Tuesday, July 30, 2019

FICTION SYXX "The Alternate Me"

(c) 2019 Melodic Rock Records

  1. My Darkest Hour
  2. Monster In The Mist
  3. Angel Of Mine
  4. The Alternate Me
  5. Wind Reminds Me
  6. Carry The Light
  7. Foolish Pride
  8. Better Part Of Me
  9. Tall Dark Secrets
  10. Suite Madam Blue
  11. Tragic Magic
  12. The Wizard
Mark Allen Lanoue--Lead Vocals, Lead Guitars (2, 5, 6, 8, 9), Acoustic Guitars (10, 12) 
JK Northrup--Lead Guitars (1, 3, 4, 7, 10), Slide Guitars, Backing Vocals, Production
Eric Ragno--Keyboards
Larry Hart--Bass
Rory Faciane--Drums

Fiction Syxx returns with The Alternate Me, the follow-up to Tall Dark Secrets, one of 2017's biggest records here at Glitter2Gutter.  Retaining 4/5 of the line-up from that amazing first record, with only bassist Larry Hart (King Kobra/Montrose) being new to the group, the band explodes out of the speakers sounding every bit as energized and electric as they did on that debut effort.  Whether speaking of the powerhouse vocals of Mark Allen Lanoue, or the guitar wizardry of Northrup (Lanoue is no slouch in this department, either, for that matter), there is a musical magic in Fiction Syxx that is simply not found in so many of the melodic rock/metal bands that find their way across my desk and into my CD player on a regular basis.  Perhaps it is the addition of the uber-talented Ragno on keyboards, or the extreme lock-step tightness of the rhythm section of Hart and Faciane, or perhaps it is just the way each of these guys hit on all cylinders together that makes them so special.  Regardless of the recipe, the resulting record is one that has to be heard in 2019!

Blending an obvious love for 70's prog rock and hard rock with modern AOR and melodic rock, Fiction Syxx is an animal unto themselves as far as I can tell.  There really isn't anyone doing what these guys do, at least that I have come across.  From the moment the opening guitar lines of "My Darkest Hour" come sweeping in, it is clear the band is determined to up their game from their great debut.  Lanoue's vocals are even more powerful than they were on the debut, and it is difficult to overstate the greatness of Northrup's fret work.  Fingers are definitely flying on this track, as well as the follow-up, "Monster In The Mist", which combines a great retro vocal style, especially on the backing section, with a more modern melodic rock approach to the guitars.  I especially like Hart's bass work here, as it is given room to be heard in several places on the song.

"Angel Of Mine" leaves the classic rock sound behind for the time being, and steps firmly into the melodic rock arena to great success.  Perhaps not as complex as some of the other tracks here, "Angel Of Mine" has a melodic charm, nonetheless, that is driven by Lanoue's emotive voice.  Ragno's keyboards are expertly utilized in a supporting role here, while the guitars from Lanoue are powerful but not overly dominant.  If any instrument is given special treatment here, it is likely Faciane's drums, with some fancy footwork being required to pull off some of the rhythms he flashes, particularly near the end of the song.  Good, good stuff.

The 70's prog approach returns on the big, bombastic title track, which boasts hints of Kansas, Styx, and Uriah Heep, especially when Ragno interjects his keys into the big solo run that follows the second chorus. Northrup rips off another scorching, extended lead run here, mixing things up with Ragno's keys, and it all works to great effect, as does the catchy, sing along chorus.  Definitely a contender for my favorite track here.  Love this.

"Wind Reminds Me" backs off from the note density of much of the first half of the album, reminding me a bit of Styx's classic "Come Sail Away" in its approach and tempo.  A smooth rocker with plenty of room for Lanoue's vocals to expand, it's Hart's bass that seems to really stand up and grab my attention whenever I give this song a listen.  I'm not sure why, but the older I get, the more I notice the bass work in songs, and Hart definitely delivers on this album.  The guitar work is much more laid back here than on pretty much any other track on the record, although there is still some fairly furious riffing from Lanoue near the end of the solo section before the guitars give way to the percussion work of Faciane.

"Better Part Of Me" deserves some love and attention, as once again Hart's bass work is exceptionally strong, and Faciane's percussion is really given the chance to shine during the verse sections where the majority of the musical work is carried by an understated rhythm guitar and Ragno's keyboards.  I love the fact that this is treated as a band, and not just a project, and that every member gets the chance to contribute and be heard.  This is another place where I think Fiction Syxx outclasses so many of their contemporaries.

"Tall, Dark Secrets" is another contender for song of the album (and it likely wins), as it has such an epic feel to it.  What should have been the title track to the debut album of the same name, "Tall, Dark Secrets" is melodic rock bliss, combining Zeppelin-esque riffing with big, string bending solo work, and an eerie keyboard presence throughout the track.  Lanoue is just spectacular here, his tenor soaring to powerful heights without giving in to the temptation to become over-wrought or self-important.  He never feels like he is saying, "Hey!  Check out these pipes!"  Rather, the sweep of his vocals always blends perfectly with the overall scope of the song he is working in, and "Tall, Dark Secrets" is, for me, the pinnacle of that work here (although is take on a Styx classic will give this song a run for its money...but more on that in a bit).

One other original song that I feel has to be pointed to specifically is "Tragic Magic", which perfectly spans the two cover songs the band chose to include here.  When both covers are taken from the works of 1970's prog legends such as Styx and Uriah Heep, linking them together could be a monumental task if a band wants to keep their album from sounding disjointed.  Enter "Tragic Magic".  An uptempo rocker with a solid dose of 70's fuzz added to the rhythm guitars, "Tragic Magic" is the puzzle piece that fills in the middle section of the really strong second half of The Alternate Me.  Punchy bass?  Check.  Rollicking guitar leads?  Yep.  Some cool slide guitar?  Got that, t00.  Big, sweeping lead vocals?  Covered.  A big, proggy keyboard run?  Definitely here!  Rapid fire drums?  "Tragic Magic" has all of these things, all wrapped up in a song that not only sounds, but also feels like it comes from the same time period as the two songs it bridges together.

As mentioned, the band tackles a couple of classic cover tunes here, and both really shine.  Fiction Syxx's treatment of "Suite Madam Blue" by Styx is excellent, with Lanoue really holding his own on the vocals here, and I dare say I prefer his vocal take to that of Dennis DeYoung (pardon the sacrilege Styx fans).  Likewise, Northrup's massive solo here is an absolute stunner, as are the keys from Ragno, who is absolutely in his element on a classic rock track such as this.  Even Hart's handling of the bass lines here is given plenty of voice in the track (the mix here is spot-on perfection, in my opinion), and Faciane's drums are solid and serve to support all of the greatness heaped upon them.  Despite the fact that this is a cover, it is easily one of my top three songs on the album, which is generally NOT the case with cover songs.  I would think that if the members of Styx were to hear this track, they would have to smile and nod at the brilliant handling of this epic classic.

The other cover here is Uriah Heep's "The Wizard", which is again handled marvelously.  The acoustic guitar intro is perfect, and the leads here are excellent, as well.  In fact, once again, the cover here is practically flawless, with the production again giving it a truly retro feel, but with a crispness and clarity not generally found in 1972.  While not the biggest song on Heep's Demons And Wizards album (that would be "Easy Livin'"), this song fits the scope and feel of The Alternate Me perfectly and is a great conclusion to a truly great album.

I don't own a physical copy of this album, so I cannot speak to the booklet information, but I can say the cover art is pretty cool, and generally, Melodic Rock Records does a really good job with their packaging, so I have a hard time thinking their handling of this record would be anything but top line.

Everything that was great about Fiction Syxx's debut is even better on this record...bigger, faster guitars, more powerful rhythm section work, a more pronounced bass presence, and even bigger backing vocals...to go along with excellent songwriting and production.  Elements of Styx, Asia, Kansas, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and even bits of Led Zeppelin are scattered across a sonic landscape that also blends modern melodic rock into a style and sound that I still find myself marveling at after literally dozens of listens.  I truly hope that Fiction Syxx continues on, and hope that somewhere down the line we will get the chance to see the band in a live setting.  I think that would be something to behold!

Rating:  As great as Tall Dark Secrets was, The Alternate Me cranks just a bit harder!  A definite 9 for me!

Monday, July 29, 2019

Concert Review-- DISCIPLE (Destiny Foursquare Church, Rapid City, SD, /24/19)



Normally, I don't drive hundreds of miles to see a concert, especially when there is only one band playing.  But, this Disciple show in Rapid City, SD was the impetus behind a family vacation (yes, we also saw Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, the Cosmos, Custer State Park, etc., etc.), as not only do I love this band, but both of my sons are Disciple...err...disciples(?), as well.

As I stated before, there was no opening band for this show, which found the band on a long stretch across the United States, heading west to California before trekking south to Texas.  Not having an opening act is a bit of a risk for any band, because of a couple of things.  First, you minimize the draw of the show, because sometimes people will come to see the opening acts...maybe they know the band or are already fans of those early bands...and then they stay for the headliner's show, as well.  Without an opener, that draw is gone.  Secondly, with no opener, the success or failure of the show is placed squarely on that one band, and if things go badly, people can potentially leave with a bad taste in their mouth toward that band.  Fortunately, Disciple has established themselves as one of the main forces in the Christian hard rock world (behind only Skillet and perhaps Thousand Foot Krutch and Red, at least to listeners outside the Christian sphere), so the draw was a decent one, especially considering the show was on a Wednesday.  At one point I had done a headcount and tallied 89 people in attendance, but I am pretty sure that number exceeded 100 by the time the show started.  And, as far as having a bad show?  I had attended three previous Disciple shows over the past 5 years, and every single one was solid.  This show made it four-for-four, as the band was in top form both in sound and performance.

The band kicked off their show at about 7:15, with long-time members Joey West (drums) and Josiah Prince (guitar) taking the stage first, followed by Andrew Stanton (guitar), and finally the exuberant frontman, Disciple's founder and sole-original member, Kevin Young.  I am not sure if there is an off-stage bass player, or if the bass lines are pre-recorded/triggered by the sound man, but I can say with 100% certainty that the vocals were live, as were the guitars and drums.  This has become a big issue of late, with so many bands being accused (and accusing each other) of lip-syncing and using pre-recorded tracks.  Yes, there were some effects tracks used here, such as the cello introduction to "Dear X", but I never felt that I was being robbed of a live performance, as it is simply not feasible for most bands to travel with multiple non-member performers, and the use of these effects in no way negatively affected the show for me.

Once the show kicked off, the majority of the crowd immediately went to the front of the stage area, with my wife and sons joining me at the very front of the crowd, right in front of Stanton, about ten feet left-of-center stage.  It was straight into the music for the band, with the band launching into consecutive full-throttle rockers, "Rise Up" from 2005's self-titled album followed by "The Name" from 2014's Attack, the album where the current line-up came together.  "Secret Weapon" from the latest album, Long Live The Rebels, followed, with "Invisible" somewhat slowing things for a moment, before "First Love", also from LLtR concluded the "first movement", if you will, of the show.  By this time, the crowd was definitely fully into the show, as was the band, who put on their
full-scale show for the appreciative crowd.  If you have never attended a Disciple show, you are really missing something, as Kevin Young is an absolute ball of non-stop motion and energy, as he is all over the stage, jumping onto and off of the various boxes set up on stage, and putting everything he has into his vocals, as well.

At this point, Kevin took a couple of minutes to catch his breath and to talk to the crowd about the band's soon-to-be-released new album, Love Letter Killshot, which will be the third collaboration from the current version of the band, which is sometimes referred to as to as Disciple 3.0.  To give the fans a taste of what they can expect, the band launched into two new tracks, "Cuff The Criminal" and "Reanimate".  "Cuff The Criminal" features some electronic elements, but still rocks very hard, while "Reanimate" definitely falls more on the metallic end of the Disciple music spectrum.  I would imagine both will find significant success on Christian rock radio, but I find it too bad that the stations such as Sirius/XM Octane will likely ignore these tracks (and continue to ignore this band), as they are likely considered to be too Christian for their listener base.  Check out the videos below for BOTH new songs in the live setting (not from the show I attended), as well as the promo video for "Cuff The Criminal"....




          



By the way, the first lines of the verses are performed by Prince on lead vocals before Young comes in on the second half.  In concert, this song is a big audience participation number, with Young inciting everyone to jump around during the chorus section, followed by a group sing along on the big "whoa-oh-oh" section, which was a big hit with those in attendance.  My family had a lot of fun bouncing around and chanting along, and it was especially entertaining to see my seven year-old's shoes light up with every jump!  

From there, the band returned to more familiar waters, with two of the band's biggest hits, "God Is With Us" and "Erase", both from Long Live The Rebels, leading the show into it's midpoint and Young's traditional sermon.

For those who have never attended a Disciple show, Young regularly spends about 15 minutes speaking to the crowd, usually mixing in stories from his youth to help illustrate his point, which is based in Scripture.  On this particular occasion, Young spoke about society's need to win at all costs and our need to seek approval and reward for everything we do in life.  He talked about his band's successes and failures, all culminating in receiving a Dove Award (think Christian Grammy) that now sits on a shelf in Young's home, essentially meaningless and more or less forgotten.  Young became very emotional at one point as he talked about his youth, about not fitting in as a child and teen, and about eventually being befriended by the most popular student in school because that student had the courage to care about someone outside of his circle (they remain best friends today, according to Young).  The crowd was obviously moved by Young's willingness to bare his own emotional scars, which led the rest of the band back on stage to kick off the band's biggest track, the 2010 Christian Rock Number One song, "Dear X", which is also my oldest son's favorite song.  It was awesome to
see him get into the song so much, and the picture I managed to take during the track was, in my opinion, the best shot of the entire show, as it showcases a smiling Young next to the song's title as West hammers away at his kit.

"Game On" followed, with a three song medley of early Disciple scorchers being melded into what the band refers to as their "heavy medley".  Portions of videos to the songs are spliced together to show the band in their younger stages, particularly focusing on Young and his change in appearance and style over the years.  For those of us who have been following the band for more than a decade, this was a pretty cool treat, but I have a feeling much of the crowd had no idea where these songs came from.  The band continued in a heavier vein with the post-hardcore infused track, "Scars Remain", closing out the "regular" show.

After several chants of "one more song", the band returned to the stage, starting off with "After The World", a largely acoustic track that gave Young a chance to showcase that he is so much more than just a screamer.  The energy was cranked back up to ten for the final two songs of the evening, both from Attack, as Young broke out the band's signature flag for "Dead Militia", and then closed the evening with another massive fan scream-along track, "Radical".  All in all, the show ran for roughly an hour and fifty minutes, which is impressive for any band performing without a support act.

The band cooled down for a few minutes, before Young, Prince, and West returned to the church sanctuary and took their places behind a table and talked with fans while taking photos and signing autographs.  I'm not sure why Stanton didn't come out, but Prince stated that he was not feeling very well, himself, so perhaps Stanton was under the weather, as well.  All three men took not of the Kansas City Royals shirt and hat I was wearing (and pretty much ALWAYS wear), stating that they knew that KC had just swept their beloved Atlanta Braves team, and we chatted baseball briefly as they signed my sons' CDs and took a group picture with my 11 year old, which was likely the highlight of the entire vacation for him!

I was impressed with the show from start to finish, and even more so after talking to Prince, who was obviously struggling a bit with his voice.  This was the band's fifth show in six days, but you would never know it, as the energy level was high throughout the evening.  I was especially grateful for the band taking the time to chat with their fans, as they still had to load up and head off to another show the following night, but they never rushed anyone they were talking with.  I also want to say thanks to Destiny Foursquare Church and whomever helped to finance the concert, as amazingly, this was a FREE show to all attendees.  Truly a blessing for those who may not have been financially able to attend otherwise.

As to the venue, Destiny Foursquare Church has a very large sanctuary area and an excellent stage set-up which should appeal to other bands who may be travelling through the area.  The acoustics were very good, with no echo issues, which has been the case with shows I have attended in churches and smaller venues in the past.  The band was able to set up a merchandise area near the entrance to the church, which was easy to navigate, and the volunteers were all very pleasant to work with.  The merchandise selection was a bit thin, especially in the t-shirt department, but hopefully that is because Disciple is selling out of everything on a regular basis!  Both boys still managed to find shirts they didn't already have, and anyone who purchased a t-shirt also received a free copy of Long Live The Rebels on CD, likely so that inventory is cleared out in preparation for the arrival of Love Letter Killshot  

This was a great experience in an intimate environment that allowed for a lot of interaction between the band and concert goers.  This was my youngest's first time seeing Disciple, and the third time for my oldest, and both are ready to see the band again any time they roll even remotely through our area!

Keep up with Disciple's tour schedule HERE.


Reviews Index
Home

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

THE GRAVE DENIAL "The Grave Denial EP"

(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. Fake
  2. Breath Of Death
  3. Take The Pain
  4. God Awaits
Steven Rester--Vocals
Ryan Carver--All Guitars
Jacob Hannah--Drums

"Never give up, Never surrender!"  Those are the words of Tim Allen's character on one of my favorite sci-fi comedies, Galaxy Quest!  It springs to mind because that had to be the philosophy of The Grave Denial, a new modern metal band based out of Nashville...and Phoenix...as in Tennessee and Arizona!  Following a relocation of one of the members, as well as a decision to change the band's name, which could cause confusion among the band's followers, it would be easy to throw in the towel for a lot of bands.  But, thanks to the digital world, putting a band together, and keeping it together despite large geographical separation is not the problem that it once was.  So, for The Grave Denial, the separation of members led to a perseverance and focus on the end goal, which was the creation of this new 4-track EP.

Formerly known as EverCross, The Grave Denial plays a heavy brand of modern hard rock/metal which they deem "metal with a message"!  Bands such as Demon Hunter, Fight The Fury, and As We Ascend would be fair comparisons to the sound of The Grave Denial, while the band also claims Metallica, Iron Maiden, Trivium, and Parkway Drive as personal influences.  In my opinion, the closest the guys come to sounding like any of these bands is As We Ascend, and that is with good reason, as Jake Jones, vocalist and guitarist for that band, produced this EP.  That is not to say that the band comes off as AwA clones, because they do not, with Rester generally employing a far gruffer vocal style than Jones, and the heft of three of the four tracks falls more in line with Demon Hunter or Fight The Fury than anything As We Ascend has done thus far.

The EP opens with the lead single, and my personal favorite track, the most "radio-friendly" song here, in "Fake".  Currently climbing the Christian Rock charts and receiving strong airplay from Christian rock stations, "Fake" deserves to be heard by a much larger, less exclusive audience, as it ranks right up there with just about anything Octane is currently playing on SiriusXM satellite radio.  Some programmed elements open the track before Rester's vocals jump in along with the rest of the band.  For the majority of the track, Rester sings in a clean style, which is very reminiscent of the approach used by Jones on As We Ascend's debut effort. A song about putting on a false front in order to deceive others, this crunchy number has a crushingly heavy chorus section, starting with Rester's building roar of "You're....so....FAKE"!  The rest of the chorus is equally biting with its condemnation of the song's subject matter, as Rester more smoothly sings about, "All the faces you create/ All the lies make your escape, /Honey dripping from your lips/ Burning bridges, sinking ships...".  The guitars are hard-edged and aggressive, and the drum patterns fall outside the typical, varying from ther cadence and approach that is so common on most hard radio rock these days.

From here, things only get heavier.  "Breath of Death" has some classic guitar elements to it, with big power chords at the beginning, but things change rapidly when Rester comes roaring in on the verse sections in a decidedly more modern vocal approach.  Then, during the pre-chorus and chorus portions, Rester's lower-range vocals have an almost Gothic feel to the way they are sung over Hannah's double bass rhythms.  There is a tempo change coming out of the second chorus, with some straight-forward metal rhythm guitar riffing and a nice metal solo from Carver, before some effects-enhanced drums lead Rester back into the fray for one more run through the pre-chorus section, and a power chord fades the song out.  A pretty cool combination of styles and approaches all mixed together in one song, showcasing the band's diversity and influences.

"Take The Pain", with its chug-chug-chugga-chug rhythm guitars and punchy drums is extremely catchy, especially with the chant along chorus and a really cool guitar solo from Carver.  There are some production effects added to certain parts of Rester's vocals, but they only serve to enhance what he is already doing with his harsh screams.  Don't think something ridiculous like AutoTune here, rather think of how a computer might digitize and fade out the end of a scream.  When done with minimal repetition, it is a cool effect, and The Grave Denial nails its application perfectly here.

"God Awaits" closes things out, and once again, a cool, catchy chorus is a huge part of the draw of this song.  Sang rather than shouted or screamed, the chorus really stands out from the rest of the song, which is a choice combination of guitar riffs, barked vocals from Rester, and rapid fire drum fills and syncopated rhythms leading into and out of the chorus from Hannah.  There's also a cool vocal bridge before each chorus, with Rester screaming out "Fear", "Death", "Hope" and "Pray" while a lower, more spoken return follows each word.  Pretty cool stuff.  Carver lays out a fairly extended, melodic solo before the layered vocals of the chorus take their final few runs through the song.  A great way to close out an all-too-short EP from a band I am definitely going to keep an eye and ear on! 

As one would expect with Jones as the engineer and producer, the sound here is top notch and professional despite no label backing.  The guitars are crisp, the vocals sharp, and the drums have a full, hard-hitting sound, with nice separation throughout the EP.  Getting Jones on board was quite the coup for the band, and I have been told they hope to have him work with the band on their full-length album when it is ready to go.

As great as the music is, what impresses me equally is the mission of the men involved in The Grave Denial.  Fully willing to back up their Christian stance, the guys have all declared themselves to "be there" for their listeners whenever necessary, and have gone so far as to set up an on-line chat on their website, and even published their own personal phone numbers for people to be able to reach them if they need someone to talk to.  Now THAT is dedication and putting your money where your mouth is!  If you feel you need to talk to them, or if you want to tell them how much you love their music or their ministry, you can find more information at www.TheGraveDenial.com .

Hopefully, we will see actual CD copies available at some point, but for now, you can get your digital EP at CD Baby.

Rating:  An excellent, crankable debut!  Blast this one at 8!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

ELI DYKSTRA ROCKS! "Time"

(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. The Beginning Of Time
  2. Invincible
  3. Revolution
  4. The Leader
  5. Time 
  6. Dissed
  7. Nameless
  8. Flashback
  9. That Lady
  10. The End Of Time
  11. Serial (Acoustic)
  12. Flashback (My Demo at 12 Years Old)

Eli Dykstra--Everything

If you search through the list of reviews on this site, you will find there are not a ton of instrumental albums in the archives.  And, honestly, that's a bit odd, because I actually really like guitar instrumental records, especially those of the shred variety.  Its just that its fairly hard to find any really good shred records that come across my desk.  I get an odd instrumental disc every now and then, but usually they are so whacked-out and experimental I am automatically turned off.  But when Ron Keel mentioned to me that I needed to keep an eye out for a 17 year old guitar whiz...from Iowa, of all places...who plays the outro solo on "Rock N Roll Guitar" on the Ron Keel Band's effort, Fight Like A Band.  It was from this brief introduction to his skill that I was intent upon finding more of this young man's music.

Time is the latest release from the gifted guitarist, who wrote, played, recorded, and produced everything on the album.  Blending modern hard rock rhythm guitars with incredibly rich and deep melodic leads, Dykstra reminds me of a modern Marty Friedman, whom I felt released one of the most powerful shred albums of the 80s with Dragon's Kiss, and who, along with Jason Becker, released two absolutely essential metal records as Cacophony, with Speed Metal Symphony and Go Off!.  The sheer note density of a track like "That Lady", which finds Dykstra absolutely blistering his way through an extended lead run, is reminiscent of the great shred records in Shrapnel Records' halcyon days.

Time is cleverly kicked off by "The Beginning Of Time", which is a short, mood-setting piece that wraps in just over a minute.  The drums are pretty solid, if not overly spectacular, but the juxtaposition between the hard charging rhythm guitars and the smooth flow of the melodic leads are what the listener should be tuning in for, because once Mr. Dykstra starts on this record, he never lets up, right through the appropriate ending track, "The End Of Time".

It is difficult to pick favorite tracks here, as each one has its own personality and mood.  That being said, I have to say that I am particularly drawn to three cuts.  "Dissed" has a big, epic feeling, especially with the opening keys slowly building anticipation before an angry, aggressive rhythm guitar rips through the serenity of those keys.  A few hard-charging riffs later, a melancholy lead guitar line rings across the soundscape, creating a melodic counterpoint to the angst of the rhythm guitats.  Great stuff.

Another favorite track is another aggressive rocker, "Revolution".  Much like its title would suggest, there is an angry tone running throughout the track, especially when the rhythm guitar crunch their way onto the scene, yet the lead guitar work is, much like in "Dissed", nearly the polar opposite, carrying a much more melodic tone, with areas where the notes seem to hang in the air forever as Dykstra coaxes the life from his strings, while at other times there is such a flurry of fretwork that it seems nearly impossible the way Dykstra's fingers blur through the notes.  The drums here are spot-on, in my opinion, and the bass work serves to further bolster the aggression of the rhythm guitars.  Awesome, awesome song.

The third song I chose to really highlight is one which Dykstra recently released a video for..."The Leader".  As with everything this guy does, Dykstra did the video entirely by himself, and this also happens to be the first video he has ever made.  If you look closely, you will notice that Dykstra is playing a 7-string guitar in this video, which is not overly common in the style of instrumental albums I come across, so I was curious as to if there would be a significant difference in tone or quality of sound.  All I can say is extra string or not, Dykstra absolutely delivers on this track, both on lead and rhythm guitar.  In fact, one of the things I really love about this song is that at about the 2:09 mark in the song, the rhythm guitars become the focal point of the track, while the lead guitars are shifted more to the background, rather than the usual leads-out-front style.  To me, this gives the song a different feel than many of the others here, and adds a sense of urgency to the leads, as if they are screaming to be heard, only to be drowned out by the angry shouting of the rhythm lines!  Give the video a look and see if you agree...



I know I said I was only going to run through three "favorites", but "That Lady", which is the epic of the record at 6:26 in length, also deserves special recognition, as it really allows Dykstra to showcase the full range of his skill.  Moody in places, aggressive in others, with areas of blistering speed and, alternately, laid back finger strumming on a the bedrock guitar line for the majority of the song...and even a gentle piano section near the beginning of the track....all blend together into a truly beautiful song that honestly leaves me in awe of this young man's talent on apparently any instrument he chooses to play.

Oh, and what the heck...a special shout out goes to "The End Of Time", also, as rather than simply playing it safe and dropping in a simple outro to mirror "The Beginning Of Time", Dykstra closes the album proper with more aggressive rhythm riffing and several big, melodic lead runs that are both intensely fast in places and gorgeously drawn out in others.

There are two bonus tracks added to this album after "The End Of Time" wraps up the album-proper.  "Serial" is perhaps mislabeled as being an acoustic effort, as while the rhythm guitars are acoustic, there is a fully-plugged in lead guitar that rocks full-on as hard as the majority of the record, with string-scorching fret runs and exquisitely emotive passages, as well.  And while not the best overall track on the record, the inclusion of Dykstra's first demo...from WHEN HE WAS 12!!!...is an absolute stunner to hear.  "Flashback" appears in both this demo form and in a newly updated, fully produced version on the album proper, and it shows the growth the musician has gone through, to be sure.  However, the speed with which the younger Dykstra played, as well as how cleanly he played at such a young age, is something that a lot of more seasoned players would do well to take note of.  I'm assuming this was a self-composed track, as well, and while the programmed drums are simplistic and the production is fairly thin, especially when compared with the excellent sound on the rest of the record, this 2:40 riff explosion deserved to be heard by others and I am glad that it is included here.

The packaging is simple, as it is just a slip case, and what you see in the picture above is what you get, as the only thing on the back is the track listing and the copyright info, as well as the simple notation, "All music written, recorded and produced by Eli Dykstra Rocks!".  Apparently, the only thing Dykstra didn't do was take his own cover photo, which was credited to Shawn Hudgins on the back.

Shredheads, I apologize, as I know nothing about his equipment other than the previously mentioned fact that he plays a 7-string LTD guitar in the video (which has the EXACT OPPOSITE color scheme of the 6 string he is holding on the album cover, which I personally missed until Dykstra pointed it out to me!), and he endorses that he uses Curt Mangan strings and EMG Pickups.  Perhaps at some point I can get an interview with Dykstra to get more information to those of you who are as much into playing as you are into listening.

Rating:  A stunning effort from start to finish, crank this brilliant work to a 9!

Back To Reviews Index

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 and 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.  This song is definitely in the mix for best track on the album.  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, and 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 self-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!