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AOR (Album/Adult Oriented Rock)
Origins of AOR
The beginnings of AOR (Album or Adult Oriented Rock) can be traced back to the late 1970s when bands like Journey began releasing songs which had the underpinnings of a more polished sound as compared to the contemporary rock music scene of the time. Anyone who's heard songs like 'Wheel in the Sky', 'Don't Stop Believin' and 'Send Her My Love' can easily get drawn to some well hooked rhythm guitar riffs backed by a lead guitar solo, a decent but subdued yet pronounced drumming and lyrics and melodies which appealed to people of all ages.
AOR albums were played on select radio stations which didn't really specialize in promoting singles off an album, but rather the entire album itself as the whole album had songs worthy of praise and mention due to their unique composition, style and layering.
By the mid 1980s, AOR had grown exponentially from its humble beginnings during the 1970s and became a massive alternate to the then mainstream glam and hair metal moment promoted by the then new music channel, MTV.
The typical sounds of an AOR Track would include (but not limited to) a low to mid-tempo ballad (or even an upbeat track) with well pronounced lead and rhythm guitars and a decent use of synthesizers along with medium to high-pitched vocals and often sentimental lyrics. Unlike a glam metal track which highlighted the phrase 'cock-rock' due to its often sleazy and suggestive innuendos (though this wasn't always the case), an AOR track (despite the use of lead guitars and essentially being a rock-track) was supposed to be soothing to the ear (thanks to intelligent use of synthesizers) and was more suited as a 'night-driving' or even a 'romantic' song.
While AOR has managed to exist even to this day and follows a strong cult following across the world, the 1980s to roughly 1994 can be considered the heyday of its genre and being AOR Metal fan myself, I thought I'll write a bit more about what I rate as the top 5 albums released under this genre.
AOR BAND FROM SCOTLAND
Anyone who's followed 1980s cannot forget the Scottish band Strangeways who were hailed as the Gods of AOR by the likes of Kerrang! Magazine.
Their eponymous debut album was produced by Kevin Elson (who also produced Journey's albums) and featured singer Tony Liddell along with epic lead guitarist Ian J. Stewart and drummer Jim Drummond along with a bassist and keyboard player.
Met with critical acclaim particularly by the British musical press and thanks to some healthy touring by the group in support of artists like Bryan Adams and Meatloaf, Strangeways (both as artists as the album) was perhaps one of the first AOR albums which ensured that this style of rock could indeed break barriers and achieve mainstream success and that meant a footing and following into the US Market (which to a degree it eventually did).
Nearly all tracks on this album, despite the slightly 'raw' sound are worth a take - my favorites off this album being 'Now It's Gone', 'Streets on Fire' (available only on the CD-Remastered release), 'More Than Promises' and 'Hold Back Your Love' - the latter featuring some very infectious guitar hooks while 'Now It's Gone' featuring the hum of a soothing key along with some brutal and vicious guitar work by Ian Stewart.
During promotion of this album, lead singer Tony Liddell left the group and was replaced by American session musician Terry Brock who sang on the group's follow up release 'Native Sons', featuring some equally catchy and more polished tracks like 'Never Gonna Lose It', 'Where Do We Go From Here' and the soothing ballad 'Goodnight L.A.' (which to my knowledge was the only track by Strangeways to be accompanied by a music video).
Still, the debut album is what I rate highly due to the influence it left on future AOR productions and hands down it will go down as a classic of all times.
Strangways - Hold Back Your Love (1986, Audio Only)
Strangeways - Now It's Gone (1986, Audio Only)
Strangeways - Goodnight L.A. (1987, From 'Native Sons')
Walk In The Fire (1989)
Strangeways' 3rd and final album with Terry Brock on lead vocals has been considered as the best AOR album of all times by both fans and critics alike. The group had already begun getting significant airplay on AOR and more commercial radio stations thanks to the success of the previous album 'Native Sons' and the video for 'Goodnight L.A.').
'Walk In The Fire' however took the slick production typical for AOR groups of the time to really a whole new level - all tracks on the album feature soaring and near 'heavenly' vocals by Terry Brock along with a very gracious use of keyboards which gave this album a very melodic and polished touch without sacrificing the punch a rock-track should have.
In my opinion, the best tracks on 'Walk In The Fire' were 'Living In The Danger Zone', 'Danger In Your Eyes' and the beautiful yet powerful 'Where Are They Now'.
Strangeways could have produced more great albums well into the 1990s, however due to the departure of singer Terry Brock who permanently moved back to his home country, the band never really regained the momentum. However, it has been reported that as of 2010, Terry Brock did reunite with the band's original lineup and they have been actively and successfully touring.
REBOOTED AS AN AOR BAND BETWEEN 1988 to 1992 IN ENGLAND
On Target (1988)
Fastway was a band originally created by ex-Motorhead guitarist Eddie 'Fast' Clarke and ex-UFO bassist Pete Way and had lead vocalist Davie King as the front man - the original material from Fastway never intended to appeal to the AOR market as it was always meant to be a hard rock band.
However, after Davie King's departure by 1987, Eddie Clarke decided to reboot the 'Fastway' name and employed a brand new instrumental lineup along with British lead singer/guitarist Lea Hart. This version of Fastway was marketed as an AOR group and with Steve Clarke on drums, Paul Gray on the bass, the group released 'On Target' in 1988 which featured a completely different sound as against any material Fastway had previously produced.
The album was an absolute AOR Gem, containing brilliant catchy songs like 'Dead Or Alive', 'Change of Heart', 'She's Danger' and 'These Dreams' along with slower but equally brilliant songs like 'Close Your Eyes', 'Show Some Emotion', 'A Fine Line' and 'You' - however, die hard bands of the 'Fastway' name and brand panned the album due to its drastic change in musical style and that they simply could not see new singer Lea Hart as a worthy replacement for Dave King, primarily because he couldn't match King's soaring vocal range. This backclash from fans essentially sealed the band's fate and after one more release in 1990, 'Bad Bad Girls', Fastway folded up for good.
Nevertheless, anyone who's a fan of 80's AOR will and MUST have this album or at least the songs mentioned above in their music collection.
AOR BAND FROM ENGLAND
Excess All Areas (1987)
Another group one can never forget out of the 80's AOR heyday are British group Shy, who had already come to prominence 2 years earlier in 1985 thanks to their breakthrough album 'Brave The Storm' and the video for its title track which had received decent airplay on music video channels back then.
In 1987, Shy took its production a step further with the release of 'Excess All Areas', which featured extremely talented work on guitars and keyboards along with the almost helium and signature high-pitched vocal ability of singer Tony Mills. The album was a big hit among AOR fans and even resulted in the musical press including 'Kerrang!' magazine comparing Tony Mills' vocal ability with that of Geoff Tate from Queensryche. The album was also Shy's best selling as it contained their biggest hit, 'Break Down These Walls', co-written with Don Dokken, the lead singer for American heavy metal band, Dokken. With a stylish music video and typical 'anti-cold war' lyrics, the single managed to creep into the top 100 singles of the year and gave the group some much needed international exposure outside UK shores.
With supporting personnel including Roy Davis on bass, Paddy McKenna on keyboards, Allan Kelly on drums and the now late Steve Harris on guitars, other good songs on the album include the soothing ballads 'Just Love Me', 'When The Love Is Over' and upbeat songs like 'Telephone', 'Can't Fight The Nights', 'Under Fire' and 'Emergency'.
Shy never really matched future albums with the success they found on 'Excess All Areas', party due to the emergence of grunge and this album along with the song 'Break Down These Walls' have been nailed as their signature outings.
Shy - Break Down The Walls (1987)
White Sister (1984)
If the debut album by Strangeways can be considered as the one responsible for pushing the popularity of 1980s AOR into the mainstream, the same credit across the Atlantic can be given to the American quartet called 'White Sister' and their eponymous debut album released in 1984.
As far as the American rock-music scene was concerned, a lot was already happening during 1984 for AOR to really land a punch - glam metal bands like Motley Crue and Ratt were really shaping up to be powerful entities within the industry while Van Halen was ruling the mainstream hard rock charts thanks to the success of their album '1984' released on New Year's Day that year. It was thanks to groups like White Sister and Journey that the more easy-listener was given a chance to move away from the commercialized hair-metal scene and appreciate a more stylistic production of rock tracks which could sound equally raw but didn't always appeal to jaded teenagers.
White Sister was made up of lead singer Dennis Churchill-Dries, the now late drummer Richard Wright, keyboard player Gary Brandon and the now late guitarist Rick Chadock. The debut album, though not really focussing on ballads, features some hot tempo songs throughout its play including cult-favourites 'Straight From My Heart', 'Can't Say No', 'Love Don't Make It Right' and the closing ballad 'Just For You'.
The group did release a follow up 'Fashion by Passion' which featured tracks like 'Dancin' on Midnight', 'April' and the very soothing 'Save Me Tonight' (all three tracks which appeared on soundtracks for horror flicks like 'Halloween 5', 'Killer Party' and 'Fright Night' respectively) however internal struggles and a lack of support from their label would eventually tear the group apart. Dennis Churchill-Dries did eventually reprise his career launching himself in a new group called Tattoo Rodeo' but with limited success and their debut album's the one which has been stapled as an original and raw AOR classic.
AOR BAND FROM USA
White Sister - White Sister (1984, Full Album - audio)
White Sister - April (1986)
Album or Adult Oriented Rock has certainly held its own to even this day as more and more artists (with or without the backing of major TV Networks or music labels) have managed to release some brilliant material which still sounds like it did during the 1980s despite some of them being released even during the past decade.
While I acknowledge I have not mentioned many artists which deserve mention in this list including 'Giant' and 'Silent Rage' who released some brilliant albums in 1989 including 'Don't Touch Me There' (Silent Rage), the above list should give any music lover a good idea of what a classic AOR track or album should be and I hope more and more people who're unaware of this genre can take the time to appreciate some decent music away from the constant barrage or rap and hip hop we get bombarded with today - Just saying :P