|Musical Style: Melodic Rock/AOR||Produced By: Sweet Crystal|
|Record Label: Independent||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2010||Artist Website: Sweet Crystal|
|Tracks: 12||Rating: 70%|
|Running Time: 43:16|
What can you say about the Christian melodic rock and AOR scene? Fortunately, quite a bit in that more than a fair share of talented bands have come and gone over the years, with Petra, Idle Cure and White Heart being three of the leading and better known players. The John Elefante fronted project Mastedon also deserves consideration, as does James Guest, Liaison and The Lou Gramm Band. Novella and Liberty N’ Justice might blur the line between AOR and hard rock but must be mentioned as well.
Canton, Michigan based Sweet Crystal is another act worthy of merit. Sweet Crystal has been around since the mid-eighties, debuting in 1985 with the six song EP Power-N-Glory only to remain on the sidelines until the turn of the century when it put out the full length offering Still Standing in 2001. The group returns in 2010 with its appropriately entitled third overall release in III.
What Sweet Crystal brings to the table is a joining of AOR and melodic rock with the occasional tendency towards hard rock. Fans of Journey, Giant, Survivor and Foreigner will find a lot to like here as will those into Action, Line Of Fire and Adrian Gale.
Sweet Crystal brings all the “trappings” inherit to the genre, including a penchant for catchy and radio friendly melodies in addition to soaring vocals that fit well with the musical happening at hand. AOR and melodic rock enthusiasts will embrace talented front man Marq “Q” Speck, who shines with a smooth and clean mid-ranged style touched with periodic hints of emotion.
Sweet Crystal can compose some fantastic material when at the top of its game. Upbeat rockers “Holding Our Own”, “’By The Book” and “Lion Of Judah” stand out with catchy chorus hooks that border on the commercial in capacity. But when the group slows things to a mid-paced hard rocking romp, as can be found on “Prisoner Unbound”, it can compose a piece as equally laudable. Every AOR album, of course, is going to include at least one ballad, and such is what we have in the classy “Warriors”.
So what is there not to like here? Why does the album receive a grade of just 70%?
First, production is on the muddy side of things, lacking the “spit and polish” the better albums within the genre bring to the table. Compare the production here to recent releases from Line Of Fire (Momentum) and Liberty N’ Justice (Light It Up and Chasing A Cure) to understand my point.
Second, lead guitar is hit and miss. Several songs, for instance, lack guitar solos, but those that do include them the soloing either comes across restrained or fails to stand out as it should. This could potentially relate to the previously referenced problem in the area of production.
Third, the album includes a few too many shorter “interlude” type pieces that were added, as far as I can tell, to fill space. You will also find an unremarkable cover of The Beatles tune “Got To Get You Into My Life”.
Track By Track
Opener “Holding Our Own” is fantastic, put over the top by its forthright melody, inspiring tempo and even joining of guitars and keyboards. If given the chance on FM radio in another era this could have ruled the airwaves. Speck’s emotional vocal performance proves the perfect vehicle to deliver the victorious Christian battle cry theme:
Your demons are screaming
They’re shouting words that have no power
Just let them rail against this tower
It will not fall
We are not afraid of the slings or the stings
The arrows or weapons that they bring
Because we’re standing with the King and in His might fortress
We will withstand all
Hold on, our help is on the way
We are not alone
And if we hold our ground, we will win today
Defending hearts and home, we’re holding our own
“By The Book” maintains the hooks and upbeat momentum. Smooth sounding AOR with a keyboard emphasis, “By The Book” highlights a big dose of commercialism that, once more, if given the opportunity had the potential to dominate FM radio. In the end what we have is another prime example of Sweet Crystal songwriting skills.
What follows are two shorter interlude pieces, “Book Return”, a minute long single verse acoustic number, and “Did You Come Here To Save Me?”, two minutes of cacophonous and offbeat sound effects.
“Prisoner Unbound”, the albums hardest rocking, brings a forward rhythm guitar mix while hinting at some poignant and anthem-like flavorings. The hooks of the two opening tracks come to the forefront in the process. A guitar solo (finally!) makes its presence felt along with a quieter acoustic interlude. Albums best song, both musically and lyrically:
There’s a battle raging for my soul
It’s been so long since I felt whole again
Your words are meant to comfort me, but I’m so blind I cannot see the light
In the blink of an eye, we can live, we can die by the choices that we make
And the pressure is real
These emotions we feel are so hard for us to take
What if I said there’s a guide up ahead who can lead us away from this?
Would you open the door and embrace what’s in store or
Betray the one who is standing with your kiss?
While there is nothing really wrong with The Beatles cover “Got To Get You Out Of My Mind”, it almost comes across forced or contrived as if the band were going through the emotions or attempting to fill space. Yes, I can see others liking it but the focus Sweet Crystal brings to the albums better material (in my opinion) is lacking.
The ballad “Warriors”, in contrast, finds Sweet Crystal at its inspirational best. With the female co-lead vocals of Kathy Oyster leading the way, the song joins keyboard and piano in needed amounts with rhythm guitar touches and the albums best emotionally charged run of lead guitar. “Warriors” was written in tribute to our soldiers serving overseas:
Sending out a prayer for all the warriors
Preparing for the fight
I’m praying for your strength and for your courage through the night
I’m praying that you will all return home safely
Welcome you back to friendly shores
And I pray you know God is with you
Give you shelter from your storms
I will pray for you, will you pray for me?
And together lift our voices to the Son
When we pray as one, asking Thy will be done
We will stand upon the promise that we’ll see
Your kingdom come
The album returns to its up-tempo ways with “Lion Of Judah”. The song starts slowly and quietly to a forward dose of keyboards, not gaining momentum until the rhythm guitar kicks in and leads the way to a momentous chorus in which a faith based statement is made:
He’s the Lion of Judah
He’s the king of all kings
The one true Messiah
The Lord of everything
A jam based instrumental section features a run of edgy lead guitar. “Lion Of Judah” points the way to salvation:
Well I am that man who once was so lost
I sacrificed all at unbearable cost
But then came a friend who reached out to grab and save me
All that I did, all that I said, He forgave me
Around His throne of salvation
All His people sing
This one revelation
He’s the Lord of everything
The albums final four tracks are technically sound and ably performed but are not quite on the same level as the better material that precedes them.
“Another Time, Another Place” highlights a mid-paced AOR sound but with a heavy rocking edge. Nice use of keyboards in the backdrop and occasional laces of acoustic guitar.
“Us, Eternally” maintains the same heading, albeit at the more upbeat tempo. Piano plays an accenting role, which helps lend an energetic touch and catchier feel to the chorus. Lyrics are written from the standpoint of God:
And how I love you and I told you I would come back
Just to hold you again
And right from the start when you touched my hand
I touched your heart
All that I’m asking is that you hold on
And wait here in courage and hope while I am gone
And like a new morning, after a dark stormy night
It’ll be alight
I look into your eyes and this is what I see
A glimpse of paradise
“The Road Less Traveled” takes a semi-ballad approach. The song reflects a stately feel its brief (2:58) distance with Speck again shining with his moving vocal abilities.
“Numbers”, another shorter (1:46) “interlude” piece, starts to a worship flavored acoustic introduction that gives way to narration from Numbers 6: 24-26.
III is a good melodic rock album showcasing the abilities of Sweet Crystal. When the band is at the top of its game, it can compose a song of a very high quality while Speck proves complementary in terms of his vocal abilities. That being said, production and some performance and songwriting misgivings are the only things holding the album back.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Holding Our Own” (3:53), “By The Book” (4:39), “Book Returns” (:48), “Did You Come Here To Save Me?” (1:50), “Prisoner Unbound” (6:22), “Got To Get You Into My Life” (3:13), “Warriors” (4:51), “Lion Of Judah” (4:11), “Another Time, Another Place” (4:16), “US, Eternally” (4:25), “The Road Less Traveled” (2:58), “Numbers” (1:46).
Marq “Q” Speck – Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Bill Blatter – Guitars
Steve Wieser – Drums
Kathy Oyster – Lead Vocals
Ron Ellman - Violins