Friday, May 13, 2011

Letter 7 - Follow the Light (2008)

Once in a while an album comes along that just "sticks".  I'm not talking about one that the mainstream eats up, or that is fodder for mass public consumption.  I'm talking about a much more personal kind of thing.  Sometimes, you buy an album and the more you listen to it, the more you like it.  Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it just really "sticks" with you and you seem to enjoy it all the more.  Even when you don't listen to it for a while, when you come back to it, that album is again fresh and new, even when you've spun it countless times before.  Albums like this are precious, because no matter how much you listen to them, they're still likable and easy to come back to.  This is a quality often lost in the "here today, gone tomorrow" pop music world - the days of big sales on albums (in the truest sense of the word) are over.

However, the recent shift in the music industry due to the advent of the internet has given much of the power back to the artists, if they're willing to work a little harder or focus on their own affairs.  Through a website, Myspace, Facebook, Reverb Nation, or other type of site, bands can interact directly with fans and sell their product direct.  No longer are bands forced to give up 35% of t-shirt and merch sales to labels, promoters, and other folks - bands have a choice to handle that themselves at their shows.  What's the use of a platinum album when you only have 4 points on the record?  Your band is only going to earn $40,000 for that album you spent toiling in the studio over for 4 months, and that take is probably already eaten up in studio fees and promotional costs because the labels won't generally pay for it.  Now bands can sell direct to fans, hire competent producers to make a low-cost but still quality product and reap most of the profit.  A band can make a lot more money selling 1,000 copies of a CD when they can take home some 80% of the sale price.  So while this shift has occurred, regardless, there are still bands out there who get it right and make great albums, regardless of the music buying climate.  Letter 7 is one of those bands.

"Follow the Light" is the band's 2nd album, coming just one year after their debut "Salt the Earth".  While the debut was a strong record with good vocal performances, good songs, and a reasonably good recording, it didn't quite reach the heights that a band performing a more classic hard rock/metal style should reach to make you want to reach for that record versus an actual classic.  Having said that, "Follow the Light" does everything better than the debut, and should give discriminating listeners reason enough to look into this band above and beyond the classics they're used to spinning on a regular basis.  This release is chock-full of hard rocking melodic metal that hearkens back to the "glory days" of metal in the mid-late 80's, and yet doesn't feel entirely dated.

One thing that I really like about this release is the guitar tone.  It just has that nice balance between metal crunch and melodic quality.  It cuts enough to where you know this is a metal band, but not to the point of beating you over the head with just how heavy they are.  This is an essential quality to any melodic metal band, and these guys do it well.  Guitar sounds are all very well done here, with nice sounding clean guitars, crunchy distorted guitars, and great ripping solos that have just enough attitude to counter the flashiness.  Bass guitar is a bit more audible here than in many metal releases, in part because of the extremely clean and well-proportioned production.  While bass isn't doing anything outstanding or out of the ordinary, it does the job and makes for the right mix with the rest of the instrumentation.  Drum work is quite good, though nothing will "knock your socks off".  Instead, the drums become part of the musical landscape, adding the right touches here and there and never taking over.  There are a couple spots where the drums feel a bit "stiff" like the cymbal pattern could have been played a bit more "loosely" (the high-hat riding on "Lifeline" is a good example), but otherwise this is very competent and well-played work.

Vocally, this CD is a couple notches above its predecessor.  Not that "Salt of the Earth" wasn't a solid release, but this just takes it to the next level.  It's not that the previous vocalist didn't sing the songs well, but Steve Young fits the band's sound and material better.  The previous singer executed the melodies well, but his voice wasn't as well-suited to this melodic metal sound as Steve's is.  He sings with authority and sounds great doing it, but doesn't go out of his way to emulate any of the traditional metal vocal heroes - he retains his own voice and sound while still meeting many of the metal vocal touchstones fans like to hear, such as the high-pitched screams, smooth ballad crooning, and occasionally gritty bits for added effect.  I didn't hear Steve go off-pitch at all during the course of the CD, which is a major plus, though there were a handful of spots where it sounded as though he could have been reaching for those notes.  Still, a worthy vocal performance.

On the negative side (or the positive side, depending on how you look at it), the lyrics are a tad heavy-handed in spots.  As a Christian myself, this doesn't generally bother me.  There's room in my mind for the really obtuse lyrics that hint at God, the "turn or burn" lyrics, and everything in between.  Regular metal listeners who aren't believers in the Bible may turn their noses up here, and that's a shame.  Steve's vocal performance and the music played here is good enough for anyone to love this CD, regardless of lyrical content.  For those who love bold, up-front Christianity in their lyrics, there will be much to like here.  Having said that, as with the vast majority of traditional metal bands espousing a Christian faith, there are moments of lyrical clumsiness and awkwardness.  I would say, however, that even this area is an improvement over the debut.
As of this writing, I understand that Steve Young is no longer with the band.  That disappoints me, because he has a great voice and brought so much to this album.  I am hopeful the band will find the right fit in a vocalist who can bring the same level of talent (or greater) that Steve displayed, and get back on track to record another record.  There's so much to like about this band, that if they tightened up their songwriting and lyrics even more, and had an even stronger vocal performance, they could be contenders for having a metal community largely indifferent about "Christian metal" think twice about writing them off.  As it stands, this is a quality band, a quality album, and something that's easy for me to recommend to the music fan who either misses the heyday of metal, or perhaps never left.


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