Playing Games With The Shadow is a pop album with sophistication and intelligence, full of hooks, nestled in new-wave and electro-pop, but with moments of raw rock and roll power. …easily accessible, but not pandering to commercial trends.

Playing Games With The Shadow
Artist: Kevin Max
Blind Thief Music
8 tracks / 38:15

The nine tracks on Playing Games With The Shadow started out as demos by Kevin, using a Casio Synth. In a perfect decision, live bass, drums, additional keys and guitar were added, giving what might otherwise have been a mostly synth-pop project some real weight and classic rock gravitas, not only bringing out the best in these songs but creating a powerful hybrid of Max's influences. John Painter played bass and produced the album, with the exception of “Musick Is Magic,” which was produced by Dwayne Larring and Lynn Nichols, who also played guitars on that song with The Choir’s Steve Hindalong on drums. “Girl With The Tiger Eyes” featured Tony Miracle on keyboards. All other Keyboards and vocals are by Kevin Max, who also wrote all words and music.

The enigmatic Mr. Max is at it again, teasing us with poetry, mystery, and rock n’ roll – and sounding very much at home in his own skin. Actually, Playing Games With The Shadow features the artist sounding as if this is the kind of music he’s logically arrived at after a career journey that’s explored a number of vectors from this thing we call pop music. This is not to say that Max hasn’t been successful in his forays into the more exotic, and (in the case of The Blood) more foundational side-roads of the music scene – he has.

Without question, the aural ingredients that immediately scream out who this artist is would be Max's distinctively stunning vocals. The tone, the vibrato, the phrasing – all of the elements that identify Kevin Max are well on display comfortably up-front in the mix, where they ought to be. Aside from the usual octave-jumping and slightly middle-eastern riffing we've come to expect, Playing Games With The Shadow has the artist creating intriguing textures with his back-up vocals, irresistible harmonies, and a plethora of shouts, chants, and vocal surprises. More than ever before, Kevin is using his voice as an instrument that's an integral part of the music, even aside from his usual lead vocal mastery. It's vocals to the max (pun intended).

The album opens with the big, cinematic syfy sounds of “Phantoms of Terra,” which stays mysterious and mostly instrumental at first but gets funky and infectious once the vocals kick in after about three minutes. “Girl with the Tiger Eyes” starts with a moody, very electronic 80s feel but builds sonically with some strong guitar backing (Stu G, who’s wonderful throughout) and very tasty drum licks and high-hat work by Bobby Huff near the end.

Aside from some funky, but too brief horn work, the amazing John Painter offers some speaker-ripping bass on “Election,” a stripped-down rocker lyrically full of disappointment, hope, and at least a little frustration about the state of (some) organized religion: “Everybody’s faking it / everybody’s doing just fine / but when you look inside their private lives / it’s just a basket of lies,” sings Max, continuing, “stoke the fire that’s deep inside / do not mix with narrow minds / keep the faith, walk in stride - never mind the cookie cutter kind.”  

“William Blake” is a self-propelling musical ode to the artist/poet/visionary of England’s Romantic Age, who seems to have captured not only Max’s imagination but also that of fellow CCM ‘bad boy,’ Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos), who added his own musical tribute to Blake on DA’s Vox Humana project in the 80s – apparently, Blake rocks… . The haunting waltz-timed “Circus The Night” conjures up some sad/comic romance with lines like, “I cannot bring myself to look at you / even when skin stretches tight, I’m made a fool,” all nestled in a minor key. Some 80s dance grooves start off “Panic Button,” which breaks down and gets deliciously funky just after the two-minute mark.

The hard-driving “Music Is Majic” might once again conjure up Daniel Amos – this time there’s a melodic connection to DA’s more Devo-esque “Memory Lane,” but you can just as easily hear Jim Morrison singing some of these phrases. Half-way through the song there’s a raucous and wonderful guitar break (this time Dwayne Larring and Lynn Nichols are responsible) that’s about as raw and visceral as any you’ll hear anywhere. If an artist is partially known by his influences, Max is in very good company and ends the album with a Beatles-inspired track, “Skin of Our Teeth,” with Kevin playing Lennon-like piano and Huff paying tribute to Ringo’s classic drum style.  

Playing Games With The Shadow clearly is Kevin Max at the top of his craft. It's a pop album with sophistication and intelligence, full of hooks, nestled in new-wave and electro-pop, but with moments of raw rock and roll power. Kevin manages some gritty moments and never sacrifices his sense of melody. Maybe his stint with Audio Adrenaline was good training for economical writing and his recent album of covers of romantic standards was a crash course in the value of a strong melodic approach, because the songs here are memorable and easily accessible without pandering to commercial trends. This is Musicus Maximus – not to be missed.

-Bert Saraco