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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

SCORPIONS "Return To Forever (Japanese Blu-Spec Edition)"

(c) 2015 Sony Music Germany/Sony Music Japan
  1. Going Out With A Bang
  2. We Built This House
  3. Rock My Car
  4. House Of Cards
  5. All For One
  6. Rock N Roll Band
  7. Catch Your Luck And Play
  8. Rollin' Home
  9. Hard Rockin' This Place
  10. Eye Of The Storm
  11. The Scratch
  12. Gypsy Life
  13. The World We Used To Know (Bonus Track)
  14. Dancing With The Moonlight (Bonus Track)
  15. When The Truth Is A Lie (Bonus Track)
  16. Who We Are (Bonus Track)
  17. One And One Is Three (Japanese Bonus Track)
  18. Crazy Ride (Bonus Track)
Klaus Meine--Lead Vocals
Rudolf Schenker--Guitars
Matthias Jabs--Guitars
James Kottack--Drums
Pawel Maciwoda--Bass

I'm a bit late on reviewing this album as I was waiting for the Japanese special edition to be released, since I had read it would have at least two bonus tracks not available in America.  (it actually came out LATER than the American release!  When does THAT happen?)  Additionally, this was the first chance I had to actually pick up one of these extremely high-quality Blue-Spec Editions, which feature cutting edge sound quality, so it was worth the wait and...*gulp*...the additional $25 to get it.  

For those of you who may keep track of such things, the Scorpions were actually supposed to be done by now.  They went on a farewell tour, released their "final album", etc., etc., and were supposed to ride off into the German sunset.  But a funny thing happened while on that final tour...they fell in love with performing once again.  They found an energy that Schenker and Meine have both said was missing from the last couple of Scorpions releases, and they also found that they still enjoyed performing together despite the fact that the Scorpions have now existed (in one form or another) for  FIFTY YEARS, with Schenker and Meine having been musical brothers since 1970!  That's an insanely long time to go without killing each other!  Jabs, by the way, has been there since 1978, so that trio right there has been spearheading the Scorpions for 37 years, allowing for a largely consistent sound throughout the band's history...with just a couple of hiccups along the way.  

Since the band decided NOT to hang up their six strings, drums, bass, and microphone, they did the only real thing they could do; they headed back into the studio to record Return To Forever, the band's 19th album.  (Their first, by the way, was 1972's Lonesome Crow...check it out sometime...)  Now, the band has been very upfront about the fact that several of these songs are, in fact, older songs from the recording sessions of the band's two biggest records, Love At First Sting and Blackout, as well as left-over tracks from Crazy World and Savage Amusement, and a couple of other later albums.  There are, however, several new songs, as well, giving this album a true "across the decades" perspective that only a band of this vintage could do.  To help give the reader an idea of the new material versus the older stuff, I'm going to break this review up and separate the new tracks from the old...just to shake things up a bit.  

THE NEW

"Going Out With A Bang" (a foreshadowing title?) is one of the new songs written for this album, and it starts the album out in classic Scorpions fashion, albeit with an updated production sound.  It's funny, because to me this sounds like a song that may have been written in the 90's, when it is actually one of the newest tracks on this album.  A big, catchy chorus, smooth production, and a nice hook drive this song and really gives the album a jump start.      

"We Built This House" is "the philosophy of the band" according to Meine, and "basically tells our story".  Despite the fact that it was written for this record, it is undeniably classic Scorpions material, sounding very much like something that would have come out of the mid-to-late-80's musically.  Sure, there is an updated approach to the way the chorus is structured and how the vocals are layered over the instrumental track here, but for me, this is the best of a batch of good-to-great new songs and is the style of song I would love to hear utilized on a full album's worth of material.

"All For One" is a song that reminds me a lot of the Humanity Hour I era of the band, utilizing a smoother guitar tone on the intro to the track, and Meine's more updated vocal phrasing.  His voice still sounds almost EXACTLY like it did clear back in the 70's, which is amazing, but the way he phrases things has changes slightly as his grasp on English has improved (at least somewhat) throughout the years.  A solid rocker, if not an amazing one, that shows there are still signs of life in this dinosaur of a band.

THE CLASSIC

One thing I want to point out is that these are NOT simply remixed versions of songs that were left on the cutting room floor, nor are they crappy left-overs that the band decided to add here to milk some more cash out of the Scorpions fan base.  These songs were, from my understanding, never fully recorded, nearly always missing lyrics, and often nothing more than a riff or a solo idea that was shelved due to lack of album space, album continuity problems, or what have you.  

Upon listening to several of these songs, it will be pretty obvious to most Scorpions fans what time frame they were written in.  For example, the excellent "Rock N Roll Band" was written during the Love At First Sting/Savage Amusement period, and features that signature Scorpions guitar tone and the tandem guitar riffing that were so distinguishable during the band's heyday period.  "Catch Your Luck And Play" is another excellent rocker that also originates from this same time period, carrying the same guitar tone as songs like Savage Amusement's "When Passion Rules The Game".  The guitars are big, the vocals have that powerful layering that the Scorps and so many other bands utilized in the mid-to-late 80's, and the drums are big and bold without burying the rest of the track.  "Rock My Car" also comes from this same time period, and musically it is a strong track, although lyrically, it is one of those Scorps tracks that comes across as uber-cheesy due to the band members' difficulties translating lyrical ideas into English.  As such, the chorus is extremely simplistic and one-dimensional, filled in with "whoaaas" and several "rocks!", apparently as space savers.  Despite this, a GREAT guitar solo carries the frantic track and actually transforms it into a fun top-down-summer-driving song.   

"House Of Cards" reminds me of "Send Me An Angel" from Crazy World, in the way the song is structured and performed, which leads me to believe it is also a mid-to-late 80's tune.  A very solid Scorpions ballad, it doesn't have quite the urgency of "Still Loving You", but the understated acoustic guitars allow Meine's still-strong vocals to really carry the song.  I really like that there are no overwrought strings or keyboards included here, as so many bands would likely be tempted to layer in, as this song is solid proof of how a well-crafted song and an impassioned performance can say plenty on their own.  Really a high point for me here.  

While not necessarily "classic", a couple other records have unreleased material represented here.  "Gypsy Life" feels eerily like the classic Scorpions ballad "Still Loving You" melded with a bit of "When The Smoke Is Going Down" from Blackout.  Originally written for Acoustica, this track was never released, which I think is a shame, as it is pretty darn good and is yet another excellent ballad that really showcases the band's understanding of this style of song.  "Eye Of The Storm" was originally intended for Humanity Hour I, but didn't fit the flow of that record, largely due to the number of outside writers that were brought in to work on that album.  It has been reworked a bit and included here, fitting in relatively well, even if it is the least "classic Scorpions ballad" sounding effort on this disc.  

THE BONUS TRACKS

The bonus tracks are songs that I know virtually nothing about, as far as when they were written.  Their style and sound gives me some inclination that none of these are overly old, as they have more of the smooth approach utilized on the more recent albums.  

"The World We Used To Know" honestly reminds me a lot of a Men At Work song, if you can believe that!  If you were to swap Meine for the singer of that band (Colin Hay...I looked it up), I think it might be tough to distinguish the two...seriously.  This song is so laid back, with such a simple rhythm and song structure, that never does it really feel like a Scorpions song.  It's not bad, just very 80's synth-pop feeling...but I still get the feeling this is a newer song.

"Dancing With The Moonlight" really allows the bass to shine, especially at the outset of the track.  Returning to more of an aggressive song structure, this is still a song that is definitely from the newer end of the band's songwriting spectrum.

"When The Truth Is A Lie" features an odd acoustic guitar line mixed into an otherwise rocking song, and really showcases Meine's still-strong vocals.  As I have said before, the guy doesn't sound like he has aged vocally at all, which is amazing after all of these years, albums, and shows.  The track is catchy, but not necessarily overly-memorable or typically Scorpions material, which is likely why it was relegated to bonus track status.  Definitely not a skipper, however, and my second favorite of the bonus cuts.

"Who We Are" is yet another undeniably Scorpion-esque ballad, and is performed very well.  Acoustic guitars intro the song, which is accompanied by some luxuriously layered backing vocals.  It never really builds like an 80's power ballad does, and it is a bit lyrically repetitive, but not a bad song, and a decent ballad to be included in these bonus songs.

"One And One Make Three" comes out smoking with rapid-fire guitars and charging guitars on this Japan-only bonus.  Lyrically, it makes very little sense (at least none that I can decipher thanks to these Japanese lyric sheets!), but, again, it's a decent enough song styled along the lines of the band's Humanity, Pt. I material.

Disc closer, "Crazy Ride", features more traditional-era sounding guitars and that familiar song structure from the 80's (I'm guessing this was a left-behind Savage Amusement track, or perhaps Crazy World, based upon the sound...).  Not as urgent in feel as some of the songs this was likely written alongside, but definitely a throwback to the band's most popular period, and my favorite of these add-ons.       
  
One interesting thing of note is that nearly all of the new songs were written by Meine along with "Nord" Andersson, and Martin Hansen (or some combination of the three), who both helped with a lot of the songwriting on Humanity Hour I.  Schenker's name is nowhere to be found on any of the newer tunes (nor is Jabs, who is not given writing credit on ANY song here).  On the flip side, the majority of the "classic" tracks were written musically by Schenker and lyrically by Meine.  And, with only one or two exceptions, it is pretty easy to tell the "classics" from the "currents" if you have been a fan of the band for any stretch of time.

As far as I can tell, there are FIVE different versions of this album:  the regular release, the deluxe American edition, the deluxe European edition, the Japanese import version, the Japanese Blu-Spec version (mine).  I have also heard there is a two-disc version of this album, but I have never seen it.  Each version has the basic 12 tracks that start off the disc, but depending upon which version you purchase, the bonus tracks are different on each.   For the money, I would probably tell most people to get the regular Japanese edition, which contains the final two bonus tracks here.  The Scorpions completist, import collector, or people with stupid amounts of money will want to seek out this Blu-Spec Edition, not only for the extra three European tracks, but the exceptional sound quality.  Yes, you can definitely hear the difference on this Blu-Spec Disc, as it is a VERY clean sound, with virtually no hiss or static between tracks or during the softest moments of the ballads.  Much like a Blu-Ray Video, you may not really notice how crisp and clean this is unless you get the opportunity to compare it side-by-side with a standard release, but if you get the chance, I can almost guarantee you will notice the difference.  Now, is it worth the extra money?  Probably not, and  I kind of doubt this ever catches on in the US where record companies are trying to go all digital download, but man, I wish they would find a way to drop the price (like Blu-Ray Videos have), as these suckers are really that SHARP sounding!  By the way, you don't need a special CD player of Blu-Ray player to play them, which, honestly, was a fear of mine...

So, is this the end of the Scorpions?  Honestly, I kind of doubt it, as the band seems to be having a lot of fun, and I have to believe that with a history as long as theirs, there is even more material they could plumb from the depths of the vaults and restructure/rebuild and present as new material, much like they did here.  And that would be fine with me, as this is an excellent effort from a truly classic band that, realistically, has shown no signs of slowing despite the massive number of years under their belt.

Rating:  A lot of crankable fun here!  While it doesn't displace ...Sting, ...Amusement, or Blackout, it definitely cranks at 8 for me!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE "Hard Habit" (Single Release)


(c) 2015 Digital Single

  1. Hard Habit
Jack Russell--Lead Vocals
Tony Montana--Guitars, Keyboards
Robbie Lochner--Lead Guitars
Chris Tristam--Bass
Dicki Fliszar--Drums

Man, oh man, am I gonna hate it if this is the way Jack is going to go about releasing music now!!!  I am simply NOT a digital singles kinda guy.  What I AM, however, is a monster Great White fan and collector, so I had no choice but to download this song when I found out about it, and I'm glad I did.

"Hard Habit" is the first single release by Jack Russell's Great White, the now legally-named version of the band headed up by the band's iconic lead singer and now featuring the return of Tony Montana.  Montana, you may recall, was with the band during the height of their industry success, playing bass on both Once Bitten... and ...Twice Shy, as well as on their Live In London import EP, and the massively underrated, Hooked.  Montana returns to the fold, but now as a guitar player and keyboardist, which is an interesting turn.  Also in the band is Jack's longtime guitar side-kick, Robbie Lochner, and newcomers Tristam and Fliszar on bass and drums, respectively.

"Hard Habit" is pure late-era Great White, no bones about it.  The bass-thumping shuffle of the music, the bluesy slide of the guitars, the sassy rasp of Jack's voice, and the classic phrasing of the lyrics leave absolutely ZERO doubt as to who is performing this track that could have slotted in nicely on Can't Get There From Here or Back To The Rhythm, back before the band fractured.  Is this the best Great White song ever?  No...but it's better than anything the non-Jack version has released, and would have been one of the strongest tracks on the last couple of full-band efforts.  As it stands, this is a nice re-introduction of Jack's version of the band, a nice return for Montana, and REPORTEDLY (we'll have to see) the first single off of a Jack Russell's Great White album (rumored to be tentatively titled Gauntlet).  For now, I'll put it into the mix of my recent favorites from a band that I have loved for so long that I simply can't let go of them.  And, in all fairness, "Hard Habit" is a good song to hold on to if you are a fan of the band's more classic sound, because Mark Kendall's version of the band seems to have forgotten what Great White was all about from about 1991 through the Back To The Rhythm era.

Rating:  I don't rate singles, but I would encourage fans of Great White to snag this on iTunes or Amazon and check it out.  Definitely not going to disappoint fans of Jack Russell or Great White.

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BLOODGOOD "Dangerously Close"

(c) 2013 B. Goode Records

  1. Lamb Of God
  2. Run Away
  3. Child On Earth
  4. I Will
  5. Bread Alone
  6. Pray
  7. I Can Hold On
  8. Run The Race
  9. Father Father
  10. Man In The Middle
  11. Crush Me
  12. In The Trenches
Les Carlson--Lead Vocals
Michael Bloodgood--Bass, Backing Vocals
Paul Jackson--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Oz Fox--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Kevin Whisler--Drums

If you have been awake at all for the past 8-10 years, it has become obvious that everything old is new again in the music world.  80's bands are enjoying a resurrection of sorts, playing to large crowds and festivals across the country, even if they aren't able to crack the Billboard charts any longer.  Bands seem to be reuniting on a regular basis these past several years, and new albums are coming out of nowhere from bands that many people had long-since written off.

The same phenomenon has occurred in the Christian hard rock and metal market as well.  Recent releases by Stryper, Saint, Barren Cross, Deliverance, Guardian, Tourniquet, and others, have shown that there is still a market for many of these so-called "legacy" bands to put out new material and possibly take one more run at getting out there to see their fans in live settings.  Add Bloodgood to the mix of bands taking at least one more stab at adding to their already rather significant legacy within the Christian hard rock and metal community.

Twenty-two years had passed since Bloodgood released what was their most commercial, and at least to me, their most complete album, All Stand Together, WAY back in 1991.  Prior to that, the band released several albums to fairly high amounts of acclaim, particularly with their much more metallic-sounding album, Detonation (1987), and 1988's Rock In A Hard Place.  But All Stand Together seemed to be the band's first real stab at making any kind of attempt to grab some of the mainstream melodic hard rock/hair metal market of the late 80's/early 90's...and it failed.  Personally, I love the album, but it is definitely an album that seemed to divide the band's fanbase and actually had the opposite effect that I felt it should have.  Instead of making them more popular, the band promptly disappeared, never to be heard from again....  

Until 2013.  Seemingly out of nowhere, Bloodgood showed up on Kickstarter with a plan for not only a new album, but also a career-spanning documentary film (which will hopefully see the light of day now in 2015).  In addition to returning with some of the strongest material...and some of the heavier material in several albums...the band also returned with their Out Of The Darkness album line-up along with a new friend to help them out on guitar, as Oz Fox of Stryper fame not only recorded the album, but also became a full-fledged member of the band.  

From the second the CD starts playing, it is evident that even though 20+ years have passed, the musical ability of the band is still very much intact.  Closer to the more metallic-natured material of their earlier albums, Dangerously Close comes out swinging right from the start with "Lamb Of God", which is probably the most "radio friendly" track here.  Whisler's drums kick the track off before a gritty guitar track enters, matched in grittiness by the love-'em-or-hate-'em vocals of Mr. Les Carlsen, who sounds literally EXACTLY like he did all those years ago.  Not to be overshadowed by his more-famous guitar partner, Paul Jackson rips into a tasty solo just before the bridge of the song, showing that he has the chops to carry the guitar load if necessary.  Also obvious on this song (and throughout the album) is a MUCH stronger bottom end than had been present on the last few Bloodgood discs, courtesy of the band's namesake member, Michael Bloodgood.  (Honestly, I always found it odd the bass was typically mixed so low in the band's previous releases considering the bass player was the founding member and the guy the band is named after...)  

"Run Away" again sports a chunky bass groove and a strong melodic sensibility throughout, again utilizing a solo from Jackson and a spoken/whispered word section from Carlsen to really establish an urgency to the mood of the track.  Interestingly, this song was also co-written by another former long-time member of the band, David Zaffiro, who also mastered the record, really giving this album a full "family reunion" feel to it.

"Child On Earth" has a killer classic 70's metallic vibe to it right from the outset, conjuring up a doomy, sludgy style that is really given a haunting quality when Carlsen sing/chants "amen" as part of the chorus.  This song is also the first to give Fox a chance to step up to the guitar solo podium, and he does not disappoint, as he lays down a smoldering solo, but one that fits with this song and this band, not one that is reminiscent of anything Stryper has done in the past.  No rehashed work from Fox on this track, just good, good stuff here.  Carlsen also shows that he is more than capable of still reaching the upper-ends of his register with ease, never sounding strained...and certainly not auto-tuned...when he cuts loose with a scream, or when he drops into lower register, either, for that matter.  

"I Will" slithers directly out of "Child On Earth", using a slightly middle-eastern sound to the guitar licks that kick off the song.  This is one of my favorite tracks on the album, although it is not one that I have seen given much love by other reviews or when I read fans talking about the album.  I think Carlsen sounds especially strong here, with a powerful vibrato utilized when necessary on the chorus, and a really nice solo from Jackson that sounds like it was actually recorded twice and layered ever so slightly to give it that Maiden-esque twin guitar feel.  

"Bread Alone" features some excellent double-kick work from Whisler, and on this track Oz's backing vocals are the most noticeable to me.  Straight forward American heavy metal is the order of the day on this number and the band serves it in top notch fashion.  

Without breaking the rest of the record down on a track-by-track basis, it is safe to say that the rest of the album is as good, or nearly so, as the first half of the disc.  Three tracks, "Run The Race", "Father, Father", and "Man In The Middle" all feature solos from both Jackson and Fox, and, as you may expect, all are really well-crafted.  In fact, "Man In The Middle", with its tribal drum intro and aggressive rhythm guitar section, would possibly steal the honors as best song on the album if it weren't for the powerful, plodding metal of album closer, "In The Trenches".  "Pray" sports a killer "chugga-chugga" riff and some thunderous drumming to drive the simple-yet-punchy track along until it collides head-long with one of Jackson's best solos.

Despite being a more metal-edged band than many in the 80's Christian world, Bloodgood has never shied away from the occasional ballad, and they don't change formulas on Dangerously Close.  "I Can Hold On" is the first slower moment on the record, featuring a blusier take on a classic rock ballad.  Don't think "power ballad" because that is not what this is; think 70's classic rock ballad with no keys, no acoustic interludes, or any of that other fluff that all to often found its way into 80's ballads.  "Father, Father", which I mentioned before, also features a bluesy feel to it, but it takes a more 80's top-40 rock ballad approach than the classic rock vibe of "I Can...".

If I had to pick one song that doesn't do a lot for me it would be the third ballad, the mistitled (in my opinion) "Crush Me".  Rather than a smack-you-in-the-mouth metal song, this is an acoustic ballad that just doesn't grab me.  It is nicely played and Les pours his soul into his vocal performance, as he has always done on his ballads, but this one just feels like it is missing something.   

The packaging is decent, if not spectacular.  The inner sleeve is a tri-fold with writing credits, guitar solo credits, and a brief thank-you section, as well as a section for the higher-end Kickstarter supporters.  A single band group photo is included, as is a rather artistic shot of the band's guitars, bass, drums, and microphone.  The back cover of the tray insert also features a different full-color photo of the band.  No lyrics are included.

Produced by Jackson, co-produced by Bloodgood and Carlsen, mixed by Mark Simmons, and mastered by David Zaffiro, the sound on the record is top-notch throughout.  As I said, it is really nice to hear a Bloodgood record with a solid bottom end, and the separation of instruments is clear with no muddiness at all.

If this is the book-end on this classic Christian metal outfit's career, it is definitely a solid one and shows a band going out on a high point.  If it is NOT the end (and greedy me, I hope it's not), I can honestly say I am more than anxious to hear how Bloodgood follows up a stellar return to form.

Rating:  ALL puns intended, Dangerously Close is dangerously close to the best this band has ever recorded.  Crank this to an 8.5.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

IMMORTAL GUARDIAN "Revolution Part I"

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. Beyond The Skies
  2. Walk Alone
  3. Immortal (featuring Roy Z.)
  4. Between Fire And Ice
  5. Victory Shore
Carlos Zema--Lead Vocals
Gabriel Guardian--Guitars, Keyboards
Cody Gilliland--Drums
Thad Stevens--Bass

Additional Musicians
Foster Minor--Bass
Jyro Alejo--Gutars
Roy Z.--Guitar solo on "Revolution"

Okay, so I was sent this EP for review, and I honestly paid very little attention to it at first.  Yeah, the artwork was cool and all, but I just didn't feel particularly inspired to pop it into the player and give it a spin.  But then, one rainy day, I thought, "What the heck", and put Revolution Part I in for a spin.  To say I was taken completely by surprise would be an understatement.  Then, when I read these guys were from Texas, it is the understatement of the year to say I was completely blown away!

Immortal Guardian play Euro power/speed metal in the vein of such names as Helloween, Blind Guardian, Beyond Twilight, Demons & Wizards, Dragonforce and the like.  BUT THEY ARE FROM TEXAS, PEOPLE!!!  (I honestly can't overstate that fact, even if its for my own reminding...)

First off, the music is just blistering fast from start to finish, with very little in the way of a slow down moment through out the five tracks included here.  Honestly, when I hear music like this, I have no idea how fingers can move so quickly up and down a guitar's neck and still find the notes they are seeking, because this borders on the insane at times.  Add in the lightning fast drumming and I'm not sure that my heartrate wasn't altered simply by listening to this EP!  On top of all of this...and some excellent bass playing as well, mind you...Carlos Zema has one of those voices that can sing, growl (in limited quantities), and scream, all seemingly at maximum quality and volume with minimal effort, often times within the same song.  (I have since read that Zema is not the original vocalist and that his power metal approach is actually something of a departure from a more gutteral, growling style incorporated by previous vocalists, but I am not familiar with them...)

The album launches from the speakers with "Beyond The Skies", which quickly drew a parallel to Blind Guardian for me.  The huge, layered backing vocals power this rather uplifting track that features Zema pretty much running the gamut as far as vocal styles go, starting off with high pitched, melodic screams then dropping down into more of an edgy tenor range on the verses, then elevating the pitch and vibrato once again to join the harmony vocals on the chorus.  The drumming here is so fast it borders on grindcore speed at times, and the insane amount of guitar notes that are picked per measure just blows my mind.  In terms of sheer note density, I can't say that I have come across a band with so much going on since some of Theocracy's material.  Shred is almost too tame of a word for the speed involved here, but it is also almost a dirty word when describing Immortal Guardian's sound, as this is not guitar-bation simply for wankery's sake; the solos, intricate and blazing, are well-placed and serve to enhance the song, not the other way around.

"Walk Alone" starts off a bit more slowly than its predecessor with more of an orchestral buildup interrupted occasionally by psycho bursts of guitar and drum speed and the occasional tinkling of a piano.  Zema again trends toward the lower end of his register, adding a bit of snarl to his vocals on the verses, then elevates and absolutely tears into the high-pitched screams so many people associate with this style of power metal.

"Immortal" starts off with a very scratchy-sounding vinyl approach for an intro, with a piano and Zema's voice being all that is utilized here for instruments.  Slowly the music clears up as Zema builds into a power scream and Guardian's guitars come sweeping in, backed by Gilliland's sprinter-styled drumming and a pummeling bass line.  Roy Z, himself, gets in on the action here, delivering his own scorching solo, although I will be 100% candid in stating that I don't think even the mighty Z holds a candle to the fire and fury that Guardian displays throughout this disc.

"Between Fire And Ice" must have been a rest-point for Gilliland, in particular, as this is the slowest number on the EP.  Sporting a strong piano line, big, splashy, punchy orchestration, more Blind Guardian-esque backing vocals, and Zema spending the majority of his time in the lower tenor range, this song really serves to showcase the fact that this band is more than just a musical treadmill jacked to maximum speed and endlessly looping the same types of riffs, solos, drum fills, and keyboard interludes over and over.  No, "Between Fire And Ice" showcases strong songwriting skills and an understanding of the fact that as dazzling as speed can be, there comes a time when you start to appear to be a one-trick pony if the only way you know how to play is full-speed ahead.  

Album closer "Victory Shore" returns to a quicker pace, although the band remains at least somewhat restrained at the beginning of this six-minute long track.  Zema incorporates some harsher, almost barked vocals for part of the verses, but they are rather short in nature and don't detract from the melodic speed metal majesty of the track as a whole.  Once again, Guardian unleashes a searing solo with some absolute breakneck drumming on the part of Gilliland, whom I imagine must lose 8-10 pounds of sweat per show, just based on the music on this EP.

After listening to this entire EP several times through, it becomes immediately obvious why worldwide names such as Judas Priest, Dragonforce, Metal Church, Kamelot, Symphony X, and even Slayer, have called upon this indie Texas band to open for them, as their talent is massive.  I do wonder if some of these bands changed their minds upon seeing the fury of Immortal Guardian unleashed at hyperdrive speed live, because I'm quite sure many new fans were made and some older fans of the headliners may have turned to their heroes with questions of "soooo....can you top THAT?!"

Mixed by Roy Z., my only complaint is that the bass feels a bit lost in the mix at times, perhaps due to the overwhelming amount of guitar that fills these songs.  The keys are not heavily out in front, which is always a pet peeve of mine, and Zema blends perfectly into these songs rather than trouncing over the top of the rest of the band.  Very nicely done, especially for an indie project.

Absolutely not what I was expecting, and something that I am glad I coaxed myself into giving a chance to.  If you are into the Euro power sounds of Blind Guardian, Kamelot, Hammerfall, and all of those other Eurocentric power metal/speed metal bands, whom I admittedly am not overly well-versed in, I would imagine you will fall in love with Immortal Guardian's new direction and sound on Revolution Part I.  Do NOT plan on using this EP for relaxation purposes, however, as your pulse rate will be JACKED upon completion of this fret-melting scorcher that I am certain involved the loss of blood and possibly consciousness while being created!

Rating:  Shockingly crankable.  A bit short at just over 26 minutes, but relentless in its execution.  Crank this to 8!

Friday, June 5, 2015

TALKIN' TRASH WITH....REY PARRA of Worldview/Sacred Warrior!



Rey Parra, the former lead singer of Sacred Warrior, one of the first true power metal bands in the Christian metal scene, has returned to the music scene with a brand new band, a brand new album, and a brand new interview here on Glitter2Gutter!  Hang on as Rey talks about his new band, Worldview, hanging with the guys from Bloodgood and Vengeance Rising, the state of the Christian music scene today, and what it's like to work with a legendary guitar player like George Ochoa!


Several years...and inches of hair...ago in Sacred Warrior!
G2G:  Rey, first I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview!  You are definitely one of the main voices behind a very important part of my teen-aged years...

Rey:  My pleasure, Arttie.

G2G:  So, Worldview has FINALLY dropped...and to extremely good reviews thus far (see the G2G review HERE).  How does it feel to finally have it out there?

Rey:  Arttie, it's such a blessing to see how well people have empbraced our music.  We believed it would be a great album, but never did we dream of getting such great reviews.

G2G:  This is a project that, in a sense, has been in the making for 6 or 7 years now, right?  I mean, going back to Rick's initial desire to get you and George Ochoa together, correct?

Rey:  I guess you can say that, yes...

G2G:  Can you talk a little bit about how the idea was presented to you?

Rey:  No!  (Laughing)  Just kidding.  In 2007, Rick and I worked in San Antonio, Texas.  Rick lived there and I actually stayed with him for 7 months or so.  During those months, we often spoke of doing some music outside of Sacred Warrior.  Rick came up with the idea of collaborating with George Ochoa.  We toyed with the idea every once and awhile, but we never really got serious about pursuing it.  Some years later, Rick came to Florida to visit me.  I remember it was a Friday night and Rick told me he was going to visit some friends in Orlando but he would be back on Sunday for church.  He never made it back; he died on Sunday.  After that, I contacted Ochoa and told him that I thought it would be a good idea to fulfill Rick's dream of us working together.

G2G:  Did you previously know George, or just know OF him?

Rey:  Yes, we had done some shows together...

G2G:  I have to tell you, in my teenage naivete, I had this vision of there being this big "Intense Records club" of sorts, where automatically Sacred Warrior and Deliverance and Vengeance Rising, Bloodgood, whomever...Angelica, Tourniquet...you all just knew each other and hung out all the time....

Rey:  Actually, we are all friends.  Good friends.  We hook up whenever we can.  The other guys actually see each other more than I do 'cause they are all in Cali and I'm in Florida.

G2G:  Interesting.  That kind of brings me to my next question...  How did the recording process for Worldview work?  Did you have to go to California for recording sessions or did technology play a big part in getting the record put together?

Rey:  Yes, I flew to Cali several times for the final tracks, but we did collaborate through technology.

G2G:  So did you each come in with some song ideas and just collaborate taht way?  I noticed George listed on all of the tracks, but you contributed to some of the songs as well...

Rey:  George had most of the stuff mostly written, then I came along and added my flavor and also helped make changes.  But, I would have to give George most of the credit for writing.  He has a great way of seeing the end product.  There were several times when I called George and told him that a certain part did not appeal to me.  I also helped in the arrangement of some of the songs.  But, yeah, George is the mastermind behind Worldview songs.  What I brought was my instrument: my voice.

G2G:  So did you have any doubt that you still could "bring it" vocally?  Did you have to work your way back into "rock" shape?

Rey:  I'm going to say this as humbly as I can.  No, I had no doubts.  I told the Lord that as long as He continues to bless me with a voice, I will always use it for His glory.  Yes, I did have to bring out the vocal scales and breathing exercises, though.  But I never doubted my ability to sing again.  I continually protect my vouce and I try to keep it in good shape.

G2G:  After you left Sacred Warrior, did you ever feel like, "Well, that's it.  God must have something else in mind for me because I just don't see the band thing or recording thing happening again"?

Rey:  Not at all, bro.  I decided to leave Sacred Warrior, but it was because I was burnt out from being on the road.  I continued to sing, but at my church, Calvary Christian Center.  I believed I would record again, but I did not know at what level.

Rey's last official Sacred Warrior album

G2G:  Well, you certainly still have the power to your voice, which I have always said was one of my favorites.  At least vocally, it sounds to me like this could have been done not that long after Obsessions, so that's amazing to me.

Rey:  Thank you, brother.  To God be the Glory...

G2G:  I've probably listened to The Chosen Few a dozen times or more now, and I'm thoroughly amazed at the overall product.  What I noticed a lot is that contrary to what many people might have expected, this isn't Sacred Warrior 2 or Recon 2.  Worldview is its own band with its own style.  Was that a conscious decision?

Rey:  Absolutely.  Yes, it definitely was...




 G2G:  How important is the message of a song for you?  Not that you would ever go out and start singing Slayer songs or anything, but how direct do you want your lyrics to be when you are putting a song together?

Rey:  I want God to get the glory for my singing, not me.  But, I also want to write songs about real life issues.  People will always hear God's heart through our lyrics and songs, but they will also be entertained.

G2G:  That's a great point you make.  I was just reading something on Facebook the other day that another prominent Christian rock artist had posted about the Christian music scene changing so much in the past few years.  One point that was made in the thread by several people was that Christian bands frequently write lyrics now that are so generic they could be about anything.

Rey:  So true.  Times have definitely changed, but I believe that Christians also want good music.  Not every song has to be a turn or burn song.  You see, if people know who you are and what you believe and hold true to your heart, they aren't going to question what your songs are about.  If we, as Christians, can't have entertainment from Christian bands and artists, they (Christians) will probably get it from the world.

G2G:  Do Christian bands also have to be mindful of turning people away by being too focused on, as you referred to them, "turn or burn" lyrics?

Rey:  I don't think so.  There are people who really just want ministry-type songs.  They hold onto those lyrics and embrace the concept of turn or burn lyrics, so its good...but it's not for everyone.  I'm not saying water down the message.  You can hear with our songs "Last Cry" and "Two Wonders" that we are definitely strong about our love for Christ but not every song on the album is like that.

G2G:  I absolutely love "Last Cry", which is one of my favorites on the album, for sure.  That brings me to my next question, which a lot of people tell me is unfair, but I'm going to ask it anyway.  Most people tell me it's like trying to choose between children, but if you had to choose two or three songs that really stand out for you from The Chosen Few, which would they be, and why?

Rey:  "Last Cry", for obvious reasons.  I really like the way the song turned out and because George was able to really bring out the best qualities in my voice.  I say that with all humility.

I would also have to say...."Mortality".  That song speaks of how people need to understand taht all earthly things end.  No one vexes death or judgement.  I also really like that one because of it's originality.

G2G:  It is definitely original.  I really like the Middle Easter musical parts to it...they really add a unique feel to a pretty heavy song.  Okay, since you brought him up, I have to ask:  What is it like to work with George Ochoa?  Is he pretty intense, laid back, challenging, funny....?  I've spoken with George on the phone a couple of times and he comes across as somewhat intense, but also pretty easy to talk to with a sarcastic kind of humor...


George...2nd from right...in his "other" band
Rey:  (Laughing)  George is a funny guy.  I think George should be asked how it was for HIM to work with ME, because I'm the crazy one.  (Laughing)  George is a great guy and very focused during the sessions.  He cuts loose at times and we had lots of laughs, but it was a great time laying down the tracks.  No challenges to speak of.  We just clicked and it seemed that we were both going in the same direction.

G2G:  Were you there when Les Carlson (Bloodgood) or Larry Farkas (Vengeance Rising/Once Dead) or Oz Fox (Stryper/Bloodgood) were in the studio?

Rey:  I was there a few times when Larry came by, but not when he laid down his tracks.  I wasn't there when Les came by, either.  Oz recorded his tracks elsewhere and sent them to George.

G2G:  George has been pretty up front and aggressive online against people pirating music in general, and pirating the Worldview album specifically.  How much do you think piracy has hurt the industry in general, and maybe even more so in the smaller Christian music market?

Rey:  It's stealing for sure.  Many artists rely on album sales to support their families, and pirating takes away sales, therefore taking hard earned money from the bands.  It has a negative impact on everyone involved.

G2G:  So, to make it easier for people, how can they get the new Worldview album legally?

Rey:  There are many ways to get it, but the best are to either go to www.worldviewmetal.com or www.amazon.com

G2G:  Rey, again, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.  It's been an honor.

Rey:  Thank you, Arttie, for the interview.  Hope I didn't sound too whacked out or prideful in any way (laughing).  Honestly, I totally sold out for Jesus and give Him all the glory.

G2G;  You were great, Rey.  Thanks again, best of luck, and God bless!

Rey:  You too, my brother...

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Well, there you have it.  Nothing too "trashy", but what did you expect from a truly classy guy like Rey Parra?  If you haven't done so yet, I encourage you to check out our review of the new Worldview album, The Chosen Few.  If you like what you hear...and I'm certain you will...you may also want to check out Rey's catalog with Sacred Warrior, as well as George's work with Deliverance and his own band, Recon.

Rey's Sacred Warrior catalog




Thursday, June 4, 2015

WORLDVIEW "The Chosen Few"

(c) 2015 M24 Music Group

  1. Mortality
  2. Illusions Of Love
  3. Back In Time
  4. The Mirror
  5. Why?
  6. Prisoner Of Pain
  7. Two Wonders
  8. Walk Through Fire
  9. The Chosen Few
  10. The Last Cry
Rey Parra--Lead Vocals
George Ochoa--Guitars, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Todd Libby--Bass, Keyboards
Johnny Gonzalez--Drums, Percussion

Additional Musicians
Jimmy P. Brown II (Deliverance/Jupiter 6)--Backing Vocals 2nd & 3rd chorus on "The Mirror"
Oz Fox (Stryper/Bloodgood)--Lead Guitar/2nd Solo on "Back In Time"
Les Carlson (Bloodgood)--Bridge Vocals on "The Chosen Few"
Larry Farkas (Vengeance Rising/Die Happy/Sircle of Silence)--1st Guitar Lead on "Prisoner of Pain"
Ronson Webster--Backing Vocals, Keyboards
Armand Melnbardis--Piano on "The Chosen Few", violin on "Back In Time"
Niki Bente--Female vocals on "The Chosen Few:

There have been rumors and rumblings about this band since at least mid-2014, and some may have heard hints and allegations about Worldview as far back as 2013, but now that 2015 has slipped halfway into the past, The Chosen Few is finally here!  Created out of a mutual friendship, a musical idea, and an untimely passing, Worldview is what I think could only be referred to as a melodic progressive power metal band featuring Rey Parra, the former vocalist of Christian power metal pioneers, Sacred Warrior, and the monstrous guitar talent of Deliverance/Recon shredder, George Ochoa.  With the addition of an extremely talented, if not-as-well-known rhythm section of Todd Libby and Johnny Gonzalez (who also played with Recon and Deliverance), and a fistful of their good friends from multiple Christian metal bands from the 80's and 90's, Worldview is what many people may be tempted to label a "supergroup", but I will shy away from such a tag, as that suggests this is a one-and-done project, which I am truly hoping it is not!

For those who have not yet heard or read, the backstory to this band is that Sacred Warrior keyboard player, Rick Macias, had held onto the goal of one day getting his mutual friends Rey Parra and George Ochoa together on a project with him.  Sadly, Macias passed away in 2009, but his dream did not, as Parra and Ochoa kept the idea alive, eventually collaborating on the very album being reviewed today.

Right from the get-go, it is obvious that this is not an album that the players put together in hopes of garnering radio airplay, as no station that I am aware of plays this style of metal now.  And, while I am admittedly and unashamedly a fan of a lot of the modern hard rock that passes for "metal" on radio today, all would be well-served to give The Chosen Few a listen and take notes on song structure and design.  Additionally, I would caution listeners that this album is NOT Sacred Warrior meets Deliverance, because there is no Deliverance speed/thrash element, nor is there the 80's-styled, Queensryche-inspired, progressive power metal of Sacred Warrior.  Instead what we have here is more of a Euro-styled power metal album with progressive metal elements...and some classic rock tossed in for good measure...creating a familiar, yet not redundant musical landscape for the artists involved to contribute their own individual talents and tastes to.

Pinning the band down to one specific style or sound is going to be difficult, as there is enough diversity here to keep the band from sounding like anyone but Worldview.  Take for example the opening track, "Mortality", a power chord-laden rocker, which mixes in a Middle Eastern sounds and tempos with heavy guitars and layered vocals, and then compare it to "The Chosen Few", which is a powerful, emotive, piano-driven ballad featuring beautiful female backing vocals, Les Carlson's easily identifiable bridge vocals, a scorching Ochoa guitar solo, and a message that nearly echoes the album opener's, yet presents it in a completely different style.  "Back In Time" starts off with a mournful-sounding violin intro, before the rest of the song launches into full blown melodic progressive metal, treading closely to what Sacred Warrior did in the past, feeling almost like a Tate-era Queensryche song, but never retreating from the more modern European sound that is incorporated throughout much of the disc.  "Why?" sports one of the best bass lines of the album, propping up the track by mixing with just enough keyboard to keep the track atmospheric without becoming an ambiant musical mess, until the melodic guitar solo kicks in...albeit in rather short fashion.  "The Last Cry" and "Walk Through Fire" are both superbly heavy numbers, but "The Last Cry" derives its power from thunderous power chords, double bass drum kicks, and Parra's smooth, operatic style intermixed with power screams backed by layered harmonies, while "Walk Through Fire" utilizes chunkier, classic rock rhythm guitars, a simpler drum approach with a heavier bass line, keys and a piano to support and a more 80's-styled vocal approach.  It all flows together marvelously, yet its difficult to say that one particular style of metal/hard rock is the defining style throughout.

My biggest concern with the project was how would Parra sound?  I have always been a huge fan of his powerful, almost operatic style of delivery, but as we all know, a lot of singers lose range and power with the passage of years.  However, perhaps due to his lay-off from the musical world, Parra is every bit the powerhouse vocalist I remember, picking up right where he left off with his last Sacred Warrior album, Obsessions.  Parra never really stretches into full-on Tate-inspired screaming here, but the songs don't call for it, either.  He does, however, utilize a powerful vibrato in multiple places throughout the record, holding notes for extended stretches and more restrained screams (check out "Illusions of Love" for an example), exhibiting a true control of his vocal instrument.

Ochoa shows that he hasn't lost a step, either, although his style has changed just a bit here.  There is no "shredding" per se, on this record, but there are tons of powerful, melodic metal solos that hearken back to the best stuff he recorded with Deliverance and Recon.  The duel between Ochoa and Farkas on "Prisoner Of Pain" (which I will detail a bit more in a second), is a prime example of George's mastery of the melodic-yet-stinking-heavy style he has honed throughout the years.  "The Mirror" features another monster solo that is not to be missed, as does album closer, "The Last Cry".      

Stand out tracks are just about impossible to choose, because nothing here is weak, nothing is bad, and all are well-crafted songs.  Off the top of my head, I will say that "Prisoner Of Pain" is a monster of a song, with guest axe-slinger, Larry Farkas, pulling out all the stops on his solo, throwing down the gauntlet for Ochoa, who accepts the challenge with his own smoldering solo.  Throw in some Led Zeppelin "Immigrant Song" backing vocals, the right mixture of classic rock keyboard fill to balance things out, and a HUGE drum sound, and this is one of the best power/progressive METAL songs I have heard in quite some time.  Love, love, love this song!  The haunting title track is another song that just stays with me every time I listen to it, as does album closer, "The Last Cry", which is just an amazing piece of heavy rock with so many different textures and styles all blended into one track.  I also love the chugga-chugga rhythm and rumbling bass line of one of the album's hardest hitters, "Illusions Of Love".  It's just so hard to pick the best moment on an album full of nothing but good moments.    


The packaging is top-notch, with a 16 page booklet filled with lyrics, a band photo, thank yous, writing credits, production notes, etc.  Who says independent projects have to sacrifice their packaging to maintain musical strength?  Very nicely done!

Honestly, I have no complaints at all here, as there is literally nothing I would change about this album.  Everything from the performances to the songwriting to the production to the packaging is spot-on.  The guest spots merely add to the project, never threatening to take over, and the mix, done by the legendary Bill Metoyer is flawless for this style of music.  Why can't more bands pour the time, effort, and passion into their albums and churn out masterpieces such as this?  If they did, one has to wonder if metal wouldn't make a bit more of a return, especially in the United States (Europe still appreciates true metal talent).

Ratng:  Truly a fabulous collection of crankable music!  Torque it all the way to 10 for this amazing debut!  I have not been this happy with a complete album in some time.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

JACE PAWLAK "Perspective"

(c) 2015 Marble Sky Music

  1. Cry
  2. While We're Here
  3. What If We Were Wrong
  4. Don't Talk To Me
  5. The Unknown
  6. Jodi's Just Running
  7. We Don't Know Anything
  8. Renegade Heart
  9. The Same Mistake
  10. Little Star
Jace Pawlak--Vocals, all instruments

Jace Pawlak is not a household name, although if you are familiar with the melodic hard rock scene of the past few years, you have heard his music before, even if you didn't realize it.  Perspective is Pawlak's third solo release, and I have to be honest in telling you I hadn't heard the previous two, so I have no basis of comparison between these new songs and his older material.  I had heard, however, that Pawlak's previous material was typically defined as anything from "driving hard rock" to "melodic rock with an edge", so to say I was anxious would be an understatement.

The Kickstarter-funded effort starts off with a cool melodic rocker, "Cry", which instantly brings back the feel of the early-to-mid 90's melodic sound, with a driving guitar interspersed with keyboards, layered vocals, and a solid, if not stand-out, rhythm section.  This is a solidly written song that really showcases Pawlak's sense of melody and his ability to craft a catchy song. 

"While We're Here" follows things up with a very contemporary Nashville sounding song.  In fact, with just a tiny bit of tweaking, I could hear this song all over country radio...although I honestly think it would "rock" harder on country radio than it does here.  There's an acoustic rhythm guitar woven throughout the track, with a strong percussion presence and an odd...is it a flute?...woodwind line of some sort.  Very upbeat but a rather stark departure from "Cry".  Still, I was feeling pretty good about the album at this point.

"What If We Were Wrong" is a big time piano-based ballad that has Richard Marx written all over it, in my opinion.  Expertly written and executed, this would be a great Top 40 or Hot Adult Contemporary radio song...if this was 1989.  In 2015, however, no matter how flawlessly the song is crafted, no matter how emotive the vocals, the track comes across as rather dated and I'm not really sure who the target audience is here.  

Things start to come apart for me with "Don't Talk To Me", which is reminiscent to me of something Kool and the Gang or Stevie Wonder would have done in the 70's, as it is a very jazz-infused number with plenty of (digital) horns, harmonica, piano, finger snaps, all layered over a bass-dominated danceable groove.  Just not my thing at all and I had some serious reservations going forward...and I was only on track 4!

"The Unknown" is a passionate piano ballad that showcases Pawlak's soulful singing voice and strong songwriting ability, as does the bluesy "We Don't Know Anything", but again, neither of these is truly a rock number, and I'm imagining that a lot of listeners are wondering how this is the same guy that has had songs recorded by Tango Down and Far Cry, among other melodic hard rockers.  These songs feel more like Billy Joel songs than anything else I can think to compare them to, including the strong piano work on both tracks.  The same goes for the uptempo, piano-pop of  "Jodi's Just Running", which again has a very Joel feel to it musically, while lyrically there's a definite Mellencamp bent here.

"Renegade Heart" is much more in line with what I'm guessing most listeners are seeking, as this is a slick, 80's-inspired, guitar-driven AOR number with an easily accessible chorus and a simple, yet effective, melody line that carries the song right through the surprisingly powerful...if too short...guitar solo and bridge.  A toe-tapper, for sure, Perspective would benefit from more "Renegade Heart" styled songs.

"The Same Mistake" is another Nashville-tinged, acoustic country song that, in the right artist's hands, would be a solid album track.  In fact, this song feels feels a lot like the country rock fare that was being put forth in the 1990's by Blackhawk, if you are familiar with that band (I'm showing the fact that I worked in country radio for about 9 years now, aren't I?)

"Little Star" closes things out in a very Journey-esque way, reminding me somewhat of "Faithfully".  At the same time I could have heard country rockers Restless Heart tackle this track with great success in the late 80's/early 90's.  While I believe it is written about a child, I could definitely hear this being played at a wedding or two, as it is a beautifully crafted piano ballad with a lot of emotion poured into the performance.  A strong album closer and one of the best songs here, without question.

There are some really good moments on this album, and virtually everything showcases a songwriting ability that is lacking in each of the various formats that this album touches upon.  However, it is this very lack of focus on style and even a target audience that makes this album feel very disjointed to me.  There is ZERO doubt as to Pawlak's writing ability, nor his musical ability, as he performs virtually every instrument on this record.  I just can't help but feel that there are going to be a lot of people who pick this album up expecting something much more in the melodic rock/AOR vein than they are actually going to find.

Perhaps Pawlack addresses this seeming lack of focus best himself.  In the press release that accompanied the album, the following quote was included:  

"Like every writer, I just want to be heard.  When I release my recordings, I'n not 'done;.  It's just another step in trying to be a successful songwriter, to get people to consider my material for their band.  It does not end with me.  I want every song I write to be covered by ten different bands".  

As such, perhaps I approached this album as a project, when in actuality it is more like a showcase, which makes sense with the way these songs seem to come at you from all different directions and pull from multiple styles and influences.

That being said, I can't say that Perspective is going to be an album that I find myself reaching for with any kind of regularity.  It just doesn't grab me and hold my interest for long enough stretches for this to be something I return to.  I will, however, endeavor to track down Pawlak's previous two efforts, as I have since sampled them a bit and find them to be much more like the guitar-driven melodic hard rock I was expecting on Perspective.

Rating:  Rock this at a 5.5, with the superb songwriting and strong musical performances virtually guaranteeing that Pawlak's music will be heard somewhere, by someone, which is ultimately his goal.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

ARSON CITY "The Horror Show"

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. The Horror Show
  2. My Perfect Drug
  3. Dance With The Devil
  4. Frankenstein
  5. I'm Awake
  6. Not Coming Home
  7. New Disease
  8. Too Close
  9. Let's Get This Fire Started
  10. City Of Fire
  11. Lies
Patrick Michael Wilson--Lead Vocals
Mark Beckenhauer--Rhythm Guitar, Programming, Backing Vocals
Matt DiBaise--Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
Matt Oliver--Bass, Backing Vocals
Matt Denker--Drums, Percussion

Finally!  Nebraska modern rockers, Arson City, have finally released their first full-length record with The Horror Show.  Now, it is true that a handful of these songs can be found on the band's previous EP's, including tracks 4, 6, 8, and 10 which came from the excellent Not Coming Home EP, as well as track 5, which comes from their debut, self-titled EP.  That being said, we are still treated to six new tracks on this album, which also features a line-up change, with Matt #3 joining the band, as Matt DiBaise takes over lead guitar duties from previous axe-slinger, Eric Whitney.

The album kicks off with the title track and first single, "The Horror Show".  This song is exactly what Arson City is all about...crushing percussion, buzzsaw rhythm guitars, and "Mayor" Wilson's snarled vocal delivery.  Insanely catchy from the get-go, this rocker bounces along in typical Arson City fashion until, seemingly out of nowhere, a guitar solo cuts into the mayhem!  New Matt, (the band has three of them), Matt DiBaise rips off a tasty, if relatively short solo that nicely accentuates this smoldering intro to the new album, adding yet another dimension to the already multi-faceted band.



Electronic elements kick off "My Perfect Drug", another new track here, as Wilson takes the listener on a musical journey through a less-than-ideal relationship based around two people who are essentially addicted to each other despite the fact that they are not good for each other.  DiBaise adds in another very short, yet effective, solo here, making the album two-for-two as far as new songs go.

Things quickly become three-for-three as "Dance With The Devil" drops in with a Rob Zombie-esque intro before heading off in an Alice Cooper-styled direction, especially in the way Wilson phrases the chorus and a bridge section.  Solo number three from Matt #3 is a bit longer than the others, again blending in nicely with the rest of the track and keeping the focus on the song as a whole rather than on one short segment.

The next three songs all come from previous releases, although "I'm Awake" was completely re-recorded, so it definitely sounds cleaner and more properly produced than it did on the self-titled EP.  "Frankenstein", the killer ballad "Not Coming Home", the remade "Too Close", and "City Of Fire" are included here in the same recordings that they appeared on the Not Coming Home EP, however they have been remastered and the volume is equalized so that they flow seamlessly with the rest of the new tracks here.

"New Disease" is another new rocker that showcases Bechenhauer incorporating synthesized strings to near perfection, giving a band like Skillet a run for their money in proper use of this musical element.  More of a mid-tempo rocker than the majority of the neck-snappers here, "New Disease" also includes gang-shouted backing vocals, and some razor sharp rhythm guitar work supported by the ever-present powerhouse rhythm section of Oliver and Denker.  Once again, DiBaise blows through a nice solo, leading into an acoustic guitar interlude, before blasting back into the scream-along chorus.

"Lets Get This Fire Started" charges out of the cover of Alex Clare's "Too Close", guitars ablaze and rhythm section chug-chug-chugging so that Wilson can spit out his vocals across the surface of this modern metal anthem.  

"Lies" closes things out in spectacularly moody and eerie fashion with the horror show themed intro, more synthesized strings, and Wilson once again in pseudo-Alice Cooper mode as he sneers his way through the verses of this fist-pounding track of angst and betrayal.  One of my three favorite new tracks here, this is a song that comes across even better in the live setting.

Speaking of the live setting, I have said it before, but it deserves repeating:  I have yet to encounter a band that puts on a better live club show than Arson City...and I have seen hundreds of different bands in various clubs over the past 25 years.  These guys put absolutely everything they have into not only the musical, but also the theatrical, parts of their performances.  Mix in their Horror Squad drum corps, and you have one incredibly powerful live show.  The band will be featured on several festivals this year, including Rocklahoma and RockFest, so make no excuses and get out and see these guys live, buy their merch, snag this disc, and have them scribble their name on it as you are sworn into Citizenship as a resident of Arson City!

The packaging is relatively simple, as this was a fan-funded effort, with the vast majority of the money generated used in the recording process.  There is a single band photo on the inside, personnel listing, and a list of thank-yous.  (Again, in the interest of honesty and full-disclosure, my name is in the thank-you list, as I contributed to the funding of the record....)  The production is excellent, with Beckenhauer and Wilson working to co-produce the record, and the mix is solid and tight throughout.

Rating:  Definitely crankable, this album is an early contender for indy release of the year, and definitely a Top 20 album overall.  Crank this to 9!    

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SLANTPIECE "Second Wind"

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. Ghosts Of Yesterday
  2. Baptized In Whiskey
  3. Shallow Grave
  4. Stuck In A Rut
  5. Scars 
  6. Second Wind
Derek Johnson--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Derek Tavis--Guitars
Wryan Carpenter--Bass
Bill Sabah--Drums, Vocals

It should be obvious to readers of this site that I love to review music.  It's always such a thrill for me to come across something new, a band not everyone has heard of.  Even more exciting for me is when I get the chance to review local music that is of top-notch quality because, let's face it, a LOT of bands think they have what it takes, and even more think they sound "killer".  Not trying to crush anyone's hopes or dreams, but in all honesty, rarely do these smaller, independent bands have the skill, let alone the songs, to put together a solid enough release for more than die-hard fans to take notice.

Slantpiece is one of those bands that should get people's attention!

Hailing from Kearney, NE, Slantpiece is a four-piece metal band that combines elements of classic metal, doom/stoner metal, metalcore, and what I like to refer to as "Bar Metal", into their sound.  ("Bar Metal", for the uninitiated, is the kind of metal that makes you want to go to a local watering hole, grab some guy by the throat, and throw them around for a bit in the mosh pit that forms in front of the stage.  If you've been in a truly good local live music club, you likely know what I mean...)  Twin guitars, pounding bass, and pummeling drums are the key elements here, along with Johnson's bottom-end yowl, and some excellent production work from none other than Michael Beck, who really pulled the best performances out of these four guys on this, their second record.  

Things kick off in violent fashion with "Ghosts Of Yesterday", a chugga-chugga assault right from the get-go.  Johnson's bottom-end vocals are layered in spots by a blackish-sounding backing vocal that provides a unique dynamic that sets the band's sound off from your traditional metalcore approach.  Additionally, the inclusion of a really nice guitar solo

"Baptized In Whiskey" is the first single off this record and it has been getting some regional airplay, which is nice to hear.  Taking more of a doomy, sludgy approach than "Ghosts...", "Baptized In Whiskey" gives the listener a better idea of the talent involved here, as the bluesy guitar riffs really drive the track, with an excellent twin-guitar riff working just over some of the best rhythm section on this mini-album.

"Shallow Grave" hearkens back to the 80's mid-tempo thrash approach as far as the guitars, never really reaching breakneck speed, but also never dropping down into the slower, sludgier territory of "Baptized...".  Johnson's vocals approach death territory in spots here, again accompanied by some blackened screaming in the background, but he manages to keep the lyrics decipherable throughout the track.  Tavis rips into a blazing solo at about the 2:45 mark here and just GOES OFF for the better part of 45 seconds here, while Sabah throws in some nice double kick work and Carpenter's bass pulses the track ever forward.  While I like everything here, this track is hands-down my favorite.

"Stuck In A Rut" starts off with a cool clean guitar atop a march cadence laid down by Sabah before slinkiing into an angry, Sabbath-styled track, with Johnson using more of a gritty, bluesy vocal approach for most of the vocals here (although his trademark yowls are still present throughout the track).  Once again, Tavis really smokes the solo here, showcasing the fact that it doesn't really matter what style of song Slantpiece is busting out, he is more than capable of coming up with a solo to not only match the style but also blister the speakers it is projecting from.

"Scars" speeds things back up once again, feeling a bit like a Pantera track, but a bit thicker/sludgier in the production department.  The only track that features what I would call a true break-down section on the track, this is one that really bridges the gap between the band's first album and Second Wind.  

Speaking of Second Wind, the title track closes things out here, cranking the speed up again on the intro, only to pour a bunch of sludge and grit into the machine, bogging it back down into another Pantera-inspired groove for the verses, then ratcheting the speed back up during the chorus.  Shouted backing vocals, chugga-chugga riffing, some jack-hammer styled vocal spitting from Johnson, KILLER tempo changing work from Carpenter and Sabah, and yet another scorching (if too short) guitar solo from Tavis really leave the listener wishing that this WAS just the second wind for the band on this disc, rather than an album closer.

The length of the record is the one real gripe here, as at only 6 songs and 23 minutes in length, it really feels like the record is just heating up and it is already done.  I would love to have had the guys include a couple of tracks from the first record..."Back Against The Wall" and "War Cry" would've been killer...in re-recorded fashion, but I am sure budget restrictions played a big role in what was included here.  Likewise, the packaging is about as simple as it gets, with only one band photo, line-up info, and a thank-you section in this single-fold slipcase.  Lyrics are not included.  (In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I am thanked in the liner notes, but make no mistake, I pull no punches here, and if this album sucked. well, I guess my name would be included on a sucky album's liner notes and I'd let you know about it.  I do NOT let a little "liner note love" change my honesty in reviews...)

The production is top-notch, if not big label, in quality.  What I mean is that while exceptionally solid for an independent project, there is not going to be any mistaking this for a major label release, as there is a rawness here that is not found on big budget albums...but there is a charm to that rawness that makes the album feel organic and not forced.  As I said before, Michael Beck (previously the singer for Red Dragon Cartel) really pulls the best out of each of these guys on this record, and the difference between Second Wind and the band's first record, Get You Some.  How these guys managed to get hooked up with Beck, I'm not sure, but the results are excellent.

There are a lot of good bands on the local scene all over the country, but few that have sent me material stand on the cusp of greatness.  Slantpiece is a different story, in my estimation.  These guys not only make great music and write great songs, if you ever get the chance to see them perform, you will understand that they live, breathe,,,heck, they REEK...of the music they perform.   Trends be damned, this little band from the middle of America still plays metal for metal's sake and they believe in what they are doing. 

Looking like central Nebraska's version of Duck Dynasty, these are four of the nicest, most genuine guys I have met in the hard music scene, and the bust it live every single time I have had the chance to see them perform.  Do yourself a favor, track them down, buy their merch, and snag a copy of Second Wind (and Get You Some, if you're so inclined).  Metalheads will not be disappointed.

You can follow the band on Facebook or on Twitter.

Rating:  Crank this up to 8 and do what you can to keep local music alive, not only in Nebraska, but wherever you call home!

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Friday, May 22, 2015

SERPENTINE "Circle Of Knives"

(c) 2015 AOR Heaven

  1. Season Of The Witch
  2. La Tragedienne
  3. Forever
  4. The Hardest Fall
  5. Bleed
  6. Where Does Your Heart Beat Now?
  7. Bound By The Strings Of Discord
  8. Circle Of Knives
  9. Such A Long Way Down
  10. Suicide Days
Adam Payne--Vocals
Chris Gould--Guitars
Gareth David Noon--Keyboards
Owen Crawford--Bass
Roy Millward--Drums

Four years have passed since I last heard new music from Serpentine, and apparently a good amount has happened with this British band since I reviewed Living And Dying In High Definition.  For starters, I missed an album somewhere, because it turns out this is actually the band's third release.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly from a reviewer's standpoint, there have been some fairly significant band changes.  Specifically, Tony Mills (ex-Shy, ex-TNT, ex-Siam) is now ex-Serpentine as well, as he is no longer with the band, replaced by Adam Payne.  Also gone is previous bass player, Gareth Vanstone, replaced by Owen Crawford.  However, with 3/5 of the band intact, including the guitar/keyboard combination that makes up the core of the band's sound, I was hopeful that much of what I liked about Serpentine previously would still be found here on Circle Of Knives.

As it turns out, I didn't really need to be overly concerned, as Serpentine has returned with another excellent record of melodic hard rock, with elements of European AOR and even a hint of power metal thrown into the mix.  This is especially evident in the album's opening number, "Season Of The Witch".  Immediately we are treated to layered keyboards and some soaring guitar leads, accompanied by new singer, Adam Payne's deeper, richer, and dare I say more powerful, vocal approach, which steers the band away from the Shy-esque AOR of the first record and more into harder-edged melodic sound.  "Forever" is another similar track, with a hard-charging guitar sound dominating the track, moving the keys into more of a supporting role. The same can be said of "The Hardest Fall", which may be my favorite track here, competing with the fantastic title track, which unleashes some absolutely stellar guitar work throughout, with a searing solo really topping things off on this song which many people may find themselves labeling "progressive" in its style and approach.  How more people haven't heard of Chris Gould, I have no idea, as this guy is a guitar talent not commonly found in music today.  Just listen to the emotive intro to the ballad, "Bleed" and you will instantly realize what an underrated performer Gould truly is.

The AOR of the band is not 100% removed from the new sound and approach, as is evident in a song like "La Tragedienne", as the focus here is the massive chorus and the melodic keys that support the structure of the song, filling virtually every sonic nook and cranny.  Much the same can be said for "Where Does Your Heart Beat Now?", which sports a much more keyboard-centric sound than some of the other songs here, reminding me of the 80's AOR approach of bands like Giuffria or Shy, as examples.  

"Bound By The Strings of Discord" is a hard-charging number with some solid drum work from Millward, and while it doesn't really fit the tempo and mood of much of the rest of the album, it is still a solid track that again finds Gould in top form.  Album closer, "Suicide Days" is another full-on rocker, showcasing Payne's ability to unleash a top-notch metal scream when needed, and wrapping up an exceptionally strong return from a band that I quite frankly had forgotten about due to the long lapse between albums I had heard  (Not sure how I missed the second album...).

Rocking harder than the debut, Circle Of Knives is every bit as strong as Living And Dying In High Definition, with the new additions to the band more than holding their own as they forge their own identity within the structure of the band.  Gould has grown in his sound and talent, as well, pushing himself toward the top of the heap as far as British rock guitar talents goes.

Checking in at nearly an hour in length, with no song running for less than 4:30, there is a lot of music here to digest and appreciate.  However, when all of the songs are this good, it's definitely not an act of labor to find something new to appreciate with consecutive spins.  

Now I have to find that second album....

Rating:  Every bit as crankable as the debut.  Turn this one up to 8.5.