Friday, November 27, 2020

DEAD SET SAINTS "We Are The Atoned"

 

(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. Golden Days
  2. We Are The Atoned
  3. You Don't Have To Go
  4. Your Move
  5. Get Ready
  6. The Love
Jeremiah Miller--Vocals, Guitars
Matt Freddolino--Drums, Gang Vocals

Additional Musicians
Andrew Stanton--Bass, Additional Guitars, Gang Vocals

Denver, Colorado's Dead Set Saints released their debut EP, We Are The Atoned, in 2019 following a successful Kickstarter funding campaign, but I didn't find out about the band until I caught their set while watching the Covid-Quarantine performance of ContagionFest (how appropriate is THAT name??!), and I immediately decided to contact the band to see what was up.  This two-man project got some big-time help in the recording studio, with Andrew Stanton (Disciple) not only contributing on bass, some additional guitars, and backing vocals, but also as the producer of the EP, with Jake Jones (As We Ascend) mixing the project, and Robert Venable (As We Ascend) mastering.  However, as is always the case, without the songs and musicians, all the production help in the world won't make a difference, so I was immediately interested to hear what the guys brought to the table as songwriters.   

"Golden Days" kicks the EP off with an edgy, down-tuned guitar riff and rapid-fire drums before *gasp* clean singing vocals jump into the mix!  That's right, clean vocals!  Sure, there is an edge to Millers vocals here, but there are no snarls, no grunts, no growls to be found, which is unusual in the modern hard music scene right now.  The guitars are tight throughout this melodic modern rocker and I really enjoy the section between the second and final chorus, which is part guitar solo section, part breakdown, with some fast and furious work from Freddolino on the drums and solid bass work, I'm guessing from Stanton, is thrown into the mix to bolster the bottom end.  An impressive kick off for this project to be sure.

The title track drops next, and it is apparent these guys have put some time and effort into their songwriting craft, as well as their playing.  Miller's rhythm guitars are catchy and the drum patterns from Feddolino are interesting and not just the same-old, same-old, with tempo changes in multiple places on this track.  Once again, singing dominates the track and a really strong guitar solo jumps out of the speakers following the vocal bridge section.  I'm not sure if it is Miller or Stanton who lays into the solo here, but either way, it is a really nice piece of guitar work on an overall really good track!

Acoustic guitars kick off "You Don't Have To Go", but it isn't long before the full power of this rocker kicks in!  I'm not a big fan of the "God's voice" spoken section, but it is very brief and not a massive distraction, and doesn't ruin the song by any means.  An anti-suicide song, this track delivers a powerful message with a very strong musical punch.  Also, as the longest track on the EP, clocking in at just a hair under five minutes, "You Don't Have To Go" gives the listener plenty of time to absorb the power of this song and to really appreciate Miller's vocal skills here.  It would be very easy to become overly emotional on a song such as this, but Miller manages to avoid the pitfalls of becoming too breathy or too plaintive, choosing instead to maintain his straight ahead style and to stay comfortably within his range.  A really good track  and while I'm not necessarily enamored of the spoken "God" voice utilized during the bridge section (it lasts all of 10 seconds), I can let this minor foible slide and enjoy a third straight Dead Set Saints track.

Some nifty guitar work intros "Your Move" before the strings move to the side and the percussion does most of the heavy lifting during the first verse section, which is a nice change of pace.  The rhythm guitars do a bit more work in the second verse, and a second voice is added to the mix, but Freddolino's kit still plays a major role in the structure of this song.  Featuring more electronic elements than any other track on the EP, there is still a really cool guitar solo right before a vocal section that incorporates some snarling gang vocals that are easily the most aggro on the entire effort.  That ringing guitar fret work from the intro reappears near the end of the track, and while not my favorite song on the EP, "Your Move" goes a long way toward showing that Dead Set Saints is definitely not a One Trick Pony as far as style and substance.

"Get Ready" is another aggressive rocker with some really nice rhythm guitar work and interesting interplay between the guitars and the drums in the verse sections that is unlike anything else the guys deliver anywhere on the EP.  Miller has some effects added to his vocals on a short vocal bridge before the guys drop in a pretty solid breakdown section that is quickly backed up by a short guitar section and then another run through the chorus.  This track has managed to find its way into my workout mix and it reminds me of the harder-hitting stuff that a band like Random Hero or Decyfer Down might release.  Good, good stuff that I would have to say is my favorite track overall.  

"The Love" teases at being an acoustic ballad as it starts off, but it melds into more of a power ballad as it builds, with a truly soaring guitar section and some of the best vocal work from Miller on the entire project.  Never really crossing over into full-on praise and worship territory, this is a song that I feel could have some pretty big crossover appeal in the Christian radio market if given the chance, and I hope that Dead Set Saints are given the chance to shine with this and a couple of other tracks because there is a lot of musical talent here.  

As one would expect with the names attached to the project, the production and recording are really well done, especially considering this is a truly independent project.  There are no glaring weak spots in the songs, the mixing is even-handed throughout, and there is just enough grit in the guitars to keep the modern rockers happy, while there is also enough polish to please the melodic rock crowd.  I do wish the guys would have had one more track to drive this EP home, but closing with the big, sweeping power ballad isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it definitely wraps up the debut on a promising note, both musically and lyrically.

All in all, I have to say I am very pleased with what Dead Set Saints have offered up here and I look forward to hearing more from my neighbors to the west soon!  I would also love to see the guys given a look by a label or two (hey, RockFest Records...are you listening???), and I hope that radio is open to what Dead Set Saints bring to the musical table because they are one of those bands that can really bridge a couple of different sub-genres of hard rock.  Let ChristianRock.Net and your favorite Christian...and non-Christian...stations know you want to hear these guys wherever you choose to listen!  

By the way, here is their three song performance from ContagionFest that got me hooked on the band...see what you think...  And, yes, I realize there are some pre-recorded elements here (they are a two man project), but you get the gist of what the guys bring to the table, and it's worth it to watch Matt headbang his hat off during "Golden Days"!




Follow the band at www.deadsetsaints.com where you can snag the CD or a shirt if you choose, or hit them up on the socials, download their stuff on iTunes, or give them a listen on Spotify.

Rating:  An impressive debut showing, no doubt!  Crank this to 7 and keep your eyes (and ears) out for these guys in the future!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

W.A.S.P. "Re-Idolized: The Soundtrack To The Crimson Idol"

 

(c) 2018 Napalm Records

        Disc One

  1. The Titanic Overture
  2. The Invisible Boy
  3. Arena Of Pleasure
  4. Chainsaw Charlie (Murders In The New Morgue)
  5. The Gypsy Meets The Boy
  6. Michael's Song
  7. Miss You
  8. Doctor Rocktor
        Disc 2
  1. I Am One
  2. The Idol
  3. Hold On To My Heart
  4. Hey Mama
  5. The Lost Boy
  6. The Peace
  7. Show Time
  8. The Great Misconceptions Of Me
        Disc 3 
DVD Presentation of The Crimson Idol Movie

        Disc 4

Blu-Ray Presentation of The Crimson Idol Movie

Blackie Lawless--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Rhythm Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Percussion
Doug Blair--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Mike Duda--Bass
Mike Dupke--Drums on all tracks except "The Peace"
Frankie Banali--Drums on "The Peace"

I will make no bones about the fact that The Crimson Idol is quite possibly my favorite album of all time, and is, with no question, my favorite concept album ever recorded.  Period.  I simply love the album and have played it literally hundreds of times.  I have that album memorized from front to back, lyrically and musically (not saying I can play it, just saying I have committed to memory the drums, the guitars, the solos, the vocals, etc.).  So, when it was announced that Blackie had decided to re-record the album, and with "lost" material, no less, I was definitely intrigued...and a bit concerned.  New songs?  Yes, please!  Re-recordings of songs I was already completely enamored with?  Ummmm....

Much has been made of Blackie's Christian faith in recent years, and the fact that the past two W.A.S.P. albums, Babylon and Golgotha both feature some blatantly Christian lyrics and themes has put a lot of people into a tizzy.  I mean, what in the world is the shock-rock band W.A.S.P. and it's table-saw-codpiece-wearing front man doing singing about God and Jesus?  I'm not going to get into that here (but way to go, Blackie!), but apparently not only did Blackie want to release The Crimson Idol in the version he had originally intended (hence the new songs here), but he also desired to clean up the language of a few songs (more on that in a bit).  Add in the fact that 2018 was the 25th Anniversary of the album, and Blackie had numerous reasons to put out Re-Idolized, it would seem.

Using the same band he has recorded his last two records with, Blackie re-recorded The Crimson Idol, splitting it into two different discs now, as there is a considerable amount of new music added to this new package.  The sequencing of the album is the same, with the new tunes dropped into the order where they were originally intended to be before they were cut from the original release.  Apparently the label wanted Lawless to keep the original The Crimson Idol album to just a single-disc effort, so the interlude, "Michael's Song", the huge power ballad "Miss You", "Hey, Mama", "The Lost Boy", "The Peace" and "Show Time" were all left off the original release.  Let me just say, in doing so, the original label left a LOT of great music in the vault, and I am extremely happy to have it here!

Of these six new-to-Crimson Idol tracks, five are completely new, having never been released before.  The sixth one, "Miss You" was actually later recorded and released on Golgotha.  I said of the song at that time, "This track reminds me a lot of "The Idol" from Crimson Idol, both in the depth of emotion poured out and in the searing guitar solos (one in the middle, and a massive solo that takes the song home at the end) that just pick this already powerful track up and carry it to new heights."  Keep in mind, that I had never heard the song before and did not know it was originally made for Crimson Idol, so that should be an indicator of just how strong this track is and how much it fits with the music surrounding it.  This is a monster of a song and it is borderline criminal that it took 22 years to hear it (on Golgotha) and 25 years to hear it in the context it was meant to be heard in.  Just a great, great song!

Nearly as great is "The Peace", another massive power ballad that really shows Blackie in top form both as a singer and a songwriter.  Musically, once again, this is a song that bleeds out of the rest of the album perfectly.  The style of the track is very akin to "The Idol" and "Hold On To My Heart", and that may have honestly been what kept it off the original release.  In places, it may sound too much like "Hold On To My Heart" for the label execs that axed it.  That is unfortunate, however, because the message in this song really a key part of the musical story of Jonathan, aka The Crimson Idol.  This is the only new song that Frankie Banali played on, and as such it represents the closure of the drummer's incredible run in W.A.S.P. as likely the last track he ever recorded with Blackie (unless there is something in a vault somewhere).  

Of the remaining new tracks, "Show Time" and "Michael's Song" are basically just interludes, with "Show Time" being a 2-minute long spoken confrontation between Jonathan and his own dark side one final time before the titular character takes his own life on stage.  "Hey Mama" is another very short addition here, but it is more musical in nature than "Show Time".  The track really delves into Jonathan's love for his mom and his hatred of who he has become, as he sings that his mother should have orphaned him, let him die, or never even had him in the first place, as he feels he has totally shamed his mother.  This leads to the last new entry here, "The Lost Boy", which is an uptempo rocker with a galloping rhythm that tells even more of Jonathan's pre-Crimson Idol backstory and is actually a continuation of the story started in "Hey Mama".  Again, this is an excellent addition to the story, in my opinion, and is a song that I wish had never been left off of the original.

Speaking of material left off of the original, there is actually plenty of room for at least the interludes and one song, if not two or three songs and no new interludes on the original if they leave out "Jonathan's Story", which takes up a good chunk of time at the end of the 2-disc version of the original.  I mean, while that's a pretty cool narrative, it isn't something I listen to more than once in a while, and I wish it had been put on the bonus disc in lieu of one or more of the songs that were omitted.

Anyway...

As for the songs from the original Crimson Idol release that have been at least partially re-recorded, I am generally pretty happy.  I say "at least partially re-recorded" because some of the songs contain parts that are so note-perfect they feel like they had to be lifted from the original recordings.  If not, Blackie is an amazingly skilled player, because we are talking NOTE PERFECT sections.  Doug Blair is an excellent guitar player and his work on the new songs is spectacular and blends into the old material perfectly, but the magic that Bob Kulick created on the original simply can't be duplicated.  Case in point are the two solo sections on "The Idol", which I argue are possibly the greatest guitar solos ever recorded by anyone (seriously, I LOVE the guitar work on the song that much).  Blair performs admirably on the re-recording, and I have no doubt he handles the solos about as well as anyone could in the live setting, but they are simply not of the caliber that Kulick laid down on the original.  The same can be said of Dupke's drum work.  He is a great drummer, no question, but Banali had a way with fills and with patterns and tempo changes that few others had, and nowhere was that on greater display than on the original Crimson Idol, in my estimation.  Duda is rock solid on bass here (Blackie also contributed some bass work), and this incarnation of the band works exceptionally well together, as the last two albums have shown.  I just miss the passion that Kulick poured into his solos on the original, and I mean that not as a sleight to Blair at all.

Blackie, for his part, sounds in great form, and despite the 25 years of wear and tear on his vocals, I think he sounds just about spot-on for the most part.  Some of the spoken-word parts don't work as well here, but I think has more to do with the way they were mixed/produced this time around than it does with how they were performed.  Blackie's range is still solid, however, and he still has that gravelly howl that he has been known for throughout his career.  

Lyrically, Blackie has cleaned up a couple of songs, removing some f*bombs and other offensive terms, most notably in "Chainsaw Charlie (Murders In The New Morgue)".  The confrontation between Jonathan and his manager at the end of "I Am One" has been cleaned up for its language, as well, and is the one place where I feel the language should have been left in, to be honest, as it really showcases just who Jonathan had become and who his manager was.  Regardless, the song is by no means ruined because of this lyrical cleansing, and unless you really, really cling to the lyrical content of the original are you likely to even notice some of the subtle changes.  I mean, "maggots" works just as well as homosexual slur does for the lyric, although the latter really shows just what kind of person Chainsaw Charlie was.  

I am curious about one omission from this record, and that is the track "Phantoms In The Mirror", which can be found on the bonus disc of the two-disc version of Crimson Idol.  I was always under the impression that "Phantoms..." was a part of the story, as well, and lyrically it really fits, with the song's character (Jonathan?) singing to the darker image of himself that he has created.  I've always loved that song and wondered exactly where it should have fit into the story, but it wasn't included here.  If you have never heard it, you need to track it down to hear Kulick rip into his guitar and Banali blast his kit one more time...plus, it's a really cool song that, again, should never have been left out of the original release.  Also left off was "The Eulogy", which is a haunting, nearly all-instrumental piece that only has vocals in the last 60 or so seconds of the nearly 4:20 long song.  I guess I'm okay with that one being left off, but would have loved to hear "Phantoms..." in the mix.

In my perfect world, I would have Blackie mix the original Crimson Idol with the new material on Re-Idolized...PLUS "Phantoms In The Mirror"...then have it all equalized and volume-levelled so that the two recordings meld together flawlessly, giving us the full, complete story of Jonathan as Blackie had originally intended it to be heard.  As it stands, Re-Idolized: The Soundtrack To The Crimson Idol is probably the closest we are going to come, and it is truly great to finally hear what we have here in one package!

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in the full. four-disc package, the Crimson Idol movie is included in its entirety, in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats.  Additionally, there is a large booklet with all the lyrics, including those to the new songs, as well as writing and performance credits.  All in all, this is an impressive package put together by Napalm Records and is the version I would suggest people seek out, although I have been told there are simple, 2-CD packages out there (I have never seen one).

Rating:  Crankable, definitely.  Part of me wants to rate it higher than the original due to the completion of the story and the inclusion of (nearly) all the missing music, but another part of me wants to rate it lower because...well because Bob Kulick and Frankie Banali aren't playing on this new version.  So, in the interest of fairness...

Re-recorded Material:  8
Previously Unreleased Material:  9.5
DVD/Blu-Ray Movie:  9
Overall Package Value:  9



Sunday, November 8, 2020

RIVETING TRUTH "Riveting Truth"

 

(c) 2020 Roxx Records

  1. The Prison (featuring Dennis Cameron)
  2. Stand Trial (featuring Rex Carroll)
  3. Skeletons In The Closet
  4. Give Up The Ghost
Dave Bentley--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Andrew Rudd--Bass

Guest Musicians
Dennis Cameron (Angelica)--Guitar Solo on "The Prison"
Rex Carroll (Whitecross/King James) Guitar Solo on "Stand Trial"
Chris McNeil--Drums

Canadian duo Riveting Truth manage to sneak their new EP out on Roxx Records just in time for the holidays, and anyone who gets this little slab of melodic hard rock under their Christmas tree or in their stocking are going to be very happy with Santa!  Founded in 2017 from the remnants of Ontario Christian metal band Legacy, Riveting Truth is part guitar-driven melodic hard rock with excellent lead vocals and strong songwriting, and part edgy, snarly, thrashy metal...all in just four songs!  Regardless of the style the duo chooses to play, however, expect impressive musicianship all the way through, as well as deep, thoughtful lyrics.

The EP kicks off with the lead single, "The Prison", and the power of this little record is felt immediately.  With a definite bottom-heavy groove rumbling through the track, "The Prison" is a metal-tinged, hard rocking track that sets the tone for everything that follows.  Rudd's bass is present throughout the song, establishing a thick bottom end for the rhythm guitars of Bentley to drive the song.  Bentley also possesses a strong, lower-tenor range voice with a bit of an edge at times. The layered backing vocals, particularly on the chorus section, combined with that strong bass presence give this song a Kings X feel at times, but I enjoy the vocals here far more.  After the second chorus, Bentley shouts "DC!", and the shredding of Dennis Cameron of Angelica fame erupts!  I'm not 100% certain that Cameron plays the entire solo, as it is split into two parts...one more shred-oriented and one more melodic in its style...so perhaps Bentley handles the second half of this really nice solo break.  Regardless, "The Prison" is a really good, uptempo rocker that sets the table well for this effort.  Yes, there are a couple of sound effects here (most notably the slamming of a prison cell door at the end), but there are no obvious keys or synths at work here; just two men, their guitars, and their voices.  Lyrically, these guys take a strong stand for their faith, as well, without beating the listener over the head.  Check out the lyric video below to both hear the greatness of the music and to follow along with what the guys have to say... 




As good as "The Prison" is, "Stand Trial" is even better.  Slightly slower, but still powering straight forward with edgy guitars and that powerful bass of Rudd, "Stand Trial" is darker and heavier than its predecessor, and Bentley adjusts his vocals to fit the mood perfectly.  Rex Carroll of Whitecross and King James fame is brought on board for the solo this time...and the man doesn't disappoint.  Rex's guitars explode all over this track, and while I don't have a credits sheet in my promo copy, it sounds to me like he not only plays the big solo in the middle but also the frantic fret work that outros the song, as well.  I really, really like this track a lot and have already added it to a playlist of my favorite tracks for 2020.  

From here, the band shifts styles a bit.  "Skeletons In The Closet" is another dark hard rock tune, but it is going to throw some people as it uses a lot of lower-registered spoken word (or perhaps snarled word is more accurate) vocals to drive home the message.  It reminds me a lot of stuff that legendary Christian rockers, Bride, have done in the past.  In fact, even when he is singing here, Bentley retains a bit of that Bride quality that Dale Thompson utilized so much back in the day.  No, he doesn't hit the piercing siren wails that Thompson did, but he has that haunting snarl down pat, and it works well.  Once again, I can't say enough about Rudd's bass work on this track as it is truly a driving force throughout the song and the entire EP.  The rhythm guitars are solid and though there is no real lead guitar solo, the song doesn't hinge on that type of musicianship, as it combines a grungy style with its melodic sensibilities.  It took me a couple of spins, but I really like this track, also.

"Give Up The Ghost" closes things out and it brings everything to the table as far as influences of the band.  The Bride comparison is still there, especially with a track such as this that brings thrash-styled drums and rhythm playing intermixed with a searing lead solo that shows that Bentley is no slouch on the guitar himself.  There's also a big tempo change after the second run through the hyper-simplistic chorus section that finds the band slowing things down and bringing a sludgy-yet-melodic style to the mid-section of the song, similar to something Alice In Chains has done in the past.  This is a tough song to pigeonhole stylistically, and as the shortest song on the EP, it packs a lot of variety and variance into just over 3 minutes.  Definitely an intriguing song, and like its predecessor, it was a grower for me, but after enough spins, I found myself really, really liking this song.  In fact, it also made its way into a playlist on my computer, as I dropped this into my workout/weight-lifting playlist that is comprised of mostly metalcore and thrash.       

The production is solid here; not polished or shiny, but with the variance of styles, it really shouldn't be.  The instruments get a lot of room to work here, especially Rudd's top-notch bass work, and the guest guitar solos meld flawlessly into the mix of both songs.  A special nod has to be given to drummer Chris McNeill, who handles all the various styles and tempos in amazing fashion!  All the more impressive is the fact that McNeill is probably best known for his nearly two decades behind the kit in Glass Tiger...yes, THAT Glass Tiger...who while catchy, are decidedly NOT metal!  You would never know it with the machine-like drumming that McNeill lays down on this record, flawlessly changing tempos and bouncing between styles seemingly without effort!  I'm not sure if McNeill is someone the guys can round out their band with, but even if they don't, they certainly show that they are capable of delivering solid hard rock/metal music on Riveting Truth, and I am sure the addition of a drummer would be an undertaking the guys took very seriously before moving forward.

Very short at less than 18 minutes, the time factor hurts this EP a bit, but Roxx has the EP special priced at just $7.77 right now, so if you want to snag a copy, head over to www.roxxrecords.com to pre-order now.

Rating:  I generally hate rating EPs due to their brevity, and the style changes on this one will throw some people, no doubt.  Still, I crank this to a 7, as Riveting Truth handles both the melodic hard rock and the heavy/thrashy metallic styles equally well.  Definitely an eye-opening debut.

Back To Reviews Index

Saturday, November 7, 2020

ROOM EXPERIENCE "Another Time And Place"

 

(c) 2020 Art Of Melody

  1. Hear Another Song
  2. Wild Heart
  3. Disappointed
  4. Strangers In The Night
  5. The Distance
  6. Shout
  7. Another Time and Place
  8. The Miles That Make a Road
  9. The Night Goes On
  10. A Thousand Lies
  11. Your Voice Inside
  12. The Distance (European Bonus w/Gianluca Firmo on lead vocals)
David Readman--Lead and Backing Vocals
Gianluca Firmo--Keyboards, Backing Vocals, Lead Vocals on 12
"Dave Rox" Barbieri--Keyboards, Backing Vocals
Steve De Biasi--Guitars
Simon Dredo--Bass
Pierpaulo "Zorro" Monti--Drums, Percussion


Full disclosure, I have had this album for some time now, and I always put it on the back burner for one reason:  the band has TWO keyboard players.  TWO.  Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows I am rather averse to keyboards being used as anything more than a strong supporting player in any band, so when I saw that Room Experience had two keyboard players, I had a hard time bringing myself to give Another Time And Place a chance. And all of this was in spite of the fact that I knew David Readman was the lead vocalist!  But, I finally forced myself to pop the disc in and now I am kicking myself for not doing so earlier.

Room Experience is a studio project featuring members of multiple European melodic rock and AOR bands that has actually been together for some time.  In fact, Another Time And Place is actually the second release from the band, although I have yet to track down and hear the debut.  Centering largely around the smooth, melodic style of De Biasi on guitars and the powerful tenor of Readman, Room Experience focuses a lot of attention on strong songs and has spent a good deal of time crafting this album.  In fact, the process of writing and assembling this album started in 2017, and for the most part it really shows that the musicians here were highly focused on getting the most out of each of these tracks, with a really strong mix and even-handed production giving every instrument the chance to shine here.

The album kicks off with one of the best rockers on the project, "Hear Another Song".  De Biasi's guitars have a nice 80s tinged edge to them, and Readman comes right out of the gate doing what Readman always does, commanding the listener's attention with his amazing voice.  Had Readman been in an MTV band in the 80s and early 90s, he would be a household name for fans of that era.  As it is, unless you are a fan of his killer band Pink Cream 69 (which I am!), or have caught him in his numerous, underrated acts such as Voodoo Circle, Anderson/Laine/Readman, Adagio, or his solo work, you likely know the voice, but not the man.  If you find yourself enjoying his work here, I highly suggest you seek out Readman's other projects; you won't be disappointed!

As good as "Hear Another Song" is, "Wild Heart" is even better and my second favorite track on the record.  De Biasi absolutely goes off on a couple of incredible solo runs, and Readman's vocals absolutely dominate this uptempo rocker.  I was a tad concerned about this track when it started off with some keyboard elements that just really aren't my thing, but De Biasi's guitar quickly screams to life and rescues this great song.  The backing vocals are top notch here (as they are throughout the record) and the keys do as they should and provide support for the song rather than trying to dominate it.  Oh, and Dredo's bass gets a fun little spotlight shone on it coming out of the first chorus run, which is a nice touch.  Overall, a great representation of what this band can do.

Things continue in fine fashion as Di Biasi's guitar wails away to kick off "Disappointed", teasing at a more aggressive style for this song, before settling into a catchy melodic rocker that falls very much in line with the rest of the album here.  Once again, Di Biasi's guitar work here is superb, especially on his solo flashes, and I think it might be hard to argue his guitar work doesn't carry this project every bit as much as Readman's vocal prowess.  The guy really delivers every chance he gets, and his work on this short rocker is a great example of that.

"Strangers In The Night" is a song that I feel would have been huge in the 80s.  The production here is, of course, ore polished than it likely would have been in 1988, but this song has that same melodic approach that bands like Europe used to such great effect on their most popular, commercial sounding work.  Again, De Biasi absolutely goes off on his solo run here, and Readman explores a higher level of his range on the last couple of runs through the chorus here, which is really cool to hear.  He never gets uncomfortable and isn't dropping a falsetto bomb on the listener, but he pushes himself and delivers in a big way.  Definitely my favorite track here and one that I hit repeat on multiple times.  Love this song and this style that the band absolutely nails!        




One track that I repeatedly try to get myself to like is "The Distance", but I just can't do it.  And I get repeated chances to do it because the song is on the album twice, once with Readman on lead vocals, and then a final time as a European bonus track with Gianluca Firmo on lead vocals.  While Firmo acquits himself nicely as a singer, he isn't Readman, but it doesn't really matter because neither man can salvage this track for me.  The keyboards sound like something out of a 70s porn flick (not that I would watch such a thing, but come on...we ALL know the sound I'm referring to!), and the song itself is just too overwrought and really sounds bogged down.  The guitar solo is strong and it's not abhorrent to listen to, it just never goes anywhere for me.  In true transparency, I skip this song from time-to-time when it pops up.  "The Miles That Make The Road" is a far superior slower-tempo track with even better guitars and FAR better keyboard work from Firmo, with a catchy melody and a sing along chorus.

Without hitting on every single track here (though, I guess I did hit most of them), I think a couple more do deserve mention.   "Shout", which picks up the tempo and lightens the mood substantially from "The Distance" is a fun track with some excellent guitar work.  While "Shout" isn't necessarily the cream of the crop here, but it accentuates the band's strengths which are, of course, the powerhouse vocals of Readman and some great guitar work, accompanied by nicely placed keys, a solid bass line, and rock-steady drumming.  Not flashy, but smooth and well-executed, this is AOR-tinged melodic rock that just about every fan that I know of this style will appreciate.

I also really enjoy "The Night Goes On", which finds De Biasi dropping a cool bluesy lick into on the intro, before building into a more straight ahead melodic rocker that has some of the best vocals from Readman on the album.  Again, definitely an 80s influenced style here with a Bon Jovi feel, "The Night Goes On" is easily in the top half of this generally really strong album. Check the track out below:





I also really, really enjoy the rocker "A Thousand Lies" with its classic 80s guitar tone and songwriting style that, once again, I think would have propelled this band to relatively big things in 1989.  Once again, the influence of a band like Europe, or even Bon Jovi, is impossible to ignore, but at no time does "A Thousand Lies" come off as a ripoff track.  And, yet again, De Biasi proves himself to be an excellent guitar player with both his rhythm work and his solos, with his fingers flying at a rapid pace throughout this track.  

Rating:  Aside from a couple of lesser ballads, this is a great example of melodic rock in 2020 and a really strong effort overall.  Fans of melodic hard rock, AOR, and "Westcoast" melodic rock should seek this out and crank it to 7.5!

Back To Reviews Index 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

LA GUNS "Renegades"

 

(c) 2020 Golden Robot Records

  1. Crawl
  2. Why Ask Why
  3. Well-Oiled Machine
  4. Lost Boys
  5. You Can't Walk Away
  6. Witchcraft
  7. All That You Are
  8. Would 
  9. Renegades
  10. Don't Wanna Know
Kurt Frohlich--Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitars
Scott Griffin--Lead Guitars
Kelly Nickels--Bass, Backing Vocals
Steve Riley--Drums, Percussion

Here we go again.  LA Guns is, once again, making me add in things like "Steve Riley's version" to the name of the band, as somehow we continue to have two completely different and distinct versions of the band competing with one another, yet apparently no one, not even band namesake Tracii Guns, actually owns the rights to the name.  So, lest anyone make the mistake of thinking the band has somehow reunited for the three-hundredth time, I want to make things completely clear: this LA Guns is the Steve Riley/Kelly Nickels version of the band, NOT the Phil Lewis/Tracii Guns version of the band.  If you are somehow still confused, trust me when I say you will not be confused once the music starts, as this version of the band is definitely not on the same level as the other.

That is not to say this LA Guns is bad, they just don't really sound like LA Guns.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that Kurt Frohlich sounds very little like Phil Lewis, and Scott Griffin, who is a very talented guitarist in his own right, doesn't sound all that much like Tracii Guns with his style and approach.  Additionally, the songwriting approach of this version of the band is less Hollywood sleaze and more straight-ahead, gritty hard rock.  Oh sure, there are some notable tunes here, but don't look for a "Sex Action", "Ballad of Jayne", "Rip And Tear" or "Malaria", as that classic sound is generally not to be found on this record.

The album kicks off with the lead single, "Crawl", which is definitely one of the best tracks on the record and starts things off on a good note.  While not a "classic" LA Guns sounding track, it isn't far off, at least as far as the bones of the song go, from the dirty rhythm guitars to the tight playing from both Riley and Nickels.  But there is something not quite sleazy enough, not punkish enough to be a full-blown LA Guns track.  And no, I'm not asking for a rehash of that 1987-91 classic sound from the first three records, but I am asking that the band sound at least akin to their namesake.  "Crawl" has some nice guitar work from Griffin (formely Ratt's bassist), and its no surprise that Nickels and Riley are absolutely rock solid here, but their are some distinct differences that hold this track back.  First, God bless him, but Frohlich just doesn't have Lewis's vocal prowess; there's no spit, no sneer, no snarl.  Granted, I'm willing to be Frohlich is a better SINGER, but he is not the VOCALIST that Lewis is, at least for the style of music LA Guns is associated with.  Secondly, where the heck is the down-n-dirty guitar solo?!  Nickels lays into an extended bass run that could be classified as a solo, I suppose, but where the heck is Griffin?  He never steps up and just blazes his way through the string-melter that you know Tracii would have slathered all over this song.  In fact, for me, that missing guitar solo is really what takes this song down a notch from being a potentially great tune to just a pretty good one.  Check it out and see if you don't agree.



"Why Ask Why" picks up the pace just a bit, and Griffin comes more prepared to play on this track, even ripping through a couple of nice lead runs, both after the second chorus and on the outro of the song, but again, the lack of Lewis is seriously felt here.  On the verse sections, Frohlich sounds more like a higher-registered Sully Erna from Godsmack than he does the frontman for LA Guns, and on the chorus, things are just way too smooth. Again, a pretty good song, just nothing that is going to stick with me for very long.

And so goes much of the record.  "Well Oiled Machine" really had me feeling pretty jazzed at the outset, only to have the weak chorus and predictable song structure leave me seriously wanting.  The rhythm riffs hint at classic LA Guns, but the rest of the song is a letdown after a promising start.  "Lost Boys" drops into mid-tempo territory on the verse sections then kicking things up a notch on the chorus sections, but those choruses are just so...weak? lame? tired? lyrically, and lack energy in the performance.  At one point, the song feels more like a lesser version of the classic MSG tune "Anytime" than it does something that should end up on an LA Guns record.  Griffin offers up one of his best solos here, no question, and again Nickels and Riley are every bit the rhythm section you would expect of two such-seasoned veterans, but the song is just not there.  

"You Can't Walk Away" slows things down to near ballad territory and is one of the better tracks on the record, but not for the reason you might expect.  It's not because mental images of "The Ballad of Jayne" are conjured up.  No, it's because this sounds for all the world to me like a song written by and for...Tesla.  Honestly, if Tesla were to record this song 30 years ago, I think it not only makes an album, but it might even get released as a single.  I really, really like this song and Jeff Keith would have NAILED this song's style and delivery.  In fact, if I close my eyes and really try, I can make myself hear this on Psychotic Supper as it has a kind of "Song And Emotion" feel to it.  An honestly great song to my ears, just not for this band.

"Witchcraft" is a nice, dirty rocker that probably comes the closest to capturing the spirit and sound of classic LA Guns, and Griffin is likely at his peak here as a lead player.  There's even an edge to Frohlich's vocals that really doesn't show up for most of the record that really adds to the song.  And while still overly simple, the chorus has a sleazy sass to it that nothing else on this record really has, which helps the overall feel of the track immensely.  So, two of the three best songs come back-to-back on the record here, but they are buried in the middle of an album that a lot of people will likely have given up by now.  And in both cases, you can't help but know in your gut that the Lewis/Guns version would have performed these songs better.

"All That You Are" is just not a good song, despite the best efforts of Nickels who delivers some excellent bass work here.  From all the "na na nas" and "hey! hey!s" to the overly extended "cry-e-i-e-i-e-in'" the lyrics are forgettable and their delivery...including the compressed, cliched "singing into a megaphone" delivery is so below LA Guns standards that the song makes me cringe.  Riley sounds bored, quite honestly, and Griffin is again relegated to more of a gun-for-hire role as the lead player than the de-facto guitar god that an LA Guns player should be.

Things don't really pick up with "Would", either.  In fact, as a largely acoustic ballad, it would be nearly impossible for "Would" to be a pick up, but you know what I'm getting at.  Once again, not a terrible song, but this is just so not an LA Guns song.  There's just nothing meaty to grab hold of here, which is a shame, because the performances aren't terrible.  In fact, I like the music of this track which I really think would fit nicely into an Alice In Chains acoustic record, where you would expect something moody like this to show up.  Overall,  if nothing else, songs like this one, like "All That You Are", like "Well Oiled Machine" really show how much the Riley/Nickels version of the band pales in comparison to the Lewis/Guns version in the songwriting category.  It's really not even close, honestly.

"Renegades" should be a daring, snarling song, but it absolutely is not.  In fact, despite the fact that it is the title track, this has to be one of the most bland songs on the album and is completely forgettable.  "Don't Wanna Know" brings the record to a close with a Guns N Roses kind of vibe...minus the big Slash solo...and is one of the songs that fits into the best half of the record, but it is far too late to do anything to salvage this album.

Overall, this isn't a terrible record, it's just not a really good record, and definitely NOT an LA Guns record for the most part.  It's a generally solid listen with a couple of really good tracks and a handful of decent tunes, but a few songs find the band going through the motions and a couple are just flat-out misses for me.  The production is good, overall, and the musicianship is above average, as well.  The feel is just not LA Guns, however, and that is going to turn a lot of people off and likely cause them to distance themselves from this version of the band in the future.  Would I go see the Riley/Nickels version of the band live?  Probably once, just to see how Frohlich handles Lewis' vocals in the live setting, but I wouldn't be going to hear these new tunes.  On the other hand, I would go see the Lewis/Guns version anytime, not just to hear the classics, but to hear the great new stuff they have released on their latest efforts, The Missing Peace and The Devil You Know.  And, I guess therein lies a big chunk of the difference.

Rating:  Rock this to a solid, if unspectacular 5.5 and wait to see how the other version of the band responds.

Back To Reviews Index 



Friday, October 30, 2020

HARMONIZE "Warrior In The Night"

 

(c) 2020 Independent Release

  1. Warriors In Line (Intro)
  2. Never Back Down
  3. Warrior In The Night
  4. Angel
  5. The Astonishing End
  6. Tonight
  7. Crawling Among Shadows
  8. Beyond Darkness (Outro)
  9. Angel (Acoustic)

Sozos Michael--Lead Vocals
Giorgos Constantinou--Rhythm Guitars
Lambros Apousinas--Lead Guitars
Panagiotis Takkides--Bass
Harvys Peratikas--Drums

I want you to take a good, long look at that album cover.  Seriously...give it a hard stare.  Pretty dang cool, right?!  Definitely a metal cover with the silhouetted warrior, the fire, the swords, and the professional-looking logo.  All top notch!  Trust me, the back cover is, also, with a wolf silhouetted against a lightning strike in some ominous looking mountains.  Again, very cool!  And I want you to etch that into your memory, because once you actually listen to Warrior In The Night, I want you to have SOMETHING memorable to take away, because the music is definitely not!

Things start off okay...actually, fairly good...with a thunderous drum cadence that kicks into a big battle march-styled pattern, with some pretty good riffing going on underneath.  There are some cool guitar licks going on as the cadence intensifies and the power grows, with the vocals not joining until the last few seconds when the song's title is power-bellowed, "Warriors, In Line!"  Not bad, really, and I still have some hopes things may turn out okay.

"Never Back Down" sounds a bit like the galloping type of power metal that Iron Maiden used to put out back in the day, but with inferior vocals, far inferior production, and severely inferior drumming.  The rhythm guitars are pretty solid, however, and the guitar solo is decent, so things aren't unlistenable at this point, even if they aren't necessarily enjoyable.  It feels like I have heard this a hundred times from a hundred different bands that want to be the next Manowar or Hammerfall or the like, but as with all other imitators, Harmonize fails.  And they fail largely because they don't do anything original or exciting, even if they are competent in the execution of this track.  The production is not good, which doesn't help, as we have a very muddy mix and the guitar tones are flat and completely off.  And to throw a bit more on the fire, the lead vocals, while definitely not the worst I have heard, are pretty heavily accented and overdramatic, which just slaps another layer of cheesy schmaltz onto an already struggling song.  And the really sad thing?  This is the best song on the album!

The wheels fall completely off by the time the title track rolls around...at track three, no less.  Honestly, the tone and tempo of "Warrior In The Night" makes me think of some of the over-the-top drama that Spinal Tap produced on-stage in that classic film!  This is just...it's bad, folks.  Is Harmonize trying to create a new power-doom genre here?  Because if they are, I think they succeed to a degree, but the results are not good.  The lyrics are what I sometimes refer to as "pure Swiss", meaning all cheese and full of holes!  Pick a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, take every cliched lyric you have ever heard about that campaign, and set it to off-tune, poorly mixed power metal (played at a doom metal pace for half the six minute track), throw in some off-the-cuff death metal-esque vocals and you have a decent idea of what we are dealing with here.  The lead guitars aren't terrible...not overly original, but not terrible...and the bass line is competent, but the song is about three minutes too long and that overwrought intro just kills anything good that may have come of this track.

From this point on, things get even worse.  "Angel" may be the most painful song on the album, and we have to listen to it TWICE (once in acoustic form)!  Why?!  Again, brutally bad lyrics and some of the most cringe-inducing down-tempo drumming I have ever heard plague another poorly mixed track that goes absolutely nowhere.  The accent on the vocals is annoying, the random shouting of "Angel!" in the background is annoying, the hyper-repetitive guitar riff is annoying...and did I mention the drumming?  There is a nice uptick in the tempo at roughly the three minute mark which turns the song from a plodding nightmare into a galloping bad dream, so that's a step up, I suppose.  But...wow...putting this on the record twice is punishment for a crime I didn't commit!

Sadly, "The Astonishing End" isn't the end of the record (the forced re-listen to acoustic "Angel" brings things to a close), but it is nearing the end of my patience.  The rhythm guitars aren't bad and the drumming is...okay, I suppose...but nothing works here, and they don't work for nearly seven LOOOOONG minutes!  But even more sad is the fact that this isn't the longest torture session on the record!  No, that (dis)honor goes to "Crawling Among Shadows", which spends the first two minutes dragging the listener through a sludgy pit of doom, only to add insult to injury by dumping some subpar death growl vocals into the mix.  The lead guitars are the only, and I mean ONLY, saving grace on this track, and even those seem to lose their tempo a bit when the incredibly long instrumental break launches after the second (or was it third) run through the chorus.  Actually, this instrumental break isn't that bad and may be the true highlight of the album!  Heck, even the drum patterns come off as a bit interesting here.  But then those dang vocals come back...and then have the balls to tease you with a false ending at the seven minute mark!  THERE'S STILL TWO MORE MINUTES OF PAIN HERE!  Wow...just...wow....

I may have misstated things earlier when I said "Angel" was the worst track here, because the real worst track here is the SIX AND A HALF MINUTE LONG SPOKEN WORD outro!  And I don't care if this is performed by the London actress Nicolina Papas, who also co-wrote this metallic mish-mash (should I know who she is?), this is just bad, bad musical drama at it's D&D worst.  I'm going to be honest with you and admit that I kept skipping forward in this track to see if there was any reason to continue listening...and there wasn't.  Gack!  I will honestly NEVER listen to this track again, but then again, I will likely never listen to this album again, either.  In fact, I have already deleted the files from my computer.  Now, what do I do with the CD....???

I'm not even going to rehash "Angel"; I'm just not going to do it.  Just know its the same song but acoustic.

In all honesty and seriousness, this is not a good record.  Oh, the effort is there, no doubt, there are parts of songs that are pretty good, and there are some moments where things almost come together in a good way, but they are few and far between...and I did say almost come together, because it never really happens.  And I hate saying these things because I want every independent band to succeed.  Perhaps Harmonize will get there, they just miss the mark on this effort, and they do so in virtually every way.

My suggestion to the band would be to spend less on the artwork/insert budget (which is very well done) and focus more on the production and mixing of the album.  Let's be honest; we have all heard KILLER records from a simple slipcase, and while not ideal for those of us who are collectors, it is a far sight better than an amazing package with nothing to back it up.  Such is the case with Harmonize, sadly.

Rating:  Give this a 2 and TURN IT OFF.  However, you should pin the cover art up somewhere because...well, it is pretty metal!


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

MARENNA/MEISTER "Out Of Reach"

 

(c) 2020 Lion's Pride Music

  1. Out Of Touch
  2. Price Of Love
  3. Gimme All You've Got
  4. I Don't Wanna Lose You
  5. (There's So) Many Things
  6. Sleeping With The Enemy
  7. It Ain't So Easy (Loving You)
  8. Ride, Ride, Ride
  9. Dangerous Minds
  10. Feel The Hunger
  11. Follow Me Up (CD-only Bonus Track)
Rod Marenna--Vocals
Alex Meister--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Cris Cavioli--Bass, Backing Vocals
Tilly--Drums

Additional Musicians
Sidney Sohn--Keys (2, 4, 5, 7 and 8)
Adriano Fontenele--Backing Vocals (1, 2, 3 and 4)
C. Marshall--Backing Vocals (5 and 11)

It is no secret I am a huge fan of the band Marenna, as I think they are producing some of the best melodic hard rock that you have likely never heard over the past decade.  Since the Brazilian powerhouse vocalist jumped to Denmark's Lion's Pride Music, Marenna has released a tasty little tease of an EP with his self-titled band, and now this full-length follow-up with monster axe-slinger, Alex Meister!  If you are a fan of the melodic hard rock style of the 80s, but with cleaner, beefier production, then this new "super group", Marenna/Meister is going to be exactly what you are looking for!

The album kicks off with the hard rocking "Out Of Touch", which I thought was a typo at first since the album's title is Out Of Reach.  Turns out, this is simply one of those albums that doesn't have a title track.  Regardless, this is a top-notch intro to this album, and right away the change in guitarist styles is different.  The guitar players Marenna has used in his solo band have always been of high quality, especially on his debut, My Unconditional Faith, but with this album, things are ramped up quite a bit.  The melodic quality is definitely still there, but Meister has a shred quality to his playing that was not as obvious in previous efforts.  Marenna's powerful tenor is on full display from the start, and when the rhythm guitars kick in, it is obvious there is something special going on here.  A solid bottom end from the bass and drums helps support the catchy song structure, and a massive solo ripping through the core of the track is pure icing on the cake, with the flash and flair from Meister bringing an additional spark to the always strong songwriting that Marenna brings to the table.  A fantastic start to this record!  

Next up is the album's lead single, "The Price Of Love", and the melodic goodness continues in a big way!  Adding in a few keyboards, Marenna/Meister unleash an absolute must-hear track here, complete with big, layered vocals that intro the track and a driving guitar line that powers its way through the track.  To me, this is the kind of melodic hard rock that was delivered so perfectly by bands like Baton Rouge and Babylon AD back in the day, and Marenna/Meister nails the sound and style here!  Once again, Alex lays into an absolutely huge guitar solo here making the listener wonder why they have never had the chance to hear him bend strings before.  The guy can flat out get after it!  Excellent stuff, to be sure, but you can check out the lyric video below to get your own listen.


"Gimme All You Got" is another big, melodic rocker that is chock full of big hooks and a massive solo from Meister that really leaves me wondering why the guy isn't more well-known outside of South America.  Seriously, this guy has guitar god charisma dripping off of him, he has the look, he has the chops, he has speed, he has melody...so why doesn't anyone know who he is???  Anyway, this track is so typical of the greatness that Marenna exhibits with his solo band, and it is only bolstered with Meister on guitars.  Excellent melodic hard rock with Marenna's powerhouse vocals, some great layered vocals on the chorus sections, a strong bass presence throughout the track, and rock-steady drum work; what more could one ask for?

"I Don't Wanna Lose You" slows things down just a bit, teasing at a ballad with the intro before laying into a rifftastic mid-tempo rocker that absolutely nails the style!  The opening guitar riff is reminiscent of something from Def Leppard before giving way to a song that feels more like a Tyketto track or something similar.  Meister's solo here is among the best on the album as his finger do some serious flying up and down the frets and Marenna is dominant as usual.  This is definitely a top three track for me on this record.



The opening guitar riff on "(There's So) Many Things" screams 80s hard rock radio...heck, the whole song does for that matter.  The production on the drums is absolutely 1988, which is a GREAT thing, and the bass line locks in tight to support the solid rhythm guitars and yet another screaming solo from Meister.  I've noticed that a lot of Marenna's accent is gone from this record, which makes his vocals all that much better even if the accent was never really a major issue for me in the first place.  

"Sleeping With The Enemy" opens with a gritty guitar riff and a massive wail from Marenna and this dirty rocker is off and running!  Probably my favorite track on the record, "Sleeping With The Enemy" really has everything an 80s rock fan could possibly be looking for, from a catchy guitar hook, a fret-burning solo, a simple, sing-along chorus, big arena-styled drums, and some really good backing vocal work.  Were this 1989, this would likely be all over Headbanger's Ball.

"It Ain't So Easy (Loving You)" slows things down quite a bit, but I wouldn't really call this a power ballad so much as a slow-tempoed rocker.  Marenna drops into the lower portion of his range, with the backing vocals following suit, and Meister lays into a smooth, soulful solo that is dead-on perfect for the track.  This reminds me of something that Tyketto might have put out in their earliest days, with a lot of power backing the polish of the song, and I would again have to put this in the top three or four songs on the record.  Love this tune.

 "Dangerous Minds" has a funky bass riff and some excellent riffage going on and the song is a bit reminiscent of something Electric Boys were doing in their "Lips N Hips" days.  Definitely more melodic in the vocals department, but you get the picture.  And the album closes in fine fashion with another riff rocker in "Feel The Hunger", giving the listener one more chance to hear Marenna's vocal dominance and Meister's amazing guitar skills, including yet another scorching solo run.  An absolutely great closer to an equally great record.

The CD comes with a bonus track, but unfortunately it was not provided to me for this review.  This seems to be a licensing issue with some European labels, as rarely do I get bonus tracks in digital review packages.  Such is life, I suppose.  I am sure the track is of very high quality, as well, or Marenna would likely not have allowed its inclusion.

The production is very good, if not perfect.  The mix is definitely top notch, and the guitars are very clear sounding, as is Marenna's vocals.  There is a bit of an older sound to the production, which I found a bit odd considering how clean and melodic the material is, but after a couple of listens I honestly didn't even notice it any longer.  Again, the production isn't muddy or dead sounding (dry, flat drums, lacking bass, etc.), it just isn't as...shiny as I might have expected.  Honestly nothing lost in what is presented, however.

As much as I have loved Marenna's solo stuff, I have to say that I think I could find myself falling in line with Marenna/Meister even more, as the aggressive edge and enhanced guitar work really adds even more to what was already a favorite of mine.  I hope that this is not a one-and-done project because I feel like M&M could really be onto something special here, which is a sentiment I think nearly everyone who hears Out Of Reach will agree with.  Excellent stuff well worth seeking out!

Rating:  Crankable in a big way!  Crank this to 8.5!

Back To Reviews Index

Monday, October 26, 2020

NEON ANGEL "Neon Light District"

 

(c) 2020 Sliptrick Records

  1. Another Kind Of Love
  2. Neon Angel
  3. Love Addiction
  4. Are You There
  5. The City Is Sleeping
  6. World On Fire
  7. Night Tripper
  8. Simon
Johanna Etelakari--Lead Vocals
Tuomas Saari--Guitars
Juho Savikurki--Synth
Tomas Kurki--Bass
Johannes Lati--Drums

Neon Angel is a new band for me that found its way to my inbox from Finland.  Sporting strong female lead vocals, Neon Angel has a definite affinity for 80s metal, incorporating strong guitar leads and a powerful bass presence along with synthesizers and pretty much typical 80s-styled drumming.  However, rather than simply rehash the 80s hard rock sound, Neon Angel uses their synth presence to produce a sound that is a hybrid of 80s metal and New Wave with a little goth rock flavor (especially on "Are You There"), giving them a sound that is not really like anyone else I can think of off the top of my head.

Stylistically, there is no real way to nail down the sound of Neon Angel, exactly, as no two songs here really sound all that much alike and, as I stated above, there is a definite cross-contamination of styles at play.  On Neon Light District's opening track, "Another Kind Of Love", big arena styled drums kick off what feels like a big 80s metal anthem complete with some early 80s Deep Purple-styled keyboard to really provide a full, driving rock sound.  Catchy and teasingly familiar, "Another Kind Of Love" is a really good opening track for the band, although I do with the guitar solo had more emphasis in the song.  What the song does do very well, however, is showcase the vocals of Johanna Etelakari (just Johanna from here on out).  Johanna's vocals are definitely upper-register, with just enough of a sassy snarl to carry that tough 80s rocker chick vibe, and the backing vocals are layered nicely as well, giving Johanna a full sound through the chorus sections.  

The band's namesake track, Neon Angel, is up next and intros with what sounds for all the world to me to be a harpsichord to start things off, before giving way to a really smooth, soulful lead-in solo from Saari, which is one of the few times he is truly given the green light to really show off his skill.  Then, suddenly, the song kicks into high gear on a poppy, New Wave inspired rocker that is very synth heavy with Johanna taking on more of a Debbie Harry-styled approach to her vocals.  Think of Harry singing "Rapture" for an idea of how Johanna handles the vocal lines here, even though the song itself has more in common with a harder rocking Psychedelic Furs than with Blondie. The funny thing is, I actually kind of like the song and applaud the band for bringing all of their influences to the table here.

A dirty guitar riff and a rollicking piano kick things off on "Love Addiction" which again finds Johanna in that Debbie Harry region vocally.  In fact, if pressed, I would have to say this is the style she tends toward throughout the record and I have to give her credit, as she handles the style and range very well.  Musically, this track isn't that far removed from something Lita Ford might have done in the 80s, although there are still more synths incorporated in the track than your typical stadium rockers utilized back in the day.  But that's okay.  Neon Angel is definitely not a clone of anyone and there is something to be said for that.  The chorus is pretty catchy here, and the guitar work, while not flashy, is definitely solid and drives the song forward.  To my ear, this is the musical style the band works best with, and Johanna can seemingly handle pretty much any style the band wants to work in, so I would say "Love Addiction" is one of the best two or three tracks here.

"Are You There" slows things down a bit, but doesn't tone down the intensity or diversity of the music at all.  Starting off with a bass riff and some straight-forward time-keeping percussion, Johanna whispers "are you there?", an 80s-inspired keyboard tone plinks in a few notes, and the song hits its stride.  This is a darker-vibed song than most here and Johanna's voice takes on something of a haunting tone throughout the course of this nearly six minute track.  To me, this type of song screams 80s movie soundtrack, something like Lost Boys or the like, which incorporated hard rockers and more New Wave alt rock tracks.  "Are You There" is definitely in the latter category, and I found myself continually waiting for the guitar that is buzzing just below the surface to really rip itself free of the song, but it never does.  Again, this is an intense, dark song, but it is lacking that something to really put it over the top for me, and I'm guaranteeing that "something" is just a ferocious guitar riff and searing solo to drive this track home.

"The City Is Sleeping" returns to a more straight-forward hard rock style with dirty rhythm guitar riff, thick bass work...and some cowbell!!!...on a gritty number that once again is something akin to what you might have heard Lita Ford tackling in 1988.  This is would probably my favorite track on the record as it the track that finds the band shedding the majority of the synth and New Wave stylings in favor of straight up arena rock (albeit with some seriously kickass bass work from Kurki).  I say "would be my favorite", as well as "shedding the majority of the synth and New Wave stylings because I'll be darned if a key-tar solo doesn't pop up after the second chorus, which really knocked me upside the head and does a lot of damage to an otherwise really good song.  At this point, I'm really wondering if Saari is just not comfortable with (or capable of) solo work.  He is definitely a competent rhythm player, but nowhere does he just lay into an old school solo that would go so far in stepping a couple of these songs forward a big step.

"World On Fire" and "Night Tripper" are both decent enough rockers, with "World On Fire" kicking off with some big, arena-styled drum work and an early 80s hard rock approach that laces synths into the spaces the guitars don't cover, and also features some decent guitar work on the record.  Once again, Johanna is in that Debbie Harry range vocally, and the band sounds incredibly comfortable here.  "Night Tripper" is the hardest-hitting track on the album, with a far more uptempo take on the Neon Angel sound and style than anything else here.  The rhythm guitars are really strong here and the keys/synths are relegated to a supporting role in this track that combines a NWOBHM sound with something closer to Loverboy.  I know, I know...sounds crazy, but that is really where my head goes.  If the keys were there, I'd come close to comparing Neon Angel to Girlschool here, but then those keys hit and my mind goes off on a "Working For The Weekend" tangent for some reason.  Saari does hit his only real guitar solo of the record here, and it's actually pretty good, and I'd have to say this is probably the best track on the record overall.  

The album closes with the longest song here, the nearly six minute ballad, "Simon".  Johanna is really strong here, showcasing her range well, but the track is simply too overwrought for my tastes.  The piano does some nice work on the first half of the song, and the oddly utilized guitars add an eerie vibe to the track, but when coupled with the old-school production, this song just comes at me from a weird direction and doesn't do much for me, to be honest.  On a positive note, the bass work here is once again excellent, and there are some unique orchestrations going on but this is pretty much just a filler track to me.

The production here is definitely old school in its sound, and it really feels like this is an album that might be best listened to on vinyl, or perhaps even cassette, as there is none of the digital sterility that a lot of bands use today to make their music sound brighter and more polished.  That isn't to say Neon Light District sounds like it was recorded in a basement or garage, because that is not the case.  But, just as the band has a definite love and feel for the 80s style, so to do they utilize more 80s-styled production methods on this record, giving the entire project a truly indie band, throwback feel.  Some will relish in the sound and style and some will be turned off by it, no doubt.  It is what it is.

Overall, there is a good deal of talent here, especially in Johanna's vocals and the strong synth work from Savikurki.  That last part is odd for me to write, as I normally find myself complaining about too many keys or too much synth, but with Neon Angel, the synth is such an integral part of the sound a lesser musician would likely have really muddied the feel the band was seeking here.  The rhythm guitars are solid, and while generally unspectacular there are a couple of decent guitar leads, and the bass is really strong throughout the record.  As I mentioned before, the drums are pretty much the 80s New Wave/harder radio rock standard style here, which means they fit well but aren't something that are going to jump out at you.  Giving this project an even more 80s feel is the fact that there are only eight songs here, as was often the case in the A-side, B-side days of vinyl.  All but one of the songs tops 4 minutes in length, with two nearly hitting 6 minutes, so you aren't being cheated out of a bunch of music here, it's just stretched out across longer songs.

If this type of hybrid rock sounds like it might interest you, I think Neon Angel is worth giving a shot.  

Rating:  Not bad at all, and definitely Rock-worthy, although Neon Angel will definitely not be everyone's cup of tea.  Rock this at 6!

Friday, October 9, 2020

FIREFLIGHT "Who We Are: The Head and the Heart"

 

(c) 2020 RockFest Records

  1. Ready For More
  2. Bang Bang
  3. Who We Are
  4. How To Fly
  5. Keep Your Head Up
  6. Welcome To The Show
  7. Bury The Dead
  8. Arrow
  9. I Believe You
  10. Don't Let Me Go
Dawn Michele--Lead Vocals
Wendy Drennen--Bass, Backing Vocals
Glenn Drennen--Guitars
Justin Cox--Guitars
Adam McMillion--Drums, Percussion

It has been since 2015 that Fireflight released new music, and that last effort, Innova, was a big disappointment to a lot of long-time fans, myself included.  A mish-mash of mostly electronic music with only withering amounts of the modern melodic hard rock that the band had come to be known for, Innova seeemed to be a whimper of an end to a solid career for the band that released their first album, Glam-Rok nearly two decades ago.  But, with a shot at a rebirth of sorts on the booming Rockfest Records label, and co-writing and production credits from hot commodity Josiah Prince of Disciple, Fireflight has come roaring back with Who We Are: The Head and the Heart, due out later this month.

Reuniting the original line-up (minus drummer Phee Shorb), Fireflight comes out firing on all cylinders immediately, setting the tone for their most complete, hardest-hitting record in their seven album (and a couple of EPs) career.  Granted, most of their previous releases featured numerous Christian rock radio hits such as "For Those Who Wait", "You Decide", "Desperate", and many others, but never has one of the band's albums been able to sustain my attention from start to finish.  In fact, as great as many of the singles were, I honestly never really connected with an album in its entirety prior to Who We Are.  Even as someone who owns the band's catalog, and who really likes Glam-Rok and 2012's Now, I always felt Fireflight's records would make GREAT EPs, but carried too much filler and, quite frankly, lost me on the majority of their ballads which come off as simply too sugary.  I am happy to state that these issues are simply not the case with Who We Are!

The album kicks off with a build up of electronics and programmed sounds, and I was honestly concerned we were in for Innova II.  But after about 40 seconds of looped effects, Dawn Michele's vocals kick in, the guitars join the mix, and the drums of McMillion kick in and it is obvious that, at least for the moment, the Fireflight of rock-oriented albums For Those Who Wait and Now has returned.  Dawn's vocals, instantly recognizable as they are, carry a punch and a power they lacked on the last record, dropping the breathy tone she employed on much of Innova and returning to her big, sweeping ROCK voice that drove tracks like "Stay Close" and "Stronger Than You Think".  The bass is thick and present here, and the guitars of Cox and Drennen are lively and driving, using the electronic background as a canvas upon which to paint their rhythms and solos.  A mid-tempo rocker, "Ready For More" definitely had me in the mindset the song's title implies, as I was psyched for what was to come next.

"Bang Bang" ups the energy and tempo as Dawn bursts from the speakers after just a single drum strike, and the buzzsaw guitars are off and running.  Once again, yes, there are some programmed electronic elements employed here, but they are role players here rather than the dominating instrument of the track.  The vocals take on an urgent tone throughout the track, and once again the lively bass line from Wendy Drennen throbs incessantly throughout this track.  Again, the guitar tandem of Glenn Drennen and Justin Cox carves its way through the track with a driving heaviness the likes of which Fireflight has only occasionally hinted at in the past.  This is an excellent rocker that I would imagine will be released as a single in the near future.  

Speaking of singles, the title track and lead single, "Who We Are" is up next and is exactly the type of song long-time Fireflight fans have been dreaming their band would grace them with again at some point.  A soft electronic build is present, with an acoustic guitar drifting across the soundscape, only to be interrupted by some sharp drums and a churning rhythm guitar that revs the track into full gear.  Dawn's vocals are in peak form here (and throughout the record, honestly), and the hard-hitting rock track instantly recalls the best singles of the band's past.  Shouted backing vocals, a sing-along chorus, punchy rhythms, and gritty guitar tones...all the ingredients of what made Fireflight one of, if not THE, dominant female-fronted Christian rock bands in the entire scene...are all present in a big way here and are demanding the band be heard!  Don't let their Christian label deter you from giving "Who We Are" a shot, radio programmers, as this is some excellent modern melodic hard rock that should be in your playlist now!  Check out the video below:




"How To Fly" picks right up where the crushing blow of "Who We Are" ends, punching you in the earhole with a thick guitar riff and cellar-dwelling bass (along with some fat...FAT...bottom end synth lines) to drive home a crunchy, mid-tempo riff-rocker.  There's an airy interlude after the second chorus that throws a bit of a curveball into the otherwise straight fastball mix here, but it serves to remind that Fireflight is not a one-trick pony and allows their more melodic side to show through a bit more.  The full-on rock returns after a few moments, however, and "How To Fly" rocks hard through to the finish.

Things take a bit of a downturn, tempo-wise, with "Keep Your Head Up", a track which starts off with a piano and strings intro that builds throughout the first verse, giving way to the full punch of the band on the pre-chorus and chorus sections, only to return again for the second verse.  There is a nice, crunchy section following the second chorus with a vocal bridge that really lets Dawn explore her full vocal range, then the piano returns for a few bars and the final run through the chorus rips through, complete with an outro guitar solo that is packed with soul and emotion.  Not a true ballad, but definitely a more down-tempo track...albeit one packed with a lot of musical power..."Keep Your Head Up" is head-and-shoulders above most of the slower-tempoed tracks of Fireflight's past, at least for me.

My personal favorite tracks hit back-to-back next with "Welcome To The Show" and "Bury The Dead", two great rockers that again showcase the power that Fireflight is capable of delivering while remaining true to who they are.  "Welcome To The Show" incorporates some quirky vocal tricks from Dawn in the way she intones certain words and phrases in the verse sections, utilizing a wicked-yet-playful lilt that entices the listener and pulls their ear forward in ring-master fashion!  There's a frantic, somewhat spoken-word vocal bridge after the second chorus run followed by a chugging stop-start-stop-start guitar section packed with chainsaw snarl and punch, and then a last run through the chorus that also drops some unique electronic elements into the mix.  I hope that this song gets airplay at some point, as  it is both totally unique and totally Fireflight at the same time.  "Bury The Dead", on the other hand, is a straight ahead rock anthem that will likely become an instant must-perform track at any future Fireflight shows.  A big, sing-along chorus really showcases the power that Dawn is able to pour into a song in which she asks herself if she "can move on if I bury the dead", leaving her broken past behind and surrendering to the Truth.  A big, big rocker with driving guitar lines, excellent drum work, and some killer layered backing vocals, "Bury The Dead" is definitely my favorite track for me on Who We Are, and unquestionably top five in Fireflight's catalog; I love this track that much.

"Arrow" is the album's only real ballad moment, and even then I'm not 100% sure I'd use that tag on the track as this isn't "slow dance" material, or anything like that.  Melding the poppier side of Fireflight with Dawn Michele's sweeping vocals, "Arrow" is definitely a sparse song, largely devoid of any crunch or grind from the guitars and with minimal percussion, but one that delivers in a big way for fans that just want to hear Dawn cut loose and carry a song on her back.

Acoustic guitars intro "I Believe You" and carry the track throughout the first verse and chorus break, joined by a string section and the drums about halfway through verse two.  There's a big build coming out of the second verse, with the whole band jumping in and a huge, melodic guitar solo sweeping in over the orchestral arrangement that supports the song at this point.  I really like how this song brings things together at the end, finishing in a place that you might not have guessed it would build to when you hear the first half of the track.  A really good musical piece.

The album closes with a slow-building-to-mid-tempo rock number that has some really nice punch but also maintains a smooth flow, again echoing some of the things Fireflight has done in the past, but doing it better than I remember in most places.  Dawn's vocals are a definite focal point here, especially as she becomes starkly raw, standing free of the band for a brief moment coming out of the final chorus run, allowing emotion to become the driving force behind her words.  While not the rocker one might have been expecting the band to close with, it is still a song of significant power and strength and is one of the defining moments of an album that, to me, is filled with RE-defining moments for the band.  

While not a member of the band, a shout out has to be given to Josiah Prince of Disciple, who is really making a name for himself in the writing and production world.  He brings a cohesiveness to the project that is not always present on previous Fireflight albums, as the songs all work to move from one to the next without sounding like the same song over and over.  The mix is exquisite and the instruments are all exposed to the listener in a way that makes them easy to hear while not dominating the song.  I really like the extra bit of edge that is added to the guitar tones of several tracks here, and having both guitars back in the band again really adds a power that was definitely lacking from Innova.  Lastly, I feel like Prince really drew the best vocal performance from Dawn Michele that I have ever heard on record.  She always had power and presence, but on Who We Are, she adds emotion without relying on breathiness, she adds coyness without becoming cutesie.  To be frank, at times her vocals took on a saccharine sheen on previous records, especially on ballads, that turned me off to a degree.  Not so on this record, not by a stretch. On Who We Are she crushes the album from start to finish in peak form!     

If I have any complaints about Who We Are: The Head and the Heart, they really aren't about the music or the band.  But, I do have two complaints, so I am going to air them here.  First...why wasn't the 2018 single, "Die Free", which featured Kevin Young from Disciple on guest vocals, included here, perhaps as a bonus track for pre-orders?  It would have been yet another incentive to help boost pre-sales and would have given us "physical over digital" fans a chance to own the track in a non-CD-R burned format.  My second complaint ties indirectly into my first.  Who We Are is actually being marketed as two stand-alone EPs, with pre-orders being the only way to get them both on one CD.  Now, I totally get the gimmick here, especially since Rockfest boss Joseph Rojas did the exact same thing on the most recent release from his band, Seventh Day Slumber; it is a gimmick to drive pre-sales.  And, again, I get it.  But, and this is just my opinion...which is really why you read this blog if you think about it...the pre-sale packages with the t-shirt, signed poster, sticker, and all that stuff, is likely incentive enough for most people that are going to pre-order anyway.  There's no need to make people pay for two separate EPs that, to be honest, would both be relatively short (both would clock in at roughly 22 minutes each).  Like I said, if you want to make a full-length version that had "Die Free" on it as a pre-order bonus, that's awesome; I'm all for that.  Doing it the two EP route just comes off as a money grab to me.  And maybe it is; I am not privy to Rockfest's financial statements, so maybe this is the cost of doing physical release business now in a digital world.  Regardless, I'm set because I DID pre-order the package because I wanted to help support the band and label and, in all honesty, because I wanted the single CD instead of having to buy two EPs.  (See...I frequently buy the albums I review here, even if I get advance promo copies.  I'm a stand-up guy!)

Regardless of my two little gripes, this is a big-time comeback from Fireflight that shows this band has a lot left in the tank.  The writing is the strongest from start to finish the band has ever put together, the performances are tight and punchy and full of energy, and Prince's production makes what would still likely have been a really good project a great one.  It is not a coincidence that I say this is, hands down, the best Fireflight has ever sounded on record and Who We Are: The Head and the Heart is, likewise, the best record that band has ever put out...also hands down.  If you hurry, you may still be able to preorder a copy HERE.

Rating:  A very crankable return for Fireflight, Who We Are is a definite 8.5!  This is excellent stuff!