What happens when you take something you are passionate about, build it up to a level that you maybe never dreamed you would get to, and then find yourself blowing the whole thing up, only to start again? If you get the chance, ask Mike Floros; he probably has a story to tell you!
Following the critical, if not commercial, success of SteelCity's debut album, Fortress, Floros, the band's founding member, guitarist and chief songwriter, stripped everything back down to the most basic element...himself. From there, he assembled the current version of the band, enlisting the monster vocals of Cold Sweat's Roy Cathey, the enormous talents of House Of Lords' drummer BJ Zampa, and two talented individuals I was not previously familiar with in Cornwell (Eric Martin Band) and Stahl (Dead Risen). The end result is a true beast of a record that builds upon everything that was great about Fortress, combining an obvious affection for the power chords and Hammond sound of mid-to-late 70s classic rock and the bombast of 80s metal to create a sound that sets itself apart in the melodic rock world of 2020.
You need venture no further than the album's opener to hear the difference between the very good Fortress and the excellent Mach II, as almost immediately the amplitude of the talent is ramped up. Cathey's higher-end shout of the "Heart's On Fire" chorus kicks things off, and Floros comes flying into the fray, fingers flying in a display of speed and dexterity that sets the stage for the rest of the record. Stahl lays down a thick layer of Hammond and Cornwell's bass rumbles to life, partnering with Zampa to lay the bedrock for this massive song. As I stated earlier, the band's love of that 70s power chord is obvious here, and when blended with Floros' thick riffs and searing solo runs that blast straight out of the 80s melodic metal scene, "Heart's On Fire" is pretty much the perfect opening for ANY album of this type! One track in and I find myself reaching for my jaw, which has pretty much hit my desk.
A great drum intro launches "Dead Men", before Stahl and his true grasp on the power of the Hammond, accompanies by a fat groove from Cornwell, drive the track deeply into 70s classic rock territory. Roy comes barreling in with his power delivery, and I am immediately hit with the similarities between Cathey's vocals and those of 80s/90s vocal powerhouse, Mike Lee, of Barren Cross. Both have a truly remarkable mastery of the rich lower tenor/upper baritone delivery that they incorporate, with both able to elevate when necessary. True vocal greatness is but a piece of this song, however, as this is a monster of a song with a hook that sticks with me for hours after listening to it, and a catchy chorus that begs to be sung along with. The backing/counter vocals on the chorus are the perfect foil for Cathey's voice to stand out all that much more, and Floros flies through another tasty solo just prior to the last chorus run that ends with Cathy stretching the final note over several powerful seconds. Great stuff here!
"Steal Your Heart" finds SteelCity firmly entrenched in mid-80s melodic metal territory, using more of an 80s-era sound for the keys, and relying more on the heavy riffs of the rhythm guitars and the bass to drive the track. Zampa's tempo and pattern are also classic examples from that era, and everything comes together to form yet another vehicle for Cathey's vocal dominance to really burst forth. Floros' solo here is excellent, once again, showcasing an understanding of not just the flash of the 80s "hair metal" solo, but also the harmonic depth of the "true metal" solo of the time. This may be my favorite solo on the album...or one of the top two or three for sure, and that is saying something, as Floros is a big talent on the six string that not enough people have heard about. Hopefully Mach II will change that!
"Wasted Time" drifts back to the Hammond-driven, Deep Purple-inspired 70s/early 80s groove, with another big, catchy, hooky chorus that is perfectly suited for Cathey's delivery style. I really like the bass solo-becomes a drum fill-becomes a guitar solo that follows the second run through the chorus, and again, Floros goes off on a solo that both runs and soars, speeds then screams its way into the final verse section of the track. It's a tough fight for any song to reach the top of the heap on this record, but I'd be lying (by omission) if I didn't say there was something about "Wasted Time" that drags me back to it time and time again. This is a powerful mid-tempo rocker that just bridges that classic rock/classic metal gap so expertly that I find myself hitting repeat on it more than once.
"I Cry" starts off with some melodic guitar work that reminds me a lot of the way The Storm's excellent song, "You Keep Me Waiting" starts, but rather than launch into an 80's melodic rocker the way that "...Waiting" does, "I Cry" bleeds back into that thick bass-and-Hammond groove that plows forward behind Cathey's voice and Floros' guitars. An interesting thing happens where it feels like the song is going to explode into another big guitar solo; the song instead takes on a bit of an atmospheric feel, with more 80s-esque keyboard usage and some big drums, with just a tiny-but-frantic guitar run taking the song into the final chorus. It is as the chorus dies that Floros explodes and goes off on a big, song-ending run. I really like the songwriting maturity here that shows that a song doesn't have to follow a specific, set pattern to still deliver in a big way. Another one of my faves here.
"A Little Love" is just catchy as all get out and is a track that I think really and truly lets the listener know what SteelCity is all about, as all elements of the new band's sound are on display here. While maybe a bit more lyrically cliche than some of the other tracks here, the musical performances are all top notch, with every player given a place, and each instrument being given a full voice. If the world of radio were to still play music of this style, I would say "A Little Love" definitely has "radio single" written all over it.
The same can be said of "Still Close To My Heart", which has that "not a rocker-but not a ballad" style that seemed to hit so big in the mid-to-late-80s as far as crossing over from the rock arena to the Top 40 charts. Catchy as heck and smoothly produced, this is pure ear candy through and through, from the big "ohhhs" of the backing vocals to the melodic bass line and the classy guitar sections. As one familiar with Cathey's voice might expect, he is definitely in his element here, free to allow his voice to soar in spots, while also allowed to be a bit punchy in spots, as well.
"Give It Back" is another contender for song of the album for me, as this is just a monster track filled with powerful performances strung together, from dirty bass line that intros the song to the gritty rhythm guitars...to say nothing of that rapid-fire flourish after the tempo change in the opening minute of the track...to Zampa's snappy patterns and cadences. The chorus is simple but catchy and likely to be stuck in your head for a good while after hearing it, and Cathey continues his vocal dominance here. Floros' solo is, once again, one that really needs to be heard, and this is definitely one of the best on the record. This is just a fun song that screams summertime with the top down. Excellent stuff.
I like the vocal inflection that Cathey uses on the verses of "Spotlight", and the call-and-response of the chorus is perfect, with the backing vocals chanting "I want you!" before each line Cathey offers up, and later adding echoes of "Shine on" in response to Cathey declaring "you're in the spotlight!" Floros lays into yet another great solo, albeit a shorter one that I thought he might tear through, and the rhythm section is rock solid here. And, as is so often the case here, the supporting role of the Hammond/keys is expertly executed here, never dominating the track, but also never disappearing. Short, sweet, and down and dirty, "Spotlight" is likely my personal favorite of the record, and is everything that is great about this genre of music all wrapped up in one track. I can just see the big-haired, doe-eyed 80s vixen in the barely there outfit that would have been dominating this track had it been set to video in 1988! Honestly, this song has Headbanger's Ball hit written all over it if it's released 30 years ago. Love, love, love this song!
If I had anything I would change here, I would probably drop the instrumental, "Prayer For Love", and that is not a judgement against that track. No, it's more because it's 1:22 of time that the album isn't graced by the power of Cathey's voice and the scream of Floros' guitar. Sure, it's a nice opportunity for Stahl to shine on piano, but gimme the whole enchilada when the rest of the meal has been this tasty. Know what I mean?
The album closes in excellent fashion with "Down To One". Soft keys intro the track, kind of feeding off the piano of "Prayer ...", leading Cathey's vocals in for one more run on the record. Once again, the sheer power that he sings with is stunning to behold, and for the tenth time in eleven tracks, a lot of people are going to find themselves asking how this dude didn't become a household name! The deep richness with which he sings is almost peerless in today's music scene, and if I was putting together a band and an album of this type of melodic hard rock/metal, I can't honestly think of anyone else I would sign on as my vocalist ahead of Cathey. I am that impressed with his performance here. Floros, as per usual here, rips through an excellent, high octane solo, but then attempts to one-up himself by dropping an emotive acoustic interlude into the track as well before finishing things off with another whammy-bending, string-melting, fret-smoking solo that brings this nearly-perfect record to an unfortunate close.
Outside of the sheer musical talent found on Mach II, I would have to point to the higher level of songwriting on this album over its predecessor, which is really saying something. Again, with Fortress, we're talking about a Top 10 album of 2018 for Glitter2Gutter, but everything that record did great, Mach II does better. Add in spotless production and a gorgeous mix, and there is practically nothing to dislike about this record other than the fact that it eventually comes to an end. Of course, that just gives the listener an excuse to start it all over again, which this listener has done repeatedly for the last couple of weeks.
To predict that Mach II will end up in the Top 20 of 2020 doesn't require Carnac-like prescience, as this album is truly that great! Hunt it down, pop it in, and see if you can manage to dislodge it from your disc player. So far, I have not been able to... Mach II is so, so close to musical perfection for me that I have no desire to replace it with anything else at this point.
Rating: Absolute crankability here! 9.5 for Mach II!
*This review can be found on Glitter2Gutter at: