Of course, this album won't appeal to everyone, but it should keep most die-hard fans happy. A lot of the guitar work is, unsurprisingly (considering the time taken from Schenker leaving UFO to it's release), in a similar vein to Walk On Water, but WOW mk II this ain't! (Although it does sit very comfortably next to it in a CD changer - All we need now is a new album from UFO to complete the trilogy!). Again this album is initially a Japanese only release, and only available direct through the Fan Club otherwise, so the general world-wide audience will have to wait just that little bit longer!
Overall the album has a very late 80's feel to it, and in many respects is probably the mix of impressive guitar work (but not overly so) and good, catchy songs that `Perfect Timing' attempted to produce, but sadly didn't quite achieve. On the whole though, this is a definite change of style from previous incarnations of MSG. Perhaps some of the feel for the direction this album should take was formulated during Michaels brief stint with Ratt, whether or not this is true one thing is clear, the artistic control is most definitely in Schenkers hands.
The vocals from Leif Sundin (ex Great King Rat) fit in very well with Schenkers style, and are not too overpowering. The closest I can compare his voice to is Kelly Holland (Cry Of Love), and if I were to criticize it would be that there's nowhere on the album where his vocals have been really tested to their limits, but then this may just be because of the more 'mellow' feel to the songs. The performances come across as being very tight, but you still get a sense of spontaneity from Schenkers fills and frills, it's almost as if these guys have been together years as opposed to a few months, but I have a feeling that this incarnation of MSG will really come into their own once they start playing live. The line up is completed by Shane Gaalaas, who's tub-thumping duties are to the fore throughout the album, and Barry Sparks on bass, who again fulfills his duties admirably well, and no more so than on the `96 version of 'Into the Arena'. Of course, the fact that the mix is spot on will be no small part due to the album being produced by the one and only Ron Nevison. What can be said about the guy that hasn't already?!
Track by track, the album starts by crashing straight into the first song `Brave New World', which sets the scene for the rest of the album with it's strong riffs and catchy rhythm and chorus. The solo is almost a bit restrained, as if saving himself for what is to follow. The next track `Essence' is the original instrumental of the album, and begins with an appearance by Schenkers daughter, after whom the title is named. It is then followed by a section that is a little too 'Eruption' for comfort before the introduction of the theme which the rest of the song follows. Although this is predominantly Schenkers main `showing off' track, the rest of the band (except Sundin of course!) are heavily represented and it's an impressive little number.
Dual guitars bring us into the next track `Cry No More' (a second guitarist I think will be essential when it comes to live performances), a very atmospheric piece, which frequently changes tempo between sections in a similar way to 'Knock Knock' off WOW. `Back To Life' is predominantly the `rocker' of the album after a quiet start, although it too switches between heavier riffs and more atmospheric `Lost Horizony' sections during the chorus and solo. I would guess that this is a possible single, along with the following title track, `Written In The Sand'. This song I dare you to sit through without tapping your feet. It's a fairly medium tempo effort, and perhaps gets very close to that `radio friendly' kiss of death tag, but there are enough `Schenkerisms' in there to keep you happy, and you'll be singing it for the rest of the day!
`Love Never Dies' features strong vocals from Sundin, and is another medium tempo song with perhaps a slightly too indulgent solo to finish. `I Will Be There' is the ballad of the album, and a personal favourite with just the right mix of guitar and vocals, and another very catchy riff running throughout.
`Take Me Through The Night' ups the tempo again with a distinctive melody that catches you a bnit off guard but works remarkably well, almost a ballad but with some meaty riffs and guitar work thrown in for good measure and Schenker let's go on the solo, without ever really overdoing it, a critisism that could be applied to a couple of songs on the album. The penultimate track, `Down The Drain', starts with a crashing drum intro, and again uses the quiet verse/heavy chorus format, and is followed by the final track, `I Believe'. This song again has a very catchy rhythm and follows the themes set by the rest of the album and is the perfect end to a near perfect album.
Except that it's not the end.
Once the final chords of `I Believe' die down, as on `Walk On Water', we are treated to a couple of re-workings of old songs: `Into The Arena' and `Cry For The Nations', and, as with `Lights Out' and `Doctor Doctor' off WOW they are worth waiting for. When I first listened to `Into The Arena 96' the first few seconds are very true to the original and I was ready to skip onto the next track, but then the 15 years Schenker has been playing this song begin to show that practice does indeed make perfect, and the song is a delight to listen to, especially as the bass and drums seem much more evident than on the original, making it a more balanced offering. The other reworking seemed strange at first, you need to get used to the different vocals which is a bit off-putting for the first few times through, but eventually it does grow on you!
To sum up, if you're after an album similar to the early 80's MSG then you'll be dissapointed. If on the other hand you liked the later McAuley Schenker stuff, but thought that there was something missing, loved `Walk On Water', and want to hear a well balanced album with enough inspired guitar work to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up then buy this album, take the phone off the hook, turn the volume up, make yourself comfortable and press PLAY!