Thursday, April 16, 2015

SEETHER "Isolate And Medicate" Deluxe Edition

(c)2014 Bicycle Music Company
  1. See You At The Bottom
  2. Same Damn Life
  3. Words As Weapons
  4. My Disaster
  5. Crash
  6. Suffer It All
  7. Watch Me Drown
  8. Nobody Praying For Me
  9. Keep The Dogs At Bay
  10. Save Today
  11. Turn Around (deluxe edition)
  12. Burn The World (deluxe edition)
  13. Goodbye Tonight--Seether and Van Coke Kartel (deluxe edition)
  14. Weak (deluxe edition)
Shaun Morgan--Lead Vocals, Rhythm and Lead Guitar
Dale Steward--Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals
John Humphrey--Drums, Percussion

Three years had passed since South Africa's Seether had released new music, and I had heard several times that the band had been "put on indefinite hiatus", or even "shelved", in favor of side projects from the individual band members.  I really don't know a lot about the band outside of the album Karma And Effect, other than the songs I had heard on the radio, so whether there was anything to these rumors or not, I am not the person to ask.  I had kind of lost interest as everything started sounding the same, at least as far as radio single go, so if the band had decided to hang things up, I guess I wasn't going to get too wrapped up in that drama, as I had nothing emotionally invested in the band in the first place.  However, it is obvious with the release of Isolate And Medicate, the band's 6th studio album, Seether let the world know that not only are they not done as a band, they are also not done as a musical force in the modern rock scene.

The album kicks off with "See You At The Bottom", a hard rocking tune driven by the grunge-inspired guitar tones and style that Seether has become known for, with Morgan's vocals mixing with the backing vocals in a lesser-degree Alice In Chains fashion throughout much of the track.  There are moments, however, where Morgan really cuts loose with some impassioned screaming, especially during the chorus, that have not always been been present in past Seether efforts.

"Same Damn Life" sports a lifted guitar riff from Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him", circa 1963, combining a punkish attitude with the band's grunge stylings, with Morgan even breaking into falsetto for parts of the verses!  Talk about your oddity of a song, but you know works.  Easily one of the catchiest songs on the record, I can't help but smile a bit when I this track, which is now a single, comes on the radio.

Lead single, "Words As Weapons" is the way it is put together.  There is just something about Morgan's vocals here, along with the sparse nature of the music during the verses, that is spine-tingling to listen to.  There are alss some chant-style vocals going on in chorale fashion beneath the surface of this largely drum-driven track that adds even more to the eerie nature of this track that I find myself hitting repeat on fairly frequently.

"My Disaster" takes a bit of a step backward for me, as it sounds a lot like a rehash of several of their songs from the past.  In other words, its just not very memorable for me.  The guitars buzz along in their grungy, sludgy style, but the lead guitar really isn't there to speak of (it gets kind of buried under the ryhthm guitars), and the song is rather repetitive to listen to.

"Crash" has an odd vibe to it and I honestly don't think I would have even been able to tell you it was a Seether song if I hadn't heard it on this record.  I know everyone calls this music "post-grunge", but there is nothing "post" about this track--it is straight-up Seattle worship, with elements of Nirvana in the vocals and Soundgarden-meets-Smashing Pumpkins in the music.  The song just sounds so much...older...than it actually is.  I have no doubts you could put this track on a station like Lithium on Sirius/XM, and the majority of casual listeners would never be able to tell you that was a song from 2014 and not 1994.  If you are into real grunge-sounding music, this is a GREAT track for you to grab hold of.

"Suffer It All" does absolutely nothing for me.  In fact, I think I can safely say I don't really like "angry Seether" all that well, as it makes them sound generic, even when they try to mix in a poppy element to the chorus.  Just not my cup of tea at all here.  Skip...

"Watch Me Drown" feels a lot like "Same Damn Life, Part II" to me.  It has that same kind of pop-punk vibe to it, bouncy-yet-grumpy at the same time.  These two songs, in fact, remind me a LOT of what Theory Of A Deadman did to such effectiveness on Scars & Souvenirs, mixing a pop melody in with a punk mentality, and then layering catchy, snarky, attitude-laden vocals over the top.

"Nobody Praying For Me" is a moody, darker track, with Morgan plumbing the lower end of his vocal range during the verses, then returning to his typical snarling delivery style on the chorus of this mid-tempo number.  Simplistic-yet-catchy, this is where the best of the original material ends for me, as "Keep The Dogs At Bay" is just too repetitive to keep my attention, and "Save The Day" really doesn't sound like Seether all that much to me and it has a weird guitar tone (or is it a Theramin?!) that drives me loopy when I hear it in the background.  I think it could have been a pretty cool ballad, but that dang tone is just irritating to hear over and over...

Sometimes I wonder how we get "bonus material" that's as good as, if not better, than some of the material on a regular version of an album.  Why the heck didn't you put ALL the good stuff on an album and leave off a couple of stinkers? And while we're at it, why is the "deluxe edition" in a digipack/slipcase?!  Argh!  Anyway, Seether decided to put out a deluxe edition of Isolate And Medicate with four bonus tracks, three of which are better than half of the rest of the original album.

"Turn Around" is a lot like "Words As Weapons" in the fact that it is borderline creepy to listen to.  The bass line intro sets such a spooky vibe for Morgan to snake his vocals over that this song is just plain fun to listen to.  "Burn The World" is just flat-out cool and the intro makes me think of the old James Bond movies I watched with my dad back in the 70's and 80's.  (I keep expecting Roger Moore to turn around and shoot the screen and then have blood dripping down the screen...but I digress.)    Not really in line with a lot of the Seether material I have heard before, but something I think I would like to hear more of.  And "Weak" is a pretty cool tune as well, but I've been told it actually isn't a new song, just one I missed because it was on some sort of compilation or best-of in the past.

I don't overly care for "Goodbye Tonight".  I have no clue who the Van Coke Kartel is or why Seether has them on their record, but it really didn't add any "wow" to an otherwise all-too-familiar sounding song that really sounds like it could blend into just about any other Seether album cut and not be missed.

While nothing here is going to really stretch the boundaries of what Seether has become known for, perhaps that is a good thing.  There is a lot of soft/loud/soft/loud going on with the song structure (with a couple of exceptions as mentioned), and it is an effect which has worked well for the band in the past.

While not necessarily the most diverse album the band has put out, and likely not the one most band fans will indicate as their favorite, Isolate and Medicate is a strong effort, showcasing Morgan's distictive voice, some decent song-writing skills, and a willingness to hold onto much of what has worked for the band in the past, while not attempting to rewrite previous records.  A decent listen if you are into this style, but nothing earth-shattering.  When it works, which is more often than not, it works well.  However, when things are off, the songs become nothing more than background noise that is basically indistinguishable from the lesser material I have heard from the band in the past.

Rating:  Rock this at 6.5.  While not amazing, it is definitely a decent record. Go for the Deluxe Edition, by the way, as 3/4 of the added tracks boost the value of the record.

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(c) 2014 Independent Release
  1. Radical
  2. Attack
  3. Dead Militia
  4. Scarlet
  5. Unbroken
  6. The Name
  7. Angels and Demons
  8. Lion
  9. Yesterday Is Over
  10. Kamikaze
  11. Crazy
  12. The Right Time
Kevin Young--Lead Vocals
Josiah Prince--Guitars
Andrew Stanton--Guitars
Jason Wilkes--Bass, Backing Vocals
Joey West--Drums, Percussion

It seems like lately I have been reviewing a lot of new, modern material from bands that are now pushing 20 years in the industry.  Disciple's latest effort, Attack, continues that trend.  I had to actually stop and ask myself how Disciple could possible be 20 years old already...and how I am still listening to them today, as I will be honest in saying I was NOT a fan when the band started out.  Their combination of rap and metal was simply not something that slotted into my musical vocabulary as a 20-something music fan.  

Well, twenty years later, some things have changed (the rap, and most of my hair, is gone), some things have stayed the same (Disciple still BOLDLY rocks for God)...and Disciple is still here.

Granted, the only member of the band who has been here for the full history of Disciple is founder and frontman, Kevin Young.  Looking as young and fresh and energetic as always (was he 12 on the first album or something?!), Young formed a new version of the band (he refers to this version as Disciple 3.0), ditched the whole record label concept and went with a Kickstarter-funded project, and put together the best Disciple album ever, by my estimation.  Geared for modern rock radio musically, but as lyrically bold as ever, Young and company have crafted a guitar-driven modern rock record with enough edge to keep the more metal-inclined fans happy (check out "Radical", "Attack" and "The Name",  for starters), while making sure that the younger generation of fans who flooded Christian radio with requests for "Dear X..." a few years back are not left out in the cold.  

The album kicks off with its lead single, "Radical", which is one of the hardest hitters on a record chock full of uptempo rockers.  "Radical" reminds me a lot of the era when I really started finding myself liking Disciple, which is in that By God through Back Again span of records.  In fact, "Radical" sounds like it could have possibly even come from Back Again, as the hard charging guitars and thundering drums recall a harder rocking band than what Young had seemingly morphed the band into with Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and especially Southern Hospitality. Don't get me wrong, I like both of those records, but I always felt there was an edge missing from most of the songs on those two records.  That edge has been rediscovered and reapplied here, to be sure!

From here, the title track, "Attack" continues in the hard rock vein, albeit just a slightly more radio rock direction.  A bouncy guitar riff brings the song in, crashing it into pounding drums and some  atmospheric elements, before big, shouted vocals ask, "Are you ready for a fight?!", plunging the listener into a spiritual call-to-arms battle anthem!  There's a small vocal breakdown in the middle, but the intensity doesn't let up for long before the bass drum starts to thump again and Young redirects the listener back to the matters at hand!

"Dead Militia" finds Young really reaching into his screaming vocals for the first time on this new album on yet another blistering number that will likely find itself being released as a single before this record is laid to rest.  The drums and bass are given opportunity to shine in spots on this track which is one of the two catchiest tracks, musically, on the entire record.  I was extremely happy that this song was included in the setlist of Disciple's recent City Rockfest Tour, as I was bouncing along with the song from note one (as was my 7 year old son who was attending his first ever rock show).

From here the band shifts gears a bit with what I am guessing will be a major Christian radio rock hit this summer in "Scarlet".  Leaving the hard rocking on the roadside for just a moment, Disciple jumps seamlessly into the modern rock territory it has so effectively been navigating for the past few years.  Young stays as bold as ever with his lyrics ("Though my sins they be as scarlet, Though my hands have been an enemy of God, Though my heart has played the harlot, You give me more than I deserve..."), but he never comes across as preachy or Bible-thumping in his approach, which makes a song like "Scarlet" even more accessible to fans who may be curious as to what Disciple is all about.

"Unbroken" finds the band slowing things just a bit more, steering their musical vehicle into the realm of  modern rock balladry, although they refuse to leave the thunder of the drums or the punch of the guitars completely behind on the choruses.  Speaking of the chorus, we also get to really hear Jason Wilkes add his backing vocals to this track in a simplistic, yet effective manner.  Again, a great song that will find a lot of love on rock radio, even if it is a bit too tame for some band fans.

The rockers need not fear, however, as "The Name" seems to come out of nowhere and threatens to shred your speakers with its sheer speed and power!  This is the Disciple of old by just about any account, and the band tears things up at break-neck speed on this juiced up praise and worship hymn (it's basically "Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus" on high octane fuel).  Experienced headbangers only need to apply for entrance here, folks!  Huge, shouted gang vocals, crushing drum rhythms, screaming guitars, a thundering breakdown, and impassioned lyrics...what more could you ask for from a band that is obviously hitting on all cylinders on this track.  Easily the highlight of the live set I saw in March (which was also boosted by a killer light show and some amazing video images...).

The one song on the record that I don't think lives up to the greatness of the rest of the record is up next with "Angels & Demons", and even this isn't a bad song.  The song structure just doesn't seem to fit the flow of most of the record (there are a couple more oddities yet to come), but I never find myself skipping this track or wishing that it hadn't been included.  Perhaps its the almost jarring change in tempo between this song and "The Name" that makes it stand out so starkly, I'm not sure. 

"Lion" is a song that had to grow on me, and I'm still not 100% certain how I feel about it sometimes.  This one is definitely a mood song for me, although much like "Angels & Demons", I would never say I dislike it and I never skip it.  The song almost feels it has a rather quirky rhythm, especially during the chorus, that I find difficult to really lock into.  It was immensely popular in concert, so maybe its just me...

"Yesterday Is Over" returns the band to modern rock ballad territory.  This is the "lighter in the air" song of the record, to be sure.  This one is the "swayer" on the album...and in the setlist...and there were many hands in the air almost the second the infectious guitar intro to this song hit the speakers.  Young really showcases is singing talents here, rather than relying solely on his powerful, more metallic screaming style.

"Kamikaze" picks the pace right back up and is one of my three or four favorite songs on the record, although I have heard (and read) several people saying they really don't care for this track.  I love it, personally!  A definite head-bobber, and showcases a vocal trade-off between Young and Wilkes that I think really works well.  Sure, this song doesn't really fit with the majority of the record, but that only serves to set it off a bit.  It also features one of the truest guitar solos on the record, and is just an overall fun song that seems to manage to creep up a volume notch or two every time I play it.

"Crazy" feels like an industrial rocker to me with some of the effects used at the intro and throughout the rest of the track, and the bass and drums really drive this song for most of the verse sections before a sing-along styled chorus kicks in.  Not overly memorable, but a fun number near the end of the record, which closes out with "The Right Time".  As is often the case with Disciple, the band chooses to end things with a ballad (or at least a more down-tempo number), and this is a pretty good one.  An acoustic guitar carries much of the melody on a track that reminds me of a lot 80's hair band power ballads in the way it is structured.  Again, quite a bit different than the majority of the record, but a solid way to exit and one last chance for Young to get his lyrical point about God's love and salvation across to the listener.

As has been the case for several years now, Travis Wyrick is the producer of the album, and his touch is felt throughout the record.  The man has a definite knack for feeling where Disciple wants to go with their art, and Attack is no exception.  The production is clean and modern, with the guitars sounding especially crisp and sharp here, and Young's vocals punchy and out front the way they should be, without burying the rhythm section in the basement of each track.  Solid, solid work here.

While a lot of bands are satisfied to rest on their laurels...and tour on their is evident Disciple is nowhere near done musically, as Attack is easily their most complete record in at least a decade, and my favorite from their now impressive catalog.  I was a little bit late getting to this record, but it is one that I am definitely glad I picked up as it reinvigorated my interest in this band and drove me to go back and pull out their last four or five records and rediscover some of the gems I had unintentionally buried in my CD rack.           

Rating:  Crankable, all the way.  Crank this to a powerful 9...and make sure to catch the band live if you get the chance!


Monday, April 6, 2015

LACEY STURM "The Reason: How I Discovered A Life Worth Living" (Book Review)

(c) 2014 Baker Books

Lacey Sturm is known to hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions of people, as the former lead singer of the band Flyleaf.  What most of those people may not know, however, is that prior to her joining the band, prior to her decision to commit her life to Christ, Sturm was a self-described "atheist" who was on the verge of committing suicide.  How did she get there?  How did she turn her life around?  Why did she leave Flyleaf seemingly at the height of the band's popularity?  Sturm addresses these and several other topics in this autobiography.  

Unlike a lot of autobiographies, this book is not overly heavy on personal detail that really doesn't serve to drive the book at all.  The entire project checks in at just 208 pages, with no photo section, although there are several hand-drawn sketches that I believe Sturm did herself, which serve to add a bit to the content of the chapter the sketch is found in.  Yes, she discusses her childhood (she was born to a teen-aged mother who had been advised to have an abortion rather than deliver Lacey), and she talks about her struggles with drugs, depression, and thoughts of suicide, but this book isn't meant to be a dark story that leaves readers feeling sad or depressed for the author.  Instead, Sturm pushes through the details of her young life, explaining how even seemingly negative elements (a life lived in poverty at times, her love of Pantera and Nirvana, a volatile relationship with her mother, a molar pregnancy that could have killed her, etc.) shaped her life and rounded out the individual she would become.  

Each chapter in Sturm's book is a "reason".  "The Reason I Love Jazz", "The Reason I Became An Atheist", The Reason I Loved Nirvana", etc., and each "reason" explains a part of who Lacey is today.  It's a unique way to set up a book, in my opinion, and I found myself turning through the pages quickly and effortlessly, seeking out the story behind the "reason" listed in the chapter title.

One problem I had with the book is also likely one of the main things that will appeal to her target audience, which is teens and young adults.  The background info on some chapters is rather sketchy and I feel like I have been left out of the loop in some places.  The historian in me wants to be let in, wants to be given the smaller details that may not seem important to many readers, while the target audience is going to be appreciative of the fact that only the bigger, broader picture is presented here, without the mundane details.  I get that I am double, maybe even TRIPLE the age of the intended audience here.  I get that I don't always understand the day-to-day struggles of teens and young adults today (despite being a high school teacher surrounded by the target audience on a daily basis), so I am not going to hold this minor issue against the book or the author.

I do wish a tad bit more time had been spent on the Flyleaf years, perhaps addressing the recording process, their videos, some more touring information, etc.  I also wish a bit more had been talked about showing how the band worked both inside of and on the outside of the Christian music industry, and how they dealt with Christians who felt they were not "Christian enough", and secular fans who thought Flyleaf was "too Christian".  However, again, I understand that is not the point of the book.  The book is here to served as a way for Lacey to communicate with her readers and listeners about the hope she has for their life and how she was able to overcome some of the same issues that they are likely dealing with themselves.  It isn't necessarily about music as much as it is about Lacey's salvation and how that opportunity is out there for every single person that picks up her book.  

The 3-page forward to the book is written by Brian "Head" Welch of KoRn/Love & Death, himself a born again Christian, with an afterward written by Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Ministries organization.  Also, throughout the book, Sturm scatters quotes from, and references to, author C.S. Lewis, whom Sturm obviously holds in high regard.

Was it a good read?  For the most part, yes.  Again, there are things I feel are missing, but perhaps they will be discussed in a future book (which Sturm suggests she will write at some point).  Again, it is relatively short, and I found myself making my way through the book in a total of about 4 hours spread out over a couple of days of reading.

People looking purely for the story of Flyleaf's formation, rise, peak, and then Sturm's departure, will likely put the book down a bit disappointed once they have finished it.  Teens and young adults who are looking for someone they can possibly relate to and learn from are likely to find themselves feeling the book was over all-too-quickly and possibly seeking Sturm out on the internet or trying to converse with her through email or social media.  

Overall, a solid read filled with inspiration and hope delivered by a multi-talented artist of the current generation who "gets" that she is meant to be so much more than a modern rock star.

Baker Books
208 Pages

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