A-Z is the new project/band formed by former Fates Warning drummer Mark Zonder. He enlisted the services of his former bandmate the legendary Ray Alder on vocals. And that’s where the band name comes from A-Z, Alder-Zonder. The goal, according to Zonder, was to create something more accessible. “I was thinking beer commercials, car commercials and Cobra Kai,” says Zonder, “I wanted to have a very accessible band that would appeal to the masses and would lead to the ability to tour larger venues and build a second and third record off the success of the first. I did not want to hear things like, ‘I don’t hear a single, it is too proggy, I just don’t get it, let me listen to it a few more times’. I knew from myself and the others that I would recruit, it would have some sophisticated music parts but the big hook was the main priority.”
Oddly enough, I don’t think the album is very commercial or hooky. In fact, the drums are quite proggy at times which seem at odds with the structure of the music presented. To be clear, this is not bad at all. It’s just not a GREAT batch of songs. One thing that saves the album as a whole is Alder’s vocals. The man can SING and can sing anything and make it work. Were it not for him, this album wouldn’t be memorable. Songs like “The Machine Gunner” showcase great playing, yes proggy and great vocals. Overly memorable? Well no. “The Far Side of the Horizon” seems like the music is fighting the melody at times. It has potential for sure.
The musicians are top notch too. Zonder is still a master, the rest of the band is very talented. But it sounds like a gifted set of players struggling to simplify their approach but not really being able to. I do hear elements of “Parallels” in the fills and drumming of Zonder. Check the opener “Trial By Fire” for an example. Almost like he was purposefully harkening back to his last almost commercial breakthrough in an attempt to “get it right” this time. The problem is he doesn’t have the songwriting of Jim Matheos to fall back on. A driving track like “Window Panes” lacks a hook to sell its urgency.
The artwork by Hugh Syme is just abysmal. Something I NEVER thought I’d say! The mouth of a zebra with an apple in it just looks terrible. It’s only made worse by a band logo that is equal part ASIA pyramid and near swastika. Nazi Asia? There’s an image inside of an ant and a zeppelin which is better. And I know Zonder is upset by anyone who didn’t like the artwork. I got mocked for questioning it on Facebook. But I expected a lot more from Hugh Syme. So disappointing.
And I guess in that regards the art fits, because the album itself is a disappointment. Overall, it’s a good album at times. But again, if you want GREAT songs, you need a great songwriter. It’s just not enough to be great musicians trying to sell something as catchy without that being the case. There’s enough promise here that MAYBE the next album will hit the mark. For this album Ray Alder gets a 10/10 but the rest of this…not so much.
1. Trial By Fire
2. The Far Side of the Horizon
3. The Machine Gunner
4. Rise Again
5. Window Panes
6. Run Away
8. At the Waters Edge
9. Borrowed Time
11. The Silence Broken (Bonus Track)
Ray Alder – Lead and Backing Vocals
Mark Zonder – Drums
Philip Bynoe – Bass Guitar
Vivien Lalu – Keyboards
Joop Wolters – Guitars
Label: Metal Blade
Release Date: 12 August 2022