Back To The Light

Brian May

Hollywood Records, 1993

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


 By the mid-‘90s, the remaining members of Queen were at a creative crossroads following Freddie Mercury’s death, which would seem to resolve itself by the millennium when guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor reclaimed the Queen banner with Paul Rodgers at the mic. But before all that came a string of solo efforts, though I have to say that between the two dethroned Queens -- bassist John Deacon has professed that he can’t hold a tune – Brian May’s two albums, particularly this one (his first), fare better than Roger Taylor’s synth-laden catalogue, which dates itself a little too quickly.

What May has on his side from his Queen days are not only his inimitable guitar sound on his handmade Red Special guitar -- lushly layered and able to veer from stomping rock anthems to elegant ballads -- but his lyrical sensitivity, whether he’s paying ode to fat bottomed girls or to an imagined sister (“Sail Away Sweet Sister”). But May’s solo material retains much of the Queen signature, which, in a word, is bigness: big harmonies, big guitar licks, big anthemic choruses. You almost expect Freddie Mercury’s voice to come pouring out of the monitors, which can work to May’s disadvantage here. Don’t get me wrong, May has a lovely, emotive voice. It’s sort of like crystal being tapped with a silver fork -- high, ringing, clear, albeit somewhat frail. But lovely can have a tough time selling driving rock rhythms. Just check out lead single “Driven By You.” all of the essentials are there, from thick guitars to barreling drums courtesy of legendary Cozy Powell (Black Sabbath, The Jeff Beck Group, Rainbow, among others), and May handles it well, but you still can’t help but imagine Mercury taking over the reins.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Still, a lot of Back To The Light is top-notch. “Too Much Love Will Kill you,” for one, is absolutely brilliant. It was reworked with Mercury on vocals for Queen’s final curtain call, 1995’s Made In Heaven, but hands down, May owns this. A subtle piano backing really allows his fragile, lovelorn voice to shine, and the lyrics are truly killer, too, precise yet aching in their intimacy: “How would it be if you were standing in my shoes? / Can’t you see that it’s impossible to choose / No, there’s no making sense of it / Every way I go I’m bound to lose,” he sings, and it’s easy to see why this one hit #5 on the UK singles chart, topping even Queen’s version.

Also worth a mention are “Last Horizon,” a purely instrumental, perfect encapsulation of the patented May guitar sound (not to mention the solid rhythm section backing) and “Nothin’ But Blue,” an atmospheric stunner with its swirling guitars, hazy drums and bass, and May’s rising, evocative vocals.

And May manages to hold his own on the thickly-guitared and rocking title track, which features a soaring, orchestral Red Special break that’s signature Brian May. Following years battling depression through Mercury’s illness and the devastating demise of Queen itself, May coming out on the other side to pen this chorus -- “Back to the streets that are paved with gold / Back to the light / Back to the land where the sunshine heals my soul” -- is a triumph, and it’s likely this inextricable connection with the material he’s singing that gives him the mettle to hit these crunching, upbeat rhythms straight out of the park. “Resurrection” is solid as well and ramped up even more with barreling drums, frantic vocals, and searing riffs. It’s insistent and in your face, and all the more memorable for it.

A couple songs do falter: “Let Your Heart Rule Your Head,” for its rousing, country-tinged instrumentation, is trite (and the female backing vocals don’t do much to help), while “I’m Scared” spends too much time navel-gazing and May’s vocal strain is particularly evident in parts. And “Love Token” again muddies up some excellent riffing with its cheesiness, telling the tale of a lover’s quarrel (“Mama’s makin’ heat to keep the old fire smokin’ / Papa’s hangin’ on to his old love token”) that has May at one point playing the parts of both Mama and Papa as they snipe at each other. It worked better as “Tie Your Mother Down.”

Though May truly shone as one-fourth of the indomitable Queen unit, he still does pretty well for himself on Back To The Light. There’s no question that he’s a brilliant songwriter and, of course, axeman, and that’s still clear here, but May also proves that he’s got the vocal chops. He’s not Mercury, but he doesn’t need to be (then again, who could ever be Freddie Mercury?). And there’s a sincerity in these tracks, an incisive honesty, that makes Brian May all the more endearing and ultimately so relatable.

Rating: B

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© 2008 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hollywood Records, and is used for informational purposes only.