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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