By Bob Nalbandian

In The Midst Of Beauty
Chrysalis/EMI (UK)

We'll start with the latest MSG 2008 studio release In The Midst Of Beauty and I'll begin by saying this has got to be one of the biggest let-down's of 2008. When I first got word that Michael was bringing back the classic lineup from their epic debut (along with Neil Murray on bass who is of equivalent classic caliber) I was happier than a pig in shit but upon first listen I thought the songs and production sounded like pig shit. Let's start with the production...produced by Michael himself along Romi Schickle and Siggi Schwarz In The Midst Of Beauty sounds painfully thin and flat. The drum mix is horrible, no bottom end at all with the snare sounding like Simon is banging on a trash can lid. In fact, Simon Phillips (who was guest session musician on the MSG debut and performed masterfully on songs like "Into The Arena," "Armed & Ready" and "Lost Horizon") is utterly mediocre and expressionless on this CD and vocalist Gary Barden sounds absolutely ball-less! This is ever-so apparent on the CD opener "City Limits" in which Gary seems to purposely suppress his vocal range and when he sings the chorus as it embarrassingly lacks in power. There's no question this man has an amazing and distinct voice but whether it be wear and tear on his vocals throughout the years or what have you, it's evident Gary just does not have the power and vigor he once had on the early MSG records. And this isn't helped by Don Airey's lackluster performance. Surprisingly Don (one of the best keyboardists in rock) provides absolutely nothing to the fold other than dismal B3 organ backing tracks and Neil does what he can to hold down the foundation but it becomes increasingly obvious that these 4 members were simply guns for hire by Michael as they add no personality whatsoever of their own, which is an absolute shame since they are all exceptional musicians. But the one factor that remains a constant is Michael Schenker's extraordinary guitar work. His playing is still unbelievable and tasteful as ever but even that can't resurrect this shipwreck. Songs like "Competition" and "End Of The Line" try to come off as sounding powerful but fall way short. I really wish there was a highlight track on this 12-song disc that I can boast about but unfortunately all the songs are meek and weak. And I wanted so much to enjoy and cherish this reunited MSG album but it is now more evident than ever that the only way I can truly enjoy new MSG music is to listen to re-recorded versions of classic MSG songs and thank the Lord Chrysalis/EMI music in England has provided just that with the recently released MSG "greatest hits" compilation entitled The Best Of The Michael Schenker Group 1980 -1984. And I'm not normally a fan of re-recordings, remixes or re-masters as they're usually a lame attempt for record companies to capitalize on the artists past catalog without offering anything new or enticing. That may be the case for the 1992 Crysalis/EMI CD release Essential Michael Schenker Group but as for this newly released Best Of MSG compilation I feel it definitely does it's job in offering the listener some great alternative mixes to classic MSG songs. Let's start with the songs from the 1980 classic MSG debut - the title track, "Armed & Ready," the radio edit of "Cry For The Nations," and the epic "Lost Horizon" sounds much livelier with fuller more ambient production. "Lost Horizons" particularly is a standout manifesting a rich guitar tones highlighted by a thunderous bass/drum mix. This really portrays the true live production of how this song was intended to sound. I also prefer this radio edit of "Cry For The Nations" as I thought the extended version dragged on way too long (again, great drum remix which truly exhibits the masterful drum work of Simon Phillips). In fact, I remember buying the original 12 inch Cry For The Nations EP when it first came out, it featured a great live rendition of the ultimate instrumental "Into The Arena" and I'm glad to see that version is included on this disc. This track has also been brilliantly remixed bringing out the monstrous bass and drum tonality, particularly in the incredible mid-break in this song that sounds heavy as all hell! The songs sound so much superior to the original Roger Glover produced songs (I dig Roger's production on the latter Purple records but his earlier productions like the debut MSG and Priest's Sin After Sin record lacked severely in power and heaviness). The three tracks featured from MSG's follow-up self-titled CD also sound vastly better than the original mixes. I was always turned off by the original production of this record, which is surprising since Ron Nevison produced some of Michael's best work in UFO w/ Light's Out and Obession (one of the best sounding rock records for its time). But for some reason or another Nevison produced a lackluster with this second MSG record. So hearing tracks like "Are You Ready To Rock" and "Attack Of The Mad Axeman" with a fuller and livelier production brought on this whole new energetic vibe. I can do without the live version of "Victim of Illusion," a very tedious and sluggish performance on this song. As far as the tracks from Assault Attack, they pretty much sound the same. There's not a lot you can do to improve the brilliant Martin Birch production of the original takes other than making it sound a bit more brighter than the original, which was done here. Again, I could have done without that track "Dancer" and it's B-side track "Girl From Uptown," in fact; Chrysalis was smart the first time around when they opted for the heavier "Rock You To The Ground" and "Samurai" on the Essential MSG compilation record. But as I've always said, the tracks "Assault Attack" and "Desert Song" are truly two of MSG's very best songs showcasing the remarkable vocal talents of Graham Bonnet. Absolute classics! As for the rest of the CD, I never did care much for the latter MSG records, apart from the extraordinary instrumental track "Captain Nemo" which is featured here in it's "original mix" which brings out the brilliant drum/bass work of Ted McKenna and Chris Glenn. Much like "Into The Arena" this is one of the great hard rock instrumentals ever recorded featuring an unbelievably catchy yet technical guitar riff! The live version of "Doctor Doctor" is worth mentioning as well just because the song is always a classic closer on almost every MSG performance. All in all if your looking to buy a new MSG record I certainly would recommend you pick up The Best Of rather than In The Midst of Beauty as this shows classic MSG at their best!

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