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Originally published at http://www.suite101.com
Sons of Liberty was formed by Jon Schaffer, better known in most circles as a leading figure in such bands as Iced Earth and Demons and Wizards.
First made available as a free MP3 collection on the group's website around December 2009 and then seeing a physical release mid-July the following year, this album is driven by a more basic sound and a newfound lyrical passion.
Unsurprisingly, the musical style on here isn't too far removed from that of Schaffer's usual bands and often sounds similar to 2004's The Glorious Burden in many ways. The guitars mainly consist of muscular chugs and melodic leads, the songwriting is highlighted by often uplifting choruses, and a number of samples and quotations are used to round out an otherwise light atmosphere. At the same time, this isn't quite as heavy as Schaffer's usual works and may be one of his most accessible albums to date.
But what really makes this project interesting is that it's a solo work in every sense of the word. in addition to his usual guitar duties, Schaffer has also attended to the drum programming and even performs the lead vocals. Of course, there are a few guest performers included here and there with famed producer Jim Morris providing guitar solos on songs such as Jeckyll Island and Our Dying Republic.
All in all, the musicians' performances are pretty solid though there aren't too many mind-blowing moments to be found. Having said that, the vocals are surprisingly strong for a man that has only taken the lead on a few short occasions. Often sounding like Iced Earth's most popular vocalist Matt Barlow, the vocals carry the songs well and range from a gruff tone on False Flag to a more melodic croon on many of the songs' hooks.
Speaking of songs, the songwriting in this album is pretty basic but still results in distinct tunes. Most are executed at a more upbeat pace though there are some mid-tempo moments to be found in places such as Indentured Servitude and Tree of Liberty. And as expected, there are also a few ballads thrown into the mix with Our Dying Republic serving as a somber lighter-holder and The Cleansing Wind bringing in an almost
But despite the songwriting quality, it's made obvious by the present themes and presentation that this project is all about the lyrical themes. With the project's name being inspired by a patriotic group of the same name, the lyrics focus on the problem of the world's masses being controlled by an elite few through the use of finances and deception.
For the most part, the lyrics avoid specifics and stick to more abstract ideas with many references being made to tyranny, slavery, liberty, the Founding Fathers, and the insidious men behind the curtain. There is also a personal touch as several songs revolve Schaffer's feelings towards his own revelation and encouragement expressed for those that are in the process of discovering theirs.
While many cynical listeners will only be led to wonder where Schaffer keeps his tin foil hats, this is a pretty strong album that may be the best that he has been involved with since Demons and Wizards released Touched By The Crimson King in 2005. The songwriting should be enjoyable enough for older listeners disappointed by the last few Iced Earth releases and accessible enough for listeners that are new to metal.
There is also no real risk in checking it out as the MP3's are still available for free on the group's website. Also recommended are the lists of recommended media on the site for those that are interested in the project's lyrical themes. Check it out!
Jeckyll Island, Don't Tread On Me, False Flag, The Cleansing Wind, and We The People
After a break from Iced Earth for a bit, Jon Schaffer found something that got him good n’ motivated again, and actually inspired! The last couple of Iced Earth albums had been overlong and at times dull, with fairly bland riffs that could not be overcome by Ripper and Barlow’s vocal efforts. Though they had some decent songs, and Schaeffer loves his Something Wicked story, they almost felt like they were done as chores. Here we actually get an album that he clearly wanted to do. Musically, it's a pretty nice slab of heavy/power metal. The riffs, which are vaguely reminiscent of the Demons & Wizards self-titled, have some energy and do something different! Gallops and acoustic interludes are not abused! Most of the songs charge ahead! The guitar harmonies are great! The solos are good! Jon bellows out his own vocals on this album, and does them with some real power! Despite his limited range, I had thought from his backing and occasional lead vocals with IE that he wouldn’t be a bad vocalist (at least any worse than many others in metal) on his own, and he shows it here. The drums are also (programmed) by Schaffer, and don’t really stand out, but they do the job. Complimenting him are Ruben Drake to play bass on some songs, and longtime IE producer/occasional guest guitarist Tom Morris and current IE lead guitarist Troy Seele (who did the good solos on Crucible of Man) chip in some solos. The production is Morris, which is decent.
The problems come in the source of the inspiration, Schaffer's music writing habits and also some of the common shortcomings of concept albums. This is of course a concept album about political and financial conspiracy, and an important thing to understand about it is that a quick visit to the project website reveals it’s closely connected to libertarian pundit Alex Jones, the proprietor of a syndicated talk radio show, online newspaper Infowars, and online TV station Prisonplanet. In recent years it appears both Schaffer and Dave Mustaine have gravitated towards him and his noted promotion of conspiracy theories of questionable veracity. The lyrics of this album detail how various international and US financial and political powers are conspiring to carefully craft sequences of world events (the 2008-2009 economic collapse, 9/11, etc) to their own nefarious ends, and it hits you with this message without much subtlety. Granted, many in power do try to game the system to their advantage, and Schaffer rightly rails against this. But the man who once lamented 9/11 and attacked the terrorists on The Glorious Burden sinks to indirectly referencing the 9/11 “Truth” Movement in the song “False Flag” (and directly references Loose Change on the project website). Alex Jones’ concepts get pretty far out there for some of us, like Megadeth’s song “Endgame” about concentration camps in the US. It’s not entirely unexpected; Mustaine’s mistrust of the powers that be has been long apparent, and Schaffer combined IE’s always present anti-authority bent with his hyper-patriotism. However, you’ll quickly see why Schaffer probably created a side project outside IE to deliver this sledgehammer: the message is tough to separate from the music, unlike Megadeth.
Also, this is a Jon Scaffer album and that means a ballad or few. There's three, one good aside from lyric details (the acoustic "Our Dying Republic") and two medicore in vein of "When the Eagle Cries" ("Feeling Helpless?" and "The Cleansing Wind")
Further, while Brush Fires avoids the oft-troublesome transition tracks of concept albums, there are samples in and at transitions at ends of songs- politician quotes, sounds of people marching, etc. They sound pretty cheesey sometimes (a Hitler quote? really?) and break up the momentum a bit. Heck, the whole first minute of "Indentured Servitude" is just a John F Kennedy speech! However, the marching outro of the powerful closer “We the People” is one place where this works. That song almost makes up for the problems elsewhere to make this a good album. Almost.
This really could have been a great album- most of the music kills. If/when Iced Earth gets back to business, this portends well that Jon Schaffer might have some good riffs left. But it exists for a message, and that message may be tough to swallow.
"I'm never drinking again" is a platitude that we have all mumbled to ourselves through bile-soaked breath; you know it's not true but at the time you need to promise yourself (with your fingers crossed behind your back) that this horrible pain is never to be repeated. While I've only ever uttered the phrase to myself once (STUMPS Car Rally 2009 to be precise) I instead lie to myself by thinking "Okay, this definitely has to be the worst album I will ever listen to"; enter the debut of Jon Schaffer's solo project, the Sons of Liberty.
I'm not going to say it is the worst album of all time but it certainly is setting the bar high, or should that be low? 'Brush-fires of the Mind' is just mind-bogglingly terrible in every conceivable aspect; lyrics, riffs, vocals, bass lines, drumming... well actually the drumming is passable (probably because they're programmed) but it's barely a drop of water in the ocean of piss that is this album.
Musically 'Brush-Fires of the Mind' is little more than the most tedious and forgettable riffs of Iced Earth '95 - '98 because Schaffer is incapable of writing anything but. Notable highlights include the main riff to "Indentured Servitude" sounding pretty damn similar to that of "You Give Love a Bad Name"; seriously, go listen to it because that shit is uncanny and cracks me up every time. Second is "The Dying Republic" for having possibly the worst chorus of all time and for that fucking asinine attempt at song dynamics around 2:31 when it shifts from acoustic balladry into a heavy metal riff; it's just awful and a good example of how not to write a song.
On that note, there's no better way to start this next paragraph than to quote the aforementioned chorus from "Our Dying Republic";
Our lives should define freedom
Our lives, to live in our own way
Our lives must define freedom
Or will we let them take it away?
If you choose to listen to this album (heaven fucking forbid) then you'll be dealing with embarrassing and cringe inducingly awful lyrics like this that constantly harp on about defending freedom and liberty, and fighting politicians, tyranny and banks because THE NEW WORLD ORDER IS COMING GUYS OH FUUUUUUUUUUCK! Schaffer comes off as little more than a fucking crackpot, holed up in his basement surrounded by a plethora of guns, bottled water, tinned food and his life savings 'cause FUCK YOU BANKS AIN'T GETTIN' MAH MONEY! The lyrics are the final nail in coffin that take this album from being "Yeah it's shit, whatever" to "Holy mother of fuck, this dude is off his meds!". If the lyrics weren't subtle enough there's also a veritable slew of samples littered throughout each song of various speeches about the NWO and similar subjects. Initially these are a welcome relief since they mean Schaffer isn't singing, but eventually they become tedious and kill any momentum, making the songs feel about five minutes longer than they actually are.
After reading the lyrics you can't help but feel that Schaffer could have saved a lot time and money by simply starting up a blog because there is no point to this album; the music is irrelevant at best and exists to fill the background with noise while he rants and rants and rants. Hell if he doesn't trust computers (and really, it wouldn't surprise me) then he could go busk on the street or write a newsletter or anything, just as long as he does something that doesn't involve writing material for this loathsome solo project ever again. Christ, at this point I'd almost be somewhat glad to hear that he'd started writing material for Iced Earth again; that's just how dire this shit is.
Voltaire once said “Anything that is too stupid to be said is sung”, and with a healthy amount of stupid music being churned out through the course of history along side better artistic endeavors, it is quite easy to sympathize with his point. However, closer scrutiny visited upon that quote will reveal that those things which are sung do not necessarily have to be stupid, and can just as often be quite true and relevant. Such is the story of many musicians who put their various protests against injustice, corruption and lies to song. Counted among these individuals is the once politically indifferent lover of fictional storytelling and power/thrash guitarist Jon Schaffer, whose various works under the Iced Earth banner have been the subject of much attention since bursting out of the Florida scene in the late 80s.
Arguably the beast that would become Sons Of Liberty was born out of “The Glorious Burden”, as it revealed a songwriter becoming enthralled with historical writings and literature, but what emerges here is something quite different, and very appropriately placed under a different name. Musically, it is just as characteristic of Schaffer’s recent “Something Wicked” 2 part series and the latter of the 2 Demons And Wizards offerings, containing all the stylistic trappings he’s been displaying since the mid 90s in a somewhat more refined capacity. But when faced with not only the lyrics, but the structural presentation of the entire album, imagery of the best political protests songs of the late 60s and early 70s emerge, but fitted into the metal genre and bolstered with enough narrations and sampled political speeches to make Dave Mustaine blush.
Everything about “Brush-Fires Of The Mind” caters to the message contained within, from the simplistic songwriting and plain presentation, to the way everything has been mixed together. In spite of the use of programmed drums, this listens like anything but a mechanical album, and exhibit’s a looseness and freedom that is more often associated with hard rock. The riffs are primarily what anchor this album and maintain a metallic edge to things, although the thrash influences are a bit more toned down and the guitar conforms itself to an only occasionally dominant capacity, in contrast to the vocals and the narrations, which conquer the entire arrangement when present. A good amount of this owes to the vocal tracking being a good bit louder than anything in Iced Earth’s history, and Schaeffer confirmed in several interviews that this was done intentionally to give the lyrics greater prominence.
Be all of this as it may, what ends up being realized here is a solidly enjoyable slab of metal. One listen to the galloping majesty of “Jekyll Island”, which conjures up images of the faster and more exciting parts of the “Something Wicked” series, and the riff happy but slower epic “Tree Of Liberty” should properly sate any desire left in most Iced Earth fans for accursed yet melodic anthems about evil since the somewhat disappointing “The Crucible Of Man”. The presentation is a bit more bare bones here, lacking any keyboard detailing and only occasionally using backing vocals for any purpose aside from gang chorus moments, but it gets the job done nicely. Other songs that are a bit shorter in scope such as “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Indentured Servitude” accomplish a more angst driven variant on Schaffer’s retro-power metal meets “Black Album” grooving, but are also quite entertaining with or without all of the politically charged sound bits filtering in and out.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this album is how Jon manages a solid vocal presence, in spite having a fairly smaller vocal range than any of the lead vocalists that he’s worked with in the past. He’s done a number of lead vocal slots in the past with Iced Earth, but most of it consisted of rhythmic shouts, spoken narrations and melodies consisting of 3 or 4 notes. But at differing points on here he seems to be invoking tendencies towards Barlow‘s dense operatic baritone, while at others he almost accomplishes a sort of middle ground between Hansi Kursch and Ripper. Naturally he lacks the overt largeness of the former and the massive high ranges of the latter 2, but the character of his voice proves to be fairly apt at maintaining a level of intrigue within a vocal range that would normally be associated with Tom Araya after he stopped doing high screams.
The area where Jon’s surprising versatility really comes into play is on the 2 ballads found on here. The rather serene and introspective “The Cleansing Wind” is a unique beast in comparison to most of his catalog, bearing a slight resemblance to some work done with Demons And Wizards, but having slightly more of a folk song character. The lyrical testimony of Jon’s conversion away from conventional politics and the present paradigm while alone in the picturesque land of South America is heartfelt, almost akin to a confession of a man living out Plato’s “Cave Allegory”. “Our Dying Republic” is more of a catchy song in the tradition of “When The Eagle Cries” and “A Charge To Keep”, though with more of a protest song feel. Jon’s ability to go from a melancholy tone to an aggressive one is on full display here, conjuring up heavy comparisons to Barlow’s work on various Iced Earth ballads.
The greatest strength of this release can also be viewed as its greatest weakness, and that is the overt forwardness of the message it carries. Some albums are subtle enough to make tuning out the lyrical themes or simply putting them in the background possible, but subtlety isn’t how an album like this works. It’s the sort of album that will likely either revolt the listener with a divergent opinion to the point that he’ll utterly hate it, or plant seeds that will eventually grow into a change of mind. There’s really no room for compromise here, even for die-hard Iced Earth fans who can’t get enough of Jon’s songs yet are philosophically on the opposite end of where he’s coming from here. But for those who tend towards this way of thinking, this could definitely function as a gateway into appreciating Jon’s other projects, and perhaps even a gateway into heavy metal for those who aren’t into it yet are drawn to this album’s message.
Though this album was first circulated in late 2009 for the promotion of Jon Schaffer’s newfound interest in political activism and paleo-conservative/classical liberal politics, it should be treated as a 2010 album as it was first released in finalized form just recently. It is a testament to the changing political dynamics of the world that this album has been given major label backing and will probably enjoy wide consumption in both America and Europe. It is ruthlessly uncompromising and will probably turn many people off, but it is a solid musical effort, roughly on par with IE’s “Framing Armageddon” in overall quality. But if one is politically inclined and is not familiar with Schaffer’s lengthy repertoire, “Brush-Fires Of The Mind” could be the place to get started.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on July 24, 2010.
This one certainly came as a surprise upon it's initial release. Jon Schaffer was, after all, in the middle of an extended break from all things Iced Earth when, out of the blue and with little fanfare, there was all of a sudden a 9-song collection available for free download from his new side band, Sons of Liberty. Mr Schaffer apparently had something of an epiphany while on his travels and, after a bit of research has come to the conclusion that the whole of the modern world – right down to the endless wars and collapsing economies - is under the control of a cabal of shady bankers pulling the strings from behind the scenes, with the politicians no more than a front to keep anyone from noticing what’s really going on. Phew.
When you think on it, Schaffer probably was the sort of person susceptible to these sort of new world order conspiracy theories – his career-arcing ‘Something wicked’ story after all was one of Machiavellian scheming on a colossal, millennium spanning scale, and when you add his well documented ultra-patriotism and a global financial collapse into the equation, it's no real surprise that 2 and 2 were added together to get a number completely off the charts.
The most startling thing of the whole enterprise though is how good most of it actually is on a musical level; certainly a vast improvement on the lacklustre ‘The crucible of man’, Schaffer’s passion for his new cause without doubt transfers quite audibly into the music and a fire that was in danger of snuffing itself out in recent years seems to be well and truly raging again. I’m no political analyst, so rather than snickering at how cracked the unifying theme of the songs seems to be, I’ll be focusing on the musical side of things in this review.
After the dogged staleness of the last Iced Earth CD – something that had been gradually creeping into Schaffer’s writing for most of the new millennium - ‘Brush-fires of the mind’ is a serious breath of fresh air for Iced Earth fans sick of interlude-heavy concept pieces. Musically, you could of course pick it out as Schaffer’s work a mile off, but while the originality may be in somewhat short supply, there is an energy bubbling below the surface of most of these songs that hasn’t been heard from him in some time.
With Schaffer recording almost the whole thing himself (yes the drums are programmed, but you’d never notice), there is something of a shock in store - where did he find that voice? The growling bellow on “Stormrider” and the crooning on “A blessing or a curse?” were very serviceable, but the performance he puts in here is unbelievable for a man who has never attempted anything on this scale before. What is obvious is either how much Matt Barlow’s style has rubbed off on his band-mate over the years, or how much influence Schaffer’s writing has on the vocalist in his main band, as some of the similarities of inflection are quite uncanny. Schaffer lacks the ginger giant’s astounding range of course, but makes up for it in a dedicated display that is by turns powerfully emotional and scathingly furious.
Another nice surprise is the quality of the solos after the derth on 'Cricuble', provided by long-time producer Jim Morris and Iced Earth bandmate Troy Seele. Indeed, the sparkling solo that bursts out of nowhere on the opening “Jekyll Island” immediately calls for you to sit up and listen, and also to wonder exactly why there has been such a shortage of this sort of thing on the last couple of CDs from Schaffer's main band. The man himself sadly still shys away from lead duties, which is a bit of a shame since a highly personal side-project like this may have been the perfect time to show us what he's got.
Despite this, you shouldn't go in expecting a full-on return to galloping power/thrash, as the songs mostly sit just above or below midtempo, but if you can get past that sort of disappointment there is a mostly very strong collection of songs here built on intense, constantly pounding rhythms. There is only one full-blown ballad too, which will no doubt come as a surprise to some. Iced Earth tend to get panned for their softer songs, but “Our dying republic” sits comfortably with recent efforts like “A charge to keep” and “Hollow man”, so it will be down to the individual listener as to whether or not that is good news. Some of the songs in the middle don’t quite hit the heights, but the opening pairing of “Jekyll Island” and “Don’t tread on me” are both excellent pieces of work, and things are rounded off in similarly inspired fashion too.
The only problem with ‘Brush-fires of the mind’ that becomes a serious annoyance is the heavy reliance on samples and quotations shoehorned between –and sometimes stamped over the top of – the songs. The first half suffers the most, with almost every song being sandwiched between long, long sections of no music, much in the same way Riot sabotaged a near-masterpiece with ‘The privilege of power’. The good thing is that, with the whole project intially being available as a digital product only, the more impatient listener is free to chop up the mp3s as they see fit to get rid of these segments (and I’ll be honest, that’s exactly what I did) and create a far more flowing and uninterrupted work.
When the spoken segments actually interfere with the songs themselves it becomes more of a problem, and “Indentured servitude” without doubt suffers the most. The endless lining up of political figures saying “new world order” eventually swamps the song completely, and doesn’t disguise the fact that it is essentially riding the same riff to its protracted conclusion. A shame really, as a very nice solo gets lost in the mix there. I understand this whole project is essentially a platform for a greater message, but from the humble metal fan’s point of view, I’d have preferred the entire midsection be ditched in favour of a big beasting thrash break.
This sort of thing eases off in the 2nd half though, and there is a more unexpected between-song interlude later on where Schaffer has his Bob Dylan moment, playing a protesting street musician chanting a simple, hypnotic mantra (that later turns out to be the chorus of the closing track) over a twanging acoustic guitar.
The other surprise moment is the penultimate “Cleansing winds”, a Latin-hued bit of relaxing wonderment no doubt inspired by the trip to South America credited with sparking this whole musical journey off. A real oddball, but quite a successful experiment rich with acoustic chiming and tinkling piano accompaniment. The heaviness is brought back for the closing “We the people”, a real highlight that brings things to a storming close. Faster than most of the songs, and blessed with a really powerful chorus, it even gets a way with a pretty silly ‘warning’ speech delivered by Schaffer to the world’s leaders, somehow managing to sound inspiring in spite of it all.
The title of this collection of songs, ‘Brush-fires of the mind’ indicates the intention to inspire a wave of free thinking burning in the minds of its listeners. Now I don’t know about all that, but the new fire that seems to be burning in Jon Schaffer’s creativity zone is good enough for me. Sons of Liberty is not only quite the success in its own right, but also gives hope that Iced Earth aren’t quite done yet either.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)
For a person who has been listening to John Schaffer’s Iced Earth band for more than 10 years, the Sons of Liberty project feels like another Iced Earth (I.E.) album, giving you the feeling of just being listening some more of the same stuff from the previous years; with a little bit of innovation. This is a concept album; this time, politics is the main idea.
There are some aspects of this album that tend to be repetitive, yet not that annoying. In general the lyrics, and writing ability is good; the riffs and the songs in general remain on the same pace with no big rhythm changes. The voice pitch is almost the same in every song, it’s not bad, but there is no real feeling behind that voice; but you have to be clear that Schaffer have performed always the backing vocals and rhythm guitar in I.E., with the only exception of the Stormrider song that he always sings.
For those who have not listen to I.E., this album should be a good introduction to Schaffer’s music. By the middle of the album you’ll reach its climax then to decrease and close with a good song. For those like me that have been listening to his music for a while, will understand that when I say that he has become predictable, in the sense that is clear that the first two I.E. albums where composed by a band instead of just one man, seems that Schaffer applies the same formula when is producing an album.
Not being unfair with the album and Sons of Liberty project but criticizing Schaffer’s past albums, 80% is what I give to this album. Even though it is really worth listening.