BLACK EYE Black Eye (Frontiers) ****
Of all the record labels I deal with Frontiers is by far the busiest and most productive. In 2017, Pink Cream 69’s Headstrong was my #1 album of the year. Imagine my delight at finding a new band built around their singer David Readman. Black Eye is hard hitting, melodic metal, relentless and tuneful- a deadly combination.
Readman has been around. Past affiliations aside from PC 69 include Voodoo Circle, Adagio, Room Experience, Almanac, Tank and Pendulum Of Fortune- all aside from an active solo career too. As Black Eye demonstrates, David Readman’s voice has range and power, and the band built around him by the label are all fierce players too. Aldo Lonobile, guitar; Luca Princiotta, guitar; Andrea Arcangeli, bass; David Folchitto, drums, with keyboards and orchestral arrangements handled by Antoni Agate and Mattia Gosetti. The combination of different keyboard textures and hard guitars over driving rhythms is a potent one. And Arcangeli’s low frequency bass work- is he playing a 5 or 6 string?- is particularly enjoyable as he thickens up the sound and helps move things along.
As a singer Readman reminds me of Graham Bonnet, whose new album I reviewed just last week. The guitar work of Lonobile and Princiotta are notable too; not overly complex but quite tasty, with lockstep, pummeling riffs and solos that don’t sacrifice emotion for speed. I haven’t listened enough to really get into the lyrical content, but by God the music makes you want to get up and move. With the world slowly waking from those two years we’ll never get back again, it feels pretty good.
According to the record company, “the driving principle behind Black Eye was to craft a melodic metal album with big choruses, powerful rhythms and huge solos that would showcase the powerful voice of Readman, an absolute world class singer”, to which I would reply “mission accomplished”, and when drummer Folchitto fires up the double kick drumming watch out; he’s deadly. Here’s to hoping that Black Eye isn’t just a one-off, and that we’ll be hearing more from this band.
HOT TRACKS: Don’t Trust Anyone, Time Stand Still, The Hurricane
RAISED ON RADIO Ronnie Romero (Frontiers) *****
Don’t know how I could have missed this, but in my defense I’m sent a shit-ton of albums to consider for review every week, with only the space and time to deal with a half dozen. Raised On Radio has been on my desk for about a month now, and I just came across it while looking for something else. Romero is the singer that Ritchie Blackmore picked to help resurrect Rainbow a few years ago. He’s a fine singer and ROR is a unique covers album, featuring songs he grew up on that mean something special to him. And he does the songs justice and honor.
As a singer Romero (Rainbow, Lords Of Black, The Ferrymen) possesses a uniquely powerful voice. Maybe it has something to do with the size of his balls too, as Raised On Radio features his versions of songs by heritage acts like Zeppelin, Queen, Foreigner, Bad Company, Survivor and more, making them his own without rendering them unrecognizable. He wisely decided to stay away from each band’s mega-hits, going for the album tracks, the deep cuts to give the record more depth and soul; though there aren’t many who haven’t All Along The Watchtower by either Dylan or Hendrix. For the Queen number he picked I Was Born To Love You, with guitarist Srdjan Brankovic doing a quite credible take on Brian May’s unique guitar sound. Want some Dio? Ronnie Romero takes us all the way back to RJD’s old band Elf to resurrect Carolina County Ball, just one of the ways Raised On Radio keeps things interesting. He’s done covers before in his career too, so this is comfortable territory for him.
Fans of Romero’s work with Lords Of Black and Rainbow will find much on ROR to be happy with and to sink their teeth into while he continues to work on his debut solo album. Ronnie Romero and his band (Srdjan Brankovic- guitars, Javi Garcia-bass, Andy C-drums, Alessandro Del Vecchio- keys) treat the songs with respect yet aren’t so reverential as to deliver carbon copies. I’m not usually a fan of cover records, but it feels like Romero has gone about this in the right way and with the right spirit. Raised On Radio is a good way for Ronnie to blow off steam as a singer, and for us as listeners to do the same. I’m really digging this.
HOT TRACKS: Carolina County Ball (Elf), Girl On The Moon (Foreigner), All Along The Watchtower (Dylan, Hendrix)
MISSISSIPPI SON Charlie Musselwhite (Alligator) *****
If you’re ready to go back home, Charlie Musselwhite is ready to take you there. His new record Mississippi Son is a stark, beautiful modern take on country blues; just Charlie with his voice, guitar and harmonica. He not only learned the music first hand from many of the genre’s legends, he also lives the lifestyle. Musselwhite is a bluesman through and through, and this disc is an invitation into that world.
“It’s an attitude” Charlie says about the blues, “a way of living life.” In his six decade career he has released nearly 40 albums and rubbed shoulders with Muddy, The Wolf, John Lee Hooker and countless others; he doesn’t just play the blues, he IS the blues. Mississippi Son is 14 songs, including 8 powerfully stark originals, delivered with Musselwhite’s soulful vocals, melodic and tasteful harp work and simple, hypnotic guitar playing. After decades of living in places like Memphis, Chicago and San Francisco he’s returned to the state where he was born, Mississippi. You can literally feel that “I’m finally home” vibe on this album.
I like Charlie Musselwhite’s term for his blues; “secular spiritual music”, and as these songs reach in to pluck at your heart strings, you realize he’s right. When it comes to singing Charlie is by no means a shouter- there’s a gentle warmth and intimacy to his voice that pulls you into whichever story he may be spinning. In the song Blues Gave Me A Ride he sings “blues tells the truth in a world that’s full of lies” and I think he’s on to something there. Mississippi Son is as much about living a blues life as it is blues in form, with the sparse, gentle delivery like deep meditation.
Not being familiar with Musselwhite as a guitar player this disc was a revelation. No blazing lead breaks, nor are any required… just the simple accompaniment needed to help tell his stories. With his down to earth vocals, tasteful harmonica playing and southern country blues guitar, Charlie is leaning forward and delivering the blues’ honest truth. When you need a break from the rat race, when you feel like retreating to recharge your batteries, I can think of no finer company that Mississippi Son. He’s as ‘blues’ as they come.
HOT TRACKS: In Your Darkest Hour, Drifting From Town To Town, Remembering Big Joe
DIFFERENT WORLDS Skills (Frontiers) *** ½
Some glorious and catchy hard rock here on Skills’ debut record. Different Worlds is replete with infectious mid-tempo grooves powered by meat n taters riffing and general fine playing from all involved. The presence of two notable rockers doesn’t hurt either.
Skills’ lineup includes bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, The Winery Dogs, Sons Of Apollo) and Night Ranger guitarist Brad Gillis. The group is rounded out by singer Renan Zonta (Electric Mob) and drummer David Huff of Giant. Gillis is a fine hard rock player, having played with Ozzy as well as Night Ranger and various side groups, while as a singer Zonta has a similar timbre and delivery as Jon Bon Jovi- not that there’s anything wrong with that. The surprise here is bassist Billy Sheehan… an accomplished player given to exercising his skills and being something of a show off (I once saw him go toe to toe with Steve Vai in a video and hold his own), he plays it straight down the line here, finding the pocket and settling into it comfortably. As a rhythm section he and drummer David Huff are in lock-step, making them all the more powerful.
Different Worlds is a wholly appropriate title for this record, given that the 4 musicians involved are from different generations, with Sheehan and Gillis representing the old guard of 80’s classic rock. Brazilian singer Zonta has a powerful instrument- not just Bon Jovi-esque, but a wicked combination of Glenn Hughes meets Sammy Hagar. There is no doubt in ANYBODY’S mind that he was born to sing this kind of stuff. David Huff, the drummer, plays it straight; no intricate fills, just powerful forward motion as he wraps himself around the backbeat and drives it home in classic style.
As a fan of Billy Sheena’s work with The Winery Dogs,. Mr. Big and The David Lee Roth Band, I was hoping Different Worlds would be a little… gnarlier. As is this album has considerable charm- how could it not with the talent involved- but it could’ve been more. Perhaps the vision of Frontiers president Perugino Serafino was to replicate the 80’s hard rock vibe that he bases much of his label’s output on, but this is a good thing that could’ve been made great with some of the showboating that I know Sheehan and Gillis are capable of. Still, at the end of the day this is a solid record.
HOT TRACKS: Escape Machine, Don’t Break My Heart, Losing The Track
POWER WITHOUT POWER Randy McAllister (Reaction Records) *****
That may be the most perfect, most appropriate album title ever. Armed with just his voice, blues harp and the intricate acoustic guitar playing of Brandon Hudspeth, McAllister delivers a set of deep, emotional songs capable of reaching even the most hardened heart. This really IS power without power.
Randy McAllister was raised in the small Texas town of Novice. A 6th generation Texan, he followed in his dad’s footsteps and started playing drums at age 9. He found the harmonica in his early 20’s while stationed in Massachusetts with the USAF, moved to Alaska in 1989, where he spent 3 years playing in various bands. He returned to Texas in 1992, a skilled harp player with a growing reputation as a singer and songwriter. So this cat’s been around, got himself some mileage, and you can feel those long, lonesome, dusty roads in the songs he writes and sings.
Power Without Power is a prime example of the K.I.S.S. philosophy; Keep It Simple, Stupid. There is no attempt to cram the songs full of extras like a thousand guitars, keys, strings or a choir for background vocals. With just McAllister’s husky voice, haunting harp and Hudspeth’s exquisite guitar playing these quiet, unassuming songs can hit you like a freight train. Though I’ve thought of myself as a ‘rock guy’ since my teen years in the 70’s I have a real affinity for singer/ songwriters too, with people like Jim Croce and James Taylor on my playlists to this day. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I enjoy a good story well told, bold and direct with nothing in the way; that’s what Power Without Power does so dazzlingly well.
These 11 songs are something I can imagine hearing around a mid-summer bonfire on the beach, late into the night when everyone has had plenty to drink and you hit that lull where staring into that fire and listening to some good stories seems like the best thing in the world. Simple, beautifully stark, well told stories; that’s Power Without Power and I can scarcely think of anything finer than spending the evening with this album.
HOT TRACKS: (Somebody) Ease My Troublin’ Mind, Son, C’mon Brothers & Sisters
FIRST BITE The Big Deal (Frontiers) ****
Serbian hard rock, anyone? Led by not one but two outstanding vocalists in Ana Nikolic and Nevena Brankovic (also a fine keyboard player), The Big Deal have just dropped their debut album. Melodic and hard driving, First Bite is a scorcher.
Hard rock and/or metal bands with a female singer aren’t exactly an anomaly- think Evanesence, Drain STH and, on occasion, Heart. Their story begins with the husband and wife team of Srdjan & Nevana Brankovic meeting singer Ana Nikolic. While working on some new ideas in the studio Srdjan thought it would be interesting to bring Ana’s voice into the mix. After a couple of songs were finished they were overjoyed with the results and The Big Deal’s first demos were born. Those morphed into the package presented to the label and got them signed. With Srdjan on guitar, Nevana on vocals and keys plus Ana at the mic, Marko Melovjevic and was added on drums, producer Alessandro Del Vecchio picked up the bass and voila! A band was born. Srdjan’s and Marko’s creative relationship pre-dates The Big Deal as they are both members of Alogia, Serbia’s most successful progressive band.
First Bite is full of razor sharp, hard charging grooviosity that makes it a pantload of fun to drive fast to. Melojevic and Del Vecchio are a potent rhythm section while Srjdan’s guitar playing ranges from in-the-pocket palm muted riffing to acrobatic and highly entertaining solos, but interestingly he doesn’t overplay his hand. Nevana’s keyboards add texture, depth and grandiosity, while her voice combined with Ana’s reminds me of Lee Aaron, whom I like a great deal as an artist and singer. There is so much talent in this band it’s almost ridiculous.
The feel, musically, of First Bite harkens back to the late 80’s/ early 90’s, when a comet called ‘grunge’ came along and laid waste to the rock & roll landscape of the time. Here, well into the new millennium, perhaps the time for melodic hard rock to rule the planet has come around again. Combining progressive chops with a hard driving melodic delivery is the best of both worlds in a band like The Big Deal, and its bands like this that are leading the charge; this is an impressive debut.
HOT TRACKS: Wake The Fire, Never Say Never, Lady Of The Night