The first, self-titled Angel album, released in 1975, introduced a band that straddled the worlds of prog and glam, leaning heavily on the former musically and the latter in sartorial style. The first two albums (which were produced by Derek Lawrence and Big Jim Sullivan, whose CV included such notables as Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash and Flash) were dense, flashy and over-the-top in all the right places, progressive and rocking in equal measure. Beginning with the third album, the band largely left the prog influences behind in the search for a wider audience. Even then, the songs were thoughtfully composed and the musicianship top-notch. Like so many well-deserving bands before them, legendary live shows (listen to Live Without A Net) and good to great albums were not enough, so diminishing returns led the band to fold around 1980. Guitarist Punky Meadows and vocalist Frank DiMino reunited in 2015 for a track on the singer’s solo album, which eventually led to the reformation of Angel in 2019 and the critically acclaimed comeback album Risen.
Fast forward to 2023 and the new album, Once Upon A Time. Meadows and DiMino are back at it with the same band who recorded Risen, with decidedly mixed results. Things start off promisingly enough with The Torch, introduced by bombastic synths, reminiscent of the first couple records. Soon, Punky Meadows asserts himself with some heavy rock guitar before the song changes to a softer mood where acoustic guitar and DiMino’s majestic vocals provide an emotional verse which contrasts nicely with the metal attack on the chorus. The guitar and synth duel in the middle of the tune recall the old-style glory of the first couple albums, making an impressive opening gambit.
Black Moon Rising delivers on the high expectations. This is a bass-heavy tune with sumptuous choral vocals. Meadows’ leads are tasteful yet powerful, and Charlie Calv’s keyboards raise the drama level a notch or two. Even if slightly more conventional than the opening track, the music still manages to capture a delicious sense of foreboding.
By the time we get to the third song, It’s Alright, it’s clear the band is already running out of steam. The lyrics rely on every nonsensical rock and roll party cliché which, oddly enough, are at odds with the music, which feels largely downbeat. Things pick up a bit for the title track, a tale of an angel falling in love with a demon. Melodically, Once Upon A Time… carries a bit of the early band’s DNA, DiMino’s harmonies spot-on. In spite of this, the song falls apart with a ridiculous demon voice growling over the orgasmic moans of the angel. Come on guys, you are not sixteen years old any longer, and I doubt that your audience is either. Let It Rain sounds like an attempt to apologise for the vulgar display of sophomoric stupidity that precedes it, presenting a beautiful piano intro that builds nicely with the assistance of a female chorus. Meadows couldn’t play a bad guitar solo if he tried, but ultimately the song is a perfect example of not much there.
Another glimmer of hope shines through on Psyclone, exhibiting some of the old prog glory until the chorus arrives. All the power and drama of the verse simply evaporates. The cliff arrives in the guise of Blood of My Blood, Bone of My Bone, and the band waste no time in going over it. The pedestrian lyrics (“You’re my girl and I’m your man”) are perfectly married to pedestrian music which is overly repetitive and outstays its welcome. As good as Meadows’ solo is, it seems lifted from a totally different song. The instrumental intro to Rock Star hints at the debut album’s brilliance, only to be subsumed by screaming female vocals which sound more horrified than enthusiastic. Maybe they were reacting to the song?
The band gets serious again with the riff-tastic attack of Without You, only to be let down by the lacklustre chorus. The bridge is much too polite for the rest of the song, but quickly gives way to the riffage once more. The bass dances nicely around the chorus vocals; however, this and other clever instrumental touches are too often buried in the mix here as elsewhere. Even the end of the song is a train wreck, like no one had thought of what to do after a certain point. This Frankenstein approach to songwriting, where the pieces simply don’t fit together, affects the final song as well. Liar Liar’s rock radio verse is at odds with the pop chorus. Even the false ending sounds like an afterthought.
The CD version of Once Upon A Time contains an additional three tracks. Based on the quality of these tunes I hesitate to call them bonus tracks. Daddy’s Girl is what would happen if the band were transported back to the late 1950s. C’mon finally gives us a song whose verse and chorus work well together. As simplistic as this song is, though, that’s not saying much. Let the Kid Out closes the disc with a final embarrassing attempt by grown men to sound like a bunch of tough kids.
Trust me when I say that I take no pleasure in pulling apart any artist’s work in the above manner. Especially true for a band whose catalogue is one I cherish as much as Angel’s. There are so many flashes of brilliance throughout Once Upon A Time, and a smart producer would have led with those ideas to help the band create stronger songs. Instead, what we are left with is an album which more often than not attempts to play in the mud with the kids. The kids are having fun. The adults just end up looking foolish and filthy.
01. The Torch (5:27)
02. Black Moon Rising (4:35)
03. It’s Alright (3:44)
04. Once Upon A Time an Angel and A Devil Fell in Love (And it Did Not End Well) (5:03)
05. Let It Rain (4:28)
06. Psyclone (4:05)
07. Blood of My Blood, Bone of My Bone (6:02)
08. Turn the Record Over (3:53)
09. Rock Star (4:57)
10. Without You (5:49)
11. Liar Liar (5:21)
12. Daddy’s Girl (5:21)
13. C’mon (3:22)
14. Let the Kid Out (4:14)
Total Time – 66:21
Punky Meadows – Guitar
Frank DiMino – Vocals
Danny Farrow – Rhythm Guitar
Charlie Calv – Keyboards
Steve Ojane – Bass
Billy Orrico – Drums
Record Label: Cleopatra Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 21st April 2023