Monday, March 2, 2020

BLACK SWAN "Shake The World"

(c)2020 Frontiers Records

  1. Shake The World
  2. Big Disaster
  3. Johnny Came Marching
  4. Immortal Sails
  5. Make It There
  6. She's On To Us
  7. The Rock That Rolled Away
  8. Long Road To Nowhere
  9. Sacred Place
  10. Unless We Change
  11. Divided United
Robin McCauley--Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals
Reb Beach--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Jeff Pilson--Bass, Keys, Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals
Matt Star--Drums, Percussion

Frontiers Records has developed the reputation of being the creator of potential "supergroups" by putting together various combinations of artists on projects, sometimes pairing people up that have never performed together, that have different styles and sounds, or are from various eras of hard and heavy music.  To be 100% honest, more often than not, the musical ability is there, but the songs?  Not so much.  So, with this latest grouping, Black Swan, would things turn out any differently?  Loads of potential but very little in the way of results?

So, of course, the obvious thing to look at here is the sheer volume of talent involved.  Let me start by stating that I think Robin McCauley may be one of the most underrated 80s melodic hard rock vocalists out there.  I seriously love the guy's work.  The 67 year-old Irish singer has one of those truly unique sounds that you can just instantly pick out, at least for me.  And for my money, those three albums he did with MSG (that's The MCCAULEY-Schenker Group, thank you very much!) are some of the best melodic hard rock of the era that a surprisingly huge number of people have never heard, which is criminal.  If you don't have Perfect Timing, in particular, you are missing some incredible music, but Save Yourself and M.S.G. are must-seeks, also.  (And if you can find it, get the band's Japan-only EP, Nightmare, The Acoustic M.S.G.)  So, at least as far as I am concerned, the band is off to a fabulous start simply by including McCauley.  

On guitars, the uber-talented Reb Beach is found.  For those who weren't around in the 80s/early 90s, or were too drunk/stoned during the time to remember, Beach is the guitar hero behind all of Winger's albums, as well as one of the best George Lynch stand-ins for Dokken (Erase The Slate, Live From The Sun), and since 2002 he has been at David Coverdale's side in Whitesnake, and has actually been in the band longer than anyone...EVER...not named Coverdale, so the dude must be doing something right!  I've always been a fan of Beach's sound, and I was fortunate enough to get to see him with Dokken on the Erase The Slate tour, where he tore up the stage.  And whether you like the current sound and style of Whitesnake, you can't fault Beach, because the guy delivers the goods on Flesh & Blood, the latest effort from the band.  And, speaking of Dokken and delivering the goods, Pilson was the bass player on every Dokken record from 1984 through 2000, plus 2018's Return To The East: Live, he played on three records with Dio, has been on albums by Lynch Mob, Lynch/Pilson, and Steel Dragon...oh, and he's been the bassist for Foreigner since 2004 and played on the current version's only studio record, 2009's Can't Slow Down.  And as to Starr?  Well, he's currently playing with Mr. Big on tour, has played with Burning Rain, Beautiful Creatures, and Ace Frehley.  So yeah, the guy has skills.

So, everything is in place for a typical Frontiers Records supergroup project.  TONS of talent, but not a lot of cohesion in the songwriting, with not a lot of time spent in the writing sessions, but plenty of talent in the recording studio.  It's happened on several occasions with these projects, and not just on Frontiers Records, but throughout the industry.  What looks great on paper doesn't always (usually?) come out of the speakers.

Except Black Swan is different.  Black Swan HAS THE SONGS!!!  Oh, does it have the songs...

Things kick off immediately with the album's title track, "Shake The World".  Big, pounding drums start the song off on a rather ponderous foot, with the first few guitar lines combining with those drums to almost...almost...bring to mind Black Sabbath's "Iron Man".  But, after a brief introduction, of sorts, the song kicks off for real, and things shape up rapidly into a high-octane melodic rocker with nary a trace of the sludge that was hinted at with those first few bars of the song.  With even the first listen, it is obvious that Pilson's bass will be given a solid voice in the songs on this record, as he can be heard to rumble down under right from the start.  Beach's playing is tight and his solo on even this first song is so completely different from anything he does with Whitesnake or Winger that it's easy to forget this is that same guy!  But for me, the best thing was to hear McCauley's voice come blaring so powerfully out of my speakers, sounding for all the world like he just got done recording Perfect Timing more than 35 years ago!  The man's vocals are impeccable here and throughout the record.  Truly amazing how some voices can hang in there for so long, while others fall apart after just a couple of albums.  Well, I am so very happy to declare that McCauley's vocals fall into that first category. 

"Big Disaster" has a cool swing feel to the drums and the galloping bass, and the phrasing of McCauley just bounces along perfectly to the rhythm set by Fox and Pilson.  Beach goes off in a couple of different spots, but the big solo leading into the final runs through the chorus is the big show-stopper here, and a lesser song would have been buried by such an immense solo.  But, again, the fun, bouncy rhythm and the perfectly paced vocals, including the excellent backing work from Beach and Pilson, keep the song driving along perfectly.  Love it.

"Johnny Came Marching" is a hard-hitting, ballsy song, with a bit more bite to the guitars and even a hint of angry edge to McCauley's vocals as he sings on this song about PTSD and its effects on soldiers coming back from war.  It's a story song, to be sure, but there is a point to the song, and it is not lost on the listener, no matter how great the performances surrounding that message.  Beach goes a slight bit more modern in his solo here, although there is still plenty of melodic flair, but the more aggressive tone is hard to miss.  Fox's drums are a big part of the song, as well, hitting hard and really driving not only the tempo but the attitude of the song.  I will state, however, that I don't necessarily agree with the full scope of the message delivered here, as the news anchor-styled voice over at the end of the song talks about "another mass shooting" right after talking about the "Johnny" of the story that was apparently in the "war (that) broke out overnight in the Middle East".  It then talks about PTSD being the "leading cause of suicide among returning soldiers".  The implication here seems to be that if you are in the military and you are sent to war, when you return home you will become suicidal/homicidal, and I have a really hard time agreeing with that stance.  I am certain the guys were trying to make a point here, but I fear the point misses the mark and paints a rather negative picture, especially when compared to Seventh Day Slumber's "Man Down", a song that has a similar tone about soldiers and PTSD, but which doesn't draw such finger-pointing lines.  Just my two cents on an otherwise killer song.

"Immortal Souls" is, for my money, the BEAST of this record!  This is just an absolutely spot-on melodic rock song, the likes of which I can't say I have heard in a couple of years.  Seriously.  This song gets repeated numerous times every time I pull it up on my computer, and I actually burned it onto my CD its normal slot and then again at the end...just so I can hear it more frequently.  From McCauley's big, powerful vocals to Beach's sweeping solo work, to the massive hook and insanely catchy chorus, this is just an immensely great song.  As great as the album is, as a whole, this track pretty much blows everything else away.  It is just spot on perfection. 

The album's first ballad attempt, "Make It There", goes a bit awry, to be honest.  It's a little too plodding for me, and it comes across even more so when Beach's excellent as it is...comes across as too fast for the music surrounding it.  McCauley's voice is the perfect fit for a track like this, but something is just off for me, and it really seems to be a pace/timing thing.  I don't skip this, and again, Beach's solo really deserves to be heard, but I'd be lying if I said this was what I would use to represent what Black Swan is all about.  There is definitely better stuff on this record.

"She's On To Us" is a cheater's song, or more accurately, the song of someone who is on the verge of being caught up in his indiscretions.  Another vehicle for the sizzling fretwork from Mr. Beach, "She's On To Us" also fits perfectly the vocal intonation used by McCauley, allowing him to flex his range a bit.  The same can be said for "The Rock The Rolled Away", a blistering rocker that finds Pilson's bass punctuating every hard-rocking sentence that Beach screams through his guitar.  Just amazing energy in these two rockers that really showcases the difference between a group of guys trying to flash their own individual talents and an actual group that seeks to enhance the strengths of each other on ever single song.  To me, that is so much a part of what makes Black Swan so much more successful than a lot of other projects.  This doesn't feel like a project; it feels like a group that has been together for years, perhaps even decades.  Even the guys have said as much, stating they feel like they have been doing this forever.  And that makes all the difference in the songs, I feel.

 If it's guitar acrobatics you want, look no further than the solo on "Unless We Change", which also features a cool, chunky bass vibe from Pilson and some near-tribal rhythms from Fox.  If it's big, soaring vocals you are after, the bluesy, soulful "Sacred Place" is right up your alley, as McCauley delivers in a big way, again sounding every bit like he just stepped off the sound stage of the "Anytime" video from M.S.G.'s Perfect Timing album...from 1986!  Adding and subtracting edge as necessary, the guy is just an absolutely professional singer in ever sense of the word on this record.

(Speaking of "Anytime" this flashback for a couple of minutes...) real reason for that, I guess, other than the fact that it is a KILLER song....and, well, this is MY site, so... 


The album's closer, "Divided United", starts off as a big, moody, commercial-sounding piece of balladry that reminds me a lot of what bands like the Scorpions were going after with "Winds Of Change" and the like back in the day.  Featuring guitars and electric piano for the first 1:30 (not a peep from the drums up to this point), this is another track where McCauley's big, emotive vocals work really well, but the song feels sappy at times in the first 3 or so minutes, and I kind of struggle to find myself claiming to like it.  And then everything changes at the 3:15 mark (give or take), when the tempo COMPLETELY changes from the (sappy) ballad "Divided" part into the full-on classic rocker of the "United" section, complete with big drums and percussion, screaming guitar riffs, a string-bending solo, epic stacked backing vocals, and some of the best wailing from McCauley on the record.  What the heck?!  If the first half made me feel the closing track was going to be a bit of a letdown, the second half made me perk right back up and start hoping for a hidden track or something, because now I'm not ready for this thing to end!       

I was fully prepared to kind of "meh" this record when it popped into my inbox, as so many Frontiers projects just always leave me wanting.  But after the first play through, I was a fan in a BIG way!  And now, after a couple of weeks of getting to blast Shake The World repeatedly, I find myself hoping...borderline praying...that Black Swan will return with an equally killer follow-up record, as this thing is!  I mean truly, truly wow!  I was in no way prepared to like the record this much, and that's despite knowing in advance that Robin McCauley was fronting the project.  Kudos to the band, kudos to the songwriters, kudos to the label, and kudos to whomever had the vision to put these four guys together as Black Swan, because they collectively floored me.  Shake The World may be the record other records find themselves chasing at year's end to be the best of 2020.  I am truly that impressed!  If it wasn't for a questionable first half to "Divided United", and a slightly off ballad in "Make It There", we may be staring down the barrel of a 10 record here!  Even the frequently suspect production on a lot of Frontiers projects is pushed aside, as this record is crisp, clean, and mixed expertly.  I can't even mark it down for that!     

Rating:  Super-stoked to finally say a Frontiers Records combo project is crankable!  Crank Shake The World to 9.5!

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