Saturday, February 25, 2017


(c) 2016 Independent Release

  1. The Truth
  2. We're All Livin' The Dream
  3. Racin'
  4. Drown With Me 
  5. Goin' To Hell
Neal Middleton--Vocals, Guitar
Taylor Richards--Guitar, Backing Vocals
Dwayne Crawford--Bass, Backing Vocals
Jake Smith--Drums, Percussion
Sean "Memphis" Hennesey--Guitars, Vocals

How in the world did this EP from Royal Bliss slip past me unnoticed?!  Who the heck forgot to tell me it was out?!  Someone needs to pay for this slight, I'll tell ya!

Anyway...  One of the most underrated bands in music today, in my opinion, returns with a five song EP called The Truth.  And, in truth, his EP could have just as easily been called the Donnie And Marie EP, because there is no denying that the band's sound here has them ranging both a little bit country and a little bit rock n roll.

The EP starts off with a very familiar Royal Bliss vibe, as the title track is a definite rocker that would have fit very well on either of their previous two full-length albums, the phenomenal Waiting Out The Storm, and the nearly equally great Chasing The Sun.  The track opens with some hard pounding drums and a nice, churning rhythm guitar line before Middleton's soulful vocals come gliding into the first verse.  The chorus is a typical, story-telling styled section that Royal Bliss does so exceedingly well, and even the guitar solo has a nice, gliding quality to it, lending the song that comfortable quality that makes you feel like you may have heard it somewhere before...even though you know fully well that you never have.

"We're All Living The Dream" takes a slight...and I mean "slight"...step east toward Nashville, but there is absolutely nothing on this track that is any more country than "Bleed My Soul" from Waiting Out The Storm, or "Home" does on Chasing The Sun, and the chorus section actually reminds me more of the kind of sing-along song that Neil Diamond might do than it does an actual country song.  At times a bit gospel sounding, and at other times very patriotic sounding...especially with the drum cadences..."We're All Living The Dream" is mid-American roots rock at it's finest, and I have to feel that somewhere, John Mellencamp is grinning as he hits repeat on this track.

"Racin'" slips a bit further into country territory, but I have to tell you, I really like this song.  Middleton has a way of writing songs that feel like an old completely warm and comfortable and familiar...that I find myself not really caring how the song is pigeon-holed or what niche it is put into.  This is a band that knows who they are and who play what they like, and it really shows on a song like "Racin'".  Could it end up on CMT or GAC?  Sure, I suppose it could.  But don't start thinking that you're in for some kind of steel guitar, fiddle and dobro hoedown song here, because that is definitely NOT what the song is about.  Rather, its a somber tune about being out on the road and dealing with the choices that we make...or don't make...and is not all that dissimilar to a song like "Crazy", especially the "non-rock", original version from Waiting Out The Storm.

"Drown With Me" combines the rock sounds of the last two albums with the good-time, hard drinking party attitude of a lot of country songs.  I discovered that this song was available quite a while ago as a digital-single, but as a typically non-downloading music consumer, I didn't know about it until this EP snuck up on me.    There is a little bit of banjo in the song that becomes evident in the second verse, but it's not like we're listening to Roy Clark on Hee-Haw here; think more along the lines of Keith Urban on some of his most rocking numbers.  Speaking of rocking numbers, it's like someone lit a fire under the band at about the two minute mark, as the guitar solo section is performed at such a frantic pace it almost doesn't even feel like the same song!  There are some cool gang vocals at work here, and one of those stupidly-addicting sing-along choruses that tend to irritate you (in a good way, of course) once they are stuck in your head for about a week straight.

"Goin' To Hell" has a definite country flair to it, especially with the picking on the acoustic guitars and the railroad rhythm of the drums, but there is still a lot of rocking in this high energy foot stomper that may be my favorite song on the EP...if "The Truth" isn't my favorite...or if "We're All Living The Dream" doesn't hold that title...  You get my drift, I'm sure.  The band semi-name drops their last album, as Middleton sings about "waiting out the perfect storm" not too long before they break into a rip-roaring jam session to close the song, and the EP, in pretty typical Royal Bliss fashion.

Look, like I said at the outset, there is a definite country element that is mixed in here, but I would argue that Royal Bliss ALWAYS had a bit of that in a lot of their songs, especially with the sing along choruses and the heart-wrenching ballads.  Like I said, a little bit country, a little bit rock n roll.  But, I'll be danged if this isn't an excellent little EP that I really wish the band had stretched out into a full-length record.  I guess it will just have to tide me over until the next album that I knew nothing about finds its way to my hands and ears.

Rating:  Call it what you want; I'm calling it crankable!  Crank it to 8!

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

FIREWIND "Immortals"

(c) 2017 AFM Records

  1. Hands of Time
  2. We Defy
  3. Ode To Leonidas
  4. Back On The Throne
  5. Live And Die By The Sword
  6. War of Ages
  7. Lady of 1000 Sorrows
  8. Immortals
  9. Warriors and Saints
  10. Rise From The Ashes
  11. Vision of Tomorrow (Bonus Track)
Henning Base--Vocals
Gus G.--Guitars
Petros Christo--Bass
Bob Katsionis--Keyboards
Jo Nunez--Drums

Greek power metallers, Firewide, return to the scene after a nearly five year hiatus as founder and guitar god, Gus G., was busy touring the world with Ozzy Osbourne and putting out solo records (both of which are fantastic, by the way).  There was actually some question about whether Firewind had breathed their last, but Gus G. insists it was always his plan to bring the band back together, and indeed the boys are back together on this newest release, Immortals.

The album opens with two melodic, yet string-melting tracks, in "Hands of Time" and "We Defy", both of which serve to put the listener on notice that Firewind is fully back and ready to reclaim their position at, or near, the top of the Euro-power metal scene.  One thing that will be immediately obvious is the new voice of the band, as Henning Base has stepped into the void left by Apollo Papathanasio.  Kelly Carpenter had been the touring vocalist for Firewind for the past couple of years, and many thought he would be the new album's voice, but I feel Base brings a style and power of his own to these songs (more on that in a bit) that I honestly don't think Carpenter would have incorporated.  I'm not sure of the reasons Carpenter was not used on this record, but the addition of Base is definitely a signature move, and his performance on these first two tracks, and the speedy, "We Defy", in particular, tell me that the right decision was made for the band. 

"Ode To Leonidas" starts off with a spoken word intro, recalling some of the things Manowar has done in the past to varying degrees of success.  This effort is short enough, I suppose, but I still find such things to be more of a distraction than an addition to the song itself, and this intro is not the exception.  Once the lead-in is finished, however, we are treated to yet another hard-charging fret-burner from Gus G. and Company, with Base's vocals really taking on an edge that the band didn't employ often enough in the past, in my opinion.  The former lead vocalist for Brainstorm and Gamma Ray, among others, has a strong, passionate tenor that he masterfully controls throughout this record, but when he adds this bit of gruffness to his vocals, it really adds to the urgency of the track.

"Back On The Throne" is a great song that I feel really hints to Gus G.'s time touring with Ozzy, as the rhythm guitars carry a tone that is reminiscent of late 80's/early 90s material.  I could definitely do without the keyboard lead-in to the song, but it is short-lived and more of a nuisance than a real annoyance.  A big, soaring guitar solo is a prominent part of this track, and again, Base really unleashes the power of his vocals on this track, which is definitely one of my favorites here.

"Live And Die By The Sword" is the album's epic moment, starting with a nice acoustic guitar over the sound of a distant thunderstorm, then slowly building in power until Base's vocals lead the charge of the band, along with some nicely stacked, gang-shouted backing vocals, that work perfectly to compliment a rhythm that builds from a moderate gallop to a full-blown charge, especially during the blistering solo section.  Katsionis is given reign to add his own mini-keyboard solo amidst the flurry of Gus G.'s guitars, as well, again showcasing the epic nature of this song.  

Rarely does the album allow the listener to catch his or her breath, but one truly shining moment on the record is the ballad, "Lady of 1000 Sorrows".  Incorporating some classic rock-sounding guitar tones in places, this power ballad sweeps and soars, especially when Base is given the chance to really hold onto a note and extend it out, especially on the closing chorus.  

Without breaking the record down in complete song-by-song fashion, I feel that this is definitely one of the band's best efforts...probably seated right behind the huge The Premonition, which I still find to be breathtaking in places.  This record is right there, however, and as I have likely made obvious, I feel that Base's vocals make so much difference on this record.  I would love to hear him tackle the best cuts of the band's rather large catalog, especially on the more epic tracks that Firewind does so well.

The keyboards are still a bit more prominent than I prefer, but such is the Euro-power sound, and I have learned to accept them for what they are.  Besides, Katsionis is a truly accomplished player and brings a level of excitement and energy to the songs that more often than not boosts, rather than hinders, the overall sound.  I can't say the same for many keyboard players in the power metal scene.  And, while on the subject of musicians, I don't think Christo and Nunez are given enough love here, as they are often thought of as mere supporting players to Gus G.'s prodigious talent, but the rhythm section here is amazing and really builds a support structure that Gus would struggle to replicate.  Top notch performances all the way around.

Rating:  Sounding like they haven't missed a beat, crank this effort to a really, really solid 8!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

SAINTED SINNERS "Sainted Sinners"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Knight of the Long Knives
  2. Beauty In The Beast
  3. Maybe She's Got Balls
  4. We Are All Sainted Sinners
  5. Blue Lightning Man
  6. The Love That I Have Found
  7. Did You
  8. In Need
  9. Evangeline
  10. Shine Diamond Girl
  11. Truth Is A Lie
David Reece--Vocals
Frank Pane--Guitars
Ferdy Doernberg--Keys
Frederik Burkert--Bass
"Maestro" Berci Hirleman--Drums

David Reece just seems completely unable to sit still, doesn't he.  The guy has been in more bands than I have had cars!  Accept, Bangalore Choir, The Stream, Bonfire, Tango Down, and now this newest project, Sainted Sinners...and I'm sure I'm missing more than a few bands if I really dig deep enough!  However, unlike his previous efforts, Sainted Sinners is less about melodic hard rock and more about solid, 70s-soaked bluesy hard rock in the vein of Deep Purple, Whitesnake, UFO, Rainbow, and even a bit of ZZ Top and a healthy dose of Zeppelin.

"Knight Of The Long Knives" starts things off in an uptempo fashion that is not too far removed from 70s-era Whitesnake in its approach.  There is some really good riffing going on, and the Hammond organ is absolutely killer here (and pretty much EVERYWHERE on this record)!  When Reece's vocals kick in, I'm thinking, "yeah!  I can get into this!"...but then the song just kind of sits there and stagnates.  There's no real hook or lyrical turn, no altering of tempos, and not even an overly memorable solo to just grab me by the ears and shake me...although that Hammond nearly does it.  I also find I'm not a huge fan of the chorus for some reason, and it hasn't snagged me yet, even with repeated listens.

"Beauty In The Beast" is a really uptempo, boogie-woogie number with some pretty cool guitar work from Pane, especially on the bluesy solo, and even more great Hammond work from Doernberg, who is an absolute BEAST all throughout this record!  But again, the song just isn't a big stand-out number for me...nor is the third track, "Maybe She's Got Balls", although this song is a step up from the previous two.  I can't quite figure out why on it, but after a good dozen or so trips through the album, I have pinpointed that for me, the uptempo songs on Sainted Sinners all seem to be missing something.  They are performed with expert musicianship and excellent vocals ("Maybe She's Got Balls" has some really nice female backing vocals, by the way), but none of them really and truly suck me in, which is odd, as I absolutely LOVE this type of bluesy, 70s-drenched classic rock.

"We're All Sainted Sinners" is a step in the right direction, but its also a slight step backward in tempo.  A big, thick guitar riff powers this song in a solid Deep Purple direction, with the icing on the cake being still more potent Hammond from Doernberg.  Reece pretty well dominates this song, also, and the bridge section, with the layered vocals is some really good stuff.  I would love to hear the band do more stuff like this throughout the record.

"Blue Lightning Man" takes about 80 seconds before it decides to get up and get moving, and from there it turns into one of the fastest songs on the record...which, again, means its one of the lesser songs on the record for me.  I even started to question my sanity after repeated listens to this first half of the record, because everything seems to be in place for me to absolutely fall in love with this record by now, but I just don't.  Again, there is no denying the level of musicianship here, as every man on this record cuts loose with some level of excellence on pretty much every track here.  But the fast numbers just don't have...SOMETHING!  Now, "Blue Lightning Man" does have a really cool guitar solo that is part of a big tempo change about 4:45 into the song, but once things speed back up, even with the smoking Hammond work, this song just feels like  about a hudred different album cuts from the 70s that just blend into the background and take up space between a record's singles.

It isn't until track 6 that things REALLY click for me (although, again, "We're All Sainted Sinners" is a darn fine song).  "The Love That I Have Found" is a big, epic Zeppelin-ish number with a rhythm and riff that bears more than a passing resemblance to "Kashmir", but dang if it isn't catchy and performed to near perfection.  That big, chunky guitar riff, the nicely layered keys, and even a hint of orchestration.  This is definitely the pinnacle of the record for me, and I find myself going back to it repeatedly, as it is executed so well.  Excellent stuff, as is "Did You", which holds onto that Zeppelin worship for a bit longer, especially on the introductory instrumentation and another big, heavy riff, before it shifts a bit more into Deep Purple territory, especially with the Hammond firmly in place.

But then things slip once again, and it is the more uptempo material that really seems to expose the band's songwriting weaknesses.  On "In Need", Reece sounds like he is channeling ZZ Top on the verses, and even the music has some of that 70s southern blues n' boogie that ZZ Top is known for, but it just isn't all that memorable.  To be 100% honest, if I'm not spinning the song, I don't even really recall the rhythm of the track, let alone any type of hook.  "Evangeline" also doesn't do much for me, and really, it doesn't fit the style and sound of the rest of the record.  To my ears, it sounds like Reece is singing a left-over Dokken song...with a guitar solo that sounds like something Mr. Big would do, which is cool..., bit like "In Need" before it, there isn't any real hook to catch my attention, at least outside of that solo.

The album closes with two of the best tracks on the record, which is a saving grace.  "Shine Diamond Girl" is one of the true standout tracks here, and I absolutely love it.  This is pure Deep Purple worship at its finest, from the spot-on Hammond sounds, to the soulful guitar work, not to mention the best vocal work from Reece on a non-ballad on the record.  At one point during the extended solo, I swore the band was going to break into "Wild Woman From Tokyo", as that catchy riff wormed its way into the mix, but it was short-lived.

"Truth Is A Lie" has a definite Zeppelin vibe to it, especially with the rhythm guitar riff, and Reece again shines here, as he has done throughout all of the slower numbers on the disc.  A really solid way to end the record, I only wish that a couple of these heavy hitters had been moved more to the front of the record rather than being forced to wade through more than a handful of well-intentioned but still rather mediocre tracks (well...I guess I wasn't "forced", but you get my meaning.).

This is one of those rare records that, at least for me, really seems to be back-loaded, with the track listing almost completely flipped from how I would have expected it.  Perhaps the band was thinking of how this album would work on vinyl, and if that's the case, I kind of get it.  Start relatively strong, settle back, then end with a flourish, which Sainted Sinners definitely does.  The record just spends too much time treading water without enough punch between the best tracks.

From the moment the first 70's Rainbow/Deep Purple-inspired notes hit my ears, I knew that Sainted Sinners...both the band and the album...was gonna be something right up my alley musically, and I was correct.  I just wish more songs had some real bite to them, as the performances are top notch across the board, and Reece sounds right at home working this style of music.  Most of the songs just aren't that memorable and come off as a bit color-by-numbers at times.  Still a decent first effort and I hope that Sainted Sinners will be around for another album or two, as I really do dig this style of music.  I am also willing to bet that if these guys perform live and throw in some Whitesnake, Deep Purple, and Zeppelin cover tunes, they would be a MONSTER band to see, especially in a small, smokey, intimate environment, because they definitely have the chops for this type of music.   Now they just need a few more songs.

Rating:  If I were you, I'd rip this CD, completely rearrange the track order, and burn it back as a monstrous 5-6 track EP (which I did), and then file the disc away in your collection.  There is some truly EXCELLENT music here, which allows me to recommend rocking the disc at 6.5, but the weaker songs keep it out of crankable territory for this reviewer.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

GROUPIE HIGH SCHOOL "...Ladies & Gentlemen"

(c) 2016 Independent Release

  1. Ladies & Gentlemen (Intro)
  2. Chicks With The Flips
  3. Liquid Lunch
  4. My Medicine Woman
  5. Hard To Breathe
  6. This Is How We Say Goodbye
  7. Navy Blue (Bonus Track)
Vinny Olavi--Vocals
Matt Nitro--Guitars
Smippe Youngblood--Guitars
J.J. Mickie--Drums
Tom Sebastian Dexter--Bass

Before I go any further on this review, I want to say takes a LOT of cajones to get UFC ring announcer Michael Buffer to intro your EP when you are pretty much an unheard of band anywhere outside of your homeland of Finland.  And while we all know of my intense disdain for intros, I have to admit, I like the chutzpah it takes to go out and do something like that to get yourself noticed.  So, kudos to Groupie High School for taking a shot...but don't expect me to listen to it more than once.

Groupie High School is a band I know literally NOTHING about other than the fact that they are from Finland, and they like to rock hard, fast, and loud.  And by that, I mean they are seeking to tear your throat out through your eardrums!  Outside of the two very nicely done ballads, "Hard To Breathe" and album closer, "Navy Blue", these guys are balls-to-the-wall with sleazy, aggressive guitars, rumbling bass lines, and thunderous drums.  But what really sets them apart from so many other bands is the vocal approach that Olavi uses.  For the vast majority of his lower-range, mostly "verse" vocals, he employs an approach that reminds me a LOT of the type of vocals used by 80s New Wave bands like Simple Minds, which I think is just so very cool.  Why?  Because he doesn't sound like every other singer out there.  This is, again, particularly evident on the ballads, where Olavi's vocals carry an emotional quality not always felt with harder-edged, sleazy bands like Groupie High School.

Oddly, there are a couple of issues with this album, and they also revolve around the vocals.  First, Olavi sounds like he has a lot of trouble with his English enunciation.  After my first few spins, I could honestly only make out about every fifth or sixth word he was singing/screaming, and who knows if I was actually correct in guessing what he was saying (I usually start by going for the chorus).  However, this is a very minor issue, as with repeated listens I have been able to decipher quite a bit of what he is saying, and truthfully, I am usually rather forgiving of foreign bands who choose to sing in English.  The real issue is the recording of the vocals themselves.  Seriously, we are talking horrible engineering/recording of the vocals on three of the six songs here!  It sounds like Olavi was recorded in an echo chamber in places, there is so much reverb on his voice.  Everything sounds gang shouted, which can be cool on backing vocals, but on lead vocals it does NOT work at all.  And the thing is, it's not Olavi's voice that is the problem; as I mentioned previously, I actually really like his voice, especially the variance between his screams and those lower-end, New Wave-ish verse vocals I referred to.  I just wish they had been recorded better all the way throughout the record.

Outside of this vocal issue, which I do manage to get around, I think this band is definitely onto something.  I love the aggro-sleaze approach here...a lot...and the unique approach to the vocal style is refreshing.  Musically, on the faster numbers, such as the barn-burning "Chicks With The Flips", which is complemented by a Guns N Roses "Rocket Queen"-inspired porn soundtrack in the background, this album has a lot in common with the furious aggression of the seriously under-appreciated Sledgehammer Ledge, which is a dang good band to be compared to, as I absolutely love their demo and their album!  We're not talking musical clones by any stretch, but that angry edge and searing energy that Sledgehammer Ledge employs so well in their brand of sleazed-up metal is also evident here.  "Liquid Lunch" is another high energy romp that employs some excellent rhythm guitars and really allows Olavi to expand upon his range with a top-end scream that falls somewhere between Axl Rose and Dizzy Dean from Britney Fox.  It's also worth noting that I kept hearing the words "teenage wasteland" repeated in this song, and then the song ends with a keyboard line that sounds like it is straight out of The Who's "Baba O'Riley".  Check out the official video below.

The musically interesting, "This Is How We Say Goodbye", teases at being a slower song, with an intro riff that reminds me a bit of David Bowie's "China Girl", before the crushing drums and punchy rhythm guitars crash through that bit of musical nostalgia and blast this song into another full-throttle, angst-riddled rocker throughout the verses, then backing off into that quirky "China Doll" styled riff on the pre-chorus, before ramping things right back up again.  This uber-cool song is a perfect example of the band doing exactly what they want to do, not really concerning themselves with sounding like all of the other Euro-glam/sleaze bands out there, and bringing a uniqueness to the table that is sorely missing in a lot of the music of this style today.

I am so very anxious to hear what these guys come up with on their next effort now that they are getting some proper promotion and attention with Atomic Stuff.  I'm anticipating big things out of Oulu,Finland in the near future.  As for now, this is a really good EP that had the potential to be great with better production.  I would still encourage readers who like their glam/sleaze fast, loud, and nasty to track down these Finns.  I think you will agree they are onto something here.

Rating:  Definitely crank-worthy, I give this a 7, but with better engineering and production, we would have been looking at a 7.5 or even an 8.  Groupie High School is a band to keep an eye on.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017


(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. I Know I'm Crazy
  2. Ten Miles Wide
  3. Shut Down Baby
  4. Dead Roses
  5. Lollipop 
  6. Hit Me With A Bullet
  7. Rain
  8. Want Too Much
  9. What Do Ya Think
  10. Jamie
  11. I Can't Take It (Album Version)
  12. Passion Infinity
  13. Summer's End
Stephen Pearcy--Lead Vocals
Erik Ferentinos--Lead and Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals
Chris Hagar--Guitars
Matt Thorne--Bass
Greg D'Angelo--Drums, Percussuin

So...while Ratt (er, am I allowed to say that???) works out their legal situations about who's in, who's out, who can call their band what, and who can perform using what name, Stephen Pearcy decided to go out and record himself a new solo album.  Huh.  Imagine that....

Of course, Pearcy is not exclusively about Ratt, as he had a pretty killer side band in Arcade, and he's also dabbled in some other band projects with varying degrees of, no, I'm not gonna lie, they all pretty much sucked.  Vicious Delite...bad.  Vertex....horrible.  Then there were his solo efforts, of which only Social Intercourse really had any interest from me, although his iTunes release of 3 tracks bunched together as Sucker Punch were actually very good, although the album they were supposed to come from never surfaced that I am aware of.  But other than Arcade and a few nice solo efforts, most of Pearcy's Ratt-less musical endeavors have been pretty disappointing to me.  So, I wasn't really expecting a whole lot of anything from Smash when I was sent the album for review.

My attitude changed slightly when I saw that Beau Hill was once again involved in a Ratt-related effort, as that dude really helped the band define their sound on their first few records.  It's too bad Hill doesn't lend his considerable talents to the entire album, because if he had we might have gotten off to a better start with this record.  Why do I say that?  Quite simply, the worst song on the record is likely the lead-off song on this disc!  Seriously, I put on "I Know I'm Crazy", and I instantly agreed, as only a crazy man would have led off the album with this mid-tempo schlockfest that is, for lack of a better term, rather boring.  I mean it.  There isn't a ton of life to the song at all.  Pearcy sounds good, no doubt, and the music isn't necessarily bad, there's just no real hook to it and very little life at all, with the band sounding like its on cruise control.  If I were to tell you my mind didn't almost instantly go into Here We Go Again mode, I'd be lying.

I'm glad I didn't let that first track shape my overall opinion of this record, because starting with "Ten Miles Wide", things definitely pick up for most of the record.  Definitely more uptempo and catchier than the album's opening track, "Ten Miles Wide" finds Pearcy treading fairly close to the Ratt tracks with the guitar tone and nice hook that reminds me so much of the better material Ratt recorded for Detonator, Ratt, and Infestation.  Vocally, as usual, Pearcy sounds fantastic on the record, and I will be interested to hear how he sounds if/when he takes these new songs out live.  The backing vocals are also strong here, lending support to that sassy snarl that 80s fans know so well, and there is some pretty cool guitar work from Ferentinos here on the solo.  Definitely one of the best tracks on the record.  "Shut Down Baby" is a bit thicker, a bit more bottom-ended in its sound, maybe even a bit Zeppelinis with thebluesy romp of the rhythm and bass guitars, as this song carries one of those hooks that instantly pulls the listener in for repeated spins of the song.

"Dead Roses" has such a familiar, sleazy rhythm line to it I SWEAR this song could have been an LA Guns song and if it was Phil Lewis on vocals instead of Pearcy, no one would be the wiser.  Pearcy definitely pumps up the attitude for this track and he wears it well. That rhythm line I mentioned before runs entirely throughout the track and just embeds itself in your brain, making it nearly impossible to transition into the equally sleazy...but a bit less greasy..."Lollipop".  A snappy, sassy number with a fairly juvenile attitude about it, "Lollipop" is catchy as heck and has a cool bass line that runs throughout the track, and another slick solo from Ferentinos.  There are a couple of F*bombs on these two tracks, which is totally unnecessary, but I can deal with that, I guess.

"Hit Me With Your Bullet" is another catchy, Ratt-esque track that long time fans are likely to grab hold of on the first spin through the record, as is the next track, "Rain", which is also a strong contender for the best song on the record.  I have to hand it to Ferentinos and Hagar for their work on rhythm guitars on this record, as Smash has some really good work in that department scattered all throughout the record.  

"Want Too Much", which is one of the heaviest moments on the record, is actually a bit of a miss for me, as it doesn't really carry that sleazy-yet-still-melodic sound that the rest of the record does. "What Do You Think" goes the other direction with an all-acoustic number that has a roots-rock, maybe even slightly country feel to it.  While I actually think its a pretty cool, catchy number, I can believe that there are many Ratt/Arcade fans that are going to instantly reach for the skip button on this one.

"Jamie" jumps headlong back into Ratt mode, with yet another one of the best songs on the record.  In fact, "Jamie" is probably my favorite overall track and I think you could slip it into any of the last three or four Ratt records and no one would be the wiser that it's a Pearcy solo track.  Heck, you could even drop it onto Invasion Of Your Privacy and only long-time fans of the band would know that something was amiss.  It really is that good and that reminiscent of top-of-the-barrell Ratt material.  Love this song!

"I Can't Take It" is another Ratt-styled song, albeit from a later era of the band.  This is the song that Hill contributed his talents to, and it is pretty easy to hear his fingerprints all over this catchy, hooky rocker with that subtle pop-tinge to it that Hill dropped onto some of his most well-known work.  Fun and easy to sing along to, this track has summer written all over it and would have definitely been a rock radio staple back in the heyday of the band.

"Passion Infinity" is another hard rocking number with an interesting time change between the verses and the choruses, but it isn't really all that memorable.  Not bad, just not an instant repeater.

The album closes with "Summer's End" which is a bluesy, Zeppelin-inspired ballad that really works well.  I could see where a band like Great White or Kingdom Come might have attempted a track like this, but it was completely out of left field for me to hear on a record like Smash.  Despite that, Pearcy sounds right at home here, which surprised me, to be honest.  There is a stark quality to his vocals here that is not commonly found on Ratt, or even Arcade, songs of the past, and while a bit of vocal weakness shows in a couple of spots, it actually adds to the overall feel of this ballad.  I really wish it hadn't been buried at the end of the record, to be honest, as there are at least three songs I have to wade through to get to this really good piece of music.  A nice surprise, indeed, for those who stick it out to the end and don't just program all of the most Ratt-centric tracks onto repeat.  Easily a top five moment on the album for me.

The production has been complained about by a lot of people, but I have to wonder if all they had heard were the videos that had been put out for a few of these songs, as I have no real complaints about the mix or overall feel of the album.  There are no glaring imbalances or muddiness anywhere, and even though there are a couple of definite filler tracks here, there is nothing wrong with the flow of the album, to speak of, and the overall groove of the record is solid.  Maybe after 35 years of hard rock and metal my ears are starting to lose a bit of sensitivity in some areas (I don't think they have, but who knows?), but I have no complaints about the sound quality here.  It would have been fun, however, to hear what Beau Hill would have done with the full record, however, but maybe that will happen on the next (knock on wood) Ratt record.

Rating:  It's not completely Ratt, and it's not really Arcade, but it's definitely solid hard-edged rock, and Pearcy hasn't sounded better on a solo effort...ever.  Crank this to 7, with a couple of forgettable tracks holding it back slightly.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

ASIA "Symphonia"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Sole Survivor
  2. Time Again
  3. The Face On The Bridge
  4. My Own Time
  5. Holy War
  6. An Extraordinary Life
  7. Days Like These
  8. Open your Eyes
  9. Only Time Will Tell*
  10. Don't Cry*
  11. Heroine*
  12. The Smile Has Left Your Eyes*
  13. Wildest Dreams*
  14. Heat Of The Moment*
* Played with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra

John Wetton--Bass, Lead Vocals
Geoff Downes--Keyboards
Carl Palmer--Drums
Sam Coulson--Guitars

Asia is one of those bands that started off on fire with their debut effort, and then continued to smolder for the rest of their iconic career, despite the fact that they never came even remotely close to duplicating the successes of their first record.  To that end, this live album, of which half is recorded with the Bulgarian Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra, leans heavily on the best-known tracks of the band, with four tracks culled from that self-titled debut, as well as the two hits from the band's second album, Alpha, also being included, along with a couple of more recent songs following the reunion of the classic line-up of the band.  As is to be expected following the legal wranglings surrounding the separation of the band into two different entities, no songs from the John Payne version of Asia are included here.

The album starts off with one of the band's classic hits off their debut record, as "Sole Survivor" intros the live set.  Immediately it is evident that the band is firing on all cylinders musically, as the track is exceptionally tight and Wetton's voice, while obviously huskier with the passage of time, is still powerful and comfortable throughout the range he chooses to use.  Sam Coulson's guitar lines are something I paid particularly close attention to here, as he has the unenviable task of trying to duplicate the tones and sounds of the legendary Steve Howe, but it should be noted that Coulson performs admirably throughout this record.  But one thing is missing here: the orchestra.  It is not until further and closer inspection of the album that it is apparent that the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra doesn't join the band until the second half of the show.  This will likely be particularly disappointing to fans of only the best-known songs from this legendary band, as much of this first half is comprised of songs taken from the reunion years, starting with the Phoenix album from 2008, 2010's Omega effort, and one track from the 2012 album, XXX.  While all of these songs are performed with top-notch musicianship, especially when it comes to Downe's inimitable keyboard work, I kept finding myself wanting to skip forward to the real meat of the album, although I had my appetite whetted with the inclusion of "Days Like These" from the Now & Then best-of package, which I feel is one of the band's better tracks, following those first two classic efforts.  

The orchestra joins the band for the second half of the show, and it is this section that will likely hold the most interest for casual, "only the hits" types of fans, as the majority of Asia's most well-known tracks are included here, including the band's biggest chart hits "Only Time Will Tell", "Don't Cry", "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes", "Wildest Dreams", and the band's signature track, "Heat Of The Moment".  The orchestra is relegated largely to background status on these songs, unlike the way many other band's have chosen to use orchestral sections, which was a bit of a let down for me, to be honest.  I was really hopeful more emphasis would be given to the strings and percussion from the orchestra, but that was not really the case.  There are a couple of exceptions to this observation, with on being on the acoustic ballad, "Heroine", which naturally lends itself to more orchestral involvement, and indeed the strings are far more evident here than elsewhere.  You can also hear the string contribution to "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes", and I enjoyed this musical enhancement...along with a very nicely played piano section...but I was still left wanting more, especially when the big rock movement portion of the song kicks in.  To say that I am not disappointed that the orchestra was not more involved would be dishonest, and I can't help but feel a bit let-down (although I'll stop short of calling myself mislead) regarding the album's title, cover art (which clearly features the orchestra on stage), and overarching suggestion that this is an "orchestral" effort.

There is some nice interaction between Wetton and the audience...he even speaks (or attempts to, I'm not sure) in some Polish at the outset of the concert, and he drops in some basic banter here and there.  Never a really flashy band in the live setting, this record is more about the music than showmanship.  Now, that being said, I do not have a copy of the DVD that goes along with this CD, so I cannot speak to that aspect of this particular show, but having seen Asia live once in the early 90's, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a whole lot of stand and sing/play from this band on the DVD.  Again, this band is about the music, not the show, anyway, and the addition of an orchestra usually only serves to ground a band that much further.

With the unfortunate and untimely passing of Wetton on January 31, 2017, this live release may very well be the last Asia album released.  It is too bad that Steve Howe was not a part of this show, which would have put all of the originals on what is likely the last live record we will ever hear from the band, but Coulson does a more than adequate job on guitar, and he is truly a talented player.  The addition of the orchestra is a nice touch, but I do wish it had been better utilized on more songs; the relative lack of orchestral emphasis is actually my biggest complaint about this record.  Despite leaving a couple of personal favorites off the set list, most notably, "Go" and "Voice of America", the song choice here is both logical and entertaining, and Symphonia is a nicely performed show, with a solid, clean recording that will leave fans, both new and old, with a top-of-their-game reminder of the greatness of this legendary prog rock band.

Rating:  Hitting all the high points and mixing in several tracks not likely known to casual fans, Symphonia is a solid live album, even if it doesn't quite live up to what I had hoped it would be.  Rock this effort at 6.5, only because I wanted so much more from the orchestra, and raise your glass to the loss of a legend.  RIP Mr. Wetton.