Album Review: Torino Albums Get a Refreshing Treatment

Torino Album Covers

Italian label Steelheart Memories and its’ CEO Primo Bonali (in close co-operation with Rob Evans of AOR Underground/Classic Rock AOR) have now reached volume 11 and 12 in their much-appreciated reissue and remaster series entitled Lost UK Jewels. The series takes aim at unearthing and reissuing UK AOR bands that never reached fame and fortune for various reasons but still bolstered those great songs with huge hooks that ruled the airwaves in the mid to late 1980’s and, to some extent the early 1990’s. This time the turn has come for the mighty Torino, a band that actually got a record deal back in the day and released two albums to critical acclaim but failed to gain any larger commercial breakthrough. Personally, I have been waiting a couple of years for this release to actually happen knowing Mr Bonali had started negotiations a few years back. Label policy and red tape can pose a real dangerous threat to forgotten albums ever seeing a re-release! As far as I know there were a lot of things to sort out and actually finding out who owned the rights to the albums released almost 30 years ago. It is great news that Mr Bonali seems to have solved the problems with copyrights belonging to FM Revolver. There are some great albums still unreleased on CD that belong to FM Revolver subsidiary Heavy Metal Records. The first album that comes to my mind is Briar‘s fantastic debut album Too Young. Hopefully, this can lead to that album (and others) also being reissued in the future. I got into Torino in the mid-1990’s searching for past releases containing the melodic hard rock so regrettably lost and absent in the mid-1990’s music scene. I stumbled onto a vinyl copy of the debut album Customized at a record fair and bought it for almost nothing.

Placing it on the turntable and giving it a couple of spins I soon grew fond of that old piece of vinyl. After some research, I found a rare CD copy of the second album Rock It. I still remember having to pay an unreasonable amount of money to finally call it mine. Therefore, I was really excited when I first heard rumours of both albums being remastered and plans to reissue them with plenty of unreleased bonus tracks. I got the impression that the bonus material was from pre-production work for a proposed third record (I was wrong here but more on that later).

Biography

The roots of the precursor to Torino called Gran Torino harken back to Liverpool and the late 1970’s. Gran Torino formed out of the ashes of the band Strangeheart when Brian Dixon (drums) and Stephan James (bass, then using the monicker Steve Perry) hooked up with Colin Guthrie (guitar) and Stuart Fox (lead vocals). The band name was taken from the car driven by Starsky & Hutch in the popular TV series going by the same name. Gran Torino started gigging throughout Merseyside and soon found themselves in the local studio with producer Mick Devonport (Nutz, Rage) where they recorded a two track demo containing “Take  My Heart” and “Out of the Fire”. This demo was recorded in December of 1984 and showed up in the popular magazine Metal Forces where Kelv Hellraizer gave it a rave review.

Torino band
TorinoRock It lineup with Simon Peters. Picture courtesy of Rockdetector.com

Brian Dixon had spent some time in the States during 1983 where the American melodic hard rock scene was flourishing with bands like Giuffria, Dokken and Ratt. They had a huge influence on Gran Torino‘s sound. The next couple of years saw a few membership changes and a shortening of the name to just Torino. They also entered the studio for two more sessions resulting in a demo tape entitled 7Up which they sold at shows. The lineup solidified when Barry McKeown joined on guitar and ex-Rox bass man Paul Diamond joined the band in December of 1987. Diamond came fresh from a stint with Jailbait, a band that also bolstered a pre-Dare and Ten era Vinny Burns on guitar. With a new lineup in place that felt steady and inspired they entered the studio once again to record another two track demo with Steve Morris (Export, Heartland, Shadowman) at the helm turning the knobs this time around. This particular demo caught the attention of Wolverhampton-based label FM Revolver who offered them a deal. Legendary journalist Derek Oliver discovered them and compared Torino to the likes of White Sister, FM and Sheriff in his column in Kerrang! magazine. With the deal bagged, work on a debut album soon commenced at the Alchemy Studios in Liverpool and they were joined in the studio by Shy vocalist Tony Mills who laid down some backing vocals for the album. They had to manage the recording on a shoestring budget and there was not a whole lot of time for fine tuning in the studio. Tony impressed the band with his professionality and vocal range. Customized was released in the early part of 1988 only on cassette and vinyl. These remasters are the first time this album is officially available on CD and many of the early Gran Torino demos are included as bonus tracks on the CD. The album was received very well with mostly positive reviews and it increased the fan base considerably. The album contained a collection of great songs with catchy hooks – songs that most of them had been in the live set since 1984. Torino supported the album with a string of gigs in the months after its’ release.

They wasted no time however in pressing forward, so already in August of 1988 the pre-production for the sophomore effort started. Just before the band entered the studio to record what would become Rock It in September they added another guitarist in Sheffield native Simon Peters (ex-Rock Candy, ex-Monroe).  With two guitarists, the sound could be much thicker and heavier, especially in a live setting, and Torino capitalized on that fact during the recording of the next album. Pre-production took place at Dead Sound Studios in Chester, UK. These pre-production demos are actually rough versions of the songs on the album recorded live in the studio and they are included on Rock It as bonus tracks. The financial backing was a bit better for the second album but still not very large. With the limited budget, the band chose to record in a fairly good studio and opted for producing the album themselves. Torino aimed at a bigger and harder-edged sound than compared to the very AOR flavoured Customized. Rock It was recorded in Pink Museum Studios in Liverpool with engineer Michael Haas; mostly known for his work with Lee Aaron.

The band had high hopes for Rock It and were very optimistic about the future when, unfortunately, Paul Diamond was kicked out of the band soon after the recording was finished. Torino brought back Stephan James (who had been working with rival band Tokyo) and he fitted straight in having been part of the band before, even playing on the old Gran Torino demos. Rock It was recorded and finished in November of 1988 but the label dragged on slowly and it did not hit the shops until May 2nd, 1989. Like its predecessor, this second album also received a warm welcome from press and fans alike. Torino embarked on a tour with Mammoth to support the album which was successful and culminated with the gig at London’s Astoria in mid-May. A month later the bomb was dropped and Stuart Fox had left the band citing that he needed to spend more time with his family. Torino quickly found a replacement in former Larrikin singer Tony O’Hora with whom they soon completed a very successful tour of the UK. With O’Hora at the helm, they went back to the studio for another couple of recording sessions.

Unfortunately, things did not go further on for Torino and with the grunge wave waiting in the wings the band called it quits soon after. Tony O’Hora went on to front Onslaught, Highwire, and Praying Mantis before ending up in The Sweet where he also plays bass.  O’Hora joined classic NWOBHM band Statetrooper in 2004. Brian Dixon formed Contagious in 1991 and recorded a very impressive demo tape with them and played gigs in the Liverpool and Nottingham area. He played a short while with Caprice before joining doom metallers Cathedral.

The story does not end there. In September of 2004 Torino reunited for a one-off gig at the Z-rock Festival in Liverpool.

torino_-_customizedCustomized

Torino‘s debut album contains a lethal dose of UK 80’s AOR with a not insignificant dose of American commercialised and radio-friendly hard rock. The commercial potential is there from the start and one cannot stop wondering what could have been done with some major label backing and a decent promo package. I would compare Torino‘s brand of rock to Shy, Moritz and After Hours.

The album starts off in fine style with the hard rockin´“Out of the Fire”, a song that had been a staple at Torino shows since 1984. This is definitely one of the stronger songs on the album and my favourite track.  It is followed by the slow rockin’“Steal My Thunder” a song that reminds me heavily of Bon JoviFox‘s vocals are a little reminiscent of a young Jon Bon Jovi and the grooving bass line could easily fit on Slippery When Wet.  Add a couple of huge backing vocals to the mix, a hook and you have got a great song. We are then treated to the first ballad of the album entitled “Somewhere” which is an OK power ballad but nothing spectacular. Stuart Fox finds himself vocally somewhere in the land between Jon Bon Jovi and Steve Plunkett of Autograph. We are back on the hard rockin’ track with “Can´t Let Go” which starts off with a nice keyboard fill and a melodic acoustic guitar chord. The song has some hit potential through a memorable chorus that easily sticks in your head and a nice melodic solo from Barry MacKeown. This song would have been a potential single off the album.

Spot number five is taken by “Boys Go Wild” which is a straight ahead rock song, but nothing extraordinary. The weak spot is a chorus being repeated too many times especially towards the end of the song. Fox stretches his vocals to the limits with a couple of high pitched screams. We are back on the winning track once again with the hard rockin´“Call of the Wild”. Fox sounds like a dead ringer for Joe Elliot here and it is a song with a strong and steady beat, a memorable and infectious hook. There are plenty of choirs and backing vocals where Tony Mills‘ contribution to the album can be clearly heard. It would have been another contender for a single release off of the album. Up next is another old cut from the Gran Torino days entitled “Take My Heart Away”. It is a nice, feelgood rock song that starts with the lone acoustic guitar and vocals from Fox but picks up in tempo for the chorus. The chorus has some distinct female backing vocals to support the main voice. Time for a grittier song with “Dance Crazy” which is the heaviest song on the album. It starts off with a heavy, chugging riff from MacKeown and the song stays in a heavier tone throughout  being guitar driven and guitar oriented the whole way through. We get a real vibrato solo and a great and memorable chorus. A great heavy rocking piece! The last song on the original album is “Never Surrender” which is another mid-tempo rocker with an enticing, driving beat.

On this remastered CD, there are 8 bonus tracks which are all earlier demos from the Gran Torino days. All these make nice additions to the original album, however, the sonic quality of the recordings leave a lot more to be desired. They all come with a muffled sound just like they’ve been run through a Dolby noise reduction tape machine too many times. The treble is almost gone leaving the emphasis on the lower register. Unfortunately, most of the songs are earlier versions that in the end found their way onto Customised. One shining exception is the song “Heaven Will Rock” which is a great and heavy rocking track that surely should have made the cut and been recorded for the album. The only other unique song in this bonus material is the last song on the CD “Outta Love With You”. There is of course “Break Down the Walls” which is an early version of “Call of the Wild”.

The packaging of this CD is tasteful with press cuttings from different magazines from the time when it all happened. The booklet also contains extensive liner notes from Rob Evans and the only thing missing in the booklet is the lyrics reprinted which could have added some value. This is an album packed with quality melodic hard rock/AOR and the Brits really knew how to do it! In a flood of similar bands, Torino got lost in the shuffle, but with these reissues some wrongs may be set right. Undoubtedly, the potential was there and Torino had the songs to make it bigger than they actually achieved. I really have to salute the work being done by Rob Evans and Primo Bonali in unearthing all these lost recordings and breathing new life into them.

torino_-_rockitRock It

The sophomore album was recorded in the autumn of 1988, only 6 months after Customized was released. The band did not have time for a breather it seems. The album starts off in fine style with the title track which is a punchy, sing-along anthem with a huge chorus line. This might also be the strongest cut on the album. The lyrical content is pretty obvious judging by the name of the song. It is followed by “Nights on Fire” which is a straight ahead rock song with a nice riff, but one of the weaker songs on the album.  Song number three on the album is “Seven Mountains” and it is a nice melodic rocker with the typical Torino-esque hook. Things are being turned up a bit with the infectious rocker “Baby Blue” which has got a strong melodic hook, huge backing vocals and a melody that easily sticks in your head for a while. Together with the title track, one of the stand-out tracks on the album! It also features some nice guitar work from McKeown/Peters. Up next is a very unorthodox song for Torino with the emotional acoustic ballad called “It Takes a Man to Cry”.  The arrangements are stripped down to just an acoustic guitar and it really adds variety and depth to the overall impression of Rock It. Stuart Fox belts out some really emotional vocals on this one.

What used to be side B of the vinyl edition kicks off with track number six which is “Showdown”. It starts off with an acoustic guitar and you start thinking you are up for the second ballad in a row, but you are soon proved wrong. The acoustic guitar is replaced by a heavy chugging riff and a cool bass groove from Paul Diamond. The song has a decent chorus and melody but also a chorus that is repeated one or two many times towards the end of the song. It’s still a good rock song and adds heaviness and groove to the overall impression of the album. Track number seven on the album is ”Dance All Night” and it starts with a steady beat from Brian Dixon and soon both guitar and keyboard join the mix. It’s a sleazy/glammy mid-tempo rocker that in the lyrical department and song structure reminds me of Ratt. The chorus line ”when you work all day – you gotta dance all night” really says it all what the song is about. Up next is one of my overall favourites on this album – a melodic rocker called ”One in a Million”. It has a contagious melody running throughout the song and if you add a great hook, some great guitar work and solo from McKeown/Peters you have a great rock song. This song together with the title track and ”Baby Blue” are definitely my top picks from Rock It.

After that treat, we get another mid-paced rocker named ”Shine”. It is a song that somehow reminds me of early Bon Jovi and that is not a bad comparison in my book. A feel-good rock song of high quality with commercial potential. The last song on the original album is ”Turn it Up”. It is a song the starts off with a drumbeat that soon turns into a mid-paced hard rock song. Nothing exceptional but an OK ending of a great, but very underrated album.

This remastered edition contains a total of 9 bonus tracks. I was very excited when I heard this remastered re-release was going to contain a lot of bonus material, but now having listened to the bonus material I was very disappointed with the content. What you get here is basically the band live in the studio recording demos before going into the studio to record the album. All songs are on the album in better versions so there is not a single shred of exclusive material. The sonic quality of the recordings is, to say the least, questionable. I’m also disappointed because I know there is better material that would have fit better and what I mean is the demos Torino recorded with vocalist Tony O’Hora for a proposed third album. I guess some of the answers could be found in lead vocalist Stuart Fox having an important role in getting these reissues out and by that time he had left the band. Still, the bonus material on this CD is for die-hards only!

As with all Lost UK Jewels you get extensive liner notes from Rob Evans, press cuttings and memorabilia with Rock It as well. What I am missing is again the lyrics reprinted but that would only have been icing on the cake.

Summary

A lot of credits should go out to Rob Evans and Primo Bonali for their extensive work of digging up long Lost UK Jewels from a flourishing AOR scene of the 1980’s. The historical importance of their work cannot be ignored and it should be noted as a cultural deed of greater importance! Torino was definitely at the top of the bands that ”almost made it”. They had the looks, the hooks and the songs to go all the way. Unfortunately they did not, whether it was due to bad management, a stroke of bad luck, not being in the right place at the right time or whatever it was is not important today. What is important is that the musical legacy carries on and that new fans can discover the music. I’m eagerly awaiting their next step and what might be the next two volumes in this series. May it continue for a long while!

Customized has a more Americanised sound with clear hints that the guys had set their sights on American radio. It lacks a bit in the production department but is still filled with a great set of songs with maybe one or two fillers. I would give Customized 7 geeks out of 10. Lacking a bit in the production department, lack of printed lyrics and with a couple of weak spots this is still a great album. Hopefully, these reissues will give Torino a whole lot of new fans and present them to the new generation rockers.

Rock It has got a tougher sound with dual guitar players and a slightly better and updated production. When it comes to the songs, it follows suit in being a collection of great melodic hard rock songs and maybe one or two filler here as well. I would rate it to 7,5 out of 10 geeks. The packaging, liner notes and press cuttings are really nice memorabilia and a nice addition to a professional presentation of the albums. I think I have mentioned the downside already with absent lyrics and bonus material that could have been so much better.

The glove is dropped and let’s see if any of the newly established melodic rock festivals picks it up and oversees a Torino reunion…. It would be great if these releases would be supported by select festival dates!

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