Tuesday, December 22, 2020

GALE FORCE "Subhuman"


(c) 2021 Independent Release

  1. Crash & Burn
  2. Subhuman
  3. Master Machine
  4. Red Line
  5. Dystopia
  6. Never Say Goodnight
  7. Rat Race
  8. Where Am I Going?
  9. Fire In The Hole
  10. Alter Ego
  11. Riot Act
Michael Drive--All Vocals
Tracy G.--Lead Guitars
Randy Oviedo--Bass
Paul Alfery--Rhythm Guitars, Keys

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was likely no band in the Christian scene that waved the heavy metal flag higher than Barren Cross did.  Not death metal, not speed metal, not thrash, hair, or doom metal.  I'm talking just heavy metal.  Albums such as Rock For The King and Rattle Your Cage, and most notably the band's two biggest, most well-known efforts, Atomic Arena and State Of Control, really showcased a heavy band that delivered with big, screaming guitars, pounding drums, deep, rumbling bass, and a front man who could wail with the best of them, Christian or secular.  Michael Drive (then known as Mike Lee), was the epitome of a heavy metal front man, with a powerful, deep tenor that could shake the rafters if necessary, or drop to a menacing snarl, whatever it took to command your attention.  When Barren Cross was no more, Drive (Lee) could be heard fronting bands such as Bare Bones and Sanxtion, and even trying his hand at a more pop-oriented sound as a solo artist, but never did he really find his musical voice again, in my opinion (although Bare Bones was close). 

During a slightly later period, Tracy G was the screaming guitar voice of Dio, which of course featured one of the most lauded singers in heavy metal history, Ronnie James Dio.  Tracy G (real name Tracy Grijalva) brought to the band a heavy-yet-still-melodic style and helped to forge the sound on what are considered to be two of Dio's heaviest records, Strange Highways and Angry Machines, and he served as the guitar player for the band from 1993-1999.  Much like Drive, however, once his stint with that band was over, the guitar player found himself drifting from project to project, with none of these really catching on in a way that seemed to suit his style or talent level.     

 It seems things have perhaps changed for both men with Gale Force!

Gale Force has been together as a band for not even two years, yet they have put together a powerful album of metallic hard rock that completely sideswiped me.  Having been a massive fan of both Barren Cross and Dio since...well, since forever, it seems...I was intrigued by the pairing of Drive (who I am certain I will call "Lee" at some point in this review) and Tracy G, and I hoped the results would be a solid start for a new band.  There is no way I was prepared for Subhuman in its totality, however.

The record kicks off in a big, aggressive way, with "Crash & Burn", which was actually the first song the band wrote together, even before really being a "band".  The rhythm guitar riff reminds me of EZO's "House Of A Thousand Pleasures", but the rest of the track is nothing like that quasi-hit from the cult Japanese metal band.  Right away, it is apparent that Lee...err...Drive (see, I did it already!) has not lost a step at all vocally, as he is all over this song from the get-go!  Alternately gritty and soulfully smooth, Drive is in complete command of this hard-and-heavy rocker.  Tracy G shows that he hasn't missed a step, either, as he tears through a nifty, speedy solo as he tears across the solid bass work of Oviedo and the rhythm riffing of Alfery.  Interestingly (at least to me), the drummer for this track...and for the entire record...is left uncredited, with the liner notes simply thanking the "great session drummers who played on this album".  Not sure what that's about, but the drums here are definitely worthy of the rest of the track and don't sound at all like they are programmed.  There are some programmed car crash effects dropped into the mix, but otherwise this is just five guys and their instruments rocking out full force!  Check out the lyric video below...  

The album's title track is up next, and immediately a contender for the crown of "Best Song On The Record" steps up to the place.  Thick and chunky, "Subhuman" has a scorching solo section from Tracy G., an uber-catchy, sing along chorus, and an undeniable hook that sucks you in upon first listen.  Drive again powers his way through the track in a way that I haven't heard from him since the last studio record from Barren Crosss.  Metal-tinged hard rock at its finest, there are no keyboards here to tinkle away in the background, no programmed orchestral sections layered in for emotional effect; this is just punishing hard rock that will have fists pounding and head banging from the first listen!  

If "Subhuman" throws down the gauntlet for song of the record, "Master Machine" answers that challenge, as it is every bit as powerful and catchy, with even more metallic bite than its predecessor!  Lee...DANGIT...Drive is simply unrelenting here, snarling his way through the chorus sections, then backing off into a more singing vocal style for the chorus work.  The drums are really, really good here, leading me to really wish I knew who was playing, and Oviedo gets a bit of the spotlight shone on his outstanding bass work on this track.  Tracy G. once again blasts through a metallic fret running solo that hearkens back to some of his work with Dio, particularly on Angry Machines, and this album is blowing me away three tracks deep.

If there's a miss on this record, it would have to be the ballad, "Red Line", which drops in at track four.  But make no mistake, this isn't a horrible song at all.  It just seems of out of place on the rest of this punch-you-in-the-earhole record.  Drive is able to showcase a softer side, and the piano really serves to set the track apart from the blistering metal tracks that surround it.  The problem is that it the song just sticks out SO MUCH that it serves as a serious speedbump in the flow of the record.  I'm not saying I would have dumped the track, but I would have moved it much farther down in the track listing, or at the very least surrounded it by a couple of more mid-tempo numbers than "Master Machine" and "Dystopia".  Placement aside, the song is a strong one, and again, Drive sounds really strong here.  For his part, Tracy G lays into a really nice, melodic string-bender of a solo, and the previously mentioned piano is well-performed by Alfery, so it isn't a throw-away track by any means.  I will note that there is an odd "referee's whistle" effect that pops up in a couple of places that I'm nor really sure why it is there.  I'm wondering if it is an after-effect of the digital download that I am reviewing, and I will be interested to see if I can even hear the sound on the actual CD when it arrives.  I'll let you know!

Speaking of "Dystopia", this track is Michael Drive at his best, plain and simple.  Utilizing every tool in his vocal toolbox, Drive spits, snarls, screams, and soars at various times, adding a demented, haunting twist to his vocals (think Alice Cooper theatrics) in places, as well.  Tracy G lays down another fret-melting solo, and Alfery's rhythm playing is at its strongest on songs like this one.  Again, uncredited, the session drummer used on "Dystopia" is really, really good, and this track is definitely one that fights for the listener's attention every time it comes up on the stereo!  I typically hit repeat at least a couple of times, but then have to force myself to stop so that I can get to "Never Say Goodnight".

Bass lovers, you are going to drool all over yourself when you hear the fat groove that is dropped by Oviedo on "Never Say Goodnight", a deep, thick, haunting song that reminds me of some of the stuff that Tracy G was doing with Dio.  While mentioning the guitarist, Tracy G once again delivers a excellent solo, creative, soulful, and willing to allow quieter moments to enhance the notes and tones that he entices from his guitar.  Drive is, once again, in rare form here, adding an angry edge to his powerhouse delivery, and I find myself really wishing I could watch the man lay down these tracks in the studio, just to witness the theatrics I have to believe he brings into the booth with him.  The man is a vocal master that really doesn't get the love he so deserves because so many people choose to ignore his work with Barren Cross (which is folly in and of itself).  

"Rat Race" has a definite mid-80s metal feel to the guitars and even the production.  It reminds me of old Twisted Sister in its stylistic approach and guitar tone, although the angrily barked chorus is probably a bit harsher than anything Dee and the Twisted Boys did back in the day.  Not enough can be said about the way Drive attacks this record vocally, unafraid to alternate approaches and to experiment with different techniques.  And, as on every song here, Tracy G., sets fire to the solo section, this time using that retro sound to blaze away before the song surges headlong into the final runs through the chorus.

"Where Am I Going?" has an odd intro that had me scratching my head a bit, to be honest.  Once the strumming was over, however, a throbbing bass line sets in motion a slower-tempo rocker that doesn't really check all the boxes to be categorized as a power ballad, especially with the different time signatures utilized by the drummer here.  But if you drop the word "ballad" you are still left with "power", which Drive delivers here in a deeply introspective song that finds the singer exploring the darkness of his past and questioning where that past will lead him in the future.  If I have one complain about this track it is that it seems to end rather abruptly and I would have loved to have heard Tracy G. get to solo his way out of the song as it faded into nothingness.  I really miss those long outro solos of the 80s and 90s...  Just sayin'...  

For those who have heard the Rattle Your Cage album by Barren Cross, "Fire In The Hole" is a bit reminiscent of the song "The Unsuspecting", but is definitely not a rip-off track.  The chugging guitars and plodding bass line are both slower than on "The Unsuspecting", but there is definitely something there.  Perhaps it is the impassioned vocal performance from Drive, who again alternately snarls and wails on this heavy track, pushing the power level of his vocals about as far as one would think they could go.  Tracy G...who is specifically called upon by Drive ("T.G...pick up that guitar and talk to me!"  JUST KIDDING!) blasts into a metallic fretfest that is unmatched on the record in terms of note density and sheer force of will being exerted upon his guitar, and the overall feel of the track has it in firm contention with "Dystopia" and "Subhuman" for song of the album.  Love this track! 

"Alter Ego" is a bit more hard rock than much of the album, but don't take that to mean it backs off the intensity or the attitude, as the difference is more in the songwriting structure than anything.  Faster than the previous couple of tracks (and the following track, for that matter), "Alter Ego" has a catchy hook and a sing along chorus that finds Drive backing himself up perfectly (Drive handles all of the vocals according to the liner notes), with big, layered backing vocals soaring behind his slightly edgy lead vocal line.  

"Riot Act" closes the album in excellent fashion, with the gritty metallic grind of the song serving as an angry sonic slab for Drive to snarl across. Tracy G explodes in a couple of different solo runs here, including a monstrous shredding exit at the end of the song, as the bass and rhythm guitars relentlessly power the song forward.  Proof that heavy doesn't have to mean fast, "Riot Act" is another top notch entry into contention for song of the record, which puts it into the company of half the album!  To me, that tells you there is something special about Subhuman as a record, and about Gale Force as a band.  

Thankfully the liner notes include the lyrics, as I was curious to see if Drive would back off of his lyrical approach with this band.  Thankfully, he absolutely does not.  There is not shortage of references to God throughout the record, but at no time does Drive wield his faith like a weapon against the listener.  Much like Scott Stapp did in his turn with Art Of Anarchy, Drive sings from his heart and soul about his own worldview, but at no point does he condemn the listener to hell for not sharing that same worldview.  Take, for instance, these lyrics from the album's title track...

"Sub-man, are you exposing the scam, that God is 'dead', 'fake', 'blind', or 'sick'?  Or a figment of your imagination running, Must be some elaborate trick!" 

Elsewhere, on "Crash & Burn" he announces that "Only God can move you to the place where faith is really built", while on other songs, such as "Dystopia", he warns of today's society that seeks to steer people away from God when he sings, "Don't fear Dystopia, All is fine, don't seek a higher way".  

The production is solid and professional, but sounds a bit dull in spots.  To be 100% candid, however, this review is based upon a digital download as the CDs are still being printed, so I have strong hope that this is more of a download issue than anything else. If that is not the case, the production will by no means stop fans from enjoying this slab of metal and metallic hard rock.  I truly hope Gale Force is not a one-and-done project, as this is some impressive stuff.

You can get your copy right now by going to www.galeforceband.com and pre-ordering the album.  You will get an instant download of the entire album including the album cover and complete booklet for like $16 or $17.  The first 200 CDs ordered will be autographed, as well.

Rating:  A surprisingly powerful record that I didn't see coming at all!  Crank this to 8.5!

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