Wednesday, November 22, 2017

OPERATION: MINDCRIME "The New Reality"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. A Head Long Jump
  2. Wake Me Up
  3. It Was Always You
  4. The Fear
  5. Under Control
  6. The New Reality
  7. My Eyes
  8. A Guitar In Church?
  9. All For What
  10. The Wave
  11. Tidal Change
  12. The Same Old Story
Geoff Tate--Vocals
Kelly Gray--Guitars
Scott Moughton--Guitars
John Moyer--Bass
Simon Wright--Drums
Brian Tichy--Drums
Scott Mercado--Drums
Mike Ferguson--Drums

Just a quick thought...how many drummers does an album need?  

Anyway...

Geoff Tate's post-Queensryche project, Operation: Mindcrime, completes its three-album cycle with The New Reality, an album that has been either anticipated or dreaded...possibly both...by the metal community since the iconic vocalist released the first album in the trilogy, The Key, in 2015.  For those who are joining this musical venture late, the Operation: Mindcrime (the band) trilogy is a vast conceptual story about four people who invent some sort of technology that allows them to create an alternate reality that others (I'm assuming the government) want to get their hands on.  Fans of Queensryche originally flocked to this project, hoping for something akin to what that band was doing in the brilliant first half of its career, between the debut EP and Promised Land.  For Tate detractors, this trilogy was a chance for them to point and scoff...perhaps even laugh...at the man who, despite all of his talent and the stage he had been given, managed to get himself fired from the band that he co-founded and that had become a shadow of its once-great self.  

I happened to be one of the people who fell somewhere between camps.  Having been a Queensryche fan since the word jump, I was excited at the prospect of Tate continuing on in the vein of Operation: Mindcrime and Promised Land, which was where Tate's project was reportedly headed.  And at first, when he was still recording under HIS version of the Queensryche name, Tate succeeded to a large degree with Frequency Unknown, but once he was legally forced to drop the 'Ryche name and his project became Operation: Mindcrime, things have not gone as swimmingly.  Overly long and bloated, convoluted, and hard to follow, the first two parts of this trilogy were mostly a disappointment, although both had some shining moments that gave me true hope.  Could Tate possibly have one more really good record in him?

With The New Reality, it seems that perhaps he did.  Easily the best of the three, in my opinion, The New Reality seems far more focused musically, sticking largely to what Queensryche did best on the Mindcrime, Empire, Promised Land stretch, which is crafting both big metallic rockers and progressive, musically interesting and challenging ballads, along with some interlude moments added for texture and depth.  As far as the music goes, there is a lot of Promised Land here.

Things start off with what sounds like a theremin and some atmospheric keys before we get some spoken word lyrics from Mr. Tate, but it takes over two-and-a-half minutes of the opening track before the band kicks in and the song "A Headlong Jump" actually starts.  Once it does, however, it is very reminiscent of the music that Tate was doing with Queensryche on Promised Land, sounding not entirely like tracks "I Am I" or "Disconnected", as points of reference.  I have to admit that I am immediately intrigued.



The uptempo rocker, "Wake Me Up", has some really nice guitar work in it and Tate is in fine form, easily adjusting his vocal range to fit the music, and I like that this is pretty much just a straight up hard rock track, nothing overtly progressive or atmospheric about it.  That changes a bit with "It Was Always You", which reintroduces those electronic and programmed keyboard elements, weaving them in and out of the tribal drum pattern used here, which I really like.  Again, Tate comes off as vocally confident and in control here, and the layered backing vocals...which I believe are just layers of Tate supporting himself...add a nice touch of depth.  There's also some really cool saxophone work here (again, reminiscent of Promised Land), and I find myself rather excited to dig more and more into this album.

"The Fear" stays in that progressive vein, but "Under Control" returns to a harder-edged sound with angry guitars, a gritty bass, and a edgy Tate all combining nicely on another one of those 'Rhychian tracks that so perfectly melded the progressive and hard rock genres together when the united band was hitting on all cylinders.  I really like this track, as it carries some Empire qualities with it, while not sounding like a rehashing of old material.



"The New Reality" is another, laid back, more-progressive moment on the record that I find myself really liking, although, once again, it seems to take a long time for Tate to join the party.  Again, very much in the Promised Land vein, this song also has, at times, aggressive rhythm guitars, piano, saxophone, programmed elements, and some pretty cool drum work throughout, which seems to be a common theme on this record.  I don't have any indication of which drummer played on which tracks, but the drums throughout this record are excellent and fit the mood of these tracks so well.  Never overplayed, and never just the standard rock patterns used over-and-over again, there are a variety of interesting rhythms, patterns, and fills, as well as a nice selection of percussion instruments intermixed with the basic drum sounds.  So many places have Tichy written all over them to my ear, but, as I said, I have no idea who plays on which song at this point, so all I can do is guess.

"A Guitar In Church" loses me, to be honest, as it is a seemingly self-serving instrumental that does nothing to advance the overarching storyline of the trilogy, or to enhance this record at all.  I would drop it, personally, but its not like its glaringly bad or anything.  I just don't see the point, and oddly, its not overly guitar-driven, either, despite the name; there are a lot of keyboards, however.

"All For What" jumps back into the story of the album(s), and with the alert siren effects and the spoken word drop-ins from Tate make this feel very much like an Operation: Mindcrime track.  There are keys/pianos, a string section (most likely synthesized as I have not seen it credited anywhere), and Tate is in fine form here as he ranges from spoken word sections to angered screams, with some powerful, impassioned singing dabbed liberally all across the track.  This, as much as anything, has that big, epic feeling that was missing from the first two installments from the band, and once again, hearkens back to better times for Tate with Queensryche. 

"The Wave" is pretty dang cool, a riffy mid-tempo rocker with a plodding drum section that pretty much demands my head start bobbing along, although the track does have some rather odd electronic elements in it (is that a theremin again?!), where a screaming guitar solo would have fit in nicely.  Is Tate making some sort of political statement here with the line "the radical left have no power, and the right, no solution", or is it all part of the storyline?  Not sure, but the line definitely jumps out at you when you hear it...at least it did for me. 

"Tidal Change" is really just a minute-plus long intro to the closing track, "The Same Old Story", which is one of the real disappointments on the record.  Not because it is a poor song, because it is not, but because the record ends on something of a laid-back whimper rather than a gut-punch rocker, which I think would've served so much better.  Still, "The Same Old Story" does fall in line with the mood and style of about half the record, again dropping in electronic elements (and an organ?) to enhance the progressive nature of the track.  Again, I think Tate sounds very much in control here, never reaching the rafters with a wailing scream, but still climbing the ladder in a couple of places, while varying his pitch and delivery all throughout the track.

It's odd to me that all three of these albums were supposedly recorded in one massive session over several weeks (or perhaps months), as the writing styles are so different on the three.  This disc reigns superior over the other two, and it isn't really all that close, to be honest.  With this album, I feel like I am listening to Queensryche again, which is an awesome thing for me.  I have long stated that my favorite records from 'Ryche were Promised Land, Operation: Mindcrime, Rage For Order, and Dedicated To Chaos (I also think American Soldier is unfairly bashed...), and I think this record contains elements of all of those records, with Promised Land and Dedicated To Chaos the most obviously represented.  There are also some obvious comparisons to Dream Theater that will be made, especially Images And Words and Awake, which I feel have some of the best DT combinations of heft and progressiveness. 

The production here has its issues, as it has a few spots where the mix comes off as rather muddy, with the guitars on the title track being one place where this issue really stands out in my memory.  The drums also come off as a bit flat in spots, particularly the bass drum, but this is a relatively minor issue to me.  I simply adjusted the EQ on my system and boosted the bottom end a bit.  There are also a couple of moments where the music has such varied volume levels that I found myself having to adjust the settings on my computer (my copy is digital) to properly hear everything that was going on.

It will be interesting to see what happens next for Tate, as I believe he was legally only allowed to use the Operation: Mindcrime name for this trilogy and for touring, or perhaps that was a choice he made...I'm not 100% sure.  Speaking of touring, since Tate has the exclusive rights to tour Operation: Mindcrime I and II, he is taking his band of the same name on the road for the 30th anniversary of that iconic record.  Tate still has some interesting musical ideas in him and I hope he has a platform on which to share these ideas, as the progressive rock/metal community still has a place for a talent such as his.  Where that goes, it is anyone's guess at this point.

Is this a full-scale return to the greatness of Queensryche at its peak?  No, but it is closer than Tate has come since leaving/being ousted from that band.  Overall, I found myself enjoying the record quite a bit.  If it has any glaring weaknesses, it would be the lack of a true single (although, what does that really matter these days?), and it really could have used one or two more hard-hitting rockers.  Other than that, I think this is an enjoyable record that is best digested as an entire meal and not broken down into several individual courses.

Rating:  The only album of the trilogy that I consider crankable, I give this one a 7 (compared to a 5.5 and a 6 for the previous two entries).

Return To Reviews Index

PROJECT 86 "Influence EP"

(c) 2017 Independent Release

  1. Sabotage (Beastie Boys)
  2. Fell On Black Days (Soundgarden)
  3. Facet Squared (Fugazi)
  4. Man Of Constant Sorrow (Dick Burnett/traditional)
  5. Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)
Andrew Schwab--Lead Vocals
Darren King--Guitars
Cody Driggers--Bass, Backing Vocals
Ryan Wood--Drums

In anticipation of their twentieth anniversary, Project 86 launched a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a brand new album, set for release at the end of 2017, called Sheep Among Wolves.  As part of that campaign, contributors received a digital EP called The Influence EP.  Whether this EP will be included on the new album or not, I am not sure at this time, although it would seem there should be plenty of room, as the album is said to include just 10 tracks, and the total running time for this EP is only slightly over 18 minutes.

As far as the band goes, lead vocalist only vocalist/lyricist Schwab remains from the original line-up, with the other three members all coming on board sometime between 2012 and 2014.  However, after seeing the band perform live last year on the CityRockFest tour with Disciple and Seventh Day Slumber, I can report that the group sounds very tight and cohesive...and heavy as stink!

This EP, as you can see from the tracklisting, is made up completely of cover songs, from multiple styles of music.  I was a bit taken aback by some of the choices here, for various reasons.  For starters, when I saw "Sabotage" on the list, I was instantly curious as to whether or not Schwab would stay lyrically true here (there is an f*bomb dropped in the original).  He did not, choosing to drop the word from the song, which I feel was definitely the right call, as Project 86 has long been linked to and associated with the Christian hardcore/metal scene, and using language that listeners would find offensive would not serve the project well.  As far as the song goes, the band plays things pretty close to the original, although it may actually be a bit heavier than the Beasties' original, and Schwab definitely has lower-ranged vocals than on the original, but this cover makes total sense, style-wise.  I can tell you that they played it live last year and the crowd went nuts, as the song has become so much bigger throughout the years than it was when it was originally released, as it has been repeatedly used in movies and other media.  An excellent start to this EP, to be sure!

"Fell On Black Days" is a cover of Soundgarden, and the band definitely expands their sound here, taking on a far more electronic style on this grunge ballad.  For those familiar with Project 86's past, the approach on "...Black Days" is similar to that used on the Rival Factions album, and on a few scattered songs throughout their catalog.  As a fan of a lot of grunge, I was anticipating not liking this version, but I was wrong, as I think this altered interpretation gives the song new life.  In fact, I think this is probably my favorite track on this release (although it is hard to go up against "Sabotage"!).  Schwab is able to really crank up the anger in his vocal approach here, and the down-tuned guitars intermixed with the electronic elements really drag a dark atmosphere across this song, which, let's face it, is rather dark in its original form.

"Facet Squared" is a Fugazi song that, much like covering the Beastie Boys, makes a lot of sense for Schwab and the band.  The punk stylings are still present here, although there is more bottom end and crunch here than on pretty much any punk/hardcore song you will find from this track's original time period.  Still, this is a track that probably most closely fits in with a lot of Project 86's catalog, and is not really a stretch, musically, which is likely why the band sounds so comfortable here.

The last two songs are seemingly completely out of left field, as "Man Of Constant Sorrow" is, originally, a traditional folk song that was given life in bluegrass form on the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?  Now, I hated that movie, and being aware of the song's folk/bluegrass roots, I had no idea how this song would be tackled.  Much like they did with "...Black Days", Project 86 turns this track into something rather electronic in nature, not messing around at all with the bluegrass arrangement, although Schwab does make a humorous lyrical alteration that you can pick up on if you listen closely (you may need to look up the original lyrics to find his changes).  This song had to grow on me a bit, as there really is very little heft to the track, and the drum loops and programmed elements are not really parts of the musical landscape I tend to tread.  It reminds me quite a bit of the stuff Nine Inch Nails was doing about 20 years ago, stylistically, and while I have come to not hate it, it is definitely my least favorite track here.

"Strange Fruit" is a cover of an old Billie Holiday blues number from the Great Depression era, and again, something not at all like anything I would imagine P86 attempting.  Schwab actually spends the vast majority of this track singing, abandoning his hardcore shouting/barking, as he glides across the piano and atmospheric electronics applied here.  There is some cool, bluesy guitar used here, that I really enjoy, and I think this is a nice inclusion to show that there is so much more to Andrew Schwab and Project 86 than the downtuned guitars and brutal breakdowns they are commonly associated with.  While I likely wouldn't buy it, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Schwab decided to do an entire album of blues covers such as this, as he definitely shows an affinity for this vocal approach which is SO different from his norm.  This is a pretty cool way to end such an eclectic set of cover songs, in my opinion.

As I mentioned, this is a digital release, so there are no liner notes to review here.  In fact, the image above isn't even an actual album cover; I had to search the internet for an image and this one came up in multiple places, so I borrowed it for this review.

This is definitely an interesting and eclectic mix of covers, all presenting different styles, and different challenges for the band, as well.  It's fun to hear the guys tackle these tracks with unique approaches, as it would be very easy (I imagine) for the band to do the "safe" thing, and just blister through them all, making each song a crushingly heavy, down-tuned jam, rather than take interesting and unique approaches to each.  If for only that reason, Project 86 should be commended for not taking the easy way out.  However, there is so much more to commend the band on in these short 18 minutes, as they have created what I feel is an essential part of the Project 86 catalog that is well worth the PledgeMusic donation.  By the way, you can still submit a pledge and get this EP if you wish to, by clicking here.

Rating:  Definitely a crankable 18 minutes; give this a 7.5, but don't think you have any true idea of what you are about to embark upon, stylistically.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

SILKED & STAINED "Love On The Road"

(c) 2017 Lion's Pride Music

  1. Bombshell
  2. Hold My Hand
  3. Much Love
  4. She's Not There
  5. Anytime Anywhere
  6. Lonely Road
  7. Believe
  8. Rockstar
  9. Born To Run
  10. Every Breath You Take (Police cover)
Bill Tsaklidis--Vocals, Keyboards
Tony Gavalas--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Tommy Fotiadis--Bass
Orpheus Lazz--Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals

Sometimes, I can't help myself.  I judge an album by the name of the band.  How can you not?  I mean, when a band calls itself "Silked & Stained", the first thing that comes to mind is a certain philandering ex-President and an intern...right?  RIGHT?!   But then, once I figure out the band is foreign and that English is likely their second (or third, or fourth...) language, I try to give them a bit of a pass on the name and go ahead and give the album a review solely in its merits, musically.  Sometimes the band is every bit as bad as its name, and other times I am pleasantly surprised.

Silked & Stained falls into the "pleasant surprise" category.

Hailing from Greece, Silked & Stained plays a decidedly European form of melodic hard rock, often incorporating more keyboards than this guy really finds necessary, but usually allowing them to slide into a supporting role once they have been unnecessarily utilized in several song intros.  Otherwise, this debut album, Love On The Road, is largely made up of solid rhythm guitars and nice, steady bass work and some big, thundering drums, all supporting above average to very good guitar solos, and smooth, decently powerful...but fairly heavily accented...tenor vocals.

The album kicks off with the lead single, "Bombshell", which is a pretty decent indicator of where the band is musically throughout the record.  While not the absolute best track on the record, for my money, the bump-and-grind rhythm section has a definite late 80s feel to it, and the guitar solo, which starts out rather laid back, ramps itself up in both speed and intensity as it goes on.  Tsaklidis is a bit hard to understand in a couple of spots, which became glaringly obvious to me when I followed along with the lyric video below and realized I had a couple of lines COMPLETELY wrong!  Still, a very nice lead-in for this album and one that sets the stage pretty well.



"Hold My Hand" is another solid 80s rocker, more in the Bon Jovi radio rock style, especially with the keyboard intro and straight-up drum approach that are anchored by a rhythm guitar/bass line that are pretty typical of that time period.  Gavalas has a definite grasp of the sound of the era, and his lead guitar work is one of the highlights throughout the record, the solo here notwithstanding.  I actually find myself wishing his solos would extend a bit more in several places, as I wonder what would happen if the guy just completely cut loose.  He sounds that talented to my ears.

"Much Love" had me thinking the band was covering Danger Danger's "Naughty Naughty" for a second, as it has that exact same type of keyboard intro, but it is quickly replaced by a far more melodic, far less hairy, style of hard rock.  The keyboards become more of an electric piano sound in the background, and they are actually a nice addition to the overall feel and sound of this mid-tempo rocker, which is not something I regularly say, but they do cross the line into annoying territory right before the guitar solo, which is very skillfully executed, by the way.

"She's Not There" is a pretty nice hard rock track, and in the top half of the record, with some really nice rhythm guitar work and an interesting drum pattern.  The backing vocals are solidly executed here, also, giving this song a nice, full feeling.  Again, the keyboards are kept to a minimum and kept at a distance, which benefits this track to a large degree.  "She's Not There" rounds out a pretty solid first four tracks on this all of a sudden rather surprising album.

The first real misstep on the record comes with "Anytime Anywhere", but it is a fairly big misstep.  This song has just an abysmal keyboard intro that makes me want to chew on glass every time I hear it!  Seriously, no matter how bad I feel some of the keys on "Much Love" were, they are nothing compared to this song's intro.  Oh my goodness these are bad.  BAD! And this track is the only one where I really have any issues with Tsaklidis' vocals, which come off as just overly sugary.  If I had to make a comparison of my overall impression of this song, I would have to say it is very much in the ilk of Sheriff's lone hit "When I'm With You", which I couldn't stand, or the atrocious Bad English ballad, "When I See You Smile".  Ugh.  I skip it even before the jingly, tinkly, crystally keys hit, sometimes jumping on the skip button even before "She's Not There" finishes fading out, just so I don't risk hearing this song! 

The band and record are quickly redeemed with the excellent "Lonely Road, which kicks off the second half of the record and is possibly my favorite track on the album.   This big song has enough power chord riffing and emotive vocals to capture most listeners' full attention, and the sweeping guitar solo is really, really good.  Oddly, most of the best tracks on this record are actually on this second half, come to think of it, with the remaining tracks all being decent mid-to-uptempo rockers with the flashy "Rockstar", with its excellent guitar work and a pretty cool tempo change on the bridge leading into the chorus section, being a definite contender for top song on the album, along with the the very 80s Dokken-sounding "Believe", and the hard-charging "Born To Run"...which is NOT a Springsteen cover.  

Speaking of covers , the band covers the Police stalker track, "Every Breath You Take" on the CD, but due to licensing issues, it is not included on the digital review presskit I received.  Bummer, as I would have liked to have heard where the band went with such an iconic song.

In the end, the music is well-executed, the songs are mostly above average, and there is something very likable about this band.  I could definitely do without the grating, tinkling keyboards on "Anytime Anywhere" as well as a couple of questionable intros, but these things don't diminish an otherwise strong performance from a band that is, at the very least, worthy of keeping track of in the future.  

There is no way I anticipated enjoying this record as much as I do, and I find myself returning to it time and time again.  Here's hoping the band gets some recognition in the States and throughout Europe...maybe even Japan...and is able to continue on, as I think they have quite a bit to offer.  

So much for judging a book by its cover...or a band by its name, I suppose...

Rating:  Suprisingly, I find myself really liking this record, cranking it to 7.5 .

Saturday, November 11, 2017

GUARDIAN & WHITECROSS "Revival"

(c) 2017 Independent Release

  1. Enough Is Enough
  2. The Rain
  3. Never Say Goodbye
  4. Top Of The World
  5. In The Kingdom
  6. Spanish Castle Magic
  7. Nunca Te Dire Adios
Jamie Rowe--Lead Vocals
Rex Carroll--Guitars
David Bach--Bass
Michael Feighan--Drums

Sometimes, believe it or not, bands will do something simply to have fun.  There's no hope of a platinum record award or some big massive recording contract.  Sometimes an album is made because the guys genuinely get along, have common goals, and just want to get together and jam.  Such is the case with the rather unimaginatively-named Guardian & Whitecross album, Revival.

Consisting of the lead vocalist and bassist of Guardian, and the guitar player and drummer of Whitecross, G&W is a combination that makes sense if you know anything about the Christian hard rock scene of the late 80s/early 90s.  The two base bands were among the most talented of the non-Stryper bands, with Carroll regularly being pointed to as one of the legitimate guitar heroes of the genre, Christian or secular, and Rowe being held in such high regard as a vocalist that there was some belief he would replace Stephen Pearcey in Ratt at one time.  Add in the fact that Bach and Feighan make up a seriously formidable rhythm section, and you have the makings of what could best be described as a "super group", even though a lot of people likely don't know who more than one or two of the members are.

This mini-album consists of three Guardian tracks (2, 3, and 7, which is a Spanish re-recording of "Never Say Goodbye"), three Whitecross tracks (1, 4, and 5), and a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic, "Spanish Castle Magic".  Of the six main tracks, the Whitecross covers, if you want to call them that, are probably the most interesting, as it is rather unique to hear Jamie Rowe's vocal take on songs that previously featured Scott Wenzell on the microphone.  While both have a raspy vocal approach, Rowe tends to sing a somewhat lower tenor register with a blusier take than Wenzell's more straight-forward hair metal approach, which gives the Whitecross tracks a somewhat different overall feel.  Obviously, the guitar heroics from Carroll are superb here on tracks that I am certain he has performed hundreds, if not thousands of times, and Feighan's drumming is dynamic and holds a comfort level that can only be attained through multiple runs through a song.  Bach finds himself slipping right into the pocket on bass, adding some nice beef to the bottom end of the songs, which is especially noticeable on "Enough Is Enough", which comes from the debut album from Whtiecross, which suffers a bit from the recording methods and mixing styles of a small label (Pure Metal Records) in the mid-to-late 80s.  I really enjoy Rowe's vocal take on this track, as well, and I think it is the standout of the three Whitecross tracks.

On the Guardian side of things, the songs feel more familiar to my ears, largely because the right singer is hitting the right notes on these tracks.  It is interesting to me that both Guardian songs came from their Fire And Love album, especially since that album has just been reissued, so there is a chance these tracks are resurfacing in a couple of different forms now.  There are some rather noticeable differences, however, on these new G&W recordings, especially in the backing vocals department on the bluesy rocker, "The Rain".  If I had to guess, the backing vocals were done in relatively few takes, and it wouldn't shock me to learn that they were done in only a single take, as they are not particularly strong or layered.  In fact, they remind me very much of the way a lot of bands' backing vocals sound in the live setting, when not recording tricks or multiple tracks are used to boost the feel and sound.  They don't sound bad, per se, but they are definitely weaker than on the original album.  

The ballad choices here are interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, Whitecross was never known as being particularly strong on their ballads, especially early in their career, so going with "In The Kingdom" was a smart move on this group's part, as it is probably the best ballad the band has ever done and has more power and grit to it than so many of the overly-saccharine ballads the band recorded on their first couple of records.  That being said, the big, layered backing vocals from the original are missing here, much like I mentioned in my review of "The Rain" above.  For Guardian, a band that was known to have several big time power ballad-type songs, I would imagine the choice of tracks may have been a difficult one, but "Never Say Goodbye" was definitely a solid choice, and it is executed extremely well here.

I messaged Rex Carroll a while ago about the inclusion of "Spanish Castle Magic" on this EP, as I felt it was an interesting choice, and he told me, "Spanish Castle, I actually recorded a couple years ago with my own vocal on it.  The guys liked it, so we added Jamie's voice and Dave's bass, but we had run out of time for Mike, so we used the drum track that was already there".  I have to say that I really enjoyed Rex's guitar work here, and it showcases his ability to play in styles other than the 80s "hair metal guitar god" style he is most often linked to.  If you've never heard his other project, King James, or his blues material, you should do yourself a favor and track both down if you are a fan of a guy that can simply melt an axe, regardless of the style and approach.  Here, he does a great job of delivering on the bluesy hard rock stylings of Hendrix, while also re-imagining and updating the solo stretches so that they don't simply come off as re-recordings of the original.  Rowe handles the vocals extremely well, also, and I have to say that "Spanish Castle Magic" is actually my favorite track on this mini-album,despite the fact that a couple of the re-recorded tracks are among my favorites by either band.

The last track here is simply a Spanish rendering of "Never Say Goodbye", which is something that Guardian was known for doing in their heyday.  Musically, I believe it is the exact same track, with Jamie laying down a separate, Spanish vocal here, and getting a backing assist from a woman named Suzanna Allen, whom I know nothing about other than the fact that she has a nice voice.  Its an alright touch, but I skip it and head back to the beginning of the album when it comes up, and I honestly would have rather had another cover...or an all new collaborative track...than this Spanish re-recording.  

The production is simple and raw, lacking any big-time studio polish, which I have to say I really enjoyed.  It gives the songs a more live, organic feel, and goes back to what I said at the outset; this feels like an album of friends playing together and having fun, nothing more, nothing less.

I am not 100% sure, but I believe this album was ONLY available if you were a PledgeMusic backer (which I was), but I have heard the guys plan to try to play at least a couple of live shows, so perhaps there will be copies available at any live shows.  I also believe that it can be ordered digitally for download.  If you find a copy on eBay or Discogs.com or somewhere, and you are a fan of either band...or 80s/early 90s Christian hard rock...you would be doing yourself a favor to snag this fun little album.

Rating:  I always struggle rating covers albums or re-recordings, but I would say this could be cranked to a 7, with the length, lack of big backing vocals, and one wasted track being the only issues I can really think of.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 6, 2017

ASHES REMAIN "Let The Light In"

(c) 2017 BEC Recordings

  1. Rise
  2. On Fire
  3. All Of Me
  4. Always Faithful
  5. Six Feet Down
  6. Greater Things
  7. Captain
  8. Criminal
  9. Follow
  10. All I Need
Josh Smith--Lead Vocals
Jon Hively--Bass, Backing Vocals
Ryan Nalepa--Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals, Co-Lead Vocals on "Captain"
Rob Tahan--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Ben Kirk--Drums, Percussion

Additional Musicians
Mikey Howard--Programming, Backing Vocals
Mike Payne--Guitars
Eric VanZant--Guitars
Dave Stovall--String Arrangements

Easily one of my most anticipated modern rock releases of 2017, Let The Light In is the first new album by Christian rockers, Ashes Remain, in more than 6 years.  Following up the excellent What I've Become wasn't originally supposed to take this long, but outside of a Christmas EP, and one digital single, 2014's "Here For A Reason", there has been very little heard from the Ashes Remain camp in that time, and I was starting to get concerned this album would never actually come to fruition.  Picking up where the last album (and single) left off, Let The Light In is a solid post-grunge modern rock album, composed primarily of uptempo rockers or somewhat mellower praise and worship styled tracks.  

The album's opener, and lead single, "Rise" falls immediately into the harder-edged camp and is a perfect bridge from their last album into this one.  A ringing guitar leads the band into the mid-tempo rocker, pulling behind it the drums and rhythm guitars, clearing a path for the powerful, emotive vocals of Josh Smith, a strong tenor with just enough wear and tear around the edges of his voice to connect with the modern rock crowd.  Rob Tahan incorporates some tasty solo work into the grungy track, layering atop a solid rhythm section of Kirk and Hively.  To say I was stoked after hearing this track would be an understatement.

"On Fire" was a bit harder for me to get into at first, especially with its programmed horn section, presumably courtesy of Mikey Howard of 7eventh Time Down, who also produced, edited, and recorded the album.  A bouncy rocker with a bit of a swing feel to it (courtesy of said horns), "On Fire" is a song about casting off past failures and moving forward.  Not my favorite track by any means, but not a skipper, either, and it has grown on me with repeated listens (my kids love it).

"All Of Me" is the first track to find the band dipping their musical toes in the more praise and worship styled sounds of the record.  A powerful song with a strong message, there is a lot more polish on this track than the previous two, and it reminds me a lot of the p&w material that Kutless has incorporated into their more recent efforts.  The same can be said of the next track, "Always Faithful", which is the first ballad on the album.  As with so many of the songs on the record, "Always Faithful" appears to be about issues of depression and addiction and the darkness associated with these things, and the band's belief that Jesus Christ is the one true way out of that darkness.  

The rock returns in full force with the hardest track on the record, "Six Feet Down".  Complete with some excellent, hard-edged guitars...including a really nice solo...and even some backing screams in places, this track is exactly what I was hoping for from Ashes Remain, and it is easily one of my four favorites on the record.

"Greater Things" treads musical territory that is not all that different from some of the things that 7eventh Time Down incorporated on their last album, #GodIsOnTheMove, also carrying that Kutless praise and worship style that I alluded to earlier.  Singing about how little things can make big differences in the world, Smith's vocals ring particularly clear on this track, all the raspiness and edge seemingly removed here.  Again, not a bad song, but I will admit that at this point I was starting to get a bit anxious to hear a bit more rock from the boys, as three of the last four tracks had fallen into CCM territory and away from the edgy modern rock I fell in love with on their last album.

"Captain" rectifies things with the catchiest song on the album and one that is so odd, so quirky, and so unlike anything else on the record, I fell in love with it instantly.  A song about addiction and alcoholism, Smith declares "I've seen the bottom/drowning in a bottle/I've been dead and hollow/Nowhere to fall, Nothing at all, Hard to swallow" in a way that leads the listener to believe he knows exactly what he is singing about.  Once again, the issues of addiction are addressed so directly and honestly here, it is truly a breath of fresh air, even when dealing with such dark topics.  Rhythm guitarist, Ryan Nalepa, actually provides some co-lead vocals in the form of a kind of free-form scat style that only serves to add to the offbeat nature of the track.

"Criminal" is another top-notch rocker filled with down-tuned guitars and a pulsating bass line, slipping into the top four tracks here alongside "Captain", "Rise", and "Six Feet Down".  Once again, this is the perfect song to help carry listeners over from the last album, delivering a grinding rocker that would also grab the attention of fans of bands like Decyfer Down , Relentless Flood, or Seventh Day Slumber.   Really good, edgy, buzzy hard rock with some solid rhythm guitar work and yet another nice solo from Tahan.  

The album closes with two more mellower tracks, in "Follow" and "All I Need".  "Follow" utilizes a string section (possibly a programmed one, I'm not an expert here), in a song about surrendering oneself in order to fully follow Christ, while "All I Need" is a piano-based ballad about romantic love, commitment, and a relationship that endures through a lifetime of marriage.

The packaging is pretty basic, but it covers all the bases, as well.  Lyrics are included for every song, along with the typical writing and production credits.  There is a single band photo included in the booklet, and a thank you section from the band and each individual member is located under the clear jewel case tray.

The production here is really strong, which I would imagine was quite the task when you take into consideration the two completely different styles of music included on this album.  Gritty and heavy in all the right places, yet also smooth and clean on the praise moments, Let The Light In is an album of varying tempos and textures, which I am sure led to some challenges for not only the production team, but for the band, as well.

In the end, I found myself really enjoying about half of the record, and appreciating and accepting the other half for what it is...basically a slightly rocking praise and worship record.  The problem for me, I think, is I had such high hopes for this record that I'm not sure it could deliver. The previous album benefits from having 12 tracks, which allows for a couple more hard-edged moments to liven things back up when the softer moments threaten to drag it down.  Perhaps including "Here For A Reason" would have proven a help to a degree, and would have given non-digital fans (like myself) a way to have that song in CD form.  However, even if another two or three really good rockers were included here, I don't think Let The Light In stood much of a chance of living up to What I've Become, which is just so, so good, in my opinion.  That being said, Let The Light In has enough really good moments to keep it from becoming just an average record for me.

Rating:  Definitely rock-worthy, give this one a 6.5.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

SHAKRA "Snakes & Ladders"


(c) 2017 AFM Records

  1. Cassandra's Curse
  2. Friday Nightmare
  3. Snakes & Ladders
  4. Something You Don't Understand
  5. The Seeds
  6. Rollin'
  7. Medicine Man
  8. I Will Rise Again
  9. Open Water
  10. The Race Of My Life
  11. Fire In My Veins
  12. The End Of Days
Mark Fox--Lead Vocals
Thom Blunier--Guitars
Thomas Muster--Guitars
Dominik Pfister--Bass
Roger Tanner--Drums

Believe it or not, Snakes & Ladders marks the eleventh(!) album in this Swiss band's history, and yet they still have not received anywhere near the accolades that I feel they deserve.  While always putting out solid, entertaining albums, the band has never had that big, breakthrough record that would grab a listener by the ears and shake them about, screaming at them "have you been listening to us?!"  Snakes & Ladders changes that, as I feel this is the definitive release by this high quality act!

Mark Fox rejoins the group as the lead vocalist, and all at once, things seem to be falling into place on this record.  When Fox first joined the band, clear back with 2003's Rising album, I felt he was the missing component, the truly dominating vocalist, the band had been missing.  While I enjoyed original vocalist, Pete Weidmer, I just felt the raspiness and power in Fox's vocals better served the music the band was releasing.  To be honest, I kind of dismissed the band after Fox left, and the  album with John Prakesh on vocals really didn't grab my attention; it just didn't seem to have the fire and passion in the vocals that I was looking for, although there were a handful of very good songs.  Then Fox returned and the vocals were back to where they were when I fell in love with the band, but High Noon, which charted very well in Europe, just just didn't have the songs that this one does.  That is not the case here, which is evident right from the start.

Immediately, many people are going to draw comparisons between the sound of Shakra and that of Pretty Maids, which, to be fair, is a pretty honorable comparison to make, as I feel Pretty Maids is one of the truly underrated bands of the past 20-30 years.  I LOVE Pretty Maids.  And yes, there is a definite comparison between the two bands, especially now that Fox is fronting Shakra again.  That being said, Shakra doesn't venture into the more metallic areas that the Maids will sometimes explore, sticking more closely to the late 80s/early 90s hard rock sound of driving, powerful rhythm guitar riffs, some excellent solo work, big drums, catchy hooks, and sing along choruses.  These elements show up in spades on Snakes & Ladders, starting with the very first track and lead single, "Cassandra's Curse", a straight forward hard rocker with riffs that will punch you in the nose and a simple, echoing chorus that will stick with you for days.  

The guitar work on this record is top notch, with one of the true standout moments being the solo on "Medicine Man", which is one of my favorite overall tracks, as well.  A hard rocking number, with some nice tempo breaks and rhythm variances, "Medicine Man" is everything that is right and good about this record, and the interplay between Muster's rhythm work and Blunier's solos is superb.  The same can be said of the trade-off in "I Will Rise Again", the fastest track on the record that will likely have people also drawing comparison's to early 90s Bonfire, which is another fair comparison and a truly great honor, as I have long loved that German band.  "Fire In My Veins" is another high-octane rocker with some German-styled harmonics in the tone of the guitars and a snappy, galloping rhythm that drives throughout the track.  There is an odd false ending in this song that had me believing it had transitioned right into the album's closer, but instead the repeated rhythm guitar pattern simply fades out over the last 45 or so seconds.  "Something You Don't Understand" heads back to that melodic Pretty Maids style, featuring a prominent, throbbing bass line from Pfister that really serves as the tracks for the rest of the song to roll upon.  I love the guitar work throughout the verse sections on "Something...", and Blunier's short-but-inspired solo is a perfect mix of the more bombastic approach of the guitar gods of 25 years ago and the more modest approach used by the axe-slingers of the current generation of melodic rockers, combining a short burst of fret-burning speed but also working to be a part of the song, rather than be the focal point of the song.  "The Seeds" has a bouncy drum rhythm and a stripped down sound on the verses that really sets itself apart from the rest of the record, yet it still works very well in the overall feel of the record and is one of the catchiest tracks on the album, possibly because of the tempo change coming out of the second chorus and the big guitar solo from Blunier that then transitions the track back into the quirky cadence of the main portion of the song.  

As far as slower numbers are concerned, "Open Water" is a big, emotive ballad that has a powerful, sweeping guitar solo that while perhaps a bit too short, would have filled an arena with the flames of a thousand Zippos in 90s concert venue!  "The End Of Days" teases at being a slower song, especially with its acoustic intro, but it actually turns into a throbbing, blues-tinged rocker with pulsating downbeats and a sing-along Bonfire-styled chorus that closes the album out in fine fashion.  A great, catchy, memorable track to bring to an end an album that I would not have guessed would grab hold of my quite like it did.    

If I were forced to make one criticism of Snakes & Ladders, I would have to say that perhaps (perhaps) the album stays a bit too close to the same tempo for the majority of the record.  There are only a couple of what I would call "fast" tracks here, with "I Will Rise Again" and "Fire In My Veins" falling into that category, and with the exception of one song, there are real slow moments, either.  Now, that doesn't mean that every song is of the exact same rhythm and pace (see "The Seeds" above...), but there isn't a ton of variance throughout the record.  That being said, this also isn't an album of mid-tempo riff rock that eventually drones you into not really noticing the songs as it blends into the background.  Not at all.  I do think one really blazing number in the middle somewhere might have helped to break things up a bit, but this is a minor issue and doesn't detract from how good this record truly is.

That this album will finish in the Top 17 of 2017 on G2G, there is little doubt.  The question is simply how high it will finish.  This is a great record from start to finish, and one that I constantly find myself spinning again and again.  What a truly great return for Fox and for Shakra.  Perhaps now the band will get the due that it is deserved!

Rating:  Extremely crankable, turn this up to 9 on the dial!



12 STONES "Picture Perfect"

(c) 2017 Cleopatra Records

  1. The Killer
  2. Blessing
  3. Voodoo Doll
  4. Nothing To Say
  5. Time
  6. Picture Perfect
  7. Save Yourself
  8. Lerlene
  9. Memphis
  10. Hey Man
  11. How Long
  12. Hello Suicide
  13. Anthem For The Underdog (Picture Perfect Sessions)
  14. We Are One (Picture Perfect Sessions)
Paul McCoy--Vocals
Eric Weaver--Guitars, Bass
Sean Dunaway--Drums

I have to admit that this album kind of snuck up on me.  I had no idea that 12 Stones was still together, let alone releasing new music!  Released mid-summer, Picture Perfect is the first new 12 Stones record in almost five years, so I guess I won't be too hard on myself for not knowing it was out there.

For the uninitiated, 12 Stones has been together for the better part of two decades now, although only vocalist McCoy and guitarist, Weaver, are the only founding members who remain.  Now five albums deep in their career, McCoy and Weaver have definitely developed a "12 Stones" sound, with a combination of hard-edged, buzzsaw guitars, catchy-yet-edgy songs, and McCoy's raspy, half-sung-half-shouted vocals that are pretty much instantly identifiable and really serve to set the band apart from so many other post-grunge modern rock bands on the radio today.  At least for me, it is pretty obvious when I hear a 12 Stones song...and that's a good thing.

Picture Perfect continues in that trend and sounds, well, very much like the previous 12 Stones records.  There are several songs here that, had they been released 8-10 years ago, would probably be all over modern rock radio right now.  The album opens in blistering fashion, with the rapid fire, sub-3 minute scorcher, "The Killer", which is immediately reminiscent of where the band was when last they checked in with us on Beneath The Scars, feeling very much like that album's singles "Bulletproof" and "World's Collide".  Another top-notch rocker, "Time", could also fall into that category of familiar styles and sounds as well, relying heavily on a hard-charging riff and a chunky rhythm to set the tone, with a pretty cool bridge incorporated into the track as well.  This could well be my favorite track on the record, although "Blessing", which an absolutely scorching solo from Weaver and some big, thick riffage, is also a contender for that title.

The band does throw the listener a few curveballs along with the familiar, however, and it really gives Picture Perfect more of a diverse feeling.  For example, "Lerlene" sounds so much like The Wallflowers that...well...I seriously wondered if it was The Wallflowers the first couple of times I heard it.  Seriously, if you don't think McCoy and Weaver were sitting around listening to that band's Bringing Down The Horse album in the studio, you are nuts!  And the thing is...I love this track, largely because it is so different and so out of the band's wheelhouse.  "Voodoo Doll" has a funky vibe to it, which is pretty cool, and doesn't feel like anything I can recall 12 Stones doing in the past.  It feels more like a Black Stone Cherry type of song than a 12 Stones track, but I like the thick chords used here and the dynamic changes that McCoy uses on his vocals.  "How Long", which is one of my three faves here, is the most "radio friendly" of the tracks here, and it comes off a bit like a 3 Doors Down or maybe a Puddle Of Mudd styled track, but it is definitely a good one.  If I had my way, I would have made "How Long" the last of the new tracks here, and bumped up the acoustic ballad, "Hello Suicide" to track nine.  It would have blended into the two re-recordings better and also left fans on a high-energy note regarding the new material.

Speaking of "Hello Suicide", this is a particularly dark, yet hauntingly beautiful, song that finds McCoy singing about struggling with depression and pain.  Nothing like anything I have heard from the band before, this track really emphasizes McCoy's singing ability, which is not always utilized on the harder, faster songs.  While he has a somewhat limited range, the emotion he pours into this song is almost tangible as he repeatedly sings about having "nothing left to lose" as he implores suicide to "please don't take your time stealing this cold life from me".

The album closes with a couple of re-recordings of two of the band's biggest songs, "Anthem For The Underdog" and "We Are One".  Both come off as more raw and somewhat more aggressive than the originals, and "We Are One", especially, feels like a live, in-studio effort.  There are a couple of minor off-key moments vocally, but rather than detract from the song, these "real" spots actually add something for me.  I'm wondering if the band lost some of the rights to their back catalog and re-recorded these songs to establish ownership of these versions, which sometimes happens (see the review for Smile Empty Soul's Shapeshifter album as an example of this). 

The packaging here is relatively simple, which is common with Cleopatra releases.  There are no lyrics included, but McCoy is pretty easy to understand, so this isn't an issue.  A single band photo (featuring four people, even though only three are listed as "band members" now) is found on the inside of the cover, along with writing credits and extremely minor production notes.  Speaking of production, the mixing and engineering here is very good, with no muddiness or sound quality issues to take note of, and there is a really good bottom end throughout the mix, giving the songs a heavy, chunky feel.

Is this my favorite 12 Stones record?  Tough to say, but it is in the conversation, especially with the diversity.  Is it album of the year?  No, not by any stretch, but it is definitely enjoyable and one I have gone back to a couple of times since first writing this review.  My kids really like it, and with 12 Stones positive lyrical stance ("Hello Suicide" being the lone possible exception), I don't have any concerns with them listening to it, either.  Definitely a solid return for the veteran rockers.  Hopefully we don't have to wait five years between albums again.

Rating:  Crank this to 7.

Back To Reviews Index

Saturday, October 28, 2017

FEAR NOT "Fear Not: 25th Anniversary Edition"

(c) 2017 Roxx Records



  1. Give It Up
  2. We Have A God
  3. Mr. Compromise
  4. Till The End Of My Days
  5. Suicide Sunshine
  6. Money Money
  7. Easy Come Easy Go
  8. There Is Love
  9. Mad World
  10. Take Hold
  11. You Got Love (Bonus)
  12. Love Is Alright (Bonus)**
Larry Worley--Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Guitars**, Bass**
Chris Howell--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Rod Romero--Bass, Backing Vocals
Gary Hanson--Drums, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians 

Dino Elefante--Backing Vocals on 1-10
JK Northrup--All instruments on 11
Stan Mayo--Drums on 12

It's been nearly 25 years since Fear Not's only album was released, so Roxx Records felt the time was right to dust it off, give it a bit of a facelift (both in looks and sound), and repackage the album with two additional recordings featuring Larry Worley on vocals.  Originally released in 1993 on Word Records/Pakaderm Records, Fear Not's only album is something of a collector's item, particularly for those who not only seek out Christian hard rock, but ANY 80s/early 90s hard rock of seriously high quality.  Often compared to bands like Skid Row, largely due to a similarity between Worley's vocal style and that of Sebastian Bach, as well as the hard, crunchy guitars of Chris Howell, Fear Not performed a high energy, edgy type of hard rock that would have been huge had it been released about 4 years earlier.  Unfortunately, much like just about EVERYONE from the 80s/early 90s hard rock scene, Fear Not was swept away in the grunge tsunami, and there was never a follow-up to this excellent release.
Original 1993 album cover,

Not only has the music been given a remastering job, the cover artwork has also been updated.  Doing away with the "floweriness" of the original, and changing the style of the band's logo, artist Scott Waters has give the album an appearance that is more in line with the band's sound.  I never understood why the original looked like something out of a hippie's dream, and I have to say that I think the new look is a definite upgrade!

All of the original songs from the album are included here, with stand-out cuts being the hard rocking "Give It Up", "We Have A God", and "Mad World", which I always felt was one of the strongest tracks on this record, but never got the attention it likely deserved being so near to the end of the record.  Worley and Co. sound particularly Skid-dish here, and there are some BIG drums and a solid bass line to go along with the punchy vocals and Howell's ever-present strong axe presence.  "Mr. Compromise" could also fall into this same relative description, and it has always been near the top of my faves list from the band.  I have also always felt "Till The End Of My Days" was never given the attention it deserved, as it is a truly top-notch power ballad with a great hook, insanely catchy chorus, and a huge, lighters-in-the-air solo from Howell that should have been all over radio and MTV!  Ambiguous enough in its lyrics to not "scare off" non-Christians, "Till The End Of My Days" could've been the slow dance of so many proms, homecomings and weddings all those years ago had it come out just a smidgen earlier.  Seriously, it is strong enough that it more than holds its own with the "I Remember You's" and "I'll Be There For You's" of the era...in fact, I prefer it to both of those songs.  Of course, for many people the big "hit" of the record was the mid-tempo rocker, "Suicide Sunshine", which has never sounded better than it does here, what with the sonic upgrades in the remastering provided by Rob Colwell.  Led in by a guitar line that is very reminiscent of the intro to "We All Die Young" by the fictitious band, Steel Dragon, from the movie Rock Star., "Suicide Sunshine" has such an infectious chorus, some nice, stacked backing vocals, and just a killer, killer drum sound that its a shame more people didn't get the chance to hear it back in the day.   The original album's closer, "Take Hold" is still a really cool acoustic number, as well, although I will admit that with the two new tracks tagged onto this reissue, it sounds a bit out of place now.  Still, a great song is a great song, and I'm glad that the tracking wasn't altered just to move this to its original closing slot.

As I mentioned, also included here are two new songs, although neither features the full Fear Not line-up.  The first track, "You Got Love" actually appeared on the Liberty N Justice digital album, Life Songs, and features JK Northrup on all the instruments, including a really cool guitar solo about mid-way through the track.  I loved this song when I first heard it on the LnJ release, and I am extremely glad that it is included here, as well.   "Love Is Alright" is a new song that is exclusive to this 25th Anniversary collection, which is pretty cool.  Worley not only tackles the vocals here, he is also the "band" on this track, with the exception of drums, which were provided by Stan Mayo.  This track is a bit rawer, a bit grittier than anything else on the record, and it has a bit of a demo feel to it, to be honest, but it gives the track a bit of a "live in the studio" feel, which is kinda cool.  Slightly more modern in its take, "Love Is Alright" is a nice way to show that Worley, if not Fear Not in its entirety, is still making music and moving forward.

I do wonder a bit why the remake of "We Have A God" from Liberty N Justice's 4-All...The Best Of LnJ, wasn't included, unless it was due to issues getting the other artists on the track to allow it to be used here.  On the other hand, the song is already here in its original form, so perhaps its simply a matter of repetition and redundancy.  Just the way my brain works, folks...

Mine is a digital preview copy, so I do not know what the inserts will look like (other than the cover), but I will update this review when I get my physical copy.  However, I am certain that, like other Roxx Records products, this will be a top-notch release with a full booklet with photos, lyrics, credits, etc.   

Rating:  The original was an 8 in my book, and things have only gotten better.  Crank this nice package up to an 8.5, and save yourself some cash by tracking this new release down.  With a print run of just 500, it's likely going to be as hard...or HARDER...to find as the original!


Back To Reviews Index

Friday, October 20, 2017

ROMEO RIOT "Sing It Loud"

(c) 2017 Kivel Records

  1. Room To Run
  2. Streets Of Babylon
  3. Sing It Loud
  4. Twist Of Fate
  5. What If We Were Wrong
  6. Same
  7. Cry
  8. I Want To Try
  9. Every Now And Then
  10. Best Nights Of Our Lives
Mark Giovi--Lead & Backing Vocals
Scott Miller--Lead Guitars
Erik Johnson--Rhythm Guitars, Drums, Backing Vocals
Ty Sims--Bass, Backing Vocals
Jace Pawlak--Keys, Piano, Backing Vocals

When I was a kid, I had this idea in my head that record labels were like big families.  I honestly thought that all the artists knew each other, hung out, called each other on the phone, went out and partied together, etc.  I just figured it was some big office building with recording studios in the basement, and a bunch of band members standing around chatting, waiting for their turn to get in there and jam.  I get it, I was a naive kid from the middle of Nebraska, and I had ZERO idea of how the music industry worked, but these were honestly my thoughts.  In fact, I was pretty bummed the first few times I got to meet a band or two and asked them about the guys in another band and they told me they had never met!  "But...but you guys hang out at '________ Records' together, right?"  It was just so weird to me that all these guys who had so much in common weren't at least friends, if not a sort of family.

That mentality that I had as a kid is part of what makes Romeo Riot so cool to me, because these guys, while all in different bands, ARE friends and ARE part of a record label family, the family at Kivel Records.  It seems to me every band that is on that label works on each other's records, write songs together, play out together when they are able, and have fun together.  THAT is what my vision of a record label was as a kid! 

For those who have not had the pleasure of hearing...or hearing about...Romeo Riot yet, the band is made up of Mark Giovi (formerly of FarCry), Scott Miller (Tango Down), Ty Sims and Erik Johnson (Bombay Black), and Jace Pawlak, all of whom are currently members of the Kivel Records family.  More importantly, all are talented musicians who happen to be friends and had a vision for something they wanted to try to do together.  Every note of every song on the debut Romeo Riot record, Sing It Loud, is played by the guys listed in the credits...no outside musicians required with this talent pool.  On top of it, Sims mixed and produced the record, making Sing It Loud a completely in-house offering, which is a pretty amazing and cool thing.  (On a side note, even the cover model has Kivel Records ties, as her sister graced the cover of LaValle's Dear Sanity, which is another Kivel release!)

The album starts off in fine fashion, as a guitar roars to life on an upbeat melodic rocker that quickly brings in the rest of the band and the rich tenor of vocalist Mark Giovi.  Supported by Pawlak's keys and a solid bass line from Sims, the song has a nice hook and excellent backing vocals...two constant themes on this record...all giving way to a scorching solo from Miller that is just a tease of the work he puts on display throughout the record.  

The title track had me fooled, as with a name like "Sing It Loud", I was expecting a real barn-burner.  Instead, however, we are treated to a cool, mid-tempo track that is introduced with a simple keyboard tone and bass-and-tom drums underneath Giovi's smooth vocals which are half-spoken, half-sung on the verses.  By the time the rest of the band joins in, the tempo picks up slightly, building to a perfectly executed blending of the backing vocals echoing Giovi's "sing it loud" perfectly, then supporting the rest of the chorus structure in a way that is SORELY missed in today's music scene.  Nobody does backing vocals like this now, and that is a damn shame!

Surprise of the record?  That's easy.  If the guys had called me up and said, "Arttie, who do you think we should cover on this record," I could have listed artists and bands all day and all night long and I would have NEVER come up with their choice!  I'll be 100% candid here in that I was jamming along to the track the first time I heard it, not really paying attention to the lyrics, and then...BAM!...that chorus hit and triggered something from my early teen years, and all of a sudden my mind blasted, "NO THEY DID NOT JUST DO THAT!"  A laugh broke free from my throat and I hit repeat so that I could catch what was being sang, and sure enough, this was the same song that was one of the last hits from one of my first early-teen crushes!  This is Olivia Newton-John!  OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN!  No, they don't strap themselves into spandex workout gear and get all sweaty with "Physical", but they do a pretty cool, really fun take on her 1983/84 hit, "Twist Of Fate", managing to keep some of the pop sensibilities of the track while beefing up the guitars...and toning down the synthesizers...slightly altering the arrangement to turn it into something more modern and more their own.  I'm not sure whose idea this was or where the inspiration came from, but it is a definite curve ball that somehow still manages to work well within the context of what the rest of the record is about. 


"What If We Were Wrong" is the first true ballad of the record, and it is a big, lighters in the air, arms swaying back and forth moment for Sing It Loud.  This is the kind of melodic ballad that was being put out by bands like Unruly Child, The Storm and Bad English back in the day, bridging that gap between the big hair metal power ballads and the more melodic Top 40 rock ballads being released by Journey or Loverboy, for example.  Giovi's emotional vocals really anchor the track here, and Miller's guitar practically weeps on the intro, dripping with emotion, and then delivers a smooth, powerful solo between chorus sections.  Some nice piano from Pawlak supplies a nice support structure for the track, as well, and I feel certain that this song could be huge in certain markets if radio still played this type of music from new artists.  Really, really good stuff here.

"Same" is one of the most driving, pure rock tracks on the record, and it is a really, really good song.  Some nice, hard-charging guitars and machine gun drumming set the tone and pace, and Giovi adds an edge to his voice that is not particularly evident anywhere else here.  Miller's tone is a bit more metallic on the solo, as well.  A really, really good track to end the first half/start off the second half of the record, and one that leans a bit more toward the Bombay Black/Tango Down style of rocker than most of the others here.  Easily one of my favorite tracks on a record filled with good songs.

I guess if I had to pick my other favorites, I would probably turn to one of three tracks, all from the second half of the record.  "Cry" comes immediately to mind, with Giovi's vocals taking on a bit of a Jon Bon Jovi sound and style on the verse sections of this bright and bouncy, hooky, mid-tempo number that has, to my ear, the catchiest, sing along chorus on a record chock full of catchy choruses!  Just enough keys/piano from Pawlak help to set the tone, along with Johnson's rhythm guitar and Sims' bass.  Miller's solo here is short, but sweet, and the backing vocals are pristine.  Truly great stuff here.  

My second pick would be the last of the slower songs here, "Every Now And Then".  I love the positive vibe of the opening verse, with Giovi singing "I'm a lucky man to live the life that I have lived, I spend most of my moments in the sun..." that bleeds into his wistful memories of a lost love that he thinks of "every now and then".  The bridge here is a cool one, also, with some introspection from Giovi about how his life turned out and what could have been...and which would have been better.  Once again, the emotion that Miller is able to wring out of the six strings of his guitar simply amazes me, as the main riff coming out of the chorus sections is just heart-wrenching, and the solo, while energetic, doesn't betray the overall feel and vibe of the track, and the outro work he does under the last few runs of the repetitive chorus is truly brilliant to me.  I think this song best showcases his talent on this particular album.

The album closer would be my third choice for potential best song, and it really brings the album to a powerful close.  Starting off something like a Loverboy rocker, both musically and lyrically, the song is uptempo and bright from start to finish, containing a chorus that bears more than a passing resemblance to David Lee Roth's "Yankee Rose" (trust me, you'll hear it!) that is both EXTREMELY catchy and singable, begging for fist pumping and head banging to be incorporated when played in a live setting.  Once again, Miller lets his guitar take over in the middle section, running the frets seemingly effortlessly in an 80s-inspired solo that is maddeningly-too-short, then he exits the song with a blazing outro that leaves the listener breathlessly begging for more once they realize that Sing It Loud had come to a close.   

If I had one complaint, it might be that there are occasionally a bit too many keys for my tastes, but that is only on a song or two, and even then it isn't a big deal, as there is so much going on with Miller's leads and Johnson's rhythm guitar that my attention is easily drawn back to the harder edges of the songs.  For people who love the heavier keyboard usage of a lot of the melodic rock/AOR bands out there, this isn't even going to cause you to blink.  In either case, there is virtually nothing to complain about here, as Romeo Riot is the absolute real deal with a powerhouse lineup of talented musicians and songwriters who are at the top of their game here. 

Sims does a masterful job mixing and producing the record, allowing the overall feel and sound to be one that belongs to a single, unified band, rather than trying to make Romeo Riot sound like parts of several bands assembled on a bunch of songs.  Never did I feel like I was listening to left over Pawlak tracks, or cutting room songs from Bombay Black or Tango Down.  This project is Romeo Riot and it feels like its own entity, which is about as big of a compliment as I can give it.  I think it would have been easy to get too heavy handed in the rock sections, or too airy in the ballad sections, making the record sound like something completely different and one that lacked cohesion.  Hats off to Sims for giving the band their own sound and feel in the production booth.

Erik Johnson has confirmed that the band will be playing shows in the new year, so if they are even remotely in your neck of the woods, you would be doing yourself a HUGE favor to track them down and get to hear the band up close and personal.  

No question that as of this writing, Sing It Loud is a Top 17 for 2017.  The question is just how high in that Top 17 of '17 it will finish!

Rating: Unquestionably a cranker, here....turn this up to 9!

Friday, October 13, 2017

BABYLON A.D. "Revelation Highway"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Crash And Burn
  2. Fool On Fire
  3. One Million Miles
  4. Tears
  5. She Likes To Give It
  6. Rags To Riches
  7. Last Time For Love
  8. I'm No Good For You
  9. Saturday Night
  10. Don't Tell Me Tonight
Derek Davis--Lead Vocals, Keys, Acoustic Guitar
Ron Freschi--Guitars, Vocals
John Mathews--Guitars, Vocals
Robb Reid--Bass, Vocals
James Pacheco--Drums, Pecussion


This history of the 80s/early 90s hard rock scene is littered with bands that had brief, shining moments, only to fade as rapidly as they seemingly arrived, falling off the face of the musical landscape for totally random reasons.  Labels folded.  Bands broke up or members left.  Radio wouldn't play a particular song by a particular band.  MTV didn't think the band had "the look".  But none of these things really explain the rapid ascent, and even more rapid descent of Babylon A.D.  Hitting the scene in 1987, the band was signed to Arista Records by the legendary Clive Davis, and their debut album was out approximately 18 months later.  Three singles from that self-titled debut album hit number one at metal radio.  Their certified gold album spent nearly 40 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.  Multiple videos graced the airwaves at MTV.  The band was rolling right out of the gate, and I LOVED them!  I wore out two copies of that debut album before I finally scored a CD of it, and I still have the original today.  In fact, if pushed to list the best albums of the 80's "hair era", I would definitely put this album in the top 10; I think that highly of it.  "Bang Go The Bells", "When The Hammer Swings Down", "The Kid Goes Wild", "Desperate", and a few others from this record are among some of my favorite songs from the era, even to this day.  

A second album, Nothing Sacred, was released in 1992, and two more singles charted on metal radio.  Touring grew the band's fan base, and Babylon A.D. looked poised for the big time, but I wasn't as enamored with this record as the debut.  There were still a few good tracks, but the sophomore jinx seemed to have bitten the band as I didn't feel like the album was as focused or as complete.  Still, I figured that they would shake it off and return bigger than ever with album number three.  But then, the one factor that no band had any control over, that no label could foresee, that no management team could head off took over and killed the promising careers of the Babylon A.D.'s of the world; grunge and hard alternative rock wiped the rock n roll landscape clean, leaving only a handful of the biggest bands to stagger around on life support for several years, trying to recapture what was lost. 

Babylon A.D. wasn't big enough to try to survive the fallout, like a Bon Jovi or Poison, and hadn't really built up the foreign following of a band like Firehouse or Mr. Big, to be able to try to make a go at it there.  Relegated to small labels, the band released a live album in 1999, and then finally that third studio album in 2000, but American Blitzkrieg wasn't what people were listening to at the time, and quite honestly, the band had shed so much of their previous style and sound that many long-time fans, myself included, found little to truly enjoy on the album.  A cool demo compilation, In The Beginning popped up in 2008, which featured several really good songs that showed how the band got to that debut album stage, and then in 2014, Lost Sessions/Fresno, CA 93a 4 song EP of previously unreleased material was released, and the three new, post-Nothing Sacred tracks seemed to point to the band going back to that debut sound had then been given the chance to make a record in 1993.  Another live album was released, and I had hope that a new Babylon A.D. record might not be too far off.

That leads us to 2017 and that new album finally will see the light of day.  Revelation Highway is an album of "new" Babylon A.D. material on the king of all band resurrection labels, Frontiers Records.  I say "new" material, because several of these songs are not actually new, but re-recordings of demo material found on In The Beginning.  "Tears", "She Likes To Give It", "Last Time For Love", and "I'm No Good For You" are all old songs given new life here, and the band sounds like it has not missed a beat in the 30 years since they were originally signed.  

Of the six new tracks here, all are top notch songs, with no filler cuts added just to round things out to an even ten songs.  Album bookends, opener "Crash And Burn" and closer, "Don't Tell Me Tonight" might be the best of the bunch.  "Crash And Burn" kickstarts the record with blistering, chunky metallic rhythm guitars and pounding drums as it charges down the "open road" that Davis sings about, before a screaming solo from Freschi drops in between chorus sections to liven things up even more, if that's possible.  "Don't Tell Me Tonight" features some of the best, flashiest, screamingest guitar work on the record, along with excellent backing vocals, and a simple, sing-along chorus (think Night Ranger's "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" simple) that will have listeners wailing along instantly.  "Fool On Fire" sounds like it should have been on that debut record and is the track where Davis sounds the most like time has stood still for him.  The more I hear it, the more I feel like it could have been the track that followed "Desperate" on that first album, as it just has a tone and quality that seems to flow right off that record and bleeds into this one.  One listen by anyone familiar with the debut and I am sure they will instantly agree.  While those three tracks could have possibly charted a couple more metal hits for Babylon A.D. back in 1990 or 91, "One Million Miles" is the song here that would have likely had crossover radio and MTV appeal back in the day.  Although not a ballad, this track is highly melodic and filled with some great vocal work, both lead and backing, making "One Million Miles" a melodic rocker that features some cool-yet-more-subtle guitar work, especially in the solo section, that would have likely served the band well on radio, especially with its female fan base.

All five of the original band members are here for Revelation Highway, which adds even more to the overall greatness of this record.  No one sounds as if they have lost anything to my ears.  The guitars are edgy yet melodic, with blazing solos and chunky rhythm sections, Davis' voice, while perhaps a touch lower in register than previously, still has grit, power, and range, and there is a tightness to the band that can only be attained through years of playing together.  I'm not a huge fan of the production on this record, at least on a couple of tracks, but I am hopeful that this is more of an issue for me with this digital preview copy, and that the CD itself will add a bit more brightness to the feel of a few tracks here.  Even with the slight flatness of the tone in a couple of places, I can't help but find myself instantly whisked back to 1989 when I play Revelation Highway, but absolutely in a 100% good way.  The nostalgia comes from the familiarity of the band, not from the songs sounding old, tired, or dated, as this is a lively record from start to finish, with no cobwebs or dust bunnies cluttering up the overall feel.  Easily the best "comeback" record from an 80s/90s band I have heard this year, Revelation Highway is in no danger of leaving rotation for me anytime soon.  I absolutely love this record, minor production flaws notwithstanding.  

Rating:  Crankable in the extreme!  Turn this sucker UP to 9.5!