Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
Hugo’s Voyage are a Journey tribute band that has been touring the US since 2005, featuring ex-Valentine and Open Skyz vocalist and Steve Perry clone Hugo Valenti. Inception is their debut album of original music and it will come as no surprise that Journey are a key influence in the sound of the band.
Now, many bands over the years have been heavily influenced by Journey, even to the point of almost cloning their sound, so what do Hugo’s Voyage bring to the table with Inception?
Well, first things first: Hugo is a very fine singer in the Steve Perry mould. He has the Perry tone down to a tee and has that same wonderful control over the falsetto and the soft, gentle croon that Perry made his own. Hugo still has the voice he had back in the 80s when he fronted the debut Valentine album and this is obviously very important when making your living from fronting a Journey tribute band and is a very clear selling point for Inception. Fortunately it isn’t the only selling point: there is some very nifty AOR songwriting on here – songwriting in the classic 1980s AOR style.
Opening with ‘Inception’, the band almost deliver a false start as it’s a pretty pointless and unremarkable instrumental track. However, we can forgive them this little hiccup the moment ‘Crazy What Love Can Do’ kicks in. This is a quite glorious throwback to the sound that Journey had on the classic Raise On Radio album: polished, highly melodic and very pink and fluffy AOR of the highest order and this sets the benchmark for what’s on offer with the rest of the album.
‘Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love’ is next and has that classic ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ style piano intro before opening out into a hook-laden and supremely melodic piece of AOR. Guitars chug and stab through the washes of gorgeous 80s keyboard pads as Hugo’s voice hits some wondrous falsetto. The guitar solo when it arrives has plenty of nods towards Neal Schon, being heavy on melody and with a lovely tone. Orchestral choirs of harmony vocals add an angelic beauty to a superb piece of classic AOR. It’s the perfect choice for a lead-off single and should have most AOR fanatics trembling in anticipation of the rest of the album.
‘Sound Of A Broken Heart’ ups the pink and fluffy quotient very considerably with retro 80s electric pianos and choppy, funky Stratocaster strumming, Hugo’s ridiculously Perry-like vocal leading us through a stunning piece of soft, almost West-Coast mid-paced AOR that is the musical equivalent of a warm, fluffy blanket on a cold winter’s evening – warm, welcoming and comforting. The guitar solo is quite stunning too. Nothing too shreddy, it oozes melody and classic Rock feel and is just perfect for the track. Well done, Robby Hoffman!
‘Goin’ Away’ is far more uptempo and guitar-led, sounding like it could’ve been on Journey’s Departure album but even here, the saccharine-sweetness of the melodies is such that the pink and fluffiness is never far away and that falsetto….goodness me, that falsetto! It really is utterly glorious and lifts the track far above the ordinary.
After that rather rock n roll interlude, ‘A Friend Like You’ takes us back to Soft-Rockville being a very classy mid-paced ballad full of delicious vocal hooks, chiming clean Stratocaster guitars and delicate saxophone (courtesy of Ray Hermann). It’s also worth mentioning here the contribution of Tyketto bass player Greg Smith, keyboardists Lance Millard and Steve Ferlazzo and drummer Dana Spellman, all of whom – alongside the already mentioned guitarist Robby Hoffman – provide the perfect accompaniment to Hugo’s stunning vocals, never overplaying, just doing what is right for the song. Here, the laid-back West-Coast groove they conjour up is quite delightful, even if it is as rock n roll as a strawberry mousse dessert!
‘How Many Times’ breaks no new ground, but is yet more wonderful mid-paced soft AOR, with a very Schon-esque guitar solo from Robby Hoffman before the uptempo ‘I’ll Be Around’ reminds us that this really is a Rock album. There’s a slight REO Speedwagon vibe to the intro to this superb slice of rocking AOR that also brings back memories of another very good Journey-influenced band from the 90s, The Storm (who of course featured ex-Journey players Greg Rolie, Ross Valory and Steve Smith plus guitarist Josh Ramos.) It’s a great track, full of pulsating energy, incisive guitar and infectious vocal hooks and proves that these boys aren’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal a little bit.
The pace drops again for ‘In My Heart’ which is Hugo’s Voyage’s attempt to write their own ‘Open Arms’. It doesn’t hit the stellar heights of Journey’s signature ballad, but it is nonetheless a very fine slice of AOR balladry, all love-lorn lyrics, layers of keyboards flitting across the mix like fluffy clouds, and polite slabs of guitar, all providing the fitting backdrop to more of those delicious vocals and another perfectly paced guitar solo. Quite beautiful!
Moving on, we get ‘September Love’, which, as its title suggests, is another very delicate slice of very soft almost West-Coast AOR carried along on the strength of Hugo’s vocal. Nice to hear a piano solo in this one as well.
Next up is ‘The Voyage’, where you’d swear it’s Neal Schon on guitar on those lead guitars. This one drops a delightful curveball in that, just when you think it’s another mid-paced semi-ballad, the tempo suddenly picks up for a while before dropping back again – a clever piece of writing/arrangement that really works. Lyrically, it’s a whimsical story of self-discovery. Slightly cliched perhaps, but it fits the themes of the music, the peaks and troughs in the arrangement mimicking the ups and downs of life. It’s a very cool track and guitarist Robby Hoffman excels on it with some quite superb and blistering soloing.
The album ends with ‘When Heaven Makes an Angel’. It’ll probably come as no surprise to you if you’ve made it this far that this is another very pink and fluffy ballad-esque track. Truth to tell, I’d have liked an uptempo closer along the lines of the preceding track, but one can’t have everything, I suppose. It’s probably the only track I was tempted to skip on initial listens, but it has grown a bit as I’ve written this review. It’s a nice song, but isn’t a satisfying album closer (in my opinion.)
If you’re a fan of Journey, of The Storm, of Open Skyz or Hugo’s solo work, even the more Hair-Metal/AOR of Valentine, you’ll probably love this album. If soft West-Coast AOR floats your boat, you’ll adore it too. If, however, you prefer your Rock with a little more ‘balls’ in the sound, then you should approach with a bit of caution, as it is so soft in its stylings.
I personally think it’s a fabulous album, way better than any of Journey’s recent offerings, which always try to hard to rock out when actually they are far better when playing softer material. This album is unashamedly soft, pink and fluffy AOR. It does this absolutely brilliantly, so if like me, this kind of thing is your bag, then you’ll absolutely love it.
Star of the show is obviously Hugo’s voice, but guitarist Robby Hoffman needs special mention for never overplaying once on the entire album and for playing the AOR guitar role to perfection. Sublime, delicate, beautiful: Inception is all of these things and I’ll be putting in my order for a CD copy pronto!
Hugo Valenti – Vocals
Robby Hoffman – Guitars
Lance Millard – Keyboards
Greg Smith – Bass
Dana Spellman – Drums
Steve Ferlazzo – Keyboards
Ray Herrmann: Saxophone
HUGO’S VOYAGE ANNOUNCES SIGNING TO FRONTIERS MUSIC SRL
DEBUT ALBUM “INCEPTION” SET FOR RELEASE ON NOVEMBER 10