It’s funny…I remember seeing Chris on the “Gutter Ballet” tour and he just kind of hung back a little and let Criss do his thing. From that point on, though, I’ve watched him grow as a guitarist, musician and producer. His most recent work is something that we saw come to life through myriad postings on Facebook and it was an amazing process to watch unfold. That’s kind of why I have resisted writing a review, to this point. I had just finished producing an album, myself, so watching the process here, knowing what goes into it from a recording, producing, mixing and mastering stand-point, I have a different approach than I used to. It kind of becomes a little club (you, the artist and thousands of his closest friends ) watching a project grow and come closer and closer to fruition and wanting so badly for everything to pan out perfectly and become a sort of cheerleader.
That’s why *I* felt a little too close to it, even though I, really, had nothing to do with other than a few posts of encouragement along the way. Then something changed. I read a review. Now, it wasn’t a horrible review, mostly. It’s one of those that looks like it comes from a place of expectation that may or may not have been in line with what the point or purpose of the album actually was. I feel a little sorry for the reviewer inasmuch as the full fury of Chris’ fans have been unleashed upon him. For the most part, this is because the reviewer barely reviewed the music and, instead, chose to review Chris, himself. That’s not how reviews work, really. That said, as reviewers usually do, he brought it upon himself. This is because no matter what your opinion is, someone will disagree. Additionally, when you go after a person a lot of people care about, they’re going to push back, hard. With that in mind – I’m going to talk about what I know with Chris, my perspective on the album and, towards the end, the music.
I’m not going to address much more of the other review, really, save for a couple points.
So, first and foremost, this is an 80s metal album. Sure, there are some modern aspects to it, stylistically, but it conjures up — without sounding overly like — Savatage and Dr. Butcher with ease, and shows a lot of influence from those bands and from the songwriting he was exposed to, contributed to and learned from. So, here’s where the divide, I believe, comes in. I *love* hearing 80s metal musicians producing 80s metal. I just do. I loved a band from Richmond called Claude Zircle for exactly that reason — there were no pretentions. They played their 80s metal hearts out, and that’s exactly what “Your Heaven Is Real” does. Chris isn’t trying to win the nu-metal crowd. He’s not looking for the prog-metal crowd. He’s looking for people who enjoy honest, solid, metal. In this, he delivered, in spades. There’s something for every metalhead, here — there’s so much groove on this disc, it’s quite tasty. If you don’t feel the 80s screaming through in “Just Fine,” I don’t know what to tell you. The album, itself, also has a consistency across it — the tone, the energy, the love, the effort.
It’s funny, though, because it’s at this point in a lot of reviews where the comments start veering into “you’re a fanboy” or equally derisive terms that basically are implying that because you honestly like something and have good things to say about it, you’re a kiss-ass. That always baffles me. Me? You get what you get. If I like it, I say so, if I don’t, I say so.
Another aspect in which I felt a little too close to really review the album, objectively, was knowing the stories behind a lot of the songs, as revealed by Chris over the creation of the album via Facebook. Once I know what something’s about, and how deeply personal these things are, and how much of an artist gets exposed by “putting himself out there” in a way that few people ever know — how the hell do you criticize that? Even on the album I was just working on, it was much easier to be critical, as a producer, about musical and production choices, when I didn’t know that it was a song, for example, about the brutal hole left in the artist’s heart after the untimely death of his brother. It’s at that point that it becomes the artist’s complete game – even as producer and mixer, there are things about which you just accept you have no say. The same falls, for me, into that realm, here. “Your Heaven Is Real” isn’t some attempt at a catchy chorus (have I mentioned that the song *crushes* and the chorus will get stuck in your head for a while?) without substance, but a very personal revelation about a pretty damned scary situation and brings, to me, two interpretations of the song that aren’t disparate — as a result of the experience, there’s a new appreciation of what is an isn’t real to Chris when it comes to the afterlife, and, really, it’s more of an affirmation and uplifting message than we’ve gotten from Chris, previously. To me, that’s awesome — he’s in a happier place, which is exceedingly obvious if you follow him on Facebook. Chris has always worn his emotions on his sleeve and produced music from the heart, and this is no different — something for which *I’m* grateful, though, I do understand how some folks aren’t always comfortable listening to songs that aren’t just about political rants, sex drugs and rock’n’roll, or any of the impersonal, banal topics we’ve come to expect in recent years. That said, I’m in no position to criticize personal experience and expression for reasons I’ve mentioned before.
Oh, but make no mistake — Chris has socio-political rants, too, but there are more songs, here, about new and more personal topics, and are addressed with the same lack of compromise as “Pissed Off” though handled with more experience, wisdom and maturity. What? We all mature as we get older and, in this case, it just means the music is growing, proportionately, with Chris. That’s not a bad thing.
I will address a comment from the review within one of the points from the review I wish to focus on, just because it’s something I didn’t have an appreciation for prior to last winter, when I was in a similar situation. So, here’s the thing the review stated, “While the mix is clear, the overall sound is muddy and not sharp enough…” We’ll pair that with one of the comments on the review that stated, “…sounds like it was recorded on a PC.” Here’s the thing — in several ways it probably was – so what? There’s a lot of the home studio that is now piped through the PC to record and from what I’ve seen of Chris’ studio, I have no reason to believe any different. Even in a larger studio, again, the trend is to pipe everything through a PC. That said, having just produced an album that was recorded in its entirety on a Mac (so, kind of PC…) and mixed/mastered on my studio system, I have a new appreciation for what went into this album. I know how bloody hard it is to get a good, consistent sound that sounds good on your monitors, in your car, on your phone, and so on, and I also know what happens when you either don’t have the right monitors, the right angle on the monitors and the right distance from the monitors, ignoring the fact, for the moment, as to whether the room is treated, or not.
So, with that in mind, there are parts that I, as someone who has just spent time mixing songs until my eyes glazed over and my ears were so fatigued, and I dreamt of the songs for weeks, recognized right off the hop while listening to the album. I believe it was on “Why” that I thought, “Ah, the monitors were <so>” when mixing the acoustics, as there were a couple of spots where they came hard through the back-side of the mix, on the sides a bit louder than probably intended, but was probably the result of a lot of late night sessions, you know – when pouring his heart and soul into this project. It’s one of those things that I don’t think I would have given a second thought to if I didn’t have this stupid new quasi-curse of listening to albums like a flippin’ mixer/producer. That said, “Why” is probably my favorite track on the album.
It’s kind of like once you’ve run your first kitchen as a chef, eating out is a whole different experience where you’re all at once over critical of everything and how you would do it differently, and here’s the thing — it doesn’t change the experiences of the people around you. The real joy of a chef is peeking out from behind the swinging door and seeing someone take a bite of a dish you put your soul into and watching their eyes roll back and that “Mmmmmmmm…” There’s nothing like it.
Likewise, as an artist, watching people start to close their eyes, bob their heads in rhythm and get taken to someplace else for a while through the music, that’s what it’s all about. How they get there is subjective, and that’s I think what we’ve run into, here, with the review’s mention of “clear” yet “muddy and not sharp enough.” One thing you learn pretty quickly when mixing an album is that your ears adjust. So, if you’re working on a song, the small changes get absorbed into the song. Try this — if you listen to music with your EQ flat, boost your treble up for about 5 minutes. Now, change it back. It sounds weird — even dull and kind of lifeless, doesn’t it? Then, however, after another 5 minutes, it’s the “new normal,” again, and it just is how it is. I would wager some of this happened not only when producing this album but when listening to it, as well. I know it came into play on the one I worked on. Good gravy, it did. At any rate, the point is this — the mix is clean. You can pick out every ingredient — the drums (Brian Tichy is absolutely on point), the bass, the guitars, the vocals, the spices (some synths, some choir-y parts). There are times that the bass eats the kick, a little, but that’s also something that comes into play with this observation — this, like any album, depends upon that on which you’re listening to it. In my case, I listened on my studio rig through my monitor speakers. I’m very used to the tone on these, now, so I know their tendencies and I also have tried to keep them as flat as possible, response-wise.
So, this album is “flat,” and what I mean by that is that it’s not jacked one way or another, not over-bassy and not treble-heavy, and it is definitely not “lifeless.” It has a good balance. Now, there are places where there’s a little mud right in the 120-500Hz range where ALL the instruments want to play, but that is, to me, to be expected in metal, and, honestly, in pretty much everything short of piano concertos or pan flutes. So, the clatter about “muddy and not sharp enough” really comes down to this — poke your EQ, sparky. I know that when producing, there’s that goal that you produce an album that won’t “need” EQ-doinking, but reality comes crashing in when you realize every human on this planet has not only different tastes, but different ears that are more sensitive to different frequencies than others and, really, in order to make everyone happy, everyone’s going to have to put in a little effort. Hmm…That came out funny, but I stand by it.
If you think a recording sounds a little dull, it may be one of a billion variables, but one of the easiest fixes, if you think a recording is muddy, is to poke the mid-high and high EQ sliders up a bit and maybe even scoop the mids a little. I mean, growing up listening to metal on my little walkman with the 3-band EQ on the side, I adjusted it for just about every album I ever played in that thing, and I played a LOT of metal. So, I guess my point here is that if you’re thinking it’s a bit muddy, tweak a bit, because the overall production is tight. There are some places where it’s a little *too* flat, for my taste, but I’d rather have it flat and be able to adjust it to sound good to my ears than have it so jacked to one extreme or the other I a way that I can’t adjust it to my preference. Those spots are also few and far between and don’t take away from the listening experience of the album. It’s just something that, for better or worse, I pick up and hone in on, now, that I didn’t used to.
So, after all this, what do I think of that album?! It’s a solid-ass effort from Chris that shows just how much he’s progressed as a musician and song-writer. The songs are more involved, complex and produced with more dynamics and appreciation for white-spaces. I appreciate the growth that’s gone into his vocals and, truly, he’s found his own voice and I dig it. Again — 80s metal, man, 80s metal! I enjoy the songs a lot. I enjoy knowing the stories behind them. I enjoy how the stories are told. This album embodies what I wish more artists would try — honest, hard-working and just pure Chris. Hmmm…I’m not saying other bands should try to be pure Chris, but try putting in the love and effort into their work. It’s funny — the review that shall not be named inferred that Chris basically churned this out because he needed the money and some form of pity grab. I have absolutely no idea where that came from.
For me, the standout tracks are the title track – a perfect, blistering opener – “Why,” “Hot Wheelz,” “I Never Knew” and “2-26-15,” which is elevated that much more if you know what that date means to Chris. If you don’t, ask him. That’s not to say that “Arm and a Leg” isn’t heavy as hell and well executed or that “Just Fine” isn’t a bad-ass jam that channels the 80s perfectly, or that there is any filler on this album. It just means that those were the songs that I gravitated to, thus bringing this back to how subjective this all is. I dig the album. More to the point, I take the album as a whole – the effort, the late nights, the love and everything that goes into taking what’s in your heart and getting to unleash it on the world. It’s the blistering solos, sure, but it’s also the person poured into it. Take some time to get to know it and you won’t be disappointed.
In closing, “Your Heaven Is Real” is pure Chris and executed not flawlessly (though pretty close), but honestly — and it’s honestly a great album.