Album Review: Amy & the Engine – TandeMania

Amy & the Engine

photo courtesy of Amy & the Engine

Amy & the Engine – TandeMania

The Backstory

I first saw Amy & the Engine late last summer at Worcester’s stART on the Street festival. I only caught parts of two songs, not enough to form an opinion, but the band was handing out copies of its Summer of ’15 Sampler, so I picked one up. Over the following months, it worked its way onto my playlist, and I became increasingly enamored with the band’s radio-ready pop stylings.

EP Review of Amy & the Engine: TandeMania

Amy & the Engine - TandeMania

image courtesy of Amy & the Engine

Pop-rock. Catchy pop-rock. Harmonies, melodies, killer hooks, Amy’s saccharin, precise vocals. And most of all, simply well-written songs. These six tracks will get stuck in your memory quickly and easily, like… um… well, arrows.

First track “Arrows” is full of stops and starts, with vocals and melody flirting with rhythm and even some well-placed distorted guitar. It’s an energetic, pleasant start to a happy EP that reveals a lot more meat on its catchy bones with each listen.

“Love Me” follows with an immediately attention-grabbing rhythm that flows readily into a catchy pop melody augmented by well-placed pauses and tempo shifts.

If I had to select the two biggest potential hits, though all six tracks have the sort of timeless pop music quality that could catch and ride a hit-making wave, I’d place my bets on “Megaphone” and “Baby.”

“Megaphone” has a hint of Motown rhythm (really; listen closely) behind Amy’s soaring vocals – soaring away at the end of each word, at times – with a stop-and-start tempo and interloping guitar line. For a light pop song, “Megaphone” has a lot going on, all carefully interwoven into memorable ear candy.

“Baby,” meanwhile taps into a bit of an old-time “girl group” pop feel with singalong bits, but it’s mixed with a minimalist modern guitar line dancing among a bit of light strumming that camouflages a strict adherence to any musical era. In the end, it’s just yet another catchy, timeless pop song.

And that’s what the band does well. Timeless, catchy pop. When you learn the group formed at Berklee, it begins to explain the songwriting, the musicianship, the production value. Where else could you so readily assemble the talent to successfully form a sugar-sweet pop band whose music is structured and substantial enough it can’t be dismissed? Amy & the Engine possess musical, vocal, and songwriting skills honed by top-shelf training and diligent attention to detail. All they need now is that elusive big break. You and I can count ourselves lucky we have this EP to keep us company while we wait.

Amy & the Engine

photo courtesy of Amy & the Engine

Looking Ahead

Upcoming gigs listed on the band’s website include Wednesday, May 4th in Toronto for 2016 Canadian Music Week; Tuesday, May 31 at Pianos in New York; Saturday, June 11th in Kennebunkport, Maine for the 2016 Kennebunkport Festival: Brews & Tunes; Sunday, June 12th in Portland, Maine for the Old Port Festival; Saturday, June 18th in Quechee, Vermont for the Quechee Balloon Festival; Friday, June 24th in Boston at Lawn on D; Wednesday, July 27th in Boston at the Harvard Longwood Campus; and Saturday, September 17th in Craigville Beach, Mass., with Cody Simpson at the 2016 Yellow Dog Music Festival. Watch the band’s website for additional upcoming dates as they’re announced.

Album Review: Altered Sky – Without Wonderland

Altered Sky – Without Wonderland

 

Altered Sky

photo courtesy of Reaction Management

The Backstory

As you may or may not know, I’m a sucker for great, hook-laden pop-punk. I’m also rather selective about it. So if you see me cover a fair number of pop-punk bands in this blog, know that for each band that makes the cut for a review, I’ve sifted through oh-so-many not-so-great ones. I have written about one no-longer-performing favorite, Preston (UK)’s Next Stop Atlanta, as part of my “Road Back” series. A few other pop-punk bands I discovered while “on hiatus” from music journalism also broke up before I returned to writing, though there are a couple others I may reach out to in the coming months.

Pertinent to today’s review, I recently stumbled across Glasgow’s Altered Sky purely by accident. Well, not exactly. When the band’s lead singer, Ana Nowosielska, followed me on Twitter, I followed her back, as I always try to do when musicians follow me. Soon thereafter, I found time to check out her band’s music, something I don’t find time to do nearly as often as I’d like when musicians follow me, and I immediately got in touch with Altered Sky to offer to review its album. So I suppose I should get to the review…

Album Review of Altered Sky: Without Wonderland

There are a lot of mediocre pop-punk bands out there. Altered Sky is not one of those. This group is exceptional. Formed in 2010, the quartet of Ana Nowosielska (vocals), Amy Blair (drums and backing vocals), Rich Passe (guitar), and Ross Archibald (bass) delivers hooky, tight, well-structured, engaging songs. And the band’s newest release, Without Wonderland, is an energetic, powerful pop-punk compendium.

Altered Sky

photo courtesy of Reaction Management

Altered Sky roars out of the gate with “This War Is Mine,” delivering the album’s most instantly memorable track at its outset, showcasing the group’s trademark rhythmic tension, powerful yet sensitive and emotive vocals, and buzzy, quick-hitting guitarwork. Oh, and the listener will soon be singing along from “I’ll give you one more chance to run…” all the way through the chorus.

“Stupid in the Dark” is an interesting second song, as it winds tension tighter and tighter with no significant release. Proof that Altered Sky is willing to toy with its listener. Indeed, the releases follow in many of the other tracks, perhaps more enjoyable because of the way this still-quite-catchy song tightens the screw a bit early on.

Currently vying with “This War…” for designation as my favorite track on the album is energetic rocker “Bury It All,” which employs an upbeat, hopeful musical style, builds periodically to musical climax, and features crisp, clean, strong, smooth vocals. Perhaps most on “Bury It All,” though also in other songs, Ana’s vocals hint at a bit of the pop-sassy vocal style sported by young mid-’00s almost-star Skye Sweetnam, a bit of a gold standard even now.

Oddly tuneful mid-tempo rocker “Songbird” is another standout, replete with attention-grabbing stop-starts and a clever blend of edgy and smooth vocals.

Heartfelt, crisp, emotional ballad “Imagine Adventure” shows off the band’s ability to produce a top-shelf, heartfelt, piano-based slow song. A powerful, pleading, sometimes-gymnastical vocal line is the dominant feature of this stripped-down, soaring number.

One of Altered Sky’s singles from this disc is “Waves”, a memorable track due largely to its insistent, pleading, persistent vocals. Not quite as much unresolved tension as with “Stupid in the Dark,” though the releases, again, aren’t complete; yes, though it’s not quite a theme, musical tension-maintenance something Altered Sky does quite well.

Without Wonderland ends with a heavy drum-driven number, “White Witch,” that showcases the edge in Ana’s voice. A powerful, slightly-off-balance, proud entreaty like this track is essential for the band’s genre; well-executed, it’s a great way to close this fine, 10-song collection on a powerful high note.

Looking Ahead

Altered Sky recently concluded a UK tour but will take to the road again this summer. Altered Sky has announced dates for an acoustic tour with Beyond Recall at Pulp stores in the UK. With all shows scheduled for 5:00 pm starts, announced dates are: July 28th in Glasgow, July 29th in Edinburgh, August 1st in Leeds, August 2nd in Bristol, August 3rd in London, and August 4th in Nottingham. Be sure to check the “shows” page of Altered Sky’s website for further information and to discover upcoming live dates whenever they’re announced.

 

Album Review: Fire Tiger – Energy

Fire Tiger – Energy

Fire Tiger - Energy

image courtesy of Fire Tiger

Album Review of Fire Tiger: Energy

Some of the best albums start with a few catchy songs that reel the listener in. They’re followed by a few cuts that quickly grow in their appeal, and finally there are the remaining tracks whose unique features reveal themselves after repeated listens. Before long, the album is an enjoyable old friend beginning-to-end.

My first exposure to Fire Tiger was through its two most hook-laden songs – the fast-paced, energetic, catchy “Energy” and the slowly-building, soaring mid-tempo rocker “Green Light.” Stylistically, those two tracks recall Mannequin soundtrack-era Starship. In this comparison, Tiffany Alkouri’s vocals split the difference between Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick.

The third quickly memorable tune is a sort of tempo-changing ballad, “He Has Changed.” At its core, it’s a strumming and picking folk song (replete with harmonica) with a memorable hook in the chorus. And it features a great tearjerker of a video you won’t forget once you see it.

Fire Tiger

photo courtesy of Fire Tiger

The rest of Energy showcases the depth and breadth of Tiff Akouri and James Ramsey’s songwriting skills. Spanning the spectrum of pop-rock music while incorporating a broad range of influences and employing a variety of catchy sound devices, this disc is about as varied as you could ask for, all while sounding like a cohesive collection from recognizably the same band.

I think the ’80s comparisons in Fire Tiger reviews are accurate because this is a keyboard-heavy rock band; Fire Tiger conspicuously features a keyboard/synth sound without sacrificing its rock ‘n roller street cred. And that’s very ’80s, the decade of the keytar. That’s the ’80s sound that causes people to reference that decade when describing Fire Tiger. And this band embraces its trademark sound, applying it to a set of original, catchy rock songs.

Within the Fire Tiger sound, Tiff’s vocals are memorable and unique. She has a strong lower register, as in “Looking At Us,” a song that opens with Tiffany clearly channeling Stevie Nicks. She also exudes serious rock attitude with vocal flourishes like the opening “rock grunt” of “Just” and the stylized “oh-oh”s in “Count Dracula.”

Several songs elicit increasing affection over multiple listens. Album-opener “Fancy War Dance,” for example, kicks off the disc with an uncommon, memorable opening – accomplishing one of the primary jobs of a first track, which is to be identifiable. This tune is remarkable for the war chant-inspired supporting vocals you’ll catch yourself singing along with and a subtly catchy guitar hook, while the song itself is driven equally by its guitar line and energetic keyboard work.

Also worth noting is energetic, synth-driven “Wall of Technology,” a catchy tune that even features a snippet of JFK’s moon mission speech while seemingly incongruously driving home a message of the distancing effect of technology relative to human contact.

Throughout Energy‘s ten tracks, Fire Tiger showcases its range, bringing ’80s style to the 2010s, wrapped tightly in well-written, catchy, enduring songs. Because as with all music, no matter how well-performed, it always comes back to the songwriting.

Looking Ahead

Fire Tiger doesn’t currently have any upcoming shows listed on its website, but here’s where you’ll find them when they do.

Album Review: PreCog – Are We Lost

PreCog

image courtesy of PreCog

by Joe Szilvagyi, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of PreCog: Are We Lost

Throbbing synthesized bass, drum machines, and clean keyboards work together to create a rich texture that is comforting for fans of late ’80s synthpop. The press material included with the recording suggests a similarity to Depeche Mode, but I put it closer to the synthwave movement that came later including acts like Clan of Xymox or VNV Nation.

PreCog - We Are Lost

image courtesy of PreCog

It’s impressive to know that Gerald Josef and Jason Thomas just met each other at the tail end of 2015 and managed to record their entire 14-song album in a single month. They even managed to produce a slick music video for one of their strongest songs, “Little Evil.” These two clearly inspire and push each other when developing material.

In the tradition of the synthwave movement, the lyrics revolve around various struggles, either with inner demons or the world around us. This is also where the album is a bit dated and flat. While the lyrics are typical of the genre, the singsong presentation of the lyrics feels like a college paper discussing feelings rather than some deeply held conviction. In the end, the listener is enveloped with a comfortable experience that really doesn’t introduce much new to the genre.

There’s a lot of talent here and Gerald and Jason are clearly well-versed in how to produce music. I look forward to hearing what PreCog has to share in the future as the friendship between this duo ferments and their sound continues to develop.

You can find PreCog on Facebook here.

[Update: Thanks to PreCog for pointing out to us that the video  for “Little Evil” was fan-made. In many ways, that makes it even cooler! -GW]

Album Review: Apocalyptic Lovers – Redemption Volume I

Apocalyptic Lovers – Redemption Volume I

Apocalyptic Lovers

photo courtesy of Apocalyptic Lovers

The Backstory

Apocalyptic Lovers is the reformation of ’90s Youngstown, Ohio-based Love and War. I first wrote about Love and War in my old music publication after catching the band’s Undercurrents showcase in Cleveland in 1994. Subsequently, I reviewed the band’s Undercurrents ’95 set and its War Rages On album. In its early days, Geoff Wilbur’s Renegade Newsletter featured a “Best Unsigned Bands” section, and Love and War made the cut to be included.

Love and War disbanded about 20 years ago but reassembled as Apocalyptic Lovers at Mindrocket Studios in August 2015 to record together again. As buzz about the project grew, the band gained the attention of noted producer Michael Wagener (whose discography includes Motley Crue, Dokken, Poison, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeth, Janet Jackson, and many others), with whom the band gathered to mix the album in November.

Since Apocalyptic Lovers reformed and got back in touch with me, I’ve been anxiously awaiting this opportunity to review the new album.

Album Review of Apocalyptic Lovers: Redemption Volume I

Apocalyptic Lovers - Redemption Volume I

image courtesy of Apocalyptic Lovers

Old-school, blistering axework-filled, high and powerful vocals-driven, classic heavy metal. That’s Apocalyptic Lovers. The band’s style places it firmly on the heavier end of melodic metal, with driving drums, heavy, thumping bass lines, thundering, screaming guitar solos well-integrated within the songs, and forceful-without-shouting vocals that can soar as well.  As for the quality of the recordings, I’ve compared the new recordings to 20-year old versions, and the musicianship is even better, as is the recording quality (thanks in part, I’m sure, to Michael Wagener’s expert touch mixing the tracks).

Apocalyptic Lovers is what you’d call an arena rock band. Classic hard rock/metal music you’d expect to hear amid flashing lights at a large-stage concert club.

Though I probably wouldn’t have picked it as the biggest potential hit, heavy, pounding rocker “Killing for a Living” is the song I find most frequently randomly stuck in my head. Its hook isn’t completely obvious, but that makes it nonetheless deadly catchy.

Michael Wagener and Dave Hope

Michael Wagener in the studio with Apocalyptic Lovers’ Dave Hope; photo courtesy of Apocalyptic Lovers

“Change of Frequency” is one of those often (but not always) slow, anthemic heavy rockers. It’s not exactly a ballad, but it’s not a fast song, and its power and strength are built on its mostly-slow pace. It’s a slow-moving heavy metal sledgehammer with drums and axe taking turns doing the dirty work.

The most intriguing song, though, is “The Groove.” It’s a powerful, slow-rocking blues-based heavy rock number. It’s probably my favorite track on the disc, even though it’s not one that pops into my head. But I do love it while I’m listening to it.

The last of the eight tracks on this self-described EP, “Dying Day,” has an aggressive energy that signifies perhaps the angriest-sounding entry of the bunch. Oh, there’s still melody a plenty, and it sports a shredding guitar solo. But an aggressive feeling lurks behind the technical prowess.

From beginning to end, this is one heck of an album, entry one of a long-awaited, unexpected encore that’s really more of a renaissance for this ensemble. Of course, if you want to own this headbanging collection, you’ll have to wait until Saturday to buy it. Apocalyptic Lovers’ Redemption Volume I drops via download, disc, and vinyl on Saturday, April 16th – National Record Store Day.

What’s Next

Per its Facebook “save the date” announcement, Apocalyptic Lovers plans a live showcase/benefit concert on July 23, 2016, somewhere in Ohio, with city and venue to be determined.

The band’s recording plans include several more EPs (if you call 8 songs an EP) containing vintage Love and War material along with a few new songs.

Album Review: Cherry Suede – Between Here and There

Cherry Suede – Between Here and There

The Backstory

I first ran across Cherry Suede‘s music in late 2013, relatively early in my rediscovery of new music after a decade “on hiatus.” They were by far the best new melodic hard rock act I found during this time period, providing me with a new band to enjoy in the genre that has been my favorite since I was a teenager. In fact, a review of Between Here and There is somewhat difficult to write because I’ve played this album so many times; when I try to think of examples of bands the songs remind me of, the most obvious answer is “Cherry Suede.” But I’ll give it a shot…

Album Review of Cherry Suede: Between Here and There

I’d expect to see Cherry Suede on the road with FireHouse, Bon Jovi, Kix, and other energetic hard rock bands. At the same time, the band’s ballads are soft, powerful, and effective like Journey’s. Like so many hard rock bands of a certain era (actually, most of the rock ‘n roll era), the songs are largely about romance – looking for it, losing it, savoring it, and anguishing about it. But songwriting only matters if a band can back it up with musicianship, and from the vocals to the occasional blistering axework, Cherry Suede has that in spades.

blank CD

This particular album kicks off with an energetic weekend party song with a hint at fun or romance, “Saturday Night.” Oh, sure it starts softly and gently with a piano intro, but over the course of the song the energy builds and teases until it climaxes as a fun romp of guitars, energy, and expressive rock vocals. The energy of this song is eventually similar to Loverboy’s “Workin’ for the Weekend,” though the pace is a little slower and it’s stylistically purely Cherry Suede.

Energetic, cheerful rockers “I’ll Be Waiting” and “Life in a Day” are a couple of my personal favorites. Guitar riffs, well-placed solos, insistent, gruffly enthusiastic vocals. These are songs that would get a crowd up and dancing at an arena concert.

The band slows it down well, too. “Worth the Wait,” for example, hints at a little country twang in its guitar line, supporting an almost-pleading, powerful, explosive vocal track. Classic classic-rock ballad. “After the Rain (10.29.12),” meanwhile, has a bluesy vocal with a psychedelic slow rock sound bed; structurally reminiscent of an Enuff Z’Nuff ballad. And “Never Gonna Let You Go” is an extremely slow ballad with sort of a country-blues pace and style. Stylistically, Cherry Suede’s ballads cover a lot of ground.

Toward the end of the disc, “So Lonely” features ’60s rock harmonies and sports Beatles-ish songwriting. But close your eyes and picture the Partridge Family singing this one; I bet you can. Just something about the vibe.

In the end, Between Here and There is a top-shelf arena rock album. The band focuses on its songwriting and lyrics and possesses the chops to execute. Which brings me back to my Bon Jovi and FireHouse comparison. As with those bands, Cherry Suede is a guitar-based, song-driven rock band with a big enough sound to rock an arena, even on its ballads, with enough vocal and guitar oomph and talent to satisfy hard rockers and melodic light-metal fans but with crooning abilities to attract soft rock fans, too.

On the Road

Cherry Suede is currently on the road in the UK. Per the ticket purchase section of the band’s website, Cherry Suede’s remaining dates on its UK tour are: tonight, Saturday, April 2, at The Hug and Pint in Glasgow; Friday, April 8, at Cellar 35 in Aberdeen, and Friday, April 15, at The Underbelly in London.  After that, the band already has two gigs booked in Canada in the coming months: a Saturday, May 14, gig at La Vitrola in Montreal; and a Saturday, June 25, show at The Central in Toronto.