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The Moody Blues - Strange Times  CD (album) cover


The Moody Blues


Crossover Prog

2.60 | 83 ratings

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2 stars [A brief history: some while ago I saw a review (not here) which praised this album as a return to more of a band sound, without being drenched in strings. I bought it and liked it. Then I recently read some of the uncomplimentary reviews on PA, so I decided to revisit it myself and redress the balance. It didn't quite work out that way ....]

The album opens with some guitar and synth textures leading into a typical fast paced English Sunset from Hayward which sets the tone: full of busy arrangements, programmed percussion and strings are never far away. But this track is one of the album's highlights, much more inventive than the average with just enough quirkiness to lift it above the mundane, such as "more tea vicar" and a repeated voice sample. So far so good, but sadly the energy level drops drastically with Haunted, a slow ballad with a more intimate sound but still manages to pack in most of the kitchen sink and a rousing string backed chorus. Not sure about the 4-part vocal-group "do-do-do" harmony either, though it does give it some interest.

Sooner Or Later has a vocal shared by Hayward, Lodge and Thomas, with a nice up-tempo country-rock feel driven by jogging drums and rolling bassline, but as always there is a full mix including strings, organ, various guitars, piano and flute. Probably the best of the slow ballads by John Lodge, Wherever You Are is sung solo except briefly near the end, it is backed primarily by strings and processed drums but does have one or two nice guitar touches, and a superior tune.

Foolish Love is a big Hayward mid-tempo love song complete with all the usual trappings, of the sort he can churn out in his sleep. Nice tune complete with the ubiquitous strings and driving drums, which lifts towards the end with a grand descending chord pattern. Love Don't Come Easy is another Lodge slow lilting ballad. Other than some excellent vibrato guitar and short solos from Hayward it is pretty much business as usual with the lush string arrangement filling in any spaces. All That Is Real Is You is a slow mushy Hayward ballad with piano fills, lush strings and a big chorus. Sound familiar? Yep, we've heard it all before - pretty tune, pretty arrangement, every thing in it's place!

Strange Times is a decent song - a return to the inventiveness of the opening track, with acoustic guitars, some nice quirky programmed touches and an excellent tune held in tension by the bass all building to a nice crescendo. Those strings are still there but there is a much more interesting arrangement here which helps to lift this track to the top of the pile. One of their best. Down to earth with a bump to a sleep inducing very slow orchestrated ballad by John Lodge: Words You Say sounds like a solo effort that escaped. If you can hold from the FFW button until halfway through you find the accompaniment changing to band instruments before it all builds up to one of those epic climaxes topped by a soaring guitar solo.

Ray Thomas' only contribution is the sadly inconsequential and mercifully short My Little Lovely which sounds like a throwback from To Our Children's Children's Children, a cute little ditty with a gentle harmonised chorus. Oh, and strings of course! Thankfully, Forever Now is the last of the John Lodge orchestrated kitchen-sink big-ballads, which improves when acoustic guitars and drums pick up the beat, and organ vies for attention with the strings. The One bursts out with "no surprise" and repeats it after each verse, which, together with some prominent rock guitar work and an insistant rhythm help to inject life into what is actually an ordinary song. The "no surprise" pattern feels as if it should take the song onto another level, but it doesn't and in the end it fades out unresolved.

The Swallow starts with some lovely spanish guitar and string quartet before developing into a pretty mid-paced song driven by a lilting drum pattern - and is that a Mellotron-flute? The song sinks back to the basic drum and bass beat for some sympathetic jamming from Hayward. Not exactly an earth mover, but it is one of my favourites. As usual, a Graeme Edge poem ends the album. Nothing Changes is the only song here which appears to be something other than a simple love song. Not one of his best, but good enough, and the arrangement is good too, with some wonderful soaring guitar from Hayward beating its way out from under the orchestra.

Tracks like English Sunset, Strange Times and The Swallow are excellent additions to the repertoire, and could happily sit amongst a compilation of Moodies favourites. The problem is the remainder fails to come anywhere near this standard, and indeed three or four tracks in the middle are prime candidates for binning. The main culprit is a strings-with-everything mentality: Danilo Madonia has brought a new sensibility to revitalise the band's thinking to some extent, but ultimately most of his string arrangements literally swamp some ordinary songs with grand themes and statements beyond their means.

I would not normally present such an extended review for what is clearly not a Prog album, but The Moody Blues were once a great band, have played a very significant role in the Prog story, and are still an exciting live act, so I felt they deserved a fair trial. But it's funny how a mind can play tricks, because this album relies far too much on formulaic structures and those damned strings. In terms of their later output this is near the top of the pile, but it compares extremely unfavourably with their classics. Recommended to fans and senior citizens, but otherwise there are better things to spend your money on.

Joolz | 2/5 |


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