It’s easy to be average, to just plod your way along and never raise your head above the parapet. Where average is acceptable in many arenas and walks of life, it takes a little something extra to be special. You may have to step out of your comfort zone or strive a little harder to raise your standards to a higher level. In an area that may be congested with average and, even good, what does it take to make what you do, or what you produce, special? What gives you a USP (unique selling point)? This question is just as relevant in music as it is in other areas of life. I ask the question what, in the over-populated melodic metal genre, makes one band or artist rise to the top of the pile to become a shining beacon of light in the average drudgery sometimes on show? Do Place Vendome, the so called supergroup concept featuring legendary Helloween frontman, Michael Kiske, fit the bill? With their latest release, Thunder in the Distance, are they in the forefront of melodic metal and spearheading the way the genre is moving forward or are they just another run of the mill, average offering? More of that later, but, first, a little history.
Following a self imposed exile from the rock and metal scene which lasted a few years after his departure from Helloween and solo career, Hamburg-based singer Michael Kiske was invited, in 2004, to be part of a melodic rock oriented concept put together by Frontiers Records President Serafino Perugino. The resulting Place Vendome debut album brought Kiske back to a more straight forward rock sound, very accessible and melodic and far from the heavy metal stereotypes of blood, violence and hate from which Kiske moved away from. He collaborated for the first time with Pink Cream 69’s Dennis Ward, Kosta Zafiriou and Uwe Reitenauer and with Gunther Werno (Vandenplas) on keyboards. The success of the first, eponymous, Place Vendome album planted the seeds for a second recording entitled Streets of Fire, which was produced during 2008. This time the concept was slightly changed, with some outside writers handling the bulk of the songwriting but with Dennis Ward still handling the recording and production sessions. Following his stint with the band Unisonic, Kiske decided to go back to the Place Vendome concept with more melodic rock oriented songs, Dennis Ward once again produced and mixed the album whilst also providing bass, backing vocal and rhythm guitar duties. The line up was completed with Dirk Bruineberg (Drums), Gunter Werno (Keyboards) and Uwe Reitenauer (Lead guitars). I have to confess that Thunder in the Distance is my first taste of Place Vendome, but, being a confirmed Pink 69 fan and, knowing the reputation of Michael Kiske, I was seriously intrigued by this release.
If the first 3 tracks on the album, Talk to Me, Power of Music and Broken Wings, are representative of what’s to follow then we could be in for a treat. Sumptuous slices of melodic rock with classy, slick guitars and super smooth keyboards, up-tempo with a soaring chorus and, well what can I say?, epic vocals. This guy can sing and sing very well indeed, he has an emotional timbre to his voice, a little catch that just makes it stand out so well. Now, I’m also a sucker for a quality solo and, boy, do you get them in spades with soaring guitars and intricate fretwork, this is as sharp and sophisticated as rock music gets, the whole band are as tight as a drum, note perfect and well, just seriously good. The pace is ratcheted back a notch on Lost in Paradise where a powerful riff breaks down to classy, pared back vocals breaking out with a superior chorus, soulful vocals harmonising perfectly prior to a nicely worked soulful solo, the whole song adding to the cut glass feel of the album so far. No melodic rock album would be complete without a beautiful ballad and there is no change here, silky keyboards and a smooth riff leading in to the heartfelt vocals of It Can’t Rain Forever. There’s a real 80’s Whitesnake feel to the song with a perfectly harmonised chorus, urgent riff and swirling keyboards. Being a fan, I can hear the Pink Cream 69 influence in the expressive guitar work, a seriously good song.
The next 2 tracks, Hold Your Love and Never Too Late have a lighter, more A.O.R, feel to them, almost Journey-like in the stronger influence on the keyboards and delightful, dancing chorus. Kiske really gets to extend his vocal range, soaring high. The emphasis on a lighter, more keyboard heavy style is a contrast to the harder edge of the previous tracks and really showcases Kiske’s tremendous vocal talent and, just for good measure, the requisite impeccable guitar solos are there, present and correct. Heaven Lost, whilst being almost ballad like, relies on that heavier feel of the earlier tracks, powerful guitar making way for those super smooth and sincere vocals, nicely worked drums and cool bass work. The chorus is seriously catchy and, yes, I did find myself singing along to it on more than one occasion, a result of impeccable songwriting. A lighter, more pared back but still very impressive solo adds to the flawless feel of the song and the album. An urgent, low down riff and creamy keyboards give an early Bon Jovi feel to My Heart is Dying, an updated version of Runaway if you like, with a classy, coruscating riff and sleek chorus, short but exceedingly sweet. I have a feeling I’m on a journey through all that is great in melodic rock and that feeling is only emphasised by Break Out, a seriously upbeat rocker with a solid power metal feel to it, glossy riff and sleek keyboards backing another effortless vocal display form Kiske and more of that matchless guitar. Great artists need a quality canvas to paint on and that canvas is, in this case, provided by the superlative songwriting talent on show in all aspects of this record. Ah, I wondered where the other ballad was? well, here it is, Maybe Tomorrow. Serene, emotional vocals matched by a peerless guitar and keyboards and a soaring chorus complimented by one hell of a gut wrenching solo that gets you right in the pit of your stomach. Compelling and intense, yet another serious slice of melodic brilliance. The last of our 13 gems of melodic metal is title track Thunder in the Distance and it is yet another treat, more of that smooth and silky riffing and another towering vocal culminating in a majestic chorus and striking, meticulous solo, the album is completed in a suitably pompous style.
So, does Thunder in the Distance lift itself above the average in the world of melodic metal and prove itself to be something special? Well, if you’ve read the previous words that comprise this review you’ll know it is a resounding yes. If you’re craving something rough, ready and raw then look away now and walk on my friend because this is a highly polished gem with uber slick production, epic vocals, stupendous guitar and one of the best advertisements for melodic metal you are ever likely to hear.