The genesis of John Mellencamp’s career is one of the more unique stories in rock n roll history. Forced to change his name to John Cougar in the 70’s before eventually moving back to his given name (with a middle phase as John Cougar Mellencamp), he’s long since overcome the accusations of being a Midwest Bruce Springsteen. His hit making days of the 80’s and 90’s gave way to restless experimentation (Chuck D of Public Enemy on a Mellencamp album? See 2001’s Cuttin’ Heads) which gave way to stripping it all back to the roots of rock. The last 15 years or so have seen Mellencamp develop a cigarette influenced vocal approach that reminds me of Tom Waits. It’s also proved to be a rewarding time to be a John Mellencamp. His 1st album of the 20’s – Strictly A One-Eyed Jack was released just a few weeks ago and it might be his strongest album since 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Those Bruce Springsteen comparisons? Not applicable – but Springsteen guests on 3 songs and adds a warmth to these songs that is welcome.
Some of my favorite bands are the ones that avoid easy characterization. Indie band Oh Man Wow have just released their debut album, and this fits that description perfectly. The band is made up of Bryan Ray on vocals / guitar, Joy Maydak on bass / guitars / keyboards, Fred Jeske on guitars, Sam Schauer on guitars, Jerry Pellizzer on drums, David Ziegler on guitars, and Roy and Rich Randall on guitars. A collaborative project, the album varies in sound with a wide array of influences. For me, it finds that sweet spot most commonly heard in the 70’s – where hard rock, metal, prog, and power pop melt into one. The album was produced by Joe Maydak and mixed / mastered by Jordon Zadorozny (of Blinker the Star fame). It’s an impressive debut that is more than the sum of its parts.
Andrew Steck is a composer based out of Athens, GA – yes, the home of R.E.M. His instrumental work is classical inspired infused with a modern pop sensibility. He’s been putting out albums at an aggressive rate, each with numerous highlights. Like so many others, my 2020 went a bit sideways so I did not get to review the album he released late in the year. Inner Loop / Outer Loop is a complex orchestral ballet – but it is so much more. As chance would have it, I ended up with a few vinyl copies and turned my Dad into a fan. One of the pleasures of moving home to Philadelphia after 18 years in the Pacific Northwest. But I digress – that’s last year’s news. Andrew’s new album is called Theater and is the equal to – if not better than – last year’s album. Conceived as a set of one act plays, each piece stands alone and also contributes to the overall vibe. Having seen my first Broadway show in New York City in over 20 years a few weeks ago (The Book of Mormon, thanks for asking), this record really spoke to me on a visceral level.
Empiires are a metal band based out of Dallas, TX. A few singles under their belt thus far, Stronger is the latest tune from the band. Featuring a classic metal sound but imbued with the aggression of Texas metal, this is a band that has a bright future ahead of it. The band is made up of Bishop Booker on vocals, D Paul on guitars, Matthew Gene on bass, and Clay Wise on drums. The band calls Stronger “a rallying cry to anyone who has ever dealt with self doubt”. The track starts out furiously right off the bat, guitars overwhelming the mix immediately. The vocals feel inspired by the greats of metal – Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and singers from that ilk. Lyrically, the song feels like an anthem for empowerment. “What doesn’t kill me / Only makes me stronger”. Great, great stuff. The band locks into a nice groove, just a killer hard rock / heavy metal jam. I’m looking forward to what comes next from this band!
You can follow the band on The Social Network here.
Verdict: Texas Metal Masterpiece
We last heard from Black Swan Lane during the last half of 2019 when they released the stellar LP Vita Eterna. The LP stood out as a highlight in the band’s oeuvre and featured guitar wizard Dave Fielding from the criminally underappreciated bands The Chameleons and The Reegs. At the time I wondered if Jack Sobel and company had backed themselves into a corner – where do you go from here? As it turns out, the world would soon change. The pandemic brought out the best and worst traits of humanity, leaving the world in a frightening polarized state. The last 18 months or so had band mastermind Jack Sobel in isolation, working diligently on the next Black Swan Lane record. An anomaly in the band’s catalogue – this is just Jack Sobel on record. No heralded guests from Manchester, England. No former musical partners. A solo album in all but name, Hide in View is the latest album from Black Swan Lane. And it lives up to the earlier critically acclaimed releases whilst adding some new twists to the sound. The album cover is simply stunning and is a sign of the music contained within.