Music Review: ATOMIC OPERA – For Madmen Only

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atomic opera for madmen onlyATOMIC OPERA
For Madmen Only
Giant Records
1994

Sometime in the early 1990s, from the same state that spawned King’s X and the Galactic Cowboys, came the band Atomic Opera. Over the years, I knew of the band, yes, seeing their releases in record shops and the music sections in the big box type stores throughout the years. But, I never really checked them out, despite the accolade they were getting from musician friends of mine. So, one afternoon recently, while doing some used CD hunting, I came across Atomic Opera’s debut release from 1994, For Madmen Only. So I bought it. Then I listened to it.

Why did no one tell me about this album? Especially back in 1994, when good, heavy hard rock with metal undertones part of the whole Grunge era was dying out along with their patron Saint Kurt Cobain.

It’s important that I bring up the whole Grunge aspect, here. Because, while taking in For Madmen Only, I was struck by the fact that, while Atomic Opera shared the same progressive style as King’s X and the Galactic Cowboys — tight, Beatle-esque harmonies, complex yet catchy melodies and hooks — the music on this release seems to draw heavily from the Facelift-era Alice In Chains and Louder Than Love-era Soundgarden — and hits you with a good foundation of thick, heavy guitar riffs and brooding pacing on most of the cuts.

The two standout cuts for me are the opener “Joyride”, which features a very heavy, thick guitar hook and a driving pace, and “War Drum”, which bit more progressive with a Holy Water-era Bad Company vibe going on. But really, the entire album itself is just a solid, track after track collection of heavy hard rock with a bit of a progressive streak. Songs like “Justice”, “Achille’s Heel”, “I Know Better”, “All Fall Down”, and “Blackness” feature some of the heaviest guitars I’ve heard, melded with some tight harmonies and set to a brooding but straight-forward pace, with vocals that complement the sound without resorting to a shiny production varnish. “December” is about as close you’re going to get to a power ballad, but it’s definitely not the run-of-the-mill radio friendly sappy variety. The final two tracks, “This Side Of The Rainbow” and “New Dreams” lean a bit to the psychedelic side of things, but still maintain that heavier vibe, with “New Dreams” being its longest and proggiest cut on the album.

Overall, For Madmen Only was a very pleasant discovery, getting some good, quality hard rock that wasn’t just a clone of the modern rock style that was clogging the airwaves of rock radio at the time. To think I’m just now discovering this after all this time. For those fans of the Galactic Cowboys’ Machine Fish and Long Way Back To The Moon releases, check this one out most definitely.

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Music Review: SCARLET – Scarlet

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scarletSCARLET
Scarlet
FnA Records
2010

Hey, look. Just what we need. More obscure hair metal from the 1980s getting re-released in the second decade of the 21st Century. In this case, it’s the band Scarlet, a band that hailed from Florida in the mid-1980s, and recorded nine demo songs before calling it quits in 1988. The band and their demos remained obscure until FnA Records released all nine songs on CD in 2010. And since I’m a sucker for things like this, let’s review this thing, shall we?

The very first cut on this collection, “Right Reason”, more or less gives you an overall scope of what to expect, with a really good, driving hook and riff that’s on the upbeat hard rocking metal side of things, with vocals that go for melodic but are really in need of some vocal lessons to tune things up, with the lyrics going for the standard generic “rock for the Rock” cheese that seemed to be the standard for underground Christian hair metal bands from the 80s. Ah, memories. “Lisa” is one of those not-quite-power-ballad type songs that is mid-paced and heavy, with a melodic chorus and featuring a decent shredding guitar solo. “Stop Runnin'” has a decent mid-paced riff and a good solo, but doesn’t really go much of anywhere beyond that. Kind of a forgettable track. “We’re Gonna Rock” is another upbeat, anthemic rocker with the cheesy “rock for the Rock” lyrics going.

It was about this time, as I was settling down and bracing for five more cuts of the same, when “Armor” began with an acoustic opening, but then I was surprisingly caught off guard when some blistering, high-octane NWOBHM style HEAVY METAL ripped my face off with something actually good in this collection. Wow. Nicely done, album. Nicely done. The problem was, this actually raised my hopes that the band was merely getting warmed up, with some better cuts following. Alas, this wasn’t the case, as “I Declare War” is decent, with a driving heavy riff, but with the sound quality not being the best, like the source got a bit damaged between then and when it was transferred to CD. “Treasure” is more of a bluesy metal style, and it’s noticeable that they changed vocalists with this one. Still rather sub-par in the vocals department. “Beginning” decides to shed the whole “metal” thing and goes with a radio-friendly janglepop style that couldn’t end fast enough. But then, the CD ends with “Friends”, which thankfully isn’t a cover of the Michael W. Smith tune, but unfortunately is a !POWER BALLAD ALERT! that’s song by another vocalist entirely, this one more of the female persuasion, that’s just grating on my nerves, and features lyrics that sounds like an angsty 12-year-old wrote them attempting a free-form association thing.

Overall, Scarlet is really more of a curiosity than a must-have in terms of obscure 80s metal. The bright spots to this is definitely the guitar work, which shows some raw talent that I hope the guitarist kept up with after the demise of the group. Otherwise, the production is sub-par, and the vocalist(s) are just annoying. One and done with this one. Pass.

Music Review: SCARLET RED – Don’t Dance With Danger

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scarlet red - don't dance with dangerSCARLET RED
Don’t Dance With Danger
Pure Metal Records
1989

The band Scarlet Red is one of those obscure glam metal bands that, after doing a bit of digging, revels that they had a rather interesting history. It seems they began life as a band named Lust, until their drummer became a Christian and left, effectively breaking up the band. Then, one by one, the other members became Christians, and they all reformed under their new name Scarlet Red. After contributing the song “You Live Fast” on a compilation on Pure Metal Records, they then recorded and released their only full-length album, Don’t Dance With Danger, also on Pure Metal in 1989.

The album begins with the aforementioned “You Live Fast”, kicking things into gear with a nice driving hard rocker with a heavy guitar riff and a hook that will stick right into you and won’t let go. I don’t know if the album version of this song is any different than the one on The Axemen compilation, as I haven’t had that one in my collection for a while. Anyway, “Cry Out” is another hard rocking cut, a bit darker with a nice heavy riff. “Never” is more commercial sounding rock tune, while “Knock Down The Walls” ventures right into !POWER BALLAD ALERT! territory, though it does avoid too much sap with a good crunchy riff and solo. “Fight Fire” brings things back with a really good, driving riff, which continues through the title track “Don’t Dance With Danger” and “Lost And Found”. “Hold On To Love” is another commercial rock tune, whereas “Why” is straight up !CCM RADIO BALLAD ALERT!, just keyboard and vocals. Fortunately, the album ends on a heavier note with “Break The Chain”.

Overall, Don’t Dance With Danger was far better an album than what I was expecting. This strikes me more like Dokken with a singer that sounds much like Lisa Faxon from Ransom. I don’t know if this has been given the re-release treatment yet, but the seems a good candidate for just such a thing. If you find this, however, pick it up and give it a spin.

Music Review: STRYPER – God Damn Evil

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stryper - god damn evilSTRYPER
God Damn Evil
Frontiers Music
2018

So, here we are now, with a new Stryper album. I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago when they released Fallen. Or when I caught them on the To Hell With The Devil 30th Anniversary Tour (I’m wearing that tour shirt right now, actually…it wasn’t planned, I swear). Now, not only do we have a new Stryper album, but a new member handling bass duties (again), and what seems to be a new dynamic for the music. Also, we have the first Stryper album to be banned from being sold at Walmart. Being banned from Christian bookstores? *Yawn* Old hat. Being banned from Walmart? This is why Stryper is still awesome, folks.

Part of the anticipation of waiting for this release was mostly due to the incredible explosion of controversy within the Christian rock and metal online communities when the title was announced. If you know your Uncle NecRo, then it’ll come as no surprise that I was behind the title God Damn Evil 100%, as I understood what they were going for, and I am rather amused by how easily we Christians can get at the drop of the proverbial hat. Don’t get me started, otherwise this review will turn into a rant that will engulf several pages. But, enough of that. Let’s get to the music, shall we?

After taking in the very, very awesome METAL cover art, we begin with the first cut, “Take It To The Cross”, which has a nice atmospheric build-up to a heavy groove riff hook. It’s heavy, but then at the chorus, the speed is shifted to light speed, and it’s there that I realized Stryper was spreading their creative wings and trying something different with the music, much like on Against The Law back in the day. The song is…interesting. When I purchased the prerelease, I was allowed to download “Take It To The Cross”, which I shall be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by. Fortunately, there are ten more songs on here, and this first cut doesn’t fully represent how things are.

While there are songs on God Damn Evil that feature the classic Stryper style, like on “Lost”, “You Don’t Even Know Me”, and “Beautiful”, the overall dynamic on here seems a bit heavier, a bit darker, with some choice mid-paced riffs and hooks going, like on “Sorry”, “The Valley” (which has a very Ronny James Dio-era Black Sabbath feel to it), and “Own Up”. The title track itself has a good late-80s, early-90s AC/DC style riff going, while achieving a good bluesy groove on “Sea Of Thieves”. We have a kind of !POWER BALLAD ALERT! with “Can’t Live Without Your Love”, but it’s not sappy, like Stryper has been known to do; it has a good crunchy riff, and it really doesn’t break the flow of the album. The final song, “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here”, ends things with a fun and infectious metal boogie.

Overall, I realize that reactions to the music on God Damn Evil have been mixed (not counting the ones that only focus on the album title, here…this is about the music), but since this is my review on my personal blog (and whoever might link to this), I’m going to come out and say that the album as a whole is fantastic. It’s better than I would have expected, with the variety and styles playing, yet keeping things unmistakably Stryper. My advice is to ignore knee-jerk reactions, and give this a listen. I look forward to your collective rebuke emails.

Music Review: FIRST STRIKE – Rock Of Offense

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first strike rock of offenseFIRST STRIKE
Rock Of Offense
Exit Records
1984

I recall the fist time I heard of the band First Strike: It was by way of the Heaven’s Metal Collection compilation, back in 1995. It featured their song “Loneliness Kills”, a song of which I wasn’t exactly enamored with when I first heard it. I pretty much forgot about the band soon after that. About fifteen years later, then come across their only release, Rock Of Offense on a used cassette, and figured spending a buck on this wouldn’t be that much of a big deal. Quite frankly, I paid a lot more for a lot worse.

Hailing from Sacramento, California and forming in 1979, First Strike was one of the earlier hard rock bands in the Christian rock scene that leaned more toward the Daniel Band rather than the Petra side of things. Meaning, they had a more raw guitar-based rock sound than a polished CCM Radio quality to them. Their first and only full-length release, Rock Of Offense, was released on Exit Records, the same label that featured The 77s. As a matter of fact, the album itself was produced by Mike Roe, the main guy behind The 77s.

And that, my wonderful freaks, is all the information I was able to glean from scouring all of my regular sources (and a few not-so-regular sources). That, and the observation that, considering the mainstays on Exit Records were The 77s, Charlie Peacock and Vector, having a band like First Strike on the label was a bit of a departure, style-wise. Not that it’s never happened before, mind you.

Anyway, as far as the music goes, it’s kind of a heavier take on the AOR rock that was prevalent at the time, like Triumph, Scorpions and Quiet Riot, with a bit more melodic style going on. There are tons of guitar hooks and rather good solos going on, and while the vocals aren’t exactly setting me on fire, they certainly do the job. The songs are mostly standard mid-paced hard rockers, with some exceptions; the best song on here, I have to say, is “Prisoner”, as it has a heavier, faster riff that is more of a NWOBHM cut that I enjoyed immensely.

Had you told me Rock Of Offense was released in the later part of the 1980s, or even 1990, I wouldn’t have batted an eye, as it’s sadly the standard practice to wait for three or four years after the fact for a CCM band to start utilizing the style. But, Rock Of Offense was released in 1984, right at the time when this type of hard rock was starting to rise on AOR stations. Plus, the lyrics on the album weren’t afraid to go the darker route, taking on topics that weren’t exactly touched upon in your standard CCM Radio affair. So, for that, First Strike gets major points.

Overall, I have to say that, once again, I went in not expecting much, but finding myself rather pleased with the outcome. From what I understand, Rock Of Offense was never given the proper CD re-release, only getting released initially on the vinyl record and cassette formats. The production is a bit on the raw side but still good, and the cover art is not in keeping with the music contained (really, it looks more like a rejected Duran Duran cover); if you find a copy of this, pick it up, as it’s well worth your time to check out.

Music Review: GALACTIC COWBOYS – Long Way Back To The Moon

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galactic cowboys - long way back to the moonGALACTIC COWBOYS
Long Way Back To The Moon
Music Theory Recordings
2017

Seventeen years. That’s how long it’s been since we were graced with a Galactic Cowboys album. And really, the understanding was that the band broke up after their last studio release, Let It Go, and thus no further album was to b expected. But, here we are, and not only do we have a brand spanking new Galactic Cowboys album, but it’s also from the original lineup that recorded Galactic Cowboys and Space In Your Face. So, after all of these years, how does Long Way Back To The Moon hold up?

Short answer to that: pretty darn fantastic.

Oh, man, I got to tell you, when the opening chords of the lead-in song “In The Clouds” started, that unique tingly feeling you get whenever you’re listening to a genuine Galactic Cowboys album hit me, and I could stop grinning until the final song ended an hour later. You know what I mean. At least, I hope you do. Because it’s rather hard to describe using words and such. Ironic, no?

Anyway, the music on Long Way Back To The Moon finds the band not even skipping a beat, like it hasn’t even been that long between the last release. Meaning, we get the quality signature style of crunchy heavy metal and rock riffs and hooks paired with the mesmerizing Beatles-esque harmony and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor in the lyrics that the band is known for. I would say that Long Way Back To The Moon has much in common with Machine Fish, as the songs are quite heavy in the execution throughout the album, including the ones that my be considered their slower cuts. Songs like “Internal Masquerade”, “Next Joke”, “Zombies”, “Hate Me”, “Losing Ourselves” and “Agenda” have some heavy, driving riffs and hooks going, and the more mid-paced songs like “In the Clouds”, “Drama”, and the title track “Long Way Back To The Moon” don’t loose that heavy edge, giving things a darker tone. “Blood In My Eyes” kind of veers into Nu Metal territory with the riff, but it’s still a good, heavy cut. After the album proper, though, there are two bonus tracks that came with my purchase, “Believing The Hype” and “Say Goodbye To Utopia”, both being rather heavy, the former also leaning towards a Nu Metal riff, while the later a bit more upbeat yet still heavy with a slower mid-point.

Though I wasn’t expecting another release from the band, I’m not complaining. As a matter of fact, overall, I found Long Way Back To The Moon a rather enjoyable and satisfying release, seeing the band in top form. The only real strike against it is the production seems a bit…I don’t know, a scosh on the muddled side? Minor quibble, though. Go out and purchase this thing post-haste.

Movie Review: X-SINNER – Fire It Up

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x-sinner - fire it upX-SINNER
Fire It Up
Retroactive
2006

Fire it Up, the 4th release from gritty hard rockers X-Sinner, isn’t so much a studio release, as it was a complete re-recording of their second release, Peace Treaty. If you’re wondering what the purpose of that was, it boiled down to the band wanting to re-release their first two releases with a better remastering than what the originals had. Unfortunately, the rights to both the releases were tied up in so much red tape, the band decided to just re-record the songs from Peace Treaty, leaving out the ballad “Hold On” and replacing it with the newly recorded “Fire It Up”, and releasing it with that particular title.

As the lead off of the album, new song “Fire It Up” is what you would come to expect from X-Sinner: A crunchy, mid-paced three-chord hard rocker with a catchy groove hook. The vocals do seem a bit strained here, though not unexpected. I bring this up because, though the rest of the songs are toted as new recordings, the vocals don’t match the new song vocals. It’s like comparing James Earl Jones’ Darth Vader voice from 1977’s Star Wars with his voice from Rogue One. Which leads me to believe the note on the Firestream Music Vault entry that mentions that the vocals themselves were not re-recorded. Which is fine, really. Because the entirety of Fire It Up sound fantastic.

The re-recording of the music itself on the songs have seemed to breathed a bit of new life into them. The production is heavier, the sound thicker than on the original release. And really, the decision to keep the original vocals in (if that were the case) was a good one. Fire It Up is a solid, back-to-front release with some nice, heavy and crunchy hard rock stuffed to the gills. The riffs and hooks on the songs beg to be cranked loudly while driving with the window down, presuming the weather is permissible for that kind of thing. There is the more bluesy “Getch’ Ya”, and the power ballad “Don’t Go” that is pretty good for what it is. But, overall, Fire It Up is a great collection of hard rock goodness that needs to be in your collection.

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