|Musical Style: Melodic Rock||Produced By: Chuck Alkazian & Sweet Crystal|
|Record Label: Nightcrier Music||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2016||Artist Website: Sweet Crystal|
|Tracks: 8||Rating: 75%|
|Running Time: 30:27|
Here’s a factoid that might make you feel old: Detroit, Michigan based Sweet Crystal has been around for more than 40 years. Of equal renown is how the group has maintained the core trio of vocalist/ keyboardist Marq Speck, guitarist Bill Blatter and drummer Steve Wieser the past five decades in remaining one of the leading players within the Christian melodic rock and AOR scenes. Forming in the winter of 1971 to 1972 as the three were leaving high school, Sweet Crystal proceeded to spend the eighties as a vibrant live act - opening for the likes of Bob Seger, Nazareth, Foghat, Stryper and others - while also entering the studio for the first time to record its 1985 debut EP Power-N-Glory. Sweet Crystal remained on the sidelines throughout the nineties only to return following the turn of the century with full-length releases Still Standing… and III from 2001 and 2010, respectively. The last time we heard from Sweet Crystal was in 2015 with the five song-EP and appropriately entitled fourth offering Quad.
I do not think it is unfair to suggest that there are more hits as opposed to misses when it comes to Christian melodic rock and AOR bands. Petra and White Heart, of course, are the first to deserve mention - and rightly so! - in terms of longevity and quality of output but for also giving birth to the all star project Union Of Sinners & Saints to feature vocalist John Schlitt and guitarist Billy Smiley (which skirts similar musical territory). Dig a bit deeper and lesser known though no less able names come to mind such as Idle Cure, Liason and Mastedon, not to mention those taking a heavier heading in Novella, Liberty N’ Justice and early nineties Guardian. The Brave, Halo and The Lou Gramm Band help complete the picture.
How does 5 Carat Rock, the most recent Sweet Crystal album from the spring of 2016, measure up? Whereas Power-N-Glory played up a heavily eighties influenced sound (at least in light of the era in which it was recorded) and Still Standing… and III an up to date take on the commercial rock genre, Quad found the group upping the heaviness while also experimenting musically in terms of moments that touch upon the symphonic and progressive. On 5 Carat Rock the group (for the most part) maintains the heavier focus but also backs from the inventiveness in pursuing a traditional AOR sound not unlike Still Standing… and III, which by no means speaks less of it as a work (neutral observation if you will).
5 Carat Rock is also somewhat difficult to categorize in that in featuring eight tracks it is too long to classify as an EP but with just seven songs (one of the eight is a radio narrative from WW II) it does not quite fall within full-length territory either.
What cannot be debated is how classy opener “Even Now” features all the refined qualities one expects from a Sweet Crystal album: radio friendly demeanor that touches upon the commercial, tightly woven guitar harmonies, lush keyboards and Marq Speck’s trademark raspy to melodic middle register vocal signatures. In between, the song comes across as an upbeat arena rocker with underpinning guitar edges and victorious momentum to match. Polished vocal melodies lend to the exquisite scene.
“Come As We Are” softens the mood from making keyboards and acoustic guitar the focal point. The upshot is glorious and stately AOR, with rhythm guitars playing a diminished role and female backing vocals interweaving with the affluent refrain. Yes, this one is more commercial than some cuts here but also not to a fault as can be found the in the worshipful element at hand.
“Jericho”, in contrast, represents albums heaviest. No, not quite hard rock, but it pushes the boundaries with full on guitars and front to back up-tempo momentum. Swirling keyboards in the backdrop allow for a cool seventies effect. Lone complaint is how it is a bit short at just two and a half minutes- it kind of cuts off at the end and leaves the impression the band could have extended it another minute or so. At the very least, this one embodies that heavier focus in question.
Back to mellow territory with “Can’t Turn Back”. The song gets the full ballad treatment, with keyboards and piano in abundance but also plenty of fitting acoustic guitar and orchestration. Albums most delicate, the song provides the needed heartfelt leaning as it gradually grows and builds until peaking for an explosion of emotion at the end.
Impetus picks up again on Bob Dylan cover “When He Returns”, a full on rocker carried by plenty of crisp rhythm guitar and crystalline piano. Triumphant is the feel at hand, as the song celebrates the Second Coming in the expansive and instigative manner in which one would expect. Interestingly, at the halfway point “When He Returns” calms for a gentler interlude carried by keyboards and acoustic guitar.
Second ballad “Nothing Here (For You To Fear)” represents a duet between Speck and Gail Engling. Similar to “Can’t Turn Back”, keyboards and orchestration play prominent roles, with verses fittingly fluid and chorus uplifted from touches of rhythm guitar. Yes, musically solid on a standalone basis, but it is also excessive from a collaborative standpoint in that two ballads on a seven-song album are a bit much to handle. I cannot help but feel adding another rocker along the lines of “Jericho” might have worked better.
My favorite track is classy cover of the Motley Crue power ballad “Home Sweet Home”. The group, of course, lends its own signature imprint to the song, opening it to a sound bite from the Wizard of Oz before transitioning from piano and strings to a more forthright guitar driven direction. The Sweet Crystal rendering might not approach the heaviness to the original but plays up further bluesy sentiments in addition to including a killer guitar solo. One complaint I have regarding 5 Carat Rock is its lack of distinct lead guitar work, with “Home Sweet Home” the only track in which Blatter cuts loose. Of equal note is the fine vocal work of Speck, whose smoother delivery contrasts (in a positive sense) with the more soulful flavorings to Vince Neil.
“Sgt. Penney 1945” is a closing radio interview originally broadcast on June 2, 1945 from Manila, the Philippines, which the band included to honor the late Sgt. Arnold L. Penney (1922-2015).
I might have expressed concern about production in my reviews of Still Standing… and III, but Quad took things to the next level from (quoting my 80% review) “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.” 5 Carat Rock maintains the same high standard with production and engineering by Chuck Alkazian (Pearl Sound Studios) and mastering by Scott Hull (MasterDisk).
It also deserves note the high quality digi-pak packaging with eye catching cover art and fold out booklet to feature lyrics, liner notes and band photos.
As with its past releases, Sweet Crystal lyrically reflects its faith on the 5 Carat Rock prose. “Even Now” proves fitting in this capacity:
I don’t know what I’m thinking
As I try to make sense of it all
Living life in this broken world
At the core of my problem
I don’t see to hear Your call
Blind to the Light
Deaf to the warnings
Stumbling along towards a fall
As does “Come As We Are”:
This side of Heaven can sure seem like hell
When the doors are all barred
Every window as well
We feel we’re forgotten, that nobody cares
Our spirit weighted down with despairs
Tho’ each of us feels so misguided and lost
All our debts have been paid
By the blood of the Cross
“Jericho” proves aptly entitled:
Hide behind your walls
Disregard the calls from those who
Stand outside your gate
The story of your fall
Is known b one and all, the tale of
How an army marched around you
Seven days they did surround you
By then it was too late
“Can’t Turn Back” deals with reaching out to those in need:
As we travel these roads, let’s all help with the loads
That are causing each other to fall
And when we get home, we’ll kneel down by the throne
In answer to God’s clarion call
Well we might be surprised by the smile on His eyes
As He tells us the things we got right
Forgiving our sins and recounting the wins
Of the souls brought from darkness to Light
I find 5 Carat Rock at its best on heavier cuts “Even Now”, “Jericho” and “When He Returns”. Where I potentially fault the album is due to being a bit ballad heavy for a seven-song release, noting the presence of “Can’t Turn Back”, “Nothing Here (For You To Fear)” and “Home Sweet Home”. I wish Sweet Crystal had instead included at least one additional heavier track that makes guitars the centerpiece and allows Blatter to cut loose on lead guitar. Contrast this with The Union of Sinners & Saints, whose twelve-song debut includes just two ballads and plenty of guitar soloing too boot. That said, I cannot fault the strength to the Sweet Crystal overall performance, songwriting and production; hence, if a fan of the groups earlier material or AOR in general then make 5 Carat Rock a priority purchase.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Even Now” (4:40), “Come As We Are” (4:16), “Jericho” (2:34), “Can’t Turn Back” (3:52), “When He Returns” (3:55), “Nothing Here (For You To Fear)” (3:12), “Home Sweet Home” (4:55), “Sgt. Penney 1945” (3:04)
Marq Speck - Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Bill Blatter - Guitars
Steve Wieser – Drums
Gail Engling - Vocals
Amy Susan Heard - Vocals
Kathy Oyster - Vocals
Chuck Alkazian - Bass & Percussion
Ron Ellman - Mandolin