Sunday, July 17, 2022

GOLD, FRANKINCENSE & MYRRH "Framing My Perception"

 

(c) 2022 Rockfest Records

  1. Burn Your Fears
  2. Framing My Perception
  3. Honest Abe
  4. The Enemy
  5. Why So Toxic
  6. Disrupt The Silence
Maggie English--Bass, Vocals
CJ English--Guitars, Vocals
Lulu English--Drums, Percussion


 Additional Musicians:

Weston Evans--Addtional Guitars

I'm going to be honest.  I have loved what the English sisters have been doing as Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh since the beginning.  Their "beautycore" blend of harsh metalcore screams and growls, downtuned guitars, and furious breakdowns intermixed with the clean vocals and a pop punk charm brought a fun spark to the Christian hard rock/metal scene.

I'm also going to be honest in saying I am a huge fan of what Rockfest Records has done for the Christian hard rock and metal scene.  They have quickly...but not really quietly...snapped up some of the biggest names in the scene and have built an amazing roster of talent.  Joseph Rojas of Seventh Day Slumber seems to have a very good feel for what will work and who will fit with the core artists he has assembled.

Final honest statement (well...final honest INTRODUCTORY statement...I'm not going to just start lying or something...):  I was rather concerned about GFM joining the Rockfest Records roster because I was concerned that their sound and attitude would be compromised in some way.  I was worried some of the harshness would be smoothed over, some of the rough edges would be polished away.

I was wrong to be concerned.  With their latest EP, Framing My Perception, GFM proves that they have every bit as much punch as they always have, even if there is a certain maturity to their sound with this latest offering.  I'm not suggesting the fun, punkish charm is gone or that the growls have disappeared, but it would be foolish to deny that these girls have started to mature a bit in their songwriting and the structures of the tracks they have put together here.  It was bound to happen after all, as the girls have been performing as a band for more than seven years, with a hard-to-find debut effort, a full-length album (Identity Crisis), an acoustic offering, and a pair of EPs prior to this one (Oh, The Horror and Operation Take Over).  They aren't new to this thing, despite the fact that all three girls are 22 or younger, and with each release they have shown bits of growth and change.  Framing My Perception simply continues that growth.

"Burn Your Fears" kicks things off, and instantly it is obvious that this is going to still be GMF, regardless of what label they are with or who is helping turn the knobs and spin the dials.  A bed of electronic effects opens the song, with oldest sister, CJ, dropping a chugging riff into place, with baby sister Lulu crushing her kit right alongside the snarling guitars.  The contrast between CJ's clean vocals and Maggie's uber-harsh growling has always been a big part of what makes GFM such a unique and fun listen, and Maggie is in full-throated roaring fashion almost immediately.  In fact, she may hit the lowest range growling I have heard from her on this track.  This is a great opening crushfest that sets the course for the rest of this EP.

The title track hits next, and it hits hard, both in tone and in message, while being a PERFECT example of the growth I mentioned previously.  A subtle electronic lead-in builds to a powerful guitar riff before CJ's clean vocals come powering their way into the mix, with Lulu's thunderous drums accompanying her.  One thing that stands out about this track to me is the presence of an actual guitar solo, and a pretty melodic solo at that!  Generally known for her fierce bottom-end breakdowns, CJ is given a chance to shine on her axe and she grabs that chance by the throat!  I always suspected she had this kind of playing in her somewhere, and I'm really happy to hear it come forward here.  I hope to hear more of this kind of playing in the future.  Also noticable is what isn't here; there are no harsh, raspy growls from Maggie.  Rather, the middle sister accompanies CJ on the chorus section, providing that layered harmonic sound that only siblings can really achieve.  All of this newness still sounds like GFM, however, and this is an excellent example of the growth that the girls have exhibited throughout this EP.  A really powerful song about remaining positive and seeing the good in life is further enhanced by the first video released from this EP.  


If "Framing..." isn't my favorite track on this release, next cut, "Honest Abe", likely takes the title.  No electronics or synths to set the stage here, just a punchy drum strike and CJ's rhythm guitars chewing on your ear right from the start.  Rather than lead in with clean vocals, Maggie's deathy growls take center stage as the main vocal type this time around.  No worries that the counter is missing, however, as CJ sweetly chimes in on the chorus section.  This may be one of the heaviest tracks the girls have ever put together, with a booming breakdown section before the last runs through the chorus, and CJ's guitar approach throughout is absolutely brutal...in a good way.  But it's Maggie's roar that powers this track into the upper echelon of the band's catalog for me, and I find myself hitting repeat on "Honest Abe" numerous times.

"The Enemy" follows the successful formula that GFM has utilized to great effect throughout their recording career, laying down aggressive, buzzsaw guitar riffs and rapid-fire drums with a combination of both clean and harsh vocals being used throughout.  Instead of singing on this track, however, CJ is a bit more snarky in her delivery, using that sneering voice that she has honed to perfection over the past few years to bark at the listener.  There is still plenty of difference between CJ's sharper delivery style and Maggie's gutteral growl, however, and this is a track that long-time GFM fans are going to feel right at home with.

As aggressive and harsh as "Honest Abe" is, "Why So Toxic" showcases the other side of the girls equally well.  Straight-up pop-punk, this is a bouncy, fun track that still showcases some speedy riffing from CJ and that rock-solid drumming that Lulu really deserves more attention for.  That girl has grown up right in front of the music world's eyes, and she has become a seriously talented drummer that people in the rock/metal community should be giving credit to.  Once again, as with "Framing..." there are no harsh snarls from Maggie, but there are plenty of "whoa-oh-ohs" for the listener to bop along to.

"Disrupt The Silence" closes things out with another heavy, high-speed affar that again uses Maggie's growls as the dominant vocal style on the verses, with CJ's cleaner vox handling the pre-chorus and chorus sections.  There is an electronic element running throughout the track that again shows some of  musical depth and growth the band has tinkered with on this EP, and even some programmed drum effects underneath a brief spoken word portion, but it's a vicious breakdown, with pummeling drumwork and macnine-gun rhythm riffing that quickly reminds you that GFM remains a metal/metalcore force to be reckoned with.

The mixture of styles in such a short space of time is interesting and gives the listener plenty to consider on Framing My Perception.  Whether you are a fan of the angrier, harsher side of the band, or you lean more toward the cheerleader pop-punk approach the girls have had so much fun with in the past, you are going to find something on this EP to suit your beautycore needs.   

If I had any complaint with the project it is that this is yet another EP.  In what appears to be a growing trend, more and more artists are releasing music, even in physical formats, just five or six tracks at a time.  This is four EPs in a row for these girls (counting the acoustic effort), and a couple of digital singles have been mixed in there, as well.  I know I should be thankful that RockFest continues to release physical product in this digital world, but the fact that I have all three of their previous EPs ripped and burned onto one disc with room for a good portion of this one frustrates me a bit.   Still, if this is how the girls, who are MASTERS of self-promotion and connecting with their fans, reach out to their audience on a regular basis, I'm sure I will be there to snap it up.  But don't think you can make me stop grumbling about the flood of EPs recently!

Bouncy yet crunchy, angry yet positive, both snarly and clean at the same time, Framing My Perception is a nice step forward for GFM, while keeping a firm foot planted in the band's past.

Rating:  Definitely crankable!  Crank this to 8.5!

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Monday, July 11, 2022

JODI ESSEX "Fearless"

(C) 2022 Independent Release

  1. Offend
  2. Fearless
  3. Unravel
  4. Lean
  5. Bandaid
  6. Shine
Jodi Essex--Lead and Backing Vocals
Josiah Prince--All Instruments and Production

Two years ago, newcomer Jodi Essex dropped her debut album, Irreverant.  While definitely a strong debut with some excellent material, I didn't feel the album really captured all that Essex was capable of.  There was too much middling material on the record as Essex seemed to waffle between being a rocker and being a CCM/pop crossover artist, especially on the ballads.  I opined on my review of the record that "a lot of how Essex fairs from here forward is going to depend largely upon what direction she chooses to take her music.  I have no doubt that she will find success in whatever style of music she chooses to perform  I truly hope it is the rock road that she chooses to travel."

Wish granted!

With her new album, Fearless, Essex comes out firing on all cylinders, producing the kind of album (okay, EP) that I felt she was capable of!  Enlisting the help of one of the hottest writers and producers in Christian rock, Mr. Josiah Prince of Disciple, who co-wrote every track here, Essex has crafted an energetic, rocking record that should open the eyes of many a listener.

Three singles have already been released, and each has delivered a little something different from Essex.  "Offend" is a straight-up hard rock track with an equally punchy message to those members of the church who choose to teach a watered-down version of the Gospel in the hopes of attracting more congregants.  Similar to the way Fireflight addresses the show biz-like atmosphere of many churches today in "Welcome To The Show", the video for "Offend" gets right to the heart of the matter with a steam-punk outfitted Essex asking "would you offend for the Gospel?" as she addresses a panel of wishy-washy church leaders.  From there, thundering drums kick start this driving rock track, with "Offend" taking a far punchier approach than anything on her previous album.  Alternately gritty--almost sneeringly so--and soaring, the verse sections showcase the various styles that Essex spread out over multiple tracks on Irreverent, with a snappy, energy-infused chorus blasting the listener with that same opening line..."Would you offend for the Gospel?  Or will you bend for mankind?"  



On the second single, "Unravel", Essex slows things down to power ballad territory, albeit with some modern rock song structure, to present a song about the power of a person's will and the need to surrender our spirit and allow God to "unravel" the walls we put up around ourselves.  A bed of electronic effects and percussion intros the song, with Essex's breathy vocals carrying the verse toward a powerful-yet-simplistic chorus.  From here, new layers of instrumentation are added, with Prince's (Disciple) guitars adding their voice to the mix as Essex ramps up the power in her voice until it reaches a full-throated peak during the third run through the chorus.  Orchestral elements are added as Prince winds his way through an emotion-drenched solo before giving way to Essex and her closing runs through the chorus.  More outstanding guitar work leads the track out, and almost immediately I hit repeat.  This...THIS...is the kind of ballad that Essex absolutely dominates and is what I was hoping we would hear from her this time around.  I can't help but think of Berlin's big hit, "Take My Breath Away" from the Top Gun soundtrack when I hear this song (now that I mention it, I would LOVE to hear Essex tackle that classic hit!), and for me it is obvious this is the type of song Essex works best with, at least on slower material.




Most recently, Essex dropped the title track from the EP, a song which finds the singer treading a more mid-tempo rock track and handling it in fine fashion.  Starting off with a punchy rhythm section intro, this straight ahead rock track allows Essex to really shine as the instrument-sparse verse sections provide the perfect showcase for her gritty vocals, while the chorus offers her the chance to soar a bit more with her voice.  There's a cool vocal bridge that has Essex delivering different vocal lines in a nicely layered section, and throughout the track there is a looped vocal that I would swear is echoing "The Warrior" of Scandal fame.  Check it out below.


By the way, I have no idea who the band is in the video, as no musicians were credited in the press information I had with the exception of Josiah Prince (who is featured in the video).  

As to the other three tracks here, all three could possibly see single release, as well, with "Bandaid", in particular, drawing my attention.  The hard-edged modern rock track "Bandaid" starts off with a crunchy guitar riff and some thunderous drums before Essex comes rushing in, singing about not living life with regret or hesitation, imploring the listener "don't waste another day, another minute, another hour...Don't put off the inevitable, Don't wait too long, you'll miss the incredible...".  What's especially striking is the punchy, aggressive chorus which finds Essex snarling "Rip the Bandaid, Rip the Bandaid, Rip the Bandaid OFF!"  

"Lean" has an urgent sound from the get-go, with a pulsating bed of electronics opening things up before giving way to a heavy, plodding rocker with a seriously down-tuned guitar line grinding away beneath the verse sections.  Essex's voice stands in stark comparison to the much darker-toned music of the track, with comparisons to Rage Against the Machine not being out of line, especially in the tone of the guitars (heck, the riff isn't completely different from "Bulls on Parade" if you have heard that track.  No, I'm being serious...).  I could see this song (as well as "Bandaid") becoming signature songs for the vocal powerhouse, as the edgier music really provides a backdrop that allows Jodi to shine.   

"Shine" is something of an outlier here, with its island rhythm and Essex's reggae-styled vocal delivery.  Very laid back in its structure and presentation, "Shine" is nothing like anything else on the EP and I'm a bit torn on my feelings for it.  On the one hand, the track almost doesn't seem to fit what is an otherwise rock-centric album.  On the other, Essex sounds very confident in her delivery here and you can hear her smile as she sings, particularly on the chorus.  Wisely placed at the end of the EP, "Shine" doesn't damage the release by any means, and I find myself inclined to repeat it from time to time, but it doesn't grab me for the same reason as a track like "Offend" or "Bandaid".

In a perfect world, Fearless would be garnering all sorts of attention in both the Christian and secular markets, but as is the case with anyone not named SkilletRed, or maybe Stryper, there are very few chances for Christian artists to crossover these days, especially with all radio being programmed basically the same.  As such, I challenge readers to snag a copy of this digital release and share the love with their friends and family, spreading the word about the talent of this vocal powerhouse. Lyrically bold and passionate, and musically dynamic, Fearless is one great guitar rock album, Christian or not.

Check out jodiessex.com for more information, or find the digital EP on all major streaming platforms.  


Rating:  Crankable...very crankable...so turn this up to an 8.5!


Thursday, June 2, 2022

JONES STREET "Out Of The Gutter"

 

(c) 2022 Eonian Records

  1. Dancin' With The Devil
  2. Tell Me Why
  3. What Comes Around
  4. Thieves Of Love
  5. Take Your Love
  6. Razor To My Wrist
  7. When It All Comes Down
  8. Won't Be Forgotten
  9. F**k Authority
  10. On The Edge (demo)
Shawn Crosby--Lead Vocals
Jonny Jones--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Mickey Perez--Guitars, Backing Vocals
John (JJ) Jauregui--Bass, Backing Vocals
Rob Hanna--Drums (1, 2, 4, 5 & 10)
Anthony Focx--Drums (3, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Additional Musicians
Carmen Appice--Backing Vocals on "Thieves Of Love"
Jimmy Bain--Backing Vocals on "Thieves Of Love"
Wade Williams--Backing Vocals on "Thieves Of Love"

The current trend is for a lot of "retro labels" to dig around in the smoldering remains following the atomic bomb of grunge to see if there is something worth giving a second shot to.  Most of the time we are thrown a nostalgic bone with a package from a regional band or one-hit wonder act that had a handful of demos or independent records that were "the hottest band in Hollywood" according to the releasing label's press.  But, if we are really honest with ourselves, there are a really just a handful of albums from that collision between Hollywood and Seattle that had the potential to be scene-stealers, in my mind.  Most of those involved bands arriving on the scene just a year or two too late. Sure, there are several SONGS from various bands that I think could have been big hits, but if honesty is the goal, and not just nostalgia, there aren't a vast number of albums that likely could have just lit the hard rock world on fire had grunge not exploded...or had the band not imploded.  Again, if we're being honest, by 1991, a lot of labels were just throwing hair band after hair band against the wall to see who would stick and become the "next big thing", although, as we are all well aware of, NOTHING really stuck after Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit the scene.  But, there were a few really, really good debut records that should have, could have, would launched careers had something been even slightly different for the band.  I'm talking about albums where the band had the look, the sound, the songs, and the talent to make it BIG.  Wildside's Under The Influence (1992) comes immediately to mind.  Bangalore Choir's On Target (also 1992) is another. I'd even throw in Tuff's What Comes Around Goes Around (late 1991), and the massively underrated Sledgehammer Ledge self-titled debut album (1994) into the mix.  And now, with the re-release of this killer collection from Eonian Records, I think all fans will agree that Jones Street should be in that mix!

These ten tracks, all recorded between 1990 and 1994, weren't given a proper release until...get this...2008 on their long-out-of-print Dancin' With The Devil album, which is virtually impossible to find at a decent price these days.  I managed to snag one in a trade about a decade ago, and instantly fell in love with the sleaze-drenched hard rock of this quintet, so when Eonian announced they were going to reissue it in remastered and repackaged form, I was absolutely stoked!

As soon as I hit play on my copy of the album, it was instant remembrance of why this band was so great!  The first three tracks alone showcase the skill, the power, and the songwriting ability of this 5 man band, with each track bringing something different to the musical table.  The title track from the original release, "Dancin' With The Devil" kicks things off with a sinister, sleazy guitar intro and the wickedly sneering vocals of Crosby, who really and truly had it all in terms of sound, style, and sass.  Part Phil Lewis (LA Guns), part Taime Downe (Faster Pussycat), and part Drew Hannah (Wildside), Crosby's voice is the demon at the wheel of this tricked-out sleaze machine, and his dominant performance here, and elsewhere on the record, is truly something to treat your ears to.  Not to be outdone are the guitar acrobatics of Jones and Perez, who present themselves as a force to be reckoned with at all times on this record.  Here, the interplay between the rhythm guitars and the leads is excellent, and the remastering done on this Eonian release (more on that later) really cleans up the sonics nicely.  Add in the bruising bass work from JJ and the frantic skin-bashing from Hana, and you have a monstrous opening track that will likely have just about every new listener hooked from the get-go.

"Tell Me Why" throws an immediate curveball to the listener with its steel guitar intro and more laid-back sonic approach, Jones Street proves itself to be more than a one-trick pony.  Crosby slips into Dizzy Dean (Britny Fox) mode here and there on this decidedly more radio-friendly track that even features a mandolin in the mix, giving it a cool, bluesy feel that sets it apart from so much of the scorching street rock that surrounds it.

Speaking of which, "What Comes Around" blasts the band right back into full-sleaze mode with a fast and dirty rhythm guitar riff, some seriously aggressive cymbal bashing, and plenty of sass and sneer from Crosby.  The gang vocals on the chorus section are every bit as nasty as they should be, never sounding highly polished or endlessly layered, but rather jagged-edged and raw and gritty, exactly as they should be.

"Thieves of Love" is the first of two ballads on the album, and like it or not, it had to happen as the big lighter-in-the-air power ballad was still the darling of MTV when the first couple of tracks on this album were originally recorded.  Despite the song's musical stylings, lyrically this is still Jones Street sleaze, with a "love 'em, leave 'em, move onto the next town" attitude toward the "love" these guys were seeking while on tour.  Jones inserts an excellent, emotive string-bender of a solo here, and even when he is trying to sound tender and emotional, Crosby simply can't erase the snarly rasp from his voice...or likely the evil glint in his eye...as he croons to the Miss Right-now that is his love of the moment.  Not exactly slow dance at the prom lyrics, but definitely fool around after the prom music sure to steam up some windows.

"Take Your Love" sets things back into full-throttle rocking mode, minus a brief bridge section that finds the band backing off just a bit to allow Crosby to experiment with a basically spoken-word section, which works just fine.  "Razor To My Wrist" starts off with some serious guitar grinding that leads the listener to believe a full-on metal assault may be in the offing, but the song morphs into more of a mid-tempo rocker on the verse sections before punching things up on the chorus stretches.  Crosby is at his vocal best here, employing various segments of his range and altering his delivery style from a more controlled singing approach to a full-throated snarl, and Jones and Perez rip and tear with their dual-axe attack.  This is one song that I have always found myself drawn back to time and time again; there's just something about the way the song is structured that keeps drawing me back, despite the fact that there is still something of a demo quality to the recording (according to the notes, this was done in a rehearsal studio, and not in a full-blown recording studio).  In fact, maybe it is this more raw sound that draws me in so much.  Regardless of why, I simply love this track and the remastered version here does boost the sound and sonic quality of the track noticably.

Speaking of "rehearsal studio" material, the next track, "When It All Comes Down" is of the same quality...for the same reason.  To me, that shows even more just how skilled this band was, because this is an excellent bluesy ballad with some serious solo work from Jones laid across an otherwise acoustic-guitar driven track.  The drum line here is rather basic, as is typically the case with a ballad such as this, but man, that fully-amped lead guitar is something to behold!  I can't help but wonder what this would have sounded like in full-studio mode, but this version is no slouch, to be sure.

"We Won't Be Forgotten" is back to fully-produced studio material, and this is an absolute banger!  The real treat here are the vicious backing vocals on the chorus which add an urgency that simply has to be heard.  Stylistically, the song reminds me of a Skid Row track (or more precisely, a Sledgehammer Ledge track, which is like a violent, angry Skid Row, but most people don't know who Sledgehammer Ledge is, so...), with some wicked guitar work from Jones and Perez, rock-solid drums from Focx, and the most powerful vocals that Crosby delivers on the entire record in terms of sheer sonic force and upper-range screaming.  This is a serious fist-in-the-air anthem that had to be a blast to be a part of live.

Every bit as sleazy and rebellious as its title would imply, "F**k Authority" is a high-speed, sleaze-punk metallic assault on the senses.  Once again, think of the most aggressive Skid Row material you can, get just a bit nastier with it, and you have a pretty good idea of what you are being blasted with here.  Much like "We Won't Be Forgotten", I can guarantee this was a live setting favorite that likely had a mosh pit swirling the second Crosby shouted the title from the stage.  

The Eonian Records release includes a demo version of a track not found on the original release called "On The Edge", which is another scorching rocker that finds Crosby absolutely screaming his way through the chorus sections while backing off just enough to be categorized as singing the verses.  Once again, the guitar tandem of Jones and Perez is a powerful force, but in this demo form, it is a bit harder to pick out the separation between the guitars.  I believe Jones is the driving force behind the big solo that leads into the final chorus run, and once again he shows that he was every bit the talent of his stylistic peers of the late 80s/early 90s.  Focx is a monster behind the kit on this one, and JJ's bass, while a bit harder to pick up in the mix, is still a presence that I think would have been bolstered more with full production.  Again, the band and label fully admit to this being a demo track, but I have to say it is a really good demo that would have definitely found space on a proper album release had the music scene not imploded as it did in 1991-92.

Two tracks from Dancin' With The Devil were not included here, with both "Out On Skid Row" and "The Word" (also known as "The Word F**k") omitted.  The loss of "The Word" is of no significance, it was just comedic intro that has nothing to do with the actual album, and the band collectively decided to remove it from this new effort.  As to "Out On Skid Row", that song was actually never even a Jones Street track, and only Crosby performed on it with an entirely different band (Orphan).  Again, with Jones Street not actually being the performer on that track, the band decided to cut it as well, opting instead to add "On The Edge" in its demo form.  

As is typically the case, the packaging on this release from Eonian is superb!  The booklet has numerous photographs, songwriting info, credits, and a nice retrospective look at the history of the band.  Check out just a couple of pages from the booklet below.







Additionally, the remastering job done by drummer Focx is stellar.  To my ear, Focx really cleaned up the mix, gave the bottom end a boost, and really allows the instruments and vocals to separate much more cleanly than on the original release.  While I don't have the analytical equipment a lot of people seem to employ on social media these days to point out the flaws in remastered releases, to me, this is obviously not just a "bump up the volume/max out the EQ" remaster job by any stretch.  This is some solid work done here by a guy who, as a member of the band, had real reason to care about the outcome, and it shows to me.

Even if you happen to be, like me, one of the luck people who have known about Jones Street for a few years now, and who happen to already own Dancin' With The Devil, it is well worth the investment to snag this Out Of The Gutter remaster/reissue.  Regardless of the omission of one song (and one intro), every other thing on this Eonian release is done better than on the original.  In the end, I think many of you will agree with me in my assessment that had the timing been even slightly better, Jones Street's one and only release would likely have made a solid impact in the hard rock/hair metal/sleaze metal scene of the late 80s.  What a difference just a couple of years made for these guys who coulda/woulda/shoulda been much, much bigger!

Rating:  Oh so crankable!  This is a dang-near perfect 9.5 for me!  

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!