Tuesday, April 29, 2014

MICHAEL SWEET "Honestly: My Life And Stryper Revealed" (BOOK REVIEW)

(c) 2014 Deep South Entertainment

When I heard that Michael Sweet was putting together his autobiography, it was kind of a "FINALLY!" moment for me.  Having been a fan of the Yellow and Black Attack for close to 30 years, I had always hoped to gain some insight into the band other than what can be gleaned from the random facts that are carefully dropped in interviews with magazines.  At the same time, having heard how guarded Michael can be, I always wondered how open and honest he would be.  And, having also heard how aloof and, to some, arrogant Michael can come off, I wondered if I would enjoy reading this book at all.  So, despite my happiness with the book finally coming to life, I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive when Deep South approached me about reviewing the book.

For starters, let me be clear: I am reviewing a digital copy.  I have no idea if there are any photos included in the actual book because this digital copy has none.  It doesn't even have a back cover, just the front image and nothing else.  I am also not 100% sure the page numbers align perfectly, as I have experienced some differences between digital and print copies in the past.  These are minor issues, I realize, but I like to be as upfront as possible with any review I do.

After sitting down with my Kindle Fire, I have to tell you I had a very hard time stopping once I started reading.  The book doesn't bore the reader to death with a laundry list of things the author did as a child, all the places he lived, all the schools he attended, etc.  I understand that these are important facts that make the artist who they are, but when these kind of details start to take up two, three, or four chapters, you are losing my interest quickly.  Such was not the case with Michael's book.

Some people are going to be very judgmental of Michael Sweet when they read this book, especially as it pertains to his early life.  He readily admits to being rather "un-Christian" in his behavior as a young man, despite professing a strong faith and belief in God and Christianity.  He doesn't hid the fact that his first child was conceived out of wedlock, or the fact that he and  Kyle eloped rather than having some sort of big church ceremony.  He is candid about what can only be described as indifference (at best) or bitterness (at worst) about being suddenly tied down with a wife and child when so many of his contemporaries were out living the wild rock n roll lifestyle.  Michael admits to an episode of infidelity.  He does not shy away from the poor way in which Timothy Gaines original departure from the band was handled.  He also openly discusses the band's internal turmoil, their lack of business savvy, the band more-or-less falling apart at the seams during the Against The Law years (including hanging out in a strip club with some guys from other bands who were a bit shocked to see these Christian rockers drinking in a strip club!).  Others will likely take issue with how quickly Michael fell in love and got married after his first wife died.  And, still others will ask what a Christian is doing fronting a secular band like Boston.  Like I said, a lot of people are likely to cast a LOT of stones at Michael and Stryper if all they do is read the bare bones of the book.  

However, for those who really read what Michael is saying in this book, they will find that he is telling you that while he is a Christian, he is not, nor has he ever claimed to be, perfect.  He has struggles and failures, yet he tries to be an example of what Christ can do for others through forgiveness and faith.  Having met the man on two occasions...once purely as a fan and once as a promoter...I can attest to the fact that there are two Michaels in some ways.  There is the accommodating Michael who is a truly nice guy, posing for pictures and shaking hands with as many fans as possible.  But there is that aloof side that cannot be denied when dealing with Michael professionally, and there are occasions when he comes across in this manner in the book as well.  However, having worked with him in a professional capacity, and then seeing this same attitude in print, it is much easier to see that much of this comes from Michael being a perfectionist and, surprisingly, also being a bit on the shy side.  And I get that and can appreciate that fact.  And, to be honest, I'm glad it came out in the book a bit because it added to the "realness" of the book that I think is lacking in many autobiographies.

Don't expect a name-dropping tell-all, because that is not what you are going to get with Honestly.  While he is very candid about his dealings with management, his band, and his solo career, his personal life is largely off-limits other than what he chooses to share about his love for his children, losing his wife to cancer, and finding love again when he wasn't even looking.  Michael covers his struggles with his "brothers in the band" that he acknowledges he doesn't always like, but does always love.  And he openly and honestly admits he sometimes struggles with staying in the band, putting on the yellow and black, and going out and doing the corporate Stryper thing when he might rather be doing his solo material.  The title of the book pretty much sums things up here; whether you like what you are reading or not, you do get the feeling that Michael is being completely honest with the reader.

All in all, this is a very solid, rather easy read that took me about 16 total hours to get through over the course of a couple of days.  It is one of those books that once I started turning pages, I found it hard to find a stopping spot because I wanted to read what happened next.  There are a couple of minor editing errors toward the end of the book, but nothing that is overwhelmingly distracting, and which may also be fixed by the time the print version of the book is released.

Whether you are a fan of the band, the man, or the style of music Stryper or Michael Sweet play, I strongly suggest picking up Honestly: My Life And Stryper Revealed.  I also highly recommend reading with an open mind and open heart...and to sit a good distance from any rocks lest you be one of those readers who too quickly picks up stones to cast at this honest man of God.

Rating:  Highly recommended.



Monday, April 14, 2014

LIBERTY N JUSTICE "The Vow"

(c) 2014 LnJ Records

  1. Forever Starts Tonight (featuring Gunnar Nelson of NELSON)
  2. For Sure Thing (featuring Kelly Keeling of BATON ROUGE)
  3. Honeymoon Is Over (featuring Richard Kendrick)
  4. That's Gonna Leave A Mark
  5. Gone
  6. Every Night She Cries
  7. Promises To God (featuring Fergie Ferguson of TOTO)
  8. Pucker Up (featuring Richard Kendrick)
  9. Sting Of Her Kiss (featuring Louis St. August of MASS)
  10. Two Or More
  11. Another Goodbye
  12. Prince Charming In Disguise (featuring Gunnar Nelson)
Justin Murr--Bass
JK Northrup--Guitars
David Cagle--Vocals
Eric Ragno--Keyboards
Michael Feighan--Drums

This is it...the final curtain call for the melodic hard rock band, Liberty N Justice.  Band founder, bass player, and song writer, Justin Murr, has stated that he is closing this chapter of his musical life, which he as spent more than 20 years wrigint.  In doing so, he is taking Liberty N Justice back to where it came from, as a band, and not an all-star project, which is how the band gained its 15 minutes of fame.  Sure, there are still some guest appearances, but the singers are there to add background vocals, not to be lead singers.  Additionally, JK Northrup handles all of the guitars this time around, with Murr, Eric Ragno, and Michael Feighan also contributing all of their own individual instrumental performances, with no guest "rock stars" to fill in.  This is the band, folks, and they are for real.

The album kicks things off firing on all cylinders with "Forever Starts Tonight", featuring some AMAZING acapella layered vocals to intro the song and then powerful harmonies courtesy of Gunnar Nelson.  If this opener is any indication of what's to come, ts apparent that the band plans to go down swinging with this record.  "For Sure Thing" backs off only slightly, with David Cagle's bluesier approach getting some vocal assistance from Baton Rouge's Kelly Keeling in the background, before the real power of this record kicks in at track three.  That's right...we are two for two with winning songs...and then they are topped!

For those who maybe were unaware, this album is a concept record of sorts, about the struggles of a relationship/marriage.  There are serious ups and downs explored here, and at times real pain and grief can be heard in the writing, along with anger, resentment, frustration, humility, and a whole host of human emotions.  Throughout, however, even when not being expressly driven by names like "Jesus", "Christ", or "God", there is a definite underlying faith and hope that links these songs together.  Yes, sometimes the songs include anger at, or frustration with, God, which all people of faith have felt at times.  But it is this real quality, this human angle, that makes the writing on this record so strong.  When I was chatting with Justin about the record, he told me, "I don't know if I/we did it, but we really wanted a story record and to tell a story of falling in and out of love then seeking restoration through Jesus."  The band got what they were after...

As has always been the case, the focus is on the songwriting and the message with Liberty N Justice, and The Vow features some of the best material to ever come out of the LnJ camp.  Nowhere is that more evident than on the almost painful to listen to "Honeymoon Is Over" which just screams personal agony over a love lost and the regret that goes with realizing you are largely to blame.  With lyrics such as "haven't you heard, its everyone's fault but mine, haven't you heard, the honeymoon is over" and "with these words, I break this vow, with this ring, my happiness is in doubt", you can just feel the angst and doubt and second-guessing that is flowing through Cagle's vocals on this monster of a ballad.  Following this up is the the angry, edgy, slightly modern rock sounding "That's Gonna Leave A Mark" which has Northrup threatening to melt the strings from his guitar.  The more melodic, uptempo rockers "Gone" and "Every Night She Cries" reel things back into happier-sounding territory before the plaintive "Promises To God", which features some nice keyboard work from Ragno to compliment the emotive tenor of Cagle, rounds out this amazing five song arc.  This song, like "Honeymoon..." features lyrics that I think nearly everyone can relate to: "I'm broken and battered, my dreams have been shattered, all I have left is making promises to God".  While this block would have been a nearly perfect EP all by themselves, but I'm happy to say there is more to dig into here as well.

Don't think that all is serious here, as the trademark Murr humor is still intact, and you need look no further than the next track, "Pucker Up".  I know when he reads this Justin is going to know EXACTLY what my first statement about this track is:  GET RID OF THE CORNY INTRO!!!  (he knows I hate those things)  Aside from that, this is a great, smile-inducing track, where Murr name-drops his guitarist, JK Northrup, who also rips through a killer solo here.  "Sting Of Her Kiss" is another aggressive rocker, again featuring some absolutely incredible work from Northrup, and some nice vocal support from Louis St. August of MASS fame.  As far as the rockers go, this is quite possibly the stand-out on the record, at least musically.  Why don't bands rock like this any longer?  This is hard rock music, man!  Cathcy, hook-laden, guitar-driven, steering wheel-smacking hard rock music.

I'm not huge on acoustic ballads, so while "Two Or More" isn't my favorite track here, I was surprised at how much I find myself liking it.  The lyrics are powerful and given a solid push by Cagle.  "Two Or More" pulls some Biblical references into a strong love song about faith, forgiveness, and redemption, with out getting preachy or sappy.

"Another Goodbye" has a Newsboys-styled pop-rock feel to it with a guitar line I SWEAR I have heard before, along with a nice Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End line dropped in the chorus, a la Captain Jack Sparrow (Justin loves his movie references!), before "Prince Charming In Disguise" closes things out with a somewhat trippy, poppy track that sounds musically like something Enuff Z'Nuff might have tried during their career.

As far as the musicianship goes, things are in top-notch form throughout.  One thing that is especially noticeable on this album is the vocal strength of David Cagle, who was a relatively unknown session singer until Murr tapped him for several songs on the past couple of LnJ records (including ALL of the lead vocals on The Vow.)  For fans of Guardian and Adrian Gale, I dare say that there is a definite Jamie Rowe quality to the sound and style of Cagle, yet he is nowhere near to being a rip-off artist here.  Perhaps its the phrasing and the gritty edge that Cagle utilizes to push the emotional envelope that does this for me.  Regardless, having Cagle at the top of his game here, and then giving him the chance to harmonize with Gunnar Nelson in a couple of spots, and Kelly Keeling and Louis St. August in others, really brings the vocals to life on this record in a way that I didn't notice was missing before with the all-star approach.  And maybe it WASN'T missing on previous records, as the writing on those records wasn't taken to the concept/story album level that The Vow goes to.  Who knows.  All I know is I am duly impressed by what Cagle brings to the table here and I will be tracking him down wherever he goes from here.Northrup is at the top of his game throughout this record, and I again state without any reservation that he is one of the most under-appreciated guitar players in the hard rock genre.  If you haven't heard his solo stuff or his other projects, finish reading this review and then start surfing the 'Net to find anything that JK plays on! That's an order!  Feighan and Murr supply a solid and competent rhythm section that really should be given more credit than they likely will be.  The standard for performance on this record is set pretty high, and both men do more than just pull their own weight here, although neither breaks into any extended solos or breaks to demand, "hey, look at me!" The same can be said for the uber-talented Ragno, who expertly uses his keyboards as complimentary instruments, rather than trying to dominate any single track.  Yes, there are some great piano moments ("Promises To God") and keyboard elements to be found scattered throughout, but they don't bury any other instrument or detract from Cagle's vocals.  This is a BAND now, folks, and they work together, not against each other, to great effect.

If this is indeed the final chapter in the Liberty N Justice book, it is a good way to close, with no gimmicks, no all-star sessions.  Excellent songwriting, which has long been an LnJ trademark, abounds here, with solid performances all the way around, especially from Northrup and vocalist, Cagle, who is quite possibly a star in the making if he finds the right vehicle.  Like a favorite athlete, you don't want them to leave the game, but if they have to leave, you want your last memory to be a good one.  The Vow does that for Liberty N Justice, leaving you with one last shot of band that went down swinging.

Rating:  As always, crankable.  Give the knob a spin to 9 on The Vow.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

RON KEEL "Even Keel" (BOOK REVIEW)

(c) 2014 Wild West Media Productions



When I had the chance to talk to Ron Keel last summer, he told me he was in the process of putting the final touches on his autobiography.  I told him to be sure to let me know when it was done, as his was a story I was interested in reading, as KEEL has long been a band that I have enjoyed and always felt was just a break or two away from becoming full-fledged stars.  About three or four months after that conversation, I again had the chance to talk with Ron when he came to Skull Fest.  He told me at that time that he thought he probably had enough material for two or three books, and that some editing had been done to the autobiography he had been working on, but that it was basically done.  Fast forward just a couple of short months more, and Even Keel arrived in my mailbox, along with Ron's solo album, Metal Cowboy, and a couple of guitar picks.  Needless to say, I dove right into the book, reading it from cover to cover in a matter of just a couple of days.

The book covers pretty much every band that Ron has ever been a part of, from his very early days in the Arixona music scene, to his trip to the Sunset Strip of Hollywood, first with Steeler, then with his own band, Keel, to the southern rock stylings of Iron Horse, the country rock of the Rat'lers, and the metallic approach of Japanese band Sabre Tiger...along with various other side projects, tribute acts, and other musical ventures, from rock to country, along the way.  

Ron takes the reader on his musical journey, giving his insights into the lifestyle of the dang-close-to-rich-and-famous.  He doesn't pull any punches about his involvement with alcohol, drugs, willing groupies and multiple wives, yet he also doesn't go out of his way to push an agenda, hurt anybody, or throw anyone under the bus.  He discusses the ups and downs of his relationships with guitar heroes Yngwie Malmsteen, Marc Ferrari, Bryan Jay, and Japan's own guitar god, Akihito Kinoshita.  Ron talks about his brief flash of potential fame at the helm of Black Sabbath, his encounters with Gene Simmons, and how he found himself in the world of professional impersonators as part of a Brooks & Dunn tribute show.   

Throughout it all, Ron Keel manages to show humility and humanity, never coming across as bitter, even when it seems he probably could have.  Instead, Keel comes across as thankful for the multiple opportunities he has been given (or made for himself), and positions himself for his story to be one of inspiration and determination rather than failure and letdown.

There are not a lot of pictures in this book, and those that are here are black and white.  Keel uses lyrical snippets to introduce chapters throughout the book, giving the reader a look at where Ron's head was when he wrote these songs or where he drew his inspiration from.  There is also an extensive discography at the end of the book, giving the reader plenty of material to seek out for their own collection.  

There are a couple of spots in the book where, to me, it seems obvious that he edited material out, possibly for another book, as there are some minor stop-start jumps, but these are only minor distractions, and perhaps others won't even notice them.  Additionally, I do with there was a hardback version of this book, as I far prefer hardback to paperback, even when the paperback version is full-sized.  These minor issues don't take away from the readability of the book, however, and Keel's is an interesting story to be given the chance to be a part of.  Written entirely by Keel himself, with no ghost-writer or co-writer mentioned, I strongly recommend the book and look forward to any follow-ups that Ron may come up with.

Wild West Media Productions
Paperback

KICKIN' VALENTINA "Kickin' Valentina"

(c) 2013 Highway 9 Records

  1. Get Ready
  2. Dirty Girl
  3. Alone
  4. Anita
  5. Eat And Run


Joe Edwards--Vocals
Heber Pampillon--Guitar
Chris Taylor--Bass
Jimmy Berdine--Drums

Atlanta, Georgia has been keeping a secret...a nasty, sleazy, dirty little secret!  Kickin' Valentina is that secret, and now that it has been exposed, everyone should be on board to find out what a select few of us already knew...KICKIN' VALENTINA ROCKS!

On this little tease of an EP, Kickin' Valentina cranks up the volume and turns up the attitude, mixing an old school approach with some modern production sensibilities.  I can imagine this EP as the soundtrack to more than one strip joint down south, especially with raunch-n-roll tracks like the sleaze-soaked "Dirty Girl" and "Eat And Run", or the quasi-ballad, "Alone", which, you know, shows the softer side of the girl spinning around the pole!  

Joe Edwards' voice carries a gargled-with-razor blades raspiness that delivers the sleazy approach to these songs.  Think Taime Downe's snarling approach from the first Faster Pussycat record, but tuned down a notch or two in pitch, mixed with those of Brad Sinsel from War Babies, or, more accurately, the vocals of Crank County Daredevil's Scotty P.  Edwards comes screaming in at the beginning of the album's opening track, "Get Ready", and he never backs off, even when "Alone" slows things down a bit.  Pampillon is more than capable on guitar, especially on the screeching solo of "Dirty Girl" or on the sleazier southern rock approach of  "Anita", and he handles both lead and rhythm guitar sections without missing a beat.  Taylor supplies a thick groove to each of these tracks, while his rhythm section partner, Berdine, showcases a solid, steady, if not flashy style that supplies the foundation for each of these rockers to be constructed upon.  

If I had one complaint about any of these songs it would be the somewhat silly chorus on "Anita".  The song itself isn't bad, not at all, but the inclusion of the "boom, boom, boom" section of the chorus leaves me wondering if the band was all sitting around going, "Man, we have a kick-ass song here, but what the hell are we going to do for a chorus?!  Well, I guess we have to have one, so how about 'boom, boom, boom'?"  Obviously, this is tongue-in-cheek, but seriously, this single chorus outtake is about the only flaw I can find on this EP...other than the all-too-short nature of the disc (just under 23 minutes).

The production is solid, with a no fuss/no muss approach taken throughout the EP.  The CD packaging is very basic, with a single, two-sided insert that has individual pictures of each of the band members, and then a group shot on the jewel case tray inlay.  There are no lyrics included, and only a short thank-you section, but as I have stated in other reviews, this is pretty much to be expected on most independent releases where the vast majority of the money is (and should be) spent on the recording and production of a solid musical product.  That is evident in spades here, as Kickin' Valentina have put together an incredibly solid five-track span of songs.  Can they carry that across on a nine, ten, or eleven cut, full-length effort?  My guess is yes, and I am anxious to find out, as the band is already in the beginning stages of putting together their debut full-length record.  For those of you who want to get in on the ground floor and help the band out, they have set up a Pledge Music account which you can access HERE.   

This is an excellent debut effort and one that is definitely worth seeking out.  The band will be taking their raunchy circus on the road this year as well, with a stop at Skull Fest scheduled for October 11!  Here's a little hint of what you may see...



Rating:  Just a couple of "boom, boom, booms" away from perfection, crank this piece of sleazy heaven to 9, and be prepared to hit repeat about 23 minutes later!