Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sixx:A.M.'s 'Prayers for the Blessed - Vol. 2' - Album Review

2016 has been the year that has seen Sixx:A.M. tranformation from a side project into a fully-fledged band. Freed from the heavy touring shackles of Mötley Crüe and the legacy that that band has, bassist and band leader Nikki Sixx seems to a man reborn. He has made it clear in numerous interviews since Mötley Crüe's final show last December that is happy to see the back of the band that made him a household name (although I am sure he is not unhappy about the presumably large royalty cheque that is deposited in his bank account each month!) and enjoying the creative freedom that Sixx:A.M. offers. His interviews do come across as a little strange however, since he was the driving force behind everything Mötley Crüe did throughout their 30-plus year career, although I am sure this over-egged pseudo-derision of his own legacy is all part of the Sixx:A.M. PR machine. In fairness however, Sixx:A.M.'s music is different from the raw, punky, sleazy music that Sixx made with Mötley Crüe. While Mötley Crüe's ethos was always to shock and hit you between the eyes, Sixx:A.M.'s music has more of an epic classic rock quality to it with slick production values and a bigger overall sound. For a band that will be celebrating their ten year anniversary next year, Sixx:A.M. still feel like a new band. Core members Sixx, vocalist James Michael, and guitarist DJ Asbha have always had other priorities. Sixx and Ashba were nearly always on the road (with Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses respectively) and Michael's career as a record producer helped to keep him busy. With Sixx and Ashba's commitments now gone, and Michael's production work being naturally a more transient occupation, Sixx:A.M. have really ramped up their activities over the past year or so. The band's fourth album, Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1 (which I reviewed here), was released back in April and, as the name suggests, was part of a planned double album. I assumed that they would hold back on releasing the second part for a while so as to give people plenty of time to digest the first part, but last month Prayers for the Blessed - Vol. 2 was released. Seven months between albums is a split second in today's climate where bands might only release new albums every 4-5 years or so, so it is great to see Sixx:A.M. capitalising on what has probably been their busiest year yet with another strong album. Vol. 2 was clearly recorded at the same time as Vol. 1, as the overall vibe is very similar, and this new album definitely feels like a extension of the first one rather than something totally new - which, in effect, is exactly what it is. The band's three core members, along with drummer Dustin Steinke, have delivered again here. With double albums (even ones sneakily released as two separate albums) there is always the chance for a fair bit of filler to creep in. Thankfully that does not seem to be the case here, as Vol. 2 is almost as good as Vol. 1.

The familiarity sets in immediately with Barbarians (Prayers for the Blessed), the album's opening number. The noise of the rabble soon gives way to a high-energy guitar lead that slowly emerges from the crowd noise, and soon explodes into a heavy riff. The song's verses are heavy for the band, with a strong groove helped by Sixx's bassline and Ashba's choppy riffing. As soon as the chorus kicks in Sixx:A.M.'s signature sound is back with Michael's slightly melodramatic vocals easily carrying the strong melodies. Sixx:A.M. can still often drift into slightly earnest territory throughout this album, but it is always done convincingly. Ashba also plays some of his best solos yet, with a great one in this song that starts off fast and soon descends into a strange effects-drenched cacophony of noise. We Will Not Go Quietly opens in a similar fashion to how the previous song finished off, with a strong mid-pace groove, but the song soon takes on an alt-rock vibe that owes a lot to nu-metal. Michael's half-rapped vocals in the verses are a little strange, but it still manages to work while the rest of the band lock in beneath him with a real tight rhythm. The chorus is standard fare however, with soaring melodies and plenty of backing vocals courtesy of Melissa Harding to aid Michael. This song has the feeling of a real anthem and will probably become a live staple for the band. Wolf at Your Door has a much rawer classic rock feel, with a growling opening guitar riff and verses that see Michael adopt more of a sinister vocal style, something which is different from his usual expressive delivery, which suits the sparser arrangement. The song builds towards the chorus which, while not as a strong as the previous two, still manages to be memorable. Ashba's guitar solo is great here however, foregoing most of the shredding licks he is known for and instead using a more atmospheric, spacey sound with long drawn-out notes. Maybe It's Time slows things down somewhat, with strong acoustic foundations and a mournful intro guitar lead. Sixx:A.M. have always done ballads well, and this is another strong one with a good acoustic presence throughout and a emotional vocal performance from Michael. The chorus is very reminiscent of all of the classic power ballads of the 1980s, with a subtle string arrangement too add colour and class,  which then leads into a fantastic guitar solo that takes the emotional vocals and runs with that feel and really builds upon what Micheal has been doing throughout. The Devil's Coming gets back to the band's heavier sound, with a driving double bass drum pattern from Steinke that drives Ashba's riffing and a high-energy urgency. Despite this intro, the verses are pretty laid back, with chiming clean guitar melodies and surprisingly melancholic vocals. The choruses pick up the pace somewhat, with more of a double bass drumming and tight riffing, but still feel a little more restrained. The instrumental sections focus more on that speed, with the intro riff being reprised throughout, but Michael's sections are much more low key. The mix works well, and the song is another memorable one. The album's middle song, Catacombs, is an Ashba guitar solo with no other instrumental backing. It does seem a little out of place on the album, but it is an explosive couple of minutes of guitar playing from someone who really deserves more recognition.

That's Gonna Leave a Scar is another heavy number, with a slightly thrashy riff and a fast drum beat. Steinke's performance on the album is not flashy for the most part, but he does get the opportunity to cut loose a bit more here with some excellent double bass drumming and a few explosive fills. The chorus is one of the album's best too, with a big symphonic arrangement to really bulk out the sound, and plenty of great vocal melodies for Michael to sink his teeth into. Dramatic choruses really are his forte, and this is a perfect example of his style. Without You, originally by Badfinger, has to be one of the most covered songs of all time and Sixx:A.M. now add their name to the long list of people to take it on. Their version of the song is in their own style, and as a result it fits well with the rest of the material on the album. The chorus is timeless, and Michael's dramatic vocals are perfect for it as the string section and piano melodies dance around behind him. While this will not stand out from all the other covers of this song that exist, it does add something to the album and it has been done in a way that it does not feel out of place. Suffocate starts out as a bit of ballad, based around a simple set of acoustic guitar chords with Michael's sparse piano backing, but it soon explodes into another groove-laden riff with Sixx's bass guitars cutting through the mix perfectly to really beef everything up. Despite this heavier overall feel, the acoustic guitars and piano are ever-present, which helps to give the song a real warmth that would not be the case if it was more of a basic rocker. Sixx:A.M. sound has always been subtly grand, with lots of layers that add up to more than the sum of the parts, and this song is a perfect example of that. Riot in my Head also starts off slowly, with a bit of a murky tone, but again it picks up with a big vocal arrangement that recalls Rise from the previous album, and a chorus that really delivers with a strident guitar lead throughout from Ashba. The song is quite theatrical throughout, but none more so than the ending which has real shades of Queen from the big vocal choir to the guitar leads that take their tone right from Brian May's signature sound. It works well however, and Asbha's extended guitar solo is strong. The album's closing number Helicopters is quite unlike anything else on this album, or indeed in the rest of the Sixx:A.M. discography to this point. There is something of pop rock bands like U2 and Coldplay here, with a commercial sheen, but this disguises quite a dark song with lots of emotional vocal lines and guitar swells that really add to the dark feel. The uplifting wordless vocal sections that constantly reappear throughout the song bring the pop element to the song, and the contrast with the darker moods works well. Ashba's guitar solo is great too, with a slow, deliberate feel that works well with the slower groove the song and brings the album, and in fact the Prayers duo, to a strong conclusion. Overall, Prayers for the Blessed - Vol. 2 is another strong album from Sixx:A.M. and one that perfectly sits alongside it's companion piece to create a strong statement for 2016. I do wonder where Sixx:A.M. will go from here, as these two albums certainly feel like the pinnacle of the band's established sound up to this point. For now though it is great to have these two albums come out so close together, and great to see Sixx still so creative after 35 years in the industry.

The album was released on 18th November 2016 via Eleven Seven Music. Below is the band's promotional video for We Will Not Go Quietly.

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