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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Friday, April 6, 2018

SKILLET "Unleashed Beyond"

(c) 2017 Atlantic Records

  1. Feel Invincible
  2. Back From The Dead
  3. Stars
  4. I Want To Live
  5. Undefeated
  6. Famous
  7. Lions
  8. Out Of Hell
  9. Burn It Down
  10. Watching For Comets
  11. Saviors Of The World
  12. The Resistance
  13. Breaking Free (featuring Lacey Sturm) (Bonus)
  14. Stay Til The Daylight (Bonus)
  15. Brave (Bonus)
  16. You Get Me High (Bonus)
  17. Set It Off (Bonus)
  18. Feel Invincible (Y2K Remix) (Bonus)
  19. The Resistance (Soli Remix) (Bonus)
  20. Stars (Film Version) (Bonus)
John Cooper--Lead Vocals, Bass
Korey Cooper--Rhythm Guitars, Keyboards
Jed Ledger--Drums, Vocals
Seth Morrison--Guitars

The undisputed kings (and queens) of Christian modern rock...and one of the most successful modern rock bands in America, period...Skillet have once again repackaged their most recent effort with new material and offered it up to fans, most likely to tide them over until the next album.  Originally released nearly two years ago, Unleashed has seen multiple songs hit radio as singles, from the huge, arena anthems "Feel Invincible" and "Back From The Dead", to a couple of slower, more ballad-esque moments with "Lions" and "Stars", and the original album closer, the crunchy, modern metallic screamer, "The Resistance".  Sandwiched in between are several other solid songs, whether it be the more symphonic "I Want To Live", the poppy "Saviors Of The World", the crunchy "Undefeated", or the breakneck-speed rocker "Out Of Hell".  Not everything on the album worked overly well for me, as I am not a fan of "Watching For Comets", per se, nor did "Burn It Down" really grab me, though neither is a bad song, necessarily.  The same could be said of "Famous", which is a little too electro-pop/dance rock for me, what with its looped drums, syths, and electronic noises, but again, it's not brutal or anything.  But, if I had wanted to cut the album down to the ten best tracks, "Comets" and "Burn It Down" would have been the two to go.

But rather than trim the album to ten tracks, Skillet went the other way and tacked eight bonus tracks, including five new songs, onto the deluxe edition of the album, giving us Unleashed Beyond.  A lot of people would complain about this, but really, what's the difference between buying a repackaged album with new material and buying an EP with five new songs and a couple remixes?  Probably no difference at all.  Released near the end of 2017, the expanded album has already seen one song starting to climb the Christian rock charts, with the modern rock screamfest of "Breaking Free" charting seeing growing airplay in March of 2018.  Much like the album proper, the new songs are mostly really good-to-great, with only one minor miss, and then there are three remixes thrown in for good measure.

The first of the new songs is the previously mentioned "Breaking Free".  I called it a screamfest above, and there is really no other term I could think to apply as this is exactly what the song is.  Big pounding drums and hard, churning guitars abound on this catchy song, which is to be expected from the majority of Skillet's hardest-edged output over the past five albums.  But "Breaking Free" takes things to a new extreme when John's powerful roars and shouts are matched by scream queen, Lacey Sturm, the former lead singer of Flyleaf.  Mix in Jen Ledger's tame...dare I say "sweet" sounding by comparison?...backing vocals, and you have quite a track on your hands.  This would be my favorite of the new tracks were it not for the hyper-catchy "Set It Off", which feels to me like it could have/should have been included on the original version of Unleashed.  Heck, I prefer this track to more than half the songs on the original album, trailing only "The Resistance" and "Feel Invincible", and possibly "Lions" and "Undefeated".   A guitar-driven rocker with a chant-along chorus, "Set It Off" should definitely be released as a single and may be one of the few bonus tracks that I can think of that have the potential to actually top a chart.   Seriously, it is that dang good, and I hope it finds its way into the band's live set for the next tour.  

Also really good, but a slight step below these two is the more straight-forward rocker, "You Get Me High", which features a more classic rock-styled guitar riff but retains the huge, arena-filling drum sound the band has really become known for.  I also really like more mainstream-sounding, "Brave", which reminds me a LOT of "Lions", but with a bigger, more anthemic chorus, and fuller, bigger-sounding drums.  Ledger sounds really good here, and I don't think she gets enough credit for what she brings to the band vocally, as well as on the kit.  Again, this could have/should have replaced "Watching For Comets" on the original album, in my opinion, and could very well be another chart-topping bonus track for Skillet, again coming out of the bonus tracks of a re-issued album.  An impressive feat, to be sure.

I'm not completely sure how I feel about the acoustic-based ballad of "Stay Til The Daylight", which has a definite "Stars" feel to it, but there's something that just seems off to me.  John is in full singing mode here, and the band incorporates some nice strings into the mix, but it isn't until the final run through the bridge/chorus section that the drums find their way into the track, which left me kind of hanging, to be honest.  More time may help me better figure out what it is that I don't like about this song...or give me more of an appreciation for what it is.

The band also incorporates three remixes here, with two of them being total wastes of disc space.  Seriously, the remixes of "Feel Invincible", and especially "The Resistance" are just abysmal.  Totally, unquestionably, 100% pure skip material for this guy.  Just...wow...just bad stuff.  As to the "film version" of "Stars", which was remixed for the movie The Shack, if memory serves, it's okay, but kind of redundant.  It features an incredibly long intro (my oldest son thought they made it into an instrumental), one of the choruses is removed, with two verses pretty much running into each other, and the whole affair feels fairly sappy and rather boring.  I like the original version, especially in the live setting, but I don't see any time when I am going to pull out this album just to hear this reworked version of the song.  Sorry Skillet, but I may actually rip and re-burn this CD without the closing three tracks, as I can't stand two of them and don't find any reason for the third.

The repackaged album also features an expanded insert which folds out into a poster of the sludge-covered band.  Full lyrics for all of the new songs are included (along with all the original songs' lyrics, also), along with updated credits and thank-yous.  The artwork is basically identical, with the updated and relocated title being the only change to the front cover, and the updated tracklisting being the lone change to the back.

At WinterJam 2018 a few weeks ago, John Cooper hinted that the band had some big news coming up, so perhaps a new album is in the offing.  Perhaps he was simply referring to "Breaking Free" being dropped to radio as a single, or maybe their WinterJam performances were being recorded for a live EP.  I'm not sure, so stay tuned to www.skillet.com and the band's social media outlets to stay up to date.  And if you haven't already done so, I would strongly encourage you to pick up Unleashed Beyond for the five new tracks, as most fans will find at least four of them strong additions to the band's catalog, and I have no doubts there will be fans of "Stay Til The Daylight", also.

Rating:  When you have a crankable album and add new, crankable material to it, you get more crankability, right?  The two BRUTAL remixes (and one pointless one) can't even really do much to drop the rating here, which I top out at 8.