Thursday, January 31, 2019

Tug of War Pulls You In With Quality Songwriting and Musicianship

Tug of War Is:
BK Morrison, Lead Vocals.
Tommy Denander: Electric and Acoustic Guitars and Keys.
Brian Anthony, Bass Guitar.
Billy Orrico, Drums.
Guest musicians include Bill Champlin, Chris Ousey and Joe Williams.

Tug of War is an old school AOR project. It's rock that you can listen to from start to finish. It's soulful and melodic. It borrows from things you know as it paves it's own road. Producer, arranger and all around fine musician, Tommy Denander is the mastermind behind the writing and Khalil Turk oversees production with input from BK Morrison who prior to Soulfire was a relatively unknown quantity. But Morrison is a brilliant singer who is a cross between Frankie Miller, Max Carl and Bob Carlisle. His voice and his delivery have a certain been there done that swagger.

"Before I Will Know" is the first single from this collection and is an instant classic, borrowing from The Doobie Brothers, 38 Special and possibly Toto. "Bullet With Your Name On It" is a rocker of the first order with a giant hook and a familiar sounding chorus. Tommy Denander's production skills bring a level of quality here that is absent from many projects with more well known personnel. "Come Home" reminds me of the old west motif often employed by Bad Company. It settles into a late night driving groove. Lyrically it's a plea for love to return home. There are some well placed keyboard flourishes throughout this album. The Denander guitar solos are all epic and complementary, taking the listener on a cosmic journey.

I think I can hear Chris Ousey (Virginia Wolf, Snakecharmer, Heartland) singing harmony vocals on "Confess To Your Demons". It leads off with a great jangly riff from Denander, and showcases the aforementioned bravado of Morrison who sings like a seasoned rock and roller. "Fade To Black" is one of the more edgy rocking tracks on the collection with help from Ousey and Billy Orrico's pounding back beat. Tommy Denander furnishes another one of a kind guitar riff.

"I Won't Surrender" is a mid-tempo rocker with a great chorus. The hit song potential on this record is literally everywhere. "Have Mercy" starts with a strong keyboard part followed by a sparse musical landscape. The lyrics are emotional and spiritual as the character in the song seems to be at the end of his rope. "My Soul Is A Ghost Town" finds Morrison singing a bit like David Coverdale in this slow burner that gets hotter as it moves along. "On The Other Side" is a power pop rocker with strong backing vocals and more excellent songwriting.

"Somewhere In The Night" has a real laid back, west coast vibe. The musical versatility on this project is very impressive. "Walk It Like A Man" features some bright keyboards and nods again to the west coast. The most provocative song is the last track. It's called "Full of Sh*t". The story line draws you in and the hook is gigantic. A breakup song of Biblical proportions. Denander writes a hook that will make you hear the punch line in your consciousness long after the CD door pops open.

This album has so many great songs. There are no throwaways. The production shines and BK Morrison is a force on the mic. The only thing needed is some radio airplay. This is a 5 star hurricane of classic rock with some of the finest production you'll hear on any album anywhere.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Inglorious: Ride To Nowhere, The Great Album Most Americans Won't Hear

Despair, doom and sonic compression and thump. That is the current recipe for success on rock stations here in the good old dysfunctional USA. The music industry made a conscious decision 25 years ago to move away from melodic and blues based rock. The glory days of Grunge eventually waned and gave way to a hybrid sound that incorporates elements of pop. But the dark subject matter and "modern" production has been a mainstay. Bands from various parts of the world that are attempting to reignite the rock and roll flame are mostly screened out from radio playlists. Michigan Zeppelin band Greta Van Fleet have made some inroads but are now on the receiving end of a coordinated onslaught of negativity.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, another bluesy hard rock band has released a gem called "Ride To Nowhere". The band is Inglorious. Their singer is a fellow by the name of Nathan James who has sung with the Trans Siberian Orchestra and has a voice that is part Axl Rose and part David Coverdale. The sound of this group has elements of Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Guns and Roses and overall is rooted in a hard driving blues-rock tradition. There is no bass thump. No cringe inducing compression. Just good old fashioned rock and roll played thoughtfully and sung by one of the great emerging vocalists of this era.

With this pedigree, they should be radio bound here in the States. However, their first single dropped months ago without any terrestrial airplay. In fact, very little has been said even in mainstream rock publications. Frontiers, the label which distributes this band has done a ferocious job making their constituents aware of this album.

Likely the best ambassador to the listening public are the 11 songs on this collection. They have the ability to cut through the world of auto-tune and fakery. "Where Are You Now" was released as a single early on and opens the album by showcasing the vocals of Nathan James. The music rises and falls with a roller coaster like flair. The guitars, bass and drums are in your face. The melody will stick with you and was a worthy choice to be unveiled first. "Freak Show" is a bluesy, ballsy rocker about trust issues. At certain times on this album it feels like a freight train is coming.

"Never Alone" opens with a crisp acoustic guitar followed by some nice mid tempo electric guitar riffing. James' lyrics have a spiritual component to them which is nice departure from the usual doom rock fare. "Tomorrow" has some heavy Whitesnake-Zeppelin overtones, but this is British hard rock, so no surprise really. The hook is firm enough to give the song it's own distinctions. "Queen" jangles another Zeppish riff as James opines about his favorite gal. The freight train picks up steam on "Liar", a healthy blues rock banger. "Time To Go" is one of the best songs on this collection. It opens with a gun-shot guitar and some fat chords as Nathan James oh-oh's his way into the vocal stratosphere.

 "I Don't Want To Know" could be categorized as a bluesy power ballad. It's a sad tale of lost love or not actually knowing the person you've been with. "While She Sleeps" slowly ignites into another freight train rocker. "Ride To Nowhere" opens with a very catchy soft guitar pattern which then builds into a juggernaut that bobs and weaves between blues and alternative rock. "Glory Days" is a surprising acoustic track that gets very personal with the subject matter.

Regret. Doubt. Remorse. All themes of this mighty project. The singer is intense. He has a gift. The vocal talent, the arrangements, and the songwriting all make for a blissful rock and roll ride to somewhere. This is definitely a shot in the arm for rock enthusiasts and a must have for those of us looking to pad our collection of classic rock sounding artifacts.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Swedish Funk Connection: One of The Coolest Retro Rock Projects I've Ever Heard!

Swedish Funk Connection
Christer Lärk (vocals), 
Peder Jonsson (drums), 
Peter Johansson (keyboards), 
Mats Johansson (gutiars) 
Berra Holmgren (bass).

Courtesy of AOR Heaven Records.

This is a release for the ages. Music like this isn't being made anymore. And if it is, the production is typically wrought with compression and mindless effects. This collection of 10 stellar songs is made for music fans. Fans of a genre that has faded to near extinction. Adult Oriented Rock, or West Coast Rock was birthed in the late 1970's and sputtered out in the middle of the next decade. After that period, some bands continued to make AOR/West Coast while adding more keyboards and employing a few studio tricks. 

Swedish Funk Connection's 1987 picks up where the core of the genre left off. The album title is accurate. The music is an amalgam of funky riffs married with pristine atmospherics. The vocal arrangements jump through the speakers. The musicianship is both lucid and precise at the same time. The first song "This Night Will Last Forever" is a lost art of smooth, clean instrumentation and soaring vocals. The melodic quotient is immediate and isn't contrived or incomplete. The hooks grab with urgency, the singing is rooted in the "climb the heights" tradition. The keyboard solo here is already worth what the CD might cost you on Amazon. Next, a blazing guitar solo, followed by a reprise of the giant hook, along with the call and answer vocal response the song began with. And that's just the first song!

"Lucky" is track two. Here, the boys show off their funkier side with a groovy Motown guitar intro followed by a keyboard drenched 80's joyride. The vocal blend gives the song more cache and the bridge is a well thought out twist and turn. The solos are impeccable.

"Out of My Way" has a contemporary Heartbreakers feel circa "Learning To Fly". Add some rich vocal textures and slide guitar and you've got what rock radio used to call "a hit". "Stay With Me" borrows from Toto's Seventh One period, but also takes as much from 80's English pop-rock. This marriage is in tact pretty much everywhere on this record. "Too Much Money" is a more guitar drive excursion that hints at Golden Earring and Russ Ballard but still manages to have it's own melodic personality.

"Somewhere Somehow" is reminiscent of Sting's "If I Ever Lose Faith In You" but still is able to travel it's own path of musical wonder. If adult contemporary stations here in the states wanted to have a real playlist, this would be on it. "Life Is Beautiful" finds that Jeff Lynne-Full Moon Fever groove but adds big soaring vocals along with a first class melody. "Love's Such A Beautiful Thing" finds SFC at their funkiest. A big keyboard-horn style intro, which then settles into a late night dance groove peppered with synth and guitar ear candy. 

"Stay Away From The Dark" is a straight ahead rocker with a slightly more dark and serious melody. But the hooks persist and the vocals soar effortlessly into the higher altitudes. The guitar work on this track is gritty. "Million Reasons" is the last song on 1987. The closest thing on the album to a power ballad. The soft instrumentation and the persistently rich vocal arrangement is a perfect way to cool down at the end of this unique and fabulous musical journey. 

It's not an understatement to say 1987 is a summary of how music once was and how it could be again. This album wins on every level. Writing. Production. Genre. Variety. Singing. Playing. It's all there. Swedish Funk Connection shows us how to go back in time while making new melodies for the current age.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Viana Is A Melodic Rock Masterpiece

Viana is: Bryan Cole, Lead and backing vocals, Stefano Viana, lead guitar, Terry Brock, backing vocals, Anna Portalupi, bass guitar, Adam Ernst, drums, Francesco Marras, guitar, Pasquale India, keyboards. Special guest John Roth, lead guitar on some tracks.

Viana is a project band built around Italian guitarist Stefano Viana. This is his second outing and this time American singer Bryan Cole is at the mic. What sets this collection apart from the first outing is the quality of songwriting, the presence of big, catchy choruses, and the world class melodic rock vocals of Bryan Cole. Bryan was recently involved with a band called Steel City and has a great solo album, Sands of Time. Both of those efforts showed great promise. Viana is a vehicle that showcases Bryan's amazing range and great singer instincts. 

The opening track, "Forever Free" sounds like a song Meat Loaf could have sung. Cole's voice soars and the production even recalls Jim Steinman at his best. The last note Bryan sings will send chills down your back as he really captures the spirit of this ode to freedom. This album benefits from smart, uncluttered production from Alessandro Del Vecchio along with Cole and Terry Brock who are responsible for how the vocals sound. 

"In The Name of Love" is an instantly catchy song with a big chorus that adds some Bon Jovi to that Meat Loaf. These are complete musical ideas with hit single potential for radio. "Heart of Stone" features John Roth (Starship) on guitar. Cole's gutsy delivery is augmented by a building hook that bubbles under and then bursts forth on the chorus. The vocal arrangements have a mid-western hair metal mentality without being cheesy or pedantic. "We Can't Choose" continues along on the big memorable chorus train. 

Each song is radio ready and if we lived in a time when music like this was still in vogue, this would be a very deep bench of songs indeed. "Who Do You Think You Are" straddles the edges of west coast AOR and then finds it's rock radio mojo. Pick any song and you'll find a hook large enough to settle into your consciousness. Bryan Cole has a degree of confidence and swagger that reminds me of the late great Jimi Jamison. Are you listening Frankie Sullivan? 

"Live Free of Die" lyrically dovetails with the theme of the record. Each song is a tale of some kind of liberation. The melody echoes a recent song by Johnny Gioeli called "Drive". "Do You Remember" is a powerful duet with veteran Terry Brock. If you were looking for a killer power ballad, this is it. John Roth lays down a classy guitar solo on this tear jerker. "Friday Night" will take you back to roller rink life in the late 1980's. The melody is familiar and new at the same time. I could swear I've heard it before or at least parts of it. "I Wanna Tell You" has a great opening guitar riff which settles into some nice rhythmic playing along with Bryan Cole's big vocals. Another hit single in the making. The album closes with "We Will Never Say Goodbye", a great mid-tempo rocker that thematically looks to the past and the future at the same time. It's a fine way to close out this impressive roster of songs.

For melodic rock fans, very few albums compete at this level. There are typically drawbacks or quirks that might make the listening experience trigger A.D.D. or conjure up musical deja-vu. Viana reaches up to the sky to find new musical landscapes that feel like an old well traveled road. Bryan Cole continues his evolution as a singer. And Stefano Viana has found a team of stellar musicians who have made the name Viana synonymous with melodic rock greatness. This album is a great way to start off the new year. A solid 5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Sunstorm Hits A High Note on "The Road To Hell"

Joe Lynn Turner is a legendary vocalist who's had a storied career and is most famous for his work with Rainbow, Deep Purple and Ywngie Malmsteen. He has now recorded 5 albums under the Sunstorm moniker for Frontiers Music at the request of label president Serafino Perugino. The latest work, The Road To Hell, was a bit obscured by the fact that Joe Lynn Turner suffered a heart attack almost at the exact moment the album was released. If you missed out on this album, you missed a lot. Thankfully Joe has made a nice recovery.

First of all, this album sounds better if you have good speakers and you crank it up some. The production has some compression but it's airy enough for the drums and guitars to really come through. Turner is a beast on vocals. He sings with raw emotion and his tone and delivery are perfect for this type of melodic rock. Furthermore, all of Turner's influences are present. Deep Purple, Rainbow, Malmsteen and his past solo works all factor in to the big, lush sound of Sunstorm.

The album's first track "Only The Good Survive" is an almost perfunctory rocker and might seem ordinary compared to some of the other songs. But the message in the lyrics and Turner's powerhouse reading of it make for lead single material. Guitarist Simone Mularoni is a cross between Neal Schon and Richie Blackmore. House band leader Alessandro Del Vecchio adds the right amount of Hammond B3 and other keys when needed.

The title track, "The Road To Hell" has an Ozzy Osbourne vibe to it, with thumping drums and guitars and with Turner's echoed vocals proclaiming "touch the bottom if you really want to live". The song is about overcoming struggles and JLT pulls off a killer vocal. The word has it that Joe did some songwriting for this project and the results speak for themselves. Mularoni does some expert soloing - the kind that elevate the rest of the song and make you look forward to what is next.

All 11 tracks on this record are excellent. I will focus on some of the highlights so as to not make this review go on forever. "On The Edge" with the line "blood runs cold" might be the sequel to the last Sunstorm record's theme of being on The Edge of Tomorrow. Turner puts much of his storytelling energy into being worried about the future. And most sane people would agree with him. "My Eyes On You" is a progressive-meets melodic track mixing modern melodic rock with elements of Journey and Rainbow. "Everywhere" sounds like it could have been a lost track from Journey's Eclipse album with Turner singing in power ballad mode. The track morphs into a hard rocking slow tempo ton of bricks. "State of The Heart" is the most Rainbow song on the album and even has one or two guitar chord moments where you can hear Rainbow's "Street of Dreams". But the similarities are barely noticeable in the larger scheme of things. "Calling" keeps the apocalypse going with Turner pleading through his lyrics for the world to hear.

"Still Fighting" ends the album on an up note both lyrically and with the more optimistic sounding melody. Drummer Edo Sala is super solid through the entire record with no downside. Bass player Nik Mazzucconi holds down the bottom end and is produced in a way that gives the rhythm section a deep resonance.

Sunstorm may be just a cool name or a melodic rock concept, but listening to this will make you feel like you were actually in a musical storm of some kind. These songs were all created with a lot of attention to detail. The songwriting fits perfectly with the production and instrumentation. Joe Lynn Turner is able to plead his case for humanity through these 11 masterful hard rocking songs. These songs will echo in your consciousness long after you've put the CD back in it's case. This is a powerful testimony to a veteran rocker who's found a great production team who understands his legacy and the present age. This album gets 5 big stars.