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!