1984's Slide It In. It is one of the only songs here that allows bassist Mat Sinner to show off a little with some playful basslines that are much more audible here than elsewhere. The sparser blues arrangement allows for this, and also allows the organ playing to shine through to create an organic and great retro sound. The Slippery Slope (Hangman's Rope) sounds a bit like a hybrid between Slip of the Tongue-era Whitesnake and early Dio, and shows Lande at his best vocally and the song allows the band to really show off. Jovino in particular really seems to relish his opportunities during the song, with plenty of Tommy Aldridge-esque drum patterns that cut through the keyboard-heavy mix with ease and power. I feel the song has one of the best choruses on the album, and sees Lande channelling his inner Coverdale with suitable power and warmth. A keyboard-heavy instrumental section adds some drama, before Beyrodt launches into another explosive guitar solo backed by Jovino's frantic drumming. Devil You Can Drive is also somewhat bluesy, and features lots of great retro keyboard sounds from Del Vecchio. I have been a bit rude about the Frontiers Records method of churning out lots of 'project' albums with songs written by one of their in-house writers, of which Del Vecchio is one, but when he is part of a true band he really shows what a talent he is. He has co-written all but two of the songs on this album and has laid down a keyboard performance that manages to hold it's own against the pummelling metal assault of the rest of the band. I will never buy into the Frontiers Records projects, but Del Vecchio really is an excellent songwriter, producer, and musician. This song is one of the album's weaker efforts however, but does feature a keyboard solo which makes it stand out somewhat. The Optimist, which was co-written by G., is not the explosive power metal workout you might expect from G.'s guitar. Those expecting a Firewind fronted by Lande style song will be disappointed as the song is slower and features lots of acoustic guitars and sparkly keyboards. The song has more in common with G.'s recent couple of solo albums than with his work with Firewind, but it works well with Lande's voice and allows him a chance to croon over a slower and more delicate piece of music than elsewhere on the album. Unsurprisingly however there is an excellent solo from G., but it is slower than what you might expect from him but is still a classy moment in a song that works better than it probably should. Man of the 80's is one of my favourite songs on the album, and has a strong AOR feel. It has a simple, chugging style throughout and is very focused on Lande's vocal melodies and nostalgic lyrics. Sometimes it feels like the lyrics do not really fit in with the melodies, as Lande seems to have to really rush with some of the lines, but the just love the uplifting vibe the song has with strong synths throughout and a great chorus. The album's final song Blackbirds is another fairly weak number, which is a bit of a shame as the quality has been so high throughout the album. Life on Death Road is a long album, so would have probably been improved by cutting out songs like this and Devil You Can Drive, but unfortunately unecessarily long albums are the norm these days! That said, it is not a horrible song by any means but it just lacks the standout melodies of riffs that make the rest of the album so powerful and enjoyable. Overall, Life on Death Road is a very good album from Lande and his new band and is easily his best work since Lonely are the Brave at least. Trimming some of the fat would have definitely helped it to raise to even great heights, but the album is still a stellar piece of classic heavy metal that will be enjoyed by fans old and new alike.

The album was released on 2nd June 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Life on Death Road.

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