On the face of it, a band featuring the honeyed tones of FM‘s Steve Overland, sometime Toto drummer Simon Phillips, Armored Saint four stringer Gonzo and Fates Warning guitar guru Jim Matheos shouldn’t fail; and yet, when confronted with this august quartet’s first collaboration together, Kings of Mercia, something just doesn’t quite click – for this reviewer anyway.

So, I’m asking you to indulge me: Perhaps the main problems here is, unbelievably, Overland’s voice; so distinctive is he – and I’ll stop here just to mention, again, that I consider Steve Overland to be one of the best hard rock voices ever produced by the United Kingdom – that much of the material ends up ‘merely’ sounding like a heavier version of FM. Sweet Revenge and Set The World On Fire, in particular, sound like something the great man might have come up with around the time of 1991’s Aphrodisiac. Of course, this is only a problem if you’re coming to Kings of Mercia as a rusted-on FM fan like me; others, I’m sure, coming as fans of the other members of the project, will simply marvel at the classy juxtaposition of Overland’s supreme vocal presence and Matheos’ uber melodic riff arsenal. But I had to get that off my chest – sorry.

Now we’ve got my hangups out of the way, what of the actual record? There’s much to enjoy, obviously. Too Far Gone, by some way the album’s standout, starts out quietly, almost redolent of something bucolic by Wishbone Ash, before morphing smoothly into a stadium-consuming big rock epic and then receding back into the realms of reverie via another classy Overland vocal. He really is the lord of all he surveys, whatever my reservations…

Phillips’ drumming is perfect – but you already knew that, right? – and Gonzo weaves in and out of his lines with the practised ease of a true pro. He’s got a great tone, ol’ Gonz, and it sits in the mix underneath Matheos’ meaty strains just right. And Matheos? Well he seems to clearly revel in playing something a little simpler and more direct than his day job. Simple doesn’t necessarily equate to lesser, however, and he still puts in an admirable, well thought-out shift throughout. On Liberate Me he gives a masterclass in melodic metal riffage and soloing , delivering a succinct lead that fits the motoring nature of the track perfectly. His clean work on the slightly mawkish Everyday Angels is also a joy to behold.

The UFOish start to closer Your Life is probably the heaviest thing Overland has ever sung on (apart from a few dodgy Iron Maiden tributes he did way back when), a brooding Matheos riff building menacingly as the vocals ramp up the drama, it’s a good way to end and, leaving the listener (and I include myself here) hoping that this quartet might have the time and the inclination in the future to develop this project into something a bit special. I might not quite be sold at this point, but there’s a very strong possibility you will be – so why not give Kings of Mercia a go?

Kings of Mercia
releases on September 22nd.