|Musical Style: Metal/Hard Rock||Produced By: Matthew Snell|
|Record Label: Independent||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2013||Artist Website:|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 75%|
One man recording projects, as far as the Christian metal scene is concerned, can be traced to the self-titled Theocracy debut from 2003 in which founding member Matt Smith took a manifold approach: In addition to handling vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards and drum programming, he also oversaw all mixing, mastering and production duties. Whereas Theocracy blazed the trail, FG and Babylon Mystery Orchestra have upheld the standard, with the former the project of multi-instrumentalist Felipe Gonzales, who contributed everything except the kitchen sink on the 2011 FG debut Battle For Souls, and latter the brainchild of Sidney Allen Johnson, releasing six albums between 2003 and 2012 in which he also played a jack of all trades role.
Phantom Serenade is the most recent “one man band” to hit the scene. The creation of the multi-faceted Matthew Snell, Phantom Serenade released its full length debut In Need Of Rain in early 2013. True to form, Snell was in on all aspects of the recording process. His press material sums things up best: “All the songs you hear on this site were done by me. I wrote them. I played all the parts. I recorded them. I mixed them. I produced them”.
The best way to describe In Need Of Rain would be an equal joining of straightforward hard rock and melodic metal fused with touches of power/progressive metal and seventies classic hard rock. The upshot is bits and pieces of varying styles crossing over several genres intertwined to create the diverse Phantom Serenade sound. I cannot help but agree, as a result, with the Phantom Serenade Facebook page which suggests that “fans of Savatage, Everygrey, Brainstorm and Blue Oyster Cult will enjoy this”.
My impression of In Need Of Rain is a dark and moody album trending towards the mid-tempo. More specifically the feel at hand is metal and hard rock for a rainy day that captures the essence of what the title is crying out: Yes, we are In Need Of Rain and these are the “skies are grey and threatening” musical results. Imagine a more commercial Resurrection Band or not quite as charged up early nineties Bride aligned with much of the heaviness to Saint or Tourniquet to understand what is going on here.
“Blind”, with its variances from the ethereal to the guitar driven, and “This Coming Storm”, smooth but muscle-laden, represent quintessential examples of the laid back Phantom Serenade sound. Even further melancholic is the leisurely “Psalm 23”, forming the perfect union between the music and subject at hand, and somber ballad “Where Eagles Dare”, a scintillating merging of piano, keyboards and orchestration. “Out Of The Shadows”, this reviewer’s choice track, proves brilliant in the gloomy doom-likeness, while “Nobody’s Fault” hits hard with a swarthy aggressiveness approaching the progressive.
Phantom Serenade shines during its few up-tempo moments. “Trash” plays up a melodic hard rock and commercial AOR vibe and “Believe” some power metal leanings with its symphonic keyboards and anthem-like mentality. Maintaining the power metal focus is “The Age Of The Fall”, a spirited mauler that hits hard with an overriding epic feel.
One cannot help but appreciate the penchant Snell displays for weaving catchy melodies, engineering each song with the engaging qualities to not only draw you in on the first couple listens but also to hold up under repeat play. There is not a skip button among the lot. Yes, “The Age Of The Fall” has some awkward moments for its bridge (a solid song from all other standpoints) but otherwise the album avoids the trapping of repetition that often hinders initial releases from independent artists.
Again, Phantom Serenade is a one man project in which Snell literally does everything. Starting with vocals, he sings in a lower register than many contemporaries with a gritty and raspy style centered on the mid-ranged. Stylistically, he matches up well with the Glenn Kaiser’s (Resurrection Band) and Dave Miller’s (F.O.G.) of the world. Regardless, his gravelly presence fits well with both the hard rock based material and that taking a more metal based heading.
He also proves a more than above average player guitar wise. The album is chock full of his blistering leads, best standing out on “Trash” and “Nobody’s Fault” with their extended guitar runs but also taking a more emotional turn for “Out Of The Shadows”. Instrumental “Diadem” stands out equally with its front to back emphasis on melodies and harmonies.
The lone complaint revolves around production. No, far from bad for an independent release (I have heard far worse), but also lacking the clean and crisp feel that Babylon Mystery Orchestra brings to the table and to a lesser degree the Theocracy and FG debuts. Keeping in mind this is a first time offering from a new artist, I see this as an area that will be upgraded on subsequent releases.
Packaging is somewhat rudimentary. Album artwork aligns with the feel of the music at hand, but the single sided insert without lyrics and liner notes leaves somewhat desired. Babylon Mystery Orchestra sets the standard in this area in always including a detailed multi-paged booklet. Lyrics (as taken from the artists press material) are “uplifting and inspiring” with a “positive, life affirming and Christ-centered feel”.
When reviewing one man band projects, I commonly suggest that the artist involve other musicians as part of any album they record in the future. The reason being is that the input from other players potentially lends to further creativity and inspiration. That being said, I understand how those going the one man band route might not want to be restrained by other musicians because, in the words of Sidney Allen Johnson (Babylon Mystery Orchestra), “It has been my experience that the more musicians you have around, the less work you get accomplished”. I can see his point: It would be disquieting to book time in the studio only to have the guest bassist fail to show up. And besides, I always like the focused and cohesive feel that one man recordings bring to the table- and such is the case here.
Track By Track
The album gets underway to one of its shorter pieces in “Trash”. It is also one of its most melodic, crossing a fine line between commercial hard rock and AOR but also delivering quite the edge and bite from a guitar standpoint. Abundant (but not overtly done) keyboards make their presence felt along with a fitting organ solo (sounding like something that would come out of the seventies).
“Blind” highlights a laid back touch while upholding the melody based emphasis. The song starts quietly - almost ethereally - to guitar feedback prior to hard charging rhythm guitars storming in at once. A mid-paced milieu prevails going forward, with a sweeping chorus and the artist’s gravelly vocal presence defining the grit laden scene. In the end a full and satisfying six minutes. Lyric snippet:
When I call, you keep me with feet on the sea
When I ask you for some peace you grant me relief
If I never walked behind you then would I be blind
If I never looked upon you then I’d be left behind
If I doubt you appear to me give me wings to fly
When I fail you please forgive me keep me alive
If I never walked behind you then I would be blind
If I never looked up you then I’d be left behind
“Psalm 23” represents another laid back track. The song gradually plods its way forward from the start, calm and leisurely but also upholding the emotion the subject at hand commands. Impetus, however, abruptly picks up after a minute and a half for a symphonic based instrumental section with catchy riff action and majestic lead guitar. Things taper back to their plodding ways for the final minute.
“Diadem” proves a wonderfully conceived instrumental. Full of pomp and splendor, the song joins generous portions of well placed keyboards and piano with catchy guitar harmonies (melodic and proficiently done) to create quite the striking scene. Halfway through the artist lets loose with a run of emotional soloing that has Tony Palacios written all over it.
The melody driven basis continues with “This Coming Storm”. This one starts, fittingly, to a thunderstorm in the backdrop before moving ahead in muscular fashion (guitars deliver quite the crunch) but still with the mid-paced as a foundation. Fully complementing is a smoothly flowing chorus leaning towards the exalted. An equal joining of the engaging and emotionally driven. Lyric snippet:
As thunder echoes… horizons darken….
The air turns colder… my senses sharpen
Testing my faith, sent from Heaven’s gate
My cries are washed away upon the wind
The storm dissipates, light now emanates
The alluring light that I know belongs to me
This passing storm begged me to conform
But I know that he was with me all along
“The Age Of The Fall” brings a rollicking five minutes. The song proves upbeat and spirited, plowing its distance to chopping guitar riffs (for its unwavering verses) and extreme backing vocals (upholding a heavy set chorus) in playing up a discordant if not dissonant feel. The only awkward moment is the bridge at the halfway point which comes across a bit overdone. More than making up for it is the child recitation from Ephesians 6 that follows.
Ballad “Where Eagles Dare” delivers the goods: Piano, keyboards and orchestration melded with light touches of rhythm guitar to shoulder what amounts an emotional milieu. Melody reins supreme, while the artist’s raspy vocals add a nice contrasting touch. Yes, a bit predictable but solid all the same. Lyric snippet:
So open your wings and fly the air into the skies
Soaring where eagles dare, looking down no more despair
Stare to the sky. I know who I’m like
Cause I’m soaring where eagles dare, soaring where eagles dare
Free as an eagle I’m flying higher exposing scenes of my serenity
Those dreams that I have will not dissolve before my eyes
Soaring where eagles dare, looking down no more despair
Stare to the sky. I know who I’m like
The driving metal of “Nobody’s Fault” delivers some of the albums more technical moments. Guitars are staunchly done and low-end hulking as it gets, as the song grinds its distance in traversing territory dark and swarthy as it gets. Some interesting instrumental moments are explored as well, including a run of decisive lead guitar and the final minute which trades off between keyboards and eerie guitar feedback.
A return to an up-tempo direction is taken on “Believe”. This one proves spirited and forceful in playing up an anthem-like mentality, with aggressive riffing and symphonic keyboards leading the way in coming across heavy set but catchy at the same time. A decisive chorus asks several relevant questions:
Do you have the faith that moves the mountains?
Do you have the hope the stays the fear?
Do you have the love that lifts you higher?
Do you have the peace to persevere?
This one gives rise to the most power metal influence of all the material here.
Closer “Out Of The Shadows” comes across dark and gloomy in capacity, almost bluesy in places in playing up some borderline doom-like moments and others relaxed and low-key as it gets. A melody driven focus can also be found along with an extended run of emotional lead guitar (with some complex drum patterns in the backdrop). It all adds up to by far the albums best song. Lyric snippet:
We march in victory
Touching the flame
Fighting the beast with the sword
He gave us in Jesus name
Hell ain’t for heroes
We heed the call
Heaven is upon us
Can’t you see him coming down to save us all
He’s still our God
Out of the shadows
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Trash” (2:51), “Blind” (6:03), “Psalm 23” (3:47), “Diadem” (4:45), “This Coming Storm” (5:46), “The Age Of The Fall” (4:59), “Where Eagles Dare” (4:33), “Nobody’s Fault” (6:29), “Believe” (4:28), “Out Of The Shadows” (6:31)
Matthew Snell – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Drums & Keyboards