Album Review: Secret Sphere – “One Night in Tokyo”

I’m sure I’ve already had this discussion before, but I honestly don’t know a huge amount of Italian music in general. I’ve definitely HEARD of a few bands (Rhapsody of Fire and Hell in the Club spring to mind), but, in general, one could write “here be dragons” when it comes to music from Italy and I’d be nodding and going “Yep, that’s my knowledge too”.

Still, that’s no excuse for putting in the effort to research bands from Italy whenever they crop up and Secret Sphere are a band who I definitely should have paid more attention to before now, as they are a band who have been around since 1997 and who have an ex-member and current member who are part of Hell in the Club (a band who I have…maybe not a fondness for, but I definitely know who they are,have all of their records and have seen them live, so I definitely recognise at least one member of the band), had Daniel Flores (you know, the guy from The Murder of My Sweet?) as a member of the band from 2004 to 2005 AND their vocalist is also the current keyboardist for Whitesnake (though I’m not that familiar with Whitesnake in general, so this one is probably a bit more understandable, if still embarrassing because it means that I have to admit to having not listened to Whitesnake yet). They also have a total of seven albums (plus last year’s re-recording of their 2001 classic A Time Never Come), so the fact that I have to admit that I walked into this review completely blind to their material is both rather embarrassing and rather surprising, as they seem like something that you’d have expected me to have been familiar with for a good while now.

Ah well, that isn’t the important thing. What is, if you pardon me skipping some of my usual rambling, is this: is One Night in Tokyo a good live recording? Well, as someone who is not familiar with the original material and, as such, can’t say how they sound in comparison to the originals…I’d say the answer is “yes”. It’s still got issues which I think hurt it and make it harder to recommend to anyone who isn’t already on board with the band, but it’s a mostly solid live album in its own right and definitely has made me more eager to properly check out Secret Sphere in my own free time!

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Let me start by discussing the tracklist. The recording includes a new recording of the song “Lie to Me” (originally from their 2012 album Portrait of a Dying Heart) which turns the song into a duet with Anette Olzen (ex-Nightwish). Honestly, I don’t really see the point of including this track, since it’s just adding a new vocalist onto a track that was already released, but I will admit that I’m approaching this as someone who tends to see little point of including live tracks on a studio album and vice versa, so take my thoughts on that with a pinch of salt (especially since it’s actually not a bad recording in its own right). The actual tracklist is split into three tracks from A Time Never Come, two tracks from Heart & Anger, two tracks from Archetype and seven tracks from Portrait of a Dying Heart, which is quite a weirdly structured setlist in my eyes when you consider that, at the time of the live album’s recording, they were touring in support of their re-recording of A Time Never Come (so you’d have expected more than just three tracks from that and not to have seen so much of Portrait of a Dying Heart) and that the setlist entirely leaves out three of their records. I appreciate that it’s difficult to get a setlist that everyone is happy with, but, when you have a discography of seven records, not touching three of them at all and having around half the setlist be an album you aren’t even touring in support of is a pretty weird decision, especially considering it could have been fixed easily by simply dropping three or four tracks from Portrait of a Dying Heart and swapping them out for material from the missed albums. I don’t know, maybe there’s a valid reason why those albums didn’t get represented which I am unaware of (such as them being so godawful that the members themselves went “never again” to it, though I don’t think that’s the case here), but, if I’d gone to a gig and the band had completely ignored almost half of their discography despite not having a particularly large one, and the main album focused on wasn’t the one they were touring in support of, I’d have felt that was a major flaw in their show and been rather disappointed that they had done that, so…yeah, you can see where I’m coming from on this one.

The overall performances on this recording are top notch. Now, I’m not sure how these stand up in comparison to the original recordings, but I definitely didn’t feel like anything was done wrong on the instrumental performance front and the material is technical enough that the fact I didn’t notice anything that stood out to me as a mistake speaks as much of the band’s skill as performers as it does the complexity of their material. I don’t even want to highlight an individual performance over any other on the record, because it feels like doing so would be to do the other members a great injustice, but I would certainly say that both guitarists (Aldo Lonobile and Marco Pastorino) handle some pretty varied performances which include some dramatic changes in playing speed across the record, so they definitely deserve praise for that, because trying to do stuff like that live isn’t easy!

On top of that, we have a truly incredible vocal performance from vocalist Michele Luppi, who demonstrates a really impressive vocal range (he hits some impressive high notes on songs like “Leonardo da Vinci” and a truly amazing series of unaccompanied screams (including a ridiculously high SUSTAINED one to end things off) of them in “Lady of Silence” alongside a rougher lower tone that, while not as fitting on some of older material, definitely shows he is capable of a very varied vocal performance) and pulls off some material that is rather vocally demanding overall, but is also capable of pulling off ballads brilliantly (one only needs to hear his excellent rendition of “Eternity” for proof of that!). While I imagine some people who are more familiar with the band might find his voice doesn’t work for some of the older material as well as original frontman Roberto “Ramon” Messina’s did, I can’t say he does a bad job overall, because he really doesn’t.

The sound of this recording…it’s not really BAD, but it isn’t as well mixed as it should be (I found the keyboards in particular were fainter than they should have been overall in the mix and the drums were so audible that I don’t think I missed a single note from them during the whole show) and there is a strong focus on the sound coming from the right side of speakers and headphones, which leads me to suspect that the main sound recording wasn’t as central to the stage as it should have been. The sound also feels a bit like the instruments have bled together at points, although it isn’t a constant issue, so I can’t say it is a major problem overall. It’s a mostly clear recording, however, and it feels like it captures the live environment very well (there’s definitely no obvious signs of overdubbing that I could pick up on), so it definitely has its strong points. It’s hard to say for sure whether the sound of the live album is really strong enough to hold up very well to most people, but I certainly could see people feeling that the sound is one of the big flaws of the live album.

The interaction between the band and the audience is really great. You can tell that the band members are loving their time on stage, with some great moments when Michele Luppi talks to the audience (probably the best moments being when he takes the time to introduce the whole band after their performance of “Wish and Steadiness” and his humourous acknowledgement that he doesn’t want to be on record for messing up the lyrics on the songs at the end of “Under the Flag of Mary Read” and wants the audience to sing louder so he can’t think of that!). By the same token, the audience is very audible during the recording (with some occasions where they audibly sing along to the band’s music) and it’s pretty clear that they love the band. This is definitely a show where everyone had a truly great time and I can’t deny that, listening to the live recording, I really found myself getting into it myself. I definitely would say that, if you want to hear what I consider to be great interaction between an audience and a performer, this is what you’d want to look towards as a guide, because it does everything that I would want to see!

Overall, while I can’t say One Night in Tokyo is a flawless live album and I do have my criticisms of it, it’s still an enjoyable release overall and there’s a lot more about it which works than which doesn’t. It’s not really something aimed at those who aren’t all that familiar with the band to start with, but it’s definitely a package that I can see fans of Secret Sphere enjoying. So, if you’re already on board with the band, this is definitely worth a look into. If not, pick up Portrait of a Dying Heart first and, if you like it, get this as your follow up!

Scaling Up 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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