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Once upon a time or around twenty years ago drummer Jeff Plate (TSO, Metal Church, Savatage), vocalist Zak Stevens (Circle II Circle, Savatage) and guitarist Matt Leff were in a band called Wicked Witch that had some success playing clubs in the Boston area.
Fast forward two decades and the the former Wicked Witch members have re-united and added bass player Chris Rapoza to complete the line-up. The tracks contained here are a combination of re-worked Wicked Witch songs and new tunes. The sound is actually fairly varied as I can hear Savatage, Dio, Whitesnake and Kings X as influences. Due to the fact that 3/4 of this line-up played together years ago the end results sound like a cross of older hard rock and more recent sounds.
What we end up with is melodic tinged metal. Now I have to say that I didn't fully take to this album on the first play. Actually I finished listening to it and I had trouble getting into it, but I felt like it deserved another chance. True enough on the second try it get began to settle with me. The songs are well-crafted and the vocals are smooth. The production boosted the sound as needed, but they wisely left the instruments speak for themselves for the most part. Leff and Stevens contribute some fantastic melodies and that's a large part of what fuels their material.
I never heard Wicked Witch so I can't really compare these two bands accurately, but I am sure it's safe to see that the experience that the members have acquired over the ensuing years have helped tighten their playing skills. That last part is evident here because this is one of the best old style metal albums that I have heard in some time.
There aren't too many musicians who can say that their newest band is also their oldest. Machines of Grace serves as an interesting example and is essentially a modern day reformation of Wicked Witch, the first band to feature Savatage/Circle II Circle Zachary Stevens and Savatage/Metal Church drummer Jeff Plate playing together alongside guitarist Matt Leff. While the original band never saw much success due to Stevens being whisked off to heavy metal stardom, this full-length release features the old members along with Trigger Effect bassist Chris Rapoza playing an interesting mix of reworked Wicked Witch songs and new material.
Even though Stevens' other bands have had their extended lapses into melodic territory, I think this album might be one of the most melodic and radio friendly efforts that the vocalist has ever been involved with to date. Most of the songs stay at an upbeat mid-tempo pace, the riffs and hooks are all accessible and memorable, and the vocal performance isn't too far removed from the more recent Circle II Circle efforts. Of course there are a few heavier moments on songs such as "Psychotic" and "Soul to Fire" but they're somewhat lacking in agression and grit. In contrast, the band seems to excel the most on the ballad tracks. "Innocent" is particularly memorable thanks to a bouncy acoustic rhythm and "The Moment" is the closest thing you'll get to the old school "Edge Of Thorns" sound though it isn't quite as emotionally tragic.
Ultimately, the album's biggest flaws relate to its tendency to stay in the middle of the road musically. While most of the songs on here are memorable and fairly catchy, they tend to fall short of a classic status due to a lack of power and conviction. The band seems to go through the motions at times and doesn't give off as much excitement as some of the members' other projects. Then again, the production might be a factor in that outcome.
You could probably give them the benefit of the doubt for working with songs that probably hadn't been looked at in years. If anything, this album is a snapshot of a few guys looking back on their past and seeing how it can be applied in the modern day. I suppose it's like how Jon Oliva's Pain has re-recorded a significant number of unreleased Savatage songs on their last two albums...
All in all, this is a pretty decent album worth checking out for die-hard Savatage fans curious to hear a modern update of the group whose material got Stevens his position as that group's vocalist. It's not an adventurous effort but it's still pretty enjoyable on its own terms.
1) Solid hooks and memorable songwriting
2) Nicely delivered vocals and riffs
3) Strong ballad tracks
1) A somewhat generic sound overall
2) Lack of power and aggression
3) The band often plays it safe a little too often
My Current Favorites:
"Fly Away," "Innocence," "The Moment," "Between The Lines," and "This Time"