Two rock bands stick out for me one from each side of the Atlantic, both brilliant live and neither have quite reached the heights their music has deserved. The American band is Y&T their English brother from another mother being Thunder so you can guess how I felt when the latest Thunder release appeared in my inbox for review. Dopamine is their 14th studio album and is a 16-track double CD/LP, so when you consider they released ‘All The Right Noises’ a little over a year ago the band really has been busy. The band has always revolved around the axis of guitarist, songwriter and Thunder co-founder Luke Morley and lead singer Danny Bowes the rest of the band is made up of Ben Matthews part of the twin guitar set up, long standing member Chris Childs on bass and completing the rhythm section, also part of the Thunder furniture, Harry James on drums.
Dopamine part one opens with the first single off the album ‘The Western Sky’. The track opens with a trademark chunky Luke Morley riff that is the bedrock of the song. Power house drumming sets up a relentless beat and the ageless defying wonderful voice of Danny Bowes firmly takes the reins guiding the track past the winning post. A vintage Thunder start. This is swiftly followed by ‘One Day We’ll Be Free Again’ which opens in classic style guitar and vocal only, then the musical tension starts to mount with the addition of the drums before going into overdrive with a huge female chorus that would flatter any Gospel community choir. The guitar solo in the break is pure joy the whole track could be a rocking hymn to the final ending of the pandemic and is one of my highlights on this release. The next track ‘Even If It Takes A Lifetime’ slows things down just a little, opening with a country steel guitar then the bass and drums follow on to back a luscious vocal. The whole effect is a rocky blues/country tone and once again fine use of the female chorus infuses the sound. A track that stirs memories of many of the fine down tempo Thunder songs of the past, yet staying fresh and vibrant, making a new highwater mark for the band. ‘Black’ comes next opening with thunderous drums from Harry James and apocalyptic bass from Chris Childs as befits the darker lyrics. The interchange of the dual guitars of Morley and Ben Matthews is both subtle and musically engaging and is the signature tune of the track. Changing the tempo ‘Unraveling’ is a gentle ballad, featuring some lovely piano from Matthews, angelic harmonies and a sweet guitar solo from Morley. It’s best described as a torch song for love not quite lost and is also an album highlight. The beat picks up with ‘The Dead City’ which is a typical Thunder playbook song but this time twinned with an off-key chorus that’s set against the faultless straight-up chords of the verse. Danny’s vocal plays seamlessly with both themes and neatly knits the tune together. ‘Last Orders’ heads into a country direction, in fact you could say it has a Spaghetti-Western vibe. The first verse is paired back and acoustic with just Luke and Danny and it’s not until the second verse that the band burst in. This is the point were the main guitar riffage starts gradually building up the vibe with a wonderful bass line filling in the sound. Next is the explosion of heavier drums; electric guitar takes over from acoustic and the power is turned full on. This eclectic mix is also one of my highlights.
The second part of this epic double opens with ‘Dancing In The Sunshine’, twin guitar driven and a vintage Thunder good time song and like the rest of the album with its superb production it’s like Thunder on steroids in overdrive. The pace slows with the funky blues infused with jazzy overtones of ‘Big Pink Supermoon’. Showcasing once again Danny’s exquisite vocal control and Luke’s inherent mastery of fast blues playing wrapped up with a backdrop of keyboard and intricate bass line. The cherry on the cake is the sax solo all woven together to make an intriguing whole. This swiftly followed by the latest single ‘Across The Nation’. If ever a song was designed for playing live this is the one as it has all the keys for crowd participation and is destined to become another anthem for the band. With an archetypal Thunder lyric, a full barrelled rock riff complimented with suitable keys and a quality guitar solo it has all the ingredients in the right mixture. ‘I Don’t Believe The World’ comes next and what a treat for the ears this is. It’s a classic Thunder sonic masterpiece painted on a broad canvass. Starting with solemn keys and Danny’s plaintiff vocal highlighted by a slow tempo and dramatized by a subdued melody powered by keys and the bass line. Add sky high harmonies in the chorus, making full use of the female choir to set the sound stage and taking as given the soul searing guitar breaks from Luke, it’s a 5-star classic and yet another highlight for me of this truly remarkable album. Next up is ‘Disconnected’. The heartbeat of this track is the drums of Harry James cascading throughout. There is a certain something that harks back to the magnificence of The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’ as well. A nice touch is the use of double tracking some of Danny’s vocals. It’s a track that pays its dues to Thunder’s classic rock routes fired up with a scorching modern production, very tasteful indeed and at times made me think were did I put my flowery shirt with the big collar whilst knowing I’d never get into it now even if I found it. The last but one track ‘Is Anybody Out There’ which is another slow tempo ballad composed of mostly vocal and piano. To me it could be a plaintiff plea from someone in Covid isolation wanting reassurance, but my view may be coloured by having to isolate being classed vulnerable so please decide for yourself. The end is reached via the wonderful ‘No Smoke Without Fire’. Beginning with an acoustic style having a metronomic rhythm and Danny pouring so much soul into the vocal you can taste it. Subtly the tempo builds until the whole band launch in. A seamless transition reaching a crescendo when the female choir explode the chorus. Then back to the stripped back style for the first half of the solo, before it explodes again with the full band. Subtle textures are woven in up to the end crowned by Luke’s signature guitar playing.
Just in case you are wondering where does the title of the album come from seeing there is no track titled ‘Dopamine’ I’ll leave you with the words of Luke Morley he tells it much better than I can. “I read a fascinating article by an American psychologist who said that social media forces us to become dopamine addicts. We’re validated and liked on social media, which releases the dopamine and so we get addicted to it. We take more and more selfies in the hope of more and more validation and the album cover reflects this. People are surrounded by amazing things that they’re missing because they’re so self-obsessed”. In that reflection Luke has come up with so much more than a quick trick like fix. How do you sum up this 16-track absolute monster of an album? Track after track of quality, superb production & musicianship and a lead singer who, amazingly, is still in his prime and a master of his craft. Somehow after all these years the band have managed to retain the artistry and freshness of back in the day, 1989 to be precise with Backstreet Symphony and add an even more visceral depth and power, also adding maturity without sounding dated. Linked to the great production, this is an album that is hot in the running for my release of the year. For over 30yrs Thunder have been a standout British rock band and from this showing there seems no sign of that changing or even diminishing.
Record Label: BMG
Release date: 29th April 2022
Highlight tracks: ‘One Day We’ll Be Free Again’, ‘Unraveling’, ’Last Orders’, ‘I Don’t Believe The World’.
Album Review: Rob Birtley
Archive Images: Reg Richardson