What's in a name? What is it about names that have such command over our thought processes? What is it about names that drives us so much? Of course, Shakespeare's question has been long debated over the years, but I've often wondered why names have such power over us as human beings. Names are identifiers; research shows that using a person's name in conversation with them helps you to "get in good" with them, and possibly establish a greater rapport, and in many cases, a good sales relationship.
In terms of music, and more specifically, heavy metal, names are extremely important. Most people would consider a band called "Candy Fairy Land" to be some kind of frilly bubblegum pop band, while a name like "Evisceration of Mind" conjures up images of grindcore & thoughts of 30 second songs with more raw power than a truck full of "energy drinks". So what does the mind tell you when the name is just unique & has little apparent meaning or bearing on the music played by said oddly named band? To me, it's actually quite fitting, as the band doesn't really belong in the thrash metal genre from a strict viewpoint, but is related closely enough to it to be included in the "family reunions" and other functions where a seat at the table is set and they are included as if they were a blood relative. That's the parallel I draw, anyway.
That's the quandry with Step Cousin. I first heard the name several years ago & immediately thought, "That's a dumb name." I felt like it was ill-chosen, and not a very good representation of the style they were classified as (Thrash Metal), or as a moniker for a metal band in any way. Granted, I'm of the mind that if it fits, it fits, and who should judge your band by it's name, anyway? Smashing Pumpkins need not apply. But in all fairness to the members of the band, it's not a name that conjures images of headbanging, helicopter hair, or groove-infected thrash riffs. It sounds like something similar to the moniker of "Red-headed step child" that is often used to describe the "black sheep" of the family or other similar motifs. Still, looking past the name we can see what's really important in this scenario - the music. And from that perspective, there is no confusion.
"in My Darkest Hour" begins with a rumbling bass line, and quickly transitions into chunky guitar riffing, thunderous bass, and competent drumming. Kelly Matthews' gruff vocals soon follow with a semi-melodic verse that beckons the listener to pay attention to the lyrics. Kelly's drumming is also impressive already, with great rolls, double-bass work, and loads of power. Once things get going, the bass gets buried a bit in the mix, but is still audible enough to know it's keeping time. The chorus contains some growled "death" vocals, ala early Mortification for effect. This, combined with the gritty semi-clean vocals makes a nice contrast. The 2nd verse has some wicked rolls that just showcase the drumming throughout this album. There's a ton of groove in this song, and that's one of the underlying elements found on the album as well. Jeff Grady's solo here is great, with a bit of blues thrown in for good measure. I like the harpsichord (?) sound at the end of the guitar solo as well, nice touch. Another couple trips through the chorus after the bridge, and then a sudden transition into an electric piano & acoustic guitar passage that is a really cool outro for the song, complete with some subtle electric guitar soloing. "Behind the Veil" blows in at full speed with insane rolls and heavy, chunky riffing right off the bat. I love the "rising stairstep" effect of the riff at the beginning. Vocally, we're into the "death" vocals right away, which complements the speedy thrash riffing. The chorus slows things down a tad for some massive groove and the more gritty semi-clean vocals. The song breaks down around the 2-minute mark for a major groove riff, some cool ride cymbal work, and a great bluesy solo w/ a bit of wah-wah in the mix. Close to the 3-minute mark we're back to the verse riffing w/ speed & "death" vocals, and back to the chorus again, then breaking down into a groove section again near the 4-minute mark for some more solo action, which just showcases Grady's great southern-vibe playing. "The Evolution Religion" begins with a majorly groovy riff in one of the stereo channels, then doubles up with some more ride cymbal work and drumming before going into the chunky verse riff with more "death" vocals. The vocal layering in teh chorus (gritty semi-clean and "death" vocals) works well. The chorus is catchy with a melodic riff that will stick with you. Close to the 2-minute mark you get an audio clip about creationism & evolution, which is a nice touch. Then you get speedy thrash riffing with double-bass drum and no-holds-barred power. At around 2:30 it transitions into an acoustic guitar section with good drum/cymbal work, and then into heavy, chunky riffing around 3 minutes. Next comes a brief solo guitar bit that is very tasteful, and an almost Tourniquet-esque riff from around the 3:30 mark on to about the 4:15 mark, then another audio clip of the same speaker from before, then right back into the verse. While it sounds as though all these clips would interrupt the flow, but it works well here and feels natural. The pacing keeps the song going in the right direction. Another run through the chorus, some speedy, groovy riffing, and all-out madness nearing the end of the song, until the last audio cilp, then a brief instrumental wrap-up.
"Tears On My Pillow" starts with a great melodic riff and bass drum work, then into full-on double-bass drumming, rolls, and speed. The verse of the song is melodic and incorporates a lot of drum work and harmonized riffing. The transition to the chorus slows things down slightly, then stops on a dime for half a second before going right into the chorus at full speed ahead. There's an interesting audio sample after the chorus of a woman speaking in what I believe to be German. Not sure what she's saying, but it's kind of interesting. Verse and chorus again after the sample, keeping the pace up & then breaking down slightly around the 2:30 mark for a short respite moment, but keeping the frenetic cymbal work going before blowing into another lightly blues-tinged solo atop a riffing speed-fest. Verse 3 keeps the urgency of the song going, while the chorus brings things to a close. "Obituary" starts with some cool drum/cymbal work, and then a slower, heavy groove-laden riff to kick things off, with some nice melodic riff work & rumbling bassline underneath. There's also a cool little solo to transition into a slightly doomy-sounding riff section, complete with harmonized guitar riff. This picks up the pace with added double-bass, then again into full-on speed for a moment. This long intro stops on a dime to break down into more groove and finally vocals come in with a gritty feel, and some "death" vocals thrown in as well to contrast. The riffing here is so groovy, yet so chunky & heavy. The clean vocals in the chorus are layered with a subtle harmony, which works well. Great solo work after the 2nd verse & chorus, once again with a bit of a bluesy feeling, and a bit of wah-wah pedal sound to it. This song is melodic without being overly melodic, and loaded with lots of groove while still retaining a thrash aesthetic to it. "A Friend Like You" has a nice intro with background guitar, tom tom drumwork, and then full-on into melodic groovy riffing. Great double-bass work here as well, with nice triplets & quads sprinkled throughout. Kelly Matthews does his best Luke Easter impression during the verse with a real gritty, low-end vocal that is reminiscent of some of Luke's work on Tourniquet's more recent work. The chorus vocal is even more gritty, with a higher-pitched sound that really shows the attitude conveyed in the lyrics well. The chorus riff is just as groove-laden & melodic as the verse, but don't let that fool you - it's also ultra-chunky and nice 'n heavy. The bridge is also melodic and has a cleaner vocal than found elsewhere. Then comes a nice section with some spare drumming, rumbling bass, and a clean "echo" guitar bit that sounds cool w/ the drum backdrop, especially when the drums start getting into the insane tom rolls & double-bass work, until the chorus comes blasting back into action. Then out of the blue, a flute solo (flute solo!?) comes in, followed by a cool guitar solo. Who do these guys think they are, Tourniquet? All joking aside, the interplay between flute and guitar sounds cool, and it's an unexpected twist that gives this song a bit of extra "flavor".
"Cold" begins with a sample from one of those "Time and Temp" services you can call on the phone, except it was spliced together from different times calling in to get the intended effect - "One hundred and one degrees below zero Fahrenheit". It sounds totally seemless, however, so kudos to the band for making it sound as though it was a single phone call. Right away you are pummeled with double-bass drumming, cool tom rolls, and infectious riffing. The verse riff is melodic and is complemented by a bit of harmonized layered vocals. More "death" vocals sprinkled in. I like the backgrond vocal of "Isolate!" in the chorus section with the "echo" and "tunnel" effects on it. The bridge riff builds the tension through with double-bass riffing, then into a section of drum & bass for a moment, into some dual-lead guitar work. All this before 2 & a half minutes! Then into some clean guitar riffing to transition into some more Tourniquet-esque melodic riffing that sounds like it came right from the Ted Kirkpatrick Handbook of Thrash Guitar (TM). Frantic double-bass & drum work over some speedy riffing shows up here as well, then back into a major groove around the 4-minute mark. The chorus transitions from "Isolate!" to "Consecrate!" for the last run-through, signaling the change in the lyrics & the transformation from cold human to someone who has been saved by grace. The speedy riffing closes out the song well and ends abruptly. One of my favorite tracks on the album, for sure. "Scarred" has a groovy riff with a nice pinch harmonic, and is complemented well by the semi-melodic vocal. The "death" vocals come back here for the chorus and the transition from chorus back to verse is a cool melodic, groovy riff. More great double-bass work after the 2nd chorus to work into a speedy bridge that moves the song along, then transitions into the 2nd bridge that showcases a simple speed-picking solo, but retains a melodic quality to it. After verse & chorus 3, the riffing changes to a slower, major groove-laden riff with another pinch harmonic to it, and another solo, this time with a bit more melody & interest. The 2nd part of the solo has a cool effect applied to it, and returns to a traditional solo guitar to finish out the song.
"Life and Dreams" begins with big tom/bass drum hits, thumping bass, and massive groove again. "Death" vocals make an appearance here again in the verse, which speeds things up and moves into a chorus with lots of groove, and a subtle melody that works well without overpowering the song. The vocals here go back to the more gritty, semi-clean sound found elsewhere. After the 2nd verse & chorus, things get groovy again, with lots of chunkiness in the riffing and subtle melodic guitar work. Then things pick up again with more speed for a solo section that has a nice balance between speed & melody. There's a nice melodic bridge nearing the 4-minute mark with a subtly layered harmony vocal that sounds good. Nice clean guitar picking afterward, atop the rumbling bass and subtle drum/cymbal work that hardly prepares you for the thrash-fest to follow back into the final chorus and into the groovy outro. "I Don't Need It" has a cool intro with great drumming, nice riffs, and great pacing. The verse uses a real gritty vocal that recalls Luke Easter again, if ever so slightly, and "death" vocals interplay with some high-pitched screaming in the chorus. This screaming wouldn't sound out of place on a metalcore record, but sounds completely natural here as well, which is cool. Speedy double-bass drumming underscores the acoustic guitar after the 2nd chorus, then into a nice melodic solo section with some dual-guitar lead work. Back into the chorus again for a moment, then into more melodic soloing to close things out. Short but sweet, this track packs a punch & gets it done quickly. "This Is the Time" starts off immediatley with double-bass and groovy riffing, then into a gritty vocal and a riff that "breathes" a bit more than others on the album. "Death" vocals come in again before the melodic chorus, which employs more great double-bass and tom roll work. Bold lyrics here as well; the band is not ashamed to proclaim the name of Christ for sure. Near the half-way point is a nice blues-tinged solo, then some cool melodic dual-guitar solo layering, then back into a verse & chorus section. More melodic dual-guitar soloing brings things to a groove-laden bridge, then fades out over the last 30 seconds or so into silence.
So what's the verdict? Well, mostly positive. Kelly Matthews is a talented multi-instrumentalist with competent bass lines, competent & strong vocals, and fantastic drum work. He's no Ted Kirkpatrick, but he can definitely hang with the best of the speedy thrash drummers this side of the tech-thrash fence. Jeff Grady is a great guitarist as well, showcasing both his tasteful lead playing, and just his ability to transition between speed-metal madness to groove and melody. All the elements combined make this album a treat to listen to. Where the album loses points is that it begins to dip in quality slightly after about the 2/3 mark. "Cold" is the album's last real highlight, with "Scarred" being a nice melodic piece, then things become a tad less interesting. They are still great songs, but it might have been a good idea to incorporate one of the final tracks earlier in the album where it wouldn't have deadened the impact of the album up to that point. Also, Kelly's voice sounds great throughout, but he won't be winning any awards for "Thrash Metal Vocalist of the Year" (TM) or winning any Joey Belladonna sound-alike contests. Still, for thrash metal, he does the job & does it well. If you like groove metal, thrash metal, or just chunky sounding heavy metal with great instrumentation, I'd recommend this heartily.