Friday 10 February 2023

Issa - Lights of Japan (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
Sites: Facebook

When I reviewed Issa's sixth album, Queen of Broken Hearts, a couple of years ago, I pointed out a few things that I wanted to test against her next release. The most pertinent one was that, while I thoroughly enjoyed that album, I felt there was a better one in her, not least because there was a single track that stood head and shoulders over everything else. If she could harness that level on a consistent basis across an entire album, she would be unstoppable. Well, this doesn't turn out to be that better album, but it's another good one. It doesn't live up to the potential but it does live up to its predecessor.

One other note was that that Queen of Broken Hearts felt like a cold fruit salad on a hot day. The sound here is pretty close to the sound there, but it's moved just a little, the shift in cover art an appropriate hint, I think. That album was a little more elegant, while this one has a little bit more grit. Issa appears to have moved out of the ivory tower and onto the streets. There's still elegance here but it's more grounded and more real. She's more approachable. That said, the most overtly fairy tale sounding song, a near-ballad called I Give You My Heart, is one of the highlights here.

Of all people, given that this is a solo project whose musicians are there primarily to back up their strong female lead, the band that kept popping up as a comparison is Bon Jovi, especially early on when they were very much playing along with the hair metal mindset. The keyboards that kick off opening track Live Again remind of Runaway and there are a slew of songs that feature the same sort of power chords and progressions that Bon Jovi used on their first couple of albums, not least the title track. Fight to Survive often sounds like Bonnie Tyler singing for Bon Jovi.

While Issa is still on Frontiers, I should add that the keyboards here are not the work of Alexandro del Vecchio, who's almost omnipresent on every release that label puts out nowadays. They're the work of James Martin, who I believe is Issa's husband and also plays with British melodic rock band Vega, who have been going strong for over a decade now. However, while there seems to be a firm line-up nowadays, it's missing a lead guitarist. Marco Pastorini plays rhythm and Michele Guaitoli, who's here to play bass, also contributes guitarwork, including solos on four songs.

And that means that there are a couple of other guest guitarists who step in to provide the solos. Robby Luckets of Italian hair metal band Sandness gets most songs at five, including It's Over, an impressive song with delicate keyboards behind a thumping beat. The guitars are strong on this one but the solo is even better. The other guest guitarist is John Mitchell of It Bites, who provides the best of the lot, on I Give You My Heart, all the way to its sustained final note that slowly gives way to building keyboards. I liked the respective contributions of Luckets and Guaitoli, but I can't help but wonder how strong this album would have felt had Mitchell stepped in as guitarist across the board.

While I Give You My Heart has to be my standout track, it's not so far above everything else as the title track last time out. It's Over is up there too, as is Seize the Day, which is emphatic, even if it's not particularly heavy. It just seems to be consistently a little more than it was intended to be, as if Marco Andreetto had decided to subtly increase the tempo on the song without telling anyone and they all had to stretch just a little to keep up. It's not a race, though, just a little more spirited exercise than was expected. Luckets delivers the solo on this one and it's good, if restrained.

If you like the softer end of the melodic rock spectrum, with a serious side of hair metal, then this may be right up your alley. Softer is definitely the default mode for Issa, though she's not singing ballads for the most part. These are rock songs, just soft rock songs, and, if we ever think that the album is ramping up in heaviness, then the keyboards are sure tamp it back down again. Moon of Love has a saxophone to bolster its melodies and it's not remotely out of place. If that all sounds like your sort of thing, check it out. It's the seventh album from Issa and it's yet another good one, even if I'm still waiting for that killer release.

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