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CD Reviews – December 2016

happy-valley-holidays(VARIOUS ARTISTS) – HAPPY VALLEY HOLIDAYS (Demon Drive Studio) While vacationing in St. Lucia in July, 2014, State College-based musician and producer Gregory Mudzinski became inspired. A native basket maker shared a story with Mudzinski of rebounding from tragedy after a freak storm on Christmas Eve, 2013, washed away roads and homes; the native proclaimed it as the best Christmas ever because people came together and helped each other. Moved by the story, Mudzinski came up with the idea of Happy Valley Holidays, a Christmas season album featuring Centre County-based bands and artists, with proceeds helping out humanitarian organization Direct Relief, which assists people affected by poverty or disasters worldwide. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Mudzinski at his Demon Drive Studio in Boalsburg, Happy Valley Holidaysfeatures a wide variety of holiday-themed sounds over 16 tracks. Mudzinski himself appears on four of the tracks; his duet with Alicia Starr on their original composition “Christmastime in Mexico,” The Clover’s punk-driven disc-ending rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” featuring pianist Matthew Wyzykowski, and Lady’s two alternative-rocking takes on “What Child Is This?” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” with Duste Decay’s voice making a cameo appearance on the latter. Other performers offering their own Christmas-themed original songs include August Room with their uplifting “Happy Christmas,” The Whatleys’ punk-rocking rant against holiday season commercialism, “No More Holidays!” and Jason McIntyre’s folksy lament “Punxy,” which he performs with Junior Tutwiler, Kate Anderson Twoey, Dan Collins and John “J.K.” Kennedy. Twoey and Pure Cane Sugar offer beautiful vocal harmonies on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and choral voices unite on the State College Presbyterian Church FISH’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Another vocal highlight is 2014 State College Idol contest winner Rachel Moon’s bold a cappella treatment of “Ave Maria.” OverheaD contributes two fresh arrangements of traditional holiday favorites; their B-52s-flavored take on “We Three Kings” and a bluesy spin on “Deck the Halls.” The album also features The Strayers’ accordion-underscored version of “O Holy Night,” Joseph Tombasco’s disc-opening piano prelude rendition of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Kevin Patterson & Chris Fuller’s acoustic interpretation of “Silent Night,” and Jon Vickers-Jones’ spoken word recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Together, this diverse collection flows nicely, and Mudzinski’s recording gives the set a crisp consistency. Happy Valley Holidays unites a community of Centre region musicians toward a noteworthy cause, and it provides a fresh and eclectic holiday season listen. (The album can be purchased through CD Baby.com and www.demondrivestudio.com.)

 

don_hughes_its_christmasDON HUGHES – IT’S CHRISTMAS (no label) Altoona native Don Hughes was introduced to the piano as a child, and honed his skills as a contestant, winner and eventual judge in Dennie Huber’s annual Crazy Fest Amateur Youth Talent Show. After stints in the band Generation Gap and as studio keyboard man with Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys, life and career relocated Hughes to the Pittsburgh area. After issuing a self-titled instrumental debut CD in 2007, Hughes has released his second instrumental effort, the holiday season album It’s Christmas. Influenced by the classical-meets-progressive-rock stylings of Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Hughes renders a similar approach over the disc’s 11 tracks, providing innovative arrangements on a variety of traditional holiday favorites. Rock-driven arrangements propel the disc-opening rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” as well as “We Three Kings,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and the medley of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas/Carol of the Bells/Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Don’s classical leanings prevail on versions of “Veni Veni (O Come, O Come Emmanuel),” “Deck the Halls,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and the merger “O Christmas Tree/O Come All Ye Faithful.” Acoustic guitar provides guidance on treatments of “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and the disc-ending “Joy to the World.” Hughes displays mastery as both a performer and arranger. His keyboard never stays in one place for long, as he varies between full orchestral flourishes and stripped-down flavors, sometimes emulating woodwind and string tones with his keys. His arrangements provide variety and dynamic wax and wane on each number, keeping the disc sounding fresh from start to end. It’s Christmas is invigorating and uplifting, as Don Hughes’ variety of yuletide vibes and flavors makes this a fitting soundtrack for trimming the Christmas tree or playing during holiday gatherings. (The CD can be purchased through Don’s website, www.donhughesmusic.com.)

 

small-town-horror-show-1SMALL TOWN HORROR SHOW – THE DEAD DIDN’T DIE (no label) From Altoona, Small Town Horror Show started several years ago as a collaboration between former Dragon Fire guitarist Chris Peters and bassist Eric Shumac, plus former Choking Faith drummer Joe Richards. The collaboration expanded into its current five-member roster last year with the addition of keyboardist Mike Hennaman and singer Todd McKeone. Their 10-track debut album, The Dead Didn’t Die, introduces Small Town Horror Show’s self-proclaimed brand of ‘zombie groove metal.’ Powerful, often frantic rhythms by Richards and Shumac, chunky riffs from Peters, and tense and timely key fills from Hennaman all set the backdrops for McKeone’s dynamic vocals, which vary between subdued croons and high-soaring howls in a style not far removed from peak-era Billy Idol. The songs strike hard and quickly, with lyrics that ride the border between horror film and real world realities. McKeone sounds ready to go off the deep end while he counters demons on the frantic “Fearless,” and he convincingly sells the notion of the insane state of our current world on the frantic “Crazy.” “Gather Your Guns” warns of the impending zombie apocalypse, while the swift “Storm of the Century” warns of another kind of apocalypse. The group shows a more thunderous presence on the forboding “Bow to Your Enemy,” and generates an aggressive shuffle with the introspective “Let It Go.” The disc’s pacing is swift and tight, keeping the action constant from start to end. The group’s execution is sharp and on target, bringing their metal full force, with Hennaman’s timely keyboard accents adding tension and depth. Recorded at EQuinox Music and Arts in Dallastown and engineered by Don Belch and Scott Gross, the disc sounds clean, sharp and full. Small Town Horror Show delivers a strong debut on The Dead Didn’t Die, introducing a distinctive style and angle for their ‘zombie groove metal,’ and setting the foundation for future expansion and experimentation. A good listen. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.smalltownhorrorshow.com.)

ethan_jano_bandTHE ETHAN JANO BAND – THE ETHAN JANO BAND (no label) Influenced at an early age by his father’s playlist of classic rock, folk and country, Somerset’s Ethan Jano began penning his own songs in his late teens, and began performing as a solo folk artist. Soon his cousins Bryce and Damian Jano started joining Ethan on drums and bass respectively, and The Ethan Jano Band was formed. The group’s self-titled CD introduces a sound rooted in classic rock, country, folk and blues. Ethan displays a knack for alluring melodies, and delivers those melodies with a hearty voice, cadence and clarity over the disc’s 11 tracks. As a songwriter, Ethan’s words ponder his own life, purpose and mission. He expresses weariness over the nine-to-five daily grind on the uptempo country-geared disc-opening stomp “Long Road,” and he contemplates his routine and purpose on the rollicking “Same Old Melody.” The bluegrass-tinged “Irony” expresses confusion over life’s direction, while “Big Change” considers moments of self-realization and enlightenment. Ethan and his band offer a darker Neil Young tone on the sullen “Broken Pieces.” He is also capable of tender ballads, evidenced by the acoustic romantic odes “I Love You,” “Love Song” and “Don’t You Cry.” Ethan is front and center, his strong voice shining clear and prominent in the mix. His performances sound heartfelt, emotion-packed and sincere. The melodies are captivating, and the set is cohesive from start to end. Produced by Ethan, the mix sounds crisp and raw, letting his voice and his band’s performances do the talking without extra gloss, bells or whistles. The Ethan Jano Band provides a distinctive, signature style and sound on this album, and clearly reveals Ethan’s musical personality and world. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.theethanjanoband.com.)

nobodysheroes2NOBODY’S HEROES – ONE FOOT ON THE GAS, THE OTHER IN THE GRAVE (no label) First formed five years ago by singer/guitarist Grant Matthews and singer/banjo player Brian Dumm, Nobody’s Heroes introduced their blend of punk and Americana flavors two years ago with an initial five-song EP, and flesh out their sound more on their latest CD, One Foot on the Gas, The Other in the Grave. Adding the driving drumbeats of Abe Weber and additional guitar from Lance T. Burgess, Nobody’s Heroes steps up the tempo and excitement over this disc’s dozen tracks. Restlessness, love woes and booze are prominent lyrical themes here; bluegrass and Celtic punk flavors merge to drive the rambunctious disc-opener “Scratch My Name on the World” and its theme of living life with reckless abandon. Likewise, the driving punk-country rant “Freedom & Fear” restlessly yearns to escape and skip town. Meanwhile, “State Train” loathes prison time, and “Blood on the Banjo” tries to leave the past behind. Nobody’s Heroes taps an early Buddy Holly roots-rock flavor with “Come Home,” as well as a roots-country vibe with “Diane Lonely.” And alcohol themes prevail on the group’s update of “Moonshine” from their initial EP and their battle with “The Bottle.” The performances are vibrant and go-for-broke; both Matthews and Dumm offer rugged, edgy voices up front, backed by gang shout choruses, agitated banjo and guitars, plus Weber’s drum beats and Chris Lawson’s upright bass thumps. The melodies and words connect, and the group’s arrangements and variety keep the disc sounding fresh from start to end. Recorded and engineered by Larry Luther at Mr. Small’s Studio in Pittsburgh, this disc sounds brisk, balanced, edgy and full with all components of the group’s sound coming through clearly. Nobody’s Heroes steps on the accelerator on One Foot on the Gas, the Other in the Grave, and delivers a rowdy, rootsy, rewarding joyride. (The CD can be obtained through CDBaby.com.)

the-arts-3THE ARTS – ETHNICITY (no label) The Greensburg-based studio duo of Chris Vottero and Joel Sanders – known as The Arts – have freely indulged their creativity and sense of musical adventurism on their recordings to date. They have raised the bar on that creativity with their latest CD, Ethnicity. A concept album, Ethnicity finds Vottero (playing drums, bass and keys) and Sanders (playing guitars and mandolin) creating six instrumental compositions, each based on a different ethnic musical flavor from different parts of the globe, infused into their own progressive-geared musical style. The pair composed each track to portray a musical story, and also created corresponding CD sleeve artwork for each piece. The compositions are ornately crafted and arranged, and reveal The Arts’ musical diversity and – per their monicker – artistry. Opening the disc, “Arabian Souls” taps a Middle-Eastern flavor and a musical narrative based on Arabian mythology and a natural phenomena known as the ‘singing sand dunes,’ where shifting sands create a pitch of a G note. “Secret Garden” is milder in tone and based on traditional Japanese music, with a surging midsection representing a fantasy samurai battle sequence. Rooted in a Brazilian samba beat, “Bertholettia Excelsa” implements elements of rock, blues, jazz and Latin horns. The expansive “Medieval Memoir” follows a classical format that shifts through movements with a variety of intensities and slants. “Unmasked Serenata” is based on several European ethnic musical styles, highlighted by a circus-like midsection. And composed around an African rhythm, “Tanzanian Sunrise (Dawn of Man)” maneuvers through an ever-changing tapestry of rhythmic progressions. Ethnicity is interesting from start to end, as both Vottero and Sanders constantly vary their soundscapes and take the listener through unpredictable twists and turns. They successfully emulate the ethnic flavors of each piece, with their own distinctive instrumental style weaving a thread through the disc’s entirety to tie it all together. Recorded, produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Vottero and Sanders, Ethnicity sounds clean, full, balanced, consistent and focused. Their ambitious undertaking is a successful one, as The Arts’ Ethnicity takes listeners’ ears and minds on a colorful international journey. This is a masterfully-executed set well worth checking out. (To obtain a copy, email cvottero@comcast.net.)

 

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