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Friday, 10 July 2020

Reviews: Shining Black, McStine & Minnemann, Michael Grant & The Assassins, The Outliers, (Matt, Bob, Simon & Liam)

Shining Black: S/T (Frontiers Records) [Matt Bladen]

After a small layoff due to Covid the Frontiers Records machine gears up again with yet more new bands and collaborations between well known names. Shining Black is one such example of the latter, featuring vocalist Mark Boals (Yngwie Malmsteen, Ring Of Fire, Royal Hunt) and guitarist Ölaf Thorson (Labyrinth, Vision Divine) along with a supporting cast of Oleg Smirnoff (keyboards), Nik Mazzucconi (bass) and Matt Peruzzi (drums). Formed off the back of Boals almost becoming the voice of Italian metal leaders Labyrinth, Shining Black was put together after this with both men still in contact so what we have here is another project band from metal big names brought together. Shining Black is a melodic metal band that mix the bounce of power metal with the catchy hooks of AOR/hard rock.

Boals' vocals soar on tracks such as the Gothic The House Of Fallen Souls and Thorson's guitar playing is technical but full of melody, the compositions here too are slick as you'd expect, at times anthemic (The Day We Said Goodbye), at others speedy (My Life) with two ballads in between some mid pace numbers and the odd metal gallop, the one glaring problem with this album are the godawful lyrics Boogeyman and A Sad Song are just two examples. If you give it a passive background listen then you won't notice but go deeper and it does get really bad. All in all then a bit of fluff, enjoyable but forgettable. 6/10

McStine and Minnemann: McStine and Minnemann (Self Released) [Bob Shoesmith]

Randy McStine and Marco Minnemann got together Stateside in 2018 having worked with several named artists. Multi-instrumentalist McStine with the likes of members of King Crimson, Joe Satriani, Porcupine Tree, Kings X, Tears for Fears and others while Minnemann, a drummer of some repute (it says here) has played with Paul Gilbert, The Buddy Rich big band and Steven Wilson as well composing and creating his own music. Both also have their own band projects – Lo-Fi Resistance and The Aristocrats respectively. So, both have quite the pedigree of playing between them even before this collaboration hit the ground, and, it’s all about the collaboration in the Prog and Prog- metal world at the moment (particularly Stateside) as I am seeing more and more albums with lists of collaborators and guests rather than bands across my desk in the last few months. 

Whether this is a Covid response I’m not sure. This particular project, instrumentally at least, involves two virtuoso players pushing each other hard, both musicians branching out and stretching themselves on a variety of instruments and Minnemann not restricting himself to just the drum excesses that he frequently likes to indulge in. Plus there’s are a lot of additional audio FX that add layers of depth and interest in songs, while drawing your ears into the moods of the songs. Make no mistake this is a challenging album of work where all prog and prog-metal styles are fully explored and kicked around. Veering from the accessible Rickenbacker bass sound and AOR radio friendlier styles of Rush or Yes in Your Offenses or Voyager to the denser and occasionally slightly surreal avant-gardism of ‘Catrina’ or Falling From Grace.

The eponymous album kicks us off with Program a decent, mid-paced alt. rock riff with alternating fast paced short choruses with some fast and frenetic drumming. There is no escaping a special mention here for the Minnemann's drumming throughout the album. Speaking as a member of the drummer’s club, I can say with some experience that Marco Minnemann's playing throughout is exceptionally good. Fast hands and feet, always crisp and technically very adept; up there with the gymnastic percussion skills of Peart, Portnoy and prime Stewart Copeland. However, he never misses an opportunity to show it off here either, throwing the drumming kitchen sink in at regular intervals, which can often border on soloing or doing a masterclass clinic to drum nerds on tracks like Catrina, Activate or Voyager

Of course, air drummers and practitioners of the kit alike will no doubt love all that and bask in the skin abusing master classes on show but it does occasionally distract the ears from what are more cleverly written passages of music than you realise. Does he OVER play? That’s down to personal taste, but you’re in for some top end, busy drum shenanigans that’s for sure. The fact that it gets such a mention should give you a clue as to the part it plays. McStine’s vocals are excellent throughout from the almost Marilyn Manson touches in Fly ‘to the only chance on the album to catch your breath in the ballad of The Closer where he duets with the piano accompaniment of Harry Waters and shows what a sensitive and emotive vocal range he has.

McStine and Minnemmann’s album is quite the masterclass in Prog song-writing and I believe most of it was written by file sharing which adds to the incredible feat of complexity they have produced, and it is very complex but sensitive and well-crafted in equal part and even though their ambitions often feels like their ideas could run out of control, the longest song only runs just over the 4-minute mark so doesn’t leave you behind like some of the twenty plus minuters I’ve been subject to of late. Considering how many projects each of these guys have on the go it’s amazing that they’ve managed to produce an album of such high-quality musicianship in such a relatively short period of time. With the Prog bar of technical excellence being set ever higher, it’s not clear where the genre can eventually end up or where McStine and Minnemann will go from here (more song writing and less drum showboating might be a consideration) but this album provides stellar performances from both guys and well worth checking out. 9/10

Michael Grant & The Assassins: Always The Villain (Frontiers Records) [Simon Black]

New day, new band, albeit from an old hand. For those unfamiliar, Grant was the lynchpin of now defunct San Francisco act Endeverafter, but has spent the last five years as a hired L.A. Gun. To be honest I was expecting a middle of the road Hard Rock album, but what I got was a welcome slap in the face. The L.A. Guns influences are definitely there, with just enough sleaze to make the sound interesting without sounding like some 80’s wannabe. First and foremost, there is a really strong song writing ethos holding this whole thing together. Grant clearly knows what he wants and as sole songsmith, guitarist and vocalist has the opportunity to stamp his mark – in fact it’s not clear if there were any other musicians actually involved in the recording of this other than some additional drum credits.

Barrel Of A Gun kicks things off in the right direction – Sunset Strip sleazy, but a thoroughly modern milly as well, with fresh sounding riffage and a huge amount of energy. Title track Always The Villain is a much moodier and dark affair, but with a pumping pace that you can’t help but tap your foot to despite the haunting vocal melody line. Killing Me Slowly takes the tempo down, with a beautifully heavy opening and verse, building up the mood and layering to a catchy sing-along chorus. Nightmares is more traditional power ballad territory, with some great moody guitar work of the quality that would have guaranteed rock radio success in the States 30 years ago. To be honest there isn’t a filler track to be found on this album and a timeless quality that makes it feel relevant, not retro. It also keeps the pace up to the end and the ear-worm Gimme Salvation is definitely worth waiting for, although the slow paced closer Secrets might have worked better earlier in the track listing to ensure he ended the album with a bang.

What makes this album effective is the sheer variety – there’s a real mixed bag of styles in here, but with a distinctive house style. Grant has quite a distinctive vocal style, tending to elongate and echo certain vowel sounds in many of his choruses. Blackie Lawless has his “Oooh-Oooh”’s and Grant has his “Eye-ee-Eye”’s. Add to this the strongly guitar-hook laden feel to this and you have an act with a very distinctive sound. This could so easily have been an 80’s retro effort, because let’s face it there’s a lot of that around at the moment, but this feels contemporary, with conspicuous put unobtrusive influences. This album is a positive tinderbox of energy and has a freshness that I wasn’t expecting – perfect for a Friday. 8/10

The Outliers: Dissipating Eternity (Wormholedeath Records) [Liam True]

The Outliers fourth studio album is one I’m kind of conflicted by. On the one hand they sound like the older brother of Thy Art Is Murder and August Burns Red. Having the anger and angst both bands have and the melodic side of Classic Rock that’s rarely found in Metalcore. Dissipating Eternity is filled with classic Metalcore moments. The breakdowns. The chugs. The snarls of a furious bloodhound out for blood and the signature ‘BLEGHS!’ that make any song heavier.

The band themselves are out for blood with the furious drumming of Brandon Wondergem taking up my interest more than anything. He utilises blast beats in a perfect way. Not overdoing them, but not making them sound bare and underused. Guitarists Zach Deaby and Eric Wondergem noodle their way around the fretboard while making it sound as hard as possible. Bassist Jerad Walters brings the heavy back drop booms with his thicker than the bible strings. And vocalist Brad Hayes brings the thunder with his ferocious highs and stomach churning lows in a way the collides both vocals into a sickening noise.

Carcass & Curse are two vile sounding songs that need no introduction and are, personally, the best songs on the record. Not to say the rest isn’t good, but it’s the typical overused Metalcore sounds that do bring it down, but it has it’s redeeming qualities that make it stand out in the landscape. Is it original? Hell no. But is it good? You’re damn right it is. And with the added vocals of Jesse Sutton on VCTM it brings it altogether in a spectacular way. 7/10

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