THE RESTORATION: JOSEPH PART TWO Neal Morse (Frontiers) *****

A biblically themed rock opera- it’s been done before, so why not?  The Restoration is the second half of an epic, following The Dreamer by Nashville based prog-rock virtuoso Neal Morse.  This sort of thing tends to leave me chilly but Morse’s tale is completely absorbing on both a lyrical and musical level; think mid-80’s Yes.

 Helping Morse bring Joseph Part Two alive are members of Spock’s Beard and Kansas amongst others.  “The second installment in the Joseph story shocked me” Neal says. “I wish you could hear the development- where it started, where it ended up.  Pretty crazy, how it all developed largely with the help of other artists… I am absolutely thrilled with the way The Restoration turned out!”  This disc has Yes’s sense of lyrical adventure along with the muscle of  Leftoverture-era Kansas.  As noble as Judas Priest’s attempt at the epic rock opera was with 2008’s Nostradamus, THIS is how it should be done… with finesse, panache and boldness.

I was pleasantly shocked at how much I enjoyed Joseph Part II on first listen.  With rock operas or concept albums what you usually notice is “Jeez, these guys are trying real hard to make something important (I’m looking at you, Roger Waters) but this one just pulls you in as a keen observer of the narrative while it unfolds- it doesn’t even feel all that pompous.  So many textures and vibes at play here the scope of The Restoration is absolutely breathtaking, and while I think of myself as an atheist the subject matter addressed is not foreign to me which no doubt helps in the observation and absorption of what Neal is trying to say.

Rather than presenting two hours simultaneously as a double album, Morse opted to release two separate volumes, believing the strength of the music and the story warranted this approach and he ain’t wrong.  I’m listening to The Restoration today without knowing The Dreamer but am intrigued enough to plan buying it on I Tunes next payday so I can treat myself to the full experience.  I know it’s only January, but I can easily see this disc being near or at the top of my “Best of 2024” list in 11 months, it’s THAT good.

HOT TRACKS:  Cosmic Mess, I Hate My Brothers, Freedom Road

MEDUSA Russell-Guns (Frontiers) *****+

If you’re looking for Sunset Strip-style fist pumping rock & roll, it doesn’t get any better than this.  2 legendary figures of the LA rock scene have begun a fresh artistic partnership that promises to reap dividends.  With Jack on vocals and Tracii on guitar, magic has been conjured. Medusa is riff-powered street level rock n roll, and the world needs more of this kind of stuff.

We all know Jack Russell from Great White of course, and Tracii Guns was the mastermind behind LA Guns.  For Jack Medusa represents a long-awaited return to recording and new music, and here he and Tracii have discovered they have much in common in terms of bluesy power and energy. “Jack is one of the greatest rock voices of our generation” Guns says, “it’s a total honor to play on this record.”  Russell matches that enthusiasm; “it was so great making a record with Tracii” he states. “It kicks ass… I’ll play with Tracii anytime!”

Medusa is chock full of great riffs from Guns with a real ‘LA sleaze’ flavor, catchy as hell, the kind of hard rock we just don’t seem to see much of these days.  I’ve appreciated but never fully gotten into previous work by each guy, but the alchemy of the two working together is far more than the sum of their parts.  Rounding out the band on this disc are Johnny Martin, Shane Fitzgibbon and Alessandro Del Vecchio.  Medusa feels like those beered-up Friday night bush parties I remember in the late 70’s and early 80’s… almost makes me feel young again.

They say you can’t go home again, but Russell-Guns have found a way to do just that with Medusa.  Driving, insistent, air guitar-worthy, it captures the feral energy of early 80’s AC/DC and original lineup Kiss, the kind of stuff that inspired millions to pick up guitars and have a go. I’ll enjoy this often and will play it very, very LOUD.

HOT TRACKS:  Back Into Your Arms Again, Next In Line, Give Me The Night

ROOTS & SHOOTS VOL.1 Jim Peterik & World Stage (Frontiers) *** ½

Here is another volume of stirring tunes from the collective known as Jim Peterik & World Stage. Roots & Shoots Vol.1 is pop-savvy rock & roll that sounds like a cross between Journey and REO Speedwagon.  A little too shiny for some perhaps, but nonetheless quite well done.

About this album Jim says “(This) is my latest collection of new music by what I consider to be the most iconic artists from the classic rock of the 80’s paired with the most exciting new talents I’ve had the pleasure of discovering.”  He adds “I found the same timeless qualities in the ‘shoots’ represented on this album. They are ALL rising stars!”  In addition to Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, R&S Vol.1 includes contributions from Kelly Keagy (Night Ranger), Dom Barnes (.38 Special), Mark Farner (Grand Funk) alongside emerging talents like Colin Peterik (Jim’s son), Ashton Brooke Gill, Paul Childers, Leslie Hunt, Mark MacKay, plus a duet with Dave Mikulskis and Lisa McClowry.  So that’s the passenger manifest for you.

But musically how does Roots & Shoots  hold up?  Well if you like corporate rock, pretty well.  I can’t fault the performances here- solid singers and empathetic musicianship- but it all feels rather shiny in a mid-80’s sort of way. You are no doubt familiar with some of Peterik’s work, even if you don’t think so.  He was involved in some of .38 Specials classics like Hold On Loosely and Caught Up In You as well as the Rocky theme Eye Of The Tiger plus Sammy Hagar’s Heavy Metal, so he’s a songwriter and musician with an impressive track record. When he’s not working on a new World Stage record you can find him with Toby Hitchcock in Pride Of Lions… this is one cat that likes to keep busy.

I’ve never been much of a Broadway guy, but Roots & Shoots Vol.1 has that sort of dramatic appeal… so for me, therein lies the rub.  Fine performances from everyone involved to be sure, I just wish this tickled my ear hair a little more.

HOT TRACKS:  Dangerous Combination (with Kevin Cronin), Friends Forever (with Mark Farner), Last Dream home (with Don Barnes)

HEY CAN YOU GUYS PLAY… The Hitman Blues Band (independent) ****

Covers albums can be a dicey thing.  When you take on classic numbers, should you stay close to the originals, or do something fresh?  Thankfully, with Hey Can you Guys Play… The Hitman Blues Band chose door #2.  None of the songs save one was done in the original style, and that suits me quite fine.  The songs are completely reworked, sometimes with new or additional lyrics added to make these hoary old chestnuts a new experience for even the most ardent blues freak.

With the exception of a terrific version of Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down, this album is a collection of previously released stuff.  Just wait til you hear what they do with numbers by Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Son House and John Lee Hooker.  They even do a snazzed up version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ with a cool bass solo followed by a brief but sweet drum break.  Many of these are blues numbers that fans have heard hundreds if not thousands of times, but it’s like what Jimmy Page & Robert Plant did with their Unledded project of Zeppelin remakes- what Page referred to as “putting old pictures in new frames”… it’s exactly that.

Purists may take umbrage at the creative liberties The Hitman Blues Band has taken with these genre standards, but their vision is quite refreshing.  As much as I enjoy all forms of blues, it wouldn’t surprise me if Hey Can You Guys Play… leads new fans into a music that they previously felt to be antiquated or passe.  And if you’re a died-in the-wool blues maniac, what The Hitman and his cronies have done here may cause you to look at some of these songs in a new light.  This is a band that plays real blues right, and with Russell “The Hitman” Alexander in the lead, this just might be the kind of blues you’ve been looking for.

HOT TRACKS:  Come On In My Kitchen, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Hoochie Coochie Man

SERPENT’S KISS Cobrakill (Frontiers) ***

Recently signed to this label, German metalists Cobrakill unleash high octane rock & roll here.  Serpent’s Kiss, the followup to 2022 Cobrator, has whiffs of Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Ratt and Wasp.  If that’s your kind of thing, this album will become a good friend.

“(This record) is a testament to our musical evolution” the band says. “It showcases remarkable versatility (with) infectious earworms. With drummer Toby Ventura taking the reins in production, mixing and recording, we had unparalleled freedom to sculpt our sound.”  Fair to say that Serpent’s Kiss is in many ways prototypical metal… well, maybe more hard rock as opposed to metal if you get my drift.  Some nice, chunky riffs and dual lead breaks in a song like Concrete Jungle would make this baby feel at home on the 8-track in your uncle’s Camaro.

Cobrakill gleefully blends metal, rock, sleaze and glam that pays homage to the glory days of hair metal, carrying the banner of rock & roll forward. This German quintet features Nick Adams on vocals (a cross between Vince Neil and Stephen Pearcy), Randy White on lead guitar, Tommy Gun on rhythm guitar, Crippler Ramirez on bass and the aforementioned Toby Ventura on drums.  Together it’s fair to say this is the essence of the 80’s… it’s also said that seeing them on stage is like witnessing a young Motley Crue.

While Serpent’s Kiss ticks a lot of boxes on the list of things I like about hard rock, the production is a letdown.  No doubt it sounds much better cranked to 11 but I live in an apartment and my headphones are crap, so I was unable to go there.  Production could’ve been leaner and meaner… something along the lines of what Tom Allom did with Judas Priest’s British Steel would have suited these songs well.  As the producer Toby Ventura did okay- just not great.  Is Ratt and The Crue really do it for you, Serpent’s Kiss is definitely worth checking out.

HOT TRACKS:  Torture Me, Concrete Jungle, Velvet Snakeskin

SECOND TO NONE Grand (Frontiers) ****

In the good old days of wandering into the local record store and flipping through the albums to see what might catch your eye, I would’ve taken this home.  Second To None is the second album for these Swedish rockers.  With singer Mattias Olofsson’s impressive vocal range and guitarist/ keybardist Jakob Svensson’s ear for catchy-as-hell melodies,  Grand is a trio (with drummer Anton Martinez), in an increasingly nostalgic genre with a bright future.

Since their 2022 debut, Grand have drawn inevitable comparisons to Starship, Foreigner, Toto and Giant.  Second To None has a definite 80’s feel, no doubt about that… so how you feel about the bands just mentioned will have a direct impact on how you take to these 11 songs.  They seem kind of lightweight, almost poppy, but I’m certain this is the lane they were aiming for.  Those 4 bands they sound like all had pretty impressive careers, though mostly in the 80’s, so maybe this isn’t such a bad road to travel after all.

“After the enthusiastic reception of our debut we found the assurance to embark on a transformative journey with Second To None remarks singer Olofsson. “This creative leap led us to traverse musical landscapes, embracing a myriad of influences that have woven together to craft a more diverse and dynamic album.”  This disc is rife with likeable melodic toe tappers but I prefer Grand when they heavy it up on cuts like Rock Bottom.  Sounds like a hit to me, but what do I know?  There’s a definite retro feel to this album, so if you’re on the fence about whether to give this one a spin, take that into consideration.

There’s nothing earthshaking or avant guard going on in these grooves, but Second To None is extremely well produced and a pleasure to listen to.  It’s a little light for the mood I’m in, but I can still admire the craftsmanship and today that’s enough.


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