By Carl Begai
Love it or hate it, it’s an undeniable fact that so-called ’80s hair metal is alive and well in 2020. Never mind the LA strip bands that are trekking around on “reunion” tours – often consisting of two original members and three guys conscripted from the local laundromat – living off their glory day catalogues; there are up-and-coming bands in all corners of the world trying to make their mark with that distinctive ’80s rock sound. And many are succeeding. Canadian rockers Storm Force are one example, having released their debut album Age Of Fear at the beginning of the year and receiving critical acclaim from the European and UK press in particular. Not an easy task considering Europe is where most of these bands originate nowadays, but something about the record has garnered Storm Force serious attention and it’s not guitarist / founder Greg Fraser’s Brighton Rock past. Sure, folks that lived through Brighton Rock’s commercial success in the ’80s with two sign-of-the-times albums (Young, Wild And Free and Take A Deep Breath) will zero in on it as a talking point, but Age Of Fear stands on its own as a solid rock album that people are happy to dub “old school ’80s hair metal.”
“It was about three year in the making, just kinda chipping away at it,” Fraser says of Age Of Fear, having been out of the limelight for several years. “Sometime I wondered if it was ever going to be finished because we’ve got different things going on, but once we got the deal (with Escape Music) it put things into overdrive. We wanted the record to be finished before we started shopping around but it didn’t happen that way, which is kind of a good thing because it could have been another year before the record was done.”
“Any kid that’s 20 years-old today, they’re never going to buy a CD in their lifetime,” he adds. “It’s the people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older that are willing to buy 10 songs all at once. Kids today… one song at a time and that’s all they need. I’m still old school. If I hear a song I like, I wanna know where the rest of the songs are (laughs). The fact I have a label (Escape Music) that’s willing to print CDs is amazing, because that’s the only way you can make any money off of any product. You can’t make anything off of streaming.”
That said, the motivations behind forming Storm Force according to Fraser had little to do with wanting to make big money or needing the spotlight, and far more to do with being hungry to get new music out into the open.
“I’m a songwriter and I always have songs buzzing around in my head; vocal melodies, a drumbeat, a pattern, a guitar riff… it’s a blessing, but sometimes it’s a curse. I’ll have this stuff buzzing in my head, I’ll record the ideas and maybe finish them off, and the songs start to accumulate. It’s like being a painter and having all your paintings scattered everywhere around the house; at some point it would be nice for someone else to look at them. That’s what it’s like. It had been a while since I’d put a record out and I was really digging what I was hearing in all this stuff coming out of me, so I felt it was time to do one.”
Storm Force isn’t Fraser’s first foray outside of Brighton Rock. In 2006 he launched Fraze Gang featuring himself, Brighton Rock bassist Stevie Skreebs, drummer Phil Epp, and later, second guitarist Derek McGowan. They released two albums and a couple EPs before the band just seemed to fade away.
“I guess we were testing the waters because we saw other people doing that,” Fraser says of the EP releases. “We did the first Fraze Gang record and it took a bit to get the second one going, so the guy that was managing us suggested we put out some singles as a build-up to keep our name out there. I liked the idea at first, but really, I was back and forth with it.”
Fraze Gang was new territory for Fraser in that he was up front as guitarist and vocalist. Storm Force sees him stepping back from the microphone, which he was only too happy to give up to singer Patrick Gagliardi. He explains:
“Being in Brighton Rock and the other bands I was in, I was just the guitar player. I just played, hang back, didn’t have to worry too much. I found that fronting a band when you’re playing guitar leaves you with much bigger shoes to fill. I’m used to finishing a song, grabbing a beer or a towel for my face before the next song starts while the singer raps with the crowd. You can’t have dead air when you finish a song on stage, so it was tough for me fronting Fraze Gang. Remembering the lyrics, singing in key, playing guitar, all of that… I didn’t like it. I was relieved when the show was over, like ‘Thank God we pulled it off.’ I wasn’t having fun with it. I enjoyed writing and recording the Fraze Gang stuff, but I missed having a frontman and a real singer. I don’t consider myself a phenomenal singer by any stretch, and Patrick singing for Storm Force is unbelievable. He always makes my vocal ideas 10 times better than I thought they would be.”
“Patrick is one of Canada’s best singers,” he continues. “Nobody knows him, but this guy is unbelievable. When he does covers…. if he does Journey he doesn’t just sing the part, he sounds like Steve Perry. If he sings Aerosmith, he’ll sound identical to Steven Tyler. Even Rush… he’ll sound like Geddy Lee. He doesn’t have that David Lee Roth swagger to him – he fixes computers for a living – but he’s just one of those guys where you wonder where that voice is coming from. Pure power, killer tone; I can’t speak highly enough of him. I’m lucky to have him in the band.”
Fraser is the main songwriter in Storm Force, and he maintains that Age Of Fear was written the same way he wrote for Brighton Rock and Fraze Gang. The album shares a vibe reminiscent of Brighton Rock’s third album, Love Machine, but is far and away from the band first two and ultimately more popular records. Asked if he has any idea why Storm Force stands apart from his previous works, Fraser admits he doesn’t have a concrete answer.
“I think maybe I’m too close to this to answer that. If Gerry McGhee sang these songs I’m pretty sure you’d say ‘Yeah, there’s Brighton Rock.’ I really haven’t changed my approach to songwriting. I write the music and the vocal melodies, I’ll have the basic arrangement done, and then I give it to Patrick and he goes with my vocal melodies and writes lyrics, maybe changes things up a bit so the melody feels better for him. I plant the seed and the other come in and add to the ideas. As time goes on other music might rub off on me and influence the way I write, I don’t know.”
Fraser offers an example of what he means:
“When I was 18 or 19 years old I was in a band called Lennex and I was writing with them. Mick Ronson, who played guitar for David Bowie, produced the record, and with him it was always about the choruses and getting the hooks. That particular band wasn’t heavy – it sounded more like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty – but they had the choruses. I had that heavy edge that I wanted to put into the songs, which is why things didn’t work out, but I learned about the importance of having those hooks from being in Lennex. For Brighton Rock we had legendary producer Jack Richardson – there’s a Juno Award named after him, and he taught producer Bob Ezrin everything he knows – to help us with pre-production (for second album Take A Deep Breath) before we actually did the record. I’d have these five and six minute songs, and he’d say that he liked the chorus ‘…but do we need a 16 bar guitar solo? And that bridge goes on too long. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’ He really pushed me to make things memorable and I never forgot that.”
Age Of Fear also benefits from sparkling production courtesy of Toronto-based Darius Szczepaniak (Sum 41, The Black Crowes). Fraser gives him a ton of credit for bringing the songs to life on a level that stands toe-to-toe with many big-name artists.
“Anybody can make a record at home these days, but most people don’t have the experience compared to somebody who does it for a living. You can record something at home, and somebody who is a pro will take that material to the next level 10 times over. People get excited when they record something and think ‘Hey, that sounds pretty good…’ – which I totally understand – but to a professional… not really. Our producer Darius does this for a living so he has an ear for everything in the studio. Plus he’s at Phase One Studios, which is thousands and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. If you want to sound good you have to work with the professionals, which is what we did, and that’s a big part of why the Storm Force record has been getting the buzz it has.”
Going back to the beginning, Fraser offers his thoughts on the ’80s rock tag that some rock / metal fans condemn as dated, but Storm Force wears proudly.
“I wonder why that is,” he says of being labelled out of fashion by some, “because the ’90s grunge thing was big for a bit, but it doesn’t have legs like ’80s rock does. I can’t put a finger on why, but I guess for the people from our era that music is in their blood. I think a big part of it is that it was the good times back then. After the ’80s fans grew up, had kids, started families, and now I guess now that the kids are out of the house those people are missing that stuff. They might hear an old song by Tesla or Cinderella and think back to those times, so a band like Storm Force which is carrying that flag gets noticed. I can’t judge, but maybe we remind people of those good old days.”
With that in mind, Fraser has two daughters – ages 19 and 21 at the time of this writing – and it begs the question: Do they think Dad is a special kind of weird for having what amounts to a latter-day hair band?
“(Laughs) They’re actually pretty cool about it. They’re fans, and when we do the odd Brighton Rock show they’re up in the front row. But, about a year or two ago I was driving one of my daughters and a friend somewhere and they started making fun of me when I put a CD in…. it might as well have been an eight-track tape (laughs).”