It used to be that the words ‘rock’ and ‘opera’ utilised in the same sentence would strike dread in my heart, they should have been mutually exclusive, if you like. Overblown, pompous and full of self importance, a rock opera was usually the product of a fevered mind from an artist who thought they were at the peak of their powers and didn’t know where to go next (home and shut the door until this stupid idea had drifted out of their mind if you ask me!)
However, in the recent past I have had to change my opinion and perception of the dreaded rock opera and I can now accept it as being the pinnacle of some artist’s portfolios, it was mainly Circle of Illusion’s release last year, Jeremias and Leaves Eyes’ Symphonies of the Night that altered my viewpoint, although there are some other fine releases out there that do the words ‘rock opera’ justice as well.
The reason for my preamble is Airs – A Rock Opera, a 2012 release from Steve Brockman and George Andrade through Fencesound Records, I hadn’t heard of this album until our lovely boss lady brought it to my attention and asked me to review it, lucky old me! Time for the usual history lesson my erstwhile friends.
Steve Brockmann, music composer, arranger and producer, is a multi-instrumentalist who has played an active role in Northern Germany’s music scene since the early 1980s. Amongst others, he has played support gigs for such rock legends as Uriah Heep, Moody Marsden Band, and Hawkwind. George Andrade, story, lyrics and narratives, is the lyricist and Executive Producer for the progressive metal band The ANABASIS (10T Records). He has written adult and children’s fiction, reviewed albums for such progressive bands as Mars Hollow, Shadow Circus and Relocator.
“Airs – A Rock Opera” is packed with 74 minutes of exciting and emotional music that runs the gamut of rock, metal, blues, pop, gospel and even cinematic score in a classic rock opera style and comes with a beautifully designed, 24 page lyric book illustrating an engaging narrative story. Featuring Guest Appearances by Paul Adrian Villarreal (Sun Caged), Gordon Tittsworth (Images of Eden), Dave Meros and Alan Morse (Spock’s Beard). The story is told with simplicity and elegance: on a small circular island in the Atlantic, Owen Doane has rolled through a stop sign and driven a car carrying two tourists – a mother and her 9 year old daughter – from the road to strike a stone wall. The accident caused the girl to suffer injuries that paralyzed her from the waist down, confining her life to a chair and thereby forcing Owen’s father, Derrick Doane, to suffer the collapse of his company that had been built upon the Doane family heritage of pulling stone from fields before harvest and building walls after milling grain since they had first settled Manisses Island in 1664. He returns home from prison to mend the walls and fences that he has destroyed and soon learns to speak of wind and air – not stone and mortar – and through the help of those he’s injured understands that our hearts are on strings.
So, an interesting and compelling storyline from two guys who seem to have the skill-set for the job in hand, ably backed by some stellar musicians, should be a recipe for success surely?
The album opens with Fateful Days as Owen is released from prison early and is returning home upon learning that his father is dying, Paul Adrian Villarreal provides the voice of Owen on this AOR inspired track that begins with the sounds of a ferry before a commanding piano leads in the vocals. The singing is very narrative in style, laying the foundations for the story. Paul’s voice soars high and is very imposing as the track moves into more traditional territory with nicely judged harmonizing between the male and female vocals. The piano is at the heart of everything, working on its own or in conjunction with a stylish guitar. Everything kicks into gear 5 minutes into the track with a solid rock edge, keyboards and drums adding cohesion. A good start to the record, it asks you to wait and delve more into this interesting story. Gordon Tittsworth takes on the role of Owen and his father, Derrick on Grounded and the song kicks in with a heavy guitar riff and powerful drums, almost Metallica like, quite different to the first track. The vocals are angry and corrosive, perhaps hinting at some sort of dissonance, giving a darker feel to the delivery. The heavier style, almost metal in its conception is used exceedingly well to elucidate the storyline and the break in the middle is completed with a caustic and powerful guitar solo that rips through the track like a whirlwind, in fact, the guitar playing throughout is very heavy rock influenced. On Kites it is now Tilman Eckelt’s turn to provide the voice of Owen and there is a sea change from the metal inspiration of the previous song. The gentle guitar and lilting piano provide a perfect backdrop for Eckelt’s soft and focused vocal performance and the whole song has hints of Pain of Salvation’s Road Salt or Opeth’s gentler moments, it is a delightful song, like an oasis in a sea of chaos.
Flight sees Cornelius Kappabani in the chair as both Owen and Derek and takes the heavier route again, this time in a progressive metal vein. The vocals have halting, emotive delivery that matches the stylish 70’s style keyboards perfectly. To me, the whole song has jazz/prog fusion feel to it, if a very heavy one. The guitar rocks hard and the drums are played with a measured ferocity. There is an instrumental section in the middle where the keyboards and bass get to shake their stuff and it works well before the guitar takes off once again and provides a coruscating solo, slightly off kilter and firing compact riffs left and right. It is a clever song and the vocals add a quality edge to the whole affair. Current Events sees Gordon Tittsworth return as our hero and the song is very emotional, acoustic guitar and piano backing a strong vocal before the brakes are released and the whole kit and caboodle goes heavy metal on us, an angry guitar adds a crashing riff and the vocals take on a harsh and antagonistic edge, almost brutal in parts, mirroring the argument between Owen and Kappabani’s Craig, Owen’s brother. There is a screeching, fast paced guitar solo, all in keeping with the general feel and the song runs out with an anarchic finish. History is a clever instrumental, almost mediaeval in its construction with a harpsichord sound overlaid on top of a guitar note that is heraldic in its delivery, the track segues into Heritage where Gordon carries on as Owen and takes the role of the narrator. The pulsating guitar and pounding drums are quite titillating in their delivery and bring a feel to the song that has heavy hints of glam rock. There are some discordant guitar sections increasing in intensity and everything takes on a random note as we venture further into the track before the purposeful vocals gather everything up and bring it back into line as the song comes to a finish.
Experiments hits you bang square in the solar plexus with a thunderous guitar intro, a riff right out of hell making your hair stand on end. The vocals are delivered in a monotonous tone as that guitar note continues to frighten small children and leave dogs high tailing it out of there with their tails between their legs. It is a massive lumbering guitar note that conveys a real dissonant and unharmonious emotive edge to the story and the harsh and jarring solo that closes the song leaves you in no doubt. Floating is a dynamic instrumental with a dancing piano note leading you in before a compelling guitar takes up the reins and delivers you onto the next track.
We move into definite AOR territory with the next track Annabelle and it is a little beauty. This track introduces another incarnation of Owen as Jan Hoving takes over vocal duties, an ululating twin guitar introduction is superseded by a repetitive riff and drum beat before Hoving’s vocal begins, it is a pure rock voice , very smooth and cultured, especially on the exceedingly catchy chorus. It rapidly becomes a foot tapping favourite and the fun factor only increases with the extended guitar run and solos where class and culture drip in swathes. Some very impressive songwriting skills on view here let me tell you, the run out is genius. Another vocal talent is introduced as Floor Kraaijvanger is presented as Annabelle and Gordon Tittsworth resumes as Owen on The Center. A pensive guitar is our initiation into the song then Floor begins Annabelle’s part of the story, calm and collected, a disruptive tone is delivered by a contrary guitar note as Owen enters the scene, this ying and yang of serenity provided by Annabelle and the antipathy that Owen lends to the track is a running theme throughout, interspersed by a dominating guitar note and insistent chorus. Fateful Days II is a short and sweet intermission, Antila Thomsen providing the vocals for Hannah and a soaring guitar note and smooth keyboard providing the backbone.
Antila carries on as Hannah and Cornelius reprises his role as Owen on Hannah, a steady-away rock track based around guitar, piano and drums and, to be honest, after the solid fare that has preceded it, it is rather insipid and uninspiring, more a filler track than a killer track, only lifted by a nice piece of guitar work towards the end of the track, let’s move swiftly on to The Great Salt Pond and Floor Kraaijvanger’s return, this time as the narrator. A funky guitar and piano combination lead in the track before a neat guitar run precedes Floor’s intervention with a voice full of passion and feeling, the track evolves into something full of soul and is incredibly bluesy, the jazz keyboard adding a brilliant touch. After the colourless Hannah this is full of wonder and delights, a real highlight for me, the guitar delivers a warmth and intensity that is a perfect foil for the heartfelt, eloquent vocals. Grounded II begins with a helter skelter of guitar and drums, a maelstrom of hard rocking fervor with Gordon delivering an intense vocal performance as Owen with a voice that seems to verge on the edge of madness. In the central section there is an impassioned vocal interplay between the characters broken up by a piercing guitar solo. After the soulful Great Salt Pond this is almost maniacal in comparison.
After the breathless energy and tension of the preceding song, Kites II is a breath of fresh air, a superbly played instrumental where the guitar is given an open book to deliver its message and does so with precision and grace flowing neatly into Flight II with no break, an authoritative guitar seceding prime position to the vocals of Floor, Antila and Cornelius as Annabelle, Hannah and Owen respectively. This track is another homage to the great AOR tracks of the past, the vocals delivering a superb chorus and the guitar solo just makes me smile. It is fast paced and drums, bass and keyboards combine to give a great rhythm section, the way the song fades out is a brilliant pastiche of 80’s rock. This entertaining and superior composition is brought to a close by the eternally hopeful feel of final track Owen, a genial piano takes the uplifting mood and raises the bar, followed by Paul Adrian Villareal’s return as Owen and his cultivated vocal delivery which brings the song, and the whole opera, to a close with aplomb.
Another entry into the pantheon of classic rock operas or a bombastic, hyped up version of someone’s ego manifested as music? Thankfully it is the former, Airs – A Rock Opera is an entertaining musical experience, polished and well constructed which, by a hair’s breadth, just misses out on being phenomenal. There are definitely more highs than lows and you will give this more than one listen, that talented artists are prepared to go out on a limb and compose music close to their hearts like this is one of the reasons I love listening to, and reviewing, music, long may it continue.