Keys is, for those unaware of the project, a collaboration between keyboard player Mark Mangold (a veteran of the band Touch) with vocalist Jake E (who some may know from the bands Cyhra and Amarenthe). As one might guess from the name, the album is all about the keyboards. And when I say all about them, I mean ALL about them. Because almost everything you hear on the album is generated by Mangold’s keys. On first listen you assume there are a couple of pretty fine shredding guitarists on here, but nope. That’s Mangold again, emulating the guitar sound with astonishing success, and managing to fire off a ripping solo which is so convincing it confounds your ears. It’s all rather cleverly done, although there is something of an elephant approaching the room – but we’ll deal with that when he arrives. We’ve looked at the guitar sound, and confirmed that it’s brilliantly done. The keyboard-sounding keyboards (if that makes sense) are as good as you would expect – which is a relief, as if they weren’t, an album such as this would be a house devoid of foundations. How’s the material and the overall style though?
Well, as far as style goes, we take a trip across much of the map here. There are, as you might expect, some massively pomp-filled grandstanding parts, where the massed keyboards come in giving a sound akin to a classic such as Tower from the first Angel album back in 1975 (if you don’t know that one, seek it out. Go on, I’ll be here when you get back…), and it’s these moments which are largely responsible for the ‘prog rock’ tag bestowed on the album in many quarters. It’s not all pomp and circumstance, however, as Mangold’s writing style often leads him quite skilfully down the path of melodic rock, which is unsurprising given the work he has done for the likes of Cher and Michael Bolton alongside his rock credentials). In a sense you could almost liken the album to a sort of 21st century Asia, as often commercial and melodic material is given a pomp-rock makeover. But again, that would do a massive disservice to the more adventurous material on here, some of which is meticulously put together. Chief among these is the seven minute Sparrow, perhaps the most ambitious composition and to these ears certainly the most deserving of the prog tag. Angelfire is another in a similar vein, as is RIP, though that last named track is significantly less successful, being rather too busy in its arrangement and ending up sounding somewhat cluttered. It is also fatally hamstrung by the digital drum sound, which leads us to discuss that elephant which is now at the door about to enter the room. Namely, the drums. Or lack of them.
It has been promised that, if and when Keys get active in the live arena, as well as three keyboard players reproducing the amazing sonic palette here, drums will be handled by Alex Landenburg from power metal band Kamelot. This should provide a huge improvement, as the decision by Mangold to handle the drums on here digitally is one which leaves the album significantly hampered. Drums should rarely be emulated, and this is a prime illustration of that rule, as the sound generated here is, it must be said, distractingly intrusive. Sounding at times like massively amplified suitcases being struck with enormous hammers and drenched with echo and reverb, on some tracks here (not all, thankfully), the drum sound is so overpowering as to actually detract from the excellent work done elsewhere. I say not all, as some tracks manage to cope better, with Sparrow and parts of Angelfire, as well as the opener When Shadows Fall and Raise Your Head (Sky) emerging largely unscathed. Elsewhere significant damage is done, however, with the otherwise exceptional piece Feast Of Lies struggling to show its superbly melodic and grandiose properties over the unsympathetic accompaniment. RIP is heavily undone also, as is another interestingly constructed piece Scathe.
This is a real shame, as the material here is far too good in places to be afflicted in this way, and I found myself at times trying to imagine the material with physical – and sympathetic-sounding – drums, and while it brought the quality of the rest of the playing and the composition into focus, it also made it even more frustrating as to the often missed opportunity. What I am waiting for is a live album being eventually recorded, displaying the full potential of this material with the ranks of keyboard men and, most importantly, the hugely talented Landenburg in the engine room. The guitarless experiment will then, I fully expect, come to the full realisation of its potential.
One thing which must be said, and certainly not overlooked, is the quality of Jake E’s vocals, as he puts these songs across in an assured and commanding manner. Only the missed opportunity of the drums stops this from being a genuinely exciting record, and that is a real shame. I could not possibly write this album off as a disaster of any kind, as the most successful material, and the potential of much of the rest, would render that a disingenuous assessment. But it certainly could, and should, have been far stronger, that is an unavoidable conclusion.