Review Summary: Umpteenth short-lived one-and-done supergroup fails to subvert expectations, but delivers a passably entertaining product regardless.
So-called 'supergroups' have been around almost as long as modern music itself; from big bands formed out of the joint efforts of brilliant jazz minds in the 1930s and 40s to more modern meetings of creatively similar minds, the concept is by no means new for anyone with even a passing knowledge of musical history. However, it is also a truth universally acknowledged that none but a very few of these musical elite squads ever lasts much longer than a single album; whether due to creative differences, a lack of time and availabilty, or simply underwhelming reception from their collective fanbases, most such ventures go the way of the dodo, with the musicians involved more often than not resuming their regular careers or returning to whichever entity made them famous to begin with.
NWOBHM by-product Stratus are by no means an exception to this rule – if anything, they go quite a way towards proving
the axiom. In fact, with a career spanning only two years (1983 to 1985) and an output totalling under forty minutes of music, this five piece stands as yet another example that a talent-filled and star-studded roster does not, in and of itself, guarantee success – there are far too many other intangibles to reckon with when climbing the relevancy ladder.
Initially known as Clive Burr's Escape (was he perhaps trying to say something with that choice of moniker?), the Stratus project saw a gaggle of NWOBHM exiles, third-stringers and also-rans – led by the late drummer, then fresh off his stint with up-and-coming local heroes Iron Maiden – get together to play a sound which, while still adjacent to the movement the members hailed from, owed more to the radio-rock hits of the period than any underground scene.
And therein lies the main problem with Throwing Shapes
, the group's sole outing; while the names involved may have led many to salivate over the prospect of a hidden gem from the NWOBHM movement, even an unassuming playthrough of these nine songs shows that is not at all what these musicians were going for; rather, Burr, future Uriah Heep frontman Bernie Shaw, keyboardist Alan Nelson and Praying Mantis' Troy brothers seemed to be aiming squarely for mainstream radio airplay, causing a cognitive dissonance within their respective fanbases which may have been one of the defining factors behind Stratus's short shelf life.
In fact, initial reactions to the group's sole album – at least from those aware of the members' NWOBHM credentials – are likely to be exceedingly negative. While the 80s-fantasy-film-score keyboard intro to opener Backstreet Lovers
does not immediately raise alarm bells – plenty of bands use keyboard intros, and the song eventually resolves into is a solid, if unspectacular melodic hard-rock cut anyway – apprehension does set in when the following two songs present a sound closer to the soundtrack rock of the average cheap-and-cheerful 80s movie than anything penned by even the most melodically-inclined NWOBHM act (ironically, while one of Stratus's songs did
soundtrack such a film, it was neither the Survivor pastiche Gimme Something
nor the equally soundtrack-baiting Even If It Takes
; the track to eventually be featured on Class Of Nuke 'Em High
was Run For Your Life
, a much rockier - and much more satisfying - late-album deep cut.) Peak panic is reached on fourth track Give Me One More Chance
, a treacly ballad with, of all things, synthesised woodwind instruments
, which no unsuspecting listener should ever have to be subjected to outside the confines of the aforementioned hypothetical movie soundtrack, and which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that these five gentlemen have no intention of rocking out any time soon.
Except they do
, on the very next track
, a jouncing slab of pure, uncompromising blues-rock which shows that these five musicians can
write perfectly functional NWOBHM-adjacent material, thus rendering the experience of trudging through the past fifteen to twenty minutes that much more frustrating; this feeling is further compounded when – after a few more tracks of cheesy 80s keyboard-rock – the group finally let loose on closer So Tired
, a rip-snorting, take-no-prisoners working-man's heavy metal anthem which teases the listener with the promise of what could have been (should
have been) when it is already too late to deliver on that promise. Even still, alongside aforementioned blues-rocker Never Say No
, this track asserts itself as an easy standout, if only because it gives metal-inclined listeners exactly what they were hoping for; if only the same could have been said of the rest of the album...
Even still, once one comes to terms with the fact that this is not, and never was intended to be, an old-school metal album, there is plenty to like about Throwing Shapes
. The second half of the album, in particular, delivers two prime slabs of mildly irresistible, keyboard-laden 80s cheese, in the form of third standout and sole soundtrack inductee Run For Your Life
and keyboard-tastic, Loverboy-esque follow-up Romancer
; elsewhere, Backstreet Lovers
is a decently catchy calling card, and even Give Me One More Chance
eventually reveals a few Whitesnake-ian traits, mainly relating to the juxtaposition of Shaw's Coverdale-like vocals and the sparse, mostly acoustic instrumentation, the same technique utilized, to great effect, on many of 'Snake's most famous ballads.
Even at its best, however, Throwing Shapes
is never particularly memorable, and even its strongest moments only really work in context; for such an overtly commercially-driven album, dealing within a genre known for its immediacy and catchiness, it is telling that it takes a good few listens before any of the hooks even begin to burrow into the listener's mind. Still, nondescript though it is, nothing about Throwing Shapes
is ever less than acceptable, either – Stratus may be just another congregation of also-rans struggling to breach the mediocrity threshold, but even that puts them above the likes of fellow NWOBHM offshoots Gogmagog, to name but one. In fact, while those hoping for a hidden gem from the British 80s-metal movement need not bother, there are far worse ways for open-minded rockers looking for a disposable, throwaway radio-hard-pop fix to spend thirty-eight minutes of their time.
Never Say No
Run For Your Life