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It's been several years since the revitalized UFO drafted American guitar hero Vinnie Moore and rock-royalty offspring Jason Bonham to its long-running soap opera ranks. The resulting 2003's "You Are Here" crackled and sparked with an enthusiasm and passion that only fresh blood can ignite. Recently Bonham left for somewhat greener Foreigner pastures, and original UFO stickman Andy Parker was coaxed from retirement to the applause of long-standing UFO fans. The ensuing "The Monkey Puzzle" can be seen as a Vinnie-era sophomore album of sorts. While its predecessor exploded with the energy of an instant classic, this time out the band seems to be easing into comfortable familiarity, more confident with each other but also somewhat more subtle and reserved.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of swagger on tap. "Heavenly Body," "Black And Blue" and "Rolling Man" all chug along with the confidence of seasoned veterans with nothing to prove. Laid-back "Some Other Guy" smolders with an early 70's Stones-y vibe, courtesy of Paul Raymond's classy keyboard texturing, as the rare appearance of harmonica drives the bluesy atmosphere home. And while the record seems to have a fair share of other mid-tempo numbers, they are all of the top-shelf quality you'd expect. "Goodbye You" being another perfect example of such a gem - a hypnotic riff and captivating vocal married with some inspired fretwork to produce a sonically stunning piece of art.
And there's plenty more for the guitar fans to sink their teeth into as well. Pete Way co-write "Who's Fooling Who" begins with some beautiful acoustic work before cresting in waves of emotional soloing. Another Vinnie highlight (and personal fave) comes with the introspective ballad "Drink Too Much." The track harkens back to UFO classics, in which little morsels of tasty leads are stroon throughout an already perfect song, creating a virtual ocean of melody...Pure bliss.
Vinnie Moore appears to be an excellent (and stable!) writing partner as well as an admitted UFO fan. He seems to understand well his guitarist role and the high standard of what's expected from the position; Kudos to him for again rising to the occasion! He's definitely their best pick since the brief inclusion of Larry Archer (Phil Lynott's Grand Slamm) in the early 1990's. ("High Stakes and Dangerous Men" then being their strongest release in almost a decade.)
But when all is said and done, the band comes down to its irreplaceable leader, Phil Mogg. Going on 40 years of UFO (!!), and the man hasn't lost a thing - in the best shape of his life and sounding as great as ever. Every song hinges on his commanding narrative and intoxicating vocal melodies. There is nobody better-- Period.
So, at the end of the day, "The Monkey Puzzle" will indeed land in my year's "Top 10" list. While maybe not the masterpiece of " Obsession" or more recently "Walk On Water," it definitely holds its own within the UFO legacy, up there with the solid "Mechanix" or "Making Contact." If you're already familiar with UFO, you've probably bought it by now. But if not, do yourself a favor and pick this one (or any, really) up. Even at this stage of their career, they're still releasing albums that are superior to 90% of the hard rock out there.
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