I've listened to this album a few times now and it still hasn't got its talons into me. It's decent stuff without question and all the expected elements are here. Joel Hoekstra's guitarwork is clean and apparently effortless, however technical he's getting on a particular solo. Girish Pradhan's vocals, replacing Russell Allen's as the only change in line-up since 2021's Running Games, mix his similarly clean melodies with a little grit in ways we recognise from his day job in Girish and the Chronicles.
And the band behind them is entirely populated with insanely talented and experienced legends: Tony Franklin on bass, Vinny Appice on drums and Derek Sherinian on keyboards. If you don't know these names, then pop over to Wikipedia and read about them. You've certainly heard their work. Between them, they've played for pretty much everyone from Black Sabbath to Dream Theater. It seems hard to imagine a better backing line-up and they do everything expected of them with such tight integration that it's hard to not listen to the musicianship rather than the songs.
But this still doesn't grab me the way it should and I'm not seeing why. The riffs are there and the solos are very much there, enough that I'm still enjoying every track on a fourth or fifth listen. The hooks are there too, maybe not quite as prominently as last time, but that just means that they're in a more perfect balance with the riffs. On paper, it seems like it ought to play a little better than Running Games, but it doesn't, at least not for me, and why probably comes down to that je ne sais quoi that critics are supposed to explain.
I think part of it may be that every song impresses while we're listening to it, but none of them are still there in mind when we wrap up after all twelve of them. These sound like great hooks but they aren't sticking in my brain, still playing from memory while I'm wandering down the hallway to the bathroom or when I'm waking up in the morning, already tapping my toes. They're impressing now coming out of my speakers and promptly vanishing again until the next time around.
Maybe I'm subconsciously rebelling against how slick it all feels. Everything is seamlessly done but it's so seamlessly done that it feels like these folk aren't even trying. Maybe they aren't, because they're all that damn good, but I want it to feel like they are, like they're not just showing up to an easy session gig, that they're passionate about this music and they're pouring the soul into it. That isn't something I'm getting, even from Pradhan who's easily the most obvious source of passion. It all feels too textbook, too perfectly generated to elicit the desired response from a listener.
The question has to be how much that matters. Most of the rock bands on the planet would sell all their combined testicles to sound as good as these musicians do, but I can't pick a favourite song to highlight. Maybe Far Too Deep has a little more bite to its riffs. Maybe Pradhan gets a little more passion into Over You, which, with Through the Night, is as close as this album gets to a ballad. Maybe I Would Cry for Love is a little more able to find an old school Deep Purple steamroller vibe in the second half, Sherinian's solo shifting perfectly into Hoekstra's. Maybe there's a funkier groove on Find a Way.
Don't get me wrong. This is easily a 7/10 album. It does what Running Games did, with a new singer who sounds great with the rest of the band, maybe not quite as well but pretty close. The die hard fans ought to lap it up. Technically, of course, it's impeccable. It just isn't working for me and I have to stop listening to it again and again in the hope that it will suddenly click. It's got to the point I'm almost disappointed in myself for not enjoying it more and that can't be good.