Album Review: The Graham Bonnet Band – “The Book”

You know, for all the flack Graham Bonnet gets for his time in Rainbow, I never felt that he was a bad vocalist. Sure, he was having to replace Ronnie James Dio and the band moved in a far more melodic direction with him on vocals, but neither of those were really his fault, when you think about it: he didn’t ask to be compared to Dio as a vocalist (and, even if he had, one mustn’t forget that Dio was a legendary vocalist even back then, so a comparison would be rather unfair, as it would be like comparing Gene Adams to Matt Barlow) and he had no real input in the songwriting beyond his vocal melodies on the only album he did with the band, 1979’s Down to Earth. Add to the fact that his other recognisable projects outside of Rainbow (in terms of instantly recognisable names) are him singing on Assault Attack by The Michael Schenker Group, founding Alcatrazz (a band who are still surprisingly popular in Japan, from what I’ve heard) and performing on two of Impellitteri’s records and it’s easy to forget that the guy has had a very prolific career which has lasted almost half a century (yeah, seriously: the guy’s first band was The Marbles, which formed in 1968!). Sadly, it seems that the average person would only know him for “Since You’ve Been Gone” (if they know him at all), which, while a pretty great song, isn’t really the best showcase of the guy’s talent (mind you, I hadn’t heard anything by Bonnet which isn’t that song before this record reached my attention, so I’m hardly the best voice on what his best performances are!).

This is where I start turning towards The Graham Bonnet Band, which he founded last year. Basically serving as much as an opportunity for Bonnet to showcase material from his whole career as it is an opportunity for him to prove himself to those who maybe aren’t aware of his whole career beyond the obvious pick (I would say “picks”, but, let’s be honest, that implies anyone who isn’t already familiar with Graham Bonnet’s career would recognise his name from anywhere except for that song, which I don’t think is the case). Most bands like this usually don’t end up doing new material (probably because it means that you have to take out some of the classics people will want to see you for in exchange for material that might end up not working at all), but it seems Bonnet decided that it was worth doing, because the band now have their debut album (which also includes a disc of re-recorded versions of songs from his whole career).

Was this a decision that actually pays off? Well…yes and no. The original material on The Book is pretty great and I would definitely say that it is a solid record on that front…but the re-recorded material doesn’t really pay off that well and the material simply doesn’t seem strong enough to replace any of the material that the band were playing live already.

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The band’s sound on their original material is very much hard rock focused, specifically in the 70s vein of things. However, one can certainly hear some heavier elements in the sound when listening carefully which gives away some newer influences, such as some more poppy influenced material that points towards some glam aesthetics to the band’s sound. It’s definitely a sound that feels like it’s what you’d expect from a project with Graham Bonnet on vocals and I can’t deny that it is a decent sound that, while a bit more modern than might be expected, still has some good entertainment value to it.

The overwhelming opinion I have of the original material is that there is material here that fits nicely into what Bonnet has done in the past, but you won’t see anyone calling out for it over, for example, “Since You’ve Been Gone”. This isn’t to say that the material is bad, though: in fact, I really enjoy some of the tracks here (I would certainly say that “Dead Man Walking” is a great track that deserves a lot of praise), all of the songs are solidly written and it’s actually a bit of a shame that I’m having to say that none of the material is strong enough to justify fitting alongside the rest of the material the band will be touring with, because it is perfectly enjoyable in its own right. Unfortunately, the material on here will have to be compared with some of the greatest hits in rock history when the band goes on tour and it just doesn’t reach those heights well enough for me to see switching out any of those hits for something on here. I will stress this again because I want this point to be made as unambiguously as possible: this isn’t a bad record in its own right (by all rights, it’s a really solid record that I’d normally be triumphing from the heavens), it just won’t stand up against the biggest hits Bonnet has his name attached to.

On the second disc on the record, Bonnet gives us a pretty good overview of his entire career, with four tracks from Rainbow’s Down to Earth, two tracks from his solo record Line-Up, three tracks from The Michael Schenker Group’s Attack Attack, two from Alcatrazz’s No Parole from Rock ‘n’ Roll, two from Alcatrazz’s Disturbing the Peace, one from Alcatrazz’s Dangerous Games, one from Impellitteri’s Stand in Line and a track from his solo album Here Comes the Night. While this does leave a few gaps in his career, as it doesn’t include anything from his time in The Marbles, Forcefield, Blackthorne, Anthem or Taz Taylor Band and one could make a valid case that the record could have cut a track or two from his records with Rainbow and The Michael Schenker Group in favour of some more obscure cuts from the groups that aren’t represented to serve as a better overview of his whole career, it still includes more than enough material to count as an overview of the greatest moments across his career and the tracklist is ordered in chronological order, making it a good way to see how he career has developed over the years for those who haven’t really kept up with it. If nothing else, it’s made me really eager to hunt down some more of his material from his career because I’m curious to see what he did that didn’t make it onto this album!

I think I should start by getting the obvious comment out of the way now: while Bonnet does fine on the original material, the re-recorded material just makes you realise how much his voice has deteriorated over the years (which tends to happen whenever bands re-record material after several years), with easily the most painful track in this regard being “Since You’ve Been Gone”. I get that Bonnet is at least two and a half decades older than he was when he sung the most recent song on this disc, let alone the Rainbow material, but the sad truth is that some of the material is just too high for his current voice to comfortably sing. To his credit, he still doesn’t sound that bad overall, still showcasing a very powerful voice with a very good vocal range, but I can’t help thinking that age has caught up with him, giving him a vocal tone that definitely SOUNDS like it is coming from someone who is on the older side of things and that it might have been sensible for the band to adjust the pitching of the re-recordings to better suit his current voice (or, if they couldn’t do that, just have him sing an octave lower than on the original recording).

The rest of the band, however, does a pretty solid job overall. This is probably to be expected when it comes to the drums, considering that Mark Zonder (who is probably best known for his time playing in the progressive metal band Fates Warning from 1988 to 2005, with a brief reunion in 2010 to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the band’s record Parallels, to most people) is the one manning the kit and Jimmy Waldo (Bonnet’s bandmate in Alcatrazz) is the one on the keyboards on the original material (the keyboardist on the re-recorded material, Angelo Vafeiadis, is probably best known for playing on Warlord’s record from last year, which isn’t exactly saying a lot). Less predictable, however, were bassist Beth-Ami Heavenstone (probably best known for having been part of the band Hardly Dangerous for 25 years…which I imagine the vast majority of people reading this have never heard of) and guitarist Conrado Pesinato (who was in Hardly Dangerous as well), who both produce some pretty solid performances overall despite basically having come up from nowhere in the eyes of most people. They’re not really going to be winning awards for technical skill, but they definitely are solid performers who can do this style of music justice and they’re having to play material that was first laid down by some pretty impressive talent (especially from Pesinato: you don’t find yourself covering songs that had Yngwie Malmsteen and Ritchie Blackmore as their original guitarists if you don’t know how to play the guitar at all!), so there’s nothing really worth complaining about.

I kind of hinted at this earlier, but the production on this record has problems. Now, most of the problems are the issues that I keep going on about whenever I do these reviews, which is that that mastering is a bit louder than is reasonable (though not to extremes) and the bass is a bit undermixed for what I’d prefer to hear, neither of which are necessarily BAD, just not to my personal taste. The vast majority of the instruments have been mixed fine and the record sounds great, for the most part…but the main problem that is the real fatal flaw of the production is the recording of the vocals. There is a VERY noticeable echo to the vocals that leaves me with the suspicion that Bonnet’s vocals weren’t recorded properly, but there’s also some clear indications of post-production work to make them sound better, which leads to the rather bizarre combination of the vocals feeling like they’ve been recorded a good distance away from the microphone while also having a very polished sheen that doesn’t make any sense being there. It’s possible that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here, but I just find it very distracting and it has a major impact upon my enjoyment of the record. Frankly, I’m stunned that anyone on any label that was working outside of extreme metal cleared this recording for release with a vocal production like this, because something like this feels more like something that you’d only be able to get away with on an amateur level (or probably an extreme metal recording, where something like this might actually help to make the vocals sound more unsettling if done right!). I will be fair and say that this is the only major complaint I have with the record which I think should have been sorted, but it’s an inescapable one and it is something that should simply not be on a record of this genre or level, so I’m being tough because it’s a pretty damning flaw that simply shouldn’t be there.

Ultimately, The Book is a solid album of original material and a weak album of re-recordings, both of which are unfortunately hampered by a production job that has problems that are hard to ignore. It’s definitely not the worst album I’ve heard this year, because I didn’t regard it as a chore to listen to this record at all and none of the actual material left me feeling like the record was wasting my time by loudly doing nothing of interest, but it’s probably the most frustrating record that I’ve heard this year, because there IS a great record of original material here that has unfortunately lost the potential it could have had because the rest of the package drags it down too much to really appeal to non-fans. As much as I hate to say it, because I do like the original material and think that it deserves to be heard, I honestly think that the whole package is something that only Graham Bonnet’s die-hard fans will be able to enjoy as a whole, as, while the original material is very solid and worthy of listening to if you’re just after a great old school hard rock record, the rest of the package it comes with simply doesn’t hold up well enough to be worth the purchase to anyone who isn’t already a huge fan of Bonnet’s work.

The Book will be released on the 4th of November by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.