Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mike McCleary - "Weight Of The World" Album Review!!

It's now time for our 110th monthly CD review at The Sault Metal Scene, as we're taking a look at "Weight of the World", the recent re-packaging of two albums from local hard rock solo artist Mike McCleary! We chose this album over other recent hard rock/punk album releases from the likes of Redundant, SweetKenny, and Sykotyk Rampage due to it's earlier release, as it won't be "new" much longer. Independently recorded since last year and released to his Bandcamp page on March 11th, this release unites the 2018 revamp of his debut studio album "In Ruins" with his second release/first EP, January's "Hourglass", making this review a 2-for-1 package, complete with one exclusive track! However, Mike has stated that he saw "In Ruins" as the sequel to "Hourglass" despite it's earlier initial release, and it is appropriately placed on "Weight of the World". Featuring Mike on vocals and all credited instruments, "Weight of the World" is available on a "name your price" model at the above links, a change from earlier priced copies.

Given that this album was separately released as two different albums, you can buy them apart with the same pricing structure, though remember that you won't get the closing song "Bismarck" if you buy them this way. Also, I'm not reviewing the original version of "In Ruins" here, for 3 reasons: Mike took it down and heavily changed it on purpose, this review's gonna be long enough already, and with only 3 surviving songs from the original copy, it's basically a different album now as a result. With 14 songs running for over an hour in total length, let's begin our review of "Weight of the World"!

This album begins with the five songs on Mike's "Hourglass" EP, whose lyrics and themes focus on contemporary social issues as a warning to civilization. The first track is "Be Us", which revolves around gender & racial discrimination issues like assimilation and the refugee crisis. A hard rocking number that builds nicely to the choruses, the song has a good edge to it, and Mike's melodic singing is a good match! The song's well performed, but aside from the bridge, there isn't a lot of variance to this song and it's structure once you get past the first chorus. The song is a solid rocker if you don't mind that though! Second is "Carousel", which alludes to the cycle of trying to survive with a low income despite constant inflation, though the song's name plays into the music proper, taking on a carnival music theme in the verses, complete with some more progressive guitar riffing. Points for creativity, though the choruses are a little too talky as Mike tries to fit in the lyrics.

"Carousel" is a fun listen, especially with the lyrics contrasting well with the music, but if you like radio hard rock, the experimentation here may lose you. Then we have "Fire & Fury", which is about if global conflict is necessary, complete with audio samples of political speeches by three American presidents (one of which providing the source of this song's name.) This track has two basic themes, with the verses taking on a low morose structure before Mike suddenly amps up the aggression and intensity on the choruses, and while jarring at first, it's effective! The song is well composed and the tonal shifts work well, and while this is an early highlight, less politically minded listeners may not take to the minute-long sample bridge.  Fourth up is "Lest Ye Be Judged", inspired by the West Memphis Three murder trial in 1993 and how that case was handled. While the lyrical stretches maintain a mid-tempo, serious vibe, Mike's extended guitar solo is arguably the best I've heard from him yet, showing his technical skill very nicely!

While this song is worth a listen for the guitar solo alone, the verses and choruses work well in their styles, and for someone who's followed the case and Damien Echols' art & writings, it's nice to see a local musician show their support for the West Memphis Three and the injustice they dealt with! The original EP's title track & closer "Hourglass" follows the preceding number in it's themes about looking to blame someone rather than actually finding a solution, and how the former can lead to negative consequences. The longest individual song on "Weight of the World", this song runs for it's first 5:30 as a slower, deliberate song exploring the politically charged message, with Mike's serious low singing a good match for the draw out guitar work, but he does let loose on guitar for a heavier faster close to the song, possibly a thematically reference to global conflict ahead of the sequel. Not my favourite song on the "Hourglass" half just for it's largely downbeat mood, but it ends well!

The seventh song is also the first on the March 2018 re-release of Mike's 2017 debut album "In Ruins", which was heavily re-worked from it's original form, with only 3 returning songs on the now-canon reissue. Thematically, this album reflects "the aftermath" of the events warned on the "Hourglass" EP, and it starts here with with "Interlude", which originally was part of the next song "Lost", but was broken into it's own mini-track for "Weight of the World". Running for an album-low 66 seconds, this just has various simplistic notes being played, some reminding me of a xylophone. This all suggesting a ticking clock, possibly following the global conflict alluded to on "Hourglass", and while it's not much of a song on it's own, it sets the mood for the oncoming full songs well enough!

In this re-issued form, "Lost" immediately begins with Mike singing in a sinister carnival barker style (anyone else getting a "This Is Halloween" vibe?), with the choruses shifting abruptly into a more musically driven, standard format. The politically charged, socially conscious lyrics continue in full force here, and while the verses will be an acquired taste for many listeners, Mike does showcase his guitar skill for an extended period, and the drum track is a good match on the choruses! Then we have "Naive", which is one of the hold-overs from the original "In Ruins" album. A mid-tempo, downbeat studio track aside from a heavier bridge late, this is one of Mike's better overall compositions on this album as a pure musician, with some shining guitar melodies in the instrumental stretches, but there seems to be a vocal effect that makes his singing sound too muffled and processed. Still, fans of Mike's less aggressive music should be right at home on this one!

Track #9 is another track that survived the "In Ruins" reboot, namely "Childish Leaders", a double meaning name referencing both the conduct of major global heads of state, and how we could be better off if children were leading governments. A shorter and harder edged song, this song has a catchy vibe and what sounds like a funk inspiration on the riffing, but that flute effect in the backing instrumentation is woefully out of place, and the music cadence sometimes struggles to accommodate some of Mike's lyrics. The softer last 30 seconds ends things on a happier note, and while this song isn't consistently on point, the heavy nature (musically and thematically) works well! Next is "Aylan", inspired by the death of 3 year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, which was highly publicized in news media in late 2015. The third and final returning song from "In Ruins" 1.0, this sees Mike dive into an upbeat punk sound, which is an interesting contrast to the serious lyrics.

As a pure musical composition, this song gives Mike a nice showcase at a different side of his range, and he could definitely handle punk music on a more frequent basis! His scream at the end is also well placed, but the song fades out far too abruptly, and a more distinct chorus would have helped. Next up is "Disavowed", which is a heavier and darker song overall in it's first half and closing stretch, but the vocals don't go along with that, as Mike sings in a lower, monotone register throughout. I don't find that matches up well here, but Mike's extended guitar solos do give this song an added jolt, and are predictably well performed. I'd have had more forceful, heavier singing for a song of this tone, but the music holds up really nicely! Another heavier song follows with "Introspection", which has a steady grinding sound and better suited vocals, with the bass track particularly working well here, as does another really solid guitar solo!

While not musically ambitious compared to some earlier tracks, this delivers the hard rock goods and feels more like a complete song with all the parts falling into place nicely, and this is definitely an album highlight! The last song on the separate version of "In Ruins" is "Bad Hand", which has a more simple, laid back instrumentation in the verses, but Mike varies his singing into a more upbeat, melodic nature, albeit with more direct political references to specific world leaders, with poker references used heavily in the choruses. Another interesting contrast from lyrics to music here, this is a fun song if you can look past the political imagery, but the ending is too abrupt, and I tend to go for Mike's more aggressive music overall. "Weight of the World" ends with it's exclusive track "Bismarck", which reflects armed conflicts of World War II that Mike found interesting, though this is strictly thematic, as it's the album's only instrumental ("Interlude" aside.)

With no lyrics to worry about, this is honestly Mike's best showcase as a pure musician on "Weight of the World", with each intended battle (as seen here) getting it's own distinct musical approach, from heavy and fast to slower and dark, and the guitar, bass, and drum tracks all get moments in the sun! As such, this hardly feels like it's almost 7 minutes long, and it has a little something for everyone (except vocals), so I'd definitely get this album for this song if you have the choice!

So, what are my final thoughts on "Weight of the World" and it's original source albums? Overall, this is a solid effort with well written lyrics and some excellent musical passages, and it's great to see someone expressing themselves politically and socially in this manner! No everyone will agree with Mike McCleary's opinions on the included songs, but his opinions and stances are clear as day, and they tend to lend themselves well to hard rock music, especially with songs on the "In Ruins" re-release, which I found to be stronger pound-for-pound than "Hourglass". Mike seems to let his guitar skills fly more on that album, but as this is a combined re-release, you don't have to take sides. Songs like "Lest Ye Be Judged", "Aylan", and "Introspection" worked best for my musical tastes, while "Bismarck" is too good to be relegated to just a re-release bonus! That said, some songs struggled a bit to match Mike's well written lyrics with the music naturally, and others faded out too abruptly for my taste.

My biggest note is that some songs have too much dissonance between the serious lyrical themes and the more upbeat/casual nature of their music, and if there was intentional irony in that, it wasn't overtly obvious. We haven't heard much from Mike McCleary musically this summer, but he's a very talented and socially conscious musician, and this album continues his progression upward from the preceding CD "Weight of the Truth", so be sure to check those and his more recent albums at the above links! I hope you guys liked this month's CD review, but what's coming next month? I don't 100% know, but it will be a new album review! At this juncture, three different albums are in the running (Sykotyk Rampage's "Live at the Paris Hilton", SweetKenny's "Management", and Redundant's self-titled debut EP), and while I'm currently leaning towards the original crash band based on earlier release date, Redundant would jump ahead in line if they had a September concert lined up.

In any event, stay tuned for that next month, and for more news and notes on the site this week! Thanks everyone!

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