Monday, February 24, 2020

CONFESS "Burn 'Em All"

(c) 2020 Street Symphonies Records

  1. So What?
  2. Malleus
  3. Welcome Insanity
  4. A Beautiful Mind
  5. Heresy
  6. Burn 'Em All
  7. Is It Love
  8. My Vicious Way
  9. 509
  10. Prominence
  11. One For The Road
John Elliot--Lead Vocals
Sam Samuels--Drums

It's been three years...three LONG years...since Swedish sleaze masters, Confess, released an album (Haunters came out in 2017).  That's a long time between albums.  And then, when you consider that it was 2014 when the band put out their debut record, the quasi-classic, Jail, you are looking at a band that had fewer than 25 songs under their belt in roughly 6 years!  That's not really the track record of a big time band, and a lot of times, bands that wait such a long time between the first and third albums never actually get to the third album; the scene has changed, people have moved on, magazines are on to the next big thing, what have you.  I honestly had fallen into that category of people who had moved on.  Sure, like I said, Jail is a borderline classic modern-era sleaze record; not quite in the same category as Crashdiet's Rest In Sleaze, but it's really good.  And Haunters was solid, also, but with such a long layoff between those records, I honestly had kind of forgotten about Confess other than the time or two that I pulled Jail out and thought, "Dang...wonder what happened to these guys!"

Well, what happened is they went back to the drawing board and put together what is probably the best record of their career.  With a change in one guitarist (Pontus is in, Richie is out) and a new bassist (Ludwig in, Van Noice out), the band seems to have returned to a more aggressive sound, throwing more back to the sleazier Jail and steering a bit more away from the more polished hair metal sound of Haunters.  As such, Burn Em All feels like a mixture of the best of both worlds, a perfect combination of a couple of radio ready tracks and a fistful of punch-you-in-the-mouth rockers that hearken back to the days of the seedier side of the Sunset Strip!  Buckle up, sleaze fans, because Burn 'Em All is gonna be a heck of a ride!

The album kicks off in fine fashion with some interesting jungle effects and a big tribal beat from Samuels' drums, accompanied perfectly by Ludwig's bass.  About thirty seconds in, the speed ramps up in a big way and we are plowing headfirst into a punked-up beast of a track, with equal parts sleaze and blood dripping from the steaming strings of the guitars that are absolutely smoked on this track.  The snarl of Elliot's vocals is absolutely perfect for this type of song and he completely commands this track in a way not a lot of singers do these days.

"Malleus" (whatever the heck that means) is up next and virtually nothing has changed from the opener.  The guitars are on full attack, and the bass rumbles very audibly throughout the scorching rocker that features a killer solo, some great backing vocals, and extremely tight, focused drum work from Samuels, who is a masterful player throughout the record.  In places, Elliot sounds like an angrier, throatier Phil Lewis, especially when he is in full-seer-and-spit mode, such as on the first two tracks.

"Welcome Insanity" backs off on the punk-infused sleaze and cleans up pretty nicely on a more radio-friendly rocker that has Elliot sounding considerably smoother and less pissed off than on the hyper-aggressive, full-attack tracks featured on Burn 'Em All.  The guitar solo is almost too aggressive for the rest of the track...almost...but it all works, especially with the great mix on the song.  I have to give serious credit to the production team here, as they managed to put together a great sound for the band throughout the record, whether it's on the superb backing vocals here (not too loud, not buried in the mix), on the great voice given to the bass, or on the excellent sound of the drums.  Hats off in a big way!

"A Beautiful Mind" has one goal in mind and that is simply to cave in the side of your head with blow after blow after blow of this heavy puncher.  Not blistering fast, but crushingly heavy, especially on the bottom end, and fueled by the angst of Elliot's vocals, who snarls directly in you earhole with nasty aggression and attitude, with each verse being kicked off by, "Hey, motherf**ker...!", accentuated by perfectly paired bass and drum work.  It's funny, because after the guitar solo, a vocal bridge chimes in that at first sounds too polished for the rest of the song, but then the buzzsaw guitars come snarling back to life just in time to bleed directly into the next track, the amped-up, "Heresy", which has the band delivering what sounds to me like the band's take on what Motley Crue might sound like in 2020, but with far superior vocals.

The title track blazes through the speakers next, and the full-speed-ahead attitude is firmly in place once again.  Samuels' drums are a freight train headed directly at the listener, and the twin guitar attack of Blomman and Pontus just absolutely attack this vicious rocker.  Elliot's vocal, again, are absolutely perfect for this scorching track, and his voice absolutely reminds me of someone now, but dang if my brain can pluck the name out at this point.  Perhaps it will come to me in time...  While I sort through the thousands of bands I have heard in my time, check out the official video for "Burn 'Em All" for a dose of just how great this new record is...

"Is It Love" is pure ear candy and would have dominated hard rock/metal radio and Headbanger's Ball back in the day.  Elliot's vocals have a melodic quality on a track like this that make you wonder how he's the same guy that is trying to verbally rip your throat out on other tracks!  The addition of some well-placed keys enhances the melodic nature of this song, and the smooth guitar solo is a string bender of the style that is all-too-often forgotten with hard rock bands these days.

"My Vicious Way" doesn't really live up to the "vicious" part of its title, but it's a pretty good song.  If I had to pick one song that I might...MIGHT...leave off, this would be it, and there really isn't a specific reason for it.  If pressed, I would probably say I don't really like the vocal bridge all that much, and the song reminds me of what wasn't really right with Haunters; it didn't really seem to know what it wanted to be.  Not a full-on sleazy rocker, but not a real melodic, hair metal song either, "My Vicious Way" kind of treads musical water for me, but never entices me to hit the skip button.

"509" is a balls-to-the-wall speed fest that just screams from your speakers right from the start, taking a cue from the first couple of cuts from the record.  Again, the twin guitar attack is perfectly executed here, and once again, the rhythm section is just so tight that it is hard to believe that Ludwig and Samuels haven't been playing together since the outset of the band.

"Prominence" sounds straight out of the 80s with its song structure, with the rumbling bass line being the prominent (see what I did there!) instrument supporting the verses, with the guitars jumping into the fray in the build to, and run through, the chorus sections with a really cool solo featured here as well.  I love the vocal approach of the chorus here, again, sounding like its straight from the best stuff that 80s metal had to offer, and the tasty guitar lines that drive the song home are a pure nostalgia trip for me, though the song isn't a specific rip-off of any one band or particular player.  It's just a well-executed song that I hit repeat on fairly frequently.

"One For The Road" closes things out in fine, mid-tempo rock fashion, again combining the best elements of the hard-edged sleaze style and the more melodic hair metal style the band fuses together on this album.  Again, not the best track of the bunch, but more than good enough to replace well-over half of the dreck that crosses my desk in a given year.  Again, not even close to a skipper.  

The language is pretty aggressive in a couple of spots, but this is sleaze metal, and not squeaky clean boy band pop. There are a fair number of F*bombs scattered throughout the record...and pounded into your skull on "A Beautiful Mind", but language aside, this is a MONSTER of a record.  Outside of a couple of tracks I might almost consider skipping, there is pretty much nothing to not love here.  I mean, I loved Jail, and I thought Haunters had it's moments, but Burn 'Em All has to be my favorite of the band's trilogy so far.  I guess only time will tell how well the record stands up, but for the here and now, this is a killer record from a band more people really need to discover...even if they are late coming to the game!  Let's just hope that Street Symphonies can get the band to punch out another record in 18 or so months and not make us wait 3 years between albums again!

Rating:  Gotta crank this one to 9, folks!  This record is a beast!

Saturday, February 22, 2020

FIGHT THE FADE "In Love.In Hope.In Peace"

(c) 2020 Independent Release

  1. Don't Say
  2. Everything Is Fine?
  3. What's Left
  4. Over And Over
  5. Consumed
  6. Heart
  7. Feelings
  8. Underwater
  9. Wild Ones
  10. Devil
  11. Everything
  12. Standing Here
  13. The Answer
Zene Smith--Vocals
Tyler Simpson--Guitars
Bryan Conway--Guitars
Trevor Taylor--Bass
Alyssa Worth--Drums

Go ahead.  Try to find another band as nearly impossible to pin down style-wise as Fight The Fade is.  Sure, on the songs they are best known for, such as "Edge Of Desire", "Lanterns (In The Dark)", and "Masks", the band comes across largely as a industrial hard rock/metal band.  And that's a fair assessment if all you have heard are the singles, especially the most recent ones.  And man, those are some GREAT songs.  But if you have never dug deeper into a Fight The Fade record, you have missed a lot of other pieces of who the band is.  I mean, this band is SO electronic at times, there are more bloops, bleeps, whirs, and buzzes than in a Star Wars droid scene!  Sometimes those moments are almost entirely devoid of guitars, while other times the electronic elements are merely the bedrock upon which the rest of the song is built.  And nowhere in their catalog are these elements more prominent than on their newest effort, In Love. In Hope. In Peace.

The album starts off with "Don't Say", and right away fans of Fight The Fade will notice something different is going on here.  Combining heavy electronics usage, a repetitive bass line, and equally repetitive lyrics, "Don't Say" in unlike anything I can recall hearing from the band previously.  I can't say I dislike the track, because I really like the way lead singer and band founder, Zene Smith, approaches the vocals on this piece, but it is definitely not something that I was planning to hear when I popped In Love.In Hope.In Peace. in for the first time.

The same can be said for "Everything Is Fine?".  If "Don't Say" was a bit of an oddball, "Everything Is Fine?" is straight up quirky.  Techno, industrial, electronica...even hints of dubstep...all collide in this song, and pretty much everything here is electronic, from the drums to the synthesizers to the effects used on Smith's vocals.  And when Smith's more metallic scream kicks in towards the end of the track, the heavy guitars aren't there to accompany him, just layers of synthesizers and electronic sounds as his scream echoes away, trailing off into the more spoken-word approach he uses for most of this track.  Not gonna lie, I was starting to get a bit concerned at this point, as this was not the Fight The Fade I was expecting.  Where were the hard hitters like "Lantern" or "Masks"?!  What gives?

Turns out what I was seeking would punch me in the earhole immediately, as the mid-tempo-but-hard-hitting rocker "What's Left", blasts forth on song three.  A track that combines an industrial element to its guitar-driven hard rock, "What's Left" is likely the sound and style that fans of Fight The Fade picked up this album to hear.  For non-fans, if you are familiar with the band Stabbing Westward from the late 90s and early 2000s, that would be a fair sonic comparison, although Zene has far superior vocals, in my opinion.  Already seeing significant airplay on Christian rock stations, I really don't know why "What's Left" isn't getting broader radio play, as it would fit comfortably on nearly any modern rock station, metal station, or on Octane.

"Over And Over" slows things down a tad and inserts a few more electronic elements, but the guitars still carry a heavy, industrial grind throughout the track, and the chorus punishes when it hits full force.  Utilizing some pretty harsh vocals in spots alongside the unmistakable vocal style of Smith.  There are some atmospheric elements here, as well, especially on the bridge section before the final run through the chorus, which really add to the musical depth of the track.  This song was a real sleeper for me, as I feel I used to spin right through this song without realizing just how great it was.  Trust me, I stop to take notice now.

"Cosumed" returns to the heavy electronic influences, and I get a distinct Nine Inch Nails vibe here.  The electronic drums are very rapid fire on this track, and harsh screams rip through the chorus section that is a big part of the NiN comparison for me.  I can envision a moshpit opening up at the front of the stage as this song pulsates with techno rhythms and industrial power, but I can't say that this is a track that I find myself really grabbing onto, as NiN has never been a favorite of mine.  I will say that this is some of the heaviest vocal work I have ever heard from Smith, as he lets loose with some rage-filled screams that stand completely apart from the smoother vocal style he applies to the next track, "Heart", which finds itself in that weird territory between ballad and mid-tempo rocker.  Piano and softer percussion during the verses yield to heavier, more aggressive sounds in the chorus sections on this obvious love song.

"Feelings" has a unique percussion line to it and some blurby keyboards that run throughout this song about self-sacrifice (yes, I said "blurby".  I don't know how else to explain them.)  Definitely one of the weaker musical moments for me, I honestly skip this track the majority of the time.

Skip is NOT something I do with "Underwater", which follows a similar style to the other rockers here, combining atmospheric electronic elements with hard driving guitar lines and Smith's powerhouse vocal style.  The mid-tempo rocker has multiple layers to the vocals, with the main line of the chorus exclaiming, "I keep going underwater", while set slightly in the background, a second vocal line implores, "Don't let me drown".  There is a smoothness to this track that just makes it musical water when I listen to it, but the guitars retain their bite and the percussion is huge throughout.  I find myself hitting repeat on this track quite often.

"Wild Ones" is another up-tempo rocker with a big chorus that just begs the listener to scream along when the band shouts "we are, we are the reckless youth!"  The tempo comes to a screeching halt after the second chorus run, with just Smith and some electronic sounds taking over at the front end of the bridge, slowly building in tempo and intensity until until the chorus hits once again. 

The Stabbing Westward comparison I made earlier really hits home on "Devil", which is a fun, quirky rocker that leans heavy on the industrial side, but also incorporates some unique percussion sounds, both electronic and human, with some funky bass work thrown into the mix as the instrument doing the heavy lifting during a vocal bridge leading to the final chorus.  And that bridge section...if you don't hear a bit of Kid Rock's "Cowboy" in the way it is structured, we may not be listening to the same song.  Like I said, this is a fun rocker that is unlike anything else on this record.  Check it out below.

"Everything" sounds like it has about three clocks all running in the background, and all are ticking and tocking in slightly different time, which is an odd thing to hear.  At just under a minute, this little interlude leads directly into the ballad, "Standing Here".  An electric current runs beneath the keys that intro the song, drawing up to the guitars and a really big drum sound that would push the track into "power ballad" territory were this 1989.  Make no mistake, this is a modern rocker, but the song's structure and style are definitely a nod to that lighter-in-the-air sound, whether intentional or not.  I dig it...a lot...and I have to think the song goes over well in the live setting.

The album closes on an excellent note with "The Answer", which is definitely one of my top two or three songs on the album.  Hard-hitting and aggressive, "The Answer" is a full-force industrial rock attack from start to...well, almost finish, as there is an echoing keyboard that exits the song and the album.  Smith's vocals are again accompanied by some harsher, lower-register screams that in at least one place sound a lot like Ryan Clark from Demon Hunter.  A nearly perfect way to bring a really good album to a close.

While it does have its quirky moments and expands upon the band's previous sounds, In Love. In Hope. In Peace. is a treat from start to finish and will hopefully draw more attention to a band that deserves to be noticed.  There truly aren't many, if any, bands in the Christian arena that sound like Fight The Fade, and few in the secular world that sound as good as this Oklahoma-based act.  I would strongly encourage you to pick up the album and support the band by shopping directly from their website store, located HERE.

Rating:  Somewhat hard to pin down, especially at the outset, but In Love.In Hope.In Peace cranks its way through to a 7.5 rating!

Monday, February 17, 2020


(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. Give Me A Sign
  2. The Other Side
  3. R.I.P.
  4. Never Again
  5. On The Inside
  6. Can You Promise Me That This Will Never End
CJ English--Vocals, Guitars
Maggie English--Bass, Vocals, Keys
Lulu English--Drums, Vocals

It has been nearly four years since the English sisters (well, they're American sisters named English, so...) released their successful sophomore album, Identity Crisis, on the masses.  (Their 2015 debut EP, Death Of Giants , went largely unnoticed, although four of the six songs were later included on Identity Crisis).  Now, the creators of Beautycore have returned with an EP of six new songs, showing considerable growth not only as musicians, but especially as songwriters.  

The EP kicks off with "Give Me A Sign", which has garnered significant airplay on Christian rock stations throughout the country and clocked in as number 20 on ChristianRock.Net's Top 100 songs of 2019.  A fun punk/metal hybrid, the song is insanely catchy and really shows an increased strength in the clean vocals from CJ, who also rips through some impressive rhythm guitar lines on the song.  Big backing "whoa" vocals add some depth to the track, and Lulu's impressive skills behind the kit really drive this rocker that features almost exclusively clean vocals.

"The Other Side", by contrast, is a lot darker vocally, with Maggie's harsh growls rather staggering to hear coming from the young lady, and standing as a bipolar opposite of the sweet sounds of CJ's voice.  Thick bass chords are a  prominent part of the track, and again, some fiercely aggressive rhythm playing from CJ pushes the more metallic attitude here.

Next up is "R.I.P.", a fun, punkish song that has to be a blast in the live setting, as fans shout along to the song's title in the chorus.  Co-written by Josiah Prince of Disciple, this song likely won't be released as a single, which is a shame, because it really is a catchy tune.  Featuring another really strong bass presence, especially at the beginning, this song also sports some fairly sparse musical sections, especially on the pre-chorus sections, allowing for the contrasting vocals of CJ and Maggie to take more center stage.
If you have ever seen the girls in their cheerleading stage outfits, they are even more appropriate with this song, as there are a couple of sections where the girls chant along (with some additional crowd help), sounding like a high school cheer squad. 

"Never Again" is a more metallic track that has seen recent airplay as a single, and as with so many songs from the trio, the interplay between CJ's (and some of Maggie's) clean vocals and Maggie's harsh screaming growl really drive the song and set it apart from so many other songs on Christian rock radio today.  A strong message of independence and personal belief in oneself, "Never Again" stands as kind of the antithesis of their last album's title, Identity Crisis, as CJ declares, "I am stronger now/I will stand my ground/I won't apologize for who I am!"  The stop-start chugging of the rhythm guitars and bass are punishing, and Lulu's aggressive drumming really pushes the song forward.  Definitely more "core" than a few of the tracks here, there is a brief, pummeling breakdown here and power chords galore as the girls prove they have the musical chops to stand with the boys of the genre.

"On The Inside" is the "radio" song of the batch, with a softer...slightly softer...approach, with the majority of the vocals handled in a cleaner fashion.  Yes, Maggie tears loose with a growl at the onset of the song, but by and large, this is the most melodic of the headbangers on the record.  That doesn't mean the music is less intense, the chords any less powerful, the drums any duller.  But there is definitely a catchiness, a melodic sensibility that the other songs don't really call for that "On The Inside" brings to the table.  Check out the video below and see if you can't detect what I'm talking about.

The EP closes with the latest single, "Can You Promise Me That This Will Never End", which may be the longest song title I have typed since my days in radio when I had to type "If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body (Would You Hold It Against Me)" by the Bellamy Brothers.  Hey!  Maybe it's a sibling thing.  Okay...of course it isn't.  Anyway, long song title aside, this is a great way to wrap up this impressive EP.  The song starts off with some effects before those meaty rhythm guitars hit and the cymbals crash to announce the arrival of the girls.  As is pretty typical on this effort, CJ handles the vast majority of the clean vocals, although Maggie does drop in some clean harmony vox as well, but her vocal presence is most felt when she snarls her lines in a manner that would likely make Angela Gossard (Arch Enemy) grin.  Lulu does enough double kicking here that it sounds like she's running on her kit, and she has some really interesting patterns she chooses to use before the final run through the chorus.   

To be honest, complaints about this effort are very few, as everything works really well, from the cool cover art to the perfectly executed track listing.  If I had any complaint, it would really be only that the album is just too short and leaves me wanting more!  None of the six songs here top 3:40 in length, and half of them don't even get to three minutes, so the entire EP sits at around 18 minutes.  But it's a really, really fun, interesting, aggressive, and entertaining 18 minutes.

I have never found this EP in the physical format, so as far as I am aware, digital is the only way you can get Oh, The Horror!  Frustratig, to be sure, but I just downloaded the EP (along with the girls' acoustic EP) and burned it so I could take Oh, The Horror! with me on the road.  Available on Amazon and iTunes (and probably just about any other digital store you care to shop), this is definitely a piece of the modern hard rock/metal scene that is worth the download.

As good as Identity Crisis is, Oh, The Horror! tops it in nearly every way!  All that's missing is a softer moment like "Chatter In The Room" from IC.  There seems to be nothing that will stand in the way of these talented, ambitious young women who have certainly raised the bar...and some the hard music industry, both Christian and secular.  Color me impressed!

Rating:  Very definitely crankable!  Dial this up to an 8!  I only wish it were a bit longer!

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Friday, February 14, 2020


(c) 2020 Thermal Entertainment

  1. Say You Ever
  2. Bubbles
  3. Misery
  4. Joke's On Us
  5. Forgiveness Is An Art
  6. Puzzle Pieces
  7. Maeve
  8. Carousel
  9. The Way Down
  10. Throwing Knives
  11. Counterfeit
  12. Baggage Claim
Kenneth Nixon--Vocals
Ryan Belcher--Guitars
Nic Brooks--Guitars
Jonathan Stoye--Bass
Shad Teems--Drums

It has been six years...six LONG years for fans of the band...since Framing Hanley released a new album.  Six years of silence from a band that had spent a considerable amount of time on the charts, with 5 singles making their way onto the US Mainstream Rock, Alternative, or Active Rock charts, and even more songs making waves on both satellite and terrestrial rock stations.  While songs such as "Lollipop", "Criminal", "You Stupid Girl", and personal favorite, "Hear Me Now" crashed their way onto numerous stations' playlists...and fans' iPods and phones...the band suddenly went silent following 2014's The Sum Of Who We AreBut that has all changed now, as Envy will hit stores and music outlets later this month.

Returning to the fray are band founder, Kenneth Nixon, and longtime guitarist, Ryan Belcher, who have been together since 2007, as they create a musical tapestry that is familiar without sounding like a rehash of where the band has been in the past.  Joining the pair are Stoye, who has been in the band since 2013, as well as newcomers, Brooks and Teems, who have been in the band since 2018, with Envy marking the tandem's first appearance on a record.

And what a record to get your feet wet with...

The album kicks off with an intro, of sorts, which I LOVE!  Yes, yes, I know..."Arttie hates intros!"  But not this one.  This one is different.  To be fair, "Say You Ever" is almost a song...almost...although it really serves as an intro to the track, "Bubbles".  But for nearly two minutes, I am sucked into the exquisitely dark melody and nearly as dark lyrics of "Say You Ever", and by the end, I am begging my computer screen to PLEASE PLAY MORE OF THIS!!!  My wife came in as I was yelling at the screen in agony, glaring at me with her "what the heck is wrong with you" look, until I hit play on "Say You Ever" one more time (I was at least a dozen spins through it by now) and then she was as taken aback by the track nearly as much as I.  Why?  Why is this such a short quasi-song?!  From the moment the cello starts the song off, to the moment the handclaps join in, to the moment the piano drops, to the very second before Nixon's haunting vocals hit, "Say You Ever" already has me captivated.  And then the lyrics only grab me more.  "Say you ever gave a damn/Don't say you ever game a damn, or I'll expose you," Nixon begins as he seemingly addresses a betrayer.  "But you were fake from the start/You can't change who you are."  But the condemnation comes next, as he sings, "One day you'll reap what you sow/One day you'll reach your end alone."  But it's not just the words, its the delivery that makes the words so chilling, so darkly delicious.  But like so many great things in this world, "Say You Ever" is just a delightful tease, the lady who longingly stares at you with the come hither eyes, who turns a cheek when you get the nerve up to make your move, who turns around to give you that coy smile as she walks away.  The only payoff here is that I can hit repeat...and I frequently do.


"Bubbles" feeds directly off of "Say You Ever", and if you listen closely, you can hear the tempo and even the same basic rhythm in the song, but with a lot of guitar and bass added to the mix.  And while I love the tempo and structure of this rocker, it's the hook of the chorus that snags your attention and draws you to the song and keeps you there.  Nixon's vocals weave in and out of the chorus in an impressive display of control of his instrument, while the guitars carve out meaty chunks that give the listener even more to sink their teeth into.  "Bubbles" screams Octane to me with the aggressive nature of the music combined with the melodic vocals.  This is good stuff here, folks. Two tracks in and already Envy has my attention in a big way. 

"Misery" is a particularly musical track, which I really enjoy.  By that I mean that there is a lot of note density, with a lot of things going on, while still remaining melodic and not coming off as just a bunch of noises mixed together with words layered over the top.  You know the kind of "song" I'm talking about here.  That's not what you get with "Misery".  As with the vast majority of this album, you get the feeling that this is a very personal track for Nixon, and because of this there is a lot of emotion poured into the vocals here.  A string section (synthesized, I'm assuming) accompanies the edgy guitars and a nice, big drum sound from Teems, and multiple layers of vocals add quality depth to the track.  To me, lyrically, "Misery" just has so much to offer.  I love the second verse, in particular, when Nixon sings, "I've been throwing stones at the looking glass/Denying what I am, denying what I have/The delusion I'm choosin', the truth is it chose me/Coursin' through my veins, like acid in an IV..."  Good, good stuff, as is the chorus, where he seemingly begs, "Take me for all I have to offer/I'm a broken mess...".  I'd be surprised if this doesn't become a single at some point, and I have to believe it will be a huge success in the live setting, as Nixon really gets the chance to show the full range of his vocal abilities here.

Things get a bit alterna-pop on the next track, "Joke's On Us", especially in the verse sections.  The chorus is straight-up modern rock with some great guitar lines, while the verses utilize a lot of lighter programmed elements and electronic drums, which give way to the real thing on those heavier chorus sections.  I wasn't sure what to think of the song the first time through, but the more I hear it, the more I come around to what the guys are doing here.  If there is one song on this album that I feel could potentially cross over to more mainstream playlists, it is likely this one.

The band proves they haven't lost their darker, heavier edge with some excellently angry rockers.  "Forgiveness Is An Art" might be my favorite of these, with its stellar drum work, some churning guitars, and a snarling edge added to Nixon's vocals. It's not a full on, balls-out speed-fest or anything, but the edge is definitely there, especially when Nixon intones, "...hope you choke on the smoke when your world goes down in flames!"  Featuring a quasi-breakdown...followed by something akin to a guitar solo..."Forgiveness Is An Art" has just about anything and everything that modern hard rock fans should love, with big backing vocals, some programmed elements, and interesting-yet-aggressive drum patterns that keep the song charging forward.  Definitely one of my faves from an album that is jam-packed with great tracks.

"Puzzle Pieces", which has been released as a single, is an interesting track to me for a rather personal reason.  It sounds to me like someone who is staring down the barrel of depression, especially with the first couple of lines: "Medicated to the point of apathy/Each day another little pill to swallow..."  And I'm not saying it's personal because I deal with depression, myself.  I say this because I work with kids who struggle with depression (among other various mental health diagnoses), and this kind of thinking is typical of what I encounter.  And I'm not disagreeing with it or judging, by any stretch.  But the writers of the song sound like they know of what they speak.  Musically, the song starts off rather quiet, with some programmed elements running beneath the current of the first lyrical line, but it steadily builds to a mid-tempo rocker filled with melody and hooks, with the phrasing of Nixon's vocals absolutely spot-on.  The songwriting here is a perfect example of the growth and maturation of the band.  While musically, this song is something of a nod to the modern alt-rock that Framing Hanley has become known for, lyrically I don't think that Framing Hanley was ready to write this kind of material a couple of albums ago. 

"Maeve" has a slower-tempo feel to the guitar lines, but there's a bounce in the drum and bass line which keeps it from drifting into ballad territory.  In fact, I would venture to say there is more of a laid-back island feel to the song's structure than anything else.  It's an interesting transition between "Puzzle Pieces" and "Carousel", which share similar tempos, at least initially.  While "Puzzle Pieces" remains a bit heavier emotionally, "Carousel" comes across a bit lighter in approach.

"The Way Down" is a cool rocker with a different guitar tone on the verses than the majority of the record uses, which gives it a different feel overall.  I like the tempo shifts within the track and the chorus section is set up to build expertly.  There's an interesting vocal bridge after the second chorus run, and the final trip through the chorus shakes the phrasing up before coming to an abrupt conclusion.

"Throwing Knives" is a completely different type of song!  Had this come out in the 80s, it would likely have been labelled a "power ballad", but I don't think it really slows itself enough to be a true ballad.  Regardless, I love this track!  I think part of the reason for this is that "Throwing Knives" sounds a lot like the kind of music that one of my all-time favorite bands, Royal Bliss, would do, and it just grabs me.  The intensity of the song steadily builds, both musically and vocally, until both hit their peak in the chorus sections.  The bass of Stoye figures prominently in the quieter moments, especially in the run up to the previously mentioned choruses.  One other thing that is impossible to overstate is that this is also a song that really finds Nixon showcasing his singing ability.  No, he doesn't stretch his range or perform any kind of vocal acrobatics, but as far as emotion-packed, effects-free singing, "Throwing Knives" is Nixon at his peak.  And the guitar solo from Belcher is one of his best on the record.  The layered string section, the tight rhythm section, the backing vocals...everything is spot-on here on a track that I think could really serve the band well at radio if its given a chance.

"Counterfeit" is a catchy, pop-filtered number that works well but isn't the best moment of the record by any stretch.  However, it serves as a strong intro to the one true ballad on the record, the album's closer, "Baggage Claim".  A strong melody and spot-on backing vocals create a truly great track to wrap up an excellent return for this band.  At times hinting at being a bit Nashville, at others a bit more Tom Petty-inspired Americana/heartland rock, "Baggage Claim" showcases a band that is comfortable with who they are now, a band that won't be pigeonholed by who they were in the past.  In fact, all of Envy feels like that to me.  Taking sections of their catalog and expanding upon it, Framing Hanley have matured as songwriters, and the new musical incarnation of the band is extremely tight, very focused, and serve up a product that should fit into the modern rock scene but without becoming lost in the cookie-cutter world of so many other bands all striving to sound like the current big thing.  Framing Hanley sounds like Framing Hanley, no more, no less.  And isn't that what all bands should strive for?  Being themselves?

The production is rock solid, with a great, clean mix, with no muddiness at all.  The guitars have strong voices and separation, and the bass is given the opportunity to express itself in several places on the album.  I also can't say enough about the work Teems does behind the kit, keeping the tempos crisp and clean, but never boring or repetitive, with each song getting its own particular pattern and style.  And what else needs to be said about the powerful performance of Nixon here?  Teasingly falsetto in places, rich and powerful in others, even dropping in fun, playful doses of AutoTune where it makes musical sense and doesn't detract from the overall effect of the song.

This is a heavy album; there aren't a lot of light-hearted moments here (though there are a couple).  That doesn't mean the album is depressing, however.  It means Envy is introspective, it means thought-provoking, it even means challenging at times.  The lyrics here are real, touching on emotions that everybody deals with from time to time and relationship to relationship.  And when darkness creeps into the tracks, its always with the belief that there is light to be found somewhere else, even if we have to burn down the things that keep us boxed in to find it.  As I stated before, I don't think Framing Hanley was ready to write this album earlier in their career.  But they are ready now, and they deliver in an impressive way.  In the end, to say that Framing Hanley is back in a big way would be an understatement.  I don't really care where they went, I just don't want them to go there again and leave us without more great music.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go play "Say You Ever" a few more times...

Rating:  Crank-a-ble, to be sure.  Envy is the first 9 of 2020!

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Friday, February 7, 2020

RENEE KEEL with RON KEEL "Anything But Pink" (Book Review)

(c) 2020 BookBaby

I had the good fortune to meet Renee Keel when she accompanied Ron to perform at SkullFest in 2014.  My observation of Renee was that she was a quiet partner, herself an observer of the adoration people had for her husband.  She was polite and cordial, yet reserved and soft-spoken, minding Ron's merchandise table while he was performing or meeting with fans.  She was not a groupie, not some big-haired, loud-mouthed character bragging of her exploits with this star or that.  She was real.  As the book says of her, "Renee lives in Sioux Falls, SD with her Rockstar husband, and is proud to bring a touch of analytical order to his artistic chaos."  To be honest, I could sense that.  And while  I cannot say that I got to "know" Renee, I was glad for the opportunity to meet her, as she added a sense of reality to the crazy "Rockstar World" many envision their favorite artists to live in.   

Just two years later, Renee would be diagnosed with breast cancer, and her world, as well as the world of her famous husband, would be "rocked".  Rather than cave to her diagnosis, however, Renee chose to fight cancer, and to share her fight with whomever chose to follow along, as she started a blog about what she and Ron were going through.

Now, that blog has been put together, along with insights from Ron on what he was going through, in book form.  Anything But Pink: On Becoming a Cancer Survivor is an in-depth look at one woman's fight against the dreaded "C" word, both the highs and lows, the somewhat humorous moments, and the tear-inducing moments.  Also included are insights from Ron, who went into his own version of "fight mode", determined to "liquidate most of my primary assets...down to every last $5 autographed 8 x 10 photo I can sell" to help finance his wife's fight.  Making the fight even harder was the fact that Renee lost her job, and Ron saw his hours at a radio station drastically cut, as well.  But rather than shrink from the fight, the couple faced the battle head on, with both leaning on each other as they worked through shock, fear, and despair in the face of an enemy that attacks seemingly at random and without notice.

Maintaining the flow and structure of the blog, the book is easy to least from a stylistic point of view.  There were several times I had to put the book down, as the descriptions of what Renee was going through hit a bit close to home, as I recognized similarities to the cancer fight my own father-in-law had gone through just a few years prior to Renee's.  To most anyone who has dealt with cancer, or who has had someone close to them go through the battle of their life, Anything But Pink may prove to be a very tough read, to be sure, but I feel nearly everyone would agree that the story contained in these pages is 100% honest and 100% real.

It wasn't until I finished the book that I really understood what Ron was singing about on his newest album, Fight Like A Band.  In fact, I always wondered why the first verse wasn't even using the words "Fight Like A Band".  Now I understand, as after reading the book, I have come to understand the title track is very autobiographical, with that first verse being a miniaturized version of Renee's battle.  About his wife, Ron sings...

"When the doctors came in, And gave her the news,
She cried, and she smiled, And she did what she had to...
Tough as nails, and stronger than I've ever been!

Shake your fist, Make your plans,
Use what you got and do what you can.
If you're gonna take on the world...
Fight Like a Girl!"

But this book isn't about Ron, at least directly.  This book is about Renee and her fight, with Ron being a supporting character to her story.  Sure, his status in the hard rock and metal world will draw some to the book that may not have otherwise picked it up, but Renee's story stands on its own.  It, it DESERVES to be read, because it is a story that could end up being about anyone at anytime.  As such, hers is a story of survival, of hope, of courage, and of dogged determination to fight the battle on her own terms.

Not a Rock N Roll story, but definitely a story that will rock you, Anything But Pink is a powerful book with a powerful message.  Pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BookBaby, or Renee's own site,


Saturday, February 1, 2020

SAVED BY SKARLET "Out Of Darkness"

(c) 2019 Independent Release

  1. Intro
  2. Feel The Enemy
  3. Out Of Darkness
  4. Conquerors
  5. Surrender All
  6. When I'm Cold
  7. Come Alive
  8. Light It Up
  9. Fire Inside
  10. The Syndrome
Benjamin Andrews--Screams, Group Vocals
Matthew Middleton--Guitars, Bass
Nathan Middleton--Vocals, Drums, Synth
Adam Chenier--Drums

Saved By Skarlet is a four-piece, metalcore-influenced band from Rhode Island.  Built around brothers Matthew and Nathan Middleton, the band has experimented with a couple of different line-ups before putting together the current band and releasing Out Of Darkness, their debut album.  A couple of previously released singles are included on the album, along with 8 new tracks that range from pretty straight forward metalcore to more melodic, progressive tracks, all of which work to varying degrees.  What does work throughout, regardless of style, is the band's commitment to being a Christian band whose faith is on display through the lyrics to each of the ten tracks on this album.  

The disc starts off with...well, with "Intro", a spoken-word track with some electronic elements (including synthesized strings), a church bell, and some rather progressive guitar work.  This sub-minute long track stands in pretty stark comparison to "Feel The Enemy", the first true song on the album.  Musically, the song is a hard-hitting, core-based track, with some excellent rhythm guitar work and tight drumming, along with some great screams and an excellent breakdown section.  The lead, clean vocals are a bit emo in style and sound, and it took me a couple of listens to really wrap my head around how they fit into the mix here, as this is a pretty heavy track otherwise.  Definitely not the norm for fans of pure metalcore, but plenty of musical meat here to chew on, along with some solid lyrics about fighting against the internal desire to sin and fighting against the enemy that inspires those thoughts and desires.

The title track, "Out Of Darkness" follows, and again, we have a pretty aggressive, largely metalcore track, although the band incorporates several programmed elements into this song, along with some higher pitched screams and some of the harshest vocals that Nate lays down.  His clean vocals, again, are fairly emo in nature, but nothing that detracts from the overall quality of the work here.  Once again, the rhythm guitars are particularly strong, and the drum work is solid.  It reminds me of something Nine Lashes might have done in their harder-edged moments.  Two true tracks in, I have to say I am rather impressed with this self-recorded, self-produced effort.

Next up is one of the most diverse songs on the album, musically.  Originally released as a stand-alone single in 2017, the band re-packaged "Conquerors" for this album and re-released it as a single, and it is now climbing the ChristianRock.Net charts.  I say it is diverse because there are some solid guitar leads thrown into the mix under the verse sections, pairing with the pretty fierce rhythm guitars to give the track a solid foundation.  Again, some programmed elements and reverb are thrown into the mix, especially on the vocals in the chorus sections, but overall this track relies on the traditional instrumentation to drive the song.  Featuring a cool opening riff and some nice percussive moments, "Conquerors" is one of the strongest songs on the album, despite the fact that there are no real harsh vocals used here, outside of a couple of screams at the end of certain vocal lines.  I have to assume this is the reason Andrews isn't in the video; either that, or he wasn't in the band when the video was made.  There is a pretty vicious breakdown in this song, also, which I really like, but there is always going to be that part of me that really wishes that there would be a screaming guitar solo ripping through the section, as well.  Inspired by Romans 8:37-39, the song is about being more than just conquerors through the strength of Christ.  Check out the band's self-produced video below.

The band slows things down considerably for "Surrender All", with a piano playing a prominent role in the musical presentation here.  The cleaner vocal style that Nate uses on the album works better in this environment than in other places, but the music is almost too "pretty" for this record, with programmed strings joining the piano after the first chorus, which is also when the guitars and drums finally join the mix.  Later, a female voice is added to the background vocals, and there are several big "whoa-oh-ohs" thrown in for good measure, creating a really big-feeling song.  To me, the song steers pretty hard into praise and worship territory, which isn't a bad thing, but again, it really doesn't fit what the band has done up to this point.  Even the very brief snarl that Nate throws into his voice at the end of the one of the chorus sections doesn't do anything to change the overall feel of this song.  All this to say I would NOT cut the song, as I think it is a very impressive composition and it is performed really well, but I WOULD move it to the end of the album where I think it wouldn't feel like such a shock to the system.

"When I'm Cold" is up next, and if I'm being 100% honest, I skip this track pretty much every time it comes up, and that is due completely to the first verse and run through the chorus.  I just can't do it, which is actually too bad, because from that point on, the song really has some excellent work, especially on guitar.  There's actually a pretty cool (albeit short) guitar solo, and the leads are some of the best on the record.  The backing vocals are great, the chimes used in the percussion section are a great touch, and the writing is really, really good.  I just can't get through the starkness of the first verse.  The keys used sound almost off key to my ear, which, in turn, make the lead vocals (Matt tackles that task this time around) sound off and nasal, and I just have to hit skip, at least in my truck.  When I am at home and can actually fast forward through the song without the threat of swerving off the road, then I really, really like the last two-thirds of the song.  I hope that perhaps the band will consider rewriting this song and including it in a follow-up album at some point.

Following the sound of a heart monitor, "Come Alive" picks the tempo back up, with some really good drum patterns and some more really solid guitar leads.  Electric piano is used as a supporting instrument on this track, and it is put to good use.  All the vocals on this track are of the clean variety, and the heart monitor exits the song in much the same manner that it introduced it.  Not an overly memorable song, musically, but a good read lyrically, with a solid message.  I don't skip it, but "Come Alive" isn't a song I would steer people toward to understand who Saved By Skarlet is.

The same can be said for "Light It Up", although this track has some really great guitar work...right before the quasi-rap section!!!  Starting off with a definite dirty blues riff, then morphing into a hard-driving modern rocker, this song is all over the place stylistically, but I have to admit it is kind of fun!  I'm betting the guys had a blast with this song, which features the most prominent bass sound on the record, and I would imagine that this is a fun song in the live setting.

"Fire Inside" trends back toward the metalcore sound the band used on the first handful of songs, which is where the band is definitely at their most consistent.  Aggressive, with a heavy, chunky breakdown, and those strong rhythm guitars...and surprising leads, this is what I think Saved By Skarlet should really focus on.  In fact, if they were to bring in more of their harsher, core-styled vocals, this would possibly be my favorite track on the album, as it is really tight musically.  One thing that bugs me, however, is how much quieter this song is than any other song on the record, which is almost certainly a product of the guys doing this record almost completely on their own, with no label backing or professional producer at the helm.  Another example of a song that I hope the band gives new life to on a later release.

"The Syndrome" closes things out in excellent fashion, as Saved By Skarlet is hitting on all cylinders here.  Harsh vocals, punishing rhythm guitars, tight, machine-gun drumming, a crunching breakdown, and some interesting programmed elements all mix together to create a song that I hit repeat on nearly every time through. what Saved By Skarlet needs to be, in my opinion!  Brutal beauty that I think most any metalcore fan will be able to grab hold of and rattle their brain to!  Please, give me more music of this intensity in the future!

In the end, this is a pretty solid debut and a decent album overall, with several strong songs.  Spiritually, the band is on-point, and musically they have a feel for what they are trying to accomplish, although there are a few times I think they attempt to get to proggy and not core-ish enough.  In blunt truth, this would make a great EP, as I would lop off the intro, "When I'm Cold", and "Come Alive", ratcheting things down to 6 really solid core-based tracks, with "Surrender All" tagged on to close things out.  I hope that in the future the guys stick to the more core-ish style...especially with the harsher vocal approach they use in "The Syndrome"...and stay away from the cleaner, more emo-styled stuff.  The harsh vocals, gritty guitars, and savage breakdowns are the meat of this band's sound, in my opinion, and the more emo-oriented vocals and song styles don't do the band justice.  I also hope that there is some way these guys can get with a professional mixer and producer, to help level things out and smooth out a couple of rough edges.  I think there is a good deal of potential here, no question.

Be sure to check the band out on Facebook, and head over to CDBaby to get this album from the guys.

Rating:  Rock this debut effort at 6.5, with the expectation of some bigger things to come!

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