Thursday, May 28, 2015

JACE PAWLAK "Perspective"

(c) 2015 Marble Sky Music

  1. Cry
  2. While We're Here
  3. What If We Were Wrong
  4. Don't Talk To Me
  5. The Unknown
  6. Jodi's Just Running
  7. We Don't Know Anything
  8. Renegade Heart
  9. The Same Mistake
  10. Little Star
Jace Pawlak--Vocals, all instruments

Jace Pawlak is not a household name, although if you are familiar with the melodic hard rock scene of the past few years, you have heard his music before, even if you didn't realize it.  Perspective is Pawlak's third solo release, and I have to be honest in telling you I hadn't heard the previous two, so I have no basis of comparison between these new songs and his older material.  I had heard, however, that Pawlak's previous material was typically defined as anything from "driving hard rock" to "melodic rock with an edge", so to say I was anxious would be an understatement.

The Kickstarter-funded effort starts off with a cool melodic rocker, "Cry", which instantly brings back the feel of the early-to-mid 90's melodic sound, with a driving guitar interspersed with keyboards, layered vocals, and a solid, if not stand-out, rhythm section.  This is a solidly written song that really showcases Pawlak's sense of melody and his ability to craft a catchy song. 

"While We're Here" follows things up with a very contemporary Nashville sounding song.  In fact, with just a tiny bit of tweaking, I could hear this song all over country radio...although I honestly think it would "rock" harder on country radio than it does here.  There's an acoustic rhythm guitar woven throughout the track, with a strong percussion presence and an it a flute?...woodwind line of some sort.  Very upbeat but a rather stark departure from "Cry".  Still, I was feeling pretty good about the album at this point.

"What If We Were Wrong" is a big time piano-based ballad that has Richard Marx written all over it, in my opinion.  Expertly written and executed, this would be a great Top 40 or Hot Adult Contemporary radio song...if this was 1989.  In 2015, however, no matter how flawlessly the song is crafted, no matter how emotive the vocals, the track comes across as rather dated and I'm not really sure who the target audience is here.  

Things start to come apart for me with "Don't Talk To Me", which is reminiscent to me of something Kool and the Gang or Stevie Wonder would have done in the 70's, as it is a very jazz-infused number with plenty of (digital) horns, harmonica, piano, finger snaps, all layered over a bass-dominated danceable groove.  Just not my thing at all and I had some serious reservations going forward...and I was only on track 4!

"The Unknown" is a passionate piano ballad that showcases Pawlak's soulful singing voice and strong songwriting ability, as does the bluesy "We Don't Know Anything", but again, neither of these is truly a rock number, and I'm imagining that a lot of listeners are wondering how this is the same guy that has had songs recorded by Tango Down and Far Cry, among other melodic hard rockers.  These songs feel more like Billy Joel songs than anything else I can think to compare them to, including the strong piano work on both tracks.  The same goes for the uptempo, piano-pop of  "Jodi's Just Running", which again has a very Joel feel to it musically, while lyrically there's a definite Mellencamp bent here.

"Renegade Heart" is much more in line with what I'm guessing most listeners are seeking, as this is a slick, 80's-inspired, guitar-driven AOR number with an easily accessible chorus and a simple, yet effective, melody line that carries the song right through the surprisingly powerful...if too short...guitar solo and bridge.  A toe-tapper, for sure, Perspective would benefit from more "Renegade Heart" styled songs.

"The Same Mistake" is another Nashville-tinged, acoustic country song that, in the right artist's hands, would be a solid album track.  In fact, this song feels feels a lot like the country rock fare that was being put forth in the 1990's by Blackhawk, if you are familiar with that band (I'm showing the fact that I worked in country radio for about 9 years now, aren't I?)

"Little Star" closes things out in a very Journey-esque way, reminding me somewhat of "Faithfully".  At the same time I could have heard country rockers Restless Heart tackle this track with great success in the late 80's/early 90's.  While I believe it is written about a child, I could definitely hear this being played at a wedding or two, as it is a beautifully crafted piano ballad with a lot of emotion poured into the performance.  A strong album closer and one of the best songs here, without question.

There are some really good moments on this album, and virtually everything showcases a songwriting ability that is lacking in each of the various formats that this album touches upon.  However, it is this very lack of focus on style and even a target audience that makes this album feel very disjointed to me.  There is ZERO doubt as to Pawlak's writing ability, nor his musical ability, as he performs virtually every instrument on this record.  I just can't help but feel that there are going to be a lot of people who pick this album up expecting something much more in the melodic rock/AOR vein than they are actually going to find.

Perhaps Pawlack addresses this seeming lack of focus best himself.  In the press release that accompanied the album, the following quote was included:  

"Like every writer, I just want to be heard.  When I release my recordings, I'n not 'done;.  It's just another step in trying to be a successful songwriter, to get people to consider my material for their band.  It does not end with me.  I want every song I write to be covered by ten different bands".  

As such, perhaps I approached this album as a project, when in actuality it is more like a showcase, which makes sense with the way these songs seem to come at you from all different directions and pull from multiple styles and influences.

That being said, I can't say that Perspective is going to be an album that I find myself reaching for with any kind of regularity.  It just doesn't grab me and hold my interest for long enough stretches for this to be something I return to.  I will, however, endeavor to track down Pawlak's previous two efforts, as I have since sampled them a bit and find them to be much more like the guitar-driven melodic hard rock I was expecting on Perspective.

Rating:  Rock this at a 5.5, with the superb songwriting and strong musical performances virtually guaranteeing that Pawlak's music will be heard somewhere, by someone, which is ultimately his goal.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

ARSON CITY "The Horror Show"

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. The Horror Show
  2. My Perfect Drug
  3. Dance With The Devil
  4. Frankenstein
  5. I'm Awake
  6. Not Coming Home
  7. New Disease
  8. Too Close
  9. Let's Get This Fire Started
  10. City Of Fire
  11. Lies
Patrick Michael Wilson--Lead Vocals
Mark Beckenhauer--Rhythm Guitar, Programming, Backing Vocals
Matt DiBaise--Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
Matt Oliver--Bass, Backing Vocals
Matt Denker--Drums, Percussion

Finally!  Nebraska modern rockers, Arson City, have finally released their first full-length record with The Horror Show.  Now, it is true that a handful of these songs can be found on the band's previous EP's, including tracks 4, 6, 8, and 10 which came from the excellent Not Coming Home EP, as well as track 5, which comes from their debut, self-titled EP.  That being said, we are still treated to six new tracks on this album, which also features a line-up change, with Matt #3 joining the band, as Matt DiBaise takes over lead guitar duties from previous axe-slinger, Eric Whitney.

The album kicks off with the title track and first single, "The Horror Show".  This song is exactly what Arson City is all about...crushing percussion, buzzsaw rhythm guitars, and "Mayor" Wilson's snarled vocal delivery.  Insanely catchy from the get-go, this rocker bounces along in typical Arson City fashion until, seemingly out of nowhere, a guitar solo cuts into the mayhem!  New Matt, (the band has three of them), Matt DiBaise rips off a tasty, if relatively short solo that nicely accentuates this smoldering intro to the new album, adding yet another dimension to the already multi-faceted band.

Electronic elements kick off "My Perfect Drug", another new track here, as Wilson takes the listener on a musical journey through a less-than-ideal relationship based around two people who are essentially addicted to each other despite the fact that they are not good for each other.  DiBaise adds in another very short, yet effective, solo here, making the album two-for-two as far as new songs go.

Things quickly become three-for-three as "Dance With The Devil" drops in with a Rob Zombie-esque intro before heading off in an Alice Cooper-styled direction, especially in the way Wilson phrases the chorus and a bridge section.  Solo number three from Matt #3 is a bit longer than the others, again blending in nicely with the rest of the track and keeping the focus on the song as a whole rather than on one short segment.

The next three songs all come from previous releases, although "I'm Awake" was completely re-recorded, so it definitely sounds cleaner and more properly produced than it did on the self-titled EP.  "Frankenstein", the killer ballad "Not Coming Home", the remade "Too Close", and "City Of Fire" are included here in the same recordings that they appeared on the Not Coming Home EP, however they have been remastered and the volume is equalized so that they flow seamlessly with the rest of the new tracks here.

"New Disease" is another new rocker that showcases Bechenhauer incorporating synthesized strings to near perfection, giving a band like Skillet a run for their money in proper use of this musical element.  More of a mid-tempo rocker than the majority of the neck-snappers here, "New Disease" also includes gang-shouted backing vocals, and some razor sharp rhythm guitar work supported by the ever-present powerhouse rhythm section of Oliver and Denker.  Once again, DiBaise blows through a nice solo, leading into an acoustic guitar interlude, before blasting back into the scream-along chorus.

"Lets Get This Fire Started" charges out of the cover of Alex Clare's "Too Close", guitars ablaze and rhythm section chug-chug-chugging so that Wilson can spit out his vocals across the surface of this modern metal anthem.  

"Lies" closes things out in spectacularly moody and eerie fashion with the horror show themed intro, more synthesized strings, and Wilson once again in pseudo-Alice Cooper mode as he sneers his way through the verses of this fist-pounding track of angst and betrayal.  One of my three favorite new tracks here, this is a song that comes across even better in the live setting.

Speaking of the live setting, I have said it before, but it deserves repeating:  I have yet to encounter a band that puts on a better live club show than Arson City...and I have seen hundreds of different bands in various clubs over the past 25 years.  These guys put absolutely everything they have into not only the musical, but also the theatrical, parts of their performances.  Mix in their Horror Squad drum corps, and you have one incredibly powerful live show.  The band will be featured on several festivals this year, including Rocklahoma and RockFest, so make no excuses and get out and see these guys live, buy their merch, snag this disc, and have them scribble their name on it as you are sworn into Citizenship as a resident of Arson City!

The packaging is relatively simple, as this was a fan-funded effort, with the vast majority of the money generated used in the recording process.  There is a single band photo on the inside, personnel listing, and a list of thank-yous.  (Again, in the interest of honesty and full-disclosure, my name is in the thank-you list, as I contributed to the funding of the record....)  The production is excellent, with Beckenhauer and Wilson working to co-produce the record, and the mix is solid and tight throughout.

Rating:  Definitely crankable, this album is an early contender for indy release of the year, and definitely a Top 20 album overall.  Crank this to 9!    

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SLANTPIECE "Second Wind"

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. Ghosts Of Yesterday
  2. Baptized In Whiskey
  3. Shallow Grave
  4. Stuck In A Rut
  5. Scars 
  6. Second Wind
Derek Johnson--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Derek Tavis--Guitars
Wryan Carpenter--Bass
Bill Sabah--Drums, Vocals

It should be obvious to readers of this site that I love to review music.  It's always such a thrill for me to come across something new, a band not everyone has heard of.  Even more exciting for me is when I get the chance to review local music that is of top-notch quality because, let's face it, a LOT of bands think they have what it takes, and even more think they sound "killer".  Not trying to crush anyone's hopes or dreams, but in all honesty, rarely do these smaller, independent bands have the skill, let alone the songs, to put together a solid enough release for more than die-hard fans to take notice.

Slantpiece is one of those bands that should get people's attention!

Hailing from Kearney, NE, Slantpiece is a four-piece metal band that combines elements of classic metal, doom/stoner metal, metalcore, and what I like to refer to as "Bar Metal", into their sound.  ("Bar Metal", for the uninitiated, is the kind of metal that makes you want to go to a local watering hole, grab some guy by the throat, and throw them around for a bit in the mosh pit that forms in front of the stage.  If you've been in a truly good local live music club, you likely know what I mean...)  Twin guitars, pounding bass, and pummeling drums are the key elements here, along with Johnson's bottom-end yowl, and some excellent production work from none other than Michael Beck, who really pulled the best performances out of these four guys on this, their second record.  

Things kick off in violent fashion with "Ghosts Of Yesterday", a chugga-chugga assault right from the get-go.  Johnson's bottom-end vocals are layered in spots by a blackish-sounding backing vocal that provides a unique dynamic that sets the band's sound off from your traditional metalcore approach.  Additionally, the inclusion of a really nice guitar solo

"Baptized In Whiskey" is the first single off this record and it has been getting some regional airplay, which is nice to hear.  Taking more of a doomy, sludgy approach than "Ghosts...", "Baptized In Whiskey" gives the listener a better idea of the talent involved here, as the bluesy guitar riffs really drive the track, with an excellent twin-guitar riff working just over some of the best rhythm section on this mini-album.

"Shallow Grave" hearkens back to the 80's mid-tempo thrash approach as far as the guitars, never really reaching breakneck speed, but also never dropping down into the slower, sludgier territory of "Baptized...".  Johnson's vocals approach death territory in spots here, again accompanied by some blackened screaming in the background, but he manages to keep the lyrics decipherable throughout the track.  Tavis rips into a blazing solo at about the 2:45 mark here and just GOES OFF for the better part of 45 seconds here, while Sabah throws in some nice double kick work and Carpenter's bass pulses the track ever forward.  While I like everything here, this track is hands-down my favorite.

"Stuck In A Rut" starts off with a cool clean guitar atop a march cadence laid down by Sabah before slinkiing into an angry, Sabbath-styled track, with Johnson using more of a gritty, bluesy vocal approach for most of the vocals here (although his trademark yowls are still present throughout the track).  Once again, Tavis really smokes the solo here, showcasing the fact that it doesn't really matter what style of song Slantpiece is busting out, he is more than capable of coming up with a solo to not only match the style but also blister the speakers it is projecting from.

"Scars" speeds things back up once again, feeling a bit like a Pantera track, but a bit thicker/sludgier in the production department.  The only track that features what I would call a true break-down section on the track, this is one that really bridges the gap between the band's first album and Second Wind.  

Speaking of Second Wind, the title track closes things out here, cranking the speed up again on the intro, only to pour a bunch of sludge and grit into the machine, bogging it back down into another Pantera-inspired groove for the verses, then ratcheting the speed back up during the chorus.  Shouted backing vocals, chugga-chugga riffing, some jack-hammer styled vocal spitting from Johnson, KILLER tempo changing work from Carpenter and Sabah, and yet another scorching (if too short) guitar solo from Tavis really leave the listener wishing that this WAS just the second wind for the band on this disc, rather than an album closer.

The length of the record is the one real gripe here, as at only 6 songs and 23 minutes in length, it really feels like the record is just heating up and it is already done.  I would love to have had the guys include a couple of tracks from the first record..."Back Against The Wall" and "War Cry" would've been re-recorded fashion, but I am sure budget restrictions played a big role in what was included here.  Likewise, the packaging is about as simple as it gets, with only one band photo, line-up info, and a thank-you section in this single-fold slipcase.  Lyrics are not included.  (In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I am thanked in the liner notes, but make no mistake, I pull no punches here, and if this album sucked. well, I guess my name would be included on a sucky album's liner notes and I'd let you know about it.  I do NOT let a little "liner note love" change my honesty in reviews...)

The production is top-notch, if not big label, in quality.  What I mean is that while exceptionally solid for an independent project, there is not going to be any mistaking this for a major label release, as there is a rawness here that is not found on big budget albums...but there is a charm to that rawness that makes the album feel organic and not forced.  As I said before, Michael Thomas Beck (previously the singer for Red Dragon Cartel and Kings Of Dust) really pulls the best out of each of these guys on this record, and the difference between Second Wind and the band's first record, Get You Some, is notable.  How these guys managed to get hooked up with Beck, I'm not sure, but the results are excellent.

There are a lot of good bands on the local scene all over the country, but few that have sent me material stand on the cusp of greatness.  Slantpiece is a different story, in my estimation.  These guys not only make great music and write great songs, if you ever get the chance to see them perform, you will understand that they live, breathe,,,heck, they REEK...of the music they perform.   Trends be damned, this little band from the middle of America still plays metal for metal's sake and they believe in what they are doing. 

Looking like central Nebraska's version of Duck Dynasty, these are four of the nicest, most genuine guys I have met in the hard music scene, and they bust it live every single time I have had the chance to see them perform.  Do yourself a favor, track them down, buy their merch, and snag a copy of Second Wind (and Get You Some, if you're so inclined).  Metalheads will not be disappointed.

You can follow the band on Facebook or on Twitter.

Rating:  Crank this up to 8 and do what you can to keep local music alive, not only in Nebraska, but wherever you call home!

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Friday, May 22, 2015

SERPENTINE "Circle Of Knives"

(c) 2015 AOR Heaven

  1. Season Of The Witch
  2. La Tragedienne
  3. Forever
  4. The Hardest Fall
  5. Bleed
  6. Where Does Your Heart Beat Now?
  7. Bound By The Strings Of Discord
  8. Circle Of Knives
  9. Such A Long Way Down
  10. Suicide Days
Adam Payne--Vocals
Chris Gould--Guitars
Gareth David Noon--Keyboards
Owen Crawford--Bass
Roy Millward--Drums

Four years have passed since I last heard new music from Serpentine, and apparently a good amount has happened with this British band since I reviewed Living And Dying In High Definition.  For starters, I missed an album somewhere, because it turns out this is actually the band's third release.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly from a reviewer's standpoint, there have been some fairly significant band changes.  Specifically, Tony Mills (ex-Shy, ex-TNT, ex-Siam) is now ex-Serpentine as well, as he is no longer with the band, replaced by Adam Payne.  Also gone is previous bass player, Gareth Vanstone, replaced by Owen Crawford.  However, with 3/5 of the band intact, including the guitar/keyboard combination that makes up the core of the band's sound, I was hopeful that much of what I liked about Serpentine previously would still be found here on Circle Of Knives.

As it turns out, I didn't really need to be overly concerned, as Serpentine has returned with another excellent record of melodic hard rock, with elements of European AOR and even a hint of power metal thrown into the mix.  This is especially evident in the album's opening number, "Season Of The Witch".  Immediately we are treated to layered keyboards and some soaring guitar leads, accompanied by new singer, Adam Payne's deeper, richer, and dare I say more powerful, vocal approach, which steers the band away from the Shy-esque AOR of the first record and more into harder-edged melodic sound.  "Forever" is another similar track, with a hard-charging guitar sound dominating the track, moving the keys into more of a supporting role. The same can be said of "The Hardest Fall", which may be my favorite track here, competing with the fantastic title track, which unleashes some absolutely stellar guitar work throughout, with a searing solo really topping things off on this song which many people may find themselves labeling "progressive" in its style and approach.  How more people haven't heard of Chris Gould, I have no idea, as this guy is a guitar talent not commonly found in music today.  Just listen to the emotive intro to the ballad, "Bleed" and you will instantly realize what an underrated performer Gould truly is.

The AOR of the band is not 100% removed from the new sound and approach, as is evident in a song like "La Tragedienne", as the focus here is the massive chorus and the melodic keys that support the structure of the song, filling virtually every sonic nook and cranny.  Much the same can be said for "Where Does Your Heart Beat Now?", which sports a much more keyboard-centric sound than some of the other songs here, reminding me of the 80's AOR approach of bands like Giuffria or Shy, as examples.  

"Bound By The Strings of Discord" is a hard-charging number with some solid drum work from Millward, and while it doesn't really fit the tempo and mood of much of the rest of the album, it is still a solid track that again finds Gould in top form.  Album closer, "Suicide Days" is another full-on rocker, showcasing Payne's ability to unleash a top-notch metal scream when needed, and wrapping up an exceptionally strong return from a band that I quite frankly had forgotten about due to the long lapse between albums I had heard  (Not sure how I missed the second album...).

Rocking harder than the debut, Circle Of Knives is every bit as strong as Living And Dying In High Definition, with the new additions to the band more than holding their own as they forge their own identity within the structure of the band.  Gould has grown in his sound and talent, as well, pushing himself toward the top of the heap as far as British rock guitar talents goes.

Checking in at nearly an hour in length, with no song running for less than 4:30, there is a lot of music here to digest and appreciate.  However, when all of the songs are this good, it's definitely not an act of labor to find something new to appreciate with consecutive spins.  

Now I have to find that second album....

Rating:  Every bit as crankable as the debut.  Turn this one up to 8.5.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

NELSON "Peace Out"

(c) 2015 Frontiers Records
  1. Hello Everybody
  2. Back In The Day
  3. Invincible
  4. Let It Ride
  5. I Wanna Stay Home
  6. On The Bright Side
  7. Rockstar
  8. Autograph
  9. What's Not To Love
  10. You And Me
  11. Bad For You
  12. Leave The Light On For Me
Matthew Nelson--Lead Vocals, Bass, Guitar, Backing Vocals
Gunnar Nelson--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Drums, Backing Vocals

So this is it...the swan song for Nelson.  Reportedly, this is the last time Matthew and Gunnar will record an album under the Nelson moniker, although they have assured fans that they will continue to perform musically with a new project, Matthew & Gunnar, heading in a more "Everly Brothers meets the Eagles" direction.  As a parting gift of sorts to their longtime fans, the Nelson Twins go out with an absolute bang, treating listeners to one more heaping helping of polished, melodic hard rock that sounds like it could have been the follow-up to their classic debut, but mixing in a few surprises as well!  Soaring harmonies, tight vocals, excellent musicianship, and top-notch songwriting prove that Nelson is hanging things up by choice, not due to an empty tank, as this album is absolutely stellar and proof that very few bands of this style could actually hang with the brothers when they were at the top of their game.

The album kicks off with the sound of an old dial-styled radio being tuned in before the polished classic Nelson sound kicks in on this opening rocker, instantly plastering a goofy grin of recognition onto the faces of fans of this lost type of happy-sounding, poppy hard rock that has long since disappeared from the radio that intros the track.  Everything Nelson made popular on their debut record is here, from the tight vocal harmonies, and polished musicianship to the sing-along chorus and toe-tapping rhythms.  "Back In The Day" follows things up perfectly with an insanely catchy rocker all about the nostalgia of youth and the songs that recall those feelings for us.  There is a really nice guitar solo thrown into the mix as well, and the band is obviously having a great time as they click on all cylinders here.  Great, great stuff here that shows off the brothers' songwriting skills.

"Invincible" starts off with a darker sounding musical intro, but it drifts into the same musical territory before long, as does "Let It Ride".  Both of these tracks keep the uptempo rock churning, even if these two tracks aren't quite as shiny and happy as the opening duo of songs.  

"I Wanna Stay Home" makes me chuckle a bit because lyrically its almost a non-hair metal song, an anti-party song about wanting to stay home with the one you are in love with.  Hooky, catchy, and so easy to sing along to, this track does nothing to slow the happy momentum the record carries through the first five tracks.

The first ballad to show up is "On The Bright Side", and it was well worth the wait to get here.  Starting off with a bluesy wail, this song mixes in enough backing "oohs" and "aahs" to transform the somewhat jangly tune into a Beatles-meets-"Never Say Goodbye" Bon Jovi slow dance number that, had this song come out in 1990 instead of 2015, I could hear being played at your senior prom as you tried to convince yourself and your date that you'd love them forever even if high school was ending.  Nostalgia, heartache, soul-searching....  *sniff*  Excuse me while I make a phone call to my high school sweetheart....

We crank the rocking right back up with back-to-back tracks that are among the best of the album.  "Rockstar" has a bit of an edge to the music to counter the whispered "rockstar" backing vocals scattered throughout the verses.  Thick power chords drive this track more than what you is typically expected from Nelson, which makes the song all the more interesting for me.  "Autograph" incorporates some keyboard sounds into a song that features a bit more aggressive guitar riffing and hair metal soloing than was present on the first half of the album, but the harmonies keep this song from slipping out of the wheelhouse of the likely listener here.  Two really good tracks back-to-back here, but two that are also the least like anything that was found on the band's debut.

"What's Not To Love" drifts back to the poppy-AOR rock that started the album out, but things stay there for exactly one song, as the next track, "You And Me" is less about Nelson and more about Zeppelin than anything else.  Easily one of my favorite tracks here, this is Nelson on steroids driven by attitude, and cranked up on energy drinks!  I've heard pretty much everything the band has released, and never have I heard them flex their musical muscle to this level.  Honestly, I would LOVE to hear an entire album of this type of music from Nelson, as they flat out smoke this track and pull it off with seemingly no effort at all.  

"Bad For You" starts off with an intro that reminds me of Metallica's Black album, combined with Vandenberg's "Burning Heart", before riffing into another solidly rocking number, finding the lead vocals hanging out in a slightly lower register for the first parts of the verses before extending themselves back into their typically higher range.  (Be sure to be listening for the Tommy Tutone reference dropped into the lyrics here...good stuff!)    

Album closer, "Leave The Light On For Me" has a very gospel feel to the songwriting.  I feel like I have heard this before in some ways, but I can't quite figure out why.  It kind of reminds me of what Bon Jovi did on Keep The Faith and Poison attempted on Native Tongue, though neither is a perfect comparison.  It's a decent song, and a good one to close on, but far from my favorite song on this record.  

Is this new record as good as Lightning Strikes Twice from a couple of years ago?'s better.   Rather than try to completely duplicate the things that worked so well on After The Rain (which I felt Lightning... tried to do), Nelson stretches themselves a bit musically, especially on the second half of the album.  No, there is nothing here that fans of that debut classic won't also really enjoy, but there are enough eye-opening moments to keep people from feeling like they've already heard this album.  

If fans want to just toss out everything following After The Rain and skip forward to Lightning... and Peace Out, they will have a nearly perfect trilogy from these immensely talented brothers.  Not to say their independent material from the 90's and 2000's isn't worth checking out, because some of it is very good, but its the trilogy of albums mentioned here that will represent what most people associate with Nelson, and will be the legacy the brothers...and their band...are likely remembered for.

Rating:  Crank this band one final time!  A solid 8.5 is in order for Peace Out!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DIRTY FINGERS "250 Dollars"

(c) 2015 Logic(il)Logic Records

  1. Back To The Move
  2. Whisky
  3. Explosive Sound
  4. 250 Dollars
  5. Black Magic Night
  6. Dirty Fingers
  7. Heroes' Days
  8. I Am
  9. Nothingness Dance
Gabriel Grisanti--Vocals, Guitars
Riccardo Menini--Guitars
Edoardo Micheloni--Bass
Giorgio Nuzzo--Drums

Europe continues to resurrect the heyday of the Hollywood Sunset Strip scene, constantly cranking out new bands with that big haired, sassy, sleazy sound that made the late 80's and early 90's so much fun for hard rock fans.  Unfortunately, what Europe is also doing, in my opinion, is slowly succumbing to the same problems that the hair metal scene of the 80's ultimately crumbled under:  too many sub-par bands, clone bands that all look and sound alike, and unoriginal music that leaves bands indistinguishable from one another.

Dirty Fingers falls into the first category, in my opinion.  Yes, they have some really good guitar players and an above average drummer, but they seriously struggle with a less-than-great vocalist, a weak mix that buries the bass on nearly all of the tracks, and average (at best) songwriting.  I mean, come's one thing to have a title track, or to have a song named after the band...but to have BOTH on the same album???  To me that wreaks of desperation to come up with material.

There are positives here.  As I said, the guitar players have definite skill, especially Menini who rips through some absolutely stellar solos throughout the album.  The solo he peels off in "250 Dollars" is leaps and bounds ahead of the majority of the axe-work that passes for musical talent in so many of today's bands.  The same can be said of the emotion he pours into his passages in the decent ballad, "Black Magic Night".  There is some nice harmonica and slide guitar work, as well as the best rhythm guitar work on the album, on "Whisky" to help make it an interesting listen, and "I Am" (where we can actually hear the bass), has some really nice changes in rhythm and tempo throughout the song, again keeping the listener's attention and setting their head to nodding along.  In fact, I would say that overall, musicality is NOT the problem here, as all of the guys seem to be pretty good at what they do.

The problem with the songs is that no matter how good the guys play, the songs they are playing aren't that good.  You've heard the saying "you can polish a turd but it's still just a turd"?  Same thing applies here.  No matter how skilled Menini is on the axe, or how competent Nuzzo is with his drumming, you can't save sub-songs that are rarely interesting.  Out of the nine tracks on this album, only 5 do anything for me musically:  the previously mentioned songs "Black Magic Night", "I Am", and "Whisky", as well as the southern-tinged stomper "Heroes' Days", and album opener "Back To The Move".  The rest range from uninteresting to boring crap, really.  As an example, "Nothingness Dance" sounds like an 80's metal horror movie theme, coming across as dated and tired and just way too long, even though it's only 4:55 in running time.    

Okay, so that means 4 out of  9 songs can just be thrown out because they really aren't good.  So that's still better than a 50% album, right?  Wrong.  I haven't tossed out songs because of the vocals yet.  Grisanti tries...he really, really tries.  And it's not that he's out of key or anything that kills some of these songs.  Part of it is that he sings in a low register that lacks emotion and comes across as half-shouted or barked most of the time.  The other problem is his accent is so thick it just ruins a lot of the vocals here.  I would honestly rather NOT understand what he is saying and listen to him singing in Italian than to know what he is trying to say and then forcing my brain to correct his mispronunciation and misplaced accentuation.  So, because of the vocal issues, "Back To The Move" is cast off my decent-to-good-song list, as is "Whisky" (which has really stupid lyrics anyway), and "I Am" (which I can't understand half the time).  

That essentially leaves "Black Magic Night" and "Heroes' Days" as the only songs that really survive the album for me, and if I'm being 100% honest, neither is that spectacular and would not have been given 15 minutes of MTV's time or a record executive's attention.  Not that either one of those had any real idea as to what good music is/was, but both knew something about making a band successful, and Dirty Fingers wouldn't give MTV or a record company anything substantial to work with. 

Perhaps with another year or two of songwriting, a new vocalist, and better album production, Dirty Fingers could pull together a decent album.  What they have here is a sad introduction to a band that unfortunately may turn potential fans off from even considering a second album, should one ever be released.

Rating:  Turn this down to best.  

SINATRAS "Six Sexy Songs"

(c) 2014 Independent 

  1. Contamination
  2. Frank Is Back
  3. Sunshine
  4. The Game
  5. W.A.F.S.
  6. All Or Nothing
Fla Sinatra--Lead Vocals
Lele Sinatra--Guitars
Minkio Sinatra--Guitars
Lispio Sinatra--Bass
Jenny Sinatra--Drums

Death 'N Roll.  That's how the Sinatras label their music, and its a fairly apt description.  Mixing elements of thrash metal, classic metal, punk, modern production styles and deathy vocals, its obvious that Sinatras draws from multiple influences in their performance style.  I've heard bands such as Carcass and Hatebreed mentioned when attempting to describe this band's sound, but I feel it is remiss to leave out older bands, such as Motorhead, as well as more modern bands such as Demon Hunter and Five Finger Death Punch as well, as this is not pure 80's/90's thrash or thrashcore worship here, but a combination of metal styles from the past three decades.

The songs are all extremely tight and well performed, with a surprisingly good sound for a band on their debut release, especially on an independent record such as Six Sexy Songs.  Each of these tracks clocks in between 4 and 5 minutes long, with no ballads...heck, no mid-tempo songs...included in the six track lot.  

Musically, the rhythm guitars, drums, and bass work stand out here, as all are tight and crisp, giving the music a punchy sense of urgency to them.  The lead guitar solos are generally pretty short (15-20 seconds), again more of a modern approach than the style used by thrashers of the 80's, although there is obvious talent incorporated here.  Despite the fact that the band throws the "death" label into their own sound, the vocals are certainly not bottom-of-the-grave scrapers that make the lyrics completely indecipherable, as many death metal vocalists do.  This is where I think the Demon Hunter references can be mixed in, as nothing on Six Sexy Songs is any more brutal than the first couple of Demon Hunter albums.  

Lyrically, the band is rather silly, although I don't necessarily know that that is the intent.  As is often the case with foreign bands performing in English, I'm not always certain the band knows 100% what they are singing (meaning things are lost in translation), and a lot of cliches tend to get mixed in.  That being said, I don't think the lyrics are the main focus of this band.  If profanity offends you, skip this, as, once again, the cliched use of vulgarity is prevalent here.

Really, only two complaints come to mind with this album.  The first, which is relatively minor, is the fact that there are only 6 songs on this release.  Second, and more of an issue for me, is the fact that there is basically zero change in tempo, style, or approach, so all the songs start to sound the same and run into each other with the exception of "W.A.F.S.", which reminds me a lot of Five Finger Death Punch in its tempo and musical approach at the beginning of the song.

Never venturing fully into death metal territory, but always playing fast and furious while still retaining a sense of melody, the Sinatras have begun the process of carving out a small musical niche for themselves.  I highly doubt these Italians ever become household names, and I don't envision them ever being anything more than an opening tour act or lower-mid-card festival band, but that's okay.  The band plays what they play, not compromising their truly metal sound to fit modern radio rock trends.

If you enjoy your metal straight forward, fast, loud, and thrashy, Sinatras Six Sexy Songs is a good mini-album to check out.  Again, don't expect pure death metal here, but do expect to be entertained for about half an hour, as these guys definitely bring their "A" game to this effort.  It will be interesting to see where the band goes from here...if they go anywhere at all.  Bands such as this, despite their obvious talent, often wash out after a single release, so their future is likely very much up in the air.  

Rating:  Not crankable, but close.  Rock this at 6.5.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

HINDER "When The Smoke Clears"

(c) 2015 The End 

  1. Rather Hate Than Hurt
  2. Hit The Ground
  3. Wasted Life
  4. If Only For Tonight
  5. Intoxicated
  6. Dead To Me
  7. Foolish Eyes
  8. Nothing Left To Lose
  9. Letting Me Go
  10. I Need Another Drink
Marshal Dutton--Lead Vocals/Acoustic Guitar
Joe "Blower" Garvey--Lead, Rhythm Guitars
Mark King--Lead, Rhythm Guitars
Mike Rodden--Bass
Cody Hanson--Drums

Oklahoma rockers, Hinder, return with a new album, a new record label...oh, and their third new singer since their last album, Welcome To The Freakshow.  That's a lot of new for one band to tackle in one album, and, quite frankly, I was curious how one of my favorites from the modern hard rock crowd would handle all the change on When The Smoke Clears, which seems to be a rather fitting title considering the implosion the band seemed headed for following the departure of Austin Winkler.

For a brief recap of the past three years, here we go:  
  • December, 2012--Hinder releases Welcome To The Freakshow, (easily the weakest album in their history)
  • July, 2013--Winkler enters rehab and former Saving Able singer, Jared Weeks, is hired to finish the band's tour supporting Freakshow
  • November. 2013--Winkler is officially out of the band (how and why depends on whose version of the story you follow)
  • July, 2014--Hinder tours with Nolan Neal as lead singer
  • November, 2014--Hinder releases a new single, "Hit The Ground", with Neal as the singer
  • January, 2015--Neal is out as lead singer and Marshal Dutton is announced as the new singer and a re-recorded version of "Hit The Ground" is released with Dutton singing.
Got all that?  That truly is a lot to take in roughly two and-a-half years, and there were a lot of people who wondered if Hinder would ever record again, or simply become one of those bands that shows up at festivals...or your favorite bar...from time-to-time.  And, honestly, after struggling through a lot of the less-than-great ...Freakshow album, I really didn't know if I cared all that much.  I like the band...a lot...but I seriously wondered if the band was done.    

While When The Smoke Clears won't supplant All American Nightmare or Take It To The Limit as contenders for the best album in the band's catalog, it is certainly a better album than ...Freakshow, and while the test of time will determine how it holds up, I would say that at this time, I actually prefer it to Extreme Behavior.  To say that I was more than pleasantly surprised would be an understatement!  

Things kick off on a bit of a down-tempo note, and I, like a lot of Hinder fans, I would imagine, took a deep gasp and waited for the worst as "Rather Hate Than Hurt" starts off with, *gasp*, a PIANO, some gentle cymbal and bass work, and new vocalist Dutton crooning in a smooth-yet-emotive tenor about being "sick and tired of bleeding from picking up the pieces, so I let 'em fall down...".  What the heck is going on here?!  Where is Hinder?!  I didn't have to wait long, however, as the guitars and Cody Hanson's thundering drums kick in with the rocking chorus and Hinder makes it's return in full-blown rock mode!  Throw in the first of several strong guitar solos on this album and you have the makings of a solid rock anthem that I am certain will find itself on Hinder setlists all summer long.  While a bit of a shock to the system at first, this is actually a great song to get Dutton's feet wet on, as it allows him to go through the full range of dynamics with his voice, from quieter moments to much more amped up segments, all encompassed in the same song.

The re-recorded version of "Hit The Ground" has just a hint of Bon Jovi-meets-Nashville to it, although it rocks harder than anything the Bon Jovi boys have even attempted in several years.  While obviously a stab at radio in an attempt to get the band some much-needed airtime (...Freakshow did virtually nothing at radio for the band), it is still a solid track, if not my favorite.

Speaking of Bon Jovi, Dutton channels his inner JBJ on the first real ballad of the record, the boy-steals-girl-for-one-night-stand number, "If Only For Tonight", which would actually fit pretty well on that band's Keep The Faith record.  This is NOT a bad thing, folks, as Hinder sounds very comfortable here, reaching backward stylistically and not going forward into the electronic/dub step/pseudo techno trends that so many bands seem to be aiming for.  

"Intoxicated" is a snarky, sassy rocker that leads well into one of my three or four faves here, as the angry mid-tempo rocker, "Dead To Me", reminds me so much of the best parts of Take It To The Limit with its "you hurt me but I'm already over you" attitude.

"Foolish Eyes" is an okay number; nothing spectacular, but I can see plenty of cowboy hat-wearing-rocker chicks with beer bottles hoisted high as they sing and sway along with this song at festivals and county fairs this summer.  It's got that simplistic summer kinda song feel to it, with just enough country mixed into the rock to make it accessible to a wide listening audience.

"Nothing Left To Lose" feels like it could have been a left-over from the Nightmare album, as it has that same angry, gritty, punchy feel to it and it is definitely one of my favorites from this new record.  It opens in a very similar manner to "Waking Up The Devil" from Nightmare, which possibly makes sense, as the band claimed to have written between 50 and 70 songs for that record before whittling it down to the final 12.  Perhaps this one would've been number 13 if it didn't have so much in common with another track that had already made the record.  Regardless, we are again treated to some cool guitar work (would've liked a longer solo, however), tight drumming, and an overall great performance that I am very happy was included here.   

"Letting Me Go" starts off with just a piano and Dutton, but don't be fooled into thinking of this track as a ballad, as this song is largely a mid-tempo rocker throughout.  The lyrics aren't particularly deep, even bordering on the cliche, with a chorus that includes "Tell me why I'm holding on to someone who's already letting me go".  The music makes up for the lyrical weaknesses, however, and dang it if the song is sing along catchy, to boot!  Not the highest point on the record, but definitely not terrible, either.

Speaking of not overly deep, "I Need Another Drink" is a decent way to close an overall solid record and an unexpected return to form for Hinder.  Starting off with a southern rock guitar intro, the song has a hard-rocking shuffle feel to it, and I could hear this as the last call theme for many a rock bar across the midwest with it's simplistic chorus that lays it out simply..."I need another drink!"

The only song I would say I really don't care for is  "Wasted Life".  The song is just dumb and seems to exist simply for the band to throw as much profanity into a song as possible while also putting little in the way of thought and originality into the track.  It's not that I'm a virgin-eared prude who shuts off anything I hear that drops an f*bomb or anything like that, because I'm not.  But there is just no real reason for this song's lyrical approach, in my opinion, and it just isn't that catchy.  I'm sure someone loves it, and more power to them.  It's just not my thing.

The production is pretty good, with the mix being very clear with nice separation of the instruments here.  The one problem I have with it is there is not a lot of bottom end to the mix for some reason. I thought it was my computer set-up at first, or perhaps the digital download I originally listened to, but the CD version sounds the same in my Tahoe, so I'm guessing it is just the way it was recorded, which is a bit of a bummer.  Vocally, Dutton is put right out front, thrown directly into the fire and not buried under the instruments here or made to sound like Winkler through production tricks.

The packaging is about as budget-efficient as it gets, as this is a single-fold slipcase...not even a digipack...which always has me worried about the disc's health down the road.  There are liner notes and pictures included in the booklet, and the quality of the included notes and photos is good, even if the packaging itself is not my favorite style at all.

Considering how little I was expecting, I have to say I am really very pleasantly surprised with When The Smoke Clears.  And, as a big fan of Winkler's, I can also say that I am anxious to hear what Dutton sounds like live, mixing these new songs into the band's catalog, giving the old material some new life without turning off the remaining fan base.  

Rating:  Definitely worth picking up and checking out.  Crank this to 7.5.