I confess that I’m having difficulty with this review. There are aspects of this A-Z debut that I like, and things I don’t. And worse yet, it feels like disliking something isn’t really an option here. A-Z will release their self-titled album through Metal Blade on August 12th.
A-Z is something of supergroup. It has primarily been billed as the reunion of Ray Alder (Fates Warning, Redemption) with Mark Zonder (Fates Warning). Fans of Fates Warning might find that enticing, and I would say that feeling is warranted and possibly even fulfilled here. The full lineup is Ray Alder on vocals, Philip Bynoe on bass, Vivien Lalu on keys, Joop Wolters on guitars, and Mark Zonder on drums.
My observations about A-Z have left me a little exhausted, I must admit. For what it’s worth, I think the album is a great release mostly, but the total package does seem underwhelming. The promo itself and especially Mark Zonder’s comments hyped up this album as a highly accessible masterpiece. Zonder even stated that he wants these songs played in giant venues and such, making it seem like he sees this as his last shot at the big time. This album was to be “all about the hooks” and purposefully lacking in the “proggy stuff”. I mean, Zonder’s comments in the promo are a classic “I am looking to sell out for the big bucks” situation. It doesn’t help that Zonder has been online ranting about anyone who isn’t absolutely in love with the music or especially the cover art; he seems especially stingy and condescending to those who mention the cover, so I assume he paid an arm and a leg for it since it is Hugh Syme’s work.
I’m here to say that this album and overall experience aren’t nearly as original, clever, or well-conceived as Zonder seems to think, but somehow it is still a good record. I get the A (Alder) and Z (Zonder) thing, and the apple/zebra connection. I get it. But all of that is a distraction. This album is a mix of various genres. You’ll hear a little AOR, some early Fates Warning metal, various hard rock portions, and so on. It can be heavy at times, or soft and melodic in others. You’ll recognize where the sounds come from, too, as I can hear Journey and Kansas in several songs; I would say that various guitar and keyboard tones have been modeled to sound like specific other bands. In fact, I would say that several cues and themes were lifted from various nostalgic sources and inserted here, whether in the music or in the lyrics. Oh, and there aren’t that many hooks, especially big ones.
In some ways, it does feel that this music lacks identity, as Alder’s voice and delivery are pure progressive metal to me, but Zonder definitely went out of his way (and his comfort zone) to try to write softer, simpler tracks. Zonder’s drumming, as usual, is impeccable, but perhaps it doesn’t fit the tone of the record that he himself has stated. I mean, I love his style, especially on Fates Warning’s Disconnected, but it can seem either heavy-handed here, or perhaps like he is trying too hard to be eccentric. I can’t tell.
Now, Ray Alder is a legend and can make any album way better just by his presence. I think this album suffers from an identity crisis, but Ray brings a gravity that makes it work in the end. I also like Vivien’s wonderful keys, another core sound of this album. All of these performers are top notch, and they do actually seem like they are having fun here, which might be the most important thing of all.
There are some great cuts. I really like “The Far Side of the Horizon”, “Stranded”, “Borrowed Time”, and “Sometimes”. “The Far Side of the Horizon” is especially good with its rip-roaring riff and various transitions. I would even go so far as to say that this is one of my favorite songs this year, as Alder sings his heart out on it. “Stranded” and “Borrowed Time” also feature amazing Alder performances, the former being pretty classic rock in sound with some great keys and background guitar musings, and the latter being a heavier track that just rocks. “Sometimes” ends the album with a filtering, genuine ballad of sorts. Alder again makes this work, and I like how tender it feels.
I don’t feel like some of the other tracks are very memorable, and some sound very similar, such as “Trial by Fire” and “The Machine Gunner”. They are good, but I don’t think they are highlights. “Rise Again” and “Window Panes” are both good; “Rise Again” is basically an 80s ballad, complete with sparkly keys in the background, and it’s fine. “Window Pane”, I’ll admit, has a chorus I don’t really like, but it does have a sweet, chugging second half that I like. “At the Water’s Edge” and “The Silence Broken” (a bonus track) are both fine, too, though I don’t actively remember much about them, even after I just listened to them.
In the end, I’m left a little cold on this one, though I recognize that there is much here to love, too. A-Z, despite the terrible name, ugly artwork, Asia rip-off logo, and Zonder-infatuated marketing hook, has a good album here. It is far from original and isn’t something anyone will get excited over, but it is a fun album that really rocks in some places. And Ray Alder’s vocals are always worth hearing because he is amazing. Yes, I’ve let Zonder’s attitude sour what is a decent album. I’m sure others out there will like it more than I do.
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