Saturday, May 19, 2018

STEEL CITY "Fortress"

(c) 2018 Kivel Records

  1. Do You Love Me
  2. Heart And Soul
  3. Turnabout
  4. Picture Of Beauty
  5. Too Little Too Late
  6. Someone Like You
  7. Passing Ships
  8. Shame On You
  9. Rock! In The USA
  10. Back On The Streets
Bryan Cole--Lead Vocals
Mike Floros--Guitars, Backing VOcals
Scott West--Bass
Ron McCloskey--Drums

Additional Musicians
Tony Stahl--Keyboards
Mike Talanca--Bass on 1, 5, 7, and 9

It is a true treat for me when I come across a band that is able to create an album that sounds like it could have come straight out of the glory days of the 80s melodic hard rock scene, before everyone was trying to copy the sound of everyone else and not doing anything on their own.  New bands came out that sounded like new bands, not clones of someone else.  Steel City is one of those bands that truly "gets it", when it comes to the sound and style of that scene, and they do it the right way, incorporating the big arena sound of the 80s with strong songwriting and top-notch musicianship to create an album of songs that is catchy and comfortable, sounding like it could have slid into rotation among the Whitesnakes and Bon Jovis and Dokkens and Slaughters of the era.

What is immediately noticeable about Fortress is the powerhouse combination of musicians at work here.  Floros is an absolute beast on the guitar, whether setting the stage for the vocals with his rhythm work or working his magic on a fingers-flying solo.  McCloskey's drums have that huge, pounding arena sound that is so clearly missing in so many similarly-styled bands, and the bass work, whether from West or Talanca, perfectly completes the foundation upon which these hook-laden melodic gems are built.  To have a huge, powerful vocalist such as Bryan Cole belting out the lyrics is just proof of the embarrassment of riches that is Steel City.  At times recalling the early vocal power of a singer like Marc Slaughter, such as on tracks like "Heart And Soul", and of course the Vinnie Vincent Invasion cover "Back On The Streets", while at other times possessing a very Michael Sweet vocal quality, such as on "Someone Like You", Cole is a supremely talented vocalist with an easy movement throughout his entire vocal scope, never sounding like he is straining to reach the rafters nor bottoming out to plumb the depths of his range.  Add in some excellent backing vocals, courtesy of Floros, and you have a massive wall of sound blasting you with waves of guitar-driven, vocally-charged, high energy melodic rock.

While there are no weak tracks here, there are four that I think deserve special recognition.  "Turnabout" may be my favorite track on an overall excellent album.  The echoing backing vocals on the title word in the chorus are absolutely perfect, Floros' guitar solo is mesmerizing, a combination of fluid speed and melodic sensibilities, and the double-time drums driving their way through the chorus section coming out of the solo are the perfect touch to really set this song apart in my mind.  Cole's vocals are just insanely strong here and the band sounds as if it was having an absolute blast while recording this track.  If this song isn't blaring our of your speakers as you cruise down the highway, my guess is you drive a Prius, chase unicorns, and eat only nuts, berries, and other gluten-free plant products, because this song is pure, driving balls-to-the-wall melodic hard rock at its best.  An easy contender for Song Of The Year here at G2G!

"Too Little Too Late" has a Bon Jovi quality to it in places, especially on the bridge to the chorus, while Cole utilizes a vocal approach similar to Michael Sweet that, when coupled with Floros' guitar work, is not too far removed from Stryper's mid-to-late-80s peak.  Smooth and polished where necessary, but with enough edge to the guitars, "Too Little Too Late" would likely be the song that carries many other bands' albums, while here it enjoys the company of so many other high quality tracks that it isn't forced to do all the heavy lifting on its own.    

"Passing Ships" is a slightly mid-tempo number that isn't so much highlighted here for its musicianship...which remains top notch, with a great solo and outro section from Floros...as much as it is for its vivid story-telling...not to mention a fun use of nautical terms throughout the track!  The song's protagonist was enchanted by a beautiful woman "in [a] flowered blue sundress" who was "easily a diamond worth any cost"...perhaps a sailor's siren?  But with hurricanes, the eye of a storm, being lost at sea, and coming under siege...this is a relationship that was obviously doomed, despite the "shadows dancin' 'cross the bedroom wall" and the "warmth and grade of [her] touch".  Just good, good lyrical stuff here that is completely absent from so many songs that either try too hard to be deeper than the ocean (see what I did there?!) or come off as shallow as a...dang, couldn't pull that one off, but you get my point.  An excellent example of big time songwriting.

"Rock! In The USA" is just a flat-out fun song that lets the band show off its talent on an upbeat rocker that will likely come blasting out of your speakers once you punch that time clock on Friday, and cause you to threaten the speed limits of your local highway if it is in the player as you are out cruising about (unless you are in that previously mentioned Prius).  When I first saw the title, I was wondering if it was a cover of "R.O.C.K. In The USA" by John Mellencamp...John Cougar...John Cougar Mellencamp...whatever he calls himself now...but I can happily report that it most definitely is not a cover...although, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like that classic song.    

Okay, I lied...I have to mention five specific tracks, because I would be totally remiss if I didn't give a nod to the album's closer, the cover of the Vinnie Vincent Invasion classic, "Back On The Streets".  Similarly powerful, the song is given a bit of an update by Steel City, with a bit more melodic polish to the vocals, the incorporation of more prominent keys, with just a touch less speed through the guitar solo.  A fun way to close out a stellar debut record and a perfect way to showcase the fact that had it been around in 1989, Steel City would have fit into the scene absolutely perfectly...minus the sky-high hair and copious amounts of eyeliner and blush.

The production here is excellent, courtesy of Johnny Lima, who does an outstanding job of bringing out the talent of this group of musicians.  The packaging, as is expected with Kivel Records products, is top notch, as well, with full lyrics and writing credits, a thank you section, and a cool album cover.  The only thing missing is a band photo of some sort, but as grievances go, this one is of minimal importance.

Steel City is uber-talented, make no mistake, and they have set the bar for themselves extremely high with Fortress.  If you have not already sought out this record, you need to do so immediately, as you are missing out on an album that will have to be in consideration for album of the year when 2018 wraps up.

Rating:  Extremely crankable, I have yet to play this album only a single time through when I pop it in.  Crank this to 9!


Saturday, April 28, 2018

DOKKEN "Back To The East Live 2016"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. It's Another Day (New Studio Track)
  2. Kiss Of Death
  3. The Hunter
  4. Unchain The Night
  5. When Heaven Comes Down
  6. Breakin' The Chains
  7. Into The Fire
  8. Dream Warriors
  9. Tooth And Nail
  10. Alone Again Intro
  11. Alone Again
  12. It's Not Love
  13. In My Dreams
  14. Heaven Sent (Acoustic Studio Track)
  15. Will The Sun Rise (Acoustic Studio Track)
Don Dokken--Lead Vocals
George Lynch--Guitars
Jeff Pilson--Bass, Backing Vocals
"Wild" Mick Brown--Drums, Backing Vocals

Let me open by saying I absolutely love classic Dokken.  Those first few albums, up through the "original" version of this album, Beast From The East, are must-haves from the 80s, in my opinion, and I really, really like later albums, Erase The Slate, and Lightning Strikes Again, as well as Don's solo record, which I also feel is practically essential to the collection of any melodic hard rock fan.  But the line-up issues with the band, the vocal issues of Don, the apparent ego issues of Lynch, and some very hit-or-miss albums in the latter half of the band's catalog have left me feeling rather hollow about this band for pretty much the last decade.  So when I saw that the band was releasing a live CD/DVD package of their 2016 reunion mini-tour of Japan, I had to quote "It's Not Love" and ask, "why, baby, why?"

The album starts off in what many would consider to be reverse fashion, with a brand new, full-band track, "It's Another Day".  It took me a few listens to fully appreciate the track, but I have to admit that I like it more and more with each spin.  It is definitely not Under Lock And Key or Tooth And Nail Dokken, by any stretch, but there is little point in denying it is a Dokken song.  Yes, it has a bit more of a modern approach to it than the classic hair era stuff, and no, Don has nothing of the range he used to possess, but I like the darker, edgier feel that Don's vocals bring to this song.  It feels a lot like a song from the more recent Jon Levin-era of Dokken, and doesn't have the feel or flair that Lynch brought to so many of the band's most memorable songs, but it's got a decent hook, the chorus works well with the help of Pilson on backing vocals...which was always a huge boost for the band...and I think most fans will find themselves liking it, even if its for the nostalgic reason of having the full band back together.  

To close the album, we have two acoustic reworkings of classic Dokken tracks, both of which are perfectly suited for the acoustic treatment.  I know that "Heaven Sent" is the bigger of the two tracks, but I have always thought "Will The Sun Rise" is one of the band's most underappreciated moments, and this acoustic rendering just adds to that.  Don's voice actually works perfectly with this approach, as does the choice of percussion instrumentation utilized here.  I'll admit to being reticent to hearing these acoustic tracks, initially, but I can honestly say they are actually the high point of the record for me now, especially "Will The Sun Rise", which I think has something of a haunting quality to it here.  Love it!

And in the middle...the live set.  The first thing that will likely be obvious to anyone who picks this up is that the track order for the CD and the DVD are totally different.  I mean not even close.  Now, I have not seen the DVD (nor do I plan to), but the CD certainly feels like it is running in the correct order, based upon live performances I have seen personally, previous live recordings, and just the flow of the album.  And we all know that live crowd noise can be easily manipulated in the studio, so I can't say for sure which track order is correct, and in the end I suppose it doesn't really matter...it's just...weird.

Musically, the band sounds really good.  Considering they hadn't all played together in quite some time, the band is actually very tight sounding.  The set-opening "Kiss Of Death" is a great example of a band that is lock-step right from the start, with Brown's galloping rhythms on the drum setting the tone immediately.  No, it doesn't sound like Beast From The East, but it sounds a lot better to me than Live From The Sun or the rather poor-sounding Japan Live '95.  Pilson and Brown have always been a...ahem..."beast" of a rhythm section, and that continues here.  There is a reason both men are so well-respected throughout the industry for their talents, particularly Pilson, and there is nothing in this live set that would detract from the great work of their catalog together.  But it doesn't matter who is playing bass and drums for this band...for most, it's about George Lynch.  And Mr. Scary doesn't disappoint in the live setting, as he effortlessly rips through solo after solo on these beloved songs, sometimes playing them note-for-note perfectly, and other times toying a bit with the arrangement or length.  The intensity isn't quite what it was on Beast From The East, but there is also a TON of speculation about how much that album was touched up in the studio, especially by Lynch, what with the band being at the peak of their popularity and album-selling prowess.  This record feels more organic, less "tweaked" than Beast... does, at least to me, and Lynch is a big part of that. 

So....how about Don?  Well, there is good and bad.  Surprisingly, the good is that there are songs where I think his new vocal approach actually works really well.  This is largely due to the fact that he has seemingly accepted his limitations and has adjusted his approach, rather than helplessly try to force himself to reach pitch heights he couldn't get to with a ladder now.  And I'm actually fine with this adjustment.  As I said above, it actually works incredibly well on the new acoustic studio tracks, and is equally effective on several live tracks here.  But note that I said "several", and not "all".  There are a couple of places where Pilson's backing vocals are so much more powerful than Don's that it sounds pretty bad to my ears.  "The Hunter" is one such song.  And then there are songs where Don's changed register actually sounds somewhat off key, with "Into The Fire" being the most notable culprit in my mind, and one point in "Kiss Of Death" pops to mind, also, as Don seemed to really want to go for it, octave-wise, before remembering to back off.  There'e aren't many places like this, and overall, the backing vocals really support Don and serve the songs well, "Unchain The Night" being an excellent example, and "Dream Warriors" being another.  Plus, there are times when Don's more subdued approach makes a song like "It's Not Love" come off a bit darker, edgier, maybe even angrier than the original, which surprisingly isn't a bad thing.        

One thing that I feel must be said about Don here....and which has been said about him seemingly forever...is that he sounds, well, bored at times.  He's always been a singer, not an entertainer, as a front man, and always seemed to have his feet nailed to the floor.  Now, obviously I can't "hear" if he is moving around, but I can say that in the places where he addresses the crowd here, he just sounds like he's going through the motions and isn't having any fun in his interactions.  And, having seen them live several times, I can say I have ALWAYS felt this way about Don.  He was always so serious about his vocal performances that I sometimes felt like he forgot that rock shows are supposed to be fun, spontaneous, and energetic, not necessarily technically perfect.    

There are a couple of songs that I really miss from the setlist, with "Just Got Lucky" and the instrumental "Mr. Scary" being chief among them. (I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that "Mr. Scary" was contractually left out of the set, focusing only on full-band songs, but I don't know that for a fact.) I also would have loved to hear the band do "Paris Is Burning" and "Walk Away" for this set, especially since "Walk Away" was the new studio track on the Beast From The East album.  Woulda been cool, right?  As it stands, the choices here are all pretty obvious and represent the best-known material from the era of the band where all four guys were together and not trying to kill one another.

The mix is pretty good...not amazing, but not bad...with some muddiness in places and a few spots where I think the vocal mix needs adjusting...but, again, it feels more organic, more natural...more live...than a lot of live albums do, especially today.  Again, mine is a digital review copy, so I can't speak to the quality of the DVD recording or the packaging.  

I will admit that when I listened to this record the first few times, I really wasn't all that impressed.  In fact, I was semi-negative about it in a couple of early musings in some Facebook postings and discussions.  But with repeated listens, I have changed my tune.  Now, overall, I don't think this is a bad live record at all, and it has a couple of really, really good acoustic studio tracks that fans will want to grab hold of, as well as "It's Another Day".  But it's just that the live material has been done better in other places, specifically on Beast From The East.  In the long run, that is going to be the version and sound of the band that I would prefer to remember live.  Its the sound of my youth, and neither I, nor the band, are of that era now.  And let's face it, when we seek out live albums, its generally for nostalgic reasons, and I'd rather remember the 1988 version of Dokken...and sometimes (not often, but sometimes) the 1988 version of myself!!!!....than the 2016 version.  Do yourself a favor, however, and buy the three new tracks, even if you don't want to buy the entire package, as they are worth the time and money.

Rating:  This mostly-live album definitely rocks.  I give it a 6.5 overall, with crank-worthy nods to the new tracks, especially "Will The Sun Rise", which is simply amazing.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

JK NORTHRUP & DAVID CAGLE "That's Gonna Leave A Mark"

(c) 2018 Melodic Rock Records

  1. The Night Is Mine
  2. Gone
  3. The Moment
  4. Can't 
  5. Sting Of Her Kiss
  6. Another Goodbye
  7. The Honeymoon Is Over
  8. That's Gonna Leave A Mark
  9. For Sure Thing
  10. Sirens
  11. Forever Starts Tonight
  12. Chasing Ghosts
JK Northrup--Guitars, Backing Vocals
David Cagle--Lead, Backing Vocals
Larry Hart--Bass
Steve Brown--Drums

Additional Musicians:

Kelly Keeling--Backing Vocals on "For Sure Thing"
Richard Kendrick--Backing Vocals on "Can't"
Gunnar Nelson--Backing Vocals on "Forever Starts Tonight"
Eric Ragno--Keyboards on 2, 3, 4, 7, 11, and 12 
Dan Zoid--Drums on "That's Gonna Leave A Mark"


JK Northrup is one insanely busy guy.  Besides mixing, mastering, and producing various projects for his Alien Productions company, the guy still manages to keep churning out amazing melodic hard rock projects seemingly every couple of months.  Case in point, it was just 3 or 4 months ago that the excellent Fiction Syxx was released.  Now, here we are again in early March of 2018 and Northrup is preparing to release another project, this time with the seriously underappreciated David Cagle on vocals, Larry Hart on bass, and Steve Brown on drums, along with a great collection of supporting talent.  That's Gonna Leave A Mark is set for release on MelodicRock Records later on this month, and I can already tell you it is going to be a must have.

If some of the the song titles on the record sound familiar, that is because most of this record was previously released in a limited, digital format under the Liberty N Justice name as The Vow, with JK doing a large portion of the writing, playing, and producing on that record.  However, the rest of the lineup for this record is new, with JK recruiting not only Cagle, but also Mick Brown's younger brother, Steve, for drums, as well as Larry Hart on Bass, and keyboardist extraordinaire, Eric Ragno, who jumps in to help on half of the album. 

The album kicks off with the high energy rocker, "The Night Is Mine", and once he joins the fray, it is easily understood why Northrup is so high on Cagle as a vocalist.  A generally smooth tenor, Cagle has the ability to throw in just enough grit and edge to keep the sound from becoming flowery or saccharine here, which I feel is an important tone to set from the get-go.  JK rips off the first of numerous catchy, lively solos on this track with a style and sound that will definitely have listeners recalling his more hair metal days with King Kobra.  A solid start for That's Gonna Leave A Mark.

An introspective and lyrically melancholy song about love lost, "Gone" is up next, and for my money, its on melodic numbers such as this that the album really shines.  Ragno bolsters the sound of this mid-tempo number with his typically solid keyboard fills, and the rhythm section of Hart and Brown is absolutely lock-step here, melding perfectly with Northrup's rhythm guitars throughout the course of the tune.  The solo from Northrup perfectly fits the mood of the track, delivering both power and emotion, which Cagle matches perfectly, as he really finds his voice...and his vocal home...on "Gone" and similarly styled songs.  Good stuff, here.

"The Moment" is pure 80s bliss, sounding very much like a Warrant track, a la "Heaven", in places, mixed with hints of Slippery When Wet-era Bon Jovi and, to my ears, the more melodic moments from Damn Yankees, (think "Come Again" and "High Enough").  Not purely a power ballad, but definitely a lighter-inducing track that I could imagine filling the gymnasium during my late-80s prom years, "The Moment" is absolutely outstanding and, again, a place where Cagle's seemingly effortless approach really shines. 

"Can't" re-ups the energy, heading back to mid-tempo rock territory.  The chorus is plenty catchy, and the layered backing vocals work well on this track that reminds me a lot of the style of music that Nelson has put out on their past couple of efforts...which is a good thing.  Northrup's solo is short and sweet...actually a bit too short for my tastes...and the rest of the band is in excellent form here on this track that, while not the best on the record, still offers up plenty to like.

"Sting Of Her Kiss" is a song that I remember really liking in its original LnJ form on The Vow, so I was a bit concerned about how this reworked version would come across.  I needn't have worried, as this snarky rocker delivers in much the same way as the original and is definitely one of my favorite uptempo numbers on the record.  The solo section here is longer than on the original, if memory serves me correctly, and JK absolutely tears up the frets on a run he drops just before the bridge that leads into the last chorus run.  Hart's presence is definitely felt on this track, as the bottom end is definitely more pronounced here than on a couple of other tracks, and the resultant groove is a fun one, to be sure. 

The album head back to more mid-tempo melodic rock territory on "Another Goodbye", which really benefits from solid lyrics, excellent backing vocals, a nice hook, and the by-now-expected premium guitar solo from Northrup.  I often wonder if JK would have been one of the 80s "guitar gods" had he been in a band that gained more exposure or catered more to the hair metal crowd than King Kobra or the excellent, bluesier hard rock he played with Paul Shortino.  The guy is a beast on the axe and he has a definite flair for the melodic solo style that he so frequently employs on this album, as well as his recent releaes with Fiction Syxx and others. 

Initially, "The Honeymoon Is Over" has an odd vibe to it, with programmed drums and some odd keyboard elements and vocal effects at the start, but these quickly give way to a decentmid-tempo melodic rocker, largely supported by some extra-smooth guitar riffs from Northrup.  The chorus is a bit simplistic lyrically, but Cagle manages to keep it from sinking.  Not my favorite track, by any means, but again, this collection of musicians seems capable of taking a song like this one and giving it life.

The title track brings things back into focus with some excellent kit work from Brown and a more 70s classic rock vibe than most of the tracks here.  I especially love the frenetic guitar work here, feeling like JK really just went in and free-styled this solo, just having fun with it and letting it go where the song and his mood dictated.  A top three or four moment for me on this album.

"For Sure Thing" is another fun, uptempo rocker, which features Baton Rouge's Kelly Keeling on backing vocals.  Another lyrically strong track, "For Sure Thing" is all about cruising with the top down and the speakers up, as far as I'm concerned, and is another example of the type of good-time rock n roll that simply isn't played enough today, at least by American bands.  Cagle rocks, plain and simple, and the entirety of the band has the feeling of a group of guys that are out to have some musical fun and take all the listeners with them.  Great stuff here!

"Siren" has a funky, "Brick House"-meets-Extreme kind of groove to it that is unlike anything else on the record.  Definitely a fun song, but one that I'm guessing many listeners are going to have to give a chance to so that it can properly grow on them.  Another quirky track lyrically, "Siren" is a tune that gives Cagle a chance to showcase his ability to handle something other than the standard melodic rock fare, and he passes the test with flying colors.  For what its worth, Northrup launches into an ultra-cool solo just before the final chorus...but you probably guessed that, right?

"Forever Starts Tonight" gets some backing assistance from Mr. Gunnar Nelson, and his presence is felt immediately as the song actually opens with a layered line from the chorus section before the guitars and drums come kicking in.  Once again right in the wheelhouse of Cagle, and Northrup digs into his bag of licks n tricks one more time on this rocker, and yet again the rhythm section of Hart and Brown deserves special mention on "Forever...", which is a really good song that I'm surprised to find this late in the record. 

Album closer, "Chasing Ghosts" drops the tempo a bit, not quite into ballad territory, but close, and closes the record with another dose of smooth melodic rock that, again, really allows Cagle to shine.  I truly hope he and JK hook up again in the not-too-distant future, as they definitely have something working here.

Mine is a digital promo version, so I have no idea about the packaging of the album, but generally speaking, Melodic Rock Records is solid in this area, so I don't have any pre-conceived concerns in this department.  Additionally, I am told there is a Japanese bonus track that I don't have access to at this time, but I know that it is one that was on the LnJ version of the record, so I am anxious to get my hands...and ears...on that track whenever possible.

The production is solid, professional, and clean, with no glaring issues with mix, muddiness, or excessive polish.  Northrup has proven himself to be equally talented behind the mixing board as out in front of it, and the work here is no exception.  Initially I thought there was a bit of middle-to-bottom end missing in the mix of some of the tracks, but it turned out to be an issue with my EQ, which I had to adjust when listening to another review album that...ummm....let's just say "lacked in appreciable mixing and production skill"...and leave it at that. 

Overall, That's Gonna Leave A Mark is very likely to leave a mark on listeners, as it is a really good, generally upbeat-but-always-real, lyrically fun album with a whole lot of musical talent shining through in various areas.  Nostalgic-yet fresh, comfortable-yet-not cliche, this effort from Northrup, Cagle, and Company is well worth picking up.

Rating:  Crankable, unquestionably, I give this an enthusiastic 8.

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Friday, April 6, 2018

SKILLET "Unleashed Beyond"

(c) 2017 Atlantic Records

  1. Feel Invincible
  2. Back From The Dead
  3. Stars
  4. I Want To Live
  5. Undefeated
  6. Famous
  7. Lions
  8. Out Of Hell
  9. Burn It Down
  10. Watching For Comets
  11. Saviors Of The World
  12. The Resistance
  13. Breaking Free (featuring Lacey Sturm) (Bonus)
  14. Stay Til The Daylight (Bonus)
  15. Brave (Bonus)
  16. You Get Me High (Bonus)
  17. Set It Off (Bonus)
  18. Feel Invincible (Y2K Remix) (Bonus)
  19. The Resistance (Soli Remix) (Bonus)
  20. Stars (Film Version) (Bonus)
John Cooper--Lead Vocals, Bass
Korey Cooper--Rhythm Guitars, Keyboards
Jed Ledger--Drums, Vocals
Seth Morrison--Guitars

The undisputed kings (and queens) of Christian modern rock...and one of the most successful modern rock bands in America, period...Skillet have once again repackaged their most recent effort with new material and offered it up to fans, most likely to tide them over until the next album.  Originally released nearly two years ago, Unleashed has seen multiple songs hit radio as singles, from the huge, arena anthems "Feel Invincible" and "Back From The Dead", to a couple of slower, more ballad-esque moments with "Lions" and "Stars", and the original album closer, the crunchy, modern metallic screamer, "The Resistance".  Sandwiched in between are several other solid songs, whether it be the more symphonic "I Want To Live", the poppy "Saviors Of The World", the crunchy "Undefeated", or the breakneck-speed rocker "Out Of Hell".  Not everything on the album worked overly well for me, as I am not a fan of "Watching For Comets", per se, nor did "Burn It Down" really grab me, though neither is a bad song, necessarily.  The same could be said of "Famous", which is a little too electro-pop/dance rock for me, what with its looped drums, syths, and electronic noises, but again, it's not brutal or anything.  But, if I had wanted to cut the album down to the ten best tracks, "Comets" and "Burn It Down" would have been the two to go.

But rather than trim the album to ten tracks, Skillet went the other way and tacked eight bonus tracks, including five new songs, onto the deluxe edition of the album, giving us Unleashed Beyond.  A lot of people would complain about this, but really, what's the difference between buying a repackaged album with new material and buying an EP with five new songs and a couple remixes?  Probably no difference at all.  Released near the end of 2017, the expanded album has already seen one song starting to climb the Christian rock charts, with the modern rock screamfest of "Breaking Free" charting seeing growing airplay in March of 2018.  Much like the album proper, the new songs are mostly really good-to-great, with only one minor miss, and then there are three remixes thrown in for good measure.

The first of the new songs is the previously mentioned "Breaking Free".  I called it a screamfest above, and there is really no other term I could think to apply as this is exactly what the song is.  Big pounding drums and hard, churning guitars abound on this catchy song, which is to be expected from the majority of Skillet's hardest-edged output over the past five albums.  But "Breaking Free" takes things to a new extreme when John's powerful roars and shouts are matched by scream queen, Lacey Sturm, the former lead singer of Flyleaf.  Mix in Jen Ledger's tame...dare I say "sweet" sounding by comparison?...backing vocals, and you have quite a track on your hands.  This would be my favorite of the new tracks were it not for the hyper-catchy "Set It Off", which feels to me like it could have/should have been included on the original version of Unleashed.  Heck, I prefer this track to more than half the songs on the original album, trailing only "The Resistance" and "Feel Invincible", and possibly "Lions" and "Undefeated".   A guitar-driven rocker with a chant-along chorus, "Set It Off" should definitely be released as a single and may be one of the few bonus tracks that I can think of that have the potential to actually top a chart.   Seriously, it is that dang good, and I hope it finds its way into the band's live set for the next tour.  

Also really good, but a slight step below these two is the more straight-forward rocker, "You Get Me High", which features a more classic rock-styled guitar riff but retains the huge, arena-filling drum sound the band has really become known for.  I also really like more mainstream-sounding, "Brave", which reminds me a LOT of "Lions", but with a bigger, more anthemic chorus, and fuller, bigger-sounding drums.  Ledger sounds really good here, and I don't think she gets enough credit for what she brings to the band vocally, as well as on the kit.  Again, this could have/should have replaced "Watching For Comets" on the original album, in my opinion, and could very well be another chart-topping bonus track for Skillet, again coming out of the bonus tracks of a re-issued album.  An impressive feat, to be sure.

I'm not completely sure how I feel about the acoustic-based ballad of "Stay Til The Daylight", which has a definite "Stars" feel to it, but there's something that just seems off to me.  John is in full singing mode here, and the band incorporates some nice strings into the mix, but it isn't until the final run through the bridge/chorus section that the drums find their way into the track, which left me kind of hanging, to be honest.  More time may help me better figure out what it is that I don't like about this song...or give me more of an appreciation for what it is.

The band also incorporates three remixes here, with two of them being total wastes of disc space.  Seriously, the remixes of "Feel Invincible", and especially "The Resistance" are just abysmal.  Totally, unquestionably, 100% pure skip material for this guy.  Just...wow...just bad stuff.  As to the "film version" of "Stars", which was remixed for the movie The Shack, if memory serves, it's okay, but kind of redundant.  It features an incredibly long intro (my oldest son thought they made it into an instrumental), one of the choruses is removed, with two verses pretty much running into each other, and the whole affair feels fairly sappy and rather boring.  I like the original version, especially in the live setting, but I don't see any time when I am going to pull out this album just to hear this reworked version of the song.  Sorry Skillet, but I may actually rip and re-burn this CD without the closing three tracks, as I can't stand two of them and don't find any reason for the third.

The repackaged album also features an expanded insert which folds out into a poster of the sludge-covered band.  Full lyrics for all of the new songs are included (along with all the original songs' lyrics, also), along with updated credits and thank-yous.  The artwork is basically identical, with the updated and relocated title being the only change to the front cover, and the updated tracklisting being the lone change to the back.

At WinterJam 2018 a few weeks ago, John Cooper hinted that the band had some big news coming up, so perhaps a new album is in the offing.  Perhaps he was simply referring to "Breaking Free" being dropped to radio as a single, or maybe their WinterJam performances were being recorded for a live EP.  I'm not sure, so stay tuned to www.skillet.com and the band's social media outlets to stay up to date.  And if you haven't already done so, I would strongly encourage you to pick up Unleashed Beyond for the five new tracks, as most fans will find at least four of them strong additions to the band's catalog, and I have no doubts there will be fans of "Stay Til The Daylight", also.

Rating:  When you have a crankable album and add new, crankable material to it, you get more crankability, right?  The two BRUTAL remixes (and one pointless one) can't even really do much to drop the rating here, which I top out at 8.

Friday, March 30, 2018

ODYSSEY DESPERADO "Don't Miss The Sunset"

(c) 2018 Lions Pride Music

  1. Rush Of The Wave
  2. You And Me Against The World
  3. Cruisin'
  4. Dreams Die Hard
  5. Can't Live Without You
  6. Oasis (In The Desert Of Your Soul)
  7. Holding Onto A Dream
  8. Fragile
  9. Tomorrow You'll Be Gone
  10. Wings Of Silk
Odysseas Karapolitis (Odyssey Desperado)--Lead and Rhythm Guitars
Manos Fatsis--Lead, Backing Vocals
Bob Katsionis--Bass, Keyboards, Programming

Additional Musicians

Paul Laine--Backing Vocals

Ah, the Greeks.  Gotta love the Greeks and their strong love for that smooth, polished AOR sound, which they seem to do as well as just about any other country.  Odyssey Desperado is the latest project from Greece to grace us with their updated interpretation of 80s American, guitar-driven AOR, but they do it better than most, including many of the American bands trying to do the same thing, and they make it sound so smooth and effortless!  Combining an obvious love for 80s AOR (and movie soundtracks, in my opinion...but more on that in a bit...), with a passion for tight modern production and high level musicianship, guitarist Odysseas Karapolitis has finally managed to find the right voices...both lead and backing...and supporting instrumentation to bring to life an album that has been in the making since 2014.

The album sets its melodic rocking tone right from the start with "Rush Of The Wave".  Starting off with some background "ahhs" from, I'm assuming, Paul Laine, and a wave of keyboards, the song builds into a mid-tempo rocker complete with some modest tempo changes, solid rhythm guitar playing, and a short burst of speed in Odysseas' first solo of the record.  While a good song, to be sure, it's on the album's second track, "You And Me Against The World" that the overall feel and style of the record is really established.  A catchy hook, a driving tempo, and gritty-yet-melodic vocals from Manos Fatsis, serve to lay the foundation for this top-notch melodic rock record.   



"Cruisin'" is laid back perfection with exquisitely smooth guitar tones from Odyseseas gliding across the pulsing rhythms of Katsionis' bass and what I have to assume are programmed drums (no drummer is credited here).  Not really a ballad, this mid-tempo number has an excellent solo...moody and soulful...and some of the best vocals on the entire album.  perfectly fitting with the summer scene being painted throughout the track.  What I want to know is who is playing the uncredited saxophone on the outro of the song, as this adds another dimension to an already great song and I love the feel that it adds.  A great track, "Cruisin'" drips with memories of the sun-soaked summers of my youth spent driving around the seemingly endless highways and backroads that I grew up on.

"Dreams Die Hard" adds an edge back into the band's sound on a track that feels like it would have fit well into an action scene in an 80s movie, much like those used in Rocky IV (go check out "No Easy Way Out" for an example), or even King Kobra's contribution to Iron Eagle.  This is just such a cool song with a great feel, and the soaring guitars, whether on the intro, the outro, or during the solo, are truly great stuff to hear.  Fatsis sounds powerful and confident here, and the strength of the songwriting really shines through.

The piano-based ballad, "Can't Live Without You", slows things down considerably and gives Fatsis a chance to really shine.  His powerful tenor is showcased on this emotional track, and Katsionis' talent at the keyboard is put on full display, as well.  Nicely layered backing vocals compliment Fatsis when the drums and guitars kick in at about the 2:30 mark, and Odysseas' emotive solo is spot-on here.  Excellent stuff here, and one of the more complete sounding ballads I have heard in some time, combining just enough power...and leaving off just enough sugar coating...to not come off as sappy or overwrought, despite the emotion Fatsis pours into his vocals.

I'm not a fan of the what passed for 80s futuristic sounding keyboards that are used to intro "Oasis "In The Desert Of Your Soul)", and while they are quickly shaken off, the overall feel of this song is a bit too cliched for me to really get into it.  Not necessarily a skipper, but definitely more of a filler track than most here, "Oasis" slips in a nice guitar solo, but it isn't enough to overcome the saccharine-sounding chorus or the atmospheric, tinkling keyboards dropped into the middle of the track for no apparent reason.

"Holding Onto A Dream" rights the 80s AOR ship nicely, again really grabbing hold of that movie soundtrack quality that seems to be so prevalent on this album, and just absolutely running with it.  I'd never heard the song before, obviously, yet there was a part of me that felt so nostalgically drawn to this track, like it was dragging me back to a cherished part of my teen-aged years filled with gymnasium dances and late night street cruising.  It is perhaps this, even more than all of his obvious skill on guitar, that is the true greatness of Odysseas on this record; that ability to connect the listener with another time and place in their life through powerful songwriting.  To me, this is a true gift and one that I appreciate time and time again on Don't Miss The Sunset.

"Fragile" continues in this nostalgic vein, but in an even edgier, grittier guitar rocker that is one of the best tracks on an album full of great tunes.  Oddyseas' guitar carries an attitude all the way through this rocker, and Fatsis' vocals take on a similar, urgent-feel edge that helps to drive the overall feel of this track.  Yes, the keys are still there, but they are a purely supporting instrument here, and the drums, whether programmed or live, have a tempo and pattern that just keeps the song pushing forward, never slowing, never wavering, just driving hard to the finish that finally finds the band backing off, letting a few keyboard notes and a final line from Fatsis close things out.

"Tomorrow You'll Be Gone" is another excellent rocker, but one that carries a bit more of a modern take on the classic AOR sound, very similar to the approach taken by recent faves, Romeo Riot.  Great backing vocals supporting strong leads, pounding drums propping up supportive keys, throbbing bass laying the bedrock for searing fretwork...pure melodic hard rock greatness!  Again, a song that I find myself compelled to repeat multiple times whenever I pop this album in, much like its predecessor, "Fragile".

Album closer, "Wings Of Silk" is a big, epic sounding track, packed with power and emotion, with Fatsis utilizing something of a Coverdale approach to his vocals, gliding across the guitars in a manner that reminds me of what Def Leppard did at the beginning of "Too Late For Love".  Unlike Lep's track, however, "Wings Of Silk" remains firmly in power ballad territory from start to finish, with Odysseas' guitar screaming to life one final time on the album in an emotive solo that, for me, was all too short and could have easily stretched out for another 15 to 20 seconds without even coming across as remotely bloated or self-serving.  I also have to say I like the way the song is allowed to just conclude, to just come to an end, without the band feeling like it needs to be given some massive, fading-outro send-off, and without the band just drawing the track out endlessly.  Its a nice capping to an overall great album.

If I had any complaints at all, it would likely be the heavy accent on the vocals of Fatsis in places.  It's not a big issue, and it isn't always prevalent, but there are places where the simple fact that I notice the accent pulls me away from the overall song for a moment, which is a bit of a distraction.  This was especially true when I first received the album for review, however, after repeated listens, I notice it less and less, and as I said, it is a minor complaint now.

The production is excellent here, with nice brightness and polish, as most really good AOR has, but not coming at the expense of the guitars or rhythm section.  The keys aren't overly dominant (thank you!), and the backing vocals are overall very strong, which is to be expected from a vocalist as talented as Paul Laine.  Just a really, really good album from start to finish, and I wouldn't be surprised if Don't Miss The Sunset is right there contending for a spot on the "Best of 2018" lists of many review sites at the end of the year.

More AOR than fellow Greeks Silked & Stained, less keyboard-reliant than Wild Rose, Odyssey Desperado is something of a hybrid of the two bands, stylistically. Makes me want to get over to that big island to check out the rest of the music scene if everyone is this talented!  Regardless, hopefully we will hear more from Odyssey Desperado in the not-so-distant future.  While Don't Miss The Sunset is definitely an album worth waiting to hear, I'd rather it not take four years between efforts from this project, especially if they are always going to be of this high quality!

Rating:  Definitely a cranker...Odyssey Desperado gets an 8.5 from me!

HELIX "Rock It Science"

(c) 2016 Perris Records

  1. Billy Oxygen
  2. You're A Woman Now
  3. Heavy Metal Love
  4. Rock You 
  5. Deep Cuts The Knife
  6. Wild In The Streets
  7. Good To The Last Drop
  8. Shock City Psycho Rock
  9. Get Up!
  10. Make 'em Dance
  11. Even Jesus (Wasn't Loved In His Hometown)
  12. (Gene Simmons Says) Rock Is Dead
Brian Vollmer--Lead Vocals
Kaleb Duck--Lead Guitars, Vocals
Chris Julke--Guitars, Vocals
Daryl Gray--Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Gregory "Fritz" Hinz--Drums

I have had a soft spot for Helix pretty much since I discovered the band back in the early 80s.  There was just something about the catchy, hooky hair metal that these guys played that struck a chord with me.  Heck, when I did my first bodybuilding contest, I posed to the song "Rock You"!  For me, the stretch of albums from 1983's No Rest For The Wicked through 1987's Wild In The Streets was just about as solid of a 4-album run as any band put out during that time, and Helix did it with a new album every year.  Their 1990 Capitol Records swan song, Back For Another Taste, was also very good, if not quite up to the same level as their previous four, and 1993's It's A Business Doing Pleasure, which was supposed to be a Vollmer solo record, also contains several good tracks.  I wasn't nearly as fond of their output from about 1994 on, but still continued to follow the Canadians and their musical endeavors.  Then, in 2009 the band kind of pulled itself out of a funk of about 4 pretty bad albums with Vagabond Bones, which while not spectacular, showed life and promise for the band, and then in 2014, things really seemed to click again with that year's album, Bastard Of The Blues, which I absolutely love.  So when I saw the band was putting out a new compilation album of largely re-recorded "hits", along with one new song, I was interested to hear what was going on.

This collection starts off with two old tracks, as in "pre-my-Helix" songs that most people aren't likely familiar with, and neither one really gives even an inkling of what the band will sound like in just a few short years.  "Billy Oxygen" and "You're A Woman Now" both come off of the band's debut Breaking Loose album from 1979.  Vollmer is the only current band member to have played on these two songs, and, if I'm not mistaken, these are the only two originals on the record.  Honestly, I'm not really sure why these two tracks were included, as they are so starkly different sounding, both in style and in production quality, from the band's later material...and the re-recorded material here...that they really don't fit.  As part of a very limited retrospective of the band's career, I can see why they are included on Rock It Science, but I don't think anyone would have missed the "Ballroom Blitz"-inspired "Billy Oxygen", and while the Aerosmith-sounding ballad "You're A Woman Now" is a really good track, it doesn't have the pomp or polish of "Deep Cuts The Knife", which most view as the true Helix ballad.  

While Vollmer is the only original member of Helix still in the band, both Gray and Hinz have been with the band throughout their biggest moments.  Hinz came on board starting with 1983's No Rest For The Wicked album, which is represented here by "Heavy Metal Love", which was the band's first charting single in the US, cracking the Top 25.  Gray then joined up with Helix on the band's seminal Walkin' The Razor's Edge album, which features the band's most well-known song, "Rock You".  Both of these songs have been faithfully re-recorded for Rock It Science, but longtime fans will definitely be able to pick out differences, particularly in the chorus vocals on "Rock You", although it is amazing how good Vollmer still sounds all these years later.  A lot of times re-recordings will grate on my nerves as there is just no comparison between the originals and the re-recordings, but that is not the case here, as these reworkings are of top-notch quality.  Add in the updated production and recording methods, and an honest person would have to say that the new versions actually have better sound quality than the originals, even if you still have a nostalgic cling to the album versions.

"Deep Cuts The Knife", from 1985's Long Way To Heaven album, is the band's highest charting US single, hitting number 20.  Once again, this classic track has been re-recorded, but is done so faithfully and executed so well that only a truly discerning ear will likely notice any major differences.  Again, major kudos to Vollmer and the boys for staying so true to themselves and their fans on these re-recorded tracks.

"Wild In The Streets" was the title cut from the band's 1987 album, and is one of my favorite songs ever from the band.  As I mentioned previously, this album was the last really good album in their most successful stretch, and the re-recording of this song is another really strong contribution to Rock It Science.  There are some keys/synths added to the mix that were not on the original (particularly in the chorus section), and I am not completely sure as to why the band felt the need to incorporate these.  They are not distracting, however, and give the song a bit fuller sound here, which was perhaps the goal.  

"Good To The Last Drop", which I think is the last re-recorded track here, comes from the band's last major label release, 1990's Back For Another Taste.  A slower rocker, not really a ballad, this is another one of my faves by the band yet is one that most non-fans likely have never really heard.  Interestingly, this song was not actually released as a single from the album, as that distinction falls to "The Storm", which I think would have been an excellent inclusion here, as well.  However, with each represented album only getting a single track, "Good To The Last Drop" is a sensible choice to help change up the pace of this collection.

"Shock City Psycho Rock" is an absolute barn-burner of a song, and it is a lot of fun...for a few spins...but it wears thin after repeated listens.  Taken from 1998's Half Alive album, this was one of five new songs recorded for an album that also featured 10 live tracks from the band's 1997 tour.  While a fun song, you can only listen to a kazoo solo in the middle of a song that otherwise skillfully blends Helix's hard rock style with Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis styled 50s rock n roll.  It's really too bad this cutesy little novelty was thrown into the song, as it is overall a really, really good song that showcases a lot of musical skill and a fun, old time rock n roll.

The rest of this package focuses on songs that were the best from the albums they were lifted from, which often isn't saying a lot, as so many Helix albums from about 1997 on were not overly good and featured maybe one or two truly good songs.  "Get Up!" is a pretty good rocker that comes from 2006's album of the same name, and "Make 'Em Dance" comes from Vagabond Bones, which was the album that I felt found Helix starting to find themselves once again.  Of course, "Even Jesus (Wasn't Loved In His Hometown)" jumps from the excellent return, Bastard Of The Blues, and leads into the fun new rocker, "(Gene Simmons Says) Rock Is Dead".  Yeah, the lyrics are kind of stretched in spots as rhymes are reached for, but overall, this is a fun listen that shows a band that never took itself overly seriously...sometimes to their own detriment...and that is still making music for the fun of it.  

When I look back at the track listing for this album, especially when considering the overall run time of the project, I am a bit surprised that no songs were included from 1981's White Lace & Black Leather, or 1993's It's A Business Doing Pleasure, which featured several strong songs, including "Misery Loves Company" and "Love Is A Crazy Game", both of which would have fit well here.  I'm also a bit curious why albums from 2004 (Rockin' In My Outer Space), 2007 (The Power Of Rock N Roll), and 2011 (Skin In The Game) were all skipped over...except for the fact that the first two were, in my opinion, generally awful albums.  If I ever get the chance to interview Vollmer, I will try to find out the reason for these exclusions...

All in all, this is a pretty good collection, even if it is a bit under-representative of the band's great years and completely ignorant of a few albums.  The re-recordings are excellently done, Vollmer's voice is still in great shape for what he does, and the trio of Vollmer, Gray, and Hinz continues to carry on the Helix name and tradition in fine fashion.  While probably not my choice for introducing new fans to the band (I would still steer those folks toward the 1999 Deep Cuts compilation), it is a good cross-section of the band's music from their earliest form to the latest new song they have recorded.  Perris Records did a nice job with this collection, and I hope Helix has another really good album or two in them before they call it a day.

Rating:  I don't generally rate compilations, but with so much of this being re-recorded, and since it has a new song, I'll give this a crankable 7.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

LA GUNS "Made In Milan"

(c) 2018 Frontiers Records

  1. No Mercy
  2. Electric Gypsy
  3. Killing Machine
  4. Bow Solo/Over The Edge
  5. Sex Action
  6. Speeed
  7. One More Reason
  8. Kiss My Love Goodbye
  9. Don't Look At Me That Way
  10. Malaria
  11. Never Enough
  12. Jelly Jam
  13. The Ballad Of Jayne
  14. Rip And Tear
Phil Lewis--Vocals
Tracii Guns--Guitars
Michael Grant--Guitars
Johnny Martin--Bass
Shane Fitzgibbon--Drums

Shortly after the release of their critically acclaimed comeback record, The Missing PeaceLA Guns performed a live set of sweat-drenched and sleaze-coated hard rock n roll at their parent label's showcase, Frontiers Festival, in Milan, Italy.  After spending a decade apart, the heart and soul of LA Guns, Lewis and Guns, have reunited and have embarked on a mission to prove that time has done little to diminish the excitement and electricity of one of the best bands of the 80s sleaze scene.  

To a large degree the band succeeds in this live package, which also comes in a deluxe version that features a DVD (which contains an additional track, "The Bitch Is Back", located right before "Sex Action" on the DVD).  The crowd is very obviously into this 60+ minute set, with loud, raucous shouting and chanting going on all over the place in the record, although some of the crowd participation elements on some songs' choruses isn't picked up very well in the mix.  Likewise, the band, to me, sounds like they are obviously having a good time (I have not seen the DVD), and the sound is very full, which I credit in large part to the second guitar that is wielded by Michael Grant, who has subsequently been fired from/left the band.  I have always thought that having both a lead and a rhythm guitar player is such a boost to a live band, and with a talent such as Grant supporting a legend like Guns really gave the band a kick in the pants live.  I have seen the band in various incarnations...with only Guns, with Guns and Mickey Cripps, with only Grant, with Stacey Blades, and in a couple of other combinations...and they have ALWAYS sounded better with two guitar players...always.  Such is the case on Made In Milan, and I am curious as to what will happen with the band now that Grant is gone, as I feel he was a key contributor to the band's revitalization.

Regardless of the never-ending-revolving-lineup that is LA Guns, Made In Milan is a generally very good live record.  There are a couple of places where the now 61 year-old Lewis sounds rather out of breath, and he changes the register he is singing in on more than one occasion, but overall, he sounds in decent form and sounds like...well, he sounds like Phil Lewis.  He will never be mistaken for a "singer", by any stretch, but his particular raspy yowl is a huge part of the classic LA Guns sound, and honestly, very little has changed over the years, either on record or in a live setting, except for some register adjustments he makes live, which I'll get to in a moment.  I'm not a fan of singers that pull a "Vince Neil" and slur over...or flat out skip...parts of lyrics, which Lewis does do on only a couple of occasions, most notably to me on "Sex Action", where he leaves out an entire line of a chorus, although this could be one of the occasions where he was allowing the crowd to sing along and the crowd mix is simply too low to be heard.  I did enjoy the way the band morphed "Sex Action" into "Paint It Black" on the outro, and Lewis' voice works very well on the few lines he gets to run through before wrapping the song, so I'll give "Sex Action" an overall passing grade, I suppose.  I'm also not a huge fan of the change in phrasing that he uses in "Over And Over", which I think is one of the most overlooked and underrated songs in the band's massive catalog, but it doesn't do major damage to one of my all-time faves from the band.  His handling of "One More Reason", had me a bit frustrated as well, as I have always loved this song and Phil again skipped over parts of the chorus, which just annoys me when I'm singing along.  The same can be said of "The Ballad Of Jayne", which felt like it was about half-crowd-performed, to be honest, especially on the first run through the chorus.  I'm sure Phil was getting pretty gassed by this point, as a lot of the steam of his performance seemed to be waning later on in the set, which is most likely due to the fact that the guys came out absolutely on fire and out to prove something, which they definitely did in the first 20-25 minutes.  They were absolutely all guns blazing early on,and I can't help but feel like "Jelly Jam" was added to give Phil a bit of a breather.  Like I said, he still sounds really good for the most part, but there are just times where he doesn't feel like he can reach back and really rip into a chorus or a particularly biting verse, which is frustrating, if understandable.  We all get older and can't always "reach back" like we used to.  I will say that, overall, he sounds much better on the loud, high energy rockers such as on the ferocious attack he was leading at the outset, as well as on the classic closer, "Rip And Tear".  On a side note, he does a good job of intro-ing songs and interacting with the crowd, which I feel has always been a strong point for Phil as a front man.  

Tracii Guns, on the other hand, effortlessly rips through solo after solo on this live set, which I again attribute to him being able to focus solely on the leads while letting Grant handle the majority of the rhythm work.  Guns manages to keep a sense of urgency in the solos on the classic material, such as the previously mentioned "Sex Action" and the blistering "No Mercy" and "Electric Gypsy", which come ripping through the speakers right from the jump.  He also does an excellent job of blending more current material, most notably "Speeed" from The Missing Peace, into the mix and making it feel as classic as "Malaria" or the vicious closer, "Rip And Tear".  To be candid, I am not a fan of the "Bow Solo" that leads into "Over And Over" (although "Over..." sounds great!), as the mix really doesn't do it justice as there is a lot of background noise and much of the effect of the bow work is pretty much lost, at least on the CD.  Maybe being able to see him working the bow as you listen adds to it?  I'll likely never know, as I don't generally "watch" my music, especially from bands I've seen live multiple times.

The band's rhythm section is pretty tight, overall, especially the drums, which are absolutely being beaten to death at times.  I don't detect any indication of additional instrument tracks or any backing tracks being included in the mix, nor are there any glaringly obvious touch-ups, even though we all know a truly "live" record is an amazingly rare beast.  That being said, there are the occasional missed notes here and there, but they only serve to add to the "real" feel of the release, so I'm okay with that.  The backing vocals are not particularly strong, to be honest, but you can argue that LA Guns has never been a band about big harmonies and layered backing vocals...but I wouldn't be upset if one of the guys could carry a tune and not sound like they are shouting everything at me!  

The song selection is a bit curious to me, although I wouldn't say it is bad or weak, necessarily, and it is definitely stronger than 2013's Live In Concert.  Personally, I would have dropped "Jelly Jam" and "Killing Machine" in favor of "The Bitch Is Back" (which, as I stated, IS on the DVD), "I Wanna Be Your Man" (which NEVER gets played now...), and maybe another new tune such as "Sticky Fingers" or "Drop Of Bleach".  Again, the CD only clocks in at about 62 minutes, so there is definitely room for another song or two, even if nothing was cut, and I like to have things shaken up every now and then by lesser-known tracks or even the occasional album cut.  Still, most of the band's best-known songs are featured here, with something from each of the first four albums, plus the great Waking The Dead, and I suppose it's understandable why non-Guns albums were skipped over.  

The mix is a bit flat in spots, with the bottom end lacking in places, and as I mentioned elsewhere, the crowd mix is inconsistent.  Now, to be fair, this is a digital review download, which history has shown me is not always consistent with the sound quality of the actual CD or DVD, so I'm going to withhold a bit of judgement here.  However, a lot of people have complaints about various Frontiers releases and their mixes, so I'm sure there are going to be some complaints no matter what.  All this being said, this is definitely raw and gritty and sleazy and does a pretty good job of capturing the essence of nearly every LA Guns show I have seen, from the first time back in the very early 90s, to as recently as SkullFest 2 just a few years back.

Rating:  A pretty good set, overall, and probably the best of the live recordings the band has released.  Crank this to an energetic 7.5, even with its minor warts and flaws.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

BONFIRE "Temple Of Lies"




(c) 2018 AFM Records



  1. In The Beginning
  2. Temple Of Lies
  3. On The Wings of an Angel
  4. Feed The Fire
  5. Stand Or Fall
  6. Lies Comin' Home
  7. I'll Never Be Loved By You
  8. Fly Away
  9. The Way You Hate Me
  10. Crazy Over You

Alexx Stahl--Lead Vocals
Hans Ziller--Guitars
Frank Pane--Guitars
Ronnie Parkes--Bass
Tim Breideband--Drums

If you remove Scorpions and Accept from the mix, I would have to say that Bonfire is probably the most consistent, most recognizable German hard rock/metal band remaining from the 80s scene.  This is due, in large part, to Hans Ziller's relentless drive to keep the band moving forward.  Having released their first album under the Bonfire name in 1986 (the original version of the band was called Cacumen), Ziller is the lone original member still in the band, yet somehow the overall sound of Bonfire has remained generally consistent after more than 30 years.

On Temple Of Lies, Ziller has inserted Alexx Stahl as the full-time vocalist after he took over for David Reece as the band's touring vocalist.  With Stahl, the vocals now take on a more metallic approach, as opposed to the bluesy hard rock style that Reece, and long-time frontman, Claus Lessman.  While it may seem a stark departure for fans of the band's classic material, the addition of Stahl has breathed new life into the band, in my opinion, and gives Bonfire a place to launch from as they move forward from 2018.

The new album starts of with...dangit!...an intro called "In The Beginning".  It reminds me a bit of something Manowar may have done back in the day, as the narrator has a definite Orson Welles quality to his voice as he intros the album over a bed of pianos and thundering drums, alongside some excellent fretsmanship from Ziller and Pane, before it bleeds directly into the title track, "Temple Of Lies".  I guess I can give the band a pass for this intro, as I think it is basically set apart from "Temple Of Lies" for brevity's sake, as there is no place where you can say the intro ends and "Temple..." begins.  Regardless, it is immediately apparent that something has changed with Bonfire, as the higher-ranged vocals of Stahl command your attention as he brings a power metal quality to the band and this high octane rocker.  Strong backing vocals and some excellent drum work support the expected top-notch guitar work from the Ziller/Pane tandem, and Parkes' bass is a strong force throughout the track...and the record, for that matter.  What an excellent way for the band to kick off not only a new record but a new era for the band.

"On The Wings Of An Angel" is very much classic Bonfire material, and Stahl reins his vocals back in a bit, especially on the verse portions of this track.  Aside from serving the song well,. Stahl's range and command serves to let me know that he will be more than capable of handling the band's catalog from back in the Fireworks and Don't Touch The Light era in a live setting.  The downside is that it only makes me want to see the band live all that much more!  Any way, "...Wings..." is a great mid-tempo hard rock track with an excellent guitar solo and, again, some really strong backing vocals, which give the song a bigger, fuller sound.

"Feed The Fire" starts off with a slow synth build, with some strings overlaid as the tension continues to build, before the drums and guitars come crashing in on another hard-hitting, chugging mid-tempo rocker that again slips right into the classic 80s/90s Bonfire sound.  Stahl again sounds terrific, and the use of a supporting synth under the chorus bolsters the strength and power of the track.  The lyrics are a bit cliched, but that is easily forgiven on this big arena rocker that will likely have fists pounding the air and fans singing along as the band name-drops itself in the chorus.

The rest of the album carries on in a very similar vein, with virtually no letting up.  "Stand Or Fall" picks up the tempo from the two previous mid-tempo rockers, and Stahl elevates his vocals once again, adding that Euro-power metal styling to his singing and screaming, while "Comin' Home" showcases a band that is still perfectly comfortable delivering a piano-based ballad that, to my ears, would have fit very well on Fireworks, or even one of their best, later-era releases like Point Blank.  "I'll Never Be Loved By You" takes a different spin on what would seem to be a fairly cliched title, as it is not a ballad but an angst-filled mid-tempo rocker that again features some excellent backing vocals and a strong melodic approach that really showcases the strong overall songwriting on this record.  "Fly Away" is a catchy, uptempo rocker that once again features a strong chorus and the typical hard-charging rhythm guitars that Bonfire has almost always incorporated into their edgier numbers.  This song reminds me a bit of the more commercial Helloween material, especially in the chorus section, which again comes off as a bit cheesy but doesn't diminish the overall power of the track.  "Love The Way You Hate Me" has a quirky first verse (which I dig, to be honest), but there is a definite Dokken quality to the chorus sections and is easily one of my favorite tracks on the record, and "Crazy Over You" closes things out with another strong, melodic hard rock track that utilizes strong rhythm guitars and a supporting keyboard presence to really bolster another strong vocal turn from Stahl. 

The production is very solid, with an excellent drum sound and nice separation of the guitars.  The keys are kept in the background, where I prefer them, and, as previously mentioned, Parkes' bass is a strong force throughout the record, adding that extra bit of punch when necessary.

I have read that there will be bonus tracks on the CD version of this album, but I have not heard them, nor can I confirm how many CD versions there will be.  All I can confirm for sure is that this is one record I will definitely be hunting down to add to my collection, as Temple Of Lies pretty much hits on all points and is easily the best classic-styled hard rock albums I have heard in the first quarter of 2018!  Sure, I'm always a bit bummed when bands lose their voice, but Stahl is an excellent choice to front the band, and while I like what Reece did, I find Stahl to be a better overall fit while also adding a new, higher-ranged metallic element to this long-standing band of classic German hard rockers!

Rating:  Crankable, without question!  Turn this way up to 9 and let the Bonfire burn brightly!

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Monday, March 12, 2018

**CONCERT REVIEW** WinterJam 2018 featuring SKILLET, BUILDING 429, KB, etc.


WinterJam is considered by many to be the premier Christian music tour package going right now, although there are others such as CityRockFest that may argue that point.  What WinterJam does do better than any other package is bring together artists of varying genres, which, in turn, brings in a tremendous cross-section of fans...and they do it at the bargain basement price of just $15 for general admission (there are package upgrades available at higher prices), which is honestly quite a steal.

My family and I made the six hour trek to Wichita, KS to attend WinterJam18 so that our kids could experience Skillet live.  Not only was Wichita one of the two closest locations for us to attend, it worked out perfectly for the boys' Spring Break, so it was a no-brainer.

This year's festival, as I mentioned, featured Skillet as the headliner, but also features a number of other top Christian artists from varying styles.  Building 429 is a popular pop-rock act, KB is a well-known Christian rap artist, Kari Jobe is a rapidly growing name in the Praise & Worship genre, Jordan Feliz is another top pop artist, and Newsong brings more of a classic rock presence to their show.  This year, the comedian John Crist was also given stage time as well as serving in some early emcee roles.  In addition, there were also three new artists that were featured on the "Pre-Jam Party", each getting to perform three songs apiece, but I honestly can't remember their names at this point in time.  All three were fairly straight forward pop in nature, and not really in my wheelhouse, but the kids seemed to enjoy them, which was kind of the point of the trip.

The main show opened up with Jordan Feliz, who is a well-established pop-rock artist.  Admittedly, other than hearing his name before, I don't know a ton about the man, but he was very well received by the younger audience members, especially when he performed an edgier dance-pop number called "Can I Get A Witness", as well as his biggest hits, "Beloved", "Never Too Far Gone", and his number one Christian airplay track, "The River".  The four song set from Feliz was solid and energetic, with some confetti-and-streamer cannons pumping up the crowd, which is always a good start to a show.  Overall, I have to say I came away impressed with Feliz, even though his is not a style I would typically listen to around the house or in the car.

Next up was the more 70s/80s styled classic rock mixed with some praise and worship of NewSong.  Mixing a bit of Motown with their Boston/Foreigner/Kansas sound, these guys were incredibly loud, featured an excellent light show, and had a phenomenal guitar player.  "I Am A Christian" was well-received by the majority of the crowd, so apparently I was one of the few in our section that didn't know the track.  The same can be said of the set's closer, which I believe was called, "Arise My Love".  Again, not necessarily someone I would have gone to see exclusively, but they were entertaining and my kids were impressed with their performance, especially the guitarist, which both my wife and I described as "surprising".

Rap artist, KB, was up next, and was one of the two artists my sons were most interested in seeing.  Being from Central Nebraska...and with my wife and I generally not rap fans...none of us has ever gone to an actual rap concert, so we didn't really know what to expect from KB.  What we got was another high energy blast of about 25 minutes, or so, with an insanely infectious song called "I Believe" in the mix that had my 10 year old buying him the CD as soon as the show was over!  "Not
Today Satan" was one of the newer songs he included, and something called "Church Clap" was one that I think only my family didn't know!  While I am most definitely not a rap fan, I will be honest in saying that it was easy to get caught up in the energy of the show, and his live drummer was very talented.  KB himself was also a fan favorite, and I saw him standing at his booth for a LONG time after the entire concert had ended, taking pictures (for free, no less!) with an endless line of fans.  Had my boys not been so hungry, I'm sure we would have been in that same line.

Kari Jobe and her husband were up next and they delivered a very typical, adult contemporary praise and worship show.  The tiny Jobe has a big voice, but my son pointed out what a lot of people I've talked to about Christian music have echoed: the songs are so long and repetitive that they all start to sound the same.  The tempo is pretty much always the same and the singing, especially among the women, is impossibly high a lot of the time, and, to be honest, it kind of starts to grate on me after a time.  Those who know me know that I am an unapologetic Christian and fan of Christian music, but the majority of praise and worship music just does nothing for me.  Again, I am not taking away from her vocal talent, as that is extremely obvious.  I do feel that it did a disservice to KB and Building 429 to have Jobe sandwiched in between their shows (along with the comedy of John Crist, as well), as KB and Building 429 are both high energy, high volume shows that had the kids up and moving and singing along, with Jobe's set serving as kind of a shut-off switch in the middle (and while funny, Crist didn't help the energy level, either).  If anyone cared for my input, I would have put Jobe after NewSong, followed by Crist, and then let KB, Building 429, and of course, Skillet, close things out.

Building 429 got to play a little bit longer set, going 6 songs into their catalog, which was nice to hear.  Of course they opened with their huge hit, "Impossible" to start things off and get everyone up and moving again.  At times, when they are a bit dancey with their music, I would compare these guys to Maroon 5 in a way, and when they get a bit rockier, bits of Lifehouse and the edgier music of the current version of Newsboys start to creep into their music.  Lead singer, Jason Roy, is incredibly charismatic and easily brings his audience along with him, and guitar player, Jesse Rivera, is a rocker-in-waiting that is just looking for a place to escape and really cut loose.  Their bass player and drummer are very solid, as well, and the band has a polished, practiced routine that is definitely entertaining and fun for the crowd.  My 10 year old said that they were his third favorite act of the night (behind Skillet and KB), and both kids pointed to  the catchy rocker, "Bonfire", as one of the best songs of any of the bands, which I would agree with.    Other songs in the set include the mid-tempo AC of "Press On", the clap-stomp of "We Won't Be Shaken", "This Place", and the anthemic praise and worship of "Where I Belong", which closed out the set.

To say the excitement was palpable is usually a tired cliche, but in this case, there was a definite buzz of excitement as Skillet's set was being moved into place.  My six year old screamed at me (on more than one occasion), "Skillet is next!!!", which seemed to be a sentiment of nearly everyone around me.  I would say about 10-15% of the crowd had left by this point, either not interested in the loud hard rock show that was about to explode to life, or simply wearing out after more than 5 hours of music up to that point (doors opened at 4:30, with the first band taking the stage at around 6).  The lights went down and the sound came up as what appeared to be lead vocalist, Jon Cooper, came out to the catwalk portion of the stage and started singing, "I feel, I feel...invincible".  He then dropped to one knee, still in the semi-dark.  Then, about 15 seconds later, the voice echoed through the arena again, but the Cooper in front of us didn't move, but a new Cooper had popped up on an island stage in the middle of the arena about 50 feet behind us.  He repeated the same intro, did the same head-banging dance, then dropped into the same one-kneed pose.  Catwalk Cooper started up again, repeating the intro for a third time, before a loud explosion went off and the real Jon Cooper began to descend from the ceiling as he sang the first lines of the song, "Feel Invincible".  Once he finally arrived on the floor, Cooper joined his wife, purple-tressed rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper, lead guitarist, Seth Morrison, the tiny-yet-beastly drummer/backing vocalist, Jen Ledger, and touring cellist, Tate Olsen, as they tore through an all-too-short eight song set of most of the band's biggest hits.  Cooper donned his bass for the next song, the wildly popular rocker, "Whispers In The Dark", which had anyone that was still sitting down exploding out of their seat.  Cooper shed his bass and equipped each arm with what can only be described as smoke cannons as the band tore into "Sick Of It".  Each time the chorus would hit, Cooper would douse the front few rows with belches of smoke from the cannons, much to the delight of everyone present.  Things slowed down at this point as the band's crossover hit, "Lions" was up next, and it was evident that Cooper was having some vocal issues as his voice was rather hoarse in places on this softer, more sung-than-shouted song.  The band ramped back up for "Awake & Alive", which was followed by Cooper and co-vocalist, Ledger, entering a pair of what can only be described as human-powered chariots, as they circled the arena, shaking hands with fans along the railing of the lower deck of the arena as they sang.  (It should be noted that the drum tech who fills in for Ledger on this part of the show is a phenomenal drummer in his own right.)  Once Cooper and Ledger returned, the band broke into the hard rocking, "Hero",
before all the band made their way to the island stage as Cooper gave his personal testimony about his mother dying of cancer and, despite his life-long faith, how he questioned how God could allow this to happen to his mom and the pain and anger it caused him and his family.  The band then performed an acoustic version of the big ballad, "Stars", before everyone made their way back to the stage, walking through the crowd as they did so.
My boys were both very excited to get high-fives from Cooper as he walked right past us (my youngest is in the yellow Pokemon jacket, my oldest is the head in the middle of the picture; you can just see the bill of my baseball cap at the far right...).  Once everyone was back in place, the band ended the show with the wildly popular, "Monster", with Jason Roy from Building 429 coming out to help Cooper on lead vocals.  I'm wondering if this wasn't due in part to the vocal issues that Cooper seemed to be experiencing throughout the set, and if it isn't also the main reason why the band ended their set here, rather than with "The Resistance", which has been the closing song for most of the rest of the tour, and was the song the band closed with when my wife and I saw them almost exactly a year ago.  (The other possible explanation could be the time of the show, as it was now approaching midnight, and I'm not sure what the arena's curfew is.)  The show was definitely a visual spectacle, as well as a musical one, with pyrotechnics, the piston stands for the guitars (and at one point, the cellist) raising and lowering the performers, and of course Coopers smoke cannons and his descent from the rafters to start the show.  Obviously, I would have loved to have heard a few more songs included here, but overall, the band appeared to leave everything they had out there on the stage by the time the show drew to a close.

This was our family's first Winter Jam, but I doubt it will be our last, as we had a great time overall.  The band lineup changes annually, although both Skillet and Building 429 are Jam veterans, now, with each having been on at least three tours now.  The tour will be drawing to a close very shortly, so if it comes anywhere near you, I would strongly encourage you to attend, even if it's just to see Skillet for the insanely cheap price of $15!

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Monday, March 5, 2018

RED "Gone"


(c) 2017 Provident

  1. Step Inside, The Violence
  2. Still Alive
  3. Losing Control
  4. Gone
  5. Coming Apart
  6. Unstoppable
  7. Fracture
  8. Chasing Your Echo
  9. A.I.
  10. Singularity


Michael Barnes--Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Piano
Anthony Armstrong--Rhythm & Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Randy Armstrong--Bass, Keyboards, Piano, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
Joe Rickard--Drums, Percussion

The band Red returned to the scene late in 2017 with their newest offering, Gone.  Now relocated to Nashville from their home in Pennsylvania, the Armstrong brothers, along with vocalist/keyboardist, Michael Barnes, largely continue in the same stylistic vein of symphonic, electronic alt rock/metal intermixed with elements of grunge/post-grunge that has garnered them several Dove Award (think Christian-only Grammys) nominations and awards, as well as multiple Billboard-charting albums, and nearly 1.5 million albums sold dating back to 2007.  Former member Joe Rickard also returns as a "studio musician" on drums, so the same band that has been releasing albums since 2009's excellent Innocence & Instinct, is back for one more...and perhaps final...go-round (more on that in a few minutes). 

Returning to generally shorter, less-orchestral songs, which at times left 2015's generally great Of Beauty And Rage album feeling bloated in spots, Gone finds the band a bit more aggressive right from the outset, as the dirty, grungy rock of "Step Inside, The Violence" feels like the angry electronic-infused grunge rock that Filter made so popular with "Hey Man, Nice Shot".  Barnes is in fine, angry form vocally, and the guitars are crunchy and edgy as they swirl and churn throughout the track, bolstered by keyboards and electronic elements and Rickard's big drum sound.  "Still Alive", one of a couple of tracks that were pre-released as singles, follows things up nicely with an intense, uptempo rocker that really hearkens back to Innocence & Instinct, without sounding like something that was a left-over idea or cutting room floor track.  Probably my favorite track on the album, "Still Alive" contains just enough synth and electronics to keep the alt metal crowd happy, while also combining a huge amount of crunch from the guitars and the rhythm section.  Barnes vocals are as strong as ever here, easily soaring above the fray with piercing high wails and edgy screams alike to give life to lyrics that plead with desperation and angst.

The album's title track follows and things start to unravel for me, at least for a few songs. 
"Gone", the song, adds a bit more of the atmospheric approach that the band has come to be known for, but they also mix in some odd...I guess you'd call it dub-step...looping after the chorus sections, and they start to lose me a bit.  Barnes still sounds great, but the guitars sound like they are on autopilot, with nothing overly interesting going on, and the keys and electronic elements kind of take over the track.  "Coming Apart" is the first true ballad on the album, but it is just so plodding and slow-moving that it really chokes some of the life out of the album at this point.  Barnes adds a breathy quality to his vocals that I'm not overly enamored of, and the synth and keys just don't have enough oomph to overcome the slow pace the track moves along at.

And then "Unstoppable" hits, and ironically, the album just about stops for me.  This song is just so repetitive, so poppy, so...un-Red...that I pretty much skip it whenever it comes on now.  The programmed drums do nothing for me, the guitars are basically non-existent,  and even the lyrics are juvenile and lacking in any kind of depth.  This really isn't a good song, and I started to grow concerned that the remainder of the album may be headed down this road.

Fortunately, "Fracture" finds the band in better territory musically, as does "Chasing Your Echo", both of which find the band hitting a bit harder in the chorus sections, while throttling back a bit in the verse parts, giving them both some nice diversity.  Electronic elements are present in both, but the guitars have more life, more urgency, and help to drive the songs forward.  Barnes breaks into full-blown screaming on "Chasing..." as well as the following track, "A.I.", which finds the band looking back a bit to the bigger, more symphonic style that was so prevalent on Of Beauty And Rage.  Easily my favorite of the slower moments on Gone, "A.I." is a nice bridge between styles.

The record closes with "Singularity", which is an okay song...not great, but not horrible...although I'm not a big fan of the spacey electronics used in a couple of spots, and I found myself growing increasingly anxious for Barnes to just absolutely cut loose.  Its a bit frustrating because I feel like the album really ended on a whimper when a bang was needed.   

In the end, my basic complaints would be that the record comes off as rather disjointed.  At times it hits nice and hard and finds the band going back to what it did so well with its early success, changing things up now and again with some symphonic touches and some atmospheric moments. But then Gone gets all poppy in the middle, and honestly a bit boring for a stretch, which really reduces the album down to an EP of good material.  The production is, overall, really good, and the songwriting is still strong overall, with deep, thought-provoking (for the most part) lyrics that challenge both the Christian listener and the listener who just drops in for a solid dose of symphonic alt metal.  While not the pinnacle of the band's career, Gone is by no means a horrible album, with a couple of tracks here being among my favorite ever from the band; they just need to leave the poppy stuff for the poppy bands, and toss in another blazing rocker or two.  Hopefully, there is no truth to rumors that the band may soon be "gone" from the full-album scene, instead opting to release mostly digital singles and the like, because that will likely leave me "gone" from the Red fan base.  

For newcomers to the band, I wouldn't recommend Gone as the starting point, rather steering people in the direction of the previously mentioned Innocence & Instinct, or the one I find myself returning to more than any other Red album, which would be End Of Silence, which features several of the band's better known songs, including not one but two Christian Rock Songs of the Year (for 2007 and 2009)...and a nominee for that same award in 2008!  That's some serious impact from a single record!  In fairness, I could imagine "Still Alive" from Gone garnering similar attention, which would be cool to see from a band working on its second decade of existence.

Rating:  Rock-worthy without question, give Gone a 6.5, but know that it could have been so much more.