Pell, Axel Rudi - Diamonds unlocked 3.5/5

Reviewed: 11-9-07


1. The diamond overture (intro)
2. Warrior
3. Beautiful day
4. Stone
5. Love gun
6. Fools game
7. Heartbreaker
8. Rock the nation
9. In the air tonight
10. Like a child again
11. Won't get fooled again

When German guitar legend Axel Rudi Pell announced a few months ago that his 12th studio album (excluding ballads-only releases, compilations and live recordings) would be an all-covers affair, many snickered that he would likely stick to Rainbow and Deep Purple tracks since his own output so heavily emulates those acts and his adulation of Ritchie Blackmore is a matter of record. The initial indication that 'Diamonds unlocked' might be something unusual and unexpected occurred when the tracklist was released. No Blackmore. No Dio. Not even any Priest, Maiden or Sabbath, whom so many artists have elected to cover over the years. Instead, the roster consisted of 70s rock songs, 80s pop tunes, and a smattering of tracks I'd never heard of (who the hell are Chris Rea and The Mission anyway?).

What makes this CD so much fun is that, not only are the cover tunes non-obvious and improbable, but Axel and the boys have painstakingly reworked the arrangements to make them sound like Axel Rudi Pell originals, and good ones at that. 'Diamonds unlocked' even flows like a typical Pell CD, with the ominous intro (the only Axel-penned track on display, for the stated reason that he wanted to make sure he could collect some publishing royalties) giving way to an uptempo, pedal-to-the-metal number, in the form of a blistering rendition of Riot's "Warrior", with one of my all-time Riot tracks sounding stronger than ever with beefed-up guitars, a double-bass clinic courtesy of Mike Terrana, and a world-class vocal performance by Johnny Gioeli. Stirring stuff. "Beautiful day" (originally by U2) and "Stone" (Chris Rea) sound like effective midtempo Pell anthems a la "Fool fool" or "Carousel". Next up is Kiss's "Love gun", which receives a new lease on life as an acoustic ballad that has captivated my wife, despite her general apathy (if not distaste) toward the original. A romp through Michael Bolton's "Fools Game" puts us back in catchy anthem territory, before an extended heavy blues detour in the form of the splendid "Heartbreaker" (Free), which is surely this CD's "Mistreated". Montrose's "Rock the nation" could just as easily be Pell's song of the same name, given how naturally it fits his style. The real curveball is up next, in the form of a jawdropping, 8 1/2-minute version of Phil Collins' "In the air tonight", which has been re-imagined to take on decidedly epic qualities, with a slow build-up in intensity and heaviness ultimately exploding in a brilliant speedy break at the end, all the while flawlessly capturing the dark, moody vibe of the original. Gioeli cements his status among the elite vocalists in the metal universe with his superb performance on this track. Wow. Another touching ballad ("Like a child again" by The Mission) follows, before the rocking finale of a fairly uninteresting version of the Who's well-known "Won't get fooled again" rounds out the proceedings.

I'm usually not a big fan of covers because they're often boring, pale imitations of the originals. Here, however, Axel Rudi Pell has selected the tracks so well, and has been so creative in molding them to his patented style and sound, that the results are most impressive. This is even more so when the quality of the performances by Axel's backing band are uniformly superb, particularly among vocal god Gioeli (who can carry even the weaker songs on his shoulders with ease), the powerhouse drumming of Terrana, and the clever, well-integrated keyboard passages by journeyman Ferdy Doernberg. I doubt 'Diamonds unlocked' will win the venerable, blond 6-stringer any new fans, but his established fan base should be thrilled with and intrigued by this CD. In my case, 'Diamonds unlocked' has received as much (if not more) playtime than the last couple of ARP original releases, so count me as a satisfied customer. "Warrior" and "In the air tonight" are 5-star songs worth the price of admission all by themselves, and there are enough winners among the remaining cuts to retain most listeners' interest. Not essential, but definitely worthwhile.




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