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.
 

Monday, July 8, 2013

LIBERTY N JUSTICE "4 All: The Best of LnJ Volume 2"

(c) 2013 FNA Records
 
  1. No Honor Among Thieves **
  2. Grace And Gravity **
  3. Memphis **
  4. Lost And Found **
  5. Show Me The Way (Oni Logan)
  6. Fade (Jamie Rowe)
  7. Do What You Believe (CJ Snare, Bill Leverty)
  8. Man vs. Mother Nature (Ted Poley, Vic Rivera)
  9. Wrestling With God (Pete Loran, Steve Brown, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal)
  10. Best Time We Never Had (Chris Jericho, Phil Collen)
  11. Throwing Stones (Donnie Vie and JK Northrup)
  12. Chasing A Cure (Benny Mardones, John Pine, Bill Leverty)
  13. Stretch Armstrong (Louie St. August, JK Northrup, Keri Kelli)
  14. Stayin' Alive (Kip Winger)
  15. The Greatest (David Cagle, Mark Allen Lanoue, Brad Stetler)
  16. Cupid's Gonna Bleed (Gunnar Nelson, Steve Brown)
  17. Under Construction (Eric Dover, Mark Kendall, Ian Keith Hafner, Eric Rango)
  18. Cut Me Mick (Ron Keel, Michael Philips)
  19. Sin (Jani Lane, Bill Leverty, Keri Kelli)
**New recordings featuring Liberty N Justice band members Justin Murr, David Cagle, and JK Northrup, with Eric Ragno on Tracks 2 and 3
 
Considering they have never had a "hit", it's interesting that Liberty N Justice has put together their second "Best Of..." package.  However, don't let the fact that current radio stations are ignorant of quality melodic hard rock make you think there is no reason to pick up this excellent collection because that would be a big mistake, especially for people just now getting into the band.
 
As most people know, LnJ has long been known as an "all-star project" more than as a band.  This has been both a blessing and a curse, as it has allowed Justin Murr to get his message and his music out to people, but it has also led some people to question the validity of the project.  Foolish, I know, but those are the facts.  However, people who pick up this latest package will find themselves treated to the first four tracks to feature Liberty N Justice, The Band, as the four new songs here all feature founding member Justin Murr on bass, David Cagle on vocals, JK Northrup on guitars and drum programming, and Eric Ragno on keyboards on tracks 2 and 3.  (LnJ drummer Michael Feighan will appear on the band's first full-length project next year). 

For people already familiar with the "all-star" releases, the real treat of this collection is the first four tracks on the disc.  Things kick off with the mid-tempo, acoustic-based "No Honor Among Thieves", which really showcases the slightly smoky vocals of Cagle and a scorching, if short, guitar solo from the massively underrated musical talent, JK Northrup.  Its a bit of an oddity to start off an album in acoustic fashion like this, but as an introduction to the band, this is a nice start as no one member is overpowered by the others. 

My favorite of the new tracks, "Grace and Gravity" follows up and features the quirky, humorous lyrical style that Murr often throws into his songs.  Need an example?  Check out the opening line"
               
   "Subway dancing to a hip-hop beat, Spitting rhymes, couldn't move my feet...
   Harlem girls sayin' 'boy can't dance'...so I went out and bought me some baggy pants!

Don't let that little chuckle of a line throw you, however, as the spiritual base behind Murr's lyrics remains fully intact on this, and all the songs here. 

"Memphis" comes up next and has a slightly more modern rock feel to the music, especially with the guitar tone, but the vocal delivery and the songwriting style are pure melodic rock.  Once again, Cagle's moderately gritty vocals really add depth to this track, and Ragno's keys add to, rather than distract from, the song by remaining a contributing instrument instead of the dominant piece of musical equipment on the song.  Northrup again erupts with a blistering solo run that is just too teasingly short for me...oh, and Murr plays bass nicely!

"Lost And Found" was the hardest of the new tracks for me to get into musically, but lyrically it may be my favorite of the new material.  This ballad reminds me of the material found on the Chasing A Cure EP, a bit more laid back and "adult contemporary" in approach than the other new material. After repeated listens, the track really has grown on me, although it was never "skip material" to begin with. 
 
As far as the older material, this collection is every bit as strong as the previous "Best Of...Volume 1" was, especially with the inclusion of "The Greatest", "Cut Me Mick", "Cupid's Gonna Bleed" and "Sin", four of the best tracks the band has ever recorded, in my opinion.  Only one cover song from Cigar Chronicles Volume 1 made it onto this collection, but it is the very nicely done acoustic version of "Stayin' Alive" that Kip Winger performed.  I was also very happy to see the inclusion of "Show Me The Way", featuring Oni Logan on vocals, and the underrated "Fade", which has Jamie Rowe of Guardian/AdrianGale on vocals.  With songs gathered from previous LnJ albums Soundtrack Of A Soul, Independence Day, Light It Up, Chasing A Cure, Hell Is Coming To Breakfast, and both volumes of The Cigar Chronicles, this collection packages together an excellent grouping of vocalists and musicians that, along with the first "Best Of..." package serve as the perfect introduction to this band.  No remixes or demos find their way onto this package, which is actually a benefit for new listeners who may be using 4 All...Volume 2 as a sampler for future LnJ purchases.
 
For anyone wanting to get a taste of what Liberty N Justice is all about, adding 4 All...Volume 2 to their purchase of 4 All...Volume 1 is the best way to go, as it gives the new fan a broad scope of older material along with exclusive new tracks that are not found on the other records.  For those of us who have been along for the ride the entire time, 4 All...Volume 2 provides an introduction to Liberty N Justice...THE BAND...whetting the appetite for fans who think that next year is simply too far away to wait for new music!
 
Rating:  Every bit the match of the first collection, and maybe a tad bit better because of the "band" songs, crank this one to 7.5!