Picture a Valkyrie holding a Flying “V” guitar flying down from the Heavens upon a winged horse accompanied by Iron Maiden instead of Wagner, and you'll get a very good sense of what this album sounds like. Wagnerian and Beethoven-like at times, Scorpions sounding at others, “Under A Dark Sky” is nothing short of an absolute triumph musically, compositionally, and performance wise. It is absolutely brilliant, and hands-down one of the best releases of 2008. This is an album that is not just to be listened to, it must be experienced...yes, it is THAT good.
Ulti Jon Roth is a true Renaissance Man who is a multi-instrumentalist, musical director and composer, and an incredible painter (he also did the cover for this album). He is also creator and builder of the eight-octave Sky Guitar, which (as you can imagine) gives his playing an incredible edge over a lot of other guitarists. The ex-Scorpions guitar player (he was both the replacement and predecessor of Michael Schenker in the pre-hair Metal edition of the band) has a vast solo catalog which I've explored over the years and always enjoyed listening to. Nothing he has done previously is quite like this release which effortlessly blends neo-classical guitar playing with his already distinctively clean and melodic electric playing. Lush orchestral and choral arrangements round out this masterpiece. I know I'm throwing around a lot of superlatives right now, but this album deserves every one of them.
Over the ten tracks, UJR plays all guitars, bass and keyboards and more than ably assisted by Michael Etre on drums, Nippy Nora on Ethnic Percussion, Chris Lowe on Orchestral Percussion, and vocalists Mark Boals (ex Yngwie Malmsteen, Royal Hunt), Liz Vandall (ex-Sahara) who provide a perfect male-female counterpoint to the music. There is also the numerous members of the Sky Orchestra and Choir who give outstanding accompaniments to the ten brilliantly written pieces on this album.
“SOS” and “Tempis Fugit” start the album off with an orchestral and choral “bang!” setting the table for what is yet to come. As the quiet strains of the orchestra fade away on “Tempis Fugit”, the 11 minute tour de force “Land of Dawn” kicks into high gear with UJR's distinctive style playing melody over the orchestra, while Michael Boals distinctive vocals soar beautifully. (While Boals does an outstanding job throughout the album, I couldn't help that on several pieces, particularly this one, where Ronnie James Dio might just have taken this already stellar album to an entirely new level). This is probably my favorite song on the album, mainly because of the brilliant composition and the wonderful interplay between Boals and Liz Vandall, the choir and the orchestra. Then there are the absolutely spectacular guitar solos throughout the piece, especially one on the out-chorus that is particularly memorable.
“The Magic Word” is next, and does not disappoint either. There is a beautiful chorus and refrain on this piece that is somewhat poppy in it's approach, but that's an entirely appropriate part of this song that make is so memorable. There is almost a “Les Miserables” quality about this song, and I'm often reminded of that famous musical whenever I hear this song. “Inquisition” and “Letter of the Law” follow with more orchestral and choral delight, accompanied by URJ's stellar playing.
“Stay In The Light” is a more restrained piece that has some of the most beautiful guitar work on the album, with an absolutely chill-inducing solo at the end that never fails to inspire with each repeated listening. “Benediction” follows, and pulls back from the sweeping scope of the previous songs to give the listener a truly wondrous blend of lovely guitar work with an incredible orchestral arrangement accompanying. It segues into a majestically beautiful “Light and Shadows” that have URJ on lead vocals...an absolutely perfect choice for this piece and accompanied by Liz Vandall's terrifically strong female counterpart and harmony as well. A stunning guitar solo closes out the song.
The album's closer is “Tanz In Diw Dammerung”. It is a 19 minute musical excursion that is the summation and exclamation point to all that have come before it. Beginning with inspired acoustic playing, the piece navigates its way into the incredible blend of orchestra, soaring vocals and choir, and spectacular rock that has been already been so effectively been used throughout the album. The song take a quiet turn, and then re-enters the faced paced realm ending the album on a frenetic but satisfying note. It does, however feel like a sequel is coming...and it will be.
This album is the first in the “Symphonic Legends” cycle of music that UJR has planned for the future. Given his reputation as a perfectionist and multi-tasking master (working on several projects and paintings simultaneously), it might just take a while to get around to the next part of the song cycle...but if it's ANYTHING like this incredible album, I am certain it will be well worth the wait.
Not only highly recommended, but one of the best releases of 2008. This is a MUST listen.
Reviewed by K. Austin Walsh on November 3rd, 2008