Monday, May 20, 2019

SEVENTH DAY SLUMBER "Closer To Chaos"

(c) 2019 RockFest Records

  1. Alive Again
  2. Cold Kiss Embrace
  3. Burning An Empire
  4. Drama
  5. Light It Up
  6. Man Down
  7. The Letter
  8. Still Breathing
  9. Sober
  10. Your Eyes
Joseph Rojas--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jeremy Holderfield--Lead Guitars
Ken Reed--Bass
Blaise Rojas--Drums

I've been on board with Seventh Day Slumber for several years now, going back to when I first heard the band in a live setting (I was there to see another band, truth be told) as they were on tour to support their then-new release, We Are The BrokenSince that time, I have managed to track down just about every single release the band has put out, and I have found varying degrees of enjoyment with each release.  From the post-grunge beginnings found on Picking Up The Pieces to the modern radio rock success of the previously mentioned We Are The Broken, the Redline EP, and the band's last studio effort, Found, the band has managed to continue to grow bit by bit, subtly altering and updating their sound, while never losing track of who they are...and definitely never compromising on their message.  And, while the band has had numerous Billboard #1 and Top Ten hits, two number one albums, and more than 500,000 albums sold, I always felt the band was still searching for that album that was going to truly define who Seventh Day Slumber is and what the 7DS sound really is.

With Closer To Chaos, I believe they have found that album!

The songwriting on this record is simply a step, maybe even a step and a half, ahead of anything the band has put forward up to this point.  And, with the list of accomplishments I rattled off for you above, that really says something!  But there is a cohesiveness to the writing here, as well as a maturity, that wasn't always present before.  Where every previous album had about three...maybe four...great songs and one or two filler tracks, surrounded by nice but not necessarily noteworthy tracks, Closer To Chaos tightens things up significantly!  Nowhere to be found are the filler tracks, and nothing here is forgettable at all.  With writing contributions from both Joseph and Blaise Rojas, as well as Josiah Prince (Disciple) on three songs, the band carves a melodic-yet-modern path through the rock landscape with each and every track here.

Just because the album is full of great songs, that doesn't mean there aren't a handful that really grab my attention.  Take, for example, the album's first track lead single, "Alive Again".  After a brief build, the rhythm guitars and punchy drums jump straight to the front of this mid-tempo hard rocker about wanting to be able to be the real you and to put your best foot forward, not having to put on a fake smile and just make it through the day.  Holderfield's guitars carry an aggressive edge with a stop-start-stop-start chugging approach that is executed perfectly here as it drives the track forward.  It's also nice to hear Ken Reed's bass so even in the mix, as the bass seems to either get buried, or totally BLASTED in the mix on a lot of rock records now, but here, we get the perfect blend of present but not predominant from the bass.  Joseph's vocals are powerful here, particularly on the bridge section, and I am constantly in awe of how easily he slides across certain sections of this track (and many others), coming across like he is having a conversation with you with his delivery style.  I love it!

"Burning An Empire" is an extremely powerful song and a commentary on how our society devalues itself.  The second verse, especially, really punches the listener in the gut as Joseph eloquently lays out the abortion debate from the viewpoint of the pro-choice crowd...

"We are the ones who decide/Who lives and who dies/We let the unborn pay the price...
Its all just murder for hire/So you can fill your desires/As we go on with our own lives.
What will it take to see the mess you've made?
We're Burning an Empire...."

The whispered vocal bridge is every bit as powerful here, as well...

"There's evil in your eyes/Your blood-stained hands don't lie.
You're rotting deep inside/Rotting deep inside..."

Its a truly haunting statement about what society values and what it discards, and it is a song that I can never get through without hitting repeat at least once.  Musically, its equally great, and while SiriusXM will ignore it, this track could (and should) share the airwaves without anyone batting an eye until they got to the lyrics.  An awesome, awesome song!

Speaking of songs that get repeated, the powerful "Man Down" ranks as one of the very best tracks this band has ever put onto a record.  Starting (and ending) with the sounds of war, the song soon leads the listener to the realization that the sounds are the soundtrack to a nightmare being had by a soldier with PTSD.  A truly powerful message about the men and women who continue to live and relive the hellish experiences of war, even when they return home, "Man Down" should be picked up by any number of military and police organizations that work with survivors.  Co-written by Blaise Rojas, "Man Down" is quite likely my favorite track on an album filled with excellence.  The guitar tones are as haunting as the subject matter, and the chorus rings in my head for hours after hearing the song...literally.  It gets stuck and I can't get it out...

"Man down/We've got a Man Down!
Crying for help/But I can't make a sound,
Trapped inside/My own mind!
Losing control/Of all my emotions
Is there a cure/For the wounds that I've opened?
I'm bleeding out/We've got a Man Down!"

Big drums, a powerful bass presence, and those haunting guitars all combine to make an incredibly powerful song that, again, should be all over the airwaves!  Request it, hashtag it to Octane or your favorite terrestrial station, do whatever you can to get this important song out there!

The follow-up track, "The Letter", delivers an equally powerful message about the issues of cutting, self-harm, and suicide, issues I work with on a regular basis in my real job.  The gut-level honesty that 7DS approaches these songs with is what makes them so powerful in my mind, as this track sounds like it was likely written as a compilation of hundreds of letters and conversations with hurting fans throughout the years.  There's some nice modern production elements dropped into the mix leading into a tasty little guitar solo, and again the drums and bass just punish the bottom end of this track.  Good, hard-hitting stuff, both musically and lyrically.

"Sober" is another cold slap of reality as it tackles the issue of addiction and the use of chemicals to mask pain and depression.  As a teacher who works with juvenile offenders, this song really hit me hard, as it is the soundtrack of so many of my students' lives when they are dealing with parents who are substance abusers.  But it was these lines, lines of hope, that really cause my eyes to sting...

"I wanna medicate/But I gotta sit through the pain.
To tell the truth/I almost picked the bottle up again.
I made a promise to my kids
Daddy's never going back, no matter how hard it gets!"

The chorus, however, is such a pleading look at pain and self-medication that it hurts to listen to.  Musically, the guitars take on an angry, crunchy tone, with some electronic elements buried way in the back just to lend support and fill in the rare instances when the drums and guitars take a quick breath!

The record's closer, "Your Eyes", is an excellent, hard-hitting rocker that closes out this excellent album in perfect fashion.  Crunchy guitars, rumbling bass, big drums, a supporting keyboard line, and some great backing vocals (big WHOA's!) on the chorus section all combine on this track about slef-worth and seeing oneself the way that Christ sees us.  For me, this is the perfect track to close the record...and then restart Closer To Chaos all over again!

This is an excellent record from start to finish, and I didn't even get to touch on all the great tracks like "Drama", with it's big hook and catchy chorus, or the gritty, chunky "Cold Kiss Embrace", a song about moving away from toxic relationships and toward being healthy and happy with oneself!  There simply isn't room to give each track here the written love it deserves!

Band founder, lead vocalist, and rhythm guitarist, Joseph Rojas is in especially fine vocal form here.  I don't think he has ever sounded better, to be honest.  Always smooth, always melodic, there is a depth and power here that was not always present on albums past, at least not all the way through.  But on Closer To Chaos, Rojas is one-hundred percent in full control of his range, his emotional depth, and his vocal presentation.  This sounds to me like an album where the band worked at finding exactly the right vocal take on every track to get the sound they were after, and it pays big dividends here.

It's also worth noting the growth in Blaise Rojas' playing.  He has definitely matured as a musician, with his drum patterns and fills becoming more and more interesting, bringing an energy and life to the songs now, whereas on previous efforts he was more in maintain the beat mode in places.  And while that has worked (to a degree) for any number of drummers in the rock industry throughout the years, it is always a treat to hear a drummer not just rely on the same-old-same-old and to grow and challenge themselves, and the listener, with new ideas, new tempos, new fills, etc.  With his sound married to the impressive work of long-time bassist Ken Reed, the rhythm section has a fullness on the bottom end that few bands in the modern arena have managed to capture on a record that has crossed my desk.

Produced by the band's longtime, and seriously underrated, guitarist, Jeremy Holderfield, with co-production nods given to Disciple's guitarist, Josiah Prince, the sound here is crisp, aggressive, and beautifully mixed, without the muddiness that seems to really make a mess of a lot of the modern rock that has come out recently.  There are touches of production elements thrown into the mix, but overall, Closer To Chaos is about the band, not the studio, and the conservative use of production gimmicks should be applauded here, as my experience has always been that Seventh Day Slumber doesn't need them.  Having experienced the band live multiple times now, I can tell you they put on a great show, and with  Closer To Chaos, they may have some hard decisions to make for this next tour's set list, as there are a lot of new songs that need to be heard in the live setting, to go along with "We Are The Broken", "Bring It On" and "Oceans From The Rain"!

If you catch them live, post their set list in the comments section; I'd LOVE to find out what they are playing now!

Rating:  While there have been other really good Seventh Day Slumber records, this is easily the most crankworthy!  Crank this to an 8.5!

Friday, May 10, 2019

WHITESNAKE "Flesh & Blood"

(c) 2019 Frontiers Records

  1. Good To See You Again
  2. Gonna Be Alright
  3. Shut Up, Kiss Me
  4. Hey You (You Make Me Rock)
  5. Always Forever
  6. When I Think Of You (Color Me Blue)
  7. Trouble Is Your Middle Name
  8. Flesh & Blood
  9. Well I Never
  10. Heart Of Stone
  11. Get Up
  12. After All
  13. Sands Of Time
David Coverdale--Vocals
Reb Beach--Guitars
Joel Hoekstra--Guitars
Michael Devin--Bass
Tommy Aldridge--Drums
Michele Luppi--Keyboards

Believe it or not, it's been 8 years since Whitesnake released the very strong Forevermore, which found its way into 2011's Top 11 of the year.  It has also been just over three years since the band released the relatively disappointing The Purple Album, which was...well...it wasn't good, and even more, it was unnecessary.  And whereas Forevermore felt like an album from a band that had a new fire lit in its belly, The Purple Album felt a lot like a band running on fumes.  So when I heard that Coverdale and Company were firing up the Whitesnake machine for one more run, I have to admit I was rather guarded in my feelings about it.  Which version of the band would we get?  And, more to the point, could the band even attempt to recapture what they had back in 2011...let alone what they had back in 1987?

The answer lays somewhere in the middle, in my opinion.  There are some massive arena rockers that would likely have dominated radio and concert venues were this 1987, with "Hey You (You Make Me Rock)" being chief among them.  With a huge, chant-along chorus, thundering drums, and some catchy guitar licks from Beach and Hoekstra, this type of track was what made Whitesnake the huge band they were in that time frame.  Coverdale sounds great here; a bit aged, vocally, but still powerful overall, and the band feels energized and excited.  The solo here is top flight fret running from Beach, and Devin's bass is a welcome presence throughout the track.  It's not hard at all to imagine fists thrusting into the air with every big "Hey...You...", nor is it difficult to envision a hundred Tawny Kitaen wannabes bumping and grinding in the front row.  

"Gonna Be Alright" is another straight-outta-the-80s rocker that just sounds like Whitesnake.  Seriously, by the time the track is just 20 seconds old there is zero doubt that this is Whitesnake.  The subtle hints of keyboards, the catchy guitar hook, the purely-Coverdale lyrics, the laid-back-yet-ultra cool guitar solo....all the ingredients of the soundtrack of 1987-1989 Whitesnake.  In fact, if you had 1987 Coverdale vocals and production on this song instead of 2019 Coverdale vocals and production, it would slide nearly perfectly onto either Whitesnake or Slip Of The Tongue.  To put it simply... This.Is.Whitesnake.

Likewise, 80s radio-rockers like the opening "Good To See You Again" (What?  Me?  David Coverdale is glad to see ME again?!), and lead single "Shut Up And Kiss Me" (see video below) have a sound and feel that are undeniably from the 80s, even if "Shut Up..." feels a bit more Y&T than classic Whitesnake, at least to me.  You have to forgive Mr. Coverdale for borrowing from his past as he brings back the infamous white Jaguar...and even his jacket...from the now classic "Here I Go Again" video, but I have to admit it is pretty much embarrassing to watch these new "video vixens" doing their best Kitaen as they writhe around on the hood of the car.  Come on, David!  These girls could be your grandchildren, for crying out loud!  The song is catchy and the band definitely looks like they are having a good time, with the interplay between Hoekstra and Beach particularly strong here.  


 
Indeed, it is the harder, heavier numbers where the band is at their best here, with the tasty-if-lyrically-cliched "Trouble Is Your Middle Name" being one of my favorites here, with some exceptionally strong guitar work.  "Get Up" is another great rocker, sounding a lot like the material the band was working with on the Slip Of The Tongue album in 1989, with Aldridge's drums sounding particularly snappy here, with more classic solo runs from Beach and Hoekstra.  Where the band works best, however, is on the slithering "Well I Never", which sounds as if it could have been written for their classic, self-titled release.  The bass line absolutely throbs its way throughout the track, and the guitars slink and slide their way through seemingly every open space on the track.  Aldridge's drum sound here is huge and arena shaking, with this rhythm and patterns, particularly as they build up to, and then support, the guitar solo being some of the best on the record.  Coverdale works his magic on this track, as well, making even the simplest of choruses feel bigger than it actually is.  This type of song is classic radio-era Whitesnake and likely exactly what most fans are looking for from this record.

The sultry "Heart Of Stone" is an excellent contribution here, also, carrying a tempo relatively similar to "Crying In The Rain", using that bluesy bump-and-grind rhythm that finds its way into so many great Whitesnake songs.  Teasingly close to a ballad, but too ballsy and too heavy to really fall into last slow dance at the prom territory, this is another example of what Whitesnake does, and has always done, so well.  The guitars are especially soulful here, and the trade-off between the bass and the drums works exceptionally well.  I'm also a big fan of what the band does on album-closer, "Sands Of Time" with it's big, nearly "Kashmir" guitar hook, as I have always felt this type of song was the strong suit of the band (think "Still Of The Night" and "Judgement Day" as excellent examples), incorporating that hard bluesy swagger of Zeppelin with the bottom-heavy crunch Whitesnake always utilized in their best moments, and those scorching, searing guitar solos that seemed to run throughout these big songs, regardless of who was manning the axe at the time.
 
There are a couple of misses for me, however, which is probably to be expected when an album is stretched to 13 tracks.  The acoustic "After All" really does nothing for me, with its layered backing vocals and sappy sentiment, and it ends up sounding to me like something the bridesmaids and flower girls might walk down the aisle to.  And there's just something about "When I Think Of You (Color Me Blue)" that just doesn't sit well with me.  It sounds too much like a recycled song to my ears, with nothing particularly catchy about it.  It's not a horrible song, its just not memorable at all.

The production is generally pretty good, although I'm surprised more effort wasn't given to pumping up Coverdale's vocals just a tad.  40 plus years of singing, screaming, wailing, crooning, etc., have thinned things out a bit for Mr. Coverdale, even if his hair doesn't appear to have thinned at all!  Even so, there is an undeniable charm to the fact that Coverdale apparently accepts his voice for what it is now, so perhaps Frontiers did the best thing they could do in this case, which was to do nothing.  The separation of instruments is very good here, and I don't detect any issues with muddiness at all.  In fact, if anything, some songs feel a bit tinny when I listen to them in my home, but when I put them in my Tahoe's CD player, these problems seem to disappear, so I'm guessing some subtle EQ adjustments at home would clean this right up.

There are a couple of bonus tracks, as well as some remixes on the CD/DVD version of this release, so completists will likely want to track that version down.  Me, I never watch the DVDs, so I don't see myself hunting that one down.  I'll likely just buy the bonus tracks somewhere and burn myself a new version of Flesh & Blood without "After All" and with the bonus cuts thrown in.  I'm also not much of a remix/radio edit guy, so those types of tracks are generally lost on me.

So, in the end, how does Flesh & Blood fare in stacking up to classic-era Whitesnake, or even the excellent-but-overlooked Good To Be Bad/Forevermore-era Whitesnake?  I think this is a strong record, overall, and it is leaps and bounds better than The Purple Album, and I personally think it is a stronger album, overall, than Slip Of The Tongue.  Maybe not quite to the Forevermore level for me, but darn close, I found myself really enjoying this record, despite my original concerns.

Rating:  Crank this to an 8.

Friday, May 3, 2019

SHALLOW SIDE "Saints & Sinners"


(c) 2019 Thermal Entertainment

  1. Drugs & Lust
  2. Saints & Sinners
  3. Sound The Alarm
  4. Revival
  5. Temptations
  6. Hallelujah
  7. No More
  8. All Rise
  9. Not Alone
  10. Carry One
Eric Boatright--Lead Vocals
Seth Trimble--Guitars, Keyboards,Vocals
Matt Daniels--Bass, Guitars
Heath Fields--Drums

"Hallelujah" may be a ways down on the track listing for Saints & Sinners, the newest release from Shallow Side, but it pretty much sums up how I feel about this record, because I absolutely feel like screaming "hallelujah" when I give this record a spin.  Modern hard rock meets driving southern rock is the best way to describe the sound of Shallow Side, as these Alabama boys continue to work at carving a unique niche for themselves in the hard rock world.

The album kicks off with the catchy rocker, "Revival", driven by an aggressive rhythm guitar line and some really good, hard rock drumming from Fields.  A strong bass line rumbles away at the bottom end of the track, but it is the gritty powerhouse vocals of Boatright that are likely to grab the attention of the listener as he warns the listener, "I'd tell you the truth, but the truth is you wouldn't bother/A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush/Ohhh, I wasn't born to be a follower, I was born to lead...Revival!"  Boatright's powerful tenor glides when necessary, and adds hints of tension and aggression when called for, all withing just this one song, and a great lead-off track it is!   But its's with the next track, the album's title track, "Saints & Sinners" that the greatness of this record is found.

As much as I enjoyed the band's southern-fried modern rock on 2016's One EP, everything is bumped up a notch or two on this record.  On "Saints & Sinners", the lead-in guitar line and bass drum/hand-clap percussion is pure ear candy for the Bon Jovi "Blaze Of Glory" crowd, but once the first verse is done, the big guitar riffs punch you in the nose, the drums kick in, and the much harder, rockier chorus drives its way into your head.  Another verse, another spin through the chorus, and then a great track gets greater, as Trimble rips into a tasty guitar solo that is accentuated by a chugging rhythm guitar and big, chunky drums...and then it all evaporates back into that opening acoustic guitar riff for a short refrain, and then its off and running through the chorus again, complete with big backing vocals, before the song is allowed to fade away.  I can say with 100% honesty, I have never made it through this record without hitting repeat on this track at least once...never.

"Sound The Alarm", the album's lead single, is up next, and it is one of the most straight-forward, hard rockers on the record.  Trimble gets downright crunchy on his guitar lines here, and Daniels' bass presence is definitely felt on this track as well.  Boatright is in fine form as well, especially when sneering and leering through lines such as "I'd like to see you naked/Stripped down, show me who you really are..." that he kicks things off with.  There is a lot going on here and while it gives the listener a taste of the musicianship and the tightness of the band, I do miss the southern rock taste that slips and slides throughout so many other tracks here.  It's definitely worth checking out below, however... 
 

Remember just a few minutes ago when I was telling you how great the title track is?  The thing is, it's actually my second favorite track on the record, as "Drugs & Lust" is just that much better for me.  Hinting at grunge with the guitars, especially the sludgy, down-tuned riff that trails out of the chorus section and the Cantrell-esque guitar solo, along with big, gang-shouted backing vocals, Boatright running the full range of his vocal styles...from singing to shouting to snarling...and some absolutely snappy drum lines, this is just such a great track that, once again, I always find myself hitting repeat on.  To be candid, I burned a copy of the album for my truck with both "Saints & Sinners" and "Drugs & Lust"...and "Hallelujah"...repeated at the end of the disc, just so they were there one more time.

"Temptations" is so laid back in comparison to "Drugs & Lust" that were it not for Boatright's vocals, you likely might wonder if it was the same band.  Starting with an acoustic build, this track is definitely bottom-heavy in all the right places, and the song's slower-tempo and change in style really showcase the musical range of the band.  Boatright continues to be exceptionally powerful, although he is able to dial things back at times to fit with the style of the track.  He even allows himself to slide to the upper ends of his vocal range in a couple of spots, which he handles with no audible stress at all on this song about one's vices and the desire to return to them again and again, even if we know its not necessarily in our best interests. 

Did I mention liking "Hallelujah"?  If not, I'm mentioning it now, because this is yet again another example of the hard-hitting power of this band.  Catchy songwriting is abundant on this record, and this is another example of it.  The track borrows heavily from 80s/early 90s arena rock in its structure and approach, with some nice, crunchy guitars and big...BIG...anthem-driving drums, along with those layered backing vocals once again.  No, this doesn't sound like something Warrant or Poison would've played on the Strip, but it has the spirit and soul of that era, while still sounding modern and relevant to today's rock scene. 

"All Rise" has a way cool bass line and simple snare/kick drum pattern to intro it, before some big, crunchy guitars jump into the mix to churn things up...and then just as quickly back way off to some simple riffing below the vocals, clearing the way for Boatright to step up and vocally punch the listener in the face on the chunky, rhythmic chorus.  A bit of "down home" picking exits that first chorus section, with Boatright jumping back into the second verse, this time with a bit more aggressive guitar work backing him up, but that same fat bass line still rolling along.  Sometimes beauty is found in simplicity, and the ease of the chorus here, "Tell me are you reck...less.../Tell me are you reck...less/If you really don't give a damn/All rise!" is pure fist-in-the-air, adrenaline-fueled, chant-along material and something I would LOVE to witness in a live setting.  And, having had the opportunity to see a show and hang out with the band a couple of years ago, let me tell you, a live Shallow Side show is one opportunity you should not pass up.  Great dudes...

Just as you are recovering from the punchiness of "All Rise", the band totally swerves on you with the follow up track.  "Not Alone" is a really cool musical piece with a curveball intro in the form of a really nice piano line that glides along with Boatrigtht's emotional vocals for the first 45 seconds of the track, before the drums and bass join the gorgeous arrangement.  I absolutely love the longing of the chorus here, especially when Boatright emotes, "My heart wants to stay, but I gotta go/It kills me to leave, but I want ya' to know/Remember, remember, remember...you're not alone...".  The emotion Boatright packs into his vocals is absolutely spot on here, and is matched in intensity by the musical build up throughout the track, with the piano a perfect complement to the harder guitars and big bass presence.  This is yet another track that I have a hard time allowing to just fade out, as I always seem to want to reach for that repeat button at least once.  The musicality of this track is virtually unmatched on modern rock radio and tracks like this absolutely deserve to be heard.  Again, I would love to see the band pull this off live, as it would be a total treat to watch Boatright absolutely own the vocals here, and to become immersed in the musical experience created here.   

"Carry On" closes things with a chug-chug-chugging guitar line and a catchy drum pattern, big "hey, hey" backing vocals on the chorus, and a huge hook that snags you right in the ear hole and keeps you hanging around until the end.  Some big piano sounds are embedded in the mix, and Trimble has some nifty guitar acrobatics all intermixed in this big musical display where, somewhat oddly, Boatright's vocals are not the centerpiece, at least for me.  This is just a great band effort and an example of truly interesting songwriting.  Whereas many band would have just gone back to a previously utilized song structure and formula and slapped together one last track, Shallow Side made the decision to go out on a high note, challenging the listener with yet another change in style while still managing to sound like themselves.  Kudos, boys! 

Look, these guys should already be huge, with  three really solid EPs, a retrospective album (which covers the first two EPs to a large degree), and so many great tracks already in their catalog ("We Roll", "Can You Hear Me", "Rebel", and their cover of the Styx classic, "Renegade", to name a few), but this album just has a magic about it.  If this album doesn't break these guys big, there is something seriously wrong with rock radio (I mean even more than we already know is wrong with "corporate" rock radio...).  This is a beast of a record that I can't stop spinning, and I can guarantee it will be in the Top 19 of 2019 at year's end...and it will be near the top!  I simply love Saints & Sinners!

Rating:  Pure crankability here!  Spin 'er up to 9!


Monday, April 22, 2019

ROYAL BLISS "Royal Bliss"

(c) 2019 Air Castle Records

  1. Hard And Loud
  2. Pain
  3. Paranoid
  4. Adrenaline
  5. Light Of The Moon
  6. Devil With Angel Eyes
  7. Be Original
  8. You're Killing Me
  9. How You Like Me Now
  10. Fight Back
  11. S.W.I.M.U.
Neal Middleton--Lead Vocals
Taylor Richards--Guitar
Brian Hennesy--Bass
Jake Smith--Drums

Utah's favorite sons, Royal Bliss, have returned with their first studio effort since their 2016 EP, The Truth, and the band's first full-length release since 2014's Chasing The Sun.  Streamlined to just a four-piece unit this time around, Royal Bliss returns to the modern hard rock sound that served them so well on Chasing The Sun and previous efforts, Waiting Out The Storm and 2009's major label debut, Life In Between.  

A couple of these songs have been floated digitally already, with the scorching hard rocker, "Hard And Loud" with it's fist-in-the-air, sing-along chorus, and the catchy mid-tempo number, "Devil With Angel Eyes" receiving national attention.  Meanwhile, "Pain" has just recently been added to several radio stations as well as SiriusXM's Octane channel.  This punchy, angst-packed track is easily one of the two or three best tracks on an overall great album, with lead singer, Neal Middleton, alternating between his smooth tenor delivery and an edgier, raspier scream on the verse sections.  Taylor Richards' guitar screams to life on the solo (which ends all too soon), with both Hennesy and Smith adding to the depth of the track with a rock solid bottom end.  This is the type of track that the band has consistently done so well, a hard-driving, forward-pressing rocker that is musically relentless and lyrically meaningful, angry-yet-hopeful in an "I'll overcome all of this" way, as Middleton snarls on the opening verse, "I am the one, the only one, who writes my story.." then backs it up with a chorus of "Take away my pain, Cuz it won't fade away!  Falling into nothing, I will rise above it all, and take away my pain!"

"Paranoid" starts off rather starkly, with just Middleton and the rhythm guitar, but soon enough the drums kick in and the bass rumbles to life on another mid-tempo-yet-aggressive modern rocker that recalls for me the things that were so great about the past few studio records.  Taylor utilizes a unique guitar tone and style for the solo here which is a complete departure from anything else on the record, but it works well, and Middleton finds himself alternating between his more aggressive style on the chorus and a smoother delivery approach on the verses.

"Adrenaline" is a very bass-heavy, bottom-end-oriented track, but is catchy as heck, with a 90s alternative guitar line that infects the chorus sections, and a stomp-and-nod tempo from Hennesy that keeps the song rumbling along.  As I said, the track is just catchy...infectious might be a better word...and between the steady drum cadence and the throbbing bass line, the listener is just pulled along, engaged the whole way right up to Middleton's cold close on the song.  Good, good stuff here.

"Light Of The Moon" is the "Crazy" of this record, which says something, as I think "Crazy" is still among the best things this band has ever recorded.  The track starts with a slow build, an acoustic guitar line and Middleton's vocals, building, building, building until the chorus hits and Middleton beckons, "Where did you go?  I've been missing/Someone to hold, You don't listen/All my life I'm caught in the Light of the Moon".  Perhaps the greatest thing about Royal Bliss is the way Middleton's vocals add an emotional layer to the songs that serve to enhance the words that are put down on the lyrics sheet, and nowhere is that more evident than here.  You can feel the emotion the words have been marinating in before they are brought to life.  

"Be Original", with its stomp-stomp-clap tempo and big "whoa-oh, whoa-oh-oh" vocals, is just pure ear candy.  The modern edge applied to Middleton's vocals sits in contrast to the 70s-inspired guitar tones and Hammond-styled synth work (I don't believe it is a true Hammond organ being used here), and this is a pure rocker through and through, as is the edgy follow-up, "You're Killing Me" which features a huge drum presence and some more inventive, creative guitar tones from Richards.  The instrumental section following the second chorus section is basically controlled musical fury, with the rapid fire drums fighting with Richards' guitars and Hennesy's bass in a struggle for sonic supremacy.

If it's searing guitar solos you are interested in, "How You Like Me Now" is your track.  While I love so much of what Richards has done on this record to this point, both in how he has crafted his solos and the unusual tones and techniques he has experimented with, it is on the solo here, at about the 1:35 mark that his string-bending skills really just come to life in a pure, straight forward manner.  Not tricks, not studio effects, just the man, his pick, and his axe...the way its supposed to be.

"Fight Back" is the most aggressive song that Royal Bliss has recorded to this point in their 20+ year career, at least as far as what I have heard (and I have heard just about everything except their very first recordings).  Jackhammer drum patterns, a near breakdown chug-chug-chug section from the rhythm guitars, more 70s-toned but high speed soloing, and the angriest Middleton vocals you have likely ever heard rip through the last half of this song that leaves the listener asking, "Wait...that was Royal Bliss, right?"  A little punkish...maybe even a bit grungy...this is a Royal Bliss oddity, no doubt, but in a good way, I think it would be interesting to hear the band tear into this in the live setting!  

In stark contrast to "Fight Back", the record closes with the acoustic number, "S.W.I.M.U.", which finds the band drifting a bit back toward the softer sound they had adopted on The Truth.  The acronym stands for "Smoking Weed In My Underwear", which while admittedly humorous, has little to do with the depth of the song, which is part of Middleton's (and the band's) continuing musical saga of life on the road and the family that the band is for the guys.  An acoustic steel guitar is thrown into the mix here, adding to that southern-fried, country-tinged rock the band had tinkered with, and it is a great ending to an album that showcases a band in full embrace of who they are and what they want to do, regardless of what others think they should sound like or be about.  

Is this the best Royal Bliss record yet?  That is a tall task, especially when considering the greatness of Waiting Out The Storm and Chasing The Sun.  That being said, this is definitely top three for me, and only time will tell where exactly this record finds itself settling.  Just know that this is a great record from an underrated, underappreciated band that deserves far more attention on the national level.

I'm not sure of distribution at this point...it has not appeared on Amazon as of this writing, but you can order the CD here, including autographed copies, along with all sorts of other merchandise and experiences.  The band will be out on the road this summer, and if you get the chance to seek them out (largely in the western half of the country), I encourage you to do so, as they are not only a great live band, but good guys to talk to after the show.

Rating:  Exquisitely crankable!  Rip that knob clear up to 9!


*RETRO REVIEW* MESSIAH PROPHET "Master Of The Metal"

(c) 1986 Pure Metal Records

  1. Hit And Run
  2. Master Of The Metal
  3. For Whom Does The Bell Toll (Ps. 23)
  4. Fear No Evil
  5. Heavy Metal Thunder
  6. The Friend
  7. Battle Cry
  8. Voice That's Calling
Charlie Clark--Lead and Backing Vocals
Andy Strauss--Lead Guitars, Acoustic Guitars, Backing Vocals
Brian Nicarry--Guitars, Lead Vocals (3, 7), Backing Vocals
Joe Shirk--Bass, Backing Vocals
David Thunder--Drums

Additional Musicians
Bill Grabowski--Guitars
Alexander Paul--Guitars

While it had existed as a genre for over a decade, Christian hard rock and metal was going to explode in 1986, due in large part to the massive exposure the genre received from Stryper's massive To Hell With The Devil record.  Suddenly, new bands were popping up, old bands were finally getting recognition and exposure, and new labels were forming to get these bands out to the masses.  Pure Metal Records was one such label, and Messiah Prophet was the first band signed to the label.  Perhaps no band better fit the imagery of a label than Messiah Prophet and their second record (first for Pure Metal), Master Of The Metal.

Previously called Messiah Prophet Band, the five piece act changed three members from their previous album, the solid, but decidedly more hard rock Rock The Flock, dropped the "Band" from their name, turned up the guitars, and created a true Christian (or White) metal masterpiece.  Often wrongly called "Heavy Metal Thunder", most likely due to the popularity of that particular track, Master Of The Metal was a beast of an 80's metal album, complete with dual guitars, a thunderous rhythm section, and a vocalist in Clark who could raise and lower his register seemingly at will.  Interestingly, newcomer Nicarry provides lead vocals on the two ballads of the album, but Clark's wail can be easily recognized in the chorus sections, especially on the massive power ballad, "Battle Cry".

The record starts off in fine fashion with "Hit And Run", a mid-tempo hard rocker that kicks off with rapid fire snare drums and chugging rhythm guitar riffs before an overlay of police sirens enters the mix, adding a sense of urgency...and perhaps a bit of 80's metal cheese...to the track, which finds Clark warning listeners "Don't be a hit and run", referring to finding oneself a victim of Satan without having the protection of Christ's love.  The guitar work here is top notch, and the bass of Shirk is definitely stand-out, as are Thunder's drums.  A great way to kick off an album.

The title track is up next, and again, the mid-tempo track is a near perfect track, with aggressive rhythm guitars, a heavy drum presence, big, gang-shouted chorus sections, and a bass presence that was often overlooked in heavy music of the time.  There is a cool time change following the second verse and chorus section that finds Thunder kicking his way through some interesting drum patterns, before giving way to a flashy lead from Strauss, who also wrote the song.  

Nicarry takes his first lead vocal spot on the next track, "For Whom Does The Bell Toll (Ps. 23)".  Introduced by a haunting church bell, "For Whom..." should not be confused with the Metallica track of the same title, as this song is a ballad interpretation of the 23rd Psalm, featuring strong acoustic guitar work and a big, layered chorus vocal, led by Clark, that pronounces "Yea, though I walk/Through the Valley of Death/I will fear no evil".  There are some scriptural modifications to the verses to make them better fit the song structure, but it is clear the intent of the song is to put the well-known inspirational verse to a musical soundtrack the rock/metal kids of the time could relate to.  The chorus, interestingly (intentionally??) leads perfectly into the next track, "Fear No Evil", which finds Clark's high-end power vocals returning to the lead position as the tempo picks back up and the wailing guitars return.  While "For Whom Does The Bell Toll" is an excellent piece of music, it is on "Fear No Evil", with it's shout-along chorus and screaming guitars, that Messiah Prophet really excels.  And nowhere is that more evident than on the featured track of the record, the "hit" of the record, "Heavy Metal Thunder".

Featured prominently at the center of the CD (or at the beginning of the B side of the vinyl), "Heavy Metal Thunder" is five and a half minutes of 80s classic metal bliss.  A big power chord intros the track before Nicarry's rhythm guitars and Thunder's drums join the fray just ahead of Clark's vocals, which take on a nearly-spoken work approach for the first half of each voice, before he cranks up the power, adds a bit of edge, and then elevates the range as he enters the big, layered chorus of "Heavy metal thunder/Heavy metal noise!"  A bridge of "Who are you going to choose?" repeats itself a couple of times before Strauss goes crazy on a screaming guitar solo that put much of the Christian metal scene on notice that this band was for real.  There is also a repeat of the vocal bridge, this time atop just a big...ahem...thundering drum section from Mr. Thunder, himself...before Clark takes a couple of spins through the chorus, and big, twin guitars lead the charge home.  At this point, the greatness of the record and the band is pretty much firmly established and the rest of the record is pure sonic bliss.  

"The Friend" follows up, again featuring a catchy, chant along chorus and gritty rhythm guitars that keep the mid-tempo metallic train chugging steadily forward as Thunder's drums and Shirk's bass keep hammering away in lock step.  Nicarry returns to the lead vocal slot on "Battle Cry" which is an excellent quasi-power ballad that is again supported by Clark's powerhouse vocals on the chorus section, before the record closes with one of my two favorite tracks on the album, the epic metallic rocker, "Voice That's Calling" that is every bit as musically perfect as "Heavy Metal Thunder", even if its likely not as accessible to casual metal fans.  Strauss is absolutely spot-on with his solo work throughout this seven minute monster.  For me, the brilliance of the track is the closing vocal stretch that finds Clark emphatically wailing, "Jesus, Jesus, I will have no gods before you" repeatedly as Nicarry riffs away and Strauss tears into another closing solo run as Thunder complements the song with some great tom fills.  Just a powerhouse of an ending to an equally powerful track.

The cover artwork is nearly as noteworthy as the music, and it is a great part of the overall package here.  The CD insert (and the cassette insert, as well) features full lyrics, writing and performance credits, acknowledgements, and booking information.  There are no band photos or member thank yous included.

This is a masterpiece of an album in the Christian metal genre, and a great piece of straight forward 80s metal overall.  Edging a bit towards more commercial, more melodic metal at times, the album struggles only with the limitations of he production at the time.  This is an album that SCREAMS for a true remastering, because if the muddiness could be even semi-cleaned up in a couple of areas, fans of the Christian metal sub-genre, and of 80s metal in general, would clamor for the project.  As it stands, this album has been reissued one time in the early 2000s, but it was not remastered.  In a perfect world, I would love to see an anthology collection of this album, the 1984 independent album, Rock The Flock, and the last song Clark recorded as Messiah Prophet (albeit with a totally different band), "Blinded".  

This would be the final true Messiah Prophet album (again, Clark recorded one more song, but with a different band), and the next album to feature the Messiah Prophet name, 1996's Colors, is a completely different animal than this iteration.  Decidedly more commercial hard rock in it's approach, Colors, while not horrible, pales in comparison to Master Of The Metal, and not one member of the band from either Rock The Flock or Master Of The Metal performs on it.  I believe this is an example of the label owning rights to the name and the publishing, so when Clark and Strauss' version of the band ceased to exist, the label (then Refuge Records, who bought out Pure Metal) simply put together a new version of the band in an effort to sell records (that plan failed, by the way.  Colors is pretty much considered garbage by most Christian metal collectors, although I think this is a bit harsh.)

Sadly, Clark lost his battle with Lou Gerhig's Disease (ALS) in very early 2018 at the too young age of 55.

Long out of print, in either the Pure Metal or the limited edition reissue, this CD is still highly sought after and regularly fetches $25-50 prices on eBay.  I have seen copies on Amazon listed for $29.99, but I have a hard time believing these are not bootlegs, as they are listed as "new", which I find hard to believe.  

If you can find one for a decent price, you should snag it, because Messiah Prophet's Master Of The Metal is one of the truly great pieces of Christian metal in the important 80s metal scene.  

Rating:  Historically crankable!  Still cranking at 8.5 more than 30 years later!




  

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

RAZORBATS/SICK THINGS "Split EP"

(c) 2019 Rob Mules Records

  1. The City
  2. Summer Of Head
Paul Erik Vercouteren--Lead Vocals
Kjetil F. Wevling--Guitars
Asle Tangen--Guitars
Martin Hervig--Bass
Torris Ilievski--Drums

The best rock band going in Norway today...at least in my opinion...Razorbats return in 2019 with their half of a soon-to-be-released split EP (Canada's Sick Things will be on the other half) from Rob Mules Records.  This split EP will be the first new material from the band since last year's excellent II record, and the first recorded material with new drummer, Torris Ilievski.  

The lead single as far as the Norwegians go is "The City".  Kicking off with a fat bass line and gritty rhythm guitars, the song is a musical adventure for the protagonist who, after a hard night of drinking, finds himself struggling with a case of "room spinning 'round" hangover-induced paranoia, thinking that "spies everywhere" are out to get him.  As is typical with Razorbats songs, a healthy appreciation for classic rock is spread liberally across the single, while elements of sleaze and punk are drizzled into the mix.  Big, gang vocals back up Vercouteren on the chorus sections, and a cool little solo from Wevling is the perfect fit for this fun, uptempo rocker that picks up right where the band's II album left off last year.  Incidentally, Ilievski is a great fit for the band with his approach to the drums, not merely keeping a steady tempo, but adding some interesting rhythms and fills throughout the track.  Welcome aboard, Torris!

If you want to take a listen, check out "The City" right here!

The B-side, "Summer Of Head" is another catchy rocker, a bit more in the 70s punk vein, and considerably raunchier in its lyrical approach.  Kicking off with a guitar riff that snags your attention, the song is nostalgic in its "looking back at a summer of fun" style, "Summer..." drives hard from start to finish, with Vercouteren sounding exceedingly confident on vocals, and the twin guitars of Wevling and Tangen constantly on the attack.  I appreciate the mix on this record, also, as Hervig's bass is given plenty of attention, enhancing the bottom end of the track, keeping it bouncing along.  The guitar solo is a bit more melodic than one might expect to find in a punky/sleazy track such as this, but Wevling makes it work perfectly.  Definitely "B-side" material...not because of  lack of quality, but because of the subject matter...this song will likely find its way into many rockers' summer backyard party mixes, and deservedly so.  

Irreverent, infectious, and staring right at you with a knowing smile, Razorbats make the most of their half of this split EP, and I hope that this is merely a precursor to more great music coming from the band later this year.  Be sure to stop by the band's site to grab your swag, music, and to keep up with all that is going on in Razorbats' world!     


  1. Stranglehold
  2. You Know It Ain't Right
Cam Turin--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Keith Lewtas--Guitars, Vocals
Patrick Bennett--Bass, Vocals
Matt Gonzalez--Drums, Vocals

Canada's Sick Things are a band that I knew nothing about prior to receiving this EP, although this will not be their first release.  The band had previously released a full digital album through the Bandcamp platform in 2018, which you can find here.  

The lead single from this split EP will be "Stranglehold" (not Nugent's classic track), which will drop in May, along with a video release.  Much like their EP partners, Sick Things plays a 70s inspired hard rock style, but rather than going for the revved-up, punkish approach Razorbats utilizes, Sick Things goes more for a smoother, guitar rock sound, a la Boston, Blue Oyster Cult, or The Who.  Turin has something of an early Joe Elliott quality to his voice, minus a bit of the snarly edge the Leppard singer would employ on their first three albums.  The sound here is thick, with a rich guitar tone, with a lot of bass in the mix, giving the music a bottom-heavy sound.  The backing vocals get a tad bit lost in the mix, as does the early part of the guitar solo on this track, but the overall vibe of the song is a cool one, with handclaps joining the fray following the lead guitar solo, and the final couple of runs through the chorus are really strong.  I'm liking what I hear.

"You Know It Ain't Right!" stays the mid-tempo rock classic rock course, even dropping some cowbell into the mix.  The chorus vocals remind me a lot of early...EARLY...Def Leppard (think On Through The Night, not Hysteria), while the guitars retain that early Boston, B.O.C. sound.  The drums are straight forward and steady, and once again, the bass is a big presence in the mix for Sick Things. I find myself really liking the vocal approach of Turin, as he stays comfortably in mid-tenor range, adding a bit of edge when necessary, but never ranging into a scream or into falsetto territory.  I also really like the guitar work here, with the rhythm guitars hitting particularly hard in their three-chord rock style, and the solo grabs your attention without becoming overly flashy or over-the-top.  Gonzalez is a competent stickman, again not overly flashy or disruptive, and he capably handles the drum approach of the era and style of music this band seems to enjoy.   

If I had any complaint about the music from Sick Things on this EP it would be that it sounds a bit muddy, a tad bit over-modulated, especially on the vocals, which I think is likely due to how much bass is utilized here.  The lead vocals seem like they have the volume pushed up a bit too much, which gives them a fuzzy quality, and the backing vocals get buried a bit from time to time.  I have no production credits in my notes, but I'm wondering if this is a self-produced effort.  Now, take all of this with a grain of salt as I am listening to digital versions of these tracks at present, and it is entirely possible this is not an issue on the actual, physical EP.   

Both bands put their best foot forward here, with Razorbats doing Razorbats things...combining a sassy, sneering attitude with high energy, punk-tinged retro party rock, and Sick Things taking a more straight ahead, NWoBHM meets 70s American classic rock approach.  Production styles differ, as well, with Razorbats sticking to the grittier, more live sound that they have employed so well since their breakout with  Camp Rock, while Sick Things use a smoother and somewhat heavier-handed production approach, giving their songs a thicker sound.  It's an interesting pairing of bands on this split 7-inch EP that will be available on vinyl, and one that I find myself enjoying despite their obvious differences. 

Rating:  With only two songs per band, it's tough to give a comprehensive rating.  As a whole, I'd crank the project to a 7, with the Razorbats material being a bit stronger and more to my liking, but Sick Things have made a fan out of me and I plan to track down that previous album soon.    

Sunday, April 14, 2019

LOVEWAR "Lovewar"

(c) 2019 Roxx Records

  1. Who I Am
  2. Stand Under It
  3. Upside Your Face
  4. Candle
  5. Grain Of Salt
  6. Tuxedo Alligator
  7. One-Trick Pony
  8. House Of Cards
  9. Mercy
  10. Up For A Fight
  11. You
Tim Bushong--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Greg Purlee--Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals
Rick Armstrong--Bass, Backing Vocals

No need to check your calendar, as, yes, it is still 2019.  And, yes, you did read the title to this review correctly.  Lovewar has reformed to release a new album more than 25 years after their one true album, 1993's Soak Your Brain.  To some this has become an annoying trend, but for me, the resurgence of old bands who are releasing new material years...sometimes decades...after their last record is an amazing thing!  It not only gives me new music to feast my ears upon, but it also drives me to revisit some of those bands and albums of my youth that have been collecting dust on a shelf.

Things kick off with Purlee's drums before a chunky, down-tuned guitar riff roars from Bushong's guitar on this mid-tempo rocker, only to back off into a quieter, funkier riff during the verse sections.  Here, we get our first listen to Bushong's vocals in more than 25 years...and it was worth the wait!  As a 23 year old, "faster and louder is better" metalhead, I couldn't fully appreciate Bushong's approach, but now, I get what he is doing and definitely like his style and approach.  The edgy guitar crunch returns on the chorus sections which feature some excellent layered harmony vocals from Purlee and Armstrong, whose bass is not only heard but felt throughout this track, mixed perfectly so as to be given a voice without becoming overbearing.  We also get to hear the first solo run from Bushong on guitar, and it is apparent the amount of talent this band has when it is all put together into one musical pot.  Good stuff to open with. 

The tempo picks up...and the music lightens up a bit...on the next track, "Stand Under It".  I'd definitely say this is one of the two or three best songs on an album with no real filler material.  Again, those vocal harmonies are a joy to hear, and the tight rhythm section of Armstrong and Purlee really gives Bushong a solid footing on which he can not only run vocally, but also with a guitar solo that has that 60s Hendrix tone to it.

"Upside Your Face" is another hard rocker with a funky attitude, and it is here that the first comparison to 80s/early 90s King's X is likely to be drawn, although there are nods to Extreme here, as well, though there is nothing even remotely close to a rip-off on this record.  Armstrong is given a chance to really let his bass work here and he does not pass up on the opportunity, nor does Bushong on his solo section.  Purlee, likewise, makes his presence known, with plenty of tasty fill work, especially during the guitar solo, where the cymbals spring forth almost like they are part of that solo.  Another song that falls into that top three or four songs category for me.  

The album's lead single is the funky rocker, "Candle", which features a quirky, jangly guitar riff running the course of the track, along with interspersed harder-edged guitar riffs, giving the song a unique sound that is definitely not something that is part of the current musical landscape.  (And we are all being robbed of so much great music because of this...)  Bushong's vocals are a bit deeper than they were a couple of decades ago, a bit more weathered, but he still sounds strong, like a cross between Gary Cherone and Dug Pinnick.  Armstrong's bass is given plenty of room to rumble on this track, and Purlee's drum patterns are every bit the match for the varying guitar approaches utilized here.  Check the video below to get a feel for what you are going to experience here.



There is a definite musical continuity running between this album and Soak Your Brain, which is largely the result of the fact that these songs were reportedly written as the follow-up album way back when.  That being said, I think the lyrics have been updated to fit a more current time.  As an example, the song "Grain Of Salt"features these great lyrics...

                 "So much tolerance/Can't seem to tolerate...
                   So much violence/Makes me wanna hate.
                   Too many genders/Clutter up the view...
                   Too many lawsuits/Make me wanna sue!"

While nothing here likely jumps out at the casual listener as being out of time, when you consider these songs were written 20+ years ago, the "more than two genders" thing wasn't an issue in the 1990s or even early 2000s.  Regardless, when you hear the band's layered harmony vocals on this, and several other tracks, as well as their musicianship, it becomes very easy to understand why the trio is frequently compared to King's X.  And while that is understandable, it is also unfortunate, for King's X clones, Lovewar is not.  Personally, I far prefer Bushong's vocals, and I think Armstrong's bass, which is featured prominently throughout this record, is a bigger overall instrument than it is on several King's X records.  But again, this isn't about comparing bands and saying "this band is better than that band".  No, this is about a group of guys that came together, seemingly out of nowhere, to reform a band and say, "yeah, let's do this one more time".

"Tuxedo Alligator" is a picture of a wry smile painted with musical brushes, with liberal doses of blues, funk, and rock all smattered across the canvas.  The riffs are chunky and gritty in places, daring Bushong to unleash his guitar, but the funky bass line and generally laid back, lounge-esque drum patterns reign things in, creating a musical tension that is pure ear candy.

"One-Trick Pony" starts off with an acoustic guitar section that eventually morphs into a Zeppelin-styled riff that is soon swept over by the band's layered, Extreme-styled chorus, which actually precedes the first verse.  This song is dang-near hypnotic, and I found myself returning to it over and over, drawn in not only by the instrumentation, but also Bushong's angrier approach to his vocals, particularly on the bridge section where he screams...

                "The world is dying/And we are crying, and shaking and bawling and roaring and 
                 barking to the dogs!" 

...or something close to that; there are no lyrics included with my preview copy, and his angry snarl is a bit hard to make out in this section.  The longest song on the album, there's a lot to take in here, and all of it is good.  Probably my favorite track on this album.

"House Of Cards" takes on a groove-heavy Enuff  Z'Nuff quality musically, with tight harmony vocals and an infectious melody that sets it apart from some of the other tracks here.  The guitar solo is exceptional, with Bushong using two different styled effects on specific parts of the solo break, alternating between a smoother, 60s-rock sound and a slightly edgier, grittier sound. 

"Up For a Fight" starts off with heavy, dark tones, before moving into more friendly-sounding territory.  Again, highly catchy, especially on the main guitar riff that carves its way through the track, and the layering of the vocals add a depth that is just absolute perfection to these ears.  This anti-politics song...at least the current state of politics...is really, really well done, and would have been the perfect close to a really solid return.  But Lovewar isn't quite done yet.

"You" is another Zeppelin-meets-King's X track, especially in the guitar riffs that open the track, while the Extreme qualities of the song jump out at you in the pitch-perfect harmony vocals, the added percussion instrumentation, and the thick vibe that runs throughout.  All three men are equal parts of the whole here, and if "One Trick Pony" isn't the best of the batch, "You" probably is.  "You" has an extended instrumental section to exit the song, but does so without feeling like it breaks down into a jam band session, and when the final guitar note rings out, you find yourself waiting for the next track to kick in because you simple don't want the record to be done!

The production is very good here, which is essential when you are dealing with a band that has as much musical talent, quality, and depth as a band like Lovewar.  Top notch songwriting, excellent musical performances, and gorgeous vocal work...from lead vocals to those exquisite harmony vocals...all lead to an amazing return for Lovewar. 

Now...if we can only convince them to not wait 25 or so years before the next album comes out...

Rating:  A strong return for the band, crank this to 8.

Friday, April 5, 2019

PAVLOV'S DOG "Prodigal Dreamer"



(c) 2018 Rockville Music

  1. Paris
  2. Hard Times
  3. Winterblue
  4. Thrill Of It All
  5. Easter Day
  6. Hurting Kind
  7. Aria
  8. Waterlow
  9. Suzanne
  10. Crying Forever
  11. Being In Love
  12. Shaking Me Down
  13. The Winds Wild Early
David Surkamp--Vocals, Acoustic and Electric Guitars
Sara Surkamp--Vocals (5, 7, 10), Acoustic Guitars
Abbie Steiling--Violin
Rick Steiling--Bass
Mark Maher--Piano, Hammond B-3, Synthesizer
David Malachowski--Electric Guitar
Manfred Ploetz--Drums

Additional Musicians
Saylor Surkamp--Backing Vocals
Hollie Woods--Backing Vocals
Robert Marstiller--Percussion, Backing Vocals
Paul Hennerich--Trumpet

Every now and again, an album comes to me that makes me stop and go...."ummmm....huh.  Okay then...".  Pavlov's Dog is a band that does exactly that with the release of Prodigal Dreamer, their first album in 8 years, and only the eighth record in the band's 47 year history.  You read that right...47 year history!  Other than the background information I had in the press sheet and the little I pulled from some research, I honestly know exactly ZERO about this band, so I was starting in that same place...ground zero...when I put the album on to play.

First off, Prodigal Dreamer is the type of album that really should be played on vinyl; there is no question about that.  In fact, this is the type of music that used to be on the turntable when I would walk by this old hippie's house on my way home from campus when I was in college.  (Oddly, this was in the late 80s/early 90s, and he wasn't old enough to be a true hippie, but I think he had partaken of a bit too much of the 60's generation's "mood alterers", if you catch my drift, man...)  His was a steady...and LOUD...diet of Grateful Dead, Phish, and a bunch of 60's and 70's folk/progressive rock, and on the harder end of the spectrum, Pink Floyd, Kansas, and Rush.  And it was always on vinyl, long before vinyl became cool again.  Everything about the sound and style here says that this would go even better with the hiss and pop of vinyl, but my digital files will have to do.

The second thing about Prodigal Dreamer that you should know is the album was recorded in a rather unique fashion, using what is known as "room-miking", with the entire band all performing together live and at the same time, rather than in parts or in separate sound booths.  That fact blew my mind, as the complexity of some of these songs would seem to require multiple takes and retakes to get down correctly.  But for all seven members, plus the guest musicians, to get together and jam together and pull it off is absolutely mind-blowing to me.  That takes some talent, regardless of the style of music being played.

As to that style, well, it is definitely not the style of music I would normally listen to.  Progressive folk rock is probably how I would describe it, but I am not sure if that is altogether accurate.  Band founder/lead singer/composer/arranger/guitar player David Surkamp sounds to me like what I would imagine a child of Bob Dylan and Geddy Lee might sound like.  While not quite as rangy as Lee, and not quite as nasal or whiny as Dylan can be, Surkamp finds a slot somewhere in between and pretty much stays the course there.  There is an emotional quality to his vocals that is definitely unique, and the slight warbling vibrato he employs in places adds a uniqueness to his sound. 

The music here is pretty much all acoustic, although there are interspersed electric guitar sections, some of which are pretty good, honestly.  The extended solo on "Thrill Of It All" is quite tasty in a psychedelic 60s rock kind of way, and it really sets itself apart from the rest of the reggae-ish, bass-driven approach that drives the majority of the track.  Some plaintive Hammond B-3 organ also drops in from time to time, but for the most part, this is pretty much an unplugged record for most of the performers here.  

Lyrically, Surkamp seems to stick to songs about lost love, unrequited love, pain, and painful memories, which suits the musical style well.  "Easter Day", for example, starts off with "It was rainin' out in Georgia, when I found where the rainbows end.  So I poured myself some bourbon, and I drunk myself to sleep."  Surkamp's wife, Sara, takes a turn on lead vocals for this song, which uses liberal doses of violin, piano, and sparse drums, and her voice is stark, dry, and wracked with pain...and about an octave lower than that her husband uses.  

In speaking of the violin, Abbie Steiling's work is all over this record, and she is truly talented, there is no question.  The same can be said for the Hammond B-3 work of Mark Maher, which is strongly featured in a couple of tracks, with "Shaking Me Down" being a song in which the instrument is the predominant feature for the most part.  There is also another interesting guitar solo in this track, but if I'm honest, I'm not all that sure the guitar solo fits the rest of the song, at least not all of it.

I was really shocked at the lack of rock here, to be quite honest, and to declare this to be anything more than mood music would be disingenuous on my part.  The problem is, I'm not entirely sure what mood I'd have to be in to listen to this with any kind of regularity.  There's just nothing here that is overly interesting or memorable to me.  Again, I don't question the talent, and I don't doubt the earnestness with which it is performed, but there is really nothing to grab onto here...at least for me.  After spinning through the album half a dozen times, I can't tell you with any confidence the names of any of the songs, the choruses, or even the idea behind a single track.  If I'm being completely candid here, I had to actually listen to the album the entire time I was writing this review just so I had some recollection of where the guitars drop in or where the Hammond has a voice.  In fact, the only thing I can say with 100% confidence is that Abbie Steiling is a fantastic violin player, that David Surkamp has a unique voice that I would assume some find absolutely perfect...and others find terrifically annoying...and that Pavlov's Dog is simply not for me, at least on this record.  I have read that older records had a lot more rock to them than this one does, so perhaps those would be a better place to look for fans of this art rock/folk rock/progressive genre.

Rating:  Turn this down to a 4.5 folks.  It just doesn't rock at all.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

PAISTY JENNY "18 Days In Weed"

(c) 2019 Direct Hit Records

  1. 18 Days In Weed
  2. Criminal
  3. High
  4. Let It Go
  5. Hollywood
  6. Run To Me
  7. Ashes
  8. Run To Me (Acoustic)
Gregg Lee--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Stan Liberty--Lead Guitars, Vocals
Gabe Matthews--Bass, Vocals
Tye Lovette--Drums, Vocals


Lincoln, NE rockers, Paisty Jenny, have finally released a new album, their first since 2011's Head In A HazeThe new record, 18 Days In Weed, was recorded with multi-platinum producer, Sylvia Massy (Sevendust, Tool, System of a Down) and Michael Beck (Jake E. Lee's Red Dragon Cartel), and features a bigger, richer, heavier sound than these hard rockers have ever managed to capture on an album, coming across much closer to their live sound than they have in the past.  I say this with great confidence, as I have seen the band perform multiple times, including at SkullFest a few years back.  Combining a love for 80s arena rock with modern crunch and edge, the band finds its way into that category occupied by bands such as Hinder, Theory Of A Deadman, and even Velvet Revolver to a degree.  

The new effort kicks off with the "title track", if you want to call it that.  Basically, "18 Days In Weed" is a drum cadence from Lovette (along with some big drum kicks) with some guitar riffing running below with what sounds like some sampled emergency phone call audio laid over the top.  All of this essentially serves as the lead-in for the first real song on the album, "Criminal".  For fans of the band, yes, this is the same song that was released as a single back in 2013.  However, prior to this album, the song was never available on CD that I am aware of, so it is nice to have it included here.  For those who are not aware of the band, "Criminal" was up for Grammy consideration in multiple categories in 2014, which is pretty amazing for a regional band like Paisty Jenny.  However, if you have heard the track before, you will still need to hear the new version, as it is far heavier and punchier than the original.  Crunchy guitars blast the song to life, joined by big arena-styled drums and a strong bass presence from Matthews.  Lead vocalist, Gregg Lee brings his sassy snarl to the vocals on this song that pretty successfully straddles the 80s arena rock and modern rock styles.  Liberty lays into a nice, melodic solo, and the entire band contributes to the track with layered backing vocals on the catchy-as-heck, sing-along chorus.  Yep, you've heard it before...but never like this, and "Criminal" officially gets things rolling in a big way for this band and this record.

"High" comes out swinging, as well, with more hard-hitting guitars and punchy drums.  Lee's vocals on the verses are performed through a megaphone (check the video below), but the chorus is much cleaner and has a far more melodic feel to it than the verse sections do, feeling akin to the trippy melodic rock of a band like Enuff Z'Nuff.  Again, there's a really good guitar solo embedded in this track, along with a nice vocal bridge that showcases Lee's melodic singing ability, as opposed to the snarlier, edgier vocals he utilizes on much of the band's material.  I would have to say that this is my second favorite of the new tracks here, and I really like the way the band experiments with a variety of styles and sounds here, showing a willingness to expand upon the tried and true PJ sound.


"Let It Go" is another excellent track here that longtime fans of the band may have heard in the live setting.  Introduced by a short, hip-hop sounding lead-in from Matthews on vocals, the song quickly kicks into full-on rocking mode, once again featuring a nice juxtaposition of melodic chorus sections set apart from edgier verse portions.  Again, Lee sounds strong and comfortable with both styles of vocals here, and contributes some crunchy rhythm guitar lines, as well.  I have to continually give props to Liberty for his work on the lead guitars here, as each song on 18 Days... features a strong solo, whether its a melodic string bender such as on the one found here, or a more metallic-sounding solo such as the one found on the next track, "Hollywood".  Truly strong work from a guy that honestly bolsters each of these songs with an extra shot of musical adrenaline.

"Run To Me" sounds very much like a track that Warrant would have delivered in the 80s, with Lee delivering a particularly impassioned vocal performance here.  As much as I think "High" is a great new song, "Run To Me" is just that much better to my ears.  This is possibly the best written song I have heard from the band, and the "Don't be afraid to try your wings..." bridge is an excellent lead in to another big guitar solo from Liberty.  The beauty of a track like this is that while 30 years ago, this song would have hit the radio, it also proves the relevancy of great songwriting.  A great song is a great song, and even today, "Run To Me" stands as the strongest entry on an overall strong album from an eastern Nebraska band that you really need to seek out.

"Ashes" is another older song finding its way onto a CD for the first time, and it brings the album proper to a close.  Much like "Criminal", the band neatly and deftly manages to live in both the 80s arena rock and current modern rock world, thanks in large part to a big, arena-styled drum sound, strong rhythm and lead guitars, and Lee's vocals, coupled with a bigger than the 80s bass presence and better production than was often the norm in the 80s.  Lee adds a screech to his vocals for good effect in a couple of places here, and I would imagine that this song is one that brings the fans to life in a live setting.

"Run To Me" is given an acoustic rendering to end the album, and while it is definitely a song that lends itself to this style, I feel like it was an unnecessary addition, as the original is particularly strong.  I will say that hearing the acoustic guitar work here is a treat, as it is very clean, with both a rhythm line and a melodic line running simultaneously in places.  I'm assuming both Liberty and Lee played their respective guitar parts here, but I am not 100% certain.  Far shorter than the original version, the vocal bridge is dropped, as is the final set of runs through the chorus, this version doesn't quite reach the three minute mark, while the original tops out at slightly more than four minutes.  

The packaging here is pretty good, especially for a completely self-produced effort (Direct Hit Records is the band's own label).  The digipack is a double fold with multiple color photos, a thank you section, and basic recording info.  There are no lyrics here, but nothing the band sings is hard to make out, regardless.

The album dropped on March 30, and I believe it will be available shortly on the band's website.  For now, the digital versions of singles "Let It Go" and "High" can be found on the band's CDBaby page, as can older versions of "Criminal" and "Ashes", and their previous album efforts.  

Overall, I have to say that 18 Days In Weed is a very fun listen and a solid representation of the band's energy and sound from the live setting.  When I mentioned this to Lee the other day, he told me, "Amazing what happens when you hook-up with a couple of world class producers!"  I am inclined to agree with him, for as solid as Head In A Haze was, 18 Days In Weed is leaps and bounds better.  Hopefully the band will be in your neck of the woods at some point so you can snag a CD and catch their live performance so you can leave the show "PAISTED!"  

Rating:  A definite cranker here!  I have no issues giving this a 7.5!  I just wish it had been a song or two longer, with at least one more new track.

Friday, March 15, 2019

LA GUNS "The Devil You Know"

(c) 2019 Frontiers Records

  1. Rage
  2. Stay Away
  3. Loaded Bomb
  4. The Devil You Know
  5. Needle To The Bone
  6. Going High
  7. Gone Honey
  8. Don't Need To Win
  9. Down That Hole
  10. Another Season In Hell
  11. Boom!
  12. Killing Machine (Live) (Japanese Bonus Track)
Phil Lewis--Lead Vocals
Tracii Guns--Lead Guitars
Ace Von Johnson--Rhythm Guitars
Johnny Martin--Bass
Shane Fitzgibbon--Drums

It's always funny to me how a band can go years...sometimes even decades...between album releases, and then turn around and start churning out album after album.  LA Guns is one of these bands, having sustained gaps of 7 years between Tales From The Strip and Hollywood Forever, and then 5 more years between Hollywood Forever and The Missing Peace, but now we are on the second studio record (third total counting Made In Milan) from the reunited Phil Lewis/Tracii Guns duo in less than a year and a half!  But hey, I'm not here to complain, especially when the results are as amazing as The Devil You Know, because this album takes all the furious energy of The Missing Peace and simply adds to it, coming across loud, aggressive, sleazy, angry, snarky, and wagging a middle finger at anyone who though the band was dead and gone. 

The first two tracks here have both been released on YouTube as singles.  "Rage" is a high-speed, punk-infused blast of adrenaline into'd by Fitzsimmons' sticks and a "1, 2, 3, 4!" that bursts right into a nasty guitar riff and a yowling vocal style that can only come from Phil Lewis!  Martin's bass throbs all the way through the track, and that beefed up bass presence is just improvements to the overall sound of this record from the more raw, almost garage-sounding style of The Missing Peace.  Tracii cuts loose on a rambunctious solo before the last couple of spins through the chorus, with Von Johnson's aggressive rhythm work charging hard from start to finish.  "Rage" sets a pace that would seem almost impossible to keep up for an entire album!



As if on cue, "Stay Away" backs off the speed just a tad, but don't mistake that for saying it backs off the aggression, as that is simply not the case.  I love the riff on this track, and Fitzsimmons has some serious issues with his cymbals, as he beats the living crap out of them, adding to the aggressive tone of the track's overall sound.  Phil Lewis strings together some of his best lyrics in years, with the line "I got a taste of success/The taste of blood in your mouth/Like getting punched in the face/And your teeth knocked out!" just grabbing my attention from the very first time I heard it.  Bitter much, Phil?!  Whatever has him angry, it has his full lyrical attention, which is a great thing for fans of the snark and sneer that was always present, along with an ever-present chip on his shoulder, when Phil was at his best!  



"Loaded Bomb" starts off with a snare drum intro and some Zeppish guitar work before it morphs into another high-energy rocker with some sick slide guitar from Guns and absolutely spot-on vocals from Lewis.  An absolutely filthy sleazefest, "Loaded Bomb" also features some excellent rhythm work from Von Johnson and frantic footwork from Fitzgibbon, and continues to find Lewis in a rather pissed off mood, lyrically.  "Loaded Bomb" sounds like it crawled straight out of an 80s-era Sunset Strip sewer then dragged itself to the modern version of the band and just slathered itself all over the band members.  At times fast and furious, at times a bit funky, and at all times sleazy, its on tracks like this, where the band stretches themselves a bit to incorporate different influences, that I think LA Guns has always sounded their best, regardless of the incarnation. I love this track.

The title track took me a few spins to really get behind it, but that is likely because there is a lot to take in on this track.  For starters, this is a pretty doomy sounding song, which is not something that one will often hear about LA Guns (in fact, I don't think I've ever said something like that...).  It seems Phil is trying his best to craft some sort of dark, horror rock track lyrically, with a chorus of "My mama done told me you're the devil/And the devil been suckin' on my soul..." or "Gotta stench that stinks like sulfur/And blood flows through your pores/Not band when you're numb to the horror/Gonna meet me...when I'm dead and cold!"  There are guitars all over this track, coming at you in waves, whether in the chug-chugga-chug tempo of the bridge, or the wailing Guns solo that screams to life right after, there is, as I stated before, just so much going on in this song.  The drum presence is big here, especially in that bridge section I mentioned, and the bass can be felt throughout.  Different, and not my favorite track, but one that continues to grow on me more and more.    

Back to back killer tracks here are "Gone Honey" and "Don't Need To Win".  "Gone Honey" captures that laid back groove that the band had down to such a science on Cocked & Loaded, a sleazy self-confidence with a smooth and sly, cocksure quality spreading across Lewis' vocals as he dismisses a scorned lover.  "Don't Need To Win" picks the pace up just a bit and Lewis' vocals regain their edge and bite with the whole band sounding like they've spent a good deal of time with the debut album, reliving that gritty, sleazy style of rock n roll that the band produced seemingly effortlessly back in the day.  "I don't need to win the game/But I'm gonna be in it" is such a great line that fits the feel and attitude of a band that has absolutely zero to prove but is still out there taking big league swings at the fence nonetheless!

"Down That Hole" is a song that will divide the fans a bit, I have a feeling.  The Zeppelin vibe on this track is absolutely inescapable, from the retro feel of the drum sound used by Fitzsimmons to the liberal use of slide guitars.  The solo from Guns is one of the best on the record and a big, catchy hook just grabs hold of the listener as Lewis glides (as much as Phil's vocals will glide) across the track.  This, and the title track, are likely to be the most challenging songs for long-time fans of the band who think every song should be "Sex Action" or "Rip And Tear".  But for fans of some of the bands' more adventurous musical endeavors, these two songs are going to be big time winners.

"Another Season In Hell" is as close to a ballad as the album comes, but this ain't no "Ballad Of Jayne".  Lyrically dark and musically intense, "epic" is probably the best single-word description for this track which stretches to nearly six and a half minutes.  Tracii's guitars carry a tone that matches the angst and pain in Lewis' vocals perfectly, especially on the melancholy solo section that is drenched in soul and carries as much emotional weight as anything he has laid into a song in years.  Dang close to musical perfection to these ears.  

The album closes with "Boom" is punkabilly at its best and a fun way to close the album proper.  Big, gang-shouts bolster the chorus, and Tracii rips through one last scorcher of a solo before the band exits the album on a high note that is likely to leave fans wondering how long they will have to wait before the band treats its fans to another slab of rock done right!

If you happen to snag the Japanese pressing of this record, a live version of "Killing Machine" is the final track on the album.  Sounding like a soundboard recording, this isn't the same version that was released on Made In Milan, and it finds the band in fine form.  A couple of minor vocal squawks from Lewis let you know this is, indeed, a live recording that, at least vocally, is likely free of too much touching up,  That being said, Tracii's solo is so note-perfect, I wouldn't be overly surprised to find it had been overdubbed, but it's really not a big deal because this song has nothing to do with The Devil You Know or how great that record is.

One thing of note that I feel needs to be added is that the sound quality of the videos that have been released is NOT of the same quality on the CD, at least to my ears.  I have had issues with some of Frontiers Records' releases as far as production goes, but I don't detect any significant flaws on The Devil You Know.  There are a couple of places where Phil's voice gets a bit raw, but these areas are small and don't run the course of entire songs or anything, and take nothing away from the quality of the songs.  If anything, these minor flaws only show that the production here is not so heavy-handed that everything has been sanded down and polished up to a glossy veneer that would run counter to the style of a band like LA Guns.  Of course, production is an opinion thing, but I like the way this album is mixed and put together, and I think the flow is excellent, with peaks and valleys in tempo keeping the listener on their toes, despite the lack of a pure ballad.  No real complaints from me in the production department.

Overall, I have to say that I think The Devil You Know is a step up from the really, really good The Missing Peace, and I have mentioned to people before that, as of this writing, this may be my favorite LA Guns record...ever.  As amazing as those first two records are, I truly feel The Devil You Know deserves mention with them both as far as the best the band has done.  Maybe it's the newness of The Devil..., and maybe it's because I have played those first two albums TO DEATH, but there is something about this new record that just grabs me and holds on for dear life while simultaneously trying to shake me to death!  Had this album come out in 1990, after Cocked & Loaded would it have been a hit?  Not likely, as I think it would have scared the crap out of most people to hear the band sounding this angry and this hungry.  Perhaps that is why it is so powerful to me now, because somehow, after all these years, and while dragging all that baggage, LA Guns sounds as powerful and as hungry as they ever have.  And that's saying something...

Rating:  One crankable beast, The Devil You Know is a definite 8.5 for me!