When 2008 ended I wasn’t too impressed with its overall run of metal and rock releases. Priest of course rolled out their long awaited “Nostradamus” project and Def Leppard returned to form with their best album since “Adrenalize” but other than that, those records I bought that year and those released in 2008 that I’ve got later on, haven’t been too impressive.
A nice exception to that rule came towards my way however recently when I acquired a copy of Michael Schenker Group’s latest release “In The Midst Of Beauty.” And in many way this is so far holding the highest score on my 2008 album rank simply because of its total surprise element. With Priest you can always expect a certain quality and I knew even Leppard could pull a fast one and release a great effort. It had to happen sooner or later. But MSG was something I’d already pretty much given up on.
Since leaving UFO for good in 2002 Mad Mickey has released several less than impressive efforts with his own band. Singers like Leif Sundin and Chris Logan were seriously lacking in charisma and lung power. Even Finland’s own Jari Tiura who boasted a strong set of pipes, was under presented on “Tales Of Rock’n’Roll” having had to step down in give room for other singers from the MSG history.
None of these issues were as big as the creative hole Schenker himself seemed to be disappearing in. Aside from working with MSG, guitarist occasionally issued solo instrumental albums and ventured over to projects with Pete Way and Davey Pattison among others. Those are better kept under the rug even more than any of MSG’s efforts.
On one the MSG CD’s, namely “Arachnophobiac” Schenker did not even appear on all tracks. And the latest of them, previously mentioned 2007’s “Tales Of Rock’n’Roll” brought back all previous MSG vocalists but results were mixed at best, the weird sequencing of the tracks without any breaks in between made the listening experience even more difficult. On the following tour Schenker struggled to perform on stage and a US tour was them promptly cancelled.
One could then not be blamed for thinking that nothing further would ever come from one of the world’s most legendary guitar players. Fortunately after some time recuperating he did come back and expectations were somewhat increased by the announcement of a reunion with the original MSG vocalist Gary Barden. Except a short break in 1982 when Graham Bonnet took over, Barden sang with MSG from 1979 to 1984 and recorded five albums with the band. The first two are universally regarded as hard rock’s premier releases and they followed these with “One Night At Budokan” – a seminal live release. Later on “Built To Destroy” and live follow-up “Rock Will Never Die” weren’t bad albums either. In 1985 Schenker disbanded the group and formed McAuley Schenker Group, which kept him busy for nigh on seven years.
Back to 2008 and “In The Midst Of Beauty” is released via independent German In Akustik record label. As with Schenker’s project with Robin McAuley 20 years ago, this band while still called MSG also bears the pseudonym Schenker/Barden. In the liner notes Schenker explains moving to Germany to get reorganized and focusing on capturing the spirit of classic MSG. This judging by earlier releases wasn’t an easy task but “City Lights” is a powerful opener which goes a long way to restore the faith of the listener. Right away Michael’s playing sounds like he’s back in charge and at ease with himself.
Gary Barden sings with his usual style and has brought back melodic intensity that the band so obviously lacked. “End Of The Line” includes a classic guitar riff, and piano backs it up nicely. Barden shines on catchy melody, this tune is guaranteed to stick in your head for days.
“Summerdays” has a slow acoustic beginning, before it picks up slightly. It features excellent playing by Schenker throughout, it’s a testimony of his greatness. Elsewhere “A Night To Remember” could possibly be my favourite track. Singing about the fans and being on the road, the song is made for a live setting. Great chorus rounds things out nicely.
Mid-album does suffer a slight slump in form of “Wings Of Emotion” and “Come Closer” that aren’t quite as instant as preceding tracks but the record bolts up again with excellent “The Cross Of Crosses.” The song brings forth added heaviness and rhythm section kicks the tempo up a notch. It again features a great chorus: ”I’ll Survive, On The Cross Of Crosses, It’s So Surreal, Another Time To Die.” Following “Na Na” is more commercial but still stands up well after this. And finally “Ride On My Way” closes the album with style but also works well as their current set opener.
Overall there’s the classic Michael Schenker Group spirit oozing out of every note, this certainly has been lost since the early 1980’s. A lot of it is of course down to star studded cast. Besides returning Barden, legendary keyboardist Don Airey is there and plays tastefully, his organ work is astounding throughout. Add to this, trusted Neil Murray is on bass while Simon Phillips fills the drum seat. A very impressive cast and one can hear it from the get-go. The professionalism is obvious and lifts the songs up to another level. Of course to top it of, Michael Schenker’s fluent, melodic lead playing is all over the place. I might not call this his best work but he’s definitely returned back to the level he once had. That in itself is worth celebrating.
No amount of good musicianship can however cover the lack of good songs and it is here the true strength of “In The Midst Of Beauty” lies. Barden is obviously the perfect foil for Schenker to bounce ideas on. It’s nothing too clever but there’s an addictive drive on most of the songs herein, simple but effective formula which works.
Bottom line, welcome back Michael Schenker! It is great to have MSG back where they belong, on top of the hard rock tree.
3.I Want You
4.End Of The Line
6.A Night To Remember
7.Wings Of Emotion
9.The Cross Of Crosses
11.I Am The One
12.Ride On My Way