Tuesday, July 30, 2019

FICTION SYXX "The Alternate Me"

(c) 2019 Melodic Rock Records

  1. My Darkest Hour
  2. Monster In The Mist
  3. Angel Of Mine
  4. The Alternate Me
  5. Wind Reminds Me
  6. Carry The Light
  7. Foolish Pride
  8. Better Part Of Me
  9. Tall Dark Secrets
  10. Suite Madam Blue
  11. Tragic Magic
  12. The Wizard
Mark Allen Lanoue--Lead Vocals, Lead Guitars (2, 5, 6, 8, 9), Acoustic Guitars (10, 12) 
JK Northrup--Lead Guitars (1, 3, 4, 7, 10), Slide Guitars, Backing Vocals, Production
Eric Ragno--Keyboards
Larry Hart--Bass
Rory Faciane--Drums

Fiction Syxx returns with The Alternate Me, the follow-up to Tall Dark Secrets, one of 2017's biggest records here at Glitter2Gutter.  Retaining 4/5 of the line-up from that amazing first record, with only bassist Larry Hart (King Kobra/Montrose) being new to the group, the band explodes out of the speakers sounding every bit as energized and electric as they did on that debut effort.  Whether speaking of the powerhouse vocals of Mark Allen Lanoue, or the guitar wizardry of Northrup (Lanoue is no slouch in this department, either, for that matter), there is a musical magic in Fiction Syxx that is simply not found in so many of the melodic rock/metal bands that find their way across my desk and into my CD player on a regular basis.  Perhaps it is the addition of the uber-talented Ragno on keyboards, or the extreme lock-step tightness of the rhythm section of Hart and Faciane, or perhaps it is just the way each of these guys hit on all cylinders together that makes them so special.  Regardless of the recipe, the resulting record is one that has to be heard in 2019!

Blending an obvious love for 70's prog rock and hard rock with modern AOR and melodic rock, Fiction Syxx is an animal unto themselves as far as I can tell.  There really isn't anyone doing what these guys do, at least that I have come across.  From the moment the opening guitar lines of "My Darkest Hour" come sweeping in, it is clear the band is determined to up their game from their great debut.  Lanoue's vocals are even more powerful than they were on the debut, and it is difficult to overstate the greatness of Northrup's fret work.  Fingers are definitely flying on this track, as well as the follow-up, "Monster In The Mist", which combines a great retro vocal style, especially on the backing section, with a more modern melodic rock approach to the guitars.  I especially like Hart's bass work here, as it is given room to be heard in several places on the song.

"Angel Of Mine" leaves the classic rock sound behind for the time being, and steps firmly into the melodic rock arena to great success.  Perhaps not as complex as some of the other tracks here, "Angel Of Mine" has a melodic charm, nonetheless, that is driven by Lanoue's emotive voice.  Ragno's keyboards are expertly utilized in a supporting role here, while the guitars from Lanoue are powerful but not overly dominant.  If any instrument is given special treatment here, it is likely Faciane's drums, with some fancy footwork being required to pull off some of the rhythms he flashes, particularly near the end of the song.  Good, good stuff.

The 70's prog approach returns on the big, bombastic title track, which boasts hints of Kansas, Styx, and Uriah Heep, especially when Ragno interjects his keys into the big solo run that follows the second chorus. Northrup rips off another scorching, extended lead run here, mixing things up with Ragno's keys, and it all works to great effect, as does the catchy, sing along chorus.  Definitely a contender for my favorite track here.  Love this.

"Wind Reminds Me" backs off from the note density of much of the first half of the album, reminding me a bit of Styx's classic "Come Sail Away" in its approach and tempo.  A smooth rocker with plenty of room for Lanoue's vocals to expand, it's Hart's bass that seems to really stand up and grab my attention whenever I give this song a listen.  I'm not sure why, but the older I get, the more I notice the bass work in songs, and Hart definitely delivers on this album.  The guitar work is much more laid back here than on pretty much any other track on the record, although there is still some fairly furious riffing from Lanoue near the end of the solo section before the guitars give way to the percussion work of Faciane.

"Better Part Of Me" deserves some love and attention, as once again Hart's bass work is exceptionally strong, and Faciane's percussion is really given the chance to shine during the verse sections where the majority of the musical work is carried by an understated rhythm guitar and Ragno's keyboards.  I love the fact that this is treated as a band, and not just a project, and that every member gets the chance to contribute and be heard.  This is another place where I think Fiction Syxx outclasses so many of their contemporaries.

"Tall, Dark Secrets" is another contender for song of the album (and it likely wins), as it has such an epic feel to it.  What should have been the title track to the debut album of the same name, "Tall, Dark Secrets" is melodic rock bliss, combining Zeppelin-esque riffing with big, string bending solo work, and an eerie keyboard presence throughout the track.  Lanoue is just spectacular here, his tenor soaring to powerful heights without giving in to the temptation to become over-wrought or self-important.  He never feels like he is saying, "Hey!  Check out these pipes!"  Rather, the sweep of his vocals always blends perfectly with the overall scope of the song he is working in, and "Tall, Dark Secrets" is, for me, the pinnacle of that work here (although is take on a Styx classic will give this song a run for its money...but more on that in a bit).

One other original song that I feel has to be pointed to specifically is "Tragic Magic", which perfectly spans the two cover songs the band chose to include here.  When both covers are taken from the works of 1970's prog legends such as Styx and Uriah Heep, linking them together could be a monumental task if a band wants to keep their album from sounding disjointed.  Enter "Tragic Magic".  An uptempo rocker with a solid dose of 70's fuzz added to the rhythm guitars, "Tragic Magic" is the puzzle piece that fills in the middle section of the really strong second half of The Alternate Me.  Punchy bass?  Check.  Rollicking guitar leads?  Yep.  Some cool slide guitar?  Got that, t00.  Big, sweeping lead vocals?  Covered.  A big, proggy keyboard run?  Definitely here!  Rapid fire drums?  "Tragic Magic" has all of these things, all wrapped up in a song that not only sounds, but also feels like it comes from the same time period as the two songs it bridges together.

As mentioned, the band tackles a couple of classic cover tunes here, and both really shine.  Fiction Syxx's treatment of "Suite Madam Blue" by Styx is excellent, with Lanoue really holding his own on the vocals here, and I dare say I prefer his vocal take to that of Dennis DeYoung (pardon the sacrilege Styx fans).  Likewise, Northrup's massive solo here is an absolute stunner, as are the keys from Ragno, who is absolutely in his element on a classic rock track such as this.  Even Hart's handling of the bass lines here is given plenty of voice in the track (the mix here is spot-on perfection, in my opinion), and Faciane's drums are solid and serve to support all of the greatness heaped upon them.  Despite the fact that this is a cover, it is easily one of my top three songs on the album, which is generally NOT the case with cover songs.  I would think that if the members of Styx were to hear this track, they would have to smile and nod at the brilliant handling of this epic classic.

The other cover here is Uriah Heep's "The Wizard", which is again handled marvelously.  The acoustic guitar intro is perfect, and the leads here are excellent, as well.  In fact, once again, the cover here is practically flawless, with the production again giving it a truly retro feel, but with a crispness and clarity not generally found in 1972.  While not the biggest song on Heep's Demons And Wizards album (that would be "Easy Livin'"), this song fits the scope and feel of The Alternate Me perfectly and is a great conclusion to a truly great album.

I don't own a physical copy of this album, so I cannot speak to the booklet information, but I can say the cover art is pretty cool, and generally, Melodic Rock Records does a really good job with their packaging, so I have a hard time thinking their handling of this record would be anything but top line.

Everything that was great about Fiction Syxx's debut is even better on this record...bigger, faster guitars, more powerful rhythm section work, a more pronounced bass presence, and even bigger backing vocals...to go along with excellent songwriting and production.  Elements of Styx, Asia, Kansas, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and even bits of Led Zeppelin are scattered across a sonic landscape that also blends modern melodic rock into a style and sound that I still find myself marveling at after literally dozens of listens.  I truly hope that Fiction Syxx continues on, and hope that somewhere down the line we will get the chance to see the band in a live setting.  I think that would be something to behold!

Rating:  As great as Tall Dark Secrets was, The Alternate Me cranks just a bit harder!  A definite 9 for me!

Monday, July 29, 2019

Concert Review-- DISCIPLE (Destiny Foursquare Church, Rapid City, SD, /24/19)



Normally, I don't drive hundreds of miles to see a concert, especially when there is only one band playing.  But, this Disciple show in Rapid City, SD was the impetus behind a family vacation (yes, we also saw Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, the Cosmos, Custer State Park, etc., etc.), as not only do I love this band, but both of my sons are Disciple...err...disciples(?), as well.

As I stated before, there was no opening band for this show, which found the band on a long stretch across the United States, heading west to California before trekking south to Texas.  Not having an opening act is a bit of a risk for any band, because of a couple of things.  First, you minimize the draw of the show, because sometimes people will come to see the opening acts...maybe they know the band or are already fans of those early bands...and then they stay for the headliner's show, as well.  Without an opener, that draw is gone.  Secondly, with no opener, the success or failure of the show is placed squarely on that one band, and if things go badly, people can potentially leave with a bad taste in their mouth toward that band.  Fortunately, Disciple has established themselves as one of the main forces in the Christian hard rock world (behind only Skillet and perhaps Thousand Foot Krutch and Red, at least to listeners outside the Christian sphere), so the draw was a decent one, especially considering the show was on a Wednesday.  At one point I had done a headcount and tallied 89 people in attendance, but I am pretty sure that number exceeded 100 by the time the show started.  And, as far as having a bad show?  I had attended three previous Disciple shows over the past 5 years, and every single one was solid.  This show made it four-for-four, as the band was in top form both in sound and performance.

The band kicked off their show at about 7:15, with long-time members Joey West (drums) and Josiah Prince (guitar) taking the stage first, followed by Andrew Stanton (guitar), and finally the exuberant frontman, Disciple's founder and sole-original member, Kevin Young.  I am not sure if there is an off-stage bass player, or if the bass lines are pre-recorded/triggered by the sound man, but I can say with 100% certainty that the vocals were live, as were the guitars and drums.  This has become a big issue of late, with so many bands being accused (and accusing each other) of lip-syncing and using pre-recorded tracks.  Yes, there were some effects tracks used here, such as the cello introduction to "Dear X", but I never felt that I was being robbed of a live performance, as it is simply not feasible for most bands to travel with multiple non-member performers, and the use of these effects in no way negatively affected the show for me.

Once the show kicked off, the majority of the crowd immediately went to the front of the stage area, with my wife and sons joining me at the very front of the crowd, right in front of Stanton, about ten feet left-of-center stage.  It was straight into the music for the band, as they launched into consecutive full-throttle rockers, "Rise Up" from 2005's self-titled album followed by "The Name" from 2014's Attack, the album where the current line-up came together.  "Secret Weapon" from the latest album, Long Live The Rebels, followed, with "Invisible" somewhat slowing things for a moment, before "First Love", also from LLtR concluded the "first movement", if you will, of the show.  By this time, the crowd was definitely fully into the show, as was the band, who put on their
full-scale show for the appreciative crowd.  If you have never attended a Disciple show, you are really missing something, as Kevin Young is an absolute ball of non-stop motion and energy, as he is all over the stage, jumping onto and off of the various boxes set up on stage, and putting everything he has into his vocals, as well.

At this point, Kevin took a couple of minutes to catch his breath and to talk to the crowd about the band's soon-to-be-released new album, Love Letter Kill Shot, which will be the fourth collaboration from the current version of the band, which is sometimes referred to as to as Disciple 3.0.  To give the fans a taste of what they can expect, the band launched into two new tracks, "Cuff The Criminal" and "Reanimate".  "Cuff The Criminal" features some electronic elements, but still rocks very hard, while "Reanimate" definitely falls more on the metallic end of the Disciple music spectrum.  I would imagine both will find significant success on Christian rock radio, but I find it too bad that the stations such as Sirius/XM Octane will likely ignore these tracks (and continue to ignore this band), as they are likely considered to be too Christian for their listener base.  Check out the videos below for BOTH new songs in the live setting (not from the show I attended), as well as the promo video for "Cuff The Criminal"....




          



By the way, the first lines of the verses are performed by Prince on lead vocals before Young comes in on the second half.  In concert, this song is a big audience participation number, with Young inciting everyone to jump around during the chorus section, followed by a group sing along on the big "whoa-oh-oh" section, which was a big hit with those in attendance.  My family had a lot of fun bouncing around and chanting along, and it was especially entertaining to see my seven year-old's shoes light up with every jump!  

From there, the band returned to more familiar waters, with two of the band's biggest hits, "God Is With Us" and "Erase", both from Long Live The Rebels, leading the show into it's midpoint and Young's traditional sermon.

For those who have never attended a Disciple show, Young regularly spends about 15 minutes speaking to the crowd, usually mixing in stories from his youth to help illustrate his point, which is based in Scripture.  On this particular occasion, Young spoke about society's need to win at all costs and our need to seek approval and reward for everything we do in life.  He talked about his band's successes and failures, all culminating in receiving a Dove Award (think Christian Grammy) that now sits on a shelf in Young's home, essentially meaningless and more or less forgotten.  Young became very emotional at one point as he talked about his youth, about not fitting in as a child and teen, and about eventually being befriended by the most popular student in school because that student had the courage to care about someone outside of his circle (they remain best friends today, according to Young).  The crowd was obviously moved by Young's willingness to bare his own emotional scars, which led the rest of the band back on stage to kick off the band's biggest track, the 2010 Christian Rock Number One song, "Dear X", which is also my oldest son's favorite song.  It was awesome to
see him get into the song so much, and the picture I managed to take during the track was, in my opinion, the best shot of the entire show, as it showcases a smiling Young next to the song's title as West hammers away at his kit.

"Game On" followed, with a three song medley of early Disciple scorchers being melded into what the band refers to as their "heavy medley".  Portions of videos to the songs are spliced together to show the band in their younger stages, particularly focusing on Young and his change in appearance and style over the years.  For those of us who have been following the band for more than a decade, this was a pretty cool treat, but I have a feeling much of the crowd had no idea where these songs came from.  The band continued in a heavier vein with the post-hardcore infused track, "Scars Remain", closing out the "regular" show.

After several chants of "one more song", the band returned to the stage, starting off with "After The World", a largely acoustic track that gave Young a chance to showcase that he is so much more than just a screamer.  The energy was cranked back up to ten for the final two songs of the evening, both from Attack, as Young broke out the band's signature flag for "Dead Militia", and then closed the evening with another massive fan scream-along track, "Radical".  All in all, the show ran for roughly an hour and fifty minutes, which is impressive for any band performing without a support act.

The band cooled down for a few minutes, before Young, Prince, and West returned to the church sanctuary and took their places behind a table and talked with fans while taking photos and signing autographs.  I'm not sure why Stanton didn't come out, but Prince stated that he was not feeling very well, himself, so perhaps Stanton was under the weather, as well.  All three men took note of the Kansas City Royals shirt and hat I was wearing (and pretty much ALWAYS wear), stating that they knew that KC had just swept their beloved Atlanta Braves team, and we chatted baseball briefly as they signed my sons' CDs and took a group picture with my 11 year old, which was likely the highlight of the entire vacation for him!

I was impressed with the show from start to finish, and even more so after talking to Prince, who was obviously struggling a bit with his voice.  This was the band's fifth show in six days, but you would never know it, as the energy level was high throughout the evening.  I was especially grateful for the band taking the time to chat with their fans, as they still had to load up and head off to another show the following night, but they never rushed anyone they were talking with.  I also want to say thanks to Destiny Foursquare Church and whomever helped to finance the concert, as amazingly, this was a FREE show to all attendees.  Truly a blessing for those who may not have been financially able to attend otherwise.

As to the venue, Destiny Foursquare Church has a very large sanctuary area and an excellent stage set-up which should appeal to other bands who may be travelling through the area.  The acoustics were very good, with no echo issues, which has been the case with shows I have attended in churches and smaller venues in the past.  The band was able to set up a merchandise area near the entrance to the church, which was easy to navigate, and the volunteers were all very pleasant to work with.  The merchandise selection was a bit thin, especially in the t-shirt department, but hopefully that is because Disciple is selling out of everything on a regular basis!  Both boys still managed to find shirts they didn't already have, and anyone who purchased a t-shirt also received a free copy of Long Live The Rebels on CD, likely so that inventory is cleared out in preparation for the arrival of Love Letter Kill Shot  

This was a great experience in an intimate environment that allowed for a lot of interaction between the band and concert goers.  This was my youngest's first time seeing Disciple, and the third time for my oldest, and both are ready to see the band again any time they roll even remotely through our area!

Keep up with Disciple's tour schedule HERE.


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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

THE GRAVE DENIAL "The Grave Denial EP"

(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. Fake
  2. Breath Of Death
  3. Take The Pain
  4. God Awaits
Steven Rester--Vocals
Ryan Carver--All Guitars
Jacob Hannah--Drums

"Never give up, Never surrender!"  Those are the words of Tim Allen's character on one of my favorite sci-fi comedies, Galaxy Quest!  It springs to mind because that had to be the philosophy of The Grave Denial, a new modern metal band based out of Nashville...and Phoenix...as in Tennessee and Arizona!  Following a relocation of one of the members, as well as a decision to change the band's name, which could cause confusion among the band's followers, it would be easy to throw in the towel for a lot of bands.  But, thanks to the digital world, putting a band together, and keeping it together despite large geographical separation is not the problem that it once was.  So, for The Grave Denial, the separation of members led to a perseverance and focus on the end goal, which was the creation of this new 4-track EP.

Formerly known as EverCross, The Grave Denial plays a heavy brand of modern hard rock/metal which they deem "metal with a message"!  Bands such as Demon Hunter, Fight The Fury, and As We Ascend would be fair comparisons to the sound of The Grave Denial, while the band also claims Metallica, Iron Maiden, Trivium, and Parkway Drive as personal influences.  In my opinion, the closest the guys come to sounding like any of these bands is As We Ascend, and that is with good reason, as Jake Jones, vocalist and guitarist for that band, produced this EP.  That is not to say that the band comes off as AwA clones, because they do not, with Rester generally employing a far gruffer vocal style than Jones, and the heft of three of the four tracks falls more in line with Demon Hunter or Fight The Fury than anything As We Ascend has done thus far.

The EP opens with the lead single, and my personal favorite track, the most "radio-friendly" song here, in "Fake".  Currently climbing the Christian Rock charts and receiving strong airplay from Christian rock stations, "Fake" deserves to be heard by a much larger, less exclusive audience, as it ranks right up there with just about anything Octane is currently playing on SiriusXM satellite radio.  Some programmed elements open the track before Rester's vocals jump in along with the rest of the band.  For the majority of the track, Rester sings in a clean style, which is very reminiscent of the approach used by Jones on As We Ascend's debut effort. A song about putting on a false front in order to deceive others, this crunchy number has a crushingly heavy chorus section, starting with Rester's building roar of "You're....so....FAKE"!  The rest of the chorus is equally biting with its condemnation of the song's subject matter, as Rester more smoothly sings about, "All the faces you create/ All the lies make your escape, /Honey dripping from your lips/ Burning bridges, sinking ships...".  The guitars are hard-edged and aggressive, and the drum patterns fall outside the typical, varying from ther cadence and approach that is so common on most hard radio rock these days.

From here, things only get heavier.  "Breath of Death" has some classic guitar elements to it, with big power chords at the beginning, but things change rapidly when Rester comes roaring in on the verse sections in a decidedly more modern vocal approach.  Then, during the pre-chorus and chorus portions, Rester's lower-range vocals have an almost Gothic feel to the way they are sung over Hannah's double bass rhythms.  There is a tempo change coming out of the second chorus, with some straight-forward metal rhythm guitar riffing and a nice metal solo from Carver, before some effects-enhanced drums lead Rester back into the fray for one more run through the pre-chorus section, and a power chord fades the song out.  A pretty cool combination of styles and approaches all mixed together in one song, showcasing the band's diversity and influences.

"Take The Pain", with its chug-chug-chugga-chug rhythm guitars and punchy drums is extremely catchy, especially with the chant along chorus and a really cool guitar solo from Carver.  There are some production effects added to certain parts of Rester's vocals, but they only serve to enhance what he is already doing with his harsh screams.  Don't think something ridiculous like AutoTune here, rather think of how a computer might digitize and fade out the end of a scream.  When done with minimal repetition, it is a cool effect, and The Grave Denial nails its application perfectly here.

"God Awaits" closes things out, and once again, a cool, catchy chorus is a huge part of the draw of this song.  Sang rather than shouted or screamed, the chorus really stands out from the rest of the song, which is a choice combination of guitar riffs, barked vocals from Rester, and rapid fire drum fills and syncopated rhythms leading into and out of the chorus from Hannah.  There's also a cool vocal bridge before each chorus, with Rester screaming out "Fear", "Death", "Hope" and "Pray" while a lower, more spoken return follows each word.  Pretty cool stuff.  Carver lays out a fairly extended, melodic solo before the layered vocals of the chorus take their final few runs through the song.  A great way to close out an all-too-short EP from a band I am definitely going to keep an eye and ear on! 

As one would expect with Jones as the engineer and producer, the sound here is top notch and professional despite no label backing.  The guitars are crisp, the vocals sharp, and the drums have a full, hard-hitting sound, with nice separation throughout the EP.  Getting Jones on board was quite the coup for the band, and I have been told they hope to have him work with the band on their full-length album when it is ready to go.

As great as the music is, what impresses me equally is the mission of the men involved in The Grave Denial.  Fully willing to back up their Christian stance, the guys have all declared themselves to "be there" for their listeners whenever necessary, and have gone so far as to set up an on-line chat on their website, and even published their own personal phone numbers for people to be able to reach them if they need someone to talk to.  Now THAT is dedication and putting your money where your mouth is!  If you feel you need to talk to them, or if you want to tell them how much you love their music or their ministry, you can find more information at www.TheGraveDenial.com .

Hopefully, we will see actual CD copies available at some point, but for now, you can get your digital EP at CD Baby.

Rating:  An excellent, crankable debut!  Blast this one at 8!