Thursday, April 14, 2022

GUNSHY "Mayday"

 

(c) 2022 Lion's Pride Music

  1. N862B
  2. Ticket 2 Heaven
  3. You Take My Heart
  4. Last Chance
  5. Fool
  6. Sometimes
  7. Superstition
  8. Love Is A Game
  9. Sherry's On Fire
  10. Music Man
  11. Friends and Lovers
  12. Why (Bonus Track)
John Luke--Lead, Backing Vocals
Patrick Reilly--Keys, Backing Vocals
Steve DiBiasi--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Mark Levin--Bass, Backing Vocals
Max Zach--Drums, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
Jamie St. James--Backing Vocals
Tommy Thayer--Backing Vocals
Todd Jensen--Backing Vocals
Scott Reese--Backing Vocals
Terrie Carlos--Backing Vocals on "Superstition" and "Music Man"
Phyliss Balie--Backing Vocals on "Superstition" and "Music Man"

There are a lot of labels that are doing the whole "look who we found" thing, releasing albums by bands that practically nobody has heard of, and many by bands that, well, probably shouldn't have been heard of, to be candid.  Occasionally, however, a lost and forgotten band pops up that really grabs my attention.  Gunshy's only album (that I am aware of), Mayday, is one that really and truly should have been heard.  As a result, these guys get added to my "Right Sound, Wrong Time" files, as Gunshy is a band that woulda, coulda, shoulda been huge had they just struck at the right time.  Mayday dropped about 5 or 6 years too late, releasing in 1995 on the tiny, independent Long Island Records label, virtually guaranteeing that nobody heard the excellent late 80s hard radio rock this band churns out on this release.  Japan's Pony Canyon label re-released in in 1996, but again, most people probably missed it.  Now, remastered and repackaged with a bonus track, Mayday is finally available to a wider audience with Lion's Pride's 2022 release.  

At times, Gunshy reminds me of a cross between the gritty, blue collar hard rock of Tesla combined with a more polished, more melodic band such as Danger Danger, or maybe a bit harder band like Baton Rouge.  Of course, on "Superstition", comparisons to Extreme are going to be drawn, but more on that in a minute.  Lead vocalist John Luke has a definite Jon Bon Jovi quality to his vocal delivery style, or maybe more of an Eric Martin (Mr. Big), but he also throws in that Jeff Keith grit from time to time, as well.  It really depends upon the songs, which we'll dive into now.

The album kicks off with, you guessed it, an intro.  This one is of some communication between a pilot (presumable a fighter pilot based upon the album cover) and an air traffic control tower.  It's short, it's not musical at all, and it serves no real purpose, but it's not a major distraction, I suppose.  This bleeds directly into "Ticket 2 Heaven" (I'll touch on that "bleeding into" part later), a song which, structurally, reminds me a lot of Great Radio Controversy era Tesla, especially in the way the chorus is put together.  An excellent guitar solo from DiBiasi (one of numerous such solos on the record) tears across the track following the second chorus, and it is immediately apparent this band had a lot going for it!

"You Take My Heart" has an interesting percussion build to start the track before a very Top Gun sounding (trust me, you'll know what I mean when you hear it) guitar line weaves its way into the song along with a supporting bed of keys.  The track develops into more of a melodic hard rock number from this point with the song definitely something in the Danger Danger vein, stylistically.  "Last Chance" continues in this vein, incorporating a very 80s guitar line and keyboard style into a mainstream rock radio-styled song that sits somewhere between ballad and mid-tempo rocker.  Three songs in, it becomes extremely obvious that these guys are simply too late to the party, as they have all the songwriting skills and musical chops to have competed with so many of the bands that found their way onto 80s rock radio and MTV, and likely not just Headbanger's Ball.  I think these guys could have transcended and made some inroads into the Top 40. 

"Fool" again wends its way into second-album Tesla territory, again primarily in the way the chorus is structured and the delivery style of Luke.  That being said, the guitar solo is more "Hollywood hair" styled than anything you typically hear from Tesla, but I think once you hear the chorus section and then compare it to something like "Makin' Magic". "Flight To Nowhere", or "Lady Luck", you will know exactly what I am referring to.

The only true ballad of the album hits next, and its pretty good.  The keys, in the form of electric piano, play a predominant role here, and Luke fluctuates his delivery style and range quite a bit here, adding an element of angst to the track.  The solo from DiBiasi is a big string-bender, packing quite the emotional wallop, and the big harmony vocals coming out of that solo are exceptional.  I get the feeling the band was steered in this direction by a label exec somewhere, and then the album just broke too late to get the big airplay this song would likely have garnered a few years earlier.  Who knows.  I could see 18 year old me slow dancing with my prom date to this song, but 25 year old me...which I would have been when the album originally came out....had moved on from the big Monster ballads for the most part, as had most of the music world.

Throughout the years, I have heard bands cover a wide variety of songs and styles, but to the best of my knowledge, I hadn't heard anyone tackle Stevie Wonder...until now.  A couple of oddly paired sound effects (a glass breaking and a baby crying) kick the song off and the musical talent of the guys becomes apparent immediately. Not only does Gunshy take on the R&B legend, they cover one of his more well-known songs, "Superstition".  I remember first hearing this song as a kid in the mid-70s as it appeared on Sesame Street, of all things, and it is a track that has stuck with me for nostalgic reasons, seemingly forever.  So hearing a band that is far more my style than Stevie Wonder tackle the track was something pretty wild to me!   As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, you could consider that a band such as Extreme might take on a funky track such as this, complete with a horn section (I'm assuming handled by the keys, as no brass section was credited here), but to say that Gunshy nails this song would be an understatement.  Luke's vocals take on a sassy quality that suits the music perfectly here, and it is obvious he is having a blast on this outside-the-box track.  Once again, the guitar acrobatics of DiBiasi are simply off the charts as he blazes through an incredible fret run, but the rest of the band deserves some serious credit for the funkafied delivery here!  The bass is a lot of fun here, and Zach's percussion work is absolutely spot-on!  I know there are going to be people who don't like this, but if I'm being honest, I hit repeat pretty much every time this track comes on my player.  Tight, bright, performances from the band, and some killer female backing vocals create a really, really fun track that jumps out from the very first listen.

Luke slips back into a Bon Jovi-esque delivery style on "Love Is A Game", which is another well-written tune that is definitely straight out of the 80s with its keyboard build at the start and the sharp, snappy snare line and a truly 80s guitar line bringing the track to full life.  Again, Danger Danger is a good style comparison, and I can't say enough about how well the backing vocals are done here, and really throughout the record.  DiBiasi gives the listener a lesson on tapping during his extended solo run our of the second chorus, leading into a vocal bridge that starts off rather starkly only to build in intensity until the chorus hits again.

For my money, "Sherry's On Fire" may be the standout track on the entire album (although "Superstition" and "Ticket 2 Heaven" are both big for me, as well).  A big, catchy chorus, understated supporting keyboards, and a ripping guitar solo all combine with the big, arena-filling drums here to deliver a track that absolutely would have found radio play in 1989.   An ode to the stripper the singer is apparently infatuated with, this has Headbanger's Ball video spray-painted all over it!  Did I mention how catchy this is?  Wow!  The gang vocals on the chorus are stacked to perfection, and the song just absolutely grabs the listener in a big way.  Yet another track that I find myself repeating with great frequency.  You can hear it below.



"Music Man" is a bit of a miss for me, as the band seems to be going for a Mr. Big, "To Be With You", vibe, especially on the first verse which is just Luke's vocals and Levin's bass accompanied very starkly by what sounds like some electronic percussion (it just doesn't sound to me like an actual high-hat).  To be fair, I don't hate the song, and it is performed very well, with some solid female backing vocals and yet another big, melodic solo from DiBiasi, but it feels like an obvious grab at something that worked for another band in another time.  Let's be fair, this type of song was never going to be played in 1995, so maybe the band should be given some grace and chalk it up to the guys paying homage to a band they looked up to.  I don't skip the song, but I don't seek it out, either.

"Friends And Lovers" wraps the original album in up-tempo, punchy fashion, with a catchy tune that may not be overly deep or original, but is still a fun listen.  The chorus is catchy as heck, and again, with everybody in the band singing back-ups, the harmony vocals are one of the high points here (and throughout the entire album).  DiBiasi continues to treat every song here as his own personal guitar clinic, and I have to wonder just how popular he (and the rest of Gunshy) could have been had they caught on just a few short years earlier.  The extra urgency added to the drums as the band runs through the last chorus section here is a nice touch, and the original Mayday comes to a close.

On this reissue, Lion's Pride has unearthed a new track in "Why", which is the hardest-hitting, most metal song on the record.  Obviously still in demo form here, this is a seriously aggressive rocker that I have to think was intended for a follow-up release.  Luke's vocals are FAR lower in register here than anywhere on Mayday, and he uses a rough, raspy delivery that borders on bellowing at times, especially in the verse sections.  On the chorus, you can hear some of the more melodic, hair metal style he used on the main tracks of Mayday, but here, this is a much darker, angrier sounding song than the good-time, hard-rocking party music the first 11 tracks delivered.  This is metal, plain and simple.  The guitars are edgy and aggressive, while still flashy during the solo section, and the drums are basically beat to death during the track.  I would love...LOVE...to hear the entire demo the band put together for this second record (if such a thing exists), as I really dig what the guys were doing here, although I suspect a lot of people will skip it or drop it from their own personal rip.  "Why" truly sounds like a song from a different band in a lot of ways. 

Pulling out all the stops, even on production, the band enlisted the help of Pat Regan, who has worked with such well-known acts as KISS, Keel, Mr. Big, Quiet Riot, Deep Purple, and even Weird Al Yankovic!  The result is a very professional sounding record, smooth and polished, with a solid voice given to every instrument in the mix.  My one complaint on the production would be that the jet sounds were left under the mix for a bit too long as the intro concluded and "Ticket 2 Heaven" kicked off.  It made the beginning of "Ticket..." sound a bit rough to me, and it is corrected well before any vocals kick in, but had this been the 80s, and if radio gave a damn about melodic rock, I think this little production hiccup would have killed "Ticket..." as far as a single release goes.  Again, very minor and maybe not even something most people would note.

I honestly don't know enough about them to know a real backstory here, whether they were just kids in the mid-to-late-80s or if they slogged it out in the club scene for several years, only to get blindsided by grunge.  I do know that they had some fairly big-name supporters, with both Jamie St. James and Tommie Thayer of Black N Blue making appearances in the backing vocals section, along with Todd Jensen (I'm assuming this is the Todd Jensen who played bass for Doro and Harlow in the 90s).  I make this assumption as Mr. Regan, who produced the album, also worked with Doro.  (Incidentally, Jensen played on the metal goddesses' album, Doro, which was produced by not only Regan, but also Tommy Thayer...and Gene Simmons.  But I digress...) 

Overall, I was extremely impressed by this release, and I find myself playing it frequently.  The songwriting is excellent, the vocals...both lead and harmony/backing...are top-notch, and the musicians are impressive.  DiBiasi was a massive guitar talent who seemingly poured everything he had into this album, pulling out all of his tricks and leaving nothing behind.  If this was out in1989, Gunshy would have been a big-time player, I have little doubt.  Definitely an album worth adding to your collection!

Rating: A excellent and very crankable 8.5!

Sunday, April 3, 2022

DIRTBAG REPUBLIC "Tear Down Your Idols"

 

(c) 2022 Shock Records/Vanity Music

  1. Main Objective
  2. Skinny
  3. Wannabees
  4. Days Are Gone
  5. Don't Answer To No One
  6. Tear Down Your Idols
  7. Sorry
  8. Did All I Could
  9. Superficial
  10. When I Was Young
  11. Turn Back Fast
Sandy Hazzard--Lead Vocals
Mick Wood--Lead Guitars
Mike Federici--Guitars
Dave Worden--Bass
Ed Nijjer--Drums, Percussion

Sometimes you can pop in an album and just hear the filth.  You can smell the sludge.  You swear you can see the sleaze and slime and sweat just boil out of the speakers.  Pretty is not a word you would ever use.  Never.  And the latest from Dirtbag Republic is one of those albums.  Simply put, there is nothing "pretty" about the record, Tear Down Your Idols.  This is gutter rock, plain and simple.  From the moment the first chords of "Main Objective" hit, it is apparent this isn't something polished or shiny, but it is kick ass.  Punky, sleazy, and chock full of angsty attitude, the track has the balls to declare that "as long as I'm alive, Rock and Roll will never die"...and you believe it!   Wood's guitar work is catchy as heck, and Hazzard's raspy snarl fits the attitude of the track perfectly.  No, it may never be mainstream, it may never be popular, but it is going to be honest as long as Dirtbag Republic has something to say about it, and they say it fast and loud right out of the gate. 

"Skinny", believe it or not, is a song about eating disorders.  Yep, you read that right...anorexia nervosa, to be specific (which is somehow rhymed with the word "closer" in the chorus.  Trust me...they make it work).  Hazzard sings about a formerly beautiful girl who subsists on a steady stream of diet pills from her medicine cabinet in an effort to remain lithe, with the guitats of Wood and Federici chewing away any excess fat the song may have had, and the tight rhythm section of Worden and Nijjer keeping things grinding along at a frantic clip.

"Wannabees" has a bit of a Faster Pussycat feel to the guitar line (think their sleazier stuff from the debut record), with Hazzard howling about rock n roll being his addiction/conviction on a rollicking track that features one of Wood's catchiest, if relatively-speaking, simplest solos.  Check out the boys below...



Three consecutive tracks sum up the feel of the record for me, as they encompass everything that Dirtbag Republic does so weill.  "Days Are Gone", is a tribute to the early lifestyle of a younger Hazzard, who snarls about doing drugs at 13, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, and carrying on with his punk friends' antics in days that are long gone.  You get the feeling he isn't necessarily glamorizing the days so much as he's pining for the simplicity of a younger, simpler time when he could just be a kid and dream of being a rockstar by emulating his heroes.   "Days Are Gone" is definitely one of the best tracks on the record for me, from the catchy rhythm to the easily followed chorus and the nostalgic bent of the lyrics.  There's just something about this song that makes me smile and hit repeat a couple of times before moving on...and eventually moving back!

"Don't Answer To No One" drops a barroom piano into the gritty mix to embellish the sound of the raucous rock n roll romp and is definitely one of the contenders for top track of the record, along with "Days Are Gone".  Wood unleashes a phenomenal solo here, and that uncredited piano really bolsters the fun attitude of the track.

The album's title track, "Tear Down Your Idols" hits next, and the bouncy fun of "Don't Answer To No One" is replaced by a stark sneer as Hazzard pokes fun at fans who tear apart bands they supposedly love until this hit the big time.  The band then points that same snarky finger at the bands that do everything they can to milk a bit more cash out of those same fans, who hang on a bit...or a decade...too long, doing whatever they deem necessary to remain relevant instead of remaining true to themselves and the music.  Punkish and starkly honest, "Tear Down Your Idols" can make just about anyone really take a look at themselves and analyze if they are being honest and true with themselves.

There is really nothing I can find to complain about on this album, and the rest of the record bleeds great track into great track.  "Sorry" finds Wood absolutely melting down on his solo, ripping into a his lead with a vicious assault that is amazing to hear.  "Did All I Could" pushes everyone else aside long enough to give the bass a bit of a run of its own for a few minutes, but also finds that Dogs D'Amour-ish piano jumping back into the fray on a song that feels like it wants to get emotional, but does so while continuously punching you in the face with its raunch-and-roll attack.  "Superficial" carries on in much the same vein, amping up the rock n roll energy of days gone by, with Wood bringing to mind what Chuck Berry might have done on guitar had he been bending strings in 2022 instead of 1962 with one of the catchiest riffs and hooks on the album.  "When I Was Young" is probably my least favorite track on the album, which is an odd statement to make, as I actually like the track.  It just stands off a bit from the rest of the material here, at least for me, but I would never dream of skipping it, even if it meant getting to the kick-ass closer, "Turn Back Fast" just a tiny bit quicker!  Once again, Dirtbag Republic proves they as much about the riff as the anything, and Wood tears into a nasty one here, and this aggressive rocker is the perfect wrap on an absolutely killer record that I keep finding myself drawn back to time and time again.  

In the end, Tear Down Your Idols is all about rock n' roll, plain and simple, gritty and grimy, down and dirty.  Big hooks, catchy riffs, and gritty vocals litter the landscape of an album that just never lets off the gas and punches forward track after track.  For me, this is likely the best album by Dirtbag Republic, and I have liked everything they have done in the past.  If you are a fan of sleazy, punky rock, whether it be the previously mentioned Dogs D'Amour, relative unknowns such as Crank County Daredevils, modern sleaze rockers like Hardcore Superstar, or even Hazzard's work on Doll Hazzard , which he assembled with Chris Damien Doll of Suicide Bombers, you are going to find something to sink your teeth into on Tear Down Your Idols.  This is definitely an album you should be adding to your collection, and one I am glad has found its way into my own player repeatedly.

Rating:  Crank this to an excellent 8.5!


Sunday, March 27, 2022

CRASHDIET "Automaton"

 

(c)2022 Crusader/Golden Robot Records

  1. Automaton
  2. Together Whatever
  3. Shine On
  4. No Man's Land
  5. Darker Minds
  6. Dead Crusade
  7. Powerline (feat. Michael Starr)
  8. Resurrection of the Damned
  9. We Die Hard
  10. Shell Shock
  11. Unbroken
  12. I Can't Move On (Without You)
Gabriel Keyes--Vocals
Martin Sweet--Guitars
Peter London--Bass
Eric Young--Drums

After four years (and a pandemic), Crashdiet comes storming back to the scene with album number 6, Automaton, due to hit the streets April 29.  Retaining 3/4 of the same line-up since 2002, and now releasing album number two with Keyes on vocals, the band continues to evolve in subtle ways, which fans either love...or loathe...depending upon how they feel about growth of their musical heroes.

As they did with their previous album, Rust, Crashdiet continues to take things in a slightly heavier, slightly edgier direction than they did on the must-own classic, Rest In Sleaze, or any of the albums that followed.  This time around, I find the songwriting to be a bit stronger, the songs a bit more catchy, and the hooks a bit deeper-digging than on Rust, which admittedly was a grower of an album for me.  Heavier and punchier than the band's earlier material, and perhaps a bit less sleazy, Automaton is Crashdiet for 2022, not for 2002, and people need to understand that when heading into this album.

Now, that sounds like a warning of some sort, but it truly isn't.  I just get frustrated when bands aren't allowed to grow and fans think they want to hear the same record over and over and over.  But honestly, no one wants to hear Shout At The Devil every time Crue releases a record, do they?  Do you want to continuously hear Pyromania (or Hysteria)?  Is Master Of Puppets what you hope to hear each time Metallica drops a new album?  Then why does everyone think Crashdiet should keep trying to re-record Rest In Sleaze?  So, I guess I will backtrack a bit and say that this IS a warning of sorts, because if you want to hear Rest In Sleaze II, you will be disappointed with Automaton.

So, what will you hear on the new record.  The album kicks off with a throw away intro, "Automaton", which is basically just 39 seconds of guitars moaning and wailing with no real structure before Keyes snarls, "Alright motherf**kers", and the album officially kicks off.

"Together Whatever" screams to life with a muscular guitar riff and punchy drums as Keyes spits and sneers through the first verse into the layered vocals and gang shouted "whoa-ohs!" of the chorus.  Sweet continues to impress with his skills, both in the rhythm riffing and the big, full-scale soloing that fill this galloping rocker, and it is apparent Crashdiet is intent upon crushing the eardrums of the listener.

"Shine On" slows the tempo a bit, but ups the heft of the track, with big...BIG...drums and crunchy rhythm guitars on this angrier rocker that breaks down into a a chunky, "hey! hey! hey!" fist-pumping chant section that is absolutely awesome to hear!  Some electronics wind their way into the mix as Sweet churns through another solo, and Keyes sounds completely dominant here, really stepping into his own with the powerful delivery of the vocals here.  Excellent stuff!

"No Man's Land" continues the sonic excellence with another riffy, crunchy track that just screams 80s metal, but updates the sound a bit.  The band really seems to have focused on refining their songwriting for this record, as everything seems much tighter, and the song construction on "No Man's Land" is absolutely top-notch, with a huge chant-along chorus and plenty of room for Keyes to put his powerful range on display.  I absolutely LOVE this song, which I would probably consider to be the second best on an album that is crammed full of great material.

"Darker Minds" slows things down to a more mid-tempo but still punchy pace, and Crashdiet toys with a more modern rock sound.  Still melodic, still chock full of guitar hooks, "Darker Minds" is...well...darker, both in its performance and its style, with a melodic rock version of a breakdown leading into a shorter solo from Sweet and a sweeping vocal bridge that drives the track directly into a final couple of runs through the chorus.  

"Dead Crusade" brings things back to more familiar territory for Crashdiet fans who may be wondering where all of the sleaze went.  Its still there in places throughout the album, but as I mentioned, Crashdiet has adjusted course a bit and has slid into a more metallic groove than on earlier records.  "Dead Crusade" is definitely 80s METAL inspired, with the machine run drums and matching rhythm riffs, but Keyes vocals take on more of a sleazy sneer here than in any place on the previous handful of tracks, and Sweet's guitar solo here is CRAZY big, with all sorts of string bending swales of sound screaming to life.  I'm positive a goofy grin crossed my face when this song ended because this...THIS...is what I have wanted to hear from someone for quite some time: melodic-yet-unmistakably METALLIC fun.  There are no pretenses here at all; this is just an updated version of an 80s metallic assault on the senses with Sweet going off in a big way, and me going straight to the repeat button several times before moving onto the next track.

I'm not really sure why Mike Starr from Steel Panther was brought in for "Powerline", as Crashdiet certainly doesn't need any bolstering, and certainly not from a joke band like Steel Panther.  Regardless, "Powerline" is yet another dominating track, albeit a bit more in the melodic vein than some of the other songs on Automaton.  Backing a bit off the pace of the more blistering material here, "Powerline" delivers a smoother, more melodic take on the Crashdiet sound, utilizing Keyes huge voice exceptionally well, especially on the chorus, where he really elevates the range.  Starr's vocal turn on verse two is actually very well done and is proof positive Steel Panther could be a really good band if they would drop the "everything is about sex" euphemisms and innuendo.  Sweet's solo here is, once again, well worth the listen, and Young's drumming is, as always, extremely tight and punchy.

"Resurrection Of The Damned" returns to the metallic attack, with machine-gun-like rhythm guitars introing the track, and punishing drums and a thick, rumbling bass combining to absolutely steamroll the listener.  Probably the sleaziest of the tracks here, "Resurrection Of The Damned" shows the band is perfectly capable of digging into their past for stylistic inspiration, while still mixing in more metallic aggression than is typical of the sleaze sub-genre.  Keyes mixes in an extra edge of angst and sneer to his vocals, upping the nasty factor on a track that has no problems bubbling to the upper tier of tracks on this record, definitely top four for me.

"We Die Hard" is nowhere near as aggressive as the title may imply, and stylistically it is really unlike anything else on the record.  Definitely more in a modern melodic rock vein than the rest of the material, it is still catchy as heck, but incorporates some techniques that really don't show up anywhere else.  An effects-enhance vocal bridge is used after the second verse.  A tempo change with some serious drum work from Young leads into the guitar solo.  Even the solo focuses more on melodic delivery than blistering speed or metallic chords.  Definitely not a skipper, but it was wise of the band to place it this late in the tracklisting so as not to disrupt the flow of the record.

"Shell Shock" maintains the mid-tempo pace of "We Die Hard", but ups the grit and aggression.  The gang-shouted "Shell Shock!" portion of the chorus is guaranteed to incite fist-thrusting and chanting in the live setting, and Keyes digging into the lower register of his vocal range really adds to the dark, angry vibe of this crunchy rocker.  Good stuff.

"Unbroken" starts off on yet another darker chord, but brightens up a bit as the guitars become a bit more melodic by the time the verse section starts.  I like Sweet's guitar tone throughout this track...on this album, really...and the man sounds like he had a lot of fun coming up with not only different solos, but also different, unique rhythm guitar sections.  "Unbroken" incorporates both a sweeping solo and some rapid finger-tapping, as well as the chug-chug-chugga-chug of his rhythm playing...and then breaks down into a quiet interlude section...before bursting to life once again.  Yep, these Crashdiet guys are actually musicians, folks, and the songwriting here is excellent throughout the album, and the various nuances of "Unbroken" are excellent examples of this growth and development.

"I Can't Move On (Without You)", as you might expect, is a softer, tender moment on an album of pretty much non-stop aggression.  Centered solely on Sweet's acoustic guitars and Keye's vocals (with some really nice backing layering) for the first two verses and chorus runs, the song kicks into full-band mode at about the 3:35 mark, really giving it that big 80's power ballad feel that dominated MTV back in the day.  Pure Zippo material here, "I Can't Move On (Without You)" is an excellent way to wrap Automaton, as the band has managed to squeeze in and showcase pretty much every style and sound you would expect from a band as deeply influenced by the 80's Strip as Crashdiet is.  The beauty of it all, of course, is that while it is respectful of the scene, Crashdiet has never been a copycat band that mimics any one particular band or style exclusively, preferring to take their influences and forge their own sound.  They continue to do that with Automaton, they just do it a bit differently than they did in the past.

Overall, I find myself enjoying this new record more and more with each spin, and it is definitely a step up from Rust, which I enjoy, but is and album that, as I mentioned above, had to grow on me a bit.  It will never replace Rest In Sleaze, but it is not intended to, and no band ever tops their classic, regardless of if it is their first record or their last.  Yes, the style has changed a bit and the sleaze is pushed to the back burner in favor of ripping metallic shredding and crunchy, hard-hitting material, but that sleazy element is still simmering and bubbles over from time to time.  All this being said, Crashdiet remains a powerful force in the melodic metal/sleaze metal world and shows no signs of slowing down, even if they have altered their path slightly.  For me, Automaton is probably the best thing the band has released since 2010's Generation Wild, although, let's face it, the band has never released a bad album.  I truly enjoy Keyes on vocals, and I love the direction the band has taken, and I really hope people give Automaton a chance because this is some seriously great music from a band that remains simpactful and fresh two decades into their career!

Rating:  Definitely crankable, turn this one up to 8.5 and headbang along!  


Saturday, March 12, 2022

CORY MARKS "Who I Am"

 

(c) 2020 Better Noise Music

  1. Devil's Grin
  2. Outlaws & Outsiders (feat. Ivan Moody, Travis Tritt, and Mick Mars)
  3. Good To Be Us
  4. Blame It On The Double (feat. Jason Hook and Tyler Connoly)
  5. Another Night In Jail
  6. Who I Am
  7. Drive
  8. Better Off
  9. My Whiskey Your Wine
  10. Keep Doing What I Do
  11. Out In The Rain (feat. Lzzy Hale)
  12. She's Hollywood (Bonus Track)
  13. My Whiskey, Your Wine (Acoustic) (Bonus Track)
Cory Marks--Lead and Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Drums
Bob Funk--Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo
Kevin Churko--Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Bass, Keys, Drums
Kane Churko--Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Keys
Scotty Alexander--Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Fiddle
Marc Miller--Electric Guitar, Steel Guitar, Slide Guitar
Shane Hendrickson--Bass
Jay Buettner--Banjo

Additional Musicians:
Travis Tritt--Co-Lead Vocals on "Outlaws & Outsiders"
Ivan Moody--Co-Lead Vocals on "Outlaws & Outsiders"
Tyler Connoly--Co-Lead Vocals on "Blame It On The Double"
Lzzy Hale--Duet Vocals on "Out In The Rain"
Mick Mars--Guitar Solo on "Outlaws & Outsiders"
Jason Hook--Guitars on "Blame It On The Double"

Go ahead.  Say it.  "That ain't a rock record...that's...that's...THAT'S COUNTRY!!!"  Tell you what.  You call it what you want, but as for me, I'll call it one heck of a record!  I mean, come on, the guy has Mick Mars playing guitar on a song (and Tommy Lee popping up in a video...more on that in a second), Ivan Moody and Jason Hook of Five Finger Death Punch, Tyler Connoly of Theory Of A Deadman, and Lzzy Hale of Halestorm on his debut record.  His DEBUT record!  The guy has some serious firepower loaded up in the part country/part rock double barrels of this record and he flaunts it all over the place!

For those who don't know...and likely don't care...I grew up in Nebraska during the 70s with the Outlaw Country Movement of Waylon, Willie, Kris Kristofferson and others, dreamed of being Johnny Cash, and frequently cited Merle Haggard, CW McCall, and Charlie Daniels as some of my favorite singers of my youth.  In the 80s, it was Alabama and Hank Williams, Jr., who you could hear mixed in with AC/DC, Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, Ratt and Bon Jovi, all at the same party.  I then spent close to a decade in country radio in the 90s, and while I was still a hard-rocker and a head banger by night, I spent a lot of my days drawn to the edgier, rock-influenced sounds of 90s country, with Travis Tritt, Restless Heart, Little Texas, Aaron Tippin, Confederate Railroad, Pirates of the Mississippi, Chris LeDoux and others being particular favorites.  And in the 2000s, I still find myself drawn to good, guitar-driven, rocking country from time-to-time, with Zane Lewis, Brantley Gilbert, Jackson Taylor and the Sinners, and even Jason Aldean being current faves.  All this to say that while I never betrayed, or strayed from, my rock n roll heart, there is a part of me that, given the right mood and the right artist, still appreciates the right style of country music.

Cory Marks is the right kind...  

This album kicks off on a mostly country foot, albeit a punchy, uptempo one, with "Devil's Grin", which features plenty of driving guitar.  Yes, the subject matter is all country, with the country cliche of the Saint-n-Sinner girl drawing the good ol' boy in with her "angel's smile and devil's grin", but Marks puts a rollicking spin on it, whether with the rock guitars or the big, hooky chorus, complete with enough "oh oh ohs" to keep you singing along for some time.  

The gears shift hard...and I mean HARD... with the lead single from the record.  When I first heard "Outlaws And Outsiders", I have to admit I was hooked instantly.  I mean, when a "country" record has Ivan Moody snarling "I was a crazy ass kid, and with all the sh*t I did, I'm lucky to be alive", you can't help but take notice, right?  Add in southern-fried country rock legend Travis Tritt (who Marks could easily be a vocal double for in numerous spots on this record), and an all-too-short guitar solo from Mick Mars, and what's not to love?  Moody doesn't compromise who he is...at all...and this is the type of song that Tritt always seemed to sneak onto his records back in his hey day, and both work perfectly on this track.  As I said, Mars' solo is WAY TOO SHORT...in fact, it's honestly almost too short to even really be considered a true solo, but there is an instant level of credibility that's obtained when you can pull talent of this level all in for one song.  Mix in that Marks wrote the song (along with the Churko brothers), and it's all the more impressive to me.  Honestly, if you're bitching about this track being "too country", then you just as well stop reading right here, because this is straight up hard southern rock with a twinge of metal mixed in.  Need proof?  


Marks allows stunned listeners to catchy their breath for a second with the next track, as "Good To Be Us" is pure summer country radio ear candy with an instantly singable chorus and a catchy hook.  Slick and fun, this is the type of song that will have the country girls in their straw hats, sunglasses, cut-offs, and tank tops singing and swaying in the live setting, holding their beers in one hand while throwing the horns with the other, and I'm actually kind of surprised I haven't heard anything about it being released as a single yet.

"Blame It On The Double" is an excellent foot-stomping country rocker of the highest order, with Tyler Connoly of Theory of a Deadman sharing co-lead vocals, and Jason Hook, formerly of FFDP absolutely scorching the strings on his solo. Once again, the subject matter is one that is shared by both genres, although the lyrical approach is more country than rock, but that really shouldn't matter.  This track kicks ass, period, and is far more Donnie than Marie Osmond (don't get the reference?  Google it.) Don't believe it could work?  Check out the video below and keep an eye out for Tommy Lee dropping by, as well...


As is kind of the trend, Marks then goes back to a more country-themed track with "Another Night In Jail", but again, plenty of rock guitar is thrown into this slower-mid-tempo number.  Again, extremely well-written and catchy as hell, more than a few dedicated rockers are going to struggle with dismissing this song as just another country song.    

Speaking of rockers, "Keep Doing What I Do" is another guitar-driven country rock track that namedrops Johnny Paycheck...and then drops an f*bomb...along the way, earning him both his 70s country rock cred and an "explicit" label for the song (not the first on the record, btw).  The guitars are dirty and gritty on this hard-living party tune that pretty much sums up who Marks is and what he does, which is pretty much whatever he wants to do.

Not everything works perfectly here, to be fair.  The ballad "My Whiskey Your Wine" is just way too saccharine for my tastes and is exactly the kind of country ballad that will have the rockers cringing.  To be honest, the same will be said by most on "Out In The Rain", which, to me, doesn't make the most of having Lzzy Hale performing on it.  If I was going to get Lzzy to sing on a song on my album, I would make sure it was a ballsy rocker, because the lady packs a vocal punch like few other in the hard rock world today.  To be sure, she adds some grit and sass to an otherwise overly smooth ballad, and her emotive voice plays well against Marks' vocals...I just wish they had more to sneer at each other about.

The first five tracks here are pure gold and make the album worth purchasing all on their own.  Add in the dirt road cruising anthem "Drive", the title track, and the gritty rocker "She's Hollywood" and you have a helluva record!  I'm not sure why "She's Hollywood" was relegated to "bonus" status, as it is easily one of the best tracks on the album, but it is worth checking out on its own, and it further cements Marks as a true country rocker.  Yeah, it intros with a banjo, but the gritty rhythm guitars and the flair of the solo is straight out of the rock world, as are the big, gang vocals on the chorus.  Bonus or not, this is probably my second favorite track here, and is definitely top three depending upon the day you as me.  As to whether you decide Lzzy Hale's contribution saves "Out In The Rain" or not, it still showcases the range and depth of the material here, most of it written or co-written by Marks, and there will be fans from both the country and rock genres who love it...or hate it.  All in all, there is just too much good material here to overlook Marks' debut effort, and I'm excited to see what...and who...he comes up with next for his follow-up album. 

Rating:  Call it what you will, I call it crankable!  Crank Marks and Co. to a 8!

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Wednesday, March 9, 2022

IGNESCENT "Ascension EP"

 

(c) 2022 Independent Release

  1. Remnant
  2. Better Left Forgotten
  3. Anymore
  4. Final Fight
Jennifer Benson--Lead Vocals
Ty Moreland--Guitars
Ian Sebastian--Bass
Joshua Garcia--Drums

Harsh, siren-like guitars announce the arrival of Ignescent's newest single, as the band's EP, Ascension, comes screaming to life with "Remnant".  Shortly thereafter, thick, down-tuned rhythm guitars come crashing in, pairing with the bass to reinforce a bottom end to the track that would make Love & Death proud!  This is some seriously heavy, dark music coming from Ignescent, building upon the foundation they had laid with the release of four singles over the past couple of years.  As has always been the case with the band, the real focal point of this rejuvenated group (Moreland and Garcia are new to the band) are the alternately angelic and sneering vocals of Jennifer Benson, who dwells largely in the darker, angrier portion of her delivery style for this song, matching the intensity of the music being delivered here.



For the next two tracks, Benson allows here more angelic vocal side to appear, stretching her range from that darker, harsher style used in "Remnant" to the much loftier pitches her fantastic voice allows her to use seemingly at will.  Benson lists Flyleaf as an influence, and her ability to change styles and pitches with ease is definitely reminiscent of what Lacey Sturm has show, although with one notable exception, Benson never really ventures into the full-throated screaming territory that Sturm regularly treads.  "Better Left Forgotten" finds Benson using a more restrained approach on the verse sections, then soaring through the chorus sections.  Musically, "Better Left Forgotten" maintains the crunchy, floor-scraping tuning on the guitars, but Benson adds a bit more melodic flair to her vocals here, ratcheting the overall feel of the song up from the angry depths that "Remnant" explores.  I would be willing to bet this song sees release as a single by this summer, and I predict it will hit hard, although it may be more on harder stations, or even metal stations, that "Better Left Forgotten" finds its biggest success.

Easily the most radio friendly of the four tracks on this EP, "Anymore" is going to please long-time fans of the band, with a hard rock sound blending with a touch of melodic pop-rock to the song's structure.  Benson's vocals on "Anymore" are spectacular, as she showcases her full range and various styles, climbing the scales with a sweet run through the chorus, which I rank as one of the catchiest I have heard in the modern rock world thus far in 2022. Easily the most melodic of the tracks here, with Moreland utilizing some smooth, catchy melody lines throughout the song, "Anymore" may actually see the band at their creative peak at this point in their career, combining styles and influences with ease.  Hard enough to please the rivotheads, but melodic enough to entice copious amount of play from stations like TheRockHD.net and ChristianRock.Net, I think "Anymore" is going to be all over the place when it sees release as a single and my hope is this track really breaks the band to the next level and exposes people to just how talented this band has been for ears.  I rarely say this about songs, but in this case I will make an exception: I would LOVE to hear an acoustic version of this song!  I just think the song structure and Benson's amazing vocals really lend themselves to a powerful, emotional acoustic rendering of this song.  Just my take...

The EP closes with "Final Fight", which forgoes anything sweet in lieu of sheer aggression, from the snarling bottom-end of the rhythm guitars to the pummeling drums, the rumbling bass to Benson's urgent, angst-filled vocals. For fans familiar with the band's singles from 2020 and 2021, think of the darker sounds the band used on "Demons777" and get angrier.  Returning to the opening sounds and styles of "Remnant", this bottom-heavy rocker is a perfect closer to this EP and finds the band in seriously aggressive modern hard rock/metal territory that fans of The Letter Black will likely grab hold of instantly.  Featuring a catchy pre-chorus, a chunky breakdown, and some catchy guitar work from newcomer, Moreland...as well as a serious scream from Benson just moments before the track closes, "Final Fight" leaves the listener wondering what just smacked them in the ear hole!

Ignescent continues to grow and evolve with each release, and this EP finds the Chicago-based band at their creative zenith to this point in their career.  Although the band has crafted a sound and style that is rather easily identifiable as Ignescent, on Ascension everything is bigger, heavier, darker, and more well-honed than on their previous single releases. Admittedly, I would have loved to have had those four 2020 and 2021 singles packaged with these new tracks to give the listener something closer to a full album than this achingly small EP, and I will always prefer physical media to digital-only releases, but I don't fault the band for wanting to get fresh music out to their fans.  Perhaps at some point in the not-too-distant future we will see a full Ignescent CD, but for now, I highly encourage fans to hit their favorite digital media platforms to check out Ascension.

Rating:  Very short but very solid!  Crank this 15 minute tease to 8 and make sure you set your player to repeat because Ascension is so engaging it will simply fly by!



Saturday, February 19, 2022

RON KEEL BAND "Keeled"

 

(c) 2022 RFK Media

  1. The Right To Rock
  2. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
  3. Tears Of Fire
  4. Medley: Because The Night/Somebody's Waiting
  5. Calm Before The Storm (Live in Australia)
Ron Keel--Lead Vocals, Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Piano on 5
Dave "DC" Cothern--Lead Guitar, Vocals
"Dakota" Scott Schmitt--Keyboards, Vocals
Geno Arce--Bass, Vocals
Jeff "The Rev" Koller--Drums, Vocals

Ron Keel is a force, pure and simple.  Honestly, he comes across as tireless and relentless, whether watching him perform, meeting him in person, talking to him on the phone, hearing his radio show/podcast, or even reading interviews (such as the one we did a few years back HERE).  As such, he and his Ron Keel Band continue to crank out new music on a far more regular basis than many still-active bands of the 1980s/90s, and seemingly have some sort of show popping up at any given time.  

For those maybe not 100% familiar, the Ron Keel Band is NOT the band KEEL.  The Ron Keel Band (RKB) is a band that Ron assembled several years ago to do side-project work with, including his more country rock and southern rock material, although they still perform plenty of KEEL and Steeler classics in the live setting.  To that end, the Ron Keel Band decided to release this little EP with the RKB doing exclusively KEEL classics.  Originally released as an autographed EP only to Ron's Patreon subscribers, the EP is now available in numerous locations (including Amazon) in a non-autographed format, although I am sure Ron would be willing to sign it at a live show!

The EP kicks off with one of KEEL's all-time classics, and the song that drew me, and so many others, to the band back in the 1980s: "The Right To Rock".  While it is apparent Ron's voice has lost some of the high end on his screams, he has not lost any of the power or energy, and he attacks this classic with all the gusto you would expect on this fist-pumping anthem.  The band, which has remained solidly consistent for several years, is a big part of the sound here, or course, and they do not disappoint. Cothern is an extremely good guitar player, as evidenced on his work on all of the RKB releases up to this point, and Koller is outstanding on the drums here.  Equally important is the backing vocal work from Arce, Koller, Cothern, and Schmitt, which really work to support Ron's slightly lower register on these KEEL Klassiks.

Not really a ballad, but not a full-on rocker, the huge-sounding anthem, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" from 1986's The Final Frontier album should have been a monster hit back in the day, and it is given excellent treatment here from the RKB, and sounds very close to the original, musically.  Again, Ron's range is a bit lower than on the original, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't actually prefer how he sounds on this updated version.  The deeper, raspier, grittier sound suits the song...and the man...well, and once again, Cothern proves himself a first-rate axe slinger on the solo work here.  

Speaking of KEEL ballads, "Tears Of Fire", also from The Final Frontier is given another breath of life here, and is handled admirably.  It is here that Ron's lower register is probably the most noticeable, but no damage is done to this lighter-inducing track.  

For my money, the band saves the best of the re-recorded material for last, with a medley of "Because The Night" and "Somebody's Waiting" absolutely powering their way down the homestretch of this EP.  "Because The Night", which has been covered by numerous acts through the years, was always at its best in the KEEL setlist, in my opinion, and the RKB does a great job of retaining that punch and power that always drew me to the song.  Once again, Ron's voice still dominates this track, but it is on the second half of this medley that Ron and the boys really shine.  Long one of my favorite songs by KEEL, "Somebody's Waiting" is absolutely spot-on stellar here.  While I would obviously love to hear full versions of both songs, cutting out the multiple chorus repeats at the end of "Because The Night" really condenses the track, and after just 4:20 of total playing time, two more must-hear KEEL tracks are given a chance to shine, hopefully enticing interested RKB fans to seek out the classic originals.

The last song here is a live version of "Calm Before The Storm" that was recorded down under in Australia.  If I'm being 100% honest, which I always strive to be, I wish they would have left this track off.  The recording is really not that good (it sounds like it was possibly recorded from the crowd or maybe taken from a video recording), and the track is really muffled.  It's too bad, because this is a song that seems to draw a strong reaction whenever it is played live.  Ron plays the piano on this track, and proves himself to be a solid player, and his vocals are really strong.  I wonder if this was a solo performance, because there are no backing vocals or other instruments used here.  Regardless, the crowd is definitely appreciative of the effort, and I really wish we could have been treated to a better recording.  Nonetheless, fans are given access to a nice live rarity here to round out this EP.

Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, this EP is short, but packs a lot of wallop into a little bit of run time.  The packaging, as one might expect on a give-away item (remember, this was originally GIVEN to Ron's Patreon subscribers), is uber-simplistic, as it is simply a cardboard slipcase with the above picture on the front and the track listing, performance and production credits, and some contact information on the back.  

Overall, the RKB does themselves...and these songs...proud, and should prove to anyone who may have doubts that they can more than handle Ron's older material when mixing it up with more current material from the Ron Keel Band, such as the band's excellent 2019 album, Fight Like a Band.

Rating:  Crank this impressive EP to a solid 7.5, with only the lower-quality recording of the live song, and the brevity of the EP holding it back from a bit higher rating.

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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.