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Frontiers (2014)
Rating: 9.5/10

Harem Scarem is one of those classy heavy rock bands that have always had its finger on a pulse; a skill that not many other bands can find. I recall back in 1991 being mightily impressed by the Canadian band’s self-titled debut, and wondering why they weren’t huge as they effortlessly cavorted with numerous styles to create a smörgåsbord of catchy melodies, swirling harmonies and kaleidoscopic structures that rarely fitted into the normal framework.

Whether throwing out soothing, lush ballads or tainting their swagger with an almost Beatles-esque psychedelia, for me Harem Scarem were always the uncrowned kings of cool, and yet unlike many other “alternative” rock acts of their day, these guys have managed to last the term.

Their reworking of the classic 1993 Mood Swings opus emerged in 2013 under the moniker of Mood Swings II, and served up a trio of new tracks which whet the appetite of fans eager for more.

Thirteen is another joyous overload of musical emotion, pomp and metallic harmony, and starts with the stunning ‘Garden Of England’ which offers up the expected bouncy, flirtatious guitars that lick the soul alongside those infectiously pleasant vocals which somehow transport us back to the heyday of late 80s rock. Indeed, such is the almost commercial properties of the opening track that we somehow feel familiar with some of the melodies, like seeing old friends again, and when we experience the bridge to the chorus the heart feels with joyful warmth.

It’s almost as if I want to arrange a tour consisting of Harem Scarem, Enuff Z’Nuff, Cheap Trick and mercurial yet underrated Florida rockers Saigon Kick, such is the extravagant nature of this lush platter. In fact, it took me what seemed like hours to drag myself away from ‘Garden Of England’ such is its catchiness and that almost weightless production which allows the track to flow.

Now, while I’ve enjoyed nigh on every release from Harem Scarem I never expected them to reach the glorious, gorgeous heights of their debut, and yet I really believe they have done it with Thirteen; I’m left literally drooling over the results. Rarely have I heard a band play so naturally; just effortlessly shifting through the gears, and with whatever style bestowing an almost smooth coating to each instrument. Those layered harmonies just melt the soul, and as choruses come and go you can only marvel at such simplicity, but it is a straightforwardness no-one else has the ability to muster.

‘Live It’ comes in with a nice drum shuffle and, dare I say it, a quirky, bluesy twang – imagine The Black Crowes but with extra fluffy padding and sugary twists. Meanwhile, ‘Early Warning Signs’ offers up a darker riff initially, working in tandem with a solid drum plod and that devilish vocal growl, and yet the chorus just hits like a truly unexpected summery crescendo. Again, there’s that early 90s feel of diversity – y’know, the sort of enigmatic gush that should top every chart and yet for some unknown reason only remains cult, except for the more appreciative audiences in Japan.

‘The Midnight Hours’ somehow manages to take the album up into another heavenly gear. While most bands would be happy to rest on their laurels and soak up the energy and premise of the opening batch of tracks, ‘The Midnight Hours’ instead builds slowly, but once again offers up that rich, bulbous chorus of breezy quality.

Can a band ever get so uplifting as Harem Scarem? These guys continue to supply permanent highs with an almost reggae-styled nod in the rhythm section before the sublime, piano-led ‘Whatever It Takes’ comes trickling in as a power ballad extraordinaire, only for the tears to be cast aside by the funky swirls of ‘Saints And Sinners’ with its rich vocal croon, but then the blossoming chords of ‘All I Need’ are back again to sweep us up within arms of joy.

‘AlI Need’ is a sweet mid-tempo plodder, but again it delivers up a killer chorus that’ll have you nodding along like there’s no tomorrow. Where the band finds such ideas is beyond me, but it feels as if Harem Scarem are ready for another rush of glory.

The album’s final segments are bolstered by the struttin’ ‘Troubled Times’, which is so clever as again it offers no idea as to what is coming with that bombastic chorus. And if you find yourself comforted by this plush mover, then you’ll be in dreamland with the exquisite ‘Never Say Never’ where Harry Hess will confirm your belief that he’s one of rock’s finest voices – his smooth tones just soaring above the sugary leads of Pete Lesperance.

To be honest, back in the 80s I always imagined that if Def Leppard were actually any good then maybe their technological breakdown known as Hysteria (1987) would have been something akin to this. But then again, it’s fair to say that bands like Harem Scarem are rarely matched for talent and for me Thirteen just puts them on a plateau that cannot be reached by others.

Finally, as ‘Stardust’ oozes in on a slick, dark-tinged riff but builds to another heavenly harmony, one can only sigh with pleasure at such a gargantuan effort that rolls out of the speakers like some candy floss cloud of dreaminess.

Many years ago somebody told me that genius is fleeting, but Harem Scarem are an exception to the rule… their brilliance is a constant.

Neil Arnold

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