For those in the know, the 1980's and early 1990's was a period of music that was forever going to be synonymous with something, err, different, often so different that people that were into it now disown that thing; Ball sweaters, washed jeans, all of the hair-styles, leg-warmers, Milli Vanilli, Pat Sharp, Samantha Fox ... the list goes on. There was a certain plasticy fabric spun into our societies, often making things worse, but once in a while making it all heaps better.
I was a child of the 1980's, of course, and in my musical journey I was heavily into Al Jarreau, early fusion like Seawind, George Benson and some GRP productions, funkier Rufus and Chaka Khan, some rock and pop (bits of David Bowie, more of Toto, glimpses of David Foster and all his various incarnations, and so on), but slowly entering the underbelly of jazz and classical.
However. There was one band I was more into more than any other, and it all started with that well-known tune you still hear from time to time, "Broken Wings" by Mr Mister. Apart from being a good tune, there was something about the group that made them stick a bit better into my brain, something about the sound, the musicianship, the amazing lyrics (thanks, John Lang; you were loved!). I got the album it was off, of course, and the previous, and discovered that the groups frontman Richard Page was a already present in a lot of music I already listened to (especially David Foster and Toto stuff, Steely Dan, and so on). If anyone serious needed a backing vocal to create that special feeling, Richard was brought in. So I had a connection, and I followed the band quite closely, being nothing short of a fan. I loved the dynamic punch, the textures, of course Richard's brilliant voice (through the times has been offered to be vocalist to both Toto and Chicago, no less), the fabulous textures of Steve George, and, as a drummer myself, loved all the crazy in-your-face punctuations that Pat Mastelotto came up with.
They released their third album "Go on" which changed both sound and direction of the band. Less poppy, more progressive, a bit darker, but still distinctly Mr Mister, I loved it to bits (and Pat Mastelotto came out as a awesome drummer, now with real drums[TM]!). However, the record company was not too happy with the sales nor direction it had taken, and lead guitarist Steve Farris left (due to musical differences we have been told). The three Misters went into the studio, borrowed a couple of amazing guitarists, and made a fourth album anyway. And there it stopped. The record company didn't release it. The misters had gone from a poppy chart-topping act to being too serious for record company executives, and with little options at the time (it was the beginning of the curse of grunge) the band disbanded, and their album entered that mystical place of rumors, hearsay and myth, the record company vault.
They all moved on. (Ah, puns!) Richard page did bits and bobs, but mostly as a songwriter and the odd studio work (including a solo album that I love to pieces, but never got much traction outside of those in the know. Not sure if it was another record company slip?), including a couple of songs for Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report fame).
Meanwhile Pat Mastelotto joined none other than King Crimson (1994? - and is still there) and a few other cool gigs. A cool connection to another part of my music world is fellow King Crimson bandmember Trey Gunn (who use Pat a lot) also had another favorite of mine, the completely unknown Bob Muller as drummer for a while (and maybe still?), and Bob again is married to the amazing yet unknown Happy Rhodes (which I've written about before). The circle is complete.
21 years passed.
A couple of months ago that album was released. The mythical fourth album was to be heard, for some for the first time ever (there were a couple of dreadful bootlegs around, but I had resisted all those years) by Little Dume records (Richards' record company). I downloaded my copy a couple of days ago, and it's been sitting in my headphones ever since.
The anticipation and mythical status of something like this is sure to lead to disappointment, with a 20 year build-up to every expectation that "Welcome to the Real world" to the "Go on" progression mustered, so what's it like?
Well, I wouldn't write this long had it been anything short of great. But it's more than that. It superseded any expectation I had. It is simply that good, a true masterpiece. It's basically a step back from "Go on" towards a brighter, more progressive sound, with some of the tunes bringing back some of the best of the early 80's with the coolest sounds the 90's could offer. There's less guitar focus, and certainly tighter, more drums, and definitely more and better singing. Hmm, hard to explain, I know, but the album sounds as if it had been released now it would still sound fantastic. Now, I normally wouldn't do a song-by-song review, but I feel compelled to do so, not only because they all deserve the attention, but to bring some closure for me personally through the music as well; this is the fourth album that needs the context of the earlier three. Here goes.
1. 'Learning to Crawl' starts exactly like a song that builds on "Go on" should start, the piano work and darker tone, and progresses exactly like a song that's from "Welcome to the Real World" does, with various added twists like the layered singing, fresher drums, that catchy chorus, haunting backing vocals that drones away something that ends up in a cacaphony of a grungy "I wear the face." The perfect start.
2. 'Waiting in my dreams' start like other good tunes from the mid-80's acoustic era, quite Toto-ish of the time. But then something happens, the chorus turns terribly Mr Misterish, and turns that all upside down. Another round, and after that a progressive section that blows me away every time, starting with some cool harmonic vocal that leaps into a progressive section of drums, emphasized piano chords and, uh, pan flutes. Yeah, that sounds wrong, but it works. This also have some of the coolest triplet-based syncopated breaks from Pat yet.
3. 'Crazy boy' has some minor / major key swings that a really cool, a snazzy drum-track, and some very interesting guitar layering. This is a somewhat typical Mr Mister tune, I think, with a slightly edgy Richard singing in there as well.
4. 'Close your eyes' is a direct descendant of "Go on" with a twist, with a mid-section around 2:50 which simply screams for a Chicago or Seawind horn treatment! (I betcha if a horn section was available, this would be the bestest tune they ever did!) It has a great drive, and a fantastic refrain that takes me back to "I wear the face", with a few interesting synth twists worthy of Gary Numan.
5. 'Lifetime' is fast becoming one of my favorites, with some excellent guitar work flowing through what is essentially a grungier "Welcome to the Real World" tune.
6. 'I don't know why' is a curious one, taking a few steps back to "I wear the face" with blobs of "Welcome to the Real World" push, only this time with real drums, less guitar, and cooler singing (even to the point that they here sing about falling, too. 32, anyone?)
7. 'We belong to no one' is a real stand-out, a teenage child of "Broken Wings", with a great refrain and sexier drums, until I get my senses blow around 2:10. Beautifully done, with bridge dipping straight for a progressive refrain, building up to a great climax where Pat gets off really well.
8. 'Burning bridge' is another slower tune that starts as you expect a Mr Mister tune to start, and then something amazing happens! This is my favorite tune of the whole album, with singing that reminds me of Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins, Chicago and Steely Dan, a laid back track with just takes me away days gone by. Listen out for 2:10, a great cut. There's layered singing here that I simply love to pieces! Oh, and some really cool bass playing as well that you'll miss if you blink.
9. 'No words to say' is "Go on" legacy, with dreamier keys and perhaps the strongest lyrics on the album. Progressive, layered guitars, beautiful verse. Great tune.
10. 'Surrender' starts expectedly Mr Misterish, but then turns into a early Toto-esque ballad of sorts, before leaping into "Welcome to the Real World" drive with a "Go on" setup. And then excellent chorus singing through a progressive finish.
11. 'Awaya' Here Mr Mister is doing a Toto, by at the end putting in a mostly instrumental piece, with great drive, all musicians coming together for some fun time. A perfect ending to an amazing album.
What an odd thing; well worth the 20 year wait, still sounding as if just released (well, you know what I mean), and perhaps Mr Mister's absolute best. And most people will never know. But you should. It's that good.
Simply put; this is an awesome album, better than I thought it could have been. I'm in love again.