Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MANAFEST "Stones"

(c) 2017 Manafest Productions

  1. Stones
  2. House Of Cards
  3. Firestarter
  4. When The Truth Comes Out
  5. Find A Way To Fight
  6. You're Gonna Rise
  7. Blow You Away
  8. Coming Back
  9. Merry Go Round
  10. Amplifier (featuring Aicia Simila)
  11. Won't Give Up
Chris Greenwood (Manafest)--All Lead Vocals

Musicians
Mike McPherson--Drums (2)
Mike "X" O'Connor--Bass (2,3) Guitars (2,3,5,6,7,9,10) Keys/Programming (2,3,5,7,9, 10 ) Drums (3) 
Adam Stark--Guitars (2)
Seth Mosley--Guitars (2,6, 10) Bass (10) Keys/Programming (2,3,6,9,10) 
Joe Rickard--Guitars (3,5,7,9) Drums (3,7,9) Bass (3,9) Keys/Programming (3,5,7)
Kevin "Thrasher" Gruft--Guitars (4)
Johnny Litlen--Programming (4)
Taylor Dexter--Drums (8) 

As I have gotten older, I have expanded my musical horizons to a large degree, but there are always the common elements of catchy songwriting, hard-edged guitar work, and a dynamic vocal presence, in nearly everything I choose to listen to.  As a father, I am also very conscious of what I expose my still-young children to lyrically, and I find myself losing patience with acts who feel the need to fill every song with a dictionary full of vulgarity and profanity.  Hey, I can stomach an F*bomb on a song or two in an album, but every song, of every album, all the time?  No thanks...I'll pass.

As a Christian who also happens to be a fan of hard music and supports a huge number of the acts in the scene, I find referring back to my first statement, as my musical horizons have expanded to include the "active rock/modern hard rock" genre, including some of the rap-rock that would've been lumped under the Nu-Metal umbrella in the 90s.  It is because of this expansion of my musical tastes that I was first introduced to Manafest.

Manafest (real name Chris Greenwood) is a rapper/rocker from Canada who has actually been around for quite some time now.  I first encountered his music while listening to a Christian/Positive Rock station out of Orlando, FL, when I heard the song "Bring The Ruckus", which comes from his 2010 album, The Chase.  I liked the tune pretty well with its hard-edged guitars, catchy chorus, and modern, edgy production, so I played it for my boys, who also loved it.  So I snagged The Chase off of eBay and gave it a listen.  What I discovered was a really good modern rock record that was sometimes rapped, sometimes sang, sometimes screamed, and nearly always packed with some really solid modern guitar work, hard-hitting (although frequently programmed) drums, and some crafty hooks to draw the listener in, while also utilizing positive, uplifting, and often-boldly Christian lyrics.  Thinking this was something I could get into a bit more, I ordered a couple more albums from Manafest, specifically Fighter (2012), and The Moment (2013).  Again, the albums had some pretty catchy, hooky music, with several songs featuring solid, edgy guitars, and a healthy dose of backing vocals/chorus vocals from Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch, who was also all over the place on The Chase.  My kids, again, loved the records, but I found myself not nearly as impressed as I was with The Chase because more and more hip-hop was creeping back into the songs and the rock was being somewhat edged out.  By the time I got around to the next album, 2015's Reborn, I found it difficult for me to find much to really hang my hard rock hat on, as it was pretty much a straight up hip hop/rap album, with minor..VERY minor...rock influence and quite a bit of electronic hip hop thrown into the mix.  Definitely not my thing, and even my boys were like, "What happened to Manafest?"

When it was announced that Manafest would be recording a new, fully-independent record (as Reborn was), and that a Kickstarter campaign was in place for the record, I was hopeful that he would be returning to the sound my kids had fallen in love with and which I had a very solid respect for and enjoyed listening to.  But I also had my doubts.  Then I read where Manafest, himself, said that he was writing this album as a full-on rock project, so I decided to take a shot, and backed the project.

I am so very glad that I did.

Not only is Stones a full-on rock record, there is even less rap/hip hop on it than there was on the very good The Chase album.  In fact, there are any number of songs here that belong solidly in the mix on any active rock station or Sirius/XM's Octane channel, as they feature hard (heavy?!), crunchy guitars, some seriously furious (LIVE!) drumming, and the typical hook-laden, catchy songwriting that drew me to Manafest's music in the first place.  There is a darker, edgier vibe to the rock laid down by the numerous musicians listed in the credits above, which gives the deeper, soul-searching lyrics even more punch on Stones.   

The album opens with the title track, "Stones", which features some catchy guitar...and a slightly annoying electronic effect that runs throughout the track...and Manafest comes out with some tight rap-rock vocals that are a bit reminiscent of early TFK or Pillar.  The chorus is snappy and easy to catch onto, and there are a few fist-in-the-air-at-the-show moments, but while it was definitely a step back towards The Chase or Fighter, as far as the rock element was concerned, I wasn't overly blown away by the track.

"House Of Cards" nudged me forward, however, with some urgent, charging guitars leading into the vocals, a really nice breakdown that also features some screaming solo guitar work, and a great, positive message that is delivered with more snarl to the still rappish vocals, although those vocals are becoming more and more rock oriented.

"Firestarter" continues along the same lines as "House Of Cards" with a catchy rhythm guitar, a really nice use of hard-electronic elements, and more biting vocals that are now starting to completely lose their rap phrasing and moving fully into the hard rock style used by many of the active rock bands today.  While I know programming is used in places on this track, there is some solid drum work used here, as well, and the rhythm guitar buzzes along throughout the track, not just in a supporting role, but as a driver for the track.  

"When The Truth Comes Out" slides back to more of a hip hop style, but a catchy chorus of "when the truth comes out its LOUD!", and a decent dose of guitars keeps my interest and prevents me from reaching for the skip button.  Definitely not one of my favorite tracks, but passable.

Things start to get very loud and very aggressive once "Find A Way To Fight" hits.  A combination of crushing guitars and hard-edged electronic elements remind me of the approach Stabbing Westward used to such success in the late 90s/early 2000s.  This is a straight-up hard rocker, with the vocals no longer using the rap phrasing style at all, and a mosh pit is forming at the front of the stage as I visualize what this song would look and sound like in a live setting.  

"You're Gonna Rise" backs off the intensity of the guitars and uses an ambient, almost haunting electronic presence to lead it in, as Manafest sings...yes, sings...the verse sections of this track which I would say serves as the ballad of the record.  Whereas on previous albums Trevor McNeban would have jumped in to support the chorus, Manafest handles this part himself, proving that he has learned some very solid singing lessons from McNeban.  Melodic and emotional, this is the lighter-in-the-air moment for Stones, and I anticipate this song will be all over Christian rock radio very soon.

"Blow You Away" returns to the hard rock, as the title would imply, with more chunky guitars and pounding drums, as Manafest implores, "Save me from myself, pull me out of hell" in the pre-chorus.  There is a rap-rock element utilized in the chorus, but it's darn catchy regardless, and "Blow You Away" finds itself sitting as my third or fourth favorite track here.  

"Coming Back" is a track I have no real use for, as it is an island, reggae-influenced hip hop track that holds no interest for me.  I honestly skip it.

"Merry Go Round" goes right back after things and, depending on my mood, is either my favorite or second favorite track here.  I LOVE the catchiness of the chorus, the electronics that just have me picturing a carnival, the angst-filled vocals, and the crunch of the song.  "Tell me, I'm an Angel or Demon, You hate me, then you love me, 'til you're making me crazy!  Round and round and round we go, can't get off this Merry-Go..."  I just love this song and the message of frustration and disillusionment that I think so many kids today will be able to relate to, but with a positive note of hope and love that the listener can reach for.  Big, pounding drums and churning guitars drive the track throughout, and I find myself repeating this track two or three times whenever I pop this disc in.

"Amplifier" is a more laid back moment on the record, although not a true ballad in my book.  A smooth female co-lead vocal from Alicia Similia helps this dancefloor track along, and I would again expect that this song will find radio airplay yet this summer.  Easy to listen to, "Amplifier" is an okay track, but with the edgy rock that is all over this record, the title is a nasty little tease, as there isn't much rock being amplified here.

The record closes with "Won't Give Up" a combo song of sorts, with some punchy guitars, a dance floor beat, and straight up hip hop vocals, that was likely incorporated to keep the rap fans happy without turning the rock fans off.  Bottom half stuff for me and not overly memorable, but again, not necessarily something I'd hit skip or stop on.  People who are into the rock/rap style used to such success by Family Force 5 (which my kids are) will likely really enjoy this track (which they did).

The production is excellent here, which is often a concern on indie projects.  The packaging is a single-fold, cardboard slipcase, with a large, fold-out poster with writing and musician credits on the backside, as well as an extensive Thank You list, highlighted by a list of people who contributed on Kickstarter.  There are no lyrics included, but Manafest is pretty easy to understand and the vocals are never buried in the mix, so a few listens on even the hardest rocking tracks will allow most listeners to catch the words so they can sing along.

This is the Manafest I was hoping to hear again...for the most part...and I am very glad that I took the chance to back this record and to pick it up.  Already, I have ripped nearly half of the CD and burned it onto a Manafest mix disc featuring my favorites from his previous efforts, so that I have something to throw into the mix for the kids on road trips.  And yes, I throw it in for myself, as well.

Here's hoping Manafest does't stray from his rock roots when he decides to hit the studio again.  Hopefully he will tour close enough to my location that I am able to get my kids to one of his shows sometime soon.  I'd be very interested to see and hear how his music comes across in the live setting.

Do yourself a favor and grab Stones when it is available in late July, and go ahead and track down The Chase, Fighter, and The Moment while you are waiting for Stones to hit your mailbox or music store.

Rating:  Definitely a cranker!  Turn this up to 8!

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

RIGHTEOUS VENDETTA "Defiance"

(c) 2014 Street Smart Recordings

  1. Defiance
  2. Take Over
  3. What You've Done
  4. Hard To Breathe
  5. With Love
Ryan Hayes--Vocals
Justin Olmstead--Guitars
Carl Heiman--Guitars
Zack Goggins--Drums
Riley Hayne--Bass

There are several places in the world that come to mind when one thinks of hard music.  Hollywood, obviously.  New York City.  London.  Pretty much the entire Scandinavian region.  Now, you probably noticed that Wyoming is NOT a place on that list.  I mean, just the sparse population and lack of any real cities is a definite strike against trying to make it in the modern rock/active rock scene.  And yet, Righteous Defiance has been working since 2008 to do exactly that, and in 2014, they took a significant step in the right direction with their EP, Defiance.

While not doing anything to stretch the boundaries of the genre, Righteous Defiance certainly has a firm grasp on the Sirius/XM Octane sound on this five track record.  Buzzing guitars and HUGE drums kick things off with the fist-pounding anthem, "Defiance".  Right away, the band asserts themselves as more than merely competent players, as the musicianship is tight and crisp, with an excellent rhythm section and tandem guitars all working together to whip the listener into a frenzy while Ryan Hayes' raspy, core-ish vocals acknowledge "Great is the power of violence, But greater is the power of defiance", while urging the listener to "Come on stand up, Put your hands up, Live in defiance!" against those who seek to keep them down.  Good stuff that I am sure is a fan favorite live.

"Take Over" continues the aggressive riff-fest, with some programming elements mixed in for good measure, especially evident with the stutter effects used on Hayes' vocals.  There is also some nice twin guitar work utilized in this track, adding a bit of a metallic feel to the otherwise decidedly modern radio rock track.  Another anthemic, crowd participation-styled chorus is a big part of this positive rock track that also uses a few slightly softer moments to change things up a bit.

"Hard To Breathe" is probably the most truly radio friendly track here, but that doesn't mean that it isn't just as aggressive as anything else on this EP, because it is still a definite skull crusher.  However, there is a clean melodic element to the chorus vocals that is not a part of the equation on other tracks here, which really sets the harsher verse vocals apart.  The guitar work that is going on in the background is particularly strong on this track, with a little string-bender of a solo even thrown into the mix, and the big drums are still pounding away, the unheralded driving life force of this band, in my opinion.

"What You've Done" has some fast and furious guitar running throughout the track, with a quick little fret run after the first chorus teasingly close to actual shredding in a modern rock track, which just doesn't happen often enough. There's a pretty cool guitar outro on the song, as well, and after hearing "What You've Done", I find myself really wishing that there was this much melodic guitar emploed on more of the songs here, as Olmstead and Heiman really seem to feed off of each other well and have a lot to express musically.

The album closes with the slowest number on the EP, and "With Love" is a really good way to wrap things up.  Again, very radio friendly in its approach, another positive, uplifting message is driven home with aggressive, yet relatively clean, vocals atop a slower-to-midtempo song that finds the band sounding a bit more calculated than elsewhere on this record.  Catchy, hooky, passionate, yet not losing its edge, "With Love" puts a nice bow on this short little musical endeavor.

The packaging is simple, with no lyrics included, but Hayes is not difficult to understand at all.  Positive and uplifting vocals are the order of the day throughout this EP, which is refreshing to hear.  Having toured with such Christian rock heavyweights as Skillet, P.O,D., and Red, the boys have learned how to get their faith and worldview across without making anyone uncomfortable or feeling preached to.

I know at one time you could order this EP directly from the band and it would come delivered with the band group photo in the middle autographed by all the members.  Carl Heiman has since left the group, so I am not sure if there are some pre-signed EPs available, but its worth a shot if you like to have a bit of a personal touch from bands you support.  Check out their website at www.righteousvendetta.com  for merch and band info and tour dates.

Rating:  Being from rural Nebraska...and not that far from Wyoming...I've been pulling for these guys for some time.  This is their most crank-worthy effort to date, despite being just five tracks long.  Crank this to 7.5 and check them out live if you get the chance.

Friday, June 23, 2017

*RETRO REVIEW* SILVERTIDE "Show And Tell"


(c) 2004 J Records
  1. Ain't Coming Home
  2. Devil's Daughter
  3. S.F.C.
  4. California Rain
  5. Blue Jeans
  6. Mary Jayne
  7. Heartstrong
  8. To See Where I Hide
  9. You Want It All
  10. Nothing Stays
  11. Foxhole J.C.
Walt Lafty--Lead Vocals
Nick Perri--Lead Guitar
Mark Melchiorre--Rhythm Guitar
Brian Weaver--Bass
Kevin Frank--Drums, Percussion


Very few bands hit me as hard...and then disappeared as quickly...as Silvertide.  Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a revivalist movement of the 70s and 80s classic hard rock sound.  Black Crowes are often credited with leading the way when they hit the scene in 1990, although to me that band always had as much in common with the southern rock sound as it did the classic rock of the 70s.  Other bands, such as Jet, and later Airbourne, also really carried the torch for this musical revival, but for my money, the best of the bunch was the "here today, where the heck did they go two weeks later?!" kids of Silvertide.  I say "kids", because the whole band was in their teens and very early twenties when they released their debut EP, American Excess, in 2002, and then this, their only full-length release, Show And Tell, just two years later.  Brass, bold, chock full of attitude, and loudly in your face, Silvertide wore their influences on their sleeve, but put their own stamp on a yesteryear sound that none of them were alive for when the style was fresh and new!  AC/DC, Aerosmith, and 70s-era Styx and Cheap Trick combine with the sleazier, dirtier Hollywood underbelly of bands like Faster Pussycat and Guns N Roses on this killer debut record.  Forget the nu-metal of the band's era, these boys came to throw a party while they were rocking your face off, a fact that was very much evident on Show And Tell.

This album is an absolute must own, as there is just solid rocker after solid rocker after solid rocker on this record, with two nicely executed ballads mixed in for good measure.  From the kicking album opener, "Ain't Coming Home", with its gritty AC/DC three chord rock n stomp, punchy drums, and Lafty's sneering snarl, all the way through the angst-laden closer, "Foxhole J.C.", which was written shortly after the events of 9/11, the band had a chemistry and attitude of acts many times their age and experience.  This attitude and energy and chemistry was obviously apparent to others in the industry, as the band was chosen to open for their heroes, Aerosmith, after only being a band for 6 months, and then later toured with Van Halen and Motley Crue, among others.  Talk about running with fast company right out of the gates.

Four singles were released from this record, with three of them charting Top Twenty on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Chart in 2005 ("Ain't Coming Home" #6, "Blue Jeans" #12, and "Devil's Daughter" #18..."California Rain" didn't chart), but honestly, I think the band/label made a mistake by not pushing the big ballad, "Nothing Stays", which really showcases the band's strong songwriting and their ability to rein in all of their musical aggression and expertly showcase their softer side.  Some of the best lyrics on the album are found in this softer section, as well.  Just a solid song that I think would have charged up the charts for the band.

Two songs, "Mary Jayne" and "To See Where I Hide" were carry-overs from the band's debut EP (which was actually their demo), and I think you can tell the band was not quite as sharp with their songwriting on these two older tracks.  Neither is terrible, but lyrically they are both lacking.  Of the two, I would say "To See Where I Hide" is the best, simply because it has some excellent guitar work...including a Hendrix-esque intro...and some really nice drum work, along with a solid bass line, that would possibly be one of the better tracks on a truly great album had it been stronger lyrically.

Favorite tracks on the record would be "Ain't Coming Home", the catchy, more 80s-feeling "California Rain", the lyrically catchy, "Blue Jeans", the biting "Foxhole J.C.", and both of the ballads, "Heartstrong" and "Nothing Stays".  Nothing here is skip-worthy, however, as this is one of the best overall debuts I have ever encountered in any style of music that I listen to.  It's too bad the band's 2013 reunion didn't result in any new music, and nothing I have seen or heard would lead me to believe a new Silvertide record is even a remote possibility at this time.  The EP is available out there, and I know there were at least five "B-side" tracks recorded for Show And Tell, although I have only managed to find two, both of which are really good, if not great.

Here today and gone just five minutes later, or so it would seem, Silvertide had a world of promise, and they totally delivered on that promise with this dang-near perfect debut effort.  I still feel they could be a force in the hard rock scene today had they managed to survive, but perhaps too much fame and too much success came far too quickly for these young guys, and Show And Tell is the lasting legacy of a band that could've been the beginning, rather than the end, for a killer rock band.

Rating:  Definitely a crankable gem, even after more than a dozen years, Show And Tell is still a 9 in my book, maybe even a 9.5, given my mood.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

GOLD, FRANKINCENSE & MYRRH "Identity Crisis"

(c) 2016 GFM Music

  1. Beneath The Skin
  2. Graveyard Of Identities
  3. Stuck In My Suicide
  4. Twisted Humanity
  5. Judas Kiss
  6. Darkness
  7. Chatter In The Room
  8. Evil Lies
  9. Death Of Giants
  10. Dimensions
CJ English--Guitar, Vocals
Maggie English--Bass, Keys, Vocals
Lulu English--Drums, Vocals

Additional Musicians
Jonathan Chu and Andrew Piland--Strings on "Chatter In The Room"

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are, of course, the gifts of the Magi, given to Jesus Christ upon his birth.  Gold, as we all know, is a precious metal, while frankincense is a perfume or an incense, and myrrh was used as an anointing oil in Biblical times.  

Now, Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh (or, GFM as I am going to call them now, as Frankincense is just so darn long to type!) is something completely different, yet related.  GFM is an all-girl, all-sister band that has come onto the Christian rock and metal scene seemingly out of nowhere.  To help put that myth to rest, the sisters did NOT, in fact, come out of nowhere.  Rather, the trio hails from Florida, and apparently they refer to their style of music as "beautycore", which is a mixture of hard rock and metalcore that is played by all-female bands (as if we needed more genre splitting, right?).

Regardless of where they hail from and what they call their music, one thing is for certain: they appear to be a force to be reckoned with.  Identity Crisis is the band's second album (their first full-length release), and it finds the girls hitting hard, both musically and topically.  Listing bands such as Five Finger Deathpunch, Skillet, and Disciple as influences, the three sisters range in age from 17 (CJ) to just TWELVE!!! (Lulu...Maggie is 15) but pack a musical punch that belies their age, helped along in their musical development by Jake Jones and Justin Foreshaw of As We Ascend.  Two singles have been released thus far, with both "Beneath The Skin" and "Darkness" getting considerable airplay on Christian rock and metal radio stations, as well as garnering chart success in the Christian rock format.

The album kicks off with one of the singles from the record, as "Beneath The Skin" comes ripping from the speakers in a big way.  The harmonizing vocals of siblings is definitely there on the backing vocals in the chorus, but the liner notes are unclear about who handles the clean lead vocals, the harmonizing backing vocals, and (later) the harsh, screaming vocals...so I contacted the band's Facebook page!  I was told that CJ handles the clean leads, Maggie does the harsher vocals and screaming, and Lulu tackles some of the harmony vocals.  Regardless of who sings/screams what, "Beneath The Skin" is an infectious rocker, with some solid rhythm guitars, a nice breakdown section, especially coming out of the final chorus, and some truly great drum work from the youngest sister of the trio.  I was duly impressed with what I heard on this first single.

The girls ratchet things up on "Graveyard Of Identities", which is one of my two favorites on this album. Rapid fire verse sections, slower, down-tuned bridges, and then slightly ramped up speeds on the chorus section are enhanced by the introduction of some ear-shredding, guttural screams offsetting the otherwise clean lead vocals.  This song should be all over active rock and metal radio, in my opinion, as it is catchy, has a nice hook, and packs a serious vocal punch (although the harsh vocals may be a bit too much for more conservative rock stations).

"Stuck In My Suicide" is equally punchy in its blistering approach, and there are some obvious comparisons to a band like In This Moment, particularly in the modern elements thrown into the mixing and producing of the lead vocals.  Again, there are some harsher screaming elements on this track, but not to the brutal level of "Graveyard...".  

"Twisted Humanity" slows things down somewhat, but retains its overall rocking approach.  If it were up to me, "Twisted Humanity" would definitely be released as a single, as it showcases so many different elements within the band:  harmonizing vocals, screams, a tight rhythm section, some really solid, grinding rhythm guitars, a couple of tempo changes, solid lyrics with a positive message speaking against self-harm...all wrapped up in a three-and-a-half minute ball of fury.

"Judas Kiss" is NOT a metalcore version of the classic Petra song...which was, of course, turned into a punk song by punk thrashers, One Bad Pig.  Instead, this "Judas Kiss" is a mid-tempo metalcore number that again alternates between harsh and clean vocals, with a bit of spoken word thrown in for good measure.  There is a solid, if not crushing, breakdown section before the final chorus section, and the tightness of the girls' playing is once again the really impressive part of this song, overall. I wish there was a bit more thump to the breakdown here, but not a bad track at all.

"Darkness" is another of the album's singles, and it is easy to see why.  Probably the most radio friendly rocker on the disc, "Darkness" again features some of those programming-stuttered vocals used by bands like In This Moment.  "Darkness" also features what passes for the only real guitar solo on the record, but its nothing overly flashy and is far more smooth and melodic in its approach.  The harsh vocals are absent here, but the harmonizing is not, and the finish of the song has a big, epic feel to it, which is pretty cool.  This is a track that was originally recorded for the Death Of Giants EP that GFM released a couple of years ago, but this version is an improvement over the original.

A mournful cello leads in the next song, and almost immediately, "Chatter In The Room" is going to draw comparisons to a band like Evanescence, with the soaring female lead vocals, programming elements, and strings.  While I can certainly hear it, "Chatter..." is a powerful, emotional ballad on its own and doesn't need big name comparisons to validate it.  CJ really gets to stretch her vocal wings on this track, showcasing a strong, emotive voice that I believe will only get stronger with time.  A powerful message is delivered in the lyrics here, as well, and once again, this is a song that I would push...and push HARD...as a single from this record to get these girls some exposure.  This is, bar none, the best song on a record filled with good-to-really good work.  While I certainly don't want to see GFM back away from their throat-punching, core approach by any stretch, if they can deliver one or two tracks like this on any future albums, they are going to draw fans from the followers of bands such as Red, Thousand Foot Krutch, or secular bands like Lacuna Coil and the previously mentioned Evanescene.  Again, this is a carryover from Death Of Giants, but is also superior in its re-recording and new production.

"Evil Lies" brings the punch and crunch back on the intro, backs off a bit during the verse sections, then flows right into a tightly harmonized chorus section.  Not my favorite track, but it is a nice transition from the softer musical side the girls exposed on "Chatter..." into the full on thump of the next track, "Death Of Giants".

"Death Of Giants" is the title track of the girls' debut EP, although it has been given new life and a new recording for this effort.  Again, the interplay between the clean vocals and the brutal harshness of the screamed vocals serve the song extremely well.  The rhythm section is solid, with Lulu establishing a tight tempo that never wavers, while her older sisters grind away on rhythm and bass guitars.  Lacking a true solo, but sporting a nice little breakdown section following a chanted, "Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!", this version of "Death Of Giants" is definitely superior to its first incarnation and is one f the highlights here.

The album closes with one more reworked song from GFM's debut EP.  "Dimensions" starts off with some programmed elements before giving way to the chugga-chugga-chug of the rhythm guitars that are so prevalent in metalcore.  Yet again, we have a nice mix of harsh and clean vocals, with some programming tricks giving a stop-start stutter to some of the lead vocals.  A nice, crunchy number to wrap up an overall solid and promising effort from one of the exciting new acts to hit the Christian rock/metal scene.

The production is very strong here, with Jones and Foreshaw doing an excellent job of giving each girl's instrument a chance to be heard and not buried in the mix.  The packaging is simplistic, with a simple tri-fold insert featuring both individual and group photos of the girls, along with extensive thank you's and production notes.  I got my copy directly from the band's website, so my liner notes are autographed (in GOLD!) by the girls.  There are no lyrics included, which is too bad, as it is evident the band has a powerful, bold stance and it would be nice for younger listeners who may look up to these girls to be able to read about exactly where they stand.

Overall, this is an impressive effort in a genre that, honestly, is rather same-sounding most of the time.  While not necessarily reinventing the metalcore genre, the girls' take on "Beautycore" breathes enough freshness into it to make Identity Crisis an album worth tracking down.

Rating:  Crankable if you are into metalcore at all, and featuring enough elements to cross fans over from multiple rock and metal areas.  Crank this to 7!

RIVERDOGS "California"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Music

  1. American Dream
  2. Revolution Starts Tonight
  3. Something Inside
  4. Golden Glow
  5. You're Too Rock N Roll
  6. The Heart Is A Mindless Bird
  7. Searching For A Signal
  8. Welcome To The New Disaster
  9. Ten Thousand Reasons
  10. Catalina
  11. I Don't Know Anything
Rob Lamothe--Vocals, Guitars
Vivian Campbell--Lead Guitar
Nick Brophy--Bass, Vocals
Marc Danzeisen--Drums

It has been nearly 30 years...27, to be exact...since Riverdogs released their stellar debut, eponymous record.  Yes, there were a couple of Riverdogs releases after that first effort, but neither 1993's Bone, nor 2011's World Gone Mad, had the kind of material to really grab me as a listener or fan. Sure, both had their moments, but nothing like Riverdogs did back in 1990.  So when I was sent the newest Riverdogs effort, California, for review, I was guardedly optimistic that perhaps a better-than-average record was what I was about to listen to.  

I got a lot more than I bargained for.  

For me, this record, as well as the debut, really starts and ends with the combination of Vivian Campbell's amazing guitar skills, Rob Lamothe's smooth yet still muscular vocals, and some excellent song writing.  This is not to take away from the contributions of Brophy or Danzeisen, but if you take away any part of the trio of items I mentioned, this project would likely fall into the "not bad, but missing something" department, like so many other good-but-not-great records that cross my desk or end up in your shopping cart.  

Campbell is, of course, no stranger to anyone from the melodic rock/Hollywood hair scene, having been an integral part of Dio, Whitesnake, and now Def Leppard, as well as the massively underrated one-off supergroup Shadow King (with Lou Gramm), and his guitar wizardry is all over this new Riverdogs record.  In fact, this record is as guitar-driven as probably anything Campbell has done in quite some time, as there is no obvious use of programming or synths on this record at all.  California is just pure, straight-forward, at times blues-edged hard rock from start to finish.

The album kicks off with the decidedly uptempo shiny happiness of "American Dream".  As soon as the "hey hey hey hey" vocals kick their way free of your speakers, the rock n roll show is on.  Feeling very much like the kind of upbeat rock Night Ranger has released on their last handful of records on the Frontiers label, "American Dream" is easy to latch onto and one of those tracks that could very easily have you speeding along a bit too quickly down the highway as it blasts from your stereo system.  The rhythms here are tight, the simple chorus is catchy, and the melody hooks you and drags you in, but the real highlight here...and on so many of these songs...is the guitar acrobatics of the solo, where Campbell unleashes his skill in a flurry that is not stifled by time constraints to just a few notes and chords; he is given ample time to run the frets for your listening pleasure!

"Revolution Starts Tonight" is a bit darker musically, with a bluesy, grungy attitude and some killer song writing.  I especially love the lyrical slant on this song, which was almost instantly my favorite tune on the record, with the first verse musing, "I don't know where the sun goes at night, Maybe She's just sleeping off the drugs.  And maybe we're just living on a blue satellite, And gravity is flowing in the blood".  Musically, this track reminds me of some of the moodier hard rock that Winger has released recently, which is a good thing, and Lamothe's smooth vocals are an absolute treat here.  Again, another excellent guitar solo is embedded in this track which I think most people will grab onto as one of the top efforts on this new record.

"Something Inside" continues along the same stylistic lines as "Revolution...", as it is another darker, more brooding type of song, but the tempo doesn't bog down and the listener never feels the need to drag the flannel and Doc Martins out of their closet just to give the song a fair listen.  A definite blues vibe runs throughout the track, and a hint of smoke whispers across Lamothe's vocals, giving just a tinge of an edge to the smoothness he brings to this set of songs.  The bass of Brophy is also given a bit more voice in the background here, and the record is instantly three-for-three as far great songs goes, with these two back-to-back numbers the definite highlights of the first half of the record.  

"Golden Glow" is the record's big lighter-in-the-air power ballad, reminding me a bit of Cheap Trick's "The Flame", especially on the intro and in the drum line and tempo used.  A classic feel on a tasty song, to be sure.  Again, superb song writing is at the forefront here, and the storytelling really lends itself to the big production video I can conjure up in my mind, but sadly this isn't 1989 and nobody really plays videos any longer.  Campbell doesn't dominate the song with a long, flashy solo here, but rather drops in here and there, his guitar singing along with Lamothe, on yet another truly quality song from this quartet.

"You're Too Rock N Roll" has a cool, dirty rhythm hitting right from the start, and Lamothe seems to be to be channeling his inner Don Henley here, as his vocal approach reminds me a lot of "Boys Of Summer", even though the song itself doesn't.  However, a harder-edged Eagles isn't a horrible comparison to the style of music here, laid back and cool, yet still sassy and sarcastic in all the right places.  Campbell rips off a nice solo here, and the drum work from Danzeisen is nice and tight here, with some simple-yet-catchy fills.

The title of "The Heart Is A Mindless Bird" really had me curious about what I was going to get when I got to this track, which is the midpoint of the record.  What it turns out to be is a really cool song with a dark, bluesy vibe to it, and once again, some excellent lyric writing that doesn't rely on tired rock n roll cliche just to give the singer something to vocalize.  "Who will hear the poetry?  The songs, the wasted words, Splintering like shards of glass, The sigh that goes unheard..."  Just really good stuff here and, really, all throughout the record.

"Searching For A Signal" kicks the tempo way back up, matching the opening track as far as pace goes.  Not quite as catchy as "American Dream", and a bit dirtier in the tone of the guitars, "Searching For A Signal" is a solid rocker, nonetheless, and one that finds the guys sounding very much like they are just jamming and having a good time.

"Welcome To The New Disaster" has a bump-and-grind rhythm, more darkly bluesy guitar work, and a smokey barroom vocal approach from Lamothe who does his best to steal the show on this track.  Gritty and soulful, "Welcome To The New Disaster" fits right in with the best material of the first half, and slides easily into my top 5 songs on the record.  Love the overall feel and vibe on this song.

"Ten Thousand Reasons" is another great ballad, with deeply emotive lyrics that manage to stay on this side of the saccharine side of things.  More bittersweet than sickeningly sugary, this is a mature band's love song, not an "I love you, stay with me or I might die" ode of a thousand teen hearts' angst.  Campbell manages to slip in a fairly biting solo without disrupting the tempo and feel of the song, and the rhythm section really supports the overall structure of the track, giving Lamothe a solid foundation to slide his vocals across.  

"Catalina" bumps the tempo up just a notch and is a solid guitar rocker, but is probably my least favorite track on the record as it doesn't really hold my attention like the rest of the record does.  The lyrical work is solid once again, and Lamothe is still in fine form...as is Campbell, for that matter...but overall this feels more like a filler track to me than the rest of the material here.  Still, it is a far sight better than much of what gets dumped onto records now to take up space between singles, and I doubt many people find the urge to hit the skip button when "Catalina" comes on.

The album wraps with "I Don't Know Anything", a wistful, mid-tempo rocker with multiple guitar interludes from Campbell, an emotive tenor glide from Lamothe, and a nice, blues-drenched bass line throbbing along, setting the current of the song.  Again, not quite as solid as, say, "Revolution..." or "Something Inside", but still a really, really good song that puts a nice bow on an overwhelmingly solid effort.

There is very little I can say negatively about this record, and I find myself drawn to just put it on "album repeat" and let it run over and over in the background...except that I keep finding myself stopping to appreciate the overall musical experience the album brings.  As I mentioned in one of the song descriptions, this is a mature rock record, to be sure, with deeper thought levels involved in the lyrics of the vast majority of the songs, (the hooky, bouncy "American Dream" being the one true exception here), but that doesn't mean it isn't catchy or inspired.  Quite the opposite is true, in my opinion, as something about nearly every track here definitely catches my attention and pulls me in its direction.  To say that this is a candidate for Record of the Year for me is not an overstatement at this point.

Rating:  Definite cranking material here!  Crank this one up to 9.5!  Just a really, really good record that I truly love from start to finish.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

AS WE ASCEND "Farewell To Midnight"

(c) 2017 As We Ascend

  1. Hatchet
  2. My Ghost
  3. Expendable
  4. Tell Me
  5. When The Gun Goes
  6. Insulate
  7. End Of Me (featuring Zach Myers of Shinedown)
  8. Watch The World Burn
  9. We Fight
  10. Wash Away
  11. At My Door (featuring Brad Arnold of 3 Doors Down)
Jake Jones--Vocals, Guitars, Programming
Justin Forshaw--Guitars, Vocals
Robert Venable--Drums, Vocals

Additional Musicians
Misty Cordle--Vocals on "Insulate"
Kody Robinson--Vocals on "Wash Away"
Jeremy Cays--Strings on "At My Door"

As We Ascend could be a bit of symbolic wordplay for this new band, as they ascend from the smoldering ruins of what I considered to be one of the more exciting, up-and-coming bands in the Christian active rock genre, We As Human.  After a couple of EP releases, a few charting singles, and an even more popular full-length release that was supported by an appearance from Skillet's John Cooper, who also discovered the band, on the track, "Zombie", We As Human seemed to really be going places.    

And then they ceased to exist, seemingly disappearing just as their star was on the rise.

There is quite a bit of information about the breakup of We As Human if you use even the tiniest bit of effort on the internet, but you don't even have to go that far, for As We Ascend pretty much confront the entire situation in just the first handful of songs on their new album.  The album opens with the scathing rocker "Hatchet", which features the biting chorus, "Its hard to breathe with your hands around my neck/Its hard to bury this hatchet when its in my back".  Featuring some programmed elements, a nice, solid drum line, and aggressive guitars, "Hatchet" is very reminiscent of the style We As Human utilized on their self-titled album, and the vocals don't sound completely unlike those of WaH's singer, Justin Cordle.  This is likely due to WaH's guitar tandem of Jones and Forshaw handling pretty much everything except the drums on this new album, with Jones even handling the mixing and engineering of the record that was funded through PledgeMusic.  Definitely one of the punchiest, most aggressive songs on the record and probably my favorite track here.

"My Ghost" treads musical territory not far removed from the style that Red handles so well, and As We Ascend does a more than admirable job here.  Venable's drums are prominent in the mix on this track which also features a lot of programmed elements and some big, sweeping movements as the song leads into each of its choruses.  This song has active radio/modern rock radio written all over it, and it shows a musical growth away from where We As Human left off.  Again, one of my favorites on the record after dozens and dozens of spins.

"Expendable" continues in that Red-styled vein, although with a bit more punch to the guitars than "My Ghost" utilizes.  "Expendable" is a decent enough song, but it isn't overly distinguishable from several other songs on the record, although there is some pretty good riffing and solo work going on here, along with some nice guttural screaming of the song's one word title in the background.

"Tell Me" jumps back into the personal issues of the breakup of We As Human, with the band using the lyrics to tell of Cordle's infidelity to his wife, Misty (who appears as a backing vocalist on a song on this record.  Odd???).  I'm not really a fan of the airing of dirty laundry on a record, although I am sure it is done far more often than I am aware of.  But for a Christian band to do this, it seems...I don't know...shameful, to me.  The song is nicely constructed, the atmosphere is dark and haunting, and if you didn't know what the lyrics were alluding to, I am sure it would be a really good "pain" song for some people.  For me, however, it is far too blunt, far too "thumb in your eye" lyrically, whereas "Hatchet" is much more ambiguous in the way it tells its story.  Anyway, I don't skip "Tell Me" by any means, I just don't think it was the classiest move by the band to air grievances against a past member like this.

"When The Gun Goes" is an aggressive, guitar-driven rocker with a huge anti-suicide message to it.  Extremely catchy, even if a bit corny, "When The Gun Goes" is a bit reminiscent of the Saliva hit song, "Click, Click, Boom", and is also a logical lyrical-and-musical follow-up to We As Human's "Take The Bullets Away".  I can see where the song may get a bit annoying to some, but for me, and especially for my kids, the chorus is so easy and so catchy that we all gleefully shout along in full-throated fashion every time the song comes on.  Cheeseballs, we may all be...

"Insulate" is another gritty rocker with some high speed drumming and riffing during the chorus sections, while using some slightly more mellow moments underneath the verses. Its a decent enough track, but much like "Expendable", it doesn't do a lot to set itself apart from a lot of the other rockers out there on the radio waves now.

"End Of Me", which features Zach Myers from Shinedown, is an absolute curveball, as it is so quirky, so not like anything else here that I can't even decide if I like it or not.  At times, specifically during the verses, it reminds me of TwentyOne Pilots (whom I can't get into at all), but then there is this excellent guitar solo thrown in by Myers to tease me back into, "well, maybe this isn't so bad" territory, before quirking out all over again.  

The album has a couple more solid rockers in "Watch The World Burn" and "We Fight" before closing with the only true ballad on the effort, "At My Door", which features Brad Arnold of 3 Doors Down.  A really, really strong piece of music, this ballad slips into the top three or four tracks on the album, and at times has me thinking it may even be my second favorite behind "Hatchet".

The production is straight forward, fairly crisp, and has a nice mix.  There is no muddiness that I can detect, and the tracking is done pretty well, also.  The musicianship is really good and draws from the strengths of We As Human, which is to be expected.  New drummer, Venable, is very tight in his work and is definitely a strength on the record.

Overall, the debut effort from As We Ascend is a bit uneven in spots, but not horribly so.  I look for even better work from the band in the future, and if they can lock down a specific style and sound that they are comfortable with, such as they do in the first few tracks and a couple of the last songs, I think they could potentially top their previous band's efforts.

Rating:  Rock this at 6.5.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

EDGE OF FREE "Edge Of Free"

(c) 2017 Digitally Sound Records

  1. Blood Eagle
  2. Soul of Your Grace
  3. Pony
  4. Higher
  5. In My Time (Falling)
  6. Autumn
  7. Edge Of Free
  8. Pushin' The Needle
Scott Sneddon--Vocals
John Hussey--Guitars
Chris Autry--Bass
Steve Ebe--Drums

Edge Of Free is an acoustic rock band from Nashville, TN, which I am sure immediately puts people on edge.  Acoustic rock...Nashville...sounds to me like a way to re-label an unsuccessful country act, right?  While that may (or may not) be the case for some bands, rest assured that it is indeed NOT the case for Edge Of Free.  These guys are 100% committed to the rock cause, and despite the word "acoustic" being thrown into their description, make no mistake, these guys are here to rock hard.

From the first spin, I was definitely intrigued and taken by the overall talent of the four guys involved in the band.  In fact, when I first heard "Blood Eagle" burst from my speakers, my first reaction was, "Dang, this sounds like an acoustic Savatage track!"  The guitar tone and style, the haunting lead vocals and expertly utilized backing vocals, and the sparse, yet powerful rhythm section work had me absolutely hooked.  Starting off rather stark in its approach, the track builds to a powerful crescendo in the chorus, with Sneddon's vocals going from soft and somewhat scratchy to a soaring, full-throated power rock approach.  The guitar solo here is expertly executed, and the throb of the bass is infectious.  Just a killer way to open up an album, especially for a new band like Edge Of Free!

"Soul Of Your Grace" stays in the same vein, with Sneddon really stretching his vocal range at both ends, but never stretching to the point of cracking.  This man is a dang fine singer, to be sure, and his "instrument" is every bit as important here as the guitars of Hussey, or the bass and drums of Autry and Ebe, respectively.  He is especially powerful in the chorus section, once again, allowing his vocals to build and build until they are commanding your attention as the music continues to ramp itself up, as well.  There is a little interlude section here that has Sneddon basically doing a bit of spoken word work, before he harnesses that big voice once again and builds things back up for a final run through the end of the song.

"Pony" is an acoustic blues-based number that really relies on some strong songwriting to drive itself.  With some hints of roots-rock embedded in the acoustic hardness of the track, "Pony" reminds me a lot of the way many 70s classic rock bands would incorporate unplugged versions of their music into their sets back in the day.  Referencing their hometown of Nashville in the lyrics, Edge Of Free really pours themselves into this track and the result is easily one of the top four songs on this 8-song effort.

"Higher" has some really cool drum work running throughout the track, and rocks as hard as anything on this effort.  Once again, Sneddon's work, particularly on the chorus, is outstanding, and the rhythm guitar work here is top-notch.  A solid song, although not quite as catchy as "Blood Eagle" or "Pony".

"In My Time (Falling)", sounds a bit more modern rock in its approach than most of the other songs here.  Extremely stripped down, especially throughout the verse sections, this song also features some additional string accompaniment (cello and violin, I believe) that adds to the depth of the song, which I guess would fall into the descriptive realm of  "ballad" territory, although that is not necessarily an accurate representation of the song.  It reminds me a lot of the approach used on "Rooster" on Alice In Chains Unplugged album.  

"Autumn" continues in the slower, acoustic AIC vibe, which is a very good thing, in my opinion.  There is a haunting slide guitar used on the solo section of this track, which is about as "Nashville" as this album gets, but it is not done in country way as much as it is done in a bluesy way.  

The band's namesake track, "Edge Of Free" brings the tempo back up, and for the first time, I am reminded of the other really big acoustic rock act in recent memory, Days Of The New.  The musical approach on this track reminds me a lot of songs like "Shelf In The Room" and "Touch, Peel, and Stand", although there is some orchestration used here that is not present on DotN's music.  Sneddon's voice also has a lot more of an upper-end range dynamic than Travis Meeks, and he really pushes himself in this area here, reminding me a lot of Chris Cornell (who is thanked in the liner notes, by the way).  

"Pushin' The Needle" closes out this effort with return to the more haunting approach used at the beginning of the record, and stands alongside "Blood Eagle" as one of the hardest rocking songs on the album, and is right behind that track for me as far as the best song on the record goes.  Really powerful stuff here, with some nicely crafted lyrics and a stark message of drug abuse that is so reminiscent of the grunge era.  A great groove, some pounding drum work, and the continued emotional assault of Sneddon's voice make this a great bookend on an overall very solid album

The album is pretty short, with just 8 songs and checking in at 35 minutes, which seem to just fly by as the music is so absorbing.  The first time I played Edge Of Free, in fact, I thought my player may have skipped a song or two, as it was seemingly over so quickly!  "In My Time (Falling)" and "Autumn" run a bit into each other, with relatively similar tempos and approaches, which may also contribute to the album seeming to be so short.

Produced by Toby Wright, who has worked with such big names as Korn and...wait for it...Alice In Chains (he produced their Unplugged album.  Hmmmm.....), the album has a great feel to it that is just amazingly moody, powerful, emotive, and darkly attractive.  Every time I put it in, I find myself spinning all the way through it, never once considering switching discs, skipping tracks, jumping backward, or just ejecting altogether.  It is truly one of the rare discs in recent memory that just grabs me and forces me to spend half an hour with the band.  That says something to me...

The packaging is above average, with full lyrics included in the 10 page booklet, along with the requisite thank-yous and credits, as well as photos of the band members.  Mine also came with a band sticker, although I don't know if that is standard packaging or just a throw-in for review materials.

Rating:  Don't let the "acoustic" tag fool you...this is some crankable stuff right here!  Crank this to 8!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

SEVENTH DAY SLUMBER "We Are The Broken"

(c) 2014 VSR Music Group/Capitol Christian Distribution

  1. Goodbye
  2. All She Wants
  3. We Are The Broken
  4. Nothing To Lose
  5. In Too Deep
  6. Trust In Me
  7. Comatose State 
  8. Holding On 
  9. Skyscraper
Joseph Rojas--Vocals
Jeremy Holderfield--Guitar, Vocals
Ken Reed--Bass, Vocals

Seventh Day Slumber is a band that has been around the block a few times.  They have toured extensively, released nearly a dozen albums, had chart success, and shared the stage with some of the biggest names in Christian rock in their 20+ years of existence.  But the band threw their fan base for a bit of a loop in 2013 by releasing a rock praise and worship record, Love And Worship, just two years after the relatively disappointing The Anthem of Angels. Honestly, I thought the band's plan was to shift almost entirely to the harder-styled worship music heard on Love And Worship, and I would not only have been okay with that, but I also could have understood it. It seemed on The Anthem of Angels...and honestly, even on the album before that, Take Everything, which included multiple covers of other artists' songs...that perhaps the band was out of ideas for the rock crowd.  Other Christian rock bands had gone this route, with Kutless being the most obvious name to pop into my head, and again, I would have been okay if that was the route 7DS decided to go.  I just probably wouldn't have actively followed.

But the band threw me a curveball with We Are The Broken.  Rather than continue in the praise direction, 7DS came roaring back to their harder-edged sound.  "Goodbye" and "All She Wants" are both very reminiscent of the post-grunge modern rock approach the band had such great success with on previous albums Once Upon A Shattered Life and Finally Awake, which were the albums that drew me to the band originally.  Rojas has such a smooth delivery for most of the material that it sounds like he is exerting virtually no effort on tracks such as these two openers, and he is truly a gifted singer in his ability to express emotion and to draw listeners into his message.  With these two tracks, I felt pretty comfortable in being able to anticipate where the record was going.

Then the title track hit.  That quickly, the album went from pretty good to really good, seemingly in all the time it took for the CD to track to the next song.  Co-written by Red's Michael Barnes, "We Are The Broken" is a huge anthem of a song, with hard charging guitars, a catchy, sing-along chorus, and some excellent edge and grit added to Rojas' vocals.  The drum pattern through the chorus sections is absolutely infectious, and the tempo change after the second chorus commands the listener to refocus and gather themselves before charging headfirst into another head-banging, fist-pounding chorus.  THIS is what I want from Seventh Day Slumber, and THIS is what had been missing from the previous efforts.

"Nothing To Lose" continues the harder material, with some nifty rhythm guitar work and a really cool, layered chorus that finds Rojas pleading, "So hollow, Unwanted, Please save me from the Dark!"  Really solid lyrical work here, expressing the band's faith without pounding anyone over the head with it and potentially pushing listeners away from such an important message.

"In Too Deep" keeps things going with some more really solid drum work from the uncredited musician who performed here, as well as some more really strong vocal turns from Rojas.  Not quite as grab-you-by-the-ears as the previous two tracks, "In Too Deep" is still a solid effort and one that will likely continue to worm its way into 7DS setlists for years to come.

"Trust In Me" scales things WAY back, incorporating strings (likely synthesized), a piano, much tamer drums, and considerably less aggressive guitar work than anything previously found on this record.  Not a horrible ballad, but one that probably has more in common with Love And Worship than We Are The Broken, at least to me.

"Comatose State" returns to the rock, but it feels a bit like a reworking of "Nothing To Lose" musically, and a bit like "All She Wants" lyrically.  Still a decent song, but I would have liked to have a bit more originality here, especially as the album is winding down.  The same could be said of "Holding On", which has a bit of an "In Too Deep" feel to the music, especially during the verse sections, although there are some harsher, more screamed vocals used in the background here that do add a bit of a different dimension to the track.

The album closes with a real oddity, in my opinion, as the band decides to tackle "Skyscraper", a cover of...gulp...a Demi Lovato tune!  As I mentioned above, 7DS showed a penchant for covering other artists' songs in the past (and they have continued to do so on later releases), so a cover tune was not wholly unexpected, but this particular song was not something I was even remotely considering as potential Seventh Day Slumber cover material.  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this cover, to be honest.  The message here is a strong one, to be sure, and the performance isn't bad, but I don't really know what the band is attempting to accomplish here.  The album is only 9 songs long as it is, and only clocks in at roughly 33 minutes, so to throw in an off-hand cover like this is kind of disappointing.  I would have far preferred another original track.

The production here is actually pretty good, with no glaring issues.  The CD packaging is simplistic with no band photos and no lyrics, but a fairly extensive thank-you section and a pretty cool cover, at least in my opinion.  Also, as I mentioned, whoever is performing on drums is uncredited, although I am guessing it is either Lester  Estelle, Jr., or Brent Milligan, as they are both listed as "Additional Musicians"...but we don't know what either man plays.  The other possibility is that Joe's son, Blaise, is the drummer here and simply not credited, as he has taken over the kit seat in the band on their 2015 effort, Redline, and is the touring drummer, as well. 

All in all, We Are The Broken is a solid return from a band that appeared to be threatening to slip into relative obscurity, even in a genre where MOST of the bands would be classified as "obscure" by the majority of music consumers.  Happily, that did not happen and it does not appear the band has any intentions of slipping from the Christian hard rock scene's consciousness anytime soon.     

Rating:  A bit short, but the high points definitely make up for the minor misses.  Crank this to 7.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

LIV SIN "Follow Me"


(c) 2017 Despotz Records

  1. The Fall
  2. Hypocrite
  3. Let Me Out
  4. Black Souls
  5. Godless Utopia
  6. Endless Roads
  7. Killing Ourselves To Win
  8. I'm Your Sin
  9. Emperor of Chaos
  10. Immortal Sin
  11. The Beast Inside
Liv Sin--Lead Vocals
Patrick Ankermark--Lead Guitars
Chris Bertzell--Guitars
Tommie Winther--Bass
Per Bjelovuk--Drums

Additional Musicians
Schmier (Destruction)--Duet Vocals on "Killing Ourselves To Live"
Jyrki 69 (The 69 Eyes)--Duet Vocals on Immortal Sin


I can't say I was overly happy when Sweden's Sister Sin decided to call it a day.  In fact, I was downright bummed.  I really, REALLY enjoyed what Sister Sin was doing, and, in particular, the way that lead vocalist, Liv, set herself apart from so many of her peers, both male and female.  She brought an edge, an excitement, and attitude, and yes, a sexiness, to the band's brand of metal that is missing from so many other, similar bands.  So, as soon as I was sent the lead single, "Let Me Out", from Liv's solo record, it should be no surprise that I was instantly ecstatic and wanted to hear more!

From the outset of the record...from the very first moment that the full-on metal guitars and thundering drums come exploding from your speakers on "The Fall", it is clear that Liv Sin is not here to kick back, relax, and rest on her musical laurels.  No, rather she is her to kick ass, take names, and make your ears bleed if at all possible.  If anything, Liv Sin (the band) is actually a step heavier than Sister Sin was on the majority of their songs, and that is clearly evident from track one.  Heavy as stink, yet still melodic, "The Fall" is chock full of speedy, grinding guitars, fret-running solo work, huge drums, and the unmistakable rasp of Liv's awesome vocals.  To be honest, the first thing I thought of when I heard "The Fall", and several other tracks on this record, to be honest, was the Judas Priest masterpiece, Painkiller.  That type of speed, aggression, and vocal angst is present more often than not throughout the entirety of Follow Me, which is quite a statement to make, as I absolutely love Painkiller.

"Hypocrite" keeps up the hard-charging metallic onslaught, with the shredding guitar work from Ankermark and Bertzell absolutely blazing their way across the pounding foundation laid by Bjelovuk's drums and Winther's bass.  In fact, Winther gets a chance to shine on his own a bit, as there is a nice little rumbler of a bass lead-in to the bridge of this song, which is a cool change up from the rest of the scorching, screaming guitar work.

Lead single, "Let Me Out" is up next, and while is backs off the pace ever so slightly, the metal is still served up in massive doses her, as well.  The chorus reminds me a lot of Helloween's "I Want Out", largely because of the three-syllable simplicity of the lyrics and the higher-ranged gang vocals used to such great effect here.  The guitar solo is a great piece of work here, and Liv is at the absolute top of her game here with her angry, snarly rasp perfectly delivering the intensity of the song.  Great stuff, indeed!

"Black Souls" leads in with a cool little interlude before all hell breaks loose on a song that, quite honestly, bears a striking resemblance to black metal in the way the rhythm guitars are used in the background, constantly churning up and down the chords in frantic fashion, yet the rest of the song remains firmly rooted in melodic metal, so there is no need to break out the Viking helmets or sacrifice any goats here.  Not my favorite song by any means, but not a skipper, either, "Black Souls" really showcases the versatility of the band and their ability to meld different metal styles together.

"Godless Utopia" utilizes a rocking bass-and-drum line as the support structure for the first half of the verses before the rhythm guitars jump in and start chug-chug-chugging along, powering the song forward toward an oddly timed chorus, then charging right back out again and starting the cycle all over again.  Things really slow down in the middle,,,dare I say they bog down...before the final chorus, which kind of throws me for a loop here.  Again, its not necessarily a bad song, but it is definitely my least favorite track on the album.

"Endless Roads" is pure ear candy, especially for the Sister Sin fans who may be feeling a bit shell-shocked by the relentless speed and metallic assault of most of the first half of the record.  Catchy, hooky, melodic, and more in the vein of traditional 80s metal, "Endless Roads" has a bit of a Warlock feel to it musically, and Liv is given more of a chance to really stretch her vocal skills.  This song is an absolute treat and has been given the "repeat treatment" on more than one occasion as I spin this record.

"Killing Ourselves To Live" comes in with a rather moody intro, then rips the cap off and just starts blazing away throughout the verses that touch on thrash metal in the juxtaposition of the drums and rhythm guitars, although there is a melodic, more traditional element, especially in the chorus section, that keeps it from blasting completely into Schmier's favored metallic style.  The combination of the two vocals here is pretty cool, and the two singers work extremely well together.  I would love to hear Liv take a guest spin on a Destruction record at some point, as she definitely has the chops to keep up.

The record just continues to blaze on with a combination of speed-and-traditional metal, never letting up on the listener, even in the slightly slower moments.  I think it was an interesting choice for the band to tackle a Rob Halford song here...albeit NOT a Judas Priest track...when they take on "Immortal Sin" from Halford's post-Priest band, Fight.  The song chug-chugs along with some really nice bottom end, and Jyrki 69's lower register, doomier vocals are a start contrast to Liv's higher ended snarl, and overall it works very well.  While The 69 Eyes is absolutely not my style of music on its own, the combo of voices is great here!  A bit sludgier than Fight's version, the Liv Sin take on "Immortal Sin" is impressive because it isn't an easy grab to make for a "new band" to tackle a lesser-known track from a legend's side band.  In fact, I'm guessing that unless you are a die hard Halford or Priest fan, it is entirely possible you wouldn't even know this was a cover song, and that would be just as well because Liv Sin really makes it their own, in my opinion.

The album's closer is basically an emotive ballad for the first half of the track before the speed picks up and the song turns into a nice, heavy-yet-melodic anthem that rounds out the record in fine fashion.

The production is really good here, and the band is very, very tight throughout the record.  I love the guitar tones used throughout the majority of the record, and the drums are nice and heavy, yet don't blow away or bury any other instruments.  Produced by Fitty Weinhold (UDO) and Stefan Kaufmann (Accept/UDO), the metal is the main ingredient here, without tons of flash or polish, which serves the record well.  Top notch work here, for sure.

Is this Sister Sin?  No, it is not.  Generally heavier, and certainly faster in several places, Liv Sin has enough elements of her previous band to carry fans over, but there is even more metallic goodness here than in her previous work, and metalheads who may have dismissed her in the past are likely to sit up and take notice now.  In fact, I would go so far as to say Liv Sin will make more fans for older Sister Sin material than the other way around.

Rating:  A truly top-notch metal record.  Crank this up to a blazing 8.5!  Metal has a new vocal queen and her name is Liv Sin!

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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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