CD Review: Roger Taylor – Fun in Space/Strange Frontier

CD Review: Roger Taylor – Fun in Space
Omnivore Recordings
All Access Rating: A-

CD Review: Roger Taylor – Strange Frontier
Omnivore Recordings
All Access Rating: B

Roger Taylor - Fun In Space and Strange Frontier 2015
Somewhat overlooked in Queen, what with Freddie Mercury's flamboyance and Brian May's dazzling guitar tricks hogging the spotlight, drummer Roger Taylor put out some rather interesting solo work in the late '70s and early '80s to hardly any fanfare whatsoever.

His obligations with Queen prevented Taylor from doing much, if any, promotion for 1981's Fun In Space or 1984's Strange Frontier, and that certainly contributed to the relative anonymity of both releases – Fun In Space preceded by the 1977 single "I Wanna Testify," which also made very little noise, which is strange considering Taylor's rather sizable songwriting contributions to some of Queen's biggest hits, the divisive "Radio Ga Ga" among them.

Making them ripe for reassessment, Omnivore Recordings is reissuing both Taylor solo outings on March 24 as expanded CDs, along with various vinyl editions. Stripped of Queen's theatricality and bombast, Fun In Space and Strange Frontier are more humble and modest records, although Taylor's wild and intimate studio experimentation and clever, down-to-earth songwriting manage to sparkle through the airbrushed '80s-style production values.

Of the two, both very much a product of their synthesizer-washed times, Fun In Space – recorded in Montreux, Switzerland in the down time between Queen tours in 1980 – is livelier, more whimsical and eclectic, as Taylor produced it himself and performed everything, save for some keyboard work by engineer David Richards. The jazz-rock ease of "Future Management" is reminiscent of Steely Dan's lighter moods, albeit with a chorus that is sharp and cutting, and offers glistening contrast from the bustling, energetic shakedowns and shuffles of "No Violins" and "Let's Get Crazy," the latter a feverish rockabilly workout with "snap, crackle, pop" drumming from Taylor.

Strange and menacing shapes, skittering percussion and swells of synthesizer make a sonic lava lamp of "Fun In Space," while the galloping beats and silvery guitar of "Good Times Are Now" run fast and clean, the circling guitar hooks and grooves of "Airheads" are unexpectedly weird and nasty, and "My Country I & II" is an oddly melodic and entertaining mix of guitar jangle, swirling keyboards and drumming hydraulics. And all of this comes with a single version of "My Country" and bonus tracks "I Wanna Testify" – a tight, funky little number with doo-wop backing vocals that is utterly infectious – and a jagged, herky-jerky "Turn on the TV" that fades out with a solar-powered guitar solo.

Neatly arranged, with unexpected delights planted throughout, Fun In Space is a colorful surprise party, whereas the dated electro-pop environs of Strange Frontier – partly recorded in Munich while Queen made The Works – find Taylor in a dour and mostly somber mood, his overly dramatic and futuristic reading of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and the disjointed and chaotic "Abandonfire" lacking the fire and drive of the politically charged title track and "Man On Fire," where Taylor's frustration with modern living boils over.

On Fun In Space, Taylor seems playful, this mad scientist drawing inspiration from David Bowie's Let's Dance period, whereas on Strange Frontier, his muse is Bruce Springsteen, mixing introspection with grand socio-political statements but relying almost entirely on synths and electronic beats to deliver the messages, with less varied instrumentation. That's not to say that Strange Frontier is lacking for memorable melodies, the somnambulistic drift of both "Beautiful Dream" and "It's An Illusion" seeping into the subconscious like a cat burglar, and "I Cry For You" brimming with passion.

Padded with four throwaway remixes, two of them for Strange Frontier's closer "I Cry For You," and the extra track "Two Sharp Pencils (Get Bad)," Taylor's second solo outing at times seems forced. Even his cover of Springsteen's "Racing in the Street," while still imbued with blue-collar longing, comes off as mere imitation rather than a vigorous overhaul. On the other hand, Strange Frontier isn't without its charms, for all of its flaws. Taylor can have all the fun he wants right here on earth when he's adequately inspired.
– Peter Lindblad

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