OZ – “Transition State” (AFM Records)
Quite possibly the oldest Finnish heavy rock band, OZ were formed in 1977 and soon defected to Sweden where they became more commonly associated, recording their acclaimed 1983 sophomore “Fire In The Brain” – featuring no less than Quorthon of Bathory’s arm on their album cover! Despite a strong follow up the next year in the more metallised “III – Warning” that was released on Combat Records in the US, the market for heavy rock / metal was soon fizzling out in favor of specialized genres and so too did OZ by the early 90s. Close to 2 decades would pass before founders Mark Ruffneck on drums and vocalist Ape De Martini would reform the band, sign to AFM and release their “Burning Leather” compilation in 2011. Since then OZ has been steadily getting back to form with touring although in 2013, family issues saw the core members in hiatus while the Swedish members continued with their own projects. Solely returning to the fold, things came full circle for the band when Mark Ruffneck turned back to Finland to recruit a fresh new line up – ironically from his hometown! Still calling themselves heavy rock, “Transition State” is the band’s first new album since 1991 but man, does Mark Ruffneck have his s–t together (along with this talented line up) because this is top notch heavy rock with metallised tinges across its 13 hard rocking tracks – seriously, it’s like going back in a time warp but amazingly combined with today’s production technology! From the chugging 80s riffola and wild stallionz soloing on opener ‘Bone Crusher’ its like NWOBHM has returned with some excellent vocals from Vince Koivula who is like a young Bruce Dickinson no less, while on ‘Heart Of A Beast’ his soul oozes with the instantly hooking guitar melodies along with a highly catchy chorus to produce another hit that while not aggressive, hits home no less. Honestly, there are no fillers on this album attesting to Ruffneck’s composing talent – not to mention his hugely respectable dedication to genuine heavy rock! If you love dexterous twin guitar work then ‘Drag Me To Hell’ will certainly do that with yet more catchiness in the accompanying melodies and this continues on the much darker ‘Whore Of Babylon’ which is, in fact, proto doom along early Candlemass lines with its slow, occultish tones and Koivula hitting the Messiah sopranos – along with some tasty neo classical soloing – brilliant! Hitting the gas on ‘Demonized’ with its speed almost approaching power metal, the intricate fret board work is complemented by yet more catchy riffing as Koivula unleashes his heavy metal screams while on ‘We’ll Never Die’ the band kick serious stadium ass on this singalong anthem that had me air punching just like back in the 80s – yeah! While I’m certain that some may find this variety of styles a tad annoying, this in essence is what heavy rock used to be about with bands covering what are today distinct genres of their own, so I have to commend Ruffneck and his new band of rockers for not just sticking to his guns, but pulling it all off so masterfully. An excellent (and authentic) release from one of the original purveyors of Scandinavian heavy rock that not only brings back a ton of memories but I hope spurs a resurgence for this long missed genre!