Friday, December 27, 2019

LOU GRAMM "Jukebox Hero: My Five Decades In Rock N Roll" (Book Review)

(c) 2013/2019 Triumph Books

Rock legend, Lou Gramm, relates his own personal rags-to-riches story in this excellent autobiography, "Jukebox Hero: My Five Decades in Rock N Roll".  The book tells of Gramm's early musical interests (originally as a drummer), his stints with a handful of local bands, his brush with fame with his first big group, Black Sheep, and how he made himself known to the guitar player of Spooky Tooth, one Mr. Mick Jones, who was on the cusp of starting his own group.  That group, of course, was Foreigner, which was destined to become one of the biggest rock bands of the time frame from 1977 to 1987.  It's hard to argue with the success of a band who is one of only two bands to chart its first 8 singles in the Top 20, with the other band being The Beatles!  

In this easy-to-read-but-hard-to-put-down memoir, Gramm talks freely about his relationships with the various members of the classic rock band, but it is, of course, his love/hate relationship with Jones that inspires the most words.  Gramm does a good job of telling about not only the strained years, which started around the Agent Provocateur album's recording and release, but also the good times, when Gramm and Jones were considered to be one of the best songwriting tandems in rock and roll!  As such, the two were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2013, which is roughly where the first edition of this book ended things, I am told.  However, with this newest edition, there is an expanded Epilogue section, which finds Gramm musing about his love of cars, his third marriage and the birth of his youngest child, and his reunion with Foreigner for a 40th Anniversary Tour in 2016, which found Gramm and Jones reuniting with several members of the original band, while also sharing the stage with the current version of Foreigner.  

If the reader is looking for vast heaps of dirt to sift through, he or she will likely be disappointed, as Gramm does very little name-dropping outside of members of his band...although he does have an interesting story to tell about his one encounter with John Lennon.  There are no torrid sex scenes with groupies, no piles of cocaine, and no hotel trashing going on in the book.  To be sure, Gramm admits to having addiction issues with alcohol and drugs, but there are no highly detailed episodes to speak of, although he does go into a bit of detail about the incident that led to his final admission to rehab some 22 years ago, and about how his discovery of a full faith in Jesus Christ turned his life around.  Gramm talks about his regrets to having not been there for his earliest children, his two failed marriages, and some bad decisions he made as he climbed the ladder of rock n roll success.

There is, of course, some discussion of his two solo albums, of which he is obviously proud, his evident frustration with the one-and-done "supergroup" Shadow King, and his forays into Christian rock with his Lou Gramm Band, but the majority of the book focuses on how he and Jones wrote some of the biggest rock songs of a decade and how the relationship between the two went from one of being partners to one in which Gramm felt he was reduced to merely being the man who sang the words Jones wrote.  There is a good dose of bitterness found in the book, but an even greater dose of humility, regret, and a desire to forgive, even if those things are not always encountered at the same time or to any degree of success.  

Foreigner has long been one of my personal "Top 5" bands, and "Jukebox Hero: My Five Decades In Rock N Roll" was a great read from start to finish.  So many songs of my youth were touched upon in the book, with none garnering greater attention than the one the book shares its title with, "Jukebox Hero", which Gramm explains is an autobiographical tale involving a young Lou Grammatico (his given name) standing ticketless outside a Jimi Hendrix concert, dreaming of being the one on the stage at some later point.  

I have not read the original printing of the book, but would highly recommend snagging this newest, expanded edition.  The stories kept the pages turning non-stop for me, and I found myself finishing the book in less than 8 hours of reading time.  There are a couple of editing errors, but nothing overly noticeable, and certainly nothing that makes the book difficult to understand or read.  Fans of Foreigner or Gramm will likely not find themselves disappointed with this book, and I would anticipate most will find themselves ripping through the book, much as I did.  


(c) 1992 Minor/Major Music

  1. She Wouldn't Wait
  2. Lizzy
  3. Easy Street
  4. Isn't That A Shame
  5. Miss Me
  6. Slippin' Girl
  7. Lucy
  8. Smart Young Girl
  9. Loco P.D.
  10. Laughing Girl
  11. Room 1000x
  12. Windslow
Randall Zwarte--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Bob Zwarte--Dums, Percussion, Vocals
Chris Lippert--Guitars
Mark Fischer--Bass, Vocals

Growing up in west-central Nebraska, there was not a lot going on for the hard rockers and metalheads who were seeking live music.  The nearest town of any size, North Platte, had only 20,000 or so people at the time, so no major bands toured through the area.  When I went away to college in Kearney, the population only slightly increased, unless you counted the University of Nebraska-Kearney students, which added a significant number of people.  However, the live music scene really wasn't much better, at least as far as national artists, unless you wanted to hear country music.  I got involved with the college radio station, which was essentially a jazz station during the day, but it turned into an all rock/metal station at night, and that was where I found my home for parts of three years.  As such, I was fortunate enough to meet bands like St. Elmo's Fire when they would roll through town and perform at a local strip club/rock bar called The Fireside.  It was there, in 1993, that I was first introduced to a regional touring hard rock band from South Dakota called Zwarte.

Zwarte, which consisted of two brothers, Randall and Bob, as well as guitarist Chris Lippert and bassist, Mark Fischer, played a large number of popular hard rock covers from bands such as AC/DC and Aerosmith, but they also had their own music, which was what really drew me in.  And this CD, their debut effort, was also the first music by the band that I ever owned...and I still own it, nearly three decades after its release.

The album starts off with a quirky song called "She Wouldn't Wait".  I say it's quirky because it is like nothing else on the record, but it is a full scale song, not just an intro or some kind of mood-setting piece.  Featuring a piano and multi-layered harmony vocals, the song was more Queen than anything else, and while Queen was decent, this wasn't what I was looking for from these long-haired Dakota boys!  Not even the cool little guitar solo near the middle of the track could keep me from scratching my head at the inclusion of the song.  Today, I love the song and appreciate what the guys were doing, but it was definitely an oddity for me at the time.

For me, the album really started with the next track, an audience favorite in the live setting, the snarky rocker "Lizzy".  A simple staccato rhythm guitar leads the track in, with lead singer Randall Zwarte, somewhat monotonously droning on about his boring life.  But then he meets the song's subject and everything changes, as Lizzy leads our singer to "drop(ped) out of college, pick(ed) up a tattoo" and get a job fixing "little kids bikes", as he laments how this lady had completely changed the path of his life.  Its a humorous little ditty that isn't even close to the best song on the album, but one that sets the tone for who Zwarte is and what they do.

"Easy Street" follows and features a haunting, smooth guitar solo and a much more polished, commercial hard rock sound that I have always felt should have been a big hit for the band.  The band had strong faith in the song, as well, as they recorded the song a second time, releasing it as the title track of their second effort (Easy Street), which was also released in 1992.  I believe it was around this time that the band auditioned for...and was subsequently turned down by...Atlantic Records.  While this didn't stop the band from releasing multiple albums over the following decades, I always wonder what would have happened for Zwarte had "Easy Street" and a couple of other tracks gotten more of a chance at national radio or even possibly MTV.  Regardless, "Easy Street" is a cool, mid-tempo rocker, with Randall's vocals taking on a bit of a haunting feel as he glides over the chords of the song, while a haunting yowl runs through the background, especially on the chorus.  The guitar work is a solid piece of the track here, especially the solo, and it is on tracks such as this that you realize just how important the two guitars are in the band...even more so in the live setting.  "Easy Street" is easily one of the top three or four songs on this record.

"Isn't That A Shame" is a decent number, but nothing overly special, but things pick right back up with "Miss Me", a sleazy rocker that has always sounded to me like something Kix might have recorded.  The chorus vocals are at a higher pitch than anywhere else on the record, and the sass of the track is escalated by Randall's snarl.  This is a track that always came off well in the live setting, and is another high point on this debut record.

As far as true high points go, there are a couple more here that are of such importance that they have made the cover of the reissued version of this record.  Of course I am talking about "Lucy" and "Loco P.D.", both of which are absolute crowd favorites and both of which found at least moderate success on the radio stations in the area where I went to college.  "Lucy" is a dark track about a man who catches his girlfriend with another man, which Randall explains to the listener with a line that becomes a true crowd sing-along moment: "Lucy was my lady/don't love her anymore/Caught her with another man/God she was a whore!"  Throughout the song, the guy turns for solace from, "Jack Daniels was my friend/Stayed with me all night...", before he makes the decision to put an end to miss Lucy.  Everything about this track screams for big-time exposure, but it was simply not meant to be, which is really too bad, because the story aspect of this track just begged for a video.  Likewise, the hooky "Loco P.D." should have been given a chance to garner some national airplay, as everything about the track just works.  A song about the crazy things a woman can do to a man, this song was a huge live hit whenever Zwarte played, with the crowd screaming along to "call in the Loco P.D.!"  Great stuff that brings back some fun memories, to be sure!

The rest of the album ranges from decent to very good, but nothing else touches the levels that "Lucy", "Loco P.D.", "Miss Me", and "Easy Street" do, although "Lizzy", "Slippin' girl", and album closer, "Windslow" come close.  Throw in that quirky Queen-esqe opener, and you already have 8 tracks that form an extremely solid foundation for this debut record.  I probably would have dropped "Laughing Girl" from the album, and possibly "Room 1000x", which would have pared the album down to a more streamlined ten tracks.  But, as it stands, Zwarte, the record is a great representation of Zwarte, the band.  More than half the tracks here found their way into their live set for many years and never failed to draw a crowd reaction.  To me, that was one of the things that made Zwarte such a great band to see live, as their original stuff drew just as big, or an even bigger reaction than their covers of popular rock songs of the time.

The band would go through multiple line-ups in the following years, but really solidified with a new guitar player and bassist forming the most popular version of the band in the mid-90s.  Several albums followed Zwarte, but none captured the magic of the band the way this one did, although several had catchy hard rock tunes that would find their way into the band's setlists.  Today the band continues with Randall being the only remaining original member now, as he forges on with what is now referred to as the Randall Zwarte Band.    

There are actually two versions of this album, both with very similar covers.  The one pictured above is actually a 1996 repressing of the original.  The only thing different is that on the original, the words "FEATURING LUCY AND LOCO P.D." were not there.  I have an original, but since my scanner is broken, I had to borrow the above picture from the internet.  I have been told that the 1996 repressing was actually a CD-R, but I don't have one, so I couldn't tell you that for a fact.  The original is definitely a silver-pressed CD and the artwork says 1992 on the back.  As you can see, the artwork is nothing overly flashy, and it is likely the band had zero budget with which to work.  The insert is a big fold out with black and white pictures of the band members on the inside, with some quips about each track being included, along with writing credits and a track listing.  

Rating:  Perhaps it's partially due to nostalgia, but I still find this effort to be crankable, even nearly three decades after its release!  Crank this to a 7.5...and call in the Loco P.D.!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

LOVEMAKER "Lovemaker"

(c) 2019 FnA Records

  1. More
  2. Luvchild
  3. Homework
  4. Movin' On
  5. Sugar & Spice
  6. Turn Me On
  7. Nursery Rhyme
  8. Bubblegum Lover
  9. Goin' Wild
  10. Just Say No
  11. One Cool Way
  12. Luv NYC
  13. Too Damn Young
Kriss Teen--Lead Vocals, Bass
Zane Fix--Guitars
Davey Jonesin'--Drums

Found in the "Late To The Party" files, Lovemaker was a sleaze/glam band from New York City that was poised to make it big until the scene absolutely collapsed.  Reportedly courted at one time or another by such major labels as Geffen, MCA, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and others, this NYC trio simply peaked at the completely wrong time, for while they were still a major draw for those in the scene, the music world had moved on to grunge and alternative rock.  Fortunately, for fans of this style of music, FnA Records managed to track the band down and obtain these 13 tracks that were recorded at various times during the 90s, when Lovemaker was refusing to give up the fight.  Three of these tracks managed to find their way onto a hard-to-find independent EP on Poptown Records back in 1994, but the majority of these have likely never been heard until now.

For me, the best moments on this album are generally found at the beginning.  For example, I love the marching drum intro to "More", and the way that Teen channels his inner-George Thorogood vocals on portions of the track.  Fix has a blistering solo run on this track, as well, and the sound is pretty full despite the fact that this is only a three man band.  "Luvchild" has a 1960s rock n roll feel with 80s era guitars.  And "Sugar & Spice" has a slowed-down sleazy approach, and Teen's vocals really fit the style here, sounding like a drugged out Jim Morrison (what an oxymoron that is...).  Once again, there's a definite 60s feel to the rhythm and song structure, with 70s sounding guitars, and a simple, straightforward drum beat from Jonesin'.  

A couple of later tracks are pretty catchy, as well, with "Luv NYC" being one of the strongest tracks on this entire collection.  Definitely glammy and poppy, the band sounds like a punked-up Poison with less polish.  The backing vocals and gang-shouted "heys" are particularly strong here, also.  Fix has a really good, extended guitar solo in this song, and I have to imagine that this was a big hit live, as the chorus not only fits the band's crowd, but it is a very catchy, very easy to sing chorus that surely fired the crowds up.  Likewise, album closer, "Too Damn Young", with its 70s glam style and gritty guitars, is one of the songs that I'm sure was the focal point of a Lovemaker show.  "Just Say No" again has a very 60s feel to the songwriting, reminding me a lot of the surf rock of that time, coming off a lot like something the Trashmen ("The Surfin' Bird") would play.  

Some of the stuff here is pretty ridiculous from a lyrical standpoint, with "Bubblegum Lover" being right at the top of the list.  I mean the chorus here implores the girl Teen is singing to, "Put on your hairspray, Lipstick, and Stretch Rubber/I'm gonna be your Bubblegum Lover".  And "Nursery Rhyme" incorporates "Along came a spider who sat down beside her" into the chorus section, so you can kind of let your imagination roam from there.

The style is here very derivative of 60s rock with edgier guitars, mixed with the 70s glam styles I just mentioned before, with doses of punk mixed in.  Fix is an above average guitar player, Jonesin' is a competent, if not flashy drummer, and Teen proves himself to be a capable bass player, on top of handling the vocals chores of the band.  As to his singing, Teen's vocal style is something that you are either going to love or hate, as is often the case with the true glam bands that often incorporated some punk stylings into their music.  We're talking about actual glam here, not the slick, polished hair metal glam that a lot of people associate with the glam genre.  Lovemaker has far more in common with the New York Dolls, The Sweet, or Marc Bolan than they do with Poison or Warrant.  In fact, if you have ever heard Bang Gang, Big Bang Babies or maybe an obscure band like Queeny Pop Blast, you have heard 80s/90s bands that each give their own take on the glam genre.  That is what Lovemaker is doing here.  Don't think KISS, think T.Rex or even the rockier stuff that Bowie did.  

If you are a fan of the glam/sleaze scene, and especially love getting hold of the bands that "just missed", then you are definitely going to want to track Lovemaker down.  If you are one of those folks who has to have absolutely spot-on, pristine production, you are likely going to be disappointed, as the sound here is pretty raw.  I'm not talking garage boombox recording sound, but definitely not big budget production.  As it is, Lovemaker is a solid representation of the namesake band and showcases the sound and effort of three guys who were just on the wrong side of time.  Had the band been discovered even half a dozen years earlier, it is possible these guys would have been pretty recognizable, especially if they were able to adjust their songwriting to a larger audience than the New York City crowd that the guys obviously geared themselves toward.

Rating:  Rock this at 6.5, with the raw production and some rather inane lyrics pulling the rating down just a bit.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

SUICIDE BOMBERS "Murder Couture"

(c) 2019 

  1. Intro: The Murder Couture Suite
  2. Murder Couture
  3. Kings & Queens
  4. So Bad
  5. Love Disasters
  6. Night That Never Ends
  7. We Don't Negotiate With Terrorists
  8. End Of The Story
  9. Worlds Without End
  10. Sleepless Elite
  11. Madman
  12. Outro: #overandmotherfuckingout

Chris Damien Doll (The Sleaze Fuhrer)--Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitars
Stevie Teaze (The Sex Toy)--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
C. Slim (The Thunder Mechanic)--Bass, Backing Vocals
Lyle Starr (The Beat Commando)--Drums

Sleaze is one of those genres that many people have a hard time defining, but those same people will tell you they know it when they hear it.  Well, if that is the case, then I can guarantee they will know what they are listening to when they hear Norway's Suicide Bombers, because there is little doubt about what these guys are all about! 

As is typical with these guys, the album starts off with an intro, and despite my general disdain for intros (and outros, which this album also sports...), I give this one a listen the first few times through the record.  A monotone voice intros the band amongst the sound of clicking camera shutters and the muttering of a crowd of paparazzi.  Humorous, especially when the band is referred to as "Ludwig van Beethoven for the next generation"!  Good stuff...

Things really get going as soon as the first song, the album's title track, kicks off with a catchy guitar riff from Teaze which pulls the rest of the band into the fray.  Right away, the catchiness of Suicide Bombers is evident, even as the sleaze drips from Doll's snarling vocals on a track which may be considered to be rather glam for these guys.  That glam feel likely comes from the guitar sound, which is a bit cleaner on this track than on most of the others, but it is the "cleanliness" of that opening riff that makes it so noticeable as it echoes throughout the rest of the song, worming its way into the brain.  The chorus is catchy, and the gang-shouted "Murder Couture!" vocals are the perfect complement to the song's hard-charging pace, adding to the frenzy of the track.  A great opening track, to be sure.

Things only get better as they get sleazier, and that is what happens with the next track, as the guitars take on a grittier, dirtier edge as soon as "Kings & Queens" hits.  Sure, the pace slows just a bit, but the attitude doesn't wain at all.  I really like the solo that Teaze drops in here, and the rhythm section of Slim and Starr is as strong as Suicide Bombers has ever been, which is saying something, as I have long felt this band has been exceptionally tight despite the line-up changes from album to album.  Of course, it is Doll who commands the listener's attention, as his vocals rasp their way through the track. One great thing about the Bombers, and especially Doll, is that despite being from Norway, an accent has never been an issue in understanding what Doll is singing about.  That is an absolute bonus for me.

"So Bad" is up next and it is definitely one of the real highlights of an album full of great songs.  But when Doll kicks things off with a line like "when the lights hit the shape of your body" you know that some sleaze-infested greatness likely follows.  I love the backing vocals that sneer their way through the chorus, dragging out the syllables of "you've been so bad" just enough to pack a little extra attitude into the words.  In fact, the gang vocals on this entire record are spot on, and the work done here is superb.  Again, Teaze rips into another blistering solo, and Starr's drum work is excellent, with some nice fills and tempo changes.  Check it out below...

"Love Disasters" is a different cat here, with a more 70s inspired guitar riff opening the mid-tempo number.  Simplicity is the order of the day on this laid back number that sounds like Cheap Trick with an attitude problem...and a throat infection.  The classic rock guitar tones work perfectly in this lovable oddball of a song, and I find myself hitting repeat on this track a couple of times when I work through the record.  Everything here catches me, from that opening riff to the guitar tones on the solo to the layered backing vocals to the drum sounds and production used here.  Is it my favorite track?  At this point, I may actually have to say yes, but that's a tough call.  With so many great songs on a single record, it is tough to nail down favorites. 

One thing that really stands out on this album is the fact that there are no dead spots.  In fact, I think the album actually closes even stronger than it opens!  Starting at about track seven, the band is just on full blast, ripping and tearing their way to the end.  For example, "We Don't Negotiate With Terrorists" is a song that I jump to with great frequency, even if it's just to hear the vocal acrobatics Doll has to go through to fit all of those syllables into one chorus (he achieves this expertly)!  I love, love this song!  Likewise, "Sleepless Elite", with its dirty opening guitar riff and simplistic drum line, just reeks of classic Sunset Strip era sleaze attitude, and when Doll snarls "suicide sex squad" as the first three words of the track, it is obvious where this track is headed...and it only gets raunchier as it goes (although it never crosses into Rated R territory, at least language-wise).  These two songs are Suicide Bombers at their best, in my opinion, both lyrically and musically.  Teaze is especially strong on his solo for "Sleepless Elite", which is an absolute string melter. 

Heck, even when the band slows things down, they do so with vicious musical intent, as on the slowest...and possibly angriest...track on the album, "Worlds Without  End".  This is another track that I would have to say is in contention for best on the record, and I absolutely love the guitar riff on this song.  Just because it is a bit slower (don't think ballad, however) doesn't mean the guys don't absolutely bring it with intensity here, and when Doll proclaims "you're a cancer spreading disease from a laptop", you can definitely feel the angst directed at the song's antagonist.  Teaze blasts forth with a straight-from-the-80s fret-running guitar solo that is one of his best, and once again, the backing vocals on the chorus are spot on. 

I also really like the vocal hook that is the chorus of "Madman", which is the closing musical track of the album.  Another uber-catchy guitar riff opens the track, and Doll charges headfirst through the track as he tells the listener to "call the the the undertaker" in succession, hinting at the mayhem he is about to unleash.  Again, Teaze lays into another ripping solo, and the rhythm section is relentless...including Doll's underappreciated work on rhythm guitars...keeping the tempo blasting along, never wavering.  Another great uptempo rocker, "Madman" puts a great bow on the package of Murder Couture, wrapping things up as neatly as can be expected when the package is such a gloriously loud, sleazy, raucous affair! 

At the end of the day, Murder Couture is one of those albums that you really have to listen to in order to understand just how good it is.  Yes, there are numerous great songs here, but this is an instance of the sum being even better than the parts.  It's not that this is a concept album, because it isn't; its that there is a flow to the record that adds to how good each song is.  I feel pulled to the next song, even as I'm still running the previous one through my head; I just want to hear what comes next.  Everything here is so catchy and so well performed that it is all memorable to some degree, which rarely happens with albums these days. 

Suicide Bombers is a band that continues to grow, continues to expand their musical ideas, and continues to get better, without losing sight of who they are or who their fans are.  Since starting off with a bang on their debut, Criminal Record, the band has made at least minor improvements every time out, and Murder Couture is the pinnacle of the least to this point.  In fact, there is no question that Murder Couture is the best record Suicide Bombers has put out yet, and it is easily the best sleaze record to hit my mailbox or inbox this year!  No self-proclaimed sleaze fan will want to miss out on the excellence of Murder Couture.  Grab your own copy and see if you don't agree!

Rating:  Crankworthy, no question!  Dial this one up to 8.5!

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Friday, December 20, 2019


(c) 2019 AFM Records

  1. Hello Emptiness
  2. Dry Your Eyes
  3. Addicted
  4. Confronted
  5. Enemy
  6. Rock N Roll Star
  7. Far
  8. Anybody Out There
  9. Push
  10. Servant
  11. The Ordinary
  12. Circles
  13. Forevermore
Jurgen Pangger--Lead Vocals
Tony Berger--Guitars
Tobias Egger--Bass

Okay.  So, A Life Divided describes themselves as "modern rock with an 80s twist".  We've all heard this before, right?  But, I will give A Life Divided credit because when they say it, they absolutely mean it!  When you put in Echoes, you are immediately transported back to the 1980s. 


...its not the 1980s you are thinking of.  A Life Divided largely combines modern, dark, hard alternative rock with 1980s New Wave synth rock...and they do it VERY well!  

I'm not going to sit here and type out a bunch of lies to the readers.  I like a bit of New Wave when I am in the right move.  Duran Duran, the Police, Simple Minds, OMD (Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, for the uninitiated), Thompson Twins, Adam Ant...all of the Pretty In Pink and Breakfast Club soundtracks...yeah, I'll admit to liking a bit of all of this, but again, the mood has to be right.  Well, I guess you could call this New New Wave (Neo Wave?), and it is actually pretty darn catchy for the most part.

A Life Divided is a perfect name for this German trio, as they incorporate the two types of music the founders really loved.  Pangger states that he "let my hair grow long and played the songs of my metal heroes on guitar", while Erik Damkohler, who is considered to be a band member as one of the primary songwriters, grew up a synth-wave fan in the 80s.  So, marrying the two sounds was only logical for the pair.  Incorporating both styles, while also adding in doses of alternative and hard rock, along with some times...dark lyrics, A Life Divided has really carved out a unique sound.

While all of the album is rather catchy in its own way, there are definitely a handful of tracks that stand out.  For starters, "Anybody Out There" rocks pretty hard, and honestly reminds me of a lot of an angrier Loud And Clear-era Autograph with the chorus lyrics of Def Leppard.  I mean, does this chorus sound at all familiar:  "Is there anybody out there?  Is there anybody there?  Is there anybody out there?  Does anybody care"?  As to the Autograph comparisons, Pangger sounds a LOT like Steve Plunkett here (and throughout the record, honestly), and that particular Autograph record used a lot more synth/keyboards than their "Turn Up The Radio" days.  Now, there are also some harsher shouts and some more modern production, but trust me, if you are honest with yourself and at all familiar with that latter day Autograph sound, you are going to know EXACTLY what I am talking about.

Another song with an obvious 80s hard rock reference point is "Servant", which for all intents and purposes completely takes the keyboard intro and guitar riff from Journey"s "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" and then completely changes the verse sections, lyrics, and chorus structure...but leaves a good chunk of the guitar solo in the song.  That keyboard refrain is repeated in a couple of sections in the song, and the harder-edged guitars serve as a strong counterpoint to the New Wave-styled synths and electronic drums.  A Life Divided can cut and paste the song however they want to, but the love this band obviously has for one of the all-time classic bands in the history of rock cannot be missed.  And even though I am a long-standing Journey fan, with Frontiers being my personal favorite album of their catalog, I can't even be angry with the treatment the song gets here, because it is done more out of respect for Journey than as any sort of musical blasphemy.

The album's opener, "Hello, Emptiness" also deserves some respect because it manages to merge elements of Pink Floyd with Phil Collin's "In The Air Tonight", stirred together in a dark, murky synth rock melting pot, as Pangger's vocals take on an angrier tone and the edgy guitars are used more for support in the chorus than anywhere else in the track.  Definitely a different musical tapestry that is woven here, but again, I would be lying if I didn't admit to finding it darkly catchy.

"Rock N Roll Star" has some great guitars in it, as one might expect with such a title, and the keyboard on this track has that debut Bon Jovi record feel.  Again, Pangger's vocals really have that Autograph sound to them, and honestly, I could hear this track being something that Autograph may have put together in the 90s had they stayed together and continued to put out music.  

Not everything works for me, with a track like "Dry Your Eyes" sounding a bit too poppy for me, with the guitars all but removed from the track entirely.  "Enemy" let me down, as I was hoping for something dark and gritty, but instead it utilizes a synth line that sounds almost identical to the main line from "Heart Of Glass" by Blondie and then melds it to a chorus section that sounds like Stabbing Westward-lite.  Not a horrible song, but definitely one that falls into the letdown section for me.

The rest of the record is solid and fun, and I can honestly see myself popping this album in when I need a musical change-up in my CD rotation.  It doesn't threaten to become album of the year, or anything even remotely of the sort, but it is a pretty good album, all in all.  For those who openly admit to liking the New Wave sounds of the 80s (or those who only tune to Sirius/XM's First Wave when they are driving by themselves), A Life Divided is going to be well worth tracking down when it is released in January of 2020.    

Again, not everyone is going to like this, and some may even question my sanity for reviewing it, let along liking it. But to each their own, I say.  A Life Divided is a nice little surprise at the end of the year for me.   

Rating:  I'm not sure "crank" is the right word to use here, but Echoes earns that tag.  So...crank this to a 7, whether you want to admit to liking it or not!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

BAYLESS "Ready.Aim."

(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. Ready.Aim.
  2. My Declaration
  3. Save The World
  4. Game Over (featuring Justin Forshaw)
  5. No More Suffering
  6. Intermission
Jared Bayless--Lead Vocals, Lead Guitar
Vanessa Bayless--Lead Vocals, Keys, Programming

Additional Musicians
Justin Forshaw--Guitar Solo on 4


Rarely am I blown away by a band from the get-go, but Bayless accomplishes this rarity with their 2019 effort, Ready.Aim.  The husband and wife duo from Cheyenne, WY perfectly marries heavy guitars, symphonic string sections, and electronic elements, and both clean and harsh male vocals and soaring female lead vocals to create a musical tapestry the likes of which I cannot say I have ever truly heard before.  Whether Jared is utilizing his powerful baritone vocals in a rich singing tone, or snarling through harsh accompanying lines to support his wife's equally powerful, at times operatic voice, the vocal combinations here change from song to song...sometimes utilizing all three vocal styles within one vocally match the intricate musical creations Bayless brings to bear on this effort.

The album kicks off with the title track, and it is immediately evident that Bayless is not just another symphonic metal band.  Vanessa handles the majority of the lead vocals on this particular track, showcasing a powerful range throughout the verses, with Jared adding his clean tones to the chorus, only adding in a bit of edge when he challenges "I'm coming for you darkness" referring to humanity's sinful nature, threatening to "take back what you stole".  Heavy guitars open the track, supported by what sound to be programmed drums and some electronic elements support the sweeping vocals, and hints of Evanescence creep forward, especially when the strings join the musical fray following the second chorus.  There's a musical buildup leading to a vocal bridge from Jared who snarls, "I'm running to the monster!  Ready, aim!"  Check out the powerful, very high quality video below!

"My Declaration" is the lead single from the record, and went straight to number one on several Christian rock and hard music charts.  Vanessa takes a lead vocal break from this track, with Jared contributing both clean and harsh vocals on this huge rocker.  Electronic elements are dropped all over this song, but as supporting pieces and not to the point that this becomes full-blown electronica.  The guitars are heavy and edgy, and Jared's voice simply owns the track.  In fact, it was this song, and specifically the vocals that drew me to hunt down this band and this EP, and I am glad that they did.  This is truly powerful stuff here.  Lyrically, it doesn't get much bolder than "My Declaration", with Jared proclaiming "I'll put my faith in who created me" before the chorus declares:  "I want to lead courageously, Leave a legacy/I wanna surrender myself./Faith awakening, Live for eternity/I'll stand with no ovation.  This is my declaration!"  I particularly like when Jared cuts loose on his vocals as he screams "Gonna face my demons, For I know that they will come/They'll here me screaming, 'The end of you has come!'"  The anger and coviction he delivers the chorus with is especially powerful, especially as Vanessa's offset the growl to add a depth and richness that simply isn't matched by a lot of bands today, as so many bands have taken on similar vocal styles now, at least in the modern rock genre.

"Save The World" is a more mid-tempo rocker with some obvious programmed lines running alongside the heavy buzzsaw rhythm guitars and some delicate keyboards.  While not quite industrial, there are some obvious influences from the genre here, and it works to great effect.  Jared and Vanessa share the lead vocals on this one, with Jared handling the majority of the chorus and Vanessa soaring through the verses.  There is a nice piano and strings interlude in the track, with just Vanessa singing for a couple of phrases before the guitars and drums return, bringing back Jared's rich singing style.  One interesting thing here is the unusual way Jared pronounces the way "proclaim", which comes out sounding more like pro-CLAY-eem the name.  At first, I was like...what the heck?  But after several listens, I have to be honest and admit that I sing along in the same way now.

"Game Over" is again largely a song with Vanessa handling the verse sections and Jared tackling the chorus portions.  Vanessa shows remarkable vocal control here, utilizing an almost operatic approach to the phrasing of the verses, and to say she is impressive would be an understatement.  There is an odd synth solo where one would usually expect the guitar solo to come slamming in, but fear not, for the guitar solo does drop, but as a final run-out at the end of the song.  Justin Forshaw, who handled the production on the record, tears his way through a complex guitar run that flashes more than he typically shows when he is ripping up the strings for his band, As We Ascend.

"No More Suffering" is another powerful hard rocker with a potent message, proclaiming "One day there'll be no more suffering/One day there'll be rest for me/But not today!", and the layered vocals on this chorus line, with Jared and Vanessa's voices paired together so perfectly, really adds an emotional depth.  This is the second single from the album, with it already cracking the top 25 of a few charts I've looked at.  Fighting for the title of favorite song on the album ("My Declaration" might win by a nose...), the song breaks down into a beautiful string section, with the two vocalists almost singing in a chorale style as they echo each other as the song concludes.  Again, the guitars are plenty heavy here, and the drums, while programmed, provide a solid rhythm line for the duo to perform their vocal acrobatics across.

"Intermission" is basically an all instrumental piece that concludes the album, so the name is rather odd.  There is some Gregorian-styled chanting at the beginning, but it is placed low enough in the mix that I can't make out what is being said, and other than Jared adding his voice as an instrument near the end (he's not singing actual words), this is song of pretty much all strings, piano, drums, and guitar, with some programmed elements shaking things up just a tad in places.

Forshaw handles the production on this album, and he deserves a good deal of credit for resisting the temptation to take things too any direction.  While some may have considered burying the programmed elements further in the mix, I feel they provide an important support structure throughout this record.  And while many people would have been inclined to push the strings even further out front, the dynamics of the record would have been changed dramtically and much of the heaviness lost.  There is a near perfect mix of heavy, edgy guitars and smoother, more polished keyboards and strings, which mirror the different vocal styles incoporated throughout the five main tracks here.  My one hope for the band would be to add a drummer to the mix for the next album, as I feel that big drum sound would only serve to enhance an already remarkable sound!

Make no mistake, this is heavy stuff, both musically and lyrically, but the faint of heart need not fear Bayless, as there is also a melodic beauty and accessibility that can be enjoyed by most any fan of hard music.  This mini-album is an essential listen for 2019 and is one that people seeking something new and fresh should hunt down immediately.  I plan to track down the project's first two releases, as well, as Bayless has made that great of an impact upon me.

Rating:  A near masterpiece in my mind.  Crank this to a 9 with only the shortness of the album detracting at all from its greatness!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

JARON COX "Cyclical Madness" EP

(C) 2017 Jaron Cox

  1. Temptations 
  2. I Will Rise (featuring Primisis)
  3. Twisted Carousel
Jaron Cox--Vocals, Bass
Brandon Mills--Guitars, Production
Joey West--Drums, Percussion

They say good things come to those who wait.  For Jaron Cox, the two years since he released his debut EP most likely seemed like an eternity of waiting, but it now looks to be paying off, as "Twisted Carousel" has rocketed up the Christian rock and hard music charts here at the end of 2019.  In fact, at the time of this review, the track has reached the number one position on the charts! Not bad for the North Carolina rocker whom I had never even heard of prior to hearing the single.

All three tracks on Cyclical Madness fall into a modern rock classification that doesn't stray too far from the sounds of Cox's influences such as Disciple, Decyfer Down, Skillet, Thousand Foot Krutch and the like.  Of course, the fact that his guitar player/producer, Brandon Mills, is the guitarist from Decyfer Down, and that his drummer, Joey West, is from Disciple, could have something to do with his sound.  To be fair, however, none of the songs here sound all that much like DD or Disciple, but the genre Cox works within is one he shares with all of his influences.

The album starts off with "Temptations" which is a solid modern rock track, but it's not quite on par with what is to come, as I don't find it quite as catchy as "Twisted Carousel" nor as edgy as "I Will Rise".  It's not as if it's a bad track, and I hate to use the word "filler" on the first song of a three song EP, but to be honest, that is kind of what "Temptations" feels like.  I wish it had a really solid guitar solo in it to spice things up, and Mills has some nice soloing-styled work going as the song exits, but it's a little too late for me.  The message is a great one, however, with Cox singing about man being pulled toward sin and our struggle to resist it.  I don't skip the song by any means, and it is musically solid, but just not that memorable, at least to me.  To be fair, though, it would be tough to be as catchy or "hooky" as "Twisted Carousel", which is definitely the cream of this three track crop.

If I had to make a guess, I think that "I Will Rise" will garner some airplay in 2020 and will likely follow "Twisted Carousel" up the charts.  Another modern rocker with an edge, this track also incorporates a rapped vocal section courtesy of North Carolina Christian rapper, Primisis.  Taking a cue from the likes of Manafest, POD, and TFK, "I Will Rise" is still a rocker at heart, but the cross-genre approach will likely appeal to a large portion of the modern rock crowd, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have some great guitar work from Mills thrown into the mix!

Rounding things out is the current single, "Twisted Carousel".  Of the three tracks here, all are solid, but it's easy to see why "Twisted Carousel" is topping the Christian rock charts.  The song is a catchy one with an easily singable chorus and a nice guitar hook.  Written from the viewpoint of someone trying to gain control of the life he is leading, "Twisted Carousel" is honest and up front about the struggles even a Christian can have with making bad decisions that make our life "...a Twisted Carousel/Up and Down and Around and Around/Cyclical Madness, I just can't tell/If I'll ever get off of this Twisted Carousel". I think pretty much everyone can relate to a chorus like that. 

Cox is a good song writer and I think he shows a lot of promise with this EP.  Musically, the performances here are top drawer, with Mills really doing some excellent rhythm guitar work throughout.  As I mentioned previously, I would have loved to hear some ripping guitar solo work, but as we all are aware, that is not always the case with modern hard rock.  So, when that is the situation, solid rhythm work is a necessity, which this album definitely has.  West is a great, great drummer, and his years of experience at the kit for Disciple really lends a strong hand to the tempo and rhythms of this record.  Cox proves himself to be a more than capable bass player, as well as a strong singer.  At times his higher range is reminiscent of TJ Harris from Decyfer Down.  There is some moderate use of effects on his vocals, especially on "Twisted Carousel", but nothing is AutoTuned here.

The packaging is very simple, as it is just a simple cardboard slipcase with the above artwork as the front and an alternate photo of Cox on the back, along with some very simple thank yous and credits.  CDBaby issues the CD, even if you purchase it through Amazon (as I did), and digital versions are also available at the usual outlets.

Here's hoping that this little EP is the start of big things for Cox, as I think he has some definite talent.  I couldn't be happier for the man and congratulate him on his breakout success with "Twisted Carousel".  Let's just hope that it doesn't take two more years before another song of his gets the airplay it deserves!

Rating: Rock the album at a solid 6.5.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

SKILLET "Victorious"

(c) 2019 Atlantic Records

  1. Legendary
  2. You Ain't Ready
  3. Victorious
  4. This Is The Kingdom
  5. Save Me
  6. Rise Up
  7. Terrify The Dark
  8. Never Going Back
  9. Reach
  10. Anchor
  11. Finish Line
  12. Back To Life
John Cooper--Lead & Backing Vocals, Bass
Korey Cooper--Rhythm Guitar, Keyboards, Programming, Backing Vocals
Seth Morrison--Lead Guitars
Jen Ledger--Drums, Vocals

It's hard for me to believe that Skillet has been around for ten full albums now, with a career spanning over two decades.  Granted, I was a bit late coming to the Skillet party...or, rather, I took an extended break in returning to the party.  I was on board with the debut, self-titled record clear back in 1996, as I had no problem with the post-grunge sound the band utilized at that time, and rather enjoyed the band with the silly name.  But then, with the sophomore Hey, You...I Love Your Soul, and it's electronic alterna-pop sound, I was outta there...and I didn't return until 2003's Collide record, which is where the modern sound of Skillet really started to evolve.  Since that record, I have been a dedicated Panhead, with my entire family enjoying the band now, and all of us having notched Skillet concerts on our live music belts over the years (with another show planned for summer of 2020).  

With this newest album, Victorious, the band returns for more of the huge arena rattling modern hard rock that they have blasted their fans with in various forms and fashions since that Collide record.  In fact, upon hearing the lead single, the infectious anthem "Legendary", I was actually a bit concerned that Skillet had bought into their own hype a bit, resting on their musical laurels and resorting to churning out formula-based radio rock.  While "Legendary" is catchy and hits relatively hard, it wasn't necessarily what I was hoping to hear from the veteran band, especially after the previous album, Unleashed, was reissued as Unleashed Beyond with some bonus material that found the band experimenting with heavier sounds (the Lacey Sturm supported "Breaking Free" and the heavy riff rocker, "Set It Off") as well as more mainstream rock balladry ("Brave"), and even a rather classic rock-sounding track ("You Get Me High").  And yes, I know, sometimes bands do things with bonus tracks that they wouldn't normally do, but after the very strong fan (and radio) response to "Breaking Free", and the positive reactions to both of the band's side projects (John's Fight The Fury and Ledger's...well...Ledger), I really had hoped for some musical growth and not stagnation or *gasp* regression.

It turns out that all I really had to do was get the CD and be patient for a couple of songs, as musical growth abounds on Victorious, without doing anything to alienate their heavy rock fan base.  There are plenty of hard and fast numbers, from the lead single "Legendary" (which WWE picked up for the theme song to RAW) to the aggressive "You Ain't Ready", to the album-closing metallic blast of "Back To Life", complete with a massive jam session at the end of the song, very similar to what we heard on "The Resistance" when Unleashed ended.  And those are great songs, don't get me wrong.  I'm sure they will all be staples in the new live show and will have fans on their feet, screaming along and pumping their fists in the air.

For me, however, the greatness of this new album comes in the not-so-tried-and-true areas.  Take for example the art rock, Imagine Dragons-styled "This Is The Kingdom", with its big, catchy intro and punchy-but-sing-along chorus.  Nowhere in the Skillet catalog will you find a song sounding anything like this one, and I truly hope this is released as a single as it will expose a completely different side of the band to people who think that Skillet has only two speeds: full-blast and then ballad.  And while "Rise Up" has plenty of fist-in-the-air power to it, it is impossible to miss the dare I say dance-able groove of the track, even when John's roaring through the chorus of the song.  And lest you thin Seth's guitars are overlooked or underplayed, tracks like "Reach" or "Save Me" showcase just how truly great he is on guitar.

For me, some of the greatest points in this album come in the slower moments.  Take for example "Terrify The Dark", a truly great track which really showcases the vocal talents of both John Cooper and Jen Ledger. While, as a whole, this album has a bit less Ledger than the past couple have, her moments are big and powerful, and nowhere is this more evident than "Terrify The Dark".  The vocal interplay between the two has become a big part of who Skillet is, especially on the slower material, and while this isn't a true ballad, there is plenty of power and emotion poured into the song from both singers.  This is easily one of my favorite tracks on the album, and again one that I hope is released as a single.

Ledger is also a strong presence in another one of the album's shining moments, the title track, "Victorious".  Rather than simply supply the response to John's lead vocals, Ledger has a supporting melodic run to accompany the lead, adding a depth that is not present in many of the harder numbers.  This mid-tempo number about overcoming depression and anxiety is powerful and one that John has said was inspired by, among other things, the death of Linkin Park's Chester Bennington.

Another track that will likely catch longtime fans a bit off guard is another of the most powerful songs here, the penultimate "Finish Line".  There is a sassiness...even a this song that is not standard Skillet fare.  The vocal swagger that Cooper brings to the opening verse is almost tangible as he grins knowingly through the lines, "Good evening my people up in the chandeliers, The wining and dining, the menu blood sweat and tears".  Pair that with the HUGE, thunderous chorus that will have everyone chanting "Heroes never die!  Gonna make it to the finish line! We know, we'll survive.  Even if we have to crawl to the finish line!"  For me, this may be the most inspirational track the band has ever put together and should be their next massive hit, being picked up by athletes and teams across the competitive spectrum, from the greatest stars to the biggest underdogs all being able to claim some connection to the challenge issued by the lyrics here.  

While many may decry the band's seeming lack of faith-based lyrics, if a person digs into the words of the songs, there is plenty of faith on display here.  No, the band doesn't beat the listener over the head with Bible chapters and verses, that has never been their forte.  But there can be little mistaking the spirituality of songs like "Anchor", "This Is The Kingdom", or "Terrify The Dark".  And while Cooper has expressed his understanding that his band exists in both the Christian and secular worlds, he has also refused to back down from his stance of faith and interjects his beliefs thoughtfully into his projects, even if the listener has to do some soul searching of their own to piece together how those lyrics also fit into their own life.  

Overall, Victorious took me into different musical places, utilizing the tried and true, as well as the unexpected, to create an album that is both accessible and challenging for long-time fans.  For those who don't want their favorite bands to grow and change and expand, I would imagine Victorious is a bit uncomfortable in places.  But for those who are willing to go on a musical journey to some new places, while also stopping at some beloved checkpoints along the way, Victorious may be the album of the band's career.  I'm willing to go for the ride, personally, and while I am not sure if this is the best album the band has ever made, it is definitely a really, really good record that I continue to spin with great regularity months after its release.

Rating:  Definitely a cranker, blast this one at 8.5.

Friday, December 6, 2019

RED "The Evening Hate"

(c) 2019 Red Entertainment/The Fuel Music

  1. The Evening Hate
  2. From The Ashes
  3. Hemorrhage (In My Hands)
  4. The Evening Hate (Alternate Version)
  5. From The Ashes (Acoustic Version)
Michael Barnes--Lead Vocals
Anthony Armstrong--Lead & Rhythm Guitars, Backing Vocals
Randy Armstrong--Bass, Piano, Backing Vocals
Dan Johnson--Drums, Percussion

Modern metal artists, RED, have returned with a brand new EP just in time for Christmas.  Of course, to give this EP to anyone as a gift, you will either have to download and burn it, or give someone an iTunes or Amazon gift card so they can download it, as The Evening Hate EP is being released in digital format only (at least for the time being). This is a bummer, but not a defining obstacle for me, as I will definitely be burning it for myself in the highest format possible as soon as I can, as I have been a fan of this band and their alt-metal/modern orchestral metal sound since I first picked up The End Of Silence more than a decade ago.

On this new EP, the band is once again a full-time four-piece unit, as long-time session and touring drummer, Dan Johnson, has the band as a full member, joining the founding trio of the Armstrong twins and lead vocalist, Michael Barnes.  Additionally, this is the first recording for the band without the backing of a label (previously RED had recorded for Sony/Essential), as the band has struck out on their own.  Honestly, this made me a bit nervous, as many times bands lose some quality of product when they don't have the big money that labels often provide.  It turns out, I needn't have worried.

The Evening Hate finds RED in fine form, picking up where they left off with their last studio release, 2017's Gone.  Actually, now that I think of it, that is not entirely true, as this EP finds the band returning more to their symphonic approach to writing songs, which I am happy about.  While I like Gone, it lacks that something that set RED apart from so many other bands, especially on End Of Silence , Of Beauty And Rage, and Innocence And Instinct.  While not as heavily infused with programmed strings as those albums, there is a "bigness" to the sound of The Evening Hate that was missing to a large degree on Gone.  That big, epic feeling is especially felt when presented with the HUGE cinematic version of the video the band released for the title track.

Clocking in at nearly 14 minutes in length, this video is actually only slightly shorter than the three new songs released on the EP.  If you don't feel like sitting through the full 13:56 of this version, here is the much shorter, 4 minute take (but trust are missing out!):

The second new, original song on the EP is "From The Ashes", which finds even more symphonic elements returning to the band's sound, including the use of some string elements at the beginning, as well as in a supporting role throughout the track, and then again in a big, emotive way on the outro.  I say "string elements" because these are most likely programmed, but their effect is not lost on the this track, as they only serve to enhance the power of  Barnes' massive voice, which delivers an emotional intensity unmatched by many other singers today, in my opinion.  Whether using his powerful clean delivery or his enraged screams, Barnes has an instantly recongnizable voice that is truly unique in metal today.  The guitars here are excellent, with big, sweeping sections that are alternately aggressive and melodic, brutally heavy and also hauntingly subtle in places, and the rhythm section is powerful, with the drums sounding especially full in the mix.

The other new song here is actually a cover, and it is an excellent choice.  "Hemorrhage (In My Hands)" was originally performed by quite possibly my favorite post-grunge rock band, Fuel.  The song was a MASSIVE hit for Fuel in 2000, spending 12 weeks atop the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, hitting number 2 on the Mainstream Rock chart, and cracking the Billboard Top 30.  That's big, folks.  So, for a band to tackle such a well-known and widely-appreciated song is no small feat.  I am happy to report that the band handles it with a high level of success.  While the song remains relatively close to the original musically, it is the way that Barnes handles the vocals that is so impressive to me.  Rather than trying to ape the emotional delivery style of Brett Scallions (Fuel lead singer)...or even the way that Chris Daughtry tackled the track on American Idol...Barnes takes on the song with his own style, utilizing a stark, haunting style that sounds very much like it may have been done in a single take.  The music is largely acoustic in nature, with Armstrong's guitar carrying the song's weight here.  It will be interesting to hear if a full band version of this track is used in the live setting at some point, or if this is where the song remains stylistically as long as RED chooses to perform it.

The other two tracks on this EP are alternate takes on the two originals.  Both are done very well, and I have to admit that the acoustic rendering of "From The Ashes" is particularly interesting to me, as it really changes the dynamic of the song.  Both alternate takes are nice additions here, although I would be dishonest if I didn't say that I would sacrifice either (or both) if it meant we could get even one more new, original, full band song.  

I sincerely hope that RED returns to the studio soon, and that a physical product release will accompany the next release the band comes up with.  Perhaps RED is planning to release a couple of digital-only EPs, and then to combine them into a single physical CD, which is fine with me.  I realize there is always the chance of musical flow being interrupted by such a product packaging, but I think most fans of a band...ANY band...would welcome having their favorite songs available in CD form rather than having to stream the same music.  At least the musc fans I know would prefer that...

Rating:  As I frequently state, I'm not a fan of rating singles and EPs, but in this case I feel a cranking of an 8 is not out of line.

MANAFEST "This Is Not The End"

(c) 2019 Manafest Productions

  1. This Is Not The End
  2. All Time High
  3. Kamikaze
  4. Wake Me Up
  5. Plan For Me (featuring Melanie Greenwood)
  6. Born For This (featuring Max Manon)
  7. Come Back Home (featuring Trevon Mcnevan)
  8. Grenades
  9. Insomnia
  10. I Made It
Chris Greenwood (Manafest)--Vocals

Christian rap/rock artist Manafest returns with his first album of new material since 2017's surprisingly good Stones record.  The former skateboarder from Ontario, Canada is quite a dynamic force in both the Christian rock and rap scenes, with ten studio albums, a remix album, and a live record to his credit, multiple Dove Award nominations, Juno and GMA Canada Covenant Awards and nominations, as well as several charting singles both on the Christian rock and Christian rap charts.  In 2015, Manafest decided to leave his label, BEC Recordings, and enter the independent music scene, where he has found possibly his greatest success as an artist.      

For the life of me, I cannot find any credit for who played what instruments on this record, and that is a shame because there is some really good guitar work in several spots here.  I have to wonder if Adam Messinger is not responsible for at least some of the music here, as he has performed a lot of the instrumentation for Manafest in the past, although on Stones a lot of guest musicians were brought in.  What I can tell you is that Manafest again turns to his friends for assistance on some of the better tracks on the record, with Thousand Foot Krutch's Trevor Mcnevan, a frequent contributor to the Manafest catalog, again lending a hand, as does the album's producer, Doug Weier.  Mcnevan's vocals are easy to pick out on the soulful chorus section of the quasi-ballad, "Come Back Home".  Programmed drums and speedy, rhythmic raps are in full force here over a bed of electric piano, but as a package, the track works well.  

Speaking of Mcnevan, he also lends his pen to the writing of the three hardest rockers on the album, the excellent "Grenades", the gritty "Born For This", and the punchy "Kamikaze".  All three tracks feature some solid guitar work, with "Grenades" really hitting hard on the rhythm guitars and what sound like live (rather than programmed) drums.  A song about letting go of grudges, "Grenades" combines some atmospheric elements under the verse sections, with the pre-chorus and chorus portions both supported by those edgy guitars I mentioned.  "Born For This" is another rocking tune that gets a solid boost from the cool vocal contributions of Max Manon.  I have no idea who the guy is, but his voice really adds to the chorus sections of this song with a vocal style that is both gritty and soulful at the same time.  And "Kamikaze" is another solid modern rock song that finds Manafest using a bit more of a singing vocal style for parts of the verses and then on the pre-chorus sections, with a more aggressive style utilized on the verses.  There is still some snappy, rapid fire rapping going on in parts of the verses, so Greenwood really showcases the full range of his vocal styles all in one track.

Mcnevan also co-wrote the very emotional and poignant anti-abortion song, "Plan For Me".  The first verse of the song finds the father of an aborted child addressing his son or daughter, explaining the pain and regret that he has been living with since he and the child's mother decided to terminate their pregnancy.  The second verse is a response from the child trying to console her father (we learn the child would have been a "baby girl...[with] brown eyes and golden curls"), telling him that she forgives him, still loves him, and that he needs to let go of his grief and pain.  Then, in a spoken interlude before the final run through the gut-wrenching chorus (more on that in a minute), the child tells her father that he can't "let the past shape your future" and that "God's already forgiven you, if you can just find the strength [to] forgive yourself", concluding "I love ya and I'll see you up here soon".  The chorus features the hauntingly beautiful voice of "Mrs. Manafest", as Greenwood's wife, Melanie, is heard on an album for the first time.  The quality of her voice only adds to the powerful message of the chorus, which echoes: 

"I was never unplanned (unplanned, unplanned)/It was not your plan for me/I was never unplanned (unplanned, unplanned)/I'm right where I'm supposed to be./I was never unplanned (unplanned, unplanned)/I never left Your hands/Never left Your plan."

While I'm sure there are a lot of pro-choice people who will dismiss the song's message as being meaningless and just anti-women's-rights rubbish, there will also likely be a segment of the pro-life crowd who crow that the song's message is too forgiving of the father (and likely mother) and their decision to abort their child.  Both camps miss the point, in my estimation, as this is a song about pain, grief, heartache, loss, forgiveness, and hope for redemption at some point, along with a reconciliation in Heaven for the shattered family.  Don't quickly look past the point in the chorus that finds the child stating she was never unplanned, at least by God.  I am not ashamed to admit that this song has brought me to tears on more than one occasion and moves me every time I hear it.  Tuly a powerful message here, but sadly one that I think people on both sides of the abortion debate will dismiss.  Oh...and the child singing, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine..." at the end is a nice gut-punch ending.  I have to wonder if this was performed by Greenwood's daughter, London, although I have no idea how old she is and there is no written indication that this is her.  

The other stand-out tracks for me are the album's opener and title track (also co-written by Mcnevan) and the closing track, "I Made It", which are both positive, uplifting rock tracks with catchy, sing-along choruses that both of my kids picked up on almost immediately.  

Not everything here really resonates with me.  "All Time High" feels like a Drake-styled track, musically, with Greenwood providing the vocals.  The music is all programmed and electronic, and the song is just too...synthetic...for me.  "Wake Me Up", while featuring some melodic guitar lines, is just too poppy and saccharine with it's electronically enhanced "Whoa-oh-oh's" and programmed handclaps.  And "Insomnia" sounds like the darker musical echo of "Wake Me Up", again featuing some electronically embelished "whoa-oh-ohs" and electronic drums, but with a much more down-tempo pace and darker tone...not to mention the desire to go to sleep rather than the call to be awakend.  Intentional?  No idea, but it is an interesting point/counterpoint, even if the music isn't really my style.

Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter is credited in the liner notes for "the sick artwork", which I assume refers to the cover art and the artwork on the 2-sided, 9 panel insert.  The digipack artwork features  red and black enhanced photo of Greenwood, along with a stylized "M" on the interior.

As with Stones, I am not going to say I absolutely love every aspect of this record, because the electronic hip hop that is employed on tracks like "All Time High" and "Insomnia" is just not my thing.  But I would be lying if I said I don't really like a lot of this record, accepting it for the style of modern rap/rock hybrid that it is.  I realize not everyone will be able to musically tune into what Manafest is doing here, and that's okay.  But for those that are open to various styles of modern rock, especially younger audiences that are accustomed to genre-blurring artists, Manafest is likely to strike a musical chord.  My 12 year old LOVES Manafest, and my 7 year old regularly sings along to this album already, and both of them are also fans of MUCH harder/heavier music than is supplied here, so obviously Greenwood is doing something right.

Rating:  As with Stones, I would crank this to a solid 7, again with the understanding that not everyone will agree, especially those of the "metal or die!" ilk.  To each their own!

LA GUNS "Another Xmas In Hell"

(c) 2019 Frontiers Records

  1. The Bill/Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You (Billy Squire) (feat. William Shatner)
  2. Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade)
  3. Dreidel
  4. There Ain't No Sanity Clause (The Damned)
  5. Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight) (Ramones)
Phil Lewis--Vocals
Tracii Guns--Lead Guitars
Johnny Martin--Bass
Ace Von Johnson--Rhythm Guitars
Scot Coogan--Drums

The renewed pairing of Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns continues, as LA Guns serves up a new digital-only EP just in time for Christmas!  Following the success of the pair's most recent reunion efforts, The Missing Peace and The Devil You Know (plus a live record), the group decided now would be a good time to drop this little Christmas gift under their fans' Christmas trees to hold them over until 2020, when a third reunion album is scheduled to be released.  Stay tuned for more details!

This EP kicks off with a humorous intro from William Shatner (yes, Captain Kirk) on a little section called "The Bills".  The whole thing is essentially Shatner calling up the band and leaving a voicemail for the guys, inviting them down to The Rainbow for a drink on the Strip.  Shatner humorously hints that he has some suggestions for the band's setlist,  basically pointing out that the band HAS to include "Ballad Of Jayne" and "Over The Edge", as well a more obscure song, such as "Wheels Of Fire".  For me, the high point has to be Shatner briefly reading the lyrics of "Sex Action" in that all-too-familiar voice that he plays up so well!  He also talks about having some suggestions for the Christmas EP before breaking into a brief acapella version of the lyrics to "Sex Action" once again, bfore Tracii's guitar inserts itself and the band breaks into a very abbreviated version of Billy Squire's Christmas tune, "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You".  There is really no verse work done on this little bit of a tune, just some jingle bells, guitars, and the band singing along to the chorus.  Pretty much useless as far as any kind of airplay, but it is humorous to hear a time or two.

The real music of this EP starts with the next track, a great cover of the Slade tune, "Merry Xmas Everybody".  The vocals are classic Phil Lewis, and while they sound like they were probably done in just a single take...possibly two...there is an undeniable sleazy charm to hearing Phil snarl across this track.  Musically, it has everything you would expect from LA Guns covering Slade:  some great guitar soloing, a bouncy rhythm line, the requisite jingle bells, and some nice gang vocals on the chorus.  I would imagine there are some rock stations that are already slinging this track into rotation to help freshen up the Christmas music rotation, and there's no way to go wrong with this track.  This is pretty good stuff, and the guys sound like they are having a ball playing it.

"Dreidel" is a punked up version of the Hanukhah classic, but it is honestly more of a drop in than a song, as the whole thing last a whopping 8 seconds and is basically the band just collectively shouting the whole "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay", and then abruptly ending.  I am not sure if there is something wrong with the track I was sent, but it sure sounds like this was done intentionally, and, again, it would be perfect radio drop in material (according to someone who used to work in radio...namely, myself...).

"There Ain't No Sanity Clause" is up next, and since this is a cover of a tune by The Damned, you can likely guess that this is a high-speed, punked-up affair, with plenty of feedback-laden, aggressive riffing, machine gun fire drumming, and cigarette-and-whiskey vocals from Lewis.  Again, a very short track that sounds as if it was done in no more than a handful of takes, this, to me, is LA Guns at their finest, playing loud, fast, and raw.  Yeah, the guys have done some great ballads over the years, but LA Guns has always been about sleaze-punk attitude, a snarling punk vocalist paired with an extremely gifted guitar player ripping through solos that no punk band would ever allow themselves to play...and managing to pull it off and sound cool doing it.  I've seen this band numerous times in multiple versions, both with and without Tracii, and with very few exceptions, it's alway the fast and loud stuff that snags my attention when these guys hit the stage.  This Christmas punk cover is a perfect example of a band having fun and doing things their way, even if it isn't their music they are playing!

The whole thing wraps up with a cover of The Ramones "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)".  The band simply owns this song, with Lewis doing his best Joey Ramone-meets-Elvis on the opening line of the track, before the rhythm guitars kick in and Phil is back to being Phil.  Musically true to the original, "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" is a great way to wrap things up, with the band having a good time on an honestly sloppily-put-together track.  I mean, even in its original form, the song often sounds like too many syllables are being crammed into too small of a lyrical space, but as with the Ramones, it works out in the end for LA Guns and brings this little EP to a nostalgic and fitting close.

Take it for what it is, folks...a little gift from the band to its fans, nothing more and nothing less.  There is not a lot of production work put in here, and as I said, it really sounds as if the whole album was likely put together in just a handful of takes.  The most effort on the entire EP was probably the work done putting together William Shatner's contribution!  But it's fast, it's fun, and it's a handful of tunes you can throw into your own personal Christmas rock mix, along with Twisted Sister and Trans-Siberian Orchestra (among others).

Give it a listen on your favorite platfom by following this link.

Rating:  Come's a Christmas EP!  Just crank it, have fun, and be merry!

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Saturday, November 30, 2019

QUIET RIOT "Hollywood Cowboys"

(c) 2019 Frontiers Records

  1. Don't Call It Love
  2. In The Blood
  3. Heartbreak City
  4. The Devil That You Know
  5. Change Or Die
  6. Roll On
  7. Insanity
  8. Hellbender
  9. Wild Horses
  10. Holding On
  11. Last Outcast
  12. Arrows And Angels
James Durbin--Lead Vocals
Alex Grossi--Guitars
Chuck Wright--Bass
Frankie Banali--Drums, Producer

Quiet Riot has returned with yet another new record, the last (most likely...who knows...) to feature former American Idol stand-out, James Durbin, on lead vocals.  In fact, Durbin had been dismissed/left the band before the record even came out this month, but rather than go to the extreme expense and delay of re-recording the lead vocals (ex-Love/Hate singer Jizzy Pearl is BACK in the band...again...), band leader Banali decided to release Hollywood Cowboys as is.  Returning to the fray are long-time members Grossi and Wright, both of whom have spent considerable time in the band, though neither was around for the music world-changing Metal Health album (although, Wright has been in-and-out of the band since '85; Grossi has been on board since 2004).

Musically, this new effort finds itself very much in the same vein as the previous effort, Road Rage, but with one exception: Durbin sounds far more at home here than on his QR debut.  Grossi remains, for my money, a seriously underrated talent that I enjoy hearing every time I run across something he has worked on.  His soloing throughout the record is top-notch, and his rhythm work is excellent.  Wright, who has never been an overly flashy bassist, is still a strong presence throughout the record, and Banali is rock solid, with that big arena sound that he has long brought to not only Quiet Riot, but also to the 90s-era WASP albums that I love so much.  And, as I mentioned, Durbin is a far more powerful performer here than he was on the last studio effort...or the live record the band released with this lineup.  

As far as standout cuts, there are a few, to be sure.  Personally, my favorite track would have to be "In The Blood", which has a killer Grossi solo, a big hook, and some of that early 80s magic to the songwriting.  Note that I did not say it was a return to Metal Health, because that is not the case.  But, between Durbin's strong vocals and the afore mentioned performance from Grossi, there is more than enough punch on this strong, mid-tempo rocker to warrant the video treatment Frontiers afforded it.  Check it out below.

Banali produced the record, and while the production is not terrible, it lacks something to my ear.  There isn't a ton of energy in the production here, and the record sounds like a lot of the mid-90s independent records that 80s metal Quiet Riot...were putting out.  Along the same lines, the cover art is atrociously bad, again reminiscent of the cheap looking stuff these bands were forced to work with when they had no major labels (or major label cash).  Ugh...the cover is just...BAD!

In the end, all in all, this is a decent record...not spectacular, not amazing, not earth-shattering...but most certainly not bad.  Probably 3 or 4 songs too long and nothing that fans of the Metal Health through QRIII trilogy (nor the criminally underrated, Paul Shortino-fronted Quiet Riot album) are going to accept as really being worthy of the legendary Quiet Riot name, but how many "retro" bands can actually meet the expectations of their past (well, except for Stryper, I suppose)?.  I, personally, have decided to set aside my own opinions about whether or not Banali should still be recording under the moniker and accept new recordings by this iteration of the band for what they are:  a means for Frankie to stay on tour, playing the songs he loves for the fans who still love him and the Quiet Riot aura.  If you go into this record expecting Durbin to sound like DuBrow, and for the songs to have that same 1983 Metal Health magic, you will be sorely disappointed.  But if you give Hollywood Cowboys a fair listen, you will likely hear a band that is musically solid and as relevant as pretty much any 40+ year old band can be in this day and age.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the rather dire circumstances facing Mr. Banali at the time of this writing, as he has made it publicly known he is fighting Stage IV cancer at this time.  Here is truly hoping and praying that Banali is able to recover in some way and continue to make music and interact with his fans, which he is currently out doing at this time.  The man is a metal legend, both with Quiet Riot and sitting at the kit for some of my favorite WASP albums ever.  G2G wishes only the best for Frankie Banali and his family.

Rating:  Rock this at a respectable 6.5 and enjoy it for what it is.