|Musical Style: Melodic Rock||Produced By: Sweet Crystal|
|Record Label: Indepenent||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2015||Artist Website: Sweet Crystal|
|Tracks: 6||Rating: 80%|
|Running Time: 30:34|
All of the Detroit, Michigan based Sweet Crystal’s chief qualities - AOR and commercial hard rock leanings, soaring lead vocals, tightly woven guitar harmonies and radio friendly catchy hooks - are present on its independently released spring of 2015 five song EP Quad. As its title suggests, Quad is the fourth offering of refined melodic hard rock from Sweet Crystal, with its release following on the heels of the group’s full-length albums in the every bit as appropriately entitled III from 2010 and 2003 predecessor Still Standing… Sweet Crystal got its start in 1985 with its debut EP Power-N-Glory, which it re-mastered and re-released in 2003 with the new sub-title Resurrected Masters.
Of note is how after forming in the winter of 1971-72, Sweet Crystal has maintained the trio of vocalist and keyboardist Marq Speck, guitarist Bill Blatter and drummer Steve Wieser as the centerpiece of its line up. I find this stability refreshing, particularly in light of a musical era in which it is all too common for band rosters to be in a constant state of flux.
While I have not had opportunity to hear Power-N-Glory, Still Standing…is my favorite of the two Sweet Crystal full lengths. My 75% review described it as “a bit heavy in the ballad department (but otherwise) proves a consistent effort in showcasing the bands catchy and melodic based songwriting”. I succinctly summed up by stating, “Each of its songs is well constructed; not once do I hit the skip button”. III garnered a 70% review as a “good melodic rock album (reflecting) the abilities of Sweet Crystal” that proves “when the band is at the top of its game, it can compose a song of a very high quality”.
The common denominator tying both albums together (and preventing higher scores either way) is production, which “trends towards the thin and muddy” in lacking the “spit and polish the better albums within the genre bring to the table”. This, however, changes on Quad from featuring near perfect production that aligns a presence fill low-end with guitars, keyboards and vocals in just the right amounts. Polish is of the type connoisseurs expect form and AOR meets melodic hard rock album. Credit the group in this capacity for recruiting mixing technician Chuck Alkazian (Pearl Sound Studios) and mastering engineer Scott Hull (Masterdisck)- the results speak for themselves!
Said upgraded production reveals itself on short (1:21) opening instrumental “Fanfare” in which the group combines a galloping to classically influenced melding of keyboards, organ and guitar.
First full length track “Fools Of The Cross” proves an excited groove laden hard rocker, as an arresting bass line and added traces of organ collide to establish nothing less a climactic scene. Instrumental moments find searing guitar feedback and razor edged soloing holding sway. As always, front man Marq Speck proves a natural fit for the genre at hand with his signature raspy to melodic middle register vocal qualities. “Foot Of The Cross” leaves little doubt as to Sweet Crystal’s Christian roots:
At The Foot Of The Cross
The Foot Of The Cross
Salvation, redemption, a new life
This is what it will cost
Bring all your troubles and treasures and count
Count them as loss
I wake up each morning a born again man
I live my life each day with a purpose, a goal and a plan
The door is wide open: it’s your time to step across
Just come in and join us
At the foot, at the foot of the Cross
“Some People May Ask” presents with a duet between guest vocalist Amy Susan and Speck. The song maintains the upbeat vibe with keyboards playing the more forthright role (rollicking piano can be heard in the backdrop) to lend a slight seventies edge. The uplifting and inspirational milieu that comes to the forefront hints of Neal Morse. Theme at hand is how God is there in both good and bad times:
Some people may ask “Where is God in this ache?
Where is God in heartbreak?
Where is God in this?”
Some people may say “Where is God in this pain?
Now where is God in my rain?
Where is God…now where is God in this?”
Now I know God sees me in this place
God is here with His grace
God is here in this
And I know that God is next to me here
God can wipe away my tears
Taking care of this.
Sweet Crystal goes full-bore symphonic progressive rock on “Anthem”, a direction in which we have never previously heard from the group. Classical instrumentation and guitar harmonies open the first two instrumental moments, with the lone verse that ensues giving way to a final instrumental interlude that closes things in magnanimous fashion (and suggests of prime Kansas in the process). All the while angelic choir vocals lend to the glorious feel at hand. Said verse sets a worshipful tone:
Well the time is coming but we don’t know when
The lion will lie down with the lamb
Every knee will bow, every voice will sing
To the glory of the Risen King
“Him Alone” takes the heavier and rawer heading in which crisp rhythm guitars play a decisive role. With a more mid-paced tone realized in the process, the song aligns staunchly done verses (in which co-lead vocalist David Perez guests) with an every bit as perseverant refrain. All the while Bill Blatter showcases his blazing soloing abilities. Message at hand is victorious in capacity:
I know that He is king, ruler over everything
The enemy will not prevail because Jesus gave his life for bail
And I know that He will never let me down
And I know that He will always be around
And I know that He will lift me off the ground
If I put all my trust in Him alone
So if we keep our eyes toward heaven than we will start to see
The chains that always bound us will all be broken free
God’s Faith will make us stronger when our flesh always makes us fall
So just trust in His Son Jesus, He died to free us all
Closing things out is an interesting fourteen-minute radio interview with Speck, who goes into detail about the group’s background in addition to details as they pertain to Quad.
It can prove problematic assigning a grade to EP releases, particularly one as short as Quad. My thought being it is much easier to come up with 4 to 5 good songs as opposed to a full-length album of quality material; hence, I have a tighter grading scale when it comes to EP’s. That being said the four Quad songs are of such a quality that if the group had recorded 5 to 6 additional tracks on the same level the album would easily rate in the 85 to 90 percent range. Still, I wish at a minimum that Sweet Crystal had included two more songs in order for Quad to equal the output of recent EP releases from European acts Signum Regis and Harmony. Regardless, if a long term fan or into any type of AOR, melodic rock or commercial hard rock then Quad comes strongly recommended.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Fanfare” (1:21), “Foot Of The Cross” (3:32), “Some People May Ask” (3:42), “Anthem” (3:47), “Him Alone” (3:57), “WCSX Interview” (14:15)
Marq Speck - Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Bill Blatter - Guitars
Steve Wieser - Drums
Amy Susan Heard - Lead Vocals
David Perez - Lead Vocals