Review by Andrew Rockwell
Musical Style: Melodic Hard Rock
Produced By: Johnny Lima
Record Label: Kivel
Country Of Origin: USA
Year Released: 2017
Tracks: 10 Rating: 85%
Lots of key elements make a melodic pop metal album great, and Fortress, the March of 2018 Kivel Records debut full length of Youngstown, Ohio based Steel City, has pretty much all of them. An inclining for pop sensibilities is topped with catchy hooks of a radio friendly form (sort of like Bon Jovi) and mated to all the commercial melodies you could ask (not unlike Stryper). A soaring lead vocalist combining equal parts heartfelt range and gritty emotion joins with abundant vocal harmonies to help said hooks and melodies stand out that much further (similar to Peo Pettersson and Jamie Rowe). Topping things off is a shredding lead guitarist of a virtuoso quality (Rex Carroll and Joshua Perahia deserve note).
Initially slated as a solo album of guitarist Mike Floros, who got his start with Idora on its 2015 debut Wildcat, Steel City morphed into a full time band when vocalist Bryan Cole, originally scheduled to sing only a couple songs on Fortress, was asked to front the entire project. With bassist Scott West and drummer Ron McCloskey rounding out its line up, Steel City proves a perfect fit for Kivel Records and its melodic hard rock based roster but separates itself with a heavier and darker sound that approaches if not crosses the threshold of all out metal. I cannot help but think Steel City has a bit more staying power musically in comparison to some contemporaries as a result.
Lyrically, Steel City follows a pattern similar to that of AdrianGale, Romeo Riot and Revolution Saints as a mainstream commercial hard rock band with a believing vocalist. Cole, for instance, in the albums liner notes thanks ‘my Lord Jesus Christ for giving me the gifts of singing and music’, while Floros thanks God as well. That said do not mistake Steel City for a Christian project either but rather it is one whose lyrics reflect upon life, love and relationships from a positive standpoint.
Opening “Do You Love Me” manifests those key elements in question as a classy arena hard rocker. The song maneuvers elegantly in mid-tempo fashion, defined by an even combining of telling rhythm guitars and palatable keyboards but put over the top by Floros’ expert soloing abilities. Backing vocals adorning the burnished refrain bring to mind brothers Elefante. In fact, production highlights the same type of polished “Elefante feel’ commonly associated with Pakaderm Records circa eighties to early nineties.
“Heart And Soul” ensues and slows tempo further while elevating guitars to the more assertive position in the mix. A gravelly if not dirtier edge manifests in the song as Cole combines equal parts soulful delivery with well times falsettos and Flores again shreds in the backdrop (quality is such if someone had told me ahead of time that Rex Carroll handled the albums lead guitar work I would believe them). That said, there is also more to Steel City than a vocalist/guitarist combination as found in West’s ascendant bass line.
Albums first up-tempo cut follows in “Turnabout”, a rousing three and a half minutes of melodic metal intrinsic to crunch laden guitars, a forward thinking chorus and stretch of closing double kick drum, noting the adept work of McCloskey. With its rousing energy and scorching mentality, “Turnabout” would not sound out of place as a deep cut on To Hell With The Devil, and a very good one at that!
Steel City are not afraid to mix it up either in that subsequent cut “Picture Of Beauty” reaches for an AOR influenced commercial rock sound. Larger than life backing vocals - again, I swear I hear brothers Elefante in the backend - intermingle with ethereal keyboards and gentler guitars to make a lively if not elevated statement. Nice, relaxed song, albeit not ranking with my favorites.
Closing the Fortress first side is “Too Little Too Late”, a more assertive number strongly rooted in the blues to mirror an impassioned demeanor as Cole evens things out in singing at his silky, smooth best. Some of the albums strongest hooks assert themselves accordingly, with over impression Bon Jovi at the top of its radio friendly game (or as another reviewer put it: ‘I can smell New Jersey from here’).
“Someone Like You” draws upon delectable acoustic rock with hints of AOR. The group’s signature heaviness, nonetheless, does not fail to manifest, as outbursts of rhythm guitar periodically step-in to liven the easy-going scene. A joining of the amiable and unyielding might be the best way to describe things.
“Passing Ships” comes across as a gutsy hard rocker, unfaltering with its bristling underpinnings but still allowing for an acoustic presence, although more distance when placed alongside its predecessor. Impetus proves keyed up, as revealed in the highly motivated ‘we’re just two ships passing’ refrain. Following another guitar shred instrumental break, the song decelerates to a composed passage flowing to Beatles-esque vocal melodies, an effect I find quite creative.
“Shame On You” represents the Steel City attempt at traditional blues, and it is a good one. With its laid back but resolved impetus, the song reminds of M Pire or Red Sea in upholding similar levels of astute melody in addition to a soulful vocal performance, noting how Cole nails the Michael O’Mara meets Robin Kyle delivery to perfection. I wish Steel City had taken opportunity to explore its bluesy side even further.
“Rock! In The USA” might be a bit formula, in reference to its clichéd title, but is solid all the same. It almost brings a barebones, streetwise Kiss metal anthem feel, revealed in its pointed emotion, and keyed up energy that speaks of the hungry and driven. Crank this one up on the car stereo loud as it gets!
Closing Vinnie Vincent cover “Back On The Streets” surprises with its seventies influenced hard rock leanings to feature guitar harmonies galore and complementary keyboards to match. Yet, traditional eighties elements reveal themselves as well, with refrain drifting to big as it gets arena like hooks and fiery guitar soloing decorating things front to back.
As for lyrics, what I have said in past reviews of mainstream releases continues to hold true: Fortress might not be for all Angelic Warlord readers, but it is for some- so I encourage you to approach with a certain amount of prudence and discernment in mind.
When compared to other mainstream melodic hard rock albums to receive review as of late, Steel City does not quite reach the heights of Revolution Saints, whose 90% graded sophomore effort Light In The Dark features the unbeatable trio of Deen Castronovo, Doug Aldrich and Jack Blades. How is that for an all-star line up?
Yet, I find Steel City of more interest than Romeo Riot and its 80% debut Sing It Out, which while still very good trended a bit much towards formula AOR and melodic hard rock for my taste.
Which leads to my main closing point of how Steel City might point towards the commercial side every bit much as the previously referenced, but ultimately sets itself apart with its leanings in a heavier melodic metal direction. Hence, how I see Fortress appealing to fans of both sides of the musical fence.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Link to article: https://www.angelicwarlord.com/reviews/s/steelcity18.html
Musicians Brian Cole - Lead Vocals Mike Floros - Guitars Scott West - Bass Ron McCloskey - Drums