Friday, April 14, 2017

THROUGH FIRE "Breathe" (Deluxe Edition)

(c) 2017 Sumerian Records

  1. Reborn
  2. Breakout
  3. Stronger  (Clean Radio Version)
  4. Where You Lie
  5. Breathe
  6. Take It All Away
  7. Dead Inside
  8. Lights
  9. Blood On My Hands
  10. Damage
  11. Jar Of Hearts
  12. Stronger (Acoustic)
  13. Breath (Acoustic)
  14. Stronger (Extended Version)
  15. Breathe (Extended Version)
Grant Kendrick--Lead Vocals
Justin McCain--Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
Jesse Saint--Rhythm Guitar, Backing Vocals
Patrick Mussack--Drums, Percussion

Driven.  Anyone who has ever met Omaha, NE's Justin McCain would likely agree that driven is possibly the key adjective to use when describing him.  I've met him several times over the years here in Nebraska, and the guy is laser-focused, whether it is on-stage, working with the fans after the show, or in the business dealings of the band.  Yeah, sure, he's talented, but his drive to keep his musical dreams going through everything he has been confronted with is the key to why he, and his bands, is even still relevant in the ever-changing musical landscape modern rock/hard rock/metal landscape.

Why did he scrap his previous band, Emphatic, despite multiple charting singles, number one songs on Octane, and touring slots with bands like Red, Gemini Syndrome, and others?  Not a clue.  If I had to guess, it was a contract thing, but I have not had the chance to talk with Justin about the move, and I'm not overly sure that it matters now, as Through Fire has already found themselves picking up right where Emphatic left off, garnering airplay for "Stronger" and "Breathe", and getting "Stronger" picked up by the WWE, the NHL for the Stanley Cup Finals, and in movies, and latching onto tours with Sick Puppies and Nonpoint.  New album?  New name?  No problem, it would seem,

Breathe has recently been reissued in a "deluxe edition" format to help the band continue the momentum they have gained on this first effort.  Repackaged with acoustic and "extended" renderings of the album's two big hits, "Stronger" and "Breathe", this deluxe edition also comes with guitar tabs for those two songs, extended liner notes, and a band sticker, all packaged in a newly designed digipack (dangit!).  Also included is a new cover, as the band provides their take on the song "Jar Of Hearts", previously released by Christian Perri.  I'll be the first to admit I had to find the original song on YouTube, because I knew NOTHING about the original.  If you are like me, I will let you know that Perri's version is a rather emotional, piano-driven ballad, with absolutely ZERO rock to it.  The version included here, while remaining something of a ballad, definitely has some rock to it, with the band's typical buzzsaw guitars, programmed elements, and some really solid drum work from Mussack driving things along. I would imagine that this new track will find its way into live set lists, as I have a feeling that fans will start clamoring to hear it live.  

For fans of the previous band, Emphatic, it is worth noting that "Damage" was an old Emphatic song that has been somewhat reworked here, and "Stronger" was actually an Emphatic song as well from before they were signed to their major label debut, and I SWEAR I have heard it in a live setting before.  Both are solid modern rock/active rock numbers, with "Stronger" being insanely infectious, especially with it's chorus, which is presented both in a cleaned-up, radio friendly version with "forget that" replacing the "extended version's" less-than-airplay-friendly "f**k that" lines.  I don't know that the acoustic rendering of the song was necessary, honestly, but the acoustic version of "Breathe" is pretty cool, giving Kendrick's (formerly of The Wreckage) vocals more of a chance to carry the work load here and allowing him to really expand the emotional dynamic on the song.  

As to the rest of the album, there is plenty of fire and flash to go around, from the guitar-driven "Breakout", the angry, edgy, "Dead Inside", which showcases some impressive screaming from Kendrick, to the catchy "Where You Lie" and "Blood On My Hands".  If there is one weakness here, it is the fact that a lot of these songs have very similar tempos.  They don't sound alike, necessarily, but the tempo doesn't change much, making the songs kind of meld into one another.  Thankfully, "Breathe" and "Jar Of Hearts"...along with the two acoustic renderings...give a bit of separation on this deluxe edition that would have been otherwise missing on the original.

This is an overall very solid album, with McCain showing some nice flashes of solo work on the guitar, and Mussack providing possibly the best drum work to ever appear on a record that McCain has been a part of.  I was really impressed by his fill work, solid rhythms, and overall tight playing.  Saint is a really good rhythm player as well, and Kendrick has the vocal chops to cover all of the Emphatic territory, regardless of the vocalist, and also make this Through Fire material very much his own.

A really nice repackaging here (outside of the digipack part of things), and I'm sure fans are going to want to snap up the reissue as soon as they can get their hands on it.

Rating:  While not ground breaking, Breathe shows solid growth, is catchy and well-performed, earning itself a crankable 8.

Friday, April 7, 2017

NIGHT RANGER "Don't Let Up"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records



  1. Somehow, Someway
  2. Running Out Of Time
  3. Truth
  4. Day And Night
  5. Don't Let Up
  6. (Won't Be) Your Fool Again
  7. Say What You Want
  8. We Can Work It Out
  9. Comfort Me
  10. Jamie
  11. Nothing Left Of Yesterday


Jack Blades--Lead Vocals, Bass
Brad Gillis--Lead Guitars
Kelly Keagy--Drums, Lead Vocals
Keri Kelli--Guitars
Eric Levy--Keyboards

Night Ranger has quietly long been a Top 20 band for me.  The first four albums from this San Francisco band are essential hard rock, in my opinion, and featured enough edge to keep the hair metal crowd happy, while also being just pop enough to consistently garner radio airplay and appeal. Man In Motion is also a solid, if less spectacular record, and the post-Blades album, Feeding Off The Mojo, has some good moments, but it was definitely missing something, at least for me.  Oddly, when Blades returned from his successful stint in Damn Yankees, Night Ranger didn't automatically return to the level of greatness I expected from this band, as the next three albums were rather flat affairs that were spotty in their songwriting and, well, rather uninspired in their performances, outside of a song here and there.

But then Frontiers Records stepped in...

As has seemed to be the case with many classic era bands on the Frontiers roster, there is a resurgence of energy and life in the last couple of Night Ranger releases that had been missing since 1996.  Starting with their first Frontiers album, 2011's Somewhere In California, Night Ranger began to really sound like Night Ranger again.  2014's High Road took another step forward in their road back, bringing still more energy to the table as well as mixing in a couple of little twists to keep the sound fresh while still sounding like, well, like Night Ranger.  That newfound energy and creativity not only continues on Don't Let Up, I would say it surges to a level not seen since Big Life in 1987!

Longtime member, Joel Hoekstra has departed the band for the new record, and Keri Kelli has supplanted him as the second guitar slinger for the band, bringing with him all of the vast experience he has garnered while working with Alice Cooper, LA Guns, Ratt, Warrant, Skid Row, Pretty Boy Floyd, and so many other classic 80s era bands over the years.  Eric Levy, who was brought on board on Somewhere In California, rounds out the current line-up alongside founding members Gillis, Keagy, and Blades, completing the five-man ensemble that Night Ranger has used throughout its most successful periods.

I don't feel like I need to go song-by-song through the record, because long-time fans of the band are the target audience here, and, as such, the album is chock full of the exact type of hard rock goodness you would expect from Night Ranger.  Top notch rockers here include "Somehow, Someway", the uber-catchy "Running Out Of Time" (which may be my favorite song here), "We Can Work It Out" (no, it's not a Beatles cover...relax), "Comfort Me", "Jamie" (another song-of-the-album contender), and the title track.  "Sister Christian" fans will have to wait for the next album if they are seeking another huge power ballad, because this record doesn't have anything that slow, although "Truth" is a less-raucous mid-tempo track that will tide many fans over.  Also worth noting here is the album's closer,  "Nothing Left Of Yesterday", which, again, is more of a mid-tempo number than a true rocker, but the real kicker for me here is that this sounds an awful lot like a Damn Yankees song to these ears, which is dang near as good as a Night Ranger song!

While it doesn't reach the level of the band's first three records, Seven Wishes, Midnight Madness, and Dawn Patrol, Don't Let Up is a definite keeper, with all of the classic hard rock elements in place...minus the power ballad...even if all of the classic players are not.  The additions of Levy, and especially Kelli, bring a freshness to the familiar feel of this great band, and that "magic" feel has returned that I felt so connected to back in the 1980s.  The songs are well-written and nearly perfectly played, and the production is absolutely spot-on throughout the record.  Try as I might, I have a hard time finding any major flaws, and only a couple of "lesser" songs (which really aren't bad songs, at all...), keep me from pushing this all the way to the top.  I truly love this record and haven't been able to take it out of my player since I got it.

Rating:  Crank this sucker to 8.5!  Don't Let Up feels like the closest thing to a vintage Night Ranger album since their return, and I feel it likely cracks the band's top 5 albums...top 6 for sure!

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

EMPERORS AND ELEPHANTS "Moth"

(c) 2017 Pavement Entertainment

  1. Hidden
  2. Not Today
  3. Porcelain Kiss
  4. Cracks In The Wall
  5. Poison
  6. Chicago
  7. Give Away The Sun
  8. Jester
  9. Trigger
  10. Whisper In The Storm
  11. I Hold You Back
  12. Wicked Game
Jesse Andrews--Lead Vocals
Jason Meudt--Drums
Ron "Stoppable" Vanders--Bass
Jeff Windisch--Guitars
Anthony Modica--Guitars

Chicago heavy modern rockers, Emperors And Elephants, return with their sophomore album, Moth, on Pavement Entertainment.  This is also the first album from the band following the unfortunate death of founding member, Jeff Windisch.  Moth had already been completed before Windisch's passing last August, but the band shelved the album as they took some time to figure out what they were going to do going forward.  The decision was made to continue on in honor of their friend's memory, and Moth was released to the public on March 17, 2017.  

Picking up where their debut album, Devil In The Lake, left off, Moth features heavy, down-tuned, grungy guitars, big, punchy drums, and thick bass work, along with the unmistakable vocals of Andrews, who can exude hurt and pain and anger with his style in a way not many others appear able to do these days.  This is evident from the moment "Hidden" comes churning out of your speakers in a very Alice In Chains-like manner.  Follow-up track, "Not Today" packs quite a punch, as well, with the thunderous drums from Meudt carrying much of the weight of the song while the metallic-edged guitars grind atop a bed of electronic effects that pulse across the bedrock of the song.  

The highlight of the album for me is, without a doubt, the hurt and angry "Porcelain Kiss", which finds Andrews lamenting the breakup of a relationship while also spewing all sorts of venom toward the person who tore things apart with their cheating and betrayal.  Leading in with just Andrews' voice, the song alternates between softer, more laid back vocals on the verses and then ramps up the angst on the choruses while the guitars charge over the top of the backdrop of Meudt's drums and Vander's bass which carry a catchy rhythm throughout the track.  Check the video out below.



"Poison" hints at being a quieter song for just a few moments, but the chunky rhythm guitar bursts and bumping bottom end of Meudt's drums quickly betray this tease.  Again using a softer-verse/harder-chorus vocal pattern, Andrews drops his voice to little more than a whisper in spots, really adding to the atmosphere of the verses before he cranks it back up over the swirling guitars of the chorus sections.  

"Chicago" is an interesting track that I find myself drawn to.  The chorus is extremely catchy on this definite nod to the 90's hard-yet-quirky alternative sound, particularly in the guitar tones used as the song transitions out of the chorus.  Andrews plumbs the depths of his vocal range on the first few verses here, and there is a nice, fuzzy feel to the production throughout the track.  A nifty guitar solo is thrown in here, as well.

"Give Away The Sun" instantly changes tempos with some frantic rhythm guitar work and a simple, snappy snare drum that gives the track a sound unlike anything else on the record.  Once the full band kicks in, and especially once the chorus hits, I hear hints of early Soundgarden (think Louder Than Love or Badmotorfinger era), in the fuzzy aggression of the guitars and the plaintive sneer that Andrews adds to his vocals.  A short, but decidedly metallic solo screams through the middle of the track, leading into the final run of the chorus, with multiple tracks of vocals all swirling together at the end.

"Jester" has an epic feel to it...although at just short of four minutes, there are those who will wonder what I am talking about throwing around a word like "epic".  But it's more in the way the song is put together than how long it is that gives me that epic feeling.  In fact, sometimes I find myself comparing it in my head to "November Rain" from Guns N Roses, with the mixture of the piano into the big, layered guitars that come out of Jesse's vocals-only intro.  There's the big, emotive, bluesy guitar solo included that exits as the song drops down to a scaled back interlude of sorts, before building back into the chorus.  I don't know...call be crazy, but its my vision in my head, dangit, so I'm sticking with it.  Regardless of if it matches in YOUR head, I'm sure you will agree that it is a really cool song.

"Trigger" is another one of my faves here, as the guitars are nice and chunky with a really cool solo in the mix, as well.  One of the things I particularly enjoy about this song is the relatively upbeat manner in which Jesse delivers his vocals despite the fact that the lyrics are actually rather dark and angry.

"Whisper In The Storm" is definitely one of the most laid back songs on the album, but not in the way one might think upon reading that description.  It is definitely not a ballad, but there is a calm, almost serene way that the song is delivered, even when the guitars really start to charge and the drums begin to pound as the song ramps up to the chorus.  I absolutely love the guitar solo here, and while I am not 100% sure, I believe that Windisch actually performed this choice piece of musical art which really showcases the talent that he had.

"Hold You Back" is much closer to ballad material, but it still isn't lighter-in-the-air power ballad type stuff.  Think more along the lines of "Rooster" from Alice In Chains, or similar 90's hard-edged grungy rock, as a reference point for the type of ballad work I am talking about.

The album closes with a new version of the band's interpretation of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game".  Andrews makes no attempt to climb the vocal ladder that Isaak does on his version, rather adding a darker edge to his vocal approach.  I asked Jesse about why the band chose to re-record the song...again...and he told me, "Ya know, it was just kind of thrown on.  We actually recorded that for the deluxe copy of Devil In The Lake.  It was only digitally released, so not that many people heard it.  It was already years after the record (Devil In The Lake) was out, so we just figured we would throw in on Moth for everyone to just enjoy."  The song definitely retains the same style and melody as the original, but the guitar work on the E&E version is stronger, in my opinion, and Andrews vocals add a quality not found on the original.  An odd cover? Probably for most people, but no one I have let hear the song has had anything bad to say about it, and its funny how many of my hard rock and metal fans actually know the original from Isaaks, which is a decidedly non-metal thing to admit.  Very cool to hear a band like E&E stretch their musical wings and attempt something so far out of their element.

The production is pretty solid here, with good separation of the instruments and a nice use of modern electronic elements without allowing them to dominate the overall sound of the record.  This is definitely a step forward from the debut album, which sounded a bit thin in a couple of spots.  Mine is a digital review copy, so I cannot comment on the packaging at this time.  I hope to snag a CD very soon.

As much as I liked Devil In The Lake, I find that I enjoy Moth even more.  The grooves are thicker, the punch is stronger, and the angst in Andrews' vocals is even more prominent than on the first record.  Even more, the songwriting is stronger here than on the first record, which found itself coming off as a bit samey in the middle section.  Not the case here at all, as Emperors & Elephants keep things interesting with varied tempos and song structures.  There is no particular weak spot in the track listing here, and I find that my favorite section of the record really changes depending upon my mood.

Moth is an album that I find myself returning to time and time again, like a moth to the fla...nah, I just can't do it.  I thought about it, and while I may really want to deep down, I am simply not that guy.  

If you get a chance to catch these guys as they tour across the country, make sure you do so, as their stage show is equally entertaining and they are very personable guys who like to talk with their fans.

Rating:  Definitely crankable, turn this one up to 8!


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Concert Review--SKILLET with SICK PUPPIES and DEVOUR THE DAY (Marquee Theater in Tempe, AZ, Sunday, March 12, 2017)


Sometimes the unexpected is the most fun.  Case in point; my wife and I were in Surprise, AZ this past weekend to follow my (well, now OUR) beloved Kansas City Royals baseball team at Spring Training.  With an afternoon game on Sunday, we had all evening to find something to do.  As luck would have it, Skillet and their Unleashed Tour were playing in Tempe, AZ that night.  Being a huge fan of the band...as is my wife...we decided to snag tickets and head over to the show, which also featured Sick Puppies, with Devour The Day opening.

For those who have never been there, the Marquee Theater in Tempe is a moderate-sized venue, with a capacity of roughly 2,500 people.  It is also an all-ages venue, despite the fact that there is a full bar set up as soon as you walk into the venue, and the age range for the show was 5-6 years old to mid-fifties, and perhaps even a bit older.  I would estimate the average age of the show was probably about 25 or so.

The extremely long line (it ran almost two full blocks in length) moved very quickly, and the event staff was very professional and very polite, which is always a plus when dealing with security. Despite the fact that we arrived 30 minutes before doors, and a full hour before Devour The Day went on, we found ourselves facing an already packed venue, as we were definitely toward the back of the line to get in.   However, due to the unique layout of The Marquee, there was not a bad position to be standing in in the entire house.  I say standing in because there are absolutely no seats on the main floor (unless there were a few in the bar area that I didn't notice), and only a small handful in the balconies.  Plus, even standing directly behind the sound board, which is where my wife and I situated ourselves, we were no more than 80 or 90 feet from the stage, so this is a great "intimate" environment for a venue that holds this many people.  I was impressed right away.

Devour The Day opened the show, and while I have heard of the band, the only song I could name was "Good Man", and that's only from hearing them on Octane on Sirius/XM.  The band put on an extremely high-energy show, with a lot of crowd interaction...including some crowd surfing from lead singer, Blake Allison.  While many people in the crowd acknowledged that they had not heard of the band or did not own the band's newest album, S.O.A.R., everyone was still very much into the show and got themselves highly involved in the seven song set, which included most of the band's charting songs to this point.  The bass player was extremely active on stage, and I am sure he woke up rather stiff and sore from snapping his neck all over the place for the roughly 35 minutes the band was on stage.  I particularly enjoyed Allison's voice and vocal approach, and the band clearly enjoyed themselves on stage.  My wife became an immediate fan and has informed me she will be owning both S.O.A.R. and their debut disc, Time & Pressure.

Devour The Day's setlist:

  1. S.O.A.R
  2. Good Man **
  3. Save Yourself
  4. Blackout
  5. You And Not Me **
  6. The Bottom
  7. Respect **
** personal favorites from the set

After about a 15 minute stage changeover, Sick Puppies was up next.  This would be the third time I have seen Sick Puppies, but the first since Bryan Scott replaced Shimon Moore as lead singer.  As such, I was far more familiar with this band's material, as was my wife who owns three Sick Puppies discs.  

The band came thundering out to a very large welcome from the crowd, and immediately kicked into "War" and "Riptide", two of the older songs in the set list for the evening.  I particularly like "War" and it's aggressive style, and Scott proved himself very much capable of handling the older material, which I was curious to hear in a live setting.  On the third song of the set, "Stick To Your Guns", Devour The Day's vocalist, Blake, came out for the second verse and the remaining choruses of the song, much to the delight of the crowd, who were obviously won over by his previous performance.  His grittier, harsher vocal style worked very well on this song, and I think it would be interesting to hear him collaborate with Sick Puppies on a future effort (hint, hint).

Bassist, Emma Anzai, presented herself very much as the rock star that she has become, absolutely dominating with both her stage presence and her high levels of musicianship on the bass.  The crowd, which included probably 30% girls/women, were very receptive to Emma throughout the evening, especially on the couple of occasions where she took the mic to address the crowd.  One such occasion was when she introduced the song, "Odd One", which she stated was an autobiographical song about growing up and not fitting in with her peers.  The crowd reacted very positively to the message being delivered here.  Although she has done so occasionally on the band's records, Emma did not take the front-and-center position as the lead vocalist for any of the songs in the set for the evening, although her backing vocals were definitely felt throughout the set.  

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I actually prefer Scott's vocals to those of Moore.  It's not that I have a particular issue with Moore's style or delivery, I just feel that Scott's voice is the more powerful of the two, and he has a stage presence and charisma that serves the band well.  Included in the set were several songs from the album, Fury, which is the first to have Scott as the lead vocalist.  I was particularly happy to hear "Black And Blue" live, as I think that song really showcases the new version of the band about as well as anything they have released to this point.  "Where Do I Begin" from the latest record was also included, and the band wrapped up their set with the catchy and infectious, "You're Going Down".

One interesting note, which I will touch on later, is the fact that several of the band's bigger hits were not included in the set list, including "There's No Going Back" and "Gunfight".

Sick Puppies setlist:
  1. War **
  2. Riptide
  3. Stick To Your Guns
  4. Odd One
  5. Let Me Live **
  6. Maybe
  7. All The Same
  8. Where Do I Begin
  9. Black And Blue **
  10. You're Going Down **
**personal faves from the set

There was roughly a 20-30 minute intermission as the set was changed over for Skillet.  This included clearing away the other bands' equipment and setting up some rather unique-looking stands and sets of stairs running up to an elevated drum kit.  

Shortly after set up, the lights began to pulsate and an extended introduction for Skillet's "Invincible" kicked off, as the band burst onto the stage and launched themselves head-first through a 17 song set that covered pretty much every hit and single released by the band from 2004's Collide, 2006's Comatose, 2009's Awake, 2013's Rise, and the new album, and tour's namesake, 2016's Unleashed.  

How John Cooper, the band's leader, lead singer, bassist, and sole remaining founder, is able to move the day after a show is beyond me.  I have been to any number of hard rock and metal shows throughout the years, but it is a very small number of performers that exude as much sheer energy and physical output in a single performance.  The way he throws himself into every song is absolutely amazing to me, and yet he still manages to connect with the crowd in a very intimate way.  In fact, he stopped the show several times to acknowledge people in the crowd by name (granted, he got the name wrong a couple of times), to explain the meaning of certain songs, to dedicate the song "Hero" to his "own personal hero, Jesus Christ", and even to allow one young man to propose to his now-fiancee.  Truly great stuff from a band that was obviously the main reason for the vast majority of the crowd's attendance at this show.

Skillet's light show is definitely top-notch, with various different color schemes used throughout the night, and multiple lasers, strobes, and spots used in different combinations on each song.  There were also several pre-recorded intros and outros for several songs, and there is no doubt that some pre-recorded backing vocals were used in spots, although drummer, Jen Ledger, and guitar player/keyboard player, Korey Cooper, also could be heard to add their live backing and co-lead vocals to several songs.  Do not mistake this for me saying that any portion of the show was lip-synched, for I do not believe that to be the case at all, as John personalized lyrics in several spots and altered the vocal delivery patterns from the records on numerous occasions.  I have also heard people knocking John for his change in vocal styles throughout the years, saying that he no longer sings, but rather shouts throughout all of the band's songs now.  That could not be farther from the truth, in my opinion, as he proved he is more than capable of singing...when the song calls for it...as is the case with the band's current hit single, "Stars", which he  emotionally dedicated to a mother in the crowd who had unexpectedly lost her son whom she had promised to take to a Skillet show.  

The guitar tandem of Korey Cooper and Seth Morrison is a formidable one, with the former handling most of the rhythm work, while the latter ripped through solo after solo all through the evening.  I also found it to be a cool touch that the band, who is known for incorporating synthesized string sections in many of their songs, also brought out an unnamed, and masked, cellist to play along with many of their biggest hits.  For my wife, the amazing part of the evening was the ability of Ledger to be able to sing along while drumming in such a high-energy, borderline violent manner.  Ledger was also brought out from behind the kit to share co-lead vocals for one song, with a guest drummer (I'm guessing the band's drum tech) filling in very capably.  

I had wanted to see Skillet live for some time, and to say I was impressed would be an understatement.  I would not hesitate to go see the band again, even on this tour, as they put on that good of a show.  So glad we had the opportunity to attend...

Skillet's setlist:
  1. Invincible
  2. Whispers In The Dark **
  3. Sick Of It
  4. Rise
  5. Back From The Dead
  6. Awake And Alive
  7. Not Gonna Die
  8. Hero **
  9. Those Nights
  10. Undefeated **
  11. Comatose **
  12. The Last Night **
  13. Stars
  14. Out Of Hell
  15. Monster
  16. Rebirthing **
  17. The Revolution (encore) **
** personal faves from the set

One final note on something I alluded to earlier.  The Unleashed Tour is definitely family friendly, as there were little children scattered throughout the venue, and, as expected, a large number of people who were wearing various Christian rock t-shirts.  Not a single swear word was uttered from the stage, which I have told is something that Skillet insists upon, although I cannot verify that at all.  If it is the case, that would explain the absence of a couple of Sick Puppies' bigger songs, as they both contain f*bombs in the lyrics.  I must say, it was extremely refreshing to hear all of the bands, including Devour The Day and Sick Puppies, expressing positive energy and putting positive spins on some of their most well-known songs, with no swearing or negativity coming from anyone.  I'm not a prude by any means, but it was definitely cool to be able to be surrounded by so many people without anyone being offended by anything coming from the stage....or from anyone around me, for that matter.

A great venue that I would recommend to anyone, and a killer concert that I encourage everyone to try to get out and see.  I will be seeing Skillet live again, no question.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

TOKYO MOTOR FIST "Tokyo Motor Fist"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Pickin' Up The Pieces
  2. Love Me Insane
  3. Shameless
  4. Love
  5. Black And Blue
  6. You're My Revolution
  7. Don't Let Me Go
  8. Put Me To Shame
  9. Done To Me
  10. Get You Off My Mind
  11. Fallin' Apart
Ted Poley--Lead Vocals
Steve Brown--Guitars, Vocals
Greg Smith--Bass
Chuck Burgi--Drums

When I was first sent this album for review, I have to admit to being rather underwhelmed at the prospects.  Ted Poley is a fun guy to meet and a really good singer, but outside of a handful of songs, I was never much of a Danger Danger fan.  A lot of the songs just didn't do anything for me.  And Steve Brown was always, in my mind, a really, really good guitar player in the talented, but not overly memorable Trixter.  I liked them more than Danger Danger, and their 2015 effort was a surprisingly good return for Trixter, but there were too many moments in the band's catalog where I felt like the songs were thrown together around Brown's prodigious guitar soloing and lacked much in the way of substance or originality.  And both Smith and Burgi are accomplished musicians in their own right, but both have been supporting roll players, to be fair, and didn't do anything to up my enthusiasm at the idea of a "supergroup" forming here.  I was anticipating a rather bland, derivative sounding band with some rehashed guitar licks and overly-cliched lyrics

Yeah...wrong.

Rather than sounding like Poley fronting Trixter, Tokyo Motor Fist (do I want to know what the name means???) is a hard-hitting, melodic rock monster that bears more than a passing resemblance to the best stuff that Trixter ever recorded, with a healthy dose of Nelson, Bon Jovi, and even Hysteria-era Def Leppard thrown into the mix.  Take for example the huge, arena-shaking opener, "Picking Up The Pieces".  Big, pulsating drums, a catchy riff, sweeping guitar solo, and sing-along chorus were the perfect combination for a massive MTV hit in the late 80s/early 90s, and they work exceptionally well here, also.  Yet, despite the fact that this should sound dated, it absolutely doesn't.  Yeah, yeah, this isn't the type of rock hitting the radio waves these days, but this doesn't sound like a cutting room floor leftover track, as it is injected with so much power and punch...along with a modern crispness to the production that wasn't to be found in those glory days gone by.   

"Love" does have something of a Danger Danger feel to it, but it is mixed with a Def Leppard vibe, as well, creating a very well-executed ballad that doesn't get too airy or dreamy in the production, nor does Poley come across as too sugary or sappy in his vocal approach.  If this song comes out in 1989 and not 2017, it is guaranteed that "Love" would have been included in every Monster Ballads compilation ever made, and Zippos would have threatened the fire codes of every venue the band would have played in.  "Don't Let Me Go" rivals its album-mate for best ballad here, with its emotional chorus, sweeping guitar solo, and heartfelt acoustic guitar line that really serve to enhance one of the best performances I have ever heard from Poley on a ballad.  Color me impressed here.

"Get You Off My Mind" spans the gap between balladry and rocker here, and reminds me of so much of the best mid-tempo stuff Def Leppard did on Hysteria and Adrenalize.  There's the nice, slow build, the big melodic hook, the layered vocals, a tasty little solo, and a sing along chorus very much in the same vein as "Hysteria", "Animal", "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad", etc.  Really, really good stuff here.
  
As far as the rockers go, there are so many great ones to choose from here, it is actually hard to pin down just one or two as favorites.  "Love Me Insane" is definitely a contender for me, with its big hook, ripping solo, and some of the best vocal work I have ever heard from Poley, all wrapped into one song.  "Black N Blue" is a nice rocker with a bit of a guitar punch, and I already mentioned the album opener which really sets the stage, in my opinion.  But if forced to nail down one track as the pinnacle for me, I think "You're My Revolution" would be my choice, as it is one of the most driving tracks on the record, with some really good drum work given a bit more punch here than on some of the other tracks, and the guitars are charging hard right out of the gate.  "Put Me To Shame" gets some serious consideration, also, with its early Leppard guitar tone...not to mention the COMPLETELY Leppard-esque backing vocals on the chorus...colliding with a song that would've fit in as one of the better Danger Danger songs from the first two records.  I also really enjoy "Shameless", which, like several other tracks here, would've been all over MTV and radio 25 years ago.

To my mind, this has the feel of a best of record, because there is no truly weak song here.  I would venture to guess the band recorded a LOT of songs before selecting these 11 as the ones to represent the band on this debut record.  The flow is flawless, there are no weak songs, and the musicianship is top notch.  And as to Poley, I do not think he has ever sounded better anywhere, including the Danger Danger or Poley/Rivera releases, which is saying something, in my mind.  The production is crystal clear, the mix is stellar...I honestly don't have much negative to say about Tokyo Motor Fist other than I have no clue what the name means!

Mine is a digital review copy, so I cannot make any comments on packaging at this time.

Rating:  Definitely a crank-worthy effort from a band I really, REALLY hope is more than a one-album-supergroup!  Crank this to 9!

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

ROYAL BLISS "The Truth"

(c) 2016 Independent Release

  1. The Truth
  2. We're All Livin' The Dream
  3. Racin'
  4. Drown With Me 
  5. Goin' To Hell
Neal Middleton--Vocals, Guitar
Taylor Richards--Guitar, Backing Vocals
Dwayne Crawford--Bass, Backing Vocals
Jake Smith--Drums, Percussion
Sean "Memphis" Hennesey--Guitars, Vocals

How in the world did this EP from Royal Bliss slip past me unnoticed?!  Who the heck forgot to tell me it was out?!  Someone needs to pay for this slight, I'll tell ya!

Anyway...  One of the most underrated bands in music today, in my opinion, returns with a five song EP called The Truth.  And, in truth, his EP could have just as easily been called the Donnie And Marie EP, because there is no denying that the band's sound here has them ranging both a little bit country and a little bit rock n roll.

The EP starts off with a very familiar Royal Bliss vibe, as the title track is a definite rocker that would have fit very well on either of their previous two full-length albums, the phenomenal Waiting Out The Storm, and the nearly equally great Chasing The Sun.  The track opens with some hard pounding drums and a nice, churning rhythm guitar line before Middleton's soulful vocals come gliding into the first verse.  The chorus is a typical, story-telling styled section that Royal Bliss does so exceedingly well, and even the guitar solo has a nice, gliding quality to it, lending the song that comfortable quality that makes you feel like you may have heard it somewhere before...even though you know fully well that you never have.

"We're All Living The Dream" takes a slight...and I mean "slight"...step east toward Nashville, but there is absolutely nothing on this track that is any more country than "Bleed My Soul" from Waiting Out The Storm, or "Home" does on Chasing The Sun, and the chorus section actually reminds me more of the kind of sing-along song that Neil Diamond might do than it does an actual country song.  At times a bit gospel sounding, and at other times very patriotic sounding...especially with the drum cadences..."We're All Living The Dream" is mid-American roots rock at it's finest, and I have to feel that somewhere, John Mellencamp is grinning as he hits repeat on this track.

"Racin'" slips a bit further into country territory, but I have to tell you, I really like this song.  Middleton has a way of writing songs that feel like an old sweatshirt...so completely warm and comfortable and familiar...that I find myself not really caring how the song is pigeon-holed or what niche it is put into.  This is a band that knows who they are and who play what they like, and it really shows on a song like "Racin'".  Could it end up on CMT or GAC?  Sure, I suppose it could.  But don't start thinking that you're in for some kind of steel guitar, fiddle and dobro hoedown song here, because that is definitely NOT what the song is about.  Rather, its a somber tune about being out on the road and dealing with the choices that we make...or don't make...and is not all that dissimilar to a song like "Crazy", especially the "non-rock", original version from Waiting Out The Storm.

"Drown With Me" combines the rock sounds of the last two albums with the good-time, hard drinking party attitude of a lot of country songs.  I discovered that this song was available quite a while ago as a digital-single, but as a typically non-downloading music consumer, I didn't know about it until this EP snuck up on me.    There is a little bit of banjo in the song that becomes evident in the second verse, but it's not like we're listening to Roy Clark on Hee-Haw here; think more along the lines of Keith Urban on some of his most rocking numbers.  Speaking of rocking numbers, it's like someone lit a fire under the band at about the two minute mark, as the guitar solo section is performed at such a frantic pace it almost doesn't even feel like the same song!  There are some cool gang vocals at work here, and one of those stupidly-addicting sing-along choruses that tend to irritate you (in a good way, of course) once they are stuck in your head for about a week straight.

"Goin' To Hell" has a definite country flair to it, especially with the picking on the acoustic guitars and the railroad rhythm of the drums, but there is still a lot of rocking in this high energy foot stomper that may be my favorite song on the EP...if "The Truth" isn't my favorite...or if "We're All Living The Dream" doesn't hold that title...  You get my drift, I'm sure.  The band semi-name drops their last album, as Middleton sings about "waiting out the perfect storm" not too long before they break into a rip-roaring jam session to close the song, and the EP, in pretty typical Royal Bliss fashion.

Look, like I said at the outset, there is a definite country element that is mixed in here, but I would argue that Royal Bliss ALWAYS had a bit of that in a lot of their songs, especially with the sing along choruses and the heart-wrenching ballads.  Like I said, a little bit country, a little bit rock n roll.  But, I'll be danged if this isn't an excellent little EP that I really wish the band had stretched out into a full-length record.  I guess it will just have to tide me over until the next album that I knew nothing about finds its way to my hands and ears.

Rating:  Call it what you want; I'm calling it crankable!  Crank it to 8!

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

FIREWIND "Immortals"

(c) 2017 AFM Records

  1. Hands of Time
  2. We Defy
  3. Ode To Leonidas
  4. Back On The Throne
  5. Live And Die By The Sword
  6. War of Ages
  7. Lady of 1000 Sorrows
  8. Immortals
  9. Warriors and Saints
  10. Rise From The Ashes
  11. Vision of Tomorrow (Bonus Track)
Henning Base--Vocals
Gus G.--Guitars
Petros Christo--Bass
Bob Katsionis--Keyboards
Jo Nunez--Drums

Greek power metallers, Firewide, return to the scene after a nearly five year hiatus as founder and guitar god, Gus G., was busy touring the world with Ozzy Osbourne and putting out solo records (both of which are fantastic, by the way).  There was actually some question about whether Firewind had breathed their last, but Gus G. insists it was always his plan to bring the band back together, and indeed the boys are back together on this newest release, Immortals.

The album opens with two melodic, yet string-melting tracks, in "Hands of Time" and "We Defy", both of which serve to put the listener on notice that Firewind is fully back and ready to reclaim their position at, or near, the top of the Euro-power metal scene.  One thing that will be immediately obvious is the new voice of the band, as Henning Base has stepped into the void left by Apollo Papathanasio.  Kelly Carpenter had been the touring vocalist for Firewind for the past couple of years, and many thought he would be the new album's voice, but I feel Base brings a style and power of his own to these songs (more on that in a bit) that I honestly don't think Carpenter would have incorporated.  I'm not sure of the reasons Carpenter was not used on this record, but the addition of Base is definitely a signature move, and his performance on these first two tracks, and the speedy, "We Defy", in particular, tell me that the right decision was made for the band. 

"Ode To Leonidas" starts off with a spoken word intro, recalling some of the things Manowar has done in the past to varying degrees of success.  This effort is short enough, I suppose, but I still find such things to be more of a distraction than an addition to the song itself, and this intro is not the exception.  Once the lead-in is finished, however, we are treated to yet another hard-charging fret-burner from Gus G. and Company, with Base's vocals really taking on an edge that the band didn't employ often enough in the past, in my opinion.  The former lead vocalist for Brainstorm and Gamma Ray, among others, has a strong, passionate tenor that he masterfully controls throughout this record, but when he adds this bit of gruffness to his vocals, it really adds to the urgency of the track.

"Back On The Throne" is a great song that I feel really hints to Gus G.'s time touring with Ozzy, as the rhythm guitars carry a tone that is reminiscent of late 80's/early 90s material.  I could definitely do without the keyboard lead-in to the song, but it is short-lived and more of a nuisance than a real annoyance.  A big, soaring guitar solo is a prominent part of this track, and again, Base really unleashes the power of his vocals on this track, which is definitely one of my favorites here.

"Live And Die By The Sword" is the album's epic moment, starting with a nice acoustic guitar over the sound of a distant thunderstorm, then slowly building in power until Base's vocals lead the charge of the band, along with some nicely stacked, gang-shouted backing vocals, that work perfectly to compliment a rhythm that builds from a moderate gallop to a full-blown charge, especially during the blistering solo section.  Katsionis is given reign to add his own mini-keyboard solo amidst the flurry of Gus G.'s guitars, as well, again showcasing the epic nature of this song.  

Rarely does the album allow the listener to catch his or her breath, but one truly shining moment on the record is the ballad, "Lady of 1000 Sorrows".  Incorporating some classic rock-sounding guitar tones in places, this power ballad sweeps and soars, especially when Base is given the chance to really hold onto a note and extend it out, especially on the closing chorus.  

Without breaking the record down in complete song-by-song fashion, I feel that this is definitely one of the band's best efforts...probably seated right behind the huge The Premonition, which I still find to be breathtaking in places.  This record is right there, however, and as I have likely made obvious, I feel that Base's vocals make so much difference on this record.  I would love to hear him tackle the best cuts of the band's rather large catalog, especially on the more epic tracks that Firewind does so well.

The keyboards are still a bit more prominent than I prefer, but such is the Euro-power sound, and I have learned to accept them for what they are.  Besides, Katsionis is a truly accomplished player and brings a level of excitement and energy to the songs that more often than not boosts, rather than hinders, the overall sound.  I can't say the same for many keyboard players in the power metal scene.  And, while on the subject of musicians, I don't think Christo and Nunez are given enough love here, as they are often thought of as mere supporting players to Gus G.'s prodigious talent, but the rhythm section here is amazing and really builds a support structure that Gus would struggle to replicate.  Top notch performances all the way around.

Rating:  Sounding like they haven't missed a beat, crank this effort to a really, really solid 8!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

SAINTED SINNERS "Sainted Sinners"




(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Knight of the Long Knives
  2. Beauty In The Beast
  3. Maybe She's Got Balls
  4. We Are All Sainted Sinners
  5. Blue Lightning Man
  6. The Love That I Have Found
  7. Did You
  8. In Need
  9. Evangeline
  10. Shine Diamond Girl
  11. Truth Is A Lie
David Reece--Vocals
Frank Pane--Guitars
Ferdy Doernberg--Keys
Frederik Burkert--Bass
"Maestro" Berci Hirleman--Drums

David Reece just seems completely unable to sit still, doesn't he.  The guy has been in more bands than I have had cars!  Accept, Bangalore Choir, The Stream, Bonfire, Tango Down, and now this newest project, Sainted Sinners...and I'm sure I'm missing more than a few bands if I really dig deep enough!  However, unlike his previous efforts, Sainted Sinners is less about melodic hard rock and more about solid, 70s-soaked bluesy hard rock in the vein of Deep Purple, Whitesnake, UFO, Rainbow, and even a bit of ZZ Top and a healthy dose of Zeppelin.

"Knight Of The Long Knives" starts things off in an uptempo fashion that is not too far removed from 70s-era Whitesnake in its approach.  There is some really good riffing going on, and the Hammond organ is absolutely killer here (and pretty much EVERYWHERE on this record)!  When Reece's vocals kick in, I'm thinking, "yeah!  I can get into this!"...but then the song just kind of sits there and stagnates.  There's no real hook or lyrical turn, no altering of tempos, and not even an overly memorable solo to just grab me by the ears and shake me...although that Hammond nearly does it.  I also find I'm not a huge fan of the chorus for some reason, and it hasn't snagged me yet, even with repeated listens.

"Beauty In The Beast" is a really uptempo, boogie-woogie number with some pretty cool guitar work from Pane, especially on the bluesy solo, and even more great Hammond work from Doernberg, who is an absolute BEAST all throughout this record!  But again, the song just isn't a big stand-out number for me...nor is the third track, "Maybe She's Got Balls", although this song is a step up from the previous two.  I can't quite figure out why on it, but after a good dozen or so trips through the album, I have pinpointed that for me, the uptempo songs on Sainted Sinners all seem to be missing something.  They are performed with expert musicianship and excellent vocals ("Maybe She's Got Balls" has some really nice female backing vocals, by the way), but none of them really and truly suck me in, which is odd, as I absolutely LOVE this type of bluesy, 70s-drenched classic rock.

"We're All Sainted Sinners" is a step in the right direction, but its also a slight step backward in tempo.  A big, thick guitar riff powers this song in a solid Deep Purple direction, with the icing on the cake being still more potent Hammond from Doernberg.  Reece pretty well dominates this song, also, and the bridge section, with the layered vocals is some really good stuff.  I would love to hear the band do more stuff like this throughout the record.

"Blue Lightning Man" takes about 80 seconds before it decides to get up and get moving, and from there it turns into one of the fastest songs on the record...which, again, means its one of the lesser songs on the record for me.  I even started to question my sanity after repeated listens to this first half of the record, because everything seems to be in place for me to absolutely fall in love with this record by now, but I just don't.  Again, there is no denying the level of musicianship here, as every man on this record cuts loose with some level of excellence on pretty much every track here.  But the fast numbers just don't have...SOMETHING!  Now, "Blue Lightning Man" does have a really cool guitar solo that is part of a big tempo change about 4:45 into the song, but once things speed back up, even with the smoking Hammond work, this song just feels like  about a hudred different album cuts from the 70s that just blend into the background and take up space between a record's singles.

It isn't until track 6 that things REALLY click for me (although, again, "We're All Sainted Sinners" is a darn fine song).  "The Love That I Have Found" is a big, epic Zeppelin-ish number with a rhythm and riff that bears more than a passing resemblance to "Kashmir", but dang if it isn't catchy and performed to near perfection.  That big, chunky guitar riff, the nicely layered keys, and even a hint of orchestration.  This is definitely the pinnacle of the record for me, and I find myself going back to it repeatedly, as it is executed so well.  Excellent stuff, as is "Did You", which holds onto that Zeppelin worship for a bit longer, especially on the introductory instrumentation and another big, heavy riff, before it shifts a bit more into Deep Purple territory, especially with the Hammond firmly in place.

But then things slip once again, and it is the more uptempo material that really seems to expose the band's songwriting weaknesses.  On "In Need", Reece sounds like he is channeling ZZ Top on the verses, and even the music has some of that 70s southern blues n' boogie that ZZ Top is known for, but it just isn't all that memorable.  To be 100% honest, if I'm not spinning the song, I don't even really recall the rhythm of the track, let alone any type of hook.  "Evangeline" also doesn't do much for me, and really, it doesn't fit the style and sound of the rest of the record.  To my ears, it sounds like Reece is singing a left-over Dokken song...with a guitar solo that sounds like something Mr. Big would do, which is cool..., bit like "In Need" before it, there isn't any real hook to catch my attention, at least outside of that solo.

The album closes with two of the best tracks on the record, which is a saving grace.  "Shine Diamond Girl" is one of the true standout tracks here, and I absolutely love it.  This is pure Deep Purple worship at its finest, from the spot-on Hammond sounds, to the soulful guitar work, not to mention the best vocal work from Reece on a non-ballad on the record.  At one point during the extended solo, I swore the band was going to break into "Wild Woman From Tokyo", as that catchy riff wormed its way into the mix, but it was short-lived.

"Truth Is A Lie" has a definite Zeppelin vibe to it, especially with the rhythm guitar riff, and Reece again shines here, as he has done throughout all of the slower numbers on the disc.  A really solid way to end the record, I only wish that a couple of these heavy hitters had been moved more to the front of the record rather than being forced to wade through more than a handful of well-intentioned but still rather mediocre tracks (well...I guess I wasn't "forced", but you get my meaning.).

This is one of those rare records that, at least for me, really seems to be back-loaded, with the track listing almost completely flipped from how I would have expected it.  Perhaps the band was thinking of how this album would work on vinyl, and if that's the case, I kind of get it.  Start relatively strong, settle back, then end with a flourish, which Sainted Sinners definitely does.  The record just spends too much time treading water without enough punch between the best tracks.

From the moment the first 70's Rainbow/Deep Purple-inspired notes hit my ears, I knew that Sainted Sinners...both the band and the album...was gonna be something right up my alley musically, and I was correct.  I just wish more songs had some real bite to them, as the performances are top notch across the board, and Reece sounds right at home working this style of music.  Most of the songs just aren't that memorable and come off as a bit color-by-numbers at times.  Still a decent first effort and I hope that Sainted Sinners will be around for another album or two, as I really do dig this style of music.  I am also willing to bet that if these guys perform live and throw in some Whitesnake, Deep Purple, and Zeppelin cover tunes, they would be a MONSTER band to see, especially in a small, smokey, intimate environment, because they definitely have the chops for this type of music.   Now they just need a few more songs.

Rating:  If I were you, I'd rip this CD, completely rearrange the track order, and burn it back as a monstrous 5-6 track EP (which I did), and then file the disc away in your collection.  There is some truly EXCELLENT music here, which allows me to recommend rocking the disc at 6.5, but the weaker songs keep it out of crankable territory for this reviewer.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

GROUPIE HIGH SCHOOL "...Ladies & Gentlemen"

(c) 2016 Independent Release


  1. Ladies & Gentlemen (Intro)
  2. Chicks With The Flips
  3. Liquid Lunch
  4. My Medicine Woman
  5. Hard To Breathe
  6. This Is How We Say Goodbye
  7. Navy Blue (Bonus Track)
Vinny Olavi--Vocals
Matt Nitro--Guitars
Smippe Youngblood--Guitars
J.J. Mickie--Drums
Tom Sebastian Dexter--Bass


Before I go any further on this review, I want to say this...it takes a LOT of cajones to get UFC ring announcer Michael Buffer to intro your EP when you are pretty much an unheard of band anywhere outside of your homeland of Finland.  And while we all know of my intense disdain for intros, I have to admit, I like the chutzpah it takes to go out and do something like that to get yourself noticed.  So, kudos to Groupie High School for taking a shot...but don't expect me to listen to it more than once.

Groupie High School is a band I know literally NOTHING about other than the fact that they are from Finland, and they like to rock hard, fast, and loud.  And by that, I mean they are seeking to tear your throat out through your eardrums!  Outside of the two very nicely done ballads, "Hard To Breathe" and album closer, "Navy Blue", these guys are balls-to-the-wall with sleazy, aggressive guitars, rumbling bass lines, and thunderous drums.  But what really sets them apart from so many other bands is the vocal approach that Olavi uses.  For the vast majority of his lower-range, mostly "verse" vocals, he employs an approach that reminds me a LOT of the type of vocals used by 80s New Wave bands like Simple Minds, which I think is just so very cool.  Why?  Because he doesn't sound like every other singer out there.  This is, again, particularly evident on the ballads, where Olavi's vocals carry an emotional quality not always felt with harder-edged, sleazy bands like Groupie High School.

Oddly, there are a couple of issues with this album, and they also revolve around the vocals.  First, Olavi sounds like he has a lot of trouble with his English enunciation.  After my first few spins, I could honestly only make out about every fifth or sixth word he was singing/screaming, and who knows if I was actually correct in guessing what he was saying (I usually start by going for the chorus).  However, this is a very minor issue, as with repeated listens I have been able to decipher quite a bit of what he is saying, and truthfully, I am usually rather forgiving of foreign bands who choose to sing in English.  The real issue is the recording of the vocals themselves.  Seriously, we are talking horrible engineering/recording of the vocals on three of the six songs here!  It sounds like Olavi was recorded in an echo chamber in places, there is so much reverb on his voice.  Everything sounds gang shouted, which can be cool on backing vocals, but on lead vocals it does NOT work at all.  And the thing is, it's not Olavi's voice that is the problem; as I mentioned previously, I actually really like his voice, especially the variance between his screams and those lower-end, New Wave-ish verse vocals I referred to.  I just wish they had been recorded better all the way throughout the record.

Outside of this vocal issue, which I do manage to get around, I think this band is definitely onto something.  I love the aggro-sleaze approach here...a lot...and the unique approach to the vocal style is refreshing.  Musically, on the faster numbers, such as the barn-burning "Chicks With The Flips", which is complemented by a Guns N Roses "Rocket Queen"-inspired porn soundtrack in the background, this album has a lot in common with the furious aggression of the seriously under-appreciated Sledgehammer Ledge, which is a dang good band to be compared to, as I absolutely love their demo and their album!  We're not talking musical clones by any stretch, but that angry edge and searing energy that Sledgehammer Ledge employs so well in their brand of sleazed-up metal is also evident here.  "Liquid Lunch" is another high energy romp that employs some excellent rhythm guitars and really allows Olavi to expand upon his range with a top-end scream that falls somewhere between Axl Rose and Dizzy Dean from Britney Fox.  It's also worth noting that I kept hearing the words "teenage wasteland" repeated in this song, and then the song ends with a keyboard line that sounds like it is straight out of The Who's "Baba O'Riley".  Check out the official video below.



The musically interesting, "This Is How We Say Goodbye", teases at being a slower song, with an intro riff that reminds me a bit of David Bowie's "China Girl", before the crushing drums and punchy rhythm guitars crash through that bit of musical nostalgia and blast this song into another full-throttle, angst-riddled rocker throughout the verses, then backing off into that quirky "China Doll" styled riff on the pre-chorus, before ramping things right back up again.  This uber-cool song is a perfect example of the band doing exactly what they want to do, not really concerning themselves with sounding like all of the other Euro-glam/sleaze bands out there, and bringing a uniqueness to the table that is sorely missing in a lot of the music of this style today.

I am so very anxious to hear what these guys come up with on their next effort now that they are getting some proper promotion and attention with Atomic Stuff.  I'm anticipating big things out of Oulu,Finland in the near future.  As for now, this is a really good EP that had the potential to be great with better production.  I would still encourage readers who like their glam/sleaze fast, loud, and nasty to track down these Finns.  I think you will agree they are onto something here.

Rating:  Definitely crank-worthy, I give this a 7, but with better engineering and production, we would have been looking at a 7.5 or even an 8.  Groupie High School is a band to keep an eye on.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

STEPHEN PEARCY "Smash"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. I Know I'm Crazy
  2. Ten Miles Wide
  3. Shut Down Baby
  4. Dead Roses
  5. Lollipop 
  6. Hit Me With A Bullet
  7. Rain
  8. Want Too Much
  9. What Do Ya Think
  10. Jamie
  11. I Can't Take It (Album Version)
  12. Passion Infinity
  13. Summer's End
Stephen Pearcy--Lead Vocals
Erik Ferentinos--Lead and Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals
Chris Hagar--Guitars
Matt Thorne--Bass
Greg D'Angelo--Drums, Percussuin


So...while Ratt (er, am I allowed to say that???) works out their legal situations about who's in, who's out, who can call their band what, and who can perform using what name, Stephen Pearcy decided to go out and record himself a new solo album.  Huh.  Imagine that....

Of course, Pearcy is not exclusively about Ratt, as he had a pretty killer side band in Arcade, and he's also dabbled in some other band projects with varying degrees of succ...no, no, I'm not gonna lie, they all pretty much sucked.  Vicious Delite...bad.  Vertex....horrible.  Then there were his solo efforts, of which only Social Intercourse really had any interest from me, although his iTunes release of 3 tracks bunched together as Sucker Punch were actually very good, although the album they were supposed to come from never surfaced that I am aware of.  But other than Arcade and a few nice solo efforts, most of Pearcy's Ratt-less musical endeavors have been pretty disappointing to me.  So, I wasn't really expecting a whole lot of anything from Smash when I was sent the album for review.

My attitude changed slightly when I saw that Beau Hill was once again involved in a Ratt-related effort, as that dude really helped the band define their sound on their first few records.  It's too bad Hill doesn't lend his considerable talents to the entire album, because if he had we might have gotten off to a better start with this record.  Why do I say that?  Quite simply, the worst song on the record is likely the lead-off song on this disc!  Seriously, I put on "I Know I'm Crazy", and I instantly agreed, as only a crazy man would have led off the album with this mid-tempo schlockfest that is, for lack of a better term, rather boring.  I mean it.  There isn't a ton of life to the song at all.  Pearcy sounds good, no doubt, and the music isn't necessarily bad, there's just no real hook to it and very little life at all, with the band sounding like its on cruise control.  If I were to tell you my mind didn't almost instantly go into Here We Go Again mode, I'd be lying.

I'm glad I didn't let that first track shape my overall opinion of this record, because starting with "Ten Miles Wide", things definitely pick up for most of the record.  Definitely more uptempo and catchier than the album's opening track, "Ten Miles Wide" finds Pearcy treading fairly close to the Ratt tracks with the guitar tone and nice hook that reminds me so much of the better material Ratt recorded for Detonator, Ratt, and Infestation.  Vocally, as usual, Pearcy sounds fantastic on the record, and I will be interested to hear how he sounds if/when he takes these new songs out live.  The backing vocals are also strong here, lending support to that sassy snarl that 80s fans know so well, and there is some pretty cool guitar work from Ferentinos here on the solo.  Definitely one of the best tracks on the record.  "Shut Down Baby" is a bit thicker, a bit more bottom-ended in its sound, maybe even a bit Zeppelinis with thebluesy romp of the rhythm and bass guitars, as this song carries one of those hooks that instantly pulls the listener in for repeated spins of the song.

"Dead Roses" has such a familiar, sleazy rhythm line to it I SWEAR this song could have been an LA Guns song and if it was Phil Lewis on vocals instead of Pearcy, no one would be the wiser.  Pearcy definitely pumps up the attitude for this track and he wears it well. That rhythm line I mentioned before runs entirely throughout the track and just embeds itself in your brain, making it nearly impossible to transition into the equally sleazy...but a bit less greasy..."Lollipop".  A snappy, sassy number with a fairly juvenile attitude about it, "Lollipop" is catchy as heck and has a cool bass line that runs throughout the track, and another slick solo from Ferentinos.  There are a couple of F*bombs on these two tracks, which is totally unnecessary, but I can deal with that, I guess.

"Hit Me With Your Bullet" is another catchy, Ratt-esque track that long time fans are likely to grab hold of on the first spin through the record, as is the next track, "Rain", which is also a strong contender for the best song on the record.  I have to hand it to Ferentinos and Hagar for their work on rhythm guitars on this record, as Smash has some really good work in that department scattered all throughout the record.  

"Want Too Much", which is one of the heaviest moments on the record, is actually a bit of a miss for me, as it doesn't really carry that sleazy-yet-still-melodic sound that the rest of the record does. "What Do You Think" goes the other direction with an all-acoustic number that has a roots-rock, maybe even slightly country feel to it.  While I actually think its a pretty cool, catchy number, I can believe that there are many Ratt/Arcade fans that are going to instantly reach for the skip button on this one.

"Jamie" jumps headlong back into Ratt mode, with yet another one of the best songs on the record.  In fact, "Jamie" is probably my favorite overall track and I think you could slip it into any of the last three or four Ratt records and no one would be the wiser that it's a Pearcy solo track.  Heck, you could even drop it onto Invasion Of Your Privacy and only long-time fans of the band would know that something was amiss.  It really is that good and that reminiscent of top-of-the-barrell Ratt material.  Love this song!

"I Can't Take It" is another Ratt-styled song, albeit from a later era of the band.  This is the song that Hill contributed his talents to, and it is pretty easy to hear his fingerprints all over this catchy, hooky rocker with that subtle pop-tinge to it that Hill dropped onto some of his most well-known work.  Fun and easy to sing along to, this track has summer written all over it and would have definitely been a rock radio staple back in the heyday of the band.

"Passion Infinity" is another hard rocking number with an interesting time change between the verses and the choruses, but it isn't really all that memorable.  Not bad, just not an instant repeater.

The album closes with "Summer's End" which is a bluesy, Zeppelin-inspired ballad that really works well.  I could see where a band like Great White or Kingdom Come might have attempted a track like this, but it was completely out of left field for me to hear on a record like Smash.  Despite that, Pearcy sounds right at home here, which surprised me, to be honest.  There is a stark quality to his vocals here that is not commonly found on Ratt, or even Arcade, songs of the past, and while a bit of vocal weakness shows in a couple of spots, it actually adds to the overall feel of this ballad.  I really wish it hadn't been buried at the end of the record, to be honest, as there are at least three songs I have to wade through to get to this really good piece of music.  A nice surprise, indeed, for those who stick it out to the end and don't just program all of the most Ratt-centric tracks onto repeat.  Easily a top five moment on the album for me.

The production has been complained about by a lot of people, but I have to wonder if all they had heard were the videos that had been put out for a few of these songs, as I have no real complaints about the mix or overall feel of the album.  There are no glaring imbalances or muddiness anywhere, and even though there are a couple of definite filler tracks here, there is nothing wrong with the flow of the album, to speak of, and the overall groove of the record is solid.  Maybe after 35 years of hard rock and metal my ears are starting to lose a bit of sensitivity in some areas (I don't think they have, but who knows?), but I have no complaints about the sound quality here.  It would have been fun, however, to hear what Beau Hill would have done with the full record, however, but maybe that will happen on the next (knock on wood) Ratt record.

Rating:  It's not completely Ratt, and it's not really Arcade, but it's definitely solid hard-edged rock, and Pearcy hasn't sounded better on a solo effort...ever.  Crank this to 7.5, with a couple of forgettable tracks holding it back slightly.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

ASIA "Symphonia"


(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Sole Survivor
  2. Time Again
  3. The Face On The Bridge
  4. My Own Time
  5. Holy War
  6. An Extraordinary Life
  7. Days Like These
  8. Open your Eyes
  9. Only Time Will Tell*
  10. Don't Cry*
  11. Heroine*
  12. The Smile Has Left Your Eyes*
  13. Wildest Dreams*
  14. Heat Of The Moment*
* Played with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra

John Wetton--Bass, Lead Vocals
Geoff Downes--Keyboards
Carl Palmer--Drums
Sam Coulson--Guitars

Asia is one of those bands that started off on fire with their debut effort, and then continued to smolder for the rest of their iconic career, despite the fact that they never came even remotely close to duplicating the successes of their first record.  To that end, this live album, of which half is recorded with the Bulgarian Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra, leans heavily on the best-known tracks of the band, with four tracks culled from that self-titled debut, as well as the two hits from the band's second album, Alpha, also being included, along with a couple of more recent songs following the reunion of the classic line-up of the band.  As is to be expected following the legal wranglings surrounding the separation of the band into two different entities, no songs from the John Payne version of Asia are included here.

The album starts off with one of the band's classic hits off their debut record, as "Sole Survivor" intros the live set.  Immediately it is evident that the band is firing on all cylinders musically, as the track is exceptionally tight and Wetton's voice, while obviously huskier with the passage of time, is still powerful and comfortable throughout the range he chooses to use.  Sam Coulson's guitar lines are something I paid particularly close attention to here, as he has the unenviable task of trying to duplicate the tones and sounds of the legendary Steve Howe, but it should be noted that Coulson performs admirably throughout this record.  But one thing is missing here: the orchestra.  It is not until further and closer inspection of the album that it is apparent that the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra doesn't join the band until the second half of the show.  This will likely be particularly disappointing to fans of only the best-known songs from this legendary band, as much of this first half is comprised of songs taken from the reunion years, starting with the Phoenix album from 2008, 2010's Omega effort, and one track from the 2012 album, XXX.  While all of these songs are performed with top-notch musicianship, especially when it comes to Downe's inimitable keyboard work, I kept finding myself wanting to skip forward to the real meat of the album, although I had my appetite whetted with the inclusion of "Days Like These" from the Now & Then best-of package, which I feel is one of the band's better tracks, following those first two classic efforts.  

The orchestra joins the band for the second half of the show, and it is this section that will likely hold the most interest for casual, "only the hits" types of fans, as the majority of Asia's most well-known tracks are included here, including the band's biggest chart hits "Only Time Will Tell", "Don't Cry", "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes", "Wildest Dreams", and the band's signature track, "Heat Of The Moment".  The orchestra is relegated largely to background status on these songs, unlike the way many other band's have chosen to use orchestral sections, which was a bit of a let down for me, to be honest.  I was really hopeful more emphasis would be given to the strings and percussion from the orchestra, but that was not really the case.  There are a couple of exceptions to this observation, with on being on the acoustic ballad, "Heroine", which naturally lends itself to more orchestral involvement, and indeed the strings are far more evident here than elsewhere.  You can also hear the string contribution to "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes", and I enjoyed this musical enhancement...along with a very nicely played piano section...but I was still left wanting more, especially when the big rock movement portion of the song kicks in.  To say that I am not disappointed that the orchestra was not more involved would be dishonest, and I can't help but feel a bit let-down (although I'll stop short of calling myself mislead) regarding the album's title, cover art (which clearly features the orchestra on stage), and overarching suggestion that this is an "orchestral" effort.

There is some nice interaction between Wetton and the audience...he even speaks (or attempts to, I'm not sure) in some Polish at the outset of the concert, and he drops in some basic banter here and there.  Never a really flashy band in the live setting, this record is more about the music than showmanship.  Now, that being said, I do not have a copy of the DVD that goes along with this CD, so I cannot speak to that aspect of this particular show, but having seen Asia live once in the early 90's, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a whole lot of stand and sing/play from this band on the DVD.  Again, this band is about the music, not the show, anyway, and the addition of an orchestra usually only serves to ground a band that much further.

With the unfortunate and untimely passing of Wetton on January 31, 2017, this live release may very well be the last Asia album released.  It is too bad that Steve Howe was not a part of this show, which would have put all of the originals on what is likely the last live record we will ever hear from the band, but Coulson does a more than adequate job on guitar, and he is truly a talented player.  The addition of the orchestra is a nice touch, but I do wish it had been better utilized on more songs; the relative lack of orchestral emphasis is actually my biggest complaint about this record.  Despite leaving a couple of personal favorites off the set list, most notably, "Go" and "Voice of America", the song choice here is both logical and entertaining, and Symphonia is a nicely performed show, with a solid, clean recording that will leave fans, both new and old, with a top-of-their-game reminder of the greatness of this legendary prog rock band.

Rating:  Hitting all the high points and mixing in several tracks not likely known to casual fans, Symphonia is a solid live album, even if it doesn't quite live up to what I had hoped it would be.  Rock this effort at 6.5, only because I wanted so much more from the orchestra, and raise your glass to the loss of a legend.  RIP Mr. Wetton.




Sunday, January 22, 2017

SHALLOW SIDE "One"

(c) 2017 Thermal Entertainment

  1. We Roll
  2. Rebel
  3. Renegade
  4. Fight Or Flight
  5. Can You Hear Me
  6. Start A Fire
Eric Boatright--Vocals
Cody Hampton--Bass, Guitars
Seth Trimble--Guitar, Keyboard
Heath Fields--Drums

I love when bands take various styles and meld them into one sound, creating something just a little bit different than the norm.  I'm not saying the band invents something wholly original, because those bands are few and far between.  No, what I mean is when a band is willing to step slightly outside of the box to pull in elements of other genres to complete their musical vision.  Shallow Side is a band that manages to do just that by combining elements of modern hard rock, southern rock, and classic rock, rolling them all up in one tight package and shoving them directly into the ear of the listener who is fortunate enough to stumble upon the band.

Hailing from Alabama, Shallow Side wears their Crimson firmly on their sleeve, which is immediately obvious in the southern-fried stomp of the lead track, "We Roll", which features the line "just like the Tide, we roll".  Now, for the uninitiated, for the non-college football fans in the audience, when Boatright sings that line, he is referring to the University of Alabama football team's catch phrase and rally cry of "Roll Tide Roll".  That is a fitting line to include in this throttled up party rocker, as the energy level is high here with this drum-and-bass heavy, clap-clap-stomp styled number that feels very much like a track that will be cranked up at tailgate parties throughout Alabama Nation on Saturday afternoons.  A simple guitar line, solid backing vocals, and some supporting keys add a bit of flavor to the track that, just like a team's entrance song, leads the band out of the musical tunnel and onto the playing field that is the rest of the album.

A southern-fried guitar lick kicks off "Rebel", which then slides into a more modern rocker that alternates between softer verses and heavier, punchier choruses.  Again, a thick, chunky rhythm sets the foundation for much of this track, which is complete with hand claps, banjo, and a blues-drenched guitar solo that all come together to compliment each other perfectly in one of the truly kick-ass moments on the record.  Love this track and it's...ahem...rebel attitude.

"Renegade" is a cover of the classic Styx track, and, to be honest, is my least favorite track here, largely because I am a huge Styx fan and I'm not overly enamored with the updates to the classic rocker.  Kudos for the attempt, and had I not been such a fan of the original, I likely would absolutely love the band's take here, which does feature a slightly faster tempo and a seriously scorching, if too short, guitar solo that really deserves to be heard.  Boatright's vocal range is much lower than Tommy Shaw's is, which gives the track a different feel, but his performance is still strong and commanding.  The keys largely play the same supporting role that they do in the original, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the big, layered harmony vocals that come out of the original's solo break.  As it is, this is a decent track that show the band's willingness to give a nod to their classic and southern rock influences while not just playing a note-for-note cover song just to take up space.





"Fight Or Flight" is a much more head-on modern rocker, very similar in style and approach to something Shinedown might be heard to do.  Honestly, the least memorable song on the record despite being the heaviest track here.  I'm not saying it is a bad song or that I don't like it, because its not and I do.  I just think the fact that the band loses a bit of that uniqueness, that bit of "we're doing things our own way" attitude, which keeps this song from really standing out for me. Even on the cover of "Renegade" the band puts their stamp all over a well-known classic rock staple and makes it their own.  Here, no matter how punchy and aggressive the guitars, no matter how angry the vocals, "Fight Or Flight" sounds like so many other good-yet-not-memorable rockers on the radio.  Perhaps the track is a victim of the uniqueness that surrounds it, which leaves the song sounding like something I have heard slightly different versions of in the past from other bands.

That changes when the twang of the guitars on "Can You Hear Me" lead the track in, crashing headlong into a thunderous drum section and more modern guitar tones.  This track has a harder-edged, Daughtry feel for me, which is a good thing, as I really appreciated that band's first two records.  The pre-chorus backs way off the guitars and leaves Boatright out there on his own of the drums and some ambient sounds before the guitars crunch their way back into the track.  I like the dynamics of this song, the stop-start changes to the rhythms, the variances in Boatright's vocal approach, and the overall feel here that dovetails emotion and aggression to a great degree.  Nice track here.

The EP closes with "Start A Fire", which again finds the band not going the tried-and-true route, as they experiment with some electronic drums and ambient sounds in various places, while still coming at you with edgy guitars and a huge bottom end to their sound.  Boatrights vocals remain firmly in control, even when he cuts loose on a near-shouting snarl on the chorus, and the backing vocals are definitely enhancers on this track, as they really are throughout this EP.  A pretty cool guitar lick, and a catchy rhythm, run throughout the song, which is catchy enough to make you really wish the EP had not come to an end just yet.

A couple things really ring true for me after several spins through this EP.  First, this band is tight...I mean EXTREMELY tight.  There is no slop in their play at all, regardless of the instrumentation they choose to bring to the song they are playing.  Yeah, yeah, I know that studios can make average bands sound good, but you can't fake chemistry, and you can't make up hours upon hours of playing together that gives a band its feel.  Shallow Side has chemistry in spades on this mini-album, and they sound like they are having fun, even when they sound pissed off, like on "Fight Or Flight".  Of special note here are the really good skills on the drums from Fields, and some awesome acrobatics on the guitar solos from Trimble.  For a band I have never heard of prior to this, Shallow Side seems to have hoarded some fairly significant musical talent for their little band and stashed it away so that they could unleash it upon the listeners at the time of their own choosing.

Secondly, the band knows who they are and are unapologetic about it.  One of us is a southern rock fan?  Sure, we'll drag some of that into the mix here.  Wanna play a banjo?  Sure, we'll find a place for it.  Oh, you've got something you wanna get off your chest as you scream at someone.  Yeah, we can do that, too.  I can appreciate that as a listener because while the sounds and styles vary from track to track, never do you feel like you have a bunch of CDs on shuffle here as the band changes things up.  Rather, you feel exactly like the band intends for you to feel...entertained, a bit challenged, possibly a bit physically exhausted, and still wanting more.  

Rating:  Outta nowhere, Shallow Side had me cranking the dial to 8.5.  Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Husker fan, even I was pounding along to "We Roll"...and I never stopped all the way through this 6 track EP.  I anticipate big things from this band in the future.