Review Summary: A worthwhile 80s AOR throwback, embodying the genre's biggest strengths and culling most of its weaknesses, Pale Sister is held back by some homogeneous songwriting and a wonky tracklist but is still a very solid listen even today.
The Rock Band Network has long since closed up, making it a lot harder for indie, unsigned and homebrew artists to get their music into the game, but while it was operational, it saw all sorts of music enter its domain, with a fair few full Eps making their way in. Rarer, though, were full studio albums, even more rare than those of the regular DLC lineup, believe it or not. Rishloo, Evile and Children Of Nova were the most notable examples by far, but one such entry was Free Spirit's Pale Sister of Light. Against Feathergun especially, I can hardly call it the most original full album in the game, but re-evaluation has shown it actually holds up pretty damn well, especially given its source of inspiration.
Free Spirit are making throwback 80s glam/arena rock. There's really no other way to describe their music. Any second of their verb laden, harmony driven, mid-tempo raucous rock will draw comparisons to Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and especially Hysteria-era Def Leppard. Fair to say this kind of music did not survive the 80s for a very good reason, so even though time and distance can earn these acts some retroactive charm, it makes it an uphill climb for anyone trying to bring it back anew. But something in Free Spirit's delivery does come from the heart, and they don't sound like they're regressively turning their nose up at rock's evolution more than their simply really liking 80s arena rock and wanting to try it themselves.
With that thought in mind, the production on Pale Sister of Light is arguably better than much of the output of that era. The bass has a mild pop, adding to the tone of the experience, and the drums aren't overly squashed despite them having that same canned and echoey sound that defined the 80s. The harmonies come through very clearly too, elevating songs like Easy Days and Moonlight Ride that rely entirely on them. It's the one aspect of the album that feels the most inspired and evolutionary from the days of yore, though the guitar does not scream as candidly as it should.
Melody-wise, the songs sound as much inspired from early European post-punk as they do American and British hard rock. Though the band is Finnish, you can definitely hear some Die Toten Hosen in the choruses of songs like Cry Of An Eagle and Preacher Man, whose melodies rely on real grit and bombast for delivery rather than just glamour and showiness. Most chorus deliveries have some interesting backgrounds of winding chord changes and slamming rhythm guitar and percussion, giving a sense of instant gratification, but sometimes this is let down by homogenous songwriting, many pre-choruses sounding the same. There'll be some two-bar key change to prime for the release back to the home key in the chorus, a common tactic of the 80s.
Even the album's best songs all fail to deliver a truly unique experience, but the flair of their execution is what keeps it from being pure pastiche. Free Spirit's youthfulness gives them the energy to keep up with their larger than life song premises, which is how they can sell the lofty visions of the album's most interesting material; the blistering title track, the surprisingly dynamic Strangers with its fading harmonies and effects and sparkly arpeggiated guitar, and the final track Preacher Man, a giant crowd-pleasing closer with a key change that sounds like a surprise for a change.
Indeed, Pale Sister's dynamic moments are its best, building on the tension and release that made for the best material of its genre when it filled space in a way only verby drums and overdriven guitar can. Until The Night features a pre-solo section with a lot of silence, punctuated by big blasts of power chords, which then culminates in one of the album's best solos. The drawn-out vocalisations of Radiant Light slowly simmer down in a couple of the choruses, making for some sizzling tension. But these are just moments, and much of the album is one crowd-pleasing chorus after another with, sadly, some uninspired verse progressions and really obvious pre-chorus placements. This probably affects the lead-off track the most, with Shadow Of A Man coming across the most hackneyed instance of an already outdated style.
The album is mostly rescued by the vocal delivery, and especially the emphasis on rich harmonies. Even if the 80s was the decade of excess and the music exemplified that, great harmonies never die, and the vocal work on here, aside from some shaky pronunciation, is very solid. Sami Alho's range sounds impressive even without studio trickery backing him up, and his yelpy affections actually give him an edge over the big gruff heartthrobs like Jon Bon Jovi and even Alice Cooper during his Trash days. Though the lack of real call and response harmonies outside of Moonlight Ride is a disappointment, what harmony work is on here gives Free Spirit their edge; while they don't match the grandiosity of Def Leppard's Hysteria, they sound more classically constructed, filling obvious spaces but carrying the weight of the compositions and making them sound more beautiful.
The guitar work is also a highlight, with crunchy but melodic main riffs in songs like Cry Of An Eagle, Preacher Man and Radiant Light, and some cracking solos pretty much throughout. The synth work is also weirdly restrained, but in a good way, with minor performances on songs like Radiant Light giving way to much more colourful performances on Far Away From Heaven and Strangers. It helps to give the album a much needed sense of sonic variety; when the band understand less is more, and they really do more than their forebearers, it gives richer results.
And because this is an 80s hard rock album, it has to find room to squeeze in a few ballads. Lyrically, the album is very broad and the weird tangents to real life phenomena rarely make any sense, but at least it avoids obvious bait topics like a break-up, and Heroes Don't Cry is a surprisingly inspired and well-paced take on growing up and moving on. Easy Days' judicious flute, calling to a Native American inspired backdrop, is a too easy cultural lifting that sadly was a hallmark of the 80s made to gain street cred no band really earned, but the rest of the song's modulation is enough to make for it. It sounds very journey-like, both of the epic story kind and of the band.
Really, Free Spirit ought to sound a lot cornier, but their earnestness and their more modern flair is what elevates Pale Sister above pure cheese. If Greta Van Fleet just sound like kids aping their dad's favorite records, Free Spirit at least sounds old enough to have decided on their own terms why they gravitated towards the sweeping bigness of 80s AOR. The album keeps a steady pace throughout and though some songs sound the same, I can't really say I was bored, though that tracklist ought to have been re-arranged a bit. The aforementioned Shadow Of A Man, the first track, is the weakest, and pitting the synth-heavy Strangers and Until The Night back to back when they basically have the same tone, especially in the intro, doesn't give the album enough flexibility.
Describing this album without constant comparisons to other bands and sounds of the 80s is pretty much impossible; as such, if you don't care for that era, Free Spirit are not going to be the ones to change your mind. But if you're looking for something just a bit more contemporary while still flying that glamtastic flag high, Pale Sister of Light makes for a solid and occasionally excellent listen. Most of the album's flaws are simply a by-product of the band's background and aim, with some too similar sounding songs and a wonky tracklist being my only lingering complaints. Otherwise, Pale Sister of Light remains entertaining even eight years after its completion on the Rock Band Network, and definitely shows enough promise for followers to see if this Free Spirit can truly soar.