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MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP Universal

By Rob McNees, Vinyl Aficionado
Monday, June 27, 2022 @ 9:40 AM


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MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP
Universal

Atomic Fire Records




In the world of Rock and Roll guitar, you have the game changers, men who took the guitar to places that it hadn't really been before. You know the names: Hendrix, Van Halen, Blackmore, Yngwie, etc. And then there are greats who didn't necessarily go to the next level, but are amazing players who deserve to be talked about with reverence; Gary Moore, Robin Trower, Frank Marino & one Michael Schenker. This wunderkind started out playing clubs at 11, and debuted on Vinyl in February 1972 with his brother Rudolph Schenker and the SCORPIONS album Lonesome Crow at the ripe old age of 16. The tour off this record in Germany found them opening for UK space rockers (at that time) UFO. Duly impressed with his playing, Michael was offered the guitar position in the band and even though he could barely, if it all speak English, he accepted.

His debut with UFO, 1974's Phenomenon came storming out of the gates with bonafide UFO classics like "Rock Bottom" and "Doctor Doctor" and the band just got better from there. But of course the excesses of Rock & Roll reared their ugly head eventually and the union of Michael and UFO would cease to be in 1978. Rumors had Michael auditioning for everyone from AEROSMITH to THIN LIZZY to DEEP PURPLE, to even OZZY OSBOURNE after the death of guitar god Randy Rhoads, who himself was a huge Schenker fan. A brief stint back in the SCORPIONS for their seminal album Lovedrive in 1979 sees Michael again fly the coop after a few live shows, being replaced by Matthais Jabs. Schenker then decided that it was time to quit playing other people's music, and do it himself. And that's exactly what he did. Now flying under the banner of MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP, they came storming out of the gates in 1980 with their self-titled debut, and it left no doubt that with Schenker at the helm he was indeed one of the premier guitarists of heavy music. Michael has reinvented himself musically numerous times, with the more commercial MCAULEY-SCHENKER GROUP from 87-89, CONTRABAND (with Tracii Guns no less) in 91, and even rejoining UFO for several albums in the late 90's/early 2000's. There's been MICHAEL SCHENKER'S TEMPLE OF ROCK and even MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST, which is a collection of songs with some of the singers throughout his solo years, including Gary Barden, Robin McAuley, Graham Bonnet & Doogie White.

The man is constantly writing and recording which brings us 'round to Master Schenker's latest offering, Universal, going back under the MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP moniker. As with his last album, MSG's Immortal from 2021, Michael has enlisted a new batch of assassins to bring his latest batch of Teutonic Steel to fruition. More of a collective you could say, as Michael enlists different lineups to bring forth his vision of every song. Album opener "Emergency" sees Barry Sparks (DOKKEN, TED NUGENT) on bass, Simon Phillips (JUDAS PRIEST, GARY MOORE) on drums, Steve Mann (LIONHEART) on keys, and Ronnie Romero (RAINBOW, SUNSTORM) on vocals is classic Schenker. Uptempo and driving, a set opener to be sure, with heads bangin', fists pumpin, and Ronnie's smooth but powerful voice anchoring Michael's now legendary rhythm and solos. "Under Attack" sees the lineup shift with Bodo Schopf (ELOY) on drums and Barend Courbois (BLIND GUARDIAN) on bass, joining Michael, Ronnie & Steve on a more subdued almost AOR tinged track, with a great memorable chorus. This might surprise a few folks.

Third and fourth tracks, "Calling Baal", an instrumental leading into "A King Has Gone" is Michael's tribute to the late legendary Ronnie James Dio and boasts an all-star cast of players, including ex-RAINBOW members Bob Daisley (also OZZY and URIAH HEEP) on bass and Tony Carey (also PLANET P PROJECT) on keyboards, Bobby Rondinelli (BLACK SABBATH, BLUE OYSTER CULT) on drums, and Michael Kiske (HELLOWEEN) on vocals, and is an loving tribute to our very missed icon. Mr. Kiske sounds on top form and yes, the song does indeed bring to mind classic RAINBOW to these ears, with Mr. Schenker ripping a top notch solo to top it off. Class. "The Universe" has Bodo, Barry and Steve with the amazing Gary Barden (MSG, STATETROOPER) trading vocals with Ronnie. It's a slower track that brings memories of MSG II, and one of the more melodic tracks off that album.

"Long Long Road" has Ronnie, Bodo, Barend & Steve going back to a bit more uptempo groove and this should go down a stormer live. I can see why Ritchie Blackmore picked Ronnie to front his probably last incarnation of RAINBOW as he has the voice and range to pull off just about any vocal style he chooses. Schenker really runs up and down the fretboard as only he can. Brilliant song. "Wrecking Ball" changes the vocalist as the unreal Ralf Scheepers (PRIMAL FEAR, TYRAN' PACE) who probably should have got the gig for JUDAS PRIEST when Rob Halford left, take centerstage on the mic. An uptempo banger, which really suits Ralf's vocal abilities. And of course Michael has his masterclass in soloing. "Yesterday Is Dead" sees Ronnie return, and welcomes Brian Tichy (WHITESNAKE, OZZY) to the drum stool along with Barry and Steve, and is a slow grinder with the usual class that a group like this can muster. "London Calling" is another favorite track as lyrically time warps back to England and the eighties and the wave of Metal that was created there. Even namechecking MAIDEN and PRIEST, this one is classic Schenker all the way. The chorus is infectious and melodic and you WILL play it over and over in your head. A wonderful problem to have IMHO.

"Sad Is the Song" is next and with that title you might think it's a sappy ballad, but instead it's a slow crunchy dirge with Ronnie, Simon, Barry and Steve keeping that groove slow n' steady and Michael just rips a next level solo. The word I would use to describe Mr. Schenker's ability is just tasteful. Never overplaying, noodling or delving into ego guitar wankery he just has the uncanny ability to create something memorable, and it being just what is needed at that time. Nothing more. Nothing less. "Au Revoir" sees Ronnie, Simon, Barry and Steve weave a tale about love found and lost in Paris and is a fine uptempo rocker with the magical chorus and melody that this whole album just oozes with. Up next are the two bonus tracks. Now whether or not you get these I guess depends on what version you get. "Turn Off The World" sees Ronnie, Brian, Barend and Steve belt out a mid-tempo pounder about the evils of politicians, money and power, lyrically something that everyone can relate to. Ronnie's smooth yet powerful voice makes those melodies just dance in your head. A real treat indeed. Album closer "Fighter" has Ronnie, Brian, Barry & Steve tell the story of an underdog and his fight to win. Mid-tempo and extremely catchy, this could be a single if there was such a thing as rock radio anymore. Anyone care to join me on my quest to bring back great heavy music to the airwaves??

All in all this is a masterclass in amazing playing by an all-star band of musical luminaries. This album can stand toe-to-toe with any melodic hard rock album out today. And Mr. Michael Schenker shows no signs of slowing down, releasing quality music year after year. As covid showed, live music isn't a certainty anymore, so if you get the chance to see MSG and Michael playing anywhere near you, seek them out. Meanwhile grab Universal and let it take you to the cosmos of Rock immortality. You can thank me later. To borrow a song title off MSG's second album, "Are you Ready to Rock"?

And yes, there is Vinyl for this my Vinyl famila. A couple of color variations I believe. And even a hardbound book, with pics, lyrics and the dreaded CD. But a lovely package nonetheless. So hurry. London's calling.

4.5 Out Of 5.0 Skulls


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