Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR September 14, 2021

HEART, MIND AND SOUL Hardline (Frontiers) ***

Imagine if Whitesnake and Bon Jovi went out one night, got hammered, and 9 months later a baby appeared.  That, kids, would be Hardline.  Heart Mind & Soul, released in July, is their latest album. Their Sunset Strip roots are showing here in these hooky, riff powered songs- not exactly sleazy but not too pretty either.  Not bad, this.

Heart Mind & Soul owes much of its punch to the guitar playing of Mario Percudani and the production of Alessandro Del Vecchio, who also plays keyboards and sings backup.  What magic and emotional impact these songs have lay squarely on the shoulders of singer Johnny Gioeli, a powerful vocalist who comes across as a mix of David Coverdale and Jon Bon Jovi- probably more Bon Jovi- but with more muscle, reach and sustain than either one of those guys.  In many ways, Gioeli is the archetypical hard rock singer.  The rhythm section of Anna Portalupi (bass) and Marco Di Salvia (drums) is a no-nonsense 4-on-the-floor unit; roll up your sleeves and get the job done. Basic, but powerful.

Hardline’s Heart Mind & Soul is quite enjoyable melodic hard rock with metal intentions, but in many ways it’s quite typical of the kind of rock & roll the label (Frontiers) champions.  I wouldn’t call this a standout or exceptional rock & roll statement, but on the other hand, that familiar 80’s rock vibe can be quite enjoyable and comforting- especially for those of is that remember that particular decade.  I was in my 30’s then and got up to many things that aren’t fit to print here; suffice to say H,M & S is like an echo of an entertaining and profoundly weird decade for some of us.  Ahem.

As this disc plays I’m enjoying the power of Gioeli’s voice, and Percudani’s guitar playing is fairly inventive- there’s a harmony lead break in Searching For Grace that had me thinking of Queen and Brian May- not a bad standard to reach for.  Heart, Mind & Soul isn’t a groundbreaking record by any stretch, but the musicianship is top notch and the songs are agreeable if a bit familiar sounding… and today, that works for me.

KEY CUTS:  Searching For Grace, Fuel To The Fire, 80’s Moment

IT’S ME OR THE DOG Emily Frembgen (independent) ****

Look at that album cover; a sweet looking girl in a cowboy hat with an acoustic guitar.  Nice, but it was the album title that made me think “I gotta listen and see what makes her tick.”  In the press info I got with the disc comes this description from Jason Heller in Westworld; “the songs soar with occasional flashes of lightning and midnight made bold by a purity of voice, clarity of composition and a confidence that knows just how loud quite can truly be.”  Now you want to listen too, don’t you? You should.

Frembgen comes from the German for “little stranger”. Emily started her path as a child actor then, at age 15, she moved to New York City where she discovered the music of Lou Reed and Lucinda Williams, and began learning guitar and writing songs.  She hated high school and dropped out, home schooled herself and worked at Canal Jeans, then spent her pay at Tower Records.  At night she holed up with a 4-track recorder, recording her own stuff as well as covers.  She found her musical self in the songs of Reed and Williams plus Bob Dylan, Mary Gautier, Gillian Welch and more.  She then formed a band with a childhood friend (The Jellybabies) and distributed homemade cassettes.

It’s Me Or The Dog was produced at Excello Studios in Brooklyn by Hugh Pool (Taj Mahal, Debbie Harry) and includes Keith Robinson on drums and Charles Dechant, with Brian Mitchell on keys.  As a singer Emily has the boldness of a Lucinda Williams coupled with the clarity of Emmylou Harris.  The songs are uncluttered, almost bare in some cases, which allow the starkly emotional lyrics to stand out even more.  I’ve been a writer for many years and am always attracted to an artist who shows particular skill in the craft, and Ms. Frumbgen easily connects on that level.  This isn’t exactly folk nor is it country, and yet it has elements of both.  And, like I said last week about Ericson Holt’s new album 99 Degrees, this disc is like a good book; hard to put down.  I’m well aware that after a couple of spins I’ve just scratched the surface here- that excites me.

KEY CUTS:  Changes, New Feelin’, He Held Onto Me

Senjutsu Iron Maiden (Parlaphone/ BMG) ****

This is the 17th album for Iron Maiden, their first in nearly 6 years following 2015’s Book Of Souls and, like that record, it’s a double album. Senjutsu has been delighting fans since it’s September 3rd release, while others bemoan yet another clutch of overly long songs with 3 tunes exceeding 10 minutes and others coming close; I gotta say both raise valid points.  Ultimately, though, this is one hell of an album.

To be honest I was on the fence about getting Senjutsu- not just because of the length of the songs, but the way I felt sonically brutalized by their last few albums; it was just… too much. The enthusiasm of my friend and Maiden fan Kier White won me over to the point of “what the hell, let’s check it out.”  First impression, it’s their best work since Y2K’s A Brave New World.   It’s also their most sonically diverse album in some time, often moody and experimental.  I get the feeling that, as they were gearing up for this disc, a discussion took place between the band and longtime producer Kevin “The Caveman” Shirley about doing something different and kicking things up a notch.

Iron Maiden writing lengthy numbers about martial valor and/or history is about as unusual as Motley Crue writing songs about girls with big tits.  Senjutsu (loosely translated as “tactics and strategy”) has both, with 3 numbers being accredited to bassist/ history buff Steve Harris alone- a first since 1998’s Virtual IX.  Also, according to Wikpedia, it’s the first Maiden album to have no songwriting input from guitarist Dave Murray since 1984’s magnificent Powerslave.

As Rush progressed through their career they became comfortable with writing shorter songs in the 5 minute range, while the exact opposite is true for Iron Maiden.   The frantic, punk-like energy of their first couple of records is long gone, and while there are songs clocking in here in the 4 to 7 minute range, they’re quite comfortable with stretching out past 8 minutes on a number of occasions too.  Iron Maiden have become quite progressive when it comes to songwriting in their old age, and I admit I’m digging their gutsy “the song will take however long it bloody well takes” attitude.  They’re not gunning for hits on the radio- like that matters anymore- because they never needed to.

I have the entire Maiden catalog, and Senjutsu has me thinking it’s time to go back and re-evaluate how I feel about the 4 records between here and Brave New World, just have to find the time.  Final verdict; this could very well be their Physical Graffiti- it’s that good, that powerful.

KEY CUTS:  Stratego, The Writing On The Wall, Hell On Earth

WELCOME FAREWELL Kris Gruen (Mother West) **** ½

This is the fifth album for Kris, son of legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen.  Initially avoiding anything close to ‘the family business’, Kris forged a path as an up and coming poet before starting to write songs at the age of 25.  This has all led to Welcome Farewell, a warm and personal album powered by his acoustic guitar and true to life lyrics about his life and family.

Welcome Farewell was born in the rural backcountry of Vermont, in the woods, fields and mountains surrounding his family’s organic farm.  “For a traveling musician it can be rare to choose a place in the world where you can put down your roots in the most concrete of ways” Kris notes.  “I now have a genuine, physical commitment to home- to the farm that my family built from scratch, where my wife grows Brussels Sprouts and my grandmother is buried.”   It is this warmth, this sense of family and belonging that will speak to you as you listen.

Gruen’s concerts mostly find him performing alone with his acoustic guitar, but for Welcome Farewell he had some friends join him in the studio.  “There’s a real ‘band sound’ on this record” he says. “I wanted to build the orchestration around the starting point of me being an acoustic singer/ songwriter, but I also wanted to leave breathing room for the band. The (players) aren’t just supporting a lyric- they’re playing to the message and the sentiment of each tune. They’re speaking back to the storyline.”

Welcome Farewell is one of Kris Gruen’s most personal records with a rural sound that reflects his small town existence and world perspective at the same time.  He’s even taken Johnny Thunders’ You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory and turned it into a haunting piano-based ballad.  Wistful and full of hope but with some dark corners, this is just the sort of album that makes for great company on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you’re thinking about your own place in the world.  I’ll be spending more time with this. I love the quote on his Facebook page; “music is a tool to swoon and beguile.”

KEY CUTS:  Water Into Wine, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, Skyline Drive

THE TRIANGLE: EXPANDED EDITION Lisa Mills (Melody Place Music/The Orchard) ***** +

The Triangle, which I reviewed in March of 2020, was one of my favorite albums of that year.  In a 5 star review at the time I called her voice “raw and jam packed with emotion”  I also said “(this) reminds me of the first time I heard Beth Hart and Melissa Etheridge, the vocals and songs themselves so intense I can hardly take it.” I still stand by those comments, and am thrilled to add this expanded edition to my collection.  Brand new tracks include a great version of King Floyd’s Groove Me and William Bell’s  Everybody Loves A Winner.  This isn’t just good, or great- it’s devastating.

The Triangle was originally released at the end of January 2020, and we all remember what happened not long after that.  Plans to tour, promote and market this magnificent record were put on hold, but now it’s time to re-introduce Lisa Mills.  Producer Fred Mollin says “The warmth of the sun is finally coming back (and) to celebrate that, and to give the album its due, I was able to find 2 songs that were almost complete from our recording in Memphis as well as in Jackson, Mississippi. These two tracks were just waiting for Lisa to put a finished vocal on them. (They) were only orphaned due to the running length of the original album.”  The Triangle: Expanded Edition is a digital-only release, so running time is no longer an issue.

Of the new tunes, Everybody Loves A Winner is Lisa’s favorite.  “I always wanted it to be on the album” she says. “What a treat to return Royal Studios in Memphis and sing on Al Green’s microphone to finish the vocal track. Although I am often referred to as a ‘blues artist’, in my heart I feel I am a Blue-Eyed Soul Singer/ Torch Singer with a great love and respect for Black gospel music.  How amazing to see all these elements come together in a classic tune like this.”

What I said about this album in 2020 applies to the expanded version as well.  “The Triangle title is a geographical reference, an area surrounded by Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Jackson, Mississippi where great music comes from. When you listen to these songs, they feel like they belong.  The Triangle showcases blues and soul classics as well as some little-known gems, all given new life by Lisa’s stunning vocal delivery and the production talents of Fred Mollin.  Smooth and rough at the same time, loaded with emotional outbursts thanks to Lisa’s singing, these songs stick to you like sweat.”

Now that the world is slowly heading back to some form of normalcy, it’s time for The Triangle to enjoy the recognition it so richly deserves, and fans of the original release will want this expanded edition too.  This is the sound of true greatness.


KEY CUTS:  I’d Rather Go Blind, Everybody Loves A Winner, I’ll Always Love

THE RECKONING Laurenne/ Louhimo (Frontiers) **** ½

A metallic meeting of the minds is what we have here.  This collaboration between powerhouse Finnish vocalists Noora Louhimo (Battle Beast) and Netta Laurenne (Smackbound) is a raging brute.  The Reckoning is a storming metal album that will shake the rafters amid cries of “TURN IT UP TO 11!!!”

“I’ve had the idea about a possible collaboration with Noora incubating for a few years” says Netta.  “Once the pandemic started and cleared out calendars for both of us, it felt like the perfect time reach out and start this project.” She adds “This is also a collaboration with my husband, music producer and guitarist Nino Laurenne, with whom I wrote the songs for the album.”  It should also be noted that joining them on drums, is Sampo Happaniemi. Both singers originally hail from the same town, Tampere, which makes the album even more special for the two of them.

The Reckoning is a forceful record that combines excellent musicianship with solid songwriting.  Noora is equally excited about what they’ve done here too.  “It’s been amazing to realize how much in common we have as singers and as people” she notes. “We both have similar idols and influences music-wise and we both love singing with soul, blues, edge and power.  She’s definitely my long lost soul sister.”  As singer they both remind me of Lee Aaron, but with a little more prime time David Coverdale-style oomph.  Nino Laurenne is an excellent guitarist, whether he’s riffing through a verse or dashing off a multi-layered solo, and can be thrilling to listen to.

A project like The Reckoning could have easily dissolved into a bickering war of egos, but Noora and Netto get along like a house on fire, and combining their voices on this disc feels so natural you’d think they’d been doing it forever.   There’s lots of give and take, sonically speaking, between songs like Time To Kill The Night (the opening track) and a ballad like Hurricane Love, so it doesn’t feel like you’ve been shoved into an old mail bag and been beaten with rakes.  This is metal and it’s heavy, but if I may be allowed a tiny complaint, the keyboard textures they use to fill out the tunes could be dialed back a smidge.  Inspiring and relentless; that’s The Reckoning.

KEY CUTS:  Time To Kill The Night, Dancers Of Truth, Hurricane Love


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