By Tate Bengston
The wheel of fortune has been exceptionally kind to Tim “Ripper” Owens. Alas, it has also been exceptionally cruel. The guy has stumbled from one famous band to another, filling shoes of irreplaceable departing vocalists who inevitably return and restore the band to a status quo comfort that is usually well-received by fans. To add insult to injury, Ripper also tends to join a band at its creative nadir and gets tarred due to his association with inferior albums. The regularity of this pattern is astounding.
The question at the heart of the matter is whether it is Owens or the bands that he joins which leads to such disappointing results. With Ripper’s first true solo album, the answer would appear to be at hand. A truly great solo debut would reveal Ripper as a victim of circumstances. A dismal outing would imply the Ripper had a role in his past bands’ doldrums. Indeed, Ripper has acknowledged this fact in recent interviews while discussing how he was restricted from contributing to Judas Priest and Iced Earth and how he was able to call all of the shots on Play My Game. Given the degree of control possessed by Owens on his solo debut, Play My Game stands as a suitable place to evaluate that question. It turns out that the answer is not particularly favourable to Mr. Owens.
Play My Game comes across as a series of tracks inspired by Judas Priest’s Demolition and Beyond Fear’s eponymous debut, with the occasional nod to Dio. This should come as no surprise, given that two of the songs were Ripper-penned tunes which were originally rejected by Priest. Paint-by-numbers songwriting provides a framework for the clunky riffs and juvenile lyrics, while the drumming of Simon Wright in particular (the album has several drummers, although Wright, of AC/DC and Dio fame, is the main contributor) is not only simplistic but devoid of energy. The only point of relief is that Ripper is finally moving away from his tendency to oversing. He is using his upper register strategically and his movement between pitches is much less contrived than has been the case in the past (the latter tendency was particularly evident on Demolition and The Glorious Burden).
Too many tracks on Play My Game drive straight up the middle of the ol’ bell curve, affably mediocre but unexceptional. When a particular song does manage to distinguish itself, it is usually for the wrong reasons. For example, the utter musical and songwriting mess of “The Light,” the tedious attempt at Dio-era Sabbathy doom on album closer “The Shadows Are Alive,” and the sloppy shamble of “No Good Goodbyes.” A handful of better-than-average tracks do emerge, such as the autobiographical opener “Starting Over” and the kinetic “The Cover Up,” although these tracks are just barely able to keep their proverbial noses above water. One of the few bright spots is “The World is Blind,” which benefits from a sharp main riff and an intriguing midsection break where the bass guitar takes a lead role as Ripper delivers an impassioned performance.
While Play My Game boasts more guest stars than the last Snoop Dogg album, these VSA’s (Very Special Appearances) are far from special. Rather, it sounds like each guest was handed a script in advance, with the exception of the guitar soloists who simply ad libbed for a few bars after hearing a demo track once. Even when the soloing is good in isolation, it bears little connection to the song as a whole. There is no chemistry here. No evidence of genuine creative collaboration. No, this is just the sound of a few well-known musicians making token appearances so that a name-dropping sticker may be affixed to its shrink wrap.
Ripper is a guy with a lot to prove. While his vocal prowess is beyond doubt, his creative capabilities have long been suspect. Play My Game was his best chance yet to defend the latter. Pity that it has proven to be such a deficient effort. Worse still, this solo album fails in what should be its primary objective: to showcase who Owens truly is, free from the shackles of another band’s creative vision. In that regard, it is hard to forgive this trite effort.