Saturday, January 8, 2022

SEVENTH DAY SLUMBER "Death By Admiration"

 

(c)2022 RockFest Records


  1. Death By Admiration (feat. Word is Alive)
  2. Fatal Love
  3. Solemn Oath
  4. What I've Become
  5. Halos
  6. Snake Mouth (feat. Relent)
  7. Light The Way
  8. Landmines
  9. Some Things Never Change
  10. Can't Say Sorry Enough
Joseph Rojas--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Weston Evans--Guitars
Ken Reed--Bass
Blaise Rojas--Drums, Percussion

Additional Musicians
Miggy Sanchez--Rap vocal on "Snake Mouth"

As people continue to hope that 2022 will bring some normalcy back to the world, Seventh Day Slumber is doing all they can to kick the year off in top form.  After releasing a praise and worship album, Unseen: The Lion and the Lamb in 2021, vocalist and band founder, Joseph Rojas, promised fans a hard-hitting album with their next release.  Let's just say that Death By Admiration checks all the boxes that come to my mind when thinking of a "hard-hitting" album.  While the band has long been a powerful force in the Christian hard rock world, with my introduction to the band starting with the crunchy We Are The Broken album in 2014, I don't hesitate at all in stating that Death By Admiration is the hardest rocking album in the band's extensive catalog which now boasts 13 full-length records and 1 EP.  

The album opens with an electronic build up that gives way to the thunder of Blaise's drums and the thick, chunky rhythm guitars that bore their way to the front are full of aggression.  It is immediately apparent that something is a bit different here than on past Seventh Day Slumber records, as frontman Joseph Rojas has added a smoother singing style to his still-present edgy delivery that he utilized to such great effect on previous records.  That smoother style is made all the more evident with the closing of the song, as the throaty metalcore vocals of Word Is Alive vocalist, Tyler Smith, roar to life.  I'm not sure if the intricate guitar line that weaves throughout the track is handled by new full-time member, Weston Evans, or by Word Is Alive guitarist, Zack Hansen, but whomever tackles it has some serious skill, as that is a frantic finger twister that I have caught myself focusing on to the point that I stopped listening to the lyrics altogether!  

The next track up is "Fatal Love", which I feel has to be released as a single at some point.  The song is pure Seventh Day Slumber from start to finish, and represents everything the band has done so well to this point in their career, and then builds upon it.  Thick, modern rhythm guitar riffing?  Check.  Punchy drums with catchy fills and tempo changes?  Check.  Throaty, edgy chorus vocals mixed with smoother singing vocals on the verses?  Absolutely.  I'm honestly somewhat surprised this wasn't the lead single for the record, as this track just screams Seventh Day Slumber to me.  Add in a crunchy breakdown section before the final run through the chorus, and this is a winner from spin one for me.  Top three on the album, for sure!

"Solemn Oath" keeps things going with the prerequisite electronic intro and punishing rhythm guitar riff kicking things off.  The only track co-written by longtime guitar player, Jeremy Holderfield, "Solemn Oath" is yet another track that is pure Seventh Day Slumber in its approach and attitude.  Joseph strips away the polish on his voice, exposing the rawer sound he has typically used in the past, with some bolstering from well-placed backing vocals.  I'm not sure if Holderfield plays on the track, but the guitars here are chunky and aggressive, reminiscent of the playing on older albums like We Are The Broken and Closer To Chaos. Ken Reed's bass is a full-voiced participant here, and  Blaise Rojas shows nice skill with some snappy fills and tight rhythms in the brief section before the vocal bridge, coming off almost like a drum solo of sorts.  His machine gun strikes to close the track are spot on perfect!  Good, aggressive stuff that long-time 7DS fans are going to eat up.   

The band released the lead single several weeks ago, and "What I've Become" has made steady climbs up various Christian hard rock and metal charts, finishing as the 19th biggest song of the 2021 year on ChristianRock.Net.  The gritty modern rocker finds Joseph Rojas expanding upon his vocal range a bit more than is typical, and it works to strong effect with a lot more singing from the front man than many songs of the past have featured.  A song about depression and self-loathing, the message here is a powerful one, with Rojas singing "Sometimes I build myself up/So I can tear myself down again/I never thought I'd get this low/I hate what I've become".  

"Halos" briefly teases at being a slower track, but that veneer is quickly wiped away when the guitars and drums hit.  To be fair, the verse sections are pretty laid back in comparison to most of the other songs on the album, but the chorus....wow.  The chorus section here stand in stark contrast to the verse sections, with some brutally angsty backing vocals screaming behind Joseph's smoother tenor.  There is also a pretty nasty breakdown that stops as abruptly as it starts, with another run through the chorus starting off clean and ending very, very harsh.  I'm working from a preview copy here, so I am not sure who is doing the harsh vocals here, but I intend to find out, as they are brutal!  Love the dichotomy between the clean vocals and the snarls on this track, which is one that I can't stop hitting repeat on.  

By the time "Snake Mouth" rolls around, you may be ready to catch your breath, but trust me...it ain't happening here!  Opening with some minor electronic elements that rapidly give way to a heavy rhythm guitar, "Snake Mouth" continues the sonic assault with possibly the punchiest, grittiest track on the record!  A scathing warning to the self-serving who profess to know God yet turn others away as being unworthy, "Snake Mouth" also features a vicious nu metal rap from Miggy, of RockFest Records label mates Relent, who warns, "Bleeding out, bleeding out/You just walked past. You couldn't see me through the Jesus on your stained glass!"  

"Light The Way" is also not going to give the listener any kind of respite.  Sure, as is the case on a few tracks here, the verse sections are a bit more sparse, a bit tamer, but the pulse of the song is still set high by Blaise's drumming and the aggressive rhythm riffing.  An electronic bed pulsates throughout the track, helping to keep things moving forward at a solid clip, as well.  Joseph really pours himself into the vocals here, and this may be his most impressive performance on the record in as much as he really sounds like he is laying himself emotionally bare here.    

As the title might imply, "Landmines" is another...ahem...explosive rocker, boasting a big bottom end, with Reed's bass rumbling across the chunky rhythms that Blaise hammers out on the drums.  Not blisteringly fast, "Landmines" hits hard, nonetheless, with tight rhythm guitars and more impactful vocals from Joseph.  The band adjusts the typical song layout a bit here, as there is no guitar solo or big breakdown to separate the final runs through the chorus from the last verse sections, however that doesn't mean the song lacks musical dynamic, as Weston flashes some impressive finger work and a nice little burst of speed on a tasty extended solo to exit the track.  A powerful track about letting go of negative relationships, potentially even relationships to sin, "Landmines" is one of my top three or four songs here and gets the repeat treatment quite frequently when I spin the record.

"Some Things Never Change" is yet another uptempo rocker, but it is a bit more angled for radio than perhaps some other songs are here.  A catchy guitar hook worms its way throughout the song, and the track seems to build upon the theme of "Landmines" and moving on from negativity and bad relationships.  Joseph even spits a bit of a rap vocal in the vocal bridge before the last chorus, and a nasty breakdown thumps the listener upside the head before the track exits.  I'll be surprised if this song doesn't impact Christian hard rock radio at some point, and it should get play on terrestrial rock radio and Octane as well.  

The album closes on the only truly quiet note on the record, with "Can't Say Sorry Enough".  Built around an acoustic guitar, some well-placed strings, and some  gently layered vocals, the song is an emotional, almost poignant ending to an otherwise aggressive, hard-hitting record...and it works!  Once again, the vocal growth that Joseph Rojas has put on display on Death By Admiration is impressive.  While he has always been able to sing...some of the band's biggest songs have been ballads, in fact...it just seems he has added an extra layer of depth and emotion that I feel really began to grow with the praise songs on Unseen: The Lion and the Lamb.  Add in the exceptional songwriting on this record, and it is safe to say that Seventh Day Slumber continues to grow and improve as a band, not slowing down, but continuing to push forward.

Leaving nothing to chance, the band brought in some big names to twist the knobs and tweak the sounds here, with Kellen McGregor of Memphis May Fire both mixing and producing, while Brad Blackwook, who has worked with Skillet, Korn, POD, and Twenty One Pilots, doing the mastering.  The result is a big sound, aggressive yet accessible, punchy and never overly polished.  Blaise's drums have never sounded this full, and Reed's bass is alive in the mix, whereas so many bands today seemingly bury the bottom end.  There is good separation between the guitar tracks here, and the layering of the backing vocals works exceptionally well, especially for a band that hits as hard as Seventh Day Slumber does here.

Rating:  Time will ultimately tell, but at this point, I'd say Death By Admiration is Seventh Day Slumber at their crankable best!  Crank this beast to a 9!



Tuesday, January 4, 2022

JACK RUSSELL'S GREAT WHITE "Great Zeppelin II"

 

(c)2021 Cleopatra Records

  1. Whole Lotta Love
  2. Good Times, Bad Times
  3. Misty Mountain Hop
  4. Dancin' Days
  5. No Quarter
  6. Kashmir
  7. Houses Of The Holy
  8. Trampled Underfoot
  9. Moby Dick
  10. The Rover
  11. Stairway To Heaven
  12. Heartbreaker
  13. Living Loving Maid
  14. Communication Breakdown
Jack Russell--Lead Vocals
Robby Lochner--Guitars
Michael Olivieri--Rhythm Guitar, Keys
Dan McNay--Bass
Dicki Fliszar--Drums, Percussion

Three quick truths...  

1)  Great White is my all-time favorite band.  
2)  I've never been a fan of Led Zeppelin, per se.
3)  I LOVE the Great Zeppelin Tribute the band did more than two decades ago. 

These three truths are important when considering this newest release from Jack Russell's Great White, because all three things come into play on Great Zeppelin II in a variety of waysFor starters, and most obviously, there was the split between Jack Russell's version of the band (Jack Russell's Great White) and Mark Kendall's version (Great White).  When Great Zeppelin was recorded in 1996 and released in 1998/99 (depending upon the label you snapped the album up from), there was just one band, and people remarked at the ability of the band to so nearly perfectly combine the musicianship AND atmosphere of a Led Zeppelin show...and to pull it off in a live setting, no less!  The combination of Jack's vocals and Kendall's skilled guitar work wowed a lot of fans of both bands, even if some critics didn't necessarily love the idea of a band spending an entire album covering another.    Heck, it was because of Great Zeppelin that I went back and re-examined much of the Led Zeppelin catalog outside of the "hits" that classic rock radio keeps in heavy rotation.  While I am still not a Zeppelin "fan", I certainly appreciate several songs now far more than I did when I first dismissed them 35 years ago.

Without getting into the "whys" or the "who's to blames" of the mess, Great White, of course, fractured and went their separate ways, but there continued to be a wondering...at least amongst Great White fans...about if either version of the band would revisit the Led Zeppelin catalog.  Jack Russell's Great White gives reason for fans to wonder no more, as Great Zeppelin II: A Tribute To Led Zeppelin was released in the last trimester of 2021.  This time recorded as a studio effort, Great Zeppelin II again features 14 tracks from the legendary Zeppelin, however JRGW manages to duplicate just three songs from the original (more on that in a minute), and has also created a more up-tempo rocker of an album, with less dependence on the bigger, more epic tracks that the first tribute covered.

The new album kicks off with the classic "Whole Lotta Love", and right from the get-go, it is apparent that Jack and Company are here to rock!  They follow this up nicely with the romp of "Good Times, Bad Times", which finds Lochner playing off of Flisznar's heavy drum rhythms to great effect, and McNay DOMINATING the bass line...and solo at the end of the track!  Huge stuff there!  "Misty Mountain Hop" was a pleasant surprise for me here, as I really dig the groove the song works in, and the inclusion of "Houses Of The Holy" was an awesome choice, as I have always felt that to be one of the better songs in the band's catalog, yet one that a lot of people overlook.  Of course, when making the decision to rock out, it is impossible to have a Zeppelin set that doesn't include "Kashmir", with that big hook...and THAT RIFF!  Again, Jack cements himself as a vocalist supreme in his handling of this riff rocker, and Lochner leaves no doubt as to his skill with the axe; the man dominates this song!  "Moby Dick" isn't my favorite song in the mix here, but it is handled very well and gives Fliszar a chance to shine, which he does not pass up!  "Trampled Underfoot" with its quirky intro and catchy rhythm is one of those Zep songs that most people know but that hasn't been worn to death, so its inclusion here adds a bit of funked-up flavor that should provoke a smile from a lot of folks. "Heartbreaker" was a great choice to include this time around, with that classic, stair-stepped guitar intro fitting nicely into the harder-edged track list of this record, and for me, album closer, "Communication Breakdown" rounds out the collection in fine, hard-rocking fashion.

What about the repeated material?  In fairness, it was going to be nearly impossible for the band to not include "Stairway To Heaven", as it was not only handled so extremely well the first time out, but it is also, arguably, the biggest song in Zeppelin's catalog.  Once again, Russell proves himself at the top of his game here, easily handling the slower, softer, more emotive early sections, then powering through the huge build in the later stages of the song.  Lochner nimbly runs through the various tempo changes and multiple styles utilized, showcasing himself as a master musician as he stays faithful to the original but manages to find small areas to move around a bit.  "Living Loving Maid" was another track that screamed for inclusion yet again, as did "The Rover", as both songs fit the harder-hitting attitude of Great Zeppelin II and served to give the album a cohesive feel.  (To that end, I was a bit surprised that "Immigrant Song" wasn't repeated here, as I think it would have just blistered in the middle of this track listing.)  The other repeater was a bit of a surprise to me, however, as I'm not entirely sure it was necessary to drop the massive "No Quarter" into the mix again.  I say this because it tops out at more than 10 minutes in length on this album, which could have easily cleared the way for a couple of other tracks (the very short "Immigrant Song" and just about anything else in the catalog would have fit).  That being said, "No Quarter" is handled EXTREMELY well here, with the keyboard intro from Olivieri beautifully setting up the crush from Fliszar's drums and the bluesy riffing from Lochner.    

Jack sounds 100% still in full control of his classic voice, and unsurprisingly he easily tackles the material here.  While he is adept at handling the hard-hitting rockers included here, it is, of course, his skill on the bluesier numbers that characterize Russell as one of the truly great vocalists to come out of the 1980s scene.  When listening to Great Zeppelin II, however, it is not going to be Jack's vocals that anyone might question with this effort, as his is a voice that has managed to retain its tone and timbre despite the years.  His voice takes on a bit of a huskier sound in a few spots, but generally speaking, Russell stays in his zone, which suits the material here perfectly.  For casual fans of the band, however, they are more likely to be pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the band that surrounds Russell now.  For my money, Robby Lochner is every bit the guitar player Mark Kendall is or ever was, and I have gone on record stating that I actually think he is a better musician than Kendall.  Fliszar is a tremendous player on drums and proves himself more than capable of working the various styles and tempos presented by the Zeppelin catalog.  Dan McNay is equally solid on bass and he helps the band hold the line throughout each of these tracks, adding a depth and richness to the sound here that is frequently missing from so much rock these days.  Fans of the band will likely notice that Tony Montana Cardenas is not credited here, with Michael Olivieri from Leatherwolf serving as the rhythm guitar player and keyboardist on this effort, and he does an outstanding job, I might add.  I was curious about this situation, so I went to the source and asked Robby about it.  Turns out there's not a lot to report, simply that "Michael just did the Zep shows we did", referring to some dates JRGW did, and being familiar with the material, he was tabbed to play on the record, also.  I'm wondering if there was something to the Covid quarantines that kept people from being able to make their schedules and the studio locations work for the recording this album. 

So, is Great Zeppelin II a worthy successor to the original?  Absolutely!  In fact, I would have to say I probably prefer the track listing here to the first one, as this one rocks a bit harder overall, and the album cuts chosen here are more to my liking than on the original.  What about the musical quality?  Again, Great Zeppelin II more than holds its own in that department.  If there is one area that I thin the original exceeds this newest effort is actually in the atmosphere.  It is hard to understate just how impressive it was to hear Great White pull off that first album...LIVE...and the sounds of the live crowd intermixed with the band just add to the ambiance of the entire project.  That simply can't be replicated in the studio, and to JRGW's credit, they don't attempt to do that by mixing in audience sounds and background noises.

The production here is excellent with Lochner handling the recording and mixing in his own Lochner Studio.  The flow of the album works well, also, which was a bit of a question for me since there was no opportunity for band/audience interaction to provide breaks between songs that might not normally line up perfectly, stylewise.  The packaging is pretty simple, with a fold-out front cover that features the track listing, band credits, and writing credits, with band thank-yous and a great white shark image gracing the inside of the single fold front.  

All in all, this is a nice effort that is a lot of fun to listen to and that should serve to tide over fans as much as it likely served as a bit of therapy for a quarantined band.  Hopefully, 2022 will see a new studio effort from Jack Russell's Great White as well as some extensive time on the road.        

Ranking: A crankable effort, that I would say is on par with the original.  Crank this to 8.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

MERCURY X "Imprisoned"

 

(c)2021 Frontiers Records

  1. Until The Break Of Day
  2. The Light In Your Eyes
  3. Lonely
  4. Imprisoned
  5. The Sound Of Nothing
Martin Bjorklund--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Violin
Jonas Vedin--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Alfonso Flores--Bass, Backing Vocals
Denis Diaz--Drums, Backing Vocals

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see an EP on the Frontiers Records label, as I can't off the top of my head recall another one by the Italian label.  But then, after listening to Imprisoned by Swedish prog metallers, Mercury X, I get it; the EP clocks in at more than 45 minutes of music, with the title track making up nearly half of the release (it's more than 20 minutes long)!  As such, there is a lot to unpack when listening to this record.  Like so many other bands, Mercury X took advantage of their Covid-19 quarantine time to create new music.  In fact, the title track, "Imprisoned", is based upon that quarantine situation and being locked away from the rest of society (the cover art has the four guys in their recliners, which is where a lot of people found themselves for long stretches of time).  Unsurprisingly, the music here is moody in places, reflecting those darker times.  In other spots, there is an upbeat, more hopeful feel to the music, with some epic moments of musicality carried out by the four Swedes.

When approaching the review for this album, I really had to look at it as two different entities: the four shorter songs, and the massive title track.  With the shorter material, the more casual prog metal fans are going to likely find themselves drooling over the exquisite musicianship, incorporating some insanely fast riffing, sweeping synth work, and solid rhythms from the bass and drums.  Lead vocalist Martin Bjorklund has a huge voice loaded with power and passion, and he really shines on a track like the more mid-tempo "Lonely", where he alternately sinks and soars on the extremes of his range.  At times reminiscent of James Labrie of Dream Theater, at others more akin to Russell Allen, Bjorklund is more than capable of handling the sweeping challenges these intricate songs throw at him.  To be fair, I do think the backing vocals could be a bit stronger, or maybe beefed up in the mix a bit, but overall, I have virtually no complaints on the shorter songs here.  It is all to0 evident these guys are masters of their instruments and the song structures here are tight and focused, even with the multiple tempo changes and time signatures.  The guitars of Bjorklund and Vedin intertwine with each other, chasing each other across heavy drum patters and thick bass runs, along with some perfectly placed (and also uncredited) synth work.  If I had to pick a favorite of the four shorter tracks, I think I'd be inclined to single out "The Sound of Nothing",  as it builds from a quiet piano intro, each note echoing into the ether, before the band hits with full force, a wall of guitars blasting you before breaking down into some hard-charging rhythm lines and a frantic synth line threading its way through the track.  Bjorklund stays mostly in the middle of his range here, easily gliding across the heavy guitars and thunderous, galloping drums.  In fact, it is on this track that I think Diaz really showcases just how powerful he is as a drummer, with the interlude at around the 4:30 mark really finding him on the attack at the kit, seemingly punishing his drums.  Interestingly, just prior to that, the song takes on a softer, more jazz-like quality that allows Flores some room to work with his bass.  Massive synth sweeps provide an undercurrent for the song's exiting guitar solo, while heavy rhythm riffs continue to chew away at the track.  To me, this song has the strongest connection to the heavy-yet-progressively-melodic style that I think Dream Theater absolutely mastered on Images And Words, and fans of that era of the band are going to salivate at what Mercury X is doing here!   That being said, the sheer power of album opener, "Until The Break Of Day", is awesome to take in as it hits hard with a definite Queensryche vibe in the opening few moments that melds into a Dream Theater musical tapestry.  A strong guitar solo and some hints of more modern elements add to the power of this track that really sets the tone for the record as a whole.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't give a nod to "The Light In Your Eyes", with its galloping drum and tight twin guitar intro that just teems with harmonic goodness!  The chug-chug-chugga-chug of the rhythm guitars during the verses sits in stark contrast to the smooth, soaring style of the chorus sections.

The title track...well, there's a lot to digest there.  Originally conceived as a stand-alone single EP, "Imprisoned" contains so many layers, so many twists and turns, it's almost too much to absorb as a single song, at least for me.  Epic doesn't begin to accurately describe all that is going on here.  Bjorklund is all over the place vocally, singing, soaring, snarling, and harshly barking his way through the various movements of the song.  The guitars hit aggressively but then back off into a more ethereal, atmospheric approach in places, while sounding mournful as it weeps its way through a brief interlude at the 10:50 mark, only to explode to life again in a huge, machine-gun burst of speed and aggression with a fret-running solo that is dizzyingly fast and still melodic.  I have no idea how a drummer is able to maintain the way that Diaz does here for nearly 21 minutes, but his unique patterns, intricate fills, and the handling of the tempo changes are impressive, to say the least. I also wonder if his tech had to change out cymbals after his aggressive assault on the metallic discs at the 12:35-ish mark of the song!  Soft and heavy, harsh and lush, angry and hopeful.  So much is going on with "Imprisoned", both musically and lyrically, that it pretty much deserves to be tackled as the stand-alone track it was originally envisioned as, just so you get a chance to really appreciate the musical scope of the song.    

If I'm being 100% honest, I'm not a real fan of the layout of the album, with the monstrous "Imprisoned" positioned before album closer, "The Sound of Nothing".  When a band gets this ambitious on a track, I like it to be stationed at the end so that I can hear the other material first, and then work my way through the epic piece as I have time.  As it stands, I would imagine the vinyl release of this album is somewhat imbalanced, with only 18 minutes of music on Side A, and more than 25 minutes on Side B.  Regardless, this is a minor point and one that doesn't take away from the impressiveness of the project as a whole.

The production here is excellent, with a lot of heft and depth to the music, and Bjorklund's vocals perfectly placed atop the musical fray.  As I mentioned earlier, I think the backing vocals could have used a bit more oomph, but other than that, I have no qualms with the way the production was handled, which seems to be an issue a lot of people take with Frontiers releases.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this project, as I admittedly am not the biggest fan of epic prog metal such as this.  Again, the album's namesake track is considerably more than my 3 to 6 minutes per song brain typically can effectively assimilate, but I can't deny my appreciation for the insane musicality of the track and the sheer force of will it must take to perform a singular song for 20-plus minutes.  The songwriting throughout the album is interesting and challenging, and the guitar work alone is worth the price of admission.  It is likely I will be seeking out the band's previous two efforts based solely on this, their Frontiers Records debut.

Rating:  Crankable...and enticingly exhausting!  Crank this to an 8.


12 Stones "Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1"

 

(c) 2020 MTown Records

  1. In Flames
  2. Anywhere But Here
  3. Sever
  4. Gone Away
  5. Empty Words
Paul McCoy--Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Eric Weaver--Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Bass, Backing Vocals
Sean Dunaway--Drums

Somehow, for the second straight release, 12 Stones has managed to release an album without me knowing about it.  Granted, perhaps this one is a bit more excusable as it is a digital-only EP, but still, how did I not at least hear about it?  This latest EP, Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1, has been out since November of 2020, but in today's music world, no singles have received airplay (that I am aware of), and no videos have been made (that I can find), so perhaps it shouldn't come as a shock that I didn't know about this release.  Regardless of if I knew about it, Smoke And Mirrors Volume 1 is here, so what's it all about?


For anyone who may have (somehow) missed them previously, 12 Stones has been together for more than 20 years now, playing an aggressive-yet-melodic form of modern radio rock that has spawned five albums and now two EPs, with 15 singles released to radio, and multiple songs have been used by the WWE. NHL, MLB, NASCAR, and several movie soundtracks.  In fact, during their first decade, it was pretty hard to avoid 12 Stones, as they were seemingly all over the place, with all of their album releases (12 Stones, Potter's Field, Anthem For The Underdog, Beneath The Scars, and the The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday EP) charting in Billboard's Top 200 and all but Anthem For The Underdog charting in the Billboard Top Christian Album's Top 10.  Things slowed down with the band taking a five year recording hiatus...although they still played live shows...returning in 2017 with Picture Perfectand then again with this latest effort in late 2020.  Since their beginning as a band in 2000, both McCoy and Weaver have been the foundation of the band, with a revolving cast of musicians joining the founding duo.  Drummer Dunaway has been rock solid with the band since 2014, however, so the current version of the line-up has nearly 8 years of chemistry behind them as the band works their way into their third decade as a group.    

On this newest EP, very little has changed in the sound and approach that 12 Stones utilizes, although they do add a few new wrinkles to their repertoire.  The album kicks off with the high voltage rock of "In Flames", with its message of frustration with the negativity of the world today.  "We're all just pieces in a twisted game/We won't be happy 'til the world's in flames" McCoy snarls in the chorus, while the second verse intones "We've all stopped caring for our fellow man/To love each other is a cardinal sin".  The bridge section takes this sentiment a step further, as McCoy sings "Divided we stand for nothing at all/United in fear, we'll lose it all" before Weaver steps in and drops a surprisingly hooky guitar solo.  McCoy's rhythm guitars are relentless throughout the track, and Dunaway simply crushes the kit on a song that I really feel should have been all over modern rock and Christian rock radio in 2020, yet was not even released as a single, as near as I can tell.  One annoyance with this track is nearly two minutes of silence at the end of the track.  I mean TOTAL silence.  There's nothing hidden here, just...nothing.  I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but it is annoying, to be sure.

When the silence finally breaks, the melodic-yet-brooding "Anywhere But Here" drops, with McCoy utilizing some big "whoa-oh-oh" type vocals to open the song and then to exit each chorus.  I really, really like this song which is definitely catchy and hooks the listener from the start.  Dunaway is again a beast on the kit, with a really tight drum roll heading into the final chorus break and some severe abuse of his cymbals throughout.  There are some programmed elements in this track, including what sound like programmed strings to help support the chorus section, and all-in-all, I'd have to say this is one of the better songs 12 Stones has recorded and is one that, again, I have no idea why it wasn't pushed to radio.  For what it's worth, I have told a couple of friends and my wife that the song structure reminds me of a punchier, more aggressive "Kiss From A Rose" by Seal, an while they thought I was crazy at first (they may still think I'm crazy, who knows), they all agreed they could hear what I was talking about.

"Sever" ups the aggression once again, with McCoy's rhythm guitars and Weaver's leads meshing well to power the song forward.  There are some odd effects thrown into the mix that sound a bit...off...for a lack of a better word, but they don't destroy the song.  Weaver drops a really catchy guitar solo, as well, and his growth, as well as the band's incorporation of more solo work into their songs, shows a growth and maturation that a lot of 12 Stones' peers simply haven't achieved.

A perfect example of that is "Gone Away", which is definitely my favorite track on the EP.  What would be considered the EP's ballad, "Gone Away" starts off with a very moody, grungy guitar tone that reminds me of the intro to Nirvana's "Come As You Are", before it moves on and builds into something much more melodic.  The verses are a bit more laid back than the punchy choruses, and the varied approaches work exceptionally well.  "Gone Away" also gives Weaver another chance to really expand his guitar's sound on both the brief solo section in the middle and the expanded closing run at the end of the track.  McCoy backs off of the rasp a bit here, cleaning up his vocals just enough for  emotional effect.

The EP closes on a hard-hitting note, with some hints of nu metal being used throughout "Empty Words" to surprisingly good effect.  Echoing similar themes to the opener, McCoy sneers, "I find myself trapped in this hell, surrounded by empty words and tired excuses" as Dunaway thunders away at his kit and the rhythm guitars chew their way through this edgy rocker.  Weaver utilizes a slightly different approach to his solo section here, but it works, and "Empty Words" finds the band exiting this sub-20 minute EP on a definite high note.

I'm not sure if this was a creative outlet for the band during the Covid lockdowns or if the band is taking the cue of several other bands and plans to release EPs at a faster rate than would likely be possible with full-length efforts.  Regardless, it is a very solid addition to the 12 Stones catalog, although I would be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated that it is currently only available as a digital download.  I have heard rumors of a Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 2 being released sometime in 2022, so perhaps the two EPs will be collectively packaged and get a proper physical release. 

I think the production is solid and the mix is very nicely done, which is really highlighted by the separation of McCoy's and Weaver's guitars.  Outside of that quirky (and irritating) 2 minutes of silence after track one, I really don't have any complaints about the production or the layout of the EP.  I have no idea who mixed, mastered, or produced Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1...perhaps the band did it themselves...but kudos to whomever was at the mixing console.   

Rating:  As solid as ever, 12 Stones returns in crankable form with Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1.  Crank this to a solid 7.5, with only its brevity and digital-only format holding it back from a higher rating.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

LOVE LIKE GRAVITY "Break The Silence"

                                   

(c) 2021 LLG

  1. Devil's In The Details
  2. Let It Go
  3. Scream
  4. Break The Silence
  5. Through Your Eyes
  6. All I Need
  7. Game Of Souls
  8. Grind
  9. Thorn (featuring Tony Palacios)
  10. Shaken

Billy Pind--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano
Cale Kight--Guitars, Programming
Stan Mayo--Drums, Synth, Programming

Additional Musicians
Tony Palacios--Bass on all, Guitar Solo on "Thorn"

You have to say this about the Covid pandemic: it really kickstarted the creative process for a lot of bands who had disappeared into the ether.  Despite the success of several singles off of the band's first two efforts, it had been six long years since Love Like Gravity had released an album, and it seemed as if LLG was another band that had simply moved on.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the band dropped "Devil In The Details", its first single since they released their Chain Reaction album in 2015.  Numerous weeks on the charts (including several spent at number one on various Christian rock charts) have proven that not only is Love Like Gravity back, they appear to be back bigger than ever.

The album kicks off with the lead single, "Devil In The Details", and it is obvious the band has not lost their penchant for hard-edged guitars mixed with electronic elements that drove such songs as "Slave", "Dig", "Adrenaline", and their biggest hit to-date, "Stronger".  I reviewed the single previously HERE, so without rehashing everything, I'll just leave the video here for you, just in case you are one of the few people who have missed the band's big return hit. 


From here, the band finds themselves continuing in a similar vein throughout much of the record, with varying levels of intensity.  "Let It Go" backs off the angst a bit, dialing back the snarl on the guitars and aims a bit more for a mainstream modern rock sound and hitting the mark solidly.  Pind's voice is absolutely suited for this type of track that recalls a lot of what was so great about Love Like Gravity on their previous efforts.  My instincts tell me this track will be a single in the not too distant future, and I imagine people familiar with the band will eat this song up!

"Scream" is one of the best tracks on the album, and one that I find myself returning to again and again, with Pind utilizing both clean and harsh styled vocals and Kight absolutely tearing things up on the guitar.  "Scream" is a great representation of what this album does well, and the current trio of Pind, Kight, and Stan Mayo (who handles the drums and programming) is exceptionally tight and complement each other well.  The same can be said for the title track, "Break The Silence", which is another one of those three or four songs that keep fighting for that top of the heap slot.  Featuring a hook that could snag a whale, "Break The Silence" is yet another track that is screaming for radio airplay, and I find myself hitting repeat on this track practically every time I pop the disc in.

Things slow considerably from here with the big ballad, "Through Your Eyes".  A largely acoustic number, this track perfectly showcases Pind's vocal power, as well as some serious skill on acoustic guitar. It has been my experience that a lot of players really find themselves exposed when they unplug their guitar, but that is not the case here.  Normally, the ballads take a bit of time to grow on me, but "Through Your Eyes" grabbed my attention right away.  

"All I Need" stays on the slower side but doesn't really hit ballad territory, and the guitars and amps stay plugged in for the duration.  A profession of our need for Christ to save us from "the enemy", as well as from ourselves, "All I Need" confronts self-medication ("I tried to take a pill to kill the pain, but it never left me...") and calls on our Savior to "save me, from the enemy, that was trying to beat me down...rescue me before I drown" in this world that will betray us and leave us on our own.  A powerful song that Pind pours his passion into vocally, "All I Need" is another great example of a track that sounds perfectly suited for modern rock radio, whether Christian or secular, with a message that the entire world needs to hear. 

"Game Of Souls" is another big-time rocker with a hard-hitting message that just keeps forcing me to hit repeat when it comes on.  The guitars crunch nicely, and Mayo's drums sound particularly huge on this track, with Pind's voice rising and falling with ease throughout the track.  "Grind" is also an absolute ear-snagger for me, with Pind utilizing that edgy snarl to perfection on the chorus sections while his clean vocals glide through the verses.  Kight's guitar, once again, charges hard throughout the track, and the modern elements added by the programming perfectly round out the sound.  Yet another competitor for the top track on the record, "Game Of Souls" warns the listener to consider the cost of the actions we choose to take and to know that life is more than just a game, our souls not something to gamble away.  

Despite all the really good tracks on the first half of this album, there are two specific tracks that directly challenge "Devil In The Details" for best on the record, and they are the closing tracks on the album.  "Thorn" is actually a re-worked track from the band's previous album, and while I really liked the original, I LOVE this new version.  Edgy, gritty, and angsty in all the right places, "Thorn" is just a monster of a track, with Kight's churning rhythm guitar carving its way through the meat of the track, before...BOOM...Tony Palacios, of Guardian fame, drops a teasingly short but exquisitely tasty solo that blows this new version of the song so far past the original that it's hard for me to consider them to be the same track, honestly.  Not a lie, this is definitely one of the best songs I have heard this year...but it technically is a "next year" track, and I have to believe it will be one of the best in 2022, as well!  

The album wraps with yet another great rocker in "Shaken" that, once again, finds Pind absolutely dominating on vocals, the full range of his dynamics on display as he sings/screams/snarls across an electronically-enhanced bed of grinding guitar and thundering drums.  Not blazingly fast, but definitely punchy and powerful, "Shaken" is a potent track for the times.  The first verse talks about putting on that false face for the public, worrying about how we are perceived by others, while the second talks about not letting our fears shake our foundation of faith in ourselves and in God.  An excellent wrap for the album, "Shaken" really puts a neat bow on a great comeback record from a band that I had seriously considered dead and buried.

The production on this record is excellent, with the band tackling that monumental task with great skill, with an assist from Tony Palacios on mixing the album.  To sound this big, this crisp, and this professional with ZERO label support is quite an achievement.  The songwriting on the album is excellent, with hooks galore, and the songs deliver a serious lyrical punch, with the band members' faith on full display without beating the listener over the head.  I love the tone of Kight's guitar throughout the record, and he and Mayo retain the formidable modern rock punch they first exhibited back in 2011 on their debut EP, and with the addition of Pind on vocals, they have managed to progress in their sound, maturing as well all do, but not compromising who and what Love Like Gravity is.  There are likely to be some comparisons to Decyfer Down on this record, especially surrounding some of the vocal stylings of Pind, which is probably fair...and pretty high praise, in my opinion!  That being said, for anyone who is familiar with the band's past, there is no doubt this is still Love Like Gravity. 

While I am sure there are still a lot of people like me who have been around pretty much since the get-go with LLG, with such a long layoff between albums, it is likely an entirely new generation of fans has jumped on the LLG train with the success of "Devil's In The Details" and have helped to propel the single to the top of the charts.  I truly hope this same group of new fans snaps up Break The Silence and keeps the LLG train rolling so maybe we won't have another 5 or 6 year gap between stops!  I also hope 2022 gets us closer to normal in the world and Love Like Gravity can take their show on the road!  Trust that if they show up anywhere near Nebraska, I will do everything possible to be in attendance!  

The album releases in January, 2022,  so you can still snag your a copy of Break The Silence by hitting the band's website here.  If you're more the digital type, you can download a copy on iTunes here.

Rating:  Still crankable even after a long layoff!  Crank this to an 8!


 

Friday, November 26, 2021

THE BRAVE "Evie's Little Garden"

 

(c) 2021 Independent Release

  1. Evie's Little Garden
  2. Run To You
  3. I've Always Wondered
  4. We're Not In Kansas Anymore
  5. Elevate Me
  6. Creep
  7. If I Told You
  8. Lonely Bones
  9. And We All Fall Down
  10. Lucid
  11. Come To Me
  12. Love: Automatic
Stayce Roberts--Lead Vocals, Lead Guitars, Keys
Malcolm Paris--Bass, Backing Vocals
John Spittle--Drums

From the Out Of Nowhere Files, 2021 saw the return of one of my favorite melodic rock bands of the 1990s, The Brave.  Now, it is true, The Brave did previously make a comeback effort with the release of  the rather unspectacular 2014 record, Rise, but after that disappointing effort, I truly didn't feel like we would ever hear from the band again.  It has been a long time since I was so glad that I was so wrong!  

No, Evie's Little Garden does not fully transport the band back to 1992 and their insanely slick and highly polished Battle Cries album.  Nor does it truly recall the dirtier, bluesier, grittier sound of 1994's Trust record.  However, Evie's Little Garden does find the band settling somewhere in the middle of those two excellent albums, treating listeners to an album that combines surprisingly strong lead vocals (why hasn't Roberts been fronting the band all of these years?!) backed by Paris' tight vocal harmonies, excellent guitar work, and a powerful bottom end that all work together to support some truly great songs that breathe new life into the Christian branch of the melodic hard rock genre.  While Roberts and Paris remain from the original version of the band, and Spittle has been with The Brave since the mid-90s, unlike on their last release, Rise, where they chose to pay homage to their past by re-recording several tracks from their first two records, this time The Brave exclusively moves forward with all new songs and an updated sound.  

The record kicks off with the title track and lead single, "Evie's Little Garden", which sets the Creation of man, and his subsequent fall in the Garden of Eden, to a killer, hook-laden rock track.  Guitars rumble to life to intro the track, then the percussion-driven verses and Roberts' gritty, gravelly vocals snarl their way into the mix, not even hinting at the melodic hook that is going to snare you in the ear once the chorus hits!  Expertly layered backing vocals add to the snarl that Roberts incorporates here, creating one of my favorite melodic rock tracks of the year, Christian or secular!  There's also a great guitar solo, some cool snake sound effects thrown into the mix, and just enough keyboard to round out this melodic rock gem.  This is a MONSTER of a song that had me clamoring to hear the entire record the very first time I laid ears on the track.  But as great as the music is, the construction of the lyrics, particularly the chorus, really grabbed my attention...

"Something's goin' on down in Evie's Little Garden,
Somebody said they saw a snake!
Hell's breaking loose down in Evie's Little Garden,
There's gonna be some Hell to pay...
There ain't no Garden anymore!"

Check it out below...


Follow-up single, "Run To You" shows up next in the track list, this time adding a bit more polish to the sound, with smooth, soaring vocals.  Definitely a bit "poppier" in the songwriting department, "Run To You" sounds a bit like an updated version of the type of tune the band burst onto the scene with on Battle Cries.  Roberts backs off the grit and gravel, vocally, allowing his voice to soar a bit in places, with Roberts displaying a fairly impressive range for a guy who had three separate chances, on three previous albums, to step up to the microphone, and in all three cases utilized a different lead singer!  And while he doesn't have the smooth, rich delivery of original frontman, James Salter, I have to say that I am far more able to listen to Roberts' voice repeatedly as it has that edge that just grabs your attention.  Again, this is a solid rock track, a bit more uptempo than the punchy "Evie's Little Garden", and features some really strong drum work.  Check this one out below...


"I've Always Wondered" heads more in the bluesier direction that the band's sophomore record, Trust, travelled, and I have to say it is one of the best tracks on an album chock full of great tunes!  Pondering the question of what life would be like had Christ not died for our sins, this track hits hard both musically and lyrically.  This type of track really seems to be the band's strong suit, to be honest, and is definitely put together well.  Once again, we have a really good guitar solo following the second chorus run, and Roberts sounds extremely confident with this type of vocal approach.  Again, I have to give a nod to the really well done backing vocals that add even more depth to the lead vocals from Roberts.  And, yet again, the band has offered up a video for what I am assuming will be the third single from the album at some point.  


As great as "Evie's Little Garden" is, as a song, I have to say that the next cut, "We're Not In Kansas Any More" may be my favorite (although it is definitely close!).  As I alluded to earlier, I really, really liked the musical turn the band took between their first and second albums, and "...Kansas..." definitely has that bluesy style that was utilized so expertly on the Trust record, which I would have previously said was my favorite.  If you are familiar with Trust, the killer "Can't Let The Devil Win" is a great stylistic comparison, and I find myself considering whether I love this track more than that one, which says a lot!  Here, this slower mid-tempo rocker just has such a cool guitar tone, more of those amazing backing vocals, and a big guitar hook that sinks itself in and refuses to let go.  Again, Roberts proves himself to be an expert vocalist with this type of track, and I highly doubt I have made it through this album without hitting repeat on this track every time.  I hope this song is released as a single in the near future, as I think "We're Not In Kansas Anymore" could end up being one of the band's signature songs.  I love it!  

"Elevate Me" stays in this bluesy groove, and I have to admit that I found myself starting to feel like this was the pocket the band would spend the rest of the album working from, and I was completely okay with that.  The Brave definitely has a style that they seem at home working with, and this heavy blues rock style never gets old for me.  As I have mentioned before, the harmony vocals just work incredibly well on this record, and what Roberts and Paris put together here is spectacular.  I'm not sure if there are some other singers added into the mix, but if not, the work from these two guys is top shelf, to be sure.

"Creep" is likely to throw listeners for a loop, with its demonic-vocal spoken intro and the, well, creepy vocal approach Roberts uses to start the verse sections.  Being 100% candid, this is a dark track musically, with a chilling, haunting style running throughout the song.  The solo, which is the finest on the entire album, shifts from a smooth string-bender, using some discordant tones, to a high-speed fret-runner near the end of the initial run, before bleeding under the closing turns through the chorus.  I say "bleeding under" because even as the chorus is sung repeatedly to close the song, the frenetic guitar acrobatics continue, with Roberts really going off near the end.  Definitely a top four song for me, all depending upon how I choose to arrange my favorites here.  Guitar fans are going to love this track, I have zero doubt!

Those demonic vocals pop up on "If I Told You" again, both at the intro and later on in the track, but generally speaking, this is a more straight-forward melodic hard rocker, with another great (but too short!) guitar solo from Roberts.  Spittle delivers some really good drum work here, with some hard-hitting fills and a sharp style that I find myself really appreciating here.  

"Lonely Bones" is the other top four track for me on this record, combining the hard-edged bluesy approach with that haunting, creepy style used in "Creep", but with some big, gang vocals on the slick "whoa oh ohs" used throughout the track.  Punchy drums, a solid bass line, hooky guitars, and smooth-yet-gritty lead vocals...yep, this song pretty much has everything that I could want from a track on this record.  Really, really good stuff here that I again find myself hitting repeat on.

"And We All Fall Down" uses some 80s rock keyboards (think Bon Jovi) combined with a slicker, poppier songwriting style to deliver an uptempo rocker that would find its way onto the tracklisting of several of the melodic rock albums being released by Frontiers Records bands today.  Another fun guitar solo is dropped into the mix here, and by this point in the record, I find it hard to come up with new ways to express just what an incredible job Roberts does as a vocalist.  He just nails the delivery and all the nuances and subtleties of handling the lead vocals on an album such as this seem to come naturally to him.  It seems obvious to me that Roberts was paying close attention to the Elefante brothers back in the early days of the band, and possibly took some lessons away from John Elefante's time in the legendary progressive rock band Kansas, as well.

Speaking of prog rock, "Lucid" is a bit of a curveball on the record, sounding more in line with 70s prog than 80s AOR or 90s/2000s melodic rock.  Think later Beatles, maybe some Electric Light Orchestra, and even hints of theatrical era Alice Cooper, with some quirky synthesizer effects at play in the verse sections of this mid-tempo number.  Not my favorite track, but definitely not throw-away material, either, "Lucid" expands upon the band's influences and presents a song that is more dependent upon synthesizers, along with vocal harmonies and layered musical textures, to set the mood than thundering drums and screaming guitars.     

"Come To Me" has a keyboard intro and opening drum line that are VERY much like the song "I've Got A Lot To Learn" by The Storm, which is a good thing, as I love that band and song.  Aside from that keyboard line, however, this is a bit more restrained song, more in the AOR ballad territory than anything else on this album, and The Brave proves they are more than capable of handling this style of song.  Roberts unleashes a great solo heading into the last runs through the chorus, filled with emotion and intensity, and his smooth vocal delivery is on full display here.  I could easily hear this song performed by the original version of the band on Battle Cries, but I honestly believe Roberts' singing and guitar playing are both miles ahead of where the band was at that time, and this song is an excellent bridge between The Brave of the past and where the band is now.

"Love: Automatic" closes the record, and once again we are treated to a hook-filled melodic rocker with a catchy, sing-along chorus, a fun guitar solo, and more of those killer harmony vocals that have highlighted so much of this record.  Uplifting and positive in nature, "Love: Automatic" is probably the perfect closing song for this record (at least of the dozen tunes presented here), as it leaves the listener on a musical high, combining all of the elements that make Evie's Little Garden such an excellent record from start to finish!

Lyrically, the album does not apologize for who the band is or what they believe, as The Brave lays it all out in the open from the very first track.  While a lot of Christian bands today choose to tackle social issues and leave some of their lyrics more open to interpretation and introspection, The Brave hearkens back to a day when singing about Jesus and boldly professing His Word was perfectly acceptable and the point.  While that may not be for everyone, and while it may drive a few listeners away, the hope is that the message also draws some listeners in, as well, providing hope and love and truth to those who may be seeking such things.  

The production is handled here by Roberts who does an excellent job of not being too heavy-handed, not too slick, and not trying to recreated the chrome-like polish of the Elefante Brothers sound from that debut Battle Cries album.  The instruments are each given life and room to breathe, and I particularly enjoy the drum sound and the excellent backing vocals used throughout the album.  Roberts proves himself far more than capable of handling the lead vocals for these new songs, and I'm sure he can tackle anything on the Trust album, as well, plus he's a top-notch guitar player that should garner more attention after this album.  Paris is solid on bass, but is irreplaceable on harmony vocals, and the drummer, Spittle, really adds a spark of energy to these tracks; the man is a rock drummer, through and through, with no quirky jazz fills or off-tempo rhythms to distract from the straight-forward,  punchy attitude of this batch of melodic hard rock songs.

Whether you are a fan of the band from back in the day, or are simply seeking some killer melodic hard rock from a new source, I can't stress enough how good this record is.  Pretty much guaranteed to be in the Top 10 of 2021, Evie's Little Garden is an absolute must-have for fans of the genre.  Available as a digital download pretty much anywhere, you can also order the CD directly from the band HERE.  I truly wish a label would pick this album up so it could get more distribution, more attention, and a broader spectrum of potential fans, but who knows if that will happen.  Once you get the record and fall in love with it, which you will, make sure you spread the word on your favorite socials so that The Brave can continue moving forward with outstanding music such as that found on Evie's Little Garden.  

Rating: A truly crankable comeback!  Crank this to an amazing 9 and let's hope we don't have to wait decades for another record from The Brave!

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Thursday, November 25, 2021

DEVIN WILLIAMS "Every Eye"

(c)2021 Independent Release

  1. Every Eye
  2. Sunshine
  3. Riverside
  4. Sunshine (Acoustic)
Devin Williams--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jeremy Holderfield--Guitars
Bass--Brent Milligan
Drums--Lester Estelle, Jr.

Additional Musicians
Andrew Stanton--Guitar Solo on "Riverside"
Marco Pera--Guitar Solo on "Every Eye"
Jonathan Yudkin--Strings

When Devin Williams calls in his friends for a project, he holds nothing back!  Featuring Jeremy Holderfield (Seventh Day Slumber), Lester Estelle, Jr. (Pillar), Brent Milligan (Steven Curtis Chapman/Seventh Day Slumber), Andrew Stanton (Disciple), and Marco Pera (Amongst The Giants/Disciple), Williams has put together a powerhouse of an EP with Every Eye that incorporates elements of modern hard rock, southern rock, and melodic rock that should tide fans over until he is able to put together a full release.  Delayed by COVID and life, in general, this EP manages to pack a punch, tug at the heartstrings, and give the listener pause all within the span of three new songs.

The EP kicks off with the big Christian radio hit and title track, "Every Eye".  Taking inspiration directly from Revelations, "Every Eye" is about the return of Christ and every man, woman, and child in the world knowing of the return of the King.  But also intertwined is an observation about the state of the world today, a world which has turned from God and His Word, as Williams warns that "Now is the time to get it right, Before He steps out on the clouds", at which point "Every Eye will see You, The mystery is finally revealed...and all the world will know that You're alive!".  He echoes these sentiments in the liner notes, where he professes "I feel it's time to prepare our hearts for Jesus' return, whether it's next year or 100 years from now."  Musically, this aggressive rocker kicks off with haunting guitars chords before making way for a big, chunky guitar riff and thundering drums that punch this track into high gear.  Williams' smooth vocal delivery glides through the verse sections before ratcheting up the urgency, and dropping in a bit of an edge, on the chorus sections.  The solo from Pera is excellent, with a strong sense of melody without fading from the power of the song, and a vocal bridge with a nearly spoken delivery from Williams adds to the full scope of what the song delivers, stylistically.  While Williams has had numerous albums and songs hit multiple Christian rock charts, I have to say that "Every Eye" is very possibly my favorite track in his catalog up to this point.  Check it out.   


From here, the EP takes a much calmer turn with "Sunshine".  Introing with a soft build of guitars and strings over a bed of programmed elements, the song is, for me, a showcase for the vocal gifts of Williams.  Acoustic guitars accompany Williams' voice throughout, with strings adding to the lush feel of the track.  Following the second chorus there is a bit of a musical build that hints at hitting power ballad territory, but nothing really comes of it other than the drums getting a bit punchier in sound.  Regardless, this is a very nicely constructed song, and the string section is a really nice element here, with several flourishes from the violin section.  But, again, it is Williams' voice that is the real draw here, and there is no denying the vocal gifts of the man.  If you are willing to look for more than just the edgy rock anthem of "Every Eye", you are likely to find something to enjoy here.    

Current single, "Riverside" is up next, stylistically splitting the difference between the full-blown radio rock of "Every Eye" and the balladry of "Sunshine".  The Southern side of Williams shines forth here, with a lot of soul in the mix of this song that invokes the imagery of the old-time river baptisms.  While the tempo is not as full throttle as "Every Eye", "Riverside" hits hard, nonetheless, and Andrew Stanton of Disciple really adds to that with an absolutely stellar guitar solo.  While too short (in my opinion), Stanton absolutely shines with his string-bending fret run here, and I would love to hear these two work together again in the very near future.  In fact, the collection of talent here really shines on this track more than anywhere else on the EP, as it is filled with punch and power, but also given enough room to breathe.  Estelle's drums are snappy, and Milligan's bass work here, while not flashy, really serves to add to the power of "Riverside".  Williams is fully in command here, vocally, with his rich voice really hitting its stride in the soaring chorus, and his conviction to the music and message really comes through in his performance.  Yet another top five track in the Williams catalog for me, and a song that I really hope gets a strong run on radio.  

The acoustic offering of "Sunshine" here, to be honest, isn't staggeringly different than the original.  I'm typically not really a fan of acoustic mixes, although this is well done.  I would have far preferred a 4th new song here, but there's no harm in this track's inclusion, even if it doesn't really offer up anything new.

The production on this project is top-notch, with Holderfield and Kellen McGregor, respectively, handling the producing and mixing.  The mix is excellent, with no muddiness at all, and the guitars especially coming across as having individual, unique voices.  I also love the drum sound that Estelle brings to the table, and a big round of applause goes to the entire production team for putting so much into...and getting so much out of...these new tracks.

Overall, this is a great little EP, and at just $8...for an actual physical CD that will arrive signed by Williams...the price is absolutely unbeatable!  Head on over to www.devinw.com and snag your copy today.  Christian rockers, you will not be disappointed! 

Rating:  Again, I don't love rating EPs, but to deny the crank-factor of this little project would be foolish.  Crank Every Eye to an 8 and let's hope we get a full album in 2022!



Tuesday, November 23, 2021

MAD ANTHONY "Party Heaven...Hell...WHATEVER!"

 

(c) 2021 Eonian Records

  1. Just My Type
  2. Party Town
  3. I'm The One
  4. Mother's Helper
  5. Falling Out Of Love
  6. Back Stage Boogie
  7. Face To Lace
  8. Stay With Me
  9. Tonight We Ride
  10. When We Touch
  11. Big Ole Long Red Hot Rod
  12. Rock Me
  13. Nadine
Rik Burnell--Lead Vocals
Ralph Longo--Electric & Acoustic Guitar
Mark Freseman--Guitars
Bryan Lujan--Bass
James Bohn--Drums

Mad Anthony.  You know....from San Francisco.  Big time party band in the mid-to-late-80s scene.  Ever hear of them?  No?  Not surprising, as Mad Anthony is yet another in the long...LONG...line of "coulda, woulda, shoulda" bands that, by all accounts, wowed audiences and packed the clubs, but never had that one little thing that would get them their big break and a record deal: luck.  It seems that Mad Anthony, like so many others, was just never in the right place at the right time with the right song being played to really hook the attention of whatever talent scout or A&R guy was in the club that night.  But did the band have the goods to attract that attention?  Eonian Records has assembled a 13 cut retrospective of the band that gives listeners a chance to make their own judgement.

Before really digging into the CD, I think a couple of points need to be made.  First, I'm not sure if these 13 songs were ever released as a proper album, or if they are assembled from multiple demos and singles, so the flow of the record may seem a bit uneven to some people, and I get that, as I felt that way, too.  Second, keep in mind that while this is definitely good-time, hard rocking party music, this is not hair metal of the late 80s/early 90s.  Mad Anthony came about just a couple of years after Quiet Riot broke big with Metal Health, and Ratt was coming Out Of The Cellar while Motley Crue was still Shout(ing) At The Devil.  This isn't Poison or Warrant or Firehouse or any of the slick pop-metal/hair metal bands that were MTV darlings even outside of Headbanger's Ball.  There is far more Y&T or KEEL here than Winger or Bon Jovi.

With those things being said, it's still apparent Mad Anthony was about having a good time and partying.  This fact is laid bare with opening rocker, "Just My Type", which extols the virtues of the ladies that are the subject matter of the song.  Right away it is evident Mad Anthony (by the way...what a really bad band name!) is definitely coming at things from a Y&T meets Ratt direction, and the song actually has the feel of an album cut from either band, really.  Lead vocalist, Rik Burnell, has something of a Stephen Pearcy quality to his vocals at times, especially in the chorus sections of this, and a few other songs, where he employs more grit and edge to his delivery.  Track two, "Party Town" adds a bit of a Van Halen flair to the mix, but overall it doesn't come across as anything overly special.  Not bad, just not amazing.  Two tracks in and I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed.  But then things changed in one big clump of songs, starting with track three.  

"I'm The One", which starts off in a very...VERY...Dokken-esque fashion, is definitely one of the best tracks here, with Burnell's vocals climbing the ladder in a few spots and making me think a bit of another shoulda-been-bigger band, Sledgehammer Ledge.  Musically, the song is a mid-tempo rocker with a pretty good guitar solo and simple, sing-along chorus, and anyone who doesn't hear Dokken's "It's Not Love" in the guitar lick here must not be listening to the same track.  "Mother's Helper" is another great song that I can't help but feel should have been the real centerpiece of any presentation the band pitched to a label.  With backing vocals that remind me of early Britny Fox, a big rhythm section presence, and those mid-80s metal-edged guitars, "Mother's Helper" is a seriously kick-ass song that I am certain had clubs shaking when it was played.  That high octane rocker is followed by the best ballad here, yet another Dokken-ish tune called "Falling Out Of Love", which has a really cool musical vibe and a great overall sound.  Freseman's solo starts off a bit slow but really builds into a strong, flashy affair by the time it is over, and Burnell's vocals have a strong resemblance to Sebastian Bach's big power wail that he uses on several of Skid Row's best ballads.  Add in the bouncy, Van Halen-styled boogie number, aptly titled "Backstage Boogie", and you have now have four top-shelf tracks, backed up with my second favorite song here, the punchy "Face To Lace", with its solid bass work, gang-shouts in the chorus section, and a gritty, galloping rhythm guitar line that just drives this edgy rocker perfectly, although the "I like to f**k!" line that is thrown in near the end is absolutely insipid and serves zero purpose.  So, for me, tracks 3 through 7 would have been a really solid EP or showcase demo.

Things decline in varying degrees from these five tracks, however, though the it's not like the wheels come off the ride altogether.  "Stay With Me" is decent mid-tempo number with a pretty solid solo from Freseman, but the song generally feels like a weaker version of a Ratt album cut.  "Tonight We Ride" has potential...in fact, I generally really like the song with its darker vibe and haunting feel, but there is something that's a bit off here, likely the echoing reverb used on the backing vocals in the chorus section.  "When We Touch" finds a nice Y&T-meets-Ratt groove to work in, and is also a pretty good rocker musically, but some of the lyrics are just hard to listen to.  It feels like the guys were just fishing for rhymes at one point.  I mean... "I see you sitting there, and the way she combs her hair"?  What the heck does that even mean?!  "Big Ole Long Red Hot Rod" is just one big ole long musical cliche, although it is kind of fun the first few times through, and "Rock Me" is another one of those Van Halen-styled rockers the band seems to enjoy throwing into the mix and pulls off pretty well.  I'm not really sure what "Nadine" is supposed to be, but at less than 50 seconds, it's either a brief listen or a very quick skip that really doesn't add anything or damage much.    

Overall, Mad Anthony is a pretty good listen, with a handful of really strong, standout cuts that would have potentially seen the bottom of Billboard's Hot 100 at the time, maybe squeezed their way onto a  compilation cassette or a movie soundtrack, and if a video had been made, might have even spent some time on Headbanger's Ball.  But in the end, there just isn't enough to truly separate Mad Anthony from so many other bands of the time, and the things they do well, other bands simply did better.  That's not to say that a big time label with a full production budget wouldn't have bolstered a few of the best songs here, but all in all, as I was listening to the album, I kept getting the image of the fun, regional party bands that opened for tours in the area to draw the locals.  We all knew of bands that everyone was friends with and would go watch play, but that were likely never going to click in a massive way, at least with the line-up and group of songwriters that they had at the time.  For me, bands like Zwarte, Vyper, St. Elmo's Fire, The Untold, and others come to mind when I think of the tier where I think Mad Anthony likely existed.  To be fair, however, I think Mad Anthony had more talent than several bands I've heard that DID get recording contracts, so I have to go back to my original belief that Mad Anthony simply wasn't in the right place at the right time.      

The production here is really good, with the re-mixing/re-mastering beefing up the sound and eliminating nearly all of the "demo" feel of the songs here.  Kudos to Eonian for putting together yet another solid release of an unknown that is likely to spark a lot of interest from fans who remember the band from back in the day, and from fans of the scene and genre, in general.  If you are one of the numerous collectors that are continually looking to bolster their catalog of well-produced unknowns, make sure you add Mad Anthony to your shopping list!  I'm sure you won't be disappointed if the rare and unknown is your thing!

Rating:  Rock this to 6.5, with tracks three through seven nearly pushing this nice collection into crankable territory.

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BLOODLINES "Hevel"

                               

(c) 2021 Facedown Records

  1. Lotus
  2. Devil (featuring Brook Reeves)
  3. Colder
  4. Ruah
  5. Hevel
Alexis Rodriguez--Vocals
Daniel Camacho--Guitars
Aldo Mayorga--Bass
Matthew Benavides--Drums

Fresh on the heels of the blistering new War Of Ages EP, Facedown Records unleashes another pummeling mini-album of metalcore, this time from Bloodlines.  Entitled Hevel, which translates from Hebrew to "meaningless", the EP focuses on crushing, start-stop-start riffs, hard-hitting drums, typical-of-the-genre harsh vocals, and some really tight, clean vocal harmonies, wrapped around several heavy breakdowns, some surprisingly progressive moments...and a few surprises thrown into the mix to keep Bloodlines from becoming just another band in the metalcore world.  

With most of the material here, Bloodlines takes a route not wholly unlike what bands like Fit For A King have adopted on their last couple of albums, or even fellow Texans, War Of Ages.  However, Bloodlines goes a bit further in differentiating themselves by incorporating pretty atypical instrumentation for the genre.  For example, Bloodlines incorporates hip-hop-styled electronic drum patterns into a couple of tracks here, specifically the newest single, "Lotus", and what may be their best, most diverse song, "Devil".  With "Lotus", the programmed drums hit near the end of the track, giving the track a different feel as the screamfest comes to a close.  It threw me for a loop the first couple of times through, but after repeated listens, I have to say it works pretty well and isn't the distraction it was initially.  "Lotus" also features some pretty good clean vocals on the chorus sections, and the bottom end of the track (and the entire EP, for that matter) is really tight, really heavy.

"Devil" may be one of the angriest songs I have heard in a long, LONG time.  Were it not for the fact that Bloodlines is a Christian band, and the lyrics to the song leave little doubt as to that fact, the truly demonic-sounding vocals at the end of "Devil" would send chills up my spine.  If you've ever wondered what the sound of the Biblical gnashing of teeth might sound like, you need only scan forward to about 3:30 in "Devil" (you can't miss it....it follows more of those electronic drums I mentioned), and you will hear brutal vocal anguish in a way I can't say I've heard before.

Those harsh vocals are quickly put in the rearview by the clean, melodic vocals that intro the album's lead single, "Colder".  This track incorporates some of that more radio-ready metalcore style that I alluded to on "Lotus", with some definite crossover appeal that carried the track into some non-metal/metalcore formats.  There are definitely more melodic, clean vocals on "Colder" than on the previous two tracks, and the band makes heavy use of harmony parts on the chorus, which works really well.  Even the harsh vocals don't take on the brutality level of something like "Devil", and the breakdown here is pretty sick, but non-threatening.  The lead riff on the track is one that instantly gets stuck in my head, and "Colder" is a track that stays with me for a long time every time I hear it.  "Colder" has spent quite a bit of time on various Christian hard rock and metal format stations, and really did a good job of introducing the band to the scene.  Check out the video for that track below.


"Ruah" is another straight ahead scorcher, from the aggressive guitar that intros the track to the barked vocals that Rodriguez attacks with straight out of the gate.  Multiple layers of harsh vocals carry the pre-chorus into a pretty melodic chorus with really strong clean singing soaring across some thick rhythm guitar riffs and really solid drum work.  Again, not as brutal as "Devil", and a bit more melodic overall than "Lotus", "Ruah" is likely the third single from this EP (at least it would be if I was in charge of the promotion), and I think it has the potential to do well across multiple hard formats.  Still a punishing track, featuring a solid breakdown coming out of a spoken word section...more of a prayer than anything, inviting God to breathe His breath of life upon His people..."Ruah" really has a more progressive feel to it than a lot of the music of this genre.  Good stuff.

The EP closes with the title track, which is where those progressive elements I mentioned in the first paragraph really pop up.  "Hevel" starts off very soft, very melodic, completely clean as far as vocal style, and you are lulled into a false belief that the band may actually be tackling a ballad.  Where's my Zippo to thrust into the air?!  In fact, during each of the verse sections this softer approach is utilized, with the drums taking on something of a more controlled marching cadence in places, more of a jazz style in others, but the chorus...whoa...the chorus unleashes the harsh vocals and the thick rhythm guitar and bass cords, going from a quiet, contemplative sounding track to a swirling morass of aggression and angst.  The dichotomy of styles here works really well, and while I definitely wouldn't call this a ballad (no slow dancing, for sure), there is a musicality here that I think will end up serving Bloodlines well in setting themselves apart in this genre. 

How far Bloodlines goes is obviously totally up in the air at this point, but Hevel is a great starting point for the band.  This is a debut EP that makes a statement, and I hope that the band can catch on as the opener for some touring band, or get onto some festival stages, to get themselves broader exposure.  Available digitally pretty much everywhere, you can also order the CD here (I believe vinyl is also available).     

Rating:  Crushingly crankable!  Blast this at an 8!