I am going to start this review by admitting that I am a huge fan of Unisonic, which contains this band’s lead vocalist, bassist and main songwriter, Dennis Ward, and it is a genre of music that I happen to really like. Obviously, this means that I can’t approach this record with my usual expectation of just getting a good record which makes me want to hear more by the band in the future (if I did, then I wouldn’t have even gotten this far before giving this record a proud recommendation!), so I’m going to deliberately swing my expectations around: instead of approaching this record as a fan of the genre it falls under, I’m going to approach it how I would expect someone who doesn’t like the genre to approach it and see what it does to avoid the cliches of the genre. Whatever you take from this review, do not let it be that this is a bad record, because I would normally be recommending this record quite enthusiastically: I just feel that my fondness for previous projects involving the brains behind this project and it being in a genre of music I happen to like means that I have to approach it from a different perspective, especially considering I don’t feel like basically doing a rewrite of what I did when I reviewed Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall’s record from last month.
So, with that out of the way, here’s my deliberately cynical take on the album!
Khymera are a band that can be best summed up as what Unisonic would be if you took out Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen and decided to play AOR instead of power metal-tinged hard rock, which doesn’t sound bad on paper if you happen to like that kind of thing, but which begs the question of what the band has to offer which you can’t get from Unisonic. Combine that with the fact that Khymera has had a complete line up reshuffle to put Dennis Ward in complete control when it was originally a joint project with him, Daniele Liverani and Steve Walsh and you really have to wonder why it wasn’t just released as a Dennis Ward solo album. Mind you, via that logic, one could ask why the last two Unisonic albums weren’t just released as Place Vendome albums, as they contain Michael Kiske and Dennis Ward, who are pretty much the only members of the band most people will really recognise and were the key members of that band up until Kai Hansen joined, so maybe there’s some inner subtleties that I’ve missed. Or maybe it was just more profitable to release it as Khymera, I don’t know…
In any case, whatever the reason The Grand Illusion got released as a Khymera album, it’s fair to say that the word “innovative” is not one that can be used to describe this album: it’s fairly typical AOR, just without any songwriting that really avoids the typical verse-chorus structure and a vocal performance that makes you wish that someone like Brad Delp had been called in instead…and, before you ask, a living Brad Delp, since it might be a bit difficult (not to mention disrespectful to his memory) to bring him into the studio now! Nothing really that exceptional, but probably good fun if you happen to like that kind of thing. As someone who doesn’t, though, it’s pretty uninteresting: the instrumentation is fine and you do get the feeling that the record was made by people who like this style of music, but it takes every cliche of the genre and follows it so religiously that I was very tempted to start a drinking game for every cliche, only to realise that my liver would probably commit suicide before I got halfway through the album if I did.
Still, I can’t help admitting that the record is at least listenable. It has some tracks which I imagine AOR fans would really like (“She’s Got The Love” and “Never Give Up On You” seem like decent cuts to me) and, while I’m not a big fan of ballads, I will concede that I couldn’t help finding “Where Is The Love” to be a good listen, although I expected a Black Eyed Peas cover when I first saw it for some reason (no, seriously, I did: that’s not me saying that as a joke!). Even the worst tracks on the record didn’t actively anger me, they just made me want to reach for the skip button because I found them pretty boring. I think my main criticism is that Dennis Ward isn’t a particularly great vocalist. Better than some, admittedly, but I can see why he usually sticks with backing vocals: his voice just doesn’t really grab your attention. He’s hardly a non-entity on the record, but there’s not a lot to it that separates him from the pack, except perhaps that his voice is deeper than the average AOR vocalist (he’s more of a baritone/low tenor than the high tenor of the average AOR vocalist).
So, ultimately, this album is so cliche that I can’t see it appealing to those who don’t eat this kind of stuff up in the first place, but, if you can stomach the cliches, then you could certainly do far worse than this. I still fail to see why this is a Khymera album, but hey, if Khymera is now Dennis Ward’s solo project, then at least it sounds like he’s having fun with it. Just don’t expect him to be on my Christmas card list…which I’m sure would mean something to most people if I actually kept one!
…Alright, in all seriousness, giving my completely honest opinion on The Grand Illusion, this is actually a pretty fun record! It’s a pretty nice shift from what you hear in Unisonic, but the songwriting is still strong enough to make it a good listen. It does have some weaker tracks which I think stop me from really giving it a firm recommendation and I feel Dennis Ward’s vocal performance is one of the weaker aspects of the album (albeit more in a “good, but nothing special” kind of way than anything else), but I found it a fun listen and it proved to be interesting to hear it, so, if you want a new AOR album, this is actually not as bad as my review has deliberately gone out to make it sound. It’s not innovative, but, when you’re dealing with genres which have been basically dead in the public eye since the 80s and when the album involves musicians who were around when that genre was around the first time, I don’t think innovation is really a high priority anyway, as they’re just playing what they like! Nothing wrong with that, especially if it is enjoyable to listen to!
The Grand Illusion will be released on the 4th of December by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.