Saturday, September 23, 2017

**RETRO REVIEW** NEVADA BEACH "Zero Day"

(c) 1990 Metal Blade

  1. Rough House
  2. Waiting For An Angel
  3. On Zero Day
  4. Action Reaction
  5. Only The Fool
  6. Back For Blood
  7. Walking Dead
  8. Stand
  9. Big Zero
  10. Gagged And Bound
Hank Decken--Lead Vocals, Lead Guitars
Geoff Safford--Guitars, Vocals
Tony Rivers--Bass, Vocals
John Murphy--Drums, Vocals

By 1990, the "hair metal" scene was in full-swing, and everyone, including long-time "traditional metal" labels were jumping on the bandwagon, trying to cash in on the insanely popular scene.  Of course, this oversaturation would be a contributing factor to the eventual collapse of the scene, but everybody was too busy partying and worshiping at the alter of the guitar gods to pay any attention.  Metal Blade took a shot on a relatively unknown band, Nevada Beach, hoping they would help to increase the label's market share among the hair crowd.

On the surface, it shouldn't have been that big of a risk, really, as Nevada Beach definitely had the look and the sound of the day.  Lead vocalist/guitarist, Hank Decken, at times sounds a lot like Dirty Looks' lead singer, Henrik Ostergard, but musically, Nevada Beach leans more toward the big, arena hard rock sound than they do toward the AC/DC worship of Dirty Looks.  If I had to draw a comparison to another band or two from the time, I would have to say Nevada Beach could be aligned with early Bangalore Choir, with perhaps a bit of Britny Fox and some Jackyl thrown into the mix.

Overall, this is a pretty solid listen with some big, hard rocking anthems that could have possibly become minor staples in the genre had they received more exposure and come along a couple of years early.  "Waiting For An Angel", in my opinion, should have been the first track on the record, as it is very catchy, has a simple-but-singable chorus, is "video ready" in terms of subject matter and song-style, and is just a fun, party-styled song that was all over rock radio back in the day.  "On Zero Day" is another reall fun song that features thundering drums, a catchy hook, nice groove, and some cool gang-shouting on the extremely simplistic sing-along chorus.  "Action Reaction" is a track that I think the Britny Fox comparison can be heard in fairly easily, and the bluesy guitars of the record's big ballad, "Only The Fool", are very well done on one of the better power ballads you have likely never heard.  I think with a different singer...or at least with more vocal training for Decken...this song could have been a huge radio hit, but as it stands, "Only The Fool" is one of those nuggets that is fun to dig out of unheralded albums from the 80s and 90s.  "Stand" is another cool track with a bit of a bump-n-grind rhythm to it, a tasty guitar solo, and some really good backing vocals on the chorus.  Nicely done here.  "Big Zero" is another bluesy power ballad that had all sorts of potential to be a hit, but maybe Metal Blade already saw the writing on the wall for this style of music and had pulled the plug on the project, because there was, ahem, a big zero in terms of promotion or pushing of this record.

At times the album gets a bit cliche, with "Back For Blood" being a prime example of a song that, while nicely executed musically, has little to the songwriting that would hold the listener's imagination for very long.  Album opener, "Rough House" rocks pretty hard, but had no real radio potential, and "Walking Dead" is pretty plain-Jane with a lead-in guitar riff that sounds like those used by dozens and dozens of songs of the time; not a horrible song...just not really memorable, once again.  "Gagged And Bound" closes the album with a song that I could hear Damn Yankees tackling, carrying a vibe similar to tracks like "Pile Driver", with a really good guitar solo, although not as frenzied as anything Nugent would pull off, and the overall feel of the song, while catchy, is definitely not as polished as Damn Yankees material.

The packaging is pretty standard fare for the time, with lyrics to all the songs included, along with a thank-you section, and a single, black-and-white band photo.  The production is decent, with nice attention paid to keeping the drums big and the guitars out front, but not burying the bass in the mix, either.  The backing vocals, apparently provided by the entire band, are one of the highlights of the disc, as they have the gang-shouting thing down pat, and the guys can also harmonize on the more melodic-styled backing vocals, as well.

Overall, Zero Day is a fun disc to throw in from time to time, and it's a record that will likely have a few of your similarly musically inclined friends asking, "who's this?"  While it is fairly rare, simply because I think its pressing was pretty low, it isn't too hard to find this record for $10-$15 on eBay, although some sellers like to slap that "rare" or "vintage" tag on it and try to pass it off as a $25-$40 disc, which it simply is not.  It is worth seeking out, however, and I doubt anyone will be disappointed with Zero Day when it shows up in the mailbox.

Rating:  Definitely a gem in the rough, rock-worthy with some crankable moments, I'd suggest spinning Nevada Beach's Zero Day up to 6.5, maybe a 7.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

SPOKEN "IX"

(c) 2017 The Fuel Music & 1992 Records

  1. This Is Not The End
  2. Stronger
  3. Dying Without You
  4. Silence
  5. I Will Not Fade
  6. Remember The Memories
  7. Pages Of The Past
  8. The Light
  9. Sleepless Nights
  10. In My Sight
Matt Baird--Vocals
Scoop Roberts--Guitars

Spoken returns after not quite 2 years to follow up their highly regarded album, Breathe Again,with the aptly-named IX, the ninth album in the band's career.  Matt Baird is the sole remaining member of the band and is, in fact, now the only member of the band period according to Facebook, with Scoop Roberts retiring from touring last November and announcing that this would be his final album.  

When I talk to my musically-interested friends about Spoken, the number one thing I hear is "all of their songs sound the same".  To the uninitiated who have only heard the crushingly heavy moments from the band, I guess I could kind of understand where they are coming from, although I would personally disagree, as despite the often-screamed-vocals approach utilized by Baird, there is definitely diversity in the structure and musical approach of even the heaviest material the band has put on record. 

Speaking of heavy, Spoken comes charging hard out of the gate on this record, with "This Is Not The End" featuring some seriously aggressive guitars, matched by the ferocity of Baird's vocals as he screams about not giving up and not losing hope, even in the darkness of one's life.  "Stronger" seems to pick up where "...Not The End" leaves off, lyrically, as it encourages the listener to soldier on, declaring "what is left of me will never give up the fight".  "I Will Not Fade" is probably the heaviest track on the record, with some seriously crushing guitar riffs roaring over the top of some electronic elements and setting the stage for some truly angry, throaty snarls and screams from Baird as he tells the listener "it's not too late to rise above all the regrets, all the mistakes that I've made".  Of the hard-hitting material, this is my favorite track on the record with its pummeling pre-chorus, relentless drumming, and vocals that alternate between the harsh and the melodic.  The complete package for long-time fans of the band, to be sure.

"Remember The Memories" has to win the award for most redundant title...possibly ever...but it is a solid, slightly slower song, with a great message about the legacy we leave behind.  "Pages Of The Past" then ramps the energy back up with some more electronic elements and heavy guitars, but for some reason this track just doesn't jump out at me like several of the others in the first 2/3 of this record.  Not a bad song, just not memorable, I guess is what I would say, and certainly doesn't grab hold of me like "I Will Not Fade".

The last three songs on this record take a SERIOUS left turn from the rest of the album, as Spoken downshifts into a mellower mode.  "The Light" is what I guess I would call a "typical" Spoken ballad, with a solid modern rock approach similar to some of the material from the past two albums. "Sleepless Nights" is a simply gorgeous ballad, chock full of soaring guitar work that reminds me very much of the harder-edged adult contemporary work David Zaffiro (ex-Bloodgood) did with his last couple of records.  Seriously, I had no idea Spoken had this kind of musicality in them.  And as if to prove "Sleepless Nights" wasn't a fluke, album closer, "In My Sight" features some equally excellent, soulful guitar work and finds Baird challenging himself for what his most expressive vocal performance is on this, or any other record!  To those who complain of the sameness of Spoken's work, I would rapidly cue up this song and let them explain where they have ever heard Spoken sound like this in the past.  Truly excellent musicianship here and two of the best songs I have heard from the band...ever, in back to back fashion.  Love it.

I have searched high and low for the rest of the musicians on this album, if there are any, but none are listed in the sparse notes of this album, so perhaps Matt and Scoop did everything here.  Four of the tracks here get co-writes from Josiah Prince, guitarist of Disciple, but there is no mention of him playing, and there are really are no musical similarities between the bands other than the fact that they are both heavy modern rock, but who knows.  My copy is autographed, but I can't make heads or tails of the names scrawled in gold on my album cover!  The "band" is currently on tour, so SOMEBODY has to be playing with Matt, and when I figure out who performs what on this record, I will definitely amend this review.  Regardless, this is a great effort,with some extremely heavy momentsalong with a fairly standard Spoken balled followed by two of the band's most laid back, musically emotional moments...ever...on the final three tracks of the record.      

If you are wanting to dive into this band for the first time...or if you are wanting to introduce a friend...I wouldn't likely recommend IX as the ideal starting point; for that I would probably suggest Breathe Again, although Illusion is a really good record as well, and I am a fan of the band's output on Tooth & Nail Records also, especially Spoken.  That being said, IX is a record that I think any fan of the band should seek out so that they can experience the growth and musical diversity of what too many people label as a one-dimensional band.

Rating:  Crank this to a 7, with the diversity being a huge bonus here, even if the track listing is stacked a bit oddly, at least to me.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

LA GUNS "The Missing Peace"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Its All The Same To Me
  2. Speed 
  3. Drop Of Bleach
  4. Sticky Fingers
  5. Christine
  6. Baby Got A Fever
  7. Kill It Or Die
  8. Don't Bring A Knife To A Gunfight
  9. The Flood's The Fault Of The Rain
  10. The Devil Made Me Do It
  11. The Missing Peace
  12. Gave It All Away
Phil Lewis--Lead Vocals
Tracii Guns--Lead Guitars
Michael Grant--Guitars
Johnny Martin--Bass
Shane Fitzgibbon--Drums

I don't know if there has been a band in the history of rock n roll that has had more line-up changes and members than LA Guns.  Seriously.  To try to connect the dots of who has been in that band is about as twisted and warped as a game of drunken Twister!  But the two key components in all of the great albums the band has released have always been Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns (no disprespect to Steve Riley intended).  Yes, there have been some really good LA Guns records since the split of the duo, but nothing that has touched the quality of the first three records, LA Guns, Cocked & Loaded, and Hollywood Vampires.  

In the world of hard rock, there have been a LOT of never-gonna-happen reunions over the years.  David Lee Roth will never play with Van Halen again.  KISS will never reunite.  Guns N Roses will never see Axl and Slash on the same stage again. You know the drill.  And as unlikely as all of those were, each and every one of them happened.  And, as you can see in the line-up for this album, one of the most unlikely reunions has occurred on The Missing Peace, as Tracii Guns has returned to his namesake band to join Phil Lewis on a record for the first time since 2002's Waking The Dead album.

Fifteen years is a long time to go between records, to be sure, but as we all know, there have been several albums in between the commercially-disappointing but musically-interesting Vicious Circle record.  Phil has managed to largely keep the traditional LA Guns sound alive with a mish-mash of band members, releasing a handful of really good records (Hollywood Forever and Tales From The Strip being the best)...and a couple of not-so-good records as well.  This new album definitely slots in with the "really good records" section, as it combines elements of the first three records with the harder, angrier edge that was present on Vicious Circle.  Still sleazy, still punkish, the new album also features an angst, an aggression...even an urgency...that has not been present for so many years.  This is evident from the get-go, as the drums kick in and Guns' sneering riffage comes to life on "It's All The Same To Me", before Grant's second guitar joins in and Lewis' unmistakable rasp claws its way through the opening verse of this sassy rocker.  Beautiful in it's simplicity and catchy as can be, "All The Same..." is instantly identifiable as LA Guns, and has the feel of the Hollywood scene, but it also feels like a rawer, hungrier version of the band than the last time Phil and Tracii worked together.  There's no slick layer of polish on this track (or anywhere on the record, for that matter), just bare bones hard rock the way the band was introduced to me all those years ago.

Lead single and video, "Speed", carries much the same urgent feeling as it charges along at full throttle, guitars churning and burning their way across a breakneck drum and bass line.  Tracii rips into a high speed fret burner before the final gang-shouted chorus kicks in, and Phil sounds exactly has he always has, which is amazing to me considering the mileage that has to have accrued on his vocal chords over the years.

 

"Sticky Fingers" is one of the real treats on the record, with a huge guitar riff that grabs you right from the onset of the song, a big, sweeping guitar solo section, and a catchy, atypical phrasing style utilized by Lewis on the verse sections of the song, which is my absolute favorite on this new record.  This song is HUGE, an absolute arena anthem, if such things still exist.  An instant classic, in my opinion, this is one track that I feel MUST be included in setlists going forward.

"Christine" and "The Flood's The Fault Of The Rain" are the big ballads of the record, which are pretty much a requirement following the enormity of the song "Ballad Of Jayne" a couple of decades ago.  I think most long-time fans are going to grab hold of "Christine" as their favorite, with the bluesy swagger of the guitars and the nicely layered vocals, but I find myself leaning more toward "The Flood..." which has a definite "House Of The Rising Sun" feel to it.  In fact, its almost uncanny how much the two tracks share a vibe and flow, with the Guns obviously adding a heft and edge to their song that the Animals would not have ever thought to include back in the early 60s.  Lewis' yowl is perfectly suited for this retro-ballad, and the guitar vibe is excellent here.  My second fave off the record, no question, and another song that I would beg the band to include in a live setting.

Speaking of faves, its also impossible to deny the catchiness of "The Devil Made Me Do It", with its big, gang-shouted chorus section of "Lord have mercy!" that feels a lot like something Motley Crue might have done back in the Dr. Feelgood days, but with a much nastier guitar solo and a snarkiness that hasn't been heard on an album from one of the classic Hollywood bands in many, many years.  The title track also worms its way into the best of the best on this effort, with a big, epic feel that isn't quite power ballad, but also never completely breaks into a full-throttle rocker, either.  And I can't discount how much I enjoy the album's closing track, "Gave It All Away", which Phil absolutely floods with emotion, especially as he bleeds pain into the chorus while Tracii and Michael Grant are riffing away in the background.  A truly great way to close this amazing return.

Tracii is in fine form throughout the record, but he is at his flashiest on the uptempo "Don't Bring A Knife To A Gunfight", where he smokes his way through an absolutely scorching solo that is so reminiscent of the material he used to unleash on a regular basis back in the 80s.   For a dirtier sound, check out the solo he rips through on "A Drop Of Bleach", which is an absolutely blazing rocker for much of the track, backing off only slightly on the chorus sections before ramping back up to charge through the verses.  The second guitar provided by Michael Grant really adds depth to the sound here, allowing the riffs to continue to run throughout tracks while Tracii goes off into guitar god territory, and the rhythm section is exceptionally tight here, which is going to go overlooked by many old-school fans who are still geeking out at Phil and Tracii recording together again.

I have to wonder if the title of this record isn't a bit apropos here, as it would seem the thing that was missing from LA Guns, the piece that was needed to get the band back to a level they hadn't really approached in more than 25 years, was the "peace" between Phil and Tracii.  I have no idea about where they are with each other personally; maybe they can't stand each other, even today.  But it is apparent they have at least found a way to co-exist peacefully long enough to put together a record that I dare say will challenge many die-hard fans to question their ranking of the band's catalog.  While it remains to be seen how time will treat this record for me, I'm not so sure I wouldn't slot this in as my second favorite LA Guns record, because it is so good and so complete feeling.  No skippers, no filler, no pointless intros, outros, or interludes, just a snarling collection of sleaze-drenched rockers and a couple of big power ballads fashioned from some really good songwriting and musical execution.   Edgy, sleazy, gritty...and yet still allowing for a bit of fun...The Missing Peace is everything I could have hoped for in an LA Guns reunion album, minus, of course, a full reunion with Steve Riley, Kelly Nickels, and Mick Cripps, which will likely never happen.  But then again...never say never, right?  

Rating:  Raw, amped, and dripping with sleaze, crank this to a 8.5!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

THOUSAND FOOT KRUTCH "Untraveled Roads Live"

(c) 2017  TKF Music/The Fuel Music

  1. Running With Giants
  2. Light Up The Sky
  3. The River
  4. Push
  5. Untraveled Road
  6. Let The Sparks Fly
  7. Born This Way
  8. Courtesy Call
  9. Be Somebody
  10. War Of Change
  11. The End Is Where We Begin
  12. A Different Kind Of Dynamite
Trevor McNevan--Lead Vocals
Joel Bruyere--Bass
Steve Augustine--Drums
Andrew Welch--Guitars

Thousand Foot Krutch offers up their second live album in just five years, which is a bit of an oddity, especially since the band is independently releasing Untraveled Roads on their own TFK Music label.  Frequently, live albums are contract fillers, but that is obviously not the case here.  What the band does do differently this time around is they focus exclusively on material from their past three albums, so some long-time fans may feel a bit shorted on the tracklisting, and issue we will get to in just a minute.

Untraveled Roads was recorded during this year's WinterJam Tour, which found the band making 46 stops in front of over half-a-million people.  All of that touring has served TFK well, as the band on this record is a finely tuned, well-oiled machine, firing on all cylinders and packing a ton of energy into these 12 tracks.  McNevan showcases an excellent live range and solid vocal command throughout the set, only shifting to a lower key on a couple of occasions, seemingly more to catch his breath for the next section than simply because he couldn't hit the notes.  This is most obvious on the second track, "Light Up The Sky", where he drops lower for the chorus intro, "excuse me while I...".  However, he is able to rip the top off the higher ends of the chorus here, and throughout the rest of the record, so this was likely done for dramatic effect, or simply to save a bit for the rest of the show.

The mix is excellent here, with plenty of bottom end throughout, and touring guitar player, Andrew Welch, nails his parts at every opportunity. I'm not sure who is doing the backing vocals (I believe it's Bruyere), but they do an really good job of supporting the high-energy McNevan, who is surpassed only by John Cooper from Skillet as the most active, most dynamic front man in the Christian rock industry.  Speaking of McNevan and TFK being a Christian band, the singer does take a brief moment at the end of track eight, "Courtesy Call", to talk to the crowd about Christ and his faith, but he isn't preachy by any means, rather speaking conversationally to the audience about being accepted by Christ rather than being concerned about being accepted by today's culture, which leads into one of the band's most recent hits, "Be Somebody", which is given even more of an emotional punch in the live setting. 

As I mentioned previously, the track listing here comes exclusively from the last three albums, The End Is Where We Begin, Oxygen: Inhale, and their most recent studio effort, Exhale.  As such, there are a few tracks that I was surprised weren't included here, most notably "Fly On The Wall" and "I Get Wicked" from The End..., and "Lifeline" from Exhale.  It's also very hard for me to not wait for long-time fan favorites like "Rawkfist" to show up in the mix somewhere, and I'm not going to lie, I would've LOVED to hear the band throw in their cover of Collective Soul's "Where The River Flows", although that would've obviously been a real stretch for inclusion here...but hey, a guy can dream, right?

All in all, I found Untraveled Roads to be a fun listen, and a largely complete collection of their greatest hits from the past five years.  Overall, the missing classic songs notwithstanding, I think this is a better live record than Live At The Masquerade, which is saying something, as I thought that live record was very well done overall.  But the sound quality of the band here is just that much better, that much tighter, that much more polished and yet still punchy. The band is in complete control of their sound and presentation throughout the record, and I sincerely hope there is a live DVD to go along with this CD so that people get the chance to see these guys in the live setting.  Better yet, if you get the chance, you should do yourself a favor and head out to see them live if you get the chance.  

Rating:  I generally don't "rate" live albums, but I will say that this effort from TFK is definitely crankable and very enjoyable.  What the heck...crank it to 8 and let the sparks fly!

Friday, September 8, 2017

BOBAFLEX "Eloquent Demons"

(c) 2017 Thermal Entertainment

  1. Eloquent Demons (Intro)
  2. I Am A Nightmare
  3. Long Time Coming
  4. Say What You Will
  5. Lights Out
  6. Real Sadness
  7. Off With Your Head
  8. Moon And Shadows
  9. Hey You
  10. Reckless
Marty McCoy--Guitar, Vocals
Shaun McCoy--Guitar, Vocals
Dave Tipple--Guitar, Vocals
Tommy Johnson--Drums
Jymmy Tolland--Bass

Bobaflex is a band that confounds me.  No, that's not fair; it's not the band that confounds me.  What confounds me is the lack of respect the band seems to garner in the hard rock community.  I really don't know what people want from a band these days, I guess, because there is ZERO reason that Bobaflex isn't a much bigger name than they are.  Perhaps Eloquent Demons, the eighth album from the McCoy Brothers and Company will change this fact and finally be the album that breaks the band in a huge way.

Now, I'm not saying that no one knows who Bobaflex is, or that they have had no success at all, because they have.  Tracks such as "Chemical Valley", "I'm Glad You're Dead", "Bury Me With My Guns On", and the excellent cover of "Sound Of Silence" have all made dents in the charts and on rock radio.  But the sheer talent this band brings to the table, from the infectious hooks and churning guitars, to the pounding drums and the extremely tight vocal harmonies, Bobaflex delivers so much more than your average modern hard rock band.

On Eloquent Demons, Bobaflex ups their game to a height they have not previously reached, and that's saying something.  Yeah, yeah, there's a dreaded (and, to my ears, somewhat dreadful...) intro that I have played exactly ONE time, but once that mini-distraction is out of the way, this is a fantastic hard rock record!  From the blistering hard rock of "Reckless", the scorching "Say What You Will" and the heavier, more groove-intensive "Long Time Coming", to the outstanding, melodic cover of Pink Floyd's classic, "Hey You", Bobaflex shows a musical flexibility not commonly found today.  Elsewhere, "Real Sadness" will likely have people making at least loose connections between the band and the sludgy, grungy metallic tones of Alice In Chains, which is a dang good thing for this guy.



If I had to pick a favorite track that really sums up what Bobaflex has created here, I would have to point to the truly excellent, "I Am A Nightmare".In many ways, this track reminds me of some of the dirtier, grittier Sunset strip bands, especially when you hear the killer vocal harmonizing and the absolutely SCREAMING guitar solo, not to mention the sneering attitude the track is delivered with.  Sure, it's still a modern sounding track, as should be expected, but the throwback attitude and execution can't be overlooked.  I absolutely love this track and would relish the opportunity to hear it performed live.  It is a guarantee that this song is going to be dropped immediately into my personal Bobaflex playlist that accompanies me to the gym on a regular basis!  

"Off With Your Head" doesn't really deliver in quite the same way as most of the rest of this record, though it is impossible to deny the catchiness of the simple melody and the delivery of the chorus, which can only be described as tongue-in-cheek, considering the aggressive-sounding title.  However, this little hiccup is quickly covered up by the howl of a wolf, the pounding of drums, and the chugging guitars that lead "Moon And Shadows" in.  Classic Bobaflex right here, as the rhythm section is insanely tight and just dares you to not start pounding your fists and snapping your neck along with the beat, even in its slightly off-kilter moments, which only further add to the intrigue of this penultimate track on the record.  And speaking of those bass and drum sounds, Johnson and Tolland deserve a hearty round of applause for their efforts on this record, as they do an excellent job of being the backbone of this rock-n-roll monster of a record.

The mix and production here are very solid on this first effort from the band on their new label, Thermal Entertainment.  The artwork is pretty much standard Bobaflex fare, which means it's pretty dang cool, but I can't make any further comments about the packaging here, as mine is a digital promo copy.

To say I am a fan of Bobaflex is an easy call to make, and I have had the pleasure of meeting and hanging with the guys after a live show.  And as much as I have thoroughly enjoyed their previous efforts, especially Charlatan's Web and Anything That Moves, there is no doubt in my mind that Eloquent Demons has taken the band to a new level.

These guys tour pretty much non-stop, so there is really no reason to not take in a Bobaflex show somewhere relatively close to your neck of the woods.  It will be a killer show, no question.

Rating:  Crank this sucker and crank it mightily!  Definitely an 9 for Eloquent Demons!



Saturday, August 19, 2017

ART OF ANARCHY "The Madness"

(c) 2017 Century Media Records

  1. Echo Of A Scream
  2. 1000 Degrees
  3. No Surrender
  4. The Madness
  5. Won't Let You Down
  6. Changed Man
  7. A Light In Me
  8. Somber
  9. Dancing With The Devil
  10. Afterburn
Scott Stapp--Lead Vocals
Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal--Lead & Rhythm Guitars
John Votta--Lead & Rhythm Guitars
John Moyer--Bass
Vince Votta--Drums

"Super Group" is an odd tag to put on an act, especially these days.  So many artists are in multiple bands, so the label doesn't seem to mean as much now as it did in the 70s and 80s, especially.  But when you look at the combination of players in Art Of Anarchy, it seems somewhat appropriate to apply the tag.  I mean, you have Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, who has been a member of Guns N Roses, and is a well-known, accomplished guitar player in his own right.  Then you have John Moyer, the bass player for the band Disturbed.  And...well, does Scott Stapp really need an introduction, having been the lead singer of Creed, easily one of the biggest...and most reviled...bands of the post-grunge 2000s?  Now, if you are like me, you have no idea who the Votta brothers are...no disrespect intended at all...but still, that line-up probably deserves the "super group" moniker, especially when you learn that Stapp is, in fact, replacing another huge name, in the late Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots fame.  So, yeah...I think I'll go with super group...

When I mention Art Of Anarchy to some of my music-loving friends, the first thing that many ask is, "cool, but do they sound like Creed?"  Even today, years and years after that band exploded across radios and televisions across the world, it is amazing to me the two polar opposite responses Creed receives.  Much like Nickelback today, they are either loved or loathed, with virtually no middle ground, and it seems a large (disproportionate?) amount of the hate is reserved for Stapp.  His struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues have been widely discussed on the internet, and Stapp addressed them himself in his book, Sinner's Creed.  Many people are unaware that Stapp has released two solo records, largely directed...and well-received...by the Christian rock market, and that while his vocals are unmistakable, those records don't particularly sound like Creed.  The same should be said about Art Of Anarchy, for while there is no missing Stapp's vocals, the songwriting here is not Creed-esque, for the most part, and is overall much harder-hitting than the majority of Creed's material, especially the singles.  For that matter, The Madness doesn't sound like Disturbed or Guns N Roses, either.  Nor does it really sound like the first Art Of Anarchy record, which was okay, but not spectacular.  

The Madness is a powerful hard rock album with excellent songwriting and top notch musicianship that is more than enough to allow the record to stand on its own.  The guitars are crisp and edgy, and the sound is exceptionally full, with seemingly no wasted space between notes on the songs here.  Lyrically, Stapp is on top of his game throughout the record, with some of his best writing to date, as he uses his personal life as fodder for many of the songs here, sometimes in obvious ways and, at other times, in far more subtle ways.  The entirety of the lead single, "The Madness" is obviously written about Stapp's struggles, with a chorus of:

"The other side of fear is freedom, the other side of pain is healing,
The Madness keeps me from the other side.
The truth, the lie, the shame the glory,
The love, the hate, an endless story,
The madness or the other side."

He also interjects his faith into songs throughout the record without beating the listener over the head with it.  Take for example the song "A Light In Me", where Stapp sings:

"The shadows...turning day into night...,
Where is the light?
The shadows...stay to remind me that there is...
There's a light in me!
There's a light in me!"

...or the powerful chorus of the high octane rocker, "No Surrender":

"No way out...hit the flatline,
We get up, no surrender,
It's your time...grab the lifeline,
We get up no surrender...No Surrender.
Time has stopped,
Time to choose,
This could be the end of you,
This could be the end of you."

If forced to pick favorites from the record, the first half of the record is absolutely stellar, with not a single bad song among the first four.  The previously mentioned "The Madness" and "No Surrender" are my two favorites from the record, but the scorching anthem that is"1000 Degrees", and arena shaking "Echo Of A Scream" are right there neck-and-neck as both are hard-hitters.  For those seeking a softer moment, the power ballad, "Changed Man" is absolutely on point, with Stapp baring his emotions an his soul to the listener in what many would say is the the most Creed-like moment of the record, even though I think it sounds more like Stapp's solo material than Creed.

(Alternate, interior cover)
Speaking of Stapp's solo material, the one song I really don't care for here is "Somber", which I believe is a track that he brought to the group from his shelved solo record from about 8 years ago.  The song matches its title, and to be honest, its kind of a downer...something of a mood-killer for an otherwise excellent record.  It doesn't destroy the record, and I don't necessarily skip it...at least all the time...but it definitely doesn't match the power and quality of the other nine tracks here.  Fortunately, the band rights the ship on the last two songs, as both the sassy "Dancing With The Devil" and the scorching "Afterburn", another soul-baring moment for Stapp.

The packaging is solid, as is usually the case with Century Media, with a full booklet complete with photos and lyrics, as well as a cool tri-fold case which features some pretty awesome artwork.  In fact, I prefer the interior, alternate cover to the one that is packaged as the exterior.  Perhaps this is so that people who are fans of the spiritual side of Stapp won't be turned off, and hey, in today's music market, bands can't afford to turn away a single purchaser.

Thus far, Art Of Anarchy would likely be my surprise album of 2017, and it has managed to stay in my CD player for the better part of the summer.  It would have to be an amazing Fall and Winter full of killer albums to knock The Madness from the Top 5 albums of the year for me.  It is that good.  Hopefully, this is not the last we will hear from this amazing melodic, hard rocking "super group".

Rating:  Crankable to the extreme!  Crank this to 9.5!

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

OWL COMPANY "Horizon"

(c) 2017 Independent Release

  1. Intro
  2. Celebrate And Kneel
  3. Ain't Time For This
  4. Riddles
  5. Deathrow
  6. Black N Blue
  7. Bullet Proof Innocence
  8. Caged Emotions
  9. Underdog
Enrico Minelli--Vocals
Felipe Ruiz--Guitars
Thiago Biasoli--Drums
Fabio Yamamoto-Bass

Brazil, at one time, was a hot bed in the metal industry, particularly if you were into thrash, which I very much was in the 80s and 90s (still love it, to be honest).  Something about the brutality of the bands from the South American country really grabbed my attention, and even though I still preferred the Bay Area Sound to those coming from bands like Sepultura, Korzus, Torture Squad, and Executer (sic), I still kept an ear to what was coming from the region.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I used to really like about the South American metal scene evaporated as death metal, and eventually black metal, took over the thrash scene and tuned me out, as I am not a fan of those particular genres.

When this CD came to me, I was not sure what the heck it was.  For one, I have no clue how the band found me or managed to get a CD to me, but that's not overly unusual I guess, as I get a lot of independent stuff funneled my way.  But if you look at the cover, and combine it with the name 'Owl Company', there is no way you would likely come up with a description to fit this new export from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  While not thrash, this is definitely metal...HEAVY metal...albeit more in the groove-heavy, sludgy, southern metal style that a lot of people associate with later Pantera or, more to my mind, a band like Texas Hippie Coalition.  Melding 70s classic rock with a more 90s metal approach, Horizon is loud, fast, aggressive, and angry!

The album starts off with "Intro", which as everyone who reads this blog knows, is a horrible way to start an album if you want to grab my interest.  This is no different, to be honest, as all this intro did was really make me question the recording quality of the album, as the sound quality of this disorganized jam-styled-riffer is decidedly low-fi.  Turns out that the recording and the mix are actually excellent, which becomes evident as soon as the intro bleeds into the first real song here, "Celebrate And Kneel".  This track comes out with fangs and claws bared as big, thundering drums bring the screaming guitars and Minelli's low-register snarl to bear on the listener.  This onslaught continues, especially with high-octane numbers like "Play With Fire", "Riddles", or the slower 70s-Sabbath inspired sludgefest "Bullet Proof Innocence", which is likely my favorite track on this record, bloodying your nose as it bludgeons you with a thick-grooved wallop.  Wedged in there is "Black 'N Blue", which uses a modern recording technique at the beginning of the track, applying that hollow-sounding recording style so many bands seem to employ now (you'll know what I'm talking about the second you hear it), but it rights itself to become a bottom-end riffer that has a catchy hook and driving rhythm. The "ballad" of the record, "Caged Emotions", competes for best of the bunch here, also, and is another bottom-heavy rumbler that should have 70s Sabbath fans sitting up to take notice, especially with the truly excellent bass work from Yamamoto so evident here.  Minelli at times sounds like he is channeling Chris Cornell in his approach to phrasing, and this is never more evident than on "Caged Emotions".

The surprise of the year for me, so far, Horizon is one of those records that should get massive heavy rock radio attention...and possibly even Grammy-type attention...but it is likely going to fly under the radar of those "in the know" morons who think they know what metal and heavy rock fans want.  Trust me, if you want actual old-school metal, soaked in whiskey and filtered through the doomy sludge of the 70s  heavy rockers, Owl Company is exactly what you have been searching for.  Still not having a solid internet presence that I am aware of, the band can be sought out on Facebook, which may be the best way to order this record.  And make no mistake, you NEED to order Horizon.

Rating:  A stunner from out of nowhere, crank this to 8.5!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

SEVENTH DAY SLUMBER "Found"

(c) 2017 VSR Music Group

  1. Sky Is Falling
  2. Horizon
  3. Found
  4. Sins Of Our Fathers
  5. Heart On My Sleeve
  6. Mercy Meets My Pain
  7. Til The End
  8. Tomorrow Breaks (Into The Fire)
  9. Fallen
  10. My Last Words
Joseph Rojas--Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jeremy Holderfield--Lead Guitars
Ken Reed--Bass
Blaise Rojas--Drums, Percussion

I first encountered Seventh Day Slumber about 12 years ago, or so, when I was rummaging through a used CD store in Denver, Colorado.  I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and was a big fan of the arena/hair metal genre, so when I found this CD called Picking Up The Pieces by Seventh Day Slumber, I had to snag it.  Why?  Because the track listing included "When The Children Cry", and I had to know if it was the same song that was done by White Lion.  Ignoring all of the other tracks on the CD, I popped the disc in and immediately tracked to "...Children...", and sure enough it was the same song.  The singer had a much lower range than Mike Tramp, and the feel of the song was a bit grungier than the original, but it was still the same song, and I found myself liking the approach the band had taken. Also, being a huge fan of the Christian hard rock/metal sub-genre, and owning every Stryper, Whitecross, Guardian, and Skillet CD out there, I was also appreciative of the message the band delivered on the rest of the album (once I got around to listening to it), and I mentally filed the band away as one that I'd check out further at some point.

Flash forward to 2017, and I am still a fan of the Christian hard rockers, having seen them in concert a couple of times and getting the chance to meet them, as well.  I pretty much own the band's catalog (minus their first couple of very hard to come by independent releases), and have been generally pleased with the majority of the band's output through the years (you can read reviews of We Are The Broken and Redline).

Found is the band's first full-length release in over five years, and one that finds the band doing what they do best, wrapping solid hard-but-radio accessible rockers around a couple of emotional ballads, challenging listeners to dig deep inside themselves to work through questions of self-worth, pain, faith, and redemption.  Never shying away from their faith, Seventh Day Slumber has always delivered a powerful message with powerful music, and Found is certainly not the exception.

The album kicks off in fine fashion with the hard-driving "Sky Is Falling", which features a nice guitar hook from Holderman right out of the gate, a solid bass line from Reed, and the smooth, emotion-laced tenor of Rojas, all of which have been trademarks of the band for several albums now.  What is new, however, is the strong drum performance of Blaise Rojas, who took over the drummer's seat on Redline, and who showcases solid musical growth throughout Found.  On "Sky Is Falling", the strength of the drums is evident right from the start, and the younger Rojas finds himself perfectly in the mix of the track, not only as the timekeeper for the band, but as an interesting part of the listening experience.  It's nice to hear that he is allowed to expand past the simplistic rhythms and patterns frequently utilized by younger musicians.

"Horizon" finds the band slipping into a bit more melodic territory, while still maintaining an upbeat rock tempo.  Solid backing vocals add to the depth here, and I'm betting this track will find itself on the radio in the near future, as well as in the band's setlist for shows.  The track flows very well with an easy-to-sing chorus, but I do wish Holderfield's guitar had been given the chance to voice a nice, melodic solo somewhere between chorus sections on this song about persisting through the hard times and not taking your eyes off the Prize.

The album's lead single is also the title track, and "Found", the song, is a powerful example of Rojas laying himself bare emotionally.  The singer says the song is one that really touches him deeply when he performs it, and it is definitely one that many people will likely identify with when they hear it.  Seamlessly melding in a section of "The Old Rugged Cross", "Found" is one of the better ballads the band has ever put on an album, in my opinion, and is likely to be one of the biggest Christian rock hits of 2017.

Back-to-back tracks ramp the album back up into hard rocking territory, with "Sins Of Our Fathers" and "Heart On My Sleeve".  Both are excellent rockers, and "Heart...", in particular, really gives Holderfield a chance to shine on a muscular solo that fights its way to the forefront before the final, catchy chorus section kicks in.  Really good stuff here on both of these tracks that are guaranteed to please fans of the hard-edged tracks from We Are The Broken or Redline, or for fans of the gritty radio rock put out by bands like Skillet and Thousand Foot Krutch.

Things slow back down a bit with consecutive ballads, the piano-based "Mercy Meets My Pain", and the more power ballad-styled, "Til The End".  While neither is a bad song, by any stretch, placing them sequentially, and just a couple of songs separated from "Found", kind of bogs the album down a touch here, and I probably would have moved "Til The End"...well...toward the end of the record, just for pacing reasons.  In fairness, I really like "Til The End", and it holds a great message of redemption, with a chorus of "tomorrow you will wake up, its another day of, mercies that will never end...", while also encouraging the listener to "let go of the past, let go of those ways, let go of all the anger, all of the mistakes".  A great message, just perhaps placed in a bad spot, tempo-wise.

Once again, the rock returns with "Tomorrow Breaks (Into The Fire)", which is one of the top four songs on the record, without question.  One of the true strengths of this band, for me, has always been the way Joseph can just glide his tenor across a pretty hard rocking track like this one with seemingly no strain or effort at all, but without compromising the grit necessary to maintain the edginess of the track.  Holderfield can be heard constantly churning in the background with some really good rhythm work, and Reed weaves a pulsing bass thread throughout the track.  Good, good stuff.

"Fallen" continues the rock assault, and I wish the record had closed with this track, just to leave me with a fist in the air moment.  Understandably, however, the band chooses to close with the praise and worship-styled "My Last Words".  A track which I would call an "uptempo ballad", if that makes sense, "My Last Words" features some nice string work, acoustic rhythm guitars...and...do I hear a slide guitar, also(?)...on a track that bears a strong resemblance to "Found" as far as tempo goes.  I could see CCM stations picking up on this track in a big way, while rock stations may pass it over in favor of the grittier material on this record.

I'm not going to deny I'm always a fan of the harder material, regardless of the band, and the case is no different with Found.  This new album has plenty of those hard-edged moments, and while they don't do anything to really push the boundaries of what 7DS is known for, I don't think they need to, either.  After all, Seventh Day Slumber has always been about the message, with the way that message is delivered being a secondary concern.  Thankfully, the band continues to deliver that message in a way that this old rocker can really appreciate and rock out with, while also sharing it with the next generation of rockers coming up in my household!

Rating: A solid album throughout, with several punchy rockers for the listener to chew on, while absorbing the positive messages of the slower moments.  Well-written, nicely produced and skillfully performed, crank this to a 7.5!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

QUIET RIOT "Road Rage"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Can't Get Enough
  2. Getaway
  3. Roll This Joint
  4. Freak Flag
  5. Wasted
  6. Still Wild
  7. Make A Way
  8. Renegades
  9. The Road
  10. Shame
  11. Knock Em Down
Frankie Banali--Drums
Alex Grossi--Guitars
Chuck Wright--Bass
James Durbin--Lead Vocals

Quiet Riot is one of those names that instantly triggers a memory for me.  I can still recall popping Metal Health into my cassette player in my first car and cranking the title track and "Cum On Feel The Noize" as loud as my Kenwoods would go, then rewinding the tape and doing it all over again...and again.  I think it honestly took me a full week to get to side two, I was so in love with the metallic assault that was Side A.

Of course, there is a lot of history following that landmark album and this newest effort: the change in style and sound with the replacement of Kevin DuBrow with Paul Shortino on lead vocals, the return of DuBrow...and his untimely death...the ill-fated, Jizzy Pearl-fronted 10 album, and several other stops and starts along the way, even with Road Rage.  Left for dead several times, the band finds itself once again about to release an album, nearly 35 years after Metal Health blasted onto the scene, and once again met with questions and concerns from die-hard fans who have been with the band since the pre-Metal Health days with Randy Rhoads on guitar.  

Drummer Frankie Banali is the lone-surviving member from the Metal Health days, but he finds himself flanked by familiar faces, as long-time bassist (1985-87, 1994-97, 2004-07, 2010-present) Chuck Wright helps to keep the rhythm steady for the band, and Alex Grossi (2004-07, 2010-present) contributes on guitars.  The newest, and surely the most-scrutinized, member of the band is new lead vocalist, James Durbin, who joins the Quiet Riot family on this new album.  Durbin is, of course, most well-known to music fans as a Top 4 finalist on Season 10 of American Idol, where he frequently performed hard rock and metal songs on the show, putting his spin on songs by Aerosmith, Journey, Queen, Sammy Hagar, and Judas Priest, among other more mainstream acts.

For those who may not have been following the band recently, this new album was actually already finished and ready to be put out back in March with previous singer, Seann "Tarsha" Nichols, but things went a bit astray, Nichols was shown the door, Durbin was hired, and he re-recorded the entire album before its release to media outlets by Frontiers Records.  

The album starts off with an okay lead in, as "Can't Get Enough" is catchy enough, with a solid, uptempo guitar riff and some thumping drums, but there is absolutely nothing about this track that sounds Quiet Riot to me.  In fact, when the music is coupled with Durbin's Bon Scott snarl, "Can't Get Enough" sounds like an AC/DC cover band's attempt at an original track.  Seriously.  And you know, what...they do it pretty darn well.  I even find myself liking this song, to be completely candid, but at no point do I feel like I am listening to Quiet Riot.  There is absolutely ZERO metallic edge here, just the barroom three-chord shuffle rock that AC/DC is so famous for.  

"Getaway" leads in with a Middle Eastern sitar before settling into a Zeppelin guitar riff (hmmm...hasn't this been done before...BY ZEPPELIN???), and I found myself seriously questioning why this record was labelled as a Quiet Riot record.  I was only on track two and I still had not found anything Quiet Riot about this album.  Now, "Getaway" is absolutely NOT a bad track.  In fact, I like it...a lot!  If I had to rank them in order of favorites, "Getaway" would probably be my third favorite track on the record.  It really is catchy, has a cool groove, features some nice fret work from Grossi, and Durbin sounds pretty confident here.  The only problem is that it just doesn't sound like Quiet Riot.

"Roll This Joint", for lack of a better description, is just plain silly and juvenile lyrically.  I mean, come on, when a song resorts to referencing Cheech and Chong, you know things aren't going in a good direction!  Musically, "...Joint" isn't a horrible track; in fact, it has a pretty catchy hook to it that 80s fans are going to feel like they have heard before (think Whitesnake when you spin this song and you will know what I'm talking about).  Durbin's vocals hint at getting off key a bit on the bridge here (where the Cheech and Chong reference drops in), but he manages to reign them back in just enough to keep my ears from nudging my finger into skip mode.  Grossi has a nice solo here, but the insipid lyrics are a total turn-off for me.  Perhaps if I had been (or was still) a stoner, I could find some sort of wry humor here, but after finishing this review, I have never cued that song up again.  Not once.

Its not until track 4, "Freak Flag", that longtime fans of the band are going to feel like they are listening to an actual Quiet Riot song, and from here through about track 9, things are actually pretty good.  "Freak Flag", which is easily a top four track here, has a solid Metal Health or Condition Critical-era feel to the music, and Durbin adds a younger DuBrow edge to his vocals that I think classic fans will find themselves acknowledging and even appreciating.  If nothing else, it gives the listener hope that Durbin will be able to deliver the goods on the classic material in a live setting.  There is a wicked little guest-vocal spot from one Mr. Alice Cooper (at least it sounds like Cooper...I don't see him credited anywhere in the press release) here that adds to the cool factor of the song, and I found myself returning to this track repeatedly while writing this review as an example of what I think Quiet Riot could still be given the right material.

"Wasted" finds Durbin using a lower vocal range for parts of the verses which is actually pretty cool as it gives the track a Dangerous Toys kind of feel when he shifts back up the vocal scale.  In fact, even the music here reminds me of Dangerous Toys, although it isn't quite as aggressive as most of the Dangerous Toys rockers that come to my mind right now.  Solid, steady rhythm work and some catchy guitar licks are included here, although I'm not really sure why Grossi chose to exit the song with some simple chord progressions rather than ripping into a killer outro of some sort.  

"Still Wild" is my favorite cut on the album and is a track that musically has more in common with the Shortino-era of the band than it does anything DuBrow even did.  Even here, Durbin sounds more like Bon Scott than anyone else, although he does lower his range to a more bluesy moan in the middle section of the track where the song morphs into a slower, Whitesnake/Zeppelin groove and guitar solo before the final chorus section leads the song home.  I really, really like this song and wish the entire album had gone in this direction.

"Make A Way" continues in this bluesier vein to a large degree and, not surprisingly, it is another song that is easily in the better half of the material here.  Again sporting more of the Shortino-styled groove and feel, there is even a harmonica solo thrown into the mix to give it that bluesy feel that is driven so well by the guitar work of Grossi.  Not as memorable as some of the other tracks, but still in the solid section of the record.  

"Renegades", much like "Freak Flag", has a really nice DuBrow-era feel to it.  The backing vocals on the chorus really go a long way to support the lead vocals, and the verses...especially the second one...really hearken back to a young DuBrow, with some spit and sneer to the tone.  This...THIS...is what most people are going to wish the entire album sounded like, and I would have definitely been happy with this direction also (although, again, I would have preferred more stuff like the Shortino-esque "Still Wild").  A nice solo from Grossi ushers in the final chorus section on this song which has the most 80's feel to it of anything here.  Top four for me, no question.

"The Road" is the big ballad of the record, and it is an extremely well-done song.  Neck and neck with "Still Wild" for my favorite track on the album, this song is everything the big 80s ballads were.  Lighters in the air..carefully so we didn't ignite the hair of the person next to us...swaying back and forth, "The Road" absolutely soars out of the speakers here!  Durbin sings his tail off on this one and Grossi absolutely rips through a solo here.  My main complaint is that I wish the song had been at least another turn through the chorus longer, so that Grossi could have dropped in another solo break, followed by a huge outro section, because at just 3:40, this thing is almost a tease; it is that dang good.  Love this song and its execution.

"Shame" is pretty forgettable, and perhaps that owes at least in part to the killer track ahead of it.  Regardless, other than another Zeppelin vibe, there isn't a lot to note about this track, although Wright works a pretty cool bass line throughout the song.  Just a very "meh" moment for me.

Album closer, "Knock Em Down" closes things out pretty well, with the glammiest sounding effort on the record.  Its a solid rocker with a pretty catchy chorus, but it pales next to a track like Crashdiet's "Knokk 'Em Down", as there is little in the way of attitude or angst here, which makes the name (and chorus) of the song somewhat misleading.  Not bad, but not a song I find myself excitedly tracking to at any point. 

One thing I don't particularly care for here is the production of the record, which comes across as rather flat.  There is no muddiness or anything of that nature, but there is no polish, nothing jumps out of the speakers at you, and for a drummer like Banali, the percussion sounds here are rather muted and mundane.  I also found myself constantly hoping for some big, gang-shouted vocals, but they were never there.  Perhaps these are issues that are addressed before Road Rage is released, but I fear that this is the final mix and how things will come across on the CD, with a once mighty band like Quiet Riot sounding like they were recording on a garage band's budget.  Had they been given the "big band = big sound" treatment, I think they could have squeezed a bit more life out of this record.

Overall, this is NOT a bad record.  Again, most of the section from tracks 4 through 9 is actually really, really good.  In fact, I'd say tracks 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 would make a really solid EP that I would find myself returning to.  But filler material at the beginning and end of the record bookends the good stuff, and track 5 interrupts the flow of things for me.  

For most people who seek this album out, however, the real issue is going to be the band seemingly searching for an identity throughout the the record, at times looking back to the blusier sound they steered for with Shortino, while at other times teasing the metal-tinged style that DuBrow and Banali elevated the band to superstar status with.  The problem is that most of the time they are actually somewhere in between, but never do they truly manage to capture the Quiet Riot of the past...regardless of the incarnation you prefer...nor do they really do anything to advance the style and sound of the band to something new.

Rating:  Rock-worthy, regardless of what some seem to think of it, I give Road Rage a 6.5 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MANAFEST "Stones"

(c) 2017 Manafest Productions

  1. Stones
  2. House Of Cards
  3. Firestarter
  4. When The Truth Comes Out
  5. Find A Way To Fight
  6. You're Gonna Rise
  7. Blow You Away
  8. Coming Back
  9. Merry Go Round
  10. Amplifier (featuring Aicia Simila)
  11. Won't Give Up
Chris Greenwood (Manafest)--All Lead Vocals

Musicians
Mike McPherson--Drums (2)
Mike "X" O'Connor--Bass (2,3) Guitars (2,3,5,6,7,9,10) Keys/Programming (2,3,5,7,9, 10 ) Drums (3) 
Adam Stark--Guitars (2)
Seth Mosley--Guitars (2,6, 10) Bass (10) Keys/Programming (2,3,6,9,10) 
Joe Rickard--Guitars (3,5,7,9) Drums (3,7,9) Bass (3,9) Keys/Programming (3,5,7)
Kevin "Thrasher" Gruft--Guitars (4)
Johnny Litlen--Programming (4)
Taylor Dexter--Drums (8) 

As I have gotten older, I have expanded my musical horizons to a large degree, but there are always the common elements of catchy songwriting, hard-edged guitar work, and a dynamic vocal presence, in nearly everything I choose to listen to.  As a father, I am also very conscious of what I expose my still-young children to lyrically, and I find myself losing patience with acts who feel the need to fill every song with a dictionary full of vulgarity and profanity.  Hey, I can stomach an F*bomb on a song or two in an album, but every song, of every album, all the time?  No thanks...I'll pass.

As a Christian who also happens to be a fan of hard music and supports a huge number of the acts in the scene, I find referring back to my first statement, as my musical horizons have expanded to include the "active rock/modern hard rock" genre, including some of the rap-rock that would've been lumped under the Nu-Metal umbrella in the 90s.  It is because of this expansion of my musical tastes that I was first introduced to Manafest.

Manafest (real name Chris Greenwood) is a rapper/rocker from Canada who has actually been around for quite some time now.  I first encountered his music while listening to a Christian/Positive Rock station out of Orlando, FL, when I heard the song "Bring The Ruckus", which comes from his 2010 album, The Chase.  I liked the tune pretty well with its hard-edged guitars, catchy chorus, and modern, edgy production, so I played it for my boys, who also loved it.  So I snagged The Chase off of eBay and gave it a listen.  What I discovered was a really good modern rock record that was sometimes rapped, sometimes sang, sometimes screamed, and nearly always packed with some really solid modern guitar work, hard-hitting (although frequently programmed) drums, and some crafty hooks to draw the listener in, while also utilizing positive, uplifting, and often-boldly Christian lyrics.  Thinking this was something I could get into a bit more, I ordered a couple more albums from Manafest, specifically Fighter (2012), and The Moment (2013).  Again, the albums had some pretty catchy, hooky music, with several songs featuring solid, edgy guitars, and a healthy dose of backing vocals/chorus vocals from Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch, who was also all over the place on The Chase.  My kids, again, loved the records, but I found myself not nearly as impressed as I was with The Chase because more and more hip-hop was creeping back into the songs and the rock was being somewhat edged out.  By the time I got around to the next album, 2015's Reborn, I found it difficult for me to find much to really hang my hard rock hat on, as it was pretty much a straight up hip hop/rap album, with minor..VERY minor...rock influence and quite a bit of electronic hip hop thrown into the mix.  Definitely not my thing, and even my boys were like, "What happened to Manafest?"

When it was announced that Manafest would be recording a new, fully-independent record (as Reborn was), and that a Kickstarter campaign was in place for the record, I was hopeful that he would be returning to the sound my kids had fallen in love with and which I had a very solid respect for and enjoyed listening to.  But I also had my doubts.  Then I read where Manafest, himself, said that he was writing this album as a full-on rock project, so I decided to take a shot, and backed the project.

I am so very glad that I did.

Not only is Stones a full-on rock record, there is even less rap/hip hop on it than there was on the very good The Chase album.  In fact, there are any number of songs here that belong solidly in the mix on any active rock station or Sirius/XM's Octane channel, as they feature hard (heavy?!), crunchy guitars, some seriously furious (LIVE!) drumming, and the typical hook-laden, catchy songwriting that drew me to Manafest's music in the first place.  There is a darker, edgier vibe to the rock laid down by the numerous musicians listed in the credits above, which gives the deeper, soul-searching lyrics even more punch on Stones.   

The album opens with the title track, "Stones", which features some catchy guitar...and a slightly annoying electronic effect that runs throughout the track...and Manafest comes out with some tight rap-rock vocals that are a bit reminiscent of early TFK or Pillar.  The chorus is snappy and easy to catch onto, and there are a few fist-in-the-air-at-the-show moments, but while it was definitely a step back towards The Chase or Fighter, as far as the rock element was concerned, I wasn't overly blown away by the track.

"House Of Cards" nudged me forward, however, with some urgent, charging guitars leading into the vocals, a really nice breakdown that also features some screaming solo guitar work, and a great, positive message that is delivered with more snarl to the still rappish vocals, although those vocals are becoming more and more rock oriented.

"Firestarter" continues along the same lines as "House Of Cards" with a catchy rhythm guitar, a really nice use of hard-electronic elements, and more biting vocals that are now starting to completely lose their rap phrasing and moving fully into the hard rock style used by many of the active rock bands today.  While I know programming is used in places on this track, there is some solid drum work used here, as well, and the rhythm guitar buzzes along throughout the track, not just in a supporting role, but as a driver for the track.  

"When The Truth Comes Out" slides back to more of a hip hop style, but a catchy chorus of "when the truth comes out its LOUD!", and a decent dose of guitars keeps my interest and prevents me from reaching for the skip button.  Definitely not one of my favorite tracks, but passable.

Things start to get very loud and very aggressive once "Find A Way To Fight" hits.  A combination of crushing guitars and hard-edged electronic elements remind me of the approach Stabbing Westward used to such success in the late 90s/early 2000s.  This is a straight-up hard rocker, with the vocals no longer using the rap phrasing style at all, and a mosh pit is forming at the front of the stage as I visualize what this song would look and sound like in a live setting.  

"You're Gonna Rise" backs off the intensity of the guitars and uses an ambient, almost haunting electronic presence to lead it in, as Manafest sings...yes, sings...the verse sections of this track which I would say serves as the ballad of the record.  Whereas on previous albums Trevor McNeban would have jumped in to support the chorus, Manafest handles this part himself, proving that he has learned some very solid singing lessons from McNeban.  Melodic and emotional, this is the lighter-in-the-air moment for Stones, and I anticipate this song will be all over Christian rock radio very soon.

"Blow You Away" returns to the hard rock, as the title would imply, with more chunky guitars and pounding drums, as Manafest implores, "Save me from myself, pull me out of hell" in the pre-chorus.  There is a rap-rock element utilized in the chorus, but it's darn catchy regardless, and "Blow You Away" finds itself sitting as my third or fourth favorite track here.  

"Coming Back" is a track I have no real use for, as it is an island, reggae-influenced hip hop track that holds no interest for me.  I honestly skip it.

"Merry Go Round" goes right back after things and, depending on my mood, is either my favorite or second favorite track here.  I LOVE the catchiness of the chorus, the electronics that just have me picturing a carnival, the angst-filled vocals, and the crunch of the song.  "Tell me, I'm an Angel or Demon, You hate me, then you love me, 'til you're making me crazy!  Round and round and round we go, can't get off this Merry-Go..."  I just love this song and the message of frustration and disillusionment that I think so many kids today will be able to relate to, but with a positive note of hope and love that the listener can reach for.  Big, pounding drums and churning guitars drive the track throughout, and I find myself repeating this track two or three times whenever I pop this disc in.

"Amplifier" is a more laid back moment on the record, although not a true ballad in my book.  A smooth female co-lead vocal from Alicia Similia helps this dancefloor track along, and I would again expect that this song will find radio airplay yet this summer.  Easy to listen to, "Amplifier" is an okay track, but with the edgy rock that is all over this record, the title is a nasty little tease, as there isn't much rock being amplified here.

The record closes with "Won't Give Up" a combo song of sorts, with some punchy guitars, a dance floor beat, and straight up hip hop vocals, that was likely incorporated to keep the rap fans happy without turning the rock fans off.  Bottom half stuff for me and not overly memorable, but again, not necessarily something I'd hit skip or stop on.  People who are into the rock/rap style used to such success by Family Force 5 (which my kids are) will likely really enjoy this track (which they did).

The production is excellent here, which is often a concern on indie projects.  The packaging is a single-fold, cardboard slipcase, with a large, fold-out poster with writing and musician credits on the backside, as well as an extensive Thank You list, highlighted by a list of people who contributed on Kickstarter.  There are no lyrics included, but Manafest is pretty easy to understand and the vocals are never buried in the mix, so a few listens on even the hardest rocking tracks will allow most listeners to catch the words so they can sing along.

This is the Manafest I was hoping to hear again...for the most part...and I am very glad that I took the chance to back this record and to pick it up.  Already, I have ripped nearly half of the CD and burned it onto a Manafest mix disc featuring my favorites from his previous efforts, so that I have something to throw into the mix for the kids on road trips.  And yes, I throw it in for myself, as well.

Here's hoping Manafest does't stray from his rock roots when he decides to hit the studio again.  Hopefully he will tour close enough to my location that I am able to get my kids to one of his shows sometime soon.  I'd be very interested to see and hear how his music comes across in the live setting.

Do yourself a favor and grab Stones when it is available in late July, and go ahead and track down The Chase, Fighter, and The Moment while you are waiting for Stones to hit your mailbox or music store.

Rating:  Definitely a cranker!  Turn this up to 8!

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

RIGHTEOUS VENDETTA "Defiance"

(c) 2014 Street Smart Recordings

  1. Defiance
  2. Take Over
  3. What You've Done
  4. Hard To Breathe
  5. With Love
Ryan Hayes--Vocals
Justin Olmstead--Guitars
Carl Heiman--Guitars
Zack Goggins--Drums
Riley Hayne--Bass

There are several places in the world that come to mind when one thinks of hard music.  Hollywood, obviously.  New York City.  London.  Pretty much the entire Scandinavian region.  Now, you probably noticed that Wyoming is NOT a place on that list.  I mean, just the sparse population and lack of any real cities is a definite strike against trying to make it in the modern rock/active rock scene.  And yet, Righteous Defiance has been working since 2008 to do exactly that, and in 2014, they took a significant step in the right direction with their EP, Defiance.

While not doing anything to stretch the boundaries of the genre, Righteous Defiance certainly has a firm grasp on the Sirius/XM Octane sound on this five track record.  Buzzing guitars and HUGE drums kick things off with the fist-pounding anthem, "Defiance".  Right away, the band asserts themselves as more than merely competent players, as the musicianship is tight and crisp, with an excellent rhythm section and tandem guitars all working together to whip the listener into a frenzy while Ryan Hayes' raspy, core-ish vocals acknowledge "Great is the power of violence, But greater is the power of defiance", while urging the listener to "Come on stand up, Put your hands up, Live in defiance!" against those who seek to keep them down.  Good stuff that I am sure is a fan favorite live.

"Take Over" continues the aggressive riff-fest, with some programming elements mixed in for good measure, especially evident with the stutter effects used on Hayes' vocals.  There is also some nice twin guitar work utilized in this track, adding a bit of a metallic feel to the otherwise decidedly modern radio rock track.  Another anthemic, crowd participation-styled chorus is a big part of this positive rock track that also uses a few slightly softer moments to change things up a bit.

"Hard To Breathe" is probably the most truly radio friendly track here, but that doesn't mean that it isn't just as aggressive as anything else on this EP, because it is still a definite skull crusher.  However, there is a clean melodic element to the chorus vocals that is not a part of the equation on other tracks here, which really sets the harsher verse vocals apart.  The guitar work that is going on in the background is particularly strong on this track, with a little string-bender of a solo even thrown into the mix, and the big drums are still pounding away, the unheralded driving life force of this band, in my opinion.

"What You've Done" has some fast and furious guitar running throughout the track, with a quick little fret run after the first chorus teasingly close to actual shredding in a modern rock track, which just doesn't happen often enough. There's a pretty cool guitar outro on the song, as well, and after hearing "What You've Done", I find myself really wishing that there was this much melodic guitar emploed on more of the songs here, as Olmstead and Heiman really seem to feed off of each other well and have a lot to express musically.

The album closes with the slowest number on the EP, and "With Love" is a really good way to wrap things up.  Again, very radio friendly in its approach, another positive, uplifting message is driven home with aggressive, yet relatively clean, vocals atop a slower-to-midtempo song that finds the band sounding a bit more calculated than elsewhere on this record.  Catchy, hooky, passionate, yet not losing its edge, "With Love" puts a nice bow on this short little musical endeavor.

The packaging is simple, with no lyrics included, but Hayes is not difficult to understand at all.  Positive and uplifting vocals are the order of the day throughout this EP, which is refreshing to hear.  Having toured with such Christian rock heavyweights as Skillet, P.O,D., and Red, the boys have learned how to get their faith and worldview across without making anyone uncomfortable or feeling preached to.

I know at one time you could order this EP directly from the band and it would come delivered with the band group photo in the middle autographed by all the members.  Carl Heiman has since left the group, so I am not sure if there are some pre-signed EPs available, but its worth a shot if you like to have a bit of a personal touch from bands you support.  Check out their website at www.righteousvendetta.com  for merch and band info and tour dates.

Rating:  Being from rural Nebraska...and not that far from Wyoming...I've been pulling for these guys for some time.  This is their most crank-worthy effort to date, despite being just five tracks long.  Crank this to 7.5 and check them out live if you get the chance.