It seems odd to think of Blaze Bayley as a solo artist, but he's effectively been that since the previous millennium. I still think of him as the vocalist of Wolfsbane and Bruce Dickinson's replacement in Iron Maiden. The latter stint only lasted for five years and it ended over two decades ago, while I think of the former as a nineties thing, even though technically Wolfsbane reformed in 2007 with Bayley back on lead vocals. This is a solo album, though it's really Bayley effectively fronting Absolva, a band from Manchester who have five albums out with their own name on, plus another three under Bayley's, the Infinite Entanglement trilogy.
This is the first original album other than that trilogy that Bayley's put out as a solo artist in almost a decade, the previous album before them being 2012's The King of Metal. I haven't heard any of these solo albums, so I was interested to see what he sounds like nowadays. What I found is that he doesn't particularly sound like Wolfsbane at all but there's definitely some Iron Maiden here, not only in the musical approach of some songs but the lyrical approach too, most obviously when looking at the war (303 is about the 303 Squadron of the RAF, which was a Polish unit), but also in a look at the history of science, with songs about Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla and Stephen Hawking.
However, Maiden weren't the obvious influence for me, even if the title track comes out of the gates like a Maiden blitzkrieg. As the album ran on, I found that the Maiden influence could really be seen as a Wishbone Ash influence, they being the true source of the famous twin guitar Maiden sound. It's here in a lot of intros, but when it continues into songs, the sound more like Wishbone Ash than their most famous devotees. Warrior is a completely new song, not a cover of the one on Argus, but it still has a Wishbone Ash mindset to it.
The other obvious influence I heard is Saxon, which surprised me, but it's very clear in songs like Pull Yourself Up and 18 Flights, while The Unstoppable Stephen Hawking moves well from Wishbone Ash to Saxon as it runs on. Bayley's voice is more reminiscent of Biff Byford than Bruce Dickinson; he sounds more working class than the Air Raid Siren and his tone and intonation hint at the Saxon frontman. And hey, it's hard to not see 18 Flights as a sort of spiritual sequel to And the Bands Play On, detailing not a festival set but an entire South America tour, including a gig in Chile that was stopped because of an earthquake and a likely tsunami. It's dedicated to the people of Coquimbo.
I like this sound and not only as a form of alternate history, as if it had been Saxon rather than Maiden who had brought that Wishbone Ash twin guitar sound to the NWOBHM era. I was a little wary that a Blaze Bayley album might seem derivative of his former bands, as Paul Di'Anno's albums often tend to be, but I didn't get that feeling at all. He's doing his own thing, whether it be blistering metal in War within Me; hard and heavy chronicles like 18 Flights or a ballad like Every Storm Ends that rocks itself up in the middle. There's some prog in here too, perhaps most notably in Pull Yourself Up.
I do need to find a lyric sheet because, while Bayley is up front and clear in some songs, like 18 Flights, he's a little lower in the mix than I expected him to be on some others, especially when guitarist Chris Appleton is in full flight, like on the title track. That was a real surprise to me as, while War within Me is a fast and furious number, the band seems to be more energetic than its singer. That's not the case across the album and it's not due to any lacklustre performance by Bayley—it's just how the song was written—but that seems odd on something that presents itself as a solo album.
Now, I already knew coming in that Blaze Bayley was a talented singer. This doesn't dissuade me of a notion like that and he still sounds good but, had I known nothing about him, I might well have left in search more of Absolva than what he might have done elsewhere. They impressed me here and I have to wonder what they sound like without Bayley and with Appleton stepping up to the mike instead.