A lot of bands get lumped into the category of hard and heavy, but few fit it as well as Mad Max. This is often clearly hard rock, a song like Eyes of Love playing like a mix of Europe and the Scorpions with a guest vocal from John Parr. There's a Rough Cutt cover here, Take Her, which says plenty. However, it is just as often clearly heavy metal, the opener, Hurricaned, seeming like Tokyo Blade covering Accept, even if those vocals are still softer than the song calls for. Hard and heavy it is. Talk to the Moon kicks in hard and fast like the opener of an early Dio album, though Ladies and Gentlemen starts out rather like Don't Talk to Strangers.
That voice belongs to Michael Voss, who's been the lead singer of Mad Max since 1983 and through a trio of eras: the early one that ran to 1989 with four albums, including Stormchild, to which this must be a spiritual sequel; the brief second one that only lasted long enough in 1999 to put out album five; and the prolific current one, which has seen nine albums now since the band's reunion in 2005.
Voss is also Mad Max's lead guitarist and has been since 1985, so it's easy to see him as the core of the band, though that's not strictly true. The only founder member is rhythm guitarist Jürgen Breforth, as Mad Max were around for a couple of years and put out a debut before Voss joined. Drummer Axel Kruse hasn't stayed the course throughout the band's history, but his time with the band goes back to 1984. That just leaves one overt new fish, Thomas Bauer, who joined on bass in 2015.
I haven't heard Mad Max in forever, perhaps since they covered the Sweet on Night of Passion late in the eighties, so I'd kind of forgotten what they sounded like. I like this, as old school as it is, with its mixture of melodic rock and power metal. There's real energy here, driving songs like Hurricaned and Rain Rain, but everything's melody, just as it used to be back in the days of Saxon and Dio and Ozzy as a great solo artist. Voss's soft voice emphasises that more than most singers would. If Ronnie James was still around and singing for them, Mad Max would be a few notches heavier.
But I really dig this. In a world where it sometimes seems that bands aren't allowed to call themselves heavy unless they feature harsh vocals or downtuned guitars, this is unashamedly hard and heavy and it took me back to the eighties in a very different way to the bands with deliberately retro sounds. It isn't just the excellent clear production that makes this feel as new as it is, it has almost a subversive approach that's timely.
Maybe I'm projecting, but in our increasingly polarised world, this deliberately aims to be all things for all people: hard riffs but sing-along melodies, fast pace but commercial tones. It's possible to be a heavy band without adopting harsh vocals, just as it's possible to be radio friendly without wimping out. This is both, with a song like Gemini perhaps the epitome of that. Maybe this really is the album we need right now. I certainly felt better for listening to it and part of something bigger.
It's a reasonably long album, the single edit of Ladies and Gentlemen nestling it past the fifty minute mark, and perhaps it's a little too long. There are no poor songs here, but a couple could maybe have shifted into being single B-sides without the album missing them. It's not that they're unworthy, just that they do the job other songs have already done, especially in the second half of the album. I have my eyes mostly on the Rough Cutt cover with its nod to Hall of the Mountain King, but even a couple of later highlights, like the bombastic Kingdom Fall and the slide-driven The Blues Ain't No Stranger, start to merge a little.
I clearly have some catching up to do. When Mad Max got back together in 2005, they raced out of the gate with six albums in eight years. They've slowed down a little since then, but they're still putting out a new one every couple of years and, based on this one, the quality clearly isn't suffering.