Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Saint Blasphemer - Simon Templar

Saint Blasphemer is a great metal and hard rock band from the sunny climes of Southern California without a hint of sunshine I their music and songwriting. Instead, this four piece treats their art with the utmost seriousness and attempts to make a substantive musical and lyrical statement on the perils of drug addiction and what it has personally cost them. The guitar is the album’s prime mover instrumentally, but bassist Steve Shell and drummer Steve Ybarra distinguish themselves numerous times over the course of Simon Templar’s five songs. Everything grand about this band musically flows from the rhythm section’s work and they show remarkable flexibility that prevents the hard rock posturing from ever sounding too leaden or overwrought. Monroe's singing encompasses a number of vocal moves and he sounds credible throughout each track.  

The excellent opener “Nullify” keeps listeners close and seldom allows them to breathe. There’s power a plenty here in the music, but even a cursory listen reveals the smaller elements that go into making this music work. Steve Ybarra’s talents on the drum kit are hard-hitting but naturally favor a wide swing that keeps a lively pulse going on amidst all of the Sturm and Drang generated from guitarist John Castellon. The title song comes together a little more slowly and deliberately than the first track and this theatrical choice offers a dramatic contrast to the opener. “Simon Templar” pays more attention to narrative virtues in its lyric and Thomas Monroe's vocal takes on that attitude as well. He carefully enunciates everything and shows how important it is to capture the imagery in the lyrics and convey its meaning with his voice.  

More Sturm and Drang returns with the ferocious “Scarecrow”. This is end stage drug addict, the body ravaged by the vicious cycle of getting high and coming down, and Monroe's lyrics stare the reality of this in the face without ever blinking. The drumming is particularly inventive here and bassist Steve Shell gives Ybarra a fat bass line to build his patterns with and around. “A Perfect Rose” has a much more pensive side wholly appropriate for a track about the pain of watching someone you love murdering themselves slowly before your very eyes. Atmospherics are more the order of the day with this song and, much like they do with briefer and earlier opportunities, Saint Blasphemer succeeds wildly. The final song “Breaking Just to Bend” has unimpeachable credentials from the first note onward and some excellent songwriting, particularly a witty title, but there’s darkness forever gnawing at the edge of the songwriting. It never quite succumbs to it completely and the mix of despair and hope, along with the past pace, makes it an ideal closer. Simon Templar has the impressive completeness of a full length album boiled down its essence and packing an enormous punch both lyrically and instrumentally. It will impress anyone who loves great rock and roll music.  

9 out of 10 stars

Charles Hatton

Sterling Witt – Satyagraha

You can tell, after even one listen to this album, who Sterling Witt cut his teeth on as a young musician turned on by rock and punk music. It certainly wasn’t G.G. Alin and The Mentors. There’s a highly charged political and philosophical edge to the thirteen songs on his latest release Satyagraha, but we always hear the real individual behind these sentiments, so it never seems dogmatic or preachy. If it were nothing else, this collection would surely be heartfelt. Moreover, despite its intelligence, Witt never takes things so high brow that he loses his audience. The melodies powering these songs immediately bring listeners into their world and, once there, Witt and his band mates continue to unleash one entertaining musical passage after another. This is as fully realized of a musical effort as you are likely to hear this year and certainly gives lie to the idea that rock music is somehow a passé art form. If it is, Sterling Witt never got the memo.  

Thank god he never did. Songs like “Perception Deception” are quite bright, but they also have a storm the ramparts quality missing in both mainstream and the remnants of the punk rock genre today. This isn’t Green Day punk – this is The Clash at their best with a healthy dose of ass-kicking melodic lead guitar thrown in for good measure. Few songs make this clearer than the album’s third song, “Who Do You Listen To?” Such a difficult message and theme can often be lost in the popular song form, but this track explores the band’s musical talents quite well and gets its message over without any difficulty. “Spirtual Revolution” is largely an instrumental number and it excels thanks to the memorable riffing and melody alike that Witt unveils for his listeners. The chemistry between the three band members is palpable, especially on song’s like this where lyrics are jettisoned in favor of a much more strictly musical performance. 

“Make It” and “Just So You Know” are likely the angriest full on songs found on Satyagraha, but Witt never forgoes his art just for the sake of mindlessly indulging his rage. Instead, these are forcefully played and worded fusillades of condemnation aimed at a modern world incapable of valuing reality or the individual. Music like this clears away the bullshit and shows us one man’s experience in startling clarity. “The Answer” changes the textures we’ve heard so far – instead of blasting away on his guitar, Witt reins things in and shows great subtlety from an album that, to this point, has trained us not to expect such things. The shift in tone deepens the release as a whole. “I Love You More Everyday” is the album’s most commercial number, thanks to its irrepressible melody, but there’s humor here as well beside Witt’s typically intelligent lyrics./ The details, in particular, make it a strong narrative that complements the music well. Satyagraha engages listeners intellectually and physically without ever placing importance on one facet above all others. This sort of balance is hard to achieve and obviously the product of a superior talent.  

9 out of 10 stars. 

Bradley Johnson

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Von - 3nity

The Von’s debut release Ei8ht introduced rock music fans to one of the most flexible power trios emerging in recent memory. This unit hails from a region not particularly renowned for producing acts in this vein, South Florida, but we are fortunate rock music has no geographical restrictions. Ei8ht’s songs touched on themes of self-empowerment and spirituality and, if anything, their focus has only grown with the release of this latest EP. It has a conceptual air that even the last release lacked and, even over three songs, it has a fully realized artistic point of view that makes for a memorable statement. This consolidates and expands the triumph of the first album in spectacular fashion. 

The practically acapella opening of “I Know It’s Love” creates an enormous sense of anticipation for the song to truly begin. It’s quite a rush when it does and The Von never need to exert much effort in sustaining its energy over the song’s short two minutes and change running time. There’s a lightly breathless quality to bassist Luis Bonilla’s vocals, but he has a variety of other approaches that gives the song much of its uniqueness and great instincts for using his phrasing talents in tasteful fashion. Marek Schneider’s guitar as a beautifully vocal quality and stresses the song’s melodic virtues while drummer Elisa Seda keeps things percolating from his first entrance onward. “Nature of the Beast” benefits most from a crushing groove impossible for anyone to ignore, but The Von throws a few key shifts into the mix to vary the stew some. Schneider’s guitar sounds simply couldn’t be any better suited for this sort of music and has tremendous presence. Bonilla often seems like he’s tailoring his vocals here to Schneider’s guitar playing, but a closer listen reveals a comprehensive attention to the marriage between his voice and the surrounding instruments.  

Some of the band’s spacey, pseudo-psychedelic inclinations emerge on the EP’s last song. “My Heart Machine” is quite theatrical as well and it’s to the band’s credit that they are talented enough to create such compelling mind-movies with this music. This is where the band’s progressive leanings emerge even more strongly than before and Bonilla responds with a fantastic vocal that moves freely between stirring passages and hazy, dreamy vocals lightly treated with post production effects. 3nity has eye-popping diversity for such a short release and stretches the boundaries of what constitutes a traditional EP. “My Heart Machine” is, arguably, the musical peak. 

The Von are far more than dabblers or dilettantes. Their songwriting on 3nity is sparked with genuine inspiration and an abundance of talent. Two other crucial ingredients are ambition and tastefulness brought into perfect balance with one another – there’s a sense of the band striving for a high peak without ever overreaching. Luis Bonilla’s powerful vocals convey the message and meaning of each song in a highly personal way while the lyrics never attempt to be too heavy-handed and not allow listener’s the freedom of their own interpretations. 3nity is one of the year’s best releases in any form.  

9 out of 10 stars 

William Elgin III

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stefanie Keys - Open Road

Open Road, the third album from singer/songwriter Stefanie Keys, draws from a deep well of musical influences to make its impact on the listener. Keys’ artistic inclinations cover a wide array of forms within the Americana genre – there are strong strains of rock and roll, blues, folk, and country coloring this ten song work. It is natural that, growing up around bluegrass music, Keys would pursue such ends, but her muse couldn’t be confined. Keys surrounds herself with a first class collection of musical collaborators, particularly Dave Shul on guitar. Shul provides effective backing vocals throughout as well, but Keys carries much of the album’s vocal work on her shoulders alone. She is the true star of Open Road, but it is for much more than her singing alone. The songwriting on Open Road is a cut above other efforts in the genre and will stay in the memory after it ends.  

The title track will certainly sound lyrically familiar to longtime music fans, but Keys’ invocation of tropes isn’t hollow and imitative. She enlivens these time-tested images with personality and inspiration. Keys is a singer who is with every word and the clear-eyed vision for phrasing she exhibits adds layers of meaning to the words. The band dovetails their performance perfectly around her vocal and manages to lightly touch on a variety of musical moods without ever reining the song into one particular style. “No Tomorrow” is a much grittier and hard-hitting track than the opener. The song’s message is a relatively common variation on the “carpe diem” theme, but like the first song, Keys distinguishes it with the white-knuckled passion she brings to her performance. 

The relaxed and melodic grace of “Sleeping Lady” might distract listeners from the song’s sturdy, economical construction. There isn’t a wasted note in the song and Keys’ vocal carries the fine lyrics with just the right emotional amplitude. A delicate mood sustains the success of this song and pushing it too hard might have ruined its potential. It builds to a particularly rousing finale. Her social consciousness emerges some on “Cold Day”. She shows off more of her songwriting skills with this track – few songwriters could write about these issues with such perfect balance between powerful observational skills and personal resonance. The musical arrangement finds its own perfect balance between atmospherics and melodic strength. She fires up “Hey” with simmering and soulful blues vocals. The light application of vocal effects helps strengthen the mood and the band responds with a sympathetic performance that enriches her vocal.

“Highway to Your Soul” has an unexpected anthemic quality and hits just as hard as the album’s second track “No Tomorrow”. Keys unleashes the fires of hell itself with her vocal, but it isn’t an unbridled desertion of technique as she shows considerable finesse coupled with that passion during the verses. The album’s final great moment comes with “Amos Crain”. It is obvious from the title that this is Keys’ nod to the tradition of lyrical character study and it succeeds quite well because it meets all of its benchmarks and offers something new. Her lyrics are subtle and well-crafted enough that, ultimately, they reveal as much about the narrator as they do Crain.
Open Road is a bracing and satisfying musical experience. There are few singers working in any genre as skillful and earthy as Stefanie Keys.  

9 out of 10 stars  

Joshua Stryde

Josh Birdsong - Simple Geometry

Josh Birdsong comes out of this five song EP sounding like a potential world-beater. The material on his debut release Simple Geometry solidifies his position as one of Nashville’s most talented songwriters, a all-around icon in the making capable of excelling musically and lyrically while still working within commercially viable and recognizable forms. Birdsong never panders. The songs on Simple Geometry don’t broach any new subject matter for popular song, but Birdsong’s talent with words and the connection between his self-expression and the quantifiable results of his effort set him far apart from most of his contemporaries. His lyrics glow with an astute literary quality that goes far beyond the ken of verse, chorus, verse, and tries to engage its audience on a much deeper level than formula will typically allow.  

The first song on the EP, “Unspeakable”, and will likely rate among its best lyrical offerings for many listeners thanks to its facility with imagery and literary devices. Birdsong never overplays the lyric and, instead, exercising a great deal of care with his phrasing that helps the words enjoys a chance to stand on their own. The EP’s second song “Radio Waves” has a steady pulse, but it accumulates additional instruments slowly and, by the time listeners are deep in the song’s second half, they are being carried along by a full band arrangement full of feeling and velocity. The guitar playing here is even sharper than on the preceding song and the use of effects like reverb and delay don’t put a drag on the playing but, instead, create interesting effects within the structure of the song. The EP’s third song “Drive” lacks the production work heard on the preceding songs, but it makes more use of contrasting musical light and shade than any previous song and beefs up the track as a whole by inserting forceful acoustic rhythm guitar at the song’s foundation. There’s a more laid back attitude exhibited here that Birdsong doubles down on with his relaxed vocal. 

“Why?” returns listeners to the EP’s original territory. Birdsong’s guitar is, once again, festooned with all manner of digital effects, but nothing can obscure the compact and fluent melodies emerging from Birdsong’s playing. There’s a more yearning, demanding spirit than before expressing itself here lyrically or musically and it’s a credit to Birdsong’s collaborators that so ably help realize his musical vision. Simple Geometry’s final song, “You and I”, embodies the aforementioned wont for exploring traditional subjects through new eyes. Birdsong’s acoustic meditation on the vagaries of romantic love is exquisitely and simply presented, but more importantly, it never impedes his ability to convey the emotional nature of the subject for him.  

Simple Geometry may come out of Nashville, but there’s no hint of country here. Birdsong’s evolution coincides with the transformation of this traditional music stronghold into a mainstream artistic hub no longer content with being regarded as a regional and cultural backwater. The five songs on this EP are moving and highly entertaining.  

9 out of 10 stars. 

Dale Butcher 

Alex Di Leo - So We Go

South Florida based singer/songwriter Alex Di Leo is a familiar regional name thanks to his tenure in the band Wyld Fly, but the six song EP So We Go represents his first foray into the marketplace under his own banner. It’s a stunning debut and hints at greatness to come. Di Leo’s songwriting skills are evident in every track – there’s a solid foundation he builds on with an assortment of production touches and discreet instrumentation that never oversteps its boundaries. His vocals, as well, concentrate on conveying their stories and meaning while refraining from any needless histrionics. Melody is the essential building block in all of these songs and they are made even stronger with the inclusion of spot on harmonies. The material is decidedly mainstream, but never panders to trends and wears its influences on its sleeve without ever lapsing into outright imitation. 

Few songs illustrate the last point better than the title song. “So We Go” is definitely capable of garnering Di Leo some much deserved attention from the Internet and radio, but there’s a deceptively complex musical talent working here. The ability to take essentially simple musical structures and make something richer from them without weighing them down with needless pretense is an underestimated gift. Di Leo, however, possesses it in abundance. It’s further on display with the EP’s second song “Making It Easier”. He uses dynamics in these songs like a hard rock band might employ them and it builds a number of small crescendos into the arrangement sure to entrance many listeners. His musical vision encompasses softer acoustic strains as well. “Reason” is, far and away, the album’s most introspective tune in some respects and Di Leo’s arrangement nearly dovetails with the spirit of its lyrical content. 

His pop instincts merge well with his more serious inclinations on the memorable “When We First Met”. Much of this song’s lasting impact on the listener can be lain at the feet of its superb vocal harmonies and artful production, but it’s simply quite a sturdy song that would have proven just as memorable stripped down to a few essentials. “I’ve Been Waiting” sets up the first part of the EP’s concluding one-two punch with talent and ambition to burn. Di Leo’s skill level is such that he’s capable of condensing entire musical universes within traditionally small spaces and never overload the listener. The dynamic sweep of this track will snatch listeners up and keep them involved for its duration. The album’s final song, “Waking Up”, is every bit as jolting as the title suggests and invites listeners to stick with it every second. This is Di Leo’s compositional zenith – he’s orchestrated this track beautifully and its position as the album’s final curtain couldn’t have been set up any better.

 There’s something here teetering on the cusp of greatness, a blossoming musical vision that will likely continue expanding with new live shows, new albums. It is impressively complete now. So We Go brims over with melody, invention, and message, but it’s equally entertaining and physically compelling music.  

9 out of 10 stars

Joshua Stryde

Monday, October 17, 2016

Juliet Huns - Behind the Scenes

Like a comet streaking across the night time sky, Juliet Huns will light up everything around you listening to her debut EP Behind the Scenes. However, unlike a comet, Huns’ first release has staying power that allows listeners to revisit the EP’s three songs and get long-lasting enjoyment from their creativity. This is totally a pop song collection, but Huns stretches the limits of pop far beyond their usual purview. Instead of relying on the same blueprint each time, Huns mixes a variety of other minor influences in with her unerring pop instincts for some truly remarkable moments. These songs seem to spin out of her effortlessly and, undoubtedly, much of the reason for that can be laid at the feet of her stylishness and bravery. Simply put, Huns is a singer willing to try anything once because she knows her voice can carry anything. From the pure pop moments to harder, edgier excursions, Huns sounds in control throughout.
Like any great musical release, Behind the Scenes builds on itself. “Realized” is the first song and foundation of the EP’s ambitions. It is musically dominated by a variety of keyboard and synthesizer lines, including electronic drums and bass, but it never sounds cold or unfeeling. There is a thick aura of warmth surrounding the production on Behind the Scenes and this warmth conveys a real intimacy to the listener often lacking in commercially minded pop music. There are small crescendos and breakdowns throughout the song that bring an extra amount of pizzazz to an already stirring opener. Huns’ phrasing makes the most of fine lyrics. There’s nothing in the words to this song that will leave listeners scratching their heads, but it goes far beyond the usual Top 40 fare in depicting her personal dialogue.
“Gone” breaks with the first track in its inclusion of rockier sounds, like electronically treated guitar, and a muscular chorus that relies a great deal on thrashing guitar lines to make its impact. Instead of the breakdowns and micro-crescendos heard in the opener, Huns’ approach her makes the most of dynamics – alternating raucous passages with much more restrained moments. Her vocal, as before, takes full advantage of the well-written lyrics and helps the song reach its fullest potential. Behind the Scenes closes with “Red Line”, a song that attempts being everything to everyone and succeeding. Dynamics, once again, are the order of the day and this song does a better job than the first one at manipulating the arrangement for maximum dramatic effect. The lyrical content here maintains the same high standard as before, but Huns’ singing certainly does much to envelop the text with even more power and passion than either of the first two songs.
Behind the Scenes sends this prodigious talent’s career off into the stratosphere. Juliet Huns sounds absolutely inspired throughout, as if she is fully aware that this is her big chance to reach the widest of possible audiences, and she never disappoints. Three songs may not seem like much, but she makes the most of them, and it is sure to leave her audience quite satisfied.

9 out of 10 stars 

Scott Wigley  

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Good for Nothin’ Band - Maniac World

The Big Easy has been producing distinctive and original music throughout the city’s history and the latest addition to New Orleans’ musical history is the five piece The Good for Nothin’ Band. The band has songwriting ambitions and musical skills measuring off the charts and their lyrics often tackle adult matters, but The Good for Nothin’ Band doesn’t take themselves too seriously, but they likewise never drag their songs into outright buffoonery. The ten songs on their first album Maniac World are full of good taste as well – this is certainly a collection of musicians who believe in the edict that it’s the notes you don’t play that count more. Everything here is carefully cultivated, but it lives, moves and breathes like real art should.  

“Fishin’ for Stars” swings listeners into the album with gentle ease and certainly casts a spell with its emotive vocals and strongly imagistic lyrics. The vivid writing marking this track extends over all ten songs, but it serves its purpose to ornament the music without ever overwhelming it. Much like the musical content in “Fishin’ for Stars” and the remainder of the album, there isn’t a wasted word or moment of excess. “DNA” pushes its way into listener’s consciousness with force and an inventive variety of tempo shifts that will keep new and old fans alike keyed into the song. Jon Roniger’s vocal swoops and soars through the lyric with the same twisting, imaginative grace. The title tune takes on a completely different stripe. The Good for Nothin’ Band are totally believable indulging the blusier side of their musical character, but there’s something a little stilted about this because it truly doesn’t feel as personal or close to the band’s sensibilities as heard elsewhere on the album. People will definitely identify with it, anyone paying attention to the world around them should, but it does hit with the same impact as the songs before and after. 

There’s some edgy horns making “Bosom of Extremes” move, but nothing ever pushes too hard and there’s taste exercised in every lyrical, musical, and playing decision. The Good for Nothin’ Band picks their shots on Maniac World and takes chances with a few extended songs, but they keep things brief for the most part and excel with both approaches. The album’s last big top energetic number comes with “Lips Like Candy” and Roniger’s vocal, in tandem with the brass section, gives the song memorable added oomph. The production on this album does a really sharp, judicious job of mixing the instruments together in a very balanced fashion. The final song “One Last Call” shows off a considerably different take on the blues genre than the band’s earlier attempts. It has a confident, stylish sway that has great drumming dramatically guiding it towards a definitive conclusion. It ends Maniac World on exactly the right emotional and musical note without falling prey to the typical desire to make a big statement with that final number.  

9 out of 10 stars.

Dale Butcher

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Seth Swirsky - Circles and Squares

Gorgeous melodic strengths, classic pop structures, and even a light dash of psychedelia go into the making of Seth Swirsky’s third solo album Circles and Squares. There’s no denying that the influence of Brian Wilson, The Beatles, and other late 60’s American acts hold considerable sway over the songwriting and sonic architecture of Circles and Squares, but no one has quite the same ear for melody that Swirsky does. Moreover, his talent for writing concise mini-symphonies is virtually unparalleled in the modern music scene and nothing ever feels arbitrary in these songs. Swirsky’s gift for words, melody, and arrangement are functional; the same beautifully focused economy applies across the board on this – his third release to date. 

“Shine” is a perfect example. You’ll likely realize, after listening to the album in its entirety at least once, that Swirsky could not have possibly chosen a better opening number. The presence of piano in the song is key and helps push the song along in a surprisingly percussive way. Harmonies are another key component in the song, but it’s relaxed march contributes much as well. “Circles and Squares” is a title track that comes rather early on the album. Nominally, a title song is representative of the band’s efforts and, next to the opener and closer, arguably constitutes the most important track on any album. Artists typically place it at the end or in the middle of their releases, so Swirsky pulling out that particular card on only the second song is a lightly audacious move. It pays off. The rising and falling of the song creates a magical mood within a relatively short space of time and Swirsky’s vocal is quite up for any challenges that the song poses for a singer.”Far Away” moves him from the brightly colored pop of the opening two songs into something much more deliberate and plotted out. “Far Away” never sounds sterile because of this. Instead, it plays like one of Swirsky’s more ambitious songs and sees him attempting to cover his canvas in a much different fashion than before. 

The mood turns coolly celebratory again with the song “Let’s Get Married”. This is much more reminiscent, personally, of George Harrison’s songwriting than The Beatles, per se. It is quite obviously full of much love and tenderness, but the fervor is modulated some by the distinctly laid back nature of the music. “Sonic Ferris Wheel” brings another side of Swirsky’s songwriting into play. The brash drumming and bright musical backing conceals some of the album’s darkest lyrics and the dramatic tension that create helps the song stand out as one of the best on Circles and Squares. Swirsky’s bravery is one of the most quietly impressive qualities about this release and his willingness to tackle thorny personal topics is inspiring. “Let’s Move To Spain” makes delightful use of traditional rockabilly tropes while underplaying them just enough to sound completely clichéd. 

Few artists ever write and record an album with this many sides. The multi-dimensional moods and musical shifts Swirsky brings to bear on this collection is difficult to forget because, unlike most performers, it all works. These songs are certainly the product of much labor and forethought, but Swirsky has the rare gift for making them sound like they were always there and just waiting for someone to play them. Circles and Squares couldn’t be more highly recommended.  

9 out of 10 stars 

Joshua Stryde