OK, so this band is probably one that fans of melodic hard rock are going to be loving the sound of just from the names connected to it. If you’re familiar with the bands Mad Max, Jaded Heart, Frontline, Bonfire and Scorpions, then you’ve already got a lineup that might well be a match made in heaven, as the members are guitarist Michael Voss (Mad Max and Casanova, as well as apparently having a stint in Bonfire, though I’ve had difficulty confirming this one from my own research), drummer Axel Kruse (Jaded Heart), guitarist Robby Boebel (Frontline), vocalist Claus Lessmann (Bonfire) and bassist Francis Buchholz (Scorpions, as well as doing stuff with fellow ex-Scorpions members Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker).
Sadly, it’s around here that I have to admit that I’m actually not all that familiar with those bands. I do have Crazy World and Return to Forever by Scorpions and Jaded Heart’s recently released record Guilty by Design, but they’re definitely not records I’ve listened to a lot and I’ve not heard anything by Bonfire, Frontline, Mad Max or Casanova. And, considering this is a fairly new band in and of itself, there’s not really a lot to discuss about them, unless you count the fact that they were originally going to be called Supremacy and had to change their name and the slightly geeky observation that the cover art for this record looks a bit like The Shadow as a white lantern.
…I know, completely pointless observation and it would never happen because they’re completely different comic universes, but hey, I can’t be the only person who thinks that, can I?
Anyway, let’s stop rambling and jump into the review. Considering the level of talent involved in this record, I probably won’t surprise anyone by saying that Phantom 5 isn’t a bad record…but I can’t help feeling disappointed that it’s not better.
Let me get the obvious comment out of the way: this is not going to change your mind on melodic hard rock if you’re not a fan of the subgenre of music. The band’s sound is very much based on the cliches that one would expect of this subgenre of music (this is definitely something that feels like it could have been released in the 80s without too much difficulty), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you like this kind of thing (which I do), but it does mean that people wanting something new or perhaps wanting to be proven wrong on the genre is unlikely to find that here. So yeah, you probably know the drill here: on the sound level, this is very much aimed towards the melodic hard rock audience, so non-fans need not apply…although, frankly, considering the members involved on this record, expecting this to be something aimed at people who aren’t melodic hard rock fans is probably an unreasonable expectation.
The songwriting on the record is very much based on rockers, without anything that really fits into the power ballad section of things. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised by the lack of a power ballad on this record, as it’s practically an unofficial rule for bands to have one on a melodic rock record and the absence of one here takes me back more than I thought it would do. It’s possible that the band wanted to focus on the rockers because they felt that that’s what they do well and, if so…then they were right to do so, because all of the songs, while doing nothing new on the songwriting structure side of things, are good fun to listen to, with excellent choruses and some decent lyrics (although I do think ‘They Won’t Come Back’ might induce eye rolling from some people due to the core of the verses mentioned deceased rockers and linking them to songs they did). True, the lack of a ballad does make the record a bit less varied than it probably should be, but I can’t fault the band for that too much, since the rest of the songwriting holds up surprisingly well. Oddly enough, my favourite song on the record is actually ‘Blue Dog’, which is odd because, on paper, it’s not a particularly impressive song, with the lyrics basically being the protagonist finding a pub and leaving it after too many shots with a woman (the song doesn’t say what happens afterwards, but I get the feeling that most people don’t need more than that to fill in the blanks!) and not especially unique sounding music. However, the end result, coupled with a surprisingly good singalong chorus, just tips it over into being a fun listen, which I think really sums up the record as a whole.
Incidentally, that’s also why I’m disappointed that this record isn’t better: while all of the songs are fun, I can’t say any of them are going to be new classics of the genre. Now, in fairness, one could make a case that, considering the peak of the genre in terms of popularity was about two and a half decades ago and most of the people who were fans of the music when it was first popular are now in their forties (save perhaps a few people who were pre-teens when the style died out in the popular eye), nobody is really expecting a new classic from the genre by this point, but, as a critic, I do have to try to judge whether I can see a record being one which has a long shelf life and I can’t say I see this being the case with this record. Part of this, admittedly, is the constraints of the genre itself (melodic hard rock isn’t exactly a genre where deep songwriting is encouraged to the same extent that, say, progressive metal is), but it’s still hard for me to picture this album being one that people will be holding up as a shining example of the genre in the 21st century for the songwriting like Crashdiet’s Rest in Sleaze is: it’s just not strong enough on that front to really be worthy of that level of praise.
Anyway, the instrumental performances on the record are all fairly much your typical melodic hard rock level overall, but with the obvious professionalism behind them of people who know what works for them and how to play to their strengths. That’s not a bad thing, obviously (heck, playing to your strengths and doing it well is a good lesson for musicians in general: if you’re trying to do something you’re not confident at, it tends to show!), but it means that none of the performances are going to strike anyone as especially unusual for the style of music the band are playing. That said, nobody does a bad job either, so the question of whether you’ll enjoy the band’s performances or not really depends on whether you are someone who wants to hear something new. I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I appreciate that this could be a problem for some people.
Lessmann’s vocals are basically your typical melodic hard rock vocals on paper, as he has a tenor range to his voice. However, he breaks from the typical style a bit in that he has a slightly rougher edge to his voice which stops him from sounding too much like any typical vocalist. This might not be much to most people, but I really like it, as it helps him sound more distinctive. His vocal range isn’t all that impressive, but he has been singing professionally for over thirty years, so some of that could be fairly put down to age. Overall, I honestly like Lessmann’s voice, to the extent that I’m making a note to have a Bonfire marathon when I get some free time.
The production on the record is pretty much the same as usual, typical complaints and all. The bass guitar is not very easy to hear, which feels like a disappointment considering who is playing it, and I feel that the record is a bit louder on the mastering front than I’d personally like (although I’d not say it’s too bad overall), but the instruments sound great and the mixing (beyond the bass) is pretty good overall. I don’t know who was involved in the production side of this record, but they definitely knew what they were doing, so credit is due there.
Ultimately, Phantom 5 is definitely a professional sounding product and one which fans of melodic hard rock should enjoy, but it’s not really on the level of the classics of the genre and I certainly doubt that this is going to live up to expectations regarding the level of talent involved in the band. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad album, but it still falls victim to the problem most supergroups do of simply failing to live up to the expectations that most would have of it. If you can approach it without buying into the hype and taking it for what it’s worth, then you should find this an enjoyable record. If not, then you’ll probably find this fails to live up to expectations, but should still have some fun with it.
Phantom 5 will be released on the 13th of May by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.