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CD Reviews

CD Reviews – November 2017

JONAH WHALE – MOBIUS (Adamsapple Records) On the first track to Jonah Whale’s fifth full-length CD, Mobius; the intro to the song “I Put Down My Gun” bears some resemblance to the intro to the original Star Trek television series. Like that show intro beckons, Jonah Whale seeks out new sonic frontiers, and boldly goes where no artist has gone before over Mobius’ dozen tracks. The Bloomsburg-based artist crafts a distinctive, progressive-rooted hard rock sound; defined by booming, cavernous beats, industrial-strength guitar riffs and power chords, and topped by Jonah’s powerful voice and singing style that often channel peak-period David Bowie and Roger Waters. Melodies are key throughout the disc – Jonah shows a knack for captivating song hooks, inventive and tricky rhythms and time signatures, and intriguing lyrics and wordplays. “Break the Silence” uses such wordplays to suggest that science doesn’t have all the answers, and that we should teach future generations to be more open-minded and question what they see and hear. A clever word cadence helps power the message of the tough rocker “Live for Tomorrow,” to “crawl out of the wreckage” and move forward from life’s adversities. “Your Heart You Must Follow” also establishes an intriguing lyrical cadence in its theme of being true to oneself. Jonah generates a Bowie-esque upbeat cut-the-rug exercise with “Dance,” sings praise to all that life offers on “Hale to the King,” and expresses vulnerability on the confessional closer “Not Made of Stone.” Jonah sings this material with intensity and purpose, with vocal layering and harmonies complementing and elevating his presence throughout the set. The arrangements and instrumental execution are tight and precise, and the songs each stand strongly on their own while working together as a cohesive set. Written, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered by Jonah at his Adamsapple Records home studio, Mobius sounds consistent, powerful and clear. Mobius shows that Jonah Whale clearly knows his musical turf, and offers a vibrant, captivating listen. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.jonahwhale.com.)

 

JACK PYERS – DEAD ON THE FLOOR (Sticky Records) Former Harpo and Dirty Looks member Jack Pyers got his acoustic feet wet on his 2015 album No Road Home, as he left his electric past behind and embraced the new frontier of acoustic guitar music. Pyers continues his acoustic journey on Dead on the Floor, and enlists the help of several musical guests to flesh out his song material. Bret Alexander on guitars, mandolin and dobro (he also produced the CD), Jeremy Hummel on drums and percussion, Mario Reggino on bass and Tom Martin on harmonica color and flavor each of the disc’s eight new songs, giving each a different mood and personality. To illustrate the impact of the additional musicians, stripped-down acoustic versions of seven of the songs follow the initial eight tracks on the album. The guests help give the opening track “She Said Okay” a driving country-rock twang, and busy rhythms and instrumentation give an urgent, exotic presence to “The Truth.” Martin’s harmonica accompaniment helps propel the title track “Dead on the Floor” into an uptempo blues-folk ride with an accelerated ending, while an escalating full-band arrangement helps elevate and emphasize the life-cleansing lyrical theme of “Let It Rise.” The anti-suicidal theme of “Can You Help Her” is shaped by a gentler, somber arrangement, while harder rock guides the deceit-born angrier mood of “Lies.” The song quality is stronger overall on Dead on the Floor, as Jack Pyers hones his songwriting skills and evolves more detailed song structures. Likewise, his singing shows more versatility and conveys more emotional impact. Bret Alexander’s production provides just the right touch to each song, enabling each to establish its own presence and stand apart from one another, yet work together as a cohesive entire set. Dead on the Floor displays Jack Pyers’ progress and development as an acoustic artist, and shows his rising comfort level with his current musical path. (The CD can be purchased through Jack Pyers’ website, www.jackpyers.com.)

JON SMITH’S VOYAGES – INDEED (no label) Reading native Jon Paul Smith plays no less than 15 different instruments on Indeed, the debut album from his solo project, Jon Smith’s Voyages. And Jon’s musical roots become quickly apparent over the course of the disc’s 11 tracks; he pretty clearly likes the theatrical and even psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and 1970s, channeling influences from ragtime-toned Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and peak-era Queen into Jon’s own distinct musical persona. Jon implements guitars, pianos, horns, woodwinds, bass, drums, mandolins, accordions, ukuleles and more to craft his freewheeling sound, topped with a voice positioned somewhere between the theatric side of Bowie and the sarcastic side of John Lennon. Smith’s music is his playground, as he crafts catchy, often intricate melodies with unpredictable twists and turns. Scott Joplin, the Beatles and Queen collide head-on on the playful disc-opener “Excuse Me,” while the soulful side of David Bowie is channeled on “I’ll Get Around To It” with its words about youthful coming of age. Jon crafts a Ziggy Stardust Bowie-flavored acid burn on the hard rocking track “Heard It Over Yonder,” and even channels a Mott the Hoople flavor on “Reginald.” Fab Four-edged pop presides over “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend,” while ragtime-styled horns merge with retro 1960s-geared songcraft on “Too Hot for Me.” A “Killer Queen”-flavored arrangement informs the delightfully quarky “Absurd,” while a more reserved Bowie vibe serves the suitable finale track, “Nothing Remains.” The song arrangements are clever, with instrumental change-ups keeping each track on edge and offering fresh nuances throughout the disc. Produced, mixed and mastered by Smith, Indeed sounds crisp and balanced, with all the instruments in his musical stew sounding clear and distinct. Jon Smith’s imagination, adventurism and fearless approach to his music makes Indeed a captivating listen, and – indeed – an impressive retro-flavored journey. (The CD can be obtained or digitally downloaded through Jon Smith’s Bandcamp page, https://jonsmithsvoyages.bandcamp.com.)

PHOBOS ANOMALY – PHOBOS ANOMALY (no label) The State College-based music anomaly that is Phobos Anomaly has existed off and on since 2005. After resurfacing from dormancy last year, the group – guitarist/singer Jon Spearly, bassist/singer Mark Holland and drummer Damien Page – has issued their 10-track, self-titled CD. Phobos Anomaly’s sound has evolved into a freewheeling mixture of hard, punk-fueled modern rock with touches of psychedelic and progressive rock flourishes. The group’s song arrangements are often charged and high-velocity, and mix various textures and tempos, intriguing melodies and vocal harmonies, often cryptic lyrics and more. Developing from a Spanish guitar-flavored introduction, the disc’s opening track, “7 of Diamonds,” sets the table for the rest of the album with its go-for-broke tempo, chugging guitar riffs and soaring vocal harmonies.  The group maintains a heated tempo on numbers such as “Dollface,” the furious boogie-driven “The Bearded Lady,” the acidic “Skeleton” and the agitated “Breaking in the Tomb of God.” The group experiments with acoustic tones on “Grandfather Clock” and the slower-grooving “Cleaning Dirt,” dabbles in a surf-toned dynamic on “Silent K,” and mixes multiple angles of attack on the inventive “Misfortune Biscuits” and the disc-closer “Celestial Catastrophe.” Phobos Anomaly delivers these tunes with feverish intensity, and constantly stirs the pot for a variety of sonic angles. Jon Spearly’s guitar attack ranges from punk-styled buzz chords to manic, Robert Fripp (King Crimson)-flavored acidic burn. Holland and Page keep the rhythms continually busy and intriguing, and the group’s production implements various studio and vocal effects to keep the mix chaotic and never staying in one place for too long. The end result is an action-packed, moving debut album; Phobos Anomaly establishes the parameters of their sonic turf with this first chapter, and sets a captivating foundation for further exploration and experimentation. (The CD can be obtained through CD Baby, www.cdbaby.com.)

FŸRE – III GHOSTS (no label) Heavy-hitting sextet Fÿre started igniting on Altoona area stages in 2014, introducing their blend of original classic, progressive and power metal. A concept album, Fÿre’s debut CD, III Ghosts, explores a Faustian theme of a protagonist who sells his soul to the Devil to save a loved one’s life, and the body count and chaos that ensue from that decision. Influences spanning Iron Maiden to King Diamond/Mercyful Fate to Ghost BC inform Fÿre’s sound, with the group incorporating elements of power, death metal and hardcore at various points through the disc’s seven tracks. Anchoring Fÿre’s attack are the battering rhythms of drummer Tanner Kaurudar and bassist Joe Earnest, with the battery of lead guitarist Zach Kensinger and rhythm guitarist Sean Stringer providing forceful riffs and searing solos. Singer Matt Stoyanoff displays a siren-like wail and dramatic singing style that sells the album’s story line, with Denise Stoyanoff providing backing vocals. From its Maiden-ish intro, “Madness” sets the music and story in motion with a stern, forceful rumble. The sullen power ballad “Memo” introduces the story’s Faustian angle as it intensifies, and the body count begins with the hammering “Doctor Doctor.” “Doorbell” is informed by a lead guitar door chime and pulsing hardcore-like bass surges, while Kaurudar’s double-kick drum thunder powers “Thy Will Be Done.” “No Remorse” steps up the aggression with some Slayer-like guitar fireworks, before the tense title track “3 Ghosts” storms toward a death metal-infused finale. Fÿre develops intriguing melodies and angles of attack throughout the disc, executing their song material with tightness and purpose. The music and plot are cohesive from start to end, and the production and mix sound balanced, crisp and full. III Ghosts establishes Fÿre as a creative and innovative metal-geared force, and provides a strong, ambitious opening chapter. (The CD and digital album can be obtained through the group’s Bandcamp page, https://fyretheband.bandcamp.com.)

PENSIVE FEAR – THE AWAKENING (Scarifide Records) Longtime Altoona-based guitarist Tom Brown started his original heavy metal studio project Pensive Fear in 1996. After recording various EP’s and single songs through the years, Tom has issued Pensive Fear’s first full-length album, The Awakening. Tom wrote the music and words for all 11 tracks, and plays lead guitar and keys on the album. Also appearing are Tom’s son Shawn on lead guitar, Fÿre frontman Matt Stoyanoff on lead vocals, Bob Gailey on bass and Dan Way on drums. Pensive Fear’s sound is rooted in the ‘80s-era classical heavy metal tradition of Yngwie Malmsteen, and is also informed by the progressive and power metal adventurism of Fates Warning, Dream Theater, Queensryche and Judas Priest. The songs feature complex melodies and arrangements with frequent tempo and chord changes, highlighted by Brown’s arpeggio-laced guitar pyrotechnics and Stoyanoff’s powerful, high-soaring vibrato. Lyrically, the songs ride loose themes of good vs. evil, absolution vs. condemnation, facing fear, and decisions and their consequences. From its sinister, horror movie-like beginning, the title track “The Awakening” opens the album with warning of a day of reckoning. Life’s crossroads and the quest for truth permeate the words of the terse “Where the Answer Lies” and “The Wrong Path,” while internal pain drives the hammering assault “The Anguish and Betrayal.” Brown’s composition and guitar skills take the forefront on the instrumental track “A Nightmare of Sorrow.” The performances and instrumental execution are tight and focused, and the album maintains a steady consistency throughout. Stoyanoff’s strong vocals reach incredible, majestic highs while sounding clear and distinctive throughout. The frequent changes and shifts in the arrangements keep the songs interesting and unpredictable. Recorded, mixed and produced by Brown, The Awakening sounds busy and cavernous, deep and thunderous. Tom Brown’s creative vision culminates in Pensive Fear’s The Awakening, an adventurous set that should provide intrigue to fans of classic and progressive metal. (The CD and digital album can be obtained through the Pensive Fear Bandcamp page, https://pensivefear.bandcamp.com/.) 

CD Reviews – October 2017

TED McCLOSKEY – LAST FLOWER STANDING (Voodoo Cat Records) Ted McCloskey has established himself as one of the state’s most prolific musicians, creating nine albums of original music in 15 years. On his ninth and latest album, Last Flower Standing, he continues to establish himself as a musical chameleon as well, as he mixes multiple flavors into the disc’s 14 tracks, again successfully defying categorization. Delta blues and Beatles-rooted pop provide prominent launching points throughout the disc, with rockabilly, folk, R&B and psychedelic flourishes also incorporated along the way. Ted’s knacks for catchy song hooks and smart lyricism are abundant here; the album follows a loose theme of flowers providing metaphors for lives and souls that bloom, fade, survive and die, and Ted also provides revealing snapshots of his own persona as well. The slow-building disc-opener “How Many More?” finds Ted drinking and smoking away a past memory, while the Americana-infused “The Presence of Your Absence” tries to come to terms with a sudden void, and the anguish of breakup is preferred over continuing a fractured relationship on the punchy “Rather Live with the Heartache.” Ted paints a colorful picture of a worldly woman on the gentle “A Flower in Madrid,” touts the durability of a “Little Rose,” and lets instruments and arrangement paint a sassy personality on the punchy instrumental “Violet Wilds.” Lost hope permeates the vibe on the darker-toned “Where Dreams Go to Die,” hard living renders its impact on the edgy “What Your Love Looks Like,” and trying to crack the codes to Ted’s soul will take some effort on the hard-edged “Bigger Bombs.” The songs are all distinct and compelling, with Ted’s melodies and wordplays providing constant highlights. Guest keyboardist Mark Daubert, fiddle player Daniel Collins and bassist/flute player Bob Hart all effectively color and tone these songs, and backing singer Molly Countermine adds just the right vocal accents to provide emphasis. By now, it’s pretty clear that McCloskey knows what he is doing behind the console, and his production brings his musical innovations and nuances to full fruition. Last Flower Standing offers another captivating snapshot of the musical mind and artistry of its creator, and adds another colorful chapter to Ted McCloskey’s stunning overall body of work. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.tedmccloskey.com.)

JIMMY ADLER – GREASE ALLEY (Sprucewood Records) Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Adler jumps, jives, wails, swings and frolics through the 13 tracks of his latest studio album, Grease Alley. Slinging guitar and singing, Jimmy takes a joyride through a myriad of blues-based styles, spanning New Orleans and swamp blues to jump blues, swing, Texas blues, R&B and more. He tapped the talents of some renowned blues musicians to help bring these original song creations to life; including Norwegian-born guitarist Kid Anderson (of Charlie & the Nightcats), who also recorded, mastered and produced the album at his Greaseland Studios facility in San Jose, California. Also assisting Jimmy are keyboardist Jim Pugh (of the Robert Cray Band), Charlie Musselwhite’s drummer June Core, and – now living in the San Jose area – his former saxophone player, Eric Spaulding. Jimmy sets the tone and honors two influences on the disc opener “Say It Like Magic Sam,” referencing T-Bone Walker and Chicago-based bluesman Magic Sam. Naw’lins is the prominent flavor of the title track “Grease Alley,” complete with Jimmy’s “Saints Go Marching In”-themed mid-song guitar solo. A more swamp-geared southern blues groove drives “Ease Me Down Slow” with its catchy call-and-response choruses, while Texas blues propels the morning after ode “Drank Too Much.” A clear highlight is “No Pain,” which showcases guest singer Chris Cain with his B.B. King-like growl; Cain’s guitar skills shine later on the disc during “What Will You Do.” The album’s most boisterous moments happen on uptempo romps such as the rockabilly-geared “I Can’t Wait,” “Cornbread and Lima Beans,” “Cordelia” and the Texas swing-driven disc-closer “Hoodoo Highway.” Providing the most sullen moment is the darker slow blues of “Love Was Worth These Blues.”And Jimmy taps a Memphis soul flavor on “Nine Behind” and “What I’ve Done.” Jimmy’s enthusiastic vocals and stellar guitar solo work both provide constant highlights through the album, as well as establish a continuous thread to tie this diverse set together. The performances consistently shine, and every song here is strong with no weak links. Kid Anderson’s production and guidance enables Grease Alley to sound vibrant and full, while staying firmly rooted in the traditional blues atmosphere. The result is a fun, uplifting blues album – Grease Alleygrooves and swaggers, and provides a lively listening experience well worth checking out. (The CD can be obtained through Jimmy’s website, www.jimmyadler.com.)

JONATHAN MONUMENT – WONDERKID (no label) Reading-based rock group Jonathan Monument expands the scope of their alternative-rooted rock sound on their third CD, Wonderkid. The group – founding members, singers and guitarists David Fick and Steven Balthaser, bassist/singer Matt Thren and drummer Josh Noel – mixes a variety of flavors into their hard-edged, guitar-driven sound. 1990s-era alternative serves as the foundation from which the group explores adventurous song structures and elements of punk, roots-rock, 1960s/70s pop and more. Jangly rockabilly is the driving force behind the fast-moving disc-opener “Mine,” while the group salutes Japanese surf-rock guitarist Takeshi Terauchi on the stormy surf instrumental “Takeshi.” The group mixes catchy melodies with muscle on punchy rockers like the title track “Wonderkid,” “Ne’er-Do-Wells” and an update of an earlier song, “What Lives in the Lake?” Jonathan Monument plays with intriguing chord structures and unexpected melodic twists and turns on “We Are the Children of Light” and “From the Sky,” and they tap 1960s-styled vocal arrangements on “Suzie’s Got a Shotgun.” The album ends with the expansive “Destroyer,” which begins with a dreamy Beatles-like passage that builds into a hard-rocking instrumental homestretch. The group’s performances are crisp and energetic, and former member and guest Jon Smith’s key accents and backing vocals flesh out the group’s sound in various places through the disc. Produced by the band, Frank Phobia and Mike Radka, Wonderkid sounds brisk and balanced, with the group’s voices, melodies and abrasive guitar edges all prominent. The result is another fresh-sounding effort; Wonderkid offers innovative rock that is edgy yet infectious, and shows Jonathan Monument’s further progression and adventurism. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s Bandcamp web page, jonathanmonument.bandcamp.com.)

 

CD Reviews – September 2017

BILL DEASY – TIMELESS THINGS (no label) Best known as the singer for Pittsburgh-based former national recording group The Gathering Field, Bill Deasy has built an impressive resume as not just a solo artist, but as a novelist as well. On his ninth solo studio album, Timeless Things, Bill again proves his ability to weave melodies, emotions and stories together into a captivating and listenable set. Bill taps the familiar American heartland folk-rock style, and applies his own personality and nuances to make that style his. Assisting Bill in this trek are the album’s producer, songwriter and Donora member Jake Hanner, who co-wrote several of the songs and plays drums; and guest performers Rob James of The Clarks on electric guitar, Noah Minarik (son of Clarks drummer Dave Minarik) on guitar, Anton DeFade on bass, and Clarks frontman Scott Blasey, Maia Sharp and Clark Slater on backing vocals. Opening the album, the vibrant title song “Timeless Things” celebrates the things in life that stay steady and constant while times and trends change. Darker in tone, “The Night Before” reflects on a farewell , while “Blood Red Moon” blends thoughtful observations about love with a shadowy sonic setting. Bill strikes reflective tones on the slower numbers “Then December” and the cavernous lament “I Stood Still.” Bill positions himself as a gambler in the acoustic-driven “Crapshoot,” and does some homecoming reminiscing on “1970s.” Layered guitars give a slight U2 vibe to “After All,” while the disc-closing “End of the Record Song” recalls Jackson Browne in tone, as Bill acknowledges the shifting of his creative mindset over the years. Consistent with his previous body of work, Timeless Things again reveals Bill’s thoughtful and literary lyrical style, and his ability to build deep and full-bodied arrangements to carry those words. His voice is warm and sincere, and he and his assembled cast of musicians give layers and textures to the songs. The album sounds consistent and cohesive, and flows like a steady brook. Timeless Things is yet another testimony to Bill Deasy’s songcrafting art, and is an album that reveals its depth and thoughtfulness over repeat listens. (The CD can be obtained through Bill Deasy’s website, www.billdeasy.com.)

 

13 SAINTS – CRUSHING COPPER (no label) Roaring out of Pittsburgh in 2016, 13 Saints delivers punch-in-the-jaw, unapologetic hard rock’n’roll on their 11-song debut album, Crushing Copper. Merging Rolling Stones bad-boy attitude with 1970s punk agitation, 13 Saints fire off fast, feisty, fist-raising, compact numbers with rebellious, reckless abandon lyrics. Guitarists Dave Buzard and Ernie Dirt and bassist Creep Newholland all share in singing duties, while drummer Chuck Shoulders (since replaced by Eric Corbin) provides the driving beats behind the songs. Smacking listeners in the mouth is the group’s calling card, the disc-opener “Deep,” which proclaims that this band is straightforward with their music and message, and doesn’t do deep song meanings. The group rebels against parents, authority and other control freaks on “Mother May I,” resolving to do things their own way. The high-powered “Evel Knievel” celebrates hard living, hard rocking and going for broke, while “Genius” proudly supports the rock’n’roll lifestyle and the ups and downs that come with it. In a bluesier vein, “Smile” tells listeners to take stock in being above ground each day instead of six feet below it, while “In My Head” gives a nod to southern rock tradition with some Allman Brothers-flavored guitar harmonies. The group updates the defiant rant “The Pledge,” which first appeared with Dave Buzard’s previous project, We Came From Space. 13 Saints delivers these songs with constant go-for-broke velocity; their execution is tight and their vocals appropriately edgy. Produced by the group, Crushing Copper sounds crisp and balanced, yet allows this band’s abrasiveness to radiate. The result is a satisfying, action-packed debut; 13 Saints’ Crushing Copper delivers a rowdy listen, and provides a suitable soundtrack for raising hell on a Saturday night. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.13saintsrock.com.)

MEDUSA’S DISCO – RIPE (ThoughtRock Records) It only takes a few seconds into “State of Mind,” the opening track to Medusa’s Disco’s third full-length CD, Ripe, to realize that this Lancaster-based foursome is anything but routine. Formed five years ago, Medusa’s Disco taps psychedelic-era hard and progressive rock roots and throws caution to the wind over Ripe’s nine tracks. The group – singers/guitarists Wynton Huddle and Hunter Root, bassist Ty Smith (recently replaced by Jason Shearer) and drummer Alex Aument – craft elaborate, adventurous and unpredictable musical adventures, and deliver them with feverish, go-for-broke intensity. Their tempo and chord shifts, variations in distortion and reverb, and often abstract lyrical themes bring to mind psychedelic stoner rock contemporaries like Queens of the Stone Age, classic rock adventurers like Led Zeppelin and Wishbone Ash, the quarkiness of Primus, and modern-day progressive rock adventurers like Porcupine Tree. Each track is its own journey, from the psychoanalytical ”State Of Mind” with its ever-changing intensities and nuances, to the erupting joyride “Twisted Dentist (Novocaine)” with its dental and mental metaphor, and the western tumbleweed-laced “Otherwise.” The group explores a 21st century schizoid King Crimson dynamic on “Atomic 7,” kicks up some surf with “Ode to SEEDS,” and gets their led out with the expansive ten-minute-plus finale “Beautiful Creature.” All four musicians show imagination and precision, yet boldly fire on all cylinders and hammer these compositions for all they’re worth. Huddle’s vocals never stay in one spot, intensifying from mild to hysterical without warning. While complex and busy, the melody lines of the compositions are solid and catchy. Produced by Huddle and David Patterson II, Ripe sounds balanced, crisp and deep, with creative use of reverb and distortion to supplement this group’s prominent retro vibe. This is a captivating, volatile musical adventure – Medusa’s Disco pushes their creativity to the brink with Ripe, resulting in an exciting joyride that will put listeners at the edge of their seats. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.medusasdisco.com.)

CD Reviews – August 2017

THE COMMONHEART – GROWN (no label) Formed in 2014 by singer Clinton Clegg and drummer Shawn McGregor, The Commonheart has quickly evolved into one of Pittsburgh’s most exciting exports to the music world, and their debut album, Grown, offers clear testimony as to why. Eight members strong including backing singers and a horn section, The Commonheart merges rock, blues and soul flavors with a gospel fervor over Grown’s 11 tracks. Front and center throughout the album, Clegg sings, barks and growls with a rugged voice that recalls peak period Joe Cocker and Bob Seger, mixed with the fervor and intensity of a classic fire-and-brimstone preacher. Mike Minda’s lead guitar work, Lucas Bowman’s keys and guest Skip Sanders’ organ work, and tight rhythms from McGregor and bassist Ava Lintz pack punch behind the songs, while trumpeter Nate Insko and saxophonist Elyse Louise provide just the right brass accents in the right places. The resulting sound often recalls classic 1960s/1970s-era Memphis and Motown with a hearty punch. The disc-opening “Who Dat Mama” sets the tone with a bold, swaggering groove; while “Hard Way” sets a funkier pace. Riding along a prominent bass drum beat, hand claps and some sharp slide guitar work, “Aloysius” builds into a boisterous, gospel-flavored eruption. The Commonheart delivers some stunning slower numbers as well, such as the soulful and bluesy “Cannonball” with its escalating arrangement, the slow-building soul thunderstorm “You Need a Man” and the search for salvation “Save Me.” Mikey Deluca’s acoustic guitar picking backs Clegg on two thoughtful numbers, “Rivertown” and the disc-ending “Spain,” and the group gives a feisty and funky update to Al Green’s classic “I’m a Ram.” The performances are bold and energetic, as the band plays for keeps and Clegg sinks intensity and personality into every song. The arrangements are captivating and dynamic, and the production enables the group to retain edge and fullness. Grown is an exciting debut album that taps classic soul roots and channels them into a fresh, invigorating celebration. This album proudly establishes The Commonheart as a force to be reckoned with. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.thecommonheart.com.)

MARSHMELLOW OVERCOAT – MARSHMELLOW OVERCOAT (no label) Singer and songwriter Tyler Calkins in 2008 began his journey of exploring the songwriting styles of the 1960s and 1970s. That exploration led to the formation of his band vehicle, Marshmellow Overcoat. The Bradford-based group’s self-titled fifth album continues the journey, as Calkins (who sings and plays guitar, piano and harmonica), guitarist Alan Hancock, bassist Jason Wood and drummer Anthony Cavallaro craft catchy numbers rooted in 1960s and 1970s pop songcraft, particularly the Beatles and the Monkees, blended with a contemporary indie-pop edge. Marshmellow Overcoat’s brand of “classic rock for today” is defined by mostly short, punchy, efficient melodies with quick-hitting hooks and payoff choruses, brought forth by Calkins’ raspy, almost Lennon-like lead vocal and the group’s tight, balanced backdrops. Mostly written by Calkins, the lyrics tend toward contemplative and even psychedelic themes. He sings about music as a soaring journey on “Tune of the Turning World,”, and waxes abstract on “Wander and They Fly.” The group lyrically reveals the origin of their name on the title song “Marshmellow Overcoat,” which classic rockers The Band almost used for their own name. Several songs explore the cosmic effects of the ups and downs of love; “The Room Spins Around” muses about the dizzying effects of love, while “Snow Lights” and “River of Stars” explore love’s bliss. However, signals get crossed on “See the Plan,” and broken love is left behind on “I Can’t Help You Anymore” and “Back to Earth.” Marshmellow Overcoat also offers their spin on the traditional number “Cold Rain and Snow” as one of two bonus tracks (the other is a piano version of “Tune of the Turning World”). The performances are tight and the song arrangements are consistent, giving the album a comfortable, even flow from start to end. Recorded and mixed by Rick Gercak at College Park Recorders near Pittsburgh, Marshmellow Overcoat sounds basic and smooth, with the instruments sounding distinct and Calkins’ words ringing through clean and clear. Marshmellow Overcoat understands their musical turf on this album, and again successfully merges classic pop rock songcraft with a fresh, contemporary edge. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.marshmellowovercoat.com.)

 

LAIKA, THE ASTRO-HOUND – KAIROS (My Idea Of Fun) Named after the famous Soviet canine that became the first animal to orbit the Earth, Johnstown-based foursome Laika, the Astro-Hound explores death and the emotions surrounding it on their latest full-length album, Kairos. Featuring singer, keyboardist and chief songwriter Sean T. Jackson, bassist/singer Dallas Zimmerman, guitarist Matthew Shawley and drummer/electronics performer Gerald Mattis; Laika, the Astro-Hound presents a piano-driven, modern rock/pop sound that recalls the alternative piano rock of Ben Folds Five, as well as the progressive/ambient flavorings of Radiohead and Porcupine Tree. After experiencing the death of his sister, mother, and other friends and relatives, Sean’s lyrics ponder the grieving process, reflections and realizations about appreciating quality time with loved ones. Sean considers the hereafter and where souls go on the opening track “Can You Hear Me,” and the passage of time and life on “End of All Things.” Sean uses a somber Pink Floyd-like vibe to explore symbolism and metaphor on “Family Tree,” and recounts childhood grieving and spiritual awakening on the dreamy “Died at Five.” A space-rock arrangement propels “Life & Nature’s Little Nuances,” and Sean’s lesson about appreciating life’s little things. “Impermanence” realizes that everything is temporary in this world, while “Phone-line to Heaven” yearns to communicate with those who have left us. The songs are intelligent, captivating and cleverly arranged, with Sean’s piano and soaring voice weaving prominent threads through the entire set. His words communicate both his sense of loss, as well as his epiphanies about the cycle of life. Self-recorded and produced, Kairos sounds spontaneous and loose, allowing space for the performances to breathe and stretch with only minimal studio gloss. Laika, the Astro-hound delivers a thoughtful and cohesive set with Kairos, an album of insight and enlightenment that reminds listeners to cherish moments with loved ones and to share love while you are here to do so. (The album can be downloaded for free via the group’s Bandcamp page, or the CD can be obtained through the website www.myideaoffun.org.)

 

CD Reviews – July 2017

MISS MELANIE & THE VALLEY RATS – TWELVE THIRTY ONE (no label) After first hearing Twelve Thirty One, the fourth offering from Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats (or any of their other CD’s for that matter), it is hard not to conclude that group namesake and singer “Miss Melanie” Morrison Zeigler is the happiest woman in the world (or at least the PA music scene). Nobody exudes as much pure joy through their singing as Melanie does on many of Twelve Thirty One’s dozen tracks. Her voice freely lifts, soars, intensifies and relaxes; revealing the flavor of her soul at any given moment. She seizes the moment and refuses to let go of it on the disc-opening original song “You Ain’t Gonna Steal My Shine,” one of several tracks recorded live during a performance at Franco’s Lounge in Williamsport. The group’s romping shuffle rhythm provides the launching pad for Melanie to musically proclaim her preferences from the male half of the species on “What I Need,” and she heartily gives the heave-ho to someone who wronged her on “The End of You.” Melanie can be tender as well, evidenced by her calmer tones on “Don’t You Ever Untie This Knot,” her pleas for another chance on the title track “Twelve Thirty One” and her reflective mood on “I Lost the Best Thing.” Each of the Valley Rats shines as well – Mark Ross’ guitar work is tasteful and clean throughout the album, perfectly complementing and supporting each piece. Rev James Harton displays stellar work on keyboards, with his prominent accordion work especially fleshing out and adding mood to several numbers. And drummer Chris Coyne gently propels the numbers along with just the right rhythmic push. A surprise highlight of the album is when the group reboots the Beatles double-shot of “Help” and “Oh Darling” into slow, smooth soul pieces; the group also offers a samba-tinged read of Robert Cray’s “Phone Booth.” The recording and mix capture the radiance of the group’s performances, enabling each to shine brightly and seize the moment. Twelve Thirty One further establishes Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats as a truly special force on the Keystone State music scene, and the performances here will leave listeners awestruck and amazed. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.missmelanieandthevalleyrats.com.)

YOUNG LUNGS – RESET (no label) Young Lungs’ story began in 2015, when three musicians from central PA relocated to Pittsburgh to create music and advance their music career. After some initial singles and an EP, Young Lungs has released their first full-length album, Reset. The group – singer, pianist and ukulelist Meg Wills, guitarist Ty Miller and bassist Scott Ciambotti – crafts concise, punchy and catchy songs that blend components of punk, pop and indie rock over Reset’s 11 tracks. The riffs and melodies are infectious, and the group’s delivery is tight and precise. Meg’s performance is front and center; her voice rings with smoothness, power and clarity, as she sings well-constructed lyrical themes about life, love and hope. From her strummed ukulele lead-in, Meg expresses the desire for harmony and happiness on the disc-opener “Killin’ Me.” She explores her own personality on “Forget Today,” while encouraging others to dig for their own truth on the high-powered “Scream It Out.” Meg also reflects on past mistakes on “False Promises” and “Battle Cry,” addresses youthful restlessness on “Break Me,” and diagnoses her own life’s direction on “Reality” and the title track “Reset. Restart.” And she crafts a tender piano ballad of devotion on “Stay the Night.” The song arrangements are simple yet clever, with Ty’s forceful riffs driving the melodies along and setting the table for Meg’s potent vocal delivery. Recorded, produced, mixed and mastered by Anthony Santonocito at Westfall Recording Company in Austin, Texas, Reset sounds crisp and concise; letting the performances shine and win the day with minimal studio bells and whistles. The end result is a strong, catchy and action-packed album; Reset establishes Young Lungs as a band with a focus and fresh direction, and offers punchy, infectious rock that will hook and hold listeners. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.younglungs.net.)

 

GRANATI BROTHERS – THE SHOW (Atomic Records) Four decades ago, Pittsburgh’s Granati Brothers made it to the major leagues, signing with and recording an album with A&M Records, touring in support of Van Halen, and opening concerts for Heart, Peter Frampton and Boston. They also went on to sign and record an album with Atlantic Records in the mid-1980s. Although mainstream superstardom ultimately eluded them, the Granati Brothers have continued to enjoy regional popularity and success, and have issued their first studio album in 13 years, The Show. The brothers – Hermie Granati on vocals and keys, Joe Granati on vocals, bass and keys, and David Granati on vocals and guitar – worked with Grammy-winning producer Jimmy Hoyson and famed drummer Gregg Bissonette on the album. The Show finds the brothers continuing to generate the catchy blend of classic-styled rock and pop that first earned them national attention. The songs are tight and concise with punchy melodies, strong vocals and harmonies, guitar and keyboard solo highlights and more. Leading off the album, the title track “The Show” touts the joys of live performing in front of a crowd, and builds to a fast-charging finish where David and Hermie trade off guitar and organ solos. “Shake It Up” goes for the gusto and fires up the group’s funkier side, fueled by Hermie’s strong organ riffs. On the milder side, Hermie encourages listeners to keep the faith on the acoustic-geared “Keep Hope Alive,” while David sings a tender ode to his son on the George Harrison-rooted “My Heart.” The Granati Brothers upgrade some former numbers – giving a broader mix to “It Was You,” which appeared on their 1979 G-Force album with A&M; and reprising the disco-tinged “I Like It Like That.” The group rocks hard on “Are You Listening” and “You Can’t Get Me Down,” and pleads to keep the nation’s young people off the battlefields on the disc-closer “The Only War.” The performances are solid; all three Granatis can still capably carry a tune, and their vocal and instrumental chops are as sharp as ever. Recorded, mixed and produced at David Granati’s Maplewood Studios, The Show sounds clean and polished, allowing the songs and performances to shine brightly. The Show shows that the Granati Brothers still have the spark to create catchy, vibrant rock music, and the album should appeal to a broad spectrum of listening tastes. (The album can be obtained through CD Baby, www.cdbaby.com.)

(CORRECTION: In last month’s review of Black Cat Moan’s The Saint, the Munk & the Moan, I mistakenly reported that the group represented the Blues Society of Western PA in the 2017 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. They actually represented the Blues Society of Northern West Virginia.)

 

CD Reviews – June 2017

RAHWAY – UNDEFEATED (no label) Named after the industrial city in northeast New Jersey where they originated, and named by none other than Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, Rahway has been honing their brand of clever, tough-hitting rock. Nine years and two member changes after their first full-length CD, Snitches Get Stitches, Rahway unleashes their latest disc, Undefeated. New frontman Nick Hade and bassist Chigger join founding brethren David Cardenas on guitar and Steve Cardenas on drums. Rahway lays down heavy-hitting rock rooted in 1980s bad boy metal and 1990s grunge; merging tough, chunky guitars and rhythms with captivating melodies and street-savvy lyrics. Opening the album, the title track “Undefeated” sets the table as it celebrates individual survival and personal resolve. With its wall of roaring guitars, “Racecar” also champions surviving against the odds, while the shuffling “Cage the Animal” fights to maintain self-control. Sexual innuendo drives hard and sassy anthems like “War Machine,” “Hot Stuff” and the disc-ending “Drive Me Crazy.” Rahway offers a softer side, too – the hook-driven “Aching” deals with heartache, while the acoustic-driven “Yesterday” yearns to return to the past. Nick delivers a gritty voice and fast-firing sass up front, while the rest of the band backs him with swaggering, abrasive, distortion-edged rhythms. Produced by the band, and engineered, mixed and mastered by singer Nick, Undefeated sounds full and balanced, with the rhythms given ample thunder and a corrosive edge. Rahway delivers infectious, slick, mean and lean rock with Undefeated, a bold set from a hungry band with their sights set on bigger and better things in the music industry. (The CD can be purchased through the group’s website, www.rahwayband.com.)

 

GUN METAL GRAY – ISLAND OF THE DAMNED EP (no label) Since 2011, Harrisburg’s Gun Metal Gray has built their credibility on the live performance stage, and evolved their classic-geared brand of heavy metal music. Their latest CD, Island of the Damned, is a swashbuckling concept EP based on the high seas three centuries ago, and demonstrates the group’s powerful style and sound, rooted in the classic metal tradition of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, with a nod to the aggressive style of modern metal purveyors like Bullet for My Valentine and Avenged Sevenfold. Singer David Damone, guitarist Christian Koch, bassist Ed Allison and drummer Jeff Stumpf lay out a hard-hitting, seafaring tale of deceit, vengeance, battles, desolation and more. Rhythms rampage and hammer, guitars slash and shred, and David snarls with vocal range and intensity. The voyage starts with the charging assault “Revenge,” blending metal aggression with instrumental virtuosity. “Cursed for Eternity” pummels with brute force and gang shots, while the power anthem “We Are One” takes listeners into the heart of a sea battle with an infectious shout-along chorus that sticks in your cranium long after the first listen. The brooding “Shipwrecked” then sets up for the explosive title track “Island of the Damned,” which then culminates in the finale, “The Final Battle,” and an uncertain future. David sings his words with range and rage, and the rest of the band executes their roles tightly with all-out aggression. The mix sounds full, balanced and crisp, enabling Gun Metal Gray to fire on all cylinders. Island of the Damned unleashes Gun Metal Gray’s sonic fury and creativity, and displays this group’s quality chops and firepower. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.gmgband.com.)

 

RON RUSSELL – SHADOWS OF ME (Hollywood Dreams Publishing) Huntingdon-based singer/songwriter Ron Russell has been creating music ever since the 1980s, and issued his first solo album, Walk Away Girl, in 1999. His latest album, Shadows Of Me, reveals an artist who has honed his art of pop songcraft to a fine, polished edge. Ron writes or co-writes all of the disc’s dozen tracks, demonstrating tight, concise melodies with bright payoff choruses. The prominent flavors are light rock, pop and country with occasional touches of harder rock and blues. Ron sings these numbers with a clear, sturdy voice and soaring range, assisted by an assortment of studio session players. His lyrics sell loose lyrical themes of life and love; the disc-opening title track, “Shadows Of Me,” ponders the aftermath of a just-ended relationship and what could have been. Offering a slight Steely Dan tone, “Bring the Dream” yearns to turn a “midnight Facebook rendezvous” into something more, while Ron blends Nashville history with a message of giving on the uplifting “The Song Hank Started.” Ron takes things in a punchier direction on “Meant to Be,” and flexes his country-rock muscle on “Still Burning for You” and “Always and in All Ways.” “Pillows and Perfume” offers a mellow romantic theme, while the melancholy “Now That She’s Gone” laments the loss of love. The performances are strong throughout the disc; Ron’s expressive voice convincingly sells each song’s theme, and the arrangements support each song with colorful blends of guitars, keys and rhythms. The overall sound is polished smooth, and any of these songs would sound good on a radio. Having studied songwriting with industry professionals in both Nashville and Los Angeles, Ron Russell shows what he has learned on Shadows Of Me, a set of quality ear candy that provides a pleasant listen. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.ronrussellmusic.com.)

SHINE DELPHI – IN THE MORNING… (Delphi Records) Born in Pennsylvania and raised in California, Shine Delphi is the modern-day traveling minstrel, journeying around the country with a resonator guitar and sharing his music with anyone who will listen. Now based in Harrisburg, Shine shares his musical world and outlook on In The Morning…, a set of happy-go-lucky acoustic folk, bluegrass and blues, informed by New Orleans and Tin Pan Alley-era flavors. Singing, playing guitar, harmonica and tambourine, Shine sings upbeat odes to life and living, with viola player Free Feral, violinist Walter Prettyman and upright bassist Taylor Smith fleshing out the sound. The disc-opening title track “In the Morning…” sets the tone, establishing a theme of embracing each new day and appreciating life’s simple pleasures. “Breathe” offers encouragement to keep trying and not give up when times are rough. The whimsically-toned “Tiny Little Seed” nurtures positivity and cooperation to make the world a better place. Other songs offer more serious tones; “Untitled” warns to choose words wisely or reap what you sow, “Brother” contemplates forgiveness, and the dual-toned disc-closer “Mine to Be” ponders life’s exit strategy. The melodies are sturdy and catchy, and the arrangements are simple and serve each melody. Shine sings his words with a rugged, raspy and spirited delivery, and his personality and enthusiasm shine through each song. The overall sound is crisp and balanced, with Shine’s words and the varied instrumentation sounding clear and clean in the mix. In the Morning… offers a feelgood, uplifting listening experience, and welcomes listeners into Shine Delphi’s optimistic, hopeful musical world. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.shinedelphi.com.)

 

BLACK CAT MOAN – THE SAINT, THE MUNK & THE MOAN (no label) Since 2011, Johnstown-based trio Black Cat Moan has been evolving their brand of “New Vintage Blues” and spreading it to stages across western PA and beyond; even representing the Blues Society of Western PA in the 2017 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. On their first full-length album, The Saint, the Munk & the Moan, Black Cat Moan showcases their distinctive blues-rooted sound. Early recorded blues informs their music, establishing the platform from which singer/harmonica player T.K. Mundok, guitarist and resonator player George Byich and drummer Zach Bodolosky explore folk, jazz, funk flavors and more. George’s prominent slide guitar and finger picking blend with Zach’s jazz-rooted drumming style, establishing the backdrops for T.K. to express and emote. His voice can quickly dart from subdued moans to soaring howls to fast-firing James Brown-flavored rants; lending a touch of unpredictability into Black Cat Moan’s blues turf. The CD features 11 originals and two covers. Delta-styled blues drives the disc-opening number “Is What It Is,” “Burns Like Hell” and “Catfish Blues.” Black Cat Moan shows a rockabilly flare on “Any Day,” gentle folk tones on “Feelin’ Free,” a blues-rock stomp on “Medicine Man,” and delta-driven funk on “Ballad of Anna Lee.” The group takes the classic “House of the Rising Sun” for a jazzy spin, and offers a folk blues take on “Statesboro Blues.” And they have fun with two instrumental tracks, the slide guitar-fueled “Messin’ ‘Round” and the country-toned romp “Stoney Creek Rag.” Black Cat Moan’s arrangements are stripped-down and basic, letting the talents of all three musicians take front and center throughout the disc. The performances are bright and inspired, and listeners can tell by the group’s freewheeling approach that they had fun creating this set. Recorded by Ray Calfo at Studiophonix in Mount Pleasant, the CD sounds clean, full, straightforward and uncluttered. The Saint, the Munk & the Moan offers a comprehensive introduction into Black Cat Moan’s bluesy landscape, and shows why their unique approach to the blues is gaining more and more attention. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.blackcatmoan.org.)

CD Reviews – May 2017

JUKEHOUSE BOMBERS – DEATH OR GLORY (no label) Indiana, PA’s Jukehouse Bombers introduced their brand of rugged electric blues four years ago with a debut five-song EP. They elaborate on that “down and dirty” blues foundation with their first full-length album, Death or Glory. The Jukehouse Bombers have expanded into a quintet, with new drummer Dave Vernot and guitarist Andy Kirsch joining the guitar-playing father-and-son tandem of Jimmy and Joe Roach plus bassist Troy Laney. Death or Glory finds the group mixing traditional-based, delta-styled electric blues with southern-fried and psychedelic rock, jump blues and more. Their songwriting is strong, their instrumental performances are feisty and inspired, and both Jimmy and Joe sing their hearts out, sinking total passion into their deliveries. The results make this exciting listening from start to end. The group follows their motorized “Arrival” with the jukehouse boogie anthem “Nothin’ to Lose,” showcasing Jimmy’s harmonica skills as he howls words about his individuality and swagger. The group’s dirty delta flavor shines prominently on the album, with the electric-driven “Burnt Biscuit” and its alternate stripped-down take “Raw Biscuit” to close the disc; also the Joe-fronted lowdown-toned “Evil I’ve Done” and the explosive “Rooster Gets to Crowin.’” Jimmy belts some slow blues with “My Dues Ain’t Never Paid” and Joe leads the group on the jump blues romp “Joe’s Jump.” The group wears their rock influences proudly; “Midnight Blues” taps a late ‘60s/early ‘70s psychedelic vibe reminiscent of Savoy Brown, Allman Brothers-styled harmony guitar leads highlight the pulsing instrumental “Silhouette,” and the Allmans and Blind Faith inform the Troy-composed, acoustic-driven “Winding Our Way Back Home.” The Jukehouse Bombers show mastery and versatility on their song material, and the group’s production, engineering and mixing enables electric, three-string cigar box slide and acoustic guitars to mix shine brightly and the rhythms to punch the songs home. Death or Glory leaves no doubt about the Jukehouse Bombers’ passion for the blues, and they make every note count from start to end. Fans of blues and blues rock will find plenty to celebrate here. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.jukehousebombers.com.)

SOFEYA AND THE PUFFINS – GENETIC CONFETTI (no label) Inspired by drum circles and the art/music festival circuit, Harrisburg-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Cynthia Beatty – alias Sofeya Puffins – collaborated with other musicians to form Sofeya and the Puffins in 2013. The group’s second recording, Genetic Confetti – offers a colorful mixture of indie rock and folk, blues, reggae, gypsy folk, worldbeat and more over its 10-track duration. Varying instrumental combinations color each song differently; Cynthia alone contributes guitar, ukulele, keys, ocarina (a flute-like wind instrument) and percussion to the mix. She shares lead singing duties here with David Gill, who also plays guitar and percussion; the remainder of this lineup is vocalist/percussionist Jamal Sawab, rhythm guitarist Cristion O’Leary Rockey and lead guitarist/bassist David Patterson. The group’s words cover themes of togetherness, the human condition and a touch of spirituality. The gypsy folk-flavored disc-opener “Decide” explores how personal perspectives shape decisions, while the David-fronted “Humans” hopes for humanity to become more humane and respectful of the natural world. The harder-rocking “Pay Attention” encourages listeners to be more observational and aware of life’s lessons, while the equally uptempo “Hard Time” likens love’s struggles to a prison stay. Sofeya and the Puffins celebrate happy dancing on the boogie-toned “Moonlit Night,” as well as happy times around a festival fire with “Firelight,” where elements of reggae and Latino musical flavors blend together. They also flex their blues muscles on the darker-toned social commentary “Night Owl,” and craft an Andean folk flavor on the ballad “Where Are You Tonight.” With a background that included college opera singing, Cynthia sings with authority and clarity; demonstrating range, cadence and personality in her performance. David’s broad and commanding voice also shines, particularly on “Humans.” The arrangements and mixture of instruments keeps this disc interesting from start to end, with no two songs sounding alike. Recorded, engineered, produced, mixed and mastered by David Patterson at Prava Creative Studios in New Holland, Genetic Confetti sounds crisp and full, and the performances take the spotlight without lavish studio gloss. Sofeya and the Puffins let their distinctive musical mixture shine on Genetic Confetti, and their unique, playful approach here is likely to win some new fans. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.sofeyaandthepuffins.com.)

DOCTOR SMOKE – THE WITCHING HOUR (Totem Cat Records) Situated in the Ohio Valley region near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, Doctor Smoke taps doom rock/metal roots to grow their own heavy-hitting sound on their debut album, The Witching Hour. Lead singer/guitarist Matt Tluchowski, lead guitarist Steve Lehocky, bassist Cody Cooke (who has since taken over drum duties, with Kathryn Flesher now handling bass) and drummer Dave Trikones thunder out a heavy, aggressive metal rock sound anchored in the tradition of classic Black Sabbath, but stamp their own signature style and swagger on it over the album’s nine tracks. Rhythms rumble and boom, guitar riffs roar and tear, and Matt’s eerie Alice Cooper-like howl voices mysterious lyrical themes of supernatural phenomena, spirits and other things that go bump in the night. The disc chugs to life with the rampaging opener “The Willow,” documenting life’s final moments and a soul’s escape to freedom. The galloping “Blood and Whiskey” reveals a dark and tortured soul, and the expansive “Evil Man” leads an evildoer to the gallows. The group cranks up Motorhead-like velocity on “The Toll,” crafts gargantuan swagger on “The Seeker,” and welcomes guest saxophone player Mitchell Lawrence on the multi-tiered “From Hell.” Doctor Smoke combines melody, detail and groove throughout the album; the riffs and hooks are infectious, tempo shifts and time signatures don’t stay stationary for long, and their sense of groove in the right places gives these numbers drive and purpose. The group executes their song material with tightness and authority. The mix gives Doctor Smoke a big, cavernous thunder while sounding sharp and crisp. Start to finish, The Witching Hour delivers a powerful listen, and displays Doctor Smoke as a band that knows their turf and dynamic. Fans of well-executed, doom-esque heavy metal should find a lot to cheer for here. (The album can be obtained digitally through the group’s Bandcamp page, http://doctorsmoke.bandcamp.com, and the CD can be obtained through CD Baby.)

SKELL – EVERYTHING’S FINE EP (no label) Pittsburgh-based heavy metal stalwarts Skell were struck by the worst news any band could encounter in February, 2015, when drummer Keith Kweder died unexpectedly at age 32 from a sudden respiratory ailment. After much soul-searching, the group’s surviving members – founding guitarist Mike Palone and bassist Mike Ekis, plus singer Walter Wright – decided to soldier on with a new drummer (Jordan McClure, who left the group last November due to career reasons). Skell had been recording new music at the time of Keith’s passing, and their new EP, Everything’s Fine, serves as a tribute to their fallen bandmate, featuring four of the final songs Keith helped to create. The sound remains brute-force Skell heavy metal, powered by Keith’s powerful, rapid fire and intricate drum thunder and Mike Ekis’ stern, steady bass foundation. Mike Palone’s signature guitar roar is prominent, as well as his angular, drama-inducing chord progressions and innovative, surgically-precise, shredding leads. Against this turbulent backdrop, Walter’s vocals vary between fierce snarling and reserved singing, which sets up the dynamic on the disc’s captivating title song, “Everything’s Fine.” Two versions are featured; the expansive six-minute-plus version features an acoustic midsong interlude, and a shorter radio edit version closes the disc. The disc opener “Deaf Ears” and “Menschheit” (German for mankind, humanity) convincingly pound and pulverize, and with its play on words, “Loose Myself” sums up the disc’s prevalent lyrical theme of stepping away from the world and its drama to come to grips with one’s personal realities. The basic rhythm tracks were recorded by Sean McDonald at Red Medicine Recording, with Rob Deaner at Contagious Music producing, mixing and engineering the EP. The results sound full, crisp and clean, enabling Skell’s attack to achieve full impact. Everything’s Fine serves as a fitting sonic epitaph to Keith Kweder and his contributions to Skell’s body of work, and also serves as a statement that the group has come to grips with their loss and will continue on. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.skellrocks.com.)

CD Reviews – April 2017

MAMA CORN – LIVE AND LEARN (Bait Shop Music) Altoona-based bluegrassers Mama Corn enter their tenth year as a band by unveiling their third album, Live and Learn. What unfolds through the disc’s dozen tracks is a skilled band that has evolved, lived and learned over their first decade, and developed a strong chemistry that makes each song a superior moment. Mama Corn has lots going for them here – Guitarist Bruce Forr, banjo player Jeremy Nelson, upright bass player Bryan Homan and dobro/harmonica player Johnny Stevens have all blossomed into skilled songsmiths who know how to craft melodies, spin lyrics and weave stories. They also possess quality singing voices to carry their creations, instrumental dexterity and finesse, and a bond as players that enables them to execute tightly like a well-oiled machine. Every song here is relatable and easy to digest; Bruce’s uptempo opener “I Have a Song” shares how music can provide solace and sanity when times are rough. Co-written with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, Johnny’s “Nobody Died” addresses the tendency toward frequent loss of life in bluegrass song lyrics; for a fresh change of pace, everybody survives this tune. Meanwhile, Bryan realizes that the climb up the corporate ladder isn’t worth the loss of natural surroundings and tranquility on “In the High Rise.” And on the title song “Live and Learn,” Jeremy extols the value of life’s experiences and lessons. Also strong are Johnny’s two collaborations with Nashville’s Doug Forshey, “Big Ol’ Moon” and “Sing!” plus Bruce’s groove-driven “Goodbye Comfort Home,” Bryan’s inquisitive “Black Crow” and Jeremy’s instrumental closer “Playing with Fire,” highlighted by the sharp fiddle skills of guest Greg Moore (of the Hillbilly Gypsies). Mama Corn also does superb work on two covers, Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and the Earl Brothers’ “Hard Times Down the Road.” The performances are upbeat and enthusiastic, and the instrumental interaction between all four musicians and their guests shines brightly throughout the album. Produced by the group, and recorded and engineered by Bill Filer at his Audible Images studio in Port Matilda, Live and Learn sounds warm, full and clear. This is Mama Corn’s finest set yet – Live and Learn offers the sound of a seasoned, tight group that knows their musical turf, and has fun playing on it. This presents a joyous listen, and I highly recommend it. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.mamacornbluegrass.com.)

STRIPED MAPLE HOLLOW – STRIPED MAPLE HOLLOW (Struggle Buggy Records) Since 2009, Johnstown-based group Striped Maple Hollow has evolved their brand of roots music and Americana sounds. Their self-titled debut CD introduces those sounds over 13 tracks, including nine original songs, two covers and two traditional folk numbers. What quickly surfaces as the obvious highlight of this album are the voices and harmonies of singers Jayna Mood and Sonya Giuffre. Their voices soar, blend and play off one another to create beautiful and stirring displays, backed by multi-instrumentalists and singers Micah Mood and Adam Milkovich. The group combines elements of traditional folk, bluegrass, pop and blues into a unique stew of Americana sounds. Their words are mostly about soul-searching; accented by Adam’s harmonica, “My Place in the Sun” muses about a search for identity and purpose, while the waltz-paced “Cog in a Wheel” imagines better times beyond the daily grind. Micah sings the lead on the upbeat “Giving Up on Giving Up,” about going for the gusto in life and leaving apprehensions behind, while the fast bluegrass rant “All My Yesterdays” leaves the past behind and forges forward to better possibilities. Striped Maple Hollow shines on their cover fare as well; opening the album with “There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” a song popularized by Jimmy Martin and George Jones, and giving a bright and playful read to the Turtles-popularized hit “Happy Together.” The group also offers their own interpretations on the traditional numbers “Wayfaring Stranger” and the disc-closing “Sunny Side of Life.” The performances shine; as mentioned earlier, the vocal harmonies make this pleasant listening from start to end, and the arrangements are stripped down and support the melodies, enabling mandolins, banjos, guitars and even an occasional accordion to lightly color the music. Produced by the band and recorded and mixed by Micah, this album sounds crisp and full, allowing this group’s talents to shine at the forefront throughout. Striped Maple Hollow does a nice job on this debut, and introduces a pleasant, vibrant roots-based sound that encourages repeated listens. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.stripedmaplehollow.com.)

MATT PLESS – TUMBLEWEED, THE BUS STOP E.P. AND OTHER SONGS (no label) Originally from Baltimore, Matt Pless travels and plays everywhere, and recently landed at this year’s Millennium Music Conference, where he performed with Harrisburg’s The Twindows (who he is currently touring with). The CD he was distributing during Millennium, Tumbleweed, The Bus Stop E.P. and Other Songs, is a compilation offering 28 acoustic-geared songs; 27 of them original, plus a cover of Kenny Rogers’ classic hit “The Gambler.” (Five of the songs – “The Computer Song,” “The Legacy Song,” “The Pizza Song,” “The Coffeeshop Song” and “The Bus Stop Song” – clock in from five to ten seconds each.) For a musician who, according to his bio – “…can’t read music…can’t stand most aspects of the pretentious art community, and a writer who usually has fairly poor grammatical skills,” Matt clearly displays a gift for creating compelling songs with simple, catchy hooks and clever lyrics. Armed with acoustic guitar and harmonica, he often channels the folk-rock spirit of Bob Dylan, but filters it through a 20-something/millennial/punk perspective, yielding witty odes to his generation and the crazy times it lives in. His lyrics are sassy and sarcastic, as he busts on a myriad of topics spanning clueless millennials to today’s crazy world. Highlights include several fast-firing numbers where Matt weaves rhyming words and phrases together in a rapid fashion that makes listeners sit up and take immediate notice. Among them are his acidic ode to the technology and social media age, “Talkin’ Information Blues,” his study of directionless youth called “What You Will,” and his analysis of the dysfunctional current-day family on “White Picket Fences.” Matt can also generate tasteful and tender ballads, evidenced by the poetic love ballad “The Book of You and I,” the reflection and self-realization exercise “In the Past Tense,” and the gentle and contemplative “Pretty Bird.” Matt also addresses corporate greed on the folksy “Piggybank,” and celebrates the critters under his feet on “Bugs.” The song arrangements are simple, and Matt’s voice is clear, up front and understandable. His presentation is strong and consistent throughout, and he sells his thoughts and words with enthusiasm and sincerity. It was turbulent times in the 1960s that inspired Bob Dylan and the folk-rock movement to quietly rage against the machine, and some say that the times are ripe today for a the rise of a new generation of songwriters with something to say. If such a generation is set to make that arrival, Matt Pless here demonstrates the songcraft, lyrical prowess and youthful wisdom to possibly be at its forefront. (The CD can be obtained through Matt’s website, www.mattpless.com, and can also be downloaded through his Bandcamp page.)

TOMMI MUSHROOM – 21ST CENTURY BIG MUSHROOM HITS (Canadian American Records) ‘Tommi Mushroom’ is one of several performance aliases of longtime Altoona-bred musician Tom Brunner, whose career spans more than 30 years. 21st Century Big Mushroom Hits is a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of some 21 mostly instrumental compositions that Tom has created during that span, issued on Joey Welz’s Canadian American Records indie label. Besides writing, arranging and producing these tracks, Tom wields guitar, bass and electric ukulele, plus sings on a few of the tracks. This expanse of material reveals a diverse and eccentric range of rock-geared flavors, with hard and heavy rock providing the dominant flavors. Dating back to his early 1980s stint in the Tom Brunner Group (T.B.G.), the opening blast “Time Bomb” features Tom on vocals and bass, flanked by Nitro guitarist John Hazel and drummer Tim Wilson. Other tracks from the T.B.G. era include the air raid siren-flavored instrumental jam “Non Tiki” (formerly “Kon-Tiki Jam,” named after a late ‘70s/early ‘80s Altoona nightclub) and the ominous and hallucinogenic set-closing instrumental “Drone Factor Z.” Tom levies several other heavy-geared instrumental exercises, including the doom-esque “Clam Queen,” the driving “Slow Boat to China,” “Sea Lord,” “Temple of the Shark” and “The Fruit Master.” He also dabbles in surf-rock flavors several times, including “Sunset,” “Surf Pistol,” the Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird”-toned “Living Downtown” and “Mexican Moo Moo.” Tom also represents his costumed ukulele-wielding alter egos ‘Elvis Chicken’ and ‘Sharky’ here with several uke-driven numbers; “Clamboot Boogie” presents an intriguing blend of surf rock and Latin flavors, with Tom’s ukulele presence tying it together. Other ukulele excursions here include “Coconut Island of Love,” “Woo Woo Song” and “Electric Ukulele.” Other curios include the campy Spanish love ballad ode “Senorita,” and a summertime reworking of “Blue Christmas” entitled “Blue Blue Bar BQ.” Tom’s wide variety of styles keeps this set interesting, and listeners cannot predict what adventures the next song will present throughout the album. Because of the wide time frame of these recordings, the sound and production qualities vary from tune to tune, which might present a challenge to the sensitive audiophile ear. As a whole set, 21st Century Big Mushroom Hits presents an intriguing listen, and takes listeners into the adventurous mind of this set’s creator and his musical journeys of the past three decades. (The digital album can be obtained through Amazon and online outlets; the CD can be obtained by mailing Tom Brunner, 3485 Colonel Drake Highway, Altoona, PA 16601.)

CD Reviews – March 2017

NEXT TO NONE – A LIGHT IN THE DARK (InsideOut/Century Media) Next to None’s story began in 2013, as four teenagers from the Lehigh Valley joined forces to create a band. One of those teenagers, drummer Max Portnoy, is the son of Mike Portnoy, who achieved fame as the drummer for both Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold. The elder Portnoy produced A Light in the Dark, Next to None’s debut album with Century Media Records, and the Dream Theater influence is clearly felt over the disc’s nine tracks. The sound is heavy, aggressive and progressive-geared metal music that incorporates elements of thrash and hardcore. The younger Portnoy demonstrates intricate drum rolls and rudiments, along with fast-firing, pounding beats. Ryland Holland (since replaced by Derrick Schneider) supplies snarling guitar chords, Kris Rank levies sinister-sounding bass lines, and Thomas Cuce sings, snarls and plays keys. A Light in the Dark mixes several lengthy epics with more concise heavy assaults. Clocking in at nearly ten minutes, the disc-opener, “The Edge of Sanity,” provides reminders of Dream Theater with its technical-ecstasy time signatures, tempo shifts and side journeys – including a mid-song break that incorporates sound clips of Pac-Man, chocoholic rants, train horns and more. Also stretching nearly ten minutes, “Control” allows all four band members to show their collective musicality and individual instrumental chops. Meanwhile, “You Are Not Me” throttles with aggressive power-metal fury, while “Runaway” pairs similar aggression with a clever song hook payoff. Next to None shows a milder, shadowy side with the piano-toned ballad “A Lonely Walk” (with guests Neal Morse and Nyke Van Wyk on mellotron and violin respectively) and the brooding “Legacy.” Also interesting is the half-spoken, half-snarled and angst-ridden assault “Social Anxiety.” As already established, the disc’s big highlight is the tightness and instrumental skills demonstrated by this teenage corps; and although the younger Portnoy’s drum exploits get slight prominence in the mix, all four of these young musicians show incredible skills and adventurism. Their vocals and lyrics more obviously reflect their youth and restlessness. The production enables Next to None to sound raw, heavy and full. Next to None’s A Light in the Dark is a good start, and should prompt listeners to imagine just how good this young group may become as they further hone their skills with age. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.nexttonone.net.)

THE CREW OF THE HALF MOON – BLANKET FORT RADIO (no label) Since the 2013 release of their first full-length CD, Automythography, The Crew Of the Half Moon has expanded from a two-person folk entity into a three-piece indie folk-rock group, as percussionist Claire Horvath joins singers/guitarists Dan Oatman and Katie Rhodes. On their second full-length effort, Blanket Fort Radio, The Johnstown-based trio displays an edgier, more experimental angle to their music over the album’s nine tracks. The Crew of the Half Moon explores various sonic textures, from darker and ethereal terrain to harder-rocking salvos and a multitude of flavors in between. They evoke moods ranging from melancholy to hopeful as they convey observational words about life experiences and coming of age. This Crew grabs listener attention from the offset with the cryptic album-opener “U-235,” which establishes tension and mystique through an eerie arrangement, setting the tone for Katie’s introspective words. Similar melancholy mood swings inform “Wasteland,” the bouncing “Fortunes” and the reflective album closer “Nineteen.” Also intriguing is the expansive “Stark Lost Lovers,” which evolves from a tranquil grunge-informed beginning into an unpredictable, multi-chord, multi-tempo rocker. Dan contemplates reality in the hard-rocking “Bumblebird and Hummingbee,” the group uses mandolin to set an Americana flavor on the Katie-led “Luxury,” and they capture a retro 1960s Jefferson Airplane/Mamas & Papas pop flavor on dreamy “Cemetery Cops.” The performances are focused and sincere, and Katie’s stern-yet-subdued croon sells the serious tones of much of the song material. Producer and engineer Jon Beard helped the group bring their visions of these songs to fruition, and the sound is crisp and full. The Crew of the Half Moon’s constant shifting of musical terrain – and their mostly seamless transitions to accomplish those shifts – helps make Blanket Fort Radio a compelling listen from start to end. This album further reveals the inventive persona of this trio, and shows a group that is not afraid to indulge their creativity and take chances. (The vinyl album – as well as a digital download edition – can be obtained through the group’s website, www.thecrewofthehalfmoon.com.)

REGGIE WAYNE MORRIS – DON’T BRING ME DAYLIGHT (Blue Jay Sound) A Virginia native now based in Baltimore, Reggie Wayne Morris has performed his brand of electric blues throughout the Northeast and internationally, and has released three albums to date. His latest, Don’t Bring Me Daylight, presents Morris’ smooth mixture of electric blues and soul over 11 tracks. Citing B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix as primary influences, Morris proudly exhibits touches of both in his own performance style, from his soulful and sassy croon to his fluid and tasteful guitar work throughout the album. Several musicians help him along the way, including his live band cohorts Chuck Fuerte on drums and Harrisburg’s Vinny Hunter on bass, along with drummer Ezell Jones, bass players Pete Kanaras, Chris Sellman and Ray Tilkens, and keyboardists Mark Stevens and Bob Borderman. Contrary to the popular misconception about the genre, Morris’ blues are far from depressing, as the mood of Don’t Bring Me Daylight is delightfully upbeat, with Morris mostly musing about his ups and downs with the opposite sex. He references his upbringing with the proud and punchy disc-opener “Son of a Blues Fan,” which sets the table for the rest of his bluesy offerings. He recalls a devious dame on the 12 bar blues of “Used to Have a Woman,” disses another love interest’s spending habits on a version of Ceophus Palmer’s “Sign My Check,” and suspects two-timing on “Too Many Cooks.” Morris concedes his own mischief on the rolling piano blues of “Another Can of Worms, and basks in amorous glory on the soulful “Meet Me” and the lustful “Ooooo Weeee.” His muse is more downtrodden as he laments lost loves on “Ball & Chain” and “She’s Gone.” Morris closes the album with a reggae flavor and a message of hope on “God Loves You.” Morris and his hired hands bring these songs to life with smooth, tasteful performances that serve each number. Morris delivers his words with confidence, sass and a touch of wit, and he makes his guitar sing with zeal. Produced by Morris and Gerald Robinson, the album sounds full, focused and balanced. For connoisseurs of straightforward electric blues and soul, Reggie Wayne Morris’ Don’t Bring Me Daylight is a strong and proud set well worth checking out. (The CD can be obtained through CD Baby or by visiting Reggie Wayne Morris’ website, www.rwmband.com.)

THE WHATLEYS – AMERICAN PARTY (no label) Since 2008, State College foursome The Whatleys have brought punk rock fury to Central PA stages and beyond. After several initial EP’s, the group has unveiled their full-length album, American Party. Singer/bassist Eddie Fraud, singer/guitarist Hiro, guitarist TJ Fadehawk and drummer JLaw crank out unapologetic, classic-flavored punk rock spit and vinegar over the disc’s dozen tracks, with a few surprise twists and some witty humor thrown into the mix. The Whatleys never take themselves too seriously, so their lyrical terrain touches on the glories of punk rock, drinking, concert incidents, more drinking, and other related misadventures. On the disc’s opening track, “Balloon Drops (Over Confetti Falls),” the group pledges allegiance to their punk rock music and lifestyle, conceding that it won’t make them rich, but it keeps them sane. The group muses about coming of age on “Separate,” which shows a slight Social Distortion grunginess, and they celebrate graduating to the drinking lifestyle on the disc closer “Straight Edge Is Fun (Until You’re 21).” The Whatleys show a knack for simple, infectious song hooks throughout the album, especially on the nuclear-fueled romance ode “Bionic Eyes,” and they display a surf-rock direction on the band misadventure story “Broke Down (in Murdertown).” But speed and velocity are the norm here; JLaw’s hyperspeed stickwork becomes the group’s most valuable weapon on this album, propelling short and sweet rants like “Sick,” “Go For Broke,” “13 Black” and the humorous late night eatery misadventure recap “Wig Out at Denny’s,” complete with a feverish drum solo. The Whatleys go for broke on each track, and execute these numbers with exuberance and reckless abandon. Their instrumental work is solid, and while they bark and rant in the best punk rock tradition, they also harmonize well. Recorded by Rik Golden at Golden Studios in Ebensburg, American Party sounds full and balanced, but leaves the appropriate amount of jagged edges to enable The Whatleys to deliver their full bite. American Party is a punk rock party, and provides a fast, furious and fun listen. And what is “CJ Ramone” doing? You’ll have to listen to the CD to find out! (The CD can be obtained at the group’s shows, or digitally through their Bandcamp page, www.whatleys.bandcamp.com.)

CD Reviews – February 2017

SHANNON AND THE MERGER – LONG WAY DOWN (no label) Formed in 2012, Shannon and the Merger have honed their stylistic blend of rock, pop, blues and country on southwestern PA stages, culminating in their 11-song debut CD, Long Way Down. Namesake Shannon Watson is front and center, displaying a soaring, punchy voice and delivery; backed by guitarist Bob Giacometti, harmonica player Stanley Mikolajek, bassist Ryan Luko and drummer Murray Perry. The group delivers well-crafted, catchy melodies and arrangements that bring them to life. Each song is unique and reveals different aspects of Shannon and the Merger’s collective musical personality. This group can rock, evidenced by such tracks as the disc-opener “World of Make Believe,” a commentary piece about lies and deception in our current world. The group also fires up harder rock on “Inches,” the title track “Long Way Down” and the punk-fueled “Elemental.” Shannon and the Merger get the funk out on the Bob-fronted “Fast Train to Memphis,” and demonstrate a reggae edge on “Affected.” Blues informs the group’s sound as well, demonstrated on the slinky “Aim to Misbehave,” nicely accented by Stanley’s staccato harmonica riff, and on the retro-geared “Let’s Go” with its reminders of classic Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. Shannon’s vocal range shines on the acoustic-driven “Blow Up,” and she and the group dabble in country-styled balladry with “Heal It With a Kiss” and the disc-closer “The Only Thing Missing Is You.” The presentation is bright, enthusiastic and fun, and Shannon’s voice lifts and shines throughout the disc. The instrumental performances are strong, with tight rhythms, sturdy guitar work, and unsung hero Stanley providing flavorful harmonica virtuosity at just the right moments. Engineered, mixed and produced by Josh Gerba, this disc sounds crisp and vibrant, with all components of the group’s sound coming through clearly. Long Way Down provides a strong introduction to the musical world of Shannon and the Merger, and reveals a band with fresh song ideas and the skills to bring those ideas to life. (The CD can be obtained through Shannon and the Merger’s website, www.shannonandthemerger.com.)

WINGS THAT BUZZ – EVERY PRETTY THING (no label) Mercersburg-based guitarists Jason Kipe and Klaus Funk formed Wings That Buzz in 2011, and the group has since grown to five members strong with the additions of keyboardist Caitlin Allen, bassist Dave Holzwarth and violinist Scott Matlock. Their third album, Every Pretty Thing demonstrates the group’s acoustic-driven sound, which finds a comfortable middle ground between the classic folk-rock traditions of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the more acoustic leanings of 1990s-era alternative rock practitioners like Jane’s Addiction and Blind Melon. Wings That Buzz crafts punchy, concise melodies, and generates warm instrumental and inventive vocal arrangements to bring them to life. Vocal harmonies accent and punctuate the melodies, while Matlock’s violin flourishes, Funk’s occasional electric guitar bursts and Allen’s keyboard fills contribute additional edges and depth to the overall presentation. The prevailing song moods tend toward happy, upbeat and even whimsical at times. A violin prelude ushers in the churning disc-opener “Still Dreamin’” and its loose theme of hope, while moving forward and embracing life’s changes informs “Transition Is the Mission” with its tricky vocal cadence. The rustic “Groundling” embraces more of an Americana flavor, and “Blue Rendezvous” taps a more prominent blues foundation. Two of the more intriguing songs on the album are “Mercy of It All,” which evolves from a dreamy beginning toward a more ethereal finish, and “Hoping to Be Wrong,” which abruptly shifts moods from tranquil to angry during its homestretch. The performances are strong and steady through the disc’s 11 tracks, and the album sounds consistent from start to end. The mix is smooth and balanced, enabling the group’s voices and instrumental layers to fully fill the spaces through each song. Every Pretty Thing exhibits the steady evolution of Wings That Buzz’s unique style and sound, and shows that these wings are soaring progressively higher. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s website, www.wingsthatbuzz.com.)