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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SLANTPIECE "Second Wind"

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. Ghosts Of Yesterday
  2. Baptized In Whiskey
  3. Shallow Grave
  4. Stuck In A Rut
  5. Scars 
  6. Second Wind
Derek Johnson--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Derek Tavis--Guitars
Wryan Carpenter--Bass
Bill Sabah--Drums, Vocals

It should be obvious to readers of this site that I love to review music.  It's always such a thrill for me to come across something new, a band not everyone has heard of.  Even more exciting for me is when I get the chance to review local music that is of top-notch quality because, let's face it, a LOT of bands think they have what it takes, and even more think they sound "killer".  Not trying to crush anyone's hopes or dreams, but in all honesty, rarely do these smaller, independent bands have the skill, let alone the songs, to put together a solid enough release for more than die-hard fans to take notice.

Slantpiece is one of those bands that should get people's attention!

Hailing from Kearney, NE, Slantpiece is a four-piece metal band that combines elements of classic metal, doom/stoner metal, metalcore, and what I like to refer to as "Bar Metal", into their sound.  ("Bar Metal", for the uninitiated, is the kind of metal that makes you want to go to a local watering hole, grab some guy by the throat, and throw them around for a bit in the mosh pit that forms in front of the stage.  If you've been in a truly good local live music club, you likely know what I mean...)  Twin guitars, pounding bass, and pummeling drums are the key elements here, along with Johnson's bottom-end yowl, and some excellent production work from none other than Michael Beck, who really pulled the best performances out of these four guys on this, their second record.  

Things kick off in violent fashion with "Ghosts Of Yesterday", a chugga-chugga assault right from the get-go.  Johnson's bottom-end vocals are layered in spots by a blackish-sounding backing vocal that provides a unique dynamic that sets the band's sound off from your traditional metalcore approach.  Additionally, the inclusion of a really nice guitar solo

"Baptized In Whiskey" is the first single off this record and it has been getting some regional airplay, which is nice to hear.  Taking more of a doomy, sludgy approach than "Ghosts...", "Baptized In Whiskey" gives the listener a better idea of the talent involved here, as the bluesy guitar riffs really drive the track, with an excellent twin-guitar riff working just over some of the best rhythm section on this mini-album.

"Shallow Grave" hearkens back to the 80's mid-tempo thrash approach as far as the guitars, never really reaching breakneck speed, but also never dropping down into the slower, sludgier territory of "Baptized...".  Johnson's vocals approach death territory in spots here, again accompanied by some blackened screaming in the background, but he manages to keep the lyrics decipherable throughout the track.  Tavis rips into a blazing solo at about the 2:45 mark here and just GOES OFF for the better part of 45 seconds here, while Sabah throws in some nice double kick work and Carpenter's bass pulses the track ever forward.  While I like everything here, this track is hands-down my favorite.

"Stuck In A Rut" starts off with a cool clean guitar atop a march cadence laid down by Sabah before slinkiing into an angry, Sabbath-styled track, with Johnson using more of a gritty, bluesy vocal approach for most of the vocals here (although his trademark yowls are still present throughout the track).  Once again, Tavis really smokes the solo here, showcasing the fact that it doesn't really matter what style of song Slantpiece is busting out, he is more than capable of coming up with a solo to not only match the style but also blister the speakers it is projecting from.

"Scars" speeds things back up once again, feeling a bit like a Pantera track, but a bit thicker/sludgier in the production department.  The only track that features what I would call a true break-down section on the track, this is one that really bridges the gap between the band's first album and Second Wind.  

Speaking of Second Wind, the title track closes things out here, cranking the speed up again on the intro, only to pour a bunch of sludge and grit into the machine, bogging it back down into another Pantera-inspired groove for the verses, then ratcheting the speed back up during the chorus.  Shouted backing vocals, chugga-chugga riffing, some jack-hammer styled vocal spitting from Johnson, KILLER tempo changing work from Carpenter and Sabah, and yet another scorching (if too short) guitar solo from Tavis really leave the listener wishing that this WAS just the second wind for the band on this disc, rather than an album closer.

The length of the record is the one real gripe here, as at only 6 songs and 23 minutes in length, it really feels like the record is just heating up and it is already done.  I would love to have had the guys include a couple of tracks from the first record..."Back Against The Wall" and "War Cry" would've been killer...in re-recorded fashion, but I am sure budget restrictions played a big role in what was included here.  Likewise, the packaging is about as simple as it gets, with only one band photo, line-up info, and a thank-you section in this single-fold slipcase.  Lyrics are not included.  (In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I am thanked in the liner notes, but make no mistake, I pull no punches here, and if this album sucked. well, I guess my name would be included on a sucky album's liner notes and I'd let you know about it.  I do NOT let a little "liner note love" change my honesty in reviews...)

The production is top-notch, if not big label, in quality.  What I mean is that while exceptionally solid for an independent project, there is not going to be any mistaking this for a major label release, as there is a rawness here that is not found on big budget albums...but there is a charm to that rawness that makes the album feel organic and not forced.  As I said before, Michael Beck (previously the singer for Red Dragon Cartel) really pulls the best out of each of these guys on this record, and the difference between Second Wind and the band's first record, Get You Some.  How these guys managed to get hooked up with Beck, I'm not sure, but the results are excellent.

There are a lot of good bands on the local scene all over the country, but few that have sent me material stand on the cusp of greatness.  Slantpiece is a different story, in my estimation.  These guys not only make great music and write great songs, if you ever get the chance to see them perform, you will understand that they live, breathe,,,heck, they REEK...of the music they perform.   Trends be damned, this little band from the middle of America still plays metal for metal's sake and they believe in what they are doing. 

Looking like central Nebraska's version of Duck Dynasty, these are four of the nicest, most genuine guys I have met in the hard music scene, and the bust it live every single time I have had the chance to see them perform.  Do yourself a favor, track them down, buy their merch, and snag a copy of Second Wind (and Get You Some, if you're so inclined).  Metalheads will not be disappointed.

You can follow the band on Facebook or on Twitter.

Rating:  Crank this up to 8 and do what you can to keep local music alive, not only in Nebraska, but wherever you call home!

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Friday, May 22, 2015

SERPENTINE "Circle Of Knives"

(c) 2015 AOR Heaven

  1. Season Of The Witch
  2. La Tragedienne
  3. Forever
  4. The Hardest Fall
  5. Bleed
  6. Where Does Your Heart Beat Now?
  7. Bound By The Strings Of Discord
  8. Circle Of Knives
  9. Such A Long Way Down
  10. Suicide Days
Adam Payne--Vocals
Chris Gould--Guitars
Gareth David Noon--Keyboards
Owen Crawford--Bass
Roy Millward--Drums

Four years have passed since I last heard new music from Serpentine, and apparently a good amount has happened with this British band since I reviewed Living And Dying In High Definition.  For starters, I missed an album somewhere, because it turns out this is actually the band's third release.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly from a reviewer's standpoint, there have been some fairly significant band changes.  Specifically, Tony Mills (ex-Shy, ex-TNT, ex-Siam) is now ex-Serpentine as well, as he is no longer with the band, replaced by Adam Payne.  Also gone is previous bass player, Gareth Vanstone, replaced by Owen Crawford.  However, with 3/5 of the band intact, including the guitar/keyboard combination that makes up the core of the band's sound, I was hopeful that much of what I liked about Serpentine previously would still be found here on Circle Of Knives.

As it turns out, I didn't really need to be overly concerned, as Serpentine has returned with another excellent record of melodic hard rock, with elements of European AOR and even a hint of power metal thrown into the mix.  This is especially evident in the album's opening number, "Season Of The Witch".  Immediately we are treated to layered keyboards and some soaring guitar leads, accompanied by new singer, Adam Payne's deeper, richer, and dare I say more powerful, vocal approach, which steers the band away from the Shy-esque AOR of the first record and more into harder-edged melodic sound.  "Forever" is another similar track, with a hard-charging guitar sound dominating the track, moving the keys into more of a supporting role. The same can be said of "The Hardest Fall", which may be my favorite track here, competing with the fantastic title track, which unleashes some absolutely stellar guitar work throughout, with a searing solo really topping things off on this song which many people may find themselves labeling "progressive" in its style and approach.  How more people haven't heard of Chris Gould, I have no idea, as this guy is a guitar talent not commonly found in music today.  Just listen to the emotive intro to the ballad, "Bleed" and you will instantly realize what an underrated performer Gould truly is.

The AOR of the band is not 100% removed from the new sound and approach, as is evident in a song like "La Tragedienne", as the focus here is the massive chorus and the melodic keys that support the structure of the song, filling virtually every sonic nook and cranny.  Much the same can be said for "Where Does Your Heart Beat Now?", which sports a much more keyboard-centric sound than some of the other songs here, reminding me of the 80's AOR approach of bands like Giuffria or Shy, as examples.  

"Bound By The Strings of Discord" is a hard-charging number with some solid drum work from Millward, and while it doesn't really fit the tempo and mood of much of the rest of the album, it is still a solid track that again finds Gould in top form.  Album closer, "Suicide Days" is another full-on rocker, showcasing Payne's ability to unleash a top-notch metal scream when needed, and wrapping up an exceptionally strong return from a band that I quite frankly had forgotten about due to the long lapse between albums I had heard  (Not sure how I missed the second album...).

Rocking harder than the debut, Circle Of Knives is every bit as strong as Living And Dying In High Definition, with the new additions to the band more than holding their own as they forge their own identity within the structure of the band.  Gould has grown in his sound and talent, as well, pushing himself toward the top of the heap as far as British rock guitar talents goes.

Checking in at nearly an hour in length, with no song running for less than 4:30, there is a lot of music here to digest and appreciate.  However, when all of the songs are this good, it's definitely not an act of labor to find something new to appreciate with consecutive spins.  

Now I have to find that second album....

Rating:  Every bit as crankable as the debut.  Turn this one up to 8.5.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

NELSON "Peace Out"

(c) 2015 Frontiers Records
  1. Hello Everybody
  2. Back In The Day
  3. Invincible
  4. Let It Ride
  5. I Wanna Stay Home
  6. On The Bright Side
  7. Rockstar
  8. Autograph
  9. What's Not To Love
  10. You And Me
  11. Bad For You
  12. Leave The Light On For Me
Matthew Nelson--Lead Vocals, Bass, Guitar, Backing Vocals
Gunnar Nelson--Lead Vocals, Guitars, Drums, Backing Vocals



So this is it...the swan song for Nelson.  Reportedly, this is the last time Matthew and Gunnar will record an album under the Nelson moniker, although they have assured fans that they will continue to perform musically with a new project, Matthew & Gunnar, heading in a more "Everly Brothers meets the Eagles" direction.  As a parting gift of sorts to their longtime fans, the Nelson Twins go out with an absolute bang, treating listeners to one more heaping helping of polished, melodic hard rock that sounds like it could have been the follow-up to their classic debut, but mixing in a few surprises as well!  Soaring harmonies, tight vocals, excellent musicianship, and top-notch songwriting prove that Nelson is hanging things up by choice, not due to an empty tank, as this album is absolutely stellar and proof that very few bands of this style could actually hang with the brothers when they were at the top of their game.

The album kicks off with the sound of an old dial-styled radio being tuned in before the polished classic Nelson sound kicks in on this opening rocker, instantly plastering a goofy grin of recognition onto the faces of fans of this lost type of happy-sounding, poppy hard rock that has long since disappeared from the radio that intros the track.  Everything Nelson made popular on their debut record is here, from the tight vocal harmonies, and polished musicianship to the sing-along chorus and toe-tapping rhythms.  "Back In The Day" follows things up perfectly with an insanely catchy rocker all about the nostalgia of youth and the songs that recall those feelings for us.  There is a really nice guitar solo thrown into the mix as well, and the band is obviously having a great time as they click on all cylinders here.  Great, great stuff here that shows off the brothers' songwriting skills.

"Invincible" starts off with a darker sounding musical intro, but it drifts into the same musical territory before long, as does "Let It Ride".  Both of these tracks keep the uptempo rock churning, even if these two tracks aren't quite as shiny and happy as the opening duo of songs.  

"I Wanna Stay Home" makes me chuckle a bit because lyrically its almost a non-hair metal song, an anti-party song about wanting to stay home with the one you are in love with.  Hooky, catchy, and so easy to sing along to, this track does nothing to slow the happy momentum the record carries through the first five tracks.

The first ballad to show up is "On The Bright Side", and it was well worth the wait to get here.  Starting off with a bluesy wail, this song mixes in enough backing "oohs" and "aahs" to transform the somewhat jangly tune into a Beatles-meets-"Never Say Goodbye" Bon Jovi slow dance number that, had this song come out in 1990 instead of 2015, I could hear being played at your senior prom as you tried to convince yourself and your date that you'd love them forever even if high school was ending.  Nostalgia, heartache, soul-searching....  *sniff*  Excuse me while I make a phone call to my high school sweetheart....

We crank the rocking right back up with back-to-back tracks that are among the best of the album.  "Rockstar" has a bit of an edge to the music to counter the whispered "rockstar" backing vocals scattered throughout the verses.  Thick power chords drive this track more than what you is typically expected from Nelson, which makes the song all the more interesting for me.  "Autograph" incorporates some keyboard sounds into a song that features a bit more aggressive guitar riffing and hair metal soloing than was present on the first half of the album, but the harmonies keep this song from slipping out of the wheelhouse of the likely listener here.  Two really good tracks back-to-back here, but two that are also the least like anything that was found on the band's debut.

"What's Not To Love" drifts back to the poppy-AOR rock that started the album out, but things stay there for exactly one song, as the next track, "You And Me" is less about Nelson and more about Zeppelin than anything else.  Easily one of my favorite tracks here, this is Nelson on steroids driven by attitude, and cranked up on energy drinks!  I've heard pretty much everything the band has released, and never have I heard them flex their musical muscle to this level.  Honestly, I would LOVE to hear an entire album of this type of music from Nelson, as they flat out smoke this track and pull it off with seemingly no effort at all.  

"Bad For You" starts off with an intro that reminds me of Metallica's Black album, combined with Vandenberg's "Burning Heart", before riffing into another solidly rocking number, finding the lead vocals hanging out in a slightly lower register for the first parts of the verses before extending themselves back into their typically higher range.  (Be sure to be listening for the Tommy Tutone reference dropped into the lyrics here...good stuff!)    

Album closer, "Leave The Light On For Me" has a very gospel feel to the songwriting.  I feel like I have heard this before in some ways, but I can't quite figure out why.  It kind of reminds me of what Bon Jovi did on Keep The Faith and Poison attempted on Native Tongue, though neither is a perfect comparison.  It's a decent song, and a good one to close on, but far from my favorite song on this record.  

Is this new record as good as Lightning Strikes Twice from a couple of years ago?  Nope....it's better.   Rather than try to completely duplicate the things that worked so well on After The Rain (which I felt Lightning... tried to do), Nelson stretches themselves a bit musically, especially on the second half of the album.  No, there is nothing here that fans of that debut classic won't also really enjoy, but there are enough eye-opening moments to keep people from feeling like they've already heard this album.  

If fans want to just toss out everything following After The Rain and skip forward to Lightning... and Peace Out, they will have a nearly perfect trilogy from these immensely talented brothers.  Not to say their independent material from the 90's and 2000's isn't worth checking out, because some of it is very good, but its the trilogy of albums mentioned here that will represent what most people associate with Nelson, and will be the legacy the brothers...and their band...are likely remembered for.

Rating:  Crank this band one final time!  A solid 8.5 is in order for Peace Out!


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DIRTY FINGERS "250 Dollars"

(c) 2015 Logic(il)Logic Records

  1. Back To The Move
  2. Whisky
  3. Explosive Sound
  4. 250 Dollars
  5. Black Magic Night
  6. Dirty Fingers
  7. Heroes' Days
  8. I Am
  9. Nothingness Dance
Gabriel Grisanti--Vocals, Guitars
Riccardo Menini--Guitars
Edoardo Micheloni--Bass
Giorgio Nuzzo--Drums

Europe continues to resurrect the heyday of the Hollywood Sunset Strip scene, constantly cranking out new bands with that big haired, sassy, sleazy sound that made the late 80's and early 90's so much fun for hard rock fans.  Unfortunately, what Europe is also doing, in my opinion, is slowly succumbing to the same problems that the hair metal scene of the 80's ultimately crumbled under:  too many sub-par bands, clone bands that all look and sound alike, and unoriginal music that leaves bands indistinguishable from one another.

Dirty Fingers falls into the first category, in my opinion.  Yes, they have some really good guitar players and an above average drummer, but they seriously struggle with a less-than-great vocalist, a weak mix that buries the bass on nearly all of the tracks, and average (at best) songwriting.  I mean, come on...it's one thing to have a title track, or to have a song named after the band...but to have BOTH on the same album???  To me that wreaks of desperation to come up with material.

There are positives here.  As I said, the guitar players have definite skill, especially Menini who rips through some absolutely stellar solos throughout the album.  The solo he peels off in "250 Dollars" is leaps and bounds ahead of the majority of the axe-work that passes for musical talent in so many of today's bands.  The same can be said of the emotion he pours into his passages in the decent ballad, "Black Magic Night".  There is some nice harmonica and slide guitar work, as well as the best rhythm guitar work on the album, on "Whisky" to help make it an interesting listen, and "I Am" (where we can actually hear the bass), has some really nice changes in rhythm and tempo throughout the song, again keeping the listener's attention and setting their head to nodding along.  In fact, I would say that overall, musicality is NOT the problem here, as all of the guys seem to be pretty good at what they do.

The problem with the songs is that no matter how good the guys play, the songs they are playing aren't that good.  You've heard the saying "you can polish a turd but it's still just a turd"?  Same thing applies here.  No matter how skilled Menini is on the axe, or how competent Nuzzo is with his drumming, you can't save sub-songs that are rarely interesting.  Out of the nine tracks on this album, only 5 do anything for me musically:  the previously mentioned songs "Black Magic Night", "I Am", and "Whisky", as well as the southern-tinged stomper "Heroes' Days", and album opener "Back To The Move".  The rest range from uninteresting to boring to...to crap, really.  As an example, "Nothingness Dance" sounds like an 80's metal horror movie theme, coming across as dated and tired and just way too long, even though it's only 4:55 in running time.    

Okay, so that means 4 out of  9 songs can just be thrown out because they really aren't good.  So that's still better than a 50% album, right?  Wrong.  I haven't tossed out songs because of the vocals yet.  Grisanti tries...he really, really tries.  And it's not that he's out of key or anything that kills some of these songs.  Part of it is that he sings in a low register that lacks emotion and comes across as half-shouted or barked most of the time.  The other problem is his accent is so thick it just ruins a lot of the vocals here.  I would honestly rather NOT understand what he is saying and listen to him singing in Italian than to know what he is trying to say and then forcing my brain to correct his mispronunciation and misplaced accentuation.  So, because of the vocal issues, "Back To The Move" is cast off my decent-to-good-song list, as is "Whisky" (which has really stupid lyrics anyway), and "I Am" (which I can't understand half the time).  

That essentially leaves "Black Magic Night" and "Heroes' Days" as the only songs that really survive the album for me, and if I'm being 100% honest, neither is that spectacular and would not have been given 15 minutes of MTV's time or a record executive's attention.  Not that either one of those had any real idea as to what good music is/was, but both knew something about making a band successful, and Dirty Fingers wouldn't give MTV or a record company anything substantial to work with. 

Perhaps with another year or two of songwriting, a new vocalist, and better album production, Dirty Fingers could pull together a decent album.  What they have here is a sad introduction to a band that unfortunately may turn potential fans off from even considering a second album, should one ever be released.

Rating:  Turn this down to 3.5...at best.  

SINATRAS "Six Sexy Songs"

(c) 2014 Independent 

  1. Contamination
  2. Frank Is Back
  3. Sunshine
  4. The Game
  5. W.A.F.S.
  6. All Or Nothing
Fla Sinatra--Lead Vocals
Lele Sinatra--Guitars
Minkio Sinatra--Guitars
Lispio Sinatra--Bass
Jenny Sinatra--Drums

Death 'N Roll.  That's how the Sinatras label their music, and its a fairly apt description.  Mixing elements of thrash metal, classic metal, punk, modern production styles and deathy vocals, its obvious that Sinatras draws from multiple influences in their performance style.  I've heard bands such as Carcass and Hatebreed mentioned when attempting to describe this band's sound, but I feel it is remiss to leave out older bands, such as Motorhead, as well as more modern bands such as Demon Hunter and Five Finger Death Punch as well, as this is not pure 80's/90's thrash or thrashcore worship here, but a combination of metal styles from the past three decades.

The songs are all extremely tight and well performed, with a surprisingly good sound for a band on their debut release, especially on an independent record such as Six Sexy Songs.  Each of these tracks clocks in between 4 and 5 minutes long, with no ballads...heck, no mid-tempo songs...included in the six track lot.  

Musically, the rhythm guitars, drums, and bass work stand out here, as all are tight and crisp, giving the music a punchy sense of urgency to them.  The lead guitar solos are generally pretty short (15-20 seconds), again more of a modern approach than the style used by thrashers of the 80's, although there is obvious talent incorporated here.  Despite the fact that the band throws the "death" label into their own sound, the vocals are certainly not bottom-of-the-grave scrapers that make the lyrics completely indecipherable, as many death metal vocalists do.  This is where I think the Demon Hunter references can be mixed in, as nothing on Six Sexy Songs is any more brutal than the first couple of Demon Hunter albums.  

Lyrically, the band is rather silly, although I don't necessarily know that that is the intent.  As is often the case with foreign bands performing in English, I'm not always certain the band knows 100% what they are singing (meaning things are lost in translation), and a lot of cliches tend to get mixed in.  That being said, I don't think the lyrics are the main focus of this band.  If profanity offends you, skip this, as, once again, the cliched use of vulgarity is prevalent here.

Really, only two complaints come to mind with this album.  The first, which is relatively minor, is the fact that there are only 6 songs on this release.  Second, and more of an issue for me, is the fact that there is basically zero change in tempo, style, or approach, so all the songs start to sound the same and run into each other with the exception of "W.A.F.S.", which reminds me a lot of Five Finger Death Punch in its tempo and musical approach at the beginning of the song.

Never venturing fully into death metal territory, but always playing fast and furious while still retaining a sense of melody, the Sinatras have begun the process of carving out a small musical niche for themselves.  I highly doubt these Italians ever become household names, and I don't envision them ever being anything more than an opening tour act or lower-mid-card festival band, but that's okay.  The band plays what they play, not compromising their truly metal sound to fit modern radio rock trends.

If you enjoy your metal straight forward, fast, loud, and thrashy, Sinatras Six Sexy Songs is a good mini-album to check out.  Again, don't expect pure death metal here, but do expect to be entertained for about half an hour, as these guys definitely bring their "A" game to this effort.  It will be interesting to see where the band goes from here...if they go anywhere at all.  Bands such as this, despite their obvious talent, often wash out after a single release, so their future is likely very much up in the air.  

Rating:  Not crankable, but close.  Rock this at 6.5.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

HINDER "When The Smoke Clears"

(c) 2015 The End 

  1. Rather Hate Than Hurt
  2. Hit The Ground
  3. Wasted Life
  4. If Only For Tonight
  5. Intoxicated
  6. Dead To Me
  7. Foolish Eyes
  8. Nothing Left To Lose
  9. Letting Me Go
  10. I Need Another Drink
Marshal Dutton--Lead Vocals/Acoustic Guitar
Joe "Blower" Garvey--Lead, Rhythm Guitars
Mark King--Lead, Rhythm Guitars
Mike Rodden--Bass
Cody Hanson--Drums

Oklahoma rockers, Hinder, return with a new album, a new record label...oh, and their third new singer since their last album, Welcome To The Freakshow.  That's a lot of new for one band to tackle in one album, and, quite frankly, I was curious how one of my favorites from the modern hard rock crowd would handle all the change on When The Smoke Clears, which seems to be a rather fitting title considering the implosion the band seemed headed for following the departure of Austin Winkler.

For a brief recap of the past three years, here we go:  
  • December, 2012--Hinder releases Welcome To The Freakshow, (easily the weakest album in their history)
  • July, 2013--Winkler enters rehab and former Saving Able singer, Jared Weeks, is hired to finish the band's tour supporting Freakshow
  • November. 2013--Winkler is officially out of the band (how and why depends on whose version of the story you follow)
  • July, 2014--Hinder tours with Nolan Neal as lead singer
  • November, 2014--Hinder releases a new single, "Hit The Ground", with Neal as the singer
  • January, 2015--Neal is out as lead singer and Marshal Dutton is announced as the new singer and a re-recorded version of "Hit The Ground" is released with Dutton singing.
Got all that?  That truly is a lot to take in roughly two and-a-half years, and there were a lot of people who wondered if Hinder would ever record again, or simply become one of those bands that shows up at festivals...or your favorite bar...from time-to-time.  And, honestly, after struggling through a lot of the less-than-great ...Freakshow album, I really didn't know if I cared all that much.  I like the band...a lot...but I seriously wondered if the band was done.    

While When The Smoke Clears won't supplant All American Nightmare or Take It To The Limit as contenders for the best album in the band's catalog, it is certainly a better album than ...Freakshow, and while the test of time will determine how it holds up, I would say that at this time, I actually prefer it to Extreme Behavior.  To say that I was more than pleasantly surprised would be an understatement!  

Things kick off on a bit of a down-tempo note, and I, like a lot of Hinder fans, I would imagine, took a deep gasp and waited for the worst as "Rather Hate Than Hurt" starts off with, *gasp*, a PIANO, some gentle cymbal and bass work, and new vocalist Dutton crooning in a smooth-yet-emotive tenor about being "sick and tired of bleeding from picking up the pieces, so I let 'em fall down...".  What the heck is going on here?!  Where is Hinder?!  I didn't have to wait long, however, as the guitars and Cody Hanson's thundering drums kick in with the rocking chorus and Hinder makes it's return in full-blown rock mode!  Throw in the first of several strong guitar solos on this album and you have the makings of a solid rock anthem that I am certain will find itself on Hinder setlists all summer long.  While a bit of a shock to the system at first, this is actually a great song to get Dutton's feet wet on, as it allows him to go through the full range of dynamics with his voice, from quieter moments to much more amped up segments, all encompassed in the same song.

The re-recorded version of "Hit The Ground" has just a hint of Bon Jovi-meets-Nashville to it, although it rocks harder than anything the Bon Jovi boys have even attempted in several years.  While obviously a stab at radio in an attempt to get the band some much-needed airtime (...Freakshow did virtually nothing at radio for the band), it is still a solid track, if not my favorite.

Speaking of Bon Jovi, Dutton channels his inner JBJ on the first real ballad of the record, the boy-steals-girl-for-one-night-stand number, "If Only For Tonight", which would actually fit pretty well on that band's Keep The Faith record.  This is NOT a bad thing, folks, as Hinder sounds very comfortable here, reaching backward stylistically and not going forward into the electronic/dub step/pseudo techno trends that so many bands seem to be aiming for.  

"Intoxicated" is a snarky, sassy rocker that leads well into one of my three or four faves here, as the angry mid-tempo rocker, "Dead To Me", reminds me so much of the best parts of Take It To The Limit with its "you hurt me but I'm already over you" attitude.

"Foolish Eyes" is an okay number; nothing spectacular, but I can see plenty of cowboy hat-wearing-rocker chicks with beer bottles hoisted high as they sing and sway along with this song at festivals and county fairs this summer.  It's got that simplistic summer kinda song feel to it, with just enough country mixed into the rock to make it accessible to a wide listening audience.

"Nothing Left To Lose" feels like it could have been a left-over from the Nightmare album, as it has that same angry, gritty, punchy feel to it and it is definitely one of my favorites from this new record.  It opens in a very similar manner to "Waking Up The Devil" from Nightmare, which possibly makes sense, as the band claimed to have written between 50 and 70 songs for that record before whittling it down to the final 12.  Perhaps this one would've been number 13 if it didn't have so much in common with another track that had already made the record.  Regardless, we are again treated to some cool guitar work (would've liked a longer solo, however), tight drumming, and an overall great performance that I am very happy was included here.   


"Letting Me Go" starts off with just a piano and Dutton, but don't be fooled into thinking of this track as a ballad, as this song is largely a mid-tempo rocker throughout.  The lyrics aren't particularly deep, even bordering on the cliche, with a chorus that includes "Tell me why I'm holding on to someone who's already letting me go".  The music makes up for the lyrical weaknesses, however, and dang it if the song is sing along catchy, to boot!  Not the highest point on the record, but definitely not terrible, either.

Speaking of not overly deep, "I Need Another Drink" is a decent way to close an overall solid record and an unexpected return to form for Hinder.  Starting off with a southern rock guitar intro, the song has a hard-rocking shuffle feel to it, and I could hear this as the last call theme for many a rock bar across the midwest with it's simplistic chorus that lays it out simply..."I need another drink!"

The only song I would say I really don't care for is  "Wasted Life".  The song is just dumb and seems to exist simply for the band to throw as much profanity into a song as possible while also putting little in the way of thought and originality into the track.  It's not that I'm a virgin-eared prude who shuts off anything I hear that drops an f*bomb or anything like that, because I'm not.  But there is just no real reason for this song's lyrical approach, in my opinion, and it just isn't that catchy.  I'm sure someone loves it, and more power to them.  It's just not my thing.

The production is pretty good, with the mix being very clear with nice separation of the instruments here.  The one problem I have with it is there is not a lot of bottom end to the mix for some reason. I thought it was my computer set-up at first, or perhaps the digital download I originally listened to, but the CD version sounds the same in my Tahoe, so I'm guessing it is just the way it was recorded, which is a bit of a bummer.  Vocally, Dutton is put right out front, thrown directly into the fire and not buried under the instruments here or made to sound like Winkler through production tricks.

The packaging is about as budget-efficient as it gets, as this is a single-fold slipcase...not even a digipack...which always has me worried about the disc's health down the road.  There are liner notes and pictures included in the booklet, and the quality of the included notes and photos is good, even if the packaging itself is not my favorite style at all.

Considering how little I was expecting, I have to say I am really very pleasantly surprised with When The Smoke Clears.  And, as a big fan of Winkler's, I can also say that I am anxious to hear what Dutton sounds like live, mixing these new songs into the band's catalog, giving the old material some new life without turning off the remaining fan base.  

Rating:  Definitely worth picking up and checking out.  Crank this to 7.5.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

SEETHER "Isolate And Medicate" Deluxe Edition

(c)2014 Bicycle Music Company
  1. See You At The Bottom
  2. Same Damn Life
  3. Words As Weapons
  4. My Disaster
  5. Crash
  6. Suffer It All
  7. Watch Me Drown
  8. Nobody Praying For Me
  9. Keep The Dogs At Bay
  10. Save Today
  11. Turn Around (deluxe edition)
  12. Burn The World (deluxe edition)
  13. Goodbye Tonight--Seether and Van Coke Kartel (deluxe edition)
  14. Weak (deluxe edition)
Shaun Morgan--Lead Vocals, Rhythm and Lead Guitar
Dale Steward--Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals
John Humphrey--Drums, Percussion

Three years had passed since South Africa's Seether had released new music, and I had heard several times that the band had been "put on indefinite hiatus", or even "shelved", in favor of side projects from the individual band members.  I really don't know a lot about the band outside of the album Karma And Effect, other than the songs I had heard on the radio, so whether there was anything to these rumors or not, I am not the person to ask.  I had kind of lost interest as everything started sounding the same, at least as far as radio single go, so if the band had decided to hang things up, I guess I wasn't going to get too wrapped up in that drama, as I had nothing emotionally invested in the band in the first place.  However, it is obvious with the release of Isolate And Medicate, the band's 6th studio album, Seether let the world know that not only are they not done as a band, they are also not done as a musical force in the modern rock scene.

The album kicks off with "See You At The Bottom", a hard rocking tune driven by the grunge-inspired guitar tones and style that Seether has become known for, with Morgan's vocals mixing with the backing vocals in a lesser-degree Alice In Chains fashion throughout much of the track.  There are moments, however, where Morgan really cuts loose with some impassioned screaming, especially during the chorus, that have not always been been present in past Seether efforts.

"Same Damn Life" sports a lifted guitar riff from Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him", circa 1963, combining a punkish attitude with the band's grunge stylings, with Morgan even breaking into falsetto for parts of the verses!  Talk about your oddity of a song, but you know what...it works.  Easily one of the catchiest songs on the record, I can't help but smile a bit when I this track, which is now a single, comes on the radio.

Lead single, "Words As Weapons" is almost...haunting...in the way it is put together.  There is just something about Morgan's vocals here, along with the sparse nature of the music during the verses, that is spine-tingling to listen to.  There are alss some chant-style vocals going on in chorale fashion beneath the surface of this largely drum-driven track that adds even more to the eerie nature of this track that I find myself hitting repeat on fairly frequently.

"My Disaster" takes a bit of a step backward for me, as it sounds a lot like a rehash of several of their songs from the past.  In other words, its just not very memorable for me.  The guitars buzz along in their grungy, sludgy style, but the lead guitar really isn't there to speak of (it gets kind of buried under the ryhthm guitars), and the song is rather repetitive to listen to.

"Crash" has an odd vibe to it and I honestly don't think I would have even been able to tell you it was a Seether song if I hadn't heard it on this record.  I know everyone calls this music "post-grunge", but there is nothing "post" about this track--it is straight-up Seattle worship, with elements of Nirvana in the vocals and Soundgarden-meets-Smashing Pumpkins in the music.  The song just sounds so much...older...than it actually is.  I have no doubts you could put this track on a station like Lithium on Sirius/XM, and the majority of casual listeners would never be able to tell you that was a song from 2014 and not 1994.  If you are into real grunge-sounding music, this is a GREAT track for you to grab hold of.

"Suffer It All" does absolutely nothing for me.  In fact, I think I can safely say I don't really like "angry Seether" all that well, as it makes them sound generic, even when they try to mix in a poppy element to the chorus.  Just not my cup of tea at all here.  Skip...

"Watch Me Drown" feels a lot like "Same Damn Life, Part II" to me.  It has that same kind of pop-punk vibe to it, bouncy-yet-grumpy at the same time.  These two songs, in fact, remind me a LOT of what Theory Of A Deadman did to such effectiveness on Scars & Souvenirs, mixing a pop melody in with a punk mentality, and then layering catchy, snarky, attitude-laden vocals over the top.

"Nobody Praying For Me" is a moody, darker track, with Morgan plumbing the lower end of his vocal range during the verses, then returning to his typical snarling delivery style on the chorus of this mid-tempo number.  Simplistic-yet-catchy, this is where the best of the original material ends for me, as "Keep The Dogs At Bay" is just too repetitive to keep my attention, and "Save The Day" really doesn't sound like Seether all that much to me and it has a weird guitar tone (or is it a Theramin?!) that drives me loopy when I hear it in the background.  I think it could have been a pretty cool ballad, but that dang tone is just irritating to hear over and over...

Sometimes I wonder how we get "bonus material" that's as good as, if not better, than some of the material on a regular version of an album.  Why the heck didn't you put ALL the good stuff on an album and leave off a couple of stinkers? And while we're at it, why is the "deluxe edition" in a digipack/slipcase?!  Argh!  Anyway, Seether decided to put out a deluxe edition of Isolate And Medicate with four bonus tracks, three of which are better than half of the rest of the original album.

"Turn Around" is a lot like "Words As Weapons" in the fact that it is borderline creepy to listen to.  The bass line intro sets such a spooky vibe for Morgan to snake his vocals over that this song is just plain fun to listen to.  "Burn The World" is just flat-out cool and the intro makes me think of the old James Bond movies I watched with my dad back in the 70's and 80's.  (I keep expecting Roger Moore to turn around and shoot the screen and then have blood dripping down the screen...but I digress.)    Not really in line with a lot of the Seether material I have heard before, but something I think I would like to hear more of.  And "Weak" is a pretty cool tune as well, but I've been told it actually isn't a new song, just one I missed because it was on some sort of compilation or best-of in the past.

I don't overly care for "Goodbye Tonight".  I have no clue who the Van Coke Kartel is or why Seether has them on their record, but it really didn't add any "wow" to an otherwise all-too-familiar sounding song that really sounds like it could blend into just about any other Seether album cut and not be missed.

While nothing here is going to really stretch the boundaries of what Seether has become known for, perhaps that is a good thing.  There is a lot of soft/loud/soft/loud going on with the song structure (with a couple of exceptions as mentioned), and it is an effect which has worked well for the band in the past.

While not necessarily the most diverse album the band has put out, and likely not the one most band fans will indicate as their favorite, Isolate and Medicate is a strong effort, showcasing Morgan's distictive voice, some decent song-writing skills, and a willingness to hold onto much of what has worked for the band in the past, while not attempting to rewrite previous records.  A decent listen if you are into this style, but nothing earth-shattering.  When it works, which is more often than not, it works well.  However, when things are off, the songs become nothing more than background noise that is basically indistinguishable from the lesser material I have heard from the band in the past.

Rating:  Rock this at 6.5.  While not amazing, it is definitely a decent record. Go for the Deluxe Edition, by the way, as 3/4 of the added tracks boost the value of the record.

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DISCIPLE "Attack"

(c) 2014 Independent Release
  1. Radical
  2. Attack
  3. Dead Militia
  4. Scarlet
  5. Unbroken
  6. The Name
  7. Angels and Demons
  8. Lion
  9. Yesterday Is Over
  10. Kamikaze
  11. Crazy
  12. The Right Time
Kevin Young--Lead Vocals
Josiah Prince--Guitars
Andrew Stanton--Guitars
Jason Wilkes--Bass, Backing Vocals
Joey West--Drums, Percussion

It seems like lately I have been reviewing a lot of new, modern material from bands that are now pushing 20 years in the industry.  Disciple's latest effort, Attack, continues that trend.  I had to actually stop and ask myself how Disciple could possible be 20 years old already...and how I am still listening to them today, as I will be honest in saying I was NOT a fan when the band started out.  Their combination of rap and metal was simply not something that slotted into my musical vocabulary as a 20-something music fan.  

Well, twenty years later, some things have changed (the rap, and most of my hair, is gone), some things have stayed the same (Disciple still BOLDLY rocks for God)...and Disciple is still here.

Granted, the only member of the band who has been here for the full history of Disciple is founder and frontman, Kevin Young.  Looking as young and fresh and energetic as always (was he 12 on the first album or something?!), Young formed a new version of the band (he refers to this version as Disciple 3.0), ditched the whole record label concept and went with a Kickstarter-funded project, and put together the best Disciple album ever, by my estimation.  Geared for modern rock radio musically, but as lyrically bold as ever, Young and company have crafted a guitar-driven modern rock record with enough edge to keep the more metal-inclined fans happy (check out "Radical", "Attack" and "The Name",  for starters), while making sure that the younger generation of fans who flooded Christian radio with requests for "Dear X..." a few years back are not left out in the cold.  

The album kicks off with its lead single, "Radical", which is one of the hardest hitters on a record chock full of uptempo rockers.  "Radical" reminds me a lot of the era when I really started finding myself liking Disciple, which is in that By God through Back Again span of records.  In fact, "Radical" sounds like it could have possibly even come from Back Again, as the hard charging guitars and thundering drums recall a harder rocking band than what Young had seemingly morphed the band into with Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and especially Southern Hospitality. Don't get me wrong, I like both of those records, but I always felt there was an edge missing from most of the songs on those two records.  That edge has been rediscovered and reapplied here, to be sure!

From here, the title track, "Attack" continues in the hard rock vein, albeit just a slightly more radio rock direction.  A bouncy guitar riff brings the song in, crashing it into pounding drums and some  atmospheric elements, before big, shouted vocals ask, "Are you ready for a fight?!", plunging the listener into a spiritual call-to-arms battle anthem!  There's a small vocal breakdown in the middle, but the intensity doesn't let up for long before the bass drum starts to thump again and Young redirects the listener back to the matters at hand!

"Dead Militia" finds Young really reaching into his screaming vocals for the first time on this new album on yet another blistering number that will likely find itself being released as a single before this record is laid to rest.  The drums and bass are given opportunity to shine in spots on this track which is one of the two catchiest tracks, musically, on the entire record.  I was extremely happy that this song was included in the setlist of Disciple's recent City Rockfest Tour, as I was bouncing along with the song from note one (as was my 7 year old son who was attending his first ever rock show).

From here the band shifts gears a bit with what I am guessing will be a major Christian radio rock hit this summer in "Scarlet".  Leaving the hard rocking on the roadside for just a moment, Disciple jumps seamlessly into the modern rock territory it has so effectively been navigating for the past few years.  Young stays as bold as ever with his lyrics ("Though my sins they be as scarlet, Though my hands have been an enemy of God, Though my heart has played the harlot, You give me more than I deserve..."), but he never comes across as preachy or Bible-thumping in his approach, which makes a song like "Scarlet" even more accessible to fans who may be curious as to what Disciple is all about.

"Unbroken" finds the band slowing things just a bit more, steering their musical vehicle into the realm of  modern rock balladry, although they refuse to leave the thunder of the drums or the punch of the guitars completely behind on the choruses.  Speaking of the chorus, we also get to really hear Jason Wilkes add his backing vocals to this track in a simplistic, yet effective manner.  Again, a great song that will find a lot of love on rock radio, even if it is a bit too tame for some band fans.

The rockers need not fear, however, as "The Name" seems to come out of nowhere and threatens to shred your speakers with its sheer speed and power!  This is the Disciple of old by just about any account, and the band tears things up at break-neck speed on this juiced up praise and worship hymn (it's basically "Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus" on high octane fuel).  Experienced headbangers only need to apply for entrance here, folks!  Huge, shouted gang vocals, crushing drum rhythms, screaming guitars, a thundering breakdown, and impassioned lyrics...what more could you ask for from a band that is obviously hitting on all cylinders on this track.  Easily the highlight of the live set I saw in March (which was also boosted by a killer light show and some amazing video images...).

The one song on the record that I don't think lives up to the greatness of the rest of the record is up next with "Angels & Demons", and even this isn't a bad song.  The song structure just doesn't seem to fit the flow of most of the record (there are a couple more oddities yet to come), but I never find myself skipping this track or wishing that it hadn't been included.  Perhaps its the almost jarring change in tempo between this song and "The Name" that makes it stand out so starkly, I'm not sure. 

"Lion" is a song that had to grow on me, and I'm still not 100% certain how I feel about it sometimes.  This one is definitely a mood song for me, although much like "Angels & Demons", I would never say I dislike it and I never skip it.  The song almost feels disjointed...almost...as it has a rather quirky rhythm, especially during the chorus, that I find difficult to really lock into.  It was immensely popular in concert, so maybe its just me...

"Yesterday Is Over" returns the band to modern rock ballad territory.  This is the "lighter in the air" song of the record, to be sure.  This one is the "swayer" on the album...and in the setlist...and there were many hands in the air almost the second the infectious guitar intro to this song hit the speakers.  Young really showcases is singing talents here, rather than relying solely on his powerful, more metallic screaming style.

"Kamikaze" picks the pace right back up and is one of my three or four favorite songs on the record, although I have heard (and read) several people saying they really don't care for this track.  I love it, personally!  A definite head-bobber, and showcases a vocal trade-off between Young and Wilkes that I think really works well.  Sure, this song doesn't really fit with the majority of the record, but that only serves to set it off a bit.  It also features one of the truest guitar solos on the record, and is just an overall fun song that seems to manage to creep up a volume notch or two every time I play it.

"Crazy" feels like an industrial rocker to me with some of the effects used at the intro and throughout the rest of the track, and the bass and drums really drive this song for most of the verse sections before a sing-along styled chorus kicks in.  Not overly memorable, but a fun number near the end of the record, which closes out with "The Right Time".  As is often the case with Disciple, the band chooses to end things with a ballad (or at least a more down-tempo number), and this is a pretty good one.  An acoustic guitar carries much of the melody on a track that reminds me of a lot 80's hair band power ballads in the way it is structured.  Again, quite a bit different than the majority of the record, but a solid way to exit and one last chance for Young to get his lyrical point about God's love and salvation across to the listener.

As has been the case for several years now, Travis Wyrick is the producer of the album, and his touch is felt throughout the record.  The man has a definite knack for feeling where Disciple wants to go with their art, and Attack is no exception.  The production is clean and modern, with the guitars sounding especially crisp and sharp here, and Young's vocals punchy and out front the way they should be, without burying the rhythm section in the basement of each track.  Solid, solid work here.

While a lot of bands are satisfied to rest on their laurels...and tour on their catalog...it is evident Disciple is nowhere near done musically, as Attack is easily their most complete record in at least a decade, and my favorite from their now impressive catalog.  I was a little bit late getting to this record, but it is one that I am definitely glad I picked up as it reinvigorated my interest in this band and drove me to go back and pull out their last four or five records and rediscover some of the gems I had unintentionally buried in my CD rack.           

Rating:  Crankable, all the way.  Crank this to a powerful 9...and make sure to catch the band live if you get the chance!

   

Monday, April 6, 2015

LACEY STURM "The Reason: How I Discovered A Life Worth Living" (Book Review)


(c) 2014 Baker Books

Lacey Sturm is known to hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions of people, as the former lead singer of the band Flyleaf.  What most of those people may not know, however, is that prior to her joining the band, prior to her decision to commit her life to Christ, Sturm was a self-described "atheist" who was on the verge of committing suicide.  How did she get there?  How did she turn her life around?  Why did she leave Flyleaf seemingly at the height of the band's popularity?  Sturm addresses these and several other topics in this autobiography.  

Unlike a lot of autobiographies, this book is not overly heavy on personal detail that really doesn't serve to drive the book at all.  The entire project checks in at just 208 pages, with no photo section, although there are several hand-drawn sketches that I believe Sturm did herself, which serve to add a bit to the content of the chapter the sketch is found in.  Yes, she discusses her childhood (she was born to a teen-aged mother who had been advised to have an abortion rather than deliver Lacey), and she talks about her struggles with drugs, depression, and thoughts of suicide, but this book isn't meant to be a dark story that leaves readers feeling sad or depressed for the author.  Instead, Sturm pushes through the details of her young life, explaining how even seemingly negative elements (a life lived in poverty at times, her love of Pantera and Nirvana, a volatile relationship with her mother, a molar pregnancy that could have killed her, etc.) shaped her life and rounded out the individual she would become.  

Each chapter in Sturm's book is a "reason".  "The Reason I Love Jazz", "The Reason I Became An Atheist", The Reason I Loved Nirvana", etc., and each "reason" explains a part of who Lacey is today.  It's a unique way to set up a book, in my opinion, and I found myself turning through the pages quickly and effortlessly, seeking out the story behind the "reason" listed in the chapter title.

One problem I had with the book is also likely one of the main things that will appeal to her target audience, which is teens and young adults.  The background info on some chapters is rather sketchy and I feel like I have been left out of the loop in some places.  The historian in me wants to be let in, wants to be given the smaller details that may not seem important to many readers, while the target audience is going to be appreciative of the fact that only the bigger, broader picture is presented here, without the mundane details.  I get that I am double, maybe even TRIPLE the age of the intended audience here.  I get that I don't always understand the day-to-day struggles of teens and young adults today (despite being a high school teacher surrounded by the target audience on a daily basis), so I am not going to hold this minor issue against the book or the author.

I do wish a tad bit more time had been spent on the Flyleaf years, perhaps addressing the recording process, their videos, some more touring information, etc.  I also wish a bit more had been talked about showing how the band worked both inside of and on the outside of the Christian music industry, and how they dealt with Christians who felt they were not "Christian enough", and secular fans who thought Flyleaf was "too Christian".  However, again, I understand that is not the point of the book.  The book is here to served as a way for Lacey to communicate with her readers and listeners about the hope she has for their life and how she was able to overcome some of the same issues that they are likely dealing with themselves.  It isn't necessarily about music as much as it is about Lacey's salvation and how that opportunity is out there for every single person that picks up her book.  

The 3-page forward to the book is written by Brian "Head" Welch of KoRn/Love & Death, himself a born again Christian, with an afterward written by Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Ministries organization.  Also, throughout the book, Sturm scatters quotes from, and references to, author C.S. Lewis, whom Sturm obviously holds in high regard.

Was it a good read?  For the most part, yes.  Again, there are things I feel are missing, but perhaps they will be discussed in a future book (which Sturm suggests she will write at some point).  Again, it is relatively short, and I found myself making my way through the book in a total of about 4 hours spread out over a couple of days of reading.

People looking purely for the story of Flyleaf's formation, rise, peak, and then Sturm's departure, will likely put the book down a bit disappointed once they have finished it.  Teens and young adults who are looking for someone they can possibly relate to and learn from are likely to find themselves feeling the book was over all-too-quickly and possibly seeking Sturm out on the internet or trying to converse with her through email or social media.  

Overall, a solid read filled with inspiration and hope delivered by a multi-talented artist of the current generation who "gets" that she is meant to be so much more than a modern rock star.

 
Baker Books
208 Pages


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Saturday, March 21, 2015

EUROPE "War Of Kings" Deluxe Edition

(c) 2015 Frontiers Records

  1. War Of Kings
  2. Hole In My Pocket
  3. The Second Day
  4. Praise You
  5. Nothin' To Ya
  6. California 405
  7. Days Of Rock N Roll
  8. Children Of The Mind
  9. Rainbow Bridge
  10. Angels (With Broken Hearts)
  11. Light It Up
  12. Vasatan (Bonus Track)
Joey Tempest--Lead Vocals
John Norum--Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
John Leven--Bass, Backing Vocals
Mic Michaeli--Keyboards, Vocals
Ian Haugland--Drums, Vocals

In dealing with the band Europe, you basically have two fan bases.  The first fan base will FURIOUSLY defend both the album and song "The Final Countdown" as one of the masterpieces of 80's hair metal/melodic rock, "Carrie" as the quintessential power ballad of all time, "Rock The Night" as the most underrated rock track ever made, and "Cherokee" as the most socially conscious rock song ever put to tape/CD.  Now, that may seem to be a bit over-dramatic, but you KNOW these people!  You have met these people, talked to them, and even call them friends in some instances.  This band's only major moment in the MTV + Hairbands in the 80's=Love era is clung to like a precious childhood teddy bear for some reason.  Why, no one knows, because when the rest of us go back and listen to that particular album (and the follow-up, to a large degree), most of us come to the same conclusion:  "I liked THAT?!"  Really, people, The Final Countdown is just not that great (not horrible, but not genre defining), and sounds INCREDIBLY dated, especially with the overuse of keyboards throughout the record.

The other fan base of the band recognizes that The Final Countdown (and Out Of This World, for that matter) was more of an anomaly in the band's career, and that the band is far more of a 70's hard rock-meets 80's hard rock-meets gritty blues rock band, and that it is on records such as Wings Of Destiny, Start From The Dark, Bag Of Bones, and others that the REAL sound of Europe is most evident, and that only since the reunion of this version of the band (whose members first started playing together in 1985) has Europe really found their true sound.  

Well, with War Of Kings, I can tell you that fans from the first group will want to steer clear, while fans of the latter group are likely going to celebrate in the streets, because War Of Kings may be the most solid album the band has ever recorded from start to finish.  It really is THAT good.  Things start off with a very Deep Purple-ish sounding guitar and keyboard intro on the title track, before carrying that same Purple vibe right into the next song, "Hole In My Pocket", which takes also blends in a healthy dose of Thin Lizzy to mix as it steps up the tempo slightly from the opening song here.  But, don't think for a second that this album is nothing but Deep Purple worship, or Thin Lizzy worship, or worship of ANY other band, because it definitely is not.  Sure, there are songs that recall the sound of other classic bands, with Led Zeppelin being a distant relative of a song like "Light It Up" or "Praise You", but this is Europe, no question.  There is no mistaking Joey Tempest's insanely smooth vocal delivery, or the incredibly underrated talent of John Norum on guitar.  This is a band that knows how it wants to sound as a group, not allowing for one or two people to so completely dominate the style and sound that the rest of the member's efforts are left behind.  

Initially, this is a somewhat difficult record to get into because there really aren't any "singles" per se, especially in the musical world we live in now.  Sure, "Angels (With Broken Hearts)" has the potential to be a monster power ballad of the ages, but who listens to power ballads today that has any sway in the musical/radio/programming world?  No one.  Exactly.  So the listener simply can't go into this record looking for hits and singles, but rather must take it in as a project.  And what a project it is, especially for fans of strong 70's classic hard rock, with hints of the 80's and even the 90's mixed in in conservative doses.

Rating:  Crankable, but it may take you time to get there.  Don't give up!  Crank this one to 8 and let it grow on you!

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Friday, March 13, 2015

P.O.D. "So Cal Sessions"

(c) 2014 T-Boy Records
 
 
  1. Panic & Run
  2. Will You
  3. Youth Of The Nation
  4. No Ordinary Love Song
  5. Strength of My Life
  6. Alive
  7. Higher
  8. It Can't Rain Every Day
  9. Lost In Forever
  10. I'll Be Ready
  11. Beautiful
  12. Set Your Eyes To Zion
 
 
Sonny Sandoval--Lead Vocals
Marcos Curiel--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Traa Daniels--Bass, Backing Vocals
Wuv Bernando--Drums, Rhythm Guitar, Backing Vocals
 
It is difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that P.O.D. is now more than 20 years old as a band!  Without getting into too much of the band's history, the band has been recording since 1994 when they released Snuff The Punk on the independent Rescue Records label.  In 1998 they moved to major label Atlantic Records, where they enjoyed massive success with The Fundamental Elements of Southtown and the multi-platinum selling Satellite album, also garnering multiple radio singles and MTV video hits.  The band then bounced around on independent labels, releasing a fistful of albums with some minor radio and satellite radio success and finding themselves involved musically with the WWE for a time.  It would be easy to say the band's career has largely been a successful one with little arguement. 
 
Despite these previous highs, P.O.D.'s popularity and success have fallen off in recent years, which, again, is not overly surprising considering the band has been around for 20+ years now.  Drop-offs are to be expected.  What was NOT expected, at least by me, was an acoustic album by these modern rockers who were among the first Christian artists to embrace the rapcore style that was sweeping the rock musical landscape in the mid-90's.  How in the world is a band like P.O.D. going to carry their vibe and sound over into the acoustic realm? 
 
So Cal Sessions can't really be considered a career retrospective, because there is virtually nothing from the early years of the band.  Yes, there are a couple of tracks from Satellite (there would probably be a fan-base riot if "Youth Of The Nation" and "Alive" weren't included), but only one from Fundamental Elements of Southtown (album closer, "Set Your Eyes To Zion"), with nothing from Brown or Snuff The Punk finding its way onto the set list.  On the flipside, there is a LOT of material included from the last four albums, including songs that were never really big hits for the band, while songs that would seem obvious fits, such as "Goodbye For Now", are completely ignored.  So it is ovbious that this is not designed to be a retrospective or greatest hits package by any means.   
 
So, song selection aside, what works here and what doesn't?  First the parts that work for me...
 
The album opens with a very reggae-meets-Latin music version of "Panic & Run", which I think is exceptionally well done.  I really like the tone and temp used here and the band sounds like they are having fun with this track.  "Youth of the Nation" works exceptionally well here, with the scaled back chorus parts and the deeper instrumentation on the chorus and bridge being a really nice addition.  "No Ordinary Love Song" is also nicely done, with Sonny seeming to channel a bit of Anthony Keidis from Red Hot Chili Peppers in his vocal delivery style here, especially on the opening verse.  Again, some nice Latin guitar work is included here and really adds a nice, unique flavor to the track.  "Strength Of My Life" comes across a bit more "plugged in" than some of the songs here, largely because of the (minimal) effects that are used on Sonny's vocals.  Again, a nice reggae beat carries the track, and Sonny shows that even in this more stripped-down arena he is able to pull off some impressive lyrical tongue twisting as he alternately rushes through some sections and stretches others out.  "Alive" was surprisingly well done here musically, but the chorus vocals left a little bit to be desired to my ears.  "Set Your Eyes To Zion" is a perfect closer and is very well done, giving long-time fans a familiar track with which to end things.
 
So, with that said, what doesn't work so well here?  Well, I think "I'll Be Ready" comes across as rather disjointed and "clunky", for lack of a better term.   "Higher" is decent, but was never one of my favorite tracks by the band and the more laid back delivery here really doesn't do anything to improve my feelings for this track.  I thought "It Can't Rain Everyday" would come across a bit stronger than it does in this type of format, but the band altered the song enough that it loses some of the original's strength for me.  I also really didn't like the way "Beautiful" worked in this format for some reason; it really turned me off and I found myself wanting to skip it after the first couple of listens.
 
My other real complaint is that no risks are taken here.  All of the songs that the band chose to rework were songs that lend themselves to an acoustiic interpretation.  A true test would've been to go with some of the band's harder, heavier material, challenging and stretching themselves a bit more musically.  I would've loved to hear "Boom", "Outkast", "Rock This Party", "Lights Out", or especially "Southtown" thrown into the mix...maybe even "Sleeping Awake". 
 
Speaking of the mix, the recording here is solid, with the mix done by Clif Norrell and the band producing the album themselves.  The packaging is a pretty simple 8-page insert, with no lyrics, song selection or album info, and minimalistic thank-you's.  There are, however, a lot of pictures, both color and black and white, some of which I'm guessing come from the band members' personal collections as I haven't seen any of these previously. 
 
I didn't have very high expectations for the record when I received it for review, and I actually put reviewing it off for quite some time, to be honest.  It is nowhere near as bad as I had feared it would be, and thankfully it is an in-studio acoustic effort, not one recorded in front of an audience, so the songs are given a chance to be arranged and mixed properly, and not just presented as four guys sitting on stools strumming acoustic instruments.  Again, I think the song selection could've been a bit stronger, a bit more challenging, but that's more a personal preference than a flaw with the album. 
 
If you are new to the band, I would suggest skipping this effort until later, and would recommend instead that you pick up the band's greatest hits package, Satellite, and possibly Payable On Death or Testify to find out what the band has been about historically.
 
The band is reportedly planning a new full studio project for 2015, so keep an eye out for that, and follow the band at www.payableondeath.com for tour and other information.
 
Rating:  Not terrible, but not something I'm likely to play very often, either.  Rock this to a 6, at least as much as you can "rock" an acoustic record.
 


Sunday, March 8, 2015

ADELITAS WAY "Deserve This" EP

(c) 2015 Independent Release

  1. Deserve This
  2. I Get Around
  3. Filthy Heart
  4. Harbor The Fugitive
  5. Sometimes You're Meant To Get Used
Rick DeJesus--Lead Vocals
Trevor "Tre" Stafford--Drums
Robert Zakaryan--Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
Andrew Cushing--Bass, Backing Vocals

Adelitas Way return with their 4th release since 2006 with the EP Deserve This.  It should be noted that Deserve This is believed to be the precursor to a new studio album (rumored to be called Alive and set for a summer 2015 release).  Regardless, all five tracks here are brand new and of top-notch quality showcasing a band that is maturing and growing by allowing themselves to step outside the box on a couple of numbers without sacrificing who they have established themselves to be to their fans.

The EP opener and title track, "Deserve This", is what most fans have come to expect from the band.  A straight up modern hard rock number, "Deserve This" kicks in with a distorted guitar chord, some thundering drums from Stafford,  then a frantic bass-and-guitar run kicking this thing into gear right from the start.  Front man, Rick DeJesus, jumps in with his gravel-edged baritone vocals and things are off and running, charging toward the next track, the EP's lead single, "I Get Around".  At this point, the band starts to feel things out a bit, changing up the Adelitas Way sound ever-so-slightly, and tinkering with some different styles and sounds.  In this instance, "I Get Around" is a decidedly hooky, dare I say "bouncy" uptempo rocker that will not disappoint fans of previous hits such as "Invincible", "The Collapse", and "Cage The Beast", but one that also moves a long with a definite skip in its step.  The song kicks off with DeJesus delivering the chorus a cappella before the band comes crashing in,   That chorus by the way, while simplistic, is catchy as all get out and will likely be stuck in your head for days.

The quasi-epic "Filthy Heart" (nearly 6 minutes long) is a bit more down tempo with a somewhat bluesier approach to the song construction.  At times reminiscent of something the Red Hot Chili Peppers might have done, and also including an extended guitar solo with a definite 70's classic rock vibe to it, this song was really driven home for me when I got the chance to see the band live on a stop-over date in central Nebraska.  In fact, three of the five tracks here were performed live that night, with DeJesus telling the crowd that this night was the first night the band performed "Harbor The Fugitive" in a live setting, which was really cool.  The song has a different vibe than anything else I recall Adelitas Way performing on their previous efforts, with some excellent bass work from Cushing and a funky, almost R&B groove to it.  DeJesus' voice is particularly emotive on this track (and "Filthy Heart" as well), abandoning the angry, sharper vocals for a more laid back, singing approach.  Once again, a great guitar solo is included here, with Zakaryan really showing his contribution to the current line-up of the band.  

Album closer, "Sometimes You're Meant To Get Used" returns to the harder-edged modern rock approach previous fans are likely more accustomed to, with DeJesus reapplying the snarl to his vocals, and drummer "Tre" Stafford taking things up a notch here with more complex rhythms and fills than are used on much of the rest of the EP.

Don't get me wrong, I like what Adelitas Way has done in the past, but they got lost in the shuffle sometimes, with so many similar sounding bands competing for airwave space on modern rock radio.  With the Deserve This EP, Adelitas Way has retained their sound but added to it, really expanding their musical vocabulary with some different tempos and styles mixed in.  If pressed, I would have to say that this effort contains three of my favorite AW tracks to this point, with "Harbor The Fugitive" and "Filthy Heart" really finding the band taking their art up a notch with some musical experimentation.  If this is indeed a teaser to the next full-length album, I will be anxiously awaiting that.  As it stands, Deserve This is a solid release in its own right and well worth seeking out for both old fans and people looking for something a bit different from the norm in the Octane world.

The band is currently on tour with Flyleaf and Framing Hanley on the SnoCore Tour, so if you get the chance to catch them live, I certainly encourage you to do so.  Additionally, if you would like to help fund the new album, you can do so here:  http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/adelitasway   

Rating:  Definitely crankable.  Spin the knob to an 8 here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

PAPA ROACH "F.E.A.R."

(c) 2015 Eleven Seven Music

  1. Face Everything And Rise (F.E.A.R.)
  2. Skeletons
  3. Broken As Me
  4. Falling Apart
  5. Love Me Till It Hurts
  6. Never Have To Say Goodbye
  7. Gravity
  8. War Over Me
  9. Devil
  10. Warriors
  11. Hope For The Hopeless (Bonus)
  12. Fear Hate Love (Bonus)
Jacoby Shaddix--Vocals
Tobin Esperance--Guitar, Bass, Programming
Jerry Horton--Guitars, Backing Vocals
Tony Palermo--Drums

I have know of the band, seemingly forever (they have been around something like 16 years now, believe it or not), but I have never really followed Papa Roach or their career.  In fact, F.E.A.R. is only the second album by the band I have ever owned, with both of them having been referred to me for review.  Sure, I know the singles of the band's nu-metal past, particularly "Last Resort", and some of their more recent efforts like "Getting Away With Murder", but to say I am a fan would be dishonest.  I don't hate them, I don't love them...I nothing them, to be honest.  Papa Roach is a band that has always just "been there" in my musical world.

Nothing really changes with the band's newest album, F.E.A.R.  Are there good songs here?  Sure.  I actually will say that I really like the majority the material here.  For starters, I think the title track, "Face Everything And Rise" is a song that I like a lot despite the fact that I tend to dislike just about everything associated with the current electronica-mashed-with-metal movement.  Don't think along the lines of that ridiculous dub-step approach that Korn used on their last album, but think more along the likes of the orchestral-synth approach used to largely solid effect by bands like Skillet on their past few records.  The song is catchy and anthemic in its approach, and Shaddix holds his own vocally here, never straying outside of the angst-ridden shout-singing that worked so well on the better portions of the band's catalog.  "Skeletons" is another solid track which features a pretty cool bass line provided by Esperance, and a nice drum cadence from Palermo.  More mid-tempo in approach, "Skeletons" will be all over Octane and modern hard rock stations before the summer is over, regardless of if it is released as a single, as it is easily one of the catchiest songs on the disc.  "Broken As Me" picks the pace up just a bit with a track that reminds me a lot of the material on Getting Away With Murder, with emotion-drenched, angry vocals that are alternately screamed, shouted, and snarled for the majority of the track.  The programming on this track is definitely of the trendy variety, with some effects even being added to Shaddix's vocals in a couple of spots, which I wish wouldn't have been done, but they aren't deal breakers here.  "Falling Apart" is another track that I am sure will fill the airwaves, both satellite and terrestrial, as the vocals take on more of a singing quality here, especially on the chorus.  "War Over Me" is the other real stand-out for me, which actually amazes me to a degree because I did NOT like this song at all the first time I heard it, owing largely to the synth-piano intro that just about tricked me into hitting the skip button.  Glad I stuck around because I really like the way the song builds to the chorus which then explodes from the verses.  I also think Palermo provides some excellent skin work here, solidly keeping the tempo and rhythm of the track while still providing unique and interesting patterns for the listener.  

From what I have gathered, there are two versions of this album out there, with mine being the "Bonus Tracks" version (hence the bonus tracks...hehe...)  For what it's worth, I'm pretty glad I have this version, as the two bonus cuts here are among the best in my opinion.  "Hope For The Hopeless" is an angry-sounding, but actually rather lyrically-uplifting song about not giving up on oneself, and "Fear Hate Love" is one of the hardest-charging songs on the album with an interesting approach used on the chorus as "fear", "hate", and "love" are gang-shouted while the rest of the chorus is snarled out by Shaddix.  The guitar work here is some of the best on the record, and while not overly complicated, it definitely packs a punch on this track.

What I don't like about this album is that Papa Roach finds it necessary to dip their toes back into the whole rap-metal style and sound that I had hoped was dead and buried 10 or so years ago.  This is especially true on songs like "Gravity", which sounds to me like Papa Roach trying to imitate Linkin Park for some reason, especially in the way Shaddix approaches the vocals.  Does the world really need two Linkin Parks?)  Even the inclusion of In This Moment vocalist Maria Brink can't save this song which I just have no use for.  On another song, "Warriors", Shaddix turns the rap over to Royce Da 5'9" (whoever that is!) to handle a single verse for no apparent reason, and it really does nothing for me.

Additionally, as I somewhat alluded to earlier, the guitars are missing something for me.  No, I'm not talking about solos or anything like that.  Rather, they just seem lifeless and overly-simplified on so many of these songs, not really providing the aggression that I think many of these tracks could have benefitted from.  Too many times the programming takes over for the guitars, altering where I was hoping the songs would go and making them sound generic.  This is especially true in the middle of the record, where things get musically samey (and the rap vocals just lose me).

On the flip-side, I think Palermo delivers some solid to very-good drum work throughout much of this disc, adding some interesting rhythms and beats that give life to songs that otherwise may flatline.  On a song like "Never Have To Say Goodbye", the drums are about the only thing I find even remotely memorable about the track which just drags and lyrically reminds me of a whiny 15 year old girl's diary.  Bleh...  Likewise, Esperance makes up with his bass what he appears to be lacking on guitar, with some excellent work on songs like the previously mentioned "Skeletons" and another of the better tracks here in "Devil".

But, if you are banking the success of your album on stand-out performances by your drummer and bass player, you might have an album that is in a bit of trouble, and that is the situation here with F.E.A.R.  The first four songs, the last two, and two in the middle ("War Over Me" and "Devil") would have made for a pretty solid 8 track album, even if it would've been a bit short by today's standards.  And you know what, if the rap had been left on the shelf, and a couple of the tired-sounding filler tracks here had been left in the studio, I think I would be more inclined to purchase this disc.  As it stands, I'm not going to throw the record away or anything, but I'm glad it was sent to me for review purposes, as I would've been a bit upset with myself for shelling out $15 on this hit-or-miss effort.

The packaging is solid, with full lyrics included in an 8-page booklet that also features writing credits, thank you's, etc.  There are absolutely no pictures of the band included, but there are several desert-apocalypse pictures here which are...interesting.  The production is solid and the mix is really good as no one instrument drowns out another or takes over a track entirely.

Rating:  Rock this to an uneven 5.5, although there are a couple of definite modern rock radio hits here that will drive sales and album interest, for sure.

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