Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
Almost three years after the release of their rather excellent Synergy album, ex-Vixen frontwoman Janet Gardner and her partner Justin James present their new album, No Strings.
Picking up rather admirably from where Synergy left off, No Strings provides the listener with a fabulous selection of well-written and performed guitar-driven Melodic Hard Rock.
Opening with ‘I’m Living Free’, a crunching slice of almost bluesy Melodic Rock, Gardner James set their stall out in no uncertain terms. Built on swaggering chunks of blues-influenced guitar, the track is a powerful statement of intent. Gardner’s voice may not have quite the same timbre that it had back in the day with Vixen, but there is still plenty of power and range there and she stamps her authority on proceedings here with considerable aplomb.
‘Turn The Page’ follows and keeps proceedings both suitably hard rocking and melodic, with another colossal slab of chunky guitar driving the song along. The verses have a proper classic 80s Hair Metal vibe and the chorus is extremely catchy, with Justin James cranking out a classy solo that, rather refreshingly, doesn’t rely on extreme shred to get its message across.
First single, the uptempo melody-fest that is ‘85’ follows and cleverly combines classic 80s structures with modern down-tuned guitar chords. The introductory guitar riff reminds me slightly of Don Henley’s classic ‘Boys of Summer’, before the power-chords kick into the pre-chorus.
The chorus itself is an absolute monster, colossally infectious and full of layered harmony vocals and huge slabs of guitar. Lyrically, the song is taking the listener back to the glory days of the mid 1980s and structurally the song itself could easily have come from that era, but the production and mix keep it as current as possible while nodding strongly to the nostalgia of old. It’s a fabulous track and an excellent choice for a single.
The tempo drops for title track, ‘No Strings’ which lightens the guitar tones somewhat on a gorgeous ballad that is heavy on melody. Gardner softens her vocal beautifully on the gentle verses before upping the ante on the extremely melodic choruses. The track is completed by some delightfully restrained and lyrical lead guitar playing from James who seems to have the knack of playing exactly what the song requires throughout the album.
‘Don’t Turn Me Away’ starts with gently strummed acoustic guitars and low key vocals before we are assailed with another massive 80s-influenced AOR-styled chorus and another quality guitar solo on what is another extremely high-quality piece of Melodic Hard Rock. This theme continues into the rifftastic ‘Set Me Free’ which combines huge 80s Rock styled guitar riffing with quietly dynamic verses before another absolutely monster chorus.
‘Hold On To You’ opens with considerable restraint and has a very AOR melody in the verses, which somewhat oddly, have more of a hookline than the chorus. The production on this track is a little different from the rest of the album and works very well. Gardner pushes her voice here too, with some quite delightful rasp on the high notes.
‘Into The Night’ has that wonderful 1980s ‘drench the drums in reverb’ thing going on, with pumping bass and more classic 80s Hair Metal riffing, complete with requisite ‘who, oh, oh’ chant-along vocal thing and catchy chorus.
The guitar riffing here really does scream ‘1980s’ but in a very good way. It’s another very melodic slice of Hard Rock and you have to admire the overall songwriting here, as they’ve really worked on ensuring that there are plenty of easily accessible melodic hooks all over the place. It’s business as usual on ‘I’m Not Sorry’ which provides more of the same, but with probably the most Vixen-like chorus on the entire album before the whole thing goes double-time with a frantic guitar instrumental section. Really rather fabulous!
‘You’ll See’ introduces a bit of Hammond organ into the mix with a riff that has a little bit of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ influence in the main riff and with chorus melodies that are a little more subtle in the hookline department, but with no lesser quality for that.
‘She Floats Away’ sees James drag out the old acoustic guitar again with a delightfully bluesy bit of picking before the big chorus kicks in, although, somewhat refreshingly, the acoustic guitar is the main instrument here, providing a breather from all the enormous Melodic Hard Rock riffery.
Finally, Gardner James close the album with ‘Drink’, which has a bit of a bar-room Hard Rock n Roll feel. It’s all a bit throwaway and, in this reviewer’s opinion, isn’t the best way to end what has been an extremely enjoyable album.
Janet Gardner will always have the ‘ex-Vixen’ tag and that’s something that she and Justin James have wisely chosen not to completely abandon on No Strings. What they have done, however, is to take the classic 80s sound for which Vixen were rightly famed and to bring it kicking and screaming into 2023 with an emphasis on huge guitars and tons of melody.
It is a sound that really works as the album has more hooks than very large cloakroom, but all embedded into songs with big riffs and huge slabs of powerful guitar. Keyboards may be in there fleshing out the sound, but they never dominate and that’s a very good thing with this set of songs. Fans of Vixen should definitely check this out, as should any fans of quality Melodic Hard Rock. It’s the sort of album that sounds great played loud with a beer in hand; it’s fun, supremely infectious, nostalgic yet up-to-date, and just really rather good.
1 I’m Living Free
2 Turn The Page
4 No Strings
5 Don’t Turn Me Away
6 Set Me Free
7 Hold On To You
8 Into The Night
9 I’m Not Sorry
10 You’ll See
11 She Floats Away