Call it the "Ultraphobic" syndrome. Remember that record? When '80s hair-metal disasters WARRANT's parking meter on Easy Street expired, and all the sudden they decided they were gonna be tougher, more modern, more with the times? "Ultraphobic" turned out to be really good (no, seriously), but it had fuck all to do with "Down Boys" or "Cherry Pie" — it was this hard-driving, stripped-down rock record with classic hooks that was, due to some strategically placed flannel in the photo shoot and suitably ambiguous cover art, supposed to be more meaningful, somehow.
EUROPE had much less to apologize for, and not quite so far to fall, either — they're still Top Ten material in their native Sweden, and are doing respectable business elsewhere as well. But on their second post-reunion album, they too tread a darker, riffier, altogether less sun-kissed path. It might throw off fans whose knowledge of the band begins with "The Final Countdown" and ends with "Superstitious" — and it might not even matter, given the fact that these songs will be strategically placed in the live set between the big '80s cash cows.
Even the most accommodating fan might find something lacking in these new numbers — especially fans of guitarist John Norum, who's relegated to big, generic downtuned riffing and the occasional bit of lead-break color. Much of the workload in delivering the hooks has been relegated to vocalist Joey Tempest, who is himself belting it out in a lower register, and without the over-the-top fire that ranked him among the best singers in the whole '80s crowd. There are a few points where he sounds downright disinterested, or where he's being run through completely unnecessary vocal effects to create what middle-aged guys fondly imagine to be a "more modern" sound.
The overall effect works in small doses, and a few songs ("Always the Pretenders", the soaring "Wish I could Believe") really go over well. But the record as a whole comes across as a little bit generic and meaningless, a sort of by-the-numbers hard rock exercise from a professional, businesslike band lacking the charisma and spark that got them rolling to begin with. It's admirable that "Secret Society" isn't a simple "Final Countdown" redux and cash grab — that's not what anyone needs. But it's debatable whether anyone really needs another old band going through the motions of evolution, either — this record is pleasant enough, harmless, and mostly forgettable.
Still, it could be a lot worse. Slot "Secret Society" in with late-model albums like THE CULT's "Beyond Good and Evil" and DOKKEN's "Shadowlife" — well-meaning mixed bags from bands attempting to stretch beyond what they're known for, and ultimately not that big a deal to the vast majority of the world that just wants to hear the hits.