|Musical Style: Progressive Metal||Produced By: Frank Gryner & Karen Stone|
|Record Label: Independent||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2008||Artist Website:|
|Tracks: 12||Rating: 70%|
|Running Time: 73:46|
Souljourners represents a joining of guitarist and vocalist Michael Couts, bassist David Brockenborough, keyboardist Paul Ellingson and drummer Chandler Taylor. Hailing from Southern California, Souljourners – meaning strangers in a foreign land (as taken from I Peter 2:11) – has been thrilling audiences with its tight sounding but equally heavy brand of progressive rock meets metal the past several years. As a matter of fact, the group was nominated for three Inland Empire Music Awards in 2007 – winning best live act in the process – in addition to playing Cornerstone California (on the Sanctuary Stage) this past fall.
Early 2008 find Souljourners presenting with its full length debut Mind Control. The album serves to showcase Souljourner’s progressive leaning in no uncertain terms, something best put on display on the Dream Theater-ish “Permanent Scars”, instrumentally driven “Medicated Memories”, “Mind Control” (time changes galore on this one) and heavy duty “Tangent Universe”. The band proves it can deliver an up-tempo composition as well - “Crazy Times”, “Fall” and “Half Life” all fit the bill – along with a very well done ballad in “Lost Vision”. “I’ve Waited” can best be described as a joining of the acoustic and electric and “Sapphire World” an eclectic instrumental amalgamating a variety of styles.
The experience of listening to Mind Control cannot help but leave one impressed with the strength of the groups musicianship. If anything, Souljourners captures the instrumental prowess – not to mention guitar driven heaviness – that makes other progressive bands such as Susprye and Darkwater so successful. The instrumental portions to “Mind Control” and “Tangent Universe”, for instance, reflect a depth of skill and accomplishment that, for a lack of better words, will nearly leave you breathless. This is best upheld by the expert soloing abilities of guitarist Michael Couts. The likes of “Permanent Scars”, “Crazy Times” (a track in which he shares the stage with Phil Collen of Def Leppard) and “The Avenger” all feature lead work that comes across ardent while exuding a plethora of emotion at the same time. Keyboardist Paul Ellingsson proves equally able. Always adding a highlighting touch without overdoing it, Paul accents “Tangent Universe” with a piano while adding a tasteful hint of organ on the albums title track. Several songs – most notably “Fall” – even find him dueling with Couts (and holding his own).
Nevertheless, despite a high level of performance in terms of its musicianship and instrumental sound, there are several key areas in which Souljourners could improve:
The first that comes to mind is songwriting. Now, do not get me wrong in that all the material here is well constructed and holds up under repeated play; there are no filler tracks. That said, I cannot help but think that several – if not most – of the albums compositions would have benefited from a touch more melody. And that is where the problem lies: the melody structures here are on the subtle side of things; almost too subtle for my taste in that, despite repeated listen, they do not always stand out as they should. The point I am trying to make is that progressive bands along the line of Magnitude 9, Threshold and Shadow Gallery prove you can exhibit a certain amount of technical expertise but be accessible at the same time. And that is the major challenge facing Souljourners at this early stage in its career: to capture an element of accessibility while still retaining its inherit progressiveness and instrumental flair.
Lead vocals represent another area of improvement. Again, do not get me wrong in that by no means does Michael Couts – who brings a gritty, mid-octave vocal approach – fall flat on his face. On the other hand, in my opinion it would be beneficial if he added a touch more range to his delivery. Now, by no means am I implying a progressive band requires a vocalist with the talent of, lets day, Lance King (Avian) or Corey Brown (Magnitude 9), but I cannot help but think music of this capacity requires a vocalist with a certain amount of flair and aptitude. With that in mind, Couts has a few rough and shaky moments throughout the project; if he could consistently smooth things out – and provide a touch of refinement in the process – he would do just fine. My best advise would be to listen to the bands samples and decide for yourself.
The albums production values, impeccably handled by Frank Gryner and Karen Stever, are of the high professional value one would expect of the progressive genre.
While all its members are believers, I would hesitate to call Souljourners a Christian band; rather a “band of Christians” makes more sense. Lyrically, the guys give us a concept album (do we really need another progressive rock concept album?) that seems to touch upon an individual lost and isolated in society and his struggle (and determination) to cope with his circumstances.
Opening track “Permanent Scars” is one of the albums stronger pieces. The whispered voice at the start of the song – appropriately stating “wake up” – gives way to a crushing rhythm guitar. Charging ahead resolutely, “Permanent Scars” tapers off for its verse portions only to regain the lost momentum for an angst-laden chorus that ends in the form of a relevant question:
My hands are tied but stronger from fighting
And I’ve lost my direction to the place where you are
And how do I start to try to cover all these permanent scars?
A two minute instrumental section finds Couts cutting loose with a stretch of ripping lead guitar.
“Crazy Times” immediately kicks in at an upbeat tempo as more blistering lead guitar highlights the backdrop. The song maintains the spirited initiative as it urges ahead, impelling itself with full authority until culminating for a sweeping chorus exuding a plethora of smooth sounding appeal. Another extensive instrumental section finds Couts again showcasing his abilities on lead guitar, this time his soloing coming across more aggressive in nature- and matching the feel established by the song in the process.
“Fall” also begins in a quickly moving manner to some driving riffs and blazing leads. A muscular rhythm guitar continues to drive the song its distance, shoring up its flowing chorus and instrumental section in which keyboards and a distinct lead guitar trade off.
A lush acoustic guitar compels “I’ve Waited” over its first minute and a half. As the song gradually builds initiative, the rhythm guitar steps forward in time to play a leading role throughout an unwavering chorus delivered in anthem-like fashion. A sweeping instrumental section carried by a blend of steadfast rhythm guitar, adept lead guitar and piano allows Souljourners to exhibit the strength of its musicianship.
The instrumental “Sapphire World” is one of my favorite tracks here. The song proves an eclectic piece in giving us a bit of variety, maneuvering through passages ranging from the fast paced to the reserved while reflecting a symphonic touch in the process. Keyboards play a forward but complementary role. As a matter of fact, a piano solo closes out the final seconds to “Sapphire World”.
“Lost Vision”, one of the albums shorter pieces at just 3:14, comes across in the form of a ballad with a piano gracefully sustaining it from start to finish.
“Medicated Memories”, in contrast, is one of the albums lengthiest (8:39) and heaviest tracks. The song benefits from a near perfect rhythm guitar sound along with another skillful display by the band of its instrumental sound: I particularly like the first instrumental portion that tapers off to an extensive stretch of ardently played lead guitar. A flowing chorus highlighted by vocal harmonies adds the perfect touch- keeping “Medicated Memories” a fresh listen despite its length.
“Half Life” moves ahead at an upbeat tempo from the start, pummeling through its verse portions with a plethora of edge until transitioning to the decisively delivered chorus that follows. The rhythm guitar plays a leading role during an instrumental section sustained by more blistering leads from Couts.
The albums nine minute title track slowly fades in over its first minute to ethereal guitar feedback. As the song kicks into high gear, a touch of organ accentuates the background until things decelerate to a crisp rhythm guitar for its first verse. “Mind Control” continues to maintain the ardent disposition, breaking out for a steadfast chorus aligning itself with the impassioned scene. A classic lead guitar and keyboard dual highlights a three and a half minute long instrumental section.
“Tangent Universe” stands out with its guitar driven initiative (another piece capturing an unerring rhythm guitar sound). The song actually flows ahead with a piano detailing the horizon, the rhythm guitar playing the more forceful role for a driving chorus giving rise to a message that almost comes across somber in capacity:
Sharing the same air you’re breathing
You can feel me staring
We’re moving through time
You know I’m trying to fix what’s breaking
Every living creature on this earth dies alone
The piano returns to make its presence felt as “Tangent Universe” transitions to an extensive (three minute) instrumental section.
An acoustic guitar backed by a hint of guitar feedback shores up the short (1:40) instrumental “Predestination”.
Closing things out is “The Avenger”, a creative number in which the acoustic guitar carries things forward until the rhythm guitar slams its way into the mix. The song proceeds to charge ahead assertively, a rumbling chorus and intensely driven expanse of lead guitar helping to showcase some of the albums better moments.
Track Listing: “Permanent Scars” (7:19), “Crazy Times” (7:11), “Fall” (6:16), “I’ve Waited” (5:24), ”Sapphire World” (4:57), “Lost Vision” (3:14), “Medicated Memories” (8:39), “Half Life” (6:19), “Mind Control” (8:50), “Tangent Universe” (7:27), “Predestination” (1:40), “The Avenger” (6:31)
Michael Couts – Lead Vocals & Guitars
Paul Ellingson – Keyboards
David Brockenborough – Bass
Chandler Taylor – Drums
Phil Collen - Guitars