Those expecting another Firewind record from Gus G will find themselves surprised by “I am the Fire.” The titular musician has said at length that for this, his first solo record, he wanted to defy expectation and shirk convention. While another guitar virtuoso, Jake E. Lee, released an album recently trying to prove he was still in the mold, Gus G is trying to break out of it. “I am the Fire” is Gus G’s personal release: his chance to write songs that feel good to him, regardless of how much discretion they do or do not require. The resultant product is an expression of Gus G’s latent classic rock fandom.
Each of these songs nominally fits into a pattern of verse-chorus-verse, with an impressive, decorative solo added on for window dressing. That’s not an insult, merely a statement. Gus G is likely channeling his youth here, fondly remembering listening to the guitar heroes of yesteryear, and his replication of their mores is admirable in the attempt. Album opener “My Will Be Done” is the logical extension of that imagining, providing the listener with a solid rhythmic foundation and accomplished six-string harmonies.
A necessary part of the story of “I Am the Fire” is the revelation that Gus G not only produced the effort himself, but played a preponderance of the instruments on it. Unless noted otherwise, the man who has given Ozzy fans reason to take notice again plays just about all the sounds you’re hearing, be they guitar, keys or bass. This makes the album entirely organic in a unique way – Gus G. vertically integrated himself into each part of the creative process.
And yet, for all the freedom that a solo record offers, Gus G remains at this best when accompanied (perhaps even challenged?) by another musician. The best exhibitions of his craft come in the two instrumental pieces “Vengeance” and “Terrified.” The former is headlined by a guest appearance from the great David Ellefson, the latter by the talented Billy Sheehan. Their mere addition (plus the percussion of Arch Enemy’s Daniel Erlandsson for both,) seems to push Gus G to greater heights and more robust constructions. Not that I want to typecast Gust G. while he’s trying to avoid that very thing, but these two instrumentals feel more like Gus G pieces, if that makes sense. They are both vital and virile, stuffed full of big riffs, high-speed scales, artistic technicality and a melody that speaks beyond being a succession of notes.
The rest of the album comes and goes in waves. There are big, ponderous hooks like the main backing of “Eyes Wide Open” (featuring Candlemass’ Mats Leven.) There are the speedier tunes like “Redemption” and the hammer of the title cut. Naturally, no album styled after classic rock would be complete with the open emotional outpourings of “Dreamkeeper” or “Long Way Down.” These are merely the expected staples though, and don’t move the needle much beyond being curious what’s around the bend. Once the first pass is completed, “I Am the Fire” has few secrets to share.
Where “I Am the Fire” hits its biggest snag is in the constraints of the construction. For all the guest vocalists that run the length of this record, some of them very accomplished, they are asked to sing only within the parameters of the structure that Gus G. has written. In and of itself that’s fine but in so doing, the various vocalists are stripped of some of their individuality. Fans know that Alexia Rodriguez and Mats Leven are very different singers with different strengths, but they are asked to do the same basic thing and thus come off as marginally interchangeable. It’s a shame that the vocalists (and by proxy, the songs,) aren’t allowed just a little more flexibility, as each song could have been an experience unto itself.
No one can challenge the talent of Gus G. Period. Full stop. His solos on this record get better as the album goes along, each seemingly more intricate than the last. As a total project however, it’s hard to walk away from “I Am the Fire” and shake the feeling that it should have been more.