You’d think after 16 studio albums, the menu would be getting fairly stale by now, but one of Germany’s foremost metal bands, Axel Rudi Pell (ARP), named after its virtuoso guitarist, just keeps getting better, just like fine wine. Fronted (and also backed on the drums) by an American, this band has known longevity like few others, over 25 years pounding out the soundtrack to many a metalhead’s dreams. They have found a winning formula where others have tried and tasted disappointment. While they are not well known outside of Europe, they certainly should be.
Lead singer Johnny Gioeli, who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., has the voice of a rock god and he belongs in the Pantheon of the greatest metal singers of all time, along with Ronnie James Dio and David Coverdale, whose shoes he could fill on any given night. Some will disagree but, in my humble opinion: Yes, he’s that good! Interestingly, ARP, which writes and performs its own material, also does cover songs of other artists on a scale very few other acts would feel comfortable with, for fear of attracting criticism that they are just a karaoke band. Not these guys! They are so secure in who they are and how tight a band they are that they not only released an album only of cover songs (Diamonds Unlocked, 2007) but they put out five compilation albums (Ballads I through IV and The Wizard’s Chosen Few) that contain ‘remakes’ of well-known, if not iconic, songs with a metal twist or heartfelt renditions of — always it seems — classic tunes from the early days of metal when Dio, Deep Purple, Rainbow and Black Sabbath ruled. Even today, they regularly pepper their work with covers. And this new album is no exception with a startling cover of Neil Young‘s Hey Hey My My, the eternal tribute to the great Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. ARP also often borrow a page from the likes of Alan Parsons Project, the quintessential reference in prog rock, namely that, even on these albums that are replete with covers and on records of their own material, they include, usually as an opening track, but sometimes elsewhere on the album, at least one very classic-sounding instrumental track played with rock instruments, that give these creations a lift into another sphere of appreciation. It is this mingling of the pure classic reinterpreted with the hard-driven modern that first struck me about this band. There was definitely something special. My favourite band growing up was Rainbow, with its long 5, 7, 8, 9 even 12-minute, instrumentally ingenious pieces, opuses really, that were works of musical art in the hands of the wizard, Ritchie Blackmore and that sang oft medieval-inspired tales in the angelic voices of Ronnie James Dio or Joe Lynn Turner. Axel Rudi Pell emulate this ‘formula’ with their own long tracks that frequently range a very radio-unfriendly 5 to 10 minutes. I, personally, love this. It gives all the band members freedom to roam, so to speak, it allows time for drum or guitar solos, it just feels like the complete telling of a musical tale. And Johnny Gioeli‘s voice is the glue that holds all this package together, that sells the story, that so perfectly complements the incendiary guitar of the man who lent his name to the band. Gioeli probably wishes he’d been born a decade or two earlier and had stood in the place of Dio and Turner, fronting what was one of the biggest bands in the world then. It is evident in the passion with which he delivers covers of great Rainbow classics in concert, such as Tearin’ Out My Heart and Temple Of The King that, in my opinion, stand up there on an equal footing with the originals.
But, even in ARP’s own material, Johnny Gioeli is stellar in songs such as The Masquerade Ball, a close to 11-minute masterpiece.
Behind Gioeli as frontman, there is, obviously, the genius of the man who put the whole band together, namely Axel Rudi Pell, who is not well known in the circle of guitarists but certainly holds his own with the best, whether it is a reflective, soulful track where the subtlety of his guitar-playing shines or a burn-’em-up scorcher of a song where he shreds the night air to pieces.
I have expatiated on how ARP, whether consciously or subconsciously, draws its roots from, and channels, the stylings of Rainbow and, interestingly, their latest venture, Into The Storm, (coincidentally?) features the debut of Bobby Rondinelli as drummer for the band, replacing American drummer Mike Terrana, who has gone on to work with Tarja Turunen, former lead vocalist for Nightwish. This is the Bobby Rondinelli who held down drumming duties for Rainbow from 1981 to 1983, but also of Black Sabbath (1994-95), Quiet Riot and Blue Öyster Cult fame, among many others, and who (coincidentally?) drummed for the band Doro, named after Doro Pesch, one-time lead singer of the famed German heavy metal band called Warlock. Incidentally, Bobby Rondinelli was born in Brooklyn, New York, just like Gioeli. Coincidence? Happy coincidence, if indeed. Needless to say, the drumming on this album is divine.
So, today 40% of the band is American (the bassist being Volker Krawczak and the keyboard player Ferdy Doernberg, who is half-British) as it was before when Jeff Scott Soto was the lead singer and Terrana was behind the drum kit. It seems there has been a happy marriage between German and American members in this band for close to 20 years. And perhaps that is the key to its success, each side bringing its share of experience to the table. This German-Amercian mix is not unheard of: think of the German metal band Accept which now also has an American lead singer, Mark Tornillo. Bands that over time remained an exclusive German product, even though their lyrics are often in English, have not garnered the same success. For instance, Warlock in its heyday sang both in German and in English under the able vocal guidance of frontwoman Doro Pesch but it never attained the kind of worldwide appeal that Scorpions did, for instance, with the voice of Klaus Meine, their only English-speaking member. Perhaps, Into The Storm is the breakthrough album that will generate the kind of interest and recognition across the pond in the US that is required to reach superstardom.
Into The Storm , released on January 17, 2014 in Germany. on January 20 in the UK and January 21 in the USA, begins with a short instrumental track ominously called The Inquisitorial Procedure.
The band then launches into a fast-paced piece called Tower of Lies, with its nasty guitars, great high-pitched vocals, and driving drums.
Exploding from the third spot is the next track, a very Whitesnake-esque song called Long Way To Go.
This is followed by the fierce guitar-fuelled rocker Burning Chains, where Gioeli‘s voice soars high into the stratosphere. Fantastic vocals!
The fifth track, When Truth Hurts, is a nearly 7-minute-long gorgeous piano-based power ballad punctuated by a syncopated drum beat and very melodious guitar sequences.
Changing Times, track No. 6, is a straight-up, no-compromises rocker. Again, Gioeli‘s vocals shine.
The 7th piece, Touching Heaven, starts off heavy, then slows down to a ballad before Axel lights the powderkeg and takes the song to new guitar heights, propelling Johnny’s vocals along. Incredible ride!
No. 8, called High Above, just smoulders. Molten rock at its best.
ARP‘s remake of Neil Young‘s classic Hey Hey My My that comes in at No. 9 just floored me. It starts off with a slow piano and, at first, you can’t even tell it is going to segue into the melody of the original. Gioeli‘s poignant rendition, especially on the strains he injects into the lyric: There’s more to the picture Than meets the eye, is simply magnificent. The slow cadence at the outset is so beautifully enhanced by the strings added to the piece, that convey a nearly quiet reverent quality to the song. Stunning cover! The emotion is palpable. Absolute goosebumps on this on my end.
The regular album closes out with the title track Into The Storm, a 10+-minute dramatic piece introduced by a Middle-Oriental interlude that is hijacked by a riffy guitar and vocals that trail into the winds of the maelstrom evoked by the title and concludes with the sounds of rain and clearing skies. A crowning piece to a very, very pleasant-to-listen-to CD.
The Deluxe Edition contains two bonus tracks. The first, titled White Cats, is another instrumental piece, which ARP is famous for including on its albums. Always entertaining!
In the second bonus track, Axel Rudi Pell return to their seeming collective first musical love and pay tribute to the masters, interpreting Blackmore’s Night‘s Way To Mandalay. Fabulous! 8 minutes of heaven to polish off the CD. But, then, I’m biased when it comes to any song from Rainbow or its musical offshoots. Axel Rudi Pell truly does the classic justice.
This entire album is a fantastic way to start off 2014 in my book!
If you would like to listen to the whole album in sequence, click on the link below (the tracks will play one after the other):