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TENBy Wolf Grant

Want to start an argument on melodic rock? Then simply go onto one of the better known noticeboards and ask for opinions on Ten. For every fan that professes their admiration you will get those who decry their very existence. A very strange situation, especially seeing as how the band have won numerous polls and awards since their inception back in 1995, thus proving their popularity amongst the general melodic rock loving population.

Ten's self-titled debut in 1996 still ranks as one of the best debuts by a British hard rock band. An amazing collection of emotion drenched melodic rock with Gary Hughes' evocative vocals and Vinny Burns displaying some of the most tasteful guitar playing heard in ages - just listen to the magic that is 'Loneliest Place in the World'. A mere six months later came the follow up, 'The Name of the Rose', which many fans still proclaim as Ten's finest moment. And with this album Ten began to experience the main problem that has dogged them ever since. Although all the songs for the first two albums were recorded at the same time - the eventual running orders being chosen by the band and record company - the second album had a distinctly heavier vibe to it. Songs such as the title track became firm fan favourites, and was even voted 'Song of the Year' in Japan's Burrn! Magazine, a very high accolade indeed. In fact, both the debut and 'NotR' appeared in the Top 5 of their reader's Top 50 albums of the year, an amazing feat when you consider the split vote, and one which has never been equalled. This showed just how much the Japanese fans had taken Ten into their hearts.

In 1997, third album 'The Robe' saw Ten display more of their heavier side with songs such as 'Bright on the Blade' and 'Battlelines', and even at this early stage in their career, some fans were yearning for a return to the more 'AOR friendly' sounds of their debut. This despite the fact that 'The Robe' contained two of Ten's best ever ballads, 'You're in My Heart' and 'Someday'.

1999 saw the Rafe McKenna (Giant, Bad Company, Foreigner) produced 'Spellbound' released, featuring a wonderful cover by renowned Spanish artist Luis Royo. McKenna made a tougher, harder sounding album, which along with the fantasy art cover helped Ten appeal to the European metal crowd, as well as the usual AOR/MHR fans. The Celtic influences were also a treat, giving Ten a distinctive Thin Lizzy vibe at times, and giving us the firm fan favourite 'Red'. However, the album also succeeded in alienating some of their older fans.

Personally, I can't understand why some people claim all Ten albums are the same. That is so patently untrue, and to force the point even further, the band made the very brave move of creating a concept album as their fifth release in 2000, the futuristic epic 'Babylon'. This album saw a mixture of all the styles from previous Ten albums, and seemed to gain almost universal approval from fans - walking away with the vote for best MHR album and production in last year's Fireworks Poll - despite featuring 'Thunder in Heaven', an amazing track I consider to be the heaviest song ever recorded by Ten.

As vocalist and main songwriter Gary Hughes explains, "I am very happy indeed with the fans reaction to Babylon. It was a very experimental album for Ten as a band and the fans adapted to the adventure all consumingly." So having spent a long period planning out such an album, would they ever be likely to repeat the experince? "Who knows," replies Gary. "Musically we are extremely flexible. I wouldn't rule anything out at this stage regarding our future."

So after the success of Babylon, the band had to decide how to plan the follow up. The market in Japan had crashed pretty badly due to the economic problems being experienced in the country, and most bands had lost a large percentage of their sales, many not even being able to obtain a deal!

After 5 studio albums, it is still the first two Ten albums that are the biggest sellers in Japan. Not surprisingly, it is 'Spellbound' that is the biggest seller in Europe. This left the band in a bit of a quandary - do they target the more AOR loving Japanese audience or the European audience, with their harder tastes. An initial suggestion of recording a core version of the next album, with different songs for the different markets, was quickly discounted, with the final decision being made to try and emulate the success of those early albums.

As to how this affected the writing process on 'Far Beyond the World', Gary explains, "For the most part, in the same ways as before, only this time we have gone for a more modern approach to the material. It is important to justify yourselves in today's market. No-one can make music that sounds like it belongs to the eighties anymore. Not and survive."

Usually, the term 'modern approach' would set the alarm bells ringing, conjuring up images of de-tuned guitars and miserable looking musicians, but having listened to the album I would have to say it's more a mixture of the most commercial parts of 'Babylon' with Gary's solo album 'Precious Ones' and also bits of the debut. Definitely an album to please those looking for a return to the more commercial sound of Ten. Gary does not deny this. "We have always believed that Ten are one of the few bands with the potential to 'cross over' musically. We believe if we persist, that sooner or later its going to happen for us. Also, the fans always liked the commercial side of Ten so why should we disappoint them? With this album we have achieved a successful blend of all the best elements of the Ten catalalogue to date. We are happy that this is our best album so far, commercially or otherwise."

But what about the fans of the harder songs? Will Ten ever be writing songs like 'Thunder in Heaven' and 'Bright on the Blade' again? As Hughes explains, "The beauty of Ten is that musically there are no rules. Obviously, however hard you try you can't please all the people all of the time, but I'm sure that those fans who particularly enjoyed the two tracks you mention will also enjoy 'Glimmer of Evil', 'High Tide' and 'Black Shadows' on 'Far Beyond The World'."

The mix aspect of Ten albums has also been the source of much debate. The legendary Mike Stone (Journey, Whitesnake, Y&T) mixed the first three albums. However, for 'The Robe' it was decided a change would be beneficial for the band, and Rafe McKenna was brought in. Everyone was a massive fan of the Giant albums, and this seemed an ideal choice. The vocals and guitars were a lot drier on this album, McKenna not being a huge fan of reverb, and the results certainly made Ten a harder sounding animal. For 'Babylon', the mix was handled in-house at Now & Then's Startracks studio. While some complained the mix had the same muddy sound they heard on the Bob Catley solo albums, the general consensus was definitely positive, the album winning best production in our polls last year with more than double the amount of votes than its nearest rival.

For 'Far Beyond the World', Gary and Vinny went to Germany to mix the album with the famous Tommy Newton (Helloween, Crystal Ball). The experience was certainly a positive one. " Tommy is one of the best mix engineers in the world today," extols Hughes. "He is a great guy who loves our material and believes wholeheartedly in the band. He understands us incredibly well which comes over audibly in his approach to the mixes. We trusted Tommy 110% with our musical vision. We have become great friends. In my opinion this is the best Ten album to date. With Ten we have been very lucky to have already worked with some of the best producers on the scene. Mike, Rafe and Tommy have all brought something special to the Ten albums that they have been involved with, and I certainly wouldn't hesitate to work with any of them again."

Having used Luis Royo for the the last two album covers, a connection the band were originally keen to keep to maintain a theme for all their forth-coming albums, 'Far Beyond the World' has opted instead for a much simpler design, created by guitarist John Halliwell. A surprise for sure, but as Gary explains, "We have done the 'Dungeons and Dragons' thing to death. Everyone's doing it now. We felt that we wanted a more modern looking product to compliment the modern approach to the production. We wanted a simpler album sleeve this time. More striking...simpler colours...a fresh approach. Few people realise but John is a professional graphic artist. He approached the band with his ideas for the sleeve. We really liked them and felt that he had exactly captured what we were looking for, so that was that."

And as befitting the change of cover style, the lyrics are less of the fantasy inspired words that instilled contempt in some listeners, and more of the genuine emotional stories Gary is better loved for. In his own words, "It is essentially an album of love songs. Different perspectives, different moods."

Another change is the replacement of Dan Airey with ex-Hard Rain/Bob Catley keyboardist Paul Hodson. Paul, of course, played a double shift when Ten and Bob Catley toured earlier in the year, so does this mean that Paul is now officially a member of Ten? "Yes, Paul is the newest full time member of Ten," confirms Gary. "He is perfect for this band and he is one of the nicest guys I know. He stepped in for Don when Don couldn't do the European tour due to prior contractual obligations with Uli Roth. It seemed only natural that Paul should participate on the new album. Don is a good friend of mine and the consummate professional. There is no bad feeling at all. In fact Don was incredibly understanding and supportive of our decision. He is the busiest man in the world and certainly one of the most genuine."

And speaking of that tour, one of the few Ten have done in their six year existence, and certainly the longest and most gruelling, I wonder if it had been tough on the voice. "Not really," Gary explains. "We did six shows and one day off for 28 days or so. I paced myself and tried to look after my voice. Bob and I were a great support for each other on tour. I learned a lot from working with him."

Ah yes, Bob Catley. Three fabulous albums into a successful solo career, all of which Gary Hughes has written and produced. However, with Gary busy for the next year on other projects, it looks like the vocalist for the recently reformed Magnum will be looking to other people to write for his next solo album, tentatively looking at being recorded towards the end of next year for an early 2002 release. Already the likes of Jim Peterik, Kelly Keagy, Kip Winger and Russ Ballard have expressed a desire to contribute to the album. A mouth watering prospect to be sure, but will Hughes be working with Catley again? If that decision is up to Hughes, it would certainly seem likely. "I sincerely hope so. He is a great friend of mine and I am truly proud of the music we have made together."

The project Gary will be working on for most of next year is the oft spoken about King Arthur project, 'The Once and Future King'. Having just finally completed writing for this mammoth under-taking, it was discovered that the material would end up having to be spread across three albums. That is one hell of a work load! The project will entail various characters, none of whom are confirmed with the exception of Bob Catley as Merlin. And Hugo was approached a while back and expressed an interest in the part of Lancelot.

Of course, as most fans will be well aware of, Gary and Hugo collaborated on the former Valentine/Open Skyz singer's debut solo CD, an album which has been hailed a masterpiece by many. Hugo recorded and produced the follow-up, 'Time On Earth', by himself in New York, and the lighter, more melancholy style was not to everyone's liking. Gary would love to work with Hugo again in the future, and already has an album full of material that he thinks would be just perfect for his silky vocals. "It would really be something don't you think?" smiles Hughes. "I don't know how pro-active Hugo is in music today but I still rate him as technically one of the best vocalists I have ever recorded."

Of course, if he had a free choice, there are also other people he'd like to work with. "There are many great artists out there. If I had to single any but I'd have to say as far as guitarists are concerned, Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, Gary Moore and Brian May. As for vocalists I'd have to single out Dave Coverdale, Brad Delp, Anne Wilson and Ronnie James Dio."

Now there's some combinations I'd certainly love to see. But to get back to my initial observation, why is it that some people just can't resist having a pop at Ten? Why do the band attract such negativity, as well as the plaudits?

"Probably for numerous reasons," reflects Hughes. "We're not thrash metal but we're not soft rock. We are difficult to pigeon hole. We follow no musical rules. We're not American, we're English and proud of it. We are relatively successful in a unsuccessful era for rock music. We don't fade away, we evolve and adapt whilst retaining our musical integrity. Love us or hate us we are true to what we do in an honest fashion, for at the end of the day you can really only ever be true to yourself."

And you can't say fairer than that!

This interview was reprinted with permission from Fireworks Magazine.