[Cover artwork by Hugh Syme]
Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room right from the jump. Or, as anyone with at least one functioning eye can see, the zebra in the room that’s clearly bent on frantically forcing nine out of ten dentists to realize a Parodontax recommendation for healthy gums will be taken seriously. Honestly, I’m not even sure one needs functioning eyes in order to see this album cover, it’s just that brazenly graphic. A hiker could unholster this cover to confuse a charging grizzly to great effect, and that is, at least in part, its intention: A-Z chief architect Mark Zonder has stated the album cover’s goal is to “really make a big impression.” Consider that task fulfilled akin to Shaq circa ‘94 dunking on Jon Cryer.
Why am I still talking about the album cover.
Well, because the album cover demands attention. It was done by renowned artist / graphic designer Hugh Syme, a man who’s not only responsible for creating the iconic Starman emblem and most of RUSH’s seminal album covers, he’s done work with the likes of Fates Warning, Dream Theater, Megadeth and armloads of others. However, he also happens to be responsible for the one Iron Maiden cover that somehow always manages to remind me of ’80s claymation commercials, The X Factor, and he’s equally guilty of the indefensible kick to the jewels that is the Get a Grip artwork. Basically, he’s no stranger to, um, challenging the eye, and this cover will definitely do the trick for luring anyone within eyeshot closer to discover just what in the holy hell is going on.
Ray Alder and Mark Zonder! That’s why we’re here! In part! Especially if you count yourself a fan of Fates Warning and bonafide progressive Hall-of-Famers Perfect Symmetry and Parallels! Please stop using exclamation points!
Yes, the likely draw here for metal fans is the notable reunion between Alder and Zonder, who are also the clear influence for this particular project’s namesake. What falls between those two, however—or in this case, who—is equally worthy of attention. Filling out the A-Z roster is grammy nominated bassist Philip Bynoe (Steve Vai, ex-Warlord, ex-Ring of Fire), Danish progressive rock fret-maestro Joop Wolters on guitar, and keyboardist Vivien Lalu, a fellow who’s additionally responsible for another (proggier) 2022 gem under his surname entitled Paint the Sky that also involves the axemanship of Wolters. Now, we really don’t like to use the term “supergroup” these days, because doing so often invokes works that come across better on paper than they do drifting from our speakers, so let’s simply refer to A-Z as… A very auspicious gathering of powerful sorcerers. Yes, that seems completely reasonable.
Confession: Before dipping in for the first time, this record kind of scared me. Mark Zonder is responsible for sparking the fires for the project, and the promotional copy tacked to the promo quoted him as saying, “I was thinking beer commercials, car commercials and Cobra Kai”—not exactly top-shelf bait as a means for drawing interest, unless your idea of entertainment includes Bud Light Lime jingles and fahrvergnügen. What followed from Zonder quickly struck a much more alluring chord, though: “I did not want to hear things like, ‘I don’t hear a single; it’s too proggy; I just don’t get it; let me listen to it a few more times’. I knew from myself and the others I would recruit that it would have some sophisticated music parts, but the big hook was the main priority.” Okay, now we’ve got something to hold onto, as classic songs like “Through Different Eyes,” “Chasing Time,” and “Eye to Eye” have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that a pairing of Zonder and Alder can result in a wonderfully elegant and warm hook. Make that particular formula more succinct? Sure, sounds great. In essence, Zonder has decided to dip into AOR / Arena Rock waters, a trend that’s been on the rise for a number of years now in the power and prog realm, and he wants to do so with old friends. Shiny.
The great news: A-Z definitely nails their objective with this debut. The songs here are direct (each track under 6-minutes), heavy on hook, and all the players are clearly operating at peak levels. Jump back to the days when the upper end of the FM dial dominated cars and clock radios across the land—where acts such as Journey, Saga, Triumph and Asia (whose logo must have inspired A-Z) heartened rockers with anthems like “Just the Same Way,” “On the Loose,” “Fight the Good Fight,” and “Heat of the Moment”—and much of what’s found on this record could have snuck its way right onto that coveted playlist. There’s a distinct modernness here, however, both in terms of production (a wonderful balance here, thanks to DGM’s Simone Mularoni) and in the way A-Z paints the corners with just a touch of prog. Not exactly purposely proggy, but you definitely get a sense the players have been doing this long enough they perhaps can’t help but embellish a bit. It’s part of their nature; it’s in the way Zonder embroiders his fills; it’s woven into the playful manner Bynoe attacks his frets and Lalu his keys; and it’s certainly present in the sense that musicians of this caliber manage to make fairly succinct songs still feel like a total jam session. Check out the way the album’s shortest smoker, “The Machine Gunner,” feels at least twice as big as it actually is.
The bad news: Well, there really isn’t any, to be perfectly honest. However, I will say these players sound so good together, one can’t help but wish they’d break their self-set requirements and flesh out some of the later songs a bit more. Not to say the trio of “At the Water’s Edge,” “Borrowed Time” and “Sometimes” are vulnerable points (“At the Water’s Edge” in particular is so very close to being a lost Night Ranger hit), but cutting one in favor of giving us a little more exploration in two seems like a fun idea, particularly considering the players involved. As it stands, the moderately more adventurous (and ludicrously uplifting) closing bonus track “The Silence Broken” makes the CD version of the album a wise investment. And yes, it does feel a bit weird grumbling about something that achieves an openly stated task so well, and A-Z does indeed nail succinct “big hook as the main priority” with an added touch of sophistication very well. Hell, I’ve gotten this far and haven’t had a chance to mention how crucial Ray Alder’s contribution is to A-Z’s overall objective—the guy’s voice actually sounds as if it’s getting younger and stronger, and these songs throw down hook after hook for Alder to crush. Witness:
Despite the straightforward directive behind the project, the record still manages to offer a good bit of variance in terms of pace and mood. Where a wonderful cut like “The Far Side of the Horizon” tempers a fairly heavy riff with one of the album’s warmest and most infectious choruses, “Window Panes” opts to let the weightiness take center stage, thereby delivering the closest mirror to Fates Warning. It’s certainly not a heavy record, though, especially by Last Rites standards, but it’s not exactly toothless, either. Let’s just say Joop knows his way around a riff, even if these songs largely underscore a melodic face that surrenders endless wonderful leads. We love wonderful leads, we metal lords ’n’ ladies. Oh, and yes, there are ballads afoot as well: The almost unreasonably schmaltzy “Rise Again,” which will grow on you, and its more sultry, noir-like cousin, “Stranded,” which could’ve easily dropped a video in 1987 that featured Tawny Kitaen straddling the hood of a Jaguar.
Bottom line: If you’re a fan of the players behind A-Z, most notably Zonder and Alder (without discounting the excellent work provided by the remaining crew), you will be listening to this record, and no amount of words or off-putting cover artwork will warp that truth. How often you return to it, or how well you ultimately end up receiving it, however… Well, that depends entirely on just how interested you are in hearing these dudes deliver the goods as if they stepped right off the dial from 100.7 WMMS The Home of the Buzzard circa 1987. In its current form, I would certainly confirm a genuine hope the project moves forward, even if the days of arena rock acts actually filling arenas seems largely behind us.
As a final aside of notable interest to this debut: Another bandmate of Alder and Zonder, the venerable Jim Matheos, appears to also be interesting in dipping his digits into AOR waters with his upcoming Kings of Mercia project (also through Metal Blade). The band features none other than Joey Vera on bass, acclaimed drummer Simon Philips, and FM vocal dignitary Steve Overland behind the mic. If FM somehow doesn’t ring a bell, just know they are statesmen in the arena rock realm, and Iron Maiden covered their hit “That Girl” back in 1986. Suffice to say, it will be very interesting to see which album manages to OUT ARENA the other. One thing for sure, A-Z certainly set a very high bar with this tantalizing debut, so I suggest you get your ears pinned to it.