Saturday, June 16, 2018

THE PROTEST "Legacy"




(c) 2018 RockFest Records

  1. Valor
  2. What Else You Got
  3. Knockout
  4. Straight From The Barrel
  5. Take My Heart
  6. Noise Revolution
  7. Legacy
  8. Stitched
  9. To The Death
  10. Bad Self/Ascension
Josh Bramlett--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Adam Sadler--Lead Guitar
TJ Colwell--Rhythm Guitar
Jarob Bramlett--Drums


Additional musician:

Matt Arcaini--Bass

Indiana quartet, The Protest, return with their third studio album, and first for RockFest Records, with Legacy.  After achieving a degree of success with their previous album, Great Lengths, which featured several Christian rock radio hits, the guys upped their game noticably on Legacy, incorporating a more melodic approach on several of these tracks that was not present on the previous two albums.  Yes, the music is still hard-hitting modern rock with crunchy guitars and punishing drums, yet there is a melodic quality to the music, and especially the majority of the vocals, which find Josh doing more singing and less screaming than on previous albums by The Protest.

Right from the start, it is obvious to me that The Protest has matured, not only as musicians, but as songwriters.  Some excellent production work has helped bring out a fuller, heavier sound, especially on the bottom end of the drums and the rhythm guitars, as well as some awesome bass work, and the backing vocals are much stronger here than in the past.  All of this is evident even in track one, as "Valor" is a more complete song than even the best material on the band's previous two releases...both of which I really enjoy.  But the focus on cleaner singing from Josh is a huge maturation point for The Protest, and I think it will reap big rewards for this band.

The next track up, "What Else You Got" is an absolute gem of a melodic rocker.  Huge, arena shaking drums intro the track, and support each of the pre-chorus sections, in a BOOM BOOM CRASH style that will have fans stomping and clapping along, without doubt!  The interplay between the lead and backing vocals on the chorus is excellent, Sadler absolutely lays into a tasty, melodic solo, and the simple-yet-catchy chorus all combine to create what I am sure will become the band's signature anthem, and a absolutely screams WWE PPV theme song! Already impacting both mainstream active rock and Christian rock charts, this is a huge song that should propel the band through the summer on rock stations across the country.  Call and request it; you won't regret it.

"Knockout" finds the band reverting a bit back to the style they used on their last album, incorporating a bit more speed and some harsher, more screamed vocals in places, but the songwriting is still more complete than on albums past, and the fullness of the sound can't be overstated here.  Punchy, catchy, and chantable, "Knockout" is another one of the new songs that I am sure will cause quite a stir if given a shot in live settings.

"Straight From The Barrel" features some excellent, edgy guitar work from Sadler and Colwell, with the former dropping in a cool-if-short fret run of a solo, and Jarob Bramlett's drums are absolutely pounding here.  Josh uses both his clean and screamed vocals here, sounding at times very much like the guy who belted "Rebel Static" on the last album, but also mixing in a more restrained, more singing style of vocals.

"Take My Heart" slows things down quite a bit, although it doesn't begin to approach ballad territory, and really showcases that melodic side I have referred to several times.  This is the side of the band that I was always waiting for, to be honest, and is the type of song that I think could make an added impact at radio, as it shows the band is not just a one-trick pony...albeit, an angry, aggressive one-trick pony.  Make no mistake, this song still rocks, but it just does so in a cleaner way than the band has presented in the past.

"Noise Revolution" picks up the pace a bit, but continues to find Josh exploring a more melodic singing style.  Lyrically, parallels could be drawn to "Rebel Static", I suppose, but the songwriting, once again, is more complete here, with a catchy groove running throughout the track, Jarob's drum line keeping the track driving along, with layers of guitars and vocals adding a depth that wasn't often found on previous efforts.  To me, this sounds a lot like the band's personal version of Skillet's "Sick Of It", in it's style and approach and groove.  Excellent stuff, to be sure.

The title track, "Legacy", is pure, adrenaline-fueled metalcore at its finest, and I find myself literally skipping back to this track over and over and over again.  The sheer aggression in this track is something that I have not gotten from a band in quite some time, and "Legacy" has to be a contender for song of the year at this point.  I have listened to this track alone no fewer than thirty times in the short time I have had this album, and it has yet to fail to deliver for me.  The combination of Josh's harshest screams, his brother's massive drum sound, the guest bass rumblings from Arcaini (who also produced the record), and the twin guitar attack of Sadler and Colwell absolutely crushes this song that instantly found its way into my workout mix.  For fans of the band, think "Vicious Cycle" on steroids...including the 'roid rage!  Wow...just absolute perfection if you are into this style of music!

"Stitched" hits almost as hard as "Legacy", but not with as much speed and cleaner vocals, for the most part. Josh dials the angst down a notch here, returning to more of a singing voice, but the intensity of the band continues. The down-tuned guitars swirl and churn, and Jarob's drums are so lively and punchy that you can actually feel the pedal hit every time he kicks.  A core-ish breakdown blasts the listener through into the final chorus, and with back-to-back heavy-hitters, the listener is left nearly breathless.    That's unfortunate, as "To The Death" ramps things up even further, with Josh returning to a screamed vocal style for the verses, while sing-shouting his way through the chorus sections and the bridge.  Again, a punishing breakdown section will have a mosh pit stirring up instantly before an almost sweet-sounding vocal leads the band into the final chorus which blisters its way through to a dead-end stop.

The album's closer is another excellent rocker, combining the band's newer, more melodic approach, with the style and sound of their last album.  Again, Jarob threatens to steal the show with his huge drum sounds, while his brother keeps things largely on the clean side, vocally, ith the only exception being some distorted, almost spoken-word sections leading immediately into the choruses.  The song is rather unique, really coming across as two different songs combined into one, with the "Bad Self" section being a modern hard rocker, while the "Ascension" section is a beautiful, yet still heavy, instrumental section that really showcases the musicians' skills, especially on guitar.  I think this is a key point for the band, as many listeners, especially those who sample the album and hear only the crushing breakdown sections, may be of the opinion that Sadler is incapable of a big soaring guitar solo.  The "Ascension" section of this track should lay those misguided beliefs to rest.

Never a band that openly beats the listener over the head with chapter and verse Scripture, The Protest still manages to make their faith very well known throughout the record, with Josh screaming to the listener about the "King of Kings" in the title track, and with a sense of positivity laced throughout each of these songs.  I am anxious to get my hands on a copy of the lyrics for these songs so I can dive even further into the meanings of everything here.

While I thought Great Lengths was a solid album with several really good songs, Legacy pretty much blows its doors off in ever possible way.  If this album doesn't break huge for The Protest, there is simply no justice in the music world now, as this is one excellent record from start to finish.  Granted, this style of modern rock is not for everyone, but for those who like it hard, heavy, fast, loud, aggressive, and with a semblance of melody mixed in, Legacy may be exactly what you are looking for!

Rating:  Incredibly crankable!  Twist this all the way up to 9 and LEAVE IT THERE!!!

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Monday, June 11, 2018

RELENTLESS FLOOD "Escape The Fall"

(c) 2018 Relentless Flood

  1. Away From Me
  2. Breaking Out
  3. 'Til The End
  4. Take it All
  5. Standing Tall
  6. Used To Be
  7. Wake Me
  8. Bullets
  9. Escape The Fall
  10. Set Me Free
Marshal Huffman--Vocals, Guitars
Bret Rogers--Guitars, Bass
Dylan McLain--Drums

Additional Musicians
Jake Jones--Programming

Four years has passed since Relentless Flood's last album, The Time Is Now, which proved to be something of a breakout effort for the melodic modern rockers.  Since that time, the band launched an Indigogo campaign to fund a new album, resulting in this latest effort, Escape The Fall.  A few things have changed with the band since The Time Is Now, with the chief difference being that the Huffman father/son combination has been reduced to just the son portion, as dad, Dale, has taken on a supporting role, co-writing most of the songs on the album, and Bret Rodgers has stepped up to assist on guitars, as well as bass.  Marshal has stepped out from behind the drum kit and has also picked up a guitar, adding that to his frontman repertoire, and Dylan McLain has been brought in to pound the skins.  Add in the fact that Jake Jones of As We Ascend appears through his programming of the electronic elements here, as well as serving as the mixer, engineer, and co-producer on the album, and it would seem possible that the sound of the band might change, as well.  Yet, despite all this, Relentless Flood remains very much the same band that they have been for nearly a decade.

Musically, Relentless Flood continues to combine agressive, hard rock riffing and solid rhythm guitar lines, with modern programming and production elements, and Huffman's clean, melodic, lower-register tenor vocals, all supported by big drums and solid bass lines.  A perfect example of this is the lead single, "Away From Me", which has managed to climb into the Top 10 of several Christian rock charts after numerous weeks of airplay.  Not dissimilar from the band's previous big chart hit, "Come Home", "Away From Me" employs a strong sense of melody despite the gritty, churning guitars interpsersed with some electronic programming and some excellend drumming from newcomer, McLain.  A powerful song about spiritual warfare, "Away From Me" continues to showcase the band's lyrical and thematic approach of good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, as Huffman exhorts the devil to "get away from me, cause now I see you're no good for me, Stay away from me, hopeless enemy, you're going down today...".  Check out the lyrics video below...



"Breaking Out", is another song that will feel reminiscent of "Come Home", perhaps even more than "Away From Me".  The rhythm guitars scale themselves back to a large degree on the verse sections before coming alive on the chorus parts of the song, and the guitar solo, while not overly flashy, has enough style and flair to hook the listener's attention. The rhythm section is especially strong here, with some machine-gun like work from McLain that really complements the guitars.  Huffman sounds strong, working well within his range, and his voice has matured nicely over the years, gaining strength and depth on each release.  A great example of this vocal grown would be on the next track, a third straight hard rocker, "'Til The End", where Huffman adds a gritty edge to his vocals that was not nearly as powerful or believable on previous efforts,  

"Take It All" is the first time the band even hints at slowing down, and while the verse portions of the song are much more stark in nature, with Huffman's vocals being far more out front than on other songs, there is a musical buildup that ramps up to the chorus sections, keeping the energy level high, even if the speed isn't necessarily there.  Huffman goes into a brief spoken vocal approach (perhaps snarled is more accurate) before the lead break, and the backing vocals feel especially strong here. 

"Standing Tall" adds some extra thump as it steps up the tempo a notch or two from "Take It All".  As is often the case with Relentless Flood's songs, the band really scales back during the verse portions before springing to life in the bridge and chorus sections, with the rhythm guitars pretty much disappearing at points and some electronic atmospheric elements used to support the verses here.  Once again, McLain proves himself to be a valuable addition to the fold, as his tempos and patterns add so much depth to these songs.  The lead guitars here again adhere to the "less is more" school of modern rock soloing, which I don't always agree with, and I do find myself wondering what Dale (dad) would have done differently were he still slinging the axe on this record.

"Used To Be" is the closest thing to a true ballad on the record, and it's pretty good.  Some piano is added to the mix here (assuming these are some programmed elements from Jones, as no pianist/keyboardist is credited that I can find) on a poignant song about how the power or Christ's love and forgiveness rescued the song's protagonist from aspects of his past and brought about positive change in his life.  A lyrically powerful song, "Used To Be" really showcases Huffman's vocal maturity, as he handles the track with both power and emotion, again, adding a believablity factor to his vocals that perhaps wasn't always there in the past.

"Wake Me" begins the build back from ballad territory, heading back in a more mid-tempo rock direction, with some solid chug-chug-chugga-chug rhythm work from Rogers, whom I also assume continues to play bass here, as he did on the last album, as no new bass player is credited.  Huffman stretches his range just a tad bit here, reaching the upper edges of his rather smooth tenor, and he handles it well.

The title of "Bullets" had me hopeful that we would be treated to the band ripping things up with a burst of speed, but instead it falls back into what I consider to be Relentless Flood's default setting of aggressive mid-tempo hard rock.  Jones incorporates some more electronic elements here, and the guitar solo is smooth, short, and relatively tame.

The title track falls into much the same tempo as the majority of the tracks here, although the lead guitar work has a bit of flash to it, particularly atop the rhythm guitars and drums on the intro, and springs a bit more to life during the solo break than anywhere else on the record...although, we still aren't talking about anything overly glitzy or flamboyant.  Again, McLain is the hero of the day on this track, just crushing his way through things here, changing tempos with no apparent effort and modifying patters to keep things interesting.  A modern rock version of a breakdown is used to nice effect heading into the final chorus.

"Set Me Free" closes things out, once again slotting comfortably into that mid-tempo range Relentless Flood tends to live in, but with some of the most interesting rhythm guitar patterns on the disc, and a couple of mini bursts of speed that really lead me to wonder what would happen if this band just cut loose every now and then.  A rapid fire machine gun burst from McLain pulls the band out the short lead break and into the bridge leading to the last big chorus, making "Set Me Free" the most complete-feeling song on the album for me and one that I think sets the stage well for the band to move forward in its approach, if it chooses to.

This brings me to my one true complaint about this album: it feels like we have heard this before.  To fans of the band, the songs on Escape The Fall will likely feel very familiar, very comfortable...very much like the last album, The Time Is Now.  Now comfort and familiarity can be good things, for sure, but when a band grows too familiar, too comfortable, there tends to be a lack of growth.  There is nothing here that stretches the boundaries of what the band has done previously.  That is not to say that these songs aren't good, because they are.  They just never slap me in the earhole and scream, "check this out!", with the possible exception of "Set Me Free" at the end of the album.  I'm not saying the band should reinvent itself, or bring in a rapper, or become all electronic and totally change their style and sound (ahem, Nine Lashes), but when the vast majority of the songs here...and on the previous two albums, really...all run about the same length and vary little in tempo or structure, there is a sameness that can be misread as stagnance.  

The good thing about all of this familiarity?  Well, what this album does better than the previous two is that while done in a familiar style, this album does what Relentless Flood has always done, but does it better.  For example, this album surpasses the previous two efforts from the band in the production area, no question.  Jones does an excellent job of beefing up the sound in places where it likely would have come across somewhat thinner in the past.  The separation of instruments is, overall, very good, and Huffman's vocals are not required to do anything seemingly out of his range or capabilities.  There are a few studio production tricks thrown into the mix, which is to be expected on a modern rock album such as this, but nothing that takes away from the performances of the individuals involved.  And, no disrespect to Marshal Huffman, but the drumming of  Dylan McLain really steps things up a couple of notches.

The packaging here is extremely basic, with a simple digipack serving to house the disc.  There are no lyrics or band photos included, although there is a thank-you section as well as the requisite performanc, writing, and production credits.  The artwork is a pretty cool touch, however, with the front and back being one continuous wrap-around photo.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a supporter of the Indiegogo campaign for this album, and as you can see in the photo above, my copy of the CD is autographed by the band.  As part of my pledge, I also received a digital copy of the album a couple of weeks early, so I have had the chance to live with this album for a bit, so I feel comfortable with my opinions about Escape The Fall.  To that end, I find myself enjoying Escape The Fall quite a bit, but I do hope that the band stretches themselves more on their next effort, trying some new things, alternating speeds and tempos a bit more, and experimenting with their sound, while still remaining heavy and aggressive in their overall approach.  I also hope that it doesn't take four years for that next effort to surface, as Relentless Flood has a lot of talent and promise and deserves to be heard.

Rating:  Escape The Fall just edges into crankable territory, largely on the strength of the playing and the passion of the lyrical approach.  Crank this to 7.

Friday, June 1, 2018

MASS "When 2 Worlds Collide"

(c) Escape Music, Ltd.

  1. Just Can't Deny
  2. Only A Dream
  3. Falling In Love
  4. Alive
  5. Second Hand Rose
  6. Turn It Over
  7. Revenge For The Maiden
  8. Some Time Ago
  9. Stand Alone
  10. Time Marches On
  11. When 2 Worlds Collide
Louis St. August--Lead and Backing Vocals
Gene D'Itria--All Guitars
Joey "Vee" Vadala--Drums, Percussion
Michael Palumbo--Bass, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
Jeremy Huessi--All Keyboards, Strings
Michael Sweet--Lead Guitar solo on "Stand Alone"

As outlined in the autobiographical song, "Some Time Ago", "way back in 85..." MASS hit the hard rock scene with their first full-length album, New Birth, with three of the four members that are still cranking up the amps and thundering away at the drums on this new album, When 2 Worlds Collide.  St. August, D'Itria, and Vadala have been around since the start, and have formed a musical bond, as well as a family-styled bond, that is evident in the music on this new record, which ignores trends and sticks to what the band has always done best...producing driving, hard-rocking music with strong songwriting, powerful vocals, and excellent musicianship.  This time around, Jeremy Huessi was brought on board to add a new element with keys and programmed strings, updating the sound a bit, but not doing anything to alter what MASS has brought to the table, particularly since their 2007 return on Crack Of Dawn, a harder, crunchier album than what many recalled from the band's most well-known album, 1989's Voices In The Night.

Album number eight opens up in fine fashion, with head bangers and fist pounders rumbling out of the speakers.  A hard-hitting drum cadence rips "Just Can't Deny" open right from the start, leading D'Itria's guitars to come charging to the front, clearing the way for St. August's still powerful scream to pierce the wall of sound built up on this full-throttle, classic rocker.   A catchy mid-track solo combines D'Itria's six-string prowess with Huessi's wizardry on the Hammond, before the final chorus closes things out.  A blistering way to start things off, no doubt about it.

Things slow down just a touch for "Only A Dream", but there is a thick, bottom-end heaviness here that is a force to be reckoned with, a mass of crunch that is Palumbo's rumbling bass, D'Itria's chunky rhythm guitars, and Vadala's crushing drums.  St. August is in again in fine form, showcasing a powerful tenor that he equally dips and elevates throughout the track, going a bit lower throughout the verse sections and then climbing the ladder during the soaring chorus.  D'Itria blasts through a fingers-flying solo, as well, as MASS delivers what I have to say is one of my favorite tracks by them from anywhere in their multi-decade catalog.  An excellent song, to be sure!

The title of track three, "Falling In Love", hints at potential ballad territory, but that is not the case here at all.  Instead the listener is treated to more classic rock-styled guitars layered atop Huessi's Hammond tones, similar in nature to something Boston or Deep Purple may have employed.  The drums drive the track through the verse sections, and once again St. August powers through the track with seemingly little effort and no show of time slowing him down.

"Alive" starts off with a cool acoustic guitar riff that leads into another punchy mid-tempo rocker that has 1989 written all over it.  Particularly enjoyable is the verse riffing from D'Itria, which has such a comfortable, familiar feel to it, as well as the brief acoustic bridge coming out of a big D'Itria solo.  There is all sorts of nostalgia tied to a track like this, but without feeling like this is someone else's song or a leftover from days gone by.

The first miss for me is the piano-based ballad, "Second Hand Rose".  I openly admit I am not a big power ballad guy...never have been with a few exceptions...as mostly these songs come off as overly saccharine and too slick for my tastes.  There has to be some real grit to a power ballad for me to enjoy it.  "Second Hand Rose", despite its solid performances, is just too polished to my ears.  It has a definite lighters-in-the-air feel to it, but there isn't much of an edge here for me to grab hold of, and the pace gets a bit plodding.  If I'm being completely honest, I don't care for the odd tone of the keyboards, either.  Just not my song, no matter how it is sliced...

"Turn It Over" recovers nicely, with a bass intro from Palumbo leading into some cool chugga-chugga riffing and a great, pounding drum line that are supported nicely by Huessi's Hammond.  D'Itria uses some vox guitar effects in a couple of places, first out of the second chorus run, leading into a big solo run, and then again out of the final chorus and into the chunky outro section. St. August, once again, really sounds at home on hard-hitting tracks such as this one, which is, once again, one of the better MASS tracks I have ever encountered.

"Revenge For The Maiden" has a more melodic metal, almost Helloween quality about it, from the big, galloping drums to the rhythm playing in support of the verses, from the fury of the guitar solo to the way the layered vocals are structured.   I know I have sung high praises of a couple tracks already, but this may be the best of the bunch overall, although my choice of the album's masterpiece may change from listen to listen.

The previously mentioned "Some Time Ago" is a very cool track, providing a brief autobiography of the band.  Built around a solid drum line and some very 80s sounding metallic guitar drop ins throughout the verses, "Some Time Ago" is another superb hard rock track that, once again, really showcases how underappreciated the talents of both D'Itria and St. August were back in the band's heyday.  D'Itria rips off another cool, inventive solo, and St. August unleashes his most powerful scream of the record on the exiting chorus.

"Stand Alone" is the second ballad of the record, and it is the better of the two.  There is a fuller sound here, with more grit to the guitars and less keyboard involvement, and St. August isn't quite as sweet in his vocal delivery.  Speaking of sweet, Stryper's Michael Sweet delivers an excellent guitar solo here, which really completes the full circle of the band.  For those who may not be familiar, Sweet actually produced the band's Voices In The Night album, which was released on Enigma Records, which was also Stryper's label at the time, and the band actually lived with Sweet for a couple of months while recording that album.

"Time Marches On" has a Whitesnake vibe to it, with its slow Hammond build at the intro, cruising into an arena-rocking drum section and a bluesy riff and vibe from D'Itria.  St. August may be at his best here, as he really gets to lay the power into his tenor here, as befits the musical style.  Not entirely sure what to think of the solo section here...it is definitely different and more modern sounding, showing some willingness to experiment, but for my money, I think I would've just let D'Itria rip into another big solo. Still, this is wicked cool, bluesy hard riff rock stuff here that I would love to hear the band tackle on a full-album basis. 

The album closes with the title track which opens with a warning siren before building up into a nice, straight forward melodic metal rocker that closes things on a high note.  Again, the long-standing trio of St. August, D'Itria, and Joey Vee sound incredibly tight, along with new mates Palumbo and Huessi, who despite my initial misgivings, actually turns out to be an integral part of this record and is someone whom I would like to see become a permanent fixture in this band.



The packaging here from Escape Music is very good, with a 12-page booklet, with full lyrics, a full-color band picture (as well as a color photo of Huessi), writing and production credits, a thank-you section, and pertinent contact information.  The production here is excellent, and I really like the drum sounds attained here, which is frequently an overlooked area on so many rock albums these days.  The mix is excellent, also, with no muddiness and no one getting buried in the mix.

Louis and I, Skullfest 2013, North Platte, NE
I think it is fair to say that When 2 World's Collide is the best album of this band's long career, and that's taking into consideration the greatness that I attribute to Sea Of Black and Crack Of Dawn, which are both excellent records.  I've had the great fortune to meet and hang out with these New Englanders a bit, watching some baseball on television (Red Sox, of course...ugh...), and getting to spend some time chatting with Louis.  Its safe to say I have met very few people in the industry that are more personable and down-to-Earth than the guys in MASS, and they put on a heck of a show, regardless of venue size.  Not only do I encourage you to pick up When 2 Worlds Collide, but to take in a live show if you are given the opportunity.

Rating:  An excellent record, with only one minor hiccup for me, which does virtually nothing to dampen the overall greatness of When 2 Worlds Collide.  Crank this Album Of The Year contender up to 8.5!

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THEORY (THEORY OF A DEADMAN) "Wake Up Call"

(c) 2017 Atlantic Records

  1. Straight Jacket
  2. Rx
  3. Echoes
  4. Wake Up Call
  5. PCH
  6. G.O.A.T.
  7. Loner
  8. Time Macine
  9. Glass Jaw
  10. PO Mouth
  11. Wicked Game
Tyler Connolly--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano
Dave Brenner--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Dean Back--Bass, Backing Vocals
Joey Dandeneau--Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
David Donaldson--Violin
David Angell--Violin
Kris Wilkinson--Viola
Carole Robinowitz--Cello

Theory Of A Deadman returned late last year, right on schedule with their "every three years means a new album" routine.  Being a huge fan of the band, particularly their massively popular albums, Scars & Souvenirs and The Truth Is..., as well as their less-welll-known-but-equally-fun, Savages.  Sporting the same line-up since 2009 (with Connolly, Brenner, and Back all being around since the beginning), it was a little odd to me that the band decided to shorten their name to just Theory this late in the game, but whatever; if you know WHO and WHAT you are getting, a simplified name is of little consequence.

But the problem is, despite knowing WHO you are getting, there is likely no way fans picking up Wake Up Call could have been prepared for WHAT they are getting.  Because, while in "theory" this is the same band, in factuality, this new Theory is NOT the Theory Of A Deadman that I had come to love.

It is tough for me to write this, because I really do love this band.  Their irreverant attitudes, the catchy, snarky, hooky, driving rock that straddles the line between the sleaze of the 80s and 90s and the modern rock of the 2000s, the emotion that Connolly manages to pour into the ballads, the stage presence...and Connolly's pompadour...were all a part of the package that was my Theory Of A Deadman.  But it seems that with this new Theory, all that remains is a little of the snark, most of the vocal emotion...and Connolly's pompadour...because the driving energy, the sleaze...heck, the ROCK...is virtually gone from this new album.

Eleven tracks long (and I do mean loooonnnngggg), Wake Up Call is pretty much an IV drip of boredom, lulling the listener into a musical stupor, only occasionally managing to fight off the haze long enough to see the band-formerly-known-as-Theory Of A Deadman in the distance.  Ironically, one of the best, most T.O.A.D. songs on this new record is a song about America's opioid addiction problem, the tongue-in-cheek "Rx (Medicate", which was the first single from the album.  This is one of the places where the snark I mentioned before can still be found, and there is a definite smirk on Connolly's face when he sings/raps/scats, "Your friends are high right now, your parents are high right now, that hot chick's high right now, that cop is high right now, the President's high right now, your priest is high right now, everyone's high as f**k right now, and no one's ever coming down", yet there is also a knowing understanding in the social commentary he is making.  I remember hearing it on Octane one day, and instantly I knew it was Theory Of A Deadman, despite the looped drums and the Spaghetti Western-sounding whistling at the beginning of the track.  And yes, it's a dark topic, but its a fun song for some reason, and its catchy as all get out.  This is MY Theory Of A Deadman, but sadly "Rx (Medicate)" is one of only three or four places that I find myself enjoying Wake Up Call.

I actually had high hopes when I popped the disc in for the first time, as the opener, "Straight Jacket", has a fun, bouncy sound right from the start, with Connolly dropping some piano into the mix alongside his instantly recognizable vocal phrasing and some rocking guitars, especially on the chorus section.  To top it all off, the band plays to their strong suit with smile-inducing, quirky lyrics that manage to weave Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, Tesla, Lloyd Braun, and  Mary Poppins (try to say "super cala pessimistic, expiala narcissistic" several times fast) into the narrative.  No, its not the hard-charging rocker that "Bad Girlfriend", "Little Smirk", or "Savages" is, but its definitely Theory Of A Deadman, which is what I was hoping for.  Following this is "Rx (Medicate)", and then its not until track six, "G.O.A.T.", that the band even attempts to become Theory Of A Deadman again, and only one other time...on the closing track...a cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game", no less...do I actually enjoy what I am hearing.  Connolly, by the way, NAILS "Wicked Game"; its worth checking out (but I think I still prefer the Emperors And Elephants cover...maybe).  

That's really it.  Four good tracks total, the first two and then two of the last three, that make this anything even remotely resembling a T.O.A.D. album.  The rest of the album sounds like a Connolly solo record, as there is no getting around the vocals being all him, but the rock is all but missing.  Yeah, there are some great, insightful, introspective lyrics, but that means nothing without the sound of the band.  "Echoes" is okay, I guess, and rocks to a degree, but it sounds like Connolly singing a Pink song, not like a Theory Of A Deadman song, and "Glass Jaw" has flashes of T.O.A.D...albeit with too many odd electronic elements to it...but that's it.  On the rest of the album, the guitars are usually so buried in the mix they are virtually gone, and half the time the drums sound programmed, rather than played. I have no clue what is going on in the song "PCH" with its weird electronic effects, and the rest is either slow, schlocky dreck or overly-polished, happy pop that I can't get into.  To quote one of the lyrics from "Rx (Medicate)", "I am so frickin bored..." when I listen to Wake Up Call, that I just ripped the four useful tracks into a playlist of my favorite stuff from the band, and got rid of the CD.  

Wake Up Call is an interesting title to an uninteresting album, only because I feel like a wake up call is exactly what I needed for most of this record.  Without a "Lowlife" or a "Blow" or "So Happy"...and definitely no "Bad Girlfriend"...there is little to bolster this record, and nothing to buoy it in my ratings.  

Rating:  Hard as it is for me to say this, I recommend turning Wake Up Call down to a 4.  Grab ANY of their first five records instead if you want the REAL Theory Of A Deadman.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Talkin' Trash with SHAD MAE (Guitarist of DEVOID)




When the debut effort from Devoid showed up in my mailbox, I had no way of knowing how much it would still be impacting me all these months later!  A more powerful melodic metal album I have not heard in recent memory, and had I received it earlier, it very well may have been the Album Of The Year for 2017 here at Glitter2Gutter.  So, when band founder/lead guitarist/chief writer, Shad Mae and I started kicking around the idea of an interview, I knew it was one I wanted to run with.  So, if you have a few minutes, hang out as Shad Mae joins me for Talkin' Trash....


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G2G:  Shad, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me here a bit!  Not sure if you saw our end-of-the-year lists, but Devoid was definitely one of our favorite efforts of the year...we just got it so late!  What a truly, truly great record, though...

Shad:  Thanks to you, Arttie.  Yes, I saw that...so glad about it!  I feel really honored to receive such good feedback, and to make you list as one of your favorite records of the year...wow!  It pushed me to make a second one quickly.

G2G:  Whoa!  Are we getting some sneak peek, inside information here about a new Devoid record?

Shad:  Yes, I've just finished to write eight songs, and I'll contunue with my mates, Gwen and Jorris to reach twelve tracks.  Sorry about my English, by the way...(Laughs)

G2G:  No worries about your English..I took two years of French and trust me, we don't want to try that!  (Laughter)

Alright, before we jump too far into the future of Devoid, let's talk a bit about the past, shall we?  How did Devoid come together in the first place?

Shad:  Yes, sure.  Devoid came after the second Shadyon (Shad's previous band) album.  I wanted to write a more direct and powerful album with no compromise.  So, I decided to write a full album and
submit the final stuff to the musicians.  We had problems with the Shadyon lineup, and I did not want to waste my time without releasing anything new.

G2G:  So, are any of the guys in Devoid carry overs from Shadyon?

Shad:  Yes, Jorris on keyboards.  We always work together.  And I work with Gwen Kerjan for the producing.  He worked on the Shadyon Mind Control album.

G2G:  When I first heard the Devoid record, it wasn't only your guitar that grabbed my attention, but also the vocals.  Can you tell me how you and Lizard got hooked up?

Shad:  I am a BIG fan of the Evidence One albums, and I was...and still am...very impressed by Carsten's (Carsten "Lizard" Schulz) vocals.  Classic rock touch with a real talent for a catchy chorus...he's such a melody-maker.  So, when I thought about a singer for Devoid, I decided to contact him.  He listened to the stuff and said yes.  I'm really glad and proud to have him on board!  His performance on Cup Of Tears blow my mind and he go further than I expected.

G2G:  His work on the LaValle record blew my mind, as well.  But, I have to ask how you dealt working with a guy named "Lizard" in the band.  Did you worry it would change the band's image at all?  (Laughter)

Shad:  (Laughting) I think I must change my name to Shad "Snake" Mae, and maybe do a concept album on reptilians!  (Laughter)

G2G:  Yes!  (Laughter)  So, do you consider Devoid to be a band, or more of a project?  Is playing live shows something you hope to do with Devoid, or have you already had that chance?

Shad:  Devoid is first a studio project, but I received some good new for gigs, and the most important is I've got great pleasure to work with these guys, so let's see what happens in the near future.  With a second album, maybe we can do some live stuff.

G2G:  You currently live in France, correct?

Shad:  Correct.

G2G:  What is the musical scene like in France?  I know in the 80s and 90s, there was a fairly significant underground metal/hard rock scene.  FISC, ADX, Sortilege, Demon Eyes...all pretty good bands I tracked down over the years...of course, Trust...  But what about now?

Shad:  Oh, yes!  You're right, we've got great bands in the 80s.  You could check Manigance, Satan Jokers, Nightmare, Now or Never, Adagio...really great bands.  Of course, my other band, Shadyon... (Laughs)  The scene here is very diverse, but when you play melodic metal, it is more difficult.  Gojira is the most renowned French metal...great songwriters, but far more brutal than Devoid...

G2G:  Is there a good live scene?

Shad:  Yes, great activity and really great local bands.  And, we can't forget Hellfest!

G2G:  I've heard big things about Hellfest, but have obviously never been.  Pretty crazy scene?

Shad:  Yes, great place with nice atmosphere.  The programation is outstanding...very diverse bands, from Iron Maiden to more obscure death metal bands.  You should come!

G2G:  I may take you up on that some time!  So, tell me about Devoid.  Technology is really a huge part of the band being able to come together, correct?  The members are pretty spread out, right?

Shad:  Yes, right.  Thanks to the Internet!  For this record, we recorded our personal musical lines in our own studios.  I sent the demos to all the guys and then I let them do their own parts.  They all write their own stuff.  I wrote the songs...the guitars and lyrics...but I prefer to let the guys be free to play what they have in their mind for their parts.  It's more fresh, more natural.  Then we debrief and validate the stuff.  I'm going to try to co-write a bit for the next record.

G2G:  That's a pretty unique approach...

Shad:  Yes, we all live in different countries, so...more easy to work like this.

G2G:  ...and now, technology let's you and I communicate like this live!  It truly is amazing when you stop and think about what we seem to take for granted...

Shad:  Yes, it's amazing...so far, but so connected!  Imagine in a few years...all go faster, only for the better.

G2G:  Now, you are quite a bit younger than me, but your music comes across as so much more mature than a lot of newer bands.  Tell me about growing up and your musical background.

Shad:  Well, I'm a child of the 80s, so I grew up with bands like Europe, Toto, Winger, Simple Minds, Metallica...  When I was 13 years old, I began to learn guitar and I was deep into guitarists like George Lynch, Dann Huff, Randy Rhoads, Kee Marcello, Nuno Bettencourt...  I used my fingers playing their songs!  (Laughs)  Then, I discovered Dream Theater.  Images And Words and Awake were big revelations for me.  I became a prog addict.  Shadow Gallery, Fates Warning, Symphony X, Angra, Rush, Kansas, I love it all.  I also really like Evergrey, Devin Townsend, and Winger.  Henrik Danhae and Reb Beach are some of my favorite guitarists.  In the early 2000s, I fell in love with the Swedish metal scene and with bands like Soilwork and In Flames.  Their works on riffs and guitar arrangements are stunning!  Their songwriting influences me a lot, particularly for the riffs.  You mix all of that together, and you get Devoid.  

G2G:  Did you have a musical family?

Shad:  Not really as musicians, but as listeners, yes.  My parents were into pop music and typical Britain stuff, and Celtic tunes, too.

G2G:  Do you remember your first guitar?

Shad:  Yes, sure!  A BC Rich Warlock like Max Cavalera from Sepultura.  I was such a rebel! (Laughs)

G2G:  Big Bloody Roots fan, were you?

Shad:  Yes, I am!  And I love Chaos, A.D., unique atmosphere and a really cool album.  

G2G:  Agreed.  I found myself really drawn to the speed and thrash scenes after going through my 70s classic rock and 80s hair metal stages...

Shad:  Great!  I love thrash...Testament, Megadeth....

G2G:  Testament is my favorite.  I love Anthrax, as well...both eras...and the first four, and the latest, Metallica are all essential...

Shad:  Yes, Alex Skolnick solos are excellent!  Anthrax is so groovy and powerful.  Yes, all essential.

G2G:  Alright, so let's jump back to Devoid.  When we started chatting, you mentioned we may not need to wait too long for new Devoid music.  Can you fill us in on any details?

Shad:  Yes, sure!  All the demos are done, just have to finish some detals.  But, the songs are ready.  You can expect catchy riffs and heavy choruses, with the mighty Carsten Schulz doing vocals again.  Just need to book the budget.  And there are some great guitarists involved!

G2G:  So you brought in some extra guitar fire power outside of yourself?  I thought you did amazing work on the first record!

Shad:  Thanks, indeed!  Yes, I play most of the parts on the album, but I really wanted to share leads with guitarists I love.  That's why I manage to bring in some guitarists on the songs, just for the pleasure to hear them playing on my song.

G2G:  Any hints or clues?  Come on, quit teasing!  (Laughter)

Shad:  In my dream, I want to have Reb Beach and George Lynch...but it's just a dream....

G2G:  Lynch is probably too busy with one of his other fifty bands and projects!

Shad:  Yes, so true...

G2G:  Did you have a good idea of how you wanted to attack this new record, since you already had one Devoid album under your belt?

Shad:  Yes, I want to attack with a power song, very, very heavy riffs, and some acoustic surprises on it.  And, in terms of business, I have to discuss things with my actual label, get feedback about the first one.  I really want to make a real clip for this one.  And I think about a co-writing session with Gwen Kerjan from the Slab Sound Studio.  We actually worked on the new demos and we plan to rearrange the songs together.  I want an external vision on the songwriting this time.  It could bring more surprises on this record and force me to change my routine.  My goal is to be finished with the producing stuff for the end of the year, then a release in 2019.

G2G:  Shad, one thing we like to do is a quick response, trash talking section in our interviews.  Are you ready?

Shad:  Ready...

G2G:  Best concert you ever attended?

Shad:  Evergrey

G2G:  Worst concert you ever attended?

Shad:  Manowar

G2G:  Really?  No!  Say it isn't so!

Shad:  Sorry...really...

G2G:  Was Ross the Boss still with them?

Shad:  No, not with Ross.  It was the Warriors Of The World Tour...which is a stunning song, by the way.

G2G:  Okay, the world needs to know...were they wearing loincloths and carrying Thor's hammer with them?

Shad:  (Laughter)  No...it was leather...(laughs)

G2G:  Alright, moving on...is it KISS without Ace and Peter?

Shad:  No, not KISS...

G2G:  Van Halen or Van Hagar?  We refuse to acknowledge Cherone was ever in the band...

Shad:  Van Hagar.

G2G:  Really?  Why?  I'm good with either answer, personally...

Shad:  I love the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album.  I also love David Lee Roth's solo stuff...

G2G:   Balance is probably my favorite Van Hagar effort, but For Unlawful... is definitely a really good album.

Shad:  Their first album is still my top album, but Hagar's vocals are so soulful...

G2G:  While we are on Van Halen...sort of...which Michael Jackson song has the better guitar solo?  Eddie Van Halen's solo "Beat It", or Steve Stevens on "Dirty Diana"?

Shad:  Steve Stevens.  I love his bends on that solo!

G2G:  Stevens is majorly underrated, don't you think?

Shad:  Yes!  His work with Levin Bozzio Stevens is magic.

G2G:  Did you know he did the guitar parts on the theme song to Top Gun?  I just found that out not too long ago.

Shad:  Really?

G2G:  Have you heard his Atomic Playboys album?

Shad:  I love it and I got it!

G2G:  Aldo Nova...overrated or underappreciated?

Shad:  Underappreciated, for sure.

G2G:  Do you have a favorite Aldo Nova record?

Shad:  Blood On The Bricks

G2G:  Good stuff...good stuff, indeed!  Yngwie Malmsteen, musical genius or bloated egomaniac?

Shad:  Genius with his first album, but now just an ego maniac.  I prefer Jason Becker!

G2G:  Cacophony with Marty Friedman is killer!

Shad:  Oh, yes!

G2G:  Speed Metal Symphony is a shred masterpiece!

Shad:  Yes, absolutely...

G2G:  Okay, so we've chatted a bit about some of the 80s guys that have influenced you,  but what about earlier, classic hard rock guys?  What about a guy like an Ace, or Eddie...or even Hendrix?

Shad:  Well, I love the free playing of Jimi Hendrix.  Without him, there's no hard rock.  And Van Halen is THE guy...tasty and innovative, great soloing and also an awesome rhythmician.  Not a lot of an Ace Freheley, KISS stuff, guy.  Sorry.  I love Kerry Livgren, though!

G2G:  Have you heard the songs he did with Ronnie James Dio?

Shad:  No!  I must check!  Which song?

G2G:  "To Live For The King".  (I emailed Shad the video at this point...)

Shad:  That is a great, great song!  Very melancholy vibe.  I love it!

G2G:  There's another..."Mask Of The Great Deceiver"...

Shad:  Thanks for this discover!  Livgren and Dio...wow!!!

G2G:  If there was a solo out there that you feel people absolutely had to hear, what would it be?  Doesn't matter the time frame or genre...

Shad:  "Mister Crowley" by Randy Rhoads.  "Symphony of Destruction" by Marty Friedman in Megadeth.  Eddie's solo on "Beat It".  They are all perfect with awesome feelings.

G2G:  I always steer people towards "The Idol" by WASP, with Bob Kulick on guitar.  Amazing!

Shad:  Yes!  Amazing song and awesome album!

(Shad at left at Shadyon reunion show)
G2G:  So, while we're waiting for new Devoid music, is Shadyon something that you might return to in the interim?

Shad:  We actually made a live comeback last week with a new drummer and bass player.  We've got all new demos finished, and Walter, our new drummer, wrote a lot of songs and he is so, so good.  So,
you can expect new stuff soon.

G2G:  Shad, this has been a blast!  I love talking to people around the world, and a lot of our readers do, too.  How can fans keep up with you?

Shad:  Facebook is a great way, mate, and there is also a Devoid Twitter page.

G2G:  Shad, this has been awesome.  Thanks so much!

Shad:  Thanks to you!  I appreciate it a lot!

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Awesome stuff from our new friend, Shad Mae!  If you haven't checked out his bands, Shadyon or the absolute masterpiece that is Devoid's "Cup Of Tears", you need to do so as soon as possible!  You should be able to find both projects fairly easily, even on Amazon for those who don't mind using evil corporate giants!  (That's a joke, folks...)  


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Saturday, May 19, 2018

STEEL CITY "Fortress"

(c) 2018 Kivel Records

  1. Do You Love Me
  2. Heart And Soul
  3. Turnabout
  4. Picture Of Beauty
  5. Too Little Too Late
  6. Someone Like You
  7. Passing Ships
  8. Shame On You
  9. Rock! In The USA
  10. Back On The Streets
Bryan Cole--Lead Vocals
Mike Floros--Guitars, Backing VOcals
Scott West--Bass
Ron McCloskey--Drums

Additional Musicians
Tony Stahl--Keyboards
Mike Talanca--Bass on 1, 5, 7, and 9

It is a true treat for me when I come across a band that is able to create an album that sounds like it could have come straight out of the glory days of the 80s melodic hard rock scene, before everyone was trying to copy the sound of everyone else and not doing anything on their own.  New bands came out that sounded like new bands, not clones of someone else.  Steel City is one of those bands that truly "gets it", when it comes to the sound and style of that scene, and they do it the right way, incorporating the big arena sound of the 80s with strong songwriting and top-notch musicianship to create an album of songs that is catchy and comfortable, sounding like it could have slid into rotation among the Whitesnakes and Bon Jovis and Dokkens and Slaughters of the era.

What is immediately noticeable about Fortress is the powerhouse combination of musicians at work here.  Floros is an absolute beast on the guitar, whether setting the stage for the vocals with his rhythm work or working his magic on a fingers-flying solo.  McCloskey's drums have that huge, pounding arena sound that is so clearly missing in so many similarly-styled bands, and the bass work, whether from West or Talanca, perfectly completes the foundation upon which these hook-laden melodic gems are built.  To have a huge, powerful vocalist such as Bryan Cole belting out the lyrics is just proof of the embarrassment of riches that is Steel City.  At times recalling the early vocal power of a singer like Marc Slaughter, such as on tracks like "Heart And Soul", and of course the Vinnie Vincent Invasion cover "Back On The Streets", while at other times possessing a very Michael Sweet vocal quality, such as on "Someone Like You", Cole is a supremely talented vocalist with an easy movement throughout his entire vocal scope, never sounding like he is straining to reach the rafters nor bottoming out to plumb the depths of his range.  Add in some excellent backing vocals, courtesy of Floros, and you have a massive wall of sound blasting you with waves of guitar-driven, vocally-charged, high energy melodic rock.

While there are no weak tracks here, there are four that I think deserve special recognition.  "Turnabout" may be my favorite track on an overall excellent album.  The echoing backing vocals on the title word in the chorus are absolutely perfect, Floros' guitar solo is mesmerizing, a combination of fluid speed and melodic sensibilities, and the double-time drums driving their way through the chorus section coming out of the solo are the perfect touch to really set this song apart in my mind.  Cole's vocals are just insanely strong here and the band sounds as if it was having an absolute blast while recording this track.  If this song isn't blaring our of your speakers as you cruise down the highway, my guess is you drive a Prius, chase unicorns, and eat only nuts, berries, and other gluten-free plant products, because this song is pure, driving balls-to-the-wall melodic hard rock at its best.  An easy contender for Song Of The Year here at G2G!

"Too Little Too Late" has a Bon Jovi quality to it in places, especially on the bridge to the chorus, while Cole utilizes a vocal approach similar to Michael Sweet that, when coupled with Floros' guitar work, is not too far removed from Stryper's mid-to-late-80s peak.  Smooth and polished where necessary, but with enough edge to the guitars, "Too Little Too Late" would likely be the song that carries many other bands' albums, while here it enjoys the company of so many other high quality tracks that it isn't forced to do all the heavy lifting on its own.    

"Passing Ships" is a slightly mid-tempo number that isn't so much highlighted here for its musicianship...which remains top notch, with a great solo and outro section from Floros...as much as it is for its vivid story-telling...not to mention a fun use of nautical terms throughout the track!  The song's protagonist was enchanted by a beautiful woman "in [a] flowered blue sundress" who was "easily a diamond worth any cost"...perhaps a sailor's siren?  But with hurricanes, the eye of a storm, being lost at sea, and coming under siege...this is a relationship that was obviously doomed, despite the "shadows dancin' 'cross the bedroom wall" and the "warmth and grade of [her] touch".  Just good, good lyrical stuff here that is completely absent from so many songs that either try too hard to be deeper than the ocean (see what I did there?!) or come off as shallow as a...dang, couldn't pull that one off, but you get my point.  An excellent example of big time songwriting.

"Rock! In The USA" is just a flat-out fun song that lets the band show off its talent on an upbeat rocker that will likely come blasting out of your speakers once you punch that time clock on Friday, and cause you to threaten the speed limits of your local highway if it is in the player as you are out cruising about (unless you are in that previously mentioned Prius).  When I first saw the title, I was wondering if it was a cover of "R.O.C.K. In The USA" by John Mellencamp...John Cougar...John Cougar Mellencamp...whatever he calls himself now...but I can happily report that it most definitely is not a cover...although, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like that classic song.    

Okay, I lied...I have to mention five specific tracks, because I would be totally remiss if I didn't give a nod to the album's closer, the cover of the Vinnie Vincent Invasion classic, "Back On The Streets".  Similarly powerful, the song is given a bit of an update by Steel City, with a bit more melodic polish to the vocals, the incorporation of more prominent keys, with just a touch less speed through the guitar solo.  A fun way to close out a stellar debut record and a perfect way to showcase the fact that had it been around in 1989, Steel City would have fit into the scene absolutely perfectly...minus the sky-high hair and copious amounts of eyeliner and blush.

The production here is excellent, courtesy of Johnny Lima, who does an outstanding job of bringing out the talent of this group of musicians.  The packaging, as is expected with Kivel Records products, is top notch, as well, with full lyrics and writing credits, a thank you section, and a cool album cover.  The only thing missing is a band photo of some sort, but as grievances go, this one is of minimal importance.

Steel City is uber-talented, make no mistake, and they have set the bar for themselves extremely high with Fortress.  If you have not already sought out this record, you need to do so immediately, as you are missing out on an album that will have to be in consideration for album of the year when 2018 wraps up.

Rating:  Extremely crankable, I have yet to play this album only a single time through when I pop it in.  Crank this to 9!


Saturday, April 28, 2018

DOKKEN "Back To The East Live 2016"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. It's Another Day (New Studio Track)
  2. Kiss Of Death
  3. The Hunter
  4. Unchain The Night
  5. When Heaven Comes Down
  6. Breakin' The Chains
  7. Into The Fire
  8. Dream Warriors
  9. Tooth And Nail
  10. Alone Again Intro
  11. Alone Again
  12. It's Not Love
  13. In My Dreams
  14. Heaven Sent (Acoustic Studio Track)
  15. Will The Sun Rise (Acoustic Studio Track)
Don Dokken--Lead Vocals
George Lynch--Guitars
Jeff Pilson--Bass, Backing Vocals
"Wild" Mick Brown--Drums, Backing Vocals

Let me open by saying I absolutely love classic Dokken.  Those first few albums, up through the "original" version of this album, Beast From The East, are must-haves from the 80s, in my opinion, and I really, really like later albums, Erase The Slate, and Lightning Strikes Again, as well as Don's solo record, which I also feel is practically essential to the collection of any melodic hard rock fan.  But the line-up issues with the band, the vocal issues of Don, the apparent ego issues of Lynch, and some very hit-or-miss albums in the latter half of the band's catalog have left me feeling rather hollow about this band for pretty much the last decade.  So when I saw that the band was releasing a live CD/DVD package of their 2016 reunion mini-tour of Japan, I had to quote "It's Not Love" and ask, "why, baby, why?"

The album starts off in what many would consider to be reverse fashion, with a brand new, full-band track, "It's Another Day".  It took me a few listens to fully appreciate the track, but I have to admit that I like it more and more with each spin.  It is definitely not Under Lock And Key or Tooth And Nail Dokken, by any stretch, but there is little point in denying it is a Dokken song.  Yes, it has a bit more of a modern approach to it than the classic hair era stuff, and no, Don has nothing of the range he used to possess, but I like the darker, edgier feel that Don's vocals bring to this song.  It feels a lot like a song from the more recent Jon Levin-era of Dokken, and doesn't have the feel or flair that Lynch brought to so many of the band's most memorable songs, but it's got a decent hook, the chorus works well with the help of Pilson on backing vocals...which was always a huge boost for the band...and I think most fans will find themselves liking it, even if its for the nostalgic reason of having the full band back together.  

To close the album, we have two acoustic reworkings of classic Dokken tracks, both of which are perfectly suited for the acoustic treatment.  I know that "Heaven Sent" is the bigger of the two tracks, but I have always thought "Will The Sun Rise" is one of the band's most underappreciated moments, and this acoustic rendering just adds to that.  Don's voice actually works perfectly with this approach, as does the choice of percussion instrumentation utilized here.  I'll admit to being reticent to hearing these acoustic tracks, initially, but I can honestly say they are actually the high point of the record for me now, especially "Will The Sun Rise", which I think has something of a haunting quality to it here.  Love it!

And in the middle...the live set.  The first thing that will likely be obvious to anyone who picks this up is that the track order for the CD and the DVD are totally different.  I mean not even close.  Now, I have not seen the DVD (nor do I plan to), but the CD certainly feels like it is running in the correct order, based upon live performances I have seen personally, previous live recordings, and just the flow of the album.  And we all know that live crowd noise can be easily manipulated in the studio, so I can't say for sure which track order is correct, and in the end I suppose it doesn't really matter...it's just...weird.

Musically, the band sounds really good.  Considering they hadn't all played together in quite some time, the band is actually very tight sounding.  The set-opening "Kiss Of Death" is a great example of a band that is lock-step right from the start, with Brown's galloping rhythms on the drum setting the tone immediately.  No, it doesn't sound like Beast From The East, but it sounds a lot better to me than Live From The Sun or the rather poor-sounding Japan Live '95.  Pilson and Brown have always been a...ahem..."beast" of a rhythm section, and that continues here.  There is a reason both men are so well-respected throughout the industry for their talents, particularly Pilson, and there is nothing in this live set that would detract from the great work of their catalog together.  But it doesn't matter who is playing bass and drums for this band...for most, it's about George Lynch.  And Mr. Scary doesn't disappoint in the live setting, as he effortlessly rips through solo after solo on these beloved songs, sometimes playing them note-for-note perfectly, and other times toying a bit with the arrangement or length.  The intensity isn't quite what it was on Beast From The East, but there is also a TON of speculation about how much that album was touched up in the studio, especially by Lynch, what with the band being at the peak of their popularity and album-selling prowess.  This record feels more organic, less "tweaked" than Beast... does, at least to me, and Lynch is a big part of that. 

So....how about Don?  Well, there is good and bad.  Surprisingly, the good is that there are songs where I think his new vocal approach actually works really well.  This is largely due to the fact that he has seemingly accepted his limitations and has adjusted his approach, rather than helplessly try to force himself to reach pitch heights he couldn't get to with a ladder now.  And I'm actually fine with this adjustment.  As I said above, it actually works incredibly well on the new acoustic studio tracks, and is equally effective on several live tracks here.  But note that I said "several", and not "all".  There are a couple of places where Pilson's backing vocals are so much more powerful than Don's that it sounds pretty bad to my ears.  "The Hunter" is one such song.  And then there are songs where Don's changed register actually sounds somewhat off key, with "Into The Fire" being the most notable culprit in my mind, and one point in "Kiss Of Death" pops to mind, also, as Don seemed to really want to go for it, octave-wise, before remembering to back off.  There'e aren't many places like this, and overall, the backing vocals really support Don and serve the songs well, "Unchain The Night" being an excellent example, and "Dream Warriors" being another.  Plus, there are times when Don's more subdued approach makes a song like "It's Not Love" come off a bit darker, edgier, maybe even angrier than the original, which surprisingly isn't a bad thing.        

One thing that I feel must be said about Don here....and which has been said about him seemingly forever...is that he sounds, well, bored at times.  He's always been a singer, not an entertainer, as a front man, and always seemed to have his feet nailed to the floor.  Now, obviously I can't "hear" if he is moving around, but I can say that in the places where he addresses the crowd here, he just sounds like he's going through the motions and isn't having any fun in his interactions.  And, having seen them live several times, I can say I have ALWAYS felt this way about Don.  He was always so serious about his vocal performances that I sometimes felt like he forgot that rock shows are supposed to be fun, spontaneous, and energetic, not necessarily technically perfect.    

There are a couple of songs that I really miss from the setlist, with "Just Got Lucky" and the instrumental "Mr. Scary" being chief among them. (I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that "Mr. Scary" was contractually left out of the set, focusing only on full-band songs, but I don't know that for a fact.) I also would have loved to hear the band do "Paris Is Burning" and "Walk Away" for this set, especially since "Walk Away" was the new studio track on the Beast From The East album.  Woulda been cool, right?  As it stands, the choices here are all pretty obvious and represent the best-known material from the era of the band where all four guys were together and not trying to kill one another.

The mix is pretty good...not amazing, but not bad...with some muddiness in places and a few spots where I think the vocal mix needs adjusting...but, again, it feels more organic, more natural...more live...than a lot of live albums do, especially today.  Again, mine is a digital review copy, so I can't speak to the quality of the DVD recording or the packaging.  

I will admit that when I listened to this record the first few times, I really wasn't all that impressed.  In fact, I was semi-negative about it in a couple of early musings in some Facebook postings and discussions.  But with repeated listens, I have changed my tune.  Now, overall, I don't think this is a bad live record at all, and it has a couple of really, really good acoustic studio tracks that fans will want to grab hold of, as well as "It's Another Day".  But it's just that the live material has been done better in other places, specifically on Beast From The East.  In the long run, that is going to be the version and sound of the band that I would prefer to remember live.  Its the sound of my youth, and neither I, nor the band, are of that era now.  And let's face it, when we seek out live albums, its generally for nostalgic reasons, and I'd rather remember the 1988 version of Dokken...and sometimes (not often, but sometimes) the 1988 version of myself!!!!....than the 2016 version.  Do yourself a favor, however, and buy the three new tracks, even if you don't want to buy the entire package, as they are worth the time and money.

Rating:  This mostly-live album definitely rocks.  I give it a 6.5 overall, with crank-worthy nods to the new tracks, especially "Will The Sun Rise", which is simply amazing.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

JK NORTHRUP & DAVID CAGLE "That's Gonna Leave A Mark"

(c) 2018 Melodic Rock Records

  1. The Night Is Mine
  2. Gone
  3. The Moment
  4. Can't 
  5. Sting Of Her Kiss
  6. Another Goodbye
  7. The Honeymoon Is Over
  8. That's Gonna Leave A Mark
  9. For Sure Thing
  10. Sirens
  11. Forever Starts Tonight
  12. Chasing Ghosts
JK Northrup--Guitars, Backing Vocals
David Cagle--Lead, Backing Vocals
Larry Hart--Bass
Steve Brown--Drums

Additional Musicians:

Kelly Keeling--Backing Vocals on "For Sure Thing"
Richard Kendrick--Backing Vocals on "Can't"
Gunnar Nelson--Backing Vocals on "Forever Starts Tonight"
Eric Ragno--Keyboards on 2, 3, 4, 7, 11, and 12 
Dan Zoid--Drums on "That's Gonna Leave A Mark"


JK Northrup is one insanely busy guy.  Besides mixing, mastering, and producing various projects for his Alien Productions company, the guy still manages to keep churning out amazing melodic hard rock projects seemingly every couple of months.  Case in point, it was just 3 or 4 months ago that the excellent Fiction Syxx was released.  Now, here we are again in early March of 2018 and Northrup is preparing to release another project, this time with the seriously underappreciated David Cagle on vocals, Larry Hart on bass, and Steve Brown on drums, along with a great collection of supporting talent.  That's Gonna Leave A Mark is set for release on MelodicRock Records later on this month, and I can already tell you it is going to be a must have.

If some of the the song titles on the record sound familiar, that is because most of this record was previously released in a limited, digital format under the Liberty N Justice name as The Vow, with JK doing a large portion of the writing, playing, and producing on that record.  However, the rest of the lineup for this record is new, with JK recruiting not only Cagle, but also Mick Brown's younger brother, Steve, for drums, as well as Larry Hart on Bass, and keyboardist extraordinaire, Eric Ragno, who jumps in to help on half of the album. 

The album kicks off with the high energy rocker, "The Night Is Mine", and once he joins the fray, it is easily understood why Northrup is so high on Cagle as a vocalist.  A generally smooth tenor, Cagle has the ability to throw in just enough grit and edge to keep the sound from becoming flowery or saccharine here, which I feel is an important tone to set from the get-go.  JK rips off the first of numerous catchy, lively solos on this track with a style and sound that will definitely have listeners recalling his more hair metal days with King Kobra.  A solid start for That's Gonna Leave A Mark.

An introspective and lyrically melancholy song about love lost, "Gone" is up next, and for my money, its on melodic numbers such as this that the album really shines.  Ragno bolsters the sound of this mid-tempo number with his typically solid keyboard fills, and the rhythm section of Hart and Brown is absolutely lock-step here, melding perfectly with Northrup's rhythm guitars throughout the course of the tune.  The solo from Northrup perfectly fits the mood of the track, delivering both power and emotion, which Cagle matches perfectly, as he really finds his voice...and his vocal home...on "Gone" and similarly styled songs.  Good stuff, here.

"The Moment" is pure 80s bliss, sounding very much like a Warrant track, a la "Heaven", in places, mixed with hints of Slippery When Wet-era Bon Jovi and, to my ears, the more melodic moments from Damn Yankees, (think "Come Again" and "High Enough").  Not purely a power ballad, but definitely a lighter-inducing track that I could imagine filling the gymnasium during my late-80s prom years, "The Moment" is absolutely outstanding and, again, a place where Cagle's seemingly effortless approach really shines. 

"Can't" re-ups the energy, heading back to mid-tempo rock territory.  The chorus is plenty catchy, and the layered backing vocals work well on this track that reminds me a lot of the style of music that Nelson has put out on their past couple of efforts...which is a good thing.  Northrup's solo is short and sweet...actually a bit too short for my tastes...and the rest of the band is in excellent form here on this track that, while not the best on the record, still offers up plenty to like.

"Sting Of Her Kiss" is a song that I remember really liking in its original LnJ form on The Vow, so I was a bit concerned about how this reworked version would come across.  I needn't have worried, as this snarky rocker delivers in much the same way as the original and is definitely one of my favorite uptempo numbers on the record.  The solo section here is longer than on the original, if memory serves me correctly, and JK absolutely tears up the frets on a run he drops just before the bridge that leads into the last chorus run.  Hart's presence is definitely felt on this track, as the bottom end is definitely more pronounced here than on a couple of other tracks, and the resultant groove is a fun one, to be sure. 

The album head back to more mid-tempo melodic rock territory on "Another Goodbye", which really benefits from solid lyrics, excellent backing vocals, a nice hook, and the by-now-expected premium guitar solo from Northrup.  I often wonder if JK would have been one of the 80s "guitar gods" had he been in a band that gained more exposure or catered more to the hair metal crowd than King Kobra or the excellent, bluesier hard rock he played with Paul Shortino.  The guy is a beast on the axe and he has a definite flair for the melodic solo style that he so frequently employs on this album, as well as his recent releaes with Fiction Syxx and others. 

Initially, "The Honeymoon Is Over" has an odd vibe to it, with programmed drums and some odd keyboard elements and vocal effects at the start, but these quickly give way to a decentmid-tempo melodic rocker, largely supported by some extra-smooth guitar riffs from Northrup.  The chorus is a bit simplistic lyrically, but Cagle manages to keep it from sinking.  Not my favorite track, by any means, but again, this collection of musicians seems capable of taking a song like this one and giving it life.

The title track brings things back into focus with some excellent kit work from Brown and a more 70s classic rock vibe than most of the tracks here.  I especially love the frenetic guitar work here, feeling like JK really just went in and free-styled this solo, just having fun with it and letting it go where the song and his mood dictated.  A top three or four moment for me on this album.

"For Sure Thing" is another fun, uptempo rocker, which features Baton Rouge's Kelly Keeling on backing vocals.  Another lyrically strong track, "For Sure Thing" is all about cruising with the top down and the speakers up, as far as I'm concerned, and is another example of the type of good-time rock n roll that simply isn't played enough today, at least by American bands.  Cagle rocks, plain and simple, and the entirety of the band has the feeling of a group of guys that are out to have some musical fun and take all the listeners with them.  Great stuff here!

"Siren" has a funky, "Brick House"-meets-Extreme kind of groove to it that is unlike anything else on the record.  Definitely a fun song, but one that I'm guessing many listeners are going to have to give a chance to so that it can properly grow on them.  Another quirky track lyrically, "Siren" is a tune that gives Cagle a chance to showcase his ability to handle something other than the standard melodic rock fare, and he passes the test with flying colors.  For what its worth, Northrup launches into an ultra-cool solo just before the final chorus...but you probably guessed that, right?

"Forever Starts Tonight" gets some backing assistance from Mr. Gunnar Nelson, and his presence is felt immediately as the song actually opens with a layered line from the chorus section before the guitars and drums come kicking in.  Once again right in the wheelhouse of Cagle, and Northrup digs into his bag of licks n tricks one more time on this rocker, and yet again the rhythm section of Hart and Brown deserves special mention on "Forever...", which is a really good song that I'm surprised to find this late in the record. 

Album closer, "Chasing Ghosts" drops the tempo a bit, not quite into ballad territory, but close, and closes the record with another dose of smooth melodic rock that, again, really allows Cagle to shine.  I truly hope he and JK hook up again in the not-too-distant future, as they definitely have something working here.

Mine is a digital promo version, so I have no idea about the packaging of the album, but generally speaking, Melodic Rock Records is solid in this area, so I don't have any pre-conceived concerns in this department.  Additionally, I am told there is a Japanese bonus track that I don't have access to at this time, but I know that it is one that was on the LnJ version of the record, so I am anxious to get my hands...and ears...on that track whenever possible.

The production is solid, professional, and clean, with no glaring issues with mix, muddiness, or excessive polish.  Northrup has proven himself to be equally talented behind the mixing board as out in front of it, and the work here is no exception.  Initially I thought there was a bit of middle-to-bottom end missing in the mix of some of the tracks, but it turned out to be an issue with my EQ, which I had to adjust when listening to another review album that...ummm....let's just say "lacked in appreciable mixing and production skill"...and leave it at that. 

Overall, That's Gonna Leave A Mark is very likely to leave a mark on listeners, as it is a really good, generally upbeat-but-always-real, lyrically fun album with a whole lot of musical talent shining through in various areas.  Nostalgic-yet fresh, comfortable-yet-not cliche, this effort from Northrup, Cagle, and Company is well worth picking up.

Rating:  Crankable, unquestionably, I give this an enthusiastic 8.

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