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DREW BENTLEY – BOLD HORIZON (no label) Drew Bentley has been an active part of the Pittsburgh music scene during the past two decades, performing in various bands and also co-founding the regionally popular band (and these days, acoustic duo) J.D. Strum. Drew has embarked on his first solo album venture, Bold Horizon, an album where he explores frontiers of rock, jazz and blues, armed with his guitar. An all-instrumental album, Bold Horizon features 10 distinctive compositions that blend and vary between genres, and through the fusions capture a myriad of moods. Backed by drummer Brian Edwards, bassist George Elliott and keyboardist Scott Anderson, Drew works his guitar strings, turning his instrumental displays into an extension of his personality at any given moment. He can clearly shred, demonstrated on the opening album title track “Bold Horizon,” “Carpe Diem” and the swaggering “Muscle Car.” Drew stretches out and tests bold horizons with his multi-flavored, explorative rocker “Distant Worlds” and the jazz-rock fusion tendencies of “Maiden Voyage.” Blues becomes his frontier on “Cloak and Dagger,” while milder guitar jazz informs “Daydreams.” Through it all, Drew shows obvious fluency and prowess with his guitar work, which is tasteful and serves each composition, never becoming overindulgent or obsessive. He smoothly merges styles, making the album a cohesive listen from start to end. Recorded using several studios and engineers, and produced by Drew, Bold Horizon sounds clean, clear, vibrant and full. While Drew’s guitar is the prominent voice, the sound is balanced, and all four musicians sound distinctive in the mix. Drew Bentley’s first foray into the solo album bold horizon is a successful one, and Bold Horizon provides an inspired, invigorating listening journey for guitar proficionados and casual fans alike. (The CD can be purchased through Drew’s website, www.drewbentley.com.)
THE DARK COUNTRY – KILL CLOCK (Murder Chapel Records) The Dark Country formed five years ago out of the Lewisburg and Bucknell University community. Six members strong – two of them Bucknell professors – The Dark Country introduces a wild, wide-ranging, blues-rooted sound on their 12-track debut CD, Kill Clock. Fronted by the co-ed singing tandem of Derek Scott and Brianna Healey Derr, The Dark Country also features guitarists Maria Balcells and Jeff Halkowicz, bassist Steve Gibson and drummer Pete Groff. Numerous flavors inform The Dark Country’s sound, from roots blues, Memphis soul and gospel-styled flourishes to early Led Zeppelin heavy blues rock to punk rock vinegar and more. The mixture of flavors enables each song to approach the listener from a different angle, making this album an intriguing listen from start to end. The disc-opener “My Buddy Blues” channels a strong Led Zeppelin “Black Dog” vibe, while “Liar’s Blues” offers feisty, uptempo blues with both singers increasingly letting loose as the song moves along, complete with cheering section and gang shout vocals. “Elbow Room” pushes in a harder rock direction, with jangly guitars adding a punk-geared bite, and “Das Ees” offers rowdy R&B. Another song highlight is the ominous-toned “Free,” which builds off a swamp blues call-and-response arrangement as both Brianna and Derek sing of escaping temptation, with gospel-like backing choruses helping to escalate the song’s intensity. “U Gon Pay” displays a slow heavy early Led Zeppelin blues flavor, “Nobody’s “Help” is funky and sassy, and the driving rocker “Crazies” slams the lid on the album with escalating tension and a manic homestretch. Kill Clock is an exhilarating listen from start to end, as the varying angles of attack and the go-for-broke vocal performances of both Brianna and Derek keep the excitement level steady throughout. The band is tight, and the performances are enthusiastic and emotion-packed. Engineered, mixed and mastered by Pail Smith at 8 Days a Week Studio in Northumberland, Kill Clock sounds full, sharp and edgy, and enables The Dark Country’s energy to radiate. This is a strong debut album – The Dark Country’s Kill Clock offers innovative songs and fresh musical angles and blends, and provides a vibrant, action-packed listening experience. (The CD can be obtained through the group’s Facebook page or at shows.)
KRISTI JEAN AND HER NE’ER DO WELLS – COUNTRY-BILLY COLLISION (Gal Records) This thing we call rock’n’roll music started coming together in the early 1950s, as traditional steel guitar-brandishing country artists started colliding with rowdy rhythm-and-blues and jump jazz players. That initial stew of sounds that evolved into rock’n’roll provides the playground for State College’s Kristi Jean and Her Ne’er Do Wells, who celebrate that musical collision on their debut CD, Country-Billy Collision. Group namesake Kristi Jean sings and fronts a group of seasoned area honky-tonk and rockabilly players, including Steve Branstetter on guitar, Jimmy Baughman on upright bass, Dave Mudgett on steel guitar, Mike Russell on acoustic guitar and Sean Hershey on drums. Helping out along the way are several special guests; including guitarist Chuck Hughes from the Hillbilly Hellcats, guitarist and singer Sophia Johnson, Bill Wilgus on mandolin, Nell Hansen on backing vocals, and Centre County doo-wop group Rama-Lama helping with backing vocals. Kristi Jean and Her Ne’er Do Wells present their bright and rollicking takes on 10 different numbers from rock’n’roll’s formative period. With the disc dedicated to 1950s female rockabilly pioneer Charline Arthur, the group does two songs she performed; the upbeat breakup song opening track “I’m Having a Party All By Myself” and Winfield Scott’s “Burn That Candle.” The group also taps into the Patsy Cline catalog for renditions of “Stop, Look and Listen” and “I Love You Honey.” They interpret tunes by two of the influential Hanks of that early 1950s period, offering versions of Hank Thompson’s “Cryin’ in the Deep Blue Sea” and Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart,” and Kristi Jean applies her yodel to 1950s country legend Lefty Frizzell’s romantic “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” The group also has fun with Johnny Tyler’s 1947 Western swing number “Oakie Boogie,” and delivers a punchy read of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now.” The performances are upbeat, highlighted by Kristi Jean’s bright and clear voice and her obvious enthusiasm for this era of music – she even makes the breakup songs sound happy! The band is solid and skillful, with their efficient performances and accents serving to support and shape each song. Recorded at Audible Images Studio in Port Matilda and engineered by Bill Filer, this album sounds clean, punchy and authentic, and flows along smoothly from start to end. Kristi Jean and Her Ne’er Do Wells capture the magic of early roots music with Country-Billy Collision, a pleasant collision of styles sure to bring smiles and get toes tapping. (The CD can be obtained through the website www.kristijeanmusic.com.)
FYRE – 2 KEYS (no label) Altoona’s Fyre first established their adventurous brand of progressive, classic-styled metal music on their 2017 debut CD, III Ghosts, a concept album spinning a Faustian tale of selling one’s soul to evil forces. Fyre continues with a similar theme on their follow-up disc, 2 Keys, another concept album dealing with issues of choosing good or evil. This album follows a supernatural storyline of a protagonist examining his inner mind to encounter and mitigate the evils that lie within. The instrumental cast of (now former) lead guitarist Zach Kensinger, rhythm guitarist Sean Stringer, (now former) bassist Joe Earnest and drummer Tanner Kaurudar construct tense, busy, leviathan backdrops rooted in the traditions of Iron Maiden, 2112-era Rush and early Queensryche. Lead singer Matt Stoyanoff again takes center stage with his high-flying voice, occupying a soaring middle ground between classic Bruce Dickinson, Geoff Tate and Fly By Night-period Geddy Lee, while a few times morphing into bestial death metal snarls as his lyrics encounter the story’s dark forces. Fyre sets the album’s theme with “The Lurking Fear,” as the protagonist ponders addiction and looming evil, and what to do about it. The plot thickens with “Premonition,” thus beginning a journey into the dark crevices of the mind. Trouble looms and tension builds on “Into the Void,” leading to the chaotic “The One Who Sleeps.” The bluesy-leaning “Ghosts of the Stratosphere” finds our protagonist arriving at the juncture of his past and future. This leads to the CD’s climax, Fyre’s 8-minute-plus epic “The Life and Times of a Demi-God”…With guest and studio guru Cody Hoover manning the keys, the composition starts with Matt’s wife, Denice Stoyanoff, singing lead as the protagonist’s tour guide to a pivotal crossroads, which musically plays out with a monstrous midsection and torrid backstretch, leading into a gentle homestretch where the vocal duet of Matt and Denice lead the protagonist to safety. The return to sanity and redemption continues with “Back to the Past,” before the disc-closer “The Onyx Skull” suggests that the struggle between good and evil is never totally resolved. Fyre raises the bar here; the songwriting is more elaborate and cohesive, and the melodies more defined. The instrumental execution is tighter and sounds cleaner, and Matt Stoyanoff’s voice sounds mightier and more poised. Fyre ups the ante on their mythos with 2 Keys, pushing the boundaries of their musicality and lyrical storytelling. This album should satisfy fans of progressive metal, while whetting their appetites for whatever Fyre next has in store (The CD can be obtained at shows or through Fyre’s Bandcamp page.)
POP THIEF – WHEN YOU QUIT, DON’T FORGET TO LEAVE (Redfishbowl) Pittsburgh’s Pop Thief was formed in 2017 by Philadelphia transplant Richard Woodson, who plays guitar, sings and raps lead vocals. Alex Greene plays bass, while Forrest Kos (son of Felix Kos of the Hurricanes) plays drums. Pop Thief’s second recording, When You Quit, Don’t Forget to Leave presents the group’s unique mixture of R&B, rock, funk and hip-hop flavors over eight tracks. The group lays down some infectious melodic grooves, setting the launching pad for their explorations of soulful R&B, sassy hip-hop and even flourishes of psychedelia. Richard displays both a smooth singing voice and rhythmic cadence with his spoken passages, and his funky guitar riffs help lift and establish each melody, with Alex and Forrest’s busy, punchy rhythms powering the songs forward. A radio dial-spinning interlude leads into the disc opener “Petty Wap,” which sets the table with sass-laden funk and lust-laden lyrics. The group leans toward grooving hip-hop with “Time,” and stretches out into a soulful jam on “Runners” while Richard diagnoses a relationship gone splitsville. Richard gets introspective with his raps on “Noname,” while guest Cliff Fields provides fast-firing words on the psychedelic-tinged “Etch.” Romantic vibes inform the sensual “Grip,” before the driving funk-rocker “Funkeh Strummer” powers the set to the finish line. Pop Thief varies the angles of attack on each song, keeping this CD sounding fresh from start to end. The performances are strong, and the group obviously knows its turf. The mix gives the group a deep, full and crisp sound, allowing these grooves to breathe and radiate. Pop Thief conjures infectious funk and a captivating blend of flavors on When You Quit, Don’t Forget to Leave, resulting in a fresh, invigorating sound. (The recording can be obtained through the group’s Bandcamp page.)