Album Review: Hardline – “Human Nature”

Johnny Gioeli has certainly had a rather busy 2016. First of all, Axel Rudi Pell’s The King of Fools came out at the start of the year, then he appeared on the 25th anniversary livestream for Sonic the Hedgehog (although this probably isn’t one of the moments that will define the year for him, I suspect), then he has Hardline’s fifth album coming out AND he has a solo album due out in early November. Say what you will about the guy, but it’s hard not to respect his work ethic!

However, that’s not the important thing here. What IS has to be Hardline, which was actually the band that he started out his career with. WAY back in 1991, the band formed with a lineup that included Johnny Gioeli, his brother guitarist Joey Gioeli (who hasn’t been in the band since 2003), bassist Todd Jensen, drummer Deen Castronovo and guitarist Neal Schon (yes, the guy best known for being part of Journey and an early member of Santana), which was the lineup that recorded the band’s debut album, Double Eclipse. Unfortunately, the band broke up in 1992 and, for most bands like Hardline, this would have probably been the end of the story. However, Johnny Gioeli got a lucky break in that he not only become part of Axel Rudi Pell’s band in 1998, but he also became part of Crush 40, who should be familiar to people who are fans of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Hardline themselves did not return until 1999 and, despite a lineup that has constantly changed over the years, have managed to release three other albums: 2002’s II, 2009’s Leaving the End Open and 2012’s Danger Zone (cue the Kenny Loggins references in 3…).

I don’t intend this paragraph to indicate that the rest of the current members of Hardline are not important, obviously, for some of them should actually be familiar to long time readers: drummer Francesco Jovino was previously known as the drummer for U.D.O. and is nowadays known for being part of Sinner and Primal Fear, keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio last came to our attention when he contributed towards Jorn Lande’s covers album Heavy Rock Radio (which was released back in June), bassist Anna Portalupi last came to our attention back when she provided bass on Ted Poley’s last solo album, May’s Beyond the Fade and guitarist Josh Ramos…OK, I actually can’t say much about his career which people will recognise him for, as much of his career has been pretty underground and he hasn’t appeared on any previous albums that I’ve covered before now. However, he is actually the closest that Hardline has to a long lasting member aside from Johnny Gioeli, as he joined the band after their reunion, played on their second and third records before departing in 2009 and rejoined in 2012 (although he did not play on Hardline’s fourth album).

So, how does Human Nature actually stand up? Well… being honest, I’m not sold on it. It’s not an awful album, but I can’t say that I was particularly impressed by it either, which is a shame, because I REALLY wanted to like this record when I went into it, because I love Gioeli’s voice!

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The album’s sound is described in the promo as a fusion of the original Hardline melodic rock sound with modern rock dynamics and I can certainly see the point being made: there is a focus on being very in-your-face, which means that there isn’t really a lot of subtlety here and everything tries to command your attention, but there’s still a lot of space for melody in the sound which is reflected in the vocals and the guitarwork. It also means that there is a bit more simplicity to the band’s sound (not to the extent of entering punk territory, but there is still less complex than perhaps might be expected in the songwriting), which It’s actually not a bad idea in its own right, if I’m honest, and, with strong songwriting, I could see it going over very well.

However, that isn’t the case here, as the material on the record honestly feels far weaker than I was expecting it to be and it boils down to two issues: marketing on the heaviness of the record creating the wrong expectations and surprisingly unimpressive songwriting. For a record claiming to be the heaviest record that the band have produced since their debut album, it doesn’t actually FEEL that heavy overall. I appreciate that melodic rock isn’t the heaviest of music genres to start with and it would have probably been unreasonable to have expected something like modern day Stryper from those words…but, considering Gioeli’s time performing with Axel Rudi Pell, you’d have expected a statement like that to mean that Hardline had at least taken a few cues from Pell’s sound and dialled up the heaviness to at least that level on a couple of songs, which isn’t the case at all.

Normally, I’d be able to ignore the expectations issue and enjoy the music in and of itself…but the problem is that the music itself doesn’t really hold up either. The overwhelming thought I had through this record is “where are the hooks?” and that really is the problem: for a record in a genre of music that relies on being catchy, it just doesn’t do that very well. While some songs certainly have their moments (“Running on Empty” and “In the Dead of the Night” have decent choruses and “Take You Home” is actually not a bad power ballad, being just Vecchio’s keyboards and Gioeli’s vocals), there’s nothing that really grabs the interest enough to hold it for any particular amount of time or sticks in your head long enough for it to last to the end of the record. Being brutally honest, if this was the first thing I’d heard by any band without a previous reputation to their name and I wasn’t having to review it, I would have turned it off before I’d even got halfway through it out of boredom and assumed that the band would have had no future, which is probably why I’m so disappointed that it has come from a band with a vocalist who I really respect and with musicians who I know are capable of better than this.

Still, the performance aspect holds up well. While none of the musicians are virtuosos on their chosen instruments and the music doesn’t really give anyone a chance to really show off their skills, they certainly know how to play them well enough to be commended for a solid job. Ramos definitely is a capable guitarist, with some great guitar work across the album (although I personally get the feeling that he feels more at home on the lead guitar than the rhythm guitar, as he seems to do much more interesting stuff when he is playing the lead guitar parts on the record than the rhythm guitar). Anna Portalupi mostly follows the guitars on the music, but there are occasions when she steps out of this way of playing which shows that she is a better player than the material gives her an opportunity to show. Jovino’s drum playing, while not as immediately impressive as his drumming on Primal Fear’s last release, is still pretty solid overall and shows that he can drum very well without having to play quickly. Vecchio doesn’t really have a lot of moments to shine, but he gets the job done well enough to avoid really disappointing much.

Gioeli’s voice…well, I’ve made it pretty clear that I love this guy’s voice and I can’t say that he disappoints on this front! While he doesn’t really push his voice to do some of the yelled stuff that will make people who played Sonic Heroes recognise him from the main theme from the game (although he can still do it to an extent: Axel Rudi Pell’s last album proves it!), he still sings in an instantly recognisable voice that is equal parts glam vocalist and hard rock vocalist and with a lot of power. Not really a lot to add, if I’m honest: he’s just a great vocalist and he does a very good job on here.

The production is pretty much your usual modern day production job, but, aside from the usual mastering issue (which feels like it is pushing towards the point where I would have to complain about it), there’s not a huge amount to object towards. The mix is fine, with the instruments mostly being well placed in the mix (the keyboards might be a bit on the quiet side, as I struggled to hear them when they weren’t the main focus of the music, but they don’t really contribute a huge amount to the record most of the time, so I’m not too bothered by this) and the record sounds fine to me. This is certainly a professional job by a team who knows what they are doing on this front, so I can’t really say much is wrong here.

Overall, Human Nature just feels like a letdown for me. It isn’t an awful record by any measure, but the songwriting just doesn’t hold up that well in my honest opinion and it unfortunately drags the record down pretty badly because of the overwhelming lack of anything particularly interesting for the vast majority of the run time. I really wish that I could say that it was strong enough to recommend, but I honestly would feel pretty let down if I did purchase this record, even as a blind purchase, so I’m going to have to say that this is probably best to get only if you’re a huge Hardline fan. Everyone else, you’d probably be best off skipping this one. It’s not awful, but it’s not strong enough to really be worth picking up for anyone who isn’t already a die hard fan of the band.

Human Nature will be released on the 14th of October by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.

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