IGNITION Streetlight (Frontiers)  ***+

Good album title for the debut from these Swedish rockers.  Sounding like early to mid-80’s Journey, Ignition is keyboard-heavy pop/rock with guitars aplenty, a tad light but real positive and upbeat… nostalgic, yet not out of step for modern times.  Distinct melodies, punchy choruses and strong melodic hooks are the order of the day.

When you spin Ignition you’ll feel their admitted influences; Journey, Toto, Kansas and Def Leppard.  Singer/ guitarist Johannes Hager has a set of pipes built for this particular type of music, high and melodic without a lot of grit, but then that’s not needed here.  Johannes is a full time music producer in Sweden, and all the other guys in the band have been in previous bands as well as lots of session experience, so Streetlight is a bunch of dudes with serious chops. 

For those that were around for AOR’s heyday in the 80’s (like me) Ignition is going to sound and feel quite familiar, but the band doesn’t see this particular style of melodic rock as a relic from the past; they feel it’s more than just nostalgia, that it’s music for the here and now.  The 80’s was a time when synthesized instruments really came to the fore, but I’m hearing real drums here, guitar and bass too… in a time when everything seems to be sampled and drum machines are the rule (today), it’s a welcome analog touch.  John Svensson’s keyboards add an ethereal overlay, the sort of touch that is pretty much the law when it comes to this kind of stuff.  You can either dig it or not, and to be honest I’m on the fence there.

The big hooks and heroic choruses make the songs on Ignition virtually unforgettable but in general I find this kind of rock to be over-produced and a tad wubbly, except for the guitar-centric numbers where they flex a little muscle.  You could do better, but then you could do a whole lot worse too.

HOT TRACKS:  Love Riot, Hit The Ground, Awake

SUNGAZER Skull & Crossbones (Massacre Records) ****+

With a name like that I was expecting scuzzy Guns ‘N’ Roses type stuff… but no.  Sungazer, the first full length album from these German metallers is taut, driving and exciting heavy metal, sort of a cross between Iron Maiden and Accept.

Skull & Crossbones is a new band featuring former members of the legendary Stormwitch- only singer Tobi Kipp is a ‘new guy’.  One the singles released ahead of the album is Nature’s Legacy, and there’s a lyric video for it too.  The band says the song “is about the occult, pagan nature religions.  The attentive view of the beauty of nature should be sharpened, but from a dark point of view.  One should leave a legacy of which one is proud.”  Skull & Crossbones is Tobi Hubner (vocals), Volker Schmietow (guitar), Tobi Kipp (guitar) Jurgen Wannenwetsch (bass) and Marc Oppold (drums).  Without taking anything away from the other guys Oppold’s drums, particularly the double kick workouts, are a big part of the power that S&CB displays here.

Sungazer was mixed and mastered by Marc Ayerle, and sound-wise it reminds me of the Accept records Andy Sneap has produced since that band’s resurrection in 2010.  This is classic, driving metal, played as only the Germans can- a thing of savage beauty that pins you to the wall.  The lyrics of a track like Tyrant have an over the top almost operatic sense of drama- a necessary ingredient for this particular type of dark magic- and having a singer that has a similar style to Bruce Dickinson is a plus.

If a band that combines the power of Accept with the lyrical and rhythmic complexity of Maiden tickles your fancy, Sungazer is an album you’ll come back to often. Pretty damn cool.

HOT TRACKS: Nature’s Legacy, Midnight Fyre, Tyrant’s Rule

DAMN GOOD AND READY Chickenbone Slim (VizzTone) *** ½

This is the 5th album for Chickenbone Slim, a San Diego-based blues artist. Damn Good And Ready is full of the retro blues/ Americana energy that Slim and his band are rightly celebrated for.  It was recorded at Greaseland Studios and produced by Kid Andersen, a guy that knows more about this kind of music than you and I ever will; it’s time travel in 12 songs.

Damn Good is 12 original tunes that feature Chickenbone’s band in fine form; guitarist Laura Chavez, bassist Justice Guevera and drummer Marty Dodson.  Chickenbone Slim epitomizes the “Americana” sound by putting blues, swing, rockabilly and roots rock into a giant bowl and taking the mixer to it.  It’s part the band’s performance and the production techniques of Andersen that give DG&R its blue collar verve; reverb on the guitars with the bass and drums providing a swingin’ bed with which to conjure bluesy goodness.  The sound overall is a tad overdriven, a stylistic choice no doubt that gives it a primitive, ballsy feel.

The first single is Rock & Roll Soul, not to be confused with the Grand Funk Railroad song of the same name.  The band describes it as “a roots rock anthem and a love song.”  The driving beat makes it easy to latch onto, and the solos from guitarist Chavez and guest Eric Spaulding on sax are tres enjoyable.  Then you get into the greasy goodness of Ice In My Whiskey, a slow burning blues that acts as a musical counterpoint to the upbeat good-timey numbers that populate the disc.  The most atmospheric and lyrically oddest tune is Ty Cobb’s Chiclets about the baseball legend and his false teeth.  I gotta hand it to Chickenbone for thinking this was good subject matter for a song; I have an affection for people that think around corners like that.

So why didn’t I rate Damn Good And Ready higher?  While I’m usually a fan of anything Kid Andersen touches the reverb-soaked production here is distracting… perhaps it will just take a few more spins for that to settle in so I can make peace with it.  Good, but not quite great.

HOT TRACKS:  Ice In My Whiskey, High Ballin’ Train, Rock & Roll Soul

TOO MUCH BLUES Willie J. Laws Jr. (Pilot Light Records) ****

Blues with savoi-fair… that, in a nutshell, is the new album from Willie J. Laws Jr.  Unlike the Chickenbone Slim disc just reviewed Too Much Blues is polished and sophisticated.  Willie incorporates elements of classic R&B and funk, plus some of his Texas- rooted blues for an enjoyable and persuasive set of grooves- no wonder he’s won a boatload of awards.

Despite the title Too Much Blues– and let’s be honest, it attracted me instantly- I wouldn’t particularly call this a blues album, almost more of a ‘Robert Cray meets George Benson’ kind of thing with a touch of James Brown on the side.  Laws has performed nationally (in the U.S.) as well as internationally, logging 3 tours of Russia at the behest of the American consulate in St. Petersburg.  His band has held the gig as house band at The House Of Blues/ Mandalay Bay in Vegas, and has also held down a residency at Margeritaville in New Orleans so they’ve got some juice.  Laws has a fine singing voice that sits well with the material, and there’s a BB King-like sophistication to his guitar playing too- not a bad combination if you can swing it.

Too Much Blues was produced by Paul Nelson (the onetime Johnny Winter sideman I’m assuming) with clean and exacting sonics that manage to not sound overly fussy at the same time.  Nothing terribly dirty about this thing, in fact it’s just the opposite.  Though he’s billed in promo material as “the lost prophet of the funky Texas blues”, he paints from a much broader pallet than that.  The band is Willie on vocals and guitar, Dave Johnson on bass, Brooks Milgate on keys and Justin Blackburn on drums, along with a list of special guests too long to get into here.  What matters is the end result, and these cats really wail.

Too Much Blues might come off as too polished or suave for some blues purists, but this batch of tunes is well executed and a joyous listen.  As Jim DeKoster says in Living Blues Magazine this former Texan’s new disc is “proof of his ability to blend the traditional Lone Star sounds with a variety of other influences into a seamless and very appealing whole.”

HOT TRACKS: Love Before You Die, Too Much Blues, Who’s That Lady (the Isley Bros. tune)

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