Monday 6 November 2023

Robby Valentine - Embrace the Unknown (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I came to this album knowing nothing except that Robby Valentine is Dutch and he records melodic rock, which I'm always keen to review because I get sent far more metal than rock and I like to keep a balance here. What I quickly found is that melodic rock is both an accurate label and one that doesn't remotely cover it to the degree needed.

He's all over the musical map, in a very deliberate manner that echoes the approach of Queen and it's very difficult not to hear their sound all over his. In fact, if you don't realise how much Queen is in what he does on on the opener, Break the Chain, then Life is a Lesson four tracks in takes care to staple a copy of A Night at the Opera onto your forehead so you can't avoid it. It doesn't shock me, reading up on his career after listening to this album, that he's recorded an array of Queen tribute releases. Any other comparisons I could conjure up, like Jason Bieler, share the same influence, so it really goes back to them.

What's important is that he does this very well indeed. In addition to writing the music and lyrics, he plays all the instruments and sings all the vocals, except a few overlays like the harmony vocals of Johan Willems on Never Fall in Line, a scream on Roll Up Your Sleeves that seems like a sample and a chorus deepening Break the Chain. This is emphatically all his work, not merely as a musician and a performer but as a creator too. He has a singular vision of what he wants to do, which I think likely starts with something small like a phrase, a melody or a rhythm, and builds it into something majestic.

Sometimes, as on Roll Up Your Sleeves, it's all three of those things at exactly the same time. The first thing we hear is a snippet of lyric a capella, but it's chanted in a very particular rhythm using a very particular melody and the instrumentation promptly picks up on that. The drums and guitar then echo it, drop into a solo bass doing the same thing, then the elements combine and we have a song out of nowhere, with Valentine adding details here, harmonies there and escalations to flesh out and polish the piece.

It's definitely a highlight because its hook is so catchy and it never drifts far away from it, but other songs are content to travel much further. The opener, for instance, changes often. Break the Chain starts symphonic, becomes arena rock, gets poppy and then progressive, and shifts on a dime from Journey to Queen to Styx. That chorus of voices adds action and samples underline that, initially a snippet of the Shelley poem The Mask of Anarchy and later brief and surprisingly grounded clips of speeches by conspiracy theory whackjob David Icke. There's a heck of a lot to digest in this one but it's all seamlessly delivered.

Don't Give Up on a Miracle seems overly simple by comparison but it's just a well formed pop song with a catchy hook bolstered by harmonies and orchestration. It's telling that the guitar solo isn't remotely close to the front of the mix, because, if Valentine is effectively playing every member of Queen, Brian May seems to be the one he identifies with the least. There are definitely moments in Break the Chain that sound like a May guitar, but Valentine's guitarwork here generally feels a little more contemporary in style and the most room he reserves for a guitar solo, which is on the closing title track, there's more Dave Gilmour there than May.

Of course, as a vocalist as well as a multi-instrumentalist, Valentine doesn't skimp on his Freddie Mercury. He's everywhere here, perhaps most prominently on Shadowland, but both John Deacon and Roger Taylor are often present too, perhaps both most obviously during Roll Up Your Sleeves. While the influence is so overt that I'm sure he's embraced it by now, this being at least his tenth album of original material, not counting tributes and other covers albums, it also makes for easily his most immediate songs. You can't get more immediate than Roll Up Your Sleeves and others like Don't Give Up on a Miracle, Life is a Lesson and Shadowland aren't far behind.

The catch to that is that his least Queen inspired pieces take more time to grasp. Show the Way is a decent track but it's also a subtle one that takes its time and so it ends up fading in comparison to most of the other tracks. Embrace the Unknown is a tasty closer and it's the longest song here, but it also takes a more subdued and elegant approach, so it doesn't leap out at us the way those with the killer hooks do. Clearly I need to check out more of what Robby Valentine's done over the past forty years or so, because he makes excellent music and he has a serious back catalogue.

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