Thursday, December 31, 2015

STRYPER "Fallen"

(c) 2015 Frontiers Records

  1. Yahweh
  2. Fallen
  3. Pride
  4. Big Screen Lies
  5. Heaven
  6. Love You Like I Do
  7. All Over Again
  8. After Forever
  9. Till I Get What I Need
  10. Let There Be Light
  11. The Calling
  12. King Of Kings
Michael Sweet--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Robert Sweet--Drums (Visual Timekeeper)
Timothy Gaines--Bass, Backing Vocals
Oz Fox--Guitars, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
Paul McNamara--Keyboards, Synths, Moog
Laura Manzi--Chorus vocals on "Yaweh"

After laying off for so many years, Styper has come roaring back recently, releasing two studio albums of new material, a covers album, a re-recording of classic tracks, and a live album...all since 2011.  And while each has returned to the signature Stryper sound, much more than their previous comeback albums Reborn and Murder By Pride, one thing should be noted about both 2013's No More Hell To Pay, and this new album, Fallen...they are both far heavier than anything Stryper released in their "classic" era.  I'm not saying faster, I'm not saying thrashier...I'm saying these past two Stryper albums have been heavy as stink, and the results have been nothing short of amazing to these ears.

The latest Yellow & Black effort, Fallen, starts off in a powerful way with the monstrous effort, "Yahweh".  The track opens with what sounds to be a massive church choir chanting the word "Yahweh", before the signature Stryper guitar tone launches the song forward and Michael Sweet puts to rest any question as to whether his screams are still able to scrape the upper reaches of his range.  Fast and furious, this driving track set the bar high for the band from the moment the rhythm guitars hit, and it doesn't let up through a tasty guitar solo section, the sharp, thundering rhythms laid down by Robert Sweet and Timothy Gaines, and an interesting use of what can really only be described as Stryper's take on a breakdown at about the 4 minute mark, which adds even further punch to the track. 

The title track follows "Yahweh" up very nicely, with a song that sounds very much like a beefed up version of something from the Soldiers Under Command or To Hell With The Devil days during the verse portions of the song, but also finds Michael adding and angry, METAL edge to the screams he uses during his chorus vocals that I don't recall ever hearing in the past.  "Pride" kicks off with guitars that, while still retaining that classic Stryper tone, come off as much more angry and dark than on the previous two tracks, which are a stark contrast to the smooth tenor vocals Sweet utilizes throughout much of the verse work here.  Once again, Michael does allow for some edginess in his vocals on the chorus, but not to the screaming extremes he uses on "Fallen".

"Big Screen Lies" has a bouncy feel to the opening guitars, but not in a poppy way, as there is still plenty of heft to be heard and felt here.  The chorus is particularly tight, with nicely layered vocals, and the drums throughout the song are huge and pounding as they are really given life in the mix here.  Not my favorite track on the album by any means, but one that finds the band headed more in an Against The Law vein than anything else on this record as the whole song has a dirty, almost bump-n-grind rhythm to it.

"Heaven" slows things down a bit, but not into ballad territory by any means.  The verses are largely just Michael chanting the words and Robert wailing away underneath, with Gaines' bass pulsating alongside an understated rhythm guitar, giving this a big, sing along feel.  Think "Soldiers Under Command" merged with "Sing Along Song" from To Hell With The Devil, and you will have a solid idea of how this song is structured and compelling in its presentation.  The chorus is simplistic, catchy, and one that will have everyone in the crowd screaming along "I choose Heaven!"  There's also a really cool, bluesy guitar solo embedded in the track, featuring several nice fret runs.     

"Love You Like I Do" is pure classic Stryper, from the big drums, to the tone of the guitars and the solo laid down, to the lead singer verse/backing vocal reply structure the band utilized so well in the 80's.  This track is pure nostalgic bliss despite the fact that it is a brand new song.  "Love You Like I Do" could have very easily slid onto THWTD and fit in lock-step with the tracks from that platinum selling record.  Easily one of my top 3 tracks here.

"All Over Again" finds the band slowing things WAY down, dropping into acoustic ballad mode, complete with big "oooohs" in the backing vocals.  Lighters will pop up if this song is played live, but to be honest, ballads were never what I wanted to hear from Stryper, despite the fact that they are probably the style of song that most 80's fans will remember them for if they weren't into the band as a whole.  After all, "Honestly" received a ton of video and radio airplay and is still the track a lot of people most closely associate with the band's success.  A decent song, I suppose, but far from the best thing here.

"After Forever" picks things up immediately and likely grabs many listeners by the shirt and shakes their faith a bit as Stryper covers...GASP...a Black Sabbath song?!  For those who may not be aware, however, "After Forever" has some extremely blatant Christian lyrics, and the band absolutely nails the heft of this track, especially the crushing drums and the urgency brought forth by Robert, as well as the tandem guitars of Oz and Michael.  Just an excellent version of this song, which, incidentally has been covered by other Christian bands in the past (most notably by thrashers, Deliverance).  Again, one of the best moments on an already excellent album.

"Till I Get What I Want" is the shortest song on the record (and features a blatant grammatical error in the title...but I'll let that slide...).  Fast and furious, to be sure, this song lacks the catchiness that most of the rest of the album contains, and while not necessarily a skipper, it is definitely what I would consider to be the lone "filler" track here and one that could've been left off the record with no negative effect to the overall greatness of Fallen.

"Let There Be Light" sounds like Stryper being played in Dokken style...or maybe the other way around...but it's pretty cool.  Honestly, it feels like someone handed George Lynch a Stryper-tuned guitar, and told him to play along.  Big, layered chorus vocals and a smoking solo complete this track which doesn't necessarily fit the "classic Stryper" mold, but is cool as heck anyway.  

"The Calling" gets back to more of the classic sound, again in a heavier fashion than many thought possible from this "hair metal" band.  One of the more "metallic" songs here, "The Calling" would have been a great way to wrap this album up...had it not been for the equally classic, equally metallic "King Of Kings", which lays bare the bands' Christian beliefs and stance, lest anyone forget why, and for whom, Stryper rocks!  Excellent stuff.

The production is, as you would expect from Stryper, big and bold, with a sharp mix, lots of thundering drums, scorching guitars, and tightly layered vocals.  As is also the norm, the Frontiers Records standard for packaging is top-notch, with a 14 page booklet with complete lyrics (minus "After Forever"), writing and production credits, individual member photos, a band photo (under the CD in the tray), and an actual jewel case!!!, along with some very nice artwork and an extensive thank-you section. 

As good as No More Hell To Pay was in 2013, Fallen tops it in numerous ways and is a nearly perfect album from this band that has seemingly completely rejuvenated themselves in these past few years.  Hopefully this resurgence continues for the band, as I would say that these last two albums rivals any two-album span the band has put out in their rather long history, including the amazing back-to-back efforts of Soldiers and THWTD.  And that is saying a LOT...

Rating:  A so-so ballad and one filler track away from perfection, still exceedingly crankable, Fallen is a definite 9!

Monday, December 28, 2015

DEF LEPPARD "Def Leppard"

(c) 2015 Mailboat Records

  1. Let's Go
  2. Dangerous
  3. Man Enough
  4. We Belong
  5. Invincible
  6. Sea Of Love
  7. Energized
  8. All Time High
  9. Battle Of My Own
  10. Broke N Brokenhearted
  11. Forever Young 
  12. Last Dance
  13. Wings Of An Angel
  14. Blind Faith
Joe Elliott--Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals
Phil Collen--Guitar, Backing Vocals
Rick Savage--Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Rick Allen--Drums & Percussion
Vivian Campbell--Guitar, Backing Vocals

Here we go...another Def Leppard album, and another wave of people clamoring for the band to repeat either Pyromania or Hysteria...or AT LEAST Adrenalize...and another letdown for that group.  Sure, there are nods to the past scattered throughout the album, and yes, the band puts forth their most complete record since the much-maligned X album, but a full-fledged return to the glory days is simply not in the cards for this band, nor do I think it is necessary.  But does Def Leppard at least leave fans hopeful that the band can continue to be at least viable as something other than a Summer-Retro-Tour headliner (no matter what the band claims about themselves)?  

Before I answer that, let's just get the bad stuff out of the way...the stuff you are likely to hear or read in just about any review you come across.  
  1. Fourteen songs is too many....about 4 or 5 too many, if I am totally honest.  
  2. Joe's voice is nowhere near what it was on Hysteria...or even X, for that matter.  The high end is virtually gone (completely gone in the live setting, in my opinion), and there are obvious studio tricks used here and there to bolster the power of his singing.  
  3. The band never completely cuts loose, even when the songs seem to beg for it.
  4. (And this may seem petty, but it annoys me) The song titles are MAJORLY misleading... I'll get to more of this in a bit.
Now, there are several good things about this record, as well.  For starters, the band remembers what got them this far in their career in the first place:  anthemic arena riff rockers and lighter-in-the-air ballads.  Whether you are talking High N Dry, Pyromania, Hysteria, Adrenalize, X...or even total hit-and-miss records like Euphoria...or TOTAL miss records like Songs From The Sparkle Lounge and Yeah!...Def Leppard has always had one or two true arena rockers to get people out of their seats and thrusting their fists in the air, and a ballad or two that will either have those same fans reaching for either a Zippo or a handkerchief.  It's who they are; it's what they do...and they know it's what you want them to play.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in the lead single, "Let's Go".  Joe's voice comes buzzing in accompanied by computerized effects to kick off this Hysteria-esque track which blatantly lifts its main riff from "Pour Some Sugar On Me", drops in a thumping bass line, and utilizes a catchy, hooky chorus of "let's go-oh-oh-oh-oh" that sits squarely in Elliott's vocal wheelhouse.  Talk about a total nostalgia tease of an opener!  My one complaint is that all throughout the song I do find myself saying, "yeah, come on...let's go!  Get this thing going!", as it seems to plod along in places where I wish it would just totally rock out! (see complaint #4 above)   

Want more nostalgia?  Follow-up track, "Dangerous" feels like it is just a production updated version of a song that could've been written for Pyromania.  The guitar riff just screams 1983, and the layered backing vocals, which have always been one of the strong suits of this band, are nearly perfect here on one of the top 10 songs this band has put out since Adrenalize.  It really is that good.

"Man Enough" also elicits a nostalgia trip like just about no other song on this record...but its a trip to "Another One Bites The Dust"-era Queen, not to anything Leppard has done.  This song so blatantly rips off the bass line and overall feel of "Another One..." that I would guess Freddy Mercury is up and dancing somewhere every time this track rumbles to life!  Really, this is a dang cool track that gives me hope that this album can sustain the band's future by plumbing the past, even if its not THEIR past!

"We Belong" is another straight-from-Hysteria number, very similar in style to that album's title track.  Thick with layered backing vocals, a throbbing bass line, and what can only be described as "lush" guitars, this track is exactly what Def Leppard did so extremely well at their peak of success.  This would've been ALL OVER MTV in the late 80's, and is easily one of the best tracks on this record, as far as I am concerned.  In fact, these first four songs are all top-drawer stuff for those seeking a return to the old Leppard.  

"Invincible" starts off with a simple bass line, before transforming into a pretty good mid-80's New Wave song that would make Duran Duran or Simple Minds proud, musically.  Vocally, the song is pretty bland, really, with no dynamics to Joe's voice during the chorus...I would actually go so far as to call it rather monotone, to be honest.  While not a brutal track (think most of Sparkle Lounge for my idea of brutal Leppard songs), this is, in tracking order, the first of a handful of songs I would've left off of the record, or recorded as bonus material.

"Sea Of Love" recaptures a bit of the Ret-Leppard (see what I did there?!) feel, as the vocals don't feel as processed and the guitars are a bit grittier than in several other places on the record, yet the backing vocals are as tight and harmonious as ever. 

"Energized" is one of the tracks I mentioned in negative point #4...totally mis-named!  This song is downright boring to me, with looped drums, synth effects, and a mid-tempo approach that is anything but "Energized".  I know a lot of people list this as one of the better tracks on this record, but I would say that this is the second track I would leave off.  It just does nothing for me, although Joe's voice does sound particularly comfortable here, with little strain detected as he tries to climb the scales just a bit.

"All Time High" takes the band retro again, but this time they jump on the KISS "Rock N Roll All Nite" bandwagon, pretty much copying that classic tune's main guitar riff, tempo, and basic drum rhythm, before adding in a Leppardized chorus and hook.  The funny thing is, I'm not even turned-off by the sonic theft here, as "All Time High" is a really good song, and the one I actually would've probably closed the record with if I had a hand in the track sequencing.  Good stuff, even if it's not overly original.

"Battle Of My Own" has a swampy, acoustic blues style that I struggled with when I first heard it, but repeated listen's have bumped it up slightly in my opinion.  I don't like the synthesized effects used on some of the vocals here, but this isn't an automatic skipper for me, by any means,

"Broke N Brokenhearted" is one of the catchiest songs musically, but again, it feels more like a 70's KISS song than a Leppard song, right down to the ridiculous lyrics that are little more than forced rhymes in places.  I mean, come on...tell me that lyrics like "You ain't flash, you're talkin' trash/And you hit me like a caffeine crash", aren't straight outta the KISS Lyrical Writing Bible!  Or when they aren't forced rhymes, they are simply ridiculously Gene Simmons lines like, "who's been sleeping in my bed?  I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your playhouse down!".  I'm actually laughing to myself as I type these lines out!  But again, I'll give it a pass because the grin I get from listening to these silly lines, along with the strong guitar riff, are enough to keep the track rocking along.  

"Forever Young" is pure filler, in my estimation.  Totally cliche in it's lyrical content (as you could likely guess by the title), and not really that interesting musically, it is 2:22 that really has no reason for being on the record.  Even with it being so short, I'd have left it off the record.

"Last Dance" finds the band seeking one of those Zippo moments I alluded to earlier, but this is definitely not their best ballad effort by any means.  In fact, it's kind of boring.  Not bad...just not memorable.  It reminds me of Poison's "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" in the way it is structured, but doesn't have the emotional punch, or the nice electric guitar solo, to overcome the acoustic set-up here.  I'd drop it...

"Wings Of An Angel" is straight off of Pyromania with its guitar riff, reminding me a LOT of "Billy's Got A Gun" during the verses, mixed with Leppard's version of "Rock On" in the way Joe handles the verse lines, before building to a really nice, punchy chorus with those killer Leppard harmonies ringing in.  A strong guitar solo and those big, thundering Rick Allen drums round out one of the three or four best songs here.  While normally I wouldn't bury such a great song so late in a record, it does help to even out the second half of this release, which has had few real strong moments.

"Blind Faith" closes out the record and finds the band going quasi-Beatles on us.  I'm not sure what to think of this song, to be honest.  On the one hand there are these odd woodwinds mixed into the simple snare-and-bass drum cadence and feedback-free guitars, which, like I said, is totally reminiscent of something the Beatles did on their classic Sgt. Pepper album.  But then the song kicks in at about the 4:30 mark, and for about a minute we get a glimpse of classic Leppard again...including Joe really reaching for a high note that he comes so close to nailing.  Would I keep it?  Yes, but I wouldn't have closed with it, as it leaves the band going out with a whisper and a fade rather than on a ringing guitar note, which is why I would've closed with "All Time High", as I mentioned earlier.

This is the first time Def Leppard has strayed away from Mercury Records to record an album, and while I'm not sure whose idea that was, I'm betting Mercury wishes Leppard was still with them, as I am sure this album will likely sell quite well.  Even being on a small label, the production is solid, as one would expect from a Leppard record, and the individual performances are overall really easy to hear in the mix.  The packaging is also top notch, with a full booklet with all the lyrics, numerous band photos, production credits, writing credits, and a thank you section.  

Best Def Leppard record ever?  No, not even close to the first 4 records (On Through The Night, High N Dry, Pyromania, and Hysteria).  Better than the last 4 records?  Definitely better than Yeah!, and Songs From The Sparkle Lounge...probably better than Euphoria (although that has a couple of killer songs on it), and on par with X (which I love, even though a lot of people hate it).  And, if you took at least three, and as many as five, songs off of this record, I think it may be a more solid album than Adrenalize but without the real high points from that record.  

So...back to the question I left you hanging with in my opening paragraph:  does Def Leppard give fans hope for the band?  More of a Def Leppard album than Slang was ever accepted as being, generally less pop than X, and considerably less crappy than Songs From The Sparkle Lounge, I think most people will say that Def Leppard is Def Leppard being Def Leppard, which is exactly what most people want....right?

Rating:  Crankable...which actually surprised me a bit!  I actually considered giving this an 8, but then settled on 7.5 simply because of the things I would've left off.  All in all, a very good return for the Brits, however!








WASP "Golgotha"

(c) 2015 Napalm Records

  1. Scream
  2. Last Runaway
  3. Shotgun
  4. Miss You
  5. Fallen Under
  6. Slaves of the New World Order
  7. Eyes of My Maker
  8. Hero of the World
  9. Golgotha
  10. Shotgun (Japanese alternate version bonus track)
Blackie Lawless--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Douglass Blair--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Mike Duda--Bass

Additional Musicians:
Michael Dupke--Drums


Since 1989, WASP has been, arguably, the most consistent of the 80's metal bands, at least in terms of the overall sound.  Since shedding their shock rock persona with 89's Headless Children album (title notwithstanding), Blackie and whatever version of the band he is using at the time, has become a far more mature, introspective band, with much deeper lyrics...and more depth musically, as well...with only occasional blips on the WASP radar (most notably the oddly angry industrial K.F.D from 1997, and horrendous 1999 effort, Helldorado).  It is not hard at all to draw a fairly consistent line musically and lyrically, between Headless Children, the 1991 masterpiece The Crimson Idol, 95's Still Not Black Enough, Unholy Terror from 2001, Dying For The World from '02, The Neon God (parts 1 & 2), which were released back-to-back in 2004, and 2007's Dominator.  WASP found a core sound and very rarely strayed from it, utilizing heavy lead and rhythm guitars, 70's-inspired, Hammond-styled keys, thundering drums, and competent bass playing, to carry the majority of their albums.  Unlike their 80's counterparts, WASP was never found toying with pop music (Def Leppard), country (Bon Jovi, Bret Michaels, Steven Tyler), or alternative music styles (Metallica...to name just one); WASP was...well, WASP.  You had a pretty good idea of what you were going to get every time you picked up a new WASP release.  

Also gone from this set of above-average-to-amazing records were the overtly sexual lyrics, replaced instead by deeper subject matter ranging from politics and emotional relationships to...of all things...religion.  No one really knew what to think of this deeper-thinking Blackie...and it only got harder to figure out when 2009 saw the release of  the overtly Christian album Babylon.  What was Blackie's angle here?  Blackie...a Christian?  Who was he trying to fool?  

Apparently, no one.   

2015 found Blackie and his newest incarnation of WASP carrying on in a similarly Christian direction with the release of Golgotha, the band's 15th studio album.  Started back in 2011, and delayed by a world tour and Blackie's severely broken leg, this new record picks up right where he left off musically, lyrically, and thematically.  Blackie's trademark roar of a voice is still firmly intact, not sounding like he has lost any of his range, although he was never a high-pitched screamer like so many hair bands of the 80's.  The guitar tone is still unquestionably WASP, as easily identifiable to the dedicated fan as the established tones of other long-term bands, from Van Halen to Stryper to Iron Maiden.  When you hear one of those band's guitars, you KNOW who you are listening to without even seeing the album cover.  Much the same with WASP and their consistent post-1989 approach.  And the style and structure of the songs, and even the album itself, is exactly what listeners have come to expect from Blackie & The Boys through the years.

The album opens with the uptempo rocker, "Scream", which could have easily slipped into the Babylon album with little problem.  In fact, if there is one knock on this record it is that several of these new songs, including "Scream", almost sound like reworked versions of other, older songs.  Not carbon copies, but very similar in certain aspects.  The same can be said of the follow-up rocker, "Last Runaway" which sounds like a cutting-room floor track from Crimson Idol or Still Not Black Enough, which means its a pretty dang fine song!  Blair rips through a particularly hard-charging solo on "Last Runaway", and the overall song structure, including the galloping bass work of Duda, hearkens back to the best stuff WASP has released.  

Two-for-two is a solid start to any record, and WASP is on fire from the get-go with Golgotha.

"Shotgun"  is a politically charged number that continues the greatness of the first half of this new record, as yet another furious rocker is imbued with Blackie's reinvigorated roar, and some exceptional work from the guitar tandem of Blair and Blackie which may be...sorry Chris Holmes fans...the most adept, powerful tandem that has ever been in the band.  These two just feed off of one another and compliment each other so tightly, so seamlessly, it's truly a joy to hear.

"Miss You" slows things down...WAY down...with a haunting power ballad about the loss of a loved one.  Blackie's always emotive voice is in fine form here as he achingly pleads "Oh God, I miss you--tell me can you hear me/Oh God, I miss you--I can't scream and I can't speak".  This track reminds me a lot of "The Idol" from Crimson Idol, both in the depth of emotion poured out and in the soaring guitar solos (one in the middle, and a massive solo that takes the song home at the end) that just pick this already powerful track up and carries it to new heights.  Even at nearly 8 minutes long, never do I find myself losing focus or drifting away from the powerful beauty of this track, which is my second favorite here.

We are at four-for-four as far as great-to-classic WASP tracks go, and it isn't until "Fallen Under" that we hit even the slightest stumbling block.  The only real problem with this song is the simple, overly repetitive chorus, which seems to drag in spots, making the song feel long at just under 5 minutes, while "Miss You" never drags despite being close to 8 minutes in length, as I mentioned before.

Even this "low point" doesn't hold the album back, as the real powerhouse of the album is up next, with "Slaves Of The New World Order", the best track of a really good set of songs on Golgotha.  "Slaves..." is this album's "Murders In The New Morgue" from Crimson Idol, thunderous drums, powerful chord progressions, and tightly layered backing vocals just feed into the greatness of this monstrous track with such dynamic lyrics as "Hold the tail and feel the thunder/Close enough to smell devil's breath/Between the nails I saved one thief/And ride to hell and lay waste to death" in a clear reference to Christ's crucifixion, decent into hell, and eventual resurrection to destroy sin and death.  Truly powerful imagery matched by an equally powerful performance in the music, again driven by Blackie and Blair's guitar team-up, which draws yet another screaming solo from Blair's axe.    

"Eyes Of My Maker" slows things just a bit, while also presenting one of the heaviest moments on the new record, as Blackie presents a song from Satan's viewpoint, with lyrics screaming "Hear me now, from where I rule for now/My pearls before swine/And in that tree, I lied, deceived/Naked I preyed, a snake in the vine/Golgotha's worst, I railed and cursed/And nailed the cross all time/Oooh, by chapter and verse, by God I'm cursed/Cause I can't look into His face, I'm blind".  Potent stuff there, to be sure.

"Hero Of The World" starts off like its going to drift into ballad territory, but in very Who-like fashion, explodes from its bounds about mid-way through the track with pounding drums and a scorching guitar solo, in a way that is reminiscent of some of the best moments of Dominator or Dying For The World.  

Album closer (standard versions), and title-track, "Golgotha" is the most overtly Christian song on the album to those who don't seek to dig into the lyrics and their meaning (many people have told me they COMPLETELY missed the meaning of "Eyes Of My Maker"), with such blatant lyrics as "Jesus I need you now/Free me, I'm lost somehow/Oh remember me today/I'm a leper left to hang/Oh, yes, I need you now/Jesus I need you now", but never does Blackie sound like he's PREACHING AT YOU as much as he's EXPLAINING TO YOU where he stands now, what he believes, and how he got there.  Again, truly, truly powerful stuff lyrically from Mr. Lawless, with equally powerful and emotive music to back him up.

Despite the fact that WASP has moved to a smaller, European-based independent label in Napalm Records, the production here is still crisp and clear, yet remains edgy and unpolished, as a WASP album should.  The packaging is a digipack (what are you gonna do???), with a full 12-page booklet which includes all the lyrics (a few typos included), as well writing and production credits, and a little note from Blackie.  There are no band pictures to be found, however, which is a small bummer, but nothing major.  Now, if you were like me and you sprung for the extremely limited edition package, you also got a vinyl single of the Japanese alternate version of "Shotgun" (mine's still sealed), a WASP flag (never opened mine), a picture postcard of Blackie (kinda scary looking, to be honest), a cool WASP necklace (also never opened), and the CD itself, all in a metal can that is roughly the size of a full vinyl album.

Limited Edition metal can edition...sorry for the glare!

I know a lot of people have dismissed WASP as a shock-only band for a lot of years, and, as such, they have missed out on what a truly great songwriter Blackie Lawless is.  The guy can structure a song better than the majority of his peers, and writes rock/metal opera-stylized songs better than just about anyone, in my opinion.  And, long-term fans such as myself, have watched as Blackie has been on a soul-searching mission for several years, and several albums, now, culminating in both Babylon and now Golgotha.  Has Blackie found what he's been looking for?  It would certainly seem so, and hopefully I don't have to wait another 6 years to see where he goes next on his journey of self-discovery!

Not the pinnacle of the band's, or Blackie's, career, but definitely top 5. 

Rating:  Easily one of the best of 2015!  Crankable in the extreme, I give this a 9!

   

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ASHES REMAIN "Christmas EP"

(c) 2012 Fair Trade Media/Columbia Digital

  1. Joy To The World
  2. Gift Of Love
  3. O Holy Night
  4. Room For A King
  5. Christmas Medley
Josh Smith--Vocals
Ben Kirk--Drums
Rob Tahan--Guitars
John Hively--Bass
Ryan Nalepa--Rhythm Guitar

Another little Christmas gem I only recently discovered, Christmas is a five track, largely acoustic EP from Christian rockers, Ashes Remain.  Featuring two original compositions, two traditional songs, and a medley, this EP retains the harder-edged modern radio rock sound Ashes Remain has become known for, utilizing strong lead vocals, excellent songwriting, and quality musicianship.  

The EP starts with the well-known "Joy To The World", which doesn't stray too far from the traditional arrangement.  Smith's slightly raspy vocal style works well here, giving the classic tune a more modern edge, with simple acoustic guitars and understated drums setting the stage for this beloved carol.  Much the same can be said for "O Holy Night", with Smith's vocals again taking center stage as the band slowly builds behind him.  Of the two classics, "O Holy Night" is my favorite here, as I really like how the song just continually ramps up in volume and power, although it never breaks out into full-on rocker mode, by any means.

The two originals here are excellent.  "Gift of Love" and "Room For A King" are both top-notch songs that I really feel should be included in the Christmas rotation of Christian/positive rock stations on a regular basis.  While "Gift Of Love" starts off with a nice piano line, it still maintains a modern rock (albeit in acoustic form) style, while "Room For A King" is far bluesier in its approach, providing a nice change of pace without disrupting the overall flow of the EP.  Of the original Christmas songs I have heard over the past several years, "Room For A King" definitely ranks in the top five, without question.  The lyrics are moving, the performance is excellent, and the production is clear, yet unpolished, giving the music a chance to stand on its own without studio tricks or embellishments getting in the way.

"Christmas Medley", as the name implies, combines parts of well-known songs into the only truly amped-up track on the record...and in instrumental form, at that.  Basically, this track is a long band-backed guitar solo, similar in style to the shred records of the 80's and 90's, although not as over the top or bombastic as any of those.  With "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" being the most obvious of the tunes incorporated here (and at least one other that I am having trouble putting a name to!), this is a nice way to close out this short record. giving the band a chance to shine on a project that was otherwise largely dominated by Smith's strong vocal performances.  

Available only in digital format (that I am aware of), this is an inexpensive pick-up, and easily found on Amazon, Google, and iTunes platforms.  If you're looking for something new to add to your annual Christmas mix, I'd strongly suggest Christmas as an option.

Rating:  A crankable Christmas gift...despite the mostly acoustic layout.  Give it a spin of 8.





Monday, December 21, 2015

TALKIN' TRASH WITH....Kjetil Wevling of RAZORBATS


Kjetil is the lead guitar player for the Norwegian hard rock outfit, Razorbats, and he was kind enough to take some time to Talk Some Trash with us here at G2G.  This interview was a particularly interesting one for me, as I fell on some ice and suffered a concussion about half-way through our PM interview, so there was some disruption to the conversation, which was already somewhat difficult to conduct due to the 8 hour time difference between my hometown and his.  However, not only was Kjetil game enough to continue the interview with me, he was kind enough to be one of the first people to contact me after hearing about my little accident, checking in to see if I was doing well.  Truly a class act.  So, without further blathering from me, here is Kjetil, Talkin' Trash in one of the most fun interviews I have done to date....

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G2G:  Kjetil, thanks for taking the time to talk some trash with us!  

Kjetil:  Thanks for having me, Arttie...

G2G:  Kjetil, the first thing I have to ask...what year is it in Norway?  Because you guys sound like you think it's still 1978 or something!

Kjetil:  (Laughing)  It is still 1978...everywhere!  If you're into hard rock music, there really hasn't been anything new since the late 70's.  There has been variations on a lot of the older music, but nothing truly new.  Bands from the 90's and 2000's, like Soundgarden or the Hellacopters...the Darkness, the Black Keys...they are just doing their take on KISS, Sabbath, Aerosmith, etc.  As with them, we don't feel the need to experiment too much, since it can't really be improved on anyway.  And, we're not a bunch of desperate hipsters trying to show the world how underground and
Razorbats
innovative we are.  We just make some quality hard rock with catchy riffs and anthemic choruses.

G2G:  That you do!  And, that's a refreshing attitude, honestly, because here in America it seems like everyone goes with the trends and keeps trying to become superstars playing the exact same thing as everyone else.

Kjetil:  I know!  It's pretty much the same here in Norway.  They're always looking for "the next big thing" and when it happens, it gets copies so many times that it loses all meaning and turns into a parody of itself.  But most people don't really care.  They just want to listen to what everyone else is listening to so they can pretend they're hip or something.  Very few people want to dig a bit deeper and discover all the great bands that don't get played on the big radio stations or written about in the major newspapers and magazines.  Bit, I think the tide is turning.  Eventually, they will get tired of the sterile EDM (Electronic Dance Music) DJs and whatnot, and start looking for something where you can hear the people who made the music.  Much like what happened when Nirvana came out and shook the world out of the plastic 80s thing that was dominating the airwaves.

G2G:  I totally agree, which is why I love doing this site.  It exposes me...and hopefully the readers...to so many new and exciting bands that are doing their own thing.  I love that part.  Now, speaking of things I love, I honestly cannot stop playing your new record, Camp Rock!  The first question I wanted to ask is actually about the record itself.  Who mixed and produced this record, because it has such a complete 70s/early 80s feel and sound that I actually feel like I'm listening to a vinyl record at times.

Kjetil:  That's so cool!  It's great to think about that we can move someone on the other side of the planet just by making some rock songs!  And, we do have it on vinyl, as well as CD!  (Laughing)  We recorded the album in a small studio in Oslo called Calmeyer Studios with producer and engineer Kai Christoffersen.  We had 13 songs more or less ready and we recorded all of them.

First, we had a day of pre-production at our shitty rehearsal space in an abandoned factory.  Just to straighten out some arrangements, you know.  We then spent about 12 days recording the album.  Since the studio is small with just one recording room, we had to record the drums first and build the songs from there.  We were pretty well rehearsed, so things went quire smoothly.  We chose Kai as the producer because we knew he loved 70s hard rock and he's done some great work with a band called Orango.

It was really hard to find the right producer.  There are not many bands like us in Norway, so very few producers could understand and enhance on what we were trying to do.  There are a LOT of metal bands, and punk bands, but very few hard rock bands.  Also, indie rock and pop is huge, so most of the producers go where the money is.  Kai mixed the album as well.  I think that sound comes natural for him.  Plus, I play old Marshall type amps and a 1974 Gibson SG.  The bass player uses a 1976 Rickenbacker, so a big part of the sound was already there, I guess.

G2G:  Awesome!  You kind of led me into the next question there...how are you received in Norway, which is kind of known for extreme metal styles like death and black metal?

Kjetil:  It has been a bit difficult, to be honest with you.  There is only one radio station here that can break a new band into the mainstream, and they have a strict regimen of play-listing music that they think will appeal to 12-22 year olds.  The rest of the stations only play songs that are already Top 40 hits.  So, it's hard to get through.  We have gotten a lot of support from a new radio station that plays rock music, and the reviews in rock and metal magazines have been amazing.  It seems to us that the people who like the kid of music we play love the album, but for us, unfortunately, they are in the
minority.

We started this band because we did not want to compromise anything and do whatever we felt like, regardless of trends.  We love Alice Cooper, The Sweet, Blue Oyster Cult, and bands like that, so it would be dishonest for us to try and make something more current just to fit in.  But, enough people get and like what we're trying to do, so we can tour and record songs.  And that is really what it's all about for us, anyway, so we're happy campers!

G2G:  So, speaking of influences, how did you guys discover those bands?  With radio being like you describe it, I can't imagine a lot of BoC or The Sweet get much airplay, either...

Kjetil:  (Laughing)  Absolutely not!  For me, it was through my older brother.  He was into KISS and AC/DC, so I remember sitting, just staring at the cover of the Destroyer album, wondering what had happened since they were standing on a pile of rocks with fire all around, and wearing those weird clothes and make-up.  I remember thinking that maybe it was the end of the world or something like that!  (Laughing)  We were still young when Nirvana happened, and I guess for a little while in the early 90s, a lot of people started reidscovering bands from the 70s.  The Doors movie came out and the girls in my class liked "Stairway To Heaven" by Zeppelin.  I didn't like grunge, but it opened the door just a bit, so that it was easy to backtrack the influences of those bands.  The first big one for me was Black Sabbath.  I couldn't believe what I heard.  I was so raw and powerful!

Then, the whole Scandi-rock thing happened here, with Swedish and Norwegian bands like the Hellacopters, Backyard Babies, and Turbonegro mixing classic 70s hard rock with punk.  In many ways, those bands laid the foundation for how Scandinavians play hard rock.  I don't know if they had any impact in the states, but here they were massively important.

G2G:  Well, Hanoi Rocks made a bit of a dent over here, but most people don't know the Hellacopters, for example.  Crashdiet and Reckless Love have gotten some attention, but they are more like the second wave of that Scandi-rock movement...

Kjetil:  And I've never heard of them!  (Laughing)  But Hellacopters are doing a one-off reunion show at Sweden Rock Festival next summer and the buzz is immense!  Much like it was when Turbonegro reunited in 2003.  When they split up in 1998, they played clubs that held about 300-400 people.  When they got back together, they played an arena tour in Norway for 6,000-10,000 people!

Rock has fallen out of favor in Norway, it seems.  At least, when it comes to new bands.  The most popular rock bands in Norway today were formed in the 80s and 90s.  I've heard festivals complain that there are no new bands to headline festivals, but I think it's like that most places, not just Norway.

G2G:  Okay, I have to ask...what is a Razorbat?

Kjetil:  A razorbat is the weapon of choice for the Green Goblin.  He's a super-villain and Spiderman's nemesis!  The bass player came up with the name and it sounded like an awesome name for a rock band, so it stuck!

G2G:  (Laughing)  As a comic book fan, I was wondering if that was where it came from!  Nice!  So, how did you guys end up coming together?  Where do the Razorbats come from?

Kjetil:  I love comic books, myself, so when he said where it was from I was all for it!  After a while, the name of a band doesn't really have any other meaning than just what you associate with the band and their music.  I would say Guns N Roses is one of the worst band names of all times, but it sounds killer when you say it because it makes you think of a great band!

As for us, we came together in the fall of 2012.  I used to be in another band that toured internationally and ha a few hits, so I wanted to start a new band when that fell apart.  One of the things I didn't want was to have a clear idea about what kind of band it was going to be.  I just wanted to find some good guys, start jamming, and see what happened.  To begin with, we were more of a punk band, but we soon gravitated towards our common love of 70s hard rock and we started to sound like Razorbats.  In our "punk phase", we released an EP cammed Bring It on, and actually got a minor radio hit in Norway from it.  So, some were a bit surprised when we abandoned that direction for more retro sounding hard rock.  But we felt really comfortable with it and felt that what we recorded with Camp Rock is a lot closer to what we really wanted to do.

All of the guys have been in bands before where we have felt restricted by a formula or a sub-genre of music that he had to follow the rules of, so it has been a joy to just do whatever we want and that a lot of people actually like.

G2G:  You do get a sense of that punk past creeping into Camp Rock, though...especially on a track like "Betty Book".  But, it feels authentic 70s punk and not the pop-punk that was all the rage for a few years after Green Day and Blink 182 became successful...

Kjetil:  It is definitely in there somewhere!  Our bass player was in a hardcore punk band earlier, and I was in a pop punk band,.  But we don't agree on what kind of punk is the best!  (Laughing)  I like Rancid and Bouncing Souls and a few of the bands from the 90s, but we all love The Ramones, The Dictators, Dead Boys, and bands like that.  So, we try to go with what we have in common.

G2G:  So, you told me the other day that you had to travel 18 hours or something to a gig.  Is that common, or do you guys just play anywhere, any time?

Kjetil:  It actually just too 17 hours this weekend!  (Laughing)  But that is back and forth.  It's hard to get people to gigs here on week days, so we just play Fridays and Saturdays.  It takes about 10-12 hours to drive from the east coast of Norway to the west, and about 4 days to drive from the south all the way north.  So, touring here is a bit tough.  Many of the roads are extremely narrow and winding, with lots of tunnels and ferries.  This weekend, we drove 5 hours to the first gig, and 3 1/2 hours to the next gig the second day.  We try not to play everywhere because it takes so much time, bit its hard to say no to gigs...we love playing in front of people and we have a great time together!  Lots of jokes and farts!  (Laughing)

G2G:  (Laughing)  Is that because of the Mexican food?  I have a friend who lives in Sarpsborg, and he told me..and I've also read...that Mexican food is huge in Norway.

Kjetil:  Taco Friday!!!  It's a tradition for a lot of people here for some strange reason!  I would think that too much beer, not enough sleep, and food from a gas station causes the farts, though.  (Chuckles)  It's like what guys said in Spinal Tap.  "I wanted to capture the, the sights, the sounds, the smells, of a hard working rock band on the road..."  (Laughing)  Most bands are like that!  Bad food and even worse jokes!

G2G:  Awesome!  Alright, let's talk about Camp Rock.  That CD is still in my disc changer and is pretty much all I've listened to for the past two weeks or so.  It's very obvious early Def Leppard has some influence here, especially on tracks like "Planet Riff".  Would you agree with that?

Kjetil:  Very cool that you still listen to the album.  I've heard from a lot of people that it needs a couple of listens before it sticks, but when it does, they never seem to get tired of the album!  I see the link to the early Def Leppard stuff, but the main inspiration for the riff was actually "In The Evening" by Led Zeppelin, with a bit of "More Than A Feeling" by Boston!  (Laughter)

G2G:  I can hear that as well, to be honest.  There is just such a mix of 70's influences all over this record...very cool stuff.  My personal favorite track, far and away, is "Desolation Highway".  Can you tell me a bit about where that song came from inspirationally?  I simply don't get tired of it, and its probably my song of the year for 2015, if I made such a list.

Kjetil:  I can, yes!  The song came from a strange feeling that something was terribly wrong and that something was broken that could not be fixed.  I have no idea why, but the song is an attempt to describe that feeling with a story.  In the song, we follow a guy who is running away from a messy situation he has caused, but it's left up to our own imagination to figure out what he has done.  He wants to go back to the one he loves, but knows it can never be the same again, so he keeps running and punishes himself by seeking out situations that are bad for him.

The music for this one came real quickly and without much thinking.  The opening riff has sort of a "doomish" vibe to it, maybe with a little nod to Black Sabbath.  We had a girl sing backup on it, because it felt like an echo of the girl he is running away from and made it more powerful.

G2G:  I think it's incredible, like I said.  Another favorite is "Warhead".  Any insight there?

Kjetil:  That song is about something a lot of young men can relate to.  That is, getting violently jealous when you're drunk.  (Laughs)  You do a lot of stupid things when you're drunk and when your in love and jealous at the same time.  It can get really ugly.  The guy in the song ends up losing the girl in the end because she gets tired of him going crazy when he's had a few too many.  Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, he pushes her away and ends up thinking he was right all along.  The singer wrote the lyrics for that one.

G2G:  Hopefully not from personal experience! (Laughing)

Kjetil: (Laughing)  No, but you see things!  Songs can be true even if you haven't lived it yourself.  Thankfully!

G2G:  Is that the way it is with "Kids of the 70's"?

Kjetil:  That song is more about how things haven't changed that much since the 1970's, and not really all that much about being a kid in the 70's.  We started thinking about music and that most new bands claim to be so damn original, but if you dig a little deeper, you will find tons of bands who sound just like them.  Then I thought that might be true for more things than just music, like how the optimism and the will to fight of the 60's was replaced by the escapism of the 70's and beyond.  The opening line of the song is "There are riots in the streets, while the 'Me Generation' gets lost in the disco in a blizzard of cocaine".  That could be just as true of the rave culture of the 90's.  We are just recycling old cultural expressions now and we don't understand why so many try to hide it.  So, we quote Free at the end of the song and state that "we're alright now!"  You don't have to be original to be good.

G2G:  (Laughing)  Well, it is definitely good.  I'm enjoying it immensely...

Kjetil:  Gload to hear that!  We released it as a single in Norway and it got played a lot.  We also heard now that a station in Italy has picked it up and they've gotten great feedback from their listeners.  Maybe we're on the brink of a major international radio hit!  (Laguhs)

G2G:  Well, we all know I have MAJOR pull in the industry!  (Laughing)  Have you guys had the opportunity to rub shoulders on-stage with any well-known bands?

Kjetil:  Of course you have pull!  Tell all your friends, give the album to the whole family for Christmas, and pester your local rock station to play Razorbats!

About other bands...we usually headline smaller clubs in Norway, but we got the chance to support Rise Against in a bigger hall this summer.  It was awesome!  We might be doing the same with Backyard Babies in Norway soon, but that is not 100% yet.

G2G:  Let's play a little game.  I'll give you a word or words and you give me the first thing to come to your mind, okay?

Kjetil:  Shoot!

G2G:  Stage Dolls

Kjetil:  Haha!  Pop-metal for housewives!

G2G:  Ouch!  Bashing on the Nordic countrymen!  Okay...Backyard Babies...

Kjetil:  Total 13!  UFO Romeo!  Getting punched in the face by a drunk biker at Turbonegro's farewell gig in Oslo during BB's set.

G2G:  (Laughing)  Okay...T. Rex...

Kjetil:  Glam!  Glory!  Tragedy!

G2G:  Black Sabbath?

Kjetil:  The love of my life!  Power, mystic, genius...

G2G:  Ozzy or Dio?

Kjetil:  Ozzy!  I think they are like comparing pizza and burgers.  Both delicious, but very different.  The Heaven And Hell album is great, but Ozzy is a god!

G2G:  I'm a Dio guy, but you have the right to be wrong.  (laughing)  How about black metal?

Kjetil:  Thanks!  (Laughs)  I saw Dio with Heaven and Hell (the band) on their last tour in Europe, and he was amazing.

I'm not into black metal.  It doesn't connect with me.  Only one black metal song that really moves me and that is "Mother North" by Satyricon.  It's an overwhelming display of power...

G2G:  Lutfisk

Kjetil:  Barf... I'm more of a pinnekjott guy.  Delicious lamb...

G2G:  (Laughing)  Just trying to make you feel culturally comfortable.  I try to do my research!

Kjetil:  Not bad!  Check out smalahove!  Very black metal...and also delicious!

G2G:  Favorite beer of Razorbats?


Kjetil enjoying SOME kind of beer!
Kjetil:  The cheapest stuff is all I need!  (Laughs)  We just drink whatever they have at the venue we play at, or the bar we're in.  I love Grolsch and Erdinger Weissbier, but I'll drink anything.  Not a big
fan of American beer, though.

G2G:  If you could hang out with one rock star, living or dead, who would it be?

Kjetil:  That's a tough one!  I'm gonna say Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath.  He seems like such a brilliam and funny guy!  I was actually in the VIP section of a Killers show in New York once with David Bowie and Jimmy Page, and I totally froze and didn't manage to say a single word.  So, I'm not sure I'm a fun guy for the rockstars to hang out with...
(Laughter)

G2G:  One rockstar you would like to punch in the mouth?

Kjetil:  Bono!!!

G2G:  (Laghter)  That was quick!  Any specific reason?

Kjetil:  I don't know.  I hate U2 and he seems like such a self-righteous douchebag...

G2G:  You referenced Spinal Tap earlier...do Razorbats have any Tap moments in their career?  Trapped in any pods or doing any dancing around a miniature Stonehenge?

Kjetil:  Hmmmm....nothing as funny as Spinal Tap, I'm afraid.

G2G:  Yet...

Kjetil:  Very true!  All bands eventually have a few Tap-moments.  Hope it's not the drummer it happens to!

G2G:  (Laughter)  If a Razorbats movie is made, who plays you and why?

Kjetil:  Bjorn Sundquist!  The ultimate Norwegian badass!

G2G:  What about that guy that plays Thor in the Avengers movies?

Kjetil:  (Laughs)  I changed my mind.  I want Happy Tom from the Norwegian death punk band, Turbonegro, to play me!  Or the Cookie Monster!

G2G:  Norway has Sesame Street?

Kjetil:  Of course!

G2G:  What are your hopes for Razorbats?  How far do you see your band going?

Kjetil:  That's hard to say.  The feedback on the album has been amazing, but not too many people like the kind of hard rock we play.  At least not too many people under 30.  The goal is to be able to tour Europe and play for 150-200 people a night, earn enough from it to finance recording new albums, and have a blast doing it!

G2G:  Any videos or plans for such things?

Kjetil:  Nope...it is too expensive and MTV just shows reality shows now, so we don't really see the point.  We hope to get the support gig for Backyard Babies or Imperial State Electric this winter, and if we do, we'll record and film it.  Maybe make a live DVD or just put a couple live songs on YouTube.

G2G:  What's the best concert you have ever attended?

Kjetil:  Best concert?  Hmmm...  Is it okay if I choose three?

1.  Balder--my brother's band when he was in high school.  I was 12-13 years old and the experience pretty much changed my life.  They played the cafeteria and it was full of 16-17 year old kids, drinking beer, making out, and smoking something that smelled funny.  It was so loud and such a long way from the music videos I had seen on MTV.  I had never been so scared and felt so much alive at the same time.  I realized then that I had to start a band.

2.  Turbonegro--I think it was the release party for the Ass Cobra album at the legendary rock club "So What" in Oslo.  They were so disgusting.  The singer was fat, hairy, sweaty, and extremely rude to the audience.  They all wore denim and looked kind of gay.  I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen.  They were a long, long way from Bon Jovi and other heroes I had from childhood.  They were dangerous, fun, and unashamed of being different.

3.  Black Sabbath--reunion tour.  They are my favorite band and I never thought I would be able to see them.  I got Tony Iommi's guitar pick and I am not ashamed to say I cried a bit!  (Laughs)

G2G:  Worst concert ever?

Kjetil:  Bon Jovi a couple of years ago.  It was terrible.

G2G:  Yeah, they're just not the same anymore...especially with so much Nashville seeping into their sound.

Kjetil:  And no Richie Sambora!  And, Jon's voice has gotten thin and he couldn't reach any of the high notes any longer.

G2G:  What about the last album you were just completely disappointed in...just pure crap?

Kjetil:  It's been a long time since I was that disappointed with an album.  Probably Wolves In Wolves' Clothing by NOFX.  Couldn't find a single track that I liked.

G2G:  Anything that has just blown your mind recently?

Kjetil"  Yep!  The new single from Turbonegro called "Hot For Nietzsche"!

G2G:  And Camp Rock, of course...

Kjetil:  Of course!

G2G:  Kjetil, I want to thank you for all the fun!  I hope you had some fun as well, and I truly hope people check out Camp Rock and your band, Razorbats!  Truly great stuff!

Kjetil:  Thanks a lot!  I had a blast!

G2G:  Gledelig Jul to you my friend!  I think I said that correctly...

Kjetil:  Perfect!  Merry Christmas to you, too!

G2G:  Make sure you head over to this location so that you can pick up Camp Rock from Razorbats...and maybe you can even snag a Razorbats t-shirt as well...although I doubt anyone can rock a shirt quite like this guy!

7eventh Time Down "A Christmas Wish List"

(c) 2014 BEC Recording

  1. This Christmas
  2. Wish List
  3. I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day
  4. Little Drummer Boy
  5. Just Say Jesus (Radio Edit)
Mikey Howard--Vocals
Cliff Williams--Bass
Eric Van Zant--Guitars
Austin Miller--Drums

I don't normally review Christmas albums, but when I stumbled across A Christmas Wish List by accident, I thought I would possibly expose the EP to readers here who may have also missed out on snagging this release.

For those who may be unaware, 7eventh Time Down (just pronounced "seventh") is a Christian rock band from Kentucky who have now released three full-length studio albums of modern radio rock, frequently similar in style to bands such as Daughtry, Shinedown, Lifehouse, Seventh Day Slumber, Disciple, etc.  It was almost exactly two years ago today (12/23/13, in fact), that I reviewed their sophomore album, Just Say Jesus, which I enjoyed a good deal, so when I saw that this EP came out between that album and their newest effort, God Is On The Move, I was hopeful that the band would maintain a similar style and sound to the one I had found myself really liking.  I was not disappointed, for the most part.

This Christmas EP starts off with a couple of originals from the band.  Neither one is destined to become the next "White Christmas"...or even "Blue Christmas"...but both are solid efforts.  "Wish List" is my favorite of the two, as it brings a bit more creativity to the songwriting, with "This Christmas" coming off as a bit too pop for my liking, especially in the way it's produced.  "Wish List" isn't a particularly hard rocking number, either, but the chorus is rather catchy and you get the feeling the boys in the band mean it when they sing "I wish for joy to come fill our hearts, I pray for peace and a brand new start, I wish for love and Your Kingdom come, This is my wish list...".  Ending with a nod to "Jingle Bells", this is a nice original number that I would imagine will get a few spins around the holidays for the next few years.  

As always, 7TD is not afraid to express their faith, either in their originals, or in the choice of traditional songs on this EP.  "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" is a song that I have always loved, but very rarely hear anyone cover.  For those who may not be aware, the song is based upon a poem written by Longfellow more than 150 years ago during the Civil War.  Perhaps the fact that 7TD is from one of the Civil War states makes this a song they grew up hearing more frequently...who knows.  All I know is that I am very glad they chose this song for their album, and I hope to hear this heartfelt rendition find its way onto radio stations throughout the country in their Christmas rotation.  It is performed to near perfection, in my opinion, and is the high point of the record for me.

"Little Drummer Boy" is my all-time favorite Christmas carol, so when I saw that 7TD included it here, I was pretty excited.  But rather than take the tried and true approach to this song, 7TD throws fans a complete curve by intermixing RAP into this song!  Yes...rap.  The track starts off with a cellphone ringtone, followed by Mikey (I believe it's Mikey) answering the phone and talking to a record label exec...maybe the producer of the record...someone...and throwing out the idea of a rap song for this record.  Things start off with an excellent snare drum intro, with some effects thrown into the mix, before it backs off to just the drum and Howard's vocals, which are chock full of emotion and delivered in a very powerful style...right up to the first set of "puh rum pum pum pums". At that point, the rap kicks in, with a full verse of lyrics not found in the original classic.  The song then transitions back to the more traditional approach and lyrics, only to be interrupted once again by more rap and some vocal effects.  I'm not 100% sure who does the rap here...I think Mikey does at least part of them...but they are sharp, quick, and easy to understand, which is not always the case with rap song, as most readers here would attest to.  While I am never going to claim this as my favorite version of this classic song (that belongs to these guys), I will give 7TD credit for the attempt at originality here, and will admit that the song has grown on me after repeated listens.

The album closes with one of the band's most well-known songs, "Just Say Jesus", in its radio edit form.  Very much in the Daughtry/Lifehouse vein musically, this is a nice little "gift" to fans of the band, and also a solid introduction to potential new fans who may have picked up this Christmas EP on a whim.

I realize there are tons of Christmas albums out there, with dozens more released every year, but if you are looking for something a little bit different, I would encourage you to seek this one out.  I know it is available on iTunes and Google Play, as well as on Amazon Music...even on CD if you want it.  Check it out, if for no other reason than to hear an excellent version of "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day".

Rating:  A Christmas cranker!  7.5 for this little EP...

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

CASABLANCA "Miskatonic Graffiti"


(c) 2015 Despotz Records

  1. Enter The Mountains
  2. Closer
  3. This Is Tomorrow
  4. My Shadow Out Of Time
  5. RE: Old Money
  6. Sister
  7. Name, Rank, Serial Killer
  8. Miskatonic Graffiti
  9. She Was The One 
  10. Exit The Mountains
Anders Ljung--Vocals
Josephine Forsman--Drums
Erik Almstrom--Guitars
Ryan Roxie--Guitars
Erik Stenemo--Guitars
Mats Rubarth--Bass

Okay...what the hell is going on here?  This is some seriously weird stuff, folks!  Are we sure this is Casablanca???  Yowza!

Normally, I save my reservations and issues with an album until later in my reviews, but I feel like I need to get right to things here, as to avoid them until later is really ignoring the elephant in the room.  I was TOTALLY blind-sided by "Enter The Mountain" when I popped this in my player.  10:31?!  Are you kidding me?!  Starting off an album with a ten-plus minute long song can be a LOT to digest, especially when the band has altered their sound as much as Casablanca has, especially on this track.  I really thought that perhaps I was reviewing an album by a DIFFERENT Casablanca than the band I had associated with that name before, because this album sounds nothing like the Casablanca I am used to.  I don't even really know how to describe it, stylistically.  There are definitely some melodic metal elements, and a lot of progressive rock, but also some...I don't know..."space rock", maybe; I'm having a tough time coming up with an adequate description.  Part of the problem is that with a song this long, there are movements and changes and crescendoes within the song, constantly changing the feel of the whole thing.  Again, it's not a horrible piece of music, but for me, it's like going to a restaurant and having the biggest, heaviest course of the meal served to you right off the bat, and then having the side dishes and appetizers brought out later.  You are already so stuffed full that you don't know if you can even touch the other stuff!  That's how I felt after "Enter The Mountain".  I had to push myself away from the table for a little bit to let that first track digest before coming back for more.

So, after getting that first track out of the way, how does the rest of the record sound.  It's something of a mixed bag for me, with a lot of the record feeling like Deep Purple meets 70's Alice Cooper meets some trippy, Pink Floyd-esque progressive stuff...and even some Savatage thrown in the mix for good...and odd...measure!    "Closer", which is the lead single from the record, has a lot of 70's-inspired classic rock organ in the sound, as do a few other tracks.  "This Is Tomorrow" throws 70's-styled synthesizers into the mix as well, but that Deep Purple vibe runs deep throughout both tracks.

"My Shadow Out Of Time" slows the pace down, utilizing a throbbing bass line and more layered classic rock guitar and organ, along with a slow-burn of a lead guitar solo, to create one of the most powerful tracks on the record, and one that I would love to hear live as I am betting it could turn into a monstrous jam session in the middle!

"RE: Old Money" feels a bit more 80's in its approach, even sounding a bit like Vain, in my opinion, although never turning the sleaze factor all the way up like that band does on their best material.  I really like the vocal approach on this track, both in the lead vocals and the backing vocals, as well.  Another screamer of a lead guitar solo burns out too quickly, but this is, again, one of the best tracks on the album and one that I hit repeat on more than a few times.

"Sister" is a bit of an oddity (on an album end-capped by oddities), as carries a Red Rider-meets-U2 vibe, in my opinion, sounding very much like it could have been a song auditioned for the Lost Boys soundtrack back in the 80's.  I like it quite a bit, but it was definitely a grower for me, as I really wasn't quite sure what they were going for with this the first couple of times.

"Name, Rank, Serial Killer" drops some punk into the sound, along with a bluesy slide guitar, that really makes me think of bands like Junkyard, or maybe even Dogs D'Amour.  A quick, sassy number, that is the fastest track here, this is probably the closest the band comes to their sleazier, grittier sound from their first couple of records.

The title track has Zeppelin all over it, stylistically, with a galloping rhythm and some haunting, ringing guitar parts, but without Plant's high-end yowl, and then things slow completely back down to "She Was The One", which returns to that classic 70's vibe that is so prevalent throughout the best parts of this record.  A bit Zeppelin, a bit Floyd, and perhaps even a bit theatrical Alice Cooper, this track really closes out the best portion of the record in fine fashion, and is where I wish the whole project would have ended, with a final fade-out of the nicely 70's toned guitars, or perhaps a dying wail from Ljung's powerful rasp...but, sadly, it is not to be...

...because the album gets back into Bizarro World again with the nearly 9 minute-long closing track, "Exit The Mountains".  Actually, this is a better song than "Enter The Mountains", largely because of the parts that have something of an 80s Savatage feel to them, but again with that Deep Purple vibe mixed in as well.  The problem (well, one of the problems) is that this song has SO MANY parts it's just a bloated mess.  Perhaps if "Enter The Mountains" and "Exit The Mountains" were broken up into individual tracks, so that you could skip the spoken parts, for example, I could better handle more of this record.

I don't know...I honestly don't know if I have the energy to sit through this epic thing many more times in my life.  It's not that it's bad, as the musicianship is definitely there.  It's just so dang BIG and demands so much attention that I struggle with it each time I put it on to play.  It's exhausting to me, to be honest.

Oh, and yes, I know the backstory of the album here, being based on H.P. Lovecraft....but that really does nothing to take away from the immensity of this album.  It actually adds to it, making it all that much more difficult to absorb in one sitting.  It is an amazing effort put forth by the band, no doubt.  It's just not one that I think I can do again, at least anytime soon.

There are two ways to look at this record.  You can look at it as a complete concept project, which I prefer NOT to do...or you can look at it as tracks 2-9, which constitute a darn fine retro rock record, with about 20 minutes of wasted space at the front and back of the record.  That is how I choose to perceive the record, and, in fact, I kept all of the middle stuff and dumped the first and last tracks when I ripped the record to my iPod, as I do REALLY like the mid-section.

Rating:  Rock this at 6.5 as an entire project, if simply for the musicianship on display here, and the sheer scope of the record.  However, if you get rid of the first and last songs, and absorb this as more of a classic rock-inspired album, I could see cranking it to 7.5.


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