Thursday, August 3, 2017

OWL COMPANY "Horizon"

(c) 2017 Independent Release

  1. Intro
  2. Celebrate And Kneel
  3. Ain't Time For This
  4. Riddles
  5. Deathrow
  6. Black N Blue
  7. Bullet Proof Innocence
  8. Caged Emotions
  9. Underdog
Enrico Minelli--Vocals
Felipe Ruiz--Guitars
Thiago Biasoli--Drums
Fabio Yamamoto-Bass

Brazil, at one time, was a hot bed in the metal industry, particularly if you were into thrash, which I very much was in the 80s and 90s (still love it, to be honest).  Something about the brutality of the bands from the South American country really grabbed my attention, and even though I still preferred the Bay Area Sound to those coming from bands like Sepultura, Korzus, Torture Squad, and Executer (sic), I still kept an ear to what was coming from the region.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I used to really like about the South American metal scene evaporated as death metal, and eventually black metal, took over the thrash scene and tuned me out, as I am not a fan of those particular genres.

When this CD came to me, I was not sure what the heck it was.  For one, I have no clue how the band found me or managed to get a CD to me, but that's not overly unusual I guess, as I get a lot of independent stuff funneled my way.  But if you look at the cover, and combine it with the name 'Owl Company', there is no way you would likely come up with a description to fit this new export from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  While not thrash, this is definitely metal...HEAVY metal...albeit more in the groove-heavy, sludgy, southern metal style that a lot of people associate with later Pantera or, more to my mind, a band like Texas Hippie Coalition.  Melding 70s classic rock with a more 90s metal approach, Horizon is loud, fast, aggressive, and angry!

The album starts off with "Intro", which as everyone who reads this blog knows, is a horrible way to start an album if you want to grab my interest.  This is no different, to be honest, as all this intro did was really make me question the recording quality of the album, as the sound quality of this disorganized jam-styled-riffer is decidedly low-fi.  Turns out that the recording and the mix are actually excellent, which becomes evident as soon as the intro bleeds into the first real song here, "Celebrate And Kneel".  This track comes out with fangs and claws bared as big, thundering drums bring the screaming guitars and Minelli's low-register snarl to bear on the listener.  This onslaught continues, especially with high-octane numbers like "Play With Fire", "Riddles", or the slower 70s-Sabbath inspired sludgefest "Bullet Proof Innocence", which is likely my favorite track on this record, bloodying your nose as it bludgeons you with a thick-grooved wallop.  Wedged in there is "Black 'N Blue", which uses a modern recording technique at the beginning of the track, applying that hollow-sounding recording style so many bands seem to employ now (you'll know what I'm talking about the second you hear it), but it rights itself to become a bottom-end riffer that has a catchy hook and driving rhythm. The "ballad" of the record, "Caged Emotions", competes for best of the bunch here, also, and is another bottom-heavy rumbler that should have 70s Sabbath fans sitting up to take notice, especially with the truly excellent bass work from Yamamoto so evident here.  Minelli at times sounds like he is channeling Chris Cornell in his approach to phrasing, and this is never more evident than on "Caged Emotions".

The surprise of the year for me, so far, Horizon is one of those records that should get massive heavy rock radio attention...and possibly even Grammy-type attention...but it is likely going to fly under the radar of those "in the know" morons who think they know what metal and heavy rock fans want.  Trust me, if you want actual old-school metal, soaked in whiskey and filtered through the doomy sludge of the 70s  heavy rockers, Owl Company is exactly what you have been searching for.  Still not having a solid internet presence that I am aware of, the band can be sought out on Facebook, which may be the best way to order this record.  And make no mistake, you NEED to order Horizon.

Rating:  A stunner from out of nowhere, crank this to 8.5!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

SEVENTH DAY SLUMBER "Found"

(c) 2017 VSR Music Group

  1. Sky Is Falling
  2. Horizon
  3. Found
  4. Sins Of Our Fathers
  5. Heart On My Sleeve
  6. Mercy Meets My Pain
  7. Til The End
  8. Tomorrow Breaks (Into The Fire)
  9. Fallen
  10. My Last Words
Joseph Rojas--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jeremy Holderfield--Lead Guitars
Ken Reed--Bass
Blaise Rojas--Drums, Percussion

I first encountered Seventh Day Slumber about 12 years ago, or so, when I was rummaging through a used CD store in Denver, Colorado.  I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and was a big fan of the arena/hair metal genre, so when I found this CD called Picking Up The Pieces by Seventh Day Slumber, I had to snag it.  Why?  Because the track listing included "When The Children Cry", and I had to know if it was the same song that was done by White Lion.  Ignoring all of the other tracks on the CD, I popped the disc in and immediately tracked to "...Children...", and sure enough it was the same song.  The singer had a much lower range than Mike Tramp, and the feel of the song was a bit grungier than the original, but it was still the same song, and I found myself liking the approach the band had taken. Also, being a huge fan of the Christian hard rock/metal sub-genre, and owning every Stryper, Whitecross, Guardian, and Skillet CD out there, I was also appreciative of the message the band delivered on the rest of the album (once I got around to listening to it), and I mentally filed the band away as one that I'd check out further at some point.

Flash forward to 2017, and I am still a fan of the Christian hard rockers, having seen them in concert a couple of times and getting the chance to meet them, as well.  I pretty much own the band's catalog (minus their first couple of very hard to come by independent releases), and have been generally pleased with the majority of the band's output through the years (you can read reviews of We Are The Broken and Redline).

Found is the band's first full-length release in over five years, and one that finds the band doing what they do best, wrapping solid hard-but-radio accessible rockers around a couple of emotional ballads, challenging listeners to dig deep inside themselves to work through questions of self-worth, pain, faith, and redemption.  Never shying away from their faith, Seventh Day Slumber has always delivered a powerful message with powerful music, and Found is certainly not the exception.

The album kicks off in fine fashion with the hard-driving "Sky Is Falling", which features a nice guitar hook from Holderman right out of the gate, a solid bass line from Reed, and the smooth, emotion-laced tenor of Rojas, all of which have been trademarks of the band for several albums now.  What is new, however, is the strong drum performance of Blaise Rojas, who took over the drummer's seat on Redline, and who showcases solid musical growth throughout Found.  On "Sky Is Falling", the strength of the drums is evident right from the start, and the younger Rojas finds himself perfectly in the mix of the track, not only as the timekeeper for the band, but as an interesting part of the listening experience.  It's nice to hear that he is allowed to expand past the simplistic rhythms and patterns frequently utilized by younger musicians.

"Horizon" finds the band slipping into a bit more melodic territory, while still maintaining an upbeat rock tempo.  Solid backing vocals add to the depth here, and I'm betting this track will find itself on the radio in the near future, as well as in the band's setlist for shows.  The track flows very well with an easy-to-sing chorus, but I do wish Holderfield's guitar had been given the chance to voice a nice, melodic solo somewhere between chorus sections on this song about persisting through the hard times and not taking your eyes off the Prize.

The album's lead single is also the title track, and "Found", the song, is a powerful example of Rojas laying himself bare emotionally.  The singer says the song is one that really touches him deeply when he performs it, and it is definitely one that many people will likely identify with when they hear it.  Seamlessly melding in a section of "The Old Rugged Cross", "Found" is one of the better ballads the band has ever put on an album, in my opinion, and is likely to be one of the biggest Christian rock hits of 2017.

Back-to-back tracks ramp the album back up into hard rocking territory, with "Sins Of Our Fathers" and "Heart On My Sleeve".  Both are excellent rockers, and "Heart...", in particular, really gives Holderfield a chance to shine on a muscular solo that fights its way to the forefront before the final, catchy chorus section kicks in.  Really good stuff here on both of these tracks that are guaranteed to please fans of the hard-edged tracks from We Are The Broken or Redline, or for fans of the gritty radio rock put out by bands like Skillet and Thousand Foot Krutch.

Things slow back down a bit with consecutive ballads, the piano-based "Mercy Meets My Pain", and the more power ballad-styled, "Til The End".  While neither is a bad song, by any stretch, placing them sequentially, and just a couple of songs separated from "Found", kind of bogs the album down a touch here, and I probably would have moved "Til The End"...well...toward the end of the record, just for pacing reasons.  In fairness, I really like "Til The End", and it holds a great message of redemption, with a chorus of "tomorrow you will wake up, its another day of, mercies that will never end...", while also encouraging the listener to "let go of the past, let go of those ways, let go of all the anger, all of the mistakes".  A great message, just perhaps placed in a bad spot, tempo-wise.

Once again, the rock returns with "Tomorrow Breaks (Into The Fire)", which is one of the top four songs on the record, without question.  One of the true strengths of this band, for me, has always been the way Joseph can just glide his tenor across a pretty hard rocking track like this one with seemingly no strain or effort at all, but without compromising the grit necessary to maintain the edginess of the track.  Holderfield can be heard constantly churning in the background with some really good rhythm work, and Reed weaves a pulsing bass thread throughout the track.  Good, good stuff.

"Fallen" continues the rock assault, and I wish the record had closed with this track, just to leave me with a fist in the air moment.  Understandably, however, the band chooses to close with the praise and worship-styled "My Last Words".  A track which I would call an "uptempo ballad", if that makes sense, "My Last Words" features some nice string work, acoustic rhythm guitars...and...do I hear a slide guitar, also(?)...on a track that bears a strong resemblance to "Found" as far as tempo goes.  I could see CCM stations picking up on this track in a big way, while rock stations may pass it over in favor of the grittier material on this record.

I'm not going to deny I'm always a fan of the harder material, regardless of the band, and the case is no different with Found.  This new album has plenty of those hard-edged moments, and while they don't do anything to really push the boundaries of what 7DS is known for, I don't think they need to, either.  After all, Seventh Day Slumber has always been about the message, with the way that message is delivered being a secondary concern.  Thankfully, the band continues to deliver that message in a way that this old rocker can really appreciate and rock out with, while also sharing it with the next generation of rockers coming up in my household!

Rating: A solid album throughout, with several punchy rockers for the listener to chew on, while absorbing the positive messages of the slower moments.  Well-written, nicely produced and skillfully performed, crank this to a 7.5!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

QUIET RIOT "Road Rage"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Can't Get Enough
  2. Getaway
  3. Roll This Joint
  4. Freak Flag
  5. Wasted
  6. Still Wild
  7. Make A Way
  8. Renegades
  9. The Road
  10. Shame
  11. Knock Em Down
Frankie Banali--Drums
Alex Grossi--Guitars
Chuck Wright--Bass
James Durbin--Lead Vocals

Quiet Riot is one of those names that instantly triggers a memory for me.  I can still recall popping Metal Health into my cassette player in my first car and cranking the title track and "Cum On Feel The Noize" as loud as my Kenwoods would go, then rewinding the tape and doing it all over again...and again.  I think it honestly took me a full week to get to side two, I was so in love with the metallic assault that was Side A.

Of course, there is a lot of history following that landmark album and this newest effort: the change in style and sound with the replacement of Kevin DuBrow with Paul Shortino on lead vocals, the return of DuBrow...and his untimely death...the ill-fated, Jizzy Pearl-fronted 10 album, and several other stops and starts along the way, even with Road Rage.  Left for dead several times, the band finds itself once again about to release an album, nearly 35 years after Metal Health blasted onto the scene, and once again met with questions and concerns from die-hard fans who have been with the band since the pre-Metal Health days with Randy Rhoads on guitar.  

Drummer Frankie Banali is the lone-surviving member from the Metal Health days, but he finds himself flanked by familiar faces, as long-time bassist (1985-87, 1994-97, 2004-07, 2010-present) Chuck Wright helps to keep the rhythm steady for the band, and Alex Grossi (2004-07, 2010-present) contributes on guitars.  The newest, and surely the most-scrutinized, member of the band is new lead vocalist, James Durbin, who joins the Quiet Riot family on this new album.  Durbin is, of course, most well-known to music fans as a Top 4 finalist on Season 10 of American Idol, where he frequently performed hard rock and metal songs on the show, putting his spin on songs by Aerosmith, Journey, Queen, Sammy Hagar, and Judas Priest, among other more mainstream acts.

For those who may not have been following the band recently, this new album was actually already finished and ready to be put out back in March with previous singer, Seann "Tarsha" Nichols, but things went a bit astray, Nichols was shown the door, Durbin was hired, and he re-recorded the entire album before its release to media outlets by Frontiers Records.  

The album starts off with an okay lead in, as "Can't Get Enough" is catchy enough, with a solid, uptempo guitar riff and some thumping drums, but there is absolutely nothing about this track that sounds Quiet Riot to me.  In fact, when the music is coupled with Durbin's Bon Scott snarl, "Can't Get Enough" sounds like an AC/DC cover band's attempt at an original track.  Seriously.  And you know, what...they do it pretty darn well.  I even find myself liking this song, to be completely candid, but at no point do I feel like I am listening to Quiet Riot.  There is absolutely ZERO metallic edge here, just the barroom three-chord shuffle rock that AC/DC is so famous for.  

"Getaway" leads in with a Middle Eastern sitar before settling into a Zeppelin guitar riff (hmmm...hasn't this been done before...BY ZEPPELIN???), and I found myself seriously questioning why this record was labelled as a Quiet Riot record.  I was only on track two and I still had not found anything Quiet Riot about this album.  Now, "Getaway" is absolutely NOT a bad track.  In fact, I like it...a lot!  If I had to rank them in order of favorites, "Getaway" would probably be my third favorite track on the record.  It really is catchy, has a cool groove, features some nice fret work from Grossi, and Durbin sounds pretty confident here.  The only problem is that it just doesn't sound like Quiet Riot.

"Roll This Joint", for lack of a better description, is just plain silly and juvenile lyrically.  I mean, come on, when a song resorts to referencing Cheech and Chong, you know things aren't going in a good direction!  Musically, "...Joint" isn't a horrible track; in fact, it has a pretty catchy hook to it that 80s fans are going to feel like they have heard before (think Whitesnake when you spin this song and you will know what I'm talking about).  Durbin's vocals hint at getting off key a bit on the bridge here (where the Cheech and Chong reference drops in), but he manages to reign them back in just enough to keep my ears from nudging my finger into skip mode.  Grossi has a nice solo here, but the insipid lyrics are a total turn-off for me.  Perhaps if I had been (or was still) a stoner, I could find some sort of wry humor here, but after finishing this review, I have never cued that song up again.  Not once.

Its not until track 4, "Freak Flag", that longtime fans of the band are going to feel like they are listening to an actual Quiet Riot song, and from here through about track 9, things are actually pretty good.  "Freak Flag", which is easily a top four track here, has a solid Metal Health or Condition Critical-era feel to the music, and Durbin adds a younger DuBrow edge to his vocals that I think classic fans will find themselves acknowledging and even appreciating.  If nothing else, it gives the listener hope that Durbin will be able to deliver the goods on the classic material in a live setting.  There is a wicked little guest-vocal spot from one Mr. Alice Cooper (at least it sounds like Cooper...I don't see him credited anywhere in the press release) here that adds to the cool factor of the song, and I found myself returning to this track repeatedly while writing this review as an example of what I think Quiet Riot could still be given the right material.

"Wasted" finds Durbin using a lower vocal range for parts of the verses which is actually pretty cool as it gives the track a Dangerous Toys kind of feel when he shifts back up the vocal scale.  In fact, even the music here reminds me of Dangerous Toys, although it isn't quite as aggressive as most of the Dangerous Toys rockers that come to my mind right now.  Solid, steady rhythm work and some catchy guitar licks are included here, although I'm not really sure why Grossi chose to exit the song with some simple chord progressions rather than ripping into a killer outro of some sort.  

"Still Wild" is my favorite cut on the album and is a track that musically has more in common with the Shortino-era of the band than it does anything DuBrow even did.  Even here, Durbin sounds more like Bon Scott than anyone else, although he does lower his range to a more bluesy moan in the middle section of the track where the song morphs into a slower, Whitesnake/Zeppelin groove and guitar solo before the final chorus section leads the song home.  I really, really like this song and wish the entire album had gone in this direction.

"Make A Way" continues in this bluesier vein to a large degree and, not surprisingly, it is another song that is easily in the better half of the material here.  Again sporting more of the Shortino-styled groove and feel, there is even a harmonica solo thrown into the mix to give it that bluesy feel that is driven so well by the guitar work of Grossi.  Not as memorable as some of the other tracks, but still in the solid section of the record.  

"Renegades", much like "Freak Flag", has a really nice DuBrow-era feel to it.  The backing vocals on the chorus really go a long way to support the lead vocals, and the verses...especially the second one...really hearken back to a young DuBrow, with some spit and sneer to the tone.  This...THIS...is what most people are going to wish the entire album sounded like, and I would have definitely been happy with this direction also (although, again, I would have preferred more stuff like the Shortino-esque "Still Wild").  A nice solo from Grossi ushers in the final chorus section on this song which has the most 80's feel to it of anything here.  Top four for me, no question.

"The Road" is the big ballad of the record, and it is an extremely well-done song.  Neck and neck with "Still Wild" for my favorite track on the album, this song is everything the big 80s ballads were.  Lighters in the air..carefully so we didn't ignite the hair of the person next to us...swaying back and forth, "The Road" absolutely soars out of the speakers here!  Durbin sings his tail off on this one and Grossi absolutely rips through a solo here.  My main complaint is that I wish the song had been at least another turn through the chorus longer, so that Grossi could have dropped in another solo break, followed by a huge outro section, because at just 3:40, this thing is almost a tease; it is that dang good.  Love this song and its execution.

"Shame" is pretty forgettable, and perhaps that owes at least in part to the killer track ahead of it.  Regardless, other than another Zeppelin vibe, there isn't a lot to note about this track, although Wright works a pretty cool bass line throughout the song.  Just a very "meh" moment for me.

Album closer, "Knock Em Down" closes things out pretty well, with the glammiest sounding effort on the record.  Its a solid rocker with a pretty catchy chorus, but it pales next to a track like Crashdiet's "Knokk 'Em Down", as there is little in the way of attitude or angst here, which makes the name (and chorus) of the song somewhat misleading.  Not bad, but not a song I find myself excitedly tracking to at any point. 

One thing I don't particularly care for here is the production of the record, which comes across as rather flat.  There is no muddiness or anything of that nature, but there is no polish, nothing jumps out of the speakers at you, and for a drummer like Banali, the percussion sounds here are rather muted and mundane.  I also found myself constantly hoping for some big, gang-shouted vocals, but they were never there.  Perhaps these are issues that are addressed before Road Rage is released, but I fear that this is the final mix and how things will come across on the CD, with a once mighty band like Quiet Riot sounding like they were recording on a garage band's budget.  Had they been given the "big band = big sound" treatment, I think they could have squeezed a bit more life out of this record.

Overall, this is NOT a bad record.  Again, most of the section from tracks 4 through 9 is actually really, really good.  In fact, I'd say tracks 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 would make a really solid EP that I would find myself returning to.  But filler material at the beginning and end of the record bookends the good stuff, and track 5 interrupts the flow of things for me.  

For most people who seek this album out, however, the real issue is going to be the band seemingly searching for an identity throughout the the record, at times looking back to the blusier sound they steered for with Shortino, while at other times teasing the metal-tinged style that DuBrow and Banali elevated the band to superstar status with.  The problem is that most of the time they are actually somewhere in between, but never do they truly manage to capture the Quiet Riot of the past...regardless of the incarnation you prefer...nor do they really do anything to advance the style and sound of the band to something new.

Rating:  Rock-worthy, regardless of what some seem to think of it, I give Road Rage a 6.5 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MANAFEST "Stones"

(c) 2017 Manafest Productions

  1. Stones
  2. House Of Cards
  3. Firestarter
  4. When The Truth Comes Out
  5. Find A Way To Fight
  6. You're Gonna Rise
  7. Blow You Away
  8. Coming Back
  9. Merry Go Round
  10. Amplifier (featuring Aicia Simila)
  11. Won't Give Up
Chris Greenwood (Manafest)--All Lead Vocals

Musicians
Mike McPherson--Drums (2)
Mike "X" O'Connor--Bass (2,3) Guitars (2,3,5,6,7,9,10) Keys/Programming (2,3,5,7,9, 10 ) Drums (3) 
Adam Stark--Guitars (2)
Seth Mosley--Guitars (2,6, 10) Bass (10) Keys/Programming (2,3,6,9,10) 
Joe Rickard--Guitars (3,5,7,9) Drums (3,7,9) Bass (3,9) Keys/Programming (3,5,7)
Kevin "Thrasher" Gruft--Guitars (4)
Johnny Litlen--Programming (4)
Taylor Dexter--Drums (8) 

As I have gotten older, I have expanded my musical horizons to a large degree, but there are always the common elements of catchy songwriting, hard-edged guitar work, and a dynamic vocal presence, in nearly everything I choose to listen to.  As a father, I am also very conscious of what I expose my still-young children to lyrically, and I find myself losing patience with acts who feel the need to fill every song with a dictionary full of vulgarity and profanity.  Hey, I can stomach an F*bomb on a song or two in an album, but every song, of every album, all the time?  No thanks...I'll pass.

As a Christian who also happens to be a fan of hard music and supports a huge number of the acts in the scene, I find referring back to my first statement, as my musical horizons have expanded to include the "active rock/modern hard rock" genre, including some of the rap-rock that would've been lumped under the Nu-Metal umbrella in the 90s.  It is because of this expansion of my musical tastes that I was first introduced to Manafest.

Manafest (real name Chris Greenwood) is a rapper/rocker from Canada who has actually been around for quite some time now.  I first encountered his music while listening to a Christian/Positive Rock station out of Orlando, FL, when I heard the song "Bring The Ruckus", which comes from his 2010 album, The Chase.  I liked the tune pretty well with its hard-edged guitars, catchy chorus, and modern, edgy production, so I played it for my boys, who also loved it.  So I snagged The Chase off of eBay and gave it a listen.  What I discovered was a really good modern rock record that was sometimes rapped, sometimes sang, sometimes screamed, and nearly always packed with some really solid modern guitar work, hard-hitting (although frequently programmed) drums, and some crafty hooks to draw the listener in, while also utilizing positive, uplifting, and often-boldly Christian lyrics.  Thinking this was something I could get into a bit more, I ordered a couple more albums from Manafest, specifically Fighter (2012), and The Moment (2013).  Again, the albums had some pretty catchy, hooky music, with several songs featuring solid, edgy guitars, and a healthy dose of backing vocals/chorus vocals from Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch, who was also all over the place on The Chase.  My kids, again, loved the records, but I found myself not nearly as impressed as I was with The Chase because more and more hip-hop was creeping back into the songs and the rock was being somewhat edged out.  By the time I got around to the next album, 2015's Reborn, I found it difficult for me to find much to really hang my hard rock hat on, as it was pretty much a straight up hip hop/rap album, with minor..VERY minor...rock influence and quite a bit of electronic hip hop thrown into the mix.  Definitely not my thing, and even my boys were like, "What happened to Manafest?"

When it was announced that Manafest would be recording a new, fully-independent record (as Reborn was), and that a Kickstarter campaign was in place for the record, I was hopeful that he would be returning to the sound my kids had fallen in love with and which I had a very solid respect for and enjoyed listening to.  But I also had my doubts.  Then I read where Manafest, himself, said that he was writing this album as a full-on rock project, so I decided to take a shot, and backed the project.

I am so very glad that I did.

Not only is Stones a full-on rock record, there is even less rap/hip hop on it than there was on the very good The Chase album.  In fact, there are any number of songs here that belong solidly in the mix on any active rock station or Sirius/XM's Octane channel, as they feature hard (heavy?!), crunchy guitars, some seriously furious (LIVE!) drumming, and the typical hook-laden, catchy songwriting that drew me to Manafest's music in the first place.  There is a darker, edgier vibe to the rock laid down by the numerous musicians listed in the credits above, which gives the deeper, soul-searching lyrics even more punch on Stones.   

The album opens with the title track, "Stones", which features some catchy guitar...and a slightly annoying electronic effect that runs throughout the track...and Manafest comes out with some tight rap-rock vocals that are a bit reminiscent of early TFK or Pillar.  The chorus is snappy and easy to catch onto, and there are a few fist-in-the-air-at-the-show moments, but while it was definitely a step back towards The Chase or Fighter, as far as the rock element was concerned, I wasn't overly blown away by the track.

"House Of Cards" nudged me forward, however, with some urgent, charging guitars leading into the vocals, a really nice breakdown that also features some screaming solo guitar work, and a great, positive message that is delivered with more snarl to the still rappish vocals, although those vocals are becoming more and more rock oriented.

"Firestarter" continues along the same lines as "House Of Cards" with a catchy rhythm guitar, a really nice use of hard-electronic elements, and more biting vocals that are now starting to completely lose their rap phrasing and moving fully into the hard rock style used by many of the active rock bands today.  While I know programming is used in places on this track, there is some solid drum work used here, as well, and the rhythm guitar buzzes along throughout the track, not just in a supporting role, but as a driver for the track.  

"When The Truth Comes Out" slides back to more of a hip hop style, but a catchy chorus of "when the truth comes out its LOUD!", and a decent dose of guitars keeps my interest and prevents me from reaching for the skip button.  Definitely not one of my favorite tracks, but passable.

Things start to get very loud and very aggressive once "Find A Way To Fight" hits.  A combination of crushing guitars and hard-edged electronic elements remind me of the approach Stabbing Westward used to such success in the late 90s/early 2000s.  This is a straight-up hard rocker, with the vocals no longer using the rap phrasing style at all, and a mosh pit is forming at the front of the stage as I visualize what this song would look and sound like in a live setting.  

"You're Gonna Rise" backs off the intensity of the guitars and uses an ambient, almost haunting electronic presence to lead it in, as Manafest sings...yes, sings...the verse sections of this track which I would say serves as the ballad of the record.  Whereas on previous albums Trevor McNeban would have jumped in to support the chorus, Manafest handles this part himself, proving that he has learned some very solid singing lessons from McNeban.  Melodic and emotional, this is the lighter-in-the-air moment for Stones, and I anticipate this song will be all over Christian rock radio very soon.

"Blow You Away" returns to the hard rock, as the title would imply, with more chunky guitars and pounding drums, as Manafest implores, "Save me from myself, pull me out of hell" in the pre-chorus.  There is a rap-rock element utilized in the chorus, but it's darn catchy regardless, and "Blow You Away" finds itself sitting as my third or fourth favorite track here.  

"Coming Back" is a track I have no real use for, as it is an island, reggae-influenced hip hop track that holds no interest for me.  I honestly skip it.

"Merry Go Round" goes right back after things and, depending on my mood, is either my favorite or second favorite track here.  I LOVE the catchiness of the chorus, the electronics that just have me picturing a carnival, the angst-filled vocals, and the crunch of the song.  "Tell me, I'm an Angel or Demon, You hate me, then you love me, 'til you're making me crazy!  Round and round and round we go, can't get off this Merry-Go..."  I just love this song and the message of frustration and disillusionment that I think so many kids today will be able to relate to, but with a positive note of hope and love that the listener can reach for.  Big, pounding drums and churning guitars drive the track throughout, and I find myself repeating this track two or three times whenever I pop this disc in.

"Amplifier" is a more laid back moment on the record, although not a true ballad in my book.  A smooth female co-lead vocal from Alicia Similia helps this dancefloor track along, and I would again expect that this song will find radio airplay yet this summer.  Easy to listen to, "Amplifier" is an okay track, but with the edgy rock that is all over this record, the title is a nasty little tease, as there isn't much rock being amplified here.

The record closes with "Won't Give Up" a combo song of sorts, with some punchy guitars, a dance floor beat, and straight up hip hop vocals, that was likely incorporated to keep the rap fans happy without turning the rock fans off.  Bottom half stuff for me and not overly memorable, but again, not necessarily something I'd hit skip or stop on.  People who are into the rock/rap style used to such success by Family Force 5 (which my kids are) will likely really enjoy this track (which they did).

The production is excellent here, which is often a concern on indie projects.  The packaging is a single-fold, cardboard slipcase, with a large, fold-out poster with writing and musician credits on the backside, as well as an extensive Thank You list, highlighted by a list of people who contributed on Kickstarter.  There are no lyrics included, but Manafest is pretty easy to understand and the vocals are never buried in the mix, so a few listens on even the hardest rocking tracks will allow most listeners to catch the words so they can sing along.

This is the Manafest I was hoping to hear again...for the most part...and I am very glad that I took the chance to back this record and to pick it up.  Already, I have ripped nearly half of the CD and burned it onto a Manafest mix disc featuring my favorites from his previous efforts, so that I have something to throw into the mix for the kids on road trips.  And yes, I throw it in for myself, as well.

Here's hoping Manafest does't stray from his rock roots when he decides to hit the studio again.  Hopefully he will tour close enough to my location that I am able to get my kids to one of his shows sometime soon.  I'd be very interested to see and hear how his music comes across in the live setting.

Do yourself a favor and grab Stones when it is available in late July, and go ahead and track down The Chase, Fighter, and The Moment while you are waiting for Stones to hit your mailbox or music store.

Rating:  Definitely a cranker!  Turn this up to 8!

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

RIGHTEOUS VENDETTA "Defiance"

(c) 2014 Street Smart Recordings

  1. Defiance
  2. Take Over
  3. What You've Done
  4. Hard To Breathe
  5. With Love
Ryan Hayes--Vocals
Justin Olmstead--Guitars
Carl Heiman--Guitars
Zack Goggins--Drums
Riley Hayne--Bass

There are several places in the world that come to mind when one thinks of hard music.  Hollywood, obviously.  New York City.  London.  Pretty much the entire Scandinavian region.  Now, you probably noticed that Wyoming is NOT a place on that list.  I mean, just the sparse population and lack of any real cities is a definite strike against trying to make it in the modern rock/active rock scene.  And yet, Righteous Defiance has been working since 2008 to do exactly that, and in 2014, they took a significant step in the right direction with their EP, Defiance.

While not doing anything to stretch the boundaries of the genre, Righteous Defiance certainly has a firm grasp on the Sirius/XM Octane sound on this five track record.  Buzzing guitars and HUGE drums kick things off with the fist-pounding anthem, "Defiance".  Right away, the band asserts themselves as more than merely competent players, as the musicianship is tight and crisp, with an excellent rhythm section and tandem guitars all working together to whip the listener into a frenzy while Ryan Hayes' raspy, core-ish vocals acknowledge "Great is the power of violence, But greater is the power of defiance", while urging the listener to "Come on stand up, Put your hands up, Live in defiance!" against those who seek to keep them down.  Good stuff that I am sure is a fan favorite live.

"Take Over" continues the aggressive riff-fest, with some programming elements mixed in for good measure, especially evident with the stutter effects used on Hayes' vocals.  There is also some nice twin guitar work utilized in this track, adding a bit of a metallic feel to the otherwise decidedly modern radio rock track.  Another anthemic, crowd participation-styled chorus is a big part of this positive rock track that also uses a few slightly softer moments to change things up a bit.

"Hard To Breathe" is probably the most truly radio friendly track here, but that doesn't mean that it isn't just as aggressive as anything else on this EP, because it is still a definite skull crusher.  However, there is a clean melodic element to the chorus vocals that is not a part of the equation on other tracks here, which really sets the harsher verse vocals apart.  The guitar work that is going on in the background is particularly strong on this track, with a little string-bender of a solo even thrown into the mix, and the big drums are still pounding away, the unheralded driving life force of this band, in my opinion.

"What You've Done" has some fast and furious guitar running throughout the track, with a quick little fret run after the first chorus teasingly close to actual shredding in a modern rock track, which just doesn't happen often enough. There's a pretty cool guitar outro on the song, as well, and after hearing "What You've Done", I find myself really wishing that there was this much melodic guitar emploed on more of the songs here, as Olmstead and Heiman really seem to feed off of each other well and have a lot to express musically.

The album closes with the slowest number on the EP, and "With Love" is a really good way to wrap things up.  Again, very radio friendly in its approach, another positive, uplifting message is driven home with aggressive, yet relatively clean, vocals atop a slower-to-midtempo song that finds the band sounding a bit more calculated than elsewhere on this record.  Catchy, hooky, passionate, yet not losing its edge, "With Love" puts a nice bow on this short little musical endeavor.

The packaging is simple, with no lyrics included, but Hayes is not difficult to understand at all.  Positive and uplifting vocals are the order of the day throughout this EP, which is refreshing to hear.  Having toured with such Christian rock heavyweights as Skillet, P.O,D., and Red, the boys have learned how to get their faith and worldview across without making anyone uncomfortable or feeling preached to.

I know at one time you could order this EP directly from the band and it would come delivered with the band group photo in the middle autographed by all the members.  Carl Heiman has since left the group, so I am not sure if there are some pre-signed EPs available, but its worth a shot if you like to have a bit of a personal touch from bands you support.  Check out their website at www.righteousvendetta.com  for merch and band info and tour dates.

Rating:  Being from rural Nebraska...and not that far from Wyoming...I've been pulling for these guys for some time.  This is their most crank-worthy effort to date, despite being just five tracks long.  Crank this to 7.5 and check them out live if you get the chance.

Friday, June 23, 2017

*RETRO REVIEW* SILVERTIDE "Show And Tell"


(c) 2004 J Records
  1. Ain't Coming Home
  2. Devil's Daughter
  3. S.F.C.
  4. California Rain
  5. Blue Jeans
  6. Mary Jayne
  7. Heartstrong
  8. To See Where I Hide
  9. You Want It All
  10. Nothing Stays
  11. Foxhole J.C.
Walt Lafty--Lead Vocals
Nick Perri--Lead Guitar
Mark Melchiorre--Rhythm Guitar
Brian Weaver--Bass
Kevin Frank--Drums, Percussion


Very few bands hit me as hard...and then disappeared as quickly...as Silvertide.  Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a revivalist movement of the 70s and 80s classic hard rock sound.  Black Crowes are often credited with leading the way when they hit the scene in 1990, although to me that band always had as much in common with the southern rock sound as it did the classic rock of the 70s.  Other bands, such as Jet, and later Airbourne, also really carried the torch for this musical revival, but for my money, the best of the bunch was the "here today, where the heck did they go two weeks later?!" kids of Silvertide.  I say "kids", because the whole band was in their teens and very early twenties when they released their debut EP, American Excess, in 2002, and then this, their only full-length release, Show And Tell, just two years later.  Brass, bold, chock full of attitude, and loudly in your face, Silvertide wore their influences on their sleeve, but put their own stamp on a yesteryear sound that none of them were alive for when the style was fresh and new!  AC/DC, Aerosmith, and 70s-era Styx and Cheap Trick combine with the sleazier, dirtier Hollywood underbelly of bands like Faster Pussycat and Guns N Roses on this killer debut record.  Forget the nu-metal of the band's era, these boys came to throw a party while they were rocking your face off, a fact that was very much evident on Show And Tell.

This album is an absolute must own, as there is just solid rocker after solid rocker after solid rocker on this record, with two nicely executed ballads mixed in for good measure.  From the kicking album opener, "Ain't Coming Home", with its gritty AC/DC three chord rock n stomp, punchy drums, and Lafty's sneering snarl, all the way through the angst-laden closer, "Foxhole J.C.", which was written shortly after the events of 9/11, the band had a chemistry and attitude of acts many times their age and experience.  This attitude and energy and chemistry was obviously apparent to others in the industry, as the band was chosen to open for their heroes, Aerosmith, after only being a band for 6 months, and then later toured with Van Halen and Motley Crue, among others.  Talk about running with fast company right out of the gates.

Four singles were released from this record, with three of them charting Top Twenty on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Chart in 2005 ("Ain't Coming Home" #6, "Blue Jeans" #12, and "Devil's Daughter" #18..."California Rain" didn't chart), but honestly, I think the band/label made a mistake by not pushing the big ballad, "Nothing Stays", which really showcases the band's strong songwriting and their ability to rein in all of their musical aggression and expertly showcase their softer side.  Some of the best lyrics on the album are found in this softer section, as well.  Just a solid song that I think would have charged up the charts for the band.

Two songs, "Mary Jayne" and "To See Where I Hide" were carry-overs from the band's debut EP (which was actually their demo), and I think you can tell the band was not quite as sharp with their songwriting on these two older tracks.  Neither is terrible, but lyrically they are both lacking.  Of the two, I would say "To See Where I Hide" is the best, simply because it has some excellent guitar work...including a Hendrix-esque intro...and some really nice drum work, along with a solid bass line, that would possibly be one of the better tracks on a truly great album had it been stronger lyrically.

Favorite tracks on the record would be "Ain't Coming Home", the catchy, more 80s-feeling "California Rain", the lyrically catchy, "Blue Jeans", the biting "Foxhole J.C.", and both of the ballads, "Heartstrong" and "Nothing Stays".  Nothing here is skip-worthy, however, as this is one of the best overall debuts I have ever encountered in any style of music that I listen to.  It's too bad the band's 2013 reunion didn't result in any new music, and nothing I have seen or heard would lead me to believe a new Silvertide record is even a remote possibility at this time.  The EP is available out there, and I know there were at least five "B-side" tracks recorded for Show And Tell, although I have only managed to find two, both of which are really good, if not great.

Here today and gone just five minutes later, or so it would seem, Silvertide had a world of promise, and they totally delivered on that promise with this dang-near perfect debut effort.  I still feel they could be a force in the hard rock scene today had they managed to survive, but perhaps too much fame and too much success came far too quickly for these young guys, and Show And Tell is the lasting legacy of a band that could've been the beginning, rather than the end, for a killer rock band.

Rating:  Definitely a crankable gem, even after more than a dozen years, Show And Tell is still a 9 in my book, maybe even a 9.5, given my mood.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

GOLD, FRANKINCENSE & MYRRH "Identity Crisis"

(c) 2016 GFM Music

  1. Beneath The Skin
  2. Graveyard Of Identities
  3. Stuck In My Suicide
  4. Twisted Humanity
  5. Judas Kiss
  6. Darkness
  7. Chatter In The Room
  8. Evil Lies
  9. Death Of Giants
  10. Dimensions
CJ English--Guitar, Vocals
Maggie English--Bass, Keys, Vocals
Lulu English--Drums, Vocals

Additional Musicians
Jonathan Chu and Andrew Piland--Strings on "Chatter In The Room"

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are, of course, the gifts of the Magi, given to Jesus Christ upon his birth.  Gold, as we all know, is a precious metal, while frankincense is a perfume or an incense, and myrrh was used as an anointing oil in Biblical times.  

Now, Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh (or, GFM as I am going to call them now, as Frankincense is just so darn long to type!) is something completely different, yet related.  GFM is an all-girl, all-sister band that has come onto the Christian rock and metal scene seemingly out of nowhere.  To help put that myth to rest, the sisters did NOT, in fact, come out of nowhere.  Rather, the trio hails from Florida, and apparently they refer to their style of music as "beautycore", which is a mixture of hard rock and metalcore that is played by all-female bands (as if we needed more genre splitting, right?).

Regardless of where they hail from and what they call their music, one thing is for certain: they appear to be a force to be reckoned with.  Identity Crisis is the band's second album (their first full-length release), and it finds the girls hitting hard, both musically and topically.  Listing bands such as Five Finger Deathpunch, Skillet, and Disciple as influences, the three sisters range in age from 17 (CJ) to just TWELVE!!! (Lulu...Maggie is 15) but pack a musical punch that belies their age, helped along in their musical development by Jake Jones and Justin Foreshaw of As We Ascend.  Two singles have been released thus far, with both "Beneath The Skin" and "Darkness" getting considerable airplay on Christian rock and metal radio stations, as well as garnering chart success in the Christian rock format.

The album kicks off with one of the singles from the record, as "Beneath The Skin" comes ripping from the speakers in a big way.  The harmonizing vocals of siblings is definitely there on the backing vocals in the chorus, but the liner notes are unclear about who handles the clean lead vocals, the harmonizing backing vocals, and (later) the harsh, screaming vocals...so I contacted the band's Facebook page!  I was told that CJ handles the clean leads, Maggie does the harsher vocals and screaming, and Lulu tackles some of the harmony vocals.  Regardless of who sings/screams what, "Beneath The Skin" is an infectious rocker, with some solid rhythm guitars, a nice breakdown section, especially coming out of the final chorus, and some truly great drum work from the youngest sister of the trio.  I was duly impressed with what I heard on this first single.

The girls ratchet things up on "Graveyard Of Identities", which is one of my two favorites on this album. Rapid fire verse sections, slower, down-tuned bridges, and then slightly ramped up speeds on the chorus section are enhanced by the introduction of some ear-shredding, guttural screams offsetting the otherwise clean lead vocals.  This song should be all over active rock and metal radio, in my opinion, as it is catchy, has a nice hook, and packs a serious vocal punch (although the harsh vocals may be a bit too much for more conservative rock stations).

"Stuck In My Suicide" is equally punchy in its blistering approach, and there are some obvious comparisons to a band like In This Moment, particularly in the modern elements thrown into the mixing and producing of the lead vocals.  Again, there are some harsher screaming elements on this track, but not to the brutal level of "Graveyard...".  

"Twisted Humanity" slows things down somewhat, but retains its overall rocking approach.  If it were up to me, "Twisted Humanity" would definitely be released as a single, as it showcases so many different elements within the band:  harmonizing vocals, screams, a tight rhythm section, some really solid, grinding rhythm guitars, a couple of tempo changes, solid lyrics with a positive message speaking against self-harm...all wrapped up in a three-and-a-half minute ball of fury.

"Judas Kiss" is NOT a metalcore version of the classic Petra song...which was, of course, turned into a punk song by punk thrashers, One Bad Pig.  Instead, this "Judas Kiss" is a mid-tempo metalcore number that again alternates between harsh and clean vocals, with a bit of spoken word thrown in for good measure.  There is a solid, if not crushing, breakdown section before the final chorus section, and the tightness of the girls' playing is once again the really impressive part of this song, overall. I wish there was a bit more thump to the breakdown here, but not a bad track at all.

"Darkness" is another of the album's singles, and it is easy to see why.  Probably the most radio friendly rocker on the disc, "Darkness" again features some of those programming-stuttered vocals used by bands like In This Moment.  "Darkness" also features what passes for the only real guitar solo on the record, but its nothing overly flashy and is far more smooth and melodic in its approach.  The harsh vocals are absent here, but the harmonizing is not, and the finish of the song has a big, epic feel to it, which is pretty cool.  This is a track that was originally recorded for the Death Of Giants EP that GFM released a couple of years ago, but this version is an improvement over the original.

A mournful cello leads in the next song, and almost immediately, "Chatter In The Room" is going to draw comparisons to a band like Evanescence, with the soaring female lead vocals, programming elements, and strings.  While I can certainly hear it, "Chatter..." is a powerful, emotional ballad on its own and doesn't need big name comparisons to validate it.  CJ really gets to stretch her vocal wings on this track, showcasing a strong, emotive voice that I believe will only get stronger with time.  A powerful message is delivered in the lyrics here, as well, and once again, this is a song that I would push...and push HARD...as a single from this record to get these girls some exposure.  This is, bar none, the best song on a record filled with good-to-really good work.  While I certainly don't want to see GFM back away from their throat-punching, core approach by any stretch, if they can deliver one or two tracks like this on any future albums, they are going to draw fans from the followers of bands such as Red, Thousand Foot Krutch, or secular bands like Lacuna Coil and the previously mentioned Evanescene.  Again, this is a carryover from Death Of Giants, but is also superior in its re-recording and new production.

"Evil Lies" brings the punch and crunch back on the intro, backs off a bit during the verse sections, then flows right into a tightly harmonized chorus section.  Not my favorite track, but it is a nice transition from the softer musical side the girls exposed on "Chatter..." into the full on thump of the next track, "Death Of Giants".

"Death Of Giants" is the title track of the girls' debut EP, although it has been given new life and a new recording for this effort.  Again, the interplay between the clean vocals and the brutal harshness of the screamed vocals serve the song extremely well.  The rhythm section is solid, with Lulu establishing a tight tempo that never wavers, while her older sisters grind away on rhythm and bass guitars.  Lacking a true solo, but sporting a nice little breakdown section following a chanted, "Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!", this version of "Death Of Giants" is definitely superior to its first incarnation and is one f the highlights here.

The album closes with one more reworked song from GFM's debut EP.  "Dimensions" starts off with some programmed elements before giving way to the chugga-chugga-chug of the rhythm guitars that are so prevalent in metalcore.  Yet again, we have a nice mix of harsh and clean vocals, with some programming tricks giving a stop-start stutter to some of the lead vocals.  A nice, crunchy number to wrap up an overall solid and promising effort from one of the exciting new acts to hit the Christian rock/metal scene.

The production is very strong here, with Jones and Foreshaw doing an excellent job of giving each girl's instrument a chance to be heard and not buried in the mix.  The packaging is simplistic, with a simple tri-fold insert featuring both individual and group photos of the girls, along with extensive thank you's and production notes.  I got my copy directly from the band's website, so my liner notes are autographed (in GOLD!) by the girls.  There are no lyrics included, which is too bad, as it is evident the band has a powerful, bold stance and it would be nice for younger listeners who may look up to these girls to be able to read about exactly where they stand.

Overall, this is an impressive effort in a genre that, honestly, is rather same-sounding most of the time.  While not necessarily reinventing the metalcore genre, the girls' take on "Beautycore" breathes enough freshness into it to make Identity Crisis an album worth tracking down.

Rating:  Crankable if you are into metalcore at all, and featuring enough elements to cross fans over from multiple rock and metal areas.  Crank this to 7!

RIVERDOGS "California"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Music

  1. American Dream
  2. Revolution Starts Tonight
  3. Something Inside
  4. Golden Glow
  5. You're Too Rock N Roll
  6. The Heart Is A Mindless Bird
  7. Searching For A Signal
  8. Welcome To The New Disaster
  9. Ten Thousand Reasons
  10. Catalina
  11. I Don't Know Anything
Rob Lamothe--Vocals, Guitars
Vivian Campbell--Lead Guitar
Nick Brophy--Bass, Vocals
Marc Danzeisen--Drums

It has been nearly 30 years...27, to be exact...since Riverdogs released their stellar debut, eponymous record.  Yes, there were a couple of Riverdogs releases after that first effort, but neither 1993's Bone, nor 2011's World Gone Mad, had the kind of material to really grab me as a listener or fan. Sure, both had their moments, but nothing like Riverdogs did back in 1990.  So when I was sent the newest Riverdogs effort, California, for review, I was guardedly optimistic that perhaps a better-than-average record was what I was about to listen to.  

I got a lot more than I bargained for.  

For me, this record, as well as the debut, really starts and ends with the combination of Vivian Campbell's amazing guitar skills, Rob Lamothe's smooth yet still muscular vocals, and some excellent song writing.  This is not to take away from the contributions of Brophy or Danzeisen, but if you take away any part of the trio of items I mentioned, this project would likely fall into the "not bad, but missing something" department, like so many other good-but-not-great records that cross my desk or end up in your shopping cart.  

Campbell is, of course, no stranger to anyone from the melodic rock/Hollywood hair scene, having been an integral part of Dio, Whitesnake, and now Def Leppard, as well as the massively underrated one-off supergroup Shadow King (with Lou Gramm), and his guitar wizardry is all over this new Riverdogs record.  In fact, this record is as guitar-driven as probably anything Campbell has done in quite some time, as there is no obvious use of programming or synths on this record at all.  California is just pure, straight-forward, at times blues-edged hard rock from start to finish.

The album kicks off with the decidedly uptempo shiny happiness of "American Dream".  As soon as the "hey hey hey hey" vocals kick their way free of your speakers, the rock n roll show is on.  Feeling very much like the kind of upbeat rock Night Ranger has released on their last handful of records on the Frontiers label, "American Dream" is easy to latch onto and one of those tracks that could very easily have you speeding along a bit too quickly down the highway as it blasts from your stereo system.  The rhythms here are tight, the simple chorus is catchy, and the melody hooks you and drags you in, but the real highlight here...and on so many of these songs...is the guitar acrobatics of the solo, where Campbell unleashes his skill in a flurry that is not stifled by time constraints to just a few notes and chords; he is given ample time to run the frets for your listening pleasure!

"Revolution Starts Tonight" is a bit darker musically, with a bluesy, grungy attitude and some killer song writing.  I especially love the lyrical slant on this song, which was almost instantly my favorite tune on the record, with the first verse musing, "I don't know where the sun goes at night, Maybe She's just sleeping off the drugs.  And maybe we're just living on a blue satellite, And gravity is flowing in the blood".  Musically, this track reminds me of some of the moodier hard rock that Winger has released recently, which is a good thing, and Lamothe's smooth vocals are an absolute treat here.  Again, another excellent guitar solo is embedded in this track which I think most people will grab onto as one of the top efforts on this new record.

"Something Inside" continues along the same stylistic lines as "Revolution...", as it is another darker, more brooding type of song, but the tempo doesn't bog down and the listener never feels the need to drag the flannel and Doc Martins out of their closet just to give the song a fair listen.  A definite blues vibe runs throughout the track, and a hint of smoke whispers across Lamothe's vocals, giving just a tinge of an edge to the smoothness he brings to this set of songs.  The bass of Brophy is also given a bit more voice in the background here, and the record is instantly three-for-three as far great songs goes, with these two back-to-back numbers the definite highlights of the first half of the record.  

"Golden Glow" is the record's big lighter-in-the-air power ballad, reminding me a bit of Cheap Trick's "The Flame", especially on the intro and in the drum line and tempo used.  A classic feel on a tasty song, to be sure.  Again, superb song writing is at the forefront here, and the storytelling really lends itself to the big production video I can conjure up in my mind, but sadly this isn't 1989 and nobody really plays videos any longer.  Campbell doesn't dominate the song with a long, flashy solo here, but rather drops in here and there, his guitar singing along with Lamothe, on yet another truly quality song from this quartet.

"You're Too Rock N Roll" has a cool, dirty rhythm hitting right from the start, and Lamothe seems to be to be channeling his inner Don Henley here, as his vocal approach reminds me a lot of "Boys Of Summer", even though the song itself doesn't.  However, a harder-edged Eagles isn't a horrible comparison to the style of music here, laid back and cool, yet still sassy and sarcastic in all the right places.  Campbell rips off a nice solo here, and the drum work from Danzeisen is nice and tight here, with some simple-yet-catchy fills.

The title of "The Heart Is A Mindless Bird" really had me curious about what I was going to get when I got to this track, which is the midpoint of the record.  What it turns out to be is a really cool song with a dark, bluesy vibe to it, and once again, some excellent lyric writing that doesn't rely on tired rock n roll cliche just to give the singer something to vocalize.  "Who will hear the poetry?  The songs, the wasted words, Splintering like shards of glass, The sigh that goes unheard..."  Just really good stuff here and, really, all throughout the record.

"Searching For A Signal" kicks the tempo way back up, matching the opening track as far as pace goes.  Not quite as catchy as "American Dream", and a bit dirtier in the tone of the guitars, "Searching For A Signal" is a solid rocker, nonetheless, and one that finds the guys sounding very much like they are just jamming and having a good time.

"Welcome To The New Disaster" has a bump-and-grind rhythm, more darkly bluesy guitar work, and a smokey barroom vocal approach from Lamothe who does his best to steal the show on this track.  Gritty and soulful, "Welcome To The New Disaster" fits right in with the best material of the first half, and slides easily into my top 5 songs on the record.  Love the overall feel and vibe on this song.

"Ten Thousand Reasons" is another great ballad, with deeply emotive lyrics that manage to stay on this side of the saccharine side of things.  More bittersweet than sickeningly sugary, this is a mature band's love song, not an "I love you, stay with me or I might die" ode of a thousand teen hearts' angst.  Campbell manages to slip in a fairly biting solo without disrupting the tempo and feel of the song, and the rhythm section really supports the overall structure of the track, giving Lamothe a solid foundation to slide his vocals across.  

"Catalina" bumps the tempo up just a notch and is a solid guitar rocker, but is probably my least favorite track on the record as it doesn't really hold my attention like the rest of the record does.  The lyrical work is solid once again, and Lamothe is still in fine form...as is Campbell, for that matter...but overall this feels more like a filler track to me than the rest of the material here.  Still, it is a far sight better than much of what gets dumped onto records now to take up space between singles, and I doubt many people find the urge to hit the skip button when "Catalina" comes on.

The album wraps with "I Don't Know Anything", a wistful, mid-tempo rocker with multiple guitar interludes from Campbell, an emotive tenor glide from Lamothe, and a nice, blues-drenched bass line throbbing along, setting the current of the song.  Again, not quite as solid as, say, "Revolution..." or "Something Inside", but still a really, really good song that puts a nice bow on an overwhelmingly solid effort.

There is very little I can say negatively about this record, and I find myself drawn to just put it on "album repeat" and let it run over and over in the background...except that I keep finding myself stopping to appreciate the overall musical experience the album brings.  As I mentioned in one of the song descriptions, this is a mature rock record, to be sure, with deeper thought levels involved in the lyrics of the vast majority of the songs, (the hooky, bouncy "American Dream" being the one true exception here), but that doesn't mean it isn't catchy or inspired.  Quite the opposite is true, in my opinion, as something about nearly every track here definitely catches my attention and pulls me in its direction.  To say that this is a candidate for Record of the Year for me is not an overstatement at this point.

Rating:  Definite cranking material here!  Crank this one up to 9.5!  Just a really, really good record that I truly love from start to finish.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

AS WE ASCEND "Farewell To Midnight"

(c) 2017 As We Ascend

  1. Hatchet
  2. My Ghost
  3. Expendable
  4. Tell Me
  5. When The Gun Goes
  6. Insulate
  7. End Of Me (featuring Zach Myers of Shinedown)
  8. Watch The World Burn
  9. We Fight
  10. Wash Away
  11. At My Door (featuring Brad Arnold of 3 Doors Down)
Jake Jones--Vocals, Guitars, Programming
Justin Forshaw--Guitars, Vocals
Robert Venable--Drums, Vocals

Additional Musicians
Misty Cordle--Vocals on "Insulate"
Kody Robinson--Vocals on "Wash Away"
Jeremy Cays--Strings on "At My Door"

As We Ascend could be a bit of symbolic wordplay for this new band, as they ascend from the smoldering ruins of what I considered to be one of the more exciting, up-and-coming bands in the Christian active rock genre, We As Human.  After a couple of EP releases, a few charting singles, and an even more popular full-length release that was supported by an appearance from Skillet's John Cooper, who also discovered the band, on the track, "Zombie", We As Human seemed to really be going places.    

And then they ceased to exist, seemingly disappearing just as their star was on the rise.

There is quite a bit of information about the breakup of We As Human if you use even the tiniest bit of effort on the internet, but you don't even have to go that far, for As We Ascend pretty much confront the entire situation in just the first handful of songs on their new album.  The album opens with the scathing rocker "Hatchet", which features the biting chorus, "Its hard to breathe with your hands around my neck/Its hard to bury this hatchet when its in my back".  Featuring some programmed elements, a nice, solid drum line, and aggressive guitars, "Hatchet" is very reminiscent of the style We As Human utilized on their self-titled album, and the vocals don't sound completely unlike those of WaH's singer, Justin Cordle.  This is likely due to WaH's guitar tandem of Jones and Forshaw handling pretty much everything except the drums on this new album, with Jones even handling the mixing and engineering of the record that was funded through PledgeMusic.  Definitely one of the punchiest, most aggressive songs on the record and probably my favorite track here.

"My Ghost" treads musical territory not far removed from the style that Red handles so well, and As We Ascend does a more than admirable job here.  Venable's drums are prominent in the mix on this track which also features a lot of programmed elements and some big, sweeping movements as the song leads into each of its choruses.  This song has active radio/modern rock radio written all over it, and it shows a musical growth away from where We As Human left off.  Again, one of my favorites on the record after dozens and dozens of spins.

"Expendable" continues in that Red-styled vein, although with a bit more punch to the guitars than "My Ghost" utilizes.  "Expendable" is a decent enough song, but it isn't overly distinguishable from several other songs on the record, although there is some pretty good riffing and solo work going on here, along with some nice guttural screaming of the song's one word title in the background.

"Tell Me" jumps back into the personal issues of the breakup of We As Human, with the band using the lyrics to tell of Cordle's infidelity to his wife, Misty (who appears as a backing vocalist on a song on this record.  Odd???).  I'm not really a fan of the airing of dirty laundry on a record, although I am sure it is done far more often than I am aware of.  But for a Christian band to do this, it seems...I don't know...shameful, to me.  The song is nicely constructed, the atmosphere is dark and haunting, and if you didn't know what the lyrics were alluding to, I am sure it would be a really good "pain" song for some people.  For me, however, it is far too blunt, far too "thumb in your eye" lyrically, whereas "Hatchet" is much more ambiguous in the way it tells its story.  Anyway, I don't skip "Tell Me" by any means, I just don't think it was the classiest move by the band to air grievances against a past member like this.

"When The Gun Goes" is an aggressive, guitar-driven rocker with a huge anti-suicide message to it.  Extremely catchy, even if a bit corny, "When The Gun Goes" is a bit reminiscent of the Saliva hit song, "Click, Click, Boom", and is also a logical lyrical-and-musical follow-up to We As Human's "Take The Bullets Away".  I can see where the song may get a bit annoying to some, but for me, and especially for my kids, the chorus is so easy and so catchy that we all gleefully shout along in full-throated fashion every time the song comes on.  Cheeseballs, we may all be...

"Insulate" is another gritty rocker with some high speed drumming and riffing during the chorus sections, while using some slightly more mellow moments underneath the verses. Its a decent enough track, but much like "Expendable", it doesn't do a lot to set itself apart from a lot of the other rockers out there on the radio waves now.

"End Of Me", which features Zach Myers from Shinedown, is an absolute curveball, as it is so quirky, so not like anything else here that I can't even decide if I like it or not.  At times, specifically during the verses, it reminds me of TwentyOne Pilots (whom I can't get into at all), but then there is this excellent guitar solo thrown in by Myers to tease me back into, "well, maybe this isn't so bad" territory, before quirking out all over again.  

The album has a couple more solid rockers in "Watch The World Burn" and "We Fight" before closing with the only true ballad on the effort, "At My Door", which features Brad Arnold of 3 Doors Down.  A really, really strong piece of music, this ballad slips into the top three or four tracks on the album, and at times has me thinking it may even be my second favorite behind "Hatchet".

The production is straight forward, fairly crisp, and has a nice mix.  There is no muddiness that I can detect, and the tracking is done pretty well, also.  The musicianship is really good and draws from the strengths of We As Human, which is to be expected.  New drummer, Venable, is very tight in his work and is definitely a strength on the record.

Overall, the debut effort from As We Ascend is a bit uneven in spots, but not horribly so.  I look for even better work from the band in the future, and if they can lock down a specific style and sound that they are comfortable with, such as they do in the first few tracks and a couple of the last songs, I think they could potentially top their previous band's efforts.

Rating:  Rock this at 6.5.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

EDGE OF FREE "Edge Of Free"

(c) 2017 Digitally Sound Records

  1. Blood Eagle
  2. Soul of Your Grace
  3. Pony
  4. Higher
  5. In My Time (Falling)
  6. Autumn
  7. Edge Of Free
  8. Pushin' The Needle
Scott Sneddon--Vocals
John Hussey--Guitars
Chris Autry--Bass
Steve Ebe--Drums

Edge Of Free is an acoustic rock band from Nashville, TN, which I am sure immediately puts people on edge.  Acoustic rock...Nashville...sounds to me like a way to re-label an unsuccessful country act, right?  While that may (or may not) be the case for some bands, rest assured that it is indeed NOT the case for Edge Of Free.  These guys are 100% committed to the rock cause, and despite the word "acoustic" being thrown into their description, make no mistake, these guys are here to rock hard.

From the first spin, I was definitely intrigued and taken by the overall talent of the four guys involved in the band.  In fact, when I first heard "Blood Eagle" burst from my speakers, my first reaction was, "Dang, this sounds like an acoustic Savatage track!"  The guitar tone and style, the haunting lead vocals and expertly utilized backing vocals, and the sparse, yet powerful rhythm section work had me absolutely hooked.  Starting off rather stark in its approach, the track builds to a powerful crescendo in the chorus, with Sneddon's vocals going from soft and somewhat scratchy to a soaring, full-throated power rock approach.  The guitar solo here is expertly executed, and the throb of the bass is infectious.  Just a killer way to open up an album, especially for a new band like Edge Of Free!

"Soul Of Your Grace" stays in the same vein, with Sneddon really stretching his vocal range at both ends, but never stretching to the point of cracking.  This man is a dang fine singer, to be sure, and his "instrument" is every bit as important here as the guitars of Hussey, or the bass and drums of Autry and Ebe, respectively.  He is especially powerful in the chorus section, once again, allowing his vocals to build and build until they are commanding your attention as the music continues to ramp itself up, as well.  There is a little interlude section here that has Sneddon basically doing a bit of spoken word work, before he harnesses that big voice once again and builds things back up for a final run through the end of the song.

"Pony" is an acoustic blues-based number that really relies on some strong songwriting to drive itself.  With some hints of roots-rock embedded in the acoustic hardness of the track, "Pony" reminds me a lot of the way many 70s classic rock bands would incorporate unplugged versions of their music into their sets back in the day.  Referencing their hometown of Nashville in the lyrics, Edge Of Free really pours themselves into this track and the result is easily one of the top four songs on this 8-song effort.

"Higher" has some really cool drum work running throughout the track, and rocks as hard as anything on this effort.  Once again, Sneddon's work, particularly on the chorus, is outstanding, and the rhythm guitar work here is top-notch.  A solid song, although not quite as catchy as "Blood Eagle" or "Pony".

"In My Time (Falling)", sounds a bit more modern rock in its approach than most of the other songs here.  Extremely stripped down, especially throughout the verse sections, this song also features some additional string accompaniment (cello and violin, I believe) that adds to the depth of the song, which I guess would fall into the descriptive realm of  "ballad" territory, although that is not necessarily an accurate representation of the song.  It reminds me a lot of the approach used on "Rooster" on Alice In Chains Unplugged album.  

"Autumn" continues in the slower, acoustic AIC vibe, which is a very good thing, in my opinion.  There is a haunting slide guitar used on the solo section of this track, which is about as "Nashville" as this album gets, but it is not done in country way as much as it is done in a bluesy way.  

The band's namesake track, "Edge Of Free" brings the tempo back up, and for the first time, I am reminded of the other really big acoustic rock act in recent memory, Days Of The New.  The musical approach on this track reminds me a lot of songs like "Shelf In The Room" and "Touch, Peel, and Stand", although there is some orchestration used here that is not present on DotN's music.  Sneddon's voice also has a lot more of an upper-end range dynamic than Travis Meeks, and he really pushes himself in this area here, reminding me a lot of Chris Cornell (who is thanked in the liner notes, by the way).  

"Pushin' The Needle" closes out this effort with return to the more haunting approach used at the beginning of the record, and stands alongside "Blood Eagle" as one of the hardest rocking songs on the album, and is right behind that track for me as far as the best song on the record goes.  Really powerful stuff here, with some nicely crafted lyrics and a stark message of drug abuse that is so reminiscent of the grunge era.  A great groove, some pounding drum work, and the continued emotional assault of Sneddon's voice make this a great bookend on an overall very solid album

The album is pretty short, with just 8 songs and checking in at 35 minutes, which seem to just fly by as the music is so absorbing.  The first time I played Edge Of Free, in fact, I thought my player may have skipped a song or two, as it was seemingly over so quickly!  "In My Time (Falling)" and "Autumn" run a bit into each other, with relatively similar tempos and approaches, which may also contribute to the album seeming to be so short.

Produced by Toby Wright, who has worked with such big names as Korn and...wait for it...Alice In Chains (he produced their Unplugged album.  Hmmmm.....), the album has a great feel to it that is just amazingly moody, powerful, emotive, and darkly attractive.  Every time I put it in, I find myself spinning all the way through it, never once considering switching discs, skipping tracks, jumping backward, or just ejecting altogether.  It is truly one of the rare discs in recent memory that just grabs me and forces me to spend half an hour with the band.  That says something to me...

The packaging is above average, with full lyrics included in the 10 page booklet, along with the requisite thank-yous and credits, as well as photos of the band members.  Mine also came with a band sticker, although I don't know if that is standard packaging or just a throw-in for review materials.

Rating:  Don't let the "acoustic" tag fool you...this is some crankable stuff right here!  Crank this to 8!