BUFFALO ROCK CITY II various artists (Bandcamp) *****

Another blistering tribute here to the hottest band in the land from some of Western New York’s most talented rockers.  Spearheaded once again by John Jeffrey of the tribute band KISS THIS!, Buffalo Rock City II follows a similar template as the first; follow the original arrangements closely with KISS THIS! And Do Driver recording the backing tracks for a consistency of sound, and going for more album cuts instead of hits, which adds up to a disc that matches and occasionally exceeds the magic and muscle of Vol.I.

With a record like Buffalo Rock City II there are a couple of things to check out right away; the songs chosen and the artists involved. There are hits but of the 17 tracks included most are songs you wouldn’t necessarily expect on a tribute.  Following the original arrangements closely too avoids a train wreck like the Kiss-sanctioned Kiss My Ass.  As far as the material used here, for every Love Gun or Calling Dr. Love there’s a handful of songs like Got Love For Sale or I that you probably haven’t heard since the last time you played the full albums they come from.

There are lots of musicians here you won’t be familiar with but you’ll also find people like Mitch Weissman (Beatlemania), Jean Beauvoir (The Plasmatics), Billy Sheehan (David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, The Winery Dogs) and John Corabi (ex-Motley Crue) stepping up to the mic or strapping on a guitar. 4 of these songs originated with 1977’s Love Gun which explains the cover art, and frankly I prefer the BRC II versions to the Kiss originals… the sound is beefier and, as many of the guys involved here come from Kiss tribute bands, they’ve done their homework. This is rock & roll for a good cause too with proceeds earmarked to the Maria Love Fund, a charitable organization that provides immediate financial assistance to those in need.

Where BRC I focused on non-cock rock Kiss tunes, II is centered on the band’s fun “love” themed numbers.  The mix here is robust and the cover art is by Kevin Conrad again, as was BRC I; Kiss fans might recognize his work from Todd McFarlane’s Psycho Circus comics.  Most tribute albums are well-intentioned yet tragically uneven affairs but Buffalo Rock City II, like its predecessor, is sledgehammer rock & roll that raises the bar for tributes ridiculously high.

HOT TRACKS:  Saint And Sinner (Do Driver), Makin’ Love (Kiss This!), Love For Sale (Billy Sheehan & Jeff Scott Soto)

CLOSER TO THE TRUTH King’s Crown (Frontiers) ****+

This is the debut outing for these Swedish rockers, and they’re off to a solid start. Closer To The Truth is more akin to 70’s hard rock than 80’s hair metal, a melodic and driving thing that feels like a combination of Deep Purple or early Whitesnake and Journey with soaring vocals, a straight ahead rhythm section and some fine guitar work.  There is much to enjoy here.

“I was sitting outside our house in Spain, thinking what to do next” says guitarist Martin Kronlund. “I got the idea of going back in time and doing an album in the style of the 70’s but with a modern production”, and thus Closer To The Truth was born.  King’s Crown is a new venture for the former Gypsy Rose/ Phenomena/ Dogface guitar player, and finding the right musicians to help him pull it off was key.  Enter Lee Small (vocals), Anders Skoog (keys), Pontus Engborg (drums) and BasBerra Holmgren (bass) and voila! A kick-ass band is born.

What makes this album work is its combination of simplicity and melody.  Kronlund’s riffs inspire you to pick up your air guitar and bang out the chords as you stand heroically on an imaginary stage, Skoog’s keys are a beguiling spice that never threaten to bury the rock & roll (as many bands on this label are prone to do) while Holmgren and Engborg are a propulsive rhythm section, and Lee Small has a great voice.  There are lots of key ingredients here that come together in just the right way.

As an old fart that grew up on 70’s hard rock I connected with Closer To The Truth straight away, the modern production makes for a juicy listening experience. I don’t know what the hell is happening in Sweden, but there’s a TON of great rock & roll coming out of that country, with King’s Crown being an exciting addition to a growing list of great bands.  There’s so much more to Sweden than Abba, Volvos and blonde people- crank this baby wayyy up!

HOT TRACKS:  Too Late, Still Alive, Darkest Of Days

27 STITCHES Sunnysiders (Dancing Bear Records) *** ½

This Croatian blues band is making themselves known on the world stage.  27 Stitches, their 5th album, is full of the rockin’ and gently rolling grooves that got them to the semi-finals of the 27th International blues Challenge in Memphis.  These 12 songs were inspired by Covid’s impact on human souls and heart and, with a late 60’s/ early 70’s vibe, you can feel the love.

Sunnysiders’ milieu is the blues, but the label feels limiting when you consider the music contained herein.  As BluesBlast in the USA says, “The best thing about this Croatian band is that thye burden of blues history is not apparent from their songwriting or expression”, which accounts for the freshness of their music.  It has the same spirit as Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado in that 27 Stitches captures the imagination straight away.  The band has a real casual vibe to their playing, and Antonija Vrgoc Rola’s voice has a warm, emotional intimacy that sets her apart from the leather lunged belters in this genre.

Sunnysiders have a musically adventurous spirit that transcends the blues to make 27 Stitches almost more of a rock album with a southern feel.  The whole band is credited with the songwriting, which might explain the broadness of the music here.  On a track like The Soup Luka Banic Bane’s electric guitar grabs you by the collar and throws you up against the wall, and elsewhere Boris Hrepic Hrepa’s acoustic guitar provides a sweet counterpoint.  His vocals are warm and charming too- maybe what Leonard Cohen might have sounded like if he could actually sing.  Boris’s harp playing is a welcome spice on the disc as well.

Mixed in Paris at Studio 180, production-wise 27 Stitches matches the soul of the disc as it combines the instruments in a blue collar sort of way, the sound of a group of musicians relaxed and confident in their abilities.  This is a laid-back gem with real heart.

HOT TRACKS:  You Can’t Use Your Friend, The Soup, Love Remote

TRINITY Ronnie Atkins (Frontiers) ****

This is the third solo album from Atkins, the voice of Pretty Things.  He says Trinity might have turned out a bit heavier than the previous ones “but that’s quite alright with me.  Melodic, rhythmically insistent and muscular, as hard rock albums go this one has it all.”

Trinity has a sort of depth you might not expect from a rock record. “Lyrically it’s pretty much about what’s going on in the world today and that’s what inspires me” Ronnie says. “A lot of the songs are pretty personal too and I’m trying to squeeze in a bit of optimism into it as well.”  Additionally he notes that “to me a good song is a good hook/ topline and that pretty much paves the way for the end result.”

Though I’m not familiar with the music of Pretty Things I gotta say that Ronnie Atkins has a good, maybe even great rock ‘n’ roll voice.  When the band isn’t driving hard they play with nuanced muscle on songs like Soul Divine, a mid-tempo ballad that sounds damn near heroic. When their amps are cranked up to 11 on cuts like Ode To A Madman (that’s not about Ozzy, is it?), they establish their rock cred in short order.  The sound is thick and rich in a way that may invite comparisons to 80’s rock, but is that really such a bad thing?  I for one don’t think so but it may feel and sound a bit ‘corporate’ to someone with more particular tastes.

Ronnie Atkins’ work with Pretty Maids speaks for itself and with Trinity I’m liking what he has to say when left up to his own devices. “It’s a damn good solid melodic hard rock album” he says of Trinity. “I’m very happy about the final result, and hope the fans will embrace the new album and I’ll be able to take these songs on the road”… I’m thinking they will.

HOT TRACKS:  Ode To A Madman, Soul Divine, Sister Sinister

STATE OF ROMANCE Lillian Leadbetter (DistroKid) *****

This is the debut for Vermont’s Lillian Leadbetter.  Growing up in the state’s picturesque Green Mountains, you can feel it in the songs of State Of Romance. A singer, songwriter, poet and multi-media artist, Lillian conjures a childhood spent absorbing her lush surroundings.  Call it ‘folk’ or ‘Americana’ if you need a label… this simple, gentle music feels like a soul massage.

State Of Romance is melodies sung in her gentle, expressive voice, layered chorale-like soundscapes that evoke the forest symphonies as she examines matters of the heart. “(This) is a vignette from a time when I was hurting, learning, healing and growing toward myself, with heartbreak as my guide” Lillian explains. “From the end of one heartbreak to the beginning of another, I learned to embrace beauty at every turn. I began to expand my definition of romance beyond the conventional. ‘Romance’ became so much more; it became my way of life.”

These days Leadbetter splits her time between Burlington Vermont and Nashville, and she’s been creating and performing her own music for a decade. She studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music (Bruce Cockburn did too) before earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a music minor from the University Of Vermont, so she definitely has skills.  At times SOR reminds me of a cross between Edie Brickell and Enya.  The soundscapes she constructs are far beyond conventional folk or pop music, and yet the songs don’t alienate… they invite you in to consider what is being addressed. 

State Of Romance is the perfect title for this group of songs.  With Lillian’s gentle voice leading a group of talented musicians this stuff will never fill a dance floor or provoke people to drive at dangerous speeds.  What it WILL do is fill your heart and maybe help you look at some things differently than you did before, which isn’t a bad thing to do.

HOT TRACKS:  Sophia, American Sweetheart, Doesn’t Hurt 

LAST CALL FOR THE BLUES Cassius King (Big Ear Audio) *****

A sweet EP here from Cassius King & The Downtown Rulers.  Last Call For The Blues is a righteous sounding set of tunes with a slow burning groove that will get under your skin in the very best way.  My only real complaint is that there are only 5 songs.

Cassius spent 25 years as an audio engineer and production manager for some of the big names. “I had to make a hard choice between feeding my family and chasing my dream” he says. “At the end of the week, the $100 a night gig didn’t cut it.”  But as you well know some dreams die hard, and King never let go of his dream of making his own album.  “I continued to write, and continued to play in my spare time knowing and having faith that someday it may be my turn.”  October 24th was that day, when Last Call For The Blues was released.

This disc has an arresting combination of smoothness while still being rough around the edges.  King’s production experience certainly comes into play as does his songwriting and the raw skill of his band The Downtown Rulers.  Just 4 guys here; Cassius on keys and vocals, Chato Ortiz on guitar, Chris White on bass and J.R. Lozano on drums, plus Grammy Award winning producer Dave Darling.  The spirit, sound and feel- particularly King’s voice and Ortiz’s guitar solos- remind me quite a bit of the first time I heard The Rusty Wright Band… this is gritty, authentic blues and Cassius King’s semi-raspy voice is vibrant and expressive.

Last Call For The Blues is quite simply excellent, with King’s years of experience as a musician as well as behind the scenes appear set to pay off BIG time.  The press info that came with this disc states “Last Call For The Blues” will be the first of many albums for this player whose time is now.  I’ve enjoyed this so much I’m already looking forward to whatever comes next.

HOT TRACKS:  Last Call For The Blues, Do It All Again

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