By The Great Sun Jester

We’re a long way from Michael Schenker’s UFO days and even the halcyon days of the MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP’s commercial zenith. There’s no question either that we’ve long since moved past Schenker’s dangerous years of careening out of control – the Michael Schenker you hear on his new album “Universal” continues in the same settled and steadily creative route established in recent years.

The danger is gone in the music, however. It’s a trade-off. Michael Schenker stays out there, gigs a lot, and serves up polished versions of his classics on stages around the world. He doesn’t die and that wasn’t a given – for years. However, anyone married to the idea of Michael Schenker, blonde haired Teutonic rock god returning to his roots should likely steer clear of MSG’s “Universal”.

What the fates take with one hand, they give with another. The wild and woolly rambunctious danger is gone, but it’s replaced with maturity and a fine ear for blending rock and pop sensibilities. There are, as well, hints of something more. “Emergency”, the album’s first track, features arguably the hardest working singer in hard rock today, Ronnie Romero, delivering lyrics that sound like someone’s dark night of the soul.

The staccato rhythm guitar echoes bygone classics such as UFO’s “Mother Mary” and many others, but it has an ultimately workmanlike effect. It’s too comfortable for the scenario depicted in the words; it sounds like there’s nothing at stake. The solo pays off, of course, but even it can only take the song so far.

Former MSG vocalist Gary Barden duets with Romero on “Under Attack” and it’s remarkable how much Barden sounds like late-period Dan McCafferty of NAZARETH at this point. The tune is relatively pedestrian but saved by strong Schenker guitar. “A King Has Gone” is one of “Universal”’s indisputable high points as Schenker seizes upon a simple yet effective melody and builds on its possibilities. The solo carries the cut to even greater heights.

The album’s nominal title cut, “The Universal”, boasts a great guitar tone from Schenker and another melodic solo, but past glories are otherwise in short supply. The guitar playing has spark, Schenker emerged from years of self-abuse with his talents largely unscathed, but much of the songwriting is little more than a vehicle for his guitar playing.

“Yesterday Is Dead” is a muscular straight-forward rocker, nothing ground-breaking, but vigorous. There’s a rough and ready mood crackling off this one that’s missing from some of the other tracks and Romero, in particular, shines with a varied vocal performance. Some of the old fire is present in the manic closer “Au Revoir”, but the song suffers at the hand of its cliched lyrics. “Universal” is a mixed bag; Herr Schenker’s faithful will embrace it, Michael’s guitar playing is more than merely intact, but one gets the feeling that Schenker’s coasting. It’s respectable, for sure, but non-essential for all but the die-hards.