Wednesday, 25 April 2018

FM's 'Atomic Generation' - Album Review

While it is sad that British AOR band FM never really received the respect that they deserved during their 1980s heyday, they have nevertheless carved out a niche for themselves in the modern melodic rock touring circuit since reuniting in 2007. Their initial run, which included 1986's Indiscreet and 1989's Tough it Out - both great examples of the AOR genre and some of the best examples of that music put out by a non-American band - saw them start to build some real momentum. Support slots with the likes of REO Speedwagon and Bon Jovi, along with working with the likes of Desmond Child and Neil Kernon, ought to have counted for more than it did; and as the 1990s rolled around it seemed that FM were unable to truly capitalise on their early successes. Line-up changes and a handful of less-successful albums saw the band through the first half of the 1990s before they decided to call it a day in 1995. FM would be dormant for twelve years, before a one-off reunion for the now-defunct Firefest in Nottingham turned into a permanent reconvening that has seen the band touring fairly regularly, both here in the UK and elsewhere, and releasing four new albums. These new albums, all of which have been of a pretty high quality, have built on the AOR sound the band made their own in the 1980s. Bluesier elements that relied less heavily on keyboards crept into their 1990s albums, and this slightly more guitar-orientated sound has remained on their newer work. Keyboard-heavy AOR is certainly something of its time, and when modern bands do not really nail the sound it can came across as being very dated and twee. FM have always avoided these traps however, with a bluesier sound that incorporates AOR tropes into a slightly tougher sound. The adjective 'tougher' is used loosely here, as FM have never been a heavy band, but their more guitar-centric sound is certainly rockier than that found on their earlier, pure AOR releases. 2015's Heroes and Villains (which I reviewed here) was probably the band's best album since their 2007 reunion. It contained a good mix of melodic and bluesier numbers, with a couple of the album's songs become setlist staples since its release. We are three years down the line now however, and last month the band released their tenth album Atomic Generation. Sound wise, Atomic Generation represents what we have come to expect from a new FM album. The band's trademark melodic songwriting, all fronted by Steve Overland's stunning vocals, is present and correct here - but there definitely seems to have been an effort here to go back to their roots somewhat. Maybe their recent celebrations of Indiscreet 30th anniversary have put them more in an 1980s mindset, but there is definitely a stronger keyboard presence here than there has been on any of their post-reunion albums. While I feel like Heroes and Villains is probably still the stronger of the two albums, it is great to hear the band turning back the clock on Atomic Generation to include a little more of their history.

Opening with a punchy drum beat and sparkly synths, Black Magic represents the modern FM sounds perfectly as it mixes hard rock guitar rhythms with an 1980s keyboard backing. Catchy wordless vocal sections surface throughout to draw the listener in which fit in well with the anthemic quality created by the gated drums. Pete Jupp's drums on this song really sound like something from the 1980s, with that slightly electronic twinge to the punch, and that fits the mood really well. The only thing missing from the song is a killer chorus, as sadly what passes off a chorus here just does not grab hold as it should - despite the wordless vocal chants. The lack of a true chorus aside, Black Magic is still a strong opening number, and the punchy song makes an instant impact. Too Much of a Good Thing sounds like it could have been written during the Indiscreet sessions and features lots of excellent keyboard work long-time FM member Jem Davis. What is instantly apparent when listening to this song is how little Overland's voice has aged over time. He still sounds as good as he did in the 1980s, and why is not rated as one of the best melodic rock vocalists ever continues to mystify me. Is the star of this song, and the way he sings the smooth chorus is almost spine tingling. Elsewhere clean guitar arpeggios help to bulk out the song, but it is the keyboards that dominate the musical landscape. A short guitar solo from Jim Kirkpatrick puts the instrument in the spotlight, but the mix of vocals and keyboards takes the listener back to the AOR heyday of the late 1980s and, as a result, this is one of my favourite pieces on the album. Killed by Love feels like a bit of summer anthem, complete with 'Yeah yeah...' sing-a-long sections and a great stomper of a guitar riff during the verses. Songs like this shows that FM learnt a lot from their time supporting Bon Jovi, and the upbeat vibe of that band has been mixed with FM's native British blues-based rock influences to create a fun hybrid of styles. The chorus is smoother than the punchy verses, and it has melodies that would have probably been on constant rotation on rock radio stations during 1980s. Sadly this song will not be a hit, but it feels like a future setlist staple, and shows FM letting their hair down. In it for the Money is a tougher rock song, and more akin to the sound the band have been cultivating on their other recent albums. Kirkpatrick lays down a great riff that drives the song, which is perfectly backed up by Davis' pulsing organ washes. Kirkpatrick's riff crates a strong groove throughout, which is particularly evident during the verses. He teams up well with founding bassist Merv Goldsworthy to create a powerful rhythm, and also demonstrates his bluesy rock credentials later on with a great solo. The chorus is smoother than the main portion of the song, but still packs a punch with plenty of organ to fill the speakers.

Golden Days, appropriately, feels like another throwback to their early sound. The guitars play a popping rhythm as the keyboards once again take centre stage, with Davis creating a big soundscape with his synths that is occasionally pierced with a twinkling little riff. If you imagine a more upbeat version of Love Lies Dying from Indiscreet then you will have a good idea of how this song sounds, and fans of the band's early albums will absolutely love it. Davis has had few chances on the recent albums to really demonstrate his creative side, with his keyboards often playing second fiddle to the guitars, but here he really shines with a variety of styles and moods. If you had ever wondered what FM would sound like with a horn section, you will find themselves channelling their inner Chicago on the excellent Playing Tricks on Me. This is a slightly jazzy rock piece that makes good use of session player Scott Ralph's horn skills, and some of the most infectious backing vocals I have heard for a while. If Killed by Love could be a summer anthem, then this is definitely a summer anthem. Chicago filled the radio with song like this during the 1970s, and it is sound that works really well for FM. The playful horn melodies really bring the best out of Overland's voice, and the ending section which sees Kirkpatrick soloing in between the horn melodies makes for a great audio treat. Make the Best of What You Got cranks the guitar up somewhat again, and is a more riff-driven piece that recalls some of their early 1990s work. Kirkpatrick peels off great riffs and leads throughout,as a sparser verse allows Jupp's drumming to shine through and really take the lead, with some added cowbell for good measure. While the chorus is not as catchy as it probably should be, this is still an enjoyable song. With less guitar leads throughout this album than previously, Kirkpatrick seems to let himself go a bit here. The solo is very good, with lots of fast licks, something which is often repeated throughout to good effect. With a pulsing keyboard riff driving the whole song, Follow Your Heart definitely feels like something from the past when compared to FM's more recent work. I love keyboard work like this however, and it is great to hear the band revisiting that style here with synths that are really given space to sign. The staccato keyboard riff is the feature of the verses, and allows the rhythm section to follow it for a punchy overall sound. Everything builds towards the chorus, which is more guitar-led and works as a good contrast to the keyboard dominance of the rest of the song. Keyboards like this are often shunned in modern rock music, and admittedly can sometimes sound very twee in the wrong hands, but here they sound great and sees FM turning back the clock a bit.

Do You Love Me Enough is one of the only songs on this album that does not really make much of an impact. The verse is acoustic-led, with acoustic guitar chords filling the gaps to make a nice, organic sound; but overall the song just does not contain the melodies that it needs to really take hold. The chorus is decent, but pales in comparison to many of the others on the album, and the acoustic warmth of the piece does not really fit in with the rest of the album. It is not a particularly bad song, just one that is hidden by greater songs around it. One of the those greater songs is Stronger, which is another anthemic piece with strident guitar riffing and plentiful keyboards. Davis shines early on, with an extended keyboard intro, and continues to dominate throughout with an enveloping performance. The chorus is a real foot stomper, and would be great to hear live. Overland really belts the lyrics out, with the rest of the band harmonising well with him, while the keyboards and tough guitar rhythms create a powerful sound. This is a great song that gives the end of the album a little injection of energy, and it leads nicely into the calm of Love is the Law that follows. Ballads are commonplace on AOR albums, but Love is the Law is the only true example of one here. With the acoustic-based rock of Do You Love Me Enough not really hitting the spot, this song which is almost entirely acoustic fares much better. Overland's voice is made for singing ballads, and he delivers an emotionally-charged performance here that sees him shine once again. The rest of the band's contributions here are quite understated, with acoustic guitars, subtle keyboards, and percussion forming a gentle backing for Overland and the lyrics. While it may have been better to end the album on a harder note, this song works well in a different way and brings everything to a gentle, serene close. Overall, Atomic Generation is another really strong album from FM and one that contains some of their best songs since reuniting. I still feel that Heroes and Villains is a slightly better album overall, but this one sees the band going back to their roots a bit more, which has to be a good thing.

The album was released on 30th March 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Black Magic.

No comments:

Post a Comment