3. My Heroes
4. The One
5. Meant To Be
8. This Dance
9. Screaming With The Lights On
11. Ballet For The Masses
12. Stars Align
Hailing from the grand old town of York in northern England, A Joker’s Rage have been going since 2012 and up until recently have only released a smattering of singles and EPs, most likely due to the fact that they've been busying themselves by doing the exact thing that all fledgling bands should be doing; grafting hard and building themselves a reputation as a solid live band. They’ve been hitting the road hard and have managed to carve out a sizeable fanbase through their efforts, with some of the fans they’ve gathered along the way choosing to travel from far and wide to see them play gigs - so they’re obviously doing something right. In fact, they’re doing things so right that they’ve caught the attention of established and popular bands like The Wildhearts and landed supporting slots for them, not to mention the fact that they’ve headlined some of their own gigs and played at several festivals including Bloodstock, which is all rather impressive to say the least.
It should come with some excitement for their fans and admirers then that after all of their hard grafting they’ve finally released ‘The Rain Dance’, their first full-length studio album. If you’ve never heard the band before, I should probably dig a little deeper and attempt to describe what they sound like before going into the album review proper; to ape a phrase from Shrek - "They’re a bit like Ogres". No! Er, I mean that they’re a bit like an onion; they have layers. At the core of their sound is a big old lump of Classic Rock - something along the lines of Queen or Rainbow (the band that is - not Geoffrey, Bungle, Zippy and George), and wrapped around that are subsequent layers of 80’s Pop, Disco, Dance, Electronica and a little bit of Metal which is topped off with an outer layer of flamboyancy and theatricality. It’s pretty difficult to cast them with similarities to other bands, but my first thought was that they sounded a bit like a British version of Fall Out Boy, as while they have crunchy guitars and all of the typical hallmarks of a heavy band, they have a tendency to keep their sound on the lighter, cleaner end of things with clean vocals rather than screaming and growling and their music is overwhelmingly upbeat rather than moody and angsty. I reckon that it’s fair to me to say that their sound is likely going to appeal to younger Rock and Metal fans, so if you’re a millennial and you like Bring Me The Horizon, Biffy Clyro, My Chemical Romance and the likes, there’s a good chance that you’re gonna love A Joker’s Rage.
Kicking off with the track 'Temptress', ‘The Rain Dance’ sets out its agenda pretty quickly; to get you dancing or, at the very least, gently bobbing your head. It starts with a tasty-sounding and distorted guitar riff before breaking into an almost disco-like beat. Zakk Taylor’s vocals are an absolute revelation as he's got a powerful set of pipes and the tight, punchy drumming from Matt Collinge holds the whole thing together alongside Adam Guaton’s solid guitar work and Geordie Ginface’s meaty bass licks. The song is simply about being besotted by a beautiful girl and trying to figure out a way to win her attention, so it’s not exactly highbrow stuff in terms of subject matter, but it’s a fun track and a great way to kick-off the album.
Next up is 'Shylock', the first single from the album, and it’s a very different beast from the first track as it’s a bit more serious sounding and a lot more Rock-driven. It tears along at a decent pace and builds upon the great work of the first track; the band sound incredibly tight, with the only irksome thing about the track being the snare drum of Matt’s kit, which sounds like it’s been pushed way further forward in the mix than it should be - but that’s perhaps just me being picky; it’s a decent track regardless.
'My Heroes" builds on the momentum of the first couple of tracks and sees the band in an upbeat but more introspective mood, with some really heartfelt lyrics delivered confidently by Zakk. It's a stomper of a track which would undoubtedly do well with airplay. It oddly breaks into a surprisingly poppy vibe towards its end, which I thought was horrible at first but upon repeat listens actually works pretty well. After that, 'The One' comes along with another eminently radio-friendly track that sounds almost like a sequel to Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’, so strong are its Pop-Rock sensibilities. It really shows that these guys have got some seriously strong songwriting chops; something that should be a key to their success.
After that, 'Meant To Be' starts with a muted Electronic beat before breaking into a big soaring chorus with an Nu-Metal-ish and almost Linkin Park-ish vibe, with Zakk sounding like he’s summoning the spirit of the late and great Chester Bennington to his vocal cords. There’s a fantastic guitar piece in the track too, which showcases Gauton’s talent for noodly solos and elevates it to being yet another one of the standout songs on the album. Following on from that is the track SECRETS, the one and only track on the album that’s a big ol’ ballad - but don’t panic; it’s actually really rather good. If anything, it actually demonstrates that AJR are consummate professionals with some serious ambitions as it’s got all of the hallmarks of a classic, with big sweeping strings, a huge guitar solo and thoughtfully delivered vocals by Zakk, which for a band on their first album is a seriously impressive achievement.
As you delve deeper into the album, the quality of the tracks actually improves, with 'Bounce' kicking things up a gear and proving to be yet another track that I could easily hear playing on the radio with its big, bombastic chorus and yet another fantastic guitar piece by Gauton, it’s a good fun track which will no doubt prove popular. You could swear from listening to the intro to 'This Dance' that you're about to hear a rocky cover of Whitney Houston's 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody', but it becomes clear as soon as the crunchy guitars kick in that it's thankfully going to be something rather different. Sporting a decidedly 80's haircut, 'This Dance' is easily one of the best tracks on the album, with its punchy groove and floor-friendly danceability. After that’s done, 'Screaming With The Lights Out' starts off with a big groovy guitar piece before breaking into a frantic polka-esque beat and settling into another (yes, another) big radio-friendly anthem. This band’s propensity for writing Pop-Rock anthems with catchy choruses is pretty unbelievable, and 'Hideaway' yet again sticks to that formula and for me it’s another track with a Linkin Park-esque sound and feel to it, meaning that it should be down with the kids. Or something.
The penultimate track on the album is possibly my favourite of all. 'Ballet For The Masses' is a song written about the one and only Freddie Mercury, of whom the band are clearly fans. It’s got the biggest and catchiest of all of their choruses and has this crazily ability to get firmly lodged in my head. I really love how they have managed to shoehorn a few Queen song titles into the song’s lyrics without being too obvious about it or cheesy - it’s really rather good. Bringing the album to a close is actually another one of my favourite tracks, 'Stars Align'. The chord progression in it reminds me a little of a Muse track (or the Neverending Story soundtrack) which lends it a totally epic, sweeping feel to it. To top that, it’s got another catchy beast of a chorus that can worm its way into my head and inhabit it for hours, and it brings the album to a satisfying end.
This is an absolutely cracking debut album from a band who have set their sights and ambitions high, and it absolutely does not in any sense resemble the sound of a band who are cutting their teeth on their first album. It’s not all completely rosy for me though; while all of the tracks on ‘The Rain Dance’ are incredibly polished and slick, the album’s biggest flaw for me is its lack of tracks that express any ‘bite’ or attitude. Perhaps that’s just a sign that I listen to too much in the way of angry Metal and Punk these days and that the band’s target audience are 15-20 years younger than I am. That aside, I’ve got to lay some credit down where credit’s due as they’re evidently a talented bunch of lads who are a dab hand at writing catchy songs and exhibit some serious skills at playing their instruments, and I feel that I should mention again how fantastic Zakk Taylor’s vocals are - that boy can sing!
Despite it not being exactly to my taste, there’s little doubt in my mind that there are many high points on the album, though - and I’ve occasionally found myself idly humming or whistling some of the melodies from it, which just goes to show how good A Joker’s Rage are at crafting their songs. They’re evidently a band who are going to go places and have bags of cross-genre appeal with Pop sensibilities that should fare them well to the point where I reckon that they’ll be a big hit across the pond if and when the time comes, as their big, bombastic radio-friendly sound will undoubtedly go down well with American listeners.
As far as debut albums go, this is a strong start from a young British band with the talent and determination to take them places, so please take a moment of your time, rise to your feet, hold a fist to your heart and shout "Go get ‘em, boys".
Review - Craig Henderson