Swiss hard rock veterans Shakra never really make bad records. They know their business to well forthat. But they do on occasion make stodgy, slightly unimpressive ones. Snakes and Ladders is, happily, not one of those records.

In many ways this is a roundup of everything that makes the band what they are. The gravelly, worn-in vocals of Mark Fox that are as comfortable as an old cardie, the crunchy, not-too-heavy-riffage of Thomas Muster and Thom Blunier and the rock solid engine room of Roger Tanner and Dominik Pfister  all combine in a sort of quintessential fashion that will have old fans nodding sagely and, possibly, new fans entranced by the sheer professionalism of it all.

Opening track Cassandra’s Curse is the band at their heaviest and most progressive, Something You Don’t Understand sees them at their most melodic and effective. Fire in My Veins is an impressive rocker equipped with smooth soloing from Blunier; the song has a hint of prime time Bonfire about it if you’re new to the band and looking for pointers, but if you really want to here the band at their best then you need to expose yourself to the track that precedes Fire…

I’ll go out on a limb and say that The Race of My Life is one of Shakra’s best ever songs, and it’s really as perfect an exposition of the band as I can think of. Dramatic opening riffage gives way straight away to an earworm refrain you’ll be humming for days, and the song really doesn’t let up from that point on. Like his compatriot the late, great Steve Lee, Fox has a voice that’s made for these mid-paced melodic storytelling songs; the rawness and honesty in his voice just draws you in, no matter how odd the English-as-a-second language lyrics sometimes appear. Put simply, the man is a master, and when he’s given songs as good as this to sing he’s quite brilliant.

Nothing Shakra do is ever going to be earth shattering, but high quality hard rock is still enough of a rarity these days to make this an essential purchase if you value craftsmanship and skill above flash and bash.

Snakes and Ladders is out now on AFM Records