EPISODE IV Electus (independent) ***
As you might guess by the title, this is Electus’s 4th album. Hailing from the West midlands of the UK, arguably the birthplace of hard rock/ heavy metal, IV shows a band that carries their mission with absolute certainty. Thunderous and sludgy for the most part, this bottom-heavy beauty is a good way to start off the New Year.
The band was formed in early 2008 by rhythm guitarist/ singer Russell Peake to satisfy his lust for making hard music. “Electus”, apparently, means ‘the chosen ones’ in ancient Greek, but whether they are the saviors of metal remains to be seen. EV was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales, where bands like Black Sabbath and Queen have recorded several times. Unlike many of the ‘black’ metal bands around the Electus vibe has more in common with classic rock and the sort of metal bands that guys my age enjoy. There are 10 songs in all, including a curious cover of Klaatu’s Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft, which they leave as a ballad while trying to heavy it up. If you’re paying attention their admitted influences of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Megadeth, Rob Zombie and Opeth are apparent.
Musically I enjoy Episode IV but do have issues with the production, like the overuse of reverb. Peake is a good hard rock singer but said reverb can make the songs hard to follow lyrically, and quite often the guitars get lost in a sort of mushy wash while the drums- with the exception of the snare- feel buried in the mix. Had the album been recorded and produced with sharper definition in a Bob Rock kind of way the results would’ve been more satisfying. I really like the bones of the record but could do without most of the spacey reverb-ness.
I’m digging the sludginess of Episode IV but it’s a good record that could’ve been great.
HOT TRACKS: All The Way, Paroxysm, Mind Games
BLACKFIN E.P. Into The Deep (Bioluminescent Records) ****
A glorious heavy metal noise from this Raleigh, North Carolina-based trio. Claiming influences of punk, metal and rock, ITD infuses Blackfin with aural violence as they traverse different watery plains in a commentary on the personal and political trials of modern life. The disc is only 6 tracks, but at this level of intensity that’s all I can handle before toweling off.
The band is Michael Hambright on main vocals, guitar and bass, Eric Hambright on vocals and lead guitar, and Phil Cicco on drums and vocals; it’s like King’s X meets Pantera. Unlike the Electus album reviewed just before this, the instruments are well balanced and defined, and the vocals vary from a death metal growl to a classic metal howl which I find quite appealing.
Blackfin’s subject matter varies wildly in just a few songs. The title track questions the standards and rituals of daily life that revolve around social media, Spaceshark is the tale of a shark experimented on in space by NASA that is then mutated by solar radiation and is now the ruler of a small planet covered in sulfuric lakes, and Hammerhead is a powerful message about the exploitation of the oceans and the shark fin trade in particular. Should they ever make another Sharknado movie, either of those last two would make a fine theme song.
I freely admit that death or black metal-style vocals are tough for me to digest but I’m making it my mission to deal with that as 2024 progresses. Having said that, the Blackfin EP is crushing, addictive heavy metal, stunningly produced and a powerful experience.
HOT TRACKS: Hammerhead, Blackfin
TOO LATE Last In Time (Rockshots Records) ****
It’s the debut for this Italian rock outfit. Last In Time is melodic progressive rock with classic rock tendencies and a strong AOR vibe. Last In Time’s mastermind Massimo Marchetti calls the album “a personal challenge, primarily to ourselves, and secondly to the conventions of musical classification.” With melodic hooks like these, you’ll want the repeat button within easy reach.
The press info accurately describes Too Late as “a rock album that smoothly combines the melodious elements of AOR inspired bands like Toto, Survivor and Giant, the power of hard rock and metal, and a nod to 90’s progressive rock.” Drummer Giacomo Calabria and bassist Luca Nicolasi are more than your classic 4-on-the-floor rhythm section, supplying inventive basslines and polyrhythmic drum fills filled with muscle and intent. Of course Marchetti’s guitar riffs and solos provide plenty of excitement too, the primary reason I was drawn into the album which in turn allowed me to discover the magic that everyone else brings to the project.
Igor Piattesi has a great hard rock voice and sings on 5 tracks while Caterina Minguzzi takes the lead on 4, bringing an unexpected dimension, and keyboard duties are split between 3 players. Too Late was produced by Massimo Marchetti and mixed by Mike Suzzi and I must commend them on a job very well done, comparable to Steve Morse-era Deep Purple; forceful yet not obnoxious… lots of meat on these bones. The group’s sound, while diverse, remains rooted in classic rock in all its various forms, making it quite appealing to folks that grew up in the pre-grunge era of rock & roll… this is my music and these are my people.
Last In Time’s debut single is The Way To Rock. Massimo says “when I was a guitar teacher, I was struck by an image. My students who were preparing for a concert had incredible enthusiasm. They reminded me of what inspired me to play and what music meant to me… they unknowingly inspired me to write this song.” As much as anything that describes the heart of this record, and makes it a worthwhile listen for any rock fan.
HOT TRACKS: The Animal, The Way To Rock, Mr. Fantastic
THE HARD LINE Chris O’Leary (Alligator Records) *****
Chris O’Leary is a current artist who plays with the grit and soul of the old blues masters. The Hard Line, his debut for the label, is roadhouse-style blues that gets under your skin right away, in the best way. He sings and plays with unmistakable authority.
“What first struck me about Chris was his terrific songwriting, which ranged from hilarious tales to soul-deep personal stories” says Alligator found and president Bruce Iglauer. “As a musician, he’s a world-class harmonica player (and a fine guitar and bass player) but his goal is to not show off his chops. He plays emotional solos that tell the story of the lyrics and heighten the impact of the song.” When it came time to record The Hard Line, O’Leary and Iglauer had the joyous problem of having 30 newly written (during the pandemic of course) and never recorded songs to choose from., what Chris calls “the best of them all”. With this record you get a pretty much full spectrum blues experience, from slow burners like Ain’t That A Crime to the rollicking Love’s For Sale and the Chicago-styled Could’ve Been My Fault. It’s almost like listening to several of your favorite blues artists on a single disc.
O’Leary draws on his own life experience for many of the songs such as I Cry At Night, the emotional centerpiece of the album. It’s a wrenching piece that draws on his experience as a marine that Chris hopes will resonate with soldiers and civilians alike. “I write and sing what I know” he says, “and as long as I have a platform, I’m always going to use it to shed light and raise awareness about the realities our veterans face.” The Hard Line is packed with raw, emotional performances that will touch you musically or emotionally, oftentimes both. From his stint in the service to being a cop to playing alongside Levon Helm and getting to know blues heroes like Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton, O’Leary has plenty of experience to draw from. “I’ve lived a life” he says, “going to war, playing with Levon, getting to know Cotton”, and you can feel that depth here. ‘Chris O’Leary’ may not be as big a name as Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton, but one listen to The Hard Line will have you thinking it SHOULD be.
HOT TRACKS: I Cry At Night, Ain’t That A Crime, Lay These Burdens Down
PHOENIX BLUES RUMBLE Bob Corritore (VizzTone) *****
The latest volume to come from Bob Corritore’s storied vaults is another unvarnished gem. Chicago-style blues by way of Arizona, Phoenix Blues Rumble is a showcase of singers from Bob’s adopted home. Featuring swingin’ performances recorded between 1987 and 2017, PBR is a potent representation of the Southwest city that has spawned a powerful blues scene.
Blues harp assassin Bob Corritore moved from Chicago to Phoenix in 1981 and set to work immediately to help elevate the local scene. Aside from playing with local bluesmen he also started his long-running radio show Those Lowdown Blues at KJZZ in1984, about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. He also opened a club, The Rhythm Room, and started bringing blues artists to Phoenix for performances and recording sessions. Said recording sessions became the fertile ground for his ongoing not-to-be-missed From The Vaults series of releases. So when you’re talking the blues, I can’t think of anyone more hooked up and tuned in than Corritore.
Like so many of Bob’s other “From The Vaults” releases, Phoenix Blues Rumble is unmistakably authentic, like time-traveling back to the 60’s when the blues scene was starting to explode worldwide. These 12 tracks, produced by Bob Corritore, Clark Rigsby and John Wroble, come from 9 sessions between ’87 and ’17. The performances are basic and straightforward, nothing particularly fancy but gripping and occasionally exciting nonetheless, like one of those great Chess records compilations. That said, there’s some great singing here by guys like Chico Chism, Sugaray Rayford and Dave Riley amongst others, prime examples of how it’s done.
Despite the title Phoenix Blues Rumble and the locale of the artists involved, this disc sounds and feels like authentic Chicago blues, with an unmistakable spirit that will pull you in and keep you coming back for more. Another homerun for Bob Corritore & Friends.
HOT TRACKS: Big Fat Woman 480 Pounds (with Chico Chism), I Was A Fool (with George Bowman), Real Bad Day (with Tommy Dukes)
NO SIGNAL Xephyr (independent) ****+
This is the 4th album for these Toronto area hard rockers. No Signal is guitar-driven metal with progressive overtones that swings with sledgehammer force. This baby is thick, dense and powerful with a sophistication that belies its crushing attack; maximum heaviosity.
“No Signal is a representation of every struggle and triumph we’ve experienced and endured over the last few years from both the world and from within” the band states. “We really pushed the boundaries of our songwriting, and we have a monolithic album on our hands that we could not be more proud of.” The production is both polished and punishing while the songs range from simple and melodic to sophisticated while maintaining a satisfyingly heavy edge, almost like early Metallica meets Yes in some cases, a surprisingly enjoyable blend.
The band is Lionel Greson on vocals & rhythm guitar, Jacob Stellato on vocals & bass, Alex Stojanovic on drums and Zakk Scott on lead guitar & screaming (death metal) vocals. With influences that include Sabbath, Nirvana, Rush, Soundgarden, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, there is very little ground that they don’t willingly and gleefully stomp on. Track sequencing is important here too with the first half of the album being a nightmare-ish dystopian scenario that gives way to a more optimistic second half that is about coming to terms with the fact that while the world might be messed up, there’s reason to hope everything will be okay.
Not every number is dominated by scream-y death metal vocals, and the way they can gear down for a mid-tempo ballad with some muscle like Realignment shows musical sophistication. The production team includes producer/ engineer Mike Defaria and assistant engineer Walid Detab along with bassist Jacob Stellato, with mixing by Defaria and Stellato. No Signal flexes serious rock & roll muscle that hints at even better things to come.
HOT TRACKS: I’m Here For Blood, The Disparation, Realignment