Saturday, March 26, 2016

SLIK TOXIC "Irrelevant"

(c) 2015 Perris Records

  1. Twenty Something
  2. Kill The Pain
  3. Voodoo
  4. Drained
  5. I Wanna Gun
  6. Liquid Calm
  7. Fashioned After None
  8. Dive
  9. Blue Monday
  10. Mother Machine
  11. Just Fade Away
  12. White Lies, Black Truth (1989 Demo Bonus Track)
Nicholas Walsh--Vocals
Kevin Gale--Guitars
Rob Bruce--Guitars
Neal Busby--Drums
Adam Headland--Bass

For music junkies like me, there is that never-ending search to find something new, something unreleased, or something lost.  Bands make albums all the time that get shelved, either due to contract issues, labels collapsing, musical trends shifting, bands breaking up...whatever.  And with the Internet, there is such a vast network of bootlegs, bad copies, and blatant rip-offs that it becomes a challenge to really know what is what and who is who and if you are actually buying (or for some, illegally downloading) real material from a band you love.  That's why I love labels that seek these things out and release them to the fans that have been clamoring for long lost material.

Irrelevant, the third album from Canadian sleazemeisters, Slik Toxik, was actually recorded more than 20 years ago, in 1994, but it rapidly disappeared from sales bins due to the huge change in the musical climate.  Grunge had taken over and the hairbands were dying...I don't need to give most readers the history lesson.  The thing is, however, if people had actually given this album a listen...and by people, I mean industry people...they would've noticed that Slik Toxik had already started their own shift in sound, adding heavier, darker riffs to their music, straddling the hairband world and the grunge/hard alternative world at the same time.  Not willing to completely forsake their past, but also being smart enough to embrace the future, Slik Toxik attempted to grow and expand their sound, all to no avail, as the album was quickly shelved, even in their home country of Canada.  

I had heard about this album several times, and had sought it out a few times with no luck.  I loved Doin' The Nasty, their first release from 1992, and the debut EP from 1991 was solid enough, so I was wanting to complete the collection and see what had become of the band.  But never could I find an actual copy of this album, although I was told they were out there.

Enter Perris Records.

Perris has taken the original album, cleaned up the production a bit, added on a left-over demo from 1989, and presented the public with Irrelevant, which is probably an apt title since that is exactly how the band had to feel in 1994 when this record was recorded and then shelved.  From what I have been told, and according to the Perris press release, both "Twenty Something" and "Dive" were released as singles, but I had never actually heard them.  It wasn't until I searched YouTube and found the video for "Dive" was I even aware it existed.  Anyway, while this was briefly available in 1994, it is now once again widely available through Perris Records, and I am glad it is.

While it is definitely not the sleazy fun of Doin' The Nasty, there is still some decent material on this record, especially if you liked any of the harder, darker material many hair bands started putting out to try to survive the grunge movement.  I'm talking the better attempts here; think Skid Row on Subhuman Race, not Wildside's second album (ugh!)...or especially if you were open to the metallic-grunge of a band like Alice In Chains, in particular.  The two singles, "Dive" and "Twenty Something" are solid heavier material, with "Twenty Something" reminding me quite a bit of Facelift-era Alice In Chains musically, which is a good thing, as I am definitely an AiC fan.  Walsh will never be mistaken for Layne Staley, but that's okay because I think Walsh has a really cool voice himself.  The music has that heavy, sludgy, swirling style that Alice In Chains used so effectively, grinding away on the rhythm guitar and pounding relentlessly on the drums while also managing to work in a pretty cool guitar solo.

"Dive" is similar in its approach, although it sounds more likeAiC's second album, coming across as a fairly close relative of songs like "Rooster" or "Down In A Hole".  Walsh's vocals have an angry edge to them on this material, which actually works really well, and again the doomy, down-tuned guitars are fine with me.  The same can be said on a couple of other really good cuts like "Voodoo" and "Mother Machine".

"Just Fade Away" is a faster number than most of the music here, and traces of the old Slik Toxik can be found more here than on any other new song here, as there is a sleazy style mixed in with a funky bass line and some aggressive, albeit down-tuned, guitar work.  Walsh's vocals retain the angst used throughout the rest of this record, and he gets fairly screamy at the end of the track, wailing away as the song closes.  "Liquid Calm" lightens the musical mood a bit, incorporating some nice acoustic guitar atop a pretty cool bass line, but this and "Just Fade Away" are really the only stylistic changes the band utilizes throughout the record with the exception of the demo for "White Lies/Black Truth", which was added as bonus material for this reissue.  That track, which eventually made it onto ...Nasty sticks out like a sore thumb, as you might imagine, as it is stylistically nothing like the rest of the darker material included here.  It's a nice add-on, however, that I just ripped and then burned onto a CD-R copy of ...Nasty which allows me to keep my original in top-notch condition.

Look, if you are not open to what was going on in the 90's musically...and especially if you can't embrace bands like Alice In Chains, Mother Love Bone or Stone Temple Pilots, you are likely not going to like this final effort from Slik Toxik.  The record is going to sound very samey to most people, with very little change in style and only occasional fluctuations in tempo other than the couple of exceptions I mentioned here, but that was not uncommon with the grunge artists of the same time this record was originally released.  It is not a "fun" or "good time" record at all, and it is definitely not hair/glam/sleaze or any other sub-genre of the Hollywood metal scene, so if that is all you are into, skip this record.  As for me, I like and appreciate all different styles of hard rock and metal, hence the name "Glitter" to "Gutter", and yes I like a good deal of grunge.  So, with that being said, Irrelevant is not as irrelevant for me as it might be for others.  And yes, the play on words there was intentional.

Rating:  I give this a rare SPLIT rating, simply based upon the potential listening audience.  Crank this if you are into grunge at all...especially AiC (which isn't grunge, but that's another arguement)...and I'd give it a solid 7.  Hair/glam/sleaze-only fans will want to turn this down to 4, otherwise, as it will do nothing for these people.

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Friday, March 25, 2016


(c) 2016 Perris Records

  1. Divided Feelings
  2. Take Me To The City
  3. She's The One
  4. Tearin' Me Apart
  5. Far Gone
  6. All I Need
  7. Mouthful Of Love
  8. When It's Love
  9. Something She Said
  10. Coast To Coast
  11. South Beach
  12. Falling (Dave Grohl Tribute)
Sakaria Bjorklund--Vocals, Guitars
Christian Ek--Guitars
Robert Majd--Bass
Yngve "Vinnie" Stromberg--Drums

Sweden's Captain Black Beard return for the third time with It's A Mouthful, their newest release on Perris Records.  Oddly, I have not even heard of this band despite my fairly strong connection to the European glam/sleaze/AOR scene and labels, and I had no idea what to expect when I first received this album.

Despite the band's name, there is NOTHING "pirate metal" about this band, with the fishnet...ummm...dress(??) that the cover model is wearing being the closest aspect of this album to anything even remotely nautical.  In spite of the misleading name, Captain Black Beard is actually a pretty decent melodic rock band that has a solid grasp on 80s-inspired hard radio rock.  While not overly original, the band has plenty of hooks musically, a strong lead vocalist, and catchy-enough songs that tend to stick with you for some time after giving them a spin.   

The album starts off with two straight up rockers in "Divided Feelings" and "Take Me To The City".  "Divided Feelings" is the album's lead single and is a solid slice of melodic hard rock infused with a dose of pop sensibility.  Solid backing vocals, a nice, catchy rhythm, and an above average guitar solo give the album a solid start, even if the song itself is rather generic in nature.  "Take Me To The City" is slightly more catchy in its chorus and a bit more aggressive in its guitar approach, although there is still a heavy dose of syrup poured over the top of this track as well.  Again, not bad stuff at all and solidly executed, but not jaw-dropping or amazingly original, either.  

"She's The One" teases at being a ballad for about ten seconds before becoming a middle-of-the-road rocker that doesn't really go anywhere for me.  "Tearin' Me Apart", on the other hand, has some really nice guitar work, both rhythm and lead, (plus a kick butt cowbell!), and is one of the strongest songs here, with a simple, sing-along chorus.

This is kind of the way the album waxes and wanes for the remainder of the 12 songs here.  A couple of decent songs, a weaker one, and then a good one.  "Far Gone" has a fairly unique rhythm and a bluesy vibe to it, helping it to stand out from a lot of the other tracks here, and the quasi-title track, "Mouthful Of Love" may be the best overall song here, despite the ridiculous title.  It's got a sleazy edge the other songs here don't possess, with a solid, aggressive guitar to lead things in, and quite honestly it reminds me musically of the barroom sleaze that Faster Pussycat did on their first album, although the vocals are far more saccharine than anything Taime has ever employed.  I also really like "South Beach", which is catchy and has a classic 70's rock vibe to it, both musically and in the way the lyrics are put together.  I actually think this is the style the band works and sounds the best with, and I would honestly really like to hear an album full of more classic rock styled songs, and less 80s/early 90s hairspray AOR.

As for the rest of the songs here...they are pretty much miss...or miss badly.  The two tracks that really just don't hit home at all here are "Coast To Coast" and "Falling".  First off, I understand that the trend recently has been to combine elements of country music with rock to try to come up with some across-the-board instantly accessible style that rockers and country fans will all love instantly. And even though that will likely NEVER happen, I do understand the attempt as far as the business side of things go.  But someone should have told Captain Black Beard that the country these bands are incorporating is modern, edgy country, not 70s/80s Eagles inspired country!  Yikes!  "Coast To Coast" sounds like the Eagles' "Take It Easy" on downers with a lap steel guitar thrown in.  As someone who used to run a country radio station, I can tell you that dreck like this would never have garnered airplay!  Yikes!  As for "Falling", the band calls it a "Dave Grohl Tribute", but I'm not sure why.  It doesn't sound like Foo Fighters (or Nirvana, for that matter), the song isn't about him, and I have ZERO idea where the "tribute" tie in is, unless they are referencing Grohl "falling" off stage and getting hurt.  If that's the case, man, that's a STRETCH.  In that case, you could call "Walking The Dog" a tribute to me since I, well, walked the dog this morning...  Anyway, bizarre name aside, its not a particularly memorable song, although it does employ a decent guitar solo from Ek.

The band is solid as performers...Ek is a really good guitar player, to be honest...but they aren't overly original as songwriters.  But, I don't think originality is the goal of the band, as I think they are playing exactly what they want, which is middle-of-the-road polished hard rock, the style which was saturating radio and high school dances by the late 80s/early 90s, making nearly all bands indistinguishable from one another.   Captain Black Beard is the kind of band that the girls I ran with in high school would've LOVED and which I could have actually managed to listen to with little difficulty while I was waiting to bust out my Great White, Metallica, WASP, Ratt, Anthrax, and Tesla albums!  Rock with no metal, lots of hooks and little danger, just the way the chicks liked it!      

The production is rather dated sounding, which I'm guessing is intentional, but it in no way makes the record unlistenable.  And, since my copy is a digital advance promo, I have no way to comment on the packaging or the insert for the CD.

All in all, not great, but certainly not horrible.  Its A Mouthful is a decent listen and makes for a great mix-in CD if thrown in with the right selection of 80s rock.  I wouldn't even be surprised if you heard some of your friends say, "Hey, I haven't heard that in a long time!", even though they have never heard it.  That's how familiar, and frankly indistinguishable, the music is on this album.

Rating:  Rock this at 5.5, although I could see myself squeezing a 6 out of it if at least 2, and maybe 3 songs were left off...especially "Coast To Coast".

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

SMILE EMPTY SOUL "Shapeshifter"

(c) 2016 Pavement Entertainment

  1. All In My Head
  2. Running Out Of Something
  3. Just One Place
  4. Silhouettes
  5. Nowhere Kids
  6. Bottom Of A Bottle
Sean Danielsen--Vocals, Guitars
Ryan Martin--Bass
Jake Kilmer--Drums

Smile Empty Soul, the modern rock power trio from Santa Clara, California, are set to release a new EP/DVD combination on their fans, combining three brand new songs with three of the band's most well-known...and hardest to find...songs in one mini-album, Shapeshifter.  Retaining 2/3 of the band's original line-up, (Kilmer joined the band in 2006), the band's trademark angry, post-grunge brand of modern rock still translates well in today's hard music world, although there is no one on the airwaves, satellite or terrestrial, that I have heard who sound like Smile Empty Soul, either on their old material or these three new songs.  As such, the three new tracks here promise to tide fans over until the band is able to put together a new full-length album, while the three classics will give new fans a chance to catch up on what they may have missed.

The EP starts off with the three new songs, followed by three classic re-recordings.  "All In My Head" is a bottom-heavy, mid-tempo rocker, with a strong, haunting guitar line, throbbing bass presence, and simplistic-yet-fitting drum work that all combine to complement Danielsen's ability to "shapeshift" his vocals from clean singing on the verses to the harsh screams that he scrapes across the chorus.  "Running Out Of Something" is somewhat more urgent in its structure, and with the way Danielsen employs his vocals, the track actually reminds me a bit of the music Live was putting out in the late 90's and early 2000's.  My favorite of the three new songs, "Running Out Of Something" manages to come across as edgy and distorted, yet melodic at the same time.  It's not over-produced or polished, sounding raw and stark, and it carries the perfect edge of anger in the vocals with a nice grit to the guitar tone.  "Just One Place" continues in that more melodic alt-rock vein, dropping some acoustic guitar into the mix for good measure, and once again sounding like an angrier version of Live to a degree, which, for my money, is a good thing.  

The last three songs here are re-recordings of the three songs that casual fans of the band are probably the most familiar with.  I was unaware of  the fact that the Gold-selling (500,000+ units) debut album, Smile Empty Soul, has actually been out-of-print and unavailable for purchase for quite some time now due to legal wranglings with the band's old label.  As such, the last three tracks here are not available for purchase, download, or streaming at present, and as is often the case in label disputes, the band no longer owned the original recordings of those songs.  So, in an effort to give the fans what they wanted and had been asking for, the band re-recorded these three classic tracks, staying as close and faithful to the original as possible 12 years after they were first recorded.  They succeeded, by the way, as all three sound excellent in their newly recorded form, with "Bottom Of A Bottle" sounding particularly re-energized to my ears, while "Silhouettes" manages to sound even angrier and more urgent than in its original form.  Danielsen has no problems recapturing the angst and snarl that made that song such a powerhouse hit at radio in 2003 (it charted Top 10), and the rhythm section of Martin and Kilmer just crush the bottom end of all three of these remakes, giving them a punch not necessarily there in the 2003 versions.  

I do not have the DVD for review at this time, but I am told it contains a music video, a mini-documentary on the making of Shapeshifter, and previously unreleased video from past tours, recording sessions, and video shoots.

Also, as my copy is a digital advance copy, I do not have access to liner notes or packaging information.

Fans of Smile Empty Soul will likely latch onto the new songs instantly, as the band retains their own signature mixture of introspection, anger, frustration, and in spite of it all, hope, in their lyrics and musically they continue to sound like no one but themselves.  All three of the new songs could find themselves in the same place that the three older songs did, which is in the Top 25 of the modern rock charts, proving that old(er) things can become new once again and remain relevant, which Smile Empty Soul proves with the tasty little EP, Shapeshifter.

Rating:  Not earth-shattering or world-changing for the band, but very solid and very much in line with the better stuff the band has done.  The re-records are an excellent touch!  Crank it to 7.5!


(c) 2016 Rat Pak Records

  1. Reset
  2. Killing Your Time
  3. No Tomorrow
  4. Signal Path
  5. Sky Falls In
  6. Needle And Suture
  7. Shadow
  8. Blow Your Mind
  9. Soul Eating Machine
  10. It Waits
  11. Suffer Fools
International Limited Edition Bonus Disc

  1. The Coward
  2. Blister Fist
  3. God Hit
  4. The Enemy Mind
  5. Signal Path (Radio Edit)
  6. Badlands (2015 Version)
  7. Shadow (Demo Version)
  8. No Tomorrow (Alt Mix)
Mike Howe--Vocals
Kurdt Vanderhoof--Guitars, Mellotron, Synth
Rick Van Zandt--Lead Guitars
Jeff Plate--Drums
Steve Unger--Bass, Backing Vocals

The new Metal Church album could have just as easily been titled The Return of the King, as it was XI, for with the return of Mike Howe to the lead screamer position, Metal Church once again sounds like the truly powerful metal machine they were on Howe's earlier efforts, Blessing In Disguise, The Human Factor, and Hanging In The Balance.  In fact, it sounds as if ZERO time has passed between those classic metal albums and this new one, as Howe sounds every bit as powerful...and teeth-gnashingly he always did, which is a big part of the success of this new record.

The album kicks off with "Reset", which is an aptly-titled track as this truly feels like a reset of the band back to the butt-whipping tenacity they used to employ.  Howe comes ripping right out of the gate, growling and yowling like a caged animal on a track that sounds for all the world like it could have been written for Blessing..., but not sounding tired or dated at all.  The thrash-styled drums, and the pulsating guitar rhythms set the pace for this barn-burner that also employs a blistering solo from Van Zandt.

"Killing Your Time" slows the pace only slightly, settling into a chunkier groove that lays the groundwork for more spits and snarls from Howe, who again, just sound so amazingly unchanged in his vocal style, approach, and range, that if I were a conspiracy theorist I would SWEAR this album was recorded twenty years ago and stashed in a vault somewhere on the Vanderhoof compound (which in my conspiracy theory-fueled world would have to exist!).  The guitars are a bit more hard rock than thrash in their approach here, but there is still plenty of sting in the delivery, and Van Zandt's blazing solo work is superb, as are the tempo changes and complex rhythms employed by drummer, Plate.  

At this point, it is simply excellence piling atop excellence, as the next several tracks are nearly perfectly written and performed Metal Church anthems of speed, rage, and power.  "No Tomorrow", again, sounds like it could have been written for the Blessing... album, employing a cool acoustic guitar intro before the machine gun-styled snare drums kick in, dragging a pulsating bass line and thundering double kicks behind in a metallic march that screams classic Metal Church, interrupted only briefly by an acoustic interlude that is shredded to pieces by the return of the drums and a short, screaming solo from Van Zandt.  Vanderhoof's rhythm guitars are also highly present here, setting the stage for a full-on metallic charge that Howe's vocals prod ever onward.  

"Signal Path" is a moody piece with some unique rhythms and tempo changes, again employing an acoustic guitar and a lot of hi-hat work from Plate before the rest of the band joins in on a track that has a bit of a "Badlands",  or possibly an "In Harm's Way" feel, hearkening back to the classic Howe-era work.  Howe backs off his snarl to actually sing in this song in a couple of places, again giving it another bit of that "In Harm's Way" feel that I loved so much back in the day.  The song may be a bit long for some people, clocking in at over 7 minutes, but how much greatness can you truly have?  Besides, if you want to save almost three minutes, you can get the radio edit of this song on the international bonus disc (more on that in a bit).        

"Sky Falls In" is catchy and quirky, leading in with a dark, intense guitar line, then joined by a bit of a jazzy, moody, rhythm courtesy of Mr. Vanderhoof and bassist, Steve Unger.  Again, the seven minute stretch is going to deter some folks, but this is a piece of music here, with different layers and textures, and not just a head-long charge through metallic madness, and is one of the most interesting compositions here as far as the way it is put together and built.  For me, this song is the pinnacle of the songwriting brilliance that flashes throughout this record.

"Needle And Suture" returns to the hard-charging riff rock with a nice, chunky rhythm guitar and a rumbling bass line that will have necks snapping and fists thrusting in the air as Howe unleashes his distorted air raid siren vocals to stretch syllables in some places, then drops down to a guttural growl in other spots.    "Shadow" reminds me a lot of the material on Hanging In The Balance, with "Hypnotized" being a very similarly styled track off that 1993 album.  Howe lowers his vocal approach to utilize a smoother vocal style on the first half of the slithery verse lines, then he rises back up up to employ his more familiar yowl on the second half of the verses, giving the songs a really nice alternating dynamic vocally, ending with a whispered "I am Shadow" to close the track.

"Blow Your Mind" seemingly emerges out of that whispered ending to "Shadow", creating a dark, haunting musical tapestry that slowly builds in force until the drums come thumping in and the chunky rhythm guitars settle into a mid-tempo cadence that again set the stage for some of Howe's trademark, acerbic vocal work.  Not my favorite track here, "Blow Your Mind" is still an interesting piece of music that has many of the hallmarks of classic Metal Church.

"Soul Eating Machine" again returns the band to more uptempo material, although it starts off with a slower guitar intro before jumping right into a swirling mass of metallic hard rock fueled by Howe's angry snarl.  This is yet another example of a track that has a very familiar feel to it, recalling the B-side of The Human Factor for me, although the cleaner-sounding guitar employed during the solo by Van Zandt is a more recent touch.

"It Waits" is an odd song here, as it employs a very raw, very stripped down song structure, creating something of an evil, haunting texture musically that for some reason reminds me a lot of what Metallica was after with "Until It Sleeps", albeit at an even slower tempo and with less obvious bass work.  Howe uses some vocal effects on parts of his verse lines, which I'm not really sure about, and the song never really builds any gut-wrenching power other than one long howl from Howe, which is what I kept waiting for.  It's not a horrible song, but it just feels like its missing...something...

"Suffer Fools" quickly covers up any flaws found in "It Waits", as the urgency returns to the guitars, a rolling bass line throbs throughout the track, and some true thrash elements return to the music, similar to what Anthrax and Megadeth employed on their recent comeback records.

The bonus disc is a nice addition here, as the songs here are solid but definitely don't fit the overall style of the main record.  However, don't think of the new songs here as "left overs" as much as they are simply songs that still sound like Metal Church, but maybe a bit more like Wayne-era thrashers and not the more progressive-styled thrash/American power metal that the band utilized with Howe.  "The Coward", for example, is a nice thick, chunky thrash rocker with some great attitude employed by Howe.  "Blisterfist" is a three-and-a-half minute instrumental thrash track that reminds me stylistically a LOT of 80s-era Anthrax in the interplay between the two guitars and the changing of the tempo and drum pattern about half-way through...only to go back to the original style once again (you'll know instantly what I mean if you hear it!),  

"God Hit" is a second instrumental that is much more musical and FAR more laid back stylistically than "Blisterfist".  It reminds me a lot of the more atmospheric-styled interludes that Metallica was using on ...And Justice For All, although there is some syth mixed in here by Vanderhoof.  For me, this is the only true throw-away on either disc, as it really does nothing for me.

"The Enemy Mind" is an uptempo, hard-driving rocker, but it fades out at about 3:00 in, so I wonder if it is incomplete, or if it was something the band had worked up lyrically but not quite finished musically.  There is a good deal of potential on this song, however, and I wouldn't be disappointed to hear a "finished" version of this track in the future.  "Signal Path" is presented again in a greatly shortened radio edit that cuts out nearly all of the intro to trim it to 4:29 in length.  "Shadow" is presented in demo form, but it doesn't differ greatly from the final product, to be honest, and is actually a bit longer than the finished version, and is obviously not mixed down or given that final polish of a fully produced song.  It is cool to hear Howe's vocals in this completely raw form though, as it is obvious that very little is done to retouch his singing on the final products; Mike Howe just sounds like Mike Howe, period, which is dang cool.  "No Tomorrow", which appears in alternate form here, starts off sounding a LOT like an early, aggressive Metallica song, especially when the acoustic guitar intro is left off, and when the guitars and bass kick in, you really do wish Metallica still made music like this...and you are desperately happy that Metal Church DOES make music like this in 2016!

I intentionally skipped over the 2015 remake of "Badlands" that was released to the public via the Internet when it was announced that Howe was back in the band.  To me, it is amazing how some things just don't change with age, no matter how much time has passed.  The band sounds so nearly spot-on here that it actually feels like they simply walked into a studio, said, "Hey, Mike...wanna jam?", handed him a microphone, and just jumped right back into 1990 rehearsals for a big tour, and "Badlands" was what they chose to warm up with.  It's just so perfect.  I dare say I like this new version better, but I can't pinpoint exactly why.  It is a slight bit more raw in production, and the bass is given a bit more attention, so perhaps that is what it is.  Regardless, it is not often a "classic" song like "Badlands" is given new life as effectively as Metal Church has done here with what is likely their most well-known song in their now 11 albums deep catalog.

The packaging is top-notch, as most Rat Pak products least my version is.  I have the Deluxe International Version, which comes with the bonus disc, a guitar pick, a nice booklet that is separate from the CD insert, three different die-cut stickers, and a cardboard slipcover that is autographed by the entire band, which is very nicely put together.  The CD insert has complete lyrics, including lyrics to the two new, non-instrumental songs on the Bonus Disc ("The Coward" and ""The Enemy Mind").  There are no band pictures in the CD insert or tray inlay, however, which is a bummer for some people, although there are a LOT of pictures in the independent bonus booklet.  That booklet also includes all the lyrics, but it also has a cool interview with Mike Howe, as well as the thoughts of the other members of the band about Howe's return to the band, about the making of the new record, and a BUNCH of photos, Internet memes, candid photos, production and writing credits, etc.  The booklet is very well done, although I would have rather had it in insert form, as the booklet is twice the height of a jewel case and I am not really sure where I will store it, to be honest!  First World problems, I know...

All in all, this is a truly amazing return from one of my favorite bands of all time, in both the David Wayne and Mike Howe versions, at least.  I own all of their other material, but honestly lost interest in the Ronny Munroe version of the band and had given up hope of a return of this type of music from Metal Church ever really happening to be honest.  The best thing is that here it is, only March, and already 2016 has witnessed the return of three of the bigger names in the American heavy metal/thrash metal scene, with Megadeth, Anthrax, and now Metal Church all releasing new material, and all sounding as good as...or better than...they have sounded in years!  Is there hope for other metal bands to follow up (ahem...Metallica)?  Time will tell, but for now, relish in the new material from the three bands listed above, with Metal Church standing at the top of the heap with my CURRENT album of the year for 2016!

Obviously, its only March so things COULD change...we'll see....

Rating:  Insanely crankable!  I want to give it a 10, but those are so rare, that I will stop at 9.5 for this amazing comeback record from a band that actually never least in name...

Friday, March 18, 2016

VARIOUS ARTISTS "A Celebration of the Death and Resurrection"

(c) 2016 Roxx Records

  1. A Message from Pastor Bob
  2. Crucify (Bloodgood)
  3. Son Of God (Neon Cross)
  4. He Died (Sacred Warrior)
  5. The Last Cry (Worldview)
  6. 30 Pieces of Silver (Theocracy)
  7. World Covered In Blood (X-Sinner)
  8. Crucified (Saint)
  9. Violence And Bloodshed (Ultimatum)
  10. Death on the Cross (Grave Forsaken)
  11. Flesh and Blood (Deliverance)
  12. Human Sacrifice (Vengeance Rising)
  13. If I Was There (Tourniquet)
  14. Alive (Recon)
  15. Messiah (Bloodgood)
Normally, compilation CDs aren't really my thing.  Typically, you get one or two decent artists with a couple of good songs, then you get a bunch of filler material from bands you have never heard of.  They also don't typically hold up over time very well, as the same songs in the same order gets rather old fairly least for me.

Roxx Records has done something completely different here, however, with their latest release, A Celebration of the Death and Resurrection, an appropriate compilation of largely classic Christian metal bands, along with a few current artists, telling the story of Christ's judgement, crucifixion, and resurrection in one awesomely loud collection.  Sequenced perfectly to tell the story, these 14 songs were selected for their message, as well as for the talent level of the bands performing, and Roxx has delivered the goods in a big way here!

The disc starts off with a brief, 3 minute long message from Pastor Bob Beeman, who has long been well known through his work with the Sanctuary International Church and the Christian metal community in general.  Personally, I would have moved this to the last track on the CD, as I am not a fan of intros of any kind, as any reader of G2G is fully aware.  

Musically, the album kicks off with the scorching "Crucify", taken from Bloodgood's highly acclaimed 1987 album, Detonation.  Classic metal sounds are enhanced by the theatrics portraying the trial and judgement of Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate.  Despite being nearly 30 years old, the song has not lost any of its power through the years, and Les Carlen's raspy screams, backed by the shouted gang chorus of "Crucify!" set the perfect tone for the miraculous story being presented here.

Neon Cross was a contemporary of Bloodgood, and they follow with one of their most powerful songs, with "Son Of God", taken from their original demo and the 1987 classic compilation, California Metal.  Again, the song is in the classic heavy metal vein, with some excellent guitar work from Don Webster, and powerful, clean vocals that soar from the speakers in a way not many acts have used in a long, long time.

Speaking of powerful vocals, Rey Parra is featured on the next two tracks.  First is "He Died" from his original band, Sacred Warrior, with "The Last Cry" being a recent track from his new band, Worldview.  "He Died" starts off as a a somber, keyboard-laden ballad that eventually kicks the power up with pounding drums and excellent melodic guitar work as is showcases the operatic style that Parra was so rightfully praised for, bringing elements of Queensryche and Crimson Glory to the Christian metal sub-genre.  Parra's new band, Worldview, formed with fellow Christian metal hero, George Ochoa of Deliverance and Recon, packs a power-meets-progressive metal punch with "The Last Cry", from last year's Top 10 album, The Chosen Few.  An awesome song that sees the return of Parra to the music scene after several years away, "The Last Cry" is a mid-tempo masterpiece, to be sure.  The vocal power is still there, no doubt, and the band as a whole delivers in a big way, from the pulsating bass lines to the thundering drums...and of course, Ochoa's power chords and skillful solos.

Sticking with that power/progressive style is Theocracy, one of the most musically gifted bands to hit that particular scene in some time, in my opinion.  A high speed adrenaline rush of a song, 30 Pieces of Silver" recounts the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot for the sum mentioned in the song's title.  Taken from the band's 2011 album As The World Bleeds, "30 Pieces..." is a scorching piece of metal, showcasing not only Matt Smith's powerful, clean, soaring vocals, but also the blazing guitar work of axe tandem Val Allen Woods and Jonathan Hinds.  If you have never sought out this band before, this song would be a great introduction to what you will be treated to!

"World Covered In Blood" is the title track of the 2008 album from AC/DC sound-alikes, X-Sinner.  It is almost uncanny how much lead vocalist Rex Scott sounds like Bonn Scott, and the raunchy rock and roll grind of the hard rocking guitars will have heads nodding, feet tapping, and fists pounding almost instantly, especially once the simple-yet-oh-so-catchy chorus hits!  A great track to include here to introduce people to this relatively unheralded band that has actually been around in some form since 1989, believe it or not!

One of the truly classic Christian metal bands of all time, Saint, follows up with "Crucified", taken from incredible 2012 album, Desperate Night.  Often called the "Judas Priest (ironically) of Christian metal" due to lead vocalist Josh Kramer's powerhouse screams and excellent range, this American heavy metal band hit the scene in the very early 80's and continues on to this day, although with a revolving door line-up and, now, a new lead singer.  Be that as it may, Saint and their founding member, bassist Richard Lynch, has long carried the torch of classic metal, only very rarely making a misstep along the way, and "Crucified" shows that even 35+ years into their illustrious career, Saint was still making powerful metal with a powerful message!   

Things get thrashy for a bit from this point on, starting with second-wave thrashers, Ultimatum, and the crushing "Violence & Bloodshed" taken from the band's blistering neck-snapper of an album, The Mechanics of Perilous Times from 2001 (later reissued in 2007).  Scott Waters' raspy snarl combined with the relentless guitar assault of Robert Gutierrez was long a hallmark of this band, and both are in fine fashion here!  Often compared to Overkill, largely due to Waters' style, Ultimatum was one of the heaviest, fastest thrash bands of their time and their inclusion here, among so many all-time greats, is truly deserved.

If Ultimatum was second-wave thrash, then Grave Forsaken would likely be considered third-wave thrash.  A bit slower in tempo, and considerably lower in vocal range, this Australian thrash band contributes "Death On The Cross", a song which needs no further explanation as to why it is included in this compilation.  The vocals of Vaughn Gregory are very reminiscent of the more recent material from Australian death metal/thrash metal legends Mortification, and the slower speed and straight forward lyrics only serve to add to that comparison...which is not a bad thing at all.  Taken from 2006's album, Beside The River Of Blood, "Death On The Cross" is a worthy addition to this project from one of the new torch bearers of the Christian metal scene.

While on the subject of thrash metal, it is well-known that the "Big Four" are Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth.  However, in the Christian metal realm, the "Big Three" would be, without question, Deliverance, Vengeance Rising, and Tourniquet, the next three bands up on this album.  Deliverance kicks off first with "Flesh and Blood", which comes from their epic sophomore album, Weapons Of Our Warfare, from 1990.  Many consider the pairing of vocalist/rhythm guitarist Jimmy P. Brown II and the previously mentioned guitar shredding hero, George Ochoa (Worldview), to be one of the most creative, most powerful forces in Christian metal history, and this album to be their crowning achievement.  With this song, it is easy to see why this distinction is made, as Jimmy's insane vocal range is put to full effect here, along with the uncompromising, blistering speed and skill put on display by Ochoa.  Check this track out...and then seek the band's catalog out!  You will not be disappointed in any fashion!

Vengeance Rising, I suppose, would be the Slayer of the group, as they were the most controversial, the most menacing, of the Big Three, both stylistically and musically.  Roger Martinez used a snarling, growling, howling vocal style that was indecipherable at times, but also equally entrancing as the band raced along at a breakneck pace that both thrashers and punks could be proud of.  This song, "Human Sacrifice", was the title track of the band's debut album from 1986, which was one of the fastest, heaviest records of the mid-80s thrash scene, Christian or secular.  

Tourniquet, the final name on the Big Three list here, added a progressive element to their thrash style and sound, but the song contributed here is not thrash at all...nor is it even really metal.  Largely acoustic (minus the nearly distortion-free guitar solo and outro), "If I Was There" talks about Christ carrying the cross up the hill at Cavalry and what that sacrifice means to the song's narrator.  Taken from the 1997 release, Crawl To China, this song is a somewhat odd inclusion style-wise, but lyrically fits nearly perfectly into the narrative of this album.

Fear not, metalheads, as the amps are cranked back up to 10 on the next track, "Alive", the third track to feature axe-slinger George Ochoa, this time with his power metal act, Recon.  Taken from Behind Enemy Lines, the only studio album this band ever released (at least for now!), "Alive" is the story of the tomb being found empty after Christ's resurrection.  Always seemingly paired with a vocal force to be reckoned with, Ochoa is again in fine company here, as Vett Roberts seems to have studied his Geoff Tate/Jimmy Brown/Rey Parra notes, as he delivers a vocal performance on par with much of the work done by these highly respected artists. guessed it...a blazing solo rips through the mid-section of this track, completing a nearly flawless metallic masterpiece!

The album closes with one of the most powerful tracks in Christian metal history, as far as I am concerned, in Bloodgood's "Messiah".  The emotionally-drenched vocals of Les Carlsen are achingly haunting here as he describes the removal of Christ's body from the cross, the care given to the body of the crucified Savior, and the emotions of the people present at both the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Just a beautifully delivered classic metal track that, on the Detonation album, tracks seamlessly out of the first song on this compilation, "Crucify".  How fitting that the bookends of this compilation are two songs so closely related in their original form, and what a truly unforgettable way to bring the project to a close (in its presented form; again, I would have moved Pastor Bob to the end of the project...).

While it is a narrative of the Easter season, A Celebration of the Death and Resurrection is also a primer for metalheads who are not well versed in the Christian side of the genre, for people looking to explore new bands, or for those who simply want to hear a sampling of music they likely had not been exposed to previously.  

I cannot speak to the packaging at this time, as my copy is an advanced digital download, but I will address this when my physical copy arrives.  Typically, however, releases from Roxx Records are among some of the best in the industry in regards to packaging and inserts and notes, so I have little doubt that this release will be equally top-notch.

Rating:  Amazingly crankable, as both a flash trip through my metallic youth, and as a metal rendering of one of the most important stories in history.  Crank it up to 9, which is high praise from me for a compilation album!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

LIFEHOUSE "Out Of The Wasteland"

(c) 2015 Iron Works

  1. Hurricane
  2. One For The Pain
  3. Flight
  4. Runaways
  5. Firing Squad
  6. Wish
  7. Stardust
  8. Alien
  9. Central Park
  10. Hurt This Way
  11. Yesterday's Son
  12. Hourglass
Jason Wade--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Co-lead vocals on "Stardust"
Bryce Soderberg--Bass, Backing Vocals, Co-lead vocals on "Stardust"
Ricky Woolstenhulme, Jr.--Drums, Percussion, 

Lifehouse has never been one of those bands that I felt I had to listen to, as they generally don't really fit my preferred styles of music.  I don't hate them, by any means...I just nothing them.  If a song pops up on the radio, its not like I rush to turn it off or anything, but I also don't seek the band out.  I also can identify exactly ONE Lifehouse song without having to look it up, and that would be their huge hit, "Hanging By A Moment", which is insanely catchy melodic pop rock, not far removed from bands such as the Goo Goo Dolls or Stage Dolls in style and sound.

Out Of The Wasteland is a return of sorts for the band, who had gone on hiatus in 2013 following the relative bomb of 2012's album, Almeria.  Determined to get back to what Lifehouse previously sounded like and stood for, Wade has stated about Out Of The Wasteland that "This is full circle for us.  It really sees us returning to our roots."  

But what does that mean?

Well, it means if you are a fan of the melodic pop rock sound that "Hanging By A Moment" poured out across mainstream and rock radio in 2000, you are most likely going to be very happy with where Out Of The Wasteland starts from, but even the most ardent fan may find themselves wishing for more.  The album opens with the uptempo pop rock of "Hurricane", a solid number that really showcases what people fell in love with about this band when they first broke onto the scene: strong songwriting with positive lyrics; powerful, distinctive lead vocals from Wade; solid musicianship; catchy hooks and rhythms.  In fact, "Hurricane" sounds a lot like it could have come from No Name Face back in 2000 and no one would have known the difference, as it really fits that album's style and sound.  But this also presents a problem for the band, as from this point on, there is really very little variance in their sound or stylistic direction to make anything from this record stand out.  It fails to rock, for the most part.  "One For The Pain", tries, I guess, as its another catchy uptempo number with a nice bass line and some nice vocal work from Wade, but it doesn't take any chances in its execution and instead sounds like it has been forced through a filter that makes sure that whatever comes out the other side is going to be accessible to all who hear it.  I mean, come on, the song sounds like I'm listening to a commercial for Tylenol or Advil after more than one spin, so homogeneous is its sound and approach.

"Flight", while a very well-written and performed piano-based ballad, comes across as a song that would have fit well as the climactic build-up song on the soundtrack of just about any 1990's romantic comedy.  (The album's closer, "Hourglass", by the way, could easily be the end credits track for that same song...very, VERY light and airy with little substance to grab hold of.) "Runaways" starts off nearly as softly as "Flight", but it does build a bit in the middle, providing more "rock" than the next track, which may be the most misnamed track on the record, for there is NOTHING explosive or dramatic or powerful about "Firing Squad" at all.  So straight down the middle of the road is music in this stretch that tracks 3-5 actually drift together into one big musical...movement...I suppose would be the word, with nothing really distinguishing itself from track to track.       

"Wish" only slows things down even further (who woulda thought that possible), as an acoustic ballad is slid into the mix here, albeit in very short fashion, as the track clocks in at under 3 minutes, which is merciful.  "Stardust" has potential with its shared lead vocals, allowing Soderberg to step to the (co) front for a time during the verse portions of the track, but the urgency in the way the verses are delivered isn't really translated into how the song is performed, and we are again treated to another mid-tempo color-by-numbers track.  "Hurt This Way" has a neo-Nashville feel to it, minus the rock that so many country artists are mixing into their sound now. "Yesterday's Son" feels like a modern worship song (haven't I sang along with this in church?  No?  Huh...coulda sworn I had).  And, as previously mentioned, "Hourglass" is just so much air and fairy dust with nothing substantial in its performance at all.   

If the album had carried ANYTHING over from "Hurricane" this could have been a decent pop-rock/soft-rock album, I suppose, but as it is, I have to wonder if Lifehouse shouldn't change their name to Lifeless, as this album is just one long lullaby after "Hurricane" closes out.  One has to seriously wonder what kind of "Wasteland" the band could be traveling "Out Of", as the record's title implies, because this is not some desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape presented here, so much as it is a field of dandelion fluff and gentle summer breezes.  Yeesh!

Based on what is presented here, I have ZERO clue how Lifehouse was actually chosen to open for Nickelback on that band's last tour, because I have to believe the entire audience was asleep before Nickel back hit the stage unless "Hurricane" was the band's closing number, with "Hanging By A Moment" being the bombastic encore.  

Talented?  No question.  Passionate in their performance and songwriting?  No one doubts that.  But why this was sent to me to review I have no idea, as it is so far removed from the "rock" world that I actually put it off for several months, just to see if I would be in a different place when I returned to it.  And I was...I was in Dream Land by the time the album finished.

Rating:  Turn this down to 4 after "Hurricane" so the occasional hints of rock don't awaken you from the peaceful slumber you will likely have drifted into by record's end.   

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

ANVIL "Anvil Is Anvil"

(c) 2016 Fan Funded Release

  1. Daggers and Rum
  2. Up Down Sideways
  3. Gun Control
  4. Die For A Lie
  5. Runaway Train
  6. Zombie Apocalypse
  7. It's Your Move
  8. Ambushed
  9. Fire On The Highway
  10. Run Like Hell
  11. Forgive Don't Forget
  12. Never Going To Stop (Bonus Track)
  13. You Don't Know What It's Like (Bonus Track)
Lips--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Robb Reiner--Drums
"Christ" Robertson--Bass, Vocals

There may not be a more appropriately titled album in the history of metal...maybe even in music.  Why do I say that?  Because, quite simply, Anvil IS Anvil, here and on every album they have ever released.  They don't try to sound like anyone else.  They don't trend-jump.  They don't compromise.  Anvil IS Anvil, period.  And why shouldn't they be?  They've been listed as influences of practically all the major thrash bands of the 80's, including Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth...collectively known as the "Big Four" well as countless other bands.  So why would they change now?  Well, other than a COMPLETE lack of commercial success, there really is no reason to change, so they haven't...and I'm guessing they won't.

Without going into the history of the band too deeply, or rehashing the award-winning documentary made about the band, Anvil now consists of founding members Lips and Robb Reiner, and new bassist, "Christ" Robertson, and the Canadian metal legends continue to make traditional thrash-tinged heavy metal in the same vein that they have for the past 30+ years.  They sound much the same in 2016 as they did when I stumbled across them on a Metal Blade sampler in 1987 and fell in love with the song "Concrete Jungle" off the Strength Of Steel record.  On top of it, they sound like they are still having a great time doing what they do, which really makes all the difference in the world when you are a band that has played in front of crowds ranging from...literally...15 people to 15,000.

The band enlisted the help of U.D.O. producer Martin "Mattes" Pfeiffer to help them coax the most out of these new songs, but there are no studio tricks, no keyboards or synthesizers, no guest vocalists or musicians here to detract from the true Anvil sound.  Lips sense of humor is still firmly intact here, which is noticeable right from the get-go as the band launches into a metallic sea shanty called "Daggers And Rum".  The sounds of the sea and the chanting of pirates intros the songs before Reiner's drums come pounding forward and Lips' thrashy rhythm guitars come screeching to life.  Immediately, Robertson's presence is felt here, as a nice rumbling bass line keeps the forward march of the song going fiercely onward as Lips snarls about "scurvy scum", "cannon balls", and "treasure"...which no pirate song would be complete without!

Oddly, Lips also decides to get a blatantly social and political on this record, which I don't remember the band really doing back when I followed them fairly regularly.  (Like most of the world, I lost track of them in the 90's...).  Take for instance a song like the doomy, Sabbath-y sounding "Gun Control", which is NEVER going to serve as the theme song for the NRA as it takes a decidedly anti-gun stance and a swipe at Americans who stand behind their Constitutional right to own firearms...which is a bit of a bold move from a Canadian band!  He also lashes out at religion in "Die For A Lie", with such seemingly anti-Christian lyrics as "Die for a lie, living by the book" (I suppose it could also be construed as anti-Muslim).  "Forgive Don't Forget" is also a bit of a political song as it was written by the Jewish Lips for the people of Germany, where the record was recorded.  Even on a much more Anvil-like, humorous song like "Zombie Apocalypse", the song takes an anti-nuclear war slant that, in all honesty, comes across as rather dated in this post-Cold War era.

What doesn't sound dated is Anvil's music.  Sure, it's still 80s-inspired thrash and heavy metal, but its given a fresh coat of 2016 paint in the production, much heavier in the bottom end and much fuller in sound than anything they did in the 80s or on the couple of 90s albums I have tracked down over the past couple of years.  Pfeiffer keeps the historic metal in Anvil's performance, to be sure, but he also drags the music into the 21st Century without sacrificing the band's sound.    

When Anvil just cuts loose is where this record shines the most, in my opinion.  The previously mentioned "Daggers And Rum" is one such track that showcases the band just having fun, as does "Zombie Apocalypse", despite its veiled political ambitions.  In fact, "Zombie Apocalypse" has some absolutely killer bass work in it, a HUGE, heavy-as-stink plodding rhythm, and some trippy guitar effects that really add to the horror show soundtrack feel of the song and make it stand out as one of my favorites.  I mean, seriously, can't you just hear the herds of walkers from Walking Dead plodding along, growling and snarling the insanely simplistic chorus of "Zombie, zombie, zombie, zombie apocalypse"?!  Awesome fun!  "Up Down Sideways" showcases some pretty cool bass work from Roberson, while "It's Your Move" is pure heaviness and lets Reiner just beat the crap out of his kit for three and a half straight minutes of pure skull crushing metal.  "Ambushed", is nearly as notable for it's furiously heavy assault on the ears and neck. "Fire On The Highway" is somewhat disjointed in the way the lyrics are structured, but the relentless machine gunning of Reiner's drums and the nicely synced chugga-chug of Robertson's bass and Lips' guitar give thrashers another reason to celebrate the return of this band. "Run Like Hell" is another high-octane dose of speed and adrenaline that will have mosh pits swirling at live shows (if there are enough people there to actually form a mosh pit), and what has to be the band's personal statement song, "Never Going To Stop" thrashes wildly from start to finish, with Reiner really dominating the song with his double bass work that truly sets him apart from so many other metal drummers out there, both past and present.           

Not every song here is a winner, but that's okay.  For every so-so track like "Runaway Train", there's another really good song to back it up.  "You Don't Know What It's Like" is not a particularly well-constructed song, and the backing vocals on the chorus seem completely out of sync with the lead vocals, but moments like this are relatively few and insignificant.  Sure, this could have been cut down to 9 songs relatively easily, making for a tighter, more cohesive sounding overall product, but hey, this is Anvil.  Who knows if they're going to get another chance to record an album, right?  Just as well get everything on tape (er, digital recorder) that you can.

But then again, this IS Anvil, so it is actually VERY likely they will be back for another round, even if only 50 people buy the record and only 20 of those show up to see them play.  And that's the beauty and the sheer joy of a band like Anvil.

The packaging is solid, by the way, on this Pledge Music-funded project. with all lyrics and a band photo included in a 12 page booklet that also includes the requisite thank-yous and production credits.  The package itself is a cardboard digipack with a sleeve for the lyrics sheet, but at least its of the style that has an actual tray for the CD to snap into.  Additionally, since I was a backer of the project, my copy of Anvil Is Anvil is autographed, which is cool.

Rating:  Anvil Is Anvil is Crankable.  A solid 7.5 is in order here!

THE PHOENIX "My Turn To Deal" EP

(c) 2016 Demon Doll Records

  1. My Turn To Deal
  2. Dangerous Girl
  3. You Can't Stop The Rock N Roll
  4. Party Hard
Lena McFrison--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Alice Schecter--Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
Luna RocketQueen--Bass, Vocals
Giuli McMousse--Drums

One look at the cover of this little EP and you have a pretty good idea of what you are going to get from The Phoenix.  Hailing from Italy, these four hard rocking ladies not only have the look and the attitude of the 80s era down, they also have the the sound and the songs to back things up.  Combining elements of Lita Ford, the sleazier side of the Hollywood Sunset Strip, and the nicely layered all-female vocals of Vixen, The Phoenix delivers a solid slab of polished metallic pop-rock that teases you for just over 17 minutes, getting you all hot and bothered, then walks away after a quick peck on the cheek and a sly smile, leaving you wanting so much more.

Unlike a lot of all-girl bands, The Phoenix are the real deal and not just a lot of hairspray, make-up, and tight leather...although they appear to have that in spades as well.  Right from the start, with the sound of the barroom and the shuffling cards that opens "My Turn To Deal", the rock n roll is thick and powerful on this EP, with solid grooves packed into each of these four minute rockers.  "My Turn..." comes rumbling in with some catchy bass work from RocketQueen and solid drumming from McMousse, before the sass-laden vocals of McFrison take least until a smoking guitar solo forces McFrison to focus her attention on her axe and not her microphone.  A solid kick-off that definitely piqued my interest.  

"Dangerous Girl" is likely the anthem for the band, and the bluesy, bump-n-grind groove is rather "I Love Rock N Roll"-era Joan Jett in its approach, while the nicely layered vocals are straight from the Vixen approach to properly stacking female voices for maximum effect.  For my money, this is the catchiest song on the record and would've worked very well on MTV's Headbanger's Ball back in the day.  Just a killer hook and groove here, with solid instrumental performances from all backing up a top-notch vocal take from McFrison.  

"You Can't Stop The Rock N Roll" (not a Twisted Sister cover...note the word "the" slipped into the title here) is the one track that I had to let grow a bit, as I wasn't really sure what they were trying to accomplish here.  At times it seems they want this to be "the ballad" of the record, but then they blow it up into more of an arena anthem on the choruses...only to slow it back down again for the follow-up verses.  McFrison adds a bit of feminine purr to her vocals during the slower verse parts, only to crank the sass back up during the chorus.  My least favorite track, but that's not saying much, because I still think its a solid track that, as I mentioned, grew on me after repeated listens.  The girls' skill with their instruments is again on solid display here, especially the interplay between McFrison's blistering solo and Schecter's rhythm guitar, and it speaks volumes about the seriousness these musicians bring to their chosen art form and musical style.    

"Party Hard" closes the EP in fine fashion, as the hard-charging guitars and rumbling bass power this catchy rocker through to the end.  Again, McFrison's vocals are smart and sassy, feminine-yet-not-girly in anyway, and the guitar work here, while loose and sloppy enough for sleaze, is also lively and hooky, especially on the short bridge and extended solo.  The song even takes a bit of a breakdown approach in the middle, slowing things down and becoming almost exclusively drums and bass for a short, spoken-word segment from McFrison, before ripping into another solo and then blazing a smoldering trail to the end of the record.  Very nicely done and definitely a strong impression-builder at the end of an all-too-short EP.

If these ladies manage to stay together and continue to write songs in this vein, with this level of quality, there is no doubt I will be in line to pick up whatever The Phoenix comes up with next.  Top notch performances abound on yet another high quality Italian release that fans of hard rock and sleaze would do well to seek out.

Rating:  Painfully short, but still crankable!  Give this a spin at 8!

HARDREAMS "Countdown Time"

(c) 2016 Perris Records

  1. Fire Child
  2. More Than One Life
  3. Best Days of Our Lives
  4. Into Our Dreams
  5. A New Beginning
  6. Summertime
  7. Give Me
  8. Countdown Time
  9. Crying
  10. Soul Mates
  11. Light And Shadows
Manu Esteve--Vocals
David Aguera--Guitars
Victor Muino--Bass
Sergio Hormigo--Drums
Miguel Garcia--Keyboards

Hardreams is a band that has been around for a bit now, with Countdown Time being their fourth CD release...yet I've never heard of them, which is a bit odd, at least to me, as I follow Perris Records fairly closely.  Be that as it may, this new record features a few new things for the band, with the addition of Garcia as the new keyboard player being the biggest issue, at least as far as the music goes, for this Barcelona-based act.

Hardreams would best be described as a melodic hard rock band with AOR tendencies, especially with their liberal use of keyboards both as a supporting instrument and as more of a main player in spots.  Case in point is the relatively long keyboard intro to the opening track, "Fire Child", which carries an odd 70s inspiration to it, before the guitars and drums hit at about the 40 second mark, transforming the song into something that resembles filler material for the better Malmsteen records...minus the top-notch guitar work.  David Aguera is a competent axe-slinger, no doubt, but Malmsteen he is not.

"More Than One Life" is a decent, but not exciting rocker with some solid drum work from Hormingo and a decent solo from Aguera.  Lead singer, Esteve, uses a somewhat accented, lower-to-mid-range tenor throughout this song, reminding me at times of John Waite's vocal approach, especially with Bad English, but lacking the overall quality of Waite's vocal command.  I think part of the issue is that Esteve handles not only the lead vocals, but the backing vocals as well, so there is little variation in dynamics or tone, making the backing vocals relatively flat and lifeless and not serving to enhance the lead vocals.  Think of heyday Dokken without Pilson backing Don up...a lot of the dynamic effect of the vocals would be gone.  Such is the case here...and throughout the record, really.

"Best Days Of Our Lives" sounds like it comes straight out of the 80s as far as the song structure, and even the production, with a lot of that era's Journey just oozing out of the way the song is put together and performed.  The problem here is the vocal limitations of Esteve, who sounds as if he really struggles to hit the higher end of his mostly mid-tenor range.  There aren't any breaks to his voice, but some of the notes really come across as forced and unnatural, which is a pretty big distraction to an otherwise very nice piece of melodic rock.  The song contains both a keyboard and guitar solo, both of which are decent, if not spectacular, and the laid back attitude of the song takes me back to the summer nights of my youth, hanging out around a bonfire with the hard rock and hair metal heroes of the day doing their best to help you snuggle up next to the girl of your choosing.  

"Into Our Dreams" picks the pace back up, and puts Esteve back into a much more comfortable style and range vocally.  The keyboards are pushed more into the background once again and the driving guitar line really pushes the agenda for this song.  Again, Aguera flashes some solo talent here, and the rhythm section is solid throughout.  Definitely one of the better tracks here, "Into Our Dreams" is the kind of song that a band like Hardreams should focus on building an entire album around, in my opinion.

"Summertime" is an okay pop-rock number, but it sounds rather cliche and dated, as does the following track, "Give Me", which has elements of 80s Whitesnake in the mix, but too many out-front keys damage the song for me.  The title track is decent, with a nice slow build from an acoustic guitar accompanying Esteve's vocals to a full-band rocker that unfortunately still comes across as dated and "been there, heard that".  There are some flamenco guitar elements mixed into the solo/bridge portion of the song, but there is just nothing that really grabs hold of the listener for any significant amount of time. 

The band saves some of the best songs on the record for the end, starting with "Crying".  The song takes a different guitar tone...which honestly reminded me of Hootie and the Blowfish the first couple of times I played it...and mixes in some Hammond-sounding keys in the background to nice effect on a mid-tempo rocker that isn't marred by Esteve's vocal limitations.  There is one spot near the end of the song, in the last repetitions of the chorus, where there appear to be effects added to Esteve's vocals which are absolutely TERRIBLE and nearly destroy the track.  "Soul Mates" is actually one of the best songs here, with more energy and "oomph" than just about anything else on the record, and would pair up well with "Into Our Dreams" as nice book-ends to build a record around.  Album closer, "Light And Shadows" reminds me of the slower-tempo, non-single material that Dokken was putting on their albums post Back For The Attack, and is a decent way to end a rather off-and-on album. 

Fans of bands like Magnum, Ten, Magnitude 9, or even earlier Harem Scarem will possibly find things to like about Hardreams, but never does this album reach the level of the best material from any of the previously mentioned bands.  The songs, while decent overall, lack the real punch that would put this album over the top, and Esteve's lack of vocal comfort on several songs set back a few of the songs that may have bumped this album up a notch or two in the rankings.  

Definitely not horrible, just not overly memorable, Countdown Time is an album that would likely blend into a mix and not even really be noticed, as even the better tracks here would be filler material for more accomplished acts. 

Rating:  Rock this to a decent, if unspectacular, 5.5.