Sunday, 19 June 2016

Sixx:A.M.'s 'Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1' - Album Review

Despite being around since 2007, it has only been in the last year or so that Sixx:A.M. has really been seen as a 'proper' band. Formed by the Mötley Crüe bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx, the originally wrote and recorded The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, which was a companion piece to a book that Sixx released at the same time. The book contained excerpts from Sixx's diaries at the very turbulent time for him personally, and is a very eye-opening account of the dangers of drug addiction. With sporadic live shows scheduled in between Mötley Crüe's activities, Sixx:A.M. were definitely seen as a side project rather than a fully fledged band. Along with Sixx, Sixx:A.M. contains guitarist DJ Ashba and vocalist James Michael, both of whom also were extremely throughout the majority of Sixx:A.M.'s existence to this point. Ashba was a part of Guns N' Roses between 2009 and 2015 (the whole of the Chinese Democracy touring cycle) and Michael has a busy behind-the-scenes career in music producing and mixing albums, and writing songs, for a variety of bands including HammerFall, Papa Roach, and Halestorm. Two more Sixx:A.M. albums followed. This is Gonna Hurt was released in 2011, and Modern Vintage saw the light of day in 2014. Both albums were well received, but the band was definitely still seen as a side project by all at these points. Things have changed for Sixx:A.M. recently however. Since Mötley Crüe has 'blown it's brains out' (their words, not mine) Sixx now can dedicate all of his creative mind and time on Sixx:A.M.. Ashba left Guns N' Roses last year (clearly the current Guns N' Roses reunion had been bubbling away in the background for some time) which also gave him more time to dedicate to Sixx:A.M.. With this in mind, the trio started working on their fourth album, which was released in April and is titled Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1. With enough material for a double album, the band decided to release the two volumes separately, which I think is a good idea. Double albums often appear more bloated than they actually are, and releasing two separate albums will ensure more light gets shined on each song than is otherwise possible. Drummer Dustin Steinke has also been added to the line-up, and he makes his studio debut with the band on this album. Previous albums have either featured a session drummer or programming by Michael. Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1 sees the band full unleashed from the shackles of it's members' schedules, and is easily the best thing the band have done to date. The album is a great collection of classy modern hard rock songs, and shows that Sixx has reinvented himself after decades of playing sleazy hair metal.

The album open in dramatic fashion with some theatrical vocals as the first song Rise gets underway. The song is in the band's now-established sound, but possess a really great riff from Ashba that has plenty of swagger and leads into a verse that showcases Michael's vocal talents. While he is not the most diverse or unique vocalist around, his delivery throughout this album is very strong, especially on this song's chorus, which has plenty of bursts of the theatrical backing vocals from the song's intro. Ashba lets rip part-way through with a really lengthy and explosive guitar solo that shows he is a real talent. You Have Come to the Right Place is a real foot-stomping song, and opens with a riff that is probably the closest to Mötley Crüe that Sixx:A.M. will ever come. The song is packed full of groove too, with Sixx's bass dominating the grinding verses, as Michael almost croons over the top of it. This is an instantly catchy song, and has a soaring chorus that showcases Michael's knack for crafting a catchy vocal melody. Another guitar solo also stands out here, with lots of screaming high notes from Ashba in a solo is more about atmosphere than fast playing. Taking the groove to the next level, I'm Sick opens with another excellent guitar riff that has a heavy, almost southern rock, vibe to it. This leads into a sparse verse with a snaking bassline and some chiming clean guitar that occasionally cuts through the rhythm section to create some mournful melodies. A highlight of this song for me is the section later on where everything drops out and Michael's voice is left, with some strange effects on it, to repeat the chorus before the whole band comes back in and Ashba launches into another standout guitar solo with some really bluesy licks. Prayers for the Damned is more of a downbeat song, and definitely seems to take some influence from post-grunge bands like Creed. The verses are quite grungy, with a murky guitar tone and Michael's voice sitting in the lower register. The choruses are a bit more upbeat, with a subtle orchestral arrangement that creates a surprising amount of depth to the song. Despite not being as catchy as the other songs here, it is still memorable, and does a lot towards creating a strong atmosphere for the album. Better Man is something of a ballad, with plenty of acoustic guitar in the mix and some emotive vocals from Michael. Michael's vocal style, and Sixx:A.M.'s general style, is fairly melodramatic but it is done well and never seems too earnest. This song is a good example of that, and it does a lot to draw you in to the song's emotional feeling. Ashba's guitar solo helps too, with some catchy repeated licks that ends with a powerful crescendo.

Can't Stop returns to the harder rock of the opening songs with a simple riff, that is backed up by some synthy orchestral sounds that really work well to add melody and make the song stand out the from the rest. Bass-driven verses take over, but it is the song's powerful chorus that is the highlight. The gang vocal sections that chant over the song's intro riff are extremely memorable, and Michael waves his lyrics in between these hypnotic chants. I can imagine this song going down really well live, and becoming a highlight of the band's set with plenty of chance for crowd participation. When We Were Gods opens out slowly, with subtle keyboard melodies, before a verse takes over with some strange industrial sounds which gives Michael a strong backing for his mournful vocal delivery. The song builds and builds until it reaches the chorus, which in my opinion is one of the best on the album. Michael really unleashes the full strength of his voice here with some almost tortured screams that work really well. The post-chorus riff is one of the best musical moments on the album too, which makes great use of some crazy industrial sounds to create an electric atmosphere. This is one of the album's best songs, and showcases the best of the trio's writing and chemistry. Belly of the Beast opens with more electronic sounds, which end up dominating the song. While I like the band's use of synths and programming, I think it was taken a little too far here. Ashba's fantastic guitar skills are under-utilised on this one, and it ends up sounding rather sterile as a result. That said, the song's chorus is strong, with some good vocal melodies but the rest of the song relies too heavily on the programming for my taste. Everything Went to Hell gets the album back on track with a really strong riff, that has a slight boogie feel to it, which helps to drive the fun verses. The song's chorus is very different to the rest of the song, which initially seems jarring, but it is still strong so the transitions do not seem to bad after you have heard the song a few times. It also contains a fantastic neo-classical guitar solo from Ashba that really showcases him at his very best. I think his role in Guns N' Roses has unfairly demeaned him in the eyes of many rock fans (the negativity against Guns N' Roses over the past few years was frankly ridiculous) and I hope people start to re-evaluate his skills with this album. The Last Time (My Heart Will Hit the Ground) is a decent tune, but definitely up to the strong standards of much else that is on display here. It is not unmemorable, but there is little that can really be said about it. Unfortunately it is sandwiched between two strong songs, and this definitely takes the spotlight away from it. Rise of the Melancholy Empire is the album's last song, and it is the album's longest too. It is a very varied song, with delicate piano-led sections and soaring hard rock sections - all tied together with Michael's strong vocal display. The dramatic chorus vocals from Rise are reprised here to great effect, and the song ensures the album ends strongly. Overall, Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1 is a great album from Sixx:A.M., and one that sets out their stall as a 'proper' band for the first time. I look forward to where they go on Vol. 2 when it comes.

The album was released on 29th April 2016 via Eleven Seven Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Rise.

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