Tuesday, March 13, 2018

BONFIRE "Temple Of Lies"

(c) 2018 AFM Records

  1. In The Beginning
  2. Temple Of Lies
  3. On The Wings of an Angel
  4. Feed The Fire
  5. Stand Or Fall
  6. Lies Comin' Home
  7. I'll Never Be Loved By You
  8. Fly Away
  9. The Way You Hate Me
  10. Crazy Over You

Alexx Stahl--Lead Vocals
Hans Ziller--Guitars
Frank Pane--Guitars
Ronnie Parkes--Bass
Tim Breideband--Drums

If you remove Scorpions and Accept from the mix, I would have to say that Bonfire is probably the most consistent, most recognizable German hard rock/metal band remaining from the 80s scene.  This is due, in large part, to Hans Ziller's relentless drive to keep the band moving forward.  Having released their first album under the Bonfire name in 1986 (the original version of the band was called Cacumen), Ziller is the lone original member still in the band, yet somehow the overall sound of Bonfire has remained generally consistent after more than 30 years.

On Temple Of Lies, Ziller has inserted Alexx Stahl as the full-time vocalist after he took over for David Reece as the band's touring vocalist.  With Stahl, the vocals now take on a more metallic approach, as opposed to the bluesy hard rock style that Reece, and long-time frontman, Claus Lessman.  While it may seem a stark departure for fans of the band's classic material, the addition of Stahl has breathed new life into the band, in my opinion, and gives Bonfire a place to launch from as they move forward from 2018.

The new album starts of with...dangit!...an intro called "In The Beginning".  It reminds me a bit of something Manowar may have done back in the day, as the narrator has a definite Orson Welles quality to his voice as he intros the album over a bed of pianos and thundering drums, alongside some excellent fretsmanship from Ziller and Pane, before it bleeds directly into the title track, "Temple Of Lies".  I guess I can give the band a pass for this intro, as I think it is basically set apart from "Temple Of Lies" for brevity's sake, as there is no place where you can say the intro ends and "Temple..." begins.  Regardless, it is immediately apparent that something has changed with Bonfire, as the higher-ranged vocals of Stahl command your attention as he brings a power metal quality to the band and this high octane rocker.  Strong backing vocals and some excellent drum work support the expected top-notch guitar work from the Ziller/Pane tandem, and Parkes' bass is a strong force throughout the track...and the record, for that matter.  What an excellent way for the band to kick off not only a new record but a new era for the band.

"On The Wings Of An Angel" is very much classic Bonfire material, and Stahl reins his vocals back in a bit, especially on the verse portions of this track.  Aside from serving the song well,. Stahl's range and command serves to let me know that he will be more than capable of handling the band's catalog from back in the Fireworks and Don't Touch The Light era in a live setting.  The downside is that it only makes me want to see the band live all that much more!  Any way, "...Wings..." is a great mid-tempo hard rock track with an excellent guitar solo and, again, some really strong backing vocals, which give the song a bigger, fuller sound.

"Feed The Fire" starts off with a slow synth build, with some strings overlaid as the tension continues to build, before the drums and guitars come crashing in on another hard-hitting, chugging mid-tempo rocker that again slips right into the classic 80s/90s Bonfire sound.  Stahl again sounds terrific, and the use of a supporting synth under the chorus bolsters the strength and power of the track.  The lyrics are a bit cliched, but that is easily forgiven on this big arena rocker that will likely have fists pounding the air and fans singing along as the band name-drops itself in the chorus.

The rest of the album carries on in a very similar vein, with virtually no letting up.  "Stand Or Fall" picks up the tempo from the two previous mid-tempo rockers, and Stahl elevates his vocals once again, adding that Euro-power metal styling to his singing and screaming, while "Comin' Home" showcases a band that is still perfectly comfortable delivering a piano-based ballad that, to my ears, would have fit very well on Fireworks, or even one of their best, later-era releases like Point Blank.  "I'll Never Be Loved By You" takes a different spin on what would seem to be a fairly cliched title, as it is not a ballad but an angst-filled mid-tempo rocker that again features some excellent backing vocals and a strong melodic approach that really showcases the strong overall songwriting on this record.  "Fly Away" is a catchy, uptempo rocker that once again features a strong chorus and the typical hard-charging rhythm guitars that Bonfire has almost always incorporated into their edgier numbers.  This song reminds me a bit of the more commercial Helloween material, especially in the chorus section, which again comes off as a bit cheesy but doesn't diminish the overall power of the track.  "Love The Way You Hate Me" has a quirky first verse (which I dig, to be honest), but there is a definite Dokken quality to the chorus sections and is easily one of my favorite tracks on the record, and "Crazy Over You" closes things out with another strong, melodic hard rock track that utilizes strong rhythm guitars and a supporting keyboard presence to really bolster another strong vocal turn from Stahl. 

The production is very solid, with an excellent drum sound and nice separation of the guitars.  The keys are kept in the background, where I prefer them, and, as previously mentioned, Parkes' bass is a strong force throughout the record, adding that extra bit of punch when necessary.

I have read that there will be bonus tracks on the CD version of this album, but I have not heard them, nor can I confirm how many CD versions there will be.  All I can confirm for sure is that this is one record I will definitely be hunting down to add to my collection, as Temple Of Lies pretty much hits on all points and is easily the best classic-styled hard rock albums I have heard in the first quarter of 2018!  Sure, I'm always a bit bummed when bands lose their voice, but Stahl is an excellent choice to front the band, and while I like what Reece did, I find Stahl to be a better overall fit while also adding a new, higher-ranged metallic element to this long-standing band of classic German hard rockers!

Rating:  Crankable, without question!  Turn this way up to 9 and let the Bonfire burn brightly!

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Monday, March 12, 2018

**CONCERT REVIEW** WinterJam 2018 featuring SKILLET, BUILDING 429, KB, etc.

WinterJam is considered by many to be the premier Christian music tour package going right now, although there are others such as CityRockFest that may argue that point.  What WinterJam does do better than any other package is bring together artists of varying genres, which, in turn, brings in a tremendous cross-section of fans...and they do it at the bargain basement price of just $15 for general admission (there are package upgrades available at higher prices), which is honestly quite a steal.

My family and I made the six hour trek to Wichita, KS to attend WinterJam18 so that our kids could experience Skillet live.  Not only was Wichita one of the two closest locations for us to attend, it worked out perfectly for the boys' Spring Break, so it was a no-brainer.

This year's festival, as I mentioned, featured Skillet as the headliner, but also features a number of other top Christian artists from varying styles.  Building 429 is a popular pop-rock act, KB is a well-known Christian rap artist, Kari Jobe is a rapidly growing name in the Praise & Worship genre, Jordan Feliz is another top pop artist, and Newsong brings more of a classic rock presence to their show.  This year, the comedian John Crist was also given stage time as well as serving in some early emcee roles.  In addition, there were also three new artists that were featured on the "Pre-Jam Party", each getting to perform three songs apiece, but I honestly can't remember their names at this point in time.  All three were fairly straight forward pop in nature, and not really in my wheelhouse, but the kids seemed to enjoy them, which was kind of the point of the trip.

The main show opened up with Jordan Feliz, who is a well-established pop-rock artist.  Admittedly, other than hearing his name before, I don't know a ton about the man, but he was very well received by the younger audience members, especially when he performed an edgier dance-pop number called "Can I Get A Witness", as well as his biggest hits, "Beloved", "Never Too Far Gone", and his number one Christian airplay track, "The River".  The four song set from Feliz was solid and energetic, with some confetti-and-streamer cannons pumping up the crowd, which is always a good start to a show.  Overall, I have to say I came away impressed with Feliz, even though his is not a style I would typically listen to around the house or in the car.

Next up was the more 70s/80s styled classic rock mixed with some praise and worship of NewSong.  Mixing a bit of Motown with their Boston/Foreigner/Kansas sound, these guys were incredibly loud, featured an excellent light show, and had a phenomenal guitar player.  "I Am A Christian" was well-received by the majority of the crowd, so apparently I was one of the few in our section that didn't know the track.  The same can be said of the set's closer, which I believe was called, "Arise My Love".  Again, not necessarily someone I would have gone to see exclusively, but they were entertaining and my kids were impressed with their performance, especially the guitarist, which both my wife and I described as "surprising".

Rap artist, KB, was up next, and was one of the two artists my sons were most interested in seeing.  Being from Central Nebraska...and with my wife and I generally not rap fans...none of us has ever gone to an actual rap concert, so we didn't really know what to expect from KB.  What we got was another high energy blast of about 25 minutes, or so, with an insanely infectious song called "I Believe" in the mix that had my 10 year old buying him the CD as soon as the show was over!  "Not
Today Satan" was one of the newer songs he included, and something called "Church Clap" was one that I think only my family didn't know!  While I am most definitely not a rap fan, I will be honest in saying that it was easy to get caught up in the energy of the show, and his live drummer was very talented.  KB himself was also a fan favorite, and I saw him standing at his booth for a LONG time after the entire concert had ended, taking pictures (for free, no less!) with an endless line of fans.  Had my boys not been so hungry, I'm sure we would have been in that same line.

Kari Jobe and her husband were up next and they delivered a very typical, adult contemporary praise and worship show.  The tiny Jobe has a big voice, but my son pointed out what a lot of people I've talked to about Christian music have echoed: the songs are so long and repetitive that they all start to sound the same.  The tempo is pretty much always the same and the singing, especially among the women, is impossibly high a lot of the time, and, to be honest, it kind of starts to grate on me after a time.  Those who know me know that I am an unapologetic Christian and fan of Christian music, but the majority of praise and worship music just does nothing for me.  Again, I am not taking away from her vocal talent, as that is extremely obvious.  I do feel that it did a disservice to KB and Building 429 to have Jobe sandwiched in between their shows (along with the comedy of John Crist, as well), as KB and Building 429 are both high energy, high volume shows that had the kids up and moving and singing along, with Jobe's set serving as kind of a shut-off switch in the middle (and while funny, Crist didn't help the energy level, either).  If anyone cared for my input, I would have put Jobe after NewSong, followed by Crist, and then let KB, Building 429, and of course, Skillet, close things out.

Building 429 got to play a little bit longer set, going 6 songs into their catalog, which was nice to hear.  Of course they opened with their huge hit, "Impossible" to start things off and get everyone up and moving again.  At times, when they are a bit dancey with their music, I would compare these guys to Maroon 5 in a way, and when they get a bit rockier, bits of Lifehouse and the edgier music of the current version of Newsboys start to creep into their music.  Lead singer, Jason Roy, is incredibly charismatic and easily brings his audience along with him, and guitar player, Jesse Rivera, is a rocker-in-waiting that is just looking for a place to escape and really cut loose.  Their bass player and drummer are very solid, as well, and the band has a polished, practiced routine that is definitely entertaining and fun for the crowd.  My 10 year old said that they were his third favorite act of the night (behind Skillet and KB), and both kids pointed to  the catchy rocker, "Bonfire", as one of the best songs of any of the bands, which I would agree with.    Other songs in the set include the mid-tempo AC of "Press On", the clap-stomp of "We Won't Be Shaken", "This Place", and the anthemic praise and worship of "Where I Belong", which closed out the set.

To say the excitement was palpable is usually a tired cliche, but in this case, there was a definite buzz of excitement as Skillet's set was being moved into place.  My six year old screamed at me (on more than one occasion), "Skillet is next!!!", which seemed to be a sentiment of nearly everyone around me.  I would say about 10-15% of the crowd had left by this point, either not interested in the loud hard rock show that was about to explode to life, or simply wearing out after more than 5 hours of music up to that point (doors opened at 4:30, with the first band taking the stage at around 6).  The lights went down and the sound came up as what appeared to be lead vocalist, Jon Cooper, came out to the catwalk portion of the stage and started singing, "I feel, I feel...invincible".  He then dropped to one knee, still in the semi-dark.  Then, about 15 seconds later, the voice echoed through the arena again, but the Cooper in front of us didn't move, but a new Cooper had popped up on an island stage in the middle of the arena about 50 feet behind us.  He repeated the same intro, did the same head-banging dance, then dropped into the same one-kneed pose.  Catwalk Cooper started up again, repeating the intro for a third time, before a loud explosion went off and the real Jon Cooper began to descend from the ceiling as he sang the first lines of the song, "Feel Invincible".  Once he finally arrived on the floor, Cooper joined his wife, purple-tressed rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper, lead guitarist, Seth Morrison, the tiny-yet-beastly drummer/backing vocalist, Jen Ledger, and touring cellist, Tate Olsen, as they tore through an all-too-short eight song set of most of the band's biggest hits.  Cooper donned his bass for the next song, the wildly popular rocker, "Whispers In The Dark", which had anyone that was still sitting down exploding out of their seat.  Cooper shed his bass and equipped each arm with what can only be described as smoke cannons as the band tore into "Sick Of It".  Each time the chorus would hit, Cooper would douse the front few rows with belches of smoke from the cannons, much to the delight of everyone present.  Things slowed down at this point as the band's crossover hit, "Lions" was up next, and it was evident that Cooper was having some vocal issues as his voice was rather hoarse in places on this softer, more sung-than-shouted song.  The band ramped back up for "Awake & Alive", which was followed by Cooper and co-vocalist, Ledger, entering a pair of what can only be described as human-powered chariots, as they circled the arena, shaking hands with fans along the railing of the lower deck of the arena as they sang.  (It should be noted that the drum tech who fills in for Ledger on this part of the show is a phenomenal drummer in his own right.)  Once Cooper and Ledger returned, the band broke into the hard rocking, "Hero",
before all the band made their way to the island stage as Cooper gave his personal testimony about his mother dying of cancer and, despite his life-long faith, how he questioned how God could allow this to happen to his mom and the pain and anger it caused him and his family.  The band then performed an acoustic version of the big ballad, "Stars", before everyone made their way back to the stage, walking through the crowd as they did so.
My boys were both very excited to get high-fives from Cooper as he walked right past us (my youngest is in the yellow Pokemon jacket, my oldest is the head in the middle of the picture; you can just see the bill of my baseball cap at the far right...).  Once everyone was back in place, the band ended the show with the wildly popular, "Monster", with Jason Roy from Building 429 coming out to help Cooper on lead vocals.  I'm wondering if this wasn't due in part to the vocal issues that Cooper seemed to be experiencing throughout the set, and if it isn't also the main reason why the band ended their set here, rather than with "The Resistance", which has been the closing song for most of the rest of the tour, and was the song the band closed with when my wife and I saw them almost exactly a year ago.  (The other possible explanation could be the time of the show, as it was now approaching midnight, and I'm not sure what the arena's curfew is.)  The show was definitely a visual spectacle, as well as a musical one, with pyrotechnics, the piston stands for the guitars (and at one point, the cellist) raising and lowering the performers, and of course Coopers smoke cannons and his descent from the rafters to start the show.  Obviously, I would have loved to have heard a few more songs included here, but overall, the band appeared to leave everything they had out there on the stage by the time the show drew to a close.

This was our family's first Winter Jam, but I doubt it will be our last, as we had a great time overall.  The band lineup changes annually, although both Skillet and Building 429 are Jam veterans, now, with each having been on at least three tours now.  The tour will be drawing to a close very shortly, so if it comes anywhere near you, I would strongly encourage you to attend, even if it's just to see Skillet for the insanely cheap price of $15!

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Monday, March 5, 2018

RED "Gone"

(c) 2017 Provident

  1. Step Inside, The Violence
  2. Still Alive
  3. Losing Control
  4. Gone
  5. Coming Apart
  6. Unstoppable
  7. Fracture
  8. Chasing Your Echo
  9. A.I.
  10. Singularity

Michael Barnes--Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Piano
Anthony Armstrong--Rhythm & Lead Guitars, Backing Vocals
Randy Armstrong--Bass, Keyboards, Piano, Backing Vocals

Additional Musicians
Joe Rickard--Drums, Percussion

The band Red returned to the scene late in 2017 with their newest offering, Gone.  Now relocated to Nashville from their home in Pennsylvania, the Armstrong brothers, along with vocalist/keyboardist, Michael Barnes, largely continue in the same stylistic vein of symphonic, electronic alt rock/metal intermixed with elements of grunge/post-grunge that has garnered them several Dove Award (think Christian-only Grammys) nominations and awards, as well as multiple Billboard-charting albums, and nearly 1.5 million albums sold dating back to 2007.  Former member Joe Rickard also returns as a "studio musician" on drums, so the same band that has been releasing albums since 2009's excellent Innocence & Instinct, is back for one more...and perhaps final...go-round (more on that in a few minutes). 

Returning to generally shorter, less-orchestral songs, which at times left 2015's generally great Of Beauty And Rage album feeling bloated in spots, Gone finds the band a bit more aggressive right from the outset, as the dirty, grungy rock of "Step Inside, The Violence" feels like the angry electronic-infused grunge rock that Filter made so popular with "Hey Man, Nice Shot".  Barnes is in fine, angry form vocally, and the guitars are crunchy and edgy as they swirl and churn throughout the track, bolstered by keyboards and electronic elements and Rickard's big drum sound.  "Still Alive", one of a couple of tracks that were pre-released as singles, follows things up nicely with an intense, uptempo rocker that really hearkens back to Innocence & Instinct, without sounding like something that was a left-over idea or cutting room floor track.  Probably my favorite track on the album, "Still Alive" contains just enough synth and electronics to keep the alt metal crowd happy, while also combining a huge amount of crunch from the guitars and the rhythm section.  Barnes vocals are as strong as ever here, easily soaring above the fray with piercing high wails and edgy screams alike to give life to lyrics that plead with desperation and angst.

The album's title track follows and things start to unravel for me, at least for a few songs. 
"Gone", the song, adds a bit more of the atmospheric approach that the band has come to be known for, but they also mix in some odd...I guess you'd call it dub-step...looping after the chorus sections, and they start to lose me a bit.  Barnes still sounds great, but the guitars sound like they are on autopilot, with nothing overly interesting going on, and the keys and electronic elements kind of take over the track.  "Coming Apart" is the first true ballad on the album, but it is just so plodding and slow-moving that it really chokes some of the life out of the album at this point.  Barnes adds a breathy quality to his vocals that I'm not overly enamored of, and the synth and keys just don't have enough oomph to overcome the slow pace the track moves along at.

And then "Unstoppable" hits, and ironically, the album just about stops for me.  This song is just so repetitive, so poppy, so...un-Red...that I pretty much skip it whenever it comes on now.  The programmed drums do nothing for me, the guitars are basically non-existent,  and even the lyrics are juvenile and lacking in any kind of depth.  This really isn't a good song, and I started to grow concerned that the remainder of the album may be headed down this road.

Fortunately, "Fracture" finds the band in better territory musically, as does "Chasing Your Echo", both of which find the band hitting a bit harder in the chorus sections, while throttling back a bit in the verse parts, giving them both some nice diversity.  Electronic elements are present in both, but the guitars have more life, more urgency, and help to drive the songs forward.  Barnes breaks into full-blown screaming on "Chasing..." as well as the following track, "A.I.", which finds the band looking back a bit to the bigger, more symphonic style that was so prevalent on Of Beauty And Rage.  Easily my favorite of the slower moments on Gone, "A.I." is a nice bridge between styles.

The record closes with "Singularity", which is an okay song...not great, but not horrible...although I'm not a big fan of the spacey electronics used in a couple of spots, and I found myself growing increasingly anxious for Barnes to just absolutely cut loose.  Its a bit frustrating because I feel like the album really ended on a whimper when a bang was needed.   

In the end, my basic complaints would be that the record comes off as rather disjointed.  At times it hits nice and hard and finds the band going back to what it did so well with its early success, changing things up now and again with some symphonic touches and some atmospheric moments. But then Gone gets all poppy in the middle, and honestly a bit boring for a stretch, which really reduces the album down to an EP of good material.  The production is, overall, really good, and the songwriting is still strong overall, with deep, thought-provoking (for the most part) lyrics that challenge both the Christian listener and the listener who just drops in for a solid dose of symphonic alt metal.  While not the pinnacle of the band's career, Gone is by no means a horrible album, with a couple of tracks here being among my favorite ever from the band; they just need to leave the poppy stuff for the poppy bands, and toss in another blazing rocker or two.  Hopefully, there is no truth to rumors that the band may soon be "gone" from the full-album scene, instead opting to release mostly digital singles and the like, because that will likely leave me "gone" from the Red fan base.  

For newcomers to the band, I wouldn't recommend Gone as the starting point, rather steering people in the direction of the previously mentioned Innocence & Instinct, or the one I find myself returning to more than any other Red album, which would be End Of Silence, which features several of the band's better known songs, including not one but two Christian Rock Songs of the Year (for 2007 and 2009)...and a nominee for that same award in 2008!  That's some serious impact from a single record!  In fairness, I could imagine "Still Alive" from Gone garnering similar attention, which would be cool to see from a band working on its second decade of existence.

Rating:  Rock-worthy without question, give Gone a 6.5, but know that it could have been so much more.