Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Crosswire - A World in Flame (2010)

In mainstream music, it is good to be number one.  Getting a number one hit or number one album is a lofty goal, but nearly everyone ascribes to it because when you reach that pinnacle, you're on top of the proverbial world for a short while.  If you can sustain it, as a scant few have, you've struck gold.  For those in the underground, it's much less about being number one, or finishing first in the race, so to speak.  It's often more about the journey - how does your music define you as an artist, and how do you grow from album to album or project to project in your playing, singing, writing, and overall artistic abilities.  The journey is about learning, improving, and making interesting art along the way that hopefully affects enough people (other than yourself) to make doing it worthwhile.

It could be said that rock and roll music is not all that original these days.  There are a large number of offshoots and sub-genres of rock music, ranging from the folky indie rock sounds of The White Stripes to the barren wastes of black metal.  Retro is in, and if you play glam metal (Steel Panther, anyone?) or thrash metal (Lich King, Warbringer, Arnion, Evile, etc), you are nearly guaranteed an audience.  But what about bands playing just straight-up, hard hitting rock and roll with attitude to spare?  They have their fan base as well, though they may not be as readily apparent or ravenous for the music as the aforementioned camps.  Still, there are plenty of fringe AC/DC fans who just love hard rock music, and that is the key to the success of bands like Crosswire.

Right away I was struck with the similarities to recent band Jet, whose 2 radio singles from their debut were instant touchstones as I spun the disc and began listening to "This Richman".  Crosswire aren't clones, however, as they distill other influences throughout that song, as well as throughout the album.  Shades of Jet come through, as well as nods to Cinderella, Guns 'N Roses, and a bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd (more about that later).  The other thing that is apparent immediately is that this is a low-budget rock record, and PROUD of that fact.  The production values are very stripped down and the sound is raw, which helps give this record some charm and spunk that it would lack if it had been more processed and more "sterile" sounding.  There is an undercurrent of blues permeating this record that gives the songs a certain swagger, and the whole thing is very catchy and memorable, a nice feat for a new band, especially given the somewhat throwback nature of their chosen style.

Guitars ring out loudly and without much regard to what might get in their way, with a nice crunchy tone that recalls the aforementioned bands without aping any of them.  The occasional clean or acoustic guitar is also gleefully under-produced, which means that sometimes you can hear the mistakes or sections where the band isn't at their best.  This works both for and against the band, in that, this almost "live" feel shows what the band might sound like in a club and that they can pull the material off in a live setting, but may wear on some listeners who look for a more polished album performance.  Bass guitar is well done, and even featured in one track ("Justin Case", a short instrumental, almost a joke song), sounding nice and adding sufficient undertone to the proceedings.  Drum work is mostly tight, though a few slightly more sloppy spots again highlight the live feel of the album.  Keys (organ work, primarily) is good here, and adds a nice touch.  A few tracks benefit from that extra layer, and they are well played to appropriately add that layer without being obtrusive.  Vocally, the album is a mixed bag.  Seth is at times right in the pocket where he needs to be, hitting notes on the head and singing/howling his heart out.  There's one portion of "Look To the Sky" which is particularly impressive, where he pulls out a rapid-fire delivery of several lyrics that echoes Guns 'N Roses' Axl Rose in terms of how he pulls it off.  Then there are moments where he falls flat, literally, by under-singing notes just enough that it becomes apparent he's at the limit of his range.  The other moments where things don't stack up vocally are the slower bits, particularly the ballad "Miles To Go".  Seth needs to develop his vocal chops a bit more before attempting this kind of emotionally heavy ballad, because while his honesty is felt, his performance leaves a lot to be desired in this track.

"A World in Flame", the band's debut, is a solid, listenable hard rock album that benefits from the zeal and attitude that comes through the performances, as well as the apparent knack for songwriting that is already present in the material.  Where it is lacking is their overall tightness and polish.  I feel like if the band tightened their musical attack ever so slightly, and polished the production in the same manner, the rough edges of the band might be honed down just enough to make the listening experience that much more enjoyable.  The other thing that must be said is that while they make effective up-tempo rockers ("This Richman", "World In Flame" or "Southbound Train"), as well as good mid-tempo stompers ("(Stop Your) Love On the Road", "Look At the Sky" or "Desert Eagle Blues"), they haven't mastered the ballad yet.  "Miles To Go" comes across as the bands' "Freebird" moment, where they'd hope the entire club was on their feet waving lighters around and singing along to the up-tempo chorus.  The problem is, where "Freebird" is a classic because of its winning combination of songwriting, emotion, energy, and flawless performances, "Miles To Go" just comes off as amateurish by comparison, and the aforementioned "live" feel of the record just exacerbates this by showing all too up front that the band isn't ready to take on this kind of song yet.  Add the cheesiness of the lyrics (despite being heartfelt), and the album is taken down a couple notches because of this one albatross of a track.  Having said that, it's not the worst ballad in history, just a painful reminder that the band needs to continue to develop their songwriting chops before taking on this kind of challenge again.  Fans of hard-hitting rock and roll that tire of the multi-layered and over-produced schlock on the radio will rejoice in this release, and I find myself spinning it semi-frequently just to get that bluesy rock and roll flavor in once in a while.  I will recommend this to fans of old-school rock, as well as fans of Jet or the other bands mentioned earlier.  There's plenty to like here, and if you can see past the flaws, you're in for a pretty good listen.


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