Saturday, April 21, 2018

JK NORTHRUP & DAVID CAGLE "That's Gonna Leave A Mark"

(c) 2018 Melodic Rock Records

  1. The Night Is Mine
  2. Gone
  3. The Moment
  4. Can't 
  5. Sting Of Her Kiss
  6. Another Goodbye
  7. The Honeymoon Is Over
  8. That's Gonna Leave A Mark
  9. For Sure Thing
  10. Sirens
  11. Forever Starts Tonight
  12. Chasing Ghosts
JK Northrup--Guitars, Backing Vocals
David Cagle--Lead, Backing Vocals
Larry Hart--Bass
Steve Brown--Drums

Additional Musicians:

Kelly Keeling--Backing Vocals on "For Sure Thing"
Richard Kendrick--Backing Vocals on "Can't"
Gunnar Nelson--Backing Vocals on "Forever Starts Tonight"
Eric Ragno--Keyboards on 2, 3, 4, 7, 11, and 12 
Dan Zoid--Drums on "That's Gonna Leave A Mark"

JK Northrup is one insanely busy guy.  Besides mixing, mastering, and producing various projects for his Alien Productions company, the guy still manages to keep churning out amazing melodic hard rock projects seemingly every couple of months.  Case in point, it was just 3 or 4 months ago that the excellent Fiction Syxx was released.  Now, here we are again in early March of 2018 and Northrup is preparing to release another project, this time with the seriously underappreciated David Cagle on vocals, Larry Hart on bass, and Steve Brown on drums, along with a great collection of supporting talent.  That's Gonna Leave A Mark is set for release on MelodicRock Records later on this month, and I can already tell you it is going to be a must have.

If some of the the song titles on the record sound familiar, that is because most of this record was previously released in a limited, digital format under the Liberty N Justice name as The Vow, with JK doing a large portion of the writing, playing, and producing on that record.  However, the rest of the lineup for this record is new, with JK recruiting not only Cagle, but also Mick Brown's younger brother, Steve, for drums, as well as Larry Hart on Bass, and keyboardist extraordinaire, Eric Ragno, who jumps in to help on half of the album. 

The album kicks off with the high energy rocker, "The Night Is Mine", and once he joins the fray, it is easily understood why Northrup is so high on Cagle as a vocalist.  A generally smooth tenor, Cagle has the ability to throw in just enough grit and edge to keep the sound from becoming flowery or saccharine here, which I feel is an important tone to set from the get-go.  JK rips off the first of numerous catchy, lively solos on this track with a style and sound that will definitely have listeners recalling his more hair metal days with King Kobra.  A solid start for That's Gonna Leave A Mark.

An introspective and lyrically melancholy song about love lost, "Gone" is up next, and for my money, its on melodic numbers such as this that the album really shines.  Ragno bolsters the sound of this mid-tempo number with his typically solid keyboard fills, and the rhythm section of Hart and Brown is absolutely lock-step here, melding perfectly with Northrup's rhythm guitars throughout the course of the tune.  The solo from Northrup perfectly fits the mood of the track, delivering both power and emotion, which Cagle matches perfectly, as he really finds his voice...and his vocal home...on "Gone" and similarly styled songs.  Good stuff, here.

"The Moment" is pure 80s bliss, sounding very much like a Warrant track, a la "Heaven", in places, mixed with hints of Slippery When Wet-era Bon Jovi and, to my ears, the more melodic moments from Damn Yankees, (think "Come Again" and "High Enough").  Not purely a power ballad, but definitely a lighter-inducing track that I could imagine filling the gymnasium during my late-80s prom years, "The Moment" is absolutely outstanding and, again, a place where Cagle's seemingly effortless approach really shines. 

"Can't" re-ups the energy, heading back to mid-tempo rock territory.  The chorus is plenty catchy, and the layered backing vocals work well on this track that reminds me a lot of the style of music that Nelson has put out on their past couple of efforts...which is a good thing.  Northrup's solo is short and sweet...actually a bit too short for my tastes...and the rest of the band is in excellent form here on this track that, while not the best on the record, still offers up plenty to like.

"Sting Of Her Kiss" is a song that I remember really liking in its original LnJ form on The Vow, so I was a bit concerned about how this reworked version would come across.  I needn't have worried, as this snarky rocker delivers in much the same way as the original and is definitely one of my favorite uptempo numbers on the record.  The solo section here is longer than on the original, if memory serves me correctly, and JK absolutely tears up the frets on a run he drops just before the bridge that leads into the last chorus run.  Hart's presence is definitely felt on this track, as the bottom end is definitely more pronounced here than on a couple of other tracks, and the resultant groove is a fun one, to be sure. 

The album head back to more mid-tempo melodic rock territory on "Another Goodbye", which really benefits from solid lyrics, excellent backing vocals, a nice hook, and the by-now-expected premium guitar solo from Northrup.  I often wonder if JK would have been one of the 80s "guitar gods" had he been in a band that gained more exposure or catered more to the hair metal crowd than King Kobra or the excellent, bluesier hard rock he played with Paul Shortino.  The guy is a beast on the axe and he has a definite flair for the melodic solo style that he so frequently employs on this album, as well as his recent releaes with Fiction Syxx and others. 

Initially, "The Honeymoon Is Over" has an odd vibe to it, with programmed drums and some odd keyboard elements and vocal effects at the start, but these quickly give way to a decentmid-tempo melodic rocker, largely supported by some extra-smooth guitar riffs from Northrup.  The chorus is a bit simplistic lyrically, but Cagle manages to keep it from sinking.  Not my favorite track, by any means, but again, this collection of musicians seems capable of taking a song like this one and giving it life.

The title track brings things back into focus with some excellent kit work from Brown and a more 70s classic rock vibe than most of the tracks here.  I especially love the frenetic guitar work here, feeling like JK really just went in and free-styled this solo, just having fun with it and letting it go where the song and his mood dictated.  A top three or four moment for me on this album.

"For Sure Thing" is another fun, uptempo rocker, which features Baton Rouge's Kelly Keeling on backing vocals.  Another lyrically strong track, "For Sure Thing" is all about cruising with the top down and the speakers up, as far as I'm concerned, and is another example of the type of good-time rock n roll that simply isn't played enough today, at least by American bands.  Cagle rocks, plain and simple, and the entirety of the band has the feeling of a group of guys that are out to have some musical fun and take all the listeners with them.  Great stuff here!

"Siren" has a funky, "Brick House"-meets-Extreme kind of groove to it that is unlike anything else on the record.  Definitely a fun song, but one that I'm guessing many listeners are going to have to give a chance to so that it can properly grow on them.  Another quirky track lyrically, "Siren" is a tune that gives Cagle a chance to showcase his ability to handle something other than the standard melodic rock fare, and he passes the test with flying colors.  For what its worth, Northrup launches into an ultra-cool solo just before the final chorus...but you probably guessed that, right?

"Forever Starts Tonight" gets some backing assistance from Mr. Gunnar Nelson, and his presence is felt immediately as the song actually opens with a layered line from the chorus section before the guitars and drums come kicking in.  Once again right in the wheelhouse of Cagle, and Northrup digs into his bag of licks n tricks one more time on this rocker, and yet again the rhythm section of Hart and Brown deserves special mention on "Forever...", which is a really good song that I'm surprised to find this late in the record. 

Album closer, "Chasing Ghosts" drops the tempo a bit, not quite into ballad territory, but close, and closes the record with another dose of smooth melodic rock that, again, really allows Cagle to shine.  I truly hope he and JK hook up again in the not-too-distant future, as they definitely have something working here.

Mine is a digital promo version, so I have no idea about the packaging of the album, but generally speaking, Melodic Rock Records is solid in this area, so I don't have any pre-conceived concerns in this department.  Additionally, I am told there is a Japanese bonus track that I don't have access to at this time, but I know that it is one that was on the LnJ version of the record, so I am anxious to get my hands...and ears...on that track whenever possible.

The production is solid, professional, and clean, with no glaring issues with mix, muddiness, or excessive polish.  Northrup has proven himself to be equally talented behind the mixing board as out in front of it, and the work here is no exception.  Initially I thought there was a bit of middle-to-bottom end missing in the mix of some of the tracks, but it turned out to be an issue with my EQ, which I had to adjust when listening to another review album that...ummm....let's just say "lacked in appreciable mixing and production skill"...and leave it at that. 

Overall, That's Gonna Leave A Mark is very likely to leave a mark on listeners, as it is a really good, generally upbeat-but-always-real, lyrically fun album with a whole lot of musical talent shining through in various areas.  Nostalgic-yet fresh, comfortable-yet-not cliche, this effort from Northrup, Cagle, and Company is well worth picking up.

Rating:  Crankable, unquestionably, I give this an enthusiastic 8.

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Friday, April 6, 2018

SKILLET "Unleashed Beyond"

(c) 2017 Atlantic Records

  1. Feel Invincible
  2. Back From The Dead
  3. Stars
  4. I Want To Live
  5. Undefeated
  6. Famous
  7. Lions
  8. Out Of Hell
  9. Burn It Down
  10. Watching For Comets
  11. Saviors Of The World
  12. The Resistance
  13. Breaking Free (featuring Lacey Sturm) (Bonus)
  14. Stay Til The Daylight (Bonus)
  15. Brave (Bonus)
  16. You Get Me High (Bonus)
  17. Set It Off (Bonus)
  18. Feel Invincible (Y2K Remix) (Bonus)
  19. The Resistance (Soli Remix) (Bonus)
  20. Stars (Film Version) (Bonus)
John Cooper--Lead Vocals, Bass
Korey Cooper--Rhythm Guitars, Keyboards
Jed Ledger--Drums, Vocals
Seth Morrison--Guitars

The undisputed kings (and queens) of Christian modern rock...and one of the most successful modern rock bands in America, period...Skillet have once again repackaged their most recent effort with new material and offered it up to fans, most likely to tide them over until the next album.  Originally released nearly two years ago, Unleashed has seen multiple songs hit radio as singles, from the huge, arena anthems "Feel Invincible" and "Back From The Dead", to a couple of slower, more ballad-esque moments with "Lions" and "Stars", and the original album closer, the crunchy, modern metallic screamer, "The Resistance".  Sandwiched in between are several other solid songs, whether it be the more symphonic "I Want To Live", the poppy "Saviors Of The World", the crunchy "Undefeated", or the breakneck-speed rocker "Out Of Hell".  Not everything on the album worked overly well for me, as I am not a fan of "Watching For Comets", per se, nor did "Burn It Down" really grab me, though neither is a bad song, necessarily.  The same could be said of "Famous", which is a little too electro-pop/dance rock for me, what with its looped drums, syths, and electronic noises, but again, it's not brutal or anything.  But, if I had wanted to cut the album down to the ten best tracks, "Comets" and "Burn It Down" would have been the two to go.

But rather than trim the album to ten tracks, Skillet went the other way and tacked eight bonus tracks, including five new songs, onto the deluxe edition of the album, giving us Unleashed Beyond.  A lot of people would complain about this, but really, what's the difference between buying a repackaged album with new material and buying an EP with five new songs and a couple remixes?  Probably no difference at all.  Released near the end of 2017, the expanded album has already seen one song starting to climb the Christian rock charts, with the modern rock screamfest of "Breaking Free" charting seeing growing airplay in March of 2018.  Much like the album proper, the new songs are mostly really good-to-great, with only one minor miss, and then there are three remixes thrown in for good measure.

The first of the new songs is the previously mentioned "Breaking Free".  I called it a screamfest above, and there is really no other term I could think to apply as this is exactly what the song is.  Big pounding drums and hard, churning guitars abound on this catchy song, which is to be expected from the majority of Skillet's hardest-edged output over the past five albums.  But "Breaking Free" takes things to a new extreme when John's powerful roars and shouts are matched by scream queen, Lacey Sturm, the former lead singer of Flyleaf.  Mix in Jen Ledger's tame...dare I say "sweet" sounding by comparison?...backing vocals, and you have quite a track on your hands.  This would be my favorite of the new tracks were it not for the hyper-catchy "Set It Off", which feels to me like it could have/should have been included on the original version of Unleashed.  Heck, I prefer this track to more than half the songs on the original album, trailing only "The Resistance" and "Feel Invincible", and possibly "Lions" and "Undefeated".   A guitar-driven rocker with a chant-along chorus, "Set It Off" should definitely be released as a single and may be one of the few bonus tracks that I can think of that have the potential to actually top a chart.   Seriously, it is that dang good, and I hope it finds its way into the band's live set for the next tour.  

Also really good, but a slight step below these two is the more straight-forward rocker, "You Get Me High", which features a more classic rock-styled guitar riff but retains the huge, arena-filling drum sound the band has really become known for.  I also really like more mainstream-sounding, "Brave", which reminds me a LOT of "Lions", but with a bigger, more anthemic chorus, and fuller, bigger-sounding drums.  Ledger sounds really good here, and I don't think she gets enough credit for what she brings to the band vocally, as well as on the kit.  Again, this could have/should have replaced "Watching For Comets" on the original album, in my opinion, and could very well be another chart-topping bonus track for Skillet, again coming out of the bonus tracks of a re-issued album.  An impressive feat, to be sure.

I'm not completely sure how I feel about the acoustic-based ballad of "Stay Til The Daylight", which has a definite "Stars" feel to it, but there's something that just seems off to me.  John is in full singing mode here, and the band incorporates some nice strings into the mix, but it isn't until the final run through the bridge/chorus section that the drums find their way into the track, which left me kind of hanging, to be honest.  More time may help me better figure out what it is that I don't like about this song...or give me more of an appreciation for what it is.

The band also incorporates three remixes here, with two of them being total wastes of disc space.  Seriously, the remixes of "Feel Invincible", and especially "The Resistance" are just abysmal.  Totally, unquestionably, 100% pure skip material for this guy. bad stuff.  As to the "film version" of "Stars", which was remixed for the movie The Shack, if memory serves, it's okay, but kind of redundant.  It features an incredibly long intro (my oldest son thought they made it into an instrumental), one of the choruses is removed, with two verses pretty much running into each other, and the whole affair feels fairly sappy and rather boring.  I like the original version, especially in the live setting, but I don't see any time when I am going to pull out this album just to hear this reworked version of the song.  Sorry Skillet, but I may actually rip and re-burn this CD without the closing three tracks, as I can't stand two of them and don't find any reason for the third.

The repackaged album also features an expanded insert which folds out into a poster of the sludge-covered band.  Full lyrics for all of the new songs are included (along with all the original songs' lyrics, also), along with updated credits and thank-yous.  The artwork is basically identical, with the updated and relocated title being the only change to the front cover, and the updated tracklisting being the lone change to the back.

At WinterJam 2018 a few weeks ago, John Cooper hinted that the band had some big news coming up, so perhaps a new album is in the offing.  Perhaps he was simply referring to "Breaking Free" being dropped to radio as a single, or maybe their WinterJam performances were being recorded for a live EP.  I'm not sure, so stay tuned to and the band's social media outlets to stay up to date.  And if you haven't already done so, I would strongly encourage you to pick up Unleashed Beyond for the five new tracks, as most fans will find at least four of them strong additions to the band's catalog, and I have no doubts there will be fans of "Stay Til The Daylight", also.

Rating:  When you have a crankable album and add new, crankable material to it, you get more crankability, right?  The two BRUTAL remixes (and one pointless one) can't even really do much to drop the rating here, which I top out at 8.

Friday, March 30, 2018

ODYSSEY DESPERADO "Don't Miss The Sunset"

(c) 2018 Lions Pride Music

  1. Rush Of The Wave
  2. You And Me Against The World
  3. Cruisin'
  4. Dreams Die Hard
  5. Can't Live Without You
  6. Oasis (In The Desert Of Your Soul)
  7. Holding Onto A Dream
  8. Fragile
  9. Tomorrow You'll Be Gone
  10. Wings Of Silk
Odysseas Karapolitis (Odyssey Desperado)--Lead and Rhythm Guitars
Manos Fatsis--Lead, Backing Vocals
Bob Katsionis--Bass, Keyboards, Programming

Additional Musicians

Paul Laine--Backing Vocals

Ah, the Greeks.  Gotta love the Greeks and their strong love for that smooth, polished AOR sound, which they seem to do as well as just about any other country.  Odyssey Desperado is the latest project from Greece to grace us with their updated interpretation of 80s American, guitar-driven AOR, but they do it better than most, including many of the American bands trying to do the same thing, and they make it sound so smooth and effortless!  Combining an obvious love for 80s AOR (and movie soundtracks, in my opinion...but more on that in a bit...), with a passion for tight modern production and high level musicianship, guitarist Odysseas Karapolitis has finally managed to find the right voices...both lead and backing...and supporting instrumentation to bring to life an album that has been in the making since 2014.

The album sets its melodic rocking tone right from the start with "Rush Of The Wave".  Starting off with some background "ahhs" from, I'm assuming, Paul Laine, and a wave of keyboards, the song builds into a mid-tempo rocker complete with some modest tempo changes, solid rhythm guitar playing, and a short burst of speed in Odysseas' first solo of the record.  While a good song, to be sure, it's on the album's second track, "You And Me Against The World" that the overall feel and style of the record is really established.  A catchy hook, a driving tempo, and gritty-yet-melodic vocals from Manos Fatsis, serve to lay the foundation for this top-notch melodic rock record.   

"Cruisin'" is laid back perfection with exquisitely smooth guitar tones from Odyseseas gliding across the pulsing rhythms of Katsionis' bass and what I have to assume are programmed drums (no drummer is credited here).  Not really a ballad, this mid-tempo number has an excellent solo...moody and soulful...and some of the best vocals on the entire album.  perfectly fitting with the summer scene being painted throughout the track.  What I want to know is who is playing the uncredited saxophone on the outro of the song, as this adds another dimension to an already great song and I love the feel that it adds.  A great track, "Cruisin'" drips with memories of the sun-soaked summers of my youth spent driving around the seemingly endless highways and backroads that I grew up on.

"Dreams Die Hard" adds an edge back into the band's sound on a track that feels like it would have fit well into an action scene in an 80s movie, much like those used in Rocky IV (go check out "No Easy Way Out" for an example), or even King Kobra's contribution to Iron Eagle.  This is just such a cool song with a great feel, and the soaring guitars, whether on the intro, the outro, or during the solo, are truly great stuff to hear.  Fatsis sounds powerful and confident here, and the strength of the songwriting really shines through.

The piano-based ballad, "Can't Live Without You", slows things down considerably and gives Fatsis a chance to really shine.  His powerful tenor is showcased on this emotional track, and Katsionis' talent at the keyboard is put on full display, as well.  Nicely layered backing vocals compliment Fatsis when the drums and guitars kick in at about the 2:30 mark, and Odysseas' emotive solo is spot-on here.  Excellent stuff here, and one of the more complete sounding ballads I have heard in some time, combining just enough power...and leaving off just enough sugar not come off as sappy or overwrought, despite the emotion Fatsis pours into his vocals.

I'm not a fan of the what passed for 80s futuristic sounding keyboards that are used to intro "Oasis "In The Desert Of Your Soul)", and while they are quickly shaken off, the overall feel of this song is a bit too cliched for me to really get into it.  Not necessarily a skipper, but definitely more of a filler track than most here, "Oasis" slips in a nice guitar solo, but it isn't enough to overcome the saccharine-sounding chorus or the atmospheric, tinkling keyboards dropped into the middle of the track for no apparent reason.

"Holding Onto A Dream" rights the 80s AOR ship nicely, again really grabbing hold of that movie soundtrack quality that seems to be so prevalent on this album, and just absolutely running with it.  I'd never heard the song before, obviously, yet there was a part of me that felt so nostalgically drawn to this track, like it was dragging me back to a cherished part of my teen-aged years filled with gymnasium dances and late night street cruising.  It is perhaps this, even more than all of his obvious skill on guitar, that is the true greatness of Odysseas on this record; that ability to connect the listener with another time and place in their life through powerful songwriting.  To me, this is a true gift and one that I appreciate time and time again on Don't Miss The Sunset.

"Fragile" continues in this nostalgic vein, but in an even edgier, grittier guitar rocker that is one of the best tracks on an album full of great tunes.  Oddyseas' guitar carries an attitude all the way through this rocker, and Fatsis' vocals take on a similar, urgent-feel edge that helps to drive the overall feel of this track.  Yes, the keys are still there, but they are a purely supporting instrument here, and the drums, whether programmed or live, have a tempo and pattern that just keeps the song pushing forward, never slowing, never wavering, just driving hard to the finish that finally finds the band backing off, letting a few keyboard notes and a final line from Fatsis close things out.

"Tomorrow You'll Be Gone" is another excellent rocker, but one that carries a bit more of a modern take on the classic AOR sound, very similar to the approach taken by recent faves, Romeo Riot.  Great backing vocals supporting strong leads, pounding drums propping up supportive keys, throbbing bass laying the bedrock for searing fretwork...pure melodic hard rock greatness!  Again, a song that I find myself compelled to repeat multiple times whenever I pop this album in, much like its predecessor, "Fragile".

Album closer, "Wings Of Silk" is a big, epic sounding track, packed with power and emotion, with Fatsis utilizing something of a Coverdale approach to his vocals, gliding across the guitars in a manner that reminds me of what Def Leppard did at the beginning of "Too Late For Love".  Unlike Lep's track, however, "Wings Of Silk" remains firmly in power ballad territory from start to finish, with Odysseas' guitar screaming to life one final time on the album in an emotive solo that, for me, was all too short and could have easily stretched out for another 15 to 20 seconds without even coming across as remotely bloated or self-serving.  I also have to say I like the way the song is allowed to just conclude, to just come to an end, without the band feeling like it needs to be given some massive, fading-outro send-off, and without the band just drawing the track out endlessly.  Its a nice capping to an overall great album.

If I had any complaints at all, it would likely be the heavy accent on the vocals of Fatsis in places.  It's not a big issue, and it isn't always prevalent, but there are places where the simple fact that I notice the accent pulls me away from the overall song for a moment, which is a bit of a distraction.  This was especially true when I first received the album for review, however, after repeated listens, I notice it less and less, and as I said, it is a minor complaint now.

The production is excellent here, with nice brightness and polish, as most really good AOR has, but not coming at the expense of the guitars or rhythm section.  The keys aren't overly dominant (thank you!), and the backing vocals are overall very strong, which is to be expected from a vocalist as talented as Paul Laine.  Just a really, really good album from start to finish, and I wouldn't be surprised if Don't Miss The Sunset is right there contending for a spot on the "Best of 2018" lists of many review sites at the end of the year.

More AOR than fellow Greeks Silked & Stained, less keyboard-reliant than Wild Rose, Odyssey Desperado is something of a hybrid of the two bands, stylistically. Makes me want to get over to that big island to check out the rest of the music scene if everyone is this talented!  Regardless, hopefully we will hear more from Odyssey Desperado in the not-so-distant future.  While Don't Miss The Sunset is definitely an album worth waiting to hear, I'd rather it not take four years between efforts from this project, especially if they are always going to be of this high quality!

Rating:  Definitely a cranker...Odyssey Desperado gets an 8.5 from me!

HELIX "Rock It Science"

(c) 2016 Perris Records

  1. Billy Oxygen
  2. You're A Woman Now
  3. Heavy Metal Love
  4. Rock You 
  5. Deep Cuts The Knife
  6. Wild In The Streets
  7. Good To The Last Drop
  8. Shock City Psycho Rock
  9. Get Up!
  10. Make 'em Dance
  11. Even Jesus (Wasn't Loved In His Hometown)
  12. (Gene Simmons Says) Rock Is Dead
Brian Vollmer--Lead Vocals
Kaleb Duck--Lead Guitars, Vocals
Chris Julke--Guitars, Vocals
Daryl Gray--Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Gregory "Fritz" Hinz--Drums

I have had a soft spot for Helix pretty much since I discovered the band back in the early 80s.  There was just something about the catchy, hooky hair metal that these guys played that struck a chord with me.  Heck, when I did my first bodybuilding contest, I posed to the song "Rock You"!  For me, the stretch of albums from 1983's No Rest For The Wicked through 1987's Wild In The Streets was just about as solid of a 4-album run as any band put out during that time, and Helix did it with a new album every year.  Their 1990 Capitol Records swan song, Back For Another Taste, was also very good, if not quite up to the same level as their previous four, and 1993's It's A Business Doing Pleasure, which was supposed to be a Vollmer solo record, also contains several good tracks.  I wasn't nearly as fond of their output from about 1994 on, but still continued to follow the Canadians and their musical endeavors.  Then, in 2009 the band kind of pulled itself out of a funk of about 4 pretty bad albums with Vagabond Bones, which while not spectacular, showed life and promise for the band, and then in 2014, things really seemed to click again with that year's album, Bastard Of The Blues, which I absolutely love.  So when I saw the band was putting out a new compilation album of largely re-recorded "hits", along with one new song, I was interested to hear what was going on.

This collection starts off with two old tracks, as in "pre-my-Helix" songs that most people aren't likely familiar with, and neither one really gives even an inkling of what the band will sound like in just a few short years.  "Billy Oxygen" and "You're A Woman Now" both come off of the band's debut Breaking Loose album from 1979.  Vollmer is the only current band member to have played on these two songs, and, if I'm not mistaken, these are the only two originals on the record.  Honestly, I'm not really sure why these two tracks were included, as they are so starkly different sounding, both in style and in production quality, from the band's later material...and the re-recorded material here...that they really don't fit.  As part of a very limited retrospective of the band's career, I can see why they are included on Rock It Science, but I don't think anyone would have missed the "Ballroom Blitz"-inspired "Billy Oxygen", and while the Aerosmith-sounding ballad "You're A Woman Now" is a really good track, it doesn't have the pomp or polish of "Deep Cuts The Knife", which most view as the true Helix ballad.  

While Vollmer is the only original member of Helix still in the band, both Gray and Hinz have been with the band throughout their biggest moments.  Hinz came on board starting with 1983's No Rest For The Wicked album, which is represented here by "Heavy Metal Love", which was the band's first charting single in the US, cracking the Top 25.  Gray then joined up with Helix on the band's seminal Walkin' The Razor's Edge album, which features the band's most well-known song, "Rock You".  Both of these songs have been faithfully re-recorded for Rock It Science, but longtime fans will definitely be able to pick out differences, particularly in the chorus vocals on "Rock You", although it is amazing how good Vollmer still sounds all these years later.  A lot of times re-recordings will grate on my nerves as there is just no comparison between the originals and the re-recordings, but that is not the case here, as these reworkings are of top-notch quality.  Add in the updated production and recording methods, and an honest person would have to say that the new versions actually have better sound quality than the originals, even if you still have a nostalgic cling to the album versions.

"Deep Cuts The Knife", from 1985's Long Way To Heaven album, is the band's highest charting US single, hitting number 20.  Once again, this classic track has been re-recorded, but is done so faithfully and executed so well that only a truly discerning ear will likely notice any major differences.  Again, major kudos to Vollmer and the boys for staying so true to themselves and their fans on these re-recorded tracks.

"Wild In The Streets" was the title cut from the band's 1987 album, and is one of my favorite songs ever from the band.  As I mentioned previously, this album was the last really good album in their most successful stretch, and the re-recording of this song is another really strong contribution to Rock It Science.  There are some keys/synths added to the mix that were not on the original (particularly in the chorus section), and I am not completely sure as to why the band felt the need to incorporate these.  They are not distracting, however, and give the song a bit fuller sound here, which was perhaps the goal.  

"Good To The Last Drop", which I think is the last re-recorded track here, comes from the band's last major label release, 1990's Back For Another Taste.  A slower rocker, not really a ballad, this is another one of my faves by the band yet is one that most non-fans likely have never really heard.  Interestingly, this song was not actually released as a single from the album, as that distinction falls to "The Storm", which I think would have been an excellent inclusion here, as well.  However, with each represented album only getting a single track, "Good To The Last Drop" is a sensible choice to help change up the pace of this collection.

"Shock City Psycho Rock" is an absolute barn-burner of a song, and it is a lot of fun...for a few spins...but it wears thin after repeated listens.  Taken from 1998's Half Alive album, this was one of five new songs recorded for an album that also featured 10 live tracks from the band's 1997 tour.  While a fun song, you can only listen to a kazoo solo in the middle of a song that otherwise skillfully blends Helix's hard rock style with Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis styled 50s rock n roll.  It's really too bad this cutesy little novelty was thrown into the song, as it is overall a really, really good song that showcases a lot of musical skill and a fun, old time rock n roll.

The rest of this package focuses on songs that were the best from the albums they were lifted from, which often isn't saying a lot, as so many Helix albums from about 1997 on were not overly good and featured maybe one or two truly good songs.  "Get Up!" is a pretty good rocker that comes from 2006's album of the same name, and "Make 'Em Dance" comes from Vagabond Bones, which was the album that I felt found Helix starting to find themselves once again.  Of course, "Even Jesus (Wasn't Loved In His Hometown)" jumps from the excellent return, Bastard Of The Blues, and leads into the fun new rocker, "(Gene Simmons Says) Rock Is Dead".  Yeah, the lyrics are kind of stretched in spots as rhymes are reached for, but overall, this is a fun listen that shows a band that never took itself overly seriously...sometimes to their own detriment...and that is still making music for the fun of it.  

When I look back at the track listing for this album, especially when considering the overall run time of the project, I am a bit surprised that no songs were included from 1981's White Lace & Black Leather, or 1993's It's A Business Doing Pleasure, which featured several strong songs, including "Misery Loves Company" and "Love Is A Crazy Game", both of which would have fit well here.  I'm also a bit curious why albums from 2004 (Rockin' In My Outer Space), 2007 (The Power Of Rock N Roll), and 2011 (Skin In The Game) were all skipped over...except for the fact that the first two were, in my opinion, generally awful albums.  If I ever get the chance to interview Vollmer, I will try to find out the reason for these exclusions...

All in all, this is a pretty good collection, even if it is a bit under-representative of the band's great years and completely ignorant of a few albums.  The re-recordings are excellently done, Vollmer's voice is still in great shape for what he does, and the trio of Vollmer, Gray, and Hinz continues to carry on the Helix name and tradition in fine fashion.  While probably not my choice for introducing new fans to the band (I would still steer those folks toward the 1999 Deep Cuts compilation), it is a good cross-section of the band's music from their earliest form to the latest new song they have recorded.  Perris Records did a nice job with this collection, and I hope Helix has another really good album or two in them before they call it a day.

Rating:  I don't generally rate compilations, but with so much of this being re-recorded, and since it has a new song, I'll give this a crankable 7.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

LA GUNS "Made In Milan"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. No Mercy
  2. Electric Gypsy
  3. Killing Machine
  4. Bow Solo/Over The Edge
  5. Sex Action
  6. Speeed
  7. One More Reason
  8. Kiss My Love Goodbye
  9. Don't Look At Me That Way
  10. Malaria
  11. Never Enough
  12. Jelly Jam
  13. The Ballad Of Jayne
  14. Rip And Tear
Phil Lewis--Vocals
Tracii Guns--Guitars
Michael Grant--Guitars
Johnny Martin--Bass
Shane Fitzgibbon--Drums

Shortly after the release of their critically acclaimed comeback record, The Missing PeaceLA Guns performed a live set of sweat-drenched and sleaze-coated hard rock n roll at their parent label's showcase, Frontiers Festival, in Milan, Italy.  After spending a decade apart, the heart and soul of LA Guns, Lewis and Guns, have reunited and have embarked on a mission to prove that time has done little to diminish the excitement and electricity of one of the best bands of the 80s sleaze scene.  

To a large degree the band succeeds in this live package, which also comes in a deluxe version that features a DVD (which contains an additional track, "The Bitch Is Back", located right before "Sex Action" on the DVD).  The crowd is very obviously into this 60+ minute set, with loud, raucous shouting and chanting going on all over the place in the record, although some of the crowd participation elements on some songs' choruses isn't picked up very well in the mix.  Likewise, the band, to me, sounds like they are obviously having a good time (I have not seen the DVD), and the sound is very full, which I credit in large part to the second guitar that is wielded by Michael Grant, who has subsequently been fired from/left the band.  I have always thought that having both a lead and a rhythm guitar player is such a boost to a live band, and with a talent such as Grant supporting a legend like Guns really gave the band a kick in the pants live.  I have seen the band in various incarnations...with only Guns, with Guns and Mickey Cripps, with only Grant, with Stacey Blades, and in a couple of other combinations...and they have ALWAYS sounded better with two guitar players...always.  Such is the case on Made In Milan, and I am curious as to what will happen with the band now that Grant is gone, as I feel he was a key contributor to the band's revitalization.

Regardless of the never-ending-revolving-lineup that is LA Guns, Made In Milan is a generally very good live record.  There are a couple of places where the now 61 year-old Lewis sounds rather out of breath, and he changes the register he is singing in on more than one occasion, but overall, he sounds in decent form and sounds like...well, he sounds like Phil Lewis.  He will never be mistaken for a "singer", by any stretch, but his particular raspy yowl is a huge part of the classic LA Guns sound, and honestly, very little has changed over the years, either on record or in a live setting, except for some register adjustments he makes live, which I'll get to in a moment.  I'm not a fan of singers that pull a "Vince Neil" and slur over...or flat out of lyrics, which Lewis does do on only a couple of occasions, most notably to me on "Sex Action", where he leaves out an entire line of a chorus, although this could be one of the occasions where he was allowing the crowd to sing along and the crowd mix is simply too low to be heard.  I did enjoy the way the band morphed "Sex Action" into "Paint It Black" on the outro, and Lewis' voice works very well on the few lines he gets to run through before wrapping the song, so I'll give "Sex Action" an overall passing grade, I suppose.  I'm also not a huge fan of the change in phrasing that he uses in "Over And Over", which I think is one of the most overlooked and underrated songs in the band's massive catalog, but it doesn't do major damage to one of my all-time faves from the band.  His handling of "One More Reason", had me a bit frustrated as well, as I have always loved this song and Phil again skipped over parts of the chorus, which just annoys me when I'm singing along.  The same can be said of "The Ballad Of Jayne", which felt like it was about half-crowd-performed, to be honest, especially on the first run through the chorus.  I'm sure Phil was getting pretty gassed by this point, as a lot of the steam of his performance seemed to be waning later on in the set, which is most likely due to the fact that the guys came out absolutely on fire and out to prove something, which they definitely did in the first 20-25 minutes.  They were absolutely all guns blazing early on,and I can't help but feel like "Jelly Jam" was added to give Phil a bit of a breather.  Like I said, he still sounds really good for the most part, but there are just times where he doesn't feel like he can reach back and really rip into a chorus or a particularly biting verse, which is frustrating, if understandable.  We all get older and can't always "reach back" like we used to.  I will say that, overall, he sounds much better on the loud, high energy rockers such as on the ferocious attack he was leading at the outset, as well as on the classic closer, "Rip And Tear".  On a side note, he does a good job of intro-ing songs and interacting with the crowd, which I feel has always been a strong point for Phil as a front man.  

Tracii Guns, on the other hand, effortlessly rips through solo after solo on this live set, which I again attribute to him being able to focus solely on the leads while letting Grant handle the majority of the rhythm work.  Guns manages to keep a sense of urgency in the solos on the classic material, such as the previously mentioned "Sex Action" and the blistering "No Mercy" and "Electric Gypsy", which come ripping through the speakers right from the jump.  He also does an excellent job of blending more current material, most notably "Speeed" from The Missing Peace, into the mix and making it feel as classic as "Malaria" or the vicious closer, "Rip And Tear".  To be candid, I am not a fan of the "Bow Solo" that leads into "Over And Over" (although "Over..." sounds great!), as the mix really doesn't do it justice as there is a lot of background noise and much of the effect of the bow work is pretty much lost, at least on the CD.  Maybe being able to see him working the bow as you listen adds to it?  I'll likely never know, as I don't generally "watch" my music, especially from bands I've seen live multiple times.

The band's rhythm section is pretty tight, overall, especially the drums, which are absolutely being beaten to death at times.  I don't detect any indication of additional instrument tracks or any backing tracks being included in the mix, nor are there any glaringly obvious touch-ups, even though we all know a truly "live" record is an amazingly rare beast.  That being said, there are the occasional missed notes here and there, but they only serve to add to the "real" feel of the release, so I'm okay with that.  The backing vocals are not particularly strong, to be honest, but you can argue that LA Guns has never been a band about big harmonies and layered backing vocals...but I wouldn't be upset if one of the guys could carry a tune and not sound like they are shouting everything at me!  

The song selection is a bit curious to me, although I wouldn't say it is bad or weak, necessarily, and it is definitely stronger than 2013's Live In Concert.  Personally, I would have dropped "Jelly Jam" and "Killing Machine" in favor of "The Bitch Is Back" (which, as I stated, IS on the DVD), "I Wanna Be Your Man" (which NEVER gets played now...), and maybe another new tune such as "Sticky Fingers" or "Drop Of Bleach".  Again, the CD only clocks in at about 62 minutes, so there is definitely room for another song or two, even if nothing was cut, and I like to have things shaken up every now and then by lesser-known tracks or even the occasional album cut.  Still, most of the band's best-known songs are featured here, with something from each of the first four albums, plus the great Waking The Dead, and I suppose it's understandable why non-Guns albums were skipped over.  

The mix is a bit flat in spots, with the bottom end lacking in places, and as I mentioned elsewhere, the crowd mix is inconsistent.  Now, to be fair, this is a digital review download, which history has shown me is not always consistent with the sound quality of the actual CD or DVD, so I'm going to withhold a bit of judgement here.  However, a lot of people have complaints about various Frontiers releases and their mixes, so I'm sure there are going to be some complaints no matter what.  All this being said, this is definitely raw and gritty and sleazy and does a pretty good job of capturing the essence of nearly every LA Guns show I have seen, from the first time back in the very early 90s, to as recently as SkullFest 2 just a few years back.

Rating:  A pretty good set, overall, and probably the best of the live recordings the band has released.  Crank this to an energetic 7.5, even with its minor warts and flaws.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

BONFIRE "Temple Of Lies"

(c) 2018 AFM Records

  1. In The Beginning
  2. Temple Of Lies
  3. On The Wings of an Angel
  4. Feed The Fire
  5. Stand Or Fall
  6. Lies Comin' Home
  7. I'll Never Be Loved By You
  8. Fly Away
  9. The Way You Hate Me
  10. Crazy Over You

Alexx Stahl--Lead Vocals
Hans Ziller--Guitars
Frank Pane--Guitars
Ronnie Parkes--Bass
Tim Breideband--Drums

If you remove Scorpions and Accept from the mix, I would have to say that Bonfire is probably the most consistent, most recognizable German hard rock/metal band remaining from the 80s scene.  This is due, in large part, to Hans Ziller's relentless drive to keep the band moving forward.  Having released their first album under the Bonfire name in 1986 (the original version of the band was called Cacumen), Ziller is the lone original member still in the band, yet somehow the overall sound of Bonfire has remained generally consistent after more than 30 years.

On Temple Of Lies, Ziller has inserted Alexx Stahl as the full-time vocalist after he took over for David Reece as the band's touring vocalist.  With Stahl, the vocals now take on a more metallic approach, as opposed to the bluesy hard rock style that Reece, and long-time frontman, Claus Lessman.  While it may seem a stark departure for fans of the band's classic material, the addition of Stahl has breathed new life into the band, in my opinion, and gives Bonfire a place to launch from as they move forward from 2018.

The new album starts of with...dangit! intro called "In The Beginning".  It reminds me a bit of something Manowar may have done back in the day, as the narrator has a definite Orson Welles quality to his voice as he intros the album over a bed of pianos and thundering drums, alongside some excellent fretsmanship from Ziller and Pane, before it bleeds directly into the title track, "Temple Of Lies".  I guess I can give the band a pass for this intro, as I think it is basically set apart from "Temple Of Lies" for brevity's sake, as there is no place where you can say the intro ends and "Temple..." begins.  Regardless, it is immediately apparent that something has changed with Bonfire, as the higher-ranged vocals of Stahl command your attention as he brings a power metal quality to the band and this high octane rocker.  Strong backing vocals and some excellent drum work support the expected top-notch guitar work from the Ziller/Pane tandem, and Parkes' bass is a strong force throughout the track...and the record, for that matter.  What an excellent way for the band to kick off not only a new record but a new era for the band.

"On The Wings Of An Angel" is very much classic Bonfire material, and Stahl reins his vocals back in a bit, especially on the verse portions of this track.  Aside from serving the song well,. Stahl's range and command serves to let me know that he will be more than capable of handling the band's catalog from back in the Fireworks and Don't Touch The Light era in a live setting.  The downside is that it only makes me want to see the band live all that much more!  Any way, "...Wings..." is a great mid-tempo hard rock track with an excellent guitar solo and, again, some really strong backing vocals, which give the song a bigger, fuller sound.

"Feed The Fire" starts off with a slow synth build, with some strings overlaid as the tension continues to build, before the drums and guitars come crashing in on another hard-hitting, chugging mid-tempo rocker that again slips right into the classic 80s/90s Bonfire sound.  Stahl again sounds terrific, and the use of a supporting synth under the chorus bolsters the strength and power of the track.  The lyrics are a bit cliched, but that is easily forgiven on this big arena rocker that will likely have fists pounding the air and fans singing along as the band name-drops itself in the chorus.

The rest of the album carries on in a very similar vein, with virtually no letting up.  "Stand Or Fall" picks up the tempo from the two previous mid-tempo rockers, and Stahl elevates his vocals once again, adding that Euro-power metal styling to his singing and screaming, while "Comin' Home" showcases a band that is still perfectly comfortable delivering a piano-based ballad that, to my ears, would have fit very well on Fireworks, or even one of their best, later-era releases like Point Blank.  "I'll Never Be Loved By You" takes a different spin on what would seem to be a fairly cliched title, as it is not a ballad but an angst-filled mid-tempo rocker that again features some excellent backing vocals and a strong melodic approach that really showcases the strong overall songwriting on this record.  "Fly Away" is a catchy, uptempo rocker that once again features a strong chorus and the typical hard-charging rhythm guitars that Bonfire has almost always incorporated into their edgier numbers.  This song reminds me a bit of the more commercial Helloween material, especially in the chorus section, which again comes off as a bit cheesy but doesn't diminish the overall power of the track.  "Love The Way You Hate Me" has a quirky first verse (which I dig, to be honest), but there is a definite Dokken quality to the chorus sections and is easily one of my favorite tracks on the record, and "Crazy Over You" closes things out with another strong, melodic hard rock track that utilizes strong rhythm guitars and a supporting keyboard presence to really bolster another strong vocal turn from Stahl. 

The production is very solid, with an excellent drum sound and nice separation of the guitars.  The keys are kept in the background, where I prefer them, and, as previously mentioned, Parkes' bass is a strong force throughout the record, adding that extra bit of punch when necessary.

I have read that there will be bonus tracks on the CD version of this album, but I have not heard them, nor can I confirm how many CD versions there will be.  All I can confirm for sure is that this is one record I will definitely be hunting down to add to my collection, as Temple Of Lies pretty much hits on all points and is easily the best classic-styled hard rock albums I have heard in the first quarter of 2018!  Sure, I'm always a bit bummed when bands lose their voice, but Stahl is an excellent choice to front the band, and while I like what Reece did, I find Stahl to be a better overall fit while also adding a new, higher-ranged metallic element to this long-standing band of classic German hard rockers!

Rating:  Crankable, without question!  Turn this way up to 9 and let the Bonfire burn brightly!

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Monday, March 12, 2018

**CONCERT REVIEW** WinterJam 2018 featuring SKILLET, BUILDING 429, KB, etc.

WinterJam is considered by many to be the premier Christian music tour package going right now, although there are others such as CityRockFest that may argue that point.  What WinterJam does do better than any other package is bring together artists of varying genres, which, in turn, brings in a tremendous cross-section of fans...and they do it at the bargain basement price of just $15 for general admission (there are package upgrades available at higher prices), which is honestly quite a steal.

My family and I made the six hour trek to Wichita, KS to attend WinterJam18 so that our kids could experience Skillet live.  Not only was Wichita one of the two closest locations for us to attend, it worked out perfectly for the boys' Spring Break, so it was a no-brainer.

This year's festival, as I mentioned, featured Skillet as the headliner, but also features a number of other top Christian artists from varying styles.  Building 429 is a popular pop-rock act, KB is a well-known Christian rap artist, Kari Jobe is a rapidly growing name in the Praise & Worship genre, Jordan Feliz is another top pop artist, and Newsong brings more of a classic rock presence to their show.  This year, the comedian John Crist was also given stage time as well as serving in some early emcee roles.  In addition, there were also three new artists that were featured on the "Pre-Jam Party", each getting to perform three songs apiece, but I honestly can't remember their names at this point in time.  All three were fairly straight forward pop in nature, and not really in my wheelhouse, but the kids seemed to enjoy them, which was kind of the point of the trip.

The main show opened up with Jordan Feliz, who is a well-established pop-rock artist.  Admittedly, other than hearing his name before, I don't know a ton about the man, but he was very well received by the younger audience members, especially when he performed an edgier dance-pop number called "Can I Get A Witness", as well as his biggest hits, "Beloved", "Never Too Far Gone", and his number one Christian airplay track, "The River".  The four song set from Feliz was solid and energetic, with some confetti-and-streamer cannons pumping up the crowd, which is always a good start to a show.  Overall, I have to say I came away impressed with Feliz, even though his is not a style I would typically listen to around the house or in the car.

Next up was the more 70s/80s styled classic rock mixed with some praise and worship of NewSong.  Mixing a bit of Motown with their Boston/Foreigner/Kansas sound, these guys were incredibly loud, featured an excellent light show, and had a phenomenal guitar player.  "I Am A Christian" was well-received by the majority of the crowd, so apparently I was one of the few in our section that didn't know the track.  The same can be said of the set's closer, which I believe was called, "Arise My Love".  Again, not necessarily someone I would have gone to see exclusively, but they were entertaining and my kids were impressed with their performance, especially the guitarist, which both my wife and I described as "surprising".

Rap artist, KB, was up next, and was one of the two artists my sons were most interested in seeing.  Being from Central Nebraska...and with my wife and I generally not rap fans...none of us has ever gone to an actual rap concert, so we didn't really know what to expect from KB.  What we got was another high energy blast of about 25 minutes, or so, with an insanely infectious song called "I Believe" in the mix that had my 10 year old buying him the CD as soon as the show was over!  "Not
Today Satan" was one of the newer songs he included, and something called "Church Clap" was one that I think only my family didn't know!  While I am most definitely not a rap fan, I will be honest in saying that it was easy to get caught up in the energy of the show, and his live drummer was very talented.  KB himself was also a fan favorite, and I saw him standing at his booth for a LONG time after the entire concert had ended, taking pictures (for free, no less!) with an endless line of fans.  Had my boys not been so hungry, I'm sure we would have been in that same line.

Kari Jobe and her husband were up next and they delivered a very typical, adult contemporary praise and worship show.  The tiny Jobe has a big voice, but my son pointed out what a lot of people I've talked to about Christian music have echoed: the songs are so long and repetitive that they all start to sound the same.  The tempo is pretty much always the same and the singing, especially among the women, is impossibly high a lot of the time, and, to be honest, it kind of starts to grate on me after a time.  Those who know me know that I am an unapologetic Christian and fan of Christian music, but the majority of praise and worship music just does nothing for me.  Again, I am not taking away from her vocal talent, as that is extremely obvious.  I do feel that it did a disservice to KB and Building 429 to have Jobe sandwiched in between their shows (along with the comedy of John Crist, as well), as KB and Building 429 are both high energy, high volume shows that had the kids up and moving and singing along, with Jobe's set serving as kind of a shut-off switch in the middle (and while funny, Crist didn't help the energy level, either).  If anyone cared for my input, I would have put Jobe after NewSong, followed by Crist, and then let KB, Building 429, and of course, Skillet, close things out.

Building 429 got to play a little bit longer set, going 6 songs into their catalog, which was nice to hear.  Of course they opened with their huge hit, "Impossible" to start things off and get everyone up and moving again.  At times, when they are a bit dancey with their music, I would compare these guys to Maroon 5 in a way, and when they get a bit rockier, bits of Lifehouse and the edgier music of the current version of Newsboys start to creep into their music.  Lead singer, Jason Roy, is incredibly charismatic and easily brings his audience along with him, and guitar player, Jesse Rivera, is a rocker-in-waiting that is just looking for a place to escape and really cut loose.  Their bass player and drummer are very solid, as well, and the band has a polished, practiced routine that is definitely entertaining and fun for the crowd.  My 10 year old said that they were his third favorite act of the night (behind Skillet and KB), and both kids pointed to  the catchy rocker, "Bonfire", as one of the best songs of any of the bands, which I would agree with.    Other songs in the set include the mid-tempo AC of "Press On", the clap-stomp of "We Won't Be Shaken", "This Place", and the anthemic praise and worship of "Where I Belong", which closed out the set.

To say the excitement was palpable is usually a tired cliche, but in this case, there was a definite buzz of excitement as Skillet's set was being moved into place.  My six year old screamed at me (on more than one occasion), "Skillet is next!!!", which seemed to be a sentiment of nearly everyone around me.  I would say about 10-15% of the crowd had left by this point, either not interested in the loud hard rock show that was about to explode to life, or simply wearing out after more than 5 hours of music up to that point (doors opened at 4:30, with the first band taking the stage at around 6).  The lights went down and the sound came up as what appeared to be lead vocalist, Jon Cooper, came out to the catwalk portion of the stage and started singing, "I feel, I feel...invincible".  He then dropped to one knee, still in the semi-dark.  Then, about 15 seconds later, the voice echoed through the arena again, but the Cooper in front of us didn't move, but a new Cooper had popped up on an island stage in the middle of the arena about 50 feet behind us.  He repeated the same intro, did the same head-banging dance, then dropped into the same one-kneed pose.  Catwalk Cooper started up again, repeating the intro for a third time, before a loud explosion went off and the real Jon Cooper began to descend from the ceiling as he sang the first lines of the song, "Feel Invincible".  Once he finally arrived on the floor, Cooper joined his wife, purple-tressed rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper, lead guitarist, Seth Morrison, the tiny-yet-beastly drummer/backing vocalist, Jen Ledger, and touring cellist, Tate Olsen, as they tore through an all-too-short eight song set of most of the band's biggest hits.  Cooper donned his bass for the next song, the wildly popular rocker, "Whispers In The Dark", which had anyone that was still sitting down exploding out of their seat.  Cooper shed his bass and equipped each arm with what can only be described as smoke cannons as the band tore into "Sick Of It".  Each time the chorus would hit, Cooper would douse the front few rows with belches of smoke from the cannons, much to the delight of everyone present.  Things slowed down at this point as the band's crossover hit, "Lions" was up next, and it was evident that Cooper was having some vocal issues as his voice was rather hoarse in places on this softer, more sung-than-shouted song.  The band ramped back up for "Awake & Alive", which was followed by Cooper and co-vocalist, Ledger, entering a pair of what can only be described as human-powered chariots, as they circled the arena, shaking hands with fans along the railing of the lower deck of the arena as they sang.  (It should be noted that the drum tech who fills in for Ledger on this part of the show is a phenomenal drummer in his own right.)  Once Cooper and Ledger returned, the band broke into the hard rocking, "Hero",
before all the band made their way to the island stage as Cooper gave his personal testimony about his mother dying of cancer and, despite his life-long faith, how he questioned how God could allow this to happen to his mom and the pain and anger it caused him and his family.  The band then performed an acoustic version of the big ballad, "Stars", before everyone made their way back to the stage, walking through the crowd as they did so.
My boys were both very excited to get high-fives from Cooper as he walked right past us (my youngest is in the yellow Pokemon jacket, my oldest is the head in the middle of the picture; you can just see the bill of my baseball cap at the far right...).  Once everyone was back in place, the band ended the show with the wildly popular, "Monster", with Jason Roy from Building 429 coming out to help Cooper on lead vocals.  I'm wondering if this wasn't due in part to the vocal issues that Cooper seemed to be experiencing throughout the set, and if it isn't also the main reason why the band ended their set here, rather than with "The Resistance", which has been the closing song for most of the rest of the tour, and was the song the band closed with when my wife and I saw them almost exactly a year ago.  (The other possible explanation could be the time of the show, as it was now approaching midnight, and I'm not sure what the arena's curfew is.)  The show was definitely a visual spectacle, as well as a musical one, with pyrotechnics, the piston stands for the guitars (and at one point, the cellist) raising and lowering the performers, and of course Coopers smoke cannons and his descent from the rafters to start the show.  Obviously, I would have loved to have heard a few more songs included here, but overall, the band appeared to leave everything they had out there on the stage by the time the show drew to a close.

This was our family's first Winter Jam, but I doubt it will be our last, as we had a great time overall.  The band lineup changes annually, although both Skillet and Building 429 are Jam veterans, now, with each having been on at least three tours now.  The tour will be drawing to a close very shortly, so if it comes anywhere near you, I would strongly encourage you to attend, even if it's just to see Skillet for the insanely cheap price of $15!

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Monday, March 5, 2018

RED "Gone"

(c) 2017 Provident

  1. Step Inside, The Violence
  2. Still Alive
  3. Losing Control
  4. Gone
  5. Coming Apart
  6. Unstoppable
  7. Fracture
  8. Chasing Your Echo
  9. A.I.
  10. Singularity

Michael Barnes--Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Piano
Anthony Armstrong--Rhythm & Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Randy Armstrong--Bass, Keyboards, Piano, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
Joe Rickard--Drums, Percussion

The band Red returned to the scene late in 2017 with their newest offering, Gone.  Now relocated to Nashville from their home in Pennsylvania, the Armstrong brothers, along with vocalist/keyboardist, Michael Barnes, largely continue in the same stylistic vein of symphonic, electronic alt rock/metal intermixed with elements of grunge/post-grunge that has garnered them several Dove Award (think Christian-only Grammys) nominations and awards, as well as multiple Billboard-charting albums, and nearly 1.5 million albums sold dating back to 2007.  Former member Joe Rickard also returns as a "studio musician" on drums, so the same band that has been releasing albums since 2009's excellent Innocence & Instinct, is back for one more...and perhaps final...go-round (more on that in a few minutes). 

Returning to generally shorter, less-orchestral songs, which at times left 2015's generally great Of Beauty And Rage album feeling bloated in spots, Gone finds the band a bit more aggressive right from the outset, as the dirty, grungy rock of "Step Inside, The Violence" feels like the angry electronic-infused grunge rock that Filter made so popular with "Hey Man, Nice Shot".  Barnes is in fine, angry form vocally, and the guitars are crunchy and edgy as they swirl and churn throughout the track, bolstered by keyboards and electronic elements and Rickard's big drum sound.  "Still Alive", one of a couple of tracks that were pre-released as singles, follows things up nicely with an intense, uptempo rocker that really hearkens back to Innocence & Instinct, without sounding like something that was a left-over idea or cutting room floor track.  Probably my favorite track on the album, "Still Alive" contains just enough synth and electronics to keep the alt metal crowd happy, while also combining a huge amount of crunch from the guitars and the rhythm section.  Barnes vocals are as strong as ever here, easily soaring above the fray with piercing high wails and edgy screams alike to give life to lyrics that plead with desperation and angst.

The album's title track follows and things start to unravel for me, at least for a few songs. 
"Gone", the song, adds a bit more of the atmospheric approach that the band has come to be known for, but they also mix in some odd...I guess you'd call it dub-step...looping after the chorus sections, and they start to lose me a bit.  Barnes still sounds great, but the guitars sound like they are on autopilot, with nothing overly interesting going on, and the keys and electronic elements kind of take over the track.  "Coming Apart" is the first true ballad on the album, but it is just so plodding and slow-moving that it really chokes some of the life out of the album at this point.  Barnes adds a breathy quality to his vocals that I'm not overly enamored of, and the synth and keys just don't have enough oomph to overcome the slow pace the track moves along at.

And then "Unstoppable" hits, and ironically, the album just about stops for me.  This song is just so repetitive, so poppy, so...un-Red...that I pretty much skip it whenever it comes on now.  The programmed drums do nothing for me, the guitars are basically non-existent,  and even the lyrics are juvenile and lacking in any kind of depth.  This really isn't a good song, and I started to grow concerned that the remainder of the album may be headed down this road.

Fortunately, "Fracture" finds the band in better territory musically, as does "Chasing Your Echo", both of which find the band hitting a bit harder in the chorus sections, while throttling back a bit in the verse parts, giving them both some nice diversity.  Electronic elements are present in both, but the guitars have more life, more urgency, and help to drive the songs forward.  Barnes breaks into full-blown screaming on "Chasing..." as well as the following track, "A.I.", which finds the band looking back a bit to the bigger, more symphonic style that was so prevalent on Of Beauty And Rage.  Easily my favorite of the slower moments on Gone, "A.I." is a nice bridge between styles.

The record closes with "Singularity", which is an okay song...not great, but not horrible...although I'm not a big fan of the spacey electronics used in a couple of spots, and I found myself growing increasingly anxious for Barnes to just absolutely cut loose.  Its a bit frustrating because I feel like the album really ended on a whimper when a bang was needed.   

In the end, my basic complaints would be that the record comes off as rather disjointed.  At times it hits nice and hard and finds the band going back to what it did so well with its early success, changing things up now and again with some symphonic touches and some atmospheric moments. But then Gone gets all poppy in the middle, and honestly a bit boring for a stretch, which really reduces the album down to an EP of good material.  The production is, overall, really good, and the songwriting is still strong overall, with deep, thought-provoking (for the most part) lyrics that challenge both the Christian listener and the listener who just drops in for a solid dose of symphonic alt metal.  While not the pinnacle of the band's career, Gone is by no means a horrible album, with a couple of tracks here being among my favorite ever from the band; they just need to leave the poppy stuff for the poppy bands, and toss in another blazing rocker or two.  Hopefully, there is no truth to rumors that the band may soon be "gone" from the full-album scene, instead opting to release mostly digital singles and the like, because that will likely leave me "gone" from the Red fan base.  

For newcomers to the band, I wouldn't recommend Gone as the starting point, rather steering people in the direction of the previously mentioned Innocence & Instinct, or the one I find myself returning to more than any other Red album, which would be End Of Silence, which features several of the band's better known songs, including not one but two Christian Rock Songs of the Year (for 2007 and 2009)...and a nominee for that same award in 2008!  That's some serious impact from a single record!  In fairness, I could imagine "Still Alive" from Gone garnering similar attention, which would be cool to see from a band working on its second decade of existence.

Rating:  Rock-worthy without question, give Gone a 6.5, but know that it could have been so much more.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

**RETRO REVIEW** T.S.O.L. "Hit And Run"

(c) 1987 Restless/Enigma Records

  1. It's Too Late
  2. Road Of Gold
  3. Name Is Love
  4. Dreamer
  5. Good Mornin' Blues
  6. Hit And Run
  7. Not Alone Anymore
  8. Sixteen
  9. Stay With Me
  10. Where Did I Go Wrong
  11. You Can Try
Joe Wood--Vocals, Guitars
Ron Emory--Guitars
Mike Roche--Bass
Mitch Dean--Drums

Additional Musicians
Jamie Segel--Backing Vocals
Andy Landis--Backing Vocals
Bill Bergman--Saxophone on 5
Andrea Carol--Congas on 5

T.S.O.L., or True Sounds Of Liberty, was an oddity in my record collection back in the day.  I remember buying this album brand new when it came out.  I took it to the counter to pay for it and the guy at the counter, Jeff, a friend of mine who was a couple years older and who knew my musical tastes, looked at me and said, "Are you sure?"  I wasn't sure what he was talking about, as everything about this record said I would love it.  The image on the cover was right up my alley, and none of the song titles really struck me as being anything I would shy from, so I wasn't sure what the issue was.  We chatted for a minute or two about where the band came from stylistically, but I decided to take a shot anyway and took Hit And Run home with me.

To say that I got what I thought I was paying for would be a lie.  What I didn't know at the time was that T.S.O.L. was originally something of a goth-meets-punk band from the late 70s/early 80s, and not the L.A.-inspired version of the band that was sneering at me from the cover of the cassette album in my hands.  When I first popped the tape in, I loved the simple, raw guitars that were blasted at me and the stark nature of the song's structure, but I was also completely taken aback when I first heard Wood's very punkish snarls blaring out at me on the album's opener, "It's Too Late".  Later on, I would come to love the similar sounding songs, with Jetboy's "Feel The Shake" being an instant comparison for me both in style and tone, but at the time, I seriously wondered if the wrong music had been recorded on my cassette...which of course would have been odd considering Wood was singing the song's title in the chorus.  I liked it, but I didn't know why...or how much...and I wasn't sure I would like where the album went from there, but I decided to keep going (which I didn't always do when I was a kid with seemingly disposable income).

I let things continue to play, and "Road Of Gold" came on.  Definitely showing the band's more gothic-sounding influences, especially in the vocals and the guitar tones, T.S.O.L. sounded to me like a rawer version of The Cult, whose Love album I already owned.  "Name Is Love" only further solidified that opinion for me, as a very angry sounding Wood spit and snarled at me over the top of some decidedly punkish rock that featured some pretty furious guitar work.  The next track, "Dreamer" has something of a Doors-meets the Cult-meets Lies-era GnR quality to it, and is still one of the tracks that draws me in...despite my oft-stated disdain for the Doors. 

The next track is a little known blues cover song, "Good Mornin' Blues", which features some really cool saxophone work from Bill Bergman, and a thick, prominent bass like from Roche.  Wood's angry delivery style works surprisingly well on this song, which is odd considering you would likely never use words like "soulful" or "bluesy" to describe the raspy snarls and shouts Wood uses to get his lyrical ideas across.  The guitar tones here are also decidedly subdued and very 40s/50s sounding in their tone, which makes sense considering the original version of this song came out in the late 30s/early 40s.

The band cranks the attitude and the speed back up for the title track, a rockabilly punk number that has a catchy guitar riff and super-simplistic drum pattern to bolster Wood's snarling vocals.  There's a cool tempo shift in this track on the bridge after the second chorus that finds Wood actually singing for a few lines, and sounding very much like The Cult's Ian least for a few lines...

"Not Alone Anymore" is one of the songs people point to as an indicator of how good the band could sound and how musical they could actually be.  Incorporating the previous Cult influences with sections that would remind many people of R.E.M., especially on the verses, "Not Alone Anymore" shows a musical diversity that was definitely not present on their older, far more punk releases that I later went back and gave cursory spins to.  It is clear with songs such as "Not Alone Anymore" and the next track, the far more L.A.-sleaze sounding "Sixteen", that the band was attempting to grow musically and to shake the punk label that they had been burdened with.  In fact, nearly everywhere on the second half of this record, the band could be found to be stretching themselves musically, attempting to evolve.  "Stay With Me" is a track that I think could have supported a video fairly easily, with its catchy guitar hook and goth-meets-glam stylings, and the album's big ballad, "Where Did I Go Wrong", with it's raw emotion and gritty honesty, is better than 90% of the saccharine power ballads that would later litter the radio waves.  

The album closes with an all acoustic number called, "You Can Try".  Featuring a refrain of "You can't help someone who's not willing to help themselves, You can try, but you just might waste your time...", the song was an an anti-drug message recorded in memory of guitar player, Ron Emory's brother, who had died of a heroin overdose just a year or so before the album came out.  Its a haunting, chilling way to close the record, with the last words on the album being the abruptly clipped off, "You can't help someone".

The production was, much like the songs themselves, very raw and very dry, with no real polish or enhancements thrown in at all, even on the more gothic-sounding songs.  The album isn't pretty, it isn't "fun", but it is an interesting slice of the Hollywood scene that is largely overlooked.  In fact, I can think of self-released albums...demos, really...that got far more attention that Hit And Run, despite the fact that T.S.O.L. toured with Guns N Roses and Steven Adler wore a T.S.O.L. shirt on the video for "Sweet Child O' Mine".  The album did manage to chart on the Billboard Top 200, hitting a peak of 184, but falling off rapidly after there was no successful single release from the album.

In the end, Hit And Run is an album that I find myself returning to every few years, giving it a spin or two to see if it recalls any feelings of nostalgia for me.  It's far from a great album, in my mind, and wouldn't even scrape the bottom of the shoes of the band holding the 200th slot on an imaginary Top 200 of my all-time favorite records, but it is one that I am glad I took a shot on.  It obviously meant something to me as I replaced the cassette with a CD a few years later, and I still own the CD to this day.

To say it doesn't hold up well after 30 years would be unfair because, in all fairness, it didn't hold up that well in 1987, at least compared to its peers.  Still, there are a few good songs here...mostly on the second half....and it is worth giving a spin to if you find it at a decent price.

Rating:  Rock it at 5.5, largely an average-at-best record bolstered by a couple of pretty good songs on the second half of the album.


(c) 2018 Burning Minds Music Group

  1. Lost Soul Town
  2. Get On You
  3. Huts
  4. Candy 
  5. One Way 
  6. Put Up Shut Up
  7. Sex Pot
  8. Be Your Man
  9. Rain
  10. Black Out
  11. Crash
Alex--Lead Vocals
Duff--Bass, Backing Vocals
Steven Evil--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Zen--Drums, Backing Vocals

Stray Bullets is a new band hailing from Italy, which has seen its fair share of hard rock/glam metal bands pop up in the past decade or so.  Judging from the cover art, the band is aiming for the sleaze crowd, but overall the sound of the album is not overly sleazy at all.  In fact, Stray Bullets reminds me very much of a modern incarnation of the Scorpions in a lot of ways.

The most obvious comparison between Stray Bullets and the Scorpions is going to be the similarities in vocalists.  Throughout most of the record, Alex is a dead-ringer for Klaus Meine.  I mean, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Ale was found by the band fronting a Scorpions cover act at some point...he really sounds that similar.  Of course, we also have the twin guitar attack in Stray Bullets, and both players do themselves proud here, as the guitars are truly one of the high point on Shut Up.  Heck, as far as the musicianship goes, there is virtually nothing to complain about here, honestly, as Zen is a really good drummer on the record, and Duff more than holds his own on the bass, which I am happy to report can be heard throughout the mix here, which is not always the case, especially with European bands playing this obviously 80s-inspired style of hard rock and metal.

The album starts off solidly enough with one of the sleaziest riffs on the record to intro "Lost Soul Town."  This track, like most of the others here, actually appeared on the band's self-released album from 2010, but due to pretty much a complete band tear-down and re-build, the songs have been rewritten and rearranged for this album.  While I haven't heard the original, I have to say I was fairly impressed with the sound of this first track, as the band has a definite love for and understanding of 80s hard rock and hair metal, and they do a really, really good job of executing on this track which reminds me quite a bit of Sledgehammer Ledge when it first kicks in.  The guitars are blistering, the drums are big and hard-hitting, the churning tempo is excellent, and Alex's Scorps-yowl is a great fit for this hard-charging fist pumper!  Yeah, I'm stoked right from the jump on this record.

"Get On You" keeps the tempo in high gear, but I find myself not liking the vocals on this song nearly as much as I did on "Lost Soul Town".  Alex takes an angrier tone here, adding a bit more snarl to his vocals, and for me, it just doesn't work.  The chorus is also just some angry gang-shouting of "Get on you! Get on you!", which does nothing for me.  It's too bad, really, because this could have been a second really good song, as the guitar solo is really good, and the bass work here is awesome!  I love what Duff does on this song.  But overall, the vocals do quite a bit of damage, and I have to admit that after three or four times through the album, I pretty much just skipped this track.

Track three, "Hurts", corrects things for a moment and is a kick butt song, with a blistering solo, some excellent drum work (complete with cowbell!), and Alex back to singing rather than snarling.  A very "big" sounding song, "Hurts" sounds to me like the kind of song that has the crowd very much in the palm of the band's hands in a live setting.  "Candy" follows up with a very late-80s Scorpions sounding track, especially in the chorus which comes off like the band may have been listening to a log of Savage Amusement in the recording and rehearsal studios.  Don't get me wrong, I really like "Candy", but there is some pretty blatant Scorps-worship going on here.  Whether or not that is a good thing is entirely up to the listener, I guess.

The requisite ballad is up next, and "One Way" is decent, I suppose, but nothing overly memorable.  The opening guitar lick reminds me of Poison or, more accurately Warrant.   Heck, the whole song sounds a lot like something Warrant might do...similar to a "Sometimes She Cries" type of ballad...if, of course, Klaus Meine sang for Warrant.  

Angry Alex returns on "Put Up Shut Up", which apparently makes the backing singers mad, also, and almost immediately my ears force my finger to hit the skip button.  I just can't get into the few songs where Alex resorts to this angry, snarling type of singing, as it just changes the mood and attitude of the songs and makes them seem phony, as the guitars aren't angry-sounding at all, so everything seems disjointed, at least to me.

"Sex Pot" may be one of the stupidest sounding songs I have come across in years.  The music is really good, with a great guitar solo, some nice galloping drum work, a hard-charging rhythm and tempo...all good.  But the lyrics...they're just...DUMB!  Apparently the song is about a hooker these guys are infatuated with, or something, I don't know, but in the spots where I can understand Alex, I basically wish I couldn't.  "You boys can keep your virgin chicks..."  Really?  REALLY?  THAT'S what you can come up with?  Somewhere in there we hear about her platinum wig, her panties, her long legs...maybe her high heels...I don't know.  The point is, this is an example of a time when a decent musical track is ruined by bad lyrics.  

"Be Your Man" returns the band a bit back to their Scorps-worship sound, and even if it isn't the best track on the record, it restores some of my belief in the band and the album.  One thing I will say about this track, "Be Your Man" is the only song on Shut Up that really has a tempo shift in the middle of the song...and it's one of the best three or four songs on the record because of it.  The speed increase when the solo kicks in is a very welcome change in approach, and the fact that the rest of the song retains this new, amped up tempo for the rest of the track really serves it well.

"Rain", "Black Out" (no, NOT a Scorpions cover), and "Crash" close out the record, all in uptempo fashion.  "Black Out" is my favorite song on the record, and I think it is a really fun, very nicely constructed song, with Alex in great vocal form, a shout along chorus, a killer guitar solo, and just all sorts of catchiness rolled up into one song.  It may be one of the best songs I have heard so far in 2018, to be honest.  I  love it and hope it is released as a single so others can hear it, although it will have to be edited for an f*bomb or two!  "Crash" is a rather high-speed affair that is the most "metal" of the songs on the record, although it suffers from some fairly indecipherable lyrics about hard drinking, hard partying, and then drunk driving...I think.  The song is a nice vehicle for more high speed guitar antics, which is a great thing on this record, and "Crash" closes things out decently, although there is a slowed-down section in the middle, when the song's protagonist is arrested, that I think is supposed to be dramatic, but it doesn't really work that well, at least for me.  If Stray Bullets had just stuck with the speed demon approach, this track would've been an absolute killer at the end of the album.

Generally speaking, I like most of the record, but I do have a few complaints.  First, the vocals get pretty annoying at those times when Angry Alex surfaces.  As I mentioned previously, the guy reminds me a lot...of Klaus Meine from the Scorpions, which works great, no problems; you sound like who you sound like.  But when he obviously alters his approach and changes into Angry Alex, I just instantly want to shut him off.  One smaller complaint that is related would be that Alex needs to work on his enunciation.  At least I can understand Klaus about 80% of the time, whereas with Alex, that percentage is at less than half.  And, when I can understand him problem number two pops up: the lyrics.  Throughout the record, several of the lyrics are pretty cliched, cheesy, and I'd a few go so far as to be just plain lame, overall.   The choruses are generally not much better, as they are usually just gang-shouted repetitions of the title of the song (or some derivative of it), with very little imagination or uniqueness to them.  I get that English isn't their first language, but come on, get a dictionary, as I think this is one area that could really hold back a promising band.  

The other thing I might suggest is a single ballad to replace at least two of those faux-angry songs I mentioned earlier.  It would help break up the similarly-paced songs from tracks 6 through the end of the record, and would have the added benefit of wiping out a couple of songs I really don't care for.

Oh. and do something about the ridiculous cover art, for crying out loud...

One thing that you cannot find fault with throughout this record is the guitar playing.  These guys deliver time after time throughout the entirety of Shut Up, with HUGE hooks, soulful melodies, finger-flying speed, and all sorts of six string heroics.  In fact, if I was to come away from Shut Up with one big takeaway it would be that the guitarists will be what saves this band and drives it forward if it goes anywhere.  They really are that good, in my opinion.

Is this a bad album?  No, not at all.  In fact, there are several things to enjoy on Shut Up, and multiple songs that I find myself really liking, or absolutely loving in the case of "Black Out".  I'm just not sure how far this band can or will go without sharpening up their lyrical skills, cleaning up their vocals, and fine-tuning their songwriting so that 90% of the songs aren't basically the same tempo and rhythm patterns.

Rating:  I wanted to crank it, but I just couldn't quite do it.  Shut Up is Rockable, for sure, but in need of some work to elevate to crank-worthy status.  I give Shut Up a solid 6.5, due in large part to the excellent guitar work here and the highly notable "Black Out".