Grace And Fire is a new outfit from England which describes itself as ‘fusing progressive rock with melodic hard rock in a melodic, song-based, accessible format’. That description certainly pricked my interest, as did the presence of bassist Tim Ashton who had a couple of stints with UK prog veterans Galahad. The other musicians were not familiar to me but have had plenty of experience on the circuit – André Saint (vocals) and Aaron Gidney (guitars) worked together in a previous band, Shadow of Acolyte, while drummer Graham Brown has worked with John Mitchell and ex-Touchstone alumni Rob Cottingham and Kim Seviour. You may be wondering where the obligatory keyboard player in a prog rock band is hiding, and the answer is that keyboards are mostly courtesy of guest musician Gary Marsh from Tiger Moth Tales / Red Bazar. The presence of other well-known guest musicians – Derek Sherinian (ex Dream Theatre/Sons of Apollo) on keys on one track, and singers Goran Edman and Mark Boals (both ex-Yngwie Malmsteen) – are additional points of interest here.
The opening instrumental overture, called somewhat unimaginatively Overture, is an impressive start. The opening NWOBHM riff is a bit misleading as the music develops in more progressive metal jagged chords later joined by swirling synths. Without a pause the overture leads into the title track which in six minutes captures all that is good….and less good about the band. It begins with an energetic synth theme over some furious drumming, continuing the prog feel of the overture, then veering into a slower vocal section where the energy level disappointingly drops and seems almost to be another song. Towards the end, the energy level picks up and we get some excellent Schenker-like licks from Gidney – he really is a technically good guitarist and impresses throughout the album. The song demonstrates that the band has all the pieces to make great music but there is something a little fragmented about it, perhaps inevitably caused by the desire to be both a heavy/progressive band and an AOR/stadium-rock band too. Despite this odd marriage, most of the tracks have interesting elements – whether it’s a good keyboard hook, a fine melody, or one of the many excellent solos from Gidney. The two power ballads – Paradise Lost and Sea of Dreams – both work well too, aided by their more straight-forward and coherent structures.
Without a doubt the band saved the best till last with the two-part The Great Divide. Part One has Gidney in the spotlight for a reflective two-minute bluesy guitar piece. It’s nicely done but Gidney’s forte is wowing us with pyrotechnics more than subtlety – he can’t wring out the emotion and have us close to tears in the way that Andy Latimer or Snowy White could, for example. At nearly nine minutes, Part Two is a different kettle of fish though. It’s opening harmonic guitar theme immediately gives the track the sort of epic feel that is not present elsewhere in the album. The vocal section is also very well constructed with the Stargazer-like bridge section leading to a fabulous key change and melodic chorus line. After the second chorus, I was eagerly anticipating an extended instrumental section over the bridge or chorus themes which would have topped the song off magnificently, but instead we get a curiously Santana-sounding solo over a jazzy beat followed by some feeble keyboards. Thank goodness the chorus does make its way back at the end.
I confess I was left with a sense of frustration because the band can clearly come up with good ideas, but to these ears they haven’t yet quite worked out how to turn a good idea into a great song. Still, as a debut album, it’s a good effort and will undoubtedly appeal to fans of melodic heavy rock with a slight prog twist.