AOR bands seem to exist on two tiers.  The top tier is the obvi­ous hit­mak­ers that sold sin­gles and albums by the truck­load dur­ing the genre’s hey­day.  Foreigner, Journey, Styx, Boston, etc.  all fit in this camp.  The sec­ond, lesser-known tier con­sists of bands who might have a minor hit but van­ished after a short while, leav­ing abbre­vi­at­ed lega­cies of record­ings that become obsessed over by the genre’s devot­ed fans.  The for­mer camp is the most acces­si­ble but the real AOR mag­ic often lies in the lat­ter camp — and Balance is a fine exam­ple of a band from that sec­ond, rar­efied tier.

The core of Balance con­sist­ed of Peppy Castro, Bob Kulick and Doug Katsaros.  Castro had scored some hits in the late 1960’s while fronting the Blues Magoos and con­tin­ued to gig through the 1970’s in lesser-known out­fits.  Kulick was a busy ses­sion gui­tarist whose work includ­ed some uncred­it­ed lead-gui­tar­ing on a few Kiss record­ings (he’s also broth­er to 80’s-era Kiss gui­tarist, Bruce Kulick).  Katsaros was a key­boardist and anoth­er ses­sion pro whose cred­its includ­ed work on Paul Stanley’s 1978 solo album, which also fea­tured Kulick and Castro.  This was a col­lec­tive with tal­ent to burn.

Together, they formed a pre­ci­sion-tooled unit that craft­ed a pair of AOR cult fave albums before dis­band­ing.  Cultists tend to favor the sec­ond album, which has a hard­er-rock­ing edge, but their first album is just as com­pelling for gen­re fans.  The group defines their style on the open­ing cut, “Looking For The Magic”: gui­tars and key­boards form a mul­ti-lay­ered alloy over a steady midtem­po beat while Castro’s impas­sioned vocals give it a focus.  Elaborate vocal har­monies by Castro and Katsaros add an ear can­dy x-fac­tor that puts it all over the top.

That basic for­mu­la of sounds remains a con­stant through­out Balance but the group adds fresh musi­cal ideas through­out the run­ning time to keep things inter­est­ing.  For instance, “No Getting Around My Love” applies the group’s AOR sleek­ness to a boo­gie-rock melody and groove out of the Status Quo play­book and “Haunting” off­sets its piano-pound­ing verse melody with a stripped-down cho­rus built on solo piano and del­i­cate falset­to vocals.  The best exam­ple is “Breaking Away,” a win­ning lit­tle tune that mix­es rock riffs and a pop melody with a dance­able groove anchored by a promi­nent drum-machine pat­tern (this was the album’s minor hit sin­gle).

Fans who appre­ci­ate the pomp-rock ele­ment of AOR will also find plen­ty to enjoy on Balance:  “American Dream” suf­fus­es the  pound­ing, hard-rock arrange­ment with soar­ing strings and a del­i­cate key­board intro and “I’m Through Loving You” is a high-ener­gy pop rock­er that sus­tains an impres­sive lev­el of for­ward dri­ve on the back of a dual-lay­ered riff that fus­es chim­ing synths atop chug­ging gui­tars.  “Fly Through The Night” is anoth­er win­ner in this vein, devel­op­ing from a clas­si­cal-styled key­board motif into a Zep-riffed slab of pomp-rock topped off with vocal-har­mony frills.

If there’s a crit­i­cism for this debut, it’s that a few of the less-exper­i­men­tal tunes try a lit­tle too hard at being radio-ready: “Falling In Love” is a heart-on-sleeve bal­lad that pumps the sug­ary sweet­ness up to near-dia­bet­ic lev­els and “Hot Summer Nights” tends toward the gener­ic in its attempts to be a crowd-pleas­ing pop-rock­er.  That said, both tunes are burst­ing at the seams with the hook­i­ness and crafts­man­ship that AOR fans crave.

In short, Balance is a strong, cohe­sive debut album.  If clas­sic, cultish AOR is what you want, this dish­es it up with all the trim­mings.  Genre fans will want to hunt down the Rock Candy reis­sue, which boasts a hand­some remas­ter­ing job and a killer set of lin­er notes that draw heav­i­ly from new inter­views with the band.