Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
The first album, Mecca, originally released in 2002 came about following Joe’s longtime liaison with ex-Survivor and Pride of Lions mainman Jim Peterik and featured David Hungate (ex-Toto) on bass, Shannon Forrest on drums, the late, great Fergie Frederiksen (ex-Toto) and Joe himself on vocals, Mike Aquino on guitars and Jimmy Nichols on keyboards.
This album is represented by CD1 in this collection and is an absolute belter of an album. It’s chock-full of highly melodic AOR, the combination of Joe’s vocal with Fergie’s lends it a really special vibe. The guitars and keyboards combine beautifully throughout the album evoking memories of the best of Survivor and 80s Toto yet at the same time retaining some of their own identity.
I clearly recall this being one of my favourite AOR albums of 2002 and it’s still revisited to this day. I particularly like the lyrical content, as it’s a little deeper than your standard AOR/Melodic Rock album, albeit still dealing with the typical themes of life and love that characterise the genre.
Highlights on this CD are many. Opener ‘Velocitized’ is perhaps the least representative of the album, as it is a really guitar-led kick-ass rocker powered along by Mike Aquino’s guitar and Fergie’s incredible vocal. The rest of the album is rather more AOR, although Aquino’s guitars do snarl and bite throughout. ‘Without You’ is raucous but highly melodic AOR with a very Survivor-meets-Toto vibe.
Vana and Frederiksen’s vocals combine brilliantly in the choruses of this track and reminds us all of what a loss it was to the music world when Frederiksen passed away after a long battle with cancer in 2014.
‘Wishing Well’ is another Frederiksen-sung track with a brilliant storytelling lyric. This is probably my favourite track on the album and could easily have sat on Survivor’s utterly classic Vital Signs album, it’s that good! It’s one of those songs that you could play to anybody who didn’t really know what AOR is as a blueprint for the genre.
The chorus hook is absolutely glorious as the vocal harmonies scream into the stratosphere and the guitar/vocal playout is so glorious it could easily be sung by a choir of angels!
‘Can’t Stop Love’ is another brilliant vocal duet with the combination of the voices in the chorus giving you goosebumps throughout. The song itself builds from a delicate acoustic intro into a stomping melodic rocker with fabulous keyboards adding a ton of saccharine to the chugging guitars. Classic AOR without a doubt!
Title track ‘Mecca’ is a brilliant Toto-esque ballad with a very clever structure and arrangement and the Toto connection is continued in the brilliant mid-paced ‘Falling Down’ which has a real Toto IV vibe and another colossal AOR chorus. Vana’s vocal is absolutely stunning on this track and the lyric once again cuts deep, being a little ‘different’ – vulnerable, yet strong with a really positive vibe to what otherwise could be a sad lyrical story.
Truth to tell, there’s not a single weak track on the entirety of CD1 and it’s worth the price of admission for the set for this CD alone (there is a bonus track, the quirkily-titled ‘Miss Mischevious’ that wasn’t on the original album and is a brass-infused hard rocker not dissimilar to opening track ‘Velocitized’ in its feel.)
CD1 Mecca is one of those excellent classic AOR albums; very immediate yet with true longevity. I never tire of it and I personally feel that Mecca never actually bettered this album, although they came very close as we’ll see as we delve into CD2 and CD3.
CD2 is represented by the second Mecca album, Undeniable, released a full 9 years after the debut in 2011. There were changes afoot in the Mecca camp for this second album. The Jim Peterik connection was no longer prevalent and the music itself was subtly different.
Also, Fergie Frederiksen was no longer on board so Vana handled all the vocals himself (and very capably too, I might add!) This time the music had a more Hi-Tech AOR feel which the promotional material accurately describes as a cross between Mr Mister’s Welcome To The Real World and Toto’s The Seventh One.
Swedish guitar legend Tommy Denander (Radioactive) was also heavily involved in this album. His Steve Lukather-influenced guitar playing would add even more to the Toto-influence in the sound, although he also kicks in some Steve (Mr Mister) Fariss-style licks throughout..
Highlights of CD2 are also many, although the shift in style does make this CD a little less immediate than CD1. Still, perseverance with it is key as there are some real gems on this CD and fans of good lyrics will appreciate the writing on here.
Opener ‘Perfect World’ has some superb Mr Mister-style guitar playing in a hook-laden monster of a track that kicks off the album in very considerable style. ‘Closing Time’ is another huge melodic rocker, with a slightly progressive twist in the instrumental section.
‘Ten Lifetimes’ is probably my favourite track on the album. It has some parallels to the sound Tommy Denander achieved across his various Radioactive projects but also has a lot of Toto influence in it. The chorus to this one is absolutely gorgeous – the harmony on the “I’ll wait ten lifetimes” hook and the delightful instrumental section still literally gives me goosebumps a full 11 years after first hearing it!
‘Life’s Too Short’ has a real Mr Mister influence in the verses, but this time rather more reminiscent of their Go On album. It also has an odd spoken word verse, and a massive chorus. Different and very, very good. ‘From The Start’ continues the latter-day Mr Mister vibe, cunningly mixed with Toto-esque keyboards and a huge chorus.
Overall, CD2 Undeniable is a very, good album and once again, there are no tracks that I’d really want to skip. It also includes a bonus track – ‘How Many Times’ which is another brass-infused rocker, tis time with a real West Coast Toto early influence.
It’s a good song and a worthy addition to the original album. However, good though the album is, you do need to really listen to it to fully appreciate it. Listening to it again for the first time in a while in order to review it, I was reminded of just how good it actually is and found myself appreciating the slightly more progressive vibe perhaps rather more than when I bought it on its initial release.
I do still feel that CD1 Mecca has the edge although that could just be my general preference for more straight-ahead AOR rather than the more progressive stylings.
CD3 is represented by the third Mecca album, III, released in 2016. This time Tommy Denander was out and much of the personnel from Mecca returned to instrumental duty, aided by Joe’s son Joey on guitar and legendary drummer Pat Mastelotto (Mr Mister & King Crimson).
This is not dissimilar to CD2 Undeniable in style with a quite progressive feel to some of the song structures. There is some really clever writing and arrangement on here but it does take a few listens to fully appreciate what is on offer and some of the hooks are not as obvious as those within CD1 and CD2.
I still personally feel that the tracks on CD3 III do tend to blur into each other a little due to the less obvious hooklines and also a preponderance of slow to mid-paced tempo across several tracks.
There are still highlights. Opener ‘Take My Hand’ is very similar to the best tracks on CD2 Undeniable. It’s a monstrous rocker with huge guitars and massive hooks, and a slightly meandering extended guitar solo to close the track.
‘Alone’ is a soft and delicate ballad in the finest tradition of more recent Toto and Mr Mister from their Go On and Pull eras. It builds gradually and has acres of space in the production that really allows all the parts to breathe.
‘Let It Go’ is a delightful ballad that features superb vocals and another quite wonderful production and arrangement that makes great use of dynamics and builds quite brilliantly. ‘I Believe’ is very similar and equally good.
There are four bonus tracks on CD3. These include re-imaginings of two of the tracks on the original disc as well as demos of ‘I Know’ and ‘Ten Lifetimes’ from CD2 Undeniable. Whether or not you view these as essential will depend on a lot of factors.
It is very interesting to hear the demos and how they compare to the final versions and the reimagined tracks give further insight into the creative process shared by Vana and the rest of the band, but casual listeners might not be so bothered by these extra tracks.
Overall, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting the music of Mecca over the past couple of days prior to writing this review. They were clearly a very talented act, with Joe Vana having a great voice, really poetic lyricism and a clear vision of exactly where he wanted Mecca’s sound to develop over the course of their career.
It’s good that Frontiers have decided to re-issue these in one set and remind us of the quality of the band. Whether or not you’ll want to shell out for this boxed set will likely depend on whether or not you already own the original recordings.
For the uninitiated AOR/Melodic Rock fans who have never heard Mecca before, I can heartily recommend this set, especially if your tastes include Toto’s more recent progressive material. Overall, to my ears, CD1 Mecca is an essential listen for any classic old-school AOR fan and it rocks the hardest, with CD2 Undeniable not far behind, although it has a more progressive and ‘updated’ sound.
CD3, III is the least immediate, and the least uptempo, but will certainly appeal to those who like their AOR on the progressive side.
Joe Vana : Lead vocals
Fergie Frederiksen : Lead vocals
Mike Aquino : Guitars
David Hungate : Bass Guitar
Shannon Forest : Drums & Percussion
Jimmy Nichols : Keyboards