As we asked when previewing the arrival of this album back in August 2020: When is a group not a fest? It’s a question worth asking, as the Mad Axeman returns in 2021 not with his critically lauded Fest setup, but with a return to the ‘group’ scenario. It’s a question doubly worth asking when Fest throats Gary Barden, Doogie White and Robin McAulaey show up to offer their talents (Graham Bonnet being notable by his leather-lunged absence). However they aren’t here alone; further muddying the claims that this is a group, Michael Schenker has invited Primal Fear‘s Ralf Scheepers, Mad Max‘s Michael Voss, the Godlike Joe Lynn Turner and the slightly less so Ronnie Romero along for the ride, meaning that whatever focus this album had in terms of songwriting is totally nullified by the constant changes in vocal style.

Still, at it’s heart Immortal is a celebration of the fact that somehow, against all the odds, Metal Mickey has managed to chalk up his half century in the music business. And in those terms, you’d have to declare it a success.

Scheepers is a surprise star, handling the two heaviest songs on the album, opener Drilled To Kill and Devil’s Daughter with skill and panache. Schenker’s playing on the latter is quite superb, and the track overall will prompt unexpected remembrances of Deep Purple in their finest In Rock fettle.

Michael Voss takes on the more lightweight material; his performance on the winsome ballad After The Rain proves how well cast he was in the AOR role, although perhaps McAuley may have had something to say about that; whatever, it’s one of the highlights. On The Queen of Thorns and Roses his more honeyed tones suit the poppiness of the track to a tee, setting things up nicely for Schenker to weave in and out with some concise but effective playing. Joe Lynn Turner adds some classic rock royalty pizzaz to proceedings, lording it over the slightly mundane Don’t Die On Me Now to such an extent that he turns it into one of the highlights, vocally, on the album. His other appearance, on the superbly dramatic Sangria Morte, again shows what a great vocal can do in the service of a purely ordinary song.

All of which brings us to Romero. Try as I might, I just can’t see what all the fuss is about. He sings the tracks he’s given competently with his by-now well-known ‘trademark’ Dioesque rasp, but, no matter how committed he sounds – and commitment is never something you could accuse the lad of lacking- he never takes a song by the scruff of the neck like Scheepers or with the sheer class of Turner. He’s not the messiah, folks – he’s just a pretty good singer…

The old Fest gang return to help out on closer In Search of The Peace of Mind, the first song Schenker wrote for The Scorpions all those years ago… On an album that’s been built to celebrate the man’s career, it a masterstroke of song selection, and, surprisingly, it’s the one place on the record where Schenker really allows himself the licence to simply play… and the result is predictably wonderful.

A mixed bag, then, littered with surprises as well as some great performances. It’s well worth a listen, if only to reflect on the life and times of one of heavy rock’s true survivors. Hats off, Michael, and here’s to many more years in the game.

Immortal releases on January 29th