When German axe hero Michael Schenker left UFO after their career-defining live album “Strangers in the Night” it wasn’t long before he put together his own band with vocalist Gary Bardens, and released their first album, entitled “The Michael Schenker Group”
Unlike UFO, the riff-centric album fell on the metal side of the metal/hard rock divide, a mix of punchy rockers and longer epics with the odd neo-classical instrumental thrown in for good measure. There was something of Ronnie Dio in Bardens’ vocal approach and mystical lyrics. Though not totally filler-free it was a solid start, with the opener “Armed and Ready” and the lengthy closer “Lost Horizons” particular standouts.
The first album had been completed with the aid of session musicians, but the second, called simply “MSG” featured the road band put together to tour it, including Cozy Powell on drums and Schenker’s former UFO bandmate Paul Raymond on keys. It was an ambitious slightly prog-tinged work, although Ron Nevison’s production drew controversy, especially with what he did to Powell’s drum sound, and Schenker himself made it clear he wasn’t happy with it. But songwise it was a stronger statement of intent, with “Attack of the Mad Axeman”, “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and the epic “But I Want More” among the standouts.
The live double, “One Night At Budokan”, captured the band at the height of their powers. A bigger, rawer sound brought the songs from the two studio albums to life, with far more muscular takes of material from the second in particular. As with many rock live albums of the era, many songs turned into big guitar showcases, demonstrating that Schenker had lost none of that magic from UFO days.
Then things started to go wrong. For the third studio album former Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet was brought in to replace Gary Bardens, and despite his undoubted vocal prowess, the songwriting suffered. The album “Assault Attack” nevertheless had it’s moments, and was certainly the best-produced studio work to date. It was let down by some God-awful lyrics, but saved by Schenker’s always superb guitar work. Much of the time the guitar pyrotechnics overshadow the songs, but when it all comes together on numbers like “Samurai”, there are still moments of greatness.
Bonnet’s tenure was brief, and Bardens was back in the band before the album was even released. But by the time they recorded “Built to Destroy”, the magic of the early albums had dissipated. They took an AOR direction, but it was a dying fall rather than a new beginning, with a thin, weak production and poor songwriting. Schenker is still on masterful form, but this time, when too many of the songs seemed to be marking time until the solo, even his playing isn’t good enough to save the album.
Taken together, the five albums in reproductions of the original LP sleeves represents exceptional value for money, when the whole thing goes for the same price as a single new CD. It’s true you don’t get copious sleeve notes with it, but nowadays we have Wikipedia for that. If you have fond memories of one of more of the original albums in the 1980s, this is highly recommended.