This is the second release from Find Me, a project headed up by vocalist Robbie LaBlanc (of Blanc Faces) and Swedish drummer/producer Daniel Flores. The press release boasts that Find Me is ‘another AOR behemoth’ and that Dark Angel is a ‘delightful and massive melodic rock album chock full of mighty AOR anthems’. My heart sinks at the prospect of yet another mechanical album-by-numbers. A cursory listen to the bombastic debut ‘Wings Of Love’ does nothing but add to my fears. I yearn for just a bit of invention, a curveball, something a bit daring from the scene, but I already know that this will be AOR played dead straight. But because I’m such a fabulously even-handed chap and a firm believer in second chances, I do my best not to pre-judge and vow to give Dark Angel the fair hearing it deserves.
After an intriguing retro keyboard intro, opener ‘Nowhere To Hide’ exposes itself as a standard AOR chuggernaut, all relentless pounding drums and predictable chops and stops. It is indeed the textbook AOR anthem that was promised - a beefy chorus with great flourishes of keys - but the production, sadly, isn’t quite able to do it full justice. Robbie LaBlanc is in such terrific voice here, though (his chops owing much to the mighty Marcie Free), I am minded to soldier on, even though I know that the flat drum sound and lack of sonic light and shade is going to drive me mad.
The Journey pastiche ‘Let Love Rule’ that follows is very solid and melodic, propped up by giant slabs of keyboards and over-excited guitar work. The album continues to tick boxes from hereon in: there’s a big muscular ballad entitled ‘Forever’; a high-octane Work of Artism: ‘Another Day’; a wannabe Child/Warren ‘80s hit in the dodgily-titled ‘Bleed In The Rain’ (which feels as if it was lifted wholesale from Robin Beck’s Trouble Or Nothin’); a mid-paced, banner-waving homage to Survivor: ‘Don’t Slip Away’ and a big nod to the superb Signal debut on ‘Did You Feel Any Love’.
As the record draws to an end I realise that, stealthily, the material has charmed me enough that I can almost excuse the wearing sound of the album’s heavy-handed production and mastering. By the second or third listen, I am relieved to find that my very worst fears for this album have not been realised at all and the strength of the songs begins to emerge, reminding me of that euphoria I felt on first hearing bands like Zinatra, Red Dawn, Tower City and Alias more than twenty years ago. And of course, that’s what albums like this are meant to do: give us something new that we recognise from the past.
The aforementioned ‘Did You Feel Any Love’ is, for me, the standout cut. It shows LaBlanc at his best and also houses the finest guitar solo of the record. (The guitar work is courtesy of either Philip Lindstrand or Christopher Vetter – both are credited for lead guitar and one of them certainly came up with the goods here - it needed noting!) Just as pleasing is the extremely catchy ‘Midnight Memories’ and pomp-tastic closer ‘I’m Free’. It’s not the tribute to John Inman that you might have imagined but does manage to be nearly as camp, stealing and successfully reworking the famous Giorgio Moroder synth bass line from Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.
In terms of the material, the arrangements and the performances there is so much on offer here: the AOR sounds of past and present have been distilled into a near-perfect collection of genre set-pieces. You’d expect no less with the album’s array of songwriters, ranging from veterans like Mark Mangold (Touch) to praised newcomers Alessandro Del Vecchio and Tom & James Martin (Vega). What you can’t recreate though, with the best will in the world, is the big-budget and skilled production of those landmark albums of the 80s and early 90s. This is why modern releases like this, however well played, written and arranged, always seem to come up short.
That said Dark Angel is undeniably an exquisite study in melodic rock, executed with great affection and impressive attention to detail. It’s similar in its precision to the fine debuts from Work of Art, Marcello/Vestry and, more recently, State of Salazar. Therefore, for devotees of the genre, this album is, stylistically at least, a massive treat. There’s that word again: massive. Want massive vocals, massive keys and massive choruses? You will get them all here, in buckets. Want something more? Like me, you’ll just have to live in hope…
Review by Rich Barnard