Axel Rudi Pell – Sign of the Times (Steamhammer/SPV)Friday, 1st May 2020
Revered as a German icon for the melodic heavy metal/hard rock genre on guitar, Axel Rudi Pell has his formula down pat when it comes to studio records. As well he should – Sign of the Times being his 18th studio album over the past 31 years. Opting to switch up producers with Tommy Geiger over Charlie Bauerfeind, the steady lineup of veteran musicians makes it much easier for Axel’s compositions to be developed and fleshed out in a solid, professional manner. Although there are a couple of differences in tones/sounds through these nine main compositions plus requisite ‘setting the scene’ intro of “The Black Serenade”, one wonders in the end if there are enough standout moments to make this distinctive and special compared to many of his older efforts.
While you’ll always hear savage Blackmore/Ynwgie style lead breaks of the bluesy variety from Axel at varied speeds depending on the pace of the composition on hand, he’s always been a musician that serves the need of the song first, allowing his fellow musicians ample space to flesh out the arrangements with their abilities. The organ/keyboard passages of Ferdy Doernberg set the mood for a mid-tempo oriented “Bad Reputation”, drummer Bobby Rondinelli executing some fluid fills on this otherwise straightforward rocking number – while the reggae-ish guitar/keyboard interplay that starts “Living in a Dream” sets the scene as if sipping your favorite cocktail on a beach before kicking into another driving, Deep Purple-ish anthem. You’ll get the standard power/double bass starter for “Gunfire” as well as the calmer, sensitive ballad “As Blind As a Fool Can Be” – never neglecting an audience that has come to expect both sides of his compositions for decades. Beyond the current planet concerns lyrically that differ from his mystical and magical/fantasy topics of the past, the star element continues to be the soaring pipes of Johnny Gioeli – a master at his vocal domain, bluesy and emotionally tapping into every melody and chorus to bring the title track and “Waiting For Your Call” to that pinnacle peak in the genre.
In the end though, there’s no specific song that stands out against previous killer songs like “Fool Fool” during the Jeff Scott Soto days or even Gioeli’s work on the epic “The Masquerade Ball” from 2000 – and even more, the snare ‘Black Beauty’ used on the record makes more of a sprinkler splash than a snap when it comes to the tone of Bobby’s hits. Sign of the Times unfortunately doesn’t contain enough ‘wow’ moments to rise above his best work – be it Black Moon Pyramid, The Masquerade Ball, or Circle of the Oath.