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CD Reviews - November 2020

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CRAIG BONNER – HALLOWEEN BALL, PART ONE (no label) Not originally a fan of Halloween season, Palmyra-based singer and songwriter Craig Bonner was inspired by a former girlfriend to write a song called “Halloween Ball” several years ago. Craig continued to flesh out and add elements to the initial story, and his five-year process has culminated in his first CD, the Halloween-themed album Halloween Ball, Part One. Through ten songs, Craig weaves a loose narrative about unusual happenings involving a spooky house atop a hill, as well as some of the characters who frequent the house. (According to Craig, these initial songs develop the background, history and context for his song “Halloween Ball,” which will appear on his follow-up Halloween Ball, Part Two album.) Craig sings and plays acoustic guitars, while other guest musicians help him flesh out and bring these songs to life, with more contributors providing character roles for dialogues and skits which occur between songs on the album. Joe Trojcak plays keys, provides special effects and backing vocals, and also produced and recorded the album at his Progressive Enterprises studio in Elizabethtown. Anthony Pieruccini contributes electric guitars and cello, Ryan Frantz plays bass, Kevin Daboin plays drums and percussion, and Alexis Evans and Bernadette “BB” Bratina provide backing vocals. The songs are rock-geared and blend various flavors, spanning classic and gothic-styled rock to hints of Alice Cooper, Bobby “Boris” Pickett and more. Curious boys becoming scared of monstrous sounds from a spooky abode lead into the album's first song, “The House on the Hill,” with Joe's ominous organ groan underscoring Craig's sung narrative and background on tragic events that happened at the house. The undead run amok on the faster-paced “Zombies on the Run,” culminating in a chaotic homestretch cacophony of fleeing townsfolk and wailing police sirens. Folklore gossip about the house leads into “The Girl in the Graveyard,” where swamp blues-flavored verses lead to ghostly choruses. Girls singing “Ring Around the Rosie” preface a visit from the Bogeyman on “The Gingerbread Man,” while the creeping “Harold, the Spider” conjures a darker Alice Cooper vibe., and the hard-rocking “Hairry D. Wolf” brings a werewolf into the mix. The eerie “The Hanging Tree” adds another haunting angle to the house narrative, and the 10-minute album-closing opus “Something Strange (Monster's Ball)” reports a strange gathering at the house, complete with various Halloween characters, movie, TV and cartoon creatures, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson too. This album works as both a cohesive story and musical narrative; Craig's expressive voice serves his narrative well, giving the story's presentation an appropriately creepy edge. The songs are infectious, and the musicians serve the mood of each song, from Joe's keyboard underscores to Alexis and Bernadette's timely backing vocal accents. Everything works well together, from music to voices to skits and dialogue, and the sound mix enables everything to sound clear and in place. Halloween Ball, Part One is fun listening and nicely done, as Craig Bonner and his colleagues deliver an album of worthy mood music for trick-or-treat and Halloween parties. (The album can be accessed or obtained through the website https://craigbonner.hearnow.com.)


JOEY DALTO – ALL FOR YOU (no label) Joey Dalto has been making music as a frontman for several prominent central PA bands during the past two decades – including past projects like Echoburn and Pocket Rockit, and currently with Harrisburg-based bands The Famous and The Swisher Sweets. Along the way, he has been writing his own songs, and introduces some of those creations on his debut solo album, All For You. Singing and playing guitar, Joey introduces a guitar-powered, melody-driven hard rock style that mixes classic and modern rock flavors over the album's 10 tracks. He shows a knack for potent song hooks that snare you in, driven home with his clear, dynamic voice and a tight-sounding support cast including guitarist Tyler Adkins, bassist Phil Cannizzaro and drummer Trent Sprenkle. Joey's blend of classic and modern rock elements quickly becomes apparent on the album-opener “Angel,” containing a sleek, hard-driving melody and chorus reminiscent of peak Bryan Adams, tinged with a modern-ish sheen. He also displays straight-up rock on the dual-speed, hard-edged title track “All For You.” Once a finalist to become the singer for platinum-selling rockers Fuel, Joey channels a Fuel flavor on songs such as “Can't Stand” and the escalating “Maybe Crazy.” He takes things in a funkier direction on “Breathe Again,” and shows a viable contemporary pop-rock sound with the beat-driven single “Miss Lonely.” Joey shows a slower and darker tone on the ethereal “Isolate Me,” and crafts two quality power ballads to finish the album on “Epic Love” and “Things to Say,” the former featuring keyboard and strings from Erik Avakian. All ten tunes offer crisp, tight arrangements and efficient songcraft. Joey's voice is clear and constant throughout, and his associates execute cleanly and on the mark. Produced and engineered by Michael Washkevich, and recorded at MDW Productions in Harrisburg, All For You sounds full, cohesive and polished. Joey Dalto delivers a well-crafted, fresh-sounding and consistent debut effort in All For You, serving notice of his compelling songwriting skills and excellent vocal abilities. (The album can be obtained through Joey's website, www.joeydalto.com.)


DONNY BURNS & THE 3RD DEGREE – SATISFIED (no label) When it comes to music family bloodlines, the expression “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” often proves true. From the early 1980s on, Donny Burns Sr. made his mark on central PA stages as the frontman for Cut The Mustard, Donny Burns & the Sharp Turns and Time with Donny Burns. In recent years, Donny’s son, Donny Burns Jr., surfaced as a guitar player and singer with the Time project, before stepping away in early 2019 to make his own mark with his self-named band, Donny Burns & the 3rd Degree. The group’s blazing live show has quickly grown a regional fan base, and their debut CD, Satisfied, should continue to win the group new fans. Donny on lead vocals and guitar, Nick Stahlman on guitar, James Arroway on bass and Rob Chisholm on drums deliver a fun, rocking, 8-song set with a sound that mixes classic, modern rock and funk flavors; channeling influences spanning Led Zeppelin, the Black Crowes, the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers and more. The Crowes and Chili Peppers influences shine prominently on the punchy funk-rocking album-opener “Summer Rain,” with the band setting its infectious groove instantly and having fun with it. The tempo increases with “Thinkin’ Straight,” with its catchy melody, memorable chorus hook and words of determination in the pursuit of someone’s heart. Determination to get out of town and chase the dream of being on stage informs the words of the feverish rocker “Out of Dodge,” as Donny uncorks scathing guitar solo fireworks during the song’s latter midsection and homestretch. Donny recalls a fun weekend triggered by attending a Foo Fighters concert on the upbeat “Foo Fighter Weekend,” and a driving riff sets up the powerful chorus payoff of “Carousel.” Guest Dan Collins contributes fiddle work on the funk-driven “Think You Know,” while Cody Wolf offers the timely midsection raps on the milder-toned title song “Satisfied,” helping build its lyrical message about stopping and smelling the roses. The songs are catchy and solid, and the band delivers them with excitement and enthusiasm. The performances are energized and tight, and vocals and vocal harmonies are spot-on. Self-recorded, mixed, engineered and produced by the band, Satisfied sounds clear, full, lively and edgy, as the songs and performances do the talking without the dampening of studio bells and whistles. Donny Burns & the 3rd Degree trailblaze their own hot-rocking path with Satisfied, a satisfying, energized listen that should prompt listeners to quickly crank up the volume. (The album can be obtained through online music retailers and streaming services.)


WE CAME FROM SPACE – WHILE YOU WERE AWAY (no label) They came from space in 2013 to show us How to Be Human, their debut album. Musical adventurers from the cosmos of western PA, We Came From Space have returned with their second chapter, entitled While You Were Away. Time travelers from another aeon when long-form record albums were revered as iconic masterpieces, the intergalactic cast of guitarist and singer Dave Buzard, keyboardist and singer Bill Hubauer, bassist and singer Dave Hawk and drummer Tim Malone present 11 exquisite chunks of 1970s/80s-derived, progressive-edged arena rock. Hints of classic Styx, Kansas, Boston, Supertramp and Deep Purple are distilled into this stew of melodies and arrangements, which We Came From Space ferments into their own inventive and creative directions. Beyond the obvious musicality here, these guys are wordsmiths too, generating clever, observational and often sardonic lyrics about a world teetering between hope and haywire. The album's beginning is hopeful, as the spacey harmony prelude “A Light Never Ending” leads into the group's uplifting title song “We Came From Space,” expressing optimism about the promise of humanity's advent. But the next song, the Beatlesque “Vivid Colours,” jumps into social commentary about deceitful leaders and fanatical followers. The progressive ska-driven “All Rights Reserved” laments how ideals become corporatized and corrupted. The high-powered, Deep Purple-toned “Business As Usual” ponders a troubled modern-day mediascape where divisions are amplified, mob mentalities rule, facts are ignored, false prophets profit, and logic is thrown out the window. Launched by Bill's prominent keyboard riff, “Eye to Eye” observes the dehumanizing effects of digital communication, from cyberbullying to diminished human interaction. We Came From Space offers contemplation and introspection on the comfortably numbing “Pieces of the Sky,” while a captivating, almost vocalizing synth riff hooks us into the modern-toned love ballad “Easily Led.” These songs are masterfully crafted, from their alluring melodies and arrangements to chord and tempo shifts, full use of stereo separation, varying emphasis between instrumental components, clever use of effects and soundbytes, and more. All four musicians excel in their respective roles, displaying strong singing voices and vocal personalities, plus precise instrumental execution. Self-recorded, produced, mixed and engineered, this album sounds remarkable from start to end, with everything coming through crisp, balanced and full. While You Were Away offers a superb listen, and a rewarding escape for fans longing for that “headphone album” to immerse themselves for hours at a time. Excellent stuff! (The album can be obtained through the group’s website, www.wecamefromspace.net.)


JAE SMITH – MURMUR (no label) Jae Smith has made his presence felt in the west-central PA music scene during the past two decades as a member and ringleader of several bands, and has evolved as a solo artist, singer and songwriter since 2013. Jae's acoustic debut solo album, Murmur, introduces us into his musical world and persona. Jae displays an eclectic style that taps flavors spanning from folk and Americana to alternative rock roots, especially from the 1990s. Strumming acoustic guitar and demonstrating a gritty singing style, Jae shows a knack for solid song hooks and melodies, and observational words about the ups and downs of life and love. Memories and laments provide prominent themes over the album's 14 tracks; reflections of a failed relationship haunt the lyrics of the album's first song, “Ghosts,” while “Highland Haze” suggests to stop dwelling on past mistakes and that life goes on. The struggle and desperation from blue-collar life surface on the hard-driving “Time Clocks and Tombstones.” A domestic squabble prefaces “My Puppeteer,” as Jae weighs the bliss and stress of relationships, while moving forward from relationship woes provides the theme of “Weeks or Months.” Other numbers are more upbeat, such as Jae's ode to a free-spirited gal in “Tragically Beautiful,” and his wordplay-savvy “Miss Communication” which could suggest a devious lady, devious news media or both. Jae also peppers four acoustic instrumentals through the course of the album: the wistful yet cosmic “Laying in a Hammock (A Space Odyssey),” “The Dawn of Aurora,” the tranquil “Secret River” and the gentle “”Eris's Lullaby (Goodnight Autumn),” which ends the album. Jae flies without a net here, with his voice and guitar doing the talking; his performances are sincere and his lyrics intriguing and thoughtful. Self-recorded, Murmur sounds crisp and full, with Jae's voice sounding clear and intelligible, and the mix is basic and to the point. Jae Smith's Murmur provides a satisfying listen as it offers a snapshot of this artist's musical mind and personality. (You can obtain the album through online music and streaming platforms.)


DEVON BECK – ONE SIDED EXPECTATIONS EP (no label) After graduating from high school earlier this year, youthful singer and songwriter Devon Beck is reaching for the stars. The Harrisburg area native has relocated to Nashville to pursue her musical dream, and issued her debut EP, One Sided Expectations, on her 18th birthday in July. The four-song recording reveals Devon’s obvious songwriting and lyrical skills, plus a smooth, soulful voice and singing style to bring those skills forth. She seamlessly fuses together country and pop flavors over the course of the EP, and her words address love, relationship issues and heartbreak. The leadoff song and title track, “One Sided Expectations” finds Devon hesitant about investing emotional capital in a new relationship after previously experiencing the pains of heartbreak. She encourages commitment and reliability on the slower and steady “Love Me or Get Lost,” and acknowledges her role in a failed relationship on the sullen and piano-driven ballad “Forgive Me.” And Devon learns from past deceptions on the punchy country-rocking closer “Devil in Disguise.” Devon’s voice is front and center throughout the set, as she comfortably bridges the middle ground between country twang and Adele-like soulful pop. The songs are direct and to the point, and Devon’s instrumental contributors provide just the right backdrops to frame the songs. The production mix sounds clean, smooth and polished, making all four of these songs sound complete and “radio ready.” One Sided Expectations showcases Devon Beck and what she offers, and provides an impressive opening chapter in this young artist’s musical journey. (The EP can be accessed and obtained through Spotify, Apple and other online music platforms.)

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