OK, I’m going to be honest: this is a band which I really should have recognised the moment I saw their name. Longer term site readers might be wondering why this is, as I’ve never mentioned them before now, but the reason is honestly fairly simple: back when I covered Blood Red Saints’ debut, Speedway, in December last year, VEGA popped up in my research into them, since Vega’s keyboardist, James Martin, was someone who pushed for Blood Red Saints to be signed and co-wrote (alongside his twin brother, bassist Tom Martin) material for that record.
Which, in a funny coincidence, is entirely the reason why I opted to cover this over another record coming out when this does, as they contributed songwriting towards that record as well. However, we’ll get to that record when we do: for now, let’s focus on VEGA!
So, for the curious, VEGA are an AOR rock band from the UK (specifically, the members are from Stratford-Upon-Avon and York) who are probably most noteworthy among AOR fans for the Martin brothers being prolific songwriters who have written material for a bunch of artists, including some names which should be familiar to longtime readers like Khymera, Sunstorm, Find Me and Blood Red Saints (alongside their own band, obviously!). The rest of the band members are vocalist Nick Workman (who co-writes the band’s material alongside the Martin brothers), drummer Dan Chantrey and guitarist Marcus Thurston. The band have been around since 2009 and have released three previous albums in that time: December 2010’s Kiss of Life, March 2013’s What the Hell and October 2014’s Stereo Messiah.
Who We Are is their fourth release overall and, coming into it as a newcomer to the band, I can definitely say that I got a pleasant surprise from this record. It’s not breaking any boundaries, but what it does do, it does very well!
Before I start properly, I want to comment on the cover of the record. I know I don’t normally do this, but I do want to go on record for saying that I REALLY don’t like this cover art. I get what the idea behind it is (it’s showing the band off to everyone), but I’m really not fond of the art style of it and the fact that there’s nothing else on the cover aside from the band members just results in cover art that feels kind of lazy to me. There probably was a lot of hard work that went into drawing the band members (it’s a stylized way of drawing them that actually looks faintly familiar to me for a reason that I can’t quite place: it reminds me of one of those old UK satire comics, for some reason!), but the final result just doesn’t work for me. Add the fact that a cover art which is just the band members bring to mind boy bands over AOR (which I know isn’t an automatic sign of a problem, but I really shouldn’t be looking at album artwork for a rock band and thinking “This looks like something The Backstreet Boys would have done”, as it usually indicates that most rock fans will think the same and pass it up simply because the cover art brings to mind a style of music that most rock fans have little regard for!) and, well…it just doesn’t sit well with me. No disrespect intended to whoever did the artwork, as I’m sure they worked hard on it, and I certainly don’t want to sound like I hate this record just because of the artwork (as the rest of my review should prove, I actually like this record!), but it just doesn’t work for me.
Anyway, let’s get the obvious comment out of the way now: no, this record does not do anything unique. All of the cliches of AOR are present here and, while I’d say that you can’t pin down an artist who the band sound like they’re writing material that sounds too heavily like, it’s definitely not offering anything that you haven’t heard before if you’re familiar with this genre of music, so anyone approaching this record with an expectation of hearing anything different is going in with the wrong expectations. Normally, I’d say this is a point against the record (in that it’s only really going to appeal to people who like this style of music to start with), but, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with doing this. While the critic in me does feel that the sign of an exceptional record is that it offers something new, the realist in me appreciates that creating a completely unique sound (like Volbeat or Issues) is actually pretty difficult, so, while I could tear this record apart for not offering anything new on the sound front, it’s honestly not a deal breaker if the songwriting underneath it is good.
Thankfully, VEGA does very well on the songwriting front. Now, admittedly, I am a fan of this style of music, so I’m naturally going to be more keen on this than some people might be, but I honestly found the songwriting to be pretty strong overall, despite not really doing anything that is breaking from what you’d expect from this style of music. I do have a few minor criticisms, I’ll admit (probably the big one is that I don’t think the brief use of strings in the opening of ‘Nothing is Forever’ really do anything except clash with what the song is going for and could have easily been removed from the song without anything being lost and part of the otherwise excellent ‘White Flag’ has a point which is so close to blatantly ripping of Kansas’ ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ (right down to the lyrics!) that I’m still not sure whether I should get annoyed at it or not!), but, for the most part, the songs do what you would expect from a AOR album (catchy throughout, strong vocals, performances that support the music without necessarily being complicated when viewed in isolation) and do it very well. At the risk of upsetting James Martin (and everyone in the Blood Red Saints camp), I really wish that Speedway had been more like this record on a quality level, because this feels like what that record was aiming to be and failed at (although I do want to stress that I don’t hate Speedway, just feel that Who We Are is a much better version of what that was trying to be!). One of my biggest surprises is that, surprisingly, I didn’t feel the record fell apart towards the end: it was strong throughout. I genuinely feel that fans of the genre could pick a song from this record at random and get a song that they’ll enjoy, which, coming from someone who usually makes it his mission to highlight every flaw he finds with a record, is quite high praise indeed!
The instrumental performances on the record, as I implied earlier, aren’t going to win awards for technicality from those familiar with progressive music, but they do their job well enough for what the band’s music demands them to do. There’s not really a lot I need to say on this front, as dismissive as that might sound on paper: nobody does anything new, but they do a good job and they clearly are competent musicians.
Workman’s vocals are actually fairly good, though he doesn’t have a voice that is going to blow away anyone with a huge familiarity with this style of music. Surprisingly, his main voice on the record reminds me more than a bit of Michael Sweet’s voice today (you know, the guy from Stryper), just with a more pop focused edge to his voice and no insane falsetto screams. His lower range does break from that resemblance, though, reminding me (bizarrely) a bit of D. C. Cooper today. I don’t think his voice is distinct enough to convince people who aren’t already fans of this style of music, but those who are should find Workman’s voice great to listen to!
The production on the record…well, longtime readers will already know what I’m going to say, but, for the benefit of newer readers, I think the mastering could have done with a bit more restraint (it’s not incredibly overdone, but I think it could have been better) and I feel that the bass guitar isn’t really given an opportunity to be heard over the rest of the instruments. Still, ignoring those regular complaints, I think the rest of the production is decent enough. The mixing (bass complaint aside) is pretty great overall, the instruments have clearly been recorded by someone who knew what they were doing and the sound of the record, while maybe a bit too polished for what some people might like, is pretty consistent with what I’d expect to hear in this style of music. I’ve read that Harry Hess (frontman of Harem Scarem…which reminds me, I still need to catch up with Harem Scarem’s music when I get some free time!) produced and mixed this album and he definitely does a good job overall!
Overall, Who We Are is a pretty good record! It’s not bringing anything new to the table on the sound side of things, but the quality of the material is undeniable and the legitimate complaints I have with it are few. I don’t like deliberately make comments which are liable to be used to hype a record up, but this is one record that I’m sure AOR fans will really enjoy and I really am looking forward to digging through the rest of their discography in my free time, because, if I can expect quality like this, then VEGA might well end up being one of my favourite modern UK AOR bands!
…That sounded like much better praise in my head than it does on paper, doesn’t it?
Who We Are will be released on the 13th of May by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.