Uli Jon Roth
Under a Dark Sky
7/17/2009 - Review by: Vinaya Saksena
German guitar innovator Uli Jon Roth has been one of my favorite guitarists since I first discovered his work via the Scorpions' 1975 In Trance album (two decades after the fact) in high school. Like fellow Scorpions alumnus Michael Schenker and Irish virtuoso Gary Moore, Roth was one of those early metal guitar heroes who never got the respect he was due, particularly in the States, where the public seemed to credit the shred revolution of the 1980's almost entirely to Eddie Van Halen, the late Randy Rhoads and to a lesser degree, Yngwie Malmsteen.
And while it was primarily his work with the Scorpions and his own Electric Sun project that always interested me, I was pleased to discover a few years ago that Roth was still active, and I have since picked up and enjoyed much of his recent work. Every once in awhile, however, Roth's work seems to take a good thing just a hair too far, and as much as I love his playing all around, I have to say that Under a Dark Sky is not destined to draw the type of immediate appreciation I (and likely many other listeners) felt upon hearing Roth classics like the Scorpions' "Dark Lady" and Electric Sun's "Cast away your Chains" for the first time.
With eight vocalists (plus the Sky Choir), the Sky Orchestra and twelve-part closing number in "Tanz In Die Dammerung", even a casual glance at the album's credits and track listing tells you that this is not an album for those who cannot take anything much more ambitious than a straightforward three-minute pop song, to say the least. And while I cannot say with certainty that I know all of the album's lyrics inside out (since my promo copy lacks a lyric sheet), I get the impression that the album is tied together by a fairly heavy lyrical theme as well. The dramatic three-part "Land of Dawn" (one of the album's more accessible tracks) and other songs seem to focus on the emotional coarsening and desensitizing of people through technology, at the expense of the earth and all its creatures.
Performances by all involved are dramatic and technically flawless, especially on the part of Roth and vocalist Mark Boals (ex-Yngwie Malmsteen, Royal Hunt). The musical composition and arrangements are also quite ambitious throughout, to the point where one almost gets the sense that even Boals is fairly challenged by the album's content.
On one level, this is quite a noble venture, given the sheer quantity, quality and depth of material on offer, and Roth's clear effort to produce a decidedly non-disposable piece of art. However, the heavy drama, elaborate composition (including some tricky vocal melodies) and extreme seriousness of it all can seem like a bit much after a while, and I suspect that some listeners will find the intense and occasionally shrill nature of it somewhat fatiguing. Given Roth's stated belief in the need for greater meaning in music and art in general, however, something tells me that giving this album some time to really sink in will prove rewarding for those brave enough- or crazy enough- to take the plunge.
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