Wednesday, December 29, 2021

MERCURY X "Imprisoned"

 

(c)2021 Frontiers Records

  1. Until The Break Of Day
  2. The Light In Your Eyes
  3. Lonely
  4. Imprisoned
  5. The Sound Of Nothing
Martin Bjorklund--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Violin
Jonas Vedin--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Alfonso Flores--Bass, Backing Vocals
Denis Diaz--Drums, Backing Vocals

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see an EP on the Frontiers Records label, as I can't off the top of my head recall another one by the Italian label.  But then, after listening to Imprisoned by Swedish prog metallers, Mercury X, I get it; the EP clocks in at more than 45 minutes of music, with the title track making up nearly half of the release (it's more than 20 minutes long)!  As such, there is a lot to unpack when listening to this record.  Like so many other bands, Mercury X took advantage of their Covid-19 quarantine time to create new music.  In fact, the title track, "Imprisoned", is based upon that quarantine situation and being locked away from the rest of society (the cover art has the four guys in their recliners, which is where a lot of people found themselves for long stretches of time).  Unsurprisingly, the music here is moody in places, reflecting those darker times.  In other spots, there is an upbeat, more hopeful feel to the music, with some epic moments of musicality carried out by the four Swedes.

When approaching the review for this album, I really had to look at it as two different entities: the four shorter songs, and the massive title track.  With the shorter material, the more casual prog metal fans are going to likely find themselves drooling over the exquisite musicianship, incorporating some insanely fast riffing, sweeping synth work, and solid rhythms from the bass and drums.  Lead vocalist Martin Bjorklund has a huge voice loaded with power and passion, and he really shines on a track like the more mid-tempo "Lonely", where he alternately sinks and soars on the extremes of his range.  At times reminiscent of James Labrie of Dream Theater, at others more akin to Russell Allen, Bjorklund is more than capable of handling the sweeping challenges these intricate songs throw at him.  To be fair, I do think the backing vocals could be a bit stronger, or maybe beefed up in the mix a bit, but overall, I have virtually no complaints on the shorter songs here.  It is all to0 evident these guys are masters of their instruments and the song structures here are tight and focused, even with the multiple tempo changes and time signatures.  The guitars of Bjorklund and Vedin intertwine with each other, chasing each other across heavy drum patters and thick bass runs, along with some perfectly placed (and also uncredited) synth work.  If I had to pick a favorite of the four shorter tracks, I think I'd be inclined to single out "The Sound of Nothing",  as it builds from a quiet piano intro, each note echoing into the ether, before the band hits with full force, a wall of guitars blasting you before breaking down into some hard-charging rhythm lines and a frantic synth line threading its way through the track.  Bjorklund stays mostly in the middle of his range here, easily gliding across the heavy guitars and thunderous, galloping drums.  In fact, it is on this track that I think Diaz really showcases just how powerful he is as a drummer, with the interlude at around the 4:30 mark really finding him on the attack at the kit, seemingly punishing his drums.  Interestingly, just prior to that, the song takes on a softer, more jazz-like quality that allows Flores some room to work with his bass.  Massive synth sweeps provide an undercurrent for the song's exiting guitar solo, while heavy rhythm riffs continue to chew away at the track.  To me, this song has the strongest connection to the heavy-yet-progressively-melodic style that I think Dream Theater absolutely mastered on Images And Words, and fans of that era of the band are going to salivate at what Mercury X is doing here!   That being said, the sheer power of album opener, "Until The Break Of Day", is awesome to take in as it hits hard with a definite Queensryche vibe in the opening few moments that melds into a Dream Theater musical tapestry.  A strong guitar solo and some hints of more modern elements add to the power of this track that really sets the tone for the record as a whole.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't give a nod to "The Light In Your Eyes", with its galloping drum and tight twin guitar intro that just teems with harmonic goodness!  The chug-chug-chugga-chug of the rhythm guitars during the verses sits in stark contrast to the smooth, soaring style of the chorus sections.

The title track...well, there's a lot to digest there.  Originally conceived as a stand-alone single EP, "Imprisoned" contains so many layers, so many twists and turns, it's almost too much to absorb as a single song, at least for me.  Epic doesn't begin to accurately describe all that is going on here.  Bjorklund is all over the place vocally, singing, soaring, snarling, and harshly barking his way through the various movements of the song.  The guitars hit aggressively but then back off into a more ethereal, atmospheric approach in places, while sounding mournful as it weeps its way through a brief interlude at the 10:50 mark, only to explode to life again in a huge, machine-gun burst of speed and aggression with a fret-running solo that is dizzyingly fast and still melodic.  I have no idea how a drummer is able to maintain the way that Diaz does here for nearly 21 minutes, but his unique patterns, intricate fills, and the handling of the tempo changes are impressive, to say the least. I also wonder if his tech had to change out cymbals after his aggressive assault on the metallic discs at the 12:35-ish mark of the song!  Soft and heavy, harsh and lush, angry and hopeful.  So much is going on with "Imprisoned", both musically and lyrically, that it pretty much deserves to be tackled as the stand-alone track it was originally envisioned as, just so you get a chance to really appreciate the musical scope of the song.    

If I'm being 100% honest, I'm not a real fan of the layout of the album, with the monstrous "Imprisoned" positioned before album closer, "The Sound of Nothing".  When a band gets this ambitious on a track, I like it to be stationed at the end so that I can hear the other material first, and then work my way through the epic piece as I have time.  As it stands, I would imagine the vinyl release of this album is somewhat imbalanced, with only 18 minutes of music on Side A, and more than 25 minutes on Side B.  Regardless, this is a minor point and one that doesn't take away from the impressiveness of the project as a whole.

The production here is excellent, with a lot of heft and depth to the music, and Bjorklund's vocals perfectly placed atop the musical fray.  As I mentioned earlier, I think the backing vocals could have used a bit more oomph, but other than that, I have no qualms with the way the production was handled, which seems to be an issue a lot of people take with Frontiers releases.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this project, as I admittedly am not the biggest fan of epic prog metal such as this.  Again, the album's namesake track is considerably more than my 3 to 6 minutes per song brain typically can effectively assimilate, but I can't deny my appreciation for the insane musicality of the track and the sheer force of will it must take to perform a singular song for 20-plus minutes.  The songwriting throughout the album is interesting and challenging, and the guitar work alone is worth the price of admission.  It is likely I will be seeking out the band's previous two efforts based solely on this, their Frontiers Records debut.

Rating:  Crankable...and enticingly exhausting!  Crank this to an 8.


12 Stones "Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1"

 

(c) 2020 MTown Records

  1. In Flames
  2. Anywhere But Here
  3. Sever
  4. Gone Away
  5. Empty Words
Paul McCoy--Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Eric Weaver--Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Bass, Backing Vocals
Sean Dunaway--Drums

Somehow, for the second straight release, 12 Stones has managed to release an album without me knowing about it.  Granted, perhaps this one is a bit more excusable as it is a digital-only EP, but still, how did I not at least hear about it?  This latest EP, Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1, has been out since November of 2020, but in today's music world, no singles have received airplay (that I am aware of), and no videos have been made (that I can find), so perhaps it shouldn't come as a shock that I didn't know about this release.  Regardless of if I knew about it, Smoke And Mirrors Volume 1 is here, so what's it all about?


For anyone who may have (somehow) missed them previously, 12 Stones has been together for more than 20 years now, playing an aggressive-yet-melodic form of modern radio rock that has spawned five albums and now two EPs, with 15 singles released to radio, and multiple songs have been used by the WWE. NHL, MLB, NASCAR, and several movie soundtracks.  In fact, during their first decade, it was pretty hard to avoid 12 Stones, as they were seemingly all over the place, with all of their album releases (12 Stones, Potter's Field, Anthem For The Underdog, Beneath The Scars, and the The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday EP) charting in Billboard's Top 200 and all but Anthem For The Underdog charting in the Billboard Top Christian Album's Top 10.  Things slowed down with the band taking a five year recording hiatus...although they still played live shows...returning in 2017 with Picture Perfectand then again with this latest effort in late 2020.  Since their beginning as a band in 2000, both McCoy and Weaver have been the foundation of the band, with a revolving cast of musicians joining the founding duo.  Drummer Dunaway has been rock solid with the band since 2014, however, so the current version of the line-up has nearly 8 years of chemistry behind them as the band works their way into their third decade as a group.    

On this newest EP, very little has changed in the sound and approach that 12 Stones utilizes, although they do add a few new wrinkles to their repertoire.  The album kicks off with the high voltage rock of "In Flames", with its message of frustration with the negativity of the world today.  "We're all just pieces in a twisted game/We won't be happy 'til the world's in flames" McCoy snarls in the chorus, while the second verse intones "We've all stopped caring for our fellow man/To love each other is a cardinal sin".  The bridge section takes this sentiment a step further, as McCoy sings "Divided we stand for nothing at all/United in fear, we'll lose it all" before Weaver steps in and drops a surprisingly hooky guitar solo.  McCoy's rhythm guitars are relentless throughout the track, and Dunaway simply crushes the kit on a song that I really feel should have been all over modern rock and Christian rock radio in 2020, yet was not even released as a single, as near as I can tell.  One annoyance with this track is nearly two minutes of silence at the end of the track.  I mean TOTAL silence.  There's nothing hidden here, just...nothing.  I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but it is annoying, to be sure.

When the silence finally breaks, the melodic-yet-brooding "Anywhere But Here" drops, with McCoy utilizing some big "whoa-oh-oh" type vocals to open the song and then to exit each chorus.  I really, really like this song which is definitely catchy and hooks the listener from the start.  Dunaway is again a beast on the kit, with a really tight drum roll heading into the final chorus break and some severe abuse of his cymbals throughout.  There are some programmed elements in this track, including what sound like programmed strings to help support the chorus section, and all-in-all, I'd have to say this is one of the better songs 12 Stones has recorded and is one that, again, I have no idea why it wasn't pushed to radio.  For what it's worth, I have told a couple of friends and my wife that the song structure reminds me of a punchier, more aggressive "Kiss From A Rose" by Seal, an while they thought I was crazy at first (they may still think I'm crazy, who knows), they all agreed they could hear what I was talking about.

"Sever" ups the aggression once again, with McCoy's rhythm guitars and Weaver's leads meshing well to power the song forward.  There are some odd effects thrown into the mix that sound a bit...off...for a lack of a better word, but they don't destroy the song.  Weaver drops a really catchy guitar solo, as well, and his growth, as well as the band's incorporation of more solo work into their songs, shows a growth and maturation that a lot of 12 Stones' peers simply haven't achieved.

A perfect example of that is "Gone Away", which is definitely my favorite track on the EP.  What would be considered the EP's ballad, "Gone Away" starts off with a very moody, grungy guitar tone that reminds me of the intro to Nirvana's "Come As You Are", before it moves on and builds into something much more melodic.  The verses are a bit more laid back than the punchy choruses, and the varied approaches work exceptionally well.  "Gone Away" also gives Weaver another chance to really expand his guitar's sound on both the brief solo section in the middle and the expanded closing run at the end of the track.  McCoy backs off of the rasp a bit here, cleaning up his vocals just enough for  emotional effect.

The EP closes on a hard-hitting note, with some hints of nu metal being used throughout "Empty Words" to surprisingly good effect.  Echoing similar themes to the opener, McCoy sneers, "I find myself trapped in this hell, surrounded by empty words and tired excuses" as Dunaway thunders away at his kit and the rhythm guitars chew their way through this edgy rocker.  Weaver utilizes a slightly different approach to his solo section here, but it works, and "Empty Words" finds the band exiting this sub-20 minute EP on a definite high note.

I'm not sure if this was a creative outlet for the band during the Covid lockdowns or if the band is taking the cue of several other bands and plans to release EPs at a faster rate than would likely be possible with full-length efforts.  Regardless, it is a very solid addition to the 12 Stones catalog, although I would be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated that it is currently only available as a digital download.  I have heard rumors of a Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 2 being released sometime in 2022, so perhaps the two EPs will be collectively packaged and get a proper physical release. 

I think the production is solid and the mix is very nicely done, which is really highlighted by the separation of McCoy's and Weaver's guitars.  Outside of that quirky (and irritating) 2 minutes of silence after track one, I really don't have any complaints about the production or the layout of the EP.  I have no idea who mixed, mastered, or produced Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1...perhaps the band did it themselves...but kudos to whomever was at the mixing console.   

Rating:  As solid as ever, 12 Stones returns in crankable form with Smoke And Mirrors, Volume 1.  Crank this to a solid 7.5, with only its brevity and digital-only format holding it back from a higher rating.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

LOVE LIKE GRAVITY "Break The Silence"

                                   

(c) 2021 LLG

  1. Devil's In The Details
  2. Let It Go
  3. Scream
  4. Break The Silence
  5. Through Your Eyes
  6. All I Need
  7. Game Of Souls
  8. Grind
  9. Thorn (featuring Tony Palacios)
  10. Shaken

Billy Pind--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano
Cale Kight--Guitars, Programming
Stan Mayo--Drums, Synth, Programming

Additional Musicians
Tony Palacios--Bass on all, Guitar Solo on "Thorn"

You have to say this about the Covid pandemic: it really kickstarted the creative process for a lot of bands who had disappeared into the ether.  Despite the success of several singles off of the band's first two efforts, it had been six long years since Love Like Gravity had released an album, and it seemed as if LLG was another band that had simply moved on.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the band dropped "Devil In The Details", its first single since they released their Chain Reaction album in 2015.  Numerous weeks on the charts (including several spent at number one on various Christian rock charts) have proven that not only is Love Like Gravity back, they appear to be back bigger than ever.

The album kicks off with the lead single, "Devil In The Details", and it is obvious the band has not lost their penchant for hard-edged guitars mixed with electronic elements that drove such songs as "Slave", "Dig", "Adrenaline", and their biggest hit to-date, "Stronger".  I reviewed the single previously HERE, so without rehashing everything, I'll just leave the video here for you, just in case you are one of the few people who have missed the band's big return hit. 


From here, the band finds themselves continuing in a similar vein throughout much of the record, with varying levels of intensity.  "Let It Go" backs off the angst a bit, dialing back the snarl on the guitars and aims a bit more for a mainstream modern rock sound and hitting the mark solidly.  Pind's voice is absolutely suited for this type of track that recalls a lot of what was so great about Love Like Gravity on their previous efforts.  My instincts tell me this track will be a single in the not too distant future, and I imagine people familiar with the band will eat this song up!

"Scream" is one of the best tracks on the album, and one that I find myself returning to again and again, with Pind utilizing both clean and harsh styled vocals and Kight absolutely tearing things up on the guitar.  "Scream" is a great representation of what this album does well, and the current trio of Pind, Kight, and Stan Mayo (who handles the drums and programming) is exceptionally tight and complement each other well.  The same can be said for the title track, "Break The Silence", which is another one of those three or four songs that keep fighting for that top of the heap slot.  Featuring a hook that could snag a whale, "Break The Silence" is yet another track that is screaming for radio airplay, and I find myself hitting repeat on this track practically every time I pop the disc in.

Things slow considerably from here with the big ballad, "Through Your Eyes".  A largely acoustic number, this track perfectly showcases Pind's vocal power, as well as some serious skill on acoustic guitar. It has been my experience that a lot of players really find themselves exposed when they unplug their guitar, but that is not the case here.  Normally, the ballads take a bit of time to grow on me, but "Through Your Eyes" grabbed my attention right away.  

"All I Need" stays on the slower side but doesn't really hit ballad territory, and the guitars and amps stay plugged in for the duration.  A profession of our need for Christ to save us from "the enemy", as well as from ourselves, "All I Need" confronts self-medication ("I tried to take a pill to kill the pain, but it never left me...") and calls on our Savior to "save me, from the enemy, that was trying to beat me down...rescue me before I drown" in this world that will betray us and leave us on our own.  A powerful song that Pind pours his passion into vocally, "All I Need" is another great example of a track that sounds perfectly suited for modern rock radio, whether Christian or secular, with a message that the entire world needs to hear. 

"Game Of Souls" is another big-time rocker with a hard-hitting message that just keeps forcing me to hit repeat when it comes on.  The guitars crunch nicely, and Mayo's drums sound particularly huge on this track, with Pind's voice rising and falling with ease throughout the track.  "Grind" is also an absolute ear-snagger for me, with Pind utilizing that edgy snarl to perfection on the chorus sections while his clean vocals glide through the verses.  Kight's guitar, once again, charges hard throughout the track, and the modern elements added by the programming perfectly round out the sound.  Yet another competitor for the top track on the record, "Game Of Souls" warns the listener to consider the cost of the actions we choose to take and to know that life is more than just a game, our souls not something to gamble away.  

Despite all the really good tracks on the first half of this album, there are two specific tracks that directly challenge "Devil In The Details" for best on the record, and they are the closing tracks on the album.  "Thorn" is actually a re-worked track from the band's previous album, and while I really liked the original, I LOVE this new version.  Edgy, gritty, and angsty in all the right places, "Thorn" is just a monster of a track, with Kight's churning rhythm guitar carving its way through the meat of the track, before...BOOM...Tony Palacios, of Guardian fame, drops a teasingly short but exquisitely tasty solo that blows this new version of the song so far past the original that it's hard for me to consider them to be the same track, honestly.  Not a lie, this is definitely one of the best songs I have heard this year...but it technically is a "next year" track, and I have to believe it will be one of the best in 2022, as well!  

The album wraps with yet another great rocker in "Shaken" that, once again, finds Pind absolutely dominating on vocals, the full range of his dynamics on display as he sings/screams/snarls across an electronically-enhanced bed of grinding guitar and thundering drums.  Not blazingly fast, but definitely punchy and powerful, "Shaken" is a potent track for the times.  The first verse talks about putting on that false face for the public, worrying about how we are perceived by others, while the second talks about not letting our fears shake our foundation of faith in ourselves and in God.  An excellent wrap for the album, "Shaken" really puts a neat bow on a great comeback record from a band that I had seriously considered dead and buried.

The production on this record is excellent, with the band tackling that monumental task with great skill, with an assist from Tony Palacios on mixing the album.  To sound this big, this crisp, and this professional with ZERO label support is quite an achievement.  The songwriting on the album is excellent, with hooks galore, and the songs deliver a serious lyrical punch, with the band members' faith on full display without beating the listener over the head.  I love the tone of Kight's guitar throughout the record, and he and Mayo retain the formidable modern rock punch they first exhibited back in 2011 on their debut EP, and with the addition of Pind on vocals, they have managed to progress in their sound, maturing as well all do, but not compromising who and what Love Like Gravity is.  There are likely to be some comparisons to Decyfer Down on this record, especially surrounding some of the vocal stylings of Pind, which is probably fair...and pretty high praise, in my opinion!  That being said, for anyone who is familiar with the band's past, there is no doubt this is still Love Like Gravity. 

While I am sure there are still a lot of people like me who have been around pretty much since the get-go with LLG, with such a long layoff between albums, it is likely an entirely new generation of fans has jumped on the LLG train with the success of "Devil's In The Details" and have helped to propel the single to the top of the charts.  I truly hope this same group of new fans snaps up Break The Silence and keeps the LLG train rolling so maybe we won't have another 5 or 6 year gap between stops!  I also hope 2022 gets us closer to normal in the world and Love Like Gravity can take their show on the road!  Trust that if they show up anywhere near Nebraska, I will do everything possible to be in attendance!  

The album releases in January, 2022,  so you can still snag your a copy of Break The Silence by hitting the band's website here.  If you're more the digital type, you can download a copy on iTunes here.

Rating:  Still crankable even after a long layoff!  Crank this to an 8!