Album review: KEEL – Keel & The Final Frontier

KEEL - The Final Frontier

Rock Candy Records [Release date 29.11.19]

‘The Final Frontier’ - Discovered, mentored and produced by Gene (Kiss) Simmons, Ron Keel’s hard rock band were of and for their times. On “The Final Frontier” the band’s 3rd album (1985), they make a valiant, and occasionally successful attempt to fight their way out of Simmons’ pop metal flat pack, one-size-fits-all production.

The opening (and title) track comes out of its corner swinging, ready for the fray. A join the dots blueprint that’s immediately out punched by the chunky rock charms of ‘Rock’N'Roll Animal’ … appropriately, Keel’s voice howls and wails as the guitars growl and roar. Guitarist Marc Ferrari proves himself to be a songwriter on the rise, contributing the pumped up, Autograph-esque ‘Raised on Rock’, and the rather good chest beating ballad, ‘Tears Of Fire’.

So there was clearly enough evidence to suggest this band has the talent and the chops, but ‘The Final Frontier’ didn’t provide the breakthrough expected.

KEEL - Keel

‘Keel’ – As the decade wore on, rock fans were beginning to look beyond the fierce, undiluted simplicity of Keel’s first 3 albums. And so, with songs contributed by acknowledged hit writers Russell (Prophet) Arcara, Jimmy (Thin Lizzy/Rainbow) Bain and Jack (too many to mention) Ponti, Keel’s 1987 self titled album, produced by the legendary Michael Wagener, was primed to be the breakout release.

Releasing a self titled album, mid career, suggests a marked change in style, or the result of a period of introspection. Neither of these is the case here. The significant change is Wagener. He tightens up the arrangements and adds subtlety and a lightness of touch to a remarkably lean and confident 4th studio album. He pushed Ron Keel and Marc Ferrari to up their songwriting game. ‘United Nations’, ‘I said the Wrong Thing’ and ‘If Love Is A Crime’ all compare favourably with the Ponti/Arcara/Bain material. ‘United Nations’ continues to be the band’s most popular and most played track on Spotify.

And after all that, still no commercial breakthrough. Understandably, the band folded its tent and the members went their separate ways.

Remastering – what both albums have in common is a characteristically gleaming remastering job from the Rock Candy Tech Team. Volume and valve driven warmth have been gained at no loss to the integrity of the original studio recordings. It’s a process of unpacking that has carefully and emphatically revealed each element of the band’s perfect aggregation of clattering drums, muscular riffs, skyscraping vocals and macho bgvs.

In other words, it shows them at their absolute best. And it strongly suggests that if Wagener had got to them earlier, Keel’s career trajectory may well have been significantly different.

Review by Brian McGowan

David Randall plays a selection of new and classic rock in his weekly show first broadcast 14 June 2020 including reference to the Feature series “2020 Vision”.

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