Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Raised on Rock Reviews

I thought I'd collect all the professional reviews for my latest novel, Raised on Rock, in one place. Thanks for reading and supporting me.

from Kirkus

Drago departs from the horror genre in this existential tale of an ex-rocker’s late-in-life coming-of-age.

Dante Rose is currently the assistant manager at grocery store Food Castle, but he still plays local solo gigs here and there. He also obsesses about his time, eight years ago, with Thorn, a rock band that almost made it big before its lead quitarist, Joe Mars, left to form a new group. His wife, Penny Rose, also believed in the dream of Thorn, and the couple chose not to have children in expectation of its success—a decision that’s now eating at them both in different ways. Drago painstakingly constructs his characters, revealing information during mundane events—store checkouts, employee small talk, a poker game. Several events help to define the characters and propel them toward self-discovery: Penny finds a lump in her breast; criminals pass counterfeit bills at Food Castle; Clark Gufney, one of the employees, finds his wife cheating on him; and Dante hunts down and reconnects with his former band mates. Each storyline resonates off the others like the notes of a chord. Drago generates interest through the tension of awaiting doctor appointments and test results, the camaraderie of Dante and his fellow workers, and the unraveling mystery surrounding the band’s reunion—which, in Dante’s mind, hinges on the enigmatic Thorn destroyer and possible redeemer, Joe Mars. Throughout, the book is packed with musical minutiae, from the names of famous and obscure bands, musicians, and songs to the chord structures of Dante’s songwriting. Drago also wields character names like a literary grenadier: Dante, who journeys through his own personal hell; Thorn, the memory that’s forever stuck in his side; Mars, the militaristic force that controlled the life and death of the band.

A thoughtful, elegantly written book that will particularly appeal to musicians and music fans.

from The BookLife Prize by Publishers Weekly

Plot/Idea: 8/10
Originality: 10/10
Prose: 10/10
Character/Execution: 10/10
Overall: 9.5/10

Plot: The plot here is, unfortunately, an emotionally downhill ride from beginning to end. Nevertheless, readers will become invested in Dante, who is basically a "good guy" archetype who loves his wife. Overall, the storyline is strong, if disheartening, but where it falls short is with the subplots.
Prose: Drago is a talented writer who uses language discerningly and does a great job with composing dialogue, perfectly matching it to his characters and their distinctive personalities.
Originality: A has-been rocker struggling to survive is not your average subject matter, and readers will delight in this emotional roller coaster ride. Drago creates a unique setting populated with distinct and original characters that transport the reader into a whole new world.
Character Development: The author does a superb job with characterization. Dante is more than a stereotypical former rocker who gets drunk, picks fights, and writes songs, although he does engage in all of those activities. He's also a multifaceted and compassionate man who cares deeply about his wife. Ancillary characters, particularly Clark, are also well-defined.

from Book Viral

A step change from his previous releases Raised On Rock is Drago at his very best delivering an elemental story simply and superbly written. Rock stars come ago and so do their stories but Drago’s fourth novel is a winner from every possible angle. A grounded and thoroughly enthralling exploration of what happens when a former headliner becomes a wannabe headliner, what Drago gives us is not a comeback story but something much rarer: a rounded, original portrait of a good but flawed man and the choices he has made. Drago’s writing style is simple and spare whilst his ear for dialogue once again proves exceptional. Here he succeeds equally in his evocation of Dante’s glory days with the band he formed with his boyhood friends and his love for Penny whilst delivering a message about what’s really important. On one hand, Dante is solid, dependable, torn, on the other, there’s his easy charm, the anxious modesty, the never-distant hint of frustration, and the other virtues of a deserving winner.

A corker of a novel with all the hallmarks of a best seller, Raised On Rock proves an exceptional read and is recommended without reservation.

from Self-Publishing Review

Anyone who has ever set a personal dream aside understands the pain and nagging doubt that can come along with such a decision. Youthful ambition drives us to pursue even our most outlandish hopes, but as the years pass, those old possibilities dwindle and narrow, even if we hate to admit it. In Raised on Rock, a novel by Thomas Drago, this challenging shift in reality is explored in stark detail.
Dante Rose has been enthralled by rock and roll since he was young, and chased that rocker lifestyle for years through small-town North Carolina with his band Thorn. Although high school is now far behind him, it is difficult to shift his mindset, or find new goals besides hitting it big and getting the recognition he so desperately craves.

Dante is supported by his wife, Penny, who understands his determination, but also sees the massive toll that years of disappointment have taken on her husband. Dante believes that if he could convince Joe Mars – the old lead guitarist – to come back to the band, even just to record an album, they could finally take their shot at stardom.

The interplay of these characters is what makes the novel so striking and engaging. The husband-wife dynamics are delicate and well-crafted, and Drago is highly skilled at slowly building tension between friends both old and new. Similarly, the plot is leaked out slowly, from countless angles and small contributions from peripheral characters. The bitter history of Thorn, Dante Rose’s place in the town, his strained relationship with his parents, and the feelings of self-loathing residing in his gut develop gradually as the chapters unfold.

In some ways, Dante is also an unreliable narrator, which always makes for a compelling read. Artists of all kinds tend to look at their own lives in a more romanticized way, often making it difficult for them to accept the hardest truths about their abilities. As this novel reaches its climax, the chances of reuniting the band seem smaller than ever, and the world continues to pile on Dante’s shoulders, threatening to crush his spirit and his lifelong aspiration.

Capturing such intense emotions on the page is no easy task, but Drago seems to understand the mental space of lofty dreamers, and has personal experience in the small streets of North Carolina, where the idea of “getting out” is ever-present. There is an authenticity in every scene, from card games and dive bars to hospital visits and deeply emotional conversations. The novel is an homage to would-be rock gods, but also a portrait of small-town America, where survival is often dependent on not giving up hope, foolish as that may be. Growing up can happen at any age, and Thomas Drago provides a profound and touching peek into that painful, universally recognizable process.

The terse, choppy writing style is fitting for the characters and tone, although it somewhat limits the descriptive power of the narration. In terms of editing, the book is cleanly written and polished, with few wasted words and believable dialogue between all the characters. Furthermore, the moments of self-reflection and Dante’s inner monologues are used effectively to keep readers in the loop, without spoon-feeding them plot details or internal revelations.

As a whole, Raised on Rock is a deeply relatable novel of family bonds, loyalty, love and lies, with the sharp, passionate edge of a rock ‘n’ roll origin story.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Lost Time

Let me start by saying I'm grateful. I'm grateful for the husband that offers the opportunity to do a guest post on his blog. Who tells me to "go for it" when I explain that I cannot keep my eyes open mid-day and need a nap. Who cheerfully prepares dinner after working at his actual job all day. Who doesn't get angry that I haven't had any energy this week and can see that I've been struggling. We've known each other for 20 years now. There's still a learning curve. My name is Alexis. Thomas is my husband. This is my 33rd year of knowingly living with lupus.

This week has been especially rough. I've been in a flare pretty much since January 2017, with fluctuations in disease activity. I'm currently on my regular lupus meds and an added course of prednisone. I hate prednisone. It almost always makes me feel worse before better. Again, I am grateful that so far, I've only had to add prednisone. The other drugs are worse. But, I still hate it. I hate the sweats. How it affects my appetite. My sleep (which is messed up anyways, and not only because my husband snores loud enough to shake the walls). My mood (GROWL!). It makes my hands shake and muscles weaker. But, I'm hopeful that this dose will be the kick that knocks my disease back to where I can function like a *normal* human again. Fingers *painfully* crossed.

This isn't a sympathy post. It's an awareness post. Because if you saw me this week, I probably looked and acted just fine in front of you. I smiled and tried to move like nothing was bothering me. I may not have spoken as much as I usually do, but I was polite. Lupus affects everyone differently. And it can affect you in different ways on different days. Usually I deal very well with it. This last week, though? I hate what lupus has cost me this week.

It's cost me time. And honestly, when you've been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease at age 12, you never feel like you have enough of that. I imagine it's more intense than a typical mid-life crisis. You always hear the clock ticking. And every day that you wake up and breathe, you smile. Then you assess. What exactly can I accomplish today? Can I do the things I need to do? Can I do the things I want to do? If I do these things, will I have any energy left for tomorrow?

This week alone, lupus has cost me time with family. Time with my husband. We had the entire house to ourselves last night, and I went to bed. Time with friends. A very special friend asked me to join her for lunch, and I couldn't make it out of the house. It cost me time awake. I had tremendous difficulty getting out of bed every day this week and I had to nap four of the five days. And by "had to nap," I mean it. The fatigue that comes with lupus is crushing. After 33 years, that's the best word I've found for it. It just crushes you. Your mind, your body, your thoughts.

I needed to make two appointments this week. I made them. But, that's about all I've done this entire week. I wanted to pick grapes at a local vineyard and make grape jelly. I wanted to bake some things for the house, to send to the boy at college, and deliver to the people at the high school who work with Thomas. I wanted to walk the neighborhood. I wanted to get quotes out for clients. I wanted to wash my hair more than once. I wanted to shave my legs. I wanted to move without my arms feeling like each weighs 100 pounds. I wanted to breathe without my chest feeling like it's going to burst. I wanted to walk without feeling like I'm dragging a freight train. I wanted to sit, stand, lie down, without constant pain. I wanted to sleep through the night. I wanted to stay awake through the day.  Lupus has had other plans for me. Usually I can deal with it. This week, it's made me angry and bitter. Primarily because I don't know how I'm going to feel tomorrow.

So, what do I do now? How do I make this better? I'm a pro at dealing with this shit. I manage. I adjust. I get angry. I let the anger go. I allow myself the rest my body needs. As selfish as it seems. I give up the time to hopefully better enjoy the time I do have left. Don't think about that too much, though, because it can get depressing real quick.

I'm grateful. That I have family and friends who understand (or try to). That I have a bed to lie down on and a dog who follows my every move, especially when I'm not well. That I have healthcare. That my doctor listens to me. That I can see, hear (kind of - right, Thomas?), smell, taste, touch, and delight in all the wonders of the world around me. Chronic, life-threatening illness offers things that some people miss. I feel badly for them.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Rush to War: On the Edge

In 2015, my younger brother Danny released On the Edge with Rush to War, an alternative rock group that followed his award-winning metal band, The Furnace. In fact, this album was created and developed while The Furnace was putting together their final release, Live Till You Die. The contrast between the two is distinct but both remain outstanding.

The Furnace took the Black Sabbath path to greatness. The one that inspired Metallica and their descendants. Rush to War has more of a Led Zeppelin feel. We hear the Foo Fighters. Maybe The Offspring without the punk edge. My Chemical Romance? Honestly, I'm a little out of my element this time around because I'm not as familiar with the alternative scene. I only know enough not to compare them to Nickleback. But, you've got that Beatles vibe whichever way you go, and you can't escape Nirvana (and The Pixies by default). Either way, it's great fucking music. Again.

Danny is joined by guitarist Casey Weaver, who played with The Furnace starting with Beyond What's Become. The dynamic duo continues to improve each other's game, almost the way a great wide receiver will make a great quarterback even better. Dave Armstrong takes lead vocals. He sang on two albums with The Furnace between the ones that Kevin Flowers recorded. He's amazing. His voice is better suited to this flavor of rock. In fact, the more I listened to The Furnace, the more I associated Kevin's power and range with the heaviness of that music. Dave, however, is as melodic and empathetic as any new rocker I've heard in the past twenty years.

Since I don't have liner notes, I don't know the names of all the musicians, but I love each and every one. Their talent goes beyond the mere session work and elevates this band above my expectations. I figured to be disappointed about the shift away from The Furnace but wasn't. Trust me, the music is better than ever. The ensemble of bass players and drummers provides an outstanding support to the work Danny, Casey, and Dave created. The riffs, leads, rhythms, and drums all excel in a recording that is masterfully produced and engineered. I found myself bopping and singing along to every song. At any given moment during the past week, one was stuck in my head. That's the beauty of great music (and great art). It stays with you long after you walk away.

This time around, I thought it might be interesting (and challenging) to examine the lyrics of the songs. The lack of printed copy forced me to pay attention to the words. Dave offers them with grace and confidence. Here's my take.

The opener, "Another End," assesses our impulses and how we make decisions without thinking of the consequences. This isn't viewed only as the fault of individuals but as a systemic problem inherent in our culture. Dave adds a bit of a rap flavor during the verses, by the way. Think Ozzy in "Let It Die." If you don't want anymore Ozzy references, try Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."

Track two, "Come What May," addresses how difficult it is to resist change. We're all frustrated that we aren't in control of certain elements of our lives. Dave tells us, "there's not a Goddamn thing that I can do about it anyway." It's at this point that we all want to pound our heads against the fucking wall, but we're comforted by acceptance and tolerance.

"Epitaph," one of my favorites songs, is up next and encourages us all to enjoy the time we have together because life is fleeting. We all should have the desire to be remembered for the positive things we do. We need to make a difference. Even if that impact is only putting a smile on someone's face. Shakespeare's epitaph is my favorite, but if I had to write one for myself, I'd want it to say something about how hard I try every day to be a better person than I was the day before. Oh, and curses be upon you if you touch my bones and all that good shit.

The most tragic song is the fourth, "Now She's Gone." I don't know the exact circumstances, but here we have grieving parents who lament the loss of their teenage daughter. We don't know why the child is gone, but I get the feeling she committed suicide. Not sure why. Perhaps, she got sick and succumbed to her illness. We transition from mourning to anger as the parents don't want to accept that she's never coming home. Knowing my mom lost a child when I was a teenager, this song haunts me and tears me apart. Dave is at his fucking best when he shouts, "And now there's a hole." I watched my mom fall into that hole and don't know if she's ever pulled herself out. Doubtful. It's inspired everything I've written since. See my blog post about 1982.

"Going Back" stands strong at number five, another of my favorites, in its celebration of a returning to your roots. Where you started out doesn't have to be the physical place because you certainly can't go back to your youth, but you can reclaim that spirit. We can't turn back the clock, but we can rejuvenate. A mental return, or an emotional one, is definitely possible. Kind of reminds me of John Lennon's "(Just Like) Starting Over." When he made that record, he wanted to recreate the feel of his earliest rock records that were inspired by Elvis and the other 50s pioneers. We need to keep the memory of who we are and never let it fade.

"Where I Stand" continues the ongoing motif of movement (or transition) present throughout the album. Sometimes, that's going forward, sometimes back. This includes an obvious frustration about the departure of a loved one (or at the very least, a close friend) that leads to uncertainty over how or if they'll ever reconcile. We don't always know where we stand in a relationship. We're always on the brink of disaster. We never really know how close or how far away we are from those we need and believe in. We're at our most vulnerable when we give somebody else the keys to our heart.

Track seven, "Wander," is about the desire to escape a toxic relationship and the struggle to find a way out, leave, or somehow, fly away. It's easy to relate to those moments in our lives when we're in a situation we no longer want to be in. This song covers familiar ground, but almost in the opposite direction "Where I Stand" took us. The uncertainty isn't caused by being left behind. It's about getting stuck and longing for the journey to a new, safer place. (By the way, the riff on this song kicks ass. I know I said I'd focus on the lyrics, but I just couldn't let that one go.)

The last track on the album is called "Today," and finally, time is what's moving. We're clearly told we better make the most out of our lives before it passes by. Seize the day. Make your dreams come true. Don't waste a single moment because this is all we've got and we don't get a second chance. We can't take anything with us, so we need to leave everything we've got out there and be proud of it. The chorus is incredibly catchy and lands this song as one of my three favorites.

I believe Rush to War has another album in the can that hasn't been released. Until then, I hope you're able to order On the Edge, not only for the incredible music carved out by these rockers but for the underlying message of hope.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Furnace: Live Till You Die

Well, we've made it to the final album, 2012's Live Till You Die. This has been an incredible ride. Thanks for sticking with me. Continue to support indie artists. It's hard to find an audience, believe me. But, like Elvis said when asked if he felt threatened by The Beatles, "There's room for everybody."

Our lineup's been juggled again. Kevin, Dan, and Casey remain at the core. I haven't given much attention to the revolving bass players. When they don't distract, they're doing their job. Toby Revelle is no different this time around as he thumps along.

Like Ryan Eibling on Find a Way, Andy Crowley does an amazing job behind the drum kit. He's a technical genius, like Ryan, and also keeps impeccable time. Maybe he's not trying to prove he's better than the other two. Who cares? Nothing wrong with that. Paul McCartney was always competing with John Lennon. We wouldn't have "Hey Jude" if he wasn't. (Shit, that's two Beatles references, and I'm only a few paragraphs in!)

High-octane rocker "Hurt Locker" opens the album and lets us know these guys aren't messing around. They're taking a stand. They're the guys who lay down and die. Or is it the Gods who do? I don't have lyrics this time, so I'm deciphering on my own, but make no mistake about it: The Furnace is out to rock the house with this disc, and they never disappoint. It's as metal as anything they've offered. The riffs alternate under scorching vocals that lead into a blissful electric solo, heavy as fuck.

By the time we get to "21 Guns," the best song on the album, our asses are sufficiently kicked. This radio-friendly father's tribute to his son lost at war includes a mournful dedication as part of the catchy refrain. The keyboard break seeps into graveyard visuals as we hail fallen soldiers returning home to the glorious tribute they deserve. The guitar solo shoots off like explosive artillery while the drums play a rolling taps. Kevin's vocals drown us in sorrow over a bluesy lead that drives the coda. An outright masterpiece.

"Scars Left Behind," a headbanger reminiscent of Alice in Chains, includes riffs and drums sounding off in machine gun fashion as the album continues to punish us with military imagery. The transitions march between verses, leaving us assaulted by Kevin's relentless shouts. The guitar, a mixture of alternate picking and tapping, shreds as the drums hammer. Kevin's painful scream fittingly ends the piece.

The title track "Live Till You Die" has an infectious rhythm that slides through the verses and shoots the chorus into your head. This hard rocker has a solid rhythm and vibrant vocals, proving pop metal is old hat to these seasoned veterans.

"Hang On (Breezy's Song)," the first of two very personal tracks on the album, starts with a pensive acoustic melded into gentle drums until Kevin arrives on scene tearing out our hearts. Kevin impresses on this track more than any other as front man for The Furnace because of his ability to make these lyrics his own. He pleas as if for his own child, building up a passionate delivery until he grits his teeth at the end, begging us all to hang on. What an amazing performance! The lead guitar climbs an emotional ladder between verses until the music drops out for an acoustic break, leaving us all breathless.

"External (For You)," a gut-wrenching instrumental, fuses Casey and Dan's trademark guitar playing. Again, we don't need to know who's picking up the leads where. They blend bluesy Duane Eddy and Stevie Ray Vaughn licks with classic metal runs that recall Eddie Van Halen in his prime. I know who this song is for, and I can tell you I miss her every day. I'm grateful for The Furnace for including this track. Throughout their entire run, they've never been afraid to the share their personal lives with us. They're always transparent and vulnerable. We've witnessed their life's journeys for over ten years and watched them grow as artists and people. They've told us what they love and warned us of everything they fear. Their lessons should not be overlooked.

There are 13 songs on this album, so now that I've discussed specific tracks, let me highlight those that didn't get coverage. "Forgive Me" opens with a groovy riff, drops into heavy power chords, and rides a sizzling metal solo. "My Last Day," a Beatles-inspired ballad (yeah, I know three references, just shut up), complete with Kevin's classic vocal pleas during a captivating refrain. "Change," haunts us with a Sabbath riff reminiscent of 13, their swan song, a year prior to that release. "New Sun," "Live Forever," and "Monster," uptempo rockers that kick ass. The Nirvana-sounding "Illusion" opens with Kevin's best Hootie in contrast to the earth-shaking rock shouts we've all grown to love. Sounds like heavier Candlebox (think "Far Behind" or "Cover Me") with a melodic guitar solo to close.

Overall, I'm impressed with how The Furnace continued to evolve throughout their career. This is their hardest rocking, heaviest metal album of all. A fitting end to a remarkable run. My favorite two remain Words I Never Said and Find A Way, appropriate that Kevin and Dave each have a place. Just because I like lists, I'll give you my favorite ten songs. I didn't choose any songs that are personal (like the one I co-wrote, for instance) because I wanted this to be totally objective.

1. "21 Guns"
2. "Look Down Upon Me"
3. "Find a Way"
4. "Bury My Bones"
5. "Over Again"
6. "Don't Turn Away"
7. "Comfort"
8. "Killer Inside"
9. "Make Me Bleed"
10. "Simple Things"

You can find Live Till You Die on Amazon for only $9.99 or live-stream the album for free on Spotify.

Next week, a surprise, as I'll review On the Edge by Rush To War, my brother Danny's follow-up hard rock band. Thanks for being here.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Furnace: Words I Never Said

Kevin Flowers returns on this 2009 offering from The Furnace, and he's better than ever. In fact, Words I Never Said is the best album so far, which means they keep getting better with each record. Do you realize how fucking rare that is? Most bands peak when they start and spend the rest of their time struggling to achieve their early success. Somehow, The Furnace keeps growing, regardless of the lineup. And with Paul Burch back on drums, we have the original Kevin Flowers, Paul Burch, Dan Drago chemistry that made their initial launch some ten years earlier an incredible force.

Lead guitar also makes a comeback on this album. Not that the music or the riffs on the previous discs have been subpar. This time around, the songs are laced with exhilarating solos that sizzle like acid. Whether it's Dan or Casey Weaver shredding makes no difference. These eight songs are a rock lovers dream come true.

"Over Again" opens the set of eight songs with Kevin's trademark balance of soft phrasing and rock shouting as only he does. In fact, the more I listen to this group, especially this album, the more I hear Nirvana's undeniable influence. Throw in a little Hootie and the Blowfish for good measure when the song gets cozy and you've got an undeniable classic. The chorus for this track is about as catchy as anything The Furnace has given us so far. I don't know who penned the lyrics, but with Kevin at the mic, I can't help but wonder how much is autobiography. With The Furnace, he's found his way back home. And I love it!

The third track, "The One That Bleeds," is about as heavy as, and kicks as much fucking ass as, any hard rocker this century. It recalls "Make Me Bleed" from Find a Way with its aggressive Sabbath-inspired riffs and cutthroat desperation. That uptempo drive punctuating the end makes me pound my fist into the dashboard as I crank up the volume on my CD player.

Next in line, "Don't Turn Away," starts with clean acoustic playing under Kevin's best Darius Rucker. Makes me wonder if Kevin listens to, or sang any country music, at any point in his career. It blends effortlessly with the hard rock that emerges as we're thrust into the chorus full throttle. I love the melody of all the structures building within this song. Kevin raises the bar, proving once and for all, that he owns this genre. Again, I don't know anything personal about these bandmates (except for Danny), so I can't help but wonder if his reluctant return to the bottle reflects real life struggles. If so, I hope they all get the relief and help they're after. After so many weeks in a row listening to their music, we're like best friends now. I carry their emotions with me in my back pocket.

Up fifth is "Simple Things," a radio friendly rocker kickstarted by Paul's rumbling drums that lead directly into Kevin's iconic raspy vocals. We get a throwback to a Zakk Wylde-inspired solo, returning The Furnace to its roots in 90s metal. The catchy refrain doubles as part of the bridge over a minimized riff and haunting drums. The song ends with Kevin's best power scream. Honestly, I don't know how this fucking band didn't make it big. With this album and this song, it's so obvious that they've mastered the genre and give us everything we want from heavy music. The production and engineering are brilliant. The songwriting continues to mature and impress.

"Reborn (Samsara)" drops in as the seventh track with crackling that could've been sampled from one of my dad's old vinyl records. We get thumping drums and a classic hard rock riff before Kevin launches into his most passionate refrain: "We are born/to what was torn/crucified no more." Once again, these lyrics speak to their personal journeys as artists and musicians, celebrating this reunion. The guitars hiccup during the prechorus, the lines of the bridge echo, and suddenly the bottom drops out into an acoustic verse. "Take a look at yourself," Kevin warns. And we know what he means. You don't get many chances in life. Take what you're given and fucking make something of yourself. That ending chant sounds like an ancient ritual. I'm blown away.

The climax of everything they've accomplished so far as The Furnace arrives in the final song of the album, "Words I Never Said." Part apology, part accusation - we get another glimpse into the struggles and heartbreaks of these bandmates. "Will I ever find the words I never said?" Not long ago, I was asked to cite an example of something by somebody else I wish I would've written. This is it. Not Shakespeare, not Dickens, not even my literary hero, Stephen King. That poetic line plagues my soul. The tempo change halfway leads through Kevin's demonic incantation abruptly followed by his shout to the heavens. The perfect contrast of structure and mood. Truly, this song ends with the best guitar solo I've heard by The Furnace. Recalls some of the best live Randy Rhodes work, "Mr. Crowley" and "Children of the Grave." Kevin's final notes cascade into screams. 

Look, I know it's easy for you to think: Hey, Tommy only likes this shit because it's his little brother's fucking band. Fuck you. That couldn't be further from the truth. My brother and I are our biggest critics. He tells me when something I write sucks, and I love him for it. This music is damn good. I would tell him if it weren't. I wish he/they would've headlined fucking rock arenas, believe me. But that just wasn't in the cards. I'm not tearing up the bestseller charts with my novels. And you know what? That's fucking okay. We enjoy what we do. It's so obvious on this record that The Furnace is having fun, if only for a moment. Thank God for that. 

Please pick up your copy of Words I Never Said. You won't be disappointed. Up next, their final album: Live Till You Die.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Furnace: Find a Way

Before I review Find a Way, the 2005 release by The Furnace, I should clear up a quick point. 

Last time, I touted Beyond What's Become as their second release. Actually, it was their second full-length album. They released Under a Demon Sky, an EP with six songs (at least that's what the 2015 reissue on Napster has), in or around 2000. Although Paul Burch has tried to share the music with me, I still haven't been able to get access. From what I can tell listening to the online samples, the EP includes Kevin Flowers singing the revised version of their vampire's hymn ("Tar"), an early attempt at "Two-Faced Savior," the actual radio release of "Bury My Bones," and a mix of three other songs I'm not familiar with, two of which are live.

Also, I neglected to mention that Beyond What's Become won a local award for best heavy metal album presented to the band by Phoenix rockers, Flotsam and Jetsam. An incredible accomplishment and highlight of their career, regardless of personnel.

But I want this to be about their music, not a biography, so I'll stick to covering their songs. I do think it's important to reveal lineup changes, so I should mention that this release includes almost the same players, except Ryan Eibling stepping in on drums. He does a solid job throughout the recordings, but he's a bit busier than Paul, almost as if he's trying to prove his worth (the opposite of how I felt about Dave Armstrong taking over for Kevin on vocals). Paul continues to get songwriting credits, as does Rex Van Dine, a vocalist who spent a year with The Furnace before Beyond What's Become and now fronts Stereo Rex.

"Find a Way" is the first of seven songs on the album (almost another EP itself because two of the songs are remakes of earlier releases). It's one of my favorite songs by The Furnace (I will reveal a personal Top Ten as part of my final review in a couple of weeks). In fact, the entire album is brilliant. It's my favorite so far. All the tracks are short and tight. The engineering is superb. I probably listened quite a bit when it first came out because I could sing along with all the songs right away. It's an excellent follow-up. These five tracks are as good, if not better, than what they offered on their award-winning previous album.

"Find a Way" opens with grumbling drums that transcend quickly into an electrifying guitar riff and yearning melody. Dave's vocals and the songwriting, especially for the pre-chorus, remain outstanding. The layered lyrics throughout the chorus haunt us with desire to reunite these separated lovers. I especially like the lyrics, "You've seen me calling, but you find me difficult to hear." The strongest line of everything I've heard from this amazing band so far.

The next track, "Make Me Bleed," starts out with an acoustic intro but plows into a heavy riff that drops out as the vocals begin, giving us an amazing Nirvana feel. There's this uptempo riff as we power into the chorus that keeps my head banging. An aggressive bridge includes the line, "you fucked me over and left me bleeding," and anyone who's ever been in a bitter relationship buys right into that sentiment. I love the whole structure of the song. The musicians are relentless as Dave punches that solitary refrain at the end: "leaving you would make me bleed."

"Comfort" is third and begins with Dave singing the chorus by himself as the guitars gradually fade in, launching a powerful riff under a quick lead. Dave stands toe to toe with the guitars, alternating like two boxers squaring off in the ring. By the time we get to the musical break, we're pummeled. Dave echoes the haunting refrain over another acoustic run during the musical bridge before his pleas for solace end while the drums roll. This is a masterpiece.

"See the Lie" and "All of This" complete the new material. "See the Lie" includes what's probably their best guitar solo since the first album. Again, I don't know whether it's Danny or Casey playing, but it doesn't fucking matter. The song rocks and rolls as only the best metal knows how to do. "All of This" starts with a "Diary of a Madman"-type intro that leads us to believe we're heading into another amazing power ballad along the lines of "The Child" or "Say Goodbye." Our suspicions are proved wrong rather quickly as the guitars and drums rip loose. Dave's vocals are better than ever. He even has this Roy Orbison thing going on (okay, if Roy Orbison ever sang heavy metal) where he hits some amazing notes over a hammering riff.

"Slave," the first remake, improves on the original, despite feeling a bit slower. The piece is tighter overall, and Dave sounds more confident in his delivery. "Look Down Upon Me" holds its own, not only with the original, but as the climax to this remarkable collection. It's bold to re-attempt your own songs. Elvis (my favorite artist) rarely did it. One of the few times he tried was an abysmal version of "Blue Suede Shoes" after he came back from the army. You can tell his heart was no longer in it. Not the case here. The Furnace proves why they're heavy metal masters, not only on this track, but on the entire album.

The disc is available on Amazon for only $5.92. Order here: Find a Way

Next up: Words I Never Said.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Furnace: Beyond What's Become

Before we tackle the songs on the next LP by The Furnace, we need to address all the changes that happened during the three years since their debut. We're now in 2002. It's important to note one major change that has nothing to do with the band at all: I moved away from Arizona. That's only significant because I was no longer able to see these guys play live. My experience came solely from listening to their music. Believe me, I hate that I missed seeing my little brother, and the rest of his mates, perform.

First and foremost, we now have a new lead singer, David Armstrong. I don't quite know why Kevin Flowers left, but I wouldn't write about that even if I did. It's none of your fucking business. It's none of mine. That's something the band needed to work out. Not us. If you want to read about band drama, pick up my new novel Raised on Rock when it's available on October 1st (shameless plugs shall never perish from the earth).

To be fair and not take anything away from Kevin (because I love his vocals), Dave does an excellent job stepping in. He's probably a better singer, technically speaking. The brilliance in Dave's approach is that he never takes on more than he needs to. He doesn't show off. I never get that he's trying to prove he's better than, or put himself in any competition with, Kevin. He continues to give the fans exactly what they expect from The Furnace: powerful soul. And yeah, he's got that Seth McFarland 90s voice going on. Except he's more of a cross between Creed or Live with a little less James Hetfield. Certainly not bad company to hang with.

We also have a new guitarist. Or rather a second guitarist, Casey Weaver. Here's what makes Casey so amazing: I can't tell when he's playing or when Danny's playing, and I've listened to my brother play since we were fucking teenagers! I might guess that Danny plays the riffs and Casey the leads, but I can't be sure and could be wrong. But I also don't care because these two ax-men make great fucking music together. Sure, we no longer have that Ozzy/Sabbath feel that Danny gave us on the debut album, but that's okay. As artists, we all want to grow. I don't only write like Stephen King anymore. And the world already has Tony Iommi, Randy Rhodes, and Zakk Wylde, right? It's one thing to be inspired, it's another to innovate. These two guys meld together like the best pinochle hand.

The biggest difference for me might be Paul's drumming. He's a standout on this album. Remember when I told you he's one of my favorites? This album shows you why. He kicks every song into high gear. His timing is spectacular. His approach, more complex and powerful than before. I don't really know how to speak drums (hey, I barely know how to speak guitar and I've been playing for ten years: strings, chords, scales ... duh, look at me play guitar real good) or else I'd give you a better description. Paul's subtle when he needs to be (as always) but fucking rocks when we need our asses kicked. I love it!

Dave Garcia has stepped in on bass and provides the constant support you expect without distracting. My favorite players are Geezer Butler and Gene Simmons. What I love most about those two is that they know exactly when they're supposed to ride the wave but also when they're supposed to shine. Dave's the same. The best moments for me in these songs is when the guitars drop out for a short count and let Dave thump away. It's great writing and solid collaboration.

I ended up taking a lot of time getting through the preliminary bullshit again, so if you're still reading, I'll take you through some of the songs. There are 12 of them, which is about three or four more than I usually like on an album (that goes for any artist). Give me 8-10 songs, and I'm good to go. I end up skipping my way around to create my own playlist anyhow. And yes, that goes for Elvis's and Ozzy's albums.

"Look Down Upon Me" opens the set and is about as catchy as anything The Furnace has given us so far. It welcomes us with their classic metal prowess despite the lineup changes. The groove is melodic, the guitar solo understated but purposeful, the structure original. The refrain doesn't come until the coda, which leaves me wanting more as the song ends. Perfect.

By the time we get to the fourth track, "Killer Inside," the head-banging is constant. The songs rock with powerful drive. If not for the liner notes, I would've thought this was called "Kill Her Inside," which also works. If there's one song on this album that I might've co-written with Danny (like "Raise the Dead"), it would've been this one. "All alone in an empty room, I hear a child crying" and "Not alone in a crowded room, I hear a family screaming" sound like me, and I fucking love it. It's probably my favorite rocker on the disc. Very radio friendly and stays in your head long after the album is over. The effortless guitar solo and acoustic bridge are followed by a crescendo of refrains underscored with melodic lead and varied melody, reflecting a growth and maturity of these artists that leaps everywhere off the disc.

The band resurrects their vampire hymn for the ninth track. They call it "Tar" this time around and change the lyrics, but the riffs and melody sound the same. I wonder how Dave felt about recording this one. Or Kevin listening, if he ever gave it a chance. Again, none of our fucking business. The song is solid but so was the original. They alter the arrangement enough not to force the comparison. Again, Dave handles the vocals without trying to prove he's better than Kevin. The best choice was not giving us the same ending. Kevin's version includes a haunting refrain that closes the debut album like a funeral chant. Smart not to go there again.

I love covers when they're true to their antecedents, and the band's take on "I Ran" is no exception. It reminds me of how Life of Agony does "Don't You (Forget About Me)." There's something poetic about a metal band taking a pop song and making the heaviness work. This homage carries me right back to junior high and every girl I ever chased. The musicians let loose while Dave's vocals pound our broken hearts into submission.

The disc closes with "Say Goodbye," an acoustic ballad reminiscent of "The Child" on their debut. This time, our passionate speaker can't find the right words to say when parting ways with his loved one. I'm confident my little brother wrote this about our grandmother (some nine years before she died), but the lyrics apply to any relationship. Percussion creeps in during the second half of the song, reminding me of a galloping horse. Perhaps, one that carries away the object of affection. It's poignant and chilling.

I can't help but walk away from Beyond What's Become feeling proud of what these guys accomplished despite all the lineup changes. A remarkable effort. Find it on Spotify or buy it here: Beyond What's Become.

Next up: Find a Way.