Many will be familiar with Graham Bonnet as the man who replaced Ronnie James Dio in Rainbow in the late 70s. The man in charge of the band, Ritchie Blackmore, had clearly had enough with elaborate rock songs about dragons and castles, instead wanting a more radio friendly hard rock approach that could aspire to chart success. The man to front this new sound was Graham Bonnet, whose voice has since been immortalised in songs such as Since You Been Gone and All Night Long (no prizes for guessing what the new lyrical subject matter was about…). The story of Bonnet’s brief time with Rainbow has been told many times and so I will not repeat anymore of it here, other than to say it was this that brought Bonnet into the limelight of the rock world. From there he went on to work with other groups such the Michael Schenker Group and Alcatrazz (to name just a couple) along with bringing his vocal prowess to countless guest appearances and side projects. Meanwhile, Back in the Garage is perhaps then an apt title for such a busy man.
The first track of a record inevitably sets the tone for the rest of the album: in this case, the title track kicks off and it certainly makes a statement. There is no floundering around easing you into things, it simply launches straight into an aural assault of galloping drums and interplaying guitar riffs. While the rhythm is a swung, classic heavy metal groove (think Sabbath’s Children of the Grave, but faster) there is a dominant keyboard that is reminiscent of 70s hard rock, with a sound taken straight from the rule book of the late great Jon Lord (Deep Purple). The keyboard is rarely as dominant again for the rest of the album, which is a shame given the added sound dynamic it brings. As expected from any rock album, the guitars become the primary focus, with harmonised twin guitar lines being the order of the day. On Sea of Trees, a brief keyboard introduction leads you into a galloping riff that would fit right in on an Iron Maiden or Judas Priest album. Features such as harmonised guitar lines are common throughout, but there are subtle musical changes that bring a wide range of influences to the fore: Livin’ in Suspicion has a much more 80s radio rock vibe, whereas Man on the Corner has elements of old school blues and jazz in the guitar licks. All of this is tied together by the man everyone wants to hear.
And so, without further ado, the vocals. Well, what can you say? There can’t be many 70 year olds who can belt out a tune this powerfully. Granted, some of the higher notes start to sound a bit strained (or very strained on Long Island Tea) but everything else is delivered with that powerful, rounded tone that many know and love, as if the last 40 years have had no effect. There are backing vocals aplenty, with hardly a chorus going by without some ‘ooos’ and ‘aaahhhs’ going on the background. This is often detrimental, making an already crowded sonic palate sound cramped and chaotic. An example would be on The Hotel, where the backing vocals are simply too loud in the mix and end up clashing with Bonnet’s voice rather than complimenting it. Clearly the ‘less is more’ approach wasn’t considered. Bonnet has power and range in abundance, enough to carry most rock songs single handed. If anything, he seems almost too keen to show off this power as there are few songs where he actually holds back to add some range to the vocals, clearly going for all or nothing. While impressive, it can get wearing five or six songs in. This is easily justified as just ‘his style’ but if everything is full on and in your face then the songs you want to stand out as such just don’t anymore: they get lost amongst all the others.
To any who have followed his career, Graham Bonnet is well known for crediting Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow as the reason he changed his preferred musical style from R n’B to heavy rock music. And what a fateful change of heart that was. Meanwhile, Back in the Garage is the sound of someone who was born to do this kind of thing. It is a modern rock album in every sense, borrowing from the sounds that made its frontman a success rather than seeking to directly emulate them. While many songs are superb examples of rock music at its best, there are also several that could fall into that dreaded ‘filler’ category. While such tracks are (hopefully) never intentional on the part of the artist, the full-frontal barrage of a five-piece hard rock band in full flow can start to blur lines. The result being that some songs do, unfortunately, just pass you by without giving much to remember them for. But for the songs that do stick, they stick for all the right reasons. If you know anyone claiming that they don’t make rock music like they used to, this might just be the perfect album to introduce them to modern hard rock.
Highlights: Meanwhile, Back in the Garage, The House and Man on the Corner