Unchained Music Blog

Unchained Music Blog

Monday, August 14, 2017

Rhett Repko - About Last Night (2017)

Written by Gilbert Mullis, posted by blog admin

Rhett Repko’s 6-song debut EP is certainly for guitar heads.  No, it might not be a virtuoso album with an overabundance of scales, misused notes and self-serving solos that never end, but in a pop world Repko’s work is a breath of fresh air.  These tunes float light and acoustically one minute and then dive into some riff-y aerobics and sizzling fret-board work the next; it’s just plain ol’ fashioned good music. Primarily, this is an acoustic album that has enough of those touches to place it in the rock arena.  Harder than Daughtry, Darius Rucker and many others who have been working the genre for 5 years plus. 

“Were You Ever Really Mine?” may pose a question but its music is the answer.  An upbeat, mid-tempo acoustic riff and groove-intensive rhythms yield plenty of room for Rhett Repko to work his magical voice.  He’s got an admirable range that daringly uses all of its registers, so that there’s a voice to complement each individual part.  As the material moves along, some riffs and lead breaks add a raw edge to Repko’s acoustic shine.  He follows up with another winner in “She Loves Me,” where the guitars revert to some down-home cookin’; southern-fried, gravy smothered country melodies morph into head-nodding rock whenever the time is right.  The fast-paced drumming on the snares and looping bass lines keep the material from slipping into third gear and maintaining an aggressive tempo at all times. 

“About Last Night” is placed intelligently in the EP’s track listing.  After two electric heavy numbers, Repko goes into a full on ballad where acoustic guitars, synths, strings, emotive vocals and gentle rhythmic nuance combine into an ingratiating tune that works out fine as a middle album number or could close off a record equally well.  That rock n’ roll fever sets in again on the blurry, cool-handed 60s grooves of “Inside of Me” before Rhett changes course back to country groove and headier riffing with “On the Run.”  Another ballad appears and ends the album, “Bye Bye Baby,” is a showcase for Repko and his lone acoustic guitar, travelling in the shoes of Dylan, Adams and other before him. 

If you like your rock catchy and unafraid of tackling tender moments, Rhett Repko’s Self-Titled EP will be right up your alley.  The songwriting is airtight, the playing fluid and the production thick enough to make both sides of Repko’s style stand-out. 

Jackson Howard - Just For The Mystery (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Cut from the same soulful, guitar-driven cloth as Jason Mraz, Daughtry and James Blunt, Jackson Howard cooks up 11 enticing originals and 2 sturdy covers on his second record Just for the Mystery.  He tackles one of the toughest Led Zeppelin tunes “The Battle for Evermore” off of Zeppelin 4 and manages to nail the guitar work, recreate but recapture the vibe in his own style and pull off a soaring vocal duet with Rachel Horter.  Acoustic and electric guitars clashing together in a display of impressive cannon-fire that shows Howard isn’t no one trick pony and can excel at the classics.  It’s not an easy song to do and he gets points right off the bat for nailing.  

The remainder of the album’s 13 tracks is an exciting hodgepodge of different feelings and emotions.  Jackson and his airtight band prove that they can execute a bouncy, piano-kissed, and rhythmically-fluent and electric guitar accentuated original rocker like the title track’s blazing introduction or deliver a harder-edged, more riff-built cover of EMF’s “Unbelievable” as a closer.  The rest of the disc is chockfull of soulful compositions brought forth from Howard’s very own pen.  Sliding acoustic licks, searing vocal melodies and fluid, driving bass lines render “A Place in this World” as equal parts ballad and smoldering, melodic rocker.  “Run with me” is softer and has a glistening acoustic melody that opens things up in a contemplative twang that gives way to soaring, bombastic choruses and continues to build until reaching a rushing climax.  “Hideaway” is the long-forgotten old school country duet that never makes its way to FM country radio.  Howard’s plaintive, trembling voice is matched melodically by Mandy Cook over a warm, watery acoustic flow that is all about the mystery of the backwoods explored via sound. 
“Surround You” and “Driftwood” follow in “Hideaway’s” footsteps, though leaving Jackson as the featured vocal soloist and placing his finger-picked acoustic guitar in the lead role.

“Driftwood” is grittier, gravellier and buried in the blues; taking one back to the days when you’d see people busking in downtown Pittsburgh.  “Dizzy” picks up the pace with thumping backbeats, energetic piano bustling and some electric guitar licks enveloping Howard’s gutsy melodies.  “If I Fall” is a lamenting keyboard/vocal number plunging the depths of love gone wrong while “You Are More” and “Tribute” complete the album in throes of acoustic-centered brilliance.
This is a very strong record throughout.  A few of the tracks tend to sound the same but each one fits into the place of a “together” whole that doesn’t leap outside of its strengths.  Just for the Mystery is essential listening for those that like their music charming, melodic and acoustically gorgeous. 

Circus of the West - We'll See Ourselves Out (2017)

Written by Michael Saulman, posted by blog admin

Circus of the West aim high with their debut release We’ll See Ourselves Out. This is an outfit unafraid to tackle serious themes often outside the purview of typical rock songs but never forget to package these decidedly adult reflections in a bracing rock and roll format. They are far more than just crashing thrashing guitar bombast. Circus of the West can definitely deliver the goods and engage listeners physically, but they often turn their attention towards mildly surprising mood shifts and tricky changes in pacing. It demonstrates the extent of their musical abilities and helps make We’ll See Ourselves Out one of the most cohesive albums in any genre you’ll hear in 2017. This is an impressive first outing by any standard and signals Circus of the West is likely a band with staying power and greater dawns to come.

The album, on the whole, embraces an nuanced rock aesthetic, but there’s some notable exceptions. One of those exceptions kicks off We’ll See Ourselves Out on a stomping and exhilarating high note. “Birdhand” features thunderous drumming, guitars frequently raving up, and some brief blazing lead passages. Circus of the West never completely neglects the sweeter aspects of their presentation, however, and the vocal harmonies strewn throughout the song lighten its touch. The second track “Some Connections” is much more emblematic of the band’s approach. The guitar remains a central instrument, but the tempo is much more relaxed and there’s a quiet confidence in the lean, uncluttered way they weave disparate parts together in a dramatic way. Caldie’s vocal has an equal amount of nuance – he’s quite good at varying his delivery just enough to underline the emotion of the lyric without ever lapsing into self indulgence. “Boxes” is one of We’ll See Ourselves Out’s highlights and an even more artful turn than the aforementioned track. The band has obviously invested considerable thought in the release’s track listing and the album builds marvelously and quite coherently from its opening to this point.

The drumming open “Resurrection” promises much and the song delivers. There’s a slight bluesy growl to this song that the band wisely never over-emphasizes and they mix it with enough alternative rock leanings that it takes on its own unique air. The percussion continues to be one of the song’s strongest attributes throughout its entirety. The other outright rocker on We’ll See Ourselves Out, “Looking In”, doesn’t come rampaging out of the gate like the opener, but listeners will enjoy when its initial slow simmer explodes into a raucous guitar attack. “Finale” is, appropriately enough, one of the album’s more theatrical moments, but this shouldn’t denote a lack of sincerity. It’s an exquisitely sensitive piece that benefits a great deal from one of Edwin Caldie’s best vocals. We’ll See Ourselves Out is a powerful and often quite thoughtful debut setting the bar high for the band’s future, but even a single listen to its tracks will leave you convinced they can and will better it with future releases.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Julia McDonald - Gravity (2016)

Written by Shannon Cowden, posted by blog admin

The first release from nineteen year old Julia McDonald announces the arrival of a formidable talent whose development seems in an almost unreal place for someone so young. McDonald’s six songs on Gravity show finesse beyond her years and a seemingly effortless ability to get underneath the skin of demanding songs that explore rugged emotional terrain and never cheat listeners musically. The first class production surrounding these songs makes the EP a seamless listening experience and never pretties up the release’s poppier moments in such a way that tries the audience’s patience. The narratives driving the songs in this collection deal with complex but down to earth issues – the relationships between people at a time in life when the durability of such unions is under near constant assault. Music fans who listen to artists for entertainment and those who listen for that and some illumination will be equally pleased by this release. McDonald and her collaborators possess a well tuned ear for commercial pop music, but they also strive to make a substantive statement with Gravity and succeed in a significant way.

You know you are in good hands from the first. The title song starts the EP off in memorable fashion with a relatively spartan musical arrangement and solid, uncluttered playing that gives McDonald’s voice ample room to shine. It does so very brightly. She is the undisputable center of the song and weighs each line of its lyric with a conscious intent that makes it a bracing experience to hear. There’s a much more tangible pop song vibe driving the second track “Games”, but McDonald never ventures too far from the same instrumental set up – she just puts it to a much different use here. The drumming and percussion on Gravity is one of the keys to its success and it makes this song an even more enjoyable experience than what it might have been with more sedate, standard drumming fare. “Pretty Committee” mixes up some of McDonald’s pop and singer/songwriter influences into a fully entertaining and intimate work with another superb vocal. The percussion is another high point for the performance and gives it an interesting rhythm for McDonald to lay her vocals over.

“No Good for Me” is a piece of high end pop art with a silky smooth musical arrangement and an equally stylish McDonald vocal. The lyrics are particularly brutal in the way that she pulls no punches depicting an unsatisfying relationship and the song holds her first person point of view culpable for its failure. Such challenging lyrics demand something to sweeten their intense emotions and the music for this song is perfect fit for pulling that off. The synthesizer on Gravity’s closing number “Simpler Things” gives the track a dark overtone while the piano work running throughout leavens its darkness some. The powerfully rhythmic percussion keeps things bubbling for the entirety of the song. This is an extraordinarily memorable end for Gravity and promises much from McDonald’s future releases.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Kittens Slay Dragons - Big Big Heart (2017)

Written by Frank McClure, posted by blog admin

Electropop typically takes some hits as a shallow musical form, but Sarah Donner’s ten song effort with musical cohort $hClane! Big Big Heart takes chances with a much derided vehicle and makes them pay off thanks to her immense style with this sound and the substantive value of her songwriting. Artists who bring something of themselves, to varying degrees, into their songwriting are invariably artists with longevity and meaningful emotional settings sure to touch all but the hardest of hearts. The superb production she’s invested on these songs pays off as well – it’s intensely physical music at any volume, but never aggressive. Kittens Slay Dragons, instead, craft music of great intimacy and it’s propelled by songwriting certain to engage its admirers on multiple levels. By any standards, this is an impressive achievement.

The keyboard swirl opening “Gatekeeper” sets a brightly lit stage for Donner’s profoundly emotive voice. She does an excellent job incorporating the distinctive sound of her singing alongside the electronic backing and the lyrics lose nothing in this environment. She excels, especially, with the song’s chorus and sounds completely responsive to the music’s movement. This is one of the album’s more fully realized efforts and gets Big Big Heart off to an exceptional start. The electronic inclinations of the music continue with the second song “Castiel” and are accompanied by a throbbing bass that anchors everything else around it to a solid foundation. The glittering keyboard textures might strike a false note in the hands of lesser talents, but Donner clearly understands how to incorporate them into her music for maximum effect. “Smile Pretty” begins in a much more pensive fashion than the aforementioned opening duo, but it still deserves mention as one of the album’s marquee efforts. Donner’s voice is an amazing instrument capable of being highlighted to its fullest potential no matter what style she opts to explore. Using her vocals in this electronic environment imparts some much needed humanity to the design of this music and gives it a theatrical veneer many other efforts in this vein lack.

The title song begins in much of the same thoughtful way that set the opening for “Smile Pretty” apart. It is natural to assume that the title song of a release is, somehow, meant to be interpreted as the album’s definitive musical and lyrical statement. In a sense, this song qualifies. Donner does an excellent lyrical job of summing up many of the driving passions and thematic concerns informing the songwriting on Big Big Heart. The uptempo opening of “Under the Waves” gives this song a decidedly different texture than many of the more deliberate numbers preceding it and the additional vocal duet factor gives this song a very different feel than many of the album’s other tracks. The sprightly bounce of the final “Head Down, Heart Up” shares some similarities with a more electronically inclined Regina Spektor, but it never risks imitation. Donner’s uniquely emotional approach has a wonderful effect once again and works quite well with the song’s electronic backing. It’s a wonderfully solid ending to Big Big Heart and one can only hope that Donner revisits this side of her musical identity as soon as it makes sense.