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X-TERRA – THE SAVIOR IS BORN (no label) For more than three decades, Pittston-based rock band X-Terra has crafted and performed their distinctive brand of melody-based, Christian-themed hard rock. For their holiday season album, The Savior Is Born, the group – lead singer and lead guitarist Bill Hunt, bassist and backing singer Ann Kachline and drummer Bob Kachline – take their sound in an acoustic direction, mixing six original Christmas-themed compositions with three time-tested holiday favorites. X-Terra’s song selection leans more toward the Biblical meaning of the Christmas season, and often relates that meaning to the current world. One of the newer songs, “Imagine That,” juxtaposes the simplicity of Jesus’ birth in a stable against the backdrop of the modern-day world, and ponders how today’s opulent leaders measure up. Another newer song, “The Animals,” considers Jesus’ birth from the perspective of the animals present in the stable. And a third newer composition, “Wise Men Still Seek Him,” retells the story of the Three Wise Men, and how modern-day teachers and philosophers study and learn from that story. The group also gives an acoustic update of their 2005 hard rock holiday epic “Is There Room in the Inn,” centered on Mary and Joseph’s plight leading up to Jesus’ birth. With its slight Beatles flavor, “My Christmas Wish” hopes that the meaning of the Christmas season is not lost among the commercialism and other hoopla associated with this time of year, while the upbeat “Sing for Joy” encourages happiness and celebration of the season. X-Terra offers their interpretations of three Christmas season classics; opening the album with an uplifting folk-rock treatment of “Joy for the World,” giving a solemn rendition of “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel,” and finishing the disc with a rousing take on “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” anchored by Bob Kachline’s busy and playful drumbeats. X-Terra sounds comfortable in this acoustic setting; Bill Hunt’s soaring vocals are front and center, and the group’s instrumental arrangements are simple and to the point. Recorded at SI Studios in Old Forge, and co-produced by the group and engineer Tom Borthwick, the album sounds smooth, consistent and balanced, with all elements of X-Terra’s presentation coming through clearly. On The Savior Is Born, X-Terra offers a heartfelt and sincere celebration of the real meaning of the Christmas season, and provides a pleasant musical backdrop for taking stock and considering this time of year. (The CD can be obtained through X-Terra’s website, www.xterrarockband.com, and through CD Baby.)
PRIVATE I – BETTER LATE THAN EVER (GIV-A-DAM Records) Since 2011, Somerset County trio Private I has been winning fans throughout western Pennsylvania and Maryland with their blend of reggae, funk, punk, ska and rock flavors. Their first full-length CD, Better Late Than Ever, showcases this high-energy stew of sounds over a dozen tracks. Singer and guitarist Nicholas A. Hoffman, bassist Jim Berkin and drummer Scott Rosage churn out a turbulent mixture, chock full of infectious song hooks and spirited, inspired musicianship. No two songs are the same, and Private I mixes it up between hard-driving punkish assaults, acid-burn reggae and ska, softer-toned numbers and more. Their lyrical themes are often positive; with its funky and bouncy Red Hot Chili Peppers-like vibe, the disc-opener “Deedles” promotes love, unity, and taking stock in the simple pleasures life offers every day. The reggae-driven “Make It One” urges perseverance and triumphing over life’s stumbles, while the catchy ska-punk burner “MTJ” reminds listeners to step away from the grind and enjoy life. In an angrier vein, “Faith in Humanity” rants against corporate greed and lack of civility, and the punk-fueled “Dim Mass” tells listeners to wake up and get proactive with their lives. Private I offers milder moments as well, such as the romantic reggae of “Songs For You,” the coed vocal harmonies on “Only A Man” courtesy of guest singers Jill Rosage and Mynkara Ward, the stripped-down acoustic disc-closer “Pole Lights,” and the curious “If I Were A Duck” with its unusual blend of reggae with accordion accompaniment (by Jim Vizzini III) plus Polish lyrics. Private I’s presentation is strong; Nicholas displays a wide gamut of styles on the vocal end, from sassy rants to relaxed crooning, and the band fires their instruments on all cylinders to deliver passionate and bristling performances. Self-recorded and produced by the band, Better Late Than Ever sounds crisp and vigorous, full and balanced. Private I delivers a satisfying set on Better Late Than Ever, an energetic and enthusiastic album that displays strong songs and forward momentum. (The CD can be obtained through Private I’s Bandcamp page.)
CONNER GILBERT – LIFE IN THE YEARS (no label) Ten years after the release of his first album, 2009’s The View From Within, Altoona area-based singer and songwriter Conner Gilbert has unveiled his follow-up album, Life in the Years. Conner has honed his songwriting skills during the past decade, resulting in ten strong and diverse melodies – blending rock, pop, alternative, folk and blues flavors – that stand strong individually but also blend into a cohesive whole. Singing and playing acoustic guitar, Conner utilized a number of guest musician contributors – some international – to flesh out his song creations; including multi-instrumentalist Drew Adams, who he co-produced the album with. The general theme of Life in the Years is life’s journey and lessons, and seizing the opportunities life has to offer. That theme is first established on the uplifting and ethereal opener “Bridges,” which builds into a broad, soaring chorus backed with mellotron-like keyboard flourishes. The blues-driven “Lost and Found” encourages inner strength in times of doubt and turmoil, while the uptempo rocker “Here’s to the Days” celebrates happy memories and moments. The soulful and thoughtful “Run Away” offers words of hope to listeners overwhelmed by life’s challenges, utilizing an irresistible chorus hook to send the message home. Conner and his hired guns throw a jazzy vibe into the hopeful “Hold On To That Truth,” punctuated with playful trumpet bursts by Chris Davis. “All Alone” and “Across the Wire” explore folk and folk-rock terrain, and the album ends on another uplifting note with the optimistic “Still Gonna Find Our Way.” This album sounds bright and colorful from start to end; the instrumental performances are solid and smooth, and Conner sings with confidence, heart and range. The disc sounds polished and balanced, and any of these songs would sound good on a radio. Life in the Years provides a pleasant, upbeat listen, and shows that Conner Gilbert has evolved into a skilled songsmith with a hopeful outlook. (The CD can be obtained through Conner’s website, www.connergilbertmusic.com, and online music retailers.)
DEFIANT – THE ANARCH-EP (no label) Based in Mechanicsburg, Defiant came together in early 2018, and has rapidly established themselves on central PA stages with their volatile brand of brute-force modern metal. Depicting a lit Molotov cocktail on the cover, their five-song debut EP, The Anarch-EP, showcases a charged, angry sound that lives up to the group’s name. Frontman and guitarist Albert Halterman, guitarist Joe Defiant, bassist Paul Barlowski and drummer Paul Cochran generate in-your-face assaults that rage against societal power-brokers and challenge authority. Defiant first drops a lit match into the gasoline with the forceful opener, “He’s Watching,” as Albert’s visceral vocals rail against Big Brother and authority figures that control and limit personal ambitions and dreams. The disc’s first single, “4 Years for Nothing,” angrily depicts the voice of veterans who put their lives on the line only to be ignored and neglected by the government they served. The frantic “Wendy” takes an anti-suicidal stance and challenges listeners to confront their life issues head-on. And revolution is in the air on the incendiary disc-closer “Dust the Democracy,” with Defiant’s call to rise up, resist and challenge the powers that be. Amid the agitation, Defiant does offer a milder interlude, pondering life’s fading moments on the darker-flavored “Feet First.” Defiant unleashes full fury throughout the disc’s heavier barrages, with tense guitar riffs and punishing rhythms establishing the terse sonic backdrops for Albert’s scathing howl, as he snarls out the songs’ angry themes with Phil Anselmo-like tenacity and authority. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Jason Shaffer for Full Tilt Productions, The Anarch-EP sounds appropriately caustic and fierce, allowing the sharp edges of Defiant’s attack to achieve total damage and effect. Defiant convincingly marks their turf on The Anarch-EP, crafting metal music that vigorously rages against the machine. (The recording can be obtained through CD Baby or the group’s Reverbnation page.)