CD Reviews - February 2020
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MEDUSA’S DISCO – ORPHIC GRIMOIRE (no label) Since 2013, Lancaster-based foursome Medusa’s Disco has steadily carved their unique niche in the state’s music scene, growing a rabid fan base with their fresh blend of indie-geared garage rock and Woodstock era-inspired hard rock psychedelia. Their latest album, Orphic Grimoire, continues to work that stylistic mixture and drive it in creative directions. The cast of singer, guitarist and sitarist Wynton Huddle, singer and guitarist Hunter Root, new bassist (and recording engineer) Justin Wohlfeil and drummer Alex Aument opts for shorter, more direct numbers over the lengthier and improvisational epics of their previous album, 2016’s Pure. As a result, the songs are more immediately catchy with quick hooks that snare attention, forcefully driven home by Medusa’s Disco’s raw, go-for-broke fervor. The opening guitar riff of the disc-opener “Dominoes” grabs attention, quickly leading into the song’s infectious melody and words about everyone’s impending mortality. Dark, heavier and waltz-like, “Book Upon My Shelf” expresses a reflective theme of flipping pages through one’s life. Bass and drum thunder launch “Painters Painting Paintings” and its lyrical quest for creative fulfillment, while a sitar passage triggers “Knowledge” with its catchy blend of 1960s-flavored psychedelia and surf rock tones. Medusa’s Disco unleashes punk-driven energy on “I Don’t Feel Anything,” while a saxophone combines with a Doors-like groove on the milder “Belly Ache.” “Tear It Apart” bristles with garage-rock edginess, and the group channels some of their inner Zeppelin on “Waiting for Karma.” Medusa’s Disco never stays in one place for long on this album; each song is unique and attacks the senses from a different angle, keeping the listening experience fresh throughout. The group understands dynamics and how to keep listeners on their toes with sudden stops and shifting intensities. Their execution is tight yet throws caution to the wind, and this group captures a live, leave-it-all-on-the-stage urgency throughout this set. The album sounds busy, full and edgy, and the result is an engaging set. Orphic Grimoire shows Medusa’s Disco continuing to stake and explore their sonic frontiers, and their mix of infectious songs and unpredictable twists and turns makes this a fun listening adventure. (The album can be obtained through the group’s website, www.medusasdisco.com, as well as through online retailers.)
VAN WAGNER – SHORTLEAF PINE (no label) “Van Wagner. Born in Pennsylvania. Lives in Pennsylvania. Makes music. Mined coal. Logged trees. Teaches kids.” From Van’s website, these words capture Van’s career in a nutshell. For 20 years and more than 20 original music albums, the Danville-based singer, guitarist, songwriter, historian and teacher has entertained and educated listeners, blending his vast knowledge of Pennsylvania history, nature, geography and folklore with his distinctive and personal brand of acoustic, folk and Americana-based music. Van’s latest album, Shortleaf Pine, introduces 14 new songs that celebrate those aforementioned themes, mixed with his own experiences and perspectives. Consisting of Van on vocals and acoustic guitar, Mark Tomeo on dobro, and backing singers Kate Woodruff and Kiera Chillas; the presentation is stripped down, and this simplicity enables Van’s stories and observations to take front and center. The album’s title song, “Shortleaf Pine,” references a pine tree whose numbers in Pennsylvania have diminished over the years, and Van’s quest to see one, only to discover it 100 feet from his home; the song suggests that the world has wonders that can be discovered and appreciated if you keep your eyes and mind open. Recorded at the studios of WVIA in Scranton and featuring guitarist Tim Zieger and bassist Abbie Zieger, “Be Yourself” encourages listeners to be true to themselves and happy in their own skins. On the faster and folksy “Remember My Chains,” Van observes that humans are the only species in the world who can choose to change themselves for better or worse. Van sings about Pennsylvania history on several songs: “Molly Maguires,” exploring the role of the 19th century Irish secret society in the state’s mining communities; “Spanish Cross,” pondering an object found along the Susquehanna River and its meaning in the context of local history; and the album-closer “Prince Farrington,” about a prominent Prohibition-era Clinton County moonshiner and folk hero. Van touches on autobiographical themes on “Life Keeps Trying to Kill Me,” “They Didn’t Walk Out On Me” and “I’m Going Downhill,” and reflects on the ups and downs of canine ownership on “My Dog Days are Done.” Van’s voice is sturdy and heartfelt; you can tell that he feels every word he sings, and sense his emotions from happy to reflective to serious to somber. His melodies are simple yet captivating, and his words are relatable and thoughtful. Recorded and engineered by Jason Perez, the album overall sounds cohesive, balanced and full, and allows Van’s voice to stand broad in the mix. Shortleaf Pine contributes to Van Wagner’s growing legacy as one of this state's premier folk singers and storytellers, and provides a relaxing, thoughtful and educational listening experience. (The CD can be purchased through Van Wagner’s website, www.vanwagnermusic.com.)
THOMAS MICHAEL BRUNNER – THOMAS MICHAEL BRUNNER (Planet Pee Pee Records Worldwide) Altoona native Thomas Michael Brunner has been creating music since the early 1980s. During that span, he has crafted heavy metal and thrash metal in his band projects TBG (Tom Brunner Group) and Killer Elite, morphed into poultry onstage as ukulele-slinging solo act Elvis Chicken, and donned a shark outfit and shark-shaped guitar as the performance entity Sharky. His new self-titled CD, Thomas Michael Brunner, offers a self portrait of the artist as a young rocker, chicken and shark, compiling a variety of songs and curios from his lengthy career over 18 tracks. Sporting a sombrero on the CD cover, Tom serves up his brand of Spanish-themed folk on the disc-opening “Senorita,” perhaps to pique listener curiosity to enter the rest of his unique musical world on the tracks to follow. The next seven tracks recap Tom’s early career, mixing material from his TBG and Killer Elite years with corresponding local radio footage of his airplay and achievements. “WFBG Radio” finds the Tom Brunner Group as the station’s weekly evening “Local Music Spotlight” feature in a 1984 interview clip produced by a budding radio “Professor” near the start of his career (boy did I sound ‘green’ back then, ha ha!); this leads into the dark, mostly-instrumental “Drone Factor Z,” which garnered TBG local WFBG airplay. More radio footage of TBG achieving the top-requested song on Jay Randyll’s nightly “Top 9 @ 9” feature on WFBG then leads into that requested song, TBG’s “Cheap Love.” And tapping WFBG radio history again, the track “All Night Album Rock” digs up a “Final Cut” review by the aforementioned “Professor” of a Killer Elite demo, leading into that band’s thrashy “Kill or Be Killed,” followed by two more Killer Elite tracks, “Thermo Thrash” and “Gladiator.” The CD then shifts into Tom’s Elvis Chicken incarnation, starting with the comic jazz-blues interlude “Dancing with the Changs,” channeling his inner Presley on “Blue Blue Bar-B-Q,” and taking the chicken on a thrash-laden ride with “Elvis Chicken Has Risen from His Happy Hole.” We then hear Tom/Elvis’ happy ukulele creations with the tropical “Coconut Island of Love,” “Electric Ukulele” and “Happy Hat,” before the CD enters Sharky-infested musical waters for the ominous metal instrumental “Drone Factor XZ7” (Tom’s sequel to “Drone Factor Z”), “Thrashin’ with Sharky” and the (Black) Sabbathy and stormy disc-closer “7even Seas.” As a musical autobiography, this album gives us a good representation of Tom’s music career arc, and we get a variety of his creations, from the mild and whimsical to the dark and sinister. Tom’s adventurous personality permeates all of these song offerings, and we hear his skills on bass, ukulele and voice. As these songs come from different parts of Tom’s career, sound quality can vary between the older and more recent material, but the overall mix level is consistent and listenable. Local fans of Tom Brunner’s career should find Thomas Michael Brunner an interesting and reminiscent listening experience, while newcomers will experience Tom’s unique musical story, world and personality. (The digital album can be obtained through Amazon.com; the CD can be obtained by mailing Tom Brunner, 3485 Colonel Drake Highway, Altoona, PA 16601.)
BAD LUCK LOVER BOYS – BAD LUCK LOVER BOYS EP (no label) Formed in 2017, Bad Luck Lover Boys is a Bedford-based rock band featuring lead singer and guitarist Chris Diehl, guitarist Mark Godissart, bassist and singer Brennon Miller and drummer Brad Hengst. Their self-titled debut EP introduces listeners to Bad Luck Lover Boys’ blend of pop and punk rock flavors over five tracks. Blink 182 and Weezer both inform the group’s base sound, as Bad Luck Lover Boys demonstrate ample energy, clean instrumental execution, simple and catchy melodies, and solid singing and vocal harmonies. The Lover Boys’ luck at love informs four of the EP’s tracks…A quick burst of laughter launches the EP’s punchy opening track, “All My Thoughts Are Dead,” as Chris voices anxieties about girlfriends and life. He sings about a carefree party animal on the Weezer-ish “Cory,” driven by Brennon’s prominent cyclical bass line. “At the Baseball Game” offers punk-fueled venting about a devious past love interest, while “Scot Pilgrim” and “Nicole” are happier and more hopeful about the opposite sex. The songs are short, sweet and to the point, and the group’s arrangements are lean and efficient. Recorded at Bedford’s Pitt Street Studio and mixed by Cody Hoover, this EP sounds clear, balanced and full, and captures Bad Luck Lover Boys’ blend of melody and punk edge. This EP offers a solid introduction to Bad Luck Lover Boys’ musical world, and shows an enthusiastic band proudly establishing their turf. (The EP can be purchased digitally through the group’s Bandcamp web page; hard copy CD’s can be obtained at the group’s live shows.)
BLIND CHOICE – MENTAL SCARS EP (no label) Formed in early 2017, Scranton/Lehigh Valley-based trio Blind Choice introduce a fast-firing, punk-fueled style and sound on their four-song EP, Mental Scars. Lead singer and guitarist Dylan Pysher, bassist and backing singer Matt Habrial and drummer Tanner Snyder uncork hard-driving rhythms and velocity, powering catchy odes to personality clashes and youthful anxieties. Dylan battles nerves, apprehensions and heavy brain traffic on the fast and furious disc-opener “Balance on the Floor” with its slight hint of Green Day. Dylan is sick of being ignored on the angrier-toned “I Don’t Exist,” wary of deception and head games on “Stormy Night of Stray,” and laments a cohort’s change in personality on the disc’s final track, “Old Good Friend.” The songs are efficient, quick and to the point. Blind Choice’s instrumental execution is tight and forceful; the guitars snarl and the rhythms pound. Dylan displays good vocal range and clarity, and the lyrics are understandable and relatable. Engineered by Bret Alexander at Saturation Acres Recording Studios, this EP sounds clean, balanced and full, with all of Blind Choice’s components sounding distinguishable in the mix. Mental Scars introduces Blind Choice as a promising choice for punk rock fans to keep an eye on. (The EP can be purchased through the group’s website, www.blindchoiceband.com, as well as from CD Baby.)