Thursday, November 30, 2017

FICTION SYXX "Tall Dark Secrets"

(c) 2017 Melodic Rock Records

  1. Given Sight
  2. Play On Words
  3. Tow The Line
  4. Welcome To My Nightmare
  5. Demon In My Window
  6. Larger Than Life
  7. Where We Belong
  8. Your Promised Land
  9. Spirits Collide
  10. Time To Heal
  11. Children Of The Night
Mark Allen Lanoue--Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Guitars
JK Northrup--Lead, Slide, and Acoustic Guitars, Backing Vocals
Tony Franklin--Bass
Rory Faciane--Drums, Percussion
Eric Ragno--Keyboards

Guest Musicians
Bill Leverty (Firehouse)--solo on "Tow The Line"
Steve Brown (Trixter)--solo on "Larger Than Life"
Jimi Bell (House Of Lords)--solo on "Given Sight"
Andy Lee (Circle II Circle)--first solo on "Children Of The Night"
Christian Wentz (Circle II Circle)--solo on "Time To Heal"
Thorsten Koehne (Eden's Curse)--solo on "Demon In My Window"
Stefan Prescott (Biloxi)--Keys on "Children Of The Night"
Lee Small (Shy)
Karl Cochran (Farcry)--Backing Vocals
Carl Sentence (Nazareth)
David Cagle--Backing Vocals

I'm gonna let all you bands in on a secret.  If you want to get me interested in your project, right quick and in a hurry, get JK Northrup involved.  Simple as that.  I am such a fan of his playing, his mixing, his producing...even if for some reason the album ended up being terrible (which I find highly unlikely), the simple fact that Northrup is involved has me interested from the get go.  So, that being said, when I first heard about Fiction Syxx, I knew I had to get my hands on it and give it a listen as soon as I could.

Fiction Syxx is a melodic metal project...some might even go so far as to say a progressive rock/metal project...featuring some fairly big names from the genre.  Not only is Northrup involved, but Tony Franklin (Blue Murder/Quiet Riot/The Firm), Eric Ragno (who has played seemingly with EVERYONE), and a whole slew of guest musicians join up-and-coming drummer, Rory Faciane, and the severely underrated vocalist/guitarist, Mark Allen Lanoue, who is the mastermind behind Fiction Syxx.  Combining an obvious love for the melodic style of the 80s with a somewhat progressive approach to several songs, Fiction Syxx sounds at times to be very familiar and very spite of the fact that nothing here come off as clones or copies of anyone else's music or style.

"Given Sight" starts things off in particularly strong fashion, with a brief intro leading the band into an uptempo, melodic rocker which features not only some excellent rhythm guitar work, but some really nice supporting keyboard work...and even a brief keyboard solo...from Ragno, before Jimi Bell of House Of Lords explodes into the first of several guest guitar solos throughout the record.  Franklin's bass is also a definite force on this track, but the big surprise to many will be the powerful, smooth vocals of Lanoue.  Confident and in control throughout the track (and the record, for that matter), Lanoue comes off like a seasoned pro, gliding smoothly across this track, easily lowering and elevating his register when necessary, and not falling into the over-singing trap that a lot of similar-styled vocalists seem to do these days.  A lot of good can be done with subtlety in situations where big, bombastic vocal acrobatics actually will do damage, and Lanoue expertly avoids the latter, staying squarely in his wheelhouse, knowing who he is as a singer.  Big time kudos on this from me, as this is a serious annoyance to me with a lot of singers.

"Play On Words" backs off a bit on the progressive stylings, heading more into straight ahead melodic rock territory.  Once again, Lanoue comes across as very much in control, allowing the emotion of the song to carry his voice where it needs to go, rather than the other way around, with Lanoue trying to ramp up the emotion to match the song.  Again, it may seem subtle, but Lanoue never sounds like he is trying to steal the show with his voice.  Northrup gets his first chance to step into the lead soloist spot on this track, and does not disappoint, delivering a cool run on the frets that fits the more straight-up rock style of the track, which is right up the axeman's alley.

Another great example of this is the laid back, quasi-ballad, "Where We Belong".  Lanoue sounds not at all unlike Dennis DeYoung from Styx here, delivering a smooth tenor vocal on this softer moment of the record.  In fact, it reminds me a bit of some of that band's later 70s/earlier 80s output, with the big, progressive, nearly-orchestral feel, with some different percussion instrumentation, an almost-too-speedy guitar solo from JK (did I really just type that???), and an airy, 70s-feeling keyboard solo.  An outlier on the record, to be sure, but still an enjoyable moment that allows the listener to catch his breath before the big drums and hard guitars of "Your Promised Land" kickstart things back in a more aggressive direction, with Northrup absolutely tearing things up on his solo break.

"Larger Than Life" showcases the absolute embarrassment of riches that is present on this album, as Trixter's Steve Brown gets a chance to shine on guitar, and absolutely delivers, which should come as no surprise.  I have always felt Brown was seriously underrated outside of those who are truly fans of the genre, likely because Trixter was not a band people took overly seriously back in their heyday.  People really should give this track...and Brown's work here...a listen to hear just how talented this man truly is.  Check it out below...

(Larger Than Life)

"Tow The Line" drifts a bit back more toward that progressive territory of "Given Sight", before "Welcome To My Nightmare" (not the Alice Cooper song), threatens to steal the entire show.  This killer track features one of the grittiest guitar solos on the record...from Mr. Lanoue, himself...despite the fact that it is more of a mid-tempo track, or at least one that is not laced with huge bursts of speed.  "...Nightmare" gives Franklin a bit more room to maneuver here, and once again, the keys here are a nice, supporting element and not overly dominating.  The backing vocals are quite the opposite, however, as they are big and powerful, supporting Lanoue as he drives through the track.  Definitely one of my favorite songs on the album.

(Tow The Line)

Speaking of personal faves, three other tracks come to mind instantly, although all are really well written and performed.  "Demon In My Window" slows things down a bit, again breathing extra life into Franklin's bass (he seems to dominate on the slower numbers here) on this song about ghosts and spirits and hauntings that would have made Ronnie James Dio proud, I think.  In fact, I can here Dio's "evil" vocal edge ever so slightly in Lanoue's approach to the chorus on this track, which also features a nice guitar solo from Thorsten Koehne of Eden's Curse...and a Vincent Price-like laugh to close the track out. "Time To Heal" once again features a bit more of a proggy approach, likely the result of a bit more involvement from Ragno's keys.  The longest song on the album at nearly 7 minutes, I guess you might call this the "epic" track of the record, but don't mistake that for meaning the song is bloated or masturbatory in any way.  The solos here seem to be a bit longer, likely because of the note density on the guitar solo from Circle II Circle's Wentz, but they are not particularly long on the clock, and never do they come across as "hey, look at me" moments.  Once again, Franklin's presence is particularly strong here, especially when the song makes a noticeable downshift in tempo at about the 4:40 mark.

The album's closer definitely pops into my mind as a top song, as "Children Of The Night" is a huge song, incorporating a keyboard intro, galloping rhythm guitars, some very Deep Purple-style organ courtesy of Lanoue's long-time Biloxi partner, Stefan Prescott, and some furious, tight drumming...and that's all in the first 45 seconds, and Lanoue hasn't even joined the party yet! Definitely more of a 70s-inspired rocker, again with some prog overtones, this track features a retro-sounding keyboard solo from Ragno, along with multiple guitar solos, with Lanoue getting the chance to bend the strings on the second solo here, showing he is rather adept on the guitar as well as as a vocalist!  Again, challenging for, and possibly claiming, the top spot on the album "Children..." is an excellent way to round out an overall great debut effort from a band that I truly hope to hear more from in the not-too-distant future.

The mixing and production here is excellent, as is to be expected from anything coming out of Northrup's Alien Productions Studios, and I sorely wish that some "big time" labels would invest in the man's talents, as he truly has a feel for this style of music.  The instruments are crisp and clear, the musicianship is tight, and nothing overpowers anything else, which is so key in my opinion, when dealing with multiple instruments (2 guitars, bass, very present keyboards, drums, and vocals)  all being performed at such high levels of ability.

Rating:  Crankable, without question!  8.5 for Tall, Dark Secrets!

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

GALACTIC COWBOYS "Long Way Back To The Moon"

(c) 2017 Mascot Records

  1. In The Clouds
  2. Internal Masquerade
  3. Blood In My Eyes
  4. Next Joke
  5. Zombies
  6. Drama
  7. Amisarewas
  8. Hate Me
  9. Losing Ourselves
  10. Agenda
  11. Long Way Back To The Moon
  12. Believing The Hype (Bonus Track)
  13. Say Goodbye To Utopia (Bonus Track)
Ben Huggins--Lead Vocals
Dane Sonnier--Guitars,Vocals
Monty Colvin--Bass, Vocals
Alan Doss--Drums, Vocals

Seventeen years ago...let's see...well, I wasn't married, I had no kids, I was considering returning to college to get out of a job I strongly disliked, and I hadn't bought my first house yet.  But...I did buy the last Galactic Cowboys record!  That much I am sure of!  Its crazy to me to think that 2000 was the last time the Galactic Cowboys, in any version of the band, recorded an album, with that last effort being Let It Go on Metal Blade Records.  It was a decent album, to be sure, but it was definitely not the same as the spectacular first two records the band recorded, 1991's self-titled debut, and the criminally overlooked, underappreciated 1993 release, Space In Your Face.  That album, by the way, is the last time that all four original members recorded together, and I am not even going to try to remember what I was doing 24 years ago!  

What I do remember is first hearing about this band in 1991 from some friends of mine who were, like me, big fans of the Christian metal scene.  While never considering themselves to be an overtly Christian act (although all members considered themselves to be Christians), Galactic Cowboys, much like their friends, King's X, were given the Christian Metal label and garnered some publicity in magazines from that scene, with Heaven's Metal being particularly high on the band if memory serves me correctly (man, I'm having to remember a lot for this review...).  Regardless, I picked up the debut album and was immediately hooked by the huge, heavy riffage and the quirky, ultra-harmonious vocals that sounded more like they belonged to The Beatles or their distant 80s musical cousins, Enuff Z'Nuff, than they belonged to a metal band as heavy as Galactic Cowboys.  I loved what I was hearing and turned a few of my friends onto them at the college radio station I was working on at the time (you're welcome, Matt K!).  

I don't need to get into the demise of the Galactic Cowboys, and so many other great hard rock and metal bands of the time that were strangled by the wave of grunge that swept across radio and MTV in the early-to-mid-90s.  However, the situation had to be particularly frustrating for Galactic Cowboys, as their label mates, Nirvana, were largely responsible for that slow, agonizing death that choked the life from so many great bands.  

Well, here it is, 2017, and while I have no idea of what spurred the reunion, the Galactic in the original four members...have come back together and released Long Way Back To The Moon on relatively unheard of label, Mascot Records.  Sounding like they never left the scene at all, Galactic Cowboys have crafted an album that is uniquely GC and certainly nothing like anything the majority of hard music fans of the past 15 years have likely put ears to.  Combining riffs that are as heavy and, at times, as thrashy as some of the things Metallica or Anthrax have done in the same 15-20 year time span, with progressive song structures and melodies, the band continues to keep their signature vocal style intact, featuring strong leads from Huggins, and insanely tight harmony support from the rest of the guys in the band.  Mix in the tongue-in-cheek humor of the lyrics and the huge bass work of Colvin, and it quickly becomes apparent what it was about Galactic Cowboys that got the attention of so many people all those years ago, and what should draw that attention back.

The album starts off in properly heavy fashion with "In The Clouds", a track that on some levels reminds me...musically...of Metallica's "The Thing That Should Not Be", especially in terms of tempo and tone.  Once those vocal harmonies kick in, however, it is evident this is nothing that Hetfield and Co. could, or would, ever attempt to pull off.  The longest track on the album, clocking in at just under 7 minutes, "In The Clouds" is more in line with the type of music the band was doing on their first two albums.  Colvin's bass gets a serious workout in the middle section, where Sonnier also gets the chance to bend and stretch the strings, and even Doss gets to flex a bit of muscle, as the band reintroduces themselves to the metal community.  Huggins is in fine form here, a bit of an edge present in most of his vocals here, but buffered by the support of his long-time pals.    "Internal Masquerade" really plays on this vocal harmonization exceptionally well, really adding that Beatlesque quality that I mentioned before without sacrificing the heft of the track.

Five of my six favorite tracks all pop up in the first seven tracks here, with back-to-back-back sarcastic rockers, "Next Joke", "Zombies", and "Drama" likely occupying the top three slots.  "Next Joke" starts off with a monstrous bass riff from Colvin and some absolute machine gun drums from Doss, before the guitars and Huggins work their way into the track.  There's a really cool guitar solo embedded in the track, and Colvin's bass is a dominating presence throughout the song, but it's the humor of the chorus that sells the track, as Huggins wryly intones, "The sky is the limit, when you put your mind to it, you can be anything...NEXT JOKE!", which is, in so many ways, classic Galactic Cowboys.  The same can be said of "Zombies", an apocalyptic love story set to an Anthraxian rhythm during the verses before stepping back during the chorus section to layer in the vocal harmonies with "It all makes sense to me now, that I would find you...on the last day of the world....ZOMBIE ATTACK!"  Speaking of humor, the next track, the life observations made by Huggins in the opening verse, alone, make this song worth the price of admission, and the ear candy of the vocal harmonies is enough to dang near give you a sugar high, they are THAT sweet!  Seriously, nobody in rock does this...not even such notable harmonizing hard rockers as Winger, the previously mentioned Enuff Z'Nuff, or even fellow Texans, King's X.  I honestly think you could strip away the music and I would still be perfectly happy listening to several of these songs in acapella form....although I'm plenty happy to have the metal still fully included!

Some cool scale work introduces the semi-ballad, "Amisarewas", which really showcases the band's ability to change up not only pace, but also style and tone.  A far deeper song lyrically, "Amisarewas" reaches back to the band's faith for inspiration but doesn't beat the listener over the head with chapter and verse lyrics, relying more on real world observation about the world around us to get the point across.  The solo section here is more laid back and prog in nature, particularly in the structure and the mixture of the instruments, with no one instrument being the dominant voice for quite a long stretch before Sonnier's guitar steps up in gritty fashion and demands the listener's attention just before the chorus returns, with the backing section singing "all that has been done, all that's left to come" as Huggins sings "amisarewas, bebeenbeing" before ending each chorus with "Thy will be done!" as the tag.  The title track is the other real stand-out track to me, with some more stellar bass work from Colvin and some nicely interspersed shouted vocals leading into the chorus sections of this humorous track that really hearkens back to the band's earliest records.  

There are absolutely no bad tracks here at all, which is quite a feat for a 13 track album.  Even when approaching a song that is not necessarily in their wheelhouse, Galactic Cowboys prove they have the musical chops to tackle just about anything.  Aggro-rocker "Hate Me", for example, has furious rhythm guitars and some sharp drumming and reminds me a bit of something Suicidal Tendencies was doing in their more artistic stretch, particularly in the way Huggins uses a rapid-fire, spoken word style at the outset of the track, and the rest of the verse vocals come out more snarled/barked than sung, although the backing vocals...well, let's just say that Suicidal would have ZERO chance at the execution of this type of harmonizing!  "Losing Ourselves" is a uptempo-yet-downtuned, grungy number that again features Huggins exploring some different vocal techniques and delivery styles, particularly on the verse sections, which somehow manage to work and not sound disjointed when played alongside the other, more melodic tracks here. 

My promo copy comes with two bonus tracks, and I have no idea if they are for import versions only, or if they will appear on all versions.  Both are excellent songs that could fit into the album proper with no problems at all, so I am not sure what led to these two tracks being labelled as "bonus material".  Of the two, I probably prefer the aggressive "Believing The Hype" the most.  Again, Huggins slips slightly into Mike Muir (Suicidal Tendencies) mode at the beginning of the track and during the choruses with his spoken rant-styled vocals as he exclaims "now you're a sucker for believing the hype"!  I can't help but wonder if this song is a bit of a swipe at the grunge movement that killed off their career...and then disappeared nearly as rapidly as it appeared....referring to the record labels that pushed this style of music as the "suckers".  Who knows, but it seems to fit in my mind.  "Say Goodbye To Utopia" is also a relatively aggressive track with a really cool downshift in tempos about midway through before it gives way to some furious bass work and one more guitar extremely breakneck solo.  And then, as if giving a final wave to the listener, the band showcases its true charm and its calling card as those those layered harmonies glide across the chorus one final time before slightly echoing out, allowing the Galactic Cowboys to ride off into a musical sunset that only they could create.

The production on this record is raw and dark, particularly in the sound of the drums and the voice that is given to Colvin's bass.  While many find this type of production a bit off-putting, I think it fits the tone of the album well, giving it a more live feel...especially in the drums...and clearly giving the vocal harmonies a chance to shine, which I feel is given a strong contrast on this record that would not be possible if the album was given more gloss and shine.  Yes there is grit, yes there is darkness, yes there is depth, all things that I think give Long Way Back To The Moon some musical relevance in today's hard rock scene without compromising who they are and what they bring to the table.

Seventeen years...twenty-four years...however you look at it, it has been far too long since Galactic Cowboys graced the hard rock/metal scene with their brand of musical uniqueness, and I sincerely hope we don't have to wait anywhere near that long again before we hear from the guys again.  The band has so much to offer to a scene that is rife with sameness and cookie-cutter bands, and they offer a musicality that is desperately missing from the scene.  I don't know that this record will be the one that "breaks" the band to the world, as I'm not sure that is even a possibility now, with the way radio and internet music outlets operate.  But it is a record that should give musicians and artists hope that creativity still counts for something and that perhaps perseverance can be its own reward of sorts.  They may not have exploded into the stratosphere like so many music executives thought they would in 1991, but with Long Way Back To The Moon, the band can at the very least provide an excellent bookend to their recording career should they choose to call it a day at this point.

Rating:  Top 10 for 2017 for sure, crankability is not a question here.  Crank this to 9!

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Friday, November 24, 2017

IRON SAVIOR "Riding On Fire (Re-Forged)"

(c) 2017 AFM Records

  1. Riding On Fire
  2. Battering Ram
  3. Brave New World
  4. Prisoner Of The Void
  5. Titans Of Our Time
  6. For The World
  7. Eye To Eye
  8. Mindfeeder
  9. Watcher In The Sky
  10. Mind Over Matter
  11. Warrior
  12. Iron Savior
  13. Tales Of The Bold
  14. No Heroes
  15. Break The Curse
  16. Condition Red
  17. Protector
  18. I've Been To Hell
  19. Atlantis Falling

Piet Sielck--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Piesel Kustner--Guitars
Jan-S Eckert--Bass
Patrick Klose--Drums

Everyone has a guilty pleasure band, right?  One that doesn't necessarily fall in line with the majority of your listening choices, but that you can't help but pop in from time to time, even if its just to get that instant smile going on?  For me, that band has long been German power/speed metallers, Iron Savior.  In general, I am a very casual power metal fan, outside of bands like Helloween, Blind Guardian, Metal Church, and a small fistful of others, but Iron Savior is one band that I have always sought out when new material was being released because...well, because I just like their style and sound so much!  So, when I heard that the band was recording a 2-CD set of their best material in re-recorded fashion, I was immediately interested and knew I would be seeking the set out.  Thankfully, I had this review copy show up in my email inbox about two weeks before it would be released, so I got a bit of an early Christmas present, it would seem.

Iron Savior finds themselves in the same boat that so many bands are in these days; they have lost control of their back catalog.  Usually due to bad publishing deals or one-sided contracts, a lot of bands find themselves no longer owning the rights to their old albums, so they face a dilemma when it comes to their classic material.  With the band now being 20 years old, with 10 proper studio albums (and a 2015 re-recording of the Megatropolis album), along with a live album, there is a vast amount of material that fans had been requesting to be reissued, but the band's hands were tied by their old label, Noise Records.  So, the band did the only thing they felt they could do...they re-recorded 19 of their biggest songs for this new collection.

Riding On Fire (Re-Forged) focuses entirely on material from the Noise Records releases from the band, with six songs (1, 3, 6, 9, 12 and 19) coming from their 1997 self-titled debut, three (4, 7 and 10) from 1999's Unification, just one (18) from 2001's Dark Assault, and seven (5, 8, 11, 13, 14, 16, and 17) from 2002's spectacular Condition Red release, along with three (2, 7 and 15) from 2004's Battering Ram.  While he is obviously no longer a member, Kai Hansen (Helloween) contributed to the writing of the songs from Iron Savior, Unification, and Dark Assault, so fans of his should be happy to see several of his collaborations included here.

The performances here are top-notch, with blisteringly fast rhythm guitar work, blazing solos, and some excellent drumming from brand-new drummer, Klose, who joined the band just prior to the undertaking of this album (talk about a trial by fire!).  Sielck's voice is as snarling and menacing as ever, and the bass work from Eckert is understated yet powerful, helping to glue the band together into the powerful metal machine that they truly are.  Also present are the big backing vocals, especially on the song's choruses, which have become a hallmark of not only Iron Savior, but so many German power metal bands.  I have to admit that I am always a bit leery about bands re-recording past material with new members, but this version of Iron Savior pulls off the classic material exceptionally well, which should come as no real surprise, I suppose, since Kustner has been in the band since 2000 now, and Eckert is on his second stint with the band, having played with Iron Savior from 1997-2003, then rejoining in 2011. 

Obviously, with a re-recorded collection such as this, the broad story line that all of the band's albums through Condition Red have told (they are all part of one HUGE science fiction story line) cannot be followed lyrically, nor should it really matter, as only the truest, die-hard fans likely know what the story is about.  Even so, the lyrics are bold, powerful statements in their stand-alone settings here, offering up typical power metal themes of battle, bravery, standing up for what's right, etc., which Sielck, the band's main songwriter, has always done well.

The production here is excellent, and the recordings are, in every instance, superior to the originals, in my opinion.  Even the classic Condition Red material sounds better to me in this re-recorded state, and that says a lot, as Condition Red is not only my favorite Iron Savior album, but one of my top five power metal albums in my collection.  I truly love that record and was extremely happy to see it not only so well-represented here, but also to hear it executed so very well.

I was a bit surprised to see that none of the new tracks from the 1999 album, Interlude, made it onto this collection, as that record is also on Noise and those songs are, as such, unavailable elsewhere.  I realize not every great song could be included, and as it is, this two disc set stretches to nearly 100 minutes, but I still would have liked to have heard "Stonecold" or "The Hatchet Of War" included, along with perhaps another track from Unification, such as "Forces Of Rage" or "Unchained".  Still, as it stands, this is a nearly perfect collection and an amazing primer for any new fans who want to check out the band's earlier, classic material without paying ridiculous prices...if they can even find the originals in the first place. 

Rating:  So, so good, I can't fairly treat this like a new album, as it is re-recordings of classic material.  I would still consider it crankable, however, turning things up to 8.5.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017


(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. A Head Long Jump
  2. Wake Me Up
  3. It Was Always You
  4. The Fear
  5. Under Control
  6. The New Reality
  7. My Eyes
  8. A Guitar In Church?
  9. All For What
  10. The Wave
  11. Tidal Change
  12. The Same Old Story
Geoff Tate--Vocals
Kelly Gray--Guitars
Scott Moughton--Guitars
John Moyer--Bass
Simon Wright--Drums
Brian Tichy--Drums
Scott Mercado--Drums
Mike Ferguson--Drums

Just a quick many drummers does an album need?  


Geoff Tate's post-Queensryche project, Operation: Mindcrime, completes its three-album cycle with The New Reality, an album that has been either anticipated or dreaded...possibly the metal community since the iconic vocalist released the first album in the trilogy, The Key, in 2015.  For those who are joining this musical venture late, the Operation: Mindcrime (the band) trilogy is a vast conceptual story about four people who invent some sort of technology that allows them to create an alternate reality that others (I'm assuming the government) want to get their hands on.  Fans of Queensryche originally flocked to this project, hoping for something akin to what that band was doing in the brilliant first half of its career, between the debut EP and Promised Land.  For Tate detractors, this trilogy was a chance for them to point and scoff...perhaps even the man who, despite all of his talent and the stage he had been given, managed to get himself fired from the band that he co-founded and that had become a shadow of its once-great self.  

I happened to be one of the people who fell somewhere between camps.  Having been a Queensryche fan since the word jump, I was excited at the prospect of Tate continuing on in the vein of Operation: Mindcrime and Promised Land, which was where Tate's project was reportedly headed.  And at first, when he was still recording under HIS version of the Queensryche name, Tate succeeded to a large degree with Frequency Unknown, but once he was legally forced to drop the 'Ryche name and his project became Operation: Mindcrime, things have not gone as swimmingly.  Overly long and bloated, convoluted, and hard to follow, the first two parts of this trilogy were mostly a disappointment, although both had some shining moments that gave me true hope.  Could Tate possibly have one more really good record in him?

With The New Reality, it seems that perhaps he did.  Easily the best of the three, in my opinion, The New Reality seems far more focused musically, sticking largely to what Queensryche did best on the Mindcrime, Empire, Promised Land stretch, which is crafting both big metallic rockers and progressive, musically interesting and challenging ballads, along with some interlude moments added for texture and depth.  As far as the music goes, there is a lot of Promised Land here as well as some Rage For Order and Mindcrime.

Things start off with what sounds like a theremin and some atmospheric keys before we get some spoken word lyrics from Mr. Tate, but it takes over two-and-a-half minutes of the opening track before the band kicks in and the song "A Headlong Jump" actually starts.  Once it does, however, it is very reminiscent of the music that Tate was doing with Queensryche on Promised Land, sounding not entirely unlike tracks "I Am I" or "Disconnected", as points of reference.  I have to admit that I am immediately intrigued.

The uptempo rocker, "Wake Me Up", has some really nice guitar work in it and Tate is in fine form, easily adjusting his vocal range to fit the music, and I like that this is pretty much just a straight up hard rock track, nothing overtly progressive or atmospheric about it.  That changes a bit with "It Was Always You", which reintroduces those electronic and programmed keyboard elements, weaving them in and out of the tribal drum pattern used here, which I really like.  Again, Tate comes off as vocally confident and in control here, and the layered backing vocals...which I believe are just layers of Tate supporting himself...add a nice touch of depth.  There's also some really cool saxophone work here (again, reminiscent of Promised Land), and I find myself rather excited to dig more and more into this album.

"The Fear" stays in that progressive vein, but "Under Control" returns to a harder-edged sound with angry guitars, a gritty bass, and a edgy Tate all combining nicely on another one of those 'Rhychian tracks that so perfectly melded the progressive and hard rock genres together when the united band was hitting on all cylinders.  I really like this track, as it carries some Empire qualities with it, while not sounding like a rehashing of old material.

"The New Reality" is another, laid back, more-progressive moment on the record that I find myself really liking, although, once again, it seems to take a long time for Tate to join the party.  Again, very much in the Promised Land vein, this song also has, at times, aggressive rhythm guitars, piano, saxophone, programmed elements, and some pretty cool drum work throughout, which seems to be a common theme on this record.  I don't have any indication of which drummer played on which tracks, but the drums throughout this record are excellent and fit the mood of these tracks so well.  Never overplayed, and never just the standard rock patterns used over-and-over again, there are a variety of interesting rhythms, patterns, and fills, as well as a nice selection of percussion instruments intermixed with the basic drum sounds.  So many places have Tichy written all over them to my ear, but, as I said, I have no idea who plays on which song at this point, so all I can do is guess.

"A Guitar In Church" loses me, to be honest, as it is a seemingly self-serving instrumental that does nothing to advance the overarching storyline of the trilogy, or to enhance this record at all.  I would drop it, personally, but its not like its glaringly bad or anything.  I just don't see the point, and oddly, its not overly guitar-driven, either, despite the name; there are a lot of keyboards, however.

"All For What" jumps back into the story of the album(s), and with the alert siren effects and the spoken word drop-ins from Tate, this feels very much like an Operation: Mindcrime-inspired track.  There are keys/pianos, a string section (most likely synthesized as I have not seen it credited anywhere), and Tate is in fine form here as he ranges from spoken word sections to angered screams, with some powerful, impassioned singing dabbed liberally all across the track.  This, as much as anything, has that big, epic feeling that was missing from the first two installments from the band, and once again, hearkens back to better times for Tate with Queensryche.

"The Wave" is pretty dang cool, a riffy mid-tempo rocker with a plodding drum section that pretty much demands my head start bobbing along, although the track does have some rather odd electronic elements in it (is that a theremin again?!), where a screaming guitar solo would have fit in nicely.  Is Tate making some sort of political statement here with the line "the radical left have no power, and the right, no solution", or is it all part of the storyline?  Not sure, but the line definitely jumps out at you when you hear least it did for me.

"Tidal Change" is really just a minute-plus long intro to the closing track, "The Same Old Story", which is one of the real disappointments on the record.  Not because it is a poor song, because it is not, but because the record ends on something of a laid-back whimper rather than a gut-punch rocker, which I think would've served so much better.  Still, "The Same Old Story" does fall in line with the mood and style of about half the record, again dropping in electronic elements (and an organ?) to enhance the progressive nature of the track.  Again, I think Tate sounds very much in control here, never reaching the rafters with a wailing scream, but still climbing the ladder in a couple of places, while varying his pitch and delivery all throughout the track.

It's odd to me that all three of these albums were supposedly recorded in one massive session over several weeks (or perhaps months), as the writing styles are so different on the three.  This disc reigns superior over the other two, and it isn't really all that close, to be honest.  With this album, I feel like I am listening to Queensryche again, which is an awesome thing for me.  I have long stated that my favorite records from 'Ryche were Promised Land, Operation: Mindcrime, Rage For Order, and Dedicated To Chaos (I also think American Soldier is unfairly bashed...), and I think this record contains elements of all of those records, with Promised Land and Dedicated To Chaos the most obviously represented.  There are also some obvious comparisons to Dream Theater that will be made, especially Images And Words and Awake, which I feel have some of the best DT combinations of heft and progressiveness.

The production here has its issues, as it has a few spots where the mix comes off as rather muddy, with the guitars on the title track being one place where this issue really stands out in my memory.  The drums also come off as a bit flat in spots, particularly the bass drum, but this is a relatively minor issue to me.  I simply adjusted the EQ on my system and boosted the bottom end a bit.  There are also a couple of moments where the music has such varied volume levels that I found myself having to adjust the settings on my computer (my copy is digital) to properly hear everything that was going on.

It will be interesting to see what happens next for Tate, as I believe he was legally only allowed to use the Operation: Mindcrime name for this trilogy and for touring, or perhaps that was a choice he made...I'm not 100% sure.  Speaking of touring, since Tate has the exclusive rights to tour Operation: Mindcrime I and II, he is taking his band of the same name on the road for the 30th anniversary of that iconic record.  Tate still has some interesting musical ideas in him and I hope he has a platform on which to share these ideas, as the progressive rock/metal community still has a place for a talent such as his.  Where that goes, it is anyone's guess at this point.

Is this a full-scale return to the greatness of Queensryche at its peak?  No, but it is closer than Tate has come since leaving/being ousted from that band.  Overall, I found myself enjoying the record quite a bit.  If it has any glaring weaknesses, it would be the lack of a true single (although, what does that really matter these days?), and it really could have used one or two more hard-hitting rockers.  Other than that, I think this is an enjoyable record that is best digested as an entire meal and not broken down into several individual courses.

Rating:  The only album of the trilogy that I consider crankable, I give this one a 7 (compared to a 5.5 and a 6 for the previous two entries).

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PROJECT 86 "Influence EP"

(c) 2017 Independent Release

  1. Sabotage (Beastie Boys)
  2. Fell On Black Days (Soundgarden)
  3. Facet Squared (Fugazi)
  4. Man Of Constant Sorrow (Dick Burnett/traditional)
  5. Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)
Andrew Schwab--Lead Vocals
Darren King--Guitars
Cody Driggers--Bass, Backing Vocals
Ryan Wood--Drums

In anticipation of their twentieth anniversary, Project 86 launched a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a brand new album, set for release at the end of 2017, called Sheep Among Wolves.  As part of that campaign, contributors received a digital EP called The Influence EP.  Whether this EP will be included on the new album or not, I am not sure at this time, although it would seem there should be plenty of room, as the album is said to include just 10 tracks, and the total running time for this EP is only slightly over 18 minutes.

As far as the band goes, lead vocalist only vocalist/lyricist Schwab remains from the original line-up, with the other three members all coming on board sometime between 2012 and 2014.  However, after seeing the band perform live last year on the CityRockFest tour with Disciple and Seventh Day Slumber, I can report that the group sounds very tight and cohesive...and heavy as stink!

This EP, as you can see from the tracklisting, is made up completely of cover songs, from multiple styles of music.  I was a bit taken aback by some of the choices here, for various reasons.  For starters, when I saw "Sabotage" on the list, I was instantly curious as to whether or not Schwab would stay lyrically true here (there is an f*bomb dropped in the original).  He did not, choosing to drop the word from the song, which I feel was definitely the right call, as Project 86 has long been linked to and associated with the Christian hardcore/metal scene, and using language that listeners would find offensive would not serve the project well.  As far as the song goes, the band plays things pretty close to the original, although it may actually be a bit heavier than the Beasties' original, and Schwab definitely has lower-ranged vocals than on the original, but this cover makes total sense, style-wise.  I can tell you that they played it live last year and the crowd went nuts, as the song has become so much bigger throughout the years than it was when it was originally released, as it has been repeatedly used in movies and other media.  An excellent start to this EP, to be sure!

"Fell On Black Days" is a cover of Soundgarden, and the band definitely expands their sound here, taking on a far more electronic style on this grunge ballad.  For those familiar with Project 86's past, the approach on "...Black Days" is similar to that used on the Rival Factions album, and on a few scattered songs throughout their catalog.  As a fan of a lot of grunge, I was anticipating not liking this version, but I was wrong, as I think this altered interpretation gives the song new life.  In fact, I think this is probably my favorite track on this release (although it is hard to go up against "Sabotage"!).  Schwab is able to really crank up the anger in his vocal approach here, and the down-tuned guitars intermixed with the electronic elements really drag a dark atmosphere across this song, which, let's face it, is rather dark in its original form.

"Facet Squared" is a Fugazi song that, much like covering the Beastie Boys, makes a lot of sense for Schwab and the band.  The punk stylings are still present here, although there is more bottom end and crunch here than on pretty much any punk/hardcore song you will find from this track's original time period.  Still, this is a track that probably most closely fits in with a lot of Project 86's catalog, and is not really a stretch, musically, which is likely why the band sounds so comfortable here.

The last two songs are seemingly completely out of left field, as "Man Of Constant Sorrow" is, originally, a traditional folk song that was given life in bluegrass form on the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?  Now, I hated that movie, and being aware of the song's folk/bluegrass roots, I had no idea how this song would be tackled.  Much like they did with "...Black Days", Project 86 turns this track into something rather electronic in nature, not messing around at all with the bluegrass arrangement, although Schwab does make a humorous lyrical alteration that you can pick up on if you listen closely (you may need to look up the original lyrics to find his changes).  This song had to grow on me a bit, as there really is very little heft to the track, and the drum loops and programmed elements are not really parts of the musical landscape I tend to tread.  It reminds me quite a bit of the stuff Nine Inch Nails was doing about 20 years ago, stylistically, and while I have come to not hate it, it is definitely my least favorite track here.

"Strange Fruit" is a cover of an old Billie Holiday blues number from the Great Depression era, and again, something not at all like anything I would imagine P86 attempting.  Schwab actually spends the vast majority of this track singing, abandoning his hardcore shouting/barking, as he glides across the piano and atmospheric electronics applied here.  There is some cool, bluesy guitar used here, that I really enjoy, and I think this is a nice inclusion to show that there is so much more to Andrew Schwab and Project 86 than the downtuned guitars and brutal breakdowns they are commonly associated with.  While I likely wouldn't buy it, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Schwab decided to do an entire album of blues covers such as this, as he definitely shows an affinity for this vocal approach which is SO different from his norm.  This is a pretty cool way to end such an eclectic set of cover songs, in my opinion.

As I mentioned, this is a digital release, so there are no liner notes to review here.  In fact, the image above isn't even an actual album cover; I had to search the internet for an image and this one came up in multiple places, so I borrowed it for this review.

This is definitely an interesting and eclectic mix of covers, all presenting different styles, and different challenges for the band, as well.  It's fun to hear the guys tackle these tracks with unique approaches, as it would be very easy (I imagine) for the band to do the "safe" thing, and just blister through them all, making each song a crushingly heavy, down-tuned jam, rather than take interesting and unique approaches to each.  If for only that reason, Project 86 should be commended for not taking the easy way out.  However, there is so much more to commend the band on in these short 18 minutes, as they have created what I feel is an essential part of the Project 86 catalog that is well worth the PledgeMusic donation.  By the way, you can still submit a pledge and get this EP if you wish to, by clicking here.

Rating:  Definitely a crankable 18 minutes; give this a 7.5, but don't think you have any true idea of what you are about to embark upon, stylistically.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

SILKED & STAINED "Love On The Road"

(c) 2017 Lion's Pride Music

  1. Bombshell
  2. Hold My Hand
  3. Much Love
  4. She's Not There
  5. Anytime Anywhere
  6. Lonely Road
  7. Believe
  8. Rockstar
  9. Born To Run
  10. Every Breath You Take (Police cover)
Bill Tsaklidis--Vocals, Keyboards
Tony Gavalas--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Tommy Fotiadis--Bass
Orpheus Lazz--Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals

Sometimes, I can't help myself.  I judge an album by the name of the band.  How can you not?  I mean, when a band calls itself "Silked & Stained", the first thing that comes to mind is a certain philandering ex-President and an intern...right?  RIGHT?!   But then, once I figure out the band is foreign and that English is likely their second (or third, or fourth...) language, I try to give them a bit of a pass on the name and go ahead and give the album a review solely in its merits, musically.  Sometimes the band is every bit as bad as its name, and other times I am pleasantly surprised.

Silked & Stained falls into the "pleasant surprise" category.

Hailing from Greece, Silked & Stained plays a decidedly European form of melodic hard rock, often incorporating more keyboards than this guy really finds necessary, but usually allowing them to slide into a supporting role once they have been unnecessarily utilized in several song intros.  Otherwise, this debut album, Love On The Road, is largely made up of solid rhythm guitars and nice, steady bass work and some big, thundering drums, all supporting above average to very good guitar solos, and smooth, decently powerful...but fairly heavily accented...tenor vocals.

The album kicks off with the lead single, "Bombshell", which is a pretty decent indicator of where the band is musically throughout the record.  While not the absolute best track on the record, for my money, the bump-and-grind rhythm section has a definite late 80s feel to it, and the guitar solo, which starts out rather laid back, ramps itself up in both speed and intensity as it goes on.  Tsaklidis is a bit hard to understand in a couple of spots, which became glaringly obvious to me when I followed along with the lyric video below and realized I had a couple of lines COMPLETELY wrong!  Still, a very nice lead-in for this album and one that sets the stage pretty well.

"Hold My Hand" is another solid 80s rocker, more in the Bon Jovi radio rock style, especially with the keyboard intro and straight-up drum approach that are anchored by a rhythm guitar/bass line that are pretty typical of that time period.  Gavalas has a definite grasp of the sound of the era, and his lead guitar work is one of the highlights throughout the record, the solo here notwithstanding.  I actually find myself wishing his solos would extend a bit more in several places, as I wonder what would happen if the guy just completely cut loose.  He sounds that talented to my ears.

"Much Love" had me thinking the band was covering Danger Danger's "Naughty Naughty" for a second, as it has that exact same type of keyboard intro, but it is quickly replaced by a far more melodic, far less hairy, style of hard rock.  The keyboards become more of an electric piano sound in the background, and they are actually a nice addition to the overall feel and sound of this mid-tempo rocker, which is not something I regularly say, but they do cross the line into annoying territory right before the guitar solo, which is very skillfully executed, by the way.

"She's Not There" is a pretty nice hard rock track, and in the top half of the record, with some really nice rhythm guitar work and an interesting drum pattern.  The backing vocals are solidly executed here, also, giving this song a nice, full feeling.  Again, the keyboards are kept to a minimum and kept at a distance, which benefits this track to a large degree.  "She's Not There" rounds out a pretty solid first four tracks on this all of a sudden rather surprising album.

The first real misstep on the record comes with "Anytime Anywhere", but it is a fairly big misstep.  This song has just an abysmal keyboard intro that makes me want to chew on glass every time I hear it!  Seriously, no matter how bad I feel some of the keys on "Much Love" were, they are nothing compared to this song's intro.  Oh my goodness these are bad.  BAD! And this track is the only one where I really have any issues with Tsaklidis' vocals, which come off as just overly sugary.  If I had to make a comparison of my overall impression of this song, I would have to say it is very much in the ilk of Sheriff's lone hit "When I'm With You", which I couldn't stand, or the atrocious Bad English ballad, "When I See You Smile".  Ugh.  I skip it even before the jingly, tinkly, crystally keys hit, sometimes jumping on the skip button even before "She's Not There" finishes fading out, just so I don't risk hearing this song! 

The band and record are quickly redeemed with the excellent "Lonely Road, which kicks off the second half of the record and is possibly my favorite track on the album.   This big song has enough power chord riffing and emotive vocals to capture most listeners' full attention, and the sweeping guitar solo is really, really good.  Oddly, most of the best tracks on this record are actually on this second half, come to think of it, with the remaining tracks all being decent mid-to-uptempo rockers with the flashy "Rockstar", with its excellent guitar work and a pretty cool tempo change on the bridge leading into the chorus section, being a definite contender for top song on the album, along with the the very 80s Dokken-sounding "Believe", and the hard-charging "Born To Run"...which is NOT a Springsteen cover.  

Speaking of covers , the band covers the Police stalker track, "Every Breath You Take" on the CD, but due to licensing issues, it is not included on the digital review presskit I received.  Bummer, as I would have liked to have heard where the band went with such an iconic song.

In the end, the music is well-executed, the songs are mostly above average, and there is something very likable about this band.  I could definitely do without the grating, tinkling keyboards on "Anytime Anywhere" as well as a couple of questionable intros, but these things don't diminish an otherwise strong performance from a band that is, at the very least, worthy of keeping track of in the future.  

There is no way I anticipated enjoying this record as much as I do, and I find myself returning to it time and time again.  Here's hoping the band gets some recognition in the States and throughout Europe...maybe even Japan...and is able to continue on, as I think they have quite a bit to offer.  

So much for judging a book by its cover...or a band by its name, I suppose...

Rating:  Suprisingly, I find myself really liking this record, cranking it to 7.5 .

Saturday, November 11, 2017


(c) 2017 Independent Release

  1. Enough Is Enough
  2. The Rain
  3. Never Say Goodbye
  4. Top Of The World
  5. In The Kingdom
  6. Spanish Castle Magic
  7. Nunca Te Dire Adios
Jamie Rowe--Lead Vocals
Rex Carroll--Guitars
David Bach--Bass
Michael Feighan--Drums

Sometimes, believe it or not, bands will do something simply to have fun.  There's no hope of a platinum record award or some big massive recording contract.  Sometimes an album is made because the guys genuinely get along, have common goals, and just want to get together and jam.  Such is the case with the rather unimaginatively-named Guardian & Whitecross album, Revival.

Consisting of the lead vocalist and bassist of Guardian, and the guitar player and drummer of Whitecross, G&W is a combination that makes sense if you know anything about the Christian hard rock scene of the late 80s/early 90s.  The two base bands were among the most talented of the non-Stryper bands, with Carroll regularly being pointed to as one of the legitimate guitar heroes of the genre, Christian or secular, and Rowe being held in such high regard as a vocalist that there was some belief he would replace Stephen Pearcey in Ratt at one time.  Add in the fact that Bach and Feighan make up a seriously formidable rhythm section, and you have the makings of what could best be described as a "super group", even though a lot of people likely don't know who more than one or two of the members are.

This mini-album consists of three Guardian tracks (2, 3, and 7, which is a Spanish re-recording of "Never Say Goodbye"), three Whitecross tracks (1, 4, and 5), and a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic, "Spanish Castle Magic".  Of the six main tracks, the Whitecross covers, if you want to call them that, are probably the most interesting, as it is rather unique to hear Jamie Rowe's vocal take on songs that previously featured Scott Wenzell on the microphone.  While both have a raspy vocal approach, Rowe tends to sing a somewhat lower tenor register with a blusier take than Wenzell's more straight-forward hair metal approach, which gives the Whitecross tracks a somewhat different overall feel.  Obviously, the guitar heroics from Carroll are superb here on tracks that I am certain he has performed hundreds, if not thousands of times, and Feighan's drumming is dynamic and holds a comfort level that can only be attained through multiple runs through a song.  Bach finds himself slipping right into the pocket on bass, adding some nice beef to the bottom end of the songs, which is especially noticeable on "Enough Is Enough", which comes from the debut album from Whtiecross, which suffers a bit from the recording methods and mixing styles of a small label (Pure Metal Records) in the mid-to-late 80s.  I really enjoy Rowe's vocal take on this track, as well, and I think it is the standout of the three Whitecross tracks.

On the Guardian side of things, the songs feel more familiar to my ears, largely because the right singer is hitting the right notes on these tracks.  It is interesting to me that both Guardian songs came from their Fire And Love album, especially since that album has just been reissued, so there is a chance these tracks are resurfacing in a couple of different forms now.  There are some rather noticeable differences, however, on these new G&W recordings, especially in the backing vocals department on the bluesy rocker, "The Rain".  If I had to guess, the backing vocals were done in relatively few takes, and it wouldn't shock me to learn that they were done in only a single take, as they are not particularly strong or layered.  In fact, they remind me very much of the way a lot of bands' backing vocals sound in the live setting, when not recording tricks or multiple tracks are used to boost the feel and sound.  They don't sound bad, per se, but they are definitely weaker than on the original album.  

The ballad choices here are interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, Whitecross was never known as being particularly strong on their ballads, especially early in their career, so going with "In The Kingdom" was a smart move on this group's part, as it is probably the best ballad the band has ever done and has more power and grit to it than so many of the overly-saccharine ballads the band recorded on their first couple of records.  That being said, the big, layered backing vocals from the original are missing here, much like I mentioned in my review of "The Rain" above.  For Guardian, a band that was known to have several big time power ballad-type songs, I would imagine the choice of tracks may have been a difficult one, but "Never Say Goodbye" was definitely a solid choice, and it is executed extremely well here.

I messaged Rex Carroll a while ago about the inclusion of "Spanish Castle Magic" on this EP, as I felt it was an interesting choice, and he told me, "Spanish Castle, I actually recorded a couple years ago with my own vocal on it.  The guys liked it, so we added Jamie's voice and Dave's bass, but we had run out of time for Mike, so we used the drum track that was already there".  I have to say that I really enjoyed Rex's guitar work here, and it showcases his ability to play in styles other than the 80s "hair metal guitar god" style he is most often linked to.  If you've never heard his other project, King James, or his blues material, you should do yourself a favor and track both down if you are a fan of a guy that can simply melt an axe, regardless of the style and approach.  Here, he does a great job of delivering on the bluesy hard rock stylings of Hendrix, while also re-imagining and updating the solo stretches so that they don't simply come off as re-recordings of the original.  Rowe handles the vocals extremely well, also, and I have to say that "Spanish Castle Magic" is actually my favorite track on this mini-album, despite the fact that a couple of the re-recorded tracks are among my favorites by either band.

The last track here is simply a Spanish rendering of "Never Say Goodbye", which is something that Guardian was known for doing in their heyday.  Musically, I believe it is the exact same track, with Jamie laying down a separate, Spanish vocal here, and getting a backing assist from a woman named Suzanna Allen, whom I know nothing about other than the fact that she has a nice voice.  Its an alright touch, but I skip it and head back to the beginning of the album when it comes up, and I honestly would have rather had another cover...or an all new collaborative track...than this Spanish re-recording.  

The production is simple and raw, lacking any big-time studio polish, which I have to say I really enjoyed.  It gives the songs a more live, organic feel, and goes back to what I said at the outset; this feels like an album of friends playing together and having fun, nothing more, nothing less.

I am not 100% sure, but I believe this album was ONLY available if you were a PledgeMusic backer (which I was), but I have heard the guys plan to try to play at least a couple of live shows, so perhaps there will be copies available at any live shows.  I also believe that it can be ordered digitally for download.  If you find a copy on eBay or or somewhere, and you are a fan of either band...or 80s/early 90s Christian hard would be doing yourself a favor to snag this fun little album.

Rating:  I always struggle rating covers albums or re-recordings, but I would say this could be cranked to a 7, with the length, lack of big backing vocals, and one wasted track being the only issues I can really think of.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 6, 2017

ASHES REMAIN "Let The Light In"

(c) 2017 BEC Recordings

  1. Rise
  2. On Fire
  3. All Of Me
  4. Always Faithful
  5. Six Feet Down
  6. Greater Things
  7. Captain
  8. Criminal
  9. Follow
  10. All I Need
Josh Smith--Lead Vocals
Jon Hively--Bass, Backing Vocals
Ryan Nalepa--Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals, Co-Lead Vocals on "Captain"
Rob Tahan--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Ben Kirk--Drums, Percussion

Additional Musicians
Mikey Howard--Programming, Backing Vocals
Mike Payne--Guitars
Eric VanZant--Guitars
Dave Stovall--String Arrangements

Easily one of my most anticipated modern rock releases of 2017, Let The Light In is the first new album by Christian rockers, Ashes Remain, in more than 6 years.  Following up the excellent What I've Become wasn't originally supposed to take this long, but outside of a Christmas EP, and one digital single, 2014's "Here For A Reason", there has been very little heard from the Ashes Remain camp in that time, and I was starting to get concerned this album would never actually come to fruition.  Picking up where the last album (and single) left off, Let The Light In is a solid post-grunge modern rock album, composed primarily of uptempo rockers or somewhat mellower praise and worship styled tracks.  

The album's opener, and lead single, "Rise" falls immediately into the harder-edged camp and is a perfect bridge from their last album into this one.  A ringing guitar leads the band into the mid-tempo rocker, pulling behind it the drums and rhythm guitars, clearing a path for the powerful, emotive vocals of Josh Smith, a strong tenor with just enough wear and tear around the edges of his voice to connect with the modern rock crowd.  Rob Tahan incorporates some tasty solo work into the grungy track, layering atop a solid rhythm section of Kirk and Hively.  To say I was stoked after hearing this track would be an understatement.

"On Fire" was a bit harder for me to get into at first, especially with its programmed horn section, presumably courtesy of Mikey Howard of 7eventh Time Down, who also produced, edited, and recorded the album.  A bouncy rocker with a bit of a swing feel to it (courtesy of said horns), "On Fire" is a song about casting off past failures and moving forward.  Not my favorite track by any means, but not a skipper, either, and it has grown on me with repeated listens (my kids love it).

"All Of Me" is the first track to find the band dipping their musical toes in the more praise and worship styled sounds of the record, although it is still a pretty solid rocker.  A powerful song with a strong message, there is a lot more polish on this track than the previous two, and it reminds me a lot of the p&w material that Kutless has incorporated into their more recent efforts.  The same can be said of the next track, "Always Faithful", which is the first ballad on the album.  As with so many of the songs on the record, "Always Faithful" appears to be about issues of depression and addiction and the darkness associated with these things, and the band's belief that Jesus Christ is the one true way out of that darkness.  

The rock returns in full force with the hardest track on the record, "Six Feet Down".  Complete with some excellent, hard-edged guitars...including a really nice solo...and even some backing screams in places, this track is exactly what I was hoping for from Ashes Remain, and it is easily one of my four favorites on the record.

"Greater Things" treads musical territory that is not all that different from some of the things that 7eventh Time Down incorporated on their last album, #GodIsOnTheMove, also carrying that Kutless praise and worship style that I alluded to earlier.  Singing about how little things can make big differences in the world, Smith's vocals ring particularly clear on this track, all the raspiness and edge seemingly removed here.  Again, not a bad song, but I will admit that at this point I was starting to get a bit anxious to hear a bit more rock from the boys, as three of the last four tracks had fallen into CCM territory and away from the edgy modern rock I fell in love with on their last album.

"Captain" rectifies things with the catchiest song on the album and one that is so odd, so quirky, and so unlike anything else on the record, I fell in love with it instantly.  A song about addiction and alcoholism, Smith declares "I've seen the bottom/drowning in a bottle/I've been dead and hollow/Nowhere to fall, Nothing at all, Hard to swallow" in a way that leads the listener to believe he knows exactly what he is singing about.  Once again, the issues of addiction are addressed so directly and honestly here, it is truly a breath of fresh air, even when dealing with such dark topics.  Rhythm guitarist, Ryan Nalepa, actually provides some co-lead vocals in the form of a kind of free-form scat style that only serves to add to the offbeat nature of the track.

"Criminal" is another top-notch rocker filled with down-tuned guitars and a pulsating bass line, slipping into the top four tracks here alongside "Captain", "Rise", and "Six Feet Down".  Once again, this is the perfect song to help carry listeners over from the last album, delivering a grinding rocker that would also grab the attention of fans of bands like Decyfer Down , Relentless Flood, or Seventh Day Slumber.   Really good, edgy, buzzy hard rock with some solid rhythm guitar work and yet another nice solo from Tahan.  

The album closes with two more mellower tracks, in "Follow" and "All I Need".  "Follow" utilizes a string section (possibly a programmed one, I'm not an expert here), in a song about surrendering oneself in order to fully follow Christ, while "All I Need" is a piano-based ballad about romantic love, commitment, and a relationship that endures through a lifetime of marriage.

The packaging is pretty basic, but it covers all the bases, as well.  Lyrics are included for every song, along with the typical writing and production credits.  There is a single band photo included in the booklet, and a thank you section from the band and each individual member is located under the clear jewel case tray.

The production here is really strong, which I would imagine was quite the task when you take into consideration the two completely different styles of music included on this album.  Gritty and heavy in all the right places, yet also smooth and clean on the praise moments, Let The Light In is an album of varying tempos and textures, which I am sure led to some challenges for not only the production team, but for the band, as well.

In the end, I found myself really enjoying a bit more than half of the record, and appreciating and accepting the rest for what it is...basically a pretty good, rocking record with praise and worship elements.  The problem for me, I think, is I had such high hopes for this record that I'm not sure it could deliver. The previous album benefits from having 12 tracks, which allows for a couple more hard-edged moments to liven things back up when the softer moments threaten to drag it down.  Perhaps including "Here For A Reason" would have proven a help to a degree, and would have given non-digital fans (like myself) a way to have that song in CD form.  However, even if another two or three really good rockers were included here, I don't think Let The Light In stood much of a chance of living up to What I've Become, which is just so, so good, in my opinion.  That being said, Let The Light In has enough really good moments to keep it from becoming just an average record for me.

Rating:  Crankable, but a bit behind their last album, give this a 7.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

SHAKRA "Snakes & Ladders"

(c) 2017 AFM Records

  1. Cassandra's Curse
  2. Friday Nightmare
  3. Snakes & Ladders
  4. Something You Don't Understand
  5. The Seeds
  6. Rollin'
  7. Medicine Man
  8. I Will Rise Again
  9. Open Water
  10. The Race Of My Life
  11. Fire In My Veins
  12. The End Of Days
Mark Fox--Lead Vocals
Thom Blunier--Guitars
Thomas Muster--Guitars
Dominik Pfister--Bass
Roger Tanner--Drums

Believe it or not, Snakes & Ladders marks the eleventh(!) album in this Swiss band's history, and yet they still have not received anywhere near the accolades that I feel they deserve.  While always putting out solid, entertaining albums, the band has never had that big, breakthrough record that would grab a listener by the ears and shake them about, screaming at them "have you been listening to us?!"  Snakes & Ladders changes that, as I feel this is the definitive release by this high quality act!

Mark Fox rejoins the group as the lead vocalist, and all at once, things seem to be falling into place on this record.  When Fox first joined the band, clear back with 2003's Rising album, I felt he was the missing component, the truly dominating vocalist, the band had been missing.  While I enjoyed original vocalist, Pete Weidmer, I just felt the raspiness and power in Fox's vocals better served the music the band was releasing.  To be honest, I kind of dismissed the band after Fox left, and the  album with John Prakesh on vocals really didn't grab my attention; it just didn't seem to have the fire and passion in the vocals that I was looking for, although there were a handful of very good songs.  Then Fox returned and the vocals were back to where they were when I fell in love with the band, but High Noon, which charted very well in Europe, just just didn't have the songs that this one does.  That is not the case here, which is evident right from the start.

Immediately, many people are going to draw comparisons between the sound of Shakra and that of Pretty Maids, which, to be fair, is a pretty honorable comparison to make, as I feel Pretty Maids is one of the truly underrated bands of the past 20-30 years.  I LOVE Pretty Maids.  And yes, there is a definite comparison between the two bands, especially now that Fox is fronting Shakra again.  That being said, Shakra doesn't venture into the more metallic areas that the Maids will sometimes explore, sticking more closely to the late 80s/early 90s hard rock sound of driving, powerful rhythm guitar riffs, some excellent solo work, big drums, catchy hooks, and sing along choruses.  These elements show up in spades on Snakes & Ladders, starting with the very first track and lead single, "Cassandra's Curse", a straight forward hard rocker with riffs that will punch you in the nose and a simple, echoing chorus that will stick with you for days.  

The guitar work on this record is top notch, with one of the true standout moments being the solo on "Medicine Man", which is one of my favorite overall tracks, as well.  A hard rocking number, with some nice tempo breaks and rhythm variances, "Medicine Man" is everything that is right and good about this record, and the interplay between Muster's rhythm work and Blunier's solos is superb.  The same can be said of the trade-off in "I Will Rise Again", the fastest track on the record that will likely have people also drawing comparison's to early 90s Bonfire, which is another fair comparison and a truly great honor, as I have long loved that German band.  "Fire In My Veins" is another high-octane rocker with some German-styled harmonics in the tone of the guitars and a snappy, galloping rhythm that drives throughout the track.  There is an odd false ending in this song that had me believing it had transitioned right into the album's closer, but instead the repeated rhythm guitar pattern simply fades out over the last 45 or so seconds.  "Something You Don't Understand" heads back to that melodic Pretty Maids style, featuring a prominent, throbbing bass line from Pfister that really serves as the tracks for the rest of the song to roll upon.  I love the guitar work throughout the verse sections on "Something...", and Blunier's short-but-inspired solo is a perfect mix of the more bombastic approach of the guitar gods of 25 years ago and the more modest approach used by the axe-slingers of the current generation of melodic rockers, combining a short burst of fret-burning speed but also working to be a part of the song, rather than be the focal point of the song.  "The Seeds" has a bouncy drum rhythm and a stripped down sound on the verses that really sets itself apart from the rest of the record, yet it still works very well in the overall feel of the record and is one of the catchiest tracks on the album, possibly because of the tempo change coming out of the second chorus and the big guitar solo from Blunier that then transitions the track back into the quirky cadence of the main portion of the song.  

As far as slower numbers are concerned, "Open Water" is a big, emotive ballad that has a powerful, sweeping guitar solo that while perhaps a bit too short, would have filled an arena with the flames of a thousand Zippos in 90s concert venue!  "The End Of Days" teases at being a slower song, especially with its acoustic intro, but it actually turns into a throbbing, blues-tinged rocker with pulsating downbeats and a sing-along Bonfire-styled chorus that closes the album out in fine fashion.  A great, catchy, memorable track to bring to an end an album that I would not have guessed would grab hold of my quite like it did.    

If I were forced to make one criticism of Snakes & Ladders, I would have to say that perhaps (perhaps) the album stays a bit too close to the same tempo for the majority of the record.  There are only a couple of what I would call "fast" tracks here, with "I Will Rise Again" and "Fire In My Veins" falling into that category, and with the exception of one song, there are real slow moments, either.  Now, that doesn't mean that every song is of the exact same rhythm and pace (see "The Seeds" above...), but there isn't a ton of variance throughout the record.  That being said, this also isn't an album of mid-tempo riff rock that eventually drones you into not really noticing the songs as it blends into the background.  Not at all.  I do think one really blazing number in the middle somewhere might have helped to break things up a bit, but this is a minor issue and doesn't detract from how good this record truly is.

That this album will finish in the Top 17 of 2017 on G2G, there is little doubt.  The question is simply how high it will finish.  This is a great record from start to finish, and one that I constantly find myself spinning again and again.  What a truly great return for Fox and for Shakra.  Perhaps now the band will get the due that it is deserved!

Rating:  Extremely crankable, turn this up to 9 on the dial!

12 STONES "Picture Perfect"

(c) 2017 Cleopatra Records

  1. The Killer
  2. Blessing
  3. Voodoo Doll
  4. Nothing To Say
  5. Time
  6. Picture Perfect
  7. Save Yourself
  8. Lerlene
  9. Memphis
  10. Hey Man
  11. How Long
  12. Hello Suicide
  13. Anthem For The Underdog (Picture Perfect Sessions)
  14. We Are One (Picture Perfect Sessions)
Paul McCoy--Vocals
Eric Weaver--Guitars, Bass
Sean Dunaway--Drums

I have to admit that this album kind of snuck up on me.  I had no idea that 12 Stones was still together, let alone releasing new music!  Released mid-summer, Picture Perfect is the first new 12 Stones record in almost five years, so I guess I won't be too hard on myself for not knowing it was out there.

For the uninitiated, 12 Stones has been together for the better part of two decades now, although only vocalist McCoy and guitarist, Weaver, are the only founding members who remain.  Now five albums deep in their career, McCoy and Weaver have definitely developed a "12 Stones" sound, with a combination of hard-edged, buzzsaw guitars, catchy-yet-edgy songs, and McCoy's raspy, half-sung-half-shouted vocals that are pretty much instantly identifiable and really serve to set the band apart from so many other post-grunge modern rock bands on the radio today.  At least for me, it is pretty obvious when I hear a 12 Stones song...and that's a good thing.

Picture Perfect continues in that trend and sounds, well, very much like the previous 12 Stones records.  There are several songs here that, had they been released 8-10 years ago, would probably be all over modern rock radio right now.  The album opens in blistering fashion, with the rapid fire, sub-3 minute scorcher, "The Killer", which is immediately reminiscent of where the band was when last they checked in with us on Beneath The Scars, feeling very much like that album's singles "Bulletproof" and "World's Collide".  Another top-notch rocker, "Time", could also fall into that category of familiar styles and sounds as well, relying heavily on a hard-charging riff and a chunky rhythm to set the tone, with a pretty cool bridge incorporated into the track as well.  This could well be my favorite track on the record, although "Blessing", which an absolutely scorching solo from Weaver and some big, thick riffage, is also a contender for that title.

The band does throw the listener a few curveballs along with the familiar, however, and it really gives Picture Perfect more of a diverse feeling.  For example, "Lerlene" sounds so much like The Wallflowers that...well...I seriously wondered if it was The Wallflowers the first couple of times I heard it.  Seriously, if you don't think McCoy and Weaver were sitting around listening to that band's Bringing Down The Horse album in the studio, you are nuts!  And the thing is...I love this track, largely because it is so different and so out of the band's wheelhouse.  "Voodoo Doll" has a funky vibe to it, which is pretty cool, and doesn't feel like anything I can recall 12 Stones doing in the past.  It feels more like a Black Stone Cherry type of song than a 12 Stones track, but I like the thick chords used here and the dynamic changes that McCoy uses on his vocals.  "How Long", which is one of my three faves here, is the most "radio friendly" of the tracks here, and it comes off a bit like a 3 Doors Down or maybe a Puddle Of Mudd styled track, but it is definitely a good one.  If I had my way, I would have made "How Long" the last of the new tracks here, and bumped up the acoustic ballad, "Hello Suicide" to track nine.  It would have blended into the two re-recordings better and also left fans on a high-energy note regarding the new material.

Speaking of "Hello Suicide", this is a particularly dark, yet hauntingly beautiful, song that finds McCoy singing about struggling with depression and pain.  Nothing like anything I have heard from the band before, this track really emphasizes McCoy's singing ability, which is not always utilized on the harder, faster songs.  While he has a somewhat limited range, the emotion he pours into this song is almost tangible as he repeatedly sings about having "nothing left to lose" as he implores suicide to "please don't take your time stealing this cold life from me".

The album closes with a couple of re-recordings of two of the band's biggest songs, "Anthem For The Underdog" and "We Are One".  Both come off as more raw and somewhat more aggressive than the originals, and "We Are One", especially, feels like a live, in-studio effort.  There are a couple of minor off-key moments vocally, but rather than detract from the song, these "real" spots actually add something for me.  I'm wondering if the band lost some of the rights to their back catalog and re-recorded these songs to establish ownership of these versions, which sometimes happens (see the review for Smile Empty Soul's Shapeshifter album as an example of this). 

The packaging here is relatively simple, which is common with Cleopatra releases.  There are no lyrics included, but McCoy is pretty easy to understand, so this isn't an issue.  A single band photo (featuring four people, even though only three are listed as "band members" now) is found on the inside of the cover, along with writing credits and extremely minor production notes.  Speaking of production, the mixing and engineering here is very good, with no muddiness or sound quality issues to take note of, and there is a really good bottom end throughout the mix, giving the songs a heavy, chunky feel.

Is this my favorite 12 Stones record?  Tough to say, but it is in the conversation, especially with the diversity.  Is it album of the year?  No, not by any stretch, but it is definitely enjoyable and one I have gone back to a couple of times since first writing this review.  My kids really like it, and with 12 Stones positive lyrical stance ("Hello Suicide" being the lone possible exception), I don't have any concerns with them listening to it, either.  Definitely a solid return for the veteran rockers.  Hopefully we don't have to wait five years between albums again.

Rating:  Crank this to 7.

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