We Killed the Lion is an alternative hard rock band from Chicago I recently learned about when their keyboardist Stan Tencza reached out to me about reviewing their new album Boogie Shoe Blues. Along with Tencza, who also plays keyboards for Chicago alternative/progressive rock band Polarizer (whose album Love from the Underground I reviewed last November), the other band members are Brian Lorenc on guitar & vocals, Joe Gunia on bass & vocals, and Leonard Warren on drums. Formed in 2011, their heavy sound is infused with elements of stoner rock, grunge, psychedelic blues and even a bit of doom to darken things up a bit.
They released their self-titled debut album We Killed the Lion in 2012, then followed two years later with an EP One Way Ride, then a second album Circle of Stars in 2017. After a four-year hiatus, they began work on Boogie Shoe Blues, and dropped the first single “Final Stand” this past April, followed by “Southern Death Trip” in August. Today (Halloween), along with the album’s release, they also release a new video for “Snake Bite”. Though Boogie Shoe Blues contains only eight tracks, three of them are more than six minutes long, making the album feel more substantial than eight tracks would suggest.
Let me state up front that I don’t normally gravitate toward this type of grungy hard rock, however, I listened to the album several times with open ears and an open mind, and found lots to like about it. Opening track “Final Stand” is a fine representation of their signature brawny, dark and dirty sound. The guys get right down to business, grabbing us by the throat with a barrage of grinding buzzsaw riffs, bolstered by a deep, chugging bassline and explosive, pummeling drums that never let up for a second. Lorenc and Gunia’s dual echoed vocals sound ominous as they belt out the violent lyrics speaking of going into battle with an entity that was once an ally but now a bitter enemy: “All out of patience, love turned into vengeance. Run away in fear. Spilling out the blood, spitting out the bones, scratching out the eyes. Pray for your last breath, we’re making our final stand.”
The video for the song shows the band breaking into what appears to be an underground club, whereupon they perform “Final Stand”.
While several of the album’s tracks deal with darker topics, a few others touch on pleasures of the flesh with playful lyrics. On “Come on Get Down“, they sing of showing a hot woman a good time: “Little girl I want to take you downtown. Wanna go for a ride? Get in my backseat and spread your mind. I’m gonna show you a good time.” The song’s a sultry banger, with fantastic gnarly guitars that frequently break into a bone-chilling wail, accompanied by Gunia’s throbbing bassline, Tencza’s aggressive keyboards and Warren’s thunderous percussion. And on the sexy “Peach“, they tell a woman exactly what they have in mind: “I wanna sit on your front porch. I want a sip of your ice tea. I want to gaze at your orchid, yeah. I want to taste your peach meat.” I love the song’s deep, bluesy bassline and sludgy guitars.
“Dirty Bones” is a speaker-blowing feast for the ears, with more of those fearsome buzzsaw guitars, and ditto for “Southern Death Trip“, with some of the dirtiest riffs I’ve heard in a long while. The album’s title comes from the song’s lyric “Got the boogie shoe blues.” And just when I think the guys have thrown everything in their sonic arsenal our way, they continue to amaze with the psychedelic monster “Rocket“. The song opens with an onslaught of screaming distortion, followed by a thick, lumbering bassline as the guys begin to sing. Things eventually settle into a tumultuous mix of wailing and grungy riffs, pummeling drums and heavy keyboards, that lumbering bassline still keeping the menacing groove.
I think We Killed the Lion would be a great band to see live, and I really like that their videos show them performing their songs, rather than attempting to act out the narrative of the lyrics (which sometimes works well, but more than often falls flat). The cool video for “Southern Death Trip” shows them performing the song wearing fluorescent body paint.
The last two tracks, “Pick Me Up” and the epic “Snake Bite“, have somewhat of a progressive feel, and feature their signature reverb-soaked psychedelic guitars, thick bass and booming percussion. The latter track is spectacular, highlighted by spine-tingling piercing guitars and some really terrific keyboard organ work by Tencza.
To sort of expand on what I stated earlier, this album grew on me with repeated listens, and I’m truly impressed by We Killed the Lion’s strong songwriting and musicianship. If you like your rock music on the heavier side, with elements of psychedelic, grunge, blues and doom, you will enjoy Boogie Shoe Blues.
Not really a band in the traditional sense, Atlanta-based music act Drawing on Scars is the creative brainchild of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Will Thacker, who for more than a decade has collaborated with vocalists from across the U.S. and beyond in the creation of dramatic and edgy alternative rock songs. Will writes and performs all the music, and the different vocalists write the lyrics, which they then interpret in their own distinct vocal style. The result is an ever-changing music repertoire that always sounds fresh and unique.
After putting the act on hiatus in 2017, Will formed the band Fieldcrest with vocalist Jena Jones, and together they released an EP Canvas (which I just happened to review four years ago today). He resurrected Drawing on Scars in early 2019, and has been on a creative tear since then, dropping an impressive number of singles. His most recent collaborative effort has been with South African singer-songwriter Jodie Reid, a prolific artist from Johannesburg who’s released four albums of her own since 2019, at the rate of one per year! The two began collaborating by long distance in 2020, and released their first single “Here Comes Some More” that November. They followed in April 2021 with “If Only For a Little While”, and “Take It” (which I also reviewed) that August. All three of those songs are included on their new album A Bridge Across the Sea, which dropped September 30th.
Most of the songs on the album can best be described as melodic hard rock, tinged with elements of grunge, alternative metal and even power pop, and delivered with Will’s driving rhythms, scorching riffs and thunderous percussion. While these songs fall generally within Drawing on Scars’ typical music style, they’re a considerable departure for Jodie, whose solo music is more folk and soft-rock oriented. But she does a fine job as both a lyricist and rock singer, with a sound somewhat similar to that of Paramore vocalist Hayley Williams.
The album title A Bridge Across the Sea seems to reflect not only the long-distance connection between the two artists made possible by the internet, but also the themes of many songs, namely trying to hold onto one’s mental well-being, sense of self-worth or struggling relationships amidst breakdowns in communication, trust and/or identity. On the opening song “Desire” Jodie emphatically sings of her unrelenting and insatiable sexual hunger that’s overtaken her existence: “My self-control is crumbling, no matter how I hold it. I want it, I need it, I won’t accept defeat. Keep pushing, I crave it, as soon as I’m ready I’ll grab it and I won’t ever let it go. Take me to the edge and push until I break (let’s see how far I go) Down on my knees I’ll do whatever it takes.” Will’s jagged riffs serve to reinforce the emotional fire contained in the lyrics.
“What Day Is It” finds Jodie feeling lost and at the end of her rope: “I could have turned back. Retraced my steps. But that seemed like too much effort at the time. I just wanted to escape parts of myself.” And on “Encode“, she sings of the walls she’s built around her for self-protection: “And so you poke and prod to discover what makes me tick. You’d have me cuffed and caged, and treated like a lunatic. And when questioned I would stubbornly shake my head. I don’t want to share my secrets with you.”
The haunting and lovely “Bitter and Sick” is a cover of the original song by L.A. duo One Two, from their 2012 release Best Friend EP. Whereas One Two’s version is more ethereal and atmospheric, Will and Jodie give the song an edgier treatment, with heavier instrumentals and stronger vocals that become most pronounced in the dramatic chorus, while still retaining the song’s deeply emotional vibe. The lyrics seem to speak of a toxic relationship from which the singer cannot free herself: “Come on and break me down. I’ll let you ruin my day. Flow through my veins. I need a fix. Bitter and sick.”
The next few tracks are both hard-hitting and deal with dysfunctional relationships. “You Ran” speaks to a partner who just couldn’t be counted on, and I love these lines which really cut to the chase: “To be honest we were never meant to breathe the same air. Cause whatever I gave you stole from me and left me there.” And on “Take It“, Jodie rails against an indecisive partner who’s unable to ever choose a course of action or direction to take, causing them both frustration and ennui as they lumber along without direction. “Weighted down to your knees as you drag your feet along. And all questions are avoided with a shrug. Whatever’s easiest for you. Given time you just might drop that burden to the floor as you march alone unencumbered, but you’re weighing down on me.” It’s a terrific rock song.
“Broken Photo” touches on the perils of trying to be someone other than who you are, and living a superficial existence in an attempt to impress others. Jodie uses social media references to drive home her point: “You could have been so great, you might have been so grand if you had taken time to focus on the tasks at hand. Instead, you framed yourself a picture-perfect life. On display to show the socials, but didn’t even get a like.” I really like the song’s chugging rhythms and super-grungy guitars.
“Elephant” tackles the proverbial elephant in the room, namely how many people are afraid to speak honestly for fear of being harshly judged, even when we need to call out injustice or wrongs: “There’s an elephant in the room. Can you sense all the space in the conversation? Best eluded to keep the peace. Avoidance is encouraged by our generation.” This song strongly resonates with me, as I will not keep quiet about a lot of shit going on in America and the world, and it appears both Will and Jodie agree with me: “I can’t stay quiet anymore. Silence will not stop what’s in store. I will not roll over sweet submission. Forces will ensure that we learn our lesson.”
My favorite song on the album is the poignant “If Only for a Little While“. Jodie wrote the deeply moving song after the sudden passing of a close family friend, as a way of helping her process her feelings of grief and loss. Her vocals are heartfelt and tender as she laments “Cold down to the core of whatever’s left. I’m just matter lying still – hands on my chest. How I wish I could cry – let it all escape. Instead, I’m completely broken not even able to break. Lie me down, I’ll be right by your side. And I will hold onto you if only for a little while. Now you’ve gone, you left us all behind. But we will hold onto you if only for a little while.” The mournful piano and strings are beautiful and haunting, but also contain glimmers of hope.
The album closes on a high note with “Here Comes Some More“, a splendid nod to 90s grunge. I’m not certain, but the lyrics seem to be about someone who always needs to win, to be right, to be the best, yet never changing their approach, nor ever feeling fully content with themselves: “Every breath that you fake – you take it too hard. Each time, you start to lose faith, just to see if you’ve still got it in you (Well we all know you do). But you’ve been there before. You take a swing in the same old fight, hoping maybe this time you’ll strike true. The way you did before.” Jodie’s confident vocals are especially good on this track.
A Bridge Across the Sea is a fine debut effort from two very talented artists. Though they come from totally different environments, with divergent music styles and backgrounds, Will and Jodie have successfully managed to ‘bridge’ those differences to collaborate in the creation of a solid, well-crafted and compelling work.
Hailing from the beautiful nation of Finland is the exceptionally talented rock band Frozen Factory. I first introduced them to my readers last June when I reviewed their excellent EP The First Liquidation, which they cheekily described as “an EP with a suspiciously high number of tracks.” I was so impressed with its high quality that I didn’t think they could top it, but their new album Of Pearls & Perils has proven me wrong. I’m not generally a huge fan of hard rock, but I loved it at first listen. And it’s not often I call an album a “masterpiece”, but Of Pearls & Perils deserves that title, and then some.
Since forming in December 2018, Frozen Factory has undergone several personnel changes, and now consists of founding member Tomi Hassinen on bass, keyboards and backing vocals, Stephen Baker (who’s originally from England) on lead vocals, Mici Ehnqvist on lead guitar, Marianne Heikkinen on drums, and Johnny Koivumäki, who joined the band in late 2021, on rhythm guitar. Influenced by some of their favorite acts like Alice In Chains, Iron Maiden, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine, they create moody, complex and melodic alternative rock with strong undercurrents of progressive, grunge, symphonic, metal and dream rock. This seemingly contradictory and eclectic combination of stylistic elements makes for some incredibly compelling and darkly beautiful music that’s a joy to listen to.
Interestingly, Of Pearl & Perils was actually written and partly recorded before the band even began writing and recording The First Liquidation EP. They explain: “We penned ‘Of Pearls & Perils’ almost immediately after finishing 2020’s ‘Planted Feet’ and fell so in love with the songs that we wanted to make sure we’d give the album all the right conditions to sound the best it could. So, we banked the songs and experimented with the creation of ‘The First Liquidation’, expanding our horizons along the way. As a result, the EP and this new album link together almost like siblings. That’s not to say that ‘The First Liquidation’ is a B-record – it simply felt like a necessary bridge to our growth before we tackled the monster we knew was lurking within ‘Of Pearls & Perils’.“
And what a magnificent monster it is! They’ve really outdone themselves with their skillful blending of alt-rock, melodic metal and progressive elements to create an epic, mind-blowing and stunning work. All 12 tracks are outstanding, overflowing with gorgeous melodies, driving rhythms and breathtaking instrumentation. The poetic lyrics are both biting and deeply insightful, and delivered with Stephen’s powerful, resonant vocals, which often cover me with chills. He seriously has one of the more beautiful voices in rock today.
Written by Stephen and Tomi, the album addresses such topics as inequality and oppression, toxic masculinity, the afterlife, and the climate crisis. More specifically, the dark lyrics reflect Stephen’s inner struggles with the behavior of much of the human race, including himself. He elaborates: “I really cannot comprehend why we’re so careless with our home planet and the living communities that depend on it. I’m sad when I see regular people fighting with other regular people and then voting to give power to people who’re hell-bent on destroying regular folk. I feel like we’ve become so easy to influence, so easy to deceive, so easy to distract with trivial differences. I’d like to see a safe world where every kind and life-respecting human has the opportunity to reach their potential, no matter what kind of body they possess, beliefs they follow or lifestyle they lead. Our songs are usually a wake-up call, and often written to push myself as well as anyone else who listens, because I sometimes feel lazy and inactive about things that should anger me to the core. I want to be more. I want to do more to help. I want human civilisation to succeed.”
Album opener “Murder in the Depths” starts off with a woman speaking the line “Il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis” (which translates to English as “Only a fool would never change their mind”), accompanied by jarring sounds of a siren blaring a warning. The woman speaking is Angela Carolei, one of Frozen Factory’s most active fans, whom they’ve never met. Her voice is also featured in several other little moments throughout the record, in both French and English. Stephen said that he chose to use some minor French moments for both Of Pearls & Perils and The First Liquidation “because the French language includes some absolutely killer phrases that don’t work so well in English.”
With lyrics containing nautical references, a theme that will be repeated on several tracks, the song encapsulates the album’s overall messages of social injustice and inequality, not only among classes but between men and women, oppression and environmental degradation. “Murder in the Depths” speaks of a woman who perished while diving for pearls intended for the wealthier class, which she would never have had the opportunity to wear: “With little choice like most before, she laboured for a dream. Was sent to dive too deep, where nobility refused to even dip their toes. Her lungs collapsed far below...if we don’t face up together, fear will point our distrust down. And billions more will drown.”
The song quickly segues into “Host With the Most“, blasting through the speakers with a barrage of raging guitars, throbbing bass and Marianne’s explosive drumbeats. And though it’s purely coincidental, I like the little guitar riff that sounds like the one from The B-52s “Rock Lobster”, and Mici’s wailing guitar solo in the bridge is absolute fire. As an Atheist who does not believe in heaven nor hell (other than how both are manifested here on earth), the lyrics about how so many people endure injustice and pain in their lives, hopeful in the belief they’ll do better in an afterlife, strongly resonate with me: “How many place their bets on bliss? How many live their lives for this? Oh have they seen some guarantees or signs of afterlife? / There’s only one life given at a time. The rest is a question that will never die. But you will die, so be prepared to say goodbye. No afterlife.“
“Solar Windfalls” is a gentle song with a nod to David Bowie’s iconic “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars”, sung from the perspective of an astronaut traveling through space, contemplating their endless search for exciting new adventures and the state of the world they’ve left behind: “I’m closer than ever to an answer for Bowie. Yeah I turned to face the strange, but what can life on Mars teach me about the richer man’s change?/ What have I become? Pursuing shiny desires. Points of light above keep me majorly wired. Is there even a place at the end of my trail? Or will I endlessly trace a line that’s destined to fail? The pale blue dot fades, she is to me ever darker, ever farther she wanes, and the chasm grows starker.” The somber piano keys, twinkling synths and chiming guitars are wonderful, as are Stephen’s plaintive vocals.
The next several tracks see Frozen Factory railing against racism, cruelty and putting our faith in duplicitous leaders who steer us to ruin. On “Equalise Power“, they call out racism, fear of the other, and police brutality, and implore us to act with fairness, tolerance and compassion: “What part of you is broken? That your heart cannot be open to a person of another colour, what is colour? You’ve been put in a bubble to elevate your struggles. Your fire stoked by nonsense that you swallow gladly. Apparently unable to see what’s on the table. The poison that you’ve been fed since your first days alive./ Your reasons for hate are not reasonable. When you discriminate you are not reasonable. That call you will make it is not reasonable. The actions police take will not be reasonable. Time to end this now. Time to equalise power. Seize thy hour.”
They channel their inner Alice In Chains on the hard-hitting “The Depths of Hell“, a scathing diatribe against too many societies’ penchant for going against our best interests in the support of disingenuous and evil leaders who stoke hate and divisiveness by preying on our fears: “Our only future is the ash of the past, when we fund and root for the most egregious ass. We love a Lucifer to fork our lives on every burning issue. They will decide. We’ve picked our demons to fix our aim and sell us our trip to heaven.” The song’s a proper metal rock gem, with a deep, pummeling rhythm courtesy of Tomi’s crushing bassline and Marianne’s speaker-blowing drums. Mici’s guitar work is positively fearsome as he makes his six-string wail and scream, and Stephen’s vocals are dripping with venom as he matches the music’s fury note for note.
And speaking of venom, they launch headlong into “Loud, Lazy, Late“, furiously calling out an asshole totally lacking in any redeemable attributes: “Can’t you show any will to grow? Any thoughts to be kinder than you’ve been. You’ve no empathy, it’s all me me me. You don’t like my tone, but you’ve abso-fucking-lutely got to go! Loud, lazy, late and low quality!“
“Pie in the Sky” is a stirring anthemic ballad, with beautiful piano, cinematic synths, and exuberant jangly and wailing guitars. The lyrics seem to speak of finding contentment not from material possessions and desires, but from the natural beauty and love that lies inside each of us if we allow it to flourish and grow: “False symbols of winning life, bring promise before denial. ‘Cause what we’d like you cannot buy. This is our own and it’s beautiful.”
I think my favorite track from a musical standpoint is “Absolute in Vanity“. I love its strong driving beat, heavy chugging rhythms and gorgeous ostinato guitar riffs of a similar vein as Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, though the melody is vastly different. The song is a kind of response to “The Depths of Hell” above, but this time sung from the perspective of the evil Trump-like leader people have elected: “You! I will be your king if you please. What’s that? You love me? Well. I don’t come free. No. I will be your king if you please. What’s that? You chose me? Well. I don’t come cheap. Because of lies, lies. You idolise lies.” Between those fiery riffs and Stephen’s spectacular impassioned vocals, I’m left covered in goosebumps.
“We’re Gonna Die” is a rousing banger decrying peoples’ greed and insatiable need for more, more, more, and how it’s killing the planet: “Long ago on a hill lived a group who felt they had a need. Though they had more than most, their whole life was a spiral of greed. They lit a fire for their revolution. The first distant lands burned with absolution. Hey you, we’re gonna die if you don’t change your lifestyle now.” The arresting piano riff reminds me a bit of U2’s “New Years Day”. “Never is a Theory” is perhaps the most enigmatic song on the album. I’m not sure of the song’s meaning, but my guess is that it’s about coming to terms with one’s own death, as expressed in these lyrics: “Will I cease to be tonight, as i can’t believe my sight. A myth the trust in vision seems hard to swallow, lies or dreams yeah. End of the river. End of the river. I’m trying to see, what’s at the end of the river. End of the river for me.” In any case, it’s an enchanting rock song, with terrific improvised guest vocals sung by Lily M.
The title track “Of Pearls & Perils” opens on a pensive note with a man assuring his son that, even though the ship (representing the Titanic) is in trouble, everything will be alright: “Try not to worry about it son. You know what the captain said. He said ‘Every single one of us is safe on this ship.” The song gradually expands into a haunting piano-driven anthem, accompanied by grungy guitars and soaring vocals.
Stephen states that the song is essentially about toxic masculinity, and how men have taken the world in the wrong direction, but remain incredibly stubborn and resistant to change, denying or underplaying their weaknesses and overstating their strengths in order to protect their pride. The ship represents the ruling elite of men who currently control the ship of human destiny, and in this song, a man gains a woman’s love with a gift of pearls, assuring her the ship is safe: “With a hull so strong, we will brush off ice and storms. On the treacherous cold seas we will never freeze. I’ve heard no man can steer us wrong. Our ship will n carry on. This titan can’t be breached. These props will never seize.” As the ship continues to sink deeper into the ocean, his unwavering belief in the men who built the ship, and that it would never sink, cannot be broken: “Sit with me, be relaxed. Rest assured this is a lapse. Don’t listen, look or think. You cannot know that we will sink.” The song ends with sounds of actual Morse code from the Titanic, sending out a distress call, accompanied by an eerie voiceover of a woman, sung by Angela Carolei, saying “Ce n’est pas la mer à boire“, which translates to “It’s not the sea to drink”.
The album closes with the somber “Deceit Upon the Decks“, a final note to the story of the woman described in “Of Pearls & Perils”. The song also mirrors the first track “Murder in the Depths”, except that in this song, the woman who perished was upper-class, rather than a worker: “A skull dressed with her jewels. He never loved her true. They never really were for her, but emblems for other men to observe. Of status, cash and property. The shackles in his evil dream. Her trust went to the top of the chain. They both tumbled when he fell from grace.” Stephen says that the final lines of the song sum up the album’s overall meaning, that we’ve been conditioned to believe that many things that are actually against our own interest would be good for us, and we often allow things to happen that are bad for us: “Of pearls and perils there is much lore. To claim each as a gem for the men with it all. And they’ve told you they’re one and the same. And it’s not your place to question their game.” The last words, spoken by Angela, quietly implore us to “Please, think again.”
What more can I say about this album that I haven’t already gushed over, other than to restate that it’s an epic, mind-blowing and stunning work. The thought, care and strong musicianship that have gone into its creation and production are truly impressive, and the five members of Frozen Factory should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished. I think it’s one of the best albums of 2022.
The subject for Day 7 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song to drive to in the morning“. I think it’s a rather odd subject, but my interpretation is that it’s a song that gets you going in the morning, and the one that immediately comes to my mind is “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. If that adrenaline-inducing rocker – perfectly described by Hal Horowitz of AllMusic as “a roaring anthem of turbo-charged riff rock” – doesn’t charge your engines first thing in the morning, then nothing will!
“Born to Be Wild” was originally written as a ballad by Canadian rock musician Mars Bonfire (aka Dennis Edmonton), who was previously a member of the Sparrows, the predecessor band to Steppenwolf, and whose brother Jerry became Steppenwolf’s drummer. The other founding members of Steppenwolf included John Kay (born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in Germany) on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Michael Monarch on lead guitar, Rushton Moreve on bass, and Goldy McJohn on keyboards. Bonfire initially offered the song to a few other bands, but “Born to Be Wild” was eventually recorded by Steppenwolf in a sped-up and rearranged version that came to define their signature hard rock sound. Those raging riffs of shredded guitars, chugging rhythms and thunderous percussion, accompanied by fantastic psychedelic keyboards and Kay’s powerful gritty vocals, made the song a classic that beautifully captured the rebelliousness of the late 60s.
The song is often invoked in both popular and counter culture to symbolize a biker appearance or attitude, partly due to being featured in the 1969 film Easy Rider. It’s also been described by many as the first heavy metal song, and the second verse lyric “heavy metal thunder” was the first use of this term in rock music. According to Robert Walser in his 1993 book Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, andMadness in Heavy Metal Music, the words “heavy metal thunder” describe a motorcycle, not a musical style.
“Born to Be Wild” became Steppenwolf’s most successful single, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. (It was kept from the #1 spot by the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free”.) RollingStone ranked “Born to Be Wild” at #129 on their 2004 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in the same year, the song was ranked #29 on AFI‘s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema. VH1 ranked it #40 in their list of the 100 Greatest Songs of Rock and Roll in 2000, and the 53rd best hard rock song of all time in 2009. In 2018, the song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a new category for singles. (Wikipedia)
Here’s the iconic scene from Easy Rider in which “Born to Be Wild” is featured
Follow No One is the collaborative music project of two highly accomplished musicians from different parts of the world, with two completely separate musical backgrounds – singer/songwriter and pianist Rich Hall, who’s originally from Nashville, Tennessee, but now based in Denver, Colorado, and guitar virtuoso Pedro Murino Almeida from Lisbon, Portugal, but with roots in Brazil. Rich began performing at a young age in theater, but found his true calling in writing and performing music. Pedro was classically trained in music composition, with a successful career involving his own musical acts, and his work has been featured in film and video.
Influenced by such rock giants as Dream Theater, Alter Bridge, Foo Fighters, Queensryche and Styx, to name but a few, they draw from the classic hard rock that defined an era, while adding a fresh approach to create their own distinctive sound. Working remotely from their respective home bases in Denver and Lisbon, the duo released their debut EP, simply titled “5“, in September 2017, featuring five hard-hitting tracks (here’s my review). They followed up with several singles over the next few years, including an excellent cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” (which especially resonates with me at the moment, but I digress). In 2019, Follow No One was named Best Rock Act at the Nashville-based Josie Music Awards, the world’s largest all-genre, privately-owned award show.
Now they return with their first full-length album FATE, a monumental concept work based on Hall’s real-life and near-death experiences that tested his faith, endurance and will to live. The album is an epic rock opera of sorts, featuring 17 tracks, 11 of which are songs and the other six spoken word pieces that drive the storyline forward. FATE‘s overarching theme is predicated on the question “If you lost everything you had, would you just give up or fight like hell to get it back?” The various tracks follow Hall’s journey from the depths of despair that culminated in a life-threatening health incident, to his self-redemption and healing that followed to get him to where he is today.
The album opens with “The Beginning Is in the End“, a spoken word piece that begins with sounds of someone gasping for air making a 911 call, then hanging up. We soon realize it’s Hall in a severe state of distress, recalling some important events in his life as he stares death in the face. Those events include happy times like the birth of his first son and his early career success (to which his father comments “You’re a lucky young man. This is one helluva place you got here, son. Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. But, if you want my advice, enjoy your time at the top of the mountain. You may not always be here“), as well as the devastating news that his wife is leaving him and taking their two sons with her.
Next, we’re launched headlong into the hard-rocking “No Happy Ever Afters“, in which Hall bitterly laments of feeling betrayed and abandoned, his life now in tatters: “Take everything you have, and all that you hold dear, and watch it disappear. It’s just me we’re talking about, but I don’t think we’ll ever speak again.” Almeida’s guitar-playing prowess is on full display as he lays down scorching hot riffs, backed with pummeling rhythms and explosive percussion. They keep the aural onslaught going full throttle on the appropriately blistering “Drowning in Fire“, which is followed by a spoken word interlude “Adding Insult to Injury” that chronicles Hall’s life spiraling out of control from destructive behaviors, and isolating himself from others to the point where his father sends the local police to check in on him.
As the album progresses, Hall’s story unfolds with the telling of the rupturing of a major blood vessel in his throat, detailed in the song “Hanging by a Thread” and spoken word track “ICU – Can You See Me“, in which his doctor tells him of the severity of his condition. Realizing he nearly died, Hall has an epiphany “You were on a hell of a ride, but soon you may be dead. Now you’re in that moment where the memories of your life are passing by. Better hope the man pulling the strings, is pulling for your side.”
He starts coming to terms with his life as it now exists and contemplates the path he must take going forward on “Erase Me“. A year later, his sanity reaching the breaking point, he just wants to run away from his pain, which he lays out on the exhilarating rocker “Just Drive“: “Ok, take a deep breath and just remember: Every mile you go is one mile away from where you were. So fuck it, just drive!”
Now we arrive at the title track and centerpiece of the album, “Fate“, an anthemic rock ballad in the style of some of the great rock ballads of the late 80s. Almeida’s guitar work is especially magnificent here, and nicely accompanied by Hall’s beautiful piano and keyboards. His vocals are particularly moving as he plaintively ponders whether all the hardship and pain he’s going through is pre-determined or totally random “Is it fate, that makes our tomorrow? Is it me, that determines it all? Could it be, through the pain and the sorrow, there is no choice at all?”
Hall’s journey toward his recovery and self-improvement encounters a few setbacks along the way. On the very poignant “No Christmas Without You“, he’s left heartbroken at the prospect of facing another Christmas alone, without his sons. This pain is expressed on the hard-rocking “Million Miles Away“, with Hall lamenting about how he feels that, no matter how much he’s moving forward, he still feels farther away than ever. “A million miles away, is not far enough to keep my heart away. The closer I am, the further you are to me.” For this track, bass was played by Tony Franklin, and Hall’s son Reagan sang backing vocals.
Hall takes on his depression on the spoken-word “Just a Dream“, a conversation with his father who also suffered from the mental illness, and the song “This Bastard“, giving a name to the emotional foe he vows to vanquish. Once again, Almeida lays down some blistering riffs, making this a pretty good rocker. On “Never Surrender“, he sings of not giving up and letting his problems and depression defeat him. Things are finally looking up as he picks his sons up at the airport when they arrive for a Christmas visit on “Airport – Reunidos“. I like how he tells them about his new music project with Almeida when they get in the car.
FATE ends on an optimistic note with “Let Love” a beautiful, cinematic rock anthem about the healing powers of love. Reunited with his sons, Hall jubilantly sings of how love, faith and forgiveness helped him to survive and find happiness. “I forgive you, I still love you / You know that anything’s possible, as long as you learn how to survive. Keep your dreams alive, there is nothing to stop you now. Now that you’ve learned how to die.” Almeida’s guitar work is spectacular, accompanied by Hall’s gorgeous piano and soaring strings that make this song one of the highlights of the album.
With FATE, Hall and Almeida have created an epic work of musical art. It’s an impressive accomplishment, for which they should be very proud.
One of the perks (and there are a few downsides as well) of being a blogger who writes music reviews is getting to know a lot of musicians and bands from all over the world, some of them on a personal level. High on my list of favorites, both as musicians and humans, is Chicago-based rock band The MillionReasons. Though I’ve never met them in person, I seriously love these guys and consider them friends who honestly care about me as a person, rather than simply a blogger who can be of use to them. A few of them actually check in from time to time to ask how I’m doing, which means a lot to me. It also makes me an intensely loyal fan.
The Million Reasons originally formed in 2016 as a trio comprised of Scott Nadeau on lead vocals, and Ken Ugel and Mike Nichols on guitars. They were joined a year later by drummer Colin Dill, then bassist Jason Cillo in 2018. I first learned about them when they followed me on Twitter in July 2018, around the time they released their magnificent single “Dizzy”. It was love at first listen, and I quickly became a big fan of theirs. Without question one of the most beautiful rock songs I’ve ever heard, I was happy to write a review of “Dizzy”. I loved it so much that it went all the way to #1 on my Weekly Top 30, and ultimately ranked #69 on my 100 best songs of the decadelist.
The guys went on to release a few more singles, then in August 2019, Scott decided to leave the band. Fortunately, they quickly found a phenomenal replacement in singer-songwriter Taylor Brennan, a close friend of Colin’s, and the band lineup was complete again. Taylor brought not only his impressive vocal talents, but also great songwriting skills and years of experience, which have expanded The Million Reasons’ musical horizons quite nicely. Whereas their music had primarily been classic rock/rock’n’roll oriented, some of their new songs venture more into progressive rock territory.
All five band members are highly accomplished musicians, several of whom are also involved with other projects. Taylor is vocalist for alternative-progressive rock band Polarizer (who’s brilliant album Love From the Underground I reviewed last November). Ken is guitarist for rock bands Guardrail and Wild Gravity, and Colin and Jason are members of covers band Dad’s Night Out. Having five members, including two guitarists, their sound is dynamic, heavy and melodic, consistently delivered with incredible riffs, tight rhythms and powerful vocals – everything we lovers of rock want to hear.
With their new lineup, the band set to work writing new songs, as well as re-working a few song ideas from their previous iteration that had never been fully-developed. This culminated in the release of their EP If Not For the Fire in February 2020, which I also reviewed. The title single “If Not For the Fire” also climbed to the top of my Weekly Top 30 chart, and ended up at #20 on my Top 100 Songs of 2020 list.
Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic cast its ugly pall soon after the EP’s release, hindering the relatively new lineup from touring or performing live to promote it. Also prevented from gathering together to record more songs, the guys soldiered on remotely, often struggling in the process. In the hopes of getting their music out to a wider audience, they signed with Pavement Entertainment in summer 2020, and once Covid restrictions were lifted, got back into the studio to continue recording songs for what would become their debut full-length album Haven, which finally dropped April 15th. It’s a beautiful work that was definitely worth all the blood, sweat and tears it took them to finally get it done and released.
The word ‘haven’, defined as a place of safety or refuge, is the perfect title for The Million Reasons’ new album, as it encapsulates all that got them to this point. The album features 11 tracks, including the four previously released on the EP, which have been re-engineered and mastered with a bigger and fuller sound. Though I did not conduct an interview, each band member beautifully articulated their own thoughts about the album, some of which I’d now like to share in order to provide some context.
Taylor: “It’s an intensely personal album for me. But I/we always hope that our songs connect with people, whether it’s an individual or a crowd. I like to think there are enough overarching themes to speak to someone else going through the emotions represented by the songs; the highs, the lows, or especially if it’s both. It’s about one’s journey through highs and lows, no matter the obstacles, no matter the duration of the tumult. One of my favourite lyrics on this album is ‘It’s not over til it’s better’. It updates on the ’til its over’ aspect because to me the original phrase implies a potentially negative finality. The point being, I now believe there is always “better”. Even if the body shots keep coming, even if it feels like death by a thousand shots, even if “better” is achieved incrementally…if you keep going…if you work on yourself and surround yourself with love and support…it will get better. To me, that culminates in ‘Haven’. Haven is the place where you finally feel safe. The place where you finally feel home. The place where you finally feel better. The place where you finally feel like ‘you’.
To me, the album represents that natural chemistry cannot be denied. That’s obviously a theme of the lyrics, but the band also lived that. We have a great time together when we get together. Musically, we gel. I think we had the rocky start that could have ended some projects before they had a chance to get going. But we made it through and now we know what we are capable of. I love the record, I am as proud of it as anything I have done. When you have to work hard to get through adversity, the end result is that much sweeter. We’ve done that, and we like each other and this band more now than we did when we first met, I feel. So while this feels like our peak right now, like a penultimate record, I think it also represents that we’re in this together and we have what it takes to see this through indefinitely. We are a band, and a fucking good one. And we’re just getting started.”
Colin: “‘Haven’ is the culmination of 5 years of songwriting, practice, shows, line-up changes and hard work, all finally pieced together to create the true foundation and spirit of The Million Reasons as a band. The spirit being defined by keeping Rock N’ Roll alive and well and having a damn good time doing it. COVID impacted our timeline and motivation greatly. It was extremely challenging to find time to finalize writing and recording each piece whether at the studio or on our own. There were absolutely discouraging times that we would never quite get there, but we persevered and are absolutely ecstatic at the end product. I’m very proud of this album and release. I love the guys in the band like family and it’s so exciting to have this release finally happening. “If Not For The Fire” and the passion of the group, there would be no album!“
Jason: “This really is a culmination of all the band’s work. Some of these songs were written during the first iteration of the group (Mike & Ken being the only remaining members) and then re-done with new vocals. I personally joined the band where the music was already mostly outlined for about half the album and the other half was written together. We write the music completely separate from the lyrics and let Taylor write on top of what we came up with. A lot of these songs came from jams or specific writing sessions in Ken’s apartment. Ken and I paired off a lot to write in a more rigid, methodical way, while Mike and Colin would go into the rehearsal space and jam with something recording them and then we’d converge on those ideas. I hope that [the album] gets in front of people who will enjoy it. I’ve never felt better about music that I’ve worked on and I know it’s good, it’s just a matter of showing the world that. Truthfully, I just want people to enjoy it and for the band to play some more shows to see that in-person.”
Ken: “‘Haven’ is our defining moment as a group and the place where we’ve established our sound. This is our base, and acts as the beginning of something special. The journey to find our ‘Haven’ over years of songwriting, lineup changes, and a pandemic; has led us here: our safe place, where we are coming into our own. The metaphorical and physical start of this new chapter of TMR. I truly believe if these songs were played to a wider audience and given the attention it deserves, we’d break out of the ‘only friends and family’ listening parties. I’d hope to start opening up for some bigger acts and get in front of new people over the next year. ‘Haven’ showcases everything the band is about and just to boost my self-esteem up a bit: I think it’s a damn good album!“
Mike: “‘Haven’ is about overcoming adversity, from being at your lowest point and attaching your focus from one silver lining to the next in order to escape your rut. It’s an emotional story from Taylor’s point of view, but to me it can also represent the journey the band has gone through over the last few years. There’s darkness, but there’s light to bring us out of it. Lyrically, ‘Haven’ delves into love, loss, and self-doubt, followed by hope, confidence, and triumph over hardship. Musically, the album explores the spectrum of rock music we grew up listening to, from the poppy sensibilities of “1985” and “Alone With You”, to the high energy of “Oh, Tranquilizer” and “If Not For The Fire”, to the anger of of “All You Can’t Afford” and “Only Human”. “No North Star” might be a standout track on the album, easily distinguished by being melancholic and acoustic, but it also reads as a flashback, setting the scene for how we’ve arrived at the emotional state that came to influence the rest of the record. Track by track, there’s something for everybody. Everything about this album is overdue, it’s about time the world gets its ears on The Million Reasons. I want people to hear the album and love it. I want to play on stage for those people. I want this album to inspire people to create. ‘Haven’ is the catalyst that turns our dreams into reality.”
Well, I’ve heard the album loud and clear, and I love it more with each listen! Haven kicks off with “Oh,Tranquilizer!“, a rousing blast of atomic energy that both Ken and Mike name as one of their favorite tracks to play. And no wonder, as they deliver an onslaught of scorching riffs, fortified by Jason’s pummeling bassline and Colin’s explosive drumbeats. Taylor has a commanding tenor voice, dazzling our earbuds as he sings about our failing to clearly see what’s important amid all the noise: “Oh tranquilizer, this will be our year. You soothe the symptoms of this mania. We’ve got a lot to lose. Pay attention to the signs around. You’ve got a lot of nerve, to hear the noise but miss out on the sound.”
On the fiery (no pun intended) title track “If Not for the Fire”, the guys unleash their inner beasts, letting loose with an electrifying barrage of thunderous musical mayhem. The song is a rock masterpiece, and a highlight of the album. Taylor says the message behind the song is simple: “Do not settle. We get one go at this. Whatever makes you happiest, whatever makes you feel most alive, whatever lights you up, go fucking get it.” And once again, he raises goosebumps as he passionately wails of his need for an intense, almost obsessive kind of love that thrills and excites: “I came for the curse of, I came for the kiss of, A love divine that paralyzes. What did you come for, if not for the fire to light you up this way.”
The powerful video, filmed and directed by Philip Goode, shows Taylor seated at a table and struggling to write, juxtaposed with scenes of the band performing the song and working their magic with their respective instruments. Their energy and charisma are clearly evident.
Perhaps the most upbeat track on the album is “1985“, a bittersweet love song with an infectious and pleasing pop-rock sensibility that sets it apart from the others. I love the bouncy, guitar-driven melody, soaring harmonic choruses, and especially Colin’s spirited drumbeats. Taylor plaintively reminisces about lost time he could have enjoyed with a loved one: “Take me to 1985. I’d do it all again with you. I learned too late, the only priceless thing is time. Bring me back to 1985.“
The guys get back to business churning out hard-rocking bangers on the next several tracks, starting with “Coup De Grâce“, a blistering song about a toxic and abusive relationship featuring lyrics with boxing metaphors: “Back in the ring again, absorbing the body shots. Jab to a cross then uppercut, sends me back to my corner.” I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but wow, these guys know how to deliver the rock goods, nearly blowing out the speakers with rampaging riffs and explosive, stomping rhythms. And it goes without saying that Taylor rises to the occasion with his jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics.
“Shine On” has a bit of a Meat Loaf vibe, with it’s frantic galloping beat and aggressive guitar work, but especially in that Taylor’s vocals sound at times like those of the late, great singer. “Alone With You” is a proper rock tune with a catchy melody, intricate guitars, and thumping rhythms. Essentially a love song, Taylor sings of the joys of being with the woman he loves: “Anything to be alone with you. Where you go, I’m locked beside you babe. I don’t think I can get enough of you. And we are only getting started.” “Ride Or Die” starts off with a grunge vibe, highlighted by Jason’s gnarly bassline, but eventually explodes into a full-blown rocker with blazing riffs and heavy chugging rhythms every bit as good as some of the iconic rock songs of the late 70s and 80s. And on the poignant “Only Human“, Taylor pleads with a friend to not surrender to the pain that threatens to overwhelm them: “We’re far from done. But please hold on. You’re going to make it. Remember, it’s not over ‘til its better.”
“Pretty Ones” is a brilliant track, with a complex melodic structure and intricate, yet powerful instrumentation that give it a monumental prog-rock feel. Mike and Ken’s dual guitars are really spectacular here, and Colin’s drums are perfection. Taylor’s vocals are filled with intense passion as he sings the lyrics touching on restlessness and the internal struggle between putting down roots in one place or with one person vs. the desire for freedom, believing the grass is greener somewhere else or with someone else, but also fearing that perhaps we’re just running away from ourselves: “Ever after chasing down the pretty ones / Right back to the place where I am running from / In motion, stuck in motion / I fear it’s just my nature.”
Without question the most beautiful song on Haven is “No North Star”, a powerful and melancholy ballad about a man ready to give up all vestiges of hope. The song opens with a mournful cello played by Alyssa Laessig, accompanied by a lovely acoustic guitar as Taylor forlornly laments about mistakes he’s made: “Four on the floor / As the shower head pours heat on me / Praying to the god of sorry / I’m sure she has questions for me.” The music gradually grows more expansive until reaching a dramatic crescendo at the end, at which point he passionately implores: “Stare in the sunken-in eyes of a ghost of a shell of a half of a half of a man / Saying what good can I be if I couldn’t be better for you / I couldn’t lie when you asked me to lie / But I’ll die if you ask me tonight / I’m going to die anyway / I might as well do it for you.” Along with “If Not For the Fire”, it’s my favorite song on the album.
The final track “All You Can Afford” is a dark and heavy kiss-off to a lover who’s pushed the relationship beyond the breaking point. The guys deliver a torrent of blistering psychedelic riffs and crushing rhythms during the first three minutes of the track while Taylor rails “I’m taking the keys to my heart and your car. I’ll leave you behind, hoping you’ll find all that you can’t afford, my love, anymore.” The music then transitions to a gritty, almost cinematic instrumental for the remainder of the song, punctuated by a rather ominous, barely intelligible male voiceover and a mix of sirens and other harsh sounds.
What more can I say that I haven’t already gushed about, other than to proclaim that Haven is a spectacular album and a glorious feast for the ears. The five talented lads of The Million Reasons have outdone themselves, and should be quite proud of what they’ve created here. This band deserves to be successful, and I hope this review will encourage my readers to give this album a listen. And if they like it even half as much as I love it, my efforts will have been worthwhile.
As some of my regular readers and Twitter followers know, my recent bout of serious burnout caused me to decide, for the second time in six months, to quit writing music reviews. The fact that I actually do not enjoy writing, combined with a relentless and often overwhelming flood of submissions and requests for reviews from artists and PR firms, have time and again caused me tremendous anxiety and stress. On the other hand, I do enjoy lending support to indie artists and bands who follow me on social media in whatever small ways I can. Obviously, giving them a bit of press is an important part of that support. I’d like to continue doing so, but the challenge is finding a way to accomplish that without burning myself out again.
In order to continue featuring new music, I’ve decided to resurrect my ‘Fresh New Tracks’ series, which has been on a hiatus since I last wrote one in October 2021. For the series, I feature three or four new songs by various artists, with a few paragraphs about each one, rather than a full-blown review. Though they were generally well-received, I got the sense that some artists were not happy sharing the limelight with other artists or bands. But as more than a few musicians have told me, artists and bands should be grateful for any press, especially when I’m giving it to them for free.
Also, many of my reviews tend to be rather wordy and long, and being a slow, meticulous writer, they take me quite a while to get done. This seems to be a counter-productive approach in this day and age, where most people have the attention spans of a gnat. Although most artists and bands love when I write extensive and detailed reviews of their music, I’m guessing that few people actually read those long reviews in their entirety. Therefore, a short, concise description of each song would seem to be more appealing to a lot of readers who are pressed for time. With that in mind, I will make a valiant attempt to write a Fresh New Tracks post each week going forward. Today I’m featuring songs by three outstanding rock bands with great names from the UK, two of whom, Amongst Liars and FloodHounds, I’ve previously written about, as well as one that’s new to me, Mount Famine.
AMONGST LIARS – “Cut It”
Hailing from Brighton & Eastbourne, Amongst Liars play a fiercely aggressive style of melodic hard rock, forged from a powerful trifecta of alternative rock, grunge and punk. Comprised of Ian George (lead vocals, guitar), Leo Burdett (guitar, backing vocals), Ross Towner (bass, backing vocals) and Adam Oarton (drums), they formed in September 2019 from the ashes of two successful previous bands – Saint Apache and Katalina Kicks. Not only are they all highly accomplished and talented musicians, they’re nice guys too. Ian in particular has been very supportive of me and my blog, which of course makes me a loyal fan who’s more than happy to support them as much as I can.
I first learned about them in early 2020, and was immediately blown away by their explosive debut single “Over and Over”. In the two succeeding years, they’ve followed with six more outstanding singles, many of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Their latest is “Cut It“, a clarion call for people to stand up to abuse in all its forms. While they don’t consider themselves a ‘political’ band, Amongst Liars are not afraid to tackle some of the biggest socio-political issues of the day, including war mongering for financial gain, poverty, greed, fake news, deceitful politicians, election fraud, human rights abuses and climate change, and they’ve been outspoken advocates for social justice on several of their songs. About “Cut It”, the band explains: “These are difficult times behind many closed doors – words and actions can cause a lifetime of damage. Speak up for those being abused and bullied, and be kind – always.“
The song is a ripper, overflowing with the signature searing riffs and pummeling rhythms we’ve come to love and expect from Amongst Liars. Then there’s that droning bass riff by Ross, creating a menacing vibe that chills us to the core. Ian has a beautiful singing voice that turns deadly when he needs to get his point across: “This violence bleeds silence, bleeds silence / Pray, lead us astray! Pray, just cut it!” I love the dark video, which shows the band performing the song surrounded by curtains of sheer fabric, creating powerful feelings of suffocating claustrophobia. “Cut It” will be included on their forthcoming self-titled debut album, due for release July 8th.
FloodHounds are a terrific rock band from Sheffield who play a high-energy style of guitar-driven alternative rock, drenched in blues, punk and grunge influences. Formed in 2013, the band consists of Jack Flynn on guitar and vocals, Lauren Greaves on drums, and Anna Melidone, who replaced Joel Hughes on bass in summer of 2021. I’ve been following them for nearly six years, and they’re among the earliest bands I wrote about when my blog was still in its infancy, way back in October 2016 when I reviewed their excellent EP Look What You’ve Started.
In the years since, they’ve released numerous singles and a second EP Always in Sight, in 2019, and have toured extensively throughout the UK, including performances at the Isle of Wight and Liverpool Sound City festivals in 2019, as well as twice in Paris. FloodHounds remained active during the repeated lockdowns, putting out live streams and sessions for platforms such as Jagermeister, God Is In The TV Zine and Wentworth Festival, as well as self-producing a 10-track acoustic album. They also made the final shortlist of Record Store Day’s national video competition, and their innovative video for their single “Take It Too Far” garnered high placement at the London Music Video Festival 2020. Also in 2020, they released a brilliant single “Something Primeval“, a hard-hitting song about tapping into our inner resolve to survive in this world, which I also reviewed.
Now FloodHounds are back with “Panic Stations“, a stomping banger fueled by Jack’s jagged fuzz-soaked riffs, Anna’s grinding bassline and Lauren’s fearsome drumbeats. The biting lyrics call out those who spread lies and misinformation to sow fear and divisiveness, urging them to instead put their energy into trying to bring people together for a common good. “Panic Stations touches on the air of uncertainty we’ve all been labouring under“, explains Jack. “I wanted to write a song that echoed us roaring out of lockdown, and back into real life. The takeaway is that sticking together will serve us better than alienation and blind panic. It’s great fun to play live, it’s heavy but catchy, so people seem to really get on board with it.” In his arresting vocals, Jack emphatically implores “Give me something with meaning. And I will show you something to believe in. But if you just try and deceive me with all the lies that you hear blaring out your TV. It is your mission to heal division, so go and rally all the people who will listen.” It’s a great song.
Jack is also a photographer and graphic artist, and created the artwork for the single.
MOUNT FAMINE – “Distance”
Mount Famine are a rather enigmatic post punk/synth infused indie rock’n’roll project based in Derby. From what I can tell, they formed in 2019, and according to their bio, their sound is inspired by 80s bands such as The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs and Pet Shop Boys (all of whom I personally love too), and 90s bands like Manic Street Preachers, Pulp & Suede, along with “the same desire to tell stories that produce the adrenaline-fueled highs of indie disco dancefloors.” They have no photos of themselves on any of their social media, and I was told by band member Martin Stanier that they’ve steered away from photos, wanting the focus to instead be on their music. They’ve released four outstanding singles thus far, beginning in January 2020 with “Faith”, followed that July with “Pulse”, then “Lost” in February 2021, and now “Distance“, which dropped March 11th.
Martin reached out to me about “Distance” after seeing posts of my recent Top 30 song lists on Instagram, thinking it would be to my liking. Well, he was correct, as it’s right up my alley. With it’s rousing, guitar-driven melody, swirling cinematic synths and exuberant dance groove, all creating a glorious 80s-influenced wall of sound, it’s exactly the kind of sound I love. The band says the song was written and recorded on an old Roland synthesizer and beaten-up drumkit, which gives it that wonderful vintage 80s feel. The lyrics speak to the speed of life, and how it passes by with the blink of an eye, a sentiment they beautifully capture in the frenetic video.
Carbonstone is an industrial alternative metal band from Baltimore, Maryland that I learned about a few weeks ago when their front man, songwriter and vocalist Corey James reached out to me about their latest album DarkMatter. Influenced by such acts as the Rolling Stones, Korn, Nine Inch Nails, Static-X, Linkin Park and Starset, among others, Carbonstone creates hard-hitting, yet incredibly melodic music fueled by powerful driving rhythms, explosive riffs and lush industrial soundscapes, and fortified by James’ exceptional vocals.
James originally formed the band in 2005 under the name ‘Unspoken’, but later briefly changed their name to ‘Carved in Stone’, until someone misheard him, thinking he said ‘Carbonstone’. In a conversation with bandmate Neely Johns I watched on YouTube, James humorously recalled the exchange he had with someone at a party: “Somebody asked me ‘So what’s the new band name?’, and I said ‘It’s Carved in Stone’. When you have about 15 beers in your system and try to say Carved in Stone, it slurs out a little bit. He repeated Carbonstone back to me, and I said ‘Holy shit, that’s now the band name!’“
Carbonstone released three albums, Behind Closed Doors, Process of Elimination and What You’veBecome, as well as two EPs Unspoken and Strength in Silence, before life demands, the pressures of touring and burnout ultimately led the band to call it quits in 2014. Everyone went their separate ways, and James came very close to giving up on music altogether. But he could never fully let it go, and after a hiatus lasting more than five years, James once again felt the pull of music. In 2019, he decided to resurrect Carbonstone with former bandmate Neely Johns on guitar, along with new members Daniel Ryan on bass, Tony Correlli on synths and production, and TJ Darpino, who handles the extra live guitars and produces the band’s videos. Armed with three previously-written songs and several new ones he wrote during the first three months of 2021, James got together with his bandmates in April, and spent the next six months recording Dark Matter.
Released in late October 2021, Dark Matter is a gorgeous work, featuring 11 outstanding tracks plus a brief instrumental intro. The album was masterfully arranged and produced by band member and engineer Tony Correlli. As implied by its title, it’s a dark concept album inspired by some of the personal traumas James experienced in the years after Carbonstone’s breakup in 2014. He says the album contains some of the most personal songs he’s ever written, which take us on a journey from initial injury, as depicted on the opening instrumental track “Laceration” and following track “AM Trauma”, through the process of addressing personal demons and beginning the recovery from emotional trauma, as described by “Mend” midway through the album, to a state of well-being on the closing track, “Heal”.
The opening instrumental track “Laceration” establishes a moody tone with ominous atmospheric industrial synths, highlighted by darkly beautiful piano keys, before launching into the full-frontal assault that is “AMTrauma“. The guys layer an intense barrage of gnarly riffs over a chugging bassline and pounding drums, all of which explode into a raging torrent in the choruses. James has a beautiful, arresting vocal style that’s perfect for hard rock. His voice reminds me at times of Trent Reznor or Adam Gontier, effortlessly transitioning from seductive breathy croons to bone-chilling impassioned wails as he sings “Have you recovered. You won’t admit you never knew me, and you’ll pay for the way you deceived me. AM trauma, look at what you’ve done!/What have I become? All eyes on me, I am a catastrophe!”
“Hush” is a dramatic and melodically beautiful rock song with intricate guitars that run the gamut from shimmery to shredded, accompanied by swirling industrial synths and galloping percussion. The lyrics speak of being unable or unwilling to face one’s demons, choosing instead to suppress them in the mistaken belief they’ll just go away: “Ever feel like you’re always faking. It’s all in how you hold secrets left untold. You’d never know I’m suffocating.”
Bookended by rather spooky dulcet tones one would hear on a music box, “Phantoms” is a melodically complex tug of war between the calm of a lovely rock ballad and the explosive aggression of industrial metal. James plaintively laments of the demons – i.e. phantoms – that torment him: “I am forever haunted. These phantoms live beneath my skin. If I descend to madness, just look away and pray for me.” And on the heavy and dark “Mend“, he fears he’ll never experience happiness again: “I can never feel that way again. It’s so unreal the way I bend. Push and pull me closer to the edge. These open wounds will never mend.”
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “My Own Summer (Shove It)“, an excellent cover of the Deftones classic. Carbonstone does the song great justice, capturing the intense, eerie vibe of the original while making it their own, and James’ jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics are every bit as good as Deftones lead singer Chino Moreno’s. The title track “Dark Matter” is a powerful and stunning song with elements of Depeche Mode and Muse, only much more intense. James rails about the burdens he’s carried his entire life: “Cause I’ve carried the weight of the world, from the very day that I was born. Been buried underneath again, forever walking with the dead.”
The parade of excellent songs continues with “Pins & Needles“, featuring the dual vocal harmonies of James and his wife Chrystal, who’s the lead singer of metal rock band ANOXIA (of which James is also a member). Her beautiful vocals remind me a bit of Evanescence lead singer Amy Lee. The lyrics are a plea for help to escape from emotional torment: “I’m locked alone inside my head, it’s like a carnival. Somewhere between alive and dead, I’m just a tragedy. Rescue me from myself, the enemy.” “Vertigo” is a hard-driving banger addressing the negative impacts the cruel, hard ways of the world have on our souls: “It’s not your fault, the way you are. Thisfucked up world will leave you scarred. It tears you up and lets you down. This vertigo drives us underground.”
Another favorite of mine is “Kill the Dark (Astray)“, a stunning piano-driven ballad that’s the most melodic and beautiful song on the album. James’ breathy vocals are captivating as he sings of coming out of the dark and moving toward recovery: “Inside you scream, until it bleeds. Let’s kill the dark in you and me. Feel it all break, shattering away. Every move we make leads us more astray.” “Heal” closes the album on a high, albeit intense note, with a strong Nine Inch Nails vibe. James’ menacing vocals even sound like Trent Reznor’s as he passionately sings “The hardest part is letting go. It’s diving into the unknown. An empty space that you can feel. Sometimes the fall is how we heal. Do you feel better now?”
Dark Matter is a phenomenal, beautifully-crafted album brimming with impactful songs dealing with emotional trauma and the self-realization required for eventual healing. Carbonstone should be very proud of what they’ve created here, and this album needs to be heard by as many ears as possible. They’ve got a fan in me, and I hope my readers will love this album as much as I do.
I have a special fondness for female-fronted bands, and British group Never Apart fit the bill quite nicely. Consisting of the talented Alice (Al) Clarke (lead vocals), Rhys Scott (rhythm guitar), Ben Ollis (lead guitar), Nathan Gummery (bass) and Louis Baille (on drums, who recently left the band), the Coventry-based group plays a hard-hitting style of edgy melodic rock, with compelling lyrics addressing such issues as relationships and emotional well-being that many of us can relate to. They released their debut single “Damaged” in late 2019, then followed in May 2020 with “Hold On Hope“, which I reviewed. Now they return with a terrific new single, “Sick of It“, which dropped January 7th.
Never Apart wastes no time getting down to business, blasting through the speakers with a torrent of raging guitars before things settle down to a throbbing bass-fueled groove, overlain with chugging riffs of gnarly guitars and heavy thumping drumbeats. The music ebbs and flows with each verse and chorus, punctuated by a beautiful interlude of shimmery guitars, sparkling synths and delicate piano keys in the bridge, only to explode into a dramatic barrage of shredded guitars and pummeling rhythms in the final chorus. The band’s musicianship is impressive, and gets better with each new release.
Alice has a commanding vocal style that’s well-suited to the band’s heavy rock sound, and on this track her clear, highly emotive vocals are quite effective in conveying a strong sense of exasperation and anger as she belts out the searing lyrics in which she gives her former lover the big kiss-off.
You’ve got some nerve boy you're playing me like a toy
with all that I ever do
it seems its always too much for you
But now you won't see me
I'm running away from you
pleasure is pain now baby
more fool on youYou broke the wall around me built up the lie I believed
you burned it all now
I'm so sick of it
you dragged me down to the ground
so lost but thought I was found
you burned it all now
I'm so sick of it I gave you everything
now you’ll never see me again
with all of your games in my head I’ll never forget.
But now you won’t see me
I'm running away from you
Your pleasure is pain now baby
more fool on you
Why am I so hard to please
cried my eyes to start to freeze
You burn it all
Tarraska started out as a mostly acoustic cover band, but within a few years the guys began writing their own songs, and incorporating more electric guitars and heavier bass into their dynamic blend of classic and modern hard rock. Influenced by some of their favorite acts like Myles Kennedy, Tremonti, John Mayer, Slash, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, Five Finger Death Punch, Alter Bridge and Foo Fighters, their music took on a harder rock edge, characterized by heavy riffs, hard-driving rhythms and aggressive vocals. Jack plays rhythm and acoustic guitar and sings vocals, Ben plays lead, rhythm and bass guitar.
The guys released their debut single “Trailblazer” in May 2020, and followed that December with “Renegade”, which I featured on a Fresh New Tracks post this past February. Now they’re back with their third single “Prose“, which dropped December 3rd. All three singles will be included on their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in early 2022. A beautiful rock ballad that’s a departure from their typical harder rock sound, “Prose” became a fan favorite after Tarraska played it in their live shows. In response to the song’s positive reception, including even frequent requests for its lyrics, the guys felt it was the obvious choice for their next single release. They decided to record “Prose” with their full rock sound, and the result is a magnificent, deeply moving track that I think is their best release to date.
Jack reflects on his inspiration for writing the song: “The lyrics for ‘Prose’ were written to honour the many, many influences, artistic and familial, that have helped shape both my lifelong love for my art and who I am as a person. Of course, for me personally the lyrics refer to music, story and poetry as these are the mediums I resonate most strongly with, though for others it may be dance, painting or any number of other pursuits. I therefore see ‘Prose’, as I hope others will too, as a love song not for any one person, but for the ideas and emotions that so many have been able to express only through their dedication to, and love for, their craft.”
The track was recorded and mixed at Absolute Studios in Bournemouth by Gareth Matthews of GMMix, and mastered by Grammy-winning Brad Blackwood at Euphonic Masters in Memphis, Tennessee. Fellow musician Allan Varnfield played drums on “Prose”, as well as many of the songs on their forthcoming album, and will hopefully be joining the guys for live shows in 2022. About the recording process, Ben elaborates: “We knew the arrangement of ‘Prose’ was going to command our utmost attention; it was a delicate balance between a waltz and a rock ballad. Through its metamorphosis in the studio, the song unfolds from its acoustic roots to a powerful, yet melodic, ballad that hopefully captures you within its numerous dynamic shifts.”
As Ben alluded, “Prose” starts off with a beautifully-strummed acoustic guitar, as Jack tenderly sings “The songs and the stories of childhood, made me who I am today. And if I could thank you then I would, for lighting the path that I take. Expression committed to page…” As the song progresses, more guitars, bass and percussion enter, flowing and ebbing with each chorus and verse, becoming more intense in the choruses when Jack passionately sings “Your numinous prose, the verse and the line. The depths of your mind, slowly composed for you at the time. But the meaning implied, spoke to my soul, and taught me to hope, to love and to hold.” It all builds to a dramatic crescendo in the final chorus, highlighted by Ben’s gorgeous guitar solo and Jack’s fervent vocals at their emotional peak, after which the song fades out in a trail of serene strummed guitar notes.
To learn more about Tarraska, check out their Website