Thursday, February 23, 2012

SANTA CRUZ "Anthem For The Young And Restless"

(c) 2011 Independent Release
  1. Over The Limit
  2. Let's Get The Party Started
  3. Anthems For The Young N The Restless
  4. Don't Run Away
  5. Hostile Shakedown
  6. We're Aiming High

Archie--Vocals, Guitars
Johnny--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Middy--Bass, Backing Vocals
Taz--Drums, Backing Vocals

About two years ago, or so, I received a demo/EP called Another Rush Of Adrenaline from this band from Finland that really piqued my interest.  They had a great look, a really good sound, and a small handful of decent, if not spectacular, songs.  I thought if they could manage to score a label deal somewhere and maybe get a hold of a big name producer they could put out a really solid album.  Well, Santa Cruz has returned with a new EP that kicks the teeth in on their demo...and they still have no record label, no big name producer, and virtually no distribution, which really sucks because this is an album that needs to be heard by fans of the big hair 80's.  This album actually made me rethink my Top 11 of 2011 as it wormed its way onto that list.  This is just a great, great album that is worth seeking out.

Lead vocalist, Archie, is going to remind a lot of people of a younger Sebastian Bach with his vocal approach, as he rips off some killer screams, evidenced on nearly all of the fist pounding, head banging numbers, but is also capable of employing an above average singing voice, as he shows on the more-mid-tempo-than-lighter-in-the-air ballad, "Don't Run Away".  He and Johnny, who started the band together in 2007, are a far above average guitar tandem and rip their way through these tracks with the skill and chops of people twice their age and experience.  As such, it is on the smoking uptempo numbers that Santa Cruz really shines, although even when they choose to slow things down they aren't too shabby, either.

From the very first riff of "Over The Limit", it should be obvious to most listeners that Santa Cruz is the real deal.  This is a band that is steeped in the glam and sleaze of Hollywood tradition from the late 80's, but they also mix in the flash and style of what I call the NWoEGaS (New Wave of European Glam and Sleaze).  I don't care if you are a fan of Faster Pussycat and Babylon AD or Pussy Sisster and Babylon Bombs, you are most likely going to be slamming your head and pounding your fists to "Anthems For The Young And Restless" or "Let's Get The Party Started".  After the slowest track, the previously mentioned "Don't Run Away", this album returns to the high octane stuff, although just a bit slower, though just as heavy and energetic.  The closing tracks are every bit as good as the first three, with "Hostile Shakedown"being a really strong hard rocker, and "We're Aiming High", also a top notch rocker, hopefull being an anthem of sorts for this band that really deserves some kind of label notice for their next effort.  

One piece of advice, however...I don't think this is the greatest CD to listen to while driving because you will soon find your foot clear through the floor doing about 110 m.p.h., as these songs just get you going that well.  Seriously, this is a ferocious little disc chock full of huge solos and monstrous, heavy riffs.  But to top it all of, you can't escape the power of Archie's wailing, screaming vocals that, in addition to the aforementioned Sebastian Bach, also remind me a lot of Kingpin/Shotgun Messiah when Zinny Zan was the vocalist...only with better overall guitar sound.

I have heard there is a 10 song version of this CD out somewhere, but I have never found it and have to wonder if it isn't a bootleg.  While I am not a fan of bootlegs, I can see why someone might try to bootleg this CD, because it is INCREDIBLY hard to find...and it is that dang good!  If I find out if the 10 song version is legit, I will be sure to pass on ordering info.  For now, however, the only place I know of to get this is from a Finnish site you can access here.  I have used this site myself, and have never had any problems, so I wouldn't hesitate to order this little gem.

Rating:  Crank this baby to 9, folks!  Let 'er rip!!!

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

JAGUAR BLAZE "Jaguar Blaze"

(c) 2012 Purple Box Records

  1. Wild N' Free
  2. My Kind Of Woman
  3. Losin' Myself (In Your Kiss)
  4. Never Says Forever
  5. Standin' Next To You
  6. Streets On Fire
  7. Days Gone By
  8. Heartbreak Style
  9. Into The Sun
  10. Lonely Road
Ian Keith Hafner--EVERYTHING, including songwriting and production

Jaguar Blaze is yet another musical project from Static Fuse/Angry Little Freak main-man Ian Keith Hafner.  This latest effort finds Hafner exploring music in a similar vein as his Static Fuse project, but without the blatant Christian lyrics, although there are still several deeper spiritual moments on this record, just not on every track.  I have heard/read a few people comparing Jaguar Blaze to bands like Def Leppard, Skid Row, KISS, or Ratt, but I don't hear that at all (with one exception).  This music is far more blues-based than those bands with nowhere near the pomp of KISS or the pop of Def Leppard.  If you are into that grittier, mostly mid-tempo hard rock sound of the 1980's (not hair metal, but more guitar-driven hard rock), there is a lot to like about Jaguar Blaze.

This time around, Ian handles everything himself, from vocals to guitars, bass, and drums.  It is a massive undertaking, to be sure, and I think Hafner acquits himself pretty well for the most part.  His guitar skills have never been in question, at least to my ears, and the solo on album opener, "Wild N' Free" is a testament to that.  One of my personal faves from this album, "Streets On Fire", is another great 80's-inspired blues-based hard rocker with some great licks and a nice, catchy hook.  This is the kind of song that bands like Keel, Leatherwolf, Vyper (if you have heard them), and even early Great White were playing a couple decades ago.  The big budget production is obviously not there, which is most notable in the drum sound, but you can definitely hear bands such as those performing "Streets On Fire" or the equally rocking "Into The Sun" back in the day.  "Into The Sun" is another song that has a great guitar solo in it that I would LOVE to hear with a big production budget behind it.  The same can be said of album closer "Lonely Road", which is the one song that I would say does have a Ratt feel to the music, carrying a similar tone and feel to "Back For More" on the main guitar riff.  "Standing Next To You", on the other hand, has a truly classic rock feel that has a more late-70's feel than the rest of the album, at least to these ears. "Heartbreak Style" is another pretty cool mid-tempo rocker with a nice guitar-and-drum breakdown section right before a quick solo that leads right back into the chorus.

Vocally, I have to say that the way Ian uses his voice is eerily similar to Layne Staley of Alice In Chains at times, especially when he is providing his own backing vocals.  This is especially evident on "Into The Sun".  It is not this apparent throughout the entire album, and the music isn't grunge by any means, but I have to say the vocals, especially on the pre-chorus, FREAKED ME OUT!  I get that Ian's voice is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that's cool.  However, I do know that he has put a lot of effort into his vocals and there is a clear growth here, especially for people who are familiar with his earlier work.

The real downfall of this record, or any indy project for the most part, is always going to be in the production, as big, pounding drums and a really bright mix can cover up a lot of weakenesses in any band.  Don't believe me?  Remember some of the concerts you went to in your younger days when you asked, "is this the same band?!"  The guitars are a bit low in the mix in spots, and, as I stated before, there is a definite lack of a real drum presence here.  I am not sure if this is a programmed drum or not (I don't think it is), but just a beefed up bass drum would make a world of difference for a lot of listeners.  On the flip side, there is a certain charm in indy projects where it is just the artist, his instruments, and his talent on display without a bunch of wizardry on a mixing board to change the outcome of the product.   

A cool touch here is in the packaging.  The front insert is plastic, not paper, which I thought was pretty cool.  I don't think I have ever seen that before, and if I have, I don't know where.

Overall, Jaguar Blaze is likely to appeal to those who understand indy hard rock is not about overblown arena sounds but more about feel and attitude.  Is this my favorite album to come out so far in 2012?  Nope, but I wasn't expecting it to be, either.  It was exactly what I figured I would get...solid songwriting, above average guitars, much improved vocals, and a gritty, honest performance from a guy who works very hard at his craft.  Again, if you like the style and sound of his main band, Static Fuse, you are likely to find a LOT to like about Jaguar Blaze.

Rating:  Rock this to 6, which is pretty solid for an indy project such as this.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012


(c)1998 Warner Bros.
  1. Neworld
  2. Without You
  3. One I Want
  4. From Afar
  5. Dirty Water Dog
  6. Once
  7. Fire In The Hole
  8. Josephina
  9. Year To The Day
  10. Primary
  11. Ballot Or The Bullet
  12. How Many Say I
Eddie Van Halen--Guitars, Keyboards,Bass, Lead and Backing Vocals
Gary Cherone--Lead Vocals
Michael Anthony--Bass, Backing Vocals
Alex Van Halen--Drums, Backing Vocals

After getting a chance to live with the new Van Halen album, A Different Kind Of Truth for a while now, I thought I would dig into the band's back catalog a bit and review some of their older material.  Oddly, I chose to start with the band's least popular, most maligned album ever recorded, 3.  I will be the first to admit I disliked this album so much when I got it that I actually shelved it for probably two solid years.  To give myself the chance to write a true and honest review, I pulled it out again recently and gave it several spins and was extremely surprised to find that I don't hate this album nearly as much as I once thought.  I'm not going to say I love it...I don't even know that I would go so far as to say I like it very much...but I certainly don't hate it.

The more I have listened to it, the more it sounds like a natural progression from the Sammy Hagar years of the band.  Perhaps that's the problem I have always had with it; 3 sounds like Van Hagar album with Gary Cherone on vocals...doing his best Sammy Hagar impersonation.  I took me the better part of three years to accept Sammy as the new voice of Van Halen (I still don't care for much of the first three Van Hagar albums), but    by the time For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance rolled around, I really liked what the band was doing.  But when Sammy was out and it was teased that David Lee Roth would be back, I thought that would be a really great thing, as I love that version of the band.  When that fell apart and Cherone was chosen as the next vocalist, I have to say I was extremely (no pun intended) excited.  I LOVE the work Cherone did with Extreme and I thought he could bring a fresh sound and perhaps writing perspective to the band.  But it's like Gary was never given a chance to succeed.  It is really odd to hear the way Cherone approaches some of these songs because it doesn't even sound like him in several places.  Perhaps if Eddie had allowed Gary to sing like he does with Extreme this would have been a better album overall and would have been treated better by fans of the band.  My guess is yes, but obviously we will never know.

The sound of the album, musically, is not really all that different than the last two Hagar albums (Unlawful and Balance).  The songs alternate between guitar-driven hard rockers and more keyboard-laden ballads.  There are a couple of things that differentiate this album from anything else the band has done, however.  First, these songs have a definite alternative rock vibe to them at times, especially in the production.  The themes tend to be a bit darker, less, for a lack of a better term, hair band anthems about partying and chicks, and the fun sound of the DLR era is definitely gone by now.  Also, some of these songs run considerably longer than a lot of the older VH material, which again goes along with the more alternative vibe and darker themes.  One other thing that really sets this album apart is the fact that Eddie steps up to the mic as the lead singer on one track, which is also the most unusual track on the disc.  Album closer, "How Many Say I", is a piano-based acoustic ballad that is unlike anything Van Halen has tried in any other incarnation.  For my money, it's not a particularly great song and, well, let's just be glad that Eddie recognized his skill as a guitar player and has always had lead singers to handle the front-man spot.  The other big thing, at least for fans of the band, is the fact that Michael Anthony steps away from the group during this album, playing on only three songs, with Eddie handling the rest of the bass.  The bass playing isn't what is noticeable, but Anthony's vocal harmonies are missed, I think.  I'm not sure if it's coincidence or not, but the three songs Anthony plays on are also the three tracks that were released as singles from this album:  "Without You", "Fire In The Hole", and "One I Want".

Even after giving it another shot, and being prepared to admit it is not as horrible as I had initally categorized it as, the plain and simple fact is that 3 really isn't that memorable.  There are no classic hooks, no scorching solos, and no real  arena anthems like the band had been noted for throughout its history.  Maybe this was intentional; I don't know.  The three singles did chart fairly well, with all three going Top 30 on the rock charts, and "Without You" actually topped the rock charts for a few weeks in 1998.  Even with this success though, Van Halen chose to completely ignore this album when they released their career retrospective collection Best Of Both Worlds (maybe it's because they didn't have a song called "Best Of All Three Worlds"...).

The thing is, with the reunited Roth era lineup (minus Anthony, who continues to play with Sammy Hagar's band), and the excellent return disc A Different Kind of Truth, this album is going to slip farther and farther from people's mind, and maybe that's a reasonable thing to have happen.  As a co-worker friend of mine told me when we were talking about this album the other day, there is just nothing that connects people to this album.  The debate will likely rage for as long as people listen to hard rock over whether the Roth-era or the Hagar-era was the best span of time for one of the greatest hard rock bands in music history (we all know Roth is the answer, by the way).  But I highly doubt that Cherone's effort will ever even be mentioned in the debate.  Incidentally, there has been a rumor for many years now that Van Halen actually recorded a second album with Cherone but the horrible reviews and poor sales of 3 caused the band to shelve it.  Personally, I would hope that at some time that album might see the light of day, just to see if the band overcame the depths that most people think 3 took them down to.

Bottom line...3 isn't terrible, it just isn't memorable and Eddie sounds tired and like he is no longer having fun. I can say it won't be two or three years before I pull this out again, but I'm not going to be spinning it on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, either.

Rating:  Turn this down to a 4.5, but consider pulling a couple of tracks off of it to put on your iPod or mp3 player to mix in with the other, classic material...and the new album, of course.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

VAN HALEN "A Different Kind Of Truth"

(c)2012 Interscope Records

  1. Tattoo
  2. She's The Woman
  3. You And Your Blues
  4. China Town
  5. Blood And Fire
  6. Bullethead
  7. As Is
  8. Honeybabysweetiedoll
  9. The Trouble With Never
  10. Outta Space
  11. Stay Frosty
  12. Big River
  13. Beats Workin'
David Lee Roth--Lead Vocals
Eddie Van Halen--Lead Guitars, Keyboard, Backing Vocals
Alex Van Halen--Drums
Wolfgang Van Halen--Bass, Backing Vocals

Well, well, well...some things never cease to amaze me.  Let me start by saying this to all those who doubted...Van Halen is 100% back, folks, and considerably heavier than people probably suspected.  Anyone looking for one of the keyboard-driven ballads that became the standard fare for Van Halen in the Sammy Hagar-era will be sorely dissapointed as there is not even a single ballad on this entire guitar-smoking album.  For anyone who though David Lee Roth was washed up...think again.  For anyone who thought Eddie would never again be able to channel the guitar god that he was (rightfully) built up to are proven wrong.  For anyone who doubted that Wolfgang would be able to live up to Michael Anthony's bass might find yourself surprised.  And for anyone who bought into Sammy's musings that the new VH album was unimpressive...well, I suggest you get it yourself and give it a spin because I am not entirely sure what the Red Rocker was listening to.  This is one smoking return to form for the once mighty Van Halen rock machine!

On this new offering, you get a real mix and match of things.  New album on new label with a new member.  Old songs (several were actually written more than 30 years ago), old (original) lead singer, and the old (classic) Van Halen sound.  A couple of things are missing, also.  Keyboards are a relegated to a supporting role again.  The big arena sound that Van Hagar (sorry, it had to be said) brought to the table has been stripped away and the classic, power-rock of the DLR pre-1984 era albums is back (come on, admit it...songs like "Jump", in particular, were heading in the direction of the Hagar stuff).

If you have been hesitant to give the album a chance after listening to the lead single, "Tattoo", I can kind of understand.  That track is NOT representative of the album as a whole, however.  In fact, "Tattoo" is actually one of the last songs I would have chosen as a single, although it is probably the closest to a Top 40 possibility.  This and "Honeybabysweetiedoll" are the two tracks that I would probably consider to be throwaways on this record, and neither is terrible.  In fact, I would probably encourage album buyers to put in the CD and IMMEDIATELY hit skip to track two and proceed from there and they will then be treated to some of the sonic magic that made Van Halen such a force in the late 1970's and early 80's.  Starting with "She's The Woman" and working throughout the rest of the first half of the album...and two-thirds of the second half...A Different Kind Of Truth reminds people of why this band was so great.  For me, it reminds me of the difference between a hard-rocker's view of the band (the Roth era) and the Top 40, mainstream view of the band (the Hagar era)...and, I guess, the disastrous near-end of the band (the Cherone experiment).  This is what Van Halen was supposed to sound like.  Eddie just tears up the fretboard throughout this album, resurrecting his signature sound and adding just a hint of modernness, mostly on the production end of things.   

As great as it is to hear Eddie shredding again, I have to say the biggest, most pleasant surprise for me was the return of David Lee Roth.  Not his return to the band, necessarily, but his return to being David Lee Roth!  This isn't the same guy that sounded so tired on much of his solo material.  This is the David Lee Roth that hinted at a resurrection with the track "Slam Dunk" on his DLR Band album...only to fall flat for so much of the rest of that disc.  While no one will ever claim that Diamond Dave was the greatest lead singer in the history of hard rock and metal, it is a VERY short list as far as the greatest front men in the history of the genre and many, myself included, put Dave at the top of that list.  This an album filled with songs that are going to slide perfectly into a live show packed with DLR-era hits, and nearly every one of these songs has the potential for Diamond Dave to turn it into a show-stopping spectacle. 

Okay, so now for the million dollar question for a lot of folks...does Wolfgang fill the shoes of Michael Anthony?  Does he belong in more than just his name?  My thoughts?  Definitely.  Wolfie is able to lock into a groove with Uncle Alex throughout the album, more than adequately filling in the backbeat of these tracks, some of which were written years before he was born.  It is obvious he has been versed in the classic Van Halen style and sound, and he more than holds his own.  Is he Michael Anthony?  No, of course not.  But for anyone who was waiting for him to fall flat...keep waiting.

On an album full of great songs, a few definitely stand out.  "Better Than Workin'" is one that instantly pops into my head, especially with it's "I could swear I have heard this hook before" sound, but it is not a rip-off of anything, including old Van Halen just has that feel.  "Bullethead" is a MONSTER of a shredder.  "She's The Woman" and "Big River" are also excellent rockers, "China Town" has an insanely catchy hook, and one of my faves, "As Is" just reeks of the best that Van Halen had to offer back in the day.  Eddie's fretwork on that track, alone, recalls what was so great about those early Van Halen albums.  In fact, as I mentioned, if you abandon "Tattoo", which really isn't terrible, and the almost modern-sounding "Honeybabysweetiedoll", and you can get through "Stay Frosty" (which Van Hagar fans won't likely get, and "Ice Cream Man" fans will likely love), it's hard for me to think that fans of the early years will find anything to dislike. 

Is this the best Van Halen album ever, DLR, Hagar, or Cherone?  No.  It does not top Van Halen I, which I think would be virtually impossible to do.  It doesn't hold the across the board appeal of 1984, either, at least not yet; time may change that as I listen to it more.  I do put it ahead of Diver Down and Women And Children First, WAY ahead of Fair Warning, and probably slightly ahead of II also, largely because I think A Different Kind Of Truth is a more solid album all the way through.  Again, time will tell if any of these new tracks become the next "And The Cradle Will Rock" or "Dance The Night Away" or "Everybody Wants Some", which were key moments from those other early albums.  If this is the end for Van Halen as far as studio albums go, it is going to be a GREAT bookend to a legendary career, and is a far more fitting end than Van Halen III, or even the unfortunate reunion-that-never-reunited following the recording of the new tracks on the greatest hits album.  I truly hope it isn't, but if it is...what a great way to go out.

Rating:  Crank this...and I mean CRANK a blistering 8.5 (a 9 without two very average tracks) and just pray that these rock gods have at least one more album of this quality in them before calling it a day.

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