Friday, October 20, 2017

ROMEO RIOT "Sing It Loud"

(c) 2017 Kivel Records

  1. Room To Run
  2. Streets Of Babylon
  3. Sing It Loud
  4. Twist Of Fate
  5. What If We Were Wrong
  6. Same
  7. Cry
  8. I Want To Try
  9. Every Now And Then
  10. Best Nights Of Our Lives
Mark Giovi--Lead & Backing Vocals
Scott Miller--Lead Guitars
Erik Johnson--Rhythm Guitars, Drums, Backing Vocals
Ty Sims--Bass, Backing Vocals
Jace Pawlak--Keys, Piano, Backing Vocals

When I was a kid, I had this idea in my head that record labels were like big families.  I honestly thought that all the artists knew each other, hung out, called each other on the phone, went out and partied together, etc.  I just figured it was some big office building with recording studios in the basement, and a bunch of band members standing around chatting, waiting for their turn to get in there and jam.  I get it, I was a naive kid from the middle of Nebraska, and I had ZERO idea of how the music industry worked, but these were honestly my thoughts.  In fact, I was pretty bummed the first few times I got to meet a band or two and asked them about the guys in another band and they told me they had never met!  "But...but you guys hang out at '________ Records' together, right?"  It was just so weird to me that all these guys who had so much in common weren't at least friends, if not a sort of family.

That mentality that I had as a kid is part of what makes Romeo Riot so cool to me, because these guys, while all in different bands, ARE friends and ARE part of a record label family, the family at Kivel Records.  It seems to me every band that is on that label works on each other's records, write songs together, play out together when they are able, and have fun together.  THAT is what my vision of a record label was as a kid! 

For those who have not had the pleasure of hearing...or hearing about...Romeo Riot yet, the band is made up of Mark Giovi (formerly of FarCry), Scott Miller (Tango Down), Ty Sims and Erik Johnson (Bombay Black), and Jace Pawlak, all of whom are currently members of the Kivel Records family.  More importantly, all are talented musicians who happen to be friends and had a vision for something they wanted to try to do together.  Every note of every song on the debut Romeo Riot record, Sing It Loud, is played by the guys listed in the outside musicians required with this talent pool.  On top of it, Sims mixed and produced the record, making Sing It Loud a completely in-house offering, which is a pretty amazing and cool thing.  (On a side note, even the cover model has Kivel Records ties, as her sister graced the cover of LaValle's Dear Sanity, which is another Kivel release!)

The album starts off in fine fashion, as a guitar roars to life on an upbeat melodic rocker that quickly brings in the rest of the band and the rich tenor of vocalist Mark Giovi.  Supported by Pawlak's keys and a solid bass line from Sims, the song has a nice hook and excellent backing vocals...two constant themes on this record...all giving way to a scorching solo from Miller that is just a tease of the work he puts on display throughout the record.  

The title track had me fooled, as with a name like "Sing It Loud", I was expecting a real barn-burner.  Instead, however, we are treated to a cool, mid-tempo track that is introduced with a simple keyboard tone and bass-and-tom drums underneath Giovi's smooth vocals which are half-spoken, half-sung on the verses.  By the time the rest of the band joins in, the tempo picks up slightly, building to a perfectly executed blending of the backing vocals echoing Giovi's "sing it loud" perfectly, then supporting the rest of the chorus structure in a way that is SORELY missed in today's music scene.  Nobody does backing vocals like this now, and that is a damn shame!

Surprise of the record?  That's easy.  If the guys had called me up and said, "Arttie, who do you think we should cover on this record," I could have listed artists and bands all day and all night long and I would have NEVER come up with their choice!  I'll be 100% candid here in that I was jamming along to the track the first time I heard it, not really paying attention to the lyrics, and then...BAM!...that chorus hit and triggered something from my early teen years, and all of a sudden my mind blasted, "NO THEY DID NOT JUST DO THAT!"  A laugh broke free from my throat and I hit repeat so that I could catch what was being sang, and sure enough, this was the same song that was one of the last hits from one of my first early-teen crushes!  This is Olivia Newton-John!  OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN!  No, they don't strap themselves into spandex workout gear and get all sweaty with "Physical", but they do a pretty cool, really fun take on her 1983/84 hit, "Twist Of Fate", managing to keep some of the pop sensibilities of the track while beefing up the guitars...and toning down the synthesizers...slightly altering the arrangement to turn it into something more modern and more their own.  I'm not sure whose idea this was or where the inspiration came from, but it is a definite curve ball that somehow still manages to work well within the context of what the rest of the record is about. 

"What If We Were Wrong" is the first true ballad of the record, and it is a big, lighters in the air, arms swaying back and forth moment for Sing It Loud.  This is the kind of melodic ballad that was being put out by bands like Unruly Child, The Storm and Bad English back in the day, bridging that gap between the big hair metal power ballads and the more melodic Top 40 rock ballads being released by Journey or Loverboy, for example.  Giovi's emotional vocals really anchor the track here, and Miller's guitar practically weeps on the intro, dripping with emotion, and then delivers a smooth, powerful solo between chorus sections.  Some nice piano from Pawlak supplies a nice support structure for the track, as well, and I feel certain that this song could be huge in certain markets if radio still played this type of music from new artists.  Really, really good stuff here.

"Same" is one of the most driving, pure rock tracks on the record, and it is a really, really good song.  Some nice, hard-charging guitars and machine gun drumming set the tone and pace, and Giovi adds an edge to his voice that is not particularly evident anywhere else here.  Miller's tone is a bit more metallic on the solo, as well.  A really, really good track to end the first half/start off the second half of the record, and one that leans a bit more toward the Bombay Black/Tango Down style of rocker than most of the others here.  Easily one of my favorite tracks on a record filled with good songs.

I guess if I had to pick my other favorites, I would probably turn to one of three tracks, all from the second half of the record.  "Cry" comes immediately to mind, with Giovi's vocals taking on a bit of a Jon Bon Jovi sound and style on the verse sections of this bright and bouncy, hooky, mid-tempo number that has, to my ear, the catchiest, sing along chorus on a record chock full of catchy choruses!  Just enough keys/piano from Pawlak help to set the tone, along with Johnson's rhythm guitar and Sims' bass.  Miller's solo here is short, but sweet, and the backing vocals are pristine.  Truly great stuff here.  

My second pick would be the last of the slower songs here, "Every Now And Then".  I love the positive vibe of the opening verse, with Giovi singing "I'm a lucky man to live the life that I have lived, I spend most of my moments in the sun..." that bleeds into his wistful memories of a lost love that he thinks of "every now and then".  The bridge here is a cool one, also, with some introspection from Giovi about how his life turned out and what could have been...and which would have been better.  Once again, the emotion that Miller is able to wring out of the six strings of his guitar simply amazes me, as the main riff coming out of the chorus sections is just heart-wrenching, and the solo, while energetic, doesn't betray the overall feel and vibe of the track, and the outro work he does under the last few runs of the repetitive chorus is truly brilliant to me.  I think this song best showcases his talent on this particular album.

The album closer would be my third choice for potential best song, and it really brings the album to a powerful close.  Starting off something like a Loverboy rocker, both musically and lyrically, the song is uptempo and bright from start to finish, containing a chorus that bears more than a passing resemblance to David Lee Roth's "Yankee Rose" (trust me, you'll hear it!) that is both EXTREMELY catchy and singable, begging for fist pumping and head banging to be incorporated when played in a live setting.  Once again, Miller lets his guitar take over in the middle section, running the frets seemingly effortlessly in an 80s-inspired solo that is maddeningly-too-short, then he exits the song with a blazing outro that leaves the listener breathlessly begging for more once they realize that Sing It Loud had come to a close.   

If I had one complaint, it might be that there are occasionally a bit too many keys for my tastes, but that is only on a song or two, and even then it isn't a big deal, as there is so much going on with Miller's leads and Johnson's rhythm guitar that my attention is easily drawn back to the harder edges of the songs.  For people who love the heavier keyboard usage of a lot of the melodic rock/AOR bands out there, this isn't even going to cause you to blink.  In either case, there is virtually nothing to complain about here, as Romeo Riot is the absolute real deal with a powerhouse lineup of talented musicians and songwriters who are at the top of their game here. 

Sims does a masterful job mixing and producing the record, allowing the overall feel and sound to be one that belongs to a single, unified band, rather than trying to make Romeo Riot sound like parts of several bands assembled on a bunch of songs.  Never did I feel like I was listening to left over Pawlak tracks, or cutting room songs from Bombay Black or Tango Down.  This project is Romeo Riot and it feels like its own entity, which is about as big of a compliment as I can give it.  I think it would have been easy to get too heavy handed in the rock sections, or too airy in the ballad sections, making the record sound like something completely different and one that lacked cohesion.  Hats off to Sims for giving the band their own sound and feel in the production booth.

Erik Johnson has confirmed that the band will be playing shows in the new year, so if they are even remotely in your neck of the woods, you would be doing yourself a HUGE favor to track them down and get to hear the band up close and personal.  

No question that as of this writing, Sing It Loud is a Top 17 for 2017.  The question is just how high in that Top 17 of '17 it will finish!

Rating: Unquestionably a cranker, here....turn this up to 9!

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