I'll start this review with a confession. I’m going to try and be as un-biased as possible - but that will prove tricky as I've been a big fan of Francis Dunnery since his days in Cumbrian one-hit wonders It Bites.
For those that are old enough, think back to the mid-80s and see if you can remember their solitary hit "Calling All The Heroes" from their debut album “The Big Lad In The Windmill”. Following two more albums (“Once Around The World” - a superb prog/pop/rock effort; “Eat Me In St Louis” with its straighter rock approach) and a career spent trying to disown “the hit”; Dunnery left for a solo career and life in America.
7 albums into that solo career, came the first of his studio albums that I didn’t buy due to lots of shocking reviews stating that he was dabbling with R&B and using a vocoder. Dunnery is one of those cult artists that illicit total devotion from his –admittedly small fanbase (me included) and as nobody else pays much attention, fan led average review ratings are usually very favourable. A quick scan on Amazon shows that his lowest rated album had an average mark of 4.5 out of 5 whereas the aforementioned last album (Made In Space) gained an average of just 2 out of 5. I heard snippets of the album and couldn’t really disagree so it was therefore with much trepidation that I approached his latest release “Frankenstein Monster”.
Would the downward spiral continue or has Frank re-discovered his muse? After all this is the guy who was once described as one of Britain’s best ever guitarists by none less than Eric Clapton.
The opening track – “Frankenstein Monster” - starts quietly then bursts into life with a spiky riff over the top of a fantastically weird groove laid by the excellent drummer, Tony Beard. There is some excellent guitar playing but at over 7 minutes the song is perhaps overly long to be using the same idea but a reasonable opener. All seems good for the moment!
“Don’t Look Down Frank” is a straight(er) rock, featuring a more bluesy-rock style than I’ve heard from FD until the song breaks down into an almost Sabbath-y moment, before returning to the main theme and a blinding guitar solo. Unlike the predecessor this song doesn’t out stay it’s welcome, even though it weighs in at six and a half minutes.
“Leaving The Depot” features a stomping double time riff with some, almost jazz rock passages showing off a band clearly at the top of its game. This song features some of Dunnery’s scat vocals – a trade mark of his time in It Bites and more great drumming from Beard as the song climaxes.
It’s at this point that I can confirm that Francis Dunnery has rediscovered the rock element missing from his last couple of releases. That’s not all a bad thing as in previous albums, the acoustic element of some of his previous output has allowed him to demonstrate that not only is he a wonderful and versatile guitar player but he has a great singing voice, too. Clearly others have felt this too as evidenced by the fact that he has done session/touring work for Robert Plant, Anderson-Bruford-Wakeman-Howe and co-wrote a large part of Ian Brown’s Music of the Spheres (and many other artists).
There is almost a prog-jazz-rock feel to this album, which will be mana from heaven for some but ghastly to others – I fall into the former category. The softer side is kept under wraps until the final track (Multicoloured Judy Green), which sounds like a leftover from his “Gulley Flats Boys” album – mainly just acoustic and bass guitars with Dunnery’s vocal and the odd keyboard backing line. Until an electric guitar solo, sounding like a re-write of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile riff breaks out all of a sudden and then disappears again, for no good reason. There is no denying that this is a strange album – several of the songs just stop and change direction completely without warning. Others have several different parts that seem to have been stitched together to make one complete song – probably kind of appropriate for an album entitled "Frankenstein Monster".
Without doubt, Dunnery is backed by musicians of the calibre of those he discarded when he left It Bites, possibly for the first time on one of his solo albums and it makes a difference. This album doesn’t sound like any of his previous ones, it sounds like an old record but in a way reminiscent of classic albums rather than dated ones. Despite that, there are clearly some “Frank” touches that only he could have written.
Most of the songs are in a rock vein but “Yam” is one of the quieter songs and features another in a long list of songs that Dunnery has written about the area of the North-West where he grew up and it’s a welcome change of pace. Another feature of the album are some of the frankly bizarre song titles – examples being: Limpet Man; Marijuanan Make These Eyes At Me For and Ho Ho Your Sandwiches. I’ve not got any inkling what they are for…. Over to you for some explanations.
Frankenstein Monster is a good album and a definite return to form but be warned, it begins to open itself up to you after repeated listens. If possible, it’s an album best suited to being listened to in one complete sitting and that certainly doesn’t suit the modern “skip to the next song in the shuffle list” attitude that most of us have now developed. Make the effort and you will be rewarded. Not his best but a definite return to some sort of form.