Tony Harnell was the lead singer of the hard rock/heavy metal band TNT for 22 years until he left in 2006. If you’re a fan of the genre then chances are that you’re already familiar with him and are a fan of his music. Like Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant, Tony has one of those unmistakable, truly unique and timeless voices that you hear once, fall in love with, and never forget. And it isn’t any wonder: he has an incredibly wide vocal range that spans over four octaves.
Aside from TNT, Tony has done several other things over the years, like fronting the metal bands Westworld and Starbreaker. He first detoured from metal when he recorded a relatively soft rock album under the name Morning Wood along with Al Pitrelli, Chuck Bonfonte and Danny Mirada in 1994. (Al Pitrelli went on to become one of the founding members of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.) More recently, he released an album as Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train in 2010, the album primarily consisting of new, mostly stripped-down, versions of classics spanning his entire career.
Tony Harnell & The Wildflowers is an acoustic E.P. featuring Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal along with guitarist Jason Hagen and violinist Cassandra Sotos. Tony’s wife Amy completes the band, providing percussion and additional vocals.
The E.P. opens with “Paralyzed,” a hypnotic track that immediately casts a spell on you as Thal and Hagen’s guitars dance around each other elegantly. Before Tony even sings a note, these guys dazzle you with their virtuosity and win you over. And when Tony stars singing, the melody proves to be just as mesmerizing. “Fly me away I’ve fallen down too far / Lost another day just looking for a spark,” he sings, giving off a classic rock vibe that would seem to split the difference between The Eagles and Pink Floyd. It’s fitting that the song is called “Paralyzed” because you’re not likely to move until it’s over. But it’s not the song’s mission to paralyze you — the contemplative lyrics would seem to be an open letter to God, asking why we’re all so paralyzed.
The lyrics of the mid-tempo ballad “Runaround” are simpler — “I believe in you, believe in me / I’m not perfect, don’t pretend to be” — though it’s certainly not any less emotive. If anything, it’s even more potent, tugging at the heartstrings of your inner romantic. Sotos especially impresses with her tender violin, which carries the Lennon-esque melody as effectively as Tony’s vocals. And Thal’s perfect harmonizing with Tony is truly touching.
On the haunting “Burning Daylight,” Tony’s wife Amy does some wonderful harmonizing with the guys in addition to singing a bit of lead. “She is my wind, blowing again,” she sings, lulling you right in like a siren, which might actually be the point, as Tony sings, “Foggy morning crashing sea / Smells like freedom to me.” Musically, it’s like the perfect blend of old school country and modern day folk with a dash of rock thrown in for good measure.
Another standout is the down-tempo ballad “Get Up Again,” which Tony wrote for his mother, who sadly passed away from breast cancer while Tony himself was recovering from thyroid cancer that could have cost him his voice. “You taught me how to be strong / Now I can sing the blues and never give in,” he sings earnestly. The reflective track features an amazing violin solo by Sotos and some of the release’s most beautiful guitar work.
I also have to mention the stellar cover of Queen’s “Somebody To Love.” Lots of artists have covered Queen over the years and usually the results are not very impressive to say the least. Freddie Mercury had such great range and control — I don’t know what some of these artists are thinking when they attempt his songs. You’d have to be pretty foolish or have a very huge ego. But that’s not the case with Tony, who nails every single note of the original perfectly. Honestly, this is one of those one in a million covers that rivals the original. That Tony and company are able to take such an elaborate and operatic track and even do it justice in an acoustic setting is mind-blowing and your jaw will likely hit the floor when you hear this. But that’s the magic of this release — it doesn’t feel like an acoustic record. At least not in any negative ways. With layers and layers of vibrant guitars, soaring vocals, glimmering violin, etc, these songs feel like full band, fully fleshed out recordings. They don’t have that hollow sound that most acoustic and unplugged recordings tend to have at all. Quite the opposite. These tracks are rich and colorful. And all of the songs are top-notch, brimming with emotion and hooks. This is easily one of Tony’s most imperative records.
The only tiny issue I have about this release is that the last track, a new acoustic version of TNT’s “Child’s Play,” was recorded live and doesn’t sound nearly as lush or sharp as the rest of the exquisitely produced work. But it’s a great song, so I’d really like to hear The Wildflowers record a professional, studio recording of this version. That said, this is a NINE song E.P., so you really can’t complain.