EP Review: SHIKOBI – “Pull The Trigger”

I continue to be blown away by the huge number of incredibly talented bands and artists making music these days.  And whoever claimed rock was dead just isn’t listening!  And so I turn my spotlight to Shikobi, who play a powerful mix of edgy – and often topical – alternative hard rock, hip-hop, grunge and funk.

The band started out as a duo at the beginning of 2014, with Australian brothers Aaron and Luke Hession writing songs and playing local clubs, and within a year they were selling out larger venues as the headliner act. The brothers relocated to Los Angeles in early 2015, and by that April, enlisted drummer Dylan Hayden and bassist Marco Barrientos to complete the band’s lineup. Both Aaron and Luke sing and play guitar. Since then, Shikobi has steadily built a following in the U.S.

They’ve now released their debut EP Pull The Trigger, containing four red-hot tracks that showcase the band’s dynamic rap-infused hard rock sound, backed by heavy, explosive guitars and speaker-blowing percussion. Listening to their songs, it’s immediately clear they were influenced by Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

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Shikobi quickly establishes that they mean business with the lead single “Here We Go Again.” The track bursts open with pounding drums and blistering guitars. Anyone who follows my blog knows I’m a sucker for awesome, hard-driving guitar riffs, and this song has them in spades. These guys wield their guitars like weapons, shredding, pummeling and distorting the sound waves. Aaron’s raw vocals match the intensity of the music – he rapid-fire raps one moment, then practically snarls his lyrics the next. Take a listen to this firecracker:

The title track “Pull The Trigger” is a hard-hitting anthem addressing an issue the band feels strongly about – gun control and the lack of gun laws in the U.S. A complex, discordant arrangement with furious, gnashing guitars and thunderous drums perfectly evoke the troubling seriousness of the subject. Luke’s impassioned vocals are chilling in their ferocity. “We’re never gonna stop this happening, until the gun laws get changed again.  There’s too many people with twisted minds. Too many people to commit these crimes… What’s it going to take, until we make a change.”  The guitars on this track are positively monumental.

Slower in pace than the first two tracks, “Alive” and “Fight To Be Free” still feature the band’s signature killer guitars and heavy percussion. Throw in Aaron and Luke’s fervent, soaring vocals, and you’ve got two highly-compelling in-your-face songs. “Alive” has a distinct Red Hot Chili Peppers vibe, while Rage Against the Machine is evident in the politically-charged protest song “Fight to be Free.”

Pull the Trigger is an excellent debut from a very promising band of talented musicians who know how to play awesome hard rock. Show Shikobi support by following them on TwitterFacebook and Soundcloud. Their EP will soon be available for purchase on iTunes and other online music sites.

Featured Video: Romeo Crow – “For the Weekend”

A few months ago, I featured the multi-talented – and wonderfully charming – British singer/songwriter/filmmaker Romeo Crow on this blog (see the article here). Now, Romeo’s back with a great new song and video “For the Weekend.” The song’s about being frustrated and bored with a dull, mindless job that’s always making you look forward to the weekends – in other words, living for the weekend.  Romeo sings: “The only voice that matters here is the one that you can hear inside your head. If you wait for the weekend to get back all your living, you’ll find that it’s gone in a flash. Don’t wait for a lifetime to get back what you’re missing, you’ve got to pull your lifeline back.

The delightful video, which Romeo wrote, produced, filmed and stars in, begins with him sitting at his desk at work when he receives a phone call from someone requesting a file. He goes to a dingy basement storeroom to get it, whereupon he discovers various musical instruments.  Hesitating at first, he decides to take the plunge and act out his fantasies – his various rock star alter-egos play drums, guitar and sing –  until reality returns and he turns off the light and closes the storeroom door.

Musically, “For the Weekend” is an exuberant song featuring Romeo’s infectious, off-kilter vocals and phenomenal guitar-playing skills.  I’d love to hear him play “All Along the Watchtower” some time – hint, hint, Romeo!

Support Romeo by helping to promote this video by clicking here.  Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, as well as his website.

EP Review: Puppet Theory – “Buttons”

British Indie pop/rock foursome Puppet Theory is the latest band to emerge from the vibrant Manchester music scene.  They bring a fresh approach to their music, fusing old-school Brit-pop/rock with punk and alternative influences.  On September 21, they dropped their debut EP Buttons – a collection of four infectious, high-energy songs guaranteed to put you in a good mood and make you dance around like –  well, a puppet on a string!

I first learned of Puppet Theory when they followed me on Twitter a few days ago and, given their fun, upbeat music and sense of humor, I’m already a big fan.  On their website, they state “Puppet Theory have the perfect blend of UK influences, consisting of 2 Mancunians, a Scouser and a Southerner whose energy, edginess and musical expertise work together to create an unforgettable set.” For those of us non-Brits, a ‘Mancunian’ is a person from Manchester and a ‘Scouser’ is from Liverpool.  In their Facebook bio, they identify themselves as follows:  Johnny – Little strings and sings;  Chris – Little strings and sings;  Niall – Big strings;  Paul – Hits things.  How endearing is that?

Puppet Theory began life when Johnny and Paul started jamming together, feeling an instant connection. Knowing they needed a strong vocalist/lyricist who could serve as band front man, they held auditions and enlisted Chris after he impressed them with his songwriting ideas. Finally, after auditioning four other bassists, they were blown away by Niall’s playing and signed him on the spot, completing the band line-up.  They’re thrilled to now have their first EP out so music junkies like me can enjoy their music.

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The first track, “Young & Youthful,” immediately hooks you with an irresistibly catchy melody, though the poignant lyrics speak to anxiety over transitioning from youth to adulthood. The song bursts open with shredded guitars and pounding drums, led by a buzzing bassline. Another guitar riff is introduced, intertwining with the shredded guitars, and Chris plaintively sings: “When did we get old? Someone should have told me that I  don’t know what it is all about. Give me some time to figure it out. I’ll get there.”

Pulsating guitars, strong bass and Paul’s assertive drums – accentuated by lots of crashing cymbals – highlight the catchy title track “Buttons.” The strong third track “Room to Breathe” has a distinct Foo Fighters vibe, most noticeable in the excellent main guitar riff. The final track “Do You Know” treats us to more awesome blistering guitars and dynamic percussion that appear to be a hallmark of Puppet Theory’s sound.  The song seems to end at 4:30, then starts up again with a dramatic guitar solo that’s a sped up version of the main song riff for another 30 seconds. Interestingly, the band is the third that I’ve reviewed over the past month or so to utilize this stop and start up again technique in a song.

All in all, Buttons is a strong debut for Puppet Theory, who I think have a promising future, given not only their talent, but their strong chemistry and charisma.  Show them support by checking out their Website, following them on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. Stream Buttons on Spotify or purchase on iTunes.

Top 20 Songs for Sept. 25-October 1, 2016

1. ALL WE EVER KNEW – The Head and the Heart (1)
2. BANG BANG – Green Day (3)
3. HEATHENS – twenty øne piløts (2)
4. LIFE ITSELF – Glass Animals (5)
5. TROUBLE – Cage the Elephant (4)
6. GOOD GRIEF – Bastille (7)
7. CHEAP THRILLS – Sia & Sean Paul (6)
8. HYMN FOR A WEEKEND – Coldplay featuring Beyoncé (9)
9. YOU DON’T GET ME HIGH ANYMORE – Phantogram (8)
10. WAKE UP CALL – Nothing But Thieves (10)
11. SAY MY NAME – (IAM)WARFACE – (11)
12. RIVER – Bishop Briggs (12)
13. HARDWIRED – Metallica (14)
14. FEEL INVINCIBLE – Skillet (17)
15. SEND MY LOVE (To Your New Lover) – Adele (15)
16. BURN THE WITCH – Radiohead (13)
17. WELCOME TO YOUR LIFE – Grouplove (19)
18. TONIGHT – Matto Rules (20)
19. CHANGES – MUTEMATH (N)
20. SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN – Young the Giant (16)

Song Review: Agony In The Garden – “Obsolete”

Dayton, Ohio has produced quite an array of important and influential artists and bands over the years, spanning a broad spectrum of music genres. Some of the notable ones include funk/R&B greats The Ohio Players & Lakeside, rocker Rick Derringer, hip-hop band Zapp, dance-pop singer CeCe Peniston, alt-rock band Guided By Voices, pop-punk band Hawthorne Heights, and metalcore bands Twelve Tribes and Devil Wears Prada. Now let me introduce another band to rise from the Dayton music scene: rock metal band Agony In The Garden.

As they explain in their bio, Agony in the Garden’s music “honors those who would challenge the sun. Though our overture reflects the eternal dream, the sleeper has awakened. As we bore witness to this paradox the logic is ill refute.” Their music style fuses rock, metal and blues to create a powerful wall of sound that grabs hold of and engulfs the listener in a realm of blazing guitars, massive synth chords and sharp percussion. Their poetic song lyrics are always compelling and socially relevant.

Agony In The Garden started out as a concept band, with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/bassist Mack Perry as the solo artist writing and recording all the music. He released a debut four-song EP Where Olympus Dwells in May 2015, receiving critical acclaim and earning a growing legion of fans. Drummer Bobby Milton and guitarist Michael Greer joined the band in July 2016, and they are now working on a new album tentatively named Second Light, and set for release in Fall 2016.

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The first single to be released is “Obsolete,” a sonically hard-hitting metal rock tune that dazes the senses. The song opens with a delicate, crystalline guitar solo, then erupts into a rich stew of snarling, swirling guitars, and pummeling bass.  Assertive drums keep the hard-driving beat moving forward, but never overpower the phenomenal heavily-textured guitars and Perry’s raw, impassioned vocals. Finally, demons expunged and both singer and listener spent, the song closes with a repeat of the gentle guitar riff.

The powerful lyrics speak to the sins of mankind and his impermanence on this earth. The end will come for us all as we cast away our demons (sins), breaking free of our physical selves and ascend to an afterlife. “Burning flames will shatter/in a world made of stone. Hear the dying children’s laughter/in a hell so new it’s old. Darkened sacred waters/Go on and fill them with your name. You can rise above the wreckage/go on and rise above your mortal chains. Throw your demon into the sun, ’til it’s done. Throw your demon, one by one into the sun.

For a background reference of the band’s music, here’s the video for their excellent 2015 single “Where Olympus Dwells.” It’s a provocative commentary on poverty and homelessness that intertwines beautiful scenery with startling images of the homeless and disasters – both natural and political – that contribute to the homeless epidemic. The song has been chosen to be featured on the soundtrack of the new Ugandan Action Cinema film Precision: The Child Drug Trafficking.

I must make note that, from our conversations by e-mail and Twitter messaging, Mack Perry is one of the most gracious and respectful musicians I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with. So support his band by checking out their website and following on Twitter and Facebook. Stream their music on Spotify and Soundcloud, and purchase on itunes, Amazon and other online music sites.

Album Review: THE ZOUP – “Symbiotic”

I’m beginning to think that some of the best rock music these days is coming out of New Zealand, as here I am writing about yet another great band from that island nation at the other side of the world (I’m in Southern California).  My latest subject is The Zoup, an alternative rock band from Auckland, and their sparkling debut album Symbiotic.  As explained in the album notes, Symbiotic is “a sonic journey representing five years of musical exploration and experimentation which truly represents the collective essence of the band.”

The Zoup is comprised of Jaydn de Graaf (lead vocals, guitar), Dominic Mauger (lead guitar, keyboards), Tom Chou (bass) and Dave Johnston (drums, backing vocals).  The band’s sound is characterized by complex, multi-textured guitars over strong, rhythmic basslines and aggressive percussion, accompanied by deGraaf’s amazing vocals that swoop and soar with abandon.  The guys have been making music together for over eight years, and recorded their first self-titled EP in 2009. They continued writing songs and experimenting with their sound, and recorded several tracks in two sessions named for the locations where they took place – the Piha in 2011 and Kaipara in 2012. Three of those tracks have been remastered and are now included on Symbiotic.

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The 10-track album was engineered and produced by band member/drummer Dave Johnston (who also plays drums for the band Villainy), and what a winner it is!  It opens strong with the hyperkinetic title track “Symbiotic.” Rapid-fire drums set the pace, with assertive guitars overlying buzzing basslines. The song hums along, seeming to end at 3:05, then with a touch of feedback, it revs back up to a dramatic finish. I may be totally off-base, but the lyrics seem to address the band’s connection with their past, and their desire to move on into new territory, which this album represents. “Strange how the smallest sounds always seem to trigger the memories I thought that I had lost in time.

Next up is “Shao Ten” – a standout track with such awesome guitar work, it had the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. Distorted guitars play off frantic, jangly guitar riffs and wobbly bass, perfectly complementing de Graaf’s powerful soaring vocals. The captivating “Scheming” is one of my favorites, with blistering guitars and aggressive drums, accentuated by an abundance of crashing cymbals. The backing vocals rise and fall in a beautiful chorus, accompanied by distorted guitar.

The melodic “The Cuts and the Crime” is another strong track, and has been released as their latest single. The song speaks to the inner conflict between giving in to one’s darker desires – to “dance with the fire” – and the need to walk a straight line and behave like a good person: “In my mind/The better side of never is what keeps me in line. In my mind/I’m never gonna get it from the cuts and the crime.”  Musically, the song opens with a powerful drumbeat that propels the song forward. Complex, multi-layered stop and start guitar riffs float nicely over a powerful bassline and, as always, deGraaf’s vocals are mesmerizing.

Keeping the energy flowing, “Monuments” is a hard-driving gem with swirling guitars, heavy bass and hammering drums. deGraaf’s urgent vocals weave effortlessly through the music. The pace slows a bit with the sultry but still intense “Talking to Myself.” The killer guitars are shredded, plucked and distorted all over the place, accompanied by crashing cymbals and goosebump-inducing harmonic vocals. This song has some of the best lyrics: “Even dishonest men tell honest lies. To reset those feelings which hold special meanings will take some time.  Trusting this world it takes such arrogance.  Talking to myself is not OK.”

“Ethos” was first recorded at the Piha Sessions in 2011, and is such a good song the band decided to rework and include it on Symbiotic. On this and the following track “Colours,” we’re treated to more mind-bending guitar riffs and Johnston’s wicked drums, along with deGraaf’s beguiling vocals. I’m now certain that I’m addicted to this band’s music.

Another older song from the Kaipara Sessions included on this album is the gorgeous ballad “We Should Have Listened.”  Acoustic guitars have a starring role, giving this amazing track more of a folk-rock vibe than The Zoup’s other songs. The lyrics are compelling: “Time the oppressor waits for no man at all. Save those lucky few who hold it dearest to them.  We should have listened, but now it’s gone. We didn’t listen to what they had to say. We had our chance to change. We had our chance, we threw it all away.” Although the track has been remastered for the album, this video from the session in 2012 features the band recording the song, along with footage of them that provides a glimpse of their friendly, unassuming personalities.

The final track “Young and Unaware” is the third on Symbiotic to come from the previous sessions. It’s a great song, with thunderous shredded guitars, heavy bass and pounding drums giving it the most hard-rock sound of all the tracks on the album.

The Zoup (their name doesn’t really mean anything, according to Johnston, who said they actually saw the word on an old T-shirt belonging to their guitarist Dominic, and thought a name beginning with the last letter of the alphabet was strong) is definitely a band to follow and Symbiotic is an album worth owning.  Show them support by following on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. Stream their music on Soundcloud or Spotify, and purchase on Bandcamp or itunes.

Song Review: MUTEMATH – “Changes”

On the heels of touring for their superb 2015 album Vitals, and as second opening act for twenty one pilots’ epic Emotional Roadshow World Tour (see my  concert review), New Orleans band MUTEMATH has dropped a positively stunning new single “Changes.” It’s the opening track on their new album of the same name – set for release on September 23.

Upon first hearing the opening vibrating synth chords, it’s clear that “Changes” is a thing of sonic greatness. Our ears are dazed by a gorgeous waterfall of alternating lush and distorted synths, tinkling keyboard and multi-layered percussion.  Lead singer Paul Meany’s beguiling vocals are sublime, perfectly conveying the slightly melancholy vibe of the track. The ending piano movement is breathtaking in it’s simplicity.

“Changes” is both a metaphor for the album itself, which is a re-imagining of Vitals, featuring reworks and remixes by band members and other producers, and an ode to feeling misunderstood amid life’s ever-changing landscape.  The lyrics are poetic: “I’m just suffering from changes, locked outside for good. Paper cut by turning pages, sitting under dust ’cause I’m not understood.

It’s interesting that MUTEMATH alludes to cemetery imagery in the song, given New Orleans’ iconic burial grounds: “Monuments blush, while rising in the ashes and dust horizon. I can hear pallid choirs sing, from their headstone hymnals now.”

Take a listen to this masterpiece:

MUTEMATH formed in 2002 and, as with many bands, has undergone personnel changes since then. The band now consists of band frontman Paul Meany (lead vocals, keyboards), Darren King (drums), Roy Mitchell-Cardenes (bass) and Todd Gummerman (lead guitar).

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If you aren’t already, follow MUTEMATH on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. “Changes” – both the single and new album – are available for purchase on itunes and all other online music purchase sites.

Artist Spotlight – The Condriacs

It’s back to the UK for a spotlight on The Condriacs, a singer/songwriting duo from Essex who make some really fine folk-pop music. The Condriacs are close friends Peter Spicer and Tony Slaven, who began writing songs together a couple of years ago, but decided to take their music more seriously in late 2015, when they began recording tracks. Spicer, who’s been making music since he was 14, plays guitar, while Slaven vocalizes their beautiful, compelling lyrics. As the guys explained in an interview with Michelle Ward on Brentwood, Essex radio station Phoenix 98FM in April 2016, they love great lyrics, especially by some of their favorite songwriters Chris Stapleton, Billy Joel and James Taylor, from whom they draw inspiration in penning their own exceptional lyrics. As for their interesting name, their wives came up with that moniker.

The Condriacs have recorded a number of songs, and are working toward producing a full -length album as time and funds permit. Spicer told me it’s a painfully slow process, but so far, they have five songs that will be on their debut album, and they’re working on two more they hope to record in the coming month. Their well-crafted songs are soothing, yet maintain enough of an edgy quality to keep from sounding too pop.

“When You’re Gone” is a lovely but sad ballad that speaks to the heartache and loneliness resulting from a lost love. With strong vulnerability in his vocals, Slaven laments “All I want is just another moment, a minute when I can feel your love. I wanna spend a whole day with you, really. How can I love you baby when you’re gone?”  Spicer’s smooth guitar and the accompanying piano, violin and gentle drums beautifully complement Slaven’s heartfelt vocals, which at times remind me of fellow Brit Rod Stewart.

The gorgeous “Devil’s Mist” is a standout track and my personal favorite. The first few opening musical notes can make or break a song for me, and in “Devil’s Mist” they’re positively captivating. The song’s arrangement and rich instrumentation are perfect from start to finish. Lyrically, the song is about hurt and betrayal over a failed relationship, and such powerful words they are:

“Raging nights, rumbling skies, lighting strikes me, I’m paralyzed. War with words that really hurt. We’ve just dragged up the past and dirt. When that red mist covers me, have to set that devil free. The open road where the air is free, brings me back to you. Why do you leave me in the pouring rain? Always running, never take the blame? I assume you’re OK, ’cause I’ve lost my rage.”

“I’ll Take it All” is a beguiling, upbeat song about life, love and hope. The track was just released as a single in Asia in August.

Another standout is “Run Run Run.” This remix has bit more synth-heavy vibe than the other tracks.

Here’s a lovely acoustic performance of the tender ballad “Can’t You See.” It really showcases the guys’ warmth and authenticity, not to mention Slaven’s wonderful a capella vocals.

I look forward to hearing what these fellows come up with next. Show them support by following on Twitter, liking on Facebook and subscribing to their YouTube channel.  They do not yet have music available for purchase, but it can be streamed on Soundcloud.

Top 20 Songs for September 18-24, 2016

1. ALL WE EVER KNEW – The Head and the Heart (3)
2. HEATHENS – twenty øne piløts (2)
3. BANG BANG – Green Day (5)
4. TROUBLE – Cage the Elephant (1)
5. LIFE ITSELF – Glass Animals (6)
6. CHEAP THRILLS – Sia & Sean Paul (4)
7. GOOD GRIEF – Bastille (8)
8. YOU DON’T GET ME HIGH ANYMORE – Phantogram (9)
9. HYMN FOR THE WEEKEND – Coldplay featuring Beyoncé (10)
10. WAKE UP CALL – Nothing But Thieves (12)
11. SAY MY NAME – (IAM)WARFACE (14)
12. RIVER – Bishop Briggs (15)
13. BURN THE WITCH – Radiohead (7)
14. HARDWIRED – Metallica (16)
15. SEND MY LOVE (To Your New Lover) – Adele (11)
16. SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN – Young the Giant (13)
17. FEEL INVINCIBLE – Skillet (N)
18. DARK NECESSITIES – Red Hot Chili Peppers (20)
19. WELCOME TO YOUR LIFE – Grouplove (N)
20. TONIGHT – Matto Rules (N)

Song Review – “Stars” by Wons Phreely+the Horses

I recently discovered the amazingly talented, quirky-named artist Wons Phreely (his real name is Justin Wonsly).  He has one of the most interesting, unique voices I’ve heard in a long while. The kind of voice that sounds like no one else – a valuable commodity in today’s overcrowded music industry. Phreely draws his musical influences from such disparate artists as Morrissey, Joe Strummer and Buddy Holly, which is why his style is difficult to categorize. He seems to move effortlessly from dance-pop to folk-rock to alt-rock.

The young singer/songwriter started his music career in Sydney, Australia, where he recorded several great upbeat singles, including “The World Has a Bank Account” and “Tonight,” followed by a fairly decent eight-track EP To Begin With… in 2011.  Phreely, along with his new back-up band The Horses, has now dropped a fantastic new single “Stars.”

The song has an interesting backstory. Phreely originally wrote it one night while living in a tiny studio above a bar in the red-light district of Sydney’s Kings Cross.  He penned the lyrics to describe his subconscious longing to make a big life change, but fearful of doing anything about it.  As luck would have it, just a few days after writing the song, he saw an ad for an open call for singers to submit themselves to play the role of young Roy Orbison in a planned biopic feature film. According to his bio information sent to me, Phreely submitted his best song rendition and was soon meeting with the estate of the Orbison family, who were producing the film and would have final say over the casting of the role of their father. Unfortunately, after months of meetings, discussions and auditions, the fate of the proposed film is stuck in limbo. But there’s a silver lining: inspired and invigorated by his new Los Angeles surroundings, Phreely seized the opportunity and decided to further his music career there. In 2015, he assembled a band of accomplished musicians (the lineup of which has changed over time), thereby creating  Wons Phreely + The Horses, who together brought his song “Stars” to fruition.

It’s an incredibly catchy number, with a great hook that immediately grabs hold, forcing you to move with the infectious, 80s retro dance beat. Plucky guitars and sharp percussion add to the fresh synth arrangement, keeping the energy flowing, and Phreely’s smoldering, halting vocals are absolutely captivating.  I had this song on repeat while writing this piece and am now addicted!  It just gets better with each listen. As I noted above, the lyrics speak to his ambivalence about making a life change:

“I went to my neighbor he said why wait another moment later. You wanna find some explanation then you really oughta make your own decision. And if something clouds your vision it’s time to move move move.  Cause there’s too many lights in the city tonight. So I can’t see the stars till the moment has passed.”

I really like the song’s video, in which Phreely sings the song while standing in front of a black background. When he sings the chorus, he wildly gyrates back and forth, this time with varying types of facial hair, and his short hair now long and flowing, perhaps to show the changes he speaks of in the song lyrics.

I like to include extra songs and videos to give a greater perspective of an artist or band’s talent and music style. Here are a couple of performances with session musicians from 2012 at the Skeet Music Studio in Sydney, Australia. In the first, Phreely shows his folk/rock side in the hauntingly beautiful ballad “Manny You’re My Sweetheart.” The song was inspired by Phreely’s former roommate who was transgender.

Here’s a great live performance of the delightful song “Tonight.”

You can follow Wons Phreely on FacebookTwitter or Instagram and learn more about him on his official website.  Stream his music on Spotify or Soundcloud, and watch his videos on YouTube.  “Stars” may be purchased on iTunes, the Google Play StoreAmazon, and Bandcamp, along with other previously released songs.