Album Review: UFO — Lights Out (2024 Expanded Edition)

For rock fans, there’s something bracing and life-giving about ‘70s hard rock. At that point in its evolution (so to speak), hard rock was at the apex of its melodicism, not having yet fallen into the show-offy guitar pyrotechnics that took it in a different direction. First-pumping and air guitar playing were almost mandatory parts of the listening experience, be it through radio, turntable or (best yet) live concert.

And UFO was at the forefront of the style. With the solid and appealing guitar hero work of Michael Schenker and the arena-ready vocals of Phil Mogg, UFO made some rock-solid (if you will) music for the era. Its late ‘70s releases represented the band’s peak, and (unlike some hard rock outfits) on Lights Out, UFO found intelligent ways to work keyboards and string arrangements into their music without losing its rifftastic power.

No one would mistake UFO for a pub rocking outfit – much less a prog band – but songs like “Just Another Suicide” display a deft balance of melody and muscle, with Paul Raymond’s piano woven seamlessly into the mix. And producer Ron Nevison’s use of Allan McMillan’s string arrangements is subtle, a word not customarily associated with his studio approach.

The term “power ballad” was not yet in use when Lights Out hit record store shelves, but that’s what “Try Me” is. With a feel that recalls Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” it is built around Raymond’s piano, strings and Mogg’s soaring yet plaintive lead vocal. Schenker turns in an understated yet note-perfect guitar solo. It’s only in the song’s final minute that the crack rhythm section of Pete Way (bass) and drummer Andy Parker joins in; at that point, Schenker lets loose with a more developed solo, joined by lots more sweeping strings. It’s over too soon, really.

But then it’s back to some hard-driving rock. The title track features some seething, menacing work from the whole band; Schenker leans in on his wah-wah pedal, and Mogg belts out his lyrics. The strings still figure into the mix, but they’re more felt than heard. The rhythm section absolutely cooks.

“Gettin’ Ready” is meat-and potatoes rock, the kind of thing that Bad Company did. Solid, not spectacular, but quite enjoyable. The harmony vocals (Mogg and newcomer Raymond, the latter of whom proves himself as UFO’s utility man) are quite nice.

Things take a bit of a left turn at this point. A surprisingly faithful reading of Love’s Forever Changes classic “Alone Again Or” doesn’t really add anything to the original, but if it helped expose ‘70s listeners to that underrated album from a decade earlier, it will have served a purpose. The arrangement is startlingly close to the original; only the Tijuana Brass-style horn leads are missing, replaced by some tantalizingly underplayed soloing from Schenker. (The horns show up as backing, but blink and they’re gone). An extra instrumental verse would have made UFO’s version even better.

Some of the most interesting instrumental touches on Lights Out show up during “Electric Phase,” released as a single. Schenker turns in a tasty double-tracked “solo.” The studio record concludes with “Love to Love,” a tune featuring multi-tracked lead guitar parts (a la Brian May), a gong, and some subtle bass and piano. The tune takes its time to develop; mostly instrumental for its first few minutes, it features some of the album’s best string arrangements. Mogg sings with subtlety, and the song balances its proto-power-ballad sensibility with hard rock values. Its final three minutes even feature passages that lean in the direction of progressive rock. Fittingly, the song ends with a searing blast of lead guitar and orchestral strings.

UFO’s influence on hard rock is incalculable: they did it right, mixing melody and uncompromisingly hard rock. And Lights Out continues to serve an an excellent entry point into the band’s body of work.

The new 3LP release features a high-fidelity recording of a concert from the tour in support of Lights Out. Unsurprisingly, the set list leans in favor of the harder-rocking tunes; sonic subtlety wasn’t easy to pull off with late ‘70s sound systems. Still, “Love to Love” figures into the set, and it’s delivered with panache; Raymond’s string synthesizer textures do an admirable job of re-creating the ambience of the studio version. And Schenker, well, he rips it up wonderfully.

Acoustic pianos weren’t easy to mic in ‘77 concert halls, and so “Try Me” is a mite more rough ‘n’ ready onstage than its studio counterpart. But it’s still a success. The Thin Lizzy-esque “Too Hot to Handle” is fiery onstage (it’s been released as a single from this new expanded release). If anything, it’s even more powerful that the Nevison-produced studio take. As a document of UFO at its peak, the Live at the Roundhouse set packaged with this new reissue of Lights Out has no equal.

The new 2024 vinyl version features a beautiful trifold jacket, full color sleeve inserts, 180g (black) vinyl, and a superb liner note essay from Michael Hann.