Monday, December 31, 2018

SAXON "Thunderbolt"

(c) 2018 Silver Lining Records

  1. Olympus Rising
  2. Thunderbolt
  3. The Secret Of Flight
  4. Nosferatu (The Vampire's Waltz)
  5. They Played Rock And Roll
  6. Predator
  7. Sons Of Odin
  8. Sniper
  9. A Wizard's Tale
  10. Speed Merchants
  11. Roadie's Song
Biff Byford--Lead Vocals
Paul Quinn--Guitars
Doug Scarratt--Guitars
Nibbs Carter--Bass
Nigel Glockler--Drums

Additional Musicians
Seb Byford--Backing Vocals on 2, 10
Tom Witts--Backing Vocals on 2, 10
Caleb Quaye--Backing Vocals on 2, 10
Corvin Bahn--Keys on 4
Johan Hegg--Growls on 6

2019 will be the 40th anniversary of the release of Saxon's debut album, Saxon, believe it or not.  Long considered one of the true heavy metal bands, and one of the leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM), the band has no plans on calling it a day, as is evidenced by this, their 22nd studio effort, Thunderbolt.  With founding members Byford and Quinn...and drummer, Glockler (1981-present)...still manning their stations, the Saxon machine rolls on and are in fine form here.  Joining these stalwarts are other long-time members, Nibbs Carter who has handled the bass for the past 30 years, and Doug Scarratt, whose guitars have been a part of the Saxon sound for 22 years. so to say this is a steady line-up would be an understatement, especially when compared to the musical chairs rotation of so many bands today.

Thunderbolt starts off with an intro, "Olympus Rising", and without rehashing my general disdain for intros, let me just say that this intro is basically just a guitar and drums for much of the track, with the bass and some uncredited (I'm assuming) synthesized symphonic elements that leads straight into the title track, the straight forward assault of "Thunderbolt".  From the outset, it is obvious that Glockler's drums are going to be a commanding force on this track (and throughout the album, it turns out), and Byford's vocals are still strong for the most part, although age does seem to have impacted the singer's pipes, particularly on the screams.  However, rather than detract from the sound, I feel like this aging has added a bit of character to the vocals, a bit of a rasp edging its way into the powerful, lower-range tenor.  The guitars are sharp and work well together, with a crisp solo ripping its way through the middle of the song, and the bass is a steady factor throughout.  A great way to start, in my opinion.

The popular metal subject, Icarus, makes his presence known once again in "The Secret Of Flight".  Byford's vocals are, once again, strong, and he doesn't tackle the higher range on this track, preferring to stay comfortably in mid-range.  Again, guitar work is a highlight here, as Quinn and Scarratt take turns on lead axe throughout a dueling solo section.  I'm also drawn to the vocal harmonies here which spread throughout the chorus section, and even on the verses.  I'm assuming these harmony vocals are just layers of Byford, as no one else is credited as singing backing tracks here, but it makes little difference, as the effect is a powerful one.  A staggered galloping style is utilized by Glockler here, which when accompanied by the bass of Carter, really drives this track.  I'm liking what I hear on this song to a considerable degree.

"Nosferatu (The Vampire's Waltz)" is up next, and, not trying to be a nit-picker here, but it isn't really a waltz.  Sorry if that ruins things for people.  Sure, PARTS of it hold a waltz pattern, but most of it does not.  There are some excellent symphonic parts here, however, and I dig the change in tempo that sets the guitar solo section apart from the rest of the track.  Once again, Byford's vocals are such a focal point here, and he is in fine story-teller's mode on this one.

"They Played Rock And Roll" is a high-speed rocker, which is to be expected as the track is a tribute to the legendary Motorhead.  It's fun to hear Carter's bass so out front on this song, much the way Lemmy's bass was usually mixed, and the drums are fast and furious throughout the track.  Lemmy, himself, is sampled into the track just before a ripping guitar solo blazes across the drums and bass, and you can almost hear "Ace Of Spades" in the melody coming out of the solo.  Its a good, fun track that is a fitting tribute to Motorhead and Byford's friend, Lemmy.

"Predator" is a bit slower, but every bit as heavy, with growled harmony vocals mirroring everything Byford sings on the first verse and chorus, which is a pretty cool effect.  Then, the two voices trade lines in the second verse, before once again sharing the chorus section that gives way to a smooth, soaring guitar section that finds Quinn and Scarratt harmonizing together, a la Iron Maiden, for a bit, before the twin voices return for the last section.  Not my favorite track here, but I like the artistic attempt from a band that shows that it is not so set in their ways as to not try new things.

"Sons Of Odin" slows things down a bit, with Carter providing a deep, thrumming bass line that is the main instrument through the verse sections, accompanied only by occasional power chord riffs and some rock solid drums.  Following the first chorus, there is more of a rhythm guitar presence felt, but it is still Carter's bass that remains firmly present.  Once again, some really nicely done harmony vocals are added to Byford's main track, and Byford does unleash one high-pitched scream, although it is not particularly long in duration.  "A Wizard's Tale" is only slightly faster in temp as Byford sings a song about Merlin and Camelot, but tracks like "Sniper" and the aptly-titled "Speed Merchants" do more than their fair share to keep the pace lively in the second half of the album.  The guitar work in both is sharp and clean, and the rhythm sections are tight and powerful.

The autobiographical track, "Roadie's Song" closes things out here, with the tempting chorus of "16 beds inside a bus/Step inside, be one of us" making me wonder what stories could be told by these guys who have traveled the highways and byways of the world together for more than 20 years (with Byford, Quinn, and Glockler standing side-by-side-by-side for more than 35 years!).  Its a catchy track, designed more for the band and their long-time fans than for anything else, but the performances are still strong, particularly the guitars, and Byford sings the song like he's telling a story, which is what the man has done so well for so many years. A great close to a really, really good record.

The production is excellent here, which I was a bit worried about with Saxon finding themselves on such a small, unknown label.  But, as should be obvious by the breakdown above, the instruments are all given spots to shine, and everyone's contributions can be felt throughout the record.  No complaints here.

I don't hesitate in saying that Thunderbolt is the best Saxon record in a decade, probably going back to 2007's, Inner Sanctum record.  While it is not going to replace Wheels Of Steel or Denim And Leather...or the polarizing-yet-personal favorite, Innocence Is No Excuse...or some of the other classic metal albums that Saxon released in the early 80s, there is no reason long-time fans should turn away from Thunderbolt, like many did from 2011's Call To Arms, which was distinctly less metal than this record.  I see no reason to not put Thunderbolt firmly in the top 10 albums of the band's catalog, and perhaps could even make a case for slotting it in the top 7 or 8, which is saying something after 40 years and 22 records!  

Rating:  Even after all these years, Saxon is still crankable!  Give this one an 8!

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Friday, December 28, 2018

NAZARETH "Tattooed On My Brain"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. Never Dance With The Devil
  2. Tattooed On My Brain
  3. State Of Emergency
  4. Rubik's Romance
  5. Pole To Pole
  6. Push 
  7. The Secret Is Out
  8. Don't Throw Your Love Away
  9. Crazy Molly
  10. Silent Symphony
  11. What Goes Around
  12. Change
  13. You Call Me
Carl Sentance--Lead Vocals
Jimmy Murrison--Guitars
Pete Agnew--Bass
Lee Agnew--Drums

2018 marked the 50th anniversary for legendary rockers, Nazareth, and to celebrate, the band released their latest effort, Tattooed On My Briain, on Frontiers Records back in October.  This is the 24th studio album for the band, and their first since 2014.  That record, Rock N Roll Telephone, was the last for original lead vocalist, Dan McCafferty, who was forced to retire due to health issues.  So, with only Pete Agnew remaining of the original line-up, just how Nazareth is this version of the band going to sound?   First, you have to keep in mind that guitarist, Jimmy Murrison, has been on board for more than 20 years now, and Pete's son, Lee Agnew, has been pounding out rhythms on the drums since 1999, so the only "new" face here is vocalist Carl Sentance, who does a more than serviceable job on the microphone throughout this record.

If I had to choose a favorite from the record, the opening cut would serve just fine, as "Never Dance With The Devil" rocks harder than anything else on the record, and finds the band moving forward with their style and sound, but without forsaking who they have been in the past.  Lee Agnew leads the track in before giving way to some thick power chords from Murrison, supported by Pete's strong bass presence, and the new voice of the band, Carl Sentance.  Sentance has a considerably higher range than McCafferty did, and he sings with a cleaner voice than the whiskey-soaked rasp of the original vocalist.  Some readers may be familiar with Sentance from when he fronted Krokus for their 1999 album, Round 13, and that band is an obvious point of comparison for another of the best tracks here, "State Of Emergency", which has something of a "Ballroom Blitz" feel to it.  Once again, the strong bass from Pete Agnew, who actually gets a brief solo section on this track, is a major part of the overall sound, and the great guitar solo here from Murrison is spot-on for this uptemo rocker.

Other favorites here would be the times the band reaches back a bit to the bluesier style they always incorporated into their earlier work.  Two excellent bluesy cuts "Push" and "The Secret Is Out" fall in line back-to-back and feature some excellent dirty blues guitar from Murrison, and both find Sentance sounding very reminiscent of AC/DC's Bon Scott. The bass and drums for both are rock solid, with the elder Agnew playing deep in the pocket here, churning out a strong support structure for these mid-tempo rockers.  "Don't Throw Your Love Away" sounds like a musical collision between Cinderella and Led Zeppelin, to be honest, a bit of the former's hair sound blended with the latter's hard-edged blues riffage, and it really works well musically, even if the lyrics are a bit simple, particularly on the chorus.  Other standouts would be the catchy, "Crazy Molly", with its sassy, bump n grind rhythm and cool guitars (not to mention the closing gong!), the heavy rocker, "Silent Symphony", with it's classic Deep Purple guitar riffing, and "Pole To Pole", which is a more uptempo rocker, with a catchy hook and a strong guitar solo, that will again likely draw comparisons to AC/DC or, more modernly, Dirty Looks.  You can give the track a listen below on the official audio release from Frontiers.

I also have to admit to loving the cleverly-titled "Rubik's Romance", with its cheeky opening line, "More complicated than a Rubik's/More sides and colors, its always changing...".  This is a great track with some of the most creative lyrics I have heard in some time, to be honest.  It's nowhere near as slow as, say, "Love Hurts", but it is definitely one of the more down-tempo tracks on the album, and regardless of speed, "Rubik's Romance" is a really fun listen!  "Change" is pretty much a straight-up blues rock number, especially on the verses, before the band kicks things up a notch on the punchy chorus sections.  Good, good stuff here!

At 13 tracks, there is a bit too much here, and I think a couple of tracks could have been cut fairly easily.  For starters, I'd actually cut the title track, which is too poppy for the rest of the record, in my opinion, and I'd probably drop the moody closer, "You Call Me", which features Pete taking a run at the lead vocals.  It's not a horrible song, but doesn't fit anything else on the record.  If you are Nazareth, and you likely don't know when you're going to have the chance to record again, I get why they laid down as many tracks as they could.  Plus, Tattooed... gives the band a chance to showcase the new direction the band is steering the Nazareth ship in, which I think they do more than successfully for the majority of this surprisingly good record.

Mine is a digital promo copy, so I am not sure of the packaging here, but since it is Frontiers Records, I am going to assume the packaging is at least above average, if not excellent.

In a year that saw a LOT of 70s hard rock bands reunite for another run with great albums (Uriah Heep, Saxon, Ace Frehley, etc), Nazareth has produced one of the best with a solid collection of new songs, a few of which I am sure will find their way into set lists for the next decade or so.  Not the classic of Hair Of The Dog or Razamanaz, and not as heavy as No Mean City, which are my top three albums in the Nazareth catalog, but Tattooed On My Brain is definitely a quality release that is a fun listen, even after repeated plays.

Rating:  Crank this to 7.5!

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Monday, December 24, 2018

ERASERHEAD "Eraserhead"

(c) 2018 Retroactive Records

  1. Ego
  2. Stained
  3. Indecisive
  4. Entertaining Angels
  5. The Scales
  6. Memoria
  7. A Story Of Time
  8. The Swell Lot of Thieves
  9. Digital Postage Stamp
  10. The Watchers
Jimmy P. Brown II--Lead and Backing Vocals, All Guitars
Manny Morales--5 & 6 String Bass
Jon Knox--Drums & Percussion

If you know anything about the Christian heavy metal scene of the 80s and 90s, you likely need no introduction to the name Jimmy P. Brown II.  And if you know anything of the thrash metal scene from that same time frame through the current, again, Brown's name is not unfamiliar to you, as he is the founder, lead vocalist, and rhythm guitar player for the band Deliverance.

But if you are a fan of Deliverance, you also know that there is a definite split personality for that band.  There is a fairly expansive chasm of style separating the two approaches of the band.  On one side, you have the thrashiness of the self-titled debut record, the thrash masterpiece (Christian or secular) that is Weapons Of Our Warfare, What A Joke, or more recent efforts, such as the somewhat surprising return of Hear What I Say, or this year's excellent The Subversive Kind.  On the other side of the musical divide is the darker, moodier, heavy-yet-more progressive version of the band, which released some absolutely amazing music on records like personal favorite, Learn, as well as River Disturbance, Camelot In Smithereens, the oddity that is Assimilation, which seemed to try to span the gap while also throwing quirky electronica elements into the mix, and the middle-of-the-road-stylistically As Above, So Below.  And, it seems, most of the band's fans fall into one camp or the other, with very few of us straddling the rather significant fence that separates the two styles.  As I have mentioned before, I have loved this band since its beginnings, and I can honestly say I love both versions of Deliverance, although I spend more time with the progressive version of the band these days than I do the thrash version, and so I was particularly excited when I heard that Eraserhead was going to see the light of day.

Eraserhead, for all intents and purposes, is the same Deliverance that released Learn in 1993, minus the keyboard player.  Brown, Morales, and Knox were the band on that record, and they have returned 25 years later for this new album, which I could not be happier about, since, as I mentioned above, Learn is my favorite album in the Deliverance catalog.

It should be noted that this is not being marketed as a Deliverance album, as both the album and the band are called Eraserhead.  This is by design, I am sure, since Deliverance made their spectacular return to their thrash roots earlier this year, and Jimmy likely wanted to keep the two albums separated by name as much as they are by sound and style.

The album starts off with the moody "Ego", which starts off with a hard hitting drum-and-guitar lead in, before settling into a bass-heavy mid-tempo progressive metal number, complete with Brown's Bowie-meets-Tate tenor vocals soaring effortlessly above the musical fray.  The combination of Morales' bass and Knox's drums is punchy and powerful, aided by Brown's always impressive rhythm playing, but it is his solo work here that is something of a surprise treat.  Not amazingly flashy or blisteringly fast, Brown proves himself to be more than competent on lead guitar.  This is a great start to the record, as "Ego" sounds like it could have been taken straight from River Disturbance, the music flows that well despite the more than 20 years that separate that record from this one.

Likewise, the bass punch that kicks off "Stained" is very reminiscent of the bass that intros the song "Sanctuary" on '93's Learn album, although Brown's lead guitars here sound more in line with something off of a 70s classic rock album in places, before Jimmy shows off a bit of what he is capable of on a big, screaming guitar solo.  Morale's bass is a huge presence throughout the track, and Knox is equally strong.  This is an instantly catchy song that builds upon "Ego" in both texture and tempo, before giving way to the faster-still, "Indecisive".

Once again, a 70s blues-styled guitar lick opens things up, before Jimmy kicks into a lower-registered Bowie-influenced vocal line.  A full-on funk-rock track ensues from here, with Morales playing up and down the neck of his bass, Knox wailing away behind him, as Jimmy again launches himself into a pretty impressive guitar solo.  There are some supporting female backing vocals in the verse sections here that really work well on the fastest track of the record to this point.

Things turn down tempo-wise once again on "Entertaining Angels", which is actually a Newsboys cover.  However, I can guarantee you that Newsboys never play this track in this way!  Definitely heavier, yet still poppy in all the right spots, there is an urgency to this track not found on the original, which can be directly attributed to Brown's vocals and the wailing guitar lick that runs in the background throughout the track.  The melody from the original is largely there, but that is about all, as Deliv...err...Eraserhead tackles this song head on and makes it their own.

"The Scales" is one of the lighter moments on the record, with a less-progressive, less-moody take on things.  The Beatles-like "aaahs" behind the chorus lines are an interesting touch, as is the dreamy, 70s-inspired interlude, complete with swirling backing guitars, echoing reverb on the vocals, and psychedelic wah-wah effects on the lead solo.  Again, Morales is a big presence here and his talent is such a big part of what made 90s era Deliverance the musical powerhouse that it was.  I am so glad he came on board for this project.

"Memoria" may be my favorite track on the album, as it is the perfect representation of where this album is musically.  Very similar in rhythm and tempo to the previously mentioned "Sanctuary", "Memoria" would have fit perfectly on 1993's Learn album, but in no way does it sound dated here.  Jimmy's vocals are absolutely spot-on here as he powers across the surface of Knox's steady rhythm and Morales' thumping bass.  Mid-tempo and melancholy, this is exactly the type of song I have been seeking from any of Jimmy's projects and albums of the past several years.  Again, Brown proves his worth on lead guitar, and nifty little flamenco guitar part is even dropped in for good measure, before the perfectly layered vocals have Jimmy answering Jimmy through the chorus section.  A progressive metal masterpiece, "Memoria" is well worth skipping to, although you'd be bypassing some excellent music in doing so.  This song never fails to garner a repeat when I am listening, it is that amazing to my ears.

"A Story Of Time" again lightens the mood a tad, with the guitars cleaned up just a bit and used in a more rock/less metal manner.  The drums are not as dense, the bass not as thick, and Jimmy's vocals have a less moody air about them.  The production has a lighter hand here than on other tracks, as well, giving it a brighter feel overall.  Jimmy's spoken bridge reminds me of several of the interludes used by Queensryche on Operation MindCrime, but with nowhere near the darkness.

"The Swell Lot Of Thieves" retains more of a hard blues-rock approach, but it works well. Once again, the guitars don't have the metallic edge here that they do in other places, sounding dirtier, even "grungier" here for much of the track, and slide guitars are incorporated into the song, as well.  Jimmy's vocals take on a more spoken-word style through the verse sections, although he returns to singing on the choruses,  The solo section is quirky, to say the least, and Jimmy showcases a diversity of styles on his guitar.  Not my favorite track, but definitely interesting and worthy of inclusion here.

If "Memoria" is my favorite song, "Digital Postage Stamp" is definitely in the top three.  Starting off in a manner very much akin to Queensryche's "Eyes Of A Stranger", as far as style and tempo, this song is considerably heavier than the previous two, with harder hitting drums and a big cymbal presence, as well as a punchier bass approach.  Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine lends his considerable vocal talents to the backing support for Brown here, on this five-plus minute long melodic rocker.

The album closes with my number two track, "The Watchers", with Clayton again providing background vocal assistance.  Clocking in at just under seven minutes, "The Watchers" carries a "Silent Lucidity" approach for the first minute and a half, or so, with a big bass line and sparse use of guitars and drums, as Brown runs his vocals from soft and introspective to a more Gothic sounding wail.  The guitars and drums hit pretty hard in the chorus sections of the song, with a big, sweeping guitar solo soaring in at the four minute mark, once again highlighting that were it not for his duties on rhythm guitar all these years, Brown could likely have handled the lead duties on those 90s-era Deliverance records.  Call and answer backing vocals in the chorus section are nicely done, and the drums from Knox here are among the best on the album.

The production is superb, with Brown producing, mixing, and recording the record himself (mastering was done by Rob Colwell).  The packaging is top-notch, as well, with a 12-page booklet featuring color sketches of the band members, full lyrics, thank-you's and writing credits.

He started the year and ended the year in big fashion, did Jimmy P. Brown II, first with Deliverance and now with Eraserhead.  Where he goes from here, I am unsure, but I know that I hope both projects make appearances again in the not-too-distant-future.  His is a talent that few can match, in my opinion, and I sincerely hope that more people outside of the Christian metal world come to know just how great his music is, regardless of what style he is playing.  (Don't forget his full-on progressive rock band, Jupiter VI and their great, Floyd-ish album, Movable Walls from a few years back). 

Rating:  Pure and simple, this is a great record that NEEDS to be cranked!  I have no problems giving this a 9!

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SEVENDUST "All I See Is War"

(c) 2018 Rise Records

  1. Dirty
  2. God Bites His Tongue
  3. Medicated
  4. Unforgiven
  5. Sickness
  6. Cheers
  7. Risen
  8. Moments
  9. Not Original
  10. Descend
  11. Life Deceives You
  12. The Truth
Lajon Witherspoon--Lead Vocals
Clint Lowry--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
John Connolly--Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals
Vince Hornsby--Bass, Backing Vocals
Morgan Rose--Drums, Backing Vocals

It is crazy for me to think that Sevendust has been around for almost 25 years now, because I remember buying their debut album when it came out, and it seems like it was just a few years ago.  But, believe it or not, 2019 will be the 25th anniversary for the band, and for all but a brief four year hiatus from Lowry, the entire band has been together for the duration, which makes Sevendust an even more rare creature in the metal world.  And, pretty much like clockwork, one can expect a new Sevendust record every couple of years, and 2018 was no exception, as All I See Is War is the band's 12th studio effort.

All I See Is War starts off in typical Sevendust fashion, as the bone-crushing lead single, "Dirty", comes roaring to life, all down-tuned guitars, thundering drums, and the ultra-smooth clean vocals from one-of-a-kind Witherspoon, counter-balanced by the harsh screams of the album title, "all I see is war!!".  A killer Lowry solo is dropped in for good measure, and all seems perfectly right in the Sevendust universe, and for longtime fans, this is exactly what you love and worship about this band: you know what you are going to get, and love it any way.  And, for the band that brought you "Black", "Denial" and "Too Close To Hate", "Dirty" shows that they still have the chops and the songwriting ability to deliver a crushing blow to the side of your head...and make you like it, even though you know its coming! 

But almost immediately the record stumbles a bit, as "God Bites His Tongue" is one of the weaker moments on the record for me, as it feels a bit mailed in, especially with the riff that sounds  like one that Sevendust has used a hundred times on a hundred songs.  Yeah, there's a decent groove, and you can just feel Witherspoon doing what he can to save the track, and he nearly succeeds, but with repeated listens, I just can't shake the feeling that the band had something better in mind than what they put on the disc.  Reportedly the band came to the recording sessions for this album with more than 50 songs, and I find myself wondering if maybe one of those wouldn't have been a better choice than this one.

"Medicated" picks things up a little, again feeling pretty "I've heard this before", but a nice piano section on the bridge, and the combination of Witherspoon and the backing vocals salvage the track, despite a rather monotonous rhythm guitar riff and atypically uninspired drums.  To me, "Medicated" sounds like a deliberate stab at airplay on Octane and similar-minded terrestrial rock stations, which isn't necessarily a bad's just not an overly creative thing from a band that is not afraid to color outside of the lines.  This just feels a bit too predictable and tame.

"Unforgiven", "Sickness" and "Cheers", all up the ante a bit, bringing more life to the overall feel of the record.  "Unforgiven" has a feel very similar to what the band delivered on Animosity, which is one of my two or three favorite albums from the band, and the harsher, more guttural backing vocals offer up a nice contradiction to the powerful, smooth vocals Witherspoon typically delivers.  "Sickness" stays more middle of the road in terms of pace and delivery, but it is more musical, with more diversity to the guitars and drum fills than "Medicated" could muster.  "Cheers", with its chunky, stop-start rhythm and "I want something better than nothing" backing shouts, is a catchy, enticing breath of fresh air for the band.  Still heavy, still rumbling along the bottom edges, "Cheers" shows a band pushing their typical sound into atypical territory, and whether you are listening to the odd-cadence drums that Rose uses, or the snakey guitar line that Lowry weaves around those drum thumps, there is just something about "Cheers" that makes me hit repeat a couple of times whenever it comes up.

"Risen" is another track that hearkens back to Animosity, and it is easily one of my two or three favorite tracks here.  Witherspoons vocals punch their way through the verse sections by hammering across the top of the chugga-chugga-chugga guitar and drum riffing, and the breakdown is thunderously heavy, backed up by a short, but searing solo from Lowry.

"Moments" is led in by a piano line that runs throughout the track, but which is also lost in several spots due to the crushing heft of the song's rhythm lines.  A definite change-up from the typical Sevendust style, "Moments" is at times beautiful and at times raw and nasty.  Lowry delivers one of his most inspired solos on the record here, and Lajon runs the gamut vocally, as he alternates from buttery-smooth to sandpaper ragged, with those aggro backing drop-ins providing even further vocal depth. 

Just when you think things are unusual enough coming out of "Moment", Sevendust drops a sonic bomb on the listener with "Not Original".  The song, which is said to be inspired by the Netflix series, Stranger Things, drifts in on a New Wave synth that is eerily reminiscent of the show's intro.  Rose's drums soon join the track, as do the guitars and bass, but this song'ssuccess or failure hinges on the delivery of Witherspoon, who absolutely nails it.  Avoiding the temptation to become saccharine, Witherspoon is spot-on smooth, with emotion dripping from each verse of this song about searching out inspiration when "the well is dead and dry" and a person is seeking "the perfect way to say I give up".  The piano drop-in is a great touch, seemingly falling into the slot normally filled by a jagged guitar solo, and the overall feel here is one of a band that knows what they are capable of, so they stretch to see what else they can do.  Of all the slower material Sevendust has attempted over the years...which, granted, isn't a lot...this is easily my favorite "ballad" by the band.

"Descend" and "Life Deceives You" are both bold, fresh sounding rockers that again serve to take the Sevendust sound and push at the edges, expanding the band's creative boundaries without forgetting who they are.  Granted, when you have a singer with a voice as completely unmistakable as Witherspoon's, it is easier to remind people of who you are, even when you are in tinkering mode.

The band bookends "Dirty" with the equally punishing, "The Truth", which closes out the record.  Angry, aggressive, and heavy, "The Truth" throws an old-school Sevendust bone to the fans who stuck around for the ride on All I See Is War, and there is plenty of meat to chew on with this bone.  A chunky breakdown and the harsh snarl of Witherspoon imploring you to "say my name!", build to the rapid fire cadence and swirling guitar build before some keys enter the fray to tie all the strings together and outro the song.

Probably a couple of songs too long, but still another solid, quality release from Sevendust, with a couple of curveballs thrown in to keep the listener from becoming complacent, as it is obvious the band has not. 

The packaging on this record is outstanding, with a 16 page booklet with photos, credits, lyrics, etc., and the work of Michael Baskette is excellent.  Perhaps there is a bit more shine to the production on ...War than on previous efforts from the band, but the ferocity of the heavy-hitters is not hampered in any way, and the the surprise emotion behind "Not Original", is likely only enhanced by Baskette's work.

If this is your introduction to the band, I'd encourage you to go back and seek out their self-titled debut, Animosity, and the Alpha, to really get a feel for how this band has evolved their sound while still remaining unquestionably Sevendust.  From the bitter angst of the debut, to the more musical...perhaps even progressive....sound of Animosity, to the flat out heaviness of Alpha, to the mixture of all their past that is found on All I See Is War, Sevendust is a band that not only demands your attention, they deserve it.  So, if you're late to the party, where have you been all these years?  You have a lot of catching up to do!

Rating:  Not their best, but still a really good record despite a couple of misses near the front end.  Crank this to 7.5.

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HELIX "A Helix Christmas"

(c) 2018 No Life Til Metal Records

  1. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
  2. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
  3. Santa Claus Is Back In Town
  4. A Wonderful Christmas Time
  5. Jingle Bell Rock
  6. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
  7. Rock It To Me Santa
  8. Jingle Bells
  9. Silent Night
  10. Christmas Time Is Here Again
  11. All I Want For Christmas (Is The Leafs To Win The Cup)
  12. Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer
Brian Vollmer--Lead Vocals
Greg "Fritz" Hinz--Drums
Daryl Gray--Bass, Piano, Keyboards
Kaleb "Duckman" Duck--Guitars
Chris Julke--Guitars

Helix has been around a long time...a LONG time, folks.  Believe it or not, 2018 was the 44th anniversary of the Canadian band, and while many changes have taken place over the years, two things have been consistent:  Brian Vollmer and the Helix brand of heavy metal.  And, when a band has been around and active this long, it is almost inevitable that there will be a Christmas album floating around, right?  

In 2008, Helix released their initial Christmas album, A Heavy Metal Christmas, which featured the first ten tracks listed above.  However, for this release, the band added "All I Want For Christmas (Is The Leafs To Win The Cup)", which had previously only been available as a 7" vinyl single, and the newly recorded, Helix version of the modern classic, "Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer".  

Most of these songs hold relatively faithful to the original, classic versions...albeit considerably louder and with Vollmer's unique vocal style rather than a children's choir or some suave crooner filling you full of Christmas cheer.  That being said, there are a few tracks here that really stand out for me.

While I have never been a Beatles/John Lennon fan, I have to admit that I have always loved the song "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" as far as non-traditional tunes go.  Vollmer does a pretty good job of reining himself in, and he utilizes a generally smoother vocal approach than you will find in a typical Helix track.  And guess what; the guy can sing!  He further proves this later on the traditional Christmas classic, "Silent Night", which the band performs with a reverence such a powerful classic truly deserves.  Even when the big power ballad guitar kicks in, there is an emotion to the playing that fits the mood of the track perfectly, as it gives way to the second verse, which echoes the first in approach, as it is just Vollmer and a single, clean electric guitar.  I like it, what can I say.     

"Sock It To Me Santa" was originally released by Bob Seger back in 1966, but it is given new life by Helix, who turn the song into a high-octane punk sleaze number, with Vollmer sounding at times a lot like Phil Lewis from LA Guns.  Short (just 2:18), fast, and fun, this is a great little track to throw into the mix, as is the follow-up, the raucous Helix version of "Jingle Bells".  "Christmas Time Is Here Again" nearly matches "Sock It To Me Santa" for intensity and punkish attitude, and it is a fun way to end the album proper before the two bonus tracks kick in.

Of the two new inclusions on this CD, "All I Want For Christmas (Is The Leafs To Win The Cup)" is definitely my favorite.  Combining their love for metal and hockey, these Canadians create a humorous mid-tempo rocker, complete with the catchy "Ho ho ho, Go Leafs, Go!" chant from the band that I am pretty sure the team actually uses around the holidays.  (If they don't, please explain to me why!)  Not likely to be played anywhere other than Canada...and specifically in Toronto...this is still a fun, original twist on a Christmas tune.  By the way, it is NOT performed to the tune of "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)", or the uber-cheesy, Mariah Carey "All I Want For Christmas Is You".  This is a pure Helix rocker through and through. 

"Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer" starts off with a narrative from Vollmer and the bass player, Daryl Gray, as the set the stage for just how ol' Granny met her demise.  It's humorous...the first couple of times...but it wears thin after too many listens, but hey, it's a Christmas album, so how many times are you going to play it per year, right?  Anyway, the song breaks into a high speed version, complete with double-bass kicks from the drum and some fast and furious rhythm guitar playing, with Gray holding down the vocals for the track, as well.  Again, it's fun, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't grown pretty tired of this song in ANY version over the years.   

Again, there's nothing shockingly amazing here, but it is definitely a fun collection to throw in the party mix around the holidays.  The volume levels have been cleaned up so everything sounds smooth and clean here as it transitions from the older songs to the newest ones, and the cover artwork is distinctly different from the 2008 release.  Mine is a digital review copy, so I can't comment on any packaging issues or qualities, but since No Life Till Metal is partnered with Roxx Productions/Roxx Records,  I am sure the packaging is of the highest quality.

By the way, should you find yourself unwrapping some Christmas cash, No Life Til Metal has also reissued the last Helix studio album, the really good Bastard Of The Blues, both on limited edition vinyl and CD.  You can find it HERE.

Rating:  As I always say, rating Christmas albums is difficult, but for the sake of consistency, I'd say you can crank this to 7, because the performances here are very good, and Vollmer sounds great, Christmas songs or not.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

ACE FREHLEY "Spaceman"

(c) 2018 Entertainment One

  1. Without You I'm Nothing
  2. Rockin' With The Boys
  3. Your Wish Is My Command
  4. Bronx Boy
  5. Pursuit Of Rock And Roll
  6. I Wanna Go Back
  7. Mission To Mars
  8. Off My Back
  9. Quantum Flux
Ace Frehley--Vocals, Guitars, Bass (2, 4, 5, 7, 8)

Additional Musicians:
Warren Huart--Guitars (9), Bass (9)
Ronnie Mancuso--Guitars (4, 7)
Gene Simmons--Bass (1)
Alex Salzman--Bass (3, 6)
Scot Coogan--Drums (1, 3, 4, 7)
Anton Fig--Drums (5, 8)
Matt Starr--Drums (2, 6, 9)

As his former bandmates in KISS prepare to go on their "final" tour, original guitarist, Ace Frehley, just keeps cranking out new albums.  This one, Spaceman, is his third new release in the past 4 years, which is quite a churning out of material from the 67 year-old axe-slinger, especially when you consider it has been almost seven years since the last KISS studio effort.  And while his is not likely to ever top his solo album from 1978 (EASILY the best of the four KISS solo records from that year), or his first couple of Frehley's Comet records, it is always fun to see what the Spaceman will come up with next.  In this instance, Ace has seemingly returned to his 70s hard rock roots a bit, which is fine by me.  But, as always, Ace has a couple of surprises up his sleeve on this record.

For starters, KISS bandmate, Gene Simmons, co-wrote and appears on bass on the album's opener, "Without You I'm Nothing".  This song is a perfect example of what Ace has always done best; straight-forward hard guitar rock, a la mid-70s KISS.  The track rolls along nicely, with Simmons' bass rumbling in the background as Ace builds to a big guitar solo that you can just instantly tell is Frehley, as his tone and style are pretty much unmistakable if you have been a fan of his, or of early KISS, for more than 15 minutes.  His vocal approach is also rather unmistakable, as his "singing" falls somewhere south of singing and just north of spoken word at times.  Not the album's finest moment, but a solid opener that should have fans fairly expectant right off the bat.

Ace doesn't disappoint with the next track, "Rockin' With The Boys", which feels like it could have come straight off that classic 1978 record.  In fact, the track was written in the 1970s, and it has a definite classic KISS feel to it.  In fact, I'm kind of surprised there hasn't been some sort of lawsuit filed by Paul and Gene to try to lay claim to the track as it was written during Frehley's first stint with the legendary band.  The call-and-response backing vocals have a very Gene-led KISS feel to them, although Simmons is not featured here.  Ace's guitar sounds retro-fresh here, and "Rockin'..." is definitely one of the top three songs on the album, and top five or six Ace has released since he went fully solo and dropped the Frehley's Comet name with 2009's Anomaly album.  Good, good stuff.

"Your Wish Is My Command", another Simmons co-write, feels like a slower "Shout It Out Loud" as far as the melody line goes, but the guitar solo here is leaps and bounds better than the one on "Shout It Out Loud".  Nothing overly special, but nothing deserving of the skip button, by any means, and as far as I am concerned, the album starts off 3-for-3.

Well, actually, it's 4-for-4 with "Bronx Boy" being another top track from not only this album, but also Frehley's solo career.  The guitars are snarly here, and Ace's vocals are about as good as they get from him here as he recalls his youth experiences in an Irish street gang back in the Bronx in the 60s.  Ace also supplies the bass for this track, and the man has a true knack for that instrument, as well, as it has a definite presence in this track and is catchy as heck!  References to switchblades, zip guns, and rumbles date the lyrics a bit, but that's part of the fun here, and let's face it, we're all here to feast our ears on the guitar solo that Ace absolutely tears into on this neat-and-tidy, sub-3 minute rocker.  This is the type of song that Ace is made to play and he owns this track fully.  

"I Wanna Go Back" is an Eddie Money cover, and I was surprised at how well it actually works here.  Ace sings more here than anywhere else on the record, and the extra flair added to the guitar sections of the song really make it stand out from what Money did.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not declaring this the superior version of the song, because Eddie Money dominated that song back in the day, but this is a pretty good run at a classic song.

The other track where Spaceman absolutely hits fully is on the album's closer, "Quantum Flux", which finds Ace doing what ace does best, and that is shredding his guitar strings.  As he is often wont to do, Ace wraps up the album with an instrumental, but this time he takes a bit of a prog rock approach, which he handles with great skill.  More than 6 minutes long, this is a great way to close things out, with Ace getting some acoustic guitar assistance to support his electrified work, and the writing on this song is some of the best on the record. All in all, a very cool song with the added bonus of not having to listen around Ace's vocal limitations to hear the exceptionallity of the music. 

The remainder of the songs here range from pretty good to musically excellent, but are frequently hampered by clumsy, forced-rhyme lyrics, which if we are honest with ourselves, all of KISS' records have been guilty of at times.  "Pursuit Of Rock And Roll" has some of the tastiest guitar work on the record, with a scorching solo (and a really tasty outro, as well), but the clunky vocal style and chuckle-worthy lyrics take a portion of the song's effectiveness away.  "Mission To Mars" is the hardest rocking track here, with some absolutely stellar guitar work, and while the lyrics are meant to be cheesy and fun, they stretch things a bit too far for my taste.  "Off My Back" would be the "pretty good musically" track I referenced above, as there is really nothing special about this one, and the lyrics (and vocal approach) just make it that much less interesting.  I'd have to say this is the only real "filler" track on the record, but with only 9 songs total, Spaceman can't really afford the luxury of fluff.  That being said, the guitar solo almost saves this plodding, mid-tempo rocker...almost, but not quite.   

I've heard a lot of negative talk about this album, and frankly, I don't get it.  This is Ace Frehley doing what Ace Frehley does.  Did people think he was suddenly going to become a fantastic singer?  Were people expecting big, symphonic metal pieces, with strings and multiple layers of vocals?  All in all, this is an album that is at least comparable to every solo Frehley album that has been made, and probably my second...maybe third...favorite of his solo catalog.  Again, he was never going to touch the magic of the '78 record, but I feel it is a slight step better than Anomaly, and probably just as good as the surprising Space Invader.   

The packaging is nice, with a big, fold-out poster of Ace on the inside.  Lyrics would have been a nice touch, but it's not like Ace is hard to understand (you just don't always understand why he's singing what he's singing...).  The production is solid, if not flashy, and has enough grit to make it obvious Ace is doing this because this is what Ace does:  show up, plug in, rock out, period.

No, he's not back in his New York Groove, but this Bronx Boy ain't done rocking you yet.  And he's doing it with more heart and soul than KISS has shown since Psycho Circus!

Rating:  Better than many would have you believe.  I crank this to 7, and if not for the lyrics on a few tracks, it may have been an 8.

Monday, December 17, 2018

URIAH HEEP "Living The Dream"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. Grazed By Heaven
  2. Living The Dream
  3. Take Away My Soul
  4. Knocking At My Door
  5. Rocks In The Road
  6. Waters Flowin'
  7. It's All Been Said
  8. Goodbye To Innocence
  9. Falling Under Your Spell
  10. Dreams Of Yesteryear
Mick Box--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Phil Lanzon--Keyboards, Lead Vocals
Bernie Shaw--Lead Vocals
Russell Gilbrook--Drums, Percussion
Davey Rimmer--Bass, Backing Vocals it is, the tail end of 2018, and I am reviewing a new Uriah Heep album.  Yes, THAT Uriah Heep, as in Very 'Eavy...Very 'Umble from 19-freaking-70, Uriah Heep!  As in, 19-freaking-72's "Easy Livin'" Uriah Heep!  And while only Mick Box remains from the original line-up, two other members (Lanzon and Shaw) have been on board since 1986, so even 3/5 of the "reformed" version of the band has been around for 32 years!  That is borderline insanity, my friends!

I'm not going to go into the band's full backstory, as any band that has been around for 48 years has plenty of backstory to tell, and I don't have that kind of space.  But I will point out that Uriah Heep has been consistently releasing records for the entirety of their career, with Living The Dream being the 25th entry into their studio catalog.  And, as one might imagine, a band with that kind of catalog has some albums that are more hit than miss...and a few others that swing the other way.  So, understanding that, where does Living The Dream fall?

For starters, the band still retains relatively the same 70s-inspired classic hard rock sound it has utilized for the vast majority of their catalog, falling in that Deep Purple, UFO, Who, even Rainbow realm.  Heavy use of the Hammond organ, mixed in with pretty straight forward rhythm guitars and typically solid bass lines, some rather good drum work, with Box's powerful, hook-laden, catchy-yet-not-flashy lead guitar solos is pretty much standard fare on a Uriah Heep record, and that formula holds true here, as well.  But, as with most all of Heep's catalog, it is the impeccable harmony vocals that really stand out, at least for me.  Remember, this band was born in an era where members not only played their instrument, but they also held their own with backing vocals, and few bands have done this as well as Uriah Heep has.  

From the opening moments of "Grazed By Heaven", it is pure Uriah Heep rock n roll on this album, and I can't imagine any longtime Heep fans (Heepers?  Heepees?) not diving headfirst into this record and grinning from ear to ear.  While some of the record comes across as a bit formulaic ("Take Away My Soul" sounds very been there/heard that to me...well done, no doubt, but not overly original), there are multiple moments where even a casual fan, such as myself, can't help but utter an awed, "damn!".  Case in point, the track that I feel the album pretty much revolves around, "Rocks In The Road".  Borderline Who meets Deep Purple...with a bit of Tesla tossed into the mix (the intro guitar riff sounds like it was lifted STRAIGHT from "Modern Day Cowboy")...this eight-plus minute prog rocker sounds like it could have been just at home on an album from 40 years ago, yet it still manages to sound fresh and energetic.  The tempo change on the last vocal bridge of the track is merely a launching spot for the real work of the song, as a droning bass line paves the way for a building organ presence, a gritty guitar riff, and ever escalating drums, before a huge guitar run closes out nearly four minutes of classic prog rock instrumental work that few bands today would even consider attempting...and still fewer could pull off.

The album's title track is a rather strong affair, as well, with those gorgeously layered vocals introducing the track, soon accompanied by a pretty heavy guitar riff, and those killer Hammond fills from Lanzon.  Vocally, this is as good as it gets on the record, and "Living The Dream", the song, is definitely a competitor for best track on Living The Dream, the album.  Heavy in all the right places, but without robbing the band of their 70s prog stylings, this is one smooth, cool rocker that I find myself repeating frequently.  Gilbrook has a pretty sharp drum line on this one, as well, and this song also features the most ripping guitar solo from Box that I have heard in some time.  The guy can still bring it, to be sure!

"Waters Flowin'" will draw listeners to make comparisons to Zeppelin on this stylish rocker, again bolstered by the huge layered vocals supporting Shaw's powerful, emotive lead vocals, complete with more "na na's" than have been put on an album since Journey nearly na-na'd us to death on "Lovin', Touchin' Squeezin'" back in '79!  Then, just as quickly, the band kicks back into another edgy, proggy rocker, with "It's All Been Said", which starts off brazenly, only to back off during the verse section where the lyrics lament commercialism and the modern world, before the band comes crashing back in, again in a very Who-ish manner, and it's off to the races with the Hammond organ and some of the best drum work on the record. 

"Goodbye To Innocence" starts off with some killer guitar work, leading the listener to believe it's going to be a big, riffy rocker, before the rhythm section changes everything up and we are treated to a barroom boogie number, complete with a big wink and nudge about meeting the girl that's gonna change your life, son.

The other real treat here, for me, is the penultimate track, "Falling Under Your Spell", which sounds a lot like an updated "Easy Livin'" to these ears, but not so much that the band could be accused of ripping themselves off, simply to fill out a track listing.  This is a great guitar-and-organ rocker, and it reminds me a lot of some of the stuff that the band put out at that same time (think Demons And Wizards or Sweet Freedom...or even 1975's underappreciated, harder-edged, Return To Fantasy, which may be my favorite Heep record).  

"Dreams Of Yesteryear" is a fine closer, also, as the big, moody prog rocker is led in by a nice, gritty guitar line, before Shaw waxes a bit nostalgic, telling the listener, "Let me tell you how it was, so many years ago...".  In a way, it seems a bit out of place, really, because nothing else about this record sounds nostalgic so much as it sounds like a classic rock band doing classic rock for a more modern crowd.  

Look, I realize these guys have been doing this for a LONG time, but they don't show it, either in their performances or their songwriting, as it would be so easy for a band this long in the tooth to simply put an album on cruise control and coast.  This is a band that still enjoys what they are doing, and as long as Box feels he wants to continue, I don't see Uriah Heep stopping anytime soon.

Granted, I do not own the entire catalog...less than half, actually.  But I would say that this album easily falls into the top third of Uriah Heep's catalog for me, and would be a great starting point for any new fan who may have only experienced the band's classic hits previously.  Long time fans should also seek this one out, as they will surely find themselves hoping at least a couple of tunes from Living The Dream make it into the set list of this still consistently touring band.

Rating:  As surprised as I am, I would say crank this to 7.5!  

Saturday, December 15, 2018

BEXLEY "Lost In The Moment"

(c) 2018 
  1. Run Rabbit Run
  2. Toxic Love
  3. Falling To Pieces
  4. Sometimes
  5. Deal
Bexley--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass
Elijah Wood--Drums
Aaron Edwards--Additional Instrumentation, Producer

Every now and then, a new artist will just pop up out of nowhere in my mailbox/in-box, that I have pretty much zero interest in reviewing.  The style isn't a fit with me, the artist or band is uninteresting, the production is so bad I can't sit through the record; there are a lot of reasons why I give albums a "thanks, pass...", then delete it or just put it in "the stack".  Its pretty much a guarantee I listen to 95% of everything that is sent to me (if its death or black metal, I don't bother), but as a one man operation, there is simply no way I can review everything fairly and effectively, so I don't try.  But occasionally, an artist will show up that seemingly has nothing for me at first glance, but after I give it that guaranteed first spin, I sit up and go, " we're on to something here..."

Bexley is one such artist.  Raised in Seattle, singing "forever", and playing guitar since she got tired of using backing tracks at the age of 13.  Hers is a sound that is definitely a product of her environment, and with influences stretching from Robert Plant to The Beatles to Alice In Chains to Soundgarden, her debut EP, Lost In The Moment doles out some serious angst and emotion, filtered through her melodic vocals and her distorted guitar.

Things open up with "Run Rabbit Run", which finds the young singer/guitarist delving into a decidedly 90s alternative/grunge style, albeit with some poppish overtones, especially in the vocals.  Her voice is almost too sweet, too innocent sounding to fit the music...almost.  In all actuality, the duality of her voice and the accompanying music creates a sonic tapestry that doesn't sound like retro worship as much as it sounds like it comes from someone who was there, living that style and sound and a part of the scene.  All this would potentially be possible were it not for the fact that Bexley is just 22 years old!  

"Toxic Love" sheds the pop sensibilities of "Run Rabbit Run" and instead delves into a sludgy, grungy morass that Alice In Chains would call home in the early nineties.  Bexley's still relatively sweet sounding voice on the verse sections is a stark contrast to the Chris Cornell-haunting-the-studio approach of the chorus, where down-tuned guitars and a muddied rhythm section drench the song with a flannel-and-Doc Martens coat of depression and angst, giving the track a unique sound unlike anything on the radio now.

"Falling To Pieces" treads similar waters, a Soundgarden meets 70s psychedelic rock, Hole meets the Beatles, kind of sound.  Still very much a relative of the Seattle sound of the 90s, "Falling To Pieces" features more thick, bottom end grungy rock, but also has some off-tuned guitar riffing and a vocal line that sounds a bit like Lizzy Hale in spots.

"Sometimes" becomes a bit less dank and dark, with a relatively sweet-sounding vocal line, particularly on the chorus section, and Veruca Salt pops into my head as a means of comparison.  The verse sections are relatively noise free,  with a simple guitar line and drum pattern, but the fuzz kicks in on the chorus sections in much the same way Nirvana would hold things back for the majority of a song like "Come As You Are" before unleashing the true fury of the song on the chorus parts.  This is probably my favorite track on the EP and I hope that this is where Bexley finds herself focusing her style on in the future.

"Deal" closes things out, and once again we get a Veruca Salt/Shirley Manson (Garbage) feel to the vocals, some eerily haunting, echoing fingersnaps mixed in with the percussion section, a repetitive, plucky guitar line, and more angst-in-the-chorus song structuring.  A bit repetitive, but still effective, "Deal" provides a solid closing to an overall surprising debut.

Produced by Aaron Edwards, who has also worked with Black Veil Brides and Sick Puppies, Lost In The Moment is thick, dense, and murky...intentionally...with songs that sound like they oozed straight out of the 90s Seattle scene and somehow landed in a more modern, updated recording studio.

Musically, the performances on Lost In The Moment range from competent to excellent, with Bexley's guitar skills definitely belying her tender age.  In fact, her skills on the guitar are of high enough measure that she has been featured in the book Rock Gods, alongside such heavy hitters as Slash and Jimmy Page!  Additionally, she has performed on the Revolver "Hottest Chicks In Rock" tour, is featured in the Spotify "Fierce Femmes" playlist, and has shared the stage with Lacuna Coil, Sick Puppies, and Rob Zombie, among others.  Not a bad way to kick off what appears to be a promising career.

Rating:  A solid debut, to be sure!  Crank this to 7!


(c) 2019 AFM Records

  1. Prisoner Of Time
  2. Control
  3. Recover
  4. Prepare For Chaos
  5. Slowly Insane
  6. Architects Of Hate
  7. Demolition Man
  8. Unwelcome Surprise
  9. Snake Eye
  10. Survive
  11. Good Or Bad
  12. The End
A.K. Knutson--Lead Vocals
Michael Gilbert--Guitars
Steve Conley--Guitars
Michael Spencer--Bass
Ken Mary--Drums

It has been more than 30 years...33, by the time this album hits stores...since Phoenix-based thrashers, Flotsam And Jetsam, released their debut album, Doomsday For The Deceiver.  While that was a good precursor of things to come for the band, it was their follow-up, the absolutely must own thrash classic, No Place For Disgrace, that really showed just how impressive this band was, combining pure speed and adrenaline thrash tinged with hints of progressive metal and featuring the wail of lead vocalist, A.K. Knutson.  Their third album, When The Storm Comes Down, was a frequent spinner on my show on the college radio station I worked at, as was the aptly-titled fourth effort, Cuatro.  I truly felt that F&J was destined to become at least as big as Testament or Metal Church in thrash circles, but for some reason, fate had a different idea for the band, as numerous line-up changes, label changes, and 4-5 year long gaps between albums slowed the momentum the first few records had built up.

While it has been a bit of a stretch since the band was at their commercial zenith, there has never been a let up in output, although some of the band's post-Cuatro efforts were somewhat subpar compared to those first four records.  Then, in 2016, the band came out with their self-titled release, sounding like a completely rejuvenated machine, firing on all cylinders and out to show that they were not dinosaurs among the other younger bands in the heavy metal/neo-thrash world.  I was honestly taken by surprise by the ferocity of some of the tracks on Flotsam And Jetsam, and thought that that record was an amazing way to call it a career.  But not only was Flotsam And Jetsam not the band's swan song, it was simply a precursor to the blast of metal they unleash on this new record, The End Of Chaos.

The album kicks off with "Prisoner Of Time", a track that sounds like what you might expect if Iron Maiden wrote a thrash song.  Maiden-esque twin guitars anchor the track, which also features melodic, layered vocals, and high speed drum fills that immediately let the listener know this is no "old guy's metal" going on here; these guys are here to kick your butt!  I have to admit that this song took me a bit by surprise at first, as there is definitely a melodic quality to the track that had not been present in Flotsam And Jetsam for a few years.  Michael Spencer gets to show off his stuff on bass in a couple of different places, which is very cool to hear, and the guitar solo on this track brought a smile to my face almost instantly, as I was taken aback by the speed and fury it was attacked with, while still retaining such a melodic style.

Track two kicks the high speed thrash into gear, lest the listener believe this was to be a more power metal-styled release.  "Control" is pretty much just an adrenaline rush set to music, with Knutson adding a bit more coarseness to his vocals, which sound every bit as good today as they did when I first picked up Doomsday For The Deceiver all those years ago.  The song is extremely tight, with no sloppiness in the rhythm guitars or the bass, which can sometimes be an issue with bands trying to rip through a high-velocity song such as this one.

"Recover" slips back into "Maiden And Jetsam" territory, but dangit if they don't pull this style off amazingly well.  As much as I was seeking a full-throttle thrash attack, I find myself enjoying these heavy-yet-marginally-restrained melodic moments more and more with each spin of The End Of Chaos.  Knutson's vocals are just an absolutely perfect fit for this type of song, and Mary's galloping drum style sets the tone in such an obvious way that it feels like this is what Flotsam And Jetsam has been doing their entire career.  While I realize it will likely never happen, I can't help but wonder what would happen if F&J decided to throw down on a couple of Maiden tunes for a covers album.  I can just hear "Run To The Hills" with Knutson on vocals and the grittier, thrashier styled guitars when I listen to "Recover".

"Prepare For Chaos" is back to the thrashier, grittier style that F&J is more known for, although it is still not at full-octane speed, like "Control" was a couple of tracks earlier.  For older fans, this track reminds me a bit of the way the band tackled "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" on No Place...  

"Slowly Insane" changes that up, as this is a blistering, high speed affair that really showcases the greatness of Ken Mary on the drums.  Tempo changes, crushing double-kicks, abusive rolls, and churning fills accentuate the fret-melting tandem guitar work from Gilbert and Conley, which includes an insanely speedy solo run that simply has to be heard to be believed!  Knutson works a bit more in his lower register here, but still elevates to a piercing wail when necessary.  Simply excellent stuff here!

"Architects Of Hate" sounds like it came straight out of the 80s Bay Area Thrash scene, which is a beautiful thing for me, as that is the era of thrash that I cut my metallic teeth on!  Knutson is spot-on here, sounding like he could easily slip back into "Hard On You" mode from No Place For Disgrace, and the swirling guitars and rapid-fire drums remind me of the best stuff the band has ever released.

There are simply no weak cuts here, no moments of the band letting up on the creativity or the aggression.  Whether thrashing along to the bass-heavy "Unwelcome Surprise", or the chugging, churning "Survive", with its tempo changes and altered time signatures, or the quirky intro section of "Good Or Bad", complete with tribal drum patterns that are staggered with the rhythm guitar sections, Flotsam And Jetsam keeps the listener plugged in and on constant alert for something new to smack them across the face as they turn the corner from song to song.

Rather than close on a somber moment, as many albums are wont to do, Flotsam And Jetsam attacks you one last time, as the aptly titled "The End" is one of the fastest tracks on the record during the verse sections, but has a bigger, sweeping, more melodic chorus section where Knutson wails, "I can see the end is taking over, and it always brings me down" as he laments the state of society today.  The vocals on the chorus section are intertwined and layered beautifully, and Conley rips through one last blistering solo as Gilbert lays waste to another set of strings on the rhythm runs here!  A perfect ending to one of the best melodic thrash albums I have heard in YEARS!  As great as the Necronomicon release was earlier this year (2018), I think F&J may top it in 2019 with The End Of Chaos, which is really saying something!

Speaking of "The End", when asked if The End Of Chaos was truly "the end", Knutson exclaimed, "Hell, no!", emphasizing the band has no intentions of quitting, which is a great thing for metal.  While Knutson admits that some of the previous versions of F&J were simply touring bands, or as he put it, "a lineup...that was just together to go out on vacations and then have the promoters pay for it," this new version is the real deal, out to cave your head in while you enjoy every thrashtastic moment of it!  As long as Knutson's voice holds out, and as long as Gilbert and Conley keep writing infectious, hook-filled thrash while ripping out their blistering twin-axe attack, Flotsam And Jetsam is going to be one of the highlights of the metal scene for me.  The addition of Ken Mary on drums, solidifying the already bedrock bottom end that Michael Spencer has so capably kept rumbling for the past several years, is simply the chrome polish on a finely-tuned metal machine.  Hopefully this line-up will come out of 2019's European touring with Destruction and Overkill, and head straight back to the studio for another full-on metallic onslaught.

It should be noted that the production here is excellent, with every instrument heard cleanly, including the bass which is often lost in the thrash mix, especially on older albums.  The production is modern in approach, but still retains the grittiness that is essential on a thrash album; clean, but not polished.  The rhythm section is given plenty of punch to drive the songs, and Knutson's vocals are perfectly leveled in the mix.  Big-time credit and thanks should go to Jacob Hansen who mixed, mastered, and produced the record, and gives Flotsam And Jetsam the kind of sound necessary to propel them across the metal landscape of 2019 and 2020.

It is simply amazing to me that some bands continue to put out quality material after 15, 20...even 30 years, while other bands can't string two albums in a row together without losing track of who they are or what they sound like.  Flotsam And Jetsam may have the most complete album of their 13 disc catalog on their hands, and that's saying something!  While maybe not quite as dynamic as their classic No Place For Disgrace, there is no question for me that The End Of Chaos is their heaviest album yet, and definitely a Top 4 album for these legends, possibly even Top 3!  Thrash fans...and metal fans, in general...simply must seek this album out when it is available in 2019!  What a great start to a year! 

Rating:  A definite cranker, here!  Turn this up to 9 and mosh away, friends!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

LEDGER "Ledger"

(c) 2018 Hear It Loud/Atlantic Records

  1. Not Dead Yet
  2. Warrior (featuring John Cooper)
  3. Bold
  4. Foreigner
  5. Ruins
  6. Iconic
Jed Ledger--Vocals, Drums, Percussion

If you have ever had the chance to see Skillet in concert, there is usually a moment in time when the band's tiny-yet-fierce drummer, Jen Ledger, comes out from behind the kit to allow her to showcase her vocal talents away from the kit that hides her away for so much of the show.  Perhaps taking her cue from those concert moments, Ledger fully comes out from behind the kit here on her debut solo EP.  Lest one believe that this is something of a fracture of Skillet, the album was co-produced by Skillet rhythm guitarist/keyboard player, Korey Cooper, and the band's frontman and founder, John Cooper, lends his husky, snarly voice to one of the tracks here, as well.

The album kicks off with the lead single, "Not Dead Yet", a sassy rock number that incorporates piano, synths, and big drums, but don't expect any searing guitar licks to jump out at you, because that is not the direction of this track, or the EP, for that matter.  Ledger's voice sounds a bit processed in places, but that could also be partly due to the heavy use of electronics and synths in not only this song, but throughout the whole 6 track record.  She adds a clean ferocity to her vocals on the punchy chorus, while using a much more reserved, smoky...maybe even sultry...vocal approach on the verse sections, and her drumming, as would be expected, is top notch, with interesting patterns and fills throughout the song and EP.  I'm not sure anyone could have predicted the massive hit that this song has become, garnering airplay on not only Christian rock stations, but also on mainstream rock radio and even Octane on Sirius/XM.    

"Warrior" is the biggest rock moment of the record, which is to be expected when John Cooper is in the mix.  However, the introductory moments of the track would not immediately indicate that, as a robotic-sounding Ledger leads things in with the repeated line, "Heart starts to pound, shaking the ground, this is the sound".  But then the drums hit and an edgy guitar riff kicks the track into full rock gear.  Not a fast song, but the heaviest thing on this record, this track alone should give Skillet fans all the reason they need to snag this EP.  The first verse is all Ledger, A cooing Ledger trill breaks up Cooper's snarling lines on the second verse, and the two pair up for a couple of lines here, as well, before Cooper gives way to Ledger for a couple of lines, with Cooper re-entering to shove the song into the chorus, which he participates in.  Big arena drum lines are present throughout this track, as is the gritty rhythm guitar, and Ledger's defiant stance vocals are the perfect fit for this track that usually ends up on repeat a couple of times when this EP is popped in by me. 

"Bold" goes the other way from "Warrior", opting for more electronic elements and a softer vocal approach from Ledger, who manages to come across as sounding vulnerable on the verses, but empowered and strong on the chorus sections.  I will be very surprised if this track is not released as a single in the near future, as it is pure down tempo EDM ear candy, with no aspirations for big arena rock status.  The electronically enhanced drums and swirling, atmospheric synths supply a strong foundation for Ledger to really let her voice take the center stage here.

"Foreigner" is quirky and different than anything else here, as Ledger plays around with some nursery rhymes to forge the verses that run atop a bed of synths and programming before the chorus adds a solid punch with heavier drums and bass thumps, as well as a bit of guitar work.  Sure, this is more synthpop than the hard rock, but that chorus is just so catchy, and Ledger's voice so smooth and powerful, that it is virtually impossible to turn away from "Foreigner".  Ledger uses the song to point out that social media and reality TV are constantly perpetuating roles and ideals upon people that are virtually impossible to meet, creating self-loathing and misery in those people who try to pursue such things.  The title, "Foreigner", relates to the fact that we are foreigners in this world, destined to just pass through on our way to Heaven, and that giving in to the trappings of this fallen, dysfunctional world merely distracts us from our greater goals while on Earth.

"Ruins" is a true ballad, relying heavily on a piano and synthesized strings for much of the instrumental work here, as Ledger flexes her vocal muscle here, easily bouncing her voice up and down in range, and adding a whispery quality when required.  One thing that I truly appreciate about this track is that her voice sounds less processed than it often does when she's backing things up in Skillet, or even in other places on this EP.  Her backing vocal tracks here are powerful and provide a gorgeous echo to the lines here about love lost and learning to love again.

The album closes with the heavy bass dance groove of "Iconic", which like every other track here is catchy, hooky, and commands the attention of the listener, even if the style really isn't your cup of tea.  I keep going back and forth between this and "Warrior" as to which is my favorite track here (although "Bold" is definitely in the mix, as well), as both have just a bit more of a rock punch than some of the others that, with just a few twists and tweaks, could allow for them to be Skillet songs.  But Ledger avoids that trap and takes "Iconic" in more of an EDM direction than modern radio rock.  If you listen closely, there are some killer percussive moments here, with Ledger adding some fun twists to the typical dance floor beat of most music today.  I would have loved to hear a guitar solo rip through this track instead of the synth solo that we are given, but I totally get it and appreciate her determination to not go the Skillet route, which would likely have been very easy to do.  Some nice programming elements are mixed in, and there's even a brief moment when all the music stops and it's just Ledger's voice that we are hearing before the hip-shaking groove kicks its way back into the mix.  A great, fun way to close out a surprising EP.  

Mine is a digital copy, so I am unsure of packaging or anything of the like.  The production is even-handed, with the synths staying back in the mix when necessary to allow Ledger's voice to fly, and stepping up to fill the solo voids left by a lack of consistent guitar work.

Rating:  Its hard not to like what the young Skillet drummer has done here, so crank Ledger to 7.5!

Friday, December 7, 2018

STEELHEART "Rock'n Milan"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. Blood Pollution
  2. Livin' The Life
  3. Gimme Gimme
  4. Like Never Before
  5. My Dirty Girl
  6. She's Gone
  7. Cabernet
  8. Drum Solo
  9. Everybody Loves Eileen
  10. Rock N Roll (I Just Wanna)
  11. I'll Never Let You Go
  12. We All Die Young
Miljenko Matijevic--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Kenneth Kanowski--Lead Guitars, Vocals
Mike Humbert--Drums
James "Rev" Jones--Bass, Vocals

Steelheart is the latest Frontiers Records band to have a live recording released this year, as Dokken, LA Guns, Unruly Child, and Mr. Big have all seen live efforts pressed to CD in 2018, with both LA Guns and Mr. Big having also been recorded in Milan (Dokken's was a 2016 show).  However, unlike the other 80s bands on this list, Steelheart is down to just a single member from its original form, that being inimitable vocalist, Miljenko Matijevic, although both Humbert (2006) and Jones (2007) have been in the band for over a decade, and are credited as playing here, but I have also read that it is actually Marten Andersen on bass for this show and Joe Pessia playing lead and rhythm guitars, so I am not 100% sure of who is playing as I write this...but I know damn well that Miljenko is singing!

The album, as near as I can tell, is a sequential recording of the band's live set played at Frontiers Records' annual festival, and is identical to the DVD in terms of track order, with just a single omission from the DVD.  As such, the album starts off with some crowd noise as Miljenko intros the show with a 2+ minute long reading of a Jim Morrison (Doors) quote, which he reads over the top of some drums, before the album actually kicks off with "Blood Pollution".  As is so often the case with intros, this one is NOT a separate track, so you either have to listen to the dang thing every time you put the album on, or you have to fast forward through it, which is a pain in the butt.  PLEASE STOP DOING THIS, PEOPLE!  Anyway...

"Blood Pollution" gets the audience whipped into a frenzy right off the bat as Miljenko cuts loose on that big scream of his after a rather intense build up of drums.  Easily one of the band's hardest-hitting tracks, Miljenko is able to showcase his still fabulous range right off the bat, as he moves from the gruffer, huskier lower range of the verses to the bigger, higher ends on some of the chorus sections.  And, of course, there's that scream!  Without much of a pause at all between tracks, another Steel Dragon track follows next, with the thumping "Livin' The Life" bursting forward next.  Personally, I don't know why this song was included (much more on that in a moment), as it was not a big cut on the soundtrack, but whatever; the song rocks pretty hard and the band sounds like they are having fun with it, although there is some muddiness to the mix here that blurs the sound of the bass and the drums a bit, which is bothersome.  The guitars are nice and up front on these first two tracks, and Miljenko sounds fantastic, which is really no surprise.

A couple of debut album cuts follow things up, with "Gimme Gimme" really drawing a response from the crowd, and the energy on these two tracks is seriously high.  I was a bit concerned that this may fall off a bit, as Miljenko chooses to drop a brand new song into the set at this point, but he made a wise decision in choosing the sassy "My Dirty Girl", which has an excellent groove to it that the crowd seems to have eaten up in this live setting.  This is one of my three or four favorite tracks off the latest Steelheart effort, Through Worlds of Stardust, which manages to successfully blend a bit of the melodic hair metal from the 80s and a more 70s bluesy, classic rock sound.  If you haven't picked up ...Stardust yet because of the less-than-great earlier 2000s output by the band, wait no longer; ...Stardust is well worth seeking out.

A piano-free version of "She's Gone" is up next (Miljenko plays the piano, so no idea why it wasn't utilized at this show), and the vocalist absolutely shines here, really laying some powerful emotion into this overlooked power ballad.  "Cabernet" from the not-so-great Wait album is up next, and to my ears, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  I can absolutely guarantee there is no way this song...or any song from Wait, would have been in my top 15 choices for this album, but I wasn't consulted.  To be fair, I also wouldn't have included the drum solo that follows, but I have a feeling this is as much about giving Miljenko's voice a break as anything.  I guess the solo shows Humbert's skills off well enough, but I don't like drum solos when I am at a concert, and I can guarantee I skip them (if possible) on live albums.

Fan favorite "Everybody Loves Eileen" is up next, and the band threatens to go into serious jam mode here, as the track stretches to more than nine minutes in this live setting, which is pretty cool, honestly.  The guitar work here is excellent, but again, some production issues really mar the performance for me, as there is just too much bass fuzziness overall.  Even turning my subwoofers down doesn't seem to help a whole lot, which is unfortunate.  The band then blasts off into the driving, "Rock N Roll (I Just Wanna)", before Miljenko slows things way down...and tunes his voice way up...for the band's massive hit, "I'll Never Let You Go (Angel Eyes)".  If there is one thing about this live record that really surprised me, it was the fact that I don't think Miljenko missed a single one of those rafter-scraping high wails on this track, even nearly 30 years after it was recorded.  It is astonishing to me to hear him still so powerful and so rangy all these years later, especially when coupled with the fact the guy nearly died several years back.  "We All Die Young" from the Rockstar soundtrack closes things out for the evening, with Miljenko sounding like he could go another 10 rounds vocally, and the band sounding incredibly tight and energetic down to the last note of the evening.

My biggest complaint about this record is actually song selection (although I will also address the production issues in a moment).  Unsurprisingly, six of the 12 cuts here come from the band's huge debut album, while just one song is chosen to represent band's newest album, Through Worlds of Stardust, although "My Dirty Girl" is a really, really good songWhat IS surprising is that while its cool to have the two main Steel Dragon tracks (1 and 12) from Rockstar included, I can't for the life of me understand why absolutely nothing from their 1992 sophomore album, Tangled In Reins, is included here.  Where is "Sticky Side Up", "Late For The Party", the band's namesake song, "Steelheart", or "All Your Love"?  To me, while not as much of a hit on radio and MTV, this album surpasses the greatness of the debut due to overall better songwriting.  Why Miljenko chose to ignore that record in favor of tracks like "Cabernet" from the seriously disappointing Wait album, or the good-but-not-great Steel Dragon track, "Living The Life"...or a drum solo, for crying out beyond me.  Even on the DVD, the song that was chosen to be cut from the CD listing was another song from Wait ("Live To Die").  I don't get it; there has to be a legal reason for ignoring Tangled...  And if I could complain about the set list just a tiny bit more, adding "Love Ain't Easy" and "Can't Stop Me Loving You" from the debut would have made more sense than the three oddities I listed.    

While Miljenko sounds great and still possesses a maddening range, vocally, the overall sound of the album is lacking.  It sounds like it was recorded from microphones rather than directly through the mixing board, giving some parts a rather muddy sound, especially on the bottom end.  This is unfortunate because the one time I did see this band live, they were excellent and sounded great!

Sadly, guitarist Kenny Kanowski would pass away just a few short months after the recording of this show, and I can't help but wonder if that is the reason this live recording is seeing the light of day, as sort of a tribute to the man. As such, it would have been nice to have a guitar solo section put in, replacing the drum solo, perhaps.  I can't help but wonder if maybe this show was never intended to be released, which could explain the subpar recording.  

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not watched the DVD and have no real plans to do so.

Rating:  Rock this at 6, with the lower score owing to sub-par production and an odd set list that completely omits several great tracks from their second album.