To some degree, I can see that a certain subset of Lizzy Borden's audience might have found this record more or less a 'sellout' if compared to the more raucous early work like Love You to Pieces. It's not a sentiment I can completely disagree with. Clearly the Californians were reaching out to a broader cross section of rock fan with this statement, tightening up the production values of the music and reining in the riffs and vocals into an admittedly dryer delivery. But Master of Disguise is quality through and through, almost every song on the roster distinct and memorable from its neighbors (with just a few exceptions deeper on the bench). What's more, I view this as more of a 'fantasy' coming to fruition for the band members: who the fuck wouldn't want to work with an orchestra if given the choice? The fact that Lizzy Borden is able to adapt this symphonic element into the music without transforming the core of who they were is a testament to the restraint on this thing.
But the record is special for more than just this added instrumentation, or for having easier, catchier hooks than its predecessors. It's a deeply personal album which covers a lot of subject matter that just about anyone could relate to. An 'everyman' Operation: Mindcrime, if you will, which explores themes of love, sin, aging, and even the band's own status on the scales of history and rock stardom (or lack thereof), with a few nods to film and horror keeping in line with previous offerings. You can really feel the front man/first person's point of view here, his sorrow and wonder. The lyrics are mature, poignant and simple to browse, and the hooks throughout seem to mirror this intention. It reminds me a little of another album that was released in the same year, Savatage's Gutter Ballet, which had a similar emotional authenticity to it, even if certain components like the pianos, guitars and vocals were quite different.
Remarkably, the group had brought on two new guitarists here in David Michael Philips (of Icon and numerous other groups in the 80s) and Ronnie Jude. Perhaps their more hard rocking orientation lent itself to the general accessibility of the riffing, but to be honest I'm not sure that a more complex, wanking approach would have necessarily worked out in these songs anyway. Most of the rhythms here are simple, lightly muted patterns, cruise control for standard heavy metal in the trad, NWOBHM tradition; or in the more symphonic/ballad arrangements, like "One False Move" or the piano driven "Never Too Young", they just keep their cool with minimal presence in the notes and appropriately layered power chords. The leads woven throughout the songs aren't incredibly showy, they simply balance a bluesy, burning foundation with some more advanced dexterity and tapping, and it's more than enough.
As for the orchestra, it's used both in the more intense pieces like the thoroughly rocking "Psychodrama" where it creates a sort of 'haunted castle' aesthetic in the intro and then builds to a massive crescendo in the bridge; and the more subdued, moody spaces like "One False Move". Never intrusive, never even bordering on overwhelming the rock instruments, and tastefully implemented by composer William Kidd and his players. I even enjoy the use of the funky horns in the phone sex anthem "Love is a Crime", which might seem a little dated (like Extreme's sophomore Pornograffiti), but really help to make that chorus bad ass, beautiful and swaggering.
As for Lizzy himself, I can think of no other album in the group's history which allowed him so much space to breathe and let his intonation form each line, merely for the complacency of the riffing. That's not to say that I thought he was catchier here than on Visual Lies, but he runs up and down his range in tracks like "Waiting in the Wings" and "Never Too Young", proving he had what it takes to sing in a number of genres. You still experience the requisite, wailing fragility in his timbre, but he naturally had a huge part in the album's creation and he does not dispose of any opportunity to shine here. There were a few tunes here whose choruses did wax redundant: "Roll Over and Play Dead" seems a little close to "Be One of Us" and "Psychodrama", and there were already enough peaceful power ballad sorts that the acoustic "Under the Rose" might have been omitted.
Closer "We Got the Power" is the worst of the songs, though ,with ease. The hard rock riffs seem all too standard, without any sticking to the ear, and though the horns return, I didn't care for the vocals or the truly cliche title/chorus. Not that Master of Disguise is a particularly innovative or poetically charged record, but it feels like 45 minutes of brilliance capped off with a filler trilogy that reeks of 'B-side' material. Even despite the diminishing returns that fill out the near hour of material, though, Master of Disguise is a triumph, and the structure and joyous melodic eruptions through tunes like "Phantoms", "Psychodrama" and the title track are simply unforgettable. This is still a record I return to very often, and though it doesn't match the flawlessness of its predecessor, it deserved far, far more fucking attention than it ever received, even in such a masterful era as the late 80s.
Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (a masquerade of thunder)