Album review: NEWMAN – Into The Monsters’ Playground

NEWMAN- Into the Monsters' Playground

AOR Heaven (Release date 10.09.21)

For a remarkable near quarter of a century Steve Newman has turned out a series of finely crafted albums. He never remotely hinted at the big time, but as compensation his name enjoys almost universal  respect in the melodic rock/AOR world, not just from fans but increasingly fellow artists asking him to collaborate.

‘Into the Monsters’ Playground’ comes Just 18 months after last album ‘Ignition’ and remarkably is his thirteenth studio effort, even discounting the ‘Decade’ compilations which rustled up unreleased tracks. Like most of his recent albums, it is a cottage industry- not only does he produce and write all the songs, but plays all instruments himself other than drums from Rob McEwen.

The album is in contrast to some of the glossier, more instant efforts in the field. While the budget limitations show- for example the rhythm section could do with more punch- on the other hand the arrangements are spacious, giving the songs time and space to breathe and evolve, none of them lasting under four minutes.

Opener ‘Start This Fire’ is relatively conventional melodic rock in its verses and choruses, reminding me of Walk on Fire, and with crisp and clean guitar solos prominent. But in his songwriting and arrangements he is unafraid to depart from the clichés of the genre we all know and love, so ‘Timebomb’, while a rocker, is piano led which serves the drama of the song. His rich vocal tones which have improved with age are also less smooth than many of his counterparts in the field.

‘Hurricane Sky’, with an outstanding chorus is one of his best songs of recent years, with a strong vibe of Asia’s John Payne-led years, ‘I’ll Be the One’ balances a guitar riff with tinkly keyboards, and ‘Don’t Come Runnin’ is a fine piece of AOR, right down to the stabbing keys on the chorus.

Yet it is impossible to make a judgement about whether the album represents a change in direction from previous releases, because the writing styles are so diverse.  Both ‘Icon’ and ‘Spirit Cries’ have a laid back, jazzy, almost Steely Dan-esque swing- the former grew on me a lot, the latter less so- and ‘Lightning Tree’ with its sparse intro and almost whispered vocals sits outside a conventional AOR structure.

‘Give Me Tonight’ is another interesting one, with a rapid fire delivery and brittle keys then giving way to a slower second section with a long guitar solo  and the title track has harsher vocals as befitting the song’s angrier theme.

The album closes in more mainstream fashion with the naggingly familiar ‘Shadows of Love’, a real grower where his voice soars in symphonic fashion, and ‘This Life Alone’, with a keyboard sound reminding me of the debut Giuffria album.

Another solid release that confirms the south coast resident’s role as the thinking man’s melodic rocker. ****

Review by Andy Nathan

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