Thursday, December 26, 2013

DEF LEPPARD "Viva Hysteria: Live at the Joint, Las Vegas"



(c) 2013 Frontiers Records

DISC 1
  1. Women
  2. Rocket
  3. Animal
  4. Love Bites
  5. Pour Some Sugar On Me
  6. Armageddon It
  7. Gods Of War
  8. Don't Shoot Shotgun
  9. Run Riot
  10. Hysteria
  11. Excitable
  12. Love And Affection
  13. Rock Of Ages
  14. Photograph
DISC 2
  1. Intro/Good Morning Freedom
  2. Wasted
  3. Stagefright
  4. Mirror Mirror (Look Into My Eyes)
  5. Action
  6. Rock Brigade
  7. Undefeated
  8. Promises
  9. On Through The Night
  10. Slang
  11. Let It Go
  12. Another Hit And Run
  13. High N Dry (Saturday Night)
  14. Bringin' On The Heartbreak
  15. Switch 625
DVD
  1. Women
  2. Hysteria
  3. Animal
  4. Love Bites
  5. Pour Some Sugar On Me
  6. Armageddon It
  7. Gods Of War
  8. Don't Shoot Shotgun
  9. Run Riot
  10. Hysteria
  11. Excitable
  12. Love And Affection
  13. Rock Of Ages
  14. Photograph
BONUS FEATURES
  1. Ded Flatbird (Friday, March 29, 2013)
  2. Ded Flatbird (Saturday, March 30, 2013)
  3. Acoustic Medley
  4. Photo Montage
Joe Elliott--Lead Vocals
Phil Collen--Lead, Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals
Rick Savage--Bass, Backing Vocals
Rick Allen--Drums, Programming
Vivian Campbell--Lead, Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals


For years...heck, for decades...people have been clamoring for a proper live CD from Def Leppard.  There were some random bootlegs floating around, and of course there is the live video from the Hysteria tour many years ago, but there had never been a proper live CD from the Boys from Britain through their first several studuio albums.  Then in 2011 they put out Mirrorball, which most people felt was not exceptional (I kinda liked it) and featured too many newer songs, not enough classics, and completely ignored some records all together.  Many people thought the band may never get around to releasing a GOOD live album.

Sadly, for those that didn't like Mirrorball, I still say they haven't released a good live album.

Oh, sure, Viva Hysteria: Live at the Joint, Las Vegas is a live album, but it isn't a good one.  In fact, I think it stinks.  I have read other reviews praising this record as "amazing" and "an incredible record", and I find myself having to ask if they have ever heard Def Leppard, ever actually attended a good Def Leppard concert, or just went through the talking points sent to them by Frontiers Records, because this record is FAR from "amazing" or "incredible".  For me, half of this album is unlistenable, and the other half is only a keeper because of the amount of rare material included.  Simply put, unless you are a collection completist, a rabid fan of the band, or someone who loves to collect garbage, there is no reason to own this record.

For the uninitiated, or those who didn't take the time to read the tracklisting, Viva! Hysteria is a live start-to-finish performance of the record-breaking album, Hysteria.  Included are both a CD and DVD version of the same show, as well as a second musical disc that includes songs culled from various albums, dating clear back the band's first release.  In theory, this seems like it would be a great thing, especially since so many of these songs aren't tunes that are usually tackled by the band in a live setting (at least that I have had the chance to see), and Hysteria was a game-changer for the hard rock industry, although whether as a positive or negative depends entirely upon your personal opinion of that record.  Again, in THEORY this seems like a great thing for the legion of die-hard Leppard fans out there.  But, no matter how great the theory was, the end result is something FAR from great.

For starters, Joe Elliott's voice is shot; there is no other way to put it.  His range is completely gone, especially on older songs like "Stagefright", or, most horrifically in my estimation, on one of the band's biggest songs ever, "Love Bites".  On most of the band's songs, he has to sing in such a low register it doesn't even sound like Joe any longer.  For several albums now, many people have speculated that his voice was pretty much manufactured in the studio to keep sounding like his old self, and the live setting pretty much exposes all of Joe's vocal weaknesses in one shot.  Not only can he not hit the high notes now, he can't hit half of the middle ones, either!

The rest of the band doesn't get a pass, either, at least as far as I am concerned.  They sound...bored.  I guess that's the word I would use.  And...sloppy isn't the word, so maybe loose?  The opposite of tight, as it applies to music.  There are just gaps in the music that shouldn't be there.  Some of the songs are played entirely too slowly, and none of them sound any closer to what is on the album than I have heard cover bands do.  I'm not kidding.  Phil Collen is probably the shining point as far as band members go, as he is still pretty much spot-on with his solos, and he looks to be in great shape and puts on a good show in the DVD.  And Vivian Campbell is talented, to be sure.  So why does this record just sound so flat and lifeless to my ears?  I just don't get what people are raving about when they hear this live record.

Now, I will give it a bit of a pass because of the second disc and the Ded Flatbird material that is included (see tracklisting above).  Some of these songs I have never heard Leppard play live, and I have caught them a few times now.  So, to the people who compiled this tracklisting, kudos; you are the lone saving grace of this record as far as I am concerned.  Especially cool is the inclusion of some VERY early Leppard (actually pre-Leppard) material in the Ded Flatbird performances, and the acoustic medley is the one musical high point as it doesn't rely on Joe's voice reaching it's former heights.

Look, I realize that many times the entire concert experience is what makes a show great: the music, the crowd, the lights, the energy, etc.  But when a band does a live recording that has NO energy, where the music is subpar, and even the crowd doesn't seem all that enthusiastic, it's kind of hard to get behind the record.for me.  Now, the DVD isn't bad from a visual standpoint, but the performance musically (and especially vocally) isn't saved at all by the video production.

I'm going to be honest in saying that it scares me a little bit that Def Leppard is reportedly gearing up for a new studio record because I just don't know if the band has it in them any longer.  I also don't like hearing that they plan to doin Viva! Pyromania in the near future, because that is, for me, one of the defining records of the early 80's hard rock scene.  Yikes!  Simply put, I don't that Def Leppard have put out a complete record since X, and I'm a member of the minority that actually liked THAT record.  Yeah, I know they will doctor up Joe's vocals, and I know that endless retakes and studio loops and layers will beef the guitars back up to where they should be, but this is a tired sounding band to my ears.  I hate that a band that I once considered one of the best around appears to be going out with a thud rather than a bang.  I can honestly say that I don't see myself ever shelling out the kind of money that Leppard commands for tickets now because I just have no desire to see a formerly great band limp around as a shadow of its former self.

Musically, Mirrorball DESTROYS Viva! Hysteria, with the track selection being the only thing that Viva! has over it's predecessor.  Just do yourself a favor and buy Mirrorball and play the studio version of Hysteria in its entirety to get a better representation of what this band once was.

Rating:  Turn it down to a 4.5, and two of those points are only awarded due to some of the rare material included.  This is simply not a good live record at all.

Back to Reviews Index

Saturday, December 14, 2013

LaVALLE "Dear Sanity"

(c) 2013 Kivel Records

  1. Fading Like The Sun
  2. Scared To Love
  3. Don't Cry
  4. One Day At A Time
  5. Cry Of The Wolf
  6. The Lucky Ones
  7. Smoke And Mirrors
  8. Break Your Heart
  9. Rock Your World
  10. Wait Too Long


Eddie LaValle--Guitars
Carsten "Lizard" Schulz--Vocals
Paul Logue--Bass
Ramy Ali--Drums
Alessandro DelVecchio--Keyboards

LaValle is a project that I had heard a lot about in the months prior to its release.  Numerous sites and press releases touted the fusion of guitar wizard Eddie LaValle with established melodic rock veterans Logue (Eden's Curse) and Ali (Frontline), combined with the powerhouse vocals of Schulz and the talented contributions of DelVecchio.  It was one of those deals where what I was hearing and reading was likely too good to be true, as no one seemed likely to be able to live up to the hype. 

Boy, was I wrong!

LaValle is, as of this writing, quite possibly the best band I have heard all year, and Dear Sanity may be the album of the year.  It is really a nearly impossible task to overstate just how good this project is on all levels.  I was simply not prepared for an album of this magnitude to come from what, at least on the surface, appears to be a project band.  How could I know that I would be absolutely blown away from the opening vocals of the hard rocking "Fading Like The Sun" to the closing notes of the bluesy power ballad, "Wait Too Long"?  How could I have predicted that behind that very sleazy looking album cover was a CD packed full of some of the most perfectly crafted melodic hard rock I have listened to in the last decade?  Damn it...why didn't someone tell me?!  Oh...wait...people tried, didn't they?

Try as I might, I simply cannot find a song that I do not like here.  Now, I realize it may be a bit odd that I am actually trying to find a song to not like, but when I am reviewing an album that starts inching dangerously close to that 9-10 rating range, I find myself second guessing myself a lot, becoming overly critical at times, and looking/listening for even the slightest flaw.  I just can't find that with Dear Sanity.  I honestly can't find a single song to make a complaint about.

Album opener, "Fading Like The Sun" starts off with Schulz's powerhouse vocals setting the stage before LaValle's guitars come ripping through the speakers.  An up-tempo, driving number, this track immediately lets the listener know that this is not your average hard rock album.  The players here are true masters of their craft, not just in their performance, but also in their writing.  The hook and chorus here are just insanely catchy and I find that they stick with me for hours each and every time I queue up this album in my CD player or iPod.  

"Scared To Love" follows this up with a bit slower, but every bit as powerful, performance.  By no means a ballad, this song has a bit of a Dokken-ish feel to it, but with obviously more updated production and a different vocal style.

"Don't Cry" is in a very similar stylistic vein, again very melodic, this time showcasing a bit more keyboard than the previous two songs, but not in an overpowering fashion (we all know I HATE that!).  LaValle still has plenty of room to shine with his guitar prowess, and this song has one of Schulz's top vocal performances on the album.

"One Day At A Time" is pure power ballad bliss...if that is your sort of thing.  A song that I feel is on par with some of the best material put out by bands like Giant, Unruly Child, and other 90's/early 2000's melodic rockers, this song has plenty of emotion with just enough keyboard to give the song a truly ballad feel without it becoming a bloated mass of whining, which so many ballads do.  This is the track that a lot of people steered me toward when I first sought out this album, telling me I would be a fan instantly.  To be honest, it actually had to grow on me, because I am not necessarily the biggest fan of the traditional "power ballad", as too often they are overwrought and sappy.  "One Day At A Time" does not venture into that territory, for which I am very glad.

"Cry Of The Wolf" may be my favorite song on the disc (rivaling "Fading..."), which sets me apart from a lot of people I have talked to, as this is never a song that seems to be at the top of other fans' lists.  I love it, however.  I think the structure of the song is a key to the greatness of the track, with a bit of a slower, more blues-influenced approach to the chorus, and some absolutely scorching lead guitar work from LaValle.  I also think the bass is a bit more prominent here than in some of the other songs, giving it, again, a bit of that bluesy feel I mentioned.  Love this track!

Without going into a track-by-track diagnosis of the rest of the album, it is safe to say that the rest of the album follows a similar, yet non-repetitive pattern of greatness.  The writing here is so strong that the songs flow seamlessly into one another, giving the project a truly fluid feel when listened to as a whole.  The musicianship is unmatched, in my opinion, and the mix is spot-on perfect, with no instrument overpowering the others, yet giving plenty of love to the band's namesake, Eddie LaValle and his amazing skill.  

I find it odd that I had never heard of LaValle before, as I am a big guitar fan.  However, I spend more time on the hair/sleaze side of the spectrum (also mixing in healthy doses of thrash and modern hard rock) and not as much time on the melodic rock side.  If there are more albums that are at the level of greatness of this record (as well as the latest from AdrianGale, H.E.A.T., WET, and others) that DON'T bore me to tears with keyboard-heavy sappiness, I need to do some investigating!  

In all seriousness, I am going to just go ahead and call it:  Dear Sanity will be the number one album for Glitter2Gutter for  2014 barring an absolute musical miracle being released in the next few weeks.  My one regret with this album is that it took me until November to get it, cheating myself out of a couple of months of musical happiness.  If LaValle releases another album, trust me when I say that I won't miss a single day if I have any say in it.

Rating:  Flawless.  "Dear Sanity" reaches the pinnacle of the Glitter2Gutter spectrum with a perfect 10.  Get it...get it NOW!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

DELIVERANCE "Hear What I Say"

(c) 2013 Roxx Productions

  1. Liber 111 (Intro)
  2. The Annals Of Subterfuge
  3. Angst
  4. Hope Lies Beyond
  5. Detox
  6. Nude
  7. Passing
  8. A Perfect Sky
  9. Where Eagles Dare (Iron Maiden cover)
  10. Entgiftung (German version of "Detox")


Jimmy P. Brown II--Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Michael Philips--Lead & Rhythm Guitars
Manny Morales--Bass
Jayson Sherlock--Drums

Normally, Glitter2Gutter doesn't stray into thrash territory, but in this case I will make an exception.  Having been a fan of Deliverance for more than 25 years, and being the co-Executive Producer of a Deliverance tribute album, I have a special tie to the band that I felt I should acknowledge as Jimmy P. Brown II and company make their final curtain call as a collective unit.  Hear What I Say, is the culmination of the band's incredible career and is, in my opinion, a fitting closing chapter on what has been an incredible book.

As has been the case with Deliverance since, oh, their third album, this is NOT Weapons Of Our Warfare Part II, nor is it a retread of the debut thrasher.  Rather, the new album is a combination of elements from Learn (my personal favorite Deliverance album), Assimilation, As Above, So Below, and Stay Of Execution, with hints of the thrashiness of Weapons... or What A Joke.  Note that I said "hints", because this album is NOT a full-on trash album, although it does have thrashy moments, especially on "The Annals of Subterfuge" and "Angst", but even these songs never become full-throttle thrashers like "Weapons Of Our Warfare" or "No Time", or other thrash classics from the Big D.

For the most part, the album falls more into the musical style of the last few Deliverance records, with Learn and Assimilation both being obvious points of reference.  "Detox" and "Pass", my personal favorite track here, both have definite Assimilation lineage, both carrying the same type of song structure, but not incorporating the industrial elements.  Other songs, such as my other personal fave, "Nude", have a definite Learn styled leaning to the music, taking on a more progressive modern, yet still heavy, sound.  "Hope Lies Beyond" sounds like it could have been taken straight out of the Learn writing sessions, as well, while "A Perfect Sky" has a more melancholy feel, much like the writing on the Camelot In Smithereens album, although this song is largely acoustic based and reminds me a lot of the music of Days Of A New, although Jimmy's soaring tenor adds a dimension not present with D.o.a.N.

Iron Maiden has never been a band that I equated with Deliverance at any time, as the styles really are not all that similar.  Queensryche, Fates Warning, and bands like that...yeah, I can hear that, especially on the later, non-thrash albums.  But Maiden never really popped into the equation for me.  That being said, the cover of "Where Eagles Dare" is done masterfully, with a thrash-esque drum intro, some excellent guitar work, and some lower-register vocal work from Jimmy.  Manny's bass is definitely present here as well, and it is evident that the band had fun with this song as there is an energy here that you simply can't fake.  It kind of makes me wish that Deliverance had attempted a cover album of influential music, or personal favorites, as I think a lot of songs could be given new life with the Deliverance treatment.

Lyrically, Jimmy goes a bit deeper and darker than on some previous efforts.  As I said before, the album is definitely more introspective and the social commentary is evident throughout.  While not blatantly religious, there is definitely a searching that is going on with this record, giving the listener a more mature take on spirituality and how we relate to each other and the world around us.  Take for instance the following lyrical snippet from "Pass":

"Ain't it funny how the comforts of home make us feel safe and secure...
 We hide from family, the neighbors and pets and make friends with a computer"

Or these from "Nude":

"I close my eyes and see myself for that which I've become..
A selfish man, a pitied man...trying to please the world and myself
I hide in the shadows and in plain sight for all of you to see
The double, the triple, the other selves, condemned to hide who I really am."

Again, not your typical "Christian" lyrics, but I'm not sure what that label is even supposed to mean.  This is especially true of a band like Deliverance, who has really gone away from the chapter-and-verse types of lyrics for much of their last four or five studio albums, although there has never been a question (at least in my mind) as to where Jimmy's faith lies.

Do I have any issues with this effort?  Yes, bur they are minor.  This is not a perfect album, but it does come close.  For starters, I have little to no use for intros, a fact which I have made abundantly clear throughout my reviews on this site and in other places; I just don't think they serve any real purpose.  Second, if you take away the intro, the German version of "Detox", and the cover song, there are really only 7 new songs here, which is kind of a bummer considering the band will never (likely) record new material again.  But you know what...those are really and truly my only complaints, and really they both boil down to the same point: there are just not enough new songs for me!  If you are going to go away forever, you don't jot a short note, you write me a full letter, Jimmy!  Come on, my friend!

The production is excellent, the musicianship is top-notch, and Jimmy is very strong in his delivery.  The songwriting is also superb and introspective, often somber, dark in a couple of places, but undeniably Deliverance, especially toward the latter part of their career.  

Rating:  If you're gonna go out, go out on top!  I'm not saying this is THE definitive Deliverance album, because that will depend upon your own personal preference as to the era and style of the band.  None of that takes away from cranking this to a 9, however.

Friday, November 29, 2013

DAVID ELLEFSON "My Life With Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll" - BOOK REVIEW

(c) 2013 Howard Books

From his humble beginnings as a farm boy in Minnesota, to his rise...and fall...with Megadeth, one of the most celebrated thrash bands of all-time, David Ellefson has somehow managed to continue to move forward in his life, even when his lifestyle was dragging him backward.  Ellefson relates this to the reader in his new autobiography, "My Life With Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll".  Co-written with Joel McIver, "My Life With Deth" is an interesting, absorbing read that I flew through in a total of about 15 hours over two days.  Not that the material is written in a simplistic way, but this is one of those books that flows so well you find yourself having a hard time putting it down.

The book starts with Ellefson's childhood in Minnesota, but unlike so many other memoirs, this book doesn't go into every painstaking detail of that childhood, losing the reader's interest before even getting to the main reason the book was purchased.  I HATE THAT!  It drives me nuts to have to read about uncles and aunts and third cousins that have nothing to do with the story.  Thankfully, Ellefson and McIver dispense with that kind of filler and get to the guts of the story without sacrificing any of the important and relevant facts about Ellefson and his relationship with his parents and brother.  From there, we are taken through Ellefson's first bands, most notably Toz, and his eventual move to Hollywood.  Once there, Ellefson meets up with an upstairs neighbor who drops a flower pot on Ellefson's air conditioner when they are playing their music too loud.  Of course, that upstairs neighbor turns out to be Dave Mustaine, and Ellefson's life is forever altered as Megadeth is born.

Again, without going into too much track-by-track-by-track information, Ellefson takes the reader through the first couple of Megadeth records, all the while explaining his rather rapid descent from Midwestern farmboy to full-blown heroin addict.  The tours are here, the groupies are here (although without any kiss-and-tell sexploits), and the grit and grime of the underbelly of the heavy metal world is laid bare thanks to Ellefson's candid way of saying, "Yeah, I was there...but I'm not necessarily proud of how I got there or what happened when I did!"  

Part of the reason Ellefson is able to present his story in this fashion is because this book is not 100% about that period of his life.  This book is also about the faith that Ellefson credits with saving him from an out-of-control lifestyle of drugs that was pulling him under.  As Alice Cooper writes in the forward for the book, "Sometimes the most rebellious and controversial thing a rocker can do is become a Christian", which is a point that Ellefson goes to great lengths to drive home to the reader, especially when talking about how faith aided him in rehab and recovery from drugs, and how that same faith drove him to create the MEGA Life! Ministries group at his church.  Of course, the book also leads to Ellefson's departure from the band...as well as the inevitable return to the band...and the reunion with an also-saved Dave Mustaine.

Those who are looking for a metal book should have plenty to chew on with "My Life With Deth", and those who are looking for a faith-based book won't find anything overly offensive or off-putting in this effort either.  It is a nice packaging of both worlds told by a man who you sense is truly at peace with himself and where he is in life, whether that is on stage with Megadeth or in church with his MEGA Life! ministries group.  

Not a difficult read at all, I recommend this book as a stand-alone and as a companion to Dave Mustaine's own autobigraphy, "Mustaine".  The book skims over some time periods, and if you are looking for an all-encompassing coverage of Megadeth, Mustaine's book would be the better read, as obviously Ellefson's time away from the band limits his input on certain time periods.  That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the read and would recommend it to any fan of the band or to people who enjoy reading rock n roll autobiographies.

Howard Books
Hardback

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

DAMN DICE "Wild N' Ready"

(C) 2013 Independent Release
  1. Bang Your Head
  2. Caught In The Ride
  3. Take The Fight
  4. Down
  5. Heart On The Run
  6. Wild Into The Night
Alex--Lead Vocals
Wallis--Guitars
Marco--Bass
Fransoa--Drums


Damn Dice have been around for a bit, but until now, I have never managed to actually hear these Londoners' music in studio fashion.  Sure, I had seen the odd YouTube video here and there, and some rather raw, unprofessional live stuff was floated around, but until Wild N' Ready, I had never gotten the chance to hear what they could do if given at least a modicum of professional recording opportunity.  I'm glad I got the chance with this EP, as Damn Dice come out full throttle and don't stop clear through the end on this super-charged little album.  High pitched, falsetto vocals, rapid-fire drums, and screaming guitars abound on this effort, giving the band a sound that reminds me at times like a bit more under-control version of Nitro, especially on the title track.  On follow-up track, "Caught In The Ride", the band maintains the frenetic pace, but Alex channels his inner Bonn Scott on much of the verse work.  Regardless of the comparisons, these sleaze-meisters know how to grab you by the eardrums and rattle your cage!

The other four songs on the EP are every bit as strong as the first two, with "Take The Fight" kicking off with some sound effects before bursting right in with the big, fist-pounding anthem vocals of the bridge which then give way to some serious guitar riffing and a thunderous drum track.  "Down" is a bit dirtier sounding than the rest, with more bottom end and guitars that sound a bit down-tuned, but the angst works well, especially this far into the album.  Chanted backing vocals keep this track from becoming too dark, however, giving the track something of a pissed off Skid Row feel, although Alex's vocals keep the track from sounding even remotely like a clone cut.  "Heart On The Run" is likely the "big" single from this effort (which is laughable since radio won't play this style of rock now), while "Wild Into The Night" sends the album to a screaming, screeching close with more high-speed headbanging energy.  Sadly, not even 30 minutes later it's all over and you find yourself saying, "what?!  That's it?!"  

The production is top-notch, especially when it's considered that this is an indie effort, and the mix is superb, with no muddiness or problems with instruments crowding each other out.  The vocals are nicely out front, but not overbearing, and the drums and bass are given every bit as much chance to be heard as the powerful guitars.

Yet another great 80's inspired band in a long line to come out in recent years, Damn Dice comes out ready to prove something from the get-go...and they get it done.  Seek this one out folks; you won't be disappointed.  As always, if you can, support the band directly by ordering from them at www.damndice.com .

Rating:  Short, sweet, and to the point...crank this to 8 and hope that a full-length effort and a record deal aren't far behind.


Monday, November 11, 2013

STRYPER "No More Hell To Pay"

(c) 2103 Frontiers Records

  1. Revelation
  2. No More Hell To Pay
  3. Saved By Love
  4. Jesus Is Just Alright
  5. The One
  6. Legacy
  7. Marching Into Battle
  8. Te Amo
  9. Sticks & Stones
  10. Water Into Wine
  11. Sympathy
  12. Renewed


Michael Sweet--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Oz Fox--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Timothy Gaines--Bass, Backing Vocals
Robert Sweet--Drums, "Visual Timekeeping"

For those who may have been trapped in some sort of maximum security facility without access to the Internet, it is worth noting that Stryper has a new album, and they are back in a big way!  In fact, no matter who you are, if you are into the band, their message, their sound, their style...whatever...it is definitely worth noting that No More Hell To Pay has been unleashed upon the waiting masses and it brings a massive sound with it!

Many fans of the band have been less than thrilled with the past few Stryper releases, whether it be the more modern approach taken on albums like Reborn and Murder By Pride, the covers album, The Covering, or the re-recorded classics album, Second Coming.  While each of these albums had their weaknesses, to be sure, fans always held out hope that the classic Stryper song would reappear in full, much as it did with the new track, "God", which appeared on The Covering.  

The wait is over...

Stryper has returned to their melodic hard rock/metal roots with their finest album since the classic To Hell With The Devil.  This album finally feels like a truly Stryper album, and not an album of Michael Sweet solo songs performed by the band.  One needs only to listen to the album's opener, "Revelation", to be instantly blasted by the dual guitar sound that Fox and Sweet showcased so often throughout the band's strongest material from the 80's.  The same can be said of the title track, "No More Hell To Pay", along with nearly every other song here.  But what really makes this record shine as a Stryper disc, even more than the trademark guitar sound, are the vocal harmonies that were missing when Gaines was not in the band, as well as the killer production and the hook-infused songwriting.  Sure, there were some good songs on the last couple of albums, but it has been a long time since the band sounded as Stryper-ish as they do on the groove-heavy "Water Into Wine" or the stellar "Sticks & Stones".  Heck, even the remake of the classic "Jesus Is Just Alright" is treated like it is owned by the band!  The sound is pure Stryper despite the band remaining true to the basic sound and feel of the original.  
Arttie and Michael Sweet...photo-bomb courtesy of Virus...

Not simply satisfied to re-create the sound of their glory years, Stryper takes its most metallic approach to a song in decades with the gritty "Saved By Love" that finds the golden-throated Michael Sweet...*
gasp*...growling!  The snarl in his voice as he tears through the chorus is unmistakable, yet even in these vocally aggressive moments, there is not a feeling that he is compensating for the loss of power or range.  This is even more obvious in other songs, as it sounds to this reviewer's ears as if Michael has every bit of the vocal range he possessed in the 1980's, without an ounce of power missing from those vocal chords.  And, having had the opportunity to hear Michael (with Oz on guitar) in an acoustic setting just a couple of weeks ago at Skull Fest, I can attest to the fact that it is not studio wizardry that keeps Michael sounding strong here, as he was in great vocal shape in person, as well.  

There are a couple of moments that don't really reach out and grab me, for various reasons.  One, the song "Marching Into Battle" just doesn't do much of anything for me, especially with the sluggish-sounding chorus.  Not sure what that is all about, but it hasn't forced me to hit the skip button...yet.  The other song I find myself struggling to like is "The One", which is the closest thing to a ballad the band really gives us here.  The vast majority of the song is fine, and I actually find myself liking it...right up to the "ooh ooh eee oohs" of the chorus.  WOW!  Umm...no thanks.  Seriously, I really like this song except for those chorus parts which just about cause the skip finger to explode off of my hand in its mad dash to the control panel of my CD player or iPod!  The greatness of the rest of the song has caused me to sit on my free hand while I am driving, but I am fearful that too many more spins through that chorus will have me veering off into the ditch as I fight to keep my finger from leaping across the steering wheel at the disc changer!

The weak moments are few and the greatness is over-flowing here, so I can (probably) manage to get through these minor bumps in the road, especially when a classic-sounding Stryper track, complete with a big, sing along chorus, such as that on the non-Spanish (thankfully for me) "Te Amo" keeps me happily bopping along.  The same can be said of the metallic face-melter, "Legacy", or the album closing "Renewed", both of which contribute more signature Stryper guitars and big melodic vocals.  "Sympathy", which is not even remotely as laid back as the title might suggest, is another stand-out rocker that I find myself nodding my head along with.  

All of the originals are back for this effort, and, if interviews and album credits are to be believed, all of the members played their respective instruments throughout this effort, which makes it that much more special for me, as this has (reportedly) not always been the case through the years.  The guitars, as previously mentioned, are especially strong on this record, but the backline of Robert Sweet and Tim Gaines is exceptionally tight, providing each song with a solid framework to build upon.  

Having not had the chance to see the full band in concert, I am not sure what songs from this disc make it into the new live set, but there are many that could and should.  I would be surprised if "Te Amo", "No More Hell To Pay", "Sticks & Stones", and "Water Into Wine" aren't mixed in, and "Revelation", "Sympath" and "Saved By Love" all would sound great surrounded by classics as well.  And, I am almost positive "Jesus Is Just Alright" will be mixed in with a track or two from The Covering.

Unlike a lot of Frontiers Records' releases, this album did not come in a digi-pack, but rather in a jewel case, with full artwork and inserts.  I did not get the deluxe edition as I am not a fan of DVD's being added to a package such as this, so I do not know what type of packaging that comes in, but my guess is that those particular versions are likely digi-packs.

In the end, whether you are a fan of Stryper, or just melodic hard rock/metal in general, there is virtually nothing to keep you from instantly launching this album into the top ten of the year.  Amazing vocals, near-perfect guitar work, exceptional songwriting, and 80's-inspired-yet-still-modern production equate to an almost perfect album.  A couple of choruses are really all that stand between No More Hell To Pay and that coveted 10, so I guess Stryper will need to come back and try again.  Until then, make sure you snap this record up...IMMEDIATELY, if not sooner!

Rating:  Just a couple of "ooh ooh eee ooh's" away from perfection.  Crank this baby up to 9!!!  All hail the return of the Yellow and Black Attack!

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

WHITECROSS "Concert Review: Skull Fest 2013"

 
 
North Platte, NE may have been an odd choice (for some people) for a hard rock festival to be held, but from October 18 through October 20, 2013, nearly 30 bands gathered together with hundreds of fans from across the country, Canada, and Russia, to celebrate their common love of music.  Among the most popular of the shows was the Christian hard rock group, Whitecross, who performed a powerful set of their classic favorites.
 

(Arttie and Rex Carroll)
Band founders Rex Carroll (guitar) and Scott Wenzel (vocals), along with long-time drummer, Michael Feighan, and bass player Benny Ramos, fired up the crowd from the opening notes of "Enough Is Enough", and not letting up until the final chords of "He Is The Rock" rang out.  While all of the songs were likely not familiar to many of the concert-goers, one thing that was universal was the love of a killer guitar solo, and Rex Carroll did not disappoint!  Whether ripping through the individual solos of the songs, or when he was threatening to melt the strings from his guitar during his extended guitar solo, Carroll left the fans cheering and screaming for more.  Likewise, Feighan's drum solo was something to not only hear, but listen to as well, as he seemingly took a page from Robert Sweet's (Stryper) book and turned his drum solo into a full-on spectacle for the eyes and ears! 

One thing that I was particularly happy about was the fact that Wenzel did not water down his message from the stage, repeatedly making reference to the love of God and Jesus, even on the couple of minor occasions when one or two individuals in the crowd were less than appreciative in their response.  While it is true that this was a rock show, the fact that Sunday's line-up included multiple Christian acts (Whitecross, Inner Siege, Jonathan Pagano of Novella, X-Sinner, and Michael Sweet and Oz Fox of Stryper) was a good indicator that these bands' faith was welcomed by the promoters (including yours truly).  Add in the fact that attendance for Sunday was better than that of Friday (headlined by Jack Russell of Great White), perhaps it could be said that many of the Sunday fans came specifically to hear these Christian artists who don't frequently get added to festivals such as this.
 
The material for the show leaned heavily on the band's most popular album, In The Kingdom, with "Tell Me The Time", "We Know What's Right", "Good Enough", "You Will Find It There", and the title track all finding their way into the setlist.  Also included was the rare, "Love On The Line", as well as "Enough Is Enough" and "He Is The Rock", both taken from the band's 1987 self-titled debut.  As is always the case, there are a couple of songs that I wish could have made it into the show, with "High Gear", "Red Light", and "Shakedown" being at the top of my wish list, but the entire 65 minutes was filled with powerful music with an even more powerful message, so my complaints are minimal.  One thing I was happy about, however, was the decision to not include any ballads.  (Granted, "In The Kingdom" is a slower song, but I don't really consider it to be a true ballad.)  I have never been a huge fan of Whitecross' ballads, largely because I didn't feel the production on them was "big enough", if that makes sense.  If I had to pick a favorite song (or couple of songs) from the show, I would have to go with "Love On The Line", simply because it is rare enough on CD, let alone to get to hear live, and "Down" and "Enough Is Enough" have always been favorite songs in any setting.  Of course, not including the drum solo and guitar solo as high points would be ridiculous, so perhaps NOT picking a favorite moment would be easier...   
 
Wenzel's voice was far better than his performance on a couple of YouTube clips that have surfaced, and he sounded spot-on for the majority of the tracks.  Ramos' bass lines were clean and distinct in the mix, providing a perfect accompaniment to Feighan's thundering drumming.  However, to deny that Carroll was the focal point for most would be to deny the truth, as the axeman's skills remain at an incredibly high level, and his performance left more than one attendee slack-jawed and screaming for more.  While Carroll is more commonly found with his other band, King James, or his side blues project, it goes without saying that if you get the chance to catch the Whitecross in a live setting, you should do so without hesitation.  In this reviewer's opinion, you will not be disappointed.





Saturday, November 2, 2013

ADRIANGALE "Sucker Punch"





  1. Sucker Punch
  2. The Black And Blue
  3. When I Said You'd Be The One
  4. All About The Money
  5. Believe
  6. Give Me A Sig
  7. What Would You Do
  8. Temporis Intermisso
  9. The World We Knew
  10. Could've Been Me
  11. You


Jamie Rowe--Vocals
Vic Rivera--Guitars, Drums, Backing Vocals
Eddie Campbell--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Matt Mahoney--Bass, Backing Vocals


Alright, show of hands....who can believe it has been 13 years since that first great AdrianGale record, Feel The Fire?  Okay, okay...put your hands down.  Now, who thinks that it has been FAR TOO LONG since the last record, Crunch?!  That's what I thought....

Since 2000, AdrianGale has been one of the best, if not necessarily the best known, melodic rock bands on the scene.  Featuring the vocals of Jamie Rowe (Guardian/Tempest) and the guitar talents of Vic Rivera (Poley/Rivera and a frequent collaborator with Liberty N Justice), the band has recorded off and on with various line-ups under a couple of different names (they changed their name to Crunch upon leaving Kivel Records several years ago).  Once things were set straight for the band to return to Kivel, the name was reborn and fans can once again kick back with a full album of top-notch melodic hard rock that is nearly unrivaled in the industry!  From the moment the boxing match sound effects kick off the title track, to the final fade of the piano-driven ballad, "You", it is obvious that AdrianGale has found the line-up that should push them over the top and into superstar status in the melodic rock world.

One thing I particularly like about the album is that it remains a ROCK record, not drifting into ballad territory every other song, and not trying to get all prog on me every other song.  Keyboards, while present on the disc, are used as a supporting instrument, not as the main player in any of the songs here.  The band never forgets who they are or what they are trying to accomplish on this record, which is incredibly refreshing to these ears.

It is virtually impossible to pick a favorite song here, as there are no bad songs to compare to!  "Sucker Punch!", smacks you right in the face from the outset, with the dual guitar attack of Rivera and Campbell and the vocal talents of the consistently underrated Rowe setting the tone for the rest of the record.  "The Black And Blue" backs off the pedal ever so slightly, giving Campbell a chance to really let loose on lead guitar here, keeping things "hard", but emphasizing the "melodic" a bit more.  "Give Me A Sign" is a bit more mid-tempo, with the exception of the speedy finger work that Campbell unleashes on the solo, and "What Would You Do" leads the band into the intriguing instrumental, "Temporis Intermisso".  The single, "When I Said You'd Be The One" is another melodic rocker with amazing harmony vocals and a radio-friendly pop sensibility to the hook, but the band doesn't sell out who they are to try to gain airplay.  After all, this is who AdrianGale is, a hard rocking band with a genuine knack for writing catchy hooks and intriguing riffs that nearly anyone on Top 40 radio would steal in a second....and then destroy with programming, Auto-Tuned vocals, and crappy hip-hop beats.  But I digress...

On the slower side of things, album closer, "You" is the only ballad, and it is killer.  This is just an amazing piece of music that I am willing to bet will end up being the first dance at several weddings over the next couple of years.  A simple piano line is the backbone of the song, with Jamie's soul-soaked vocals and a great, emotionally charged guitar solo placed perfectly over the top in the mix, making sure that every note of every instrument is crisp and clean and given a chance to shine.  Again, powerful lead vocals and perfectly executed backing vocals are what are going to hook so many listeners in, but at the end of the day, on this song and every other one here, it is the complete package that needs to be absorbed and appreciated.

After numerous listens and attempts to dissect the album far more than I probably should, I simply can't find anything wrong with it!  The production is top-notch, the mix is stellar...there is really just about nothing wrong with this record.  At the end of the day, this is a nearly perfect melodic hard rock record, surpassing the band's previous pinnacle, Crunch, and setting a very high bar for themselves should they choose to record again.  I don't see this album leaving my CD changer mix any time soon.

Rating:  An absolutely crankable gem!  I wasn't sure if we would see a 10 this year, but AdrianGale has delivered with the flawless Sucker Punch!

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

PISTOL DAY PARADE "Burn"

(C) 2013 Goomba Music

  1. Rockstar's Girlfriend
  2. Where I Lay
  3. New Life
  4. Angels On Fire
  5. Not Today
  6. Callous
  7. Even When 
  8. High
  9. Get Over You 
  10. Hollow
  11. Better 
  12. Down On Me
Fuller--Vocals
Rob Banks--guitars
Guido--Guitars
Jason Lollio--Bass
Jason Hartless--Drums

Additional Musicians
Steve Richards--Guitars on 3

From the moment "Rockstar's Girlfriend" kicks in, to the fading seconds of "Down On Me", the listener gets the sense that Detroit rockers, Pistol Day Parade, are here to serve notice that their brand of modern hard rock deserves to be listened to.  Forget big name record labels.  Forget massive promotion campaigns.  What matters in today's music scene is hard work, determination, guts, and, most importantly, a product that demands to be listened to.  Pistol Day Parade delivers just that with their new album, Burn.

Burn can be best described as part throwback to the post-grunge scene of the late-90's, part modern hard rock, and a touch of arena rock all wadded up into a rough ball and then jammed into your ears!  At times the band reminds me of the hardest rocking parts of a band like Hinder's All American Nightmare album, especially on the scathing, snarky "Rockstar's Girlfriend" with it's biting commentary about plastic hangers-on seeking fame and fortune through others.  If this sounds reminiscent of Hinder's "Striptease" it is, but it is not a copycat song at all, although it rocks every bit as hard.  The music doesn't back off from here, however, as several tracks are designed to crush the listener just as hard, or harder, with "New Life" being on of the most powerful as Fuller finds himself venturing a bit into screamer territory while the band adds some borderline metallic riffs to the music with some assistance on guitar from Steve Richards of Taproot. "High", which is a lovely little ditty about drug-addicted hookers, is another quality rocker that will have heads bobbing (no pun intended) and fists pounding with the rhythm.   

Of course, to make it in the modern rock world, there have to be a couple of more radio-friendly tracks, which PDP provide here alongside the harder rocking material.  However, when we are talking radio tracks here, we aren't talking your Top 40-styled rock songs that Nickelback and their ilk tend to offer up.  Instead, PDP keeps the rock mostly intact, just adding a bit more emotion to the lyrics and slowing things down a notch or two in spots, but aiming more for the airplay of satellite radio than your hometown hits station.  Album single, "Not Today", is a prime example of this type of track, as is "Better", which I'm not sure will actually find its way onto radio...but should.  "Hollow" is another emotion-filled track that offers considerably more than the cookie-cutter rock that floods radio today, and a song like "Angels On Fire" offer power and depth that is rarely heard outside of a band like Another Lost Year, Wayland, or similar acts that sit on the fringe of true rockstar status without compromising their style and sound to fit into current trends.

While they don't necessarily reinvent the wheel, Pistol Day Parade does seem to make the rock n roll machine speed along more smoothly without the bumps of stripped down acoustic numbers or bloated string sections that so many acts use without truly understanding how to properly include them.  No, Pistol Day Parade is exactly what they claim to be inside the liner notes of  Burn: they are American Rock N Roll, nothing more, nothing less.  They just do it better than most bands you have already heard of.  Hopefully Pistol Day Parade will be the next modern hard rock band to really break out and take their music to the masses.

Rating:  A definite crankable album here.  Spin the knob up to 8.5 for Pistol Day Parade's Burn!



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

JOHN CORABI "Unplugged"

(c) 2012 Rat Pak Records
 
  1. Love (I Don't Need It Anymore)
  2. If I Never Got To Say Goodbye
  3. Are You Waiting
  4. Crash
  5. Everything's Alright
  6. Father, Mother, Son
  7. Hooligan's Holiday
  8. If I Had A Dime
  9. Loveshine
  10. Man In The Moon
  11. Open Your Eyes
  12. I Never Loved Her Anyway
 
John Corabi--Vocals, Guitars
D.A. Karkos--Guitars
Topher Nolan--Bass
Cheney Brannon--Drums
Matt Farley--Drums
 
Guest Appearance:
Bruce Kulick--Guitars on 7 and 10
 
John Corabi has had an interesting career, to say the least.  Always seemingly the "replacement guy" in various bands (Motley Crue, Ratt) or "the guy" in projects that just fell short in terms of popularity and radio play (The Scream, Union, Angora, Brides of Destruction), Corabi has made a career as a musician that everyone knows but maybe doesn't know quite how they know him.  As such, I thought it was somewhat odd that the first truly solo Corabi disc to be released was not only an acoustic album, but also an album make up largely of other people's songs.  To be honest, I was completely ready to write the album off from the second I received it.  I mean, after all, who really wants to hear an acoustic version of "Hooligan's Holiday"?
 
Let me just say this...I'm really glad I didn't write it off.
 
Corabi's Unplugged is the acoustic album I wish ALL acoustic albums would be.  Beautifully performed, the songs here take on fresh, new life in their electric-less-ness, with the afore mentioned "Hooligan's Holiday" being a perfect example.  Already one of the best, most underrated songs in the entire Motley Crue catalog (off the most underrated Crue album...but I digress), "Hooligan's Holiday" is morphed into a funky acoustic rocker that immediately gets your head bobbing and your toe tapping.  Corabi's pal from the ESP and Union days, Bruce Kulick, drops in as the guest guitarist on this track (as well as, oddly enough, a Scream song later), and adds some fancy fretwork to the number.  From that same Crue album, "Loveshine" also ditches the somewhat grungy tone that Crue had utilized and turns the track into something much brighter in sound, allowing his voice to really soar on this tune. 
 
Other tracks from his past get the chance to shine here as well, with the Union track, "Love (I Don't Need It Anymore)" fighting with "Hooligan's Holiday" for highlight of the album for me.  What a killer way to open the album and to introduce the listener to the concept of this record, which is an extremely talented vocalist and guitar player getting the chance to show people his own vision for the songs featured here.  Another Union song, the Beatles-inspired"Everything's Alright", is also featured, although a lot of people probably won't know where the track comes from as the original version was on the very poorly received album, The Blue Room.  
 
Three tracks from Corabi's first "big" band, The Scream, are also featured here, with two being hits and one missing a bit.  "Father, Mother, Son", is a touching song, to be sure, and it is made all the more poignant in this acoustic setting, really letting the lyrics take over the song with the music more just a way to keep things going forward and not being the driving force behind the song.  "Man In The Moon" is again very solid with Kulick popping up once again to help liven things up.  Why he's on a Scream track I'm not sure, but it doesn't really matter, as it bears only a passing musical resemblence to the original.  The other Scream track, "I Never Loved Her Anyway", finds things getting a bit a bit too bluegrassy for me, a bit too "old country song about trains" in its rhythm and delivery (give the track a listen and I GUARANTEE you will understand that description!).  It feels like I'm at a boyscout retreat singing around a campfire and doesn't really pack the emotional punch tat so much of the other material does here, at least for me. 
 
There are also five new songs here, with most of them belonging to the better half of the material here.  My favorite of the new songs is easily "If I Had A Dime" which has some great lyrical jabs at scorned lover, and "Open Your Eyes", which as a moody, yet not depressing feel to it...somber, but somehow hopeful.  Again, great songwriting really carries this track, allowing the lyrics and the music work together instead of fighting each other for attention within the song.  Both tracks are solid examples of how artists should approach this style of music to keep the head-banger in all of us paying attention and not hitting the skip button, much the way Guns N Roses was able to keep us from throwing Lies out the window!   Solid songwriting saved the day then, and it does it again here.
 
I find myself coming back to this record on a  very frequent basis, regardless of my mood or the setting.  There is just something compelling about the way Corabi puts himself out there on this effort, leaving himself in a position that would be considered vulnerabilty if done by a lesser-talented performer.  After giving this album multiple spins through, it really is too bad that Corabi was never given the due he deserved in his other bands, and one can only hope that he is able to at least garner some of the acclaim with Unplugged that he was not able to find previously. 
 
Corabi is playing numerous dates around the country this summer and fall, and it is my hope that when he brings his acoustic act to Skull Fest in October, he will bring the best of this album along with him, in addition to a few more surprises! 
 
The one thing I could do without (and I always say this) is the interview track (13...I didn't list it above), as I really hate having to skip these tracks once I have given them the one-time-spin that I sometimes (although not always) do.  It's unnecessary, especially when the songs do such a great job of speaking for themselves.  A small distraction, especially in the digital age of just downloading what you want, but when you are a CD person like me, it's just a skip track that interferes the flow of a great album.
 
Rating:  Crankable is an odd word for an acoustic record, but crankable is what this is.  A solid 8 on the crankability scale!  Rock on, John...
 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

LOVEBLAST "Hard Liquor In Big Glasses"

(c) 2013 Loveblast

  1. Wild Forever
  2. In Your Arms Tonight
  3. Rain On Me
  4. Hard Liquor In Big Glasses
  5. When We Were Young
Brian Durbin--Vocals, Guitar
Brian Gilmanov--Guitars
Johnny Rox--Bass
Jeff Dewbray--Drums

Chicago has become something of a hotbed of hard rock, with The Last Vegas drawing so many people's attention to the Windy City, and other bands such as Hessler getting people to take a look as well.  Perhaps less well known than TLV, yet absolutely no less talented, is one of the newer offerings from the home of Da Bears...Loveblast!

While their latest release is a short, 5-song EP, that does not mean that the music here is short on talent or delivery.  Far from it.  Each one of these well-crafted songs combines punch-in-the-gut guitar work, a solid, thumping bottom end, and Durbin's nicely controlled, mid-range tenor vocals.  With sleazy, but not filthy, lyrics, catchy rhythms, and a touch of modern production, Hard Liquor In Big Glasses is perfect hard rocking fun that seems to find itself wedged into my CD player on a frequent basis!

If I was forced to pin down one song as my favorite, it would be a nearly impossible task, as two songs really snag my attention when I spin this disc.  The title track is catchy as heck, with a great sing-along chorus and some nifty trade-offs between the guitars and the bass in the rhythm of the song.  Durbin's vocals are in top-notch form here, and the more melodic approach of this track is one that allows the band to expand their sound a bit without changing who they are.  The same can be said on the heaviest track here, "Rain On Me", which pours on the sleaze with a bump-and-grind rhythm and all-over-the-place vocals that find Durbin growling, singing, snarling, and sneering alternately...and seemingly at the same time!  Once again, some excellent guitar work is featured here, along with the tightest drumming on the release.  Just a killer number that shows this band could easily tackle this style every bit as easily as they handled the more straight-ahead hard rock of the title track.

Picking these two as my favorites is not intended to take away from the other songs here, as there are no skippers at all.  The album opens in punchy, heavy fashion, showcasing a smooth vocal approach from Durbin and some awesome guitar work, not to mention the driving bass that blasts the track out of the bridge which finds Durbin utilizing more of a whispered vocal effect, which was interesting to hear.  "In Your Arms Tonight" is the closest the band comes to slowing things down, and it really isn't all that close, as this is definitely not some sappy ballad, with some driving bass lines, layered vocals on the choruses, and a catchy "whoa oh" complimented chorus.  Themore "hair metal" oriented "When We Were Young" takes the Loveblast sound and tosses in just a dash of pop songwriting sensibility, sweetening up the sleaze ever so slightly.  This is definitely the most pure 80's sounding of the five tracks here, but it doesn't come across as mimicry or mockery at all, as the band is obviously having fun as they bounce along on this song as they close out the too-short-EP.

Complaints are few and far between and are mostly focused on the packaging and album length.  The CD comes in a simple cardboard slipcase with no pictures, lyrics, etc., which is a bummer.  The album's biggest detractor for me is the shortness...clocking in at just over 20 minutes when I was fully settled in and ready for at least twice that!  Talk about your teases!  

Loveblast will be hitting the road this summer, playing various shows and festivals, including Skull Fest, which will find the band taking the stage in support of Jack Russell, Phil Lewis (LA Guns), Oni Logan (Lynch Mob) Killer Dwarfs, and others!  Check 'em out and be sure to snag this EP while you're there, as you will want to be playing it for the drive home!

Rating:  Short, but crankable!  Twist it up to 8.5!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

CREAM PIE "Unsigned 2.0"

Cream Pie | Unsigned 2.0
(2013) Independent Release

  1. Tiger
  2. See Ya Later
  3. The Evil Inside
  4. Such A Psycho
  5. No Love Remains
  6. Bad Habits
  7. Missing You

Rachel O'Neil--Lead and Backing Vocals
Nikki Dick--Guitars
Phantom--Guitars
Micheal Drake--Bass, Keys
Brian Kent--Drums

Hailing from Italy, Cream Pie come screaming out of the box on this EP with a pissed off form of sleaze that has not been heard in quite some time, only to find time to shift gears, flash some creativity, and then get pissed off again!  Imagine Guns N Roses' swagger and attitude on Appetite For Destruction, but mixed with some of the experimentation of Use Your Illusion (pick which one you want), then combine these with the pure angst and fury that was delivered by Sledgehammer Ledge or Skid Row on Subhuman Race, and you have a decent idea of what these guys bring to the table.  

Now, I'm sure that there are more than a few people who are going to take one look at the name of the band and instantly dismiss them as being nothing but a running sex joke (a la Steel Panther), but those people would be wrong.  This band, and this EP, are all about the music, and it is evident from the moment that lead single, "Tiger" comes roaring from your speakers (pardon the pun).  With a very Axl-esque screech to his voice, Rachel O'Neil proves that he is more than capable on the microphone, and the twin guitar attack of Nikki and Phantom instantly recall the heyday of the underside of the Sunset Strip.  It's pure balls-to-the-wall power here, and a great way to start things off.

"See Ya Later" is not quite as scorching as "Tiger", but it doesn't miss by much, mixing in a bit more rhythm and pulling a little bit of the anger out.  Again, O'Neil uses his voice to good effect, but he spends more time singing here and less time shredding his vocal chords to bloody masses.  The same can be said of "The Evil Inside", which starts off with a little bit of keyboard work from Mr. Drake, but is not some Euro-AOR song by any stretch, especially when O'Neil cuts loose on the chorus and the guitar solo springs to life.  The distortion in the guitars is cleaned up just a bit and a more classic hair-metal solo is utilized here, but it works very well and doesn't detract from the urgency of the song.

The boys show their GnR influence in a big way with "Such A Psycho", which, much like "November Rain", starts off in ballad territory then builds up, backs off, re-builds, launches into a nice guitar solo, introduces some keyboards, and then plunges headlong toward the end.  Carrying an almost "epic" feeling to the way the song is put together, I dare to consider this the band's masterpiece and showcases the band's ability to write powerful and interesting, if not overly original, songs that capture the ear and imagination of the listener.

"No Love Remains" keeps things on the slower side of things again, and O'Neil shifts almost entirely into his singing voice, even exploring a lower range to his vocals.  People are either going to really like...or really hate...this song, as it is the area where the band either takes a misstep or chooses to show their ability to change things up without completely losing their identity.  I tend to think it's the latter, especially since "No Love Remains" was positioned on this EP to follow "Such A Psycho", as this track kind of feeds off the previous tune's "epic" feeling.  Here we even have some layered "whoas" chanted in the background vocals to add some depth to the track.  It took me a few listens, but I really found myself enjoying this track more and more each time, so I encourage people to not stop with one spin through.

"Bad Habits" kicks things back up, coming off like GnR meets Skid Row at a Motley Crue concert.  The buzzing rhythm guitars, the gang backing vocals, and O'Neil's snarling screech all have that 80's feel to them, but using today's production techniques.  Not slick or polished, but not raw, either, this is a decent track, but it's not my favorite by any stretch as it lacks either the brutal anguish of "Tiger" or the experimental-yet-sleazy progression of "...Psycho" or "No Love Remains".

The EP closes with the "bonus track" of "Missing You".  Honestly, I think this may have been thrown in to either generate a few more electronic purchases or to fill a bit more time on the EP, as it really sticks out and is the weakest track here.  It has a kind of bump-and-grind rhythm to it, but it sounds like it was put together in a hurry and all of the pieces don't quite seem to fit correctly.  Maybe with some re-tooling this mid-tempo bouncer could amount to something a bit more, but as it is, if you have the option and really need to save a dollar (or whatever the download cost is), I'd just skip this one.  It's really not that good.

The project is independently released but still has an above average quality to the production.  I have no idea about the packaging, as my copy is an electronic version sent to me directly from the band.  All lyrics are in English, so there is no problem with figuring out what the guys are singing about, and there is also not a major accent of any kind to O'Neil's vocals, so that is also helpful.

The high points here are the guitar work, the anger, and the willingness to experiment.  O'Neil is a more-than-competent vocalist who uses his voice to good effect most of the time and will only get better, I suspect.  The rhythm section is tight, if not spectacular, and the keyboards are a minor supporting instrument.

As far as low points, like I said, "Missing You" is purely a space-filler, and "Bad Habits", while not bad, isn't overly original or interest-piquing.  The mix is a bit muddy in a couple of places, but not overly so and it never becomes so bad it can't be listened to.  I do think a bigger recording budget and a name producer might help...but there is also a chance that these things will smooth down the rough edges that add to this EP's likability, at least for me.

In the end, Unsigned 2.0 is definitely worth picking up, especially for those of you who are having a hard time finding a new, sleazy band to throw into the mix with all of the AOR and glam that has been coming out lately.  Definitely not trying to reinvent the wheel, but willing to gamble here and there, Cream Pie deserves to be listened to...even if you could do without hearing their ridiculous name.

Rating:  Crank it, folks...7.5 for sure.



Monday, July 15, 2013

SKILLET "Rise"

(c) 2013 Atlantic Records
  1. Rise
  2. Sick Of It
  3. Good To Be Alive
  4. Not Gonna Die
  5. Circus For A Psycho
  6. American Noise
  7. Madness In Me
  8. Salvation
  9. Fire And Fury
  10. My Religion
  11. Hard To Find
  12. What I Believe
  13. Battle Cry (Deluxe Edition)
  14. Everything Goes Black (Deluxe Edition)
  15. Freakshow (Deluxe Edition)
John Cooper--Lead Vocals, Bass, Acoustic Guitar
Korey Cooper--Vocals, Backing Vocals, Rhythm Guitars, Keyboards
Seth Morrison--Guitars
Jen Ledger--Drums, Percussion, Vocals
 
The latest album from platinum-selling Christian rockers, Skillet, finds the band moving into concept album territory.  While maybe not as strongly tied together as some concept discs, Rise still strings together the story of a teenaged boy who is trying to figure out where he fits in the messed up world around him. 
 
 
Musically, the album is going to remind most casual fans of the band of the last handful of albums that Skillet has released, such as Collide, Comatose, and most recently, Awake, as synthesized strings are intermixed in several songs and lead singer/bass player John Cooper trades off vocal lines on several tracks with the band's drummer, Jen Ledger, which are elements which the band has become known for as they have broken away from the rest of the Christian rock pack and have skyrocketed to mainstream fame.  However, upon closer listening (and after reading the liner notes) it should be noted that the band has incorporated such diverse instruments as a harp, dulcimer, mandolin...and get this...an accordion...so the band is not simply rehashing the same old, same old on this new record.   Granted, the heavy, distorted guitars are still the focus here, as they should be, and Ledger's drumming is as solid as it has ever been, so the rock is definitely as prevalent on this new album as it has been in the past.

One positive thing that I picked up on with this album is that Ledger's voice sounds more natural in spots (i.e. not as "auto-tuned"), and she pulls it off well.  Now, I don't know how the band will approach this in concert, but I suspect that they will try to start backing off the auto-tuning for her in the live setting as much as possible, as well.  And since this is rock and not R&B or hip hop...that's a VERY good thing!  To be honest, I never understood why the female vocals, whether from Korey or Jen, always seemed to come off as robotic sounding; maybe the band is working to "humanize" their female singer as well.
 
 
Some people are going to find fault with the band for not being overtly Christian with their lyrics, but I don't really have a problem with it, despite being a fan of Christian hard music.  I say this because, 1) it's a concept album and 2) I do think that a band that has broken onto the mainstream scene the way that Skillet has does a lot of good by bringing people to their shows and exposing them to their more Christian-themed lyrical material in the live setting.  While I believe evangelical music definitely has a place, I also think there is such a thing as preaching to the choir and failing to reach people who might not be as open to being "Bible beaten".  That being said, there is certainly nothing anti-Christian or non-Christian-friendly on this record, and if you read Cooper's lyrics as they are presented, his faith is definitely shown in a more real-world setting as he portrays himself as the story's main character trying to survive the fallen world around him.
There are several rock radio and satellite radio ready tracks here, with the lead single "Sick Of It" being one of the hardest rocking standouts.  "Good To Be Alive" takes the band slightly more in the direction of some of their earlier material, coming off like a U2-inspired 80's song, not rocking quite as hard and focusing more on the musical hook of the song, and it is done to very good effect.  "Circus For A Psycho" and "My Religion" find the band going back into a harder rock territory, and the title track, "Rise", ends up somewhere in between, effectively rocking out while also intermixing some orchestral moments as well as "news clips" talking about school shootings, war, and the crashing economy.  "Madness In Me" is in similar territory as far as style goes.  For those who were more into the Comatose sound, I anticipate you are going to like "Not Gonna Die" in particular, and "What I Believe" will likely tickle your fancy as well.  There are a few throwback electronic elements mixed in throughout the album, and keys are a bit more predominant in a few songs than on Awake, but never do they become the overpowering instrument of a song.
 
Personally, I would recommend getting the Deluxe Edition, as the three songs included there are worth the extra couple of bucks, with "Freakshow" being one of the two or three best rockers on the disc and a song I could definitely see as their concert opener.  "Everything Goes Black" is actually the ballad from the album that is the strongest, and the more mid-tempo "Battle Cry" has some of the most faith-based lyrics and is better than half of the album as well.  I'm assuming that that these became bonus tracks because they didn't really fit the "concept" theme of the rest of the album, but they are by no means throw away cuts.

There are still a couple of tracks that really don't go anywhere for me, with "American Noise" and "Hard To Find" being at the top of the list.  Album closer "What I Believe" isn't overly amazing, either, but the previous two not only are filler cuts, they also disrupt the flow of the album to a degree, which really set them apart for me.  All three are mid-tempo or slower and rather bland in their musical approach.  This was especially disappointing for "American Noise", at least for me, as I thought with a name like that we might be in for a really powerful rocker, but sadly that is not the case.
 
For me, there is a lot of good about this album, and I think it is definitely a better, more complete album than Awake, which I felt was fairly mid-tempo and samey outside of the small handful of harder-edged songs.  In essence, Awake was predictable.  I don't feel that way with Rise.  Skillet tries, with varying degrees of success, to keep all the elements of the "Panhead Nation" happy, regardless of the album the individual most readily identifies with.  The concept thread throughout the album is loose enough that all of the songs can stand alone if released as singles, yet comprehensive enough that when taken back-to-back-to-back you can follow along with the story. 
 
Nothing here is likely to make any fans jump ship, and Rise may actually bring back those harder-edged fans who found themselves struggling to maintain interest in Awake.  I know a lot of reviewers have bagged on Rise as not being overly original or creative, but I am not one of them.  I do, however, feel that the first half of the album is definitely the strongest, although "Fire And Fury" is a great song off the second half that I find myself listening to more and more all the time.
Rating:  Crank this to 7, slotting just behind Collide and Comatose for me, but definitely ahead of Awake and Alien Youth.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

QUEENSRYCHE "Queensryche"

(c) 2013 Century Media
 
  1. X2
  2. Where Dreams Go To Die
  3. Spore
  4. In This Light
  5. Redemption
  6. Vindication
  7. Midnight Lullaby
  8. A World Without
  9. Don't Look Back
  10. Fallout
  11. Open Road
  12. Queen Of The Reich (live) [Deluxe Edition bonus track]
  13. En Force (live) [Deluxe Edition bonus track]
  14. Prophecy (live) [Deluxe Edition bonus track]
 
Todd La Torre--Lead Vocals
Michael Wilton--Guitars
Parker Lundgren--Guitars
Eddie Jackson--Bass
Scott Rockenfeld--Drums, Percussion, Keys
 
Round 2 of "Ryche vs, Ryche" has been launched, with the Tate-less version releasing their first album since the ugly divorce.  This version of the band features three of the classic line-up members in Wilton, Jackson, and Rockenfeld, along with Parker Lundgren (who oddly enough was married to Geoff Tate's step-daughter and played on Tate's solo album), who performed on the Dedicated To Chaos album, the last by the united Queensryche, and new frontman, Todd La Torre, who formerly fronted Crimson Glory.  Got all that?  Good.
 
The album itself consists of 11 new tracks, along with three live versions of classic Queensryche numbers on the deluxe edition of the album.  As far as style goes, Queensryche combines elements Rage For Order, Operation: Mindcrime, and Promise Land, with some updated elements mixed in as well.  Right from the start, it is clear that this version of the band is going more for retaining the original fanbase and welcoming back those who lost interest in the band somewhere around the Hear In The Now Frontier time frame.  The album's opening track, the atmospheric "X2", gives the listener a bit of that Mindcrime feel, establishing the band before La Torre sings a single note.
 
When La Torre does leap into his contributions, the feeling that this album should slot in somewhere between Mindcrime and Promise Land really kicks in, as La Torre is a dead-ringer for Tate in his prime.  We aren't just talking tone and pitch, we are talking phrasing, presentation...everything.  I know people hate to hear the word used, but "clone" is the perfect word here, because that is exactly what La Torre is here, and throughout the record.  Compare what he sounded like on his Crimson Glory records, and what he sounds like here, and there is definitely a difference.  Now he sings like he's a member of Queensryche, not like he's Todd La Torre.  Does that make sense?  There is no escaping the fact that La Torre is trying to sound like Geoff Tate.  Nowhere is this more obvious than on the second single from the album, the Lundgren-penned, "Where Dreams Go To Die".  Listening to the way La Torre builds up to the chorus, there is simply no way to deny La Torre's intents to replace Tate rather than to leave his own imprint on the band.

One area that this album really bests Tate's album is on the classic cuts.  While this album's classic songs are live renditions, it's obvious that this version of the band has a firmer grasp on what they are trying to accomplish.  Where Tate's band altered the layout of the songs a bit, changing the structure here and there, this version doesn't do anything to mess with the greatness of the past.  This is especially evident for me on "Queen Of The Reich", which sounds almost exactly like I remember hearing it live so many different times throughout the years.  I guess that while is likely sounds like I have bagged on La Torre for ripping off Tate's style I would have to say that in the instances of the classics, his ability to project Tate's style and sound is a benefit rather than a hindrance.

There are a couple of stand out moments on this record, at least for me.  The first would be the lead single, "Redemption", which sounds like a heavy Journey song more than it sounds like a Queensryche song.  There is just such an arena rock quality to this song that I don't know what else to compare it to.  And you know what...I like it!  In fact, I think I would have liked to have heard the entire album take a bit more of this slant, as it would have represented the band moving forward rather than trying to sound like they were reaching back.  I know many will disagree with this, but for me, any attempt to make some sort of change would be welcome.

The other moment that really jumps out is the eerily reminiscent "A World Without" which sounds like it could have been lifted off the Operation: Mindcrime cutting room floor and given new life.  This is a GREAT song, and probably the best thing they have released since the Promise Land record.  Definitely slower in tempo than nearly everything else here, this moody song again showcases La Torre's uncanny ability to perfectly mimic the way Tate would phrase his vocals, but the haunting music is the best part of the track, at least for me.  Kudos to the band for recalling how to put together a truly great song!

So, it seems I'm contradicting myself with my favorite tracks.  On the one hand, I say that I would like to see the band move forward in some fashion, such as they did with "Redemption", while on the other hand I talk about loving how they were able to move backward 25-30 years and recapture the glory years with "A World Without".  So where do I really stand?  It's tough for me to separate the two, really.  And I think it's because this album was SO hyped, SO blown up by people in the Queensryche camp, SO massively built up by the Tate-haters of the world, that I don't think it stood a chance of living up to the hype, regardless of which direction the band went.
 
In the end, this is a very good record, with some excellent performances both musically and vocally, with outstanding production and above-average songwriting.  It is not amazing or life-changing, it does not make anyone forget the greatest moments of the original, unified band, and it does not make anyone want to burn their Tatesryche album that they picked up earlier in the year.  La Torre is a great Tate clone and I have no doubt that he can pull any song from the band's catalog and sing it note-for-note perfectly.  However, there is just something missing here.  Some of the magic is gone.  And while a lot of people will say that the magic disappeared quite some time ago, these are also the same people who claimed that La Torre was going to bring back what was lost.  He doesn't.  He tries but you can't replace greatness by mimicking it.  Again, the record is very good and I listen to it frequently, but my bet is that with the passage of time, Empire, Operation: Mindcrime, Rage For Order, and Promise Land will supersede this album as far as plays go.

So, I guess the final question is going to come down to this:  is it better than Frequency Unknown?  It is, but just barely.  Neither is horrible, and neither is a world-beater.  For me, the real difference is that La Torre sounds more like Tate than Tate does on the classic cuts that each version of the band chose to include at the end of their respective albums. 
 
Rating:  Crankable, but just barely.  Give it a 7.