There were a bunch of clever ways to jump into this review with, ultimately, all of them failing the veracity test. In the end, the actual story is more intriguing than any concoction I could attempt to cook up.
In the late-’80s, the band .38 Special was mainstreaming, getting more synthed-out, and were fairly representative of Album Oriented Rock at the time. Journey, REO Speedwagon, just about any group around this time were shooting for Top 40 pop radio. This was at odds with a shift in rock tastes, be it the harder take Guns ‘N Roses were putting out, the glam-infused side of Poison, or the juggernaut that was Def Leppard’s Hysteria record. In only a few more years, nearly all these would be struck by the next wave that was alt-rock, but we’re not quite there yet.
A&M Records, the home of .38 Special, approached lead singer Don Barnes with a promising offer: they would set him up with a solo side project and stock his backing band with a murderer’s row of studio talent. We’re talking about session players like the Porcaro brothers, Dann Huff, Alan Pasqua, and others; people with proven track records and gold on the wall. The record was recorded.
The reason you (probably) know nothing about this is because the album was shelved. No direct explanation as to what the problem was has been issued, except to say that this happens more often than you’d expect. A record label spends umpteen thousands of dollars on a recording, but when business alliances change or individuals in upper management switch out or step off, their passion projects get swept into limbo.
Such was the case with Barnes’. A few demonstration mixes were made, but that was it. The record ultimately found its way into the world — albeit in dribs and drabs — through Internet leaks of those demo mixes.
Cut to 2016. Melodic Rock Records head Andrew McNeice started hinting at his wish list for 2017, and one of those was a long-lost AOR contender. He wouldn’t say what it was, as the “I”s weren’t dotted and the “T”s weren’t crossed yet, but there was real money spent on the effort and up to that point, that money was in some box somewhere, collecting nearly thirty years’ worth of dust.
Finally, in 2017, Don Barnes’ Ride The Storm is here and debuting as a 2-disc set. Why two discs? Well, disc two features what is being called the “alternate mix” which would have comprised the slicker, more era-appropriate version of the album’s ten songs. Disc one, on the other hand, features the “rock mix” with guitars turned way up and keyboards laid in as a support. But was the effort worth it?
First, I’ll try to explain it this way. People who love ’80s rock will love Ride The Storm. It has everything one expects from the music of the time, devoid of the angst and vitriol that was about to come. Even when the songs are about bad times, these are good-time songs at the core. The musicians are guaranteed quantities, so you know what they deliver is as professional as can be. And Barnes’ voice is just solid southern roast beef — not overcooked, not fussy, always on the money and delivering what you hoped for.
The opening title track is an audible statement of intent, from the invocation of raging thunder to the walls of guitar that successfully approximate it. “I’d Do It All Over Again” finds itself at the intersection of Def Leppard’s “Photograph” and Foreigner’s “Urgent.” “After The Way” is that fabled should’ve-been hit that the A&M team probably could have used around that time. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget the absolutely magnetic cover of Chicago’s “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday.”
The album has another benefit. As a lot of modern country veers toward an AOR vibe, Ride The Storm winds up firmly walking that fine line. Let’s be clear: it is a rock record and only occasionally lets the southern boogie cards of .38 Special show, but there is a looseness to the intentions that tips the listener to Barnes’ other band, and to their intrinsic feel-good vibe.
Who won’t like this? That would be those who have an aversion to ’80s rock because there’s no approximation here. Nobody is copping the feel or striking the pose, either as homage or parody. This is as sincere an effort as there ever has been, so if that’s not your mug of draft, this isn’t for you. But for those who miss that mindset, that lack of self-consciousness or apologetic tone, or simply miss the sound of a seasoned pro setting them up and knocking them down with confidence, Ride The Storm will certainly put a big grin on your face and an upturned volume knob on your stereo or device.
The album is now available for preorder at Melodic Rock Records: http://www.melodicrock.com//articles/news-feed/2017/05/22/don-barnes-lost-solo-album-ride-storm-comes-mrr