Saturday, 2 December 2017

Vandenberg's Moonkings' 'MK II' - Album Review

Despite never really becoming a household name, Dutch songwriter and guitarist Adrian Vandenberg has enjoyed a successful career over the past few decades. He debuted with his first band Teaser in the late 1970s, but it was with the band Vandenberg that he first really found fame. As the band's lead guitarist, songwriter, and namesake, Vandenberg was always the focal point. Vandenberg released three albums between 1982 and 1985 which were popular worldwide despite the band never really fulfilling their potential. The power ballad Burning Heart (which is not the same song that Survivor would release a few years later) even charted in a few countries, and remains a minor classic of the hard rock and metal genres. 1987 saw a big turning point in Vandenberg's life however, when he was invited by David Coverdale to join the new-look Whitesnake line-up that he was assembling to tour the new 1987, which would go on to become a smash hit and a real era-defining classic. While the album was largely finished by the time Vandenberg came on board, he did arrive in time to record the guitar solo on the iconic re-recording of Here I Go Again, which has arguably become Whitesnake's signature song. Whitesnake would become Vandenberg's home for the best part of the next ten years which saw him collaborate with Coverdale on two studio albums: 1989's Slip of the Tongue and 1997's Restless Heart. These albums could not be further away from each other - with the screaming, leather-wearing hair metal of the former being a stark contrast with the more reflective blues of the latter - but this only shows Vandenberg's versatility as a songwriter. Despite not contributing to the recording of Slip of the Tongue due to a hand injury, he co-wrote the entire album (with the exception of the old classic Fool for Your Loving which was re-recorded for the album) which should immediately showcase the man's talents. In amongst this, he assembled the short-lived project called Manic Eden which released a self-titled album of bluesy rock tracks in 1994. When Whitesnake split up, seemingly for good, in 1997 Vandenberg seemed to retire from the music industry. Despite making the odd guest appearance with the current incarnation of Whitesnake over the past ten or so years, nothing new was really heard from Vandenberg until 2013 when he announced that he was forming a new band called Vandenberg's Moonkings. Their self-titled debut album was released the next year, and showcased the heavy blues rock sound that characterises much of Vandenberg's work. Joined by singer Jan Hoving, bassist Sem Christoffel, and drummer Mart Nijen Es, Vandenberg showed the world that he could still rock and write memorable songs. Fast forward three years and Vandenberg's Moonkings are still going strong. Their second album, titled MK II, was released last month to strong reviews and contains another collection of powerful blues rock anthems featuring lots of excellent guitar work from the flying Dutchman.

After opening with an album AC/DC-esque guitar assault, the album's first song Tightrope explodes into with strong, mid-paced bluesy riff that drives the verses as Hoving shows from the outset that he is a good singer. While there are times when it sounds like he is trying a bit too hard to sound like Coverdale, he still impresses throughout with a decent amount of power. This is not a flashy song, but one that really establishes the band's sound early on. The chorus is a memorable moment, with some higher vocals from Hoving and some real classic rock melodies. Vandenberg's short, but bluesy, guitar solo shows his skills too and shows that he has lost none of his chops over the years. Reputation is a faster song and is built around a riff that sees both Vandenberg and Christoffel really looking in well together for a tight and heavy sound. This riff really helps to keep the energy levels in the song at a high level which helps to give the album a real shot of adrenaline. This is a song that is more about the riffs and the energy than the vocals, and is capped off by a shredding solo from Vandenberg that matches the song's kinetic feel. Angel in Black is another mid-paced stomping rock track, and one that really seems to take a lot from the early Whitesnake songbook. It opens slowly, with moody clean guitar melodies before transitioning into full-blown rock mode with a strutting chorus characterised by an excellent vocal. From then on, the song is mostly a hard rocking one driven by Es' hollow drumming. While the band's rhythm section largely only play the basic rhythms here, the big sound on both the drums and the bass really helps this album to sound as good as it does. This is not a complicated or cluttered album, and Es' big drum sound really helps to carry the album. The Fire is the only lengthy song here, with a running time of just over seven minutes. Keyboards are not a big part of this album's sound, but they are used here to help create a bit of an atmosphere early on as Hoving croons the opening few lyrics atop another clean guitar melody. You would be forgiven for assuming that this song was going to be a ballad, but it does not take too long to open out again into another mid-paced rocker with similarities in sound to Led Zeppelin with a juddering main riff and high vocals. That being said, given the song's length it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a certainly amount of light and shade here. The more relaxed intro does resurface later on during the song's length, which is a great contrast to Vandenberg's fiery guitar solo that happens just before it. Walk Away opens with some bluesy acoustic guitar playing which, although the song does open out somewhat as it moves along, comes to dominate. This is definitely the album's first ballad, and showcases a slightly gentler side of Hoving's voice that demonstrates his ability to carry a fair amount of emotion in his delivery. Vandenberg's emotional guitar solo fits perfectly into the song, and the stakes are raised towards the end with a subtle but effective string arrangement that helps to add serious depth. After a couple of more 'involved' songs, All or Nothing strips the album back to the bare bones with a bluesy riff that sounds like something Free might have come up with in the early 1970s and some true classic rock strut. While this is not a song that really makes much of an impact, it helps to remind the listener of the band's core principles after deviating from these somewhat in the previous couple of songs.

What Doesn't Kill You is, in my opinion, one of the album's best moments. The slightly jangly opening sounds different from what you would expect from the band, but the song's power cannot be denied. The chorus is a real winner, with a dominate string arrangement that stabs through the rock instrumentation as Hoving's voice sings the lyrics. The mix of more acoustically-dominated sections, and grand almost-pomp rock sections makes the song stand out and shows the diversity of Vandenberg's songwriting. This is another song that contains plenty of light and shade, which is something that is important for creating a varied and dynamic album. Ready for the Taking opens with a dirty blues feel with a swampy riff and downbeat vocals. This murky intro does not last long however as the song soon opens up into another mid-paced rocker, although there is still a swampy feel throughout with some slightly grungy guitar work. Hoving clearly does not get the memo for this however, as his vocals still soar as they do elsewhere on the album. It would have been interesting to see him approach the song with a more downbeat style, much like his vocals during the intro, as this would have fit in well with the rest of the band and would have created something a bit different. After a slightly spacey keyboard-heavy intro, New Day kicks the album's energy levels into the higher gear again with some staccato guitar riffing and punchy drumming. Despite this higher energy, the song actually has quite a poppy feel. The chorus feels like a bit of a party anthem, and the cleaner guitar tones throughout set the song apart from the heavier blues that dominates the album. This all works well however, and helps to bring some fun back to the album after the murkier preceding number. Hard Way has a bit of an AC/DC vibe throughout with a riff that sounds like something the Young brothers might have come up with, but Hoving's strong vocal performance keeps it from sounding like a clone of that band. The chorus especially sees him shine, as he unleashes song pretty impressive high notes which fit well with Vandenberg's ringing guitar chords. The combination of the raw guitar playing and Hoving's excellent vocals make this song really stand out, and it is another of the album's highlights for me. The guitar solo here is memorable too, as it is more schizophrenic than Vandenberg's usual cleaner style, which helps add another dimension to the song. Love Runs Out is a cover of the hit song by the American pop group OneRepublic. This is a strange song for a band like Vandenberg's Moonkings to cover, but it still works well when forced into the band's blues rock formula. It is clear when listening to the song that the band were having a lot of fun when arranging and recording their version of it, and it helps to bring a bit of a party vibe to the album's end. If You Can't Handle the Heat is the album's closing number however, and is another solid slab of blues rock that seems to deliberately showcase the band's main sounds to round out the album in style after the slightly off the wall cover. There is another strong Led Zeppelin feel here too with some Jimmy Page-esque guitar playing which really helps to end the album on a high. Overall, MK II is a solid follow up to a solid debut album. While there is nothing on this album that we have not heard before, there is still plenty to enjoy and the quality of the songwriting remains high. It is always good to hear something new from Vandenberg, and it seems this band is now in it for the long run.

The album was released on 3rd November 2017 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Tightrope.

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