There were always those who were going to dismiss ‘last look at Eden’ as an aberration, but as anyone who attended Europe’s run of shows last year will attest, there was far more to that album’s success than just luck. Europe, as overlooked as they have been, have proven to be one of the finest, most exciting and energetic hard rock bands to be currently treading the boards. Joey Tempest is certainly one part of the equation. His voice, always powerful, seems to have got better with age and it is now a soulful beast, capable of nailing the most sensitive of ballads or the heaviest of lung-busting anthems. But the real secret is his partnership with John Norum, the ultra-talented guitarist who is as comfortable unleashing riffs of devastating power as he is dusting off the acoustic to pick out a blues riff and it is the interplay between the two, ably backed up by the exquisite rhythm section of John Leven and Ian Haugland and atmosphere generating keys of Mic Michaeli that makes Europe such an almighty force to be reckoned with.
With all that in mind, it is surely no surprise that for their ninth studio album the band announced that they would be working with seemingly ubiquitous hard-rock producer Kevin Shirley who has not only added yet greater depth to the band’s inspiring compositions but who also made a call and bought in blues guitarist extraordinaire Joe Bonamassa to lend his talents to the album’s title track. It is fair, then, to say that anticipation for the album runs high and fans will be pleased to hear that ‘bag of bones’ in no way disappoints proving to be a better album, even, than ‘last look at Eden’.
Opening with a bang was always going to be part of the game plan, and ‘riches to rags’ does exactly that with John Norum busting out a huge, stadium filling riff whilst Joey Tempest exercises his full vocal range over the top. Kevin Shirley has worked his magic here, giving Europe a tight and beautifully deep production that sees the drums threatening to topple buildings whilst the guitars blaze away with astonishing virtuosity over the top – check out the solo on that first song and if the hairs on the back of your neck aren’t standing furiously to attention by the end then you should possibly consider the new Madonna album as your next purchase because you’re clearly not a hard rock fan. Next up is the already-released single ‘not supposed to sing the blues’, a track that has been out for a matter of weeks but which is already burned firmly into the brain thanks to its classic hard rock lyrics and addictive melodic hook that should surely join crack on the controlled substance list. With familiar classic rock warmth but with the added bonus of a modern production sheen, this is the music Joey Tempest was born to sing and he does so with a fire and enthusiasm that is absolutely undeniable. Moreover the Led Zeppelin-esque flourishes (courtesy of Mic on the keyboards) gives the song a touch of eastern mysticism that does as much to fire the imagination as it does to bang the head. ‘Firebox’ is a heavy blast of driving rock, Mic’s keyboards gaining much more attention thanks to Kevin’s experience of working with Black Country Communion, a similarly themed hard rock band with a strong synth presence, and John Norum peeling out riffs of extraordinary vitality as if his life depends upon it.
Next up is the much talked about collaboration with Joe Bonamassa who adds some slide guitar magic to the beautiful title track, a stunning blues workout that opens in dusty trad-blues mode before kicking into a seriously heavy riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Deep Purple record. It’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Europe laid bare – a band who adore the traditional structures of the blues but yearn for the blazing intensity of Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and so, much like Bonamassa, they opt for both crafting a sound that is timeless and heartfelt. ‘Requiem’ is the briefest of orchestral moments before segueing into ‘my woman my friend’ which opens as a piano-led ballad before John Norum introduces a crunching, Sabbath-esque riff that is as raw and heavy as it is surprising. It’s one of those moments when you can only stand and stare as the steamroller runs over you and it’s going to slay live. ‘Demon head’ is equally a belter, again referencing the very best of Deep purple with elements of both Zeppelin and Audioslave thrown in for good measure, all overtopped by Joey’s amazing, life-affirming voice.
Having truly decimated the competition, things finally calm down for the acoustic, stripped down folk of ‘Drink and a smile’ which sees Joey sounding more like Robert Plant than ever for a track that would sit comfortably on Led Zeppelin ‘3’. ‘Doghouse’ sees the band up the tempo once more return while Joey croons “I’ve been making some enemies, I’ve been taking some liberties” over the song’s vital, insanely catchy riff. It’s traditional classic rock with the singer cast in the mould of a leather-clad rebel and it appeals as much to the hips as to the head with its lascivious solos and snakefish bass groove. ‘Mercy you mercy me’ has a riff that sits between Velvet Revolver’s ‘slither’ and Led Zeppelin’s ‘lemon song’ and it’s another song that emphasises the pure sex of rock and roll, an oft overlooked component since the demise of Zeppelin. John Norum once again shines with a brilliantly realised solo in the latter stages of the song, another potent reminder that he is one of the finest hard rock guitarists out there and then we’re into the emotive finale of ‘bring it all home’, a lighter-in-the-air ballad if ever there was one that provides the perfect conclusion to a perfect album.
What more is there to say? ‘Bag of bones’ is a stunning, adrenalin charged, emotional and sexy forty minutes of classic hard rock. Better, miraculously, than the quite excellent ‘last look at Eden’, there is no disputing that Europe are on the form of their lives and, perhaps with the exception of Black Country Communion, there is not a similarly themed band who can touch them at this point in time. The whole band shines thanks to Kevin Shirley’s devastating production job, but the emphasis is surely on the twin stars of Joey Tempest and John Norum who turn in performances that are simply stunning from start to finish. Cherish this album because it has one quality that so few modern bands lack – integrity. Europe have lived larger than life, seen the highs and lows of enduring fame and weathered the storms of fickle fortune to emerge wiser, stronger and better than ever with an album that is not only a career high but also a strong contender for rock album of the year.
Check out the video for ‘not supposed to sing the blues’ here: