ALIVE Honeymoon Suite (Frontiers) *****

Knock, knock- who’s there?  The 80’s!  This is the first album for these Canadian rockers since 2008.  Honeymoon Suite’s Alive is a declaration from the band that yes they are still Alive and serving up their uncanny blend of riffs, pop melodies and expressive vocals. I’m the first to admit that the 80’s didn’t suck- not ALL of it- thanks to bands like Honeymoon Suite.

Hailing from Niagara Falls, Honeymoon Suite first caught the attention of WEA when they submitted a demo of the song New Girl Now to a Homegrown contest put on by Q107 in Toronto… they won, and a multi-album deal followed.  Over the years they’ve had an enviable list of other hits too; Burning In Love, Wave Babies, Stay In The Light, What Does It Take and Lethal Weapon, still familiar to listeners of Canadian rock radio.  Alive is their 8th studio album and their first in 16 years, and as I consider it against the hits I’ve just listed, it sounds like they haven’t lost a step.  While the band went through many lineup changes in the 90’s, the Y2K’s has seen the original lineup of Johnnie Dee (vocals), Derry Greham (guitars, keys, backing vocals), Dave Betts (drums) and Gary Lalonde on bass, with the addition of Peter Nunn on keyboards, and there’s something quite gratifying about that.

Alive is the sound of Honeymoon Suite that their fans have come to know and love, a combination of guitar driven hard rock with a driving beat, and I must say that singer Johnnie Dee sounds as good as he ever has, and that’s no mean feat.  Armed with a pile of new songs, Johnnie and Derry reached out to Canadian producer Mike Krompass in Nashville, a fan, who was all-in to co-write and produce a new record.  The first single Tell Me What You Want came out in 2019, Find What You’re Looking For in 2020, and now we have the full album to spin in 2024.  The end result of all that work is a terrific sounding record.

The music and radio landscapes have changed immensely since Honeymoon Suite first came together, yet they’re holding true to their mandate of great song craft, muscle-bound musicianship and killer production.  If you aren’t yet a Honeymoon Suite fan, Alive will make you one.

HOT TRACKS:  Find What You’re Looking For, Tell Me What You Want, Livin’ Out Loud

CHURCH MUSIC FOR SATANISTS The Sorrow Of Being Immaculate (Drone Alone Records) **+

Hide the sharp objects, this is downer stuff.  The new EP from British doom/ sludge metaller The Sorrow Of Being Immaculate sure has an appropriate title; Church Music For Satanists is a demonic grind, all shade and no light… a fascinating groove if you’re into such things.

Citing bands like Sunn, Electric Wizard and Black Sabbath as influences, the primordial sludge that fills this EP is repetitive to the point of being hypnotic- no drums or vocals, just bass and guitars.  “During a trip to north Wales the Church Music for Satanists was written in a rented caravan in early autumn 2023” he says. “Those long nights in the dank Welsh countryside and the fear of nefarious local folklore spirits Old Magw The Witch & The Gwyllion seeped into these songs giving them an atmospheric doom.”

There really isn’t much going on here to comment on as each song proceeds at about the same pace, repeating basic motifs and whether or not you find the effect hypnotic or even enjoyable is certainly subjective.  Fuzzed out guitars, discordant harmonies underscored by a simple bass line that follows the riff and a lack of drums (or percussion of any kind) had me wondering what the point is.  You’ll feel malevolence in the music itself, perhaps even a not very well hidden sense of violence that might tickle your sense of naughty thrills, or you’ll just be bored- not a whole lot of middle ground there. 

As I’m listening to this I can feel the music playing in some of the darker scenes in the Supernatural TV series, and I’m secretly glad that Church Music for Satanists is just an EP instead of a full on album. This one is not for the spiritually squeamish.

HOT TRACKS:  Behemoth Of Hallucinations, Return Of The Puritan

SCREAMING STEEL Durbin (Frontiers) ***

This is the singer’s 4th album overall and second for Frontiers.  James Durbin has set his namesake band on a collision course with the classic metal vibes of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with a modern edge.  Screaming Steel features his impressive vocal range soaring over galloping hard rock soundscapes from a clearly capable band; but is it good, great or… merely average?

James Durbin is an American Idol refugee, one of the few to make it out of that show with anything resembling a career.  On Screaming Steel he works mightily to live up to the title as a singer, occasionally reaching for the high notes ala Rob Halford… a good singer for sure but I wish his pipes had more grit for a ‘dirtier’ sound.  That said this is a very well-produced record, and his stacked vocal harmonies are impressive.

As a former American Idoler and the band’s namesake I’m sure he is intended to be the main draw here, but frankly I’m more taken with the band.  You may remember a name or two from other Frontiers projects; Aldo Lonobile (guitars), Luca Birotto (guitars), Mike Roberts (bass) and Marco Sacchetto (drums), with a number of guests playing the guitar solos.  Sacchetto’s drumming drives things along nicely with Roberts’ bass in lock-step, and some tasty harmony guitar parts make things quite lively.  It might be my imagination, but I could swear I hear the occasional hint of classical melodies too.

Throughout his career James Durbin has collaborated with a wide array of other musicians including Zakk Wylde, Sheryl Crow and Mick Mars, and rock legends like Steven Tyler, Sammy Hagar and Rob Halford have had good things to say about him. Screaming Steel is a solid effort but it lacks the necessary oomph to lift it above the crowd.

HOT TRACKS: Hallows, Beyond The Night, Power Of The Reaper

AL 5018

OLUSTEE JJ Grey & Mofro (Alligator Records) *****

This is JJ Grey & Mofro’s 10th album including The Choice Cuts, a compilation from 2009.  Named after a civil war battle fought in Baker County Florida in 1864 Olustee, their first record in 9 years, is everything I’ve long loved about this band; the funk, the soul, the blues and the rock & roll.  Rich, evocative lyrics and powerful yet simple musicianship are at play on what I’m certain will be judged as the best disc of their already impressive career.

“The best songs I’ve ever written, I never wrote” JJ says, “they wrote themselves.  The best show I ever played played itself and had little to do with me or talent.  To me, those things come from the power of an honest moment, and I guess I’m trying to live in that power and not force life to cough up what I want.”  It seems to me he was definitely channeling a higher power on Olustee… with each song you’ll say “oh that’s my favorite track” until you get to the next one, then it’s hey wait a minute, THIS is my favorite.”  Don’t you love records like that?

Olustee finds JJ grey singing his personal stories with universal themes of redemption, rebirth, hard luck and inner peace.  I have 9 of JJ’s 10 albums, this is the first he has self-produced and it’s the best sounding of the bunch- crisp and clear- which is really saying something.  From a rich ballad like The Sea which opens the record (a bold move, don’t you think?) to a rocker like Wonderland, the songs overflow with the sights and sounds of the area of Northern Florida he calls home. The New York Times gets it absolutely right when they describe JJ’s “impassioned singing, riff-based southern rock, cold blooded swamp funk and sly Memphis soul… Rich, funky blues celebrate life’s most fundamental joys.  Grey is a singer-songwriter with unforced talent and deep feeling.”  Yeah… that’s JJ Grey and in turn Olustee in a nutshell. 

JJ Grey & Mofro have shared stages with the likes of The Black Crowes, BB King and Mavis Staples.  JJ’s songs have appeared in a ton of TV shows and films, so you may be familiar with the band already.  Olustee is stunning, there’s no other word for it… now excuse while I turn off my computer and give this amazing record my full attention for the entire afternoon.

HOT TRACKS:  Rooster, The Sea, Seminole Wind

THE WOLVES ARE COMING Philip Sayce (Atomic Gemini/ Forty Below) ****

Here’s the 8th album from this hotshot guitarist and it’s a scorcher.  Call The Wolves Are Coming blues/rock if you like, but it’s more barnstorming rock & roll than anything else.  Sayce pushes the boundaries of tone, attack and energy to create something powerful.

Born in Wales and raised in Toronto, Philip Sayce has toured with the likes of Jeff Healey and Melissa Etheridge as well as opening shows for Deep Purple and ZZ Top.  It’s no wonder he became a guitar slinger extraordinaire; his parents introduced him to Freddie and Albert King, Hendrix, SRV, Albert Collins, Jeff Healey, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck at an early age so it would seem his path was pre-ordained. The Wolves Are Coming is an emotionally turbulent record, which lends itself readily to the Sayce’s rowdy guitar playing. “These songs and stories came into focus during my darkest times” he says. “The Wolves Are Coming represents a bridge- a connection between despair and hope- that invites broken spirits to be transformed and healed.”

Produced by Sayce, Wolves is a powerful and unique statement with an appealing recklessness.  Noting the influences mentioned above I’m hearing Stevie Ray and Hendrix above the others; not necessarily in technique, but in fire and passion of the playing as Philip leans hard into every note he plays.  The distortion is brash and a little over the top but then there’s something compelling about it too as you feel a hearty rock & roll spirit at work and play.  “These new songs represent my personal journey since the release of Spirit Rising (his last album) and my commitment to growing as a musician and a human being” he notes.

Fuzzed-out distorted guitars and vocals driven by a mountain-sized drum sound grab your attention immediately as the variety of grooves and lyrical depth hold you in their thrall. I need to be in the mood to deal with this intensity, but there will be times when The Wolves Are Coming will be the only thing that can pick me up and keep me going.

HOT TRACKS:  Oh! That Bitches Brew, The Moon Is Full, Intuition

UNDOING The Swaggerlies (independent) ****+

This a refreshing blast of punkified rock & roll by way of Seattle.  An EP that follows their first full length LP (2021’s The Last Of The One and Onlys), hooky riffs and a certain attitude make Undoing a slab of simple, catchy fun.

The Swaggerlies formed in Seattle in 2018 playing in the vein of Motorhead, AC/DC and The Replacements.  After recording an EP and a live album and well into recording their debut, founding guitarist Ron ‘Rontrose” Heathman died.  The band elected to finish what they started, hiring Ron Stohr to take Heathman’s place, proving himself capable and worthy of such an honor.  You’ve heard the phrase “three chords and the truth” as a way of describing music? Judging by the 4 songs on Undoing, that’s a credo The Swaggerlies live by.  The rhythm section plays it straight, nothing complicated there, which suits this music just fine. 

Undoing is primitive, straight-up rock n roll… nothing fancy happening here just a driving, insistent beat and some really heckin’ cool guitar playing; not intricate or weedly-weedly, just plain cool wailin’ away.  Vocals aren’t polished but if they were, they’d sound out of place. Undoing is an all too brief rock n roll treasure.

HOT TRACKS:  Group Death Stare, Undoing To Do


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