Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR May 17, 2022

TO THE TREES Stephen Clair (independent) *****

This Beacon, NY based troubadour pays us another visit with a brace of personal, introspective songs. To The Trees is a batch of gently rolling tunes that deal with matters of the heart, like sitting around the kitchen table with him as you enjoy a good cup of coffee and discuss the things that really matter… and it feels so very good.

To The Trees focuses Clair’s sights on home.  The title track and centerpiece of the record is inspired by Italo Calvino’s “The Baron In The Trees”… the song’s subject walking out on a family meal to live out her days in the limbs of those trees.

To the trees, to the trees
She’s another bird set free
It’s where she’s meant to be
Lolling in its branches
Taking all life’s chances
I hope she remembers me
To the trees

The central message of this, his 9th album, is about embracing change and accepting the new, something we could all handle a little better.

The band on To The Trees is Stephen on guitar and vocals, Lee Falco on drums, Brandon Morrison on bass (mix engineer too) and Will Bryant on keys.  As a singer, Clair has a relaxed, casual style that reminds me of Ray Davies on some of his solo stuff, complimented by the band’s laid back playing style.  It’s the depth of his lyrical observations that lift this above the crowd, so it was interesting to note in the press info that Clair’s library is filled with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.  And it’s not like he’s lecturing us about how we should live nor is he talking above our heads. Of To The Trees Stephen says “It’s a true story.  Here is this collection of songs, and here is my heart on full display.”  Performing Songwriter notes that he’s “the kind of citified troubadour that the roots songwriting world needs these days.”

To The Trees feels very autobiographical, particularly Hope We Make It Here, which surely must be about the 19th century corner homestead, a former general store in the town of Beacon, that Clair and his family call home.  This record isn’t just compatible or worthwhile sentiments, it’s like Stephen Clair is inviting us in to sit at his table with unassuming honesty and vulnerability.    It’s a beautiful thing.

HOT TRACKS:  I Hope We Make It Here, Let It Out, Cry

BLACK PEARL Black Pearl (Redline Music) ****

If you like your rock & roll shot full of bluesy goodness, I’ve got something for you here. Black Pearl’s self titled debut is a juicy, often slow burning piece of easy flowing excellence with enough swagger and attitude to fill you to the brim.

Black Pearl is a rock-blues project featuring London based Detroit singer Marcus Malone, former Wishbone Ash guitarist and arranger Muddy Manninen and songwriter Pete Feenstra.  Originally born as a song writing project by Muddy & Pete during the lockdown, Marcus quickly came on board and thus magic was born.  Black Pearl wanders between rock, blues, Americana and even Latino for a unique and enjoyable musical blend.  A couple of things struck me right away; how as a singer Malone often reminds me of Dug Pinnick from King’s X, and that the guitar playing has a Robin Trower feeling to it.  Haunting and bluesy, the songs feed your imagination.

Muddy Manninen was the songwriter and guitarist for Wishbone Ash for 13 years.  Marcus Malone learned his craft opening for guys like Bob Seger and Iggy Pop before being courted by Motown Records.  Peter Feenstra is an award winning blues promoter and blues/rock DJ and songwriter. They each bring something different to Black Pearl, which I daresay comes off stronger than the sum of its parts.  There’s a pop sensibility, a melodic touch that you don’t often hear in this genre, and lyrics that have the ability to spark the imagination.  Take Price On Love, with its sort of gently rolling Motown feel.  When was the last time you heard the phrase “your cool galactic charm” in a song? I thought so.  Feenstra’s lyrics address many of the same subjects dealt with in the genre, but he has a way of putting a little tweak or twist on them that makes you go “yeah”.

Black Pearl may have been born as a pandemic project but Black Pearl sounds like an album done by musicians (Malone & Manninen plus various guests) that understand each other very well.  I’m looking forward to sharing these tunes on my internet radio shows.

HOT TRACKS:  Luxury Girl, Price On Love, Moment Of Regret

UNCHANGE Gina Sicilia (VizzTone) *****

A stunning new album here from this former Pennsylvania native who has called Nashville home for a decade now.  Unchange pairs that sultry blues/ soul voice with the intuitive production of Colin Linden (Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn), and it’s no exaggeration to call this album sheer bloody magic.

As soon as they started pre-production for the new record, Gina and Colin discovered a mutual affinity for classic gospel music, which set the tone for the sessions.  Unchange features songs by Sam Cooke and Reverend Gary Davis as well as a variety of more contemporary styles.  Gina is on vocals of course, with Colin on guitars and vocals, Johnny Dymond on bass and Bryan Owings on drums, with a handful of guests on keys and backup vocals.  Linden obviously enjoyed making this record with Ms. Sicilia immensely, saying “Gina- pure blues, old world, old soul, new sound.  Every day was a fresh take on sharing joy, heartache and redemption.”

I first encountered Gina Sicilia with 2013’s It Wasn’t Real, and I’ve been a fan since with Unchanged being her 5th disc to join my collection but, I think, it’s her 10th overall.  While she handles her blues extremely well, I would characterize Gina as more of a soul singer, bringing a depth to the songs she sings that others can only dream of.  Colin Linden’s sparse production style here frames that voice in a wonderful light, the sometimes understated and stark ambience allowing her to shine through.  This is what it can sound like when producer/ collaborator and artist really understand each other.

I certainly recognize songs like Death Don’t Have No Mercy and Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, but if you’re in the mood for a cathartic breaking of the heart, go directly to Valentine, which features Sicilia’s emotion-laden voice and Linden’s delicate acoustic guitar work.  If this doesn’t make you melt, nothing will.

In the past Gina Sicilia has worked with producers like Dave Gross, Dave Darling, Glenn Barratt and Cody Dickinson, but as good as those albums have been with Unchange Linden pulls out some startling performances from her, one after the other; talk about 2 creative forces fitting each other like a glove.  It really doesn’t get any better than this.

HOT TRACKS:  Valentine, Healing Time, One Last Tender Moment

DAY OUT IN NOWHERE Graham Bonnet Band (Frontiers) *** ¾

It would seem that legendary singer Graham Bonnet is enjoying something of a late career renaissance.   Day Out In Nowhere is his 3rd album since 2016, and it’s hard rock with the pop swagger that we’ve come to expect.  Not metal particularly, but rockin’ and melodic.  Great players involved; and that magnificent voice!

Bonnet first came to the world’s attention when Ritchie Blackmore tapped him to replace Ronnie James Dio in Rainbow for 1979’s Down To Earth.  He only stayed for the one album then went on to various other bands like Alcatrazz and something of a solo career, but with that instantly identifiable rock shout he should have been a much bigger deal.  With this album he seems to be onto something. “Similar to the first two albums it reflects different eras of my career, but with a contemporary twist” Graham says.  The overall view of Day Out is that it’s solid hard (but not necessarily heavy) rock, with loads of melodies and tasty hooks to keep listeners engaged.

For Day Out In Nowhere he is joined by longtime band mates Beth Ami-Heavenstone on bass and Conrado Pesinado on guitar plus keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni and drummer Shane Gaalaas.  There’s an impressive guest list as well; Jeff Loomis (Arch Enemy, Nevermore), John Tempesta (The Cult, White Zombie), Mike Tempesta (Powerman 5000), Roy Z (Halford, Bruce Dickinson), and Graham’s former Rainbow band mate Don Airey, current Deep Purple keyboard player.  When this disc really works, as it does on the opening track Imposter, it depends as much on the hard driving band as it does on Bonnet’s voice.  Of course, hella-decent songwriting doesn’t hurt either.

As a rock singer, both with bands and as a solo artist, Graham Bonnet has been around for a good long while; from The Marbles’ self titled debut in 1970 to here in 2022 with Day Out In Nowhere.  I confess that I haven’t really kept tabs on Bonnet over the years, only checking in on him from time to time… but from the first time I heard him with Rainbow to this afternoon, as a vocalist he hasn’t lost a step to time, either in power or range; quite remarkable.  Of course, having a guitarist like Conrado Pesinado in his band doesn’t hurt either!  All in all a strong, muscular effort from this veteran rock & roll front man; worth checking out.

HOT TRACKS: Impostor, When We’re Asleep, Day Out In Nowhere

AGENDA 21 Zero Hour (Frontiers) ****+

It’s the new album from this recently reformed progressive metal band.  Originally formed in the San Francisco Bay area in the 90’s with the mandate to create heavy, dark, melodic music influenced by Dio-era Rainbow, The Pat Metheny Group and Dream Theatre, Agenda 21 lives up to the parameters set by the original group.

Full disclosure; much like weird jazz, I find progressive metal hard to deal with at times… but Agenda 21, for that sort of music, is reasonably straightforward.  The intricate playing unites as a bigger, more forceful whole, something any metal fan can appreciate.  Zero Hour currently includes original members Jasun Tipton (guitars) and Erik Rosvold (vocals), along with newbies Andreas Blomqvist (bass) and drummer Roel van Helden.  By the sounds of things, they’re off to a promising (re)start.

As is typical of many pandemic-era projects, Agenda 21 was recorded in different studios.  Tipton structured the music, tracking guitars and keys.  Roel then arranged and recorded the drums, Andreas followed by arranging and recording his bass.  Erik wrote the lyrics for Agenda 21, then arranged the vocal melodies with Jasun Tipton as he laid them down.  Makes you wonder if the days of a bunch of guys getting together in the studio to strap up and blast away are becoming a thing of the past.  That would suck.

If I had to describe Zero hour’s Agent 21 to someone that isn’t familiar with the band, I’d call them a cross between 90 ‘s Queensryche and perhaps Dream Theatre.  Though a progressive metal band, Zero Hour’s attack is mainly straightforward, yet still filled with intricate playing.  Van Helden’s double kick drumming is the driving force that the other guys hang their parts on, which is as it should be.  Blomqvist and Tipton often play together in unison which gives the band a thicker, more articulate sound.  Oh sure they have tempo changes, but not really the whipsaw stuff that characterized Rush’s late 70’s material, the kind of thing that could give you a sore neck from trying to follow along.  No, Agenda 21 is more straightforward and, I think, more powerful for going that route.

Zero Hour’s Agent 21 is the sound of talented musicians thinking and playing on the same wavelength, and in my book that’s always exciting to listen to.

HOT TRACKS:  Stigmata, Patient Zero, Democide

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART Kenny Neal (Ruf) *****+

When the blues comes out of Louisiana it has some kind of special juju.  That’s the case with Kenny Neal’s new record Straight From The Heart.  It’s the blues, but with a swampy Bayou undercurrent and a shot of jazz.  To say this disc is mesmerizing may be the understatement of the year.

As a guitar player, Neal is a cross between BB King and Buddy Guy. Straight from The heart found Kenny drawn by the siren song of his home state. “This is the first album I’ve ever recorded on my home turf, and it truly came straight from the heart” he says.  Kenny led a crack team of local musicians and produced the album too. “All the tributaries of the blues converge here” he notes, “flowing into one rich tradition.”

Lots of rich grooves at play here, like Louise Ana featuring Dopsie Jr. & The Zydeco Twister; in many respects a straight up blues, but with accordion solos instead of harp or guitar.  Close your eyes and it’ll feel like you’re in some dive bar in downtown New Orleans or Baton Rouge, having the time of your life.  The guest list for Straight From The Heart is a lengthy one, with over 20 musicians taking part.  Special guests you might recognize include Grammy winning guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Michael Jackson’s older brother Tito, who just put out his own blues album not long ago.  Kenny Neal is a tasty guitar player and he was born to sing this kind of music but it’s worthwhile to take a step back and take in the performances of the band and all the guests involved.  “It was like a family reunion” Kenny says about the sessions. “It was excellent because I had all the musicians that grew up under me here in Baton Rouge.  And just being in my own studio, not worrying about the clock.”

I don’t know if ‘Zydeco Blues’ is a genre, but after getting tight with Straight From The Heart, it feels like it SHOULD be.  Giving this a listen is one of those life affirming, soul shaking experiences that you’ll want to share with your friends.

HOT TRACKS:  Louise Ana, Blues Keep Chasing Me, It’s Been So Long


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