Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we delve into a very time appropriate piece. A few years back, the Bonazzoli Band released their ‘triumphant’ record, ‘American Ghost Stories.’ The album is a concept album of sorts, one that pulls influence from the golden age of radio suspense shows. Thus, you can rest assured it isn’t a horror piece, at least, not necessarily. It’s theatrical and accessible, which is why the group seems to appeal to such a broad base of fans.
Headed by Matthew Bonazzoli, the group is rooted in early collaborations dating back over ten years. The band has been lauded for their unique usage of rock, blues, swing, and country in their records, and more particularly, their ability to harness the previous century’s sound and realign it with this one. ‘American Ghost Stories’ is very rock and country focused, which is made apparent with the first opening musical piece, ‘Road Have Mercy.’ ‘On the Air’ technically opens the album, and it does so in a magnificently eerie fashion. ‘Road’ is the first actual song, though, and its a dramatic rocker akin to Alice Cooper or the like. The guitar licks are specially likable; they're chock-full of personality.
‘Double Cross’ is a bit jazzy in nature, feeling like an old Victorian jaunt through ghost stories. Bonazzoli’s lyrics and vocals are broodingly low and suspenseful, but also melodic and floating. One of the better tunes on the record is ‘Taking Chances,’ a song where he embodies a Roy Orbison-like figure. The production and delivery of that song makes it the highlight of the first half of the record. It’s very sharply written and tightly executed.
‘Black Cat’ is another notable piece in the early stages of the collection, continuing the Bonazzoli Band’s endeavor through Halloween-themed sonic landscapes. The band balances the kitchiness of the content well; this music could come off as a novelty more than a coherent record. There has to be some of that, just like the radio shows the music pulls inspiration from, but it can’t embody the whole experience. The band injects enough musical creativity and prowess to balance that weight very well. These are agreeable songs you could most certainly delve into any time of the year, though ‘Black Cat’ is going to be best served at a Halloween party.
One of the reasons ‘American Ghost Stories’ remains consistently interesting throughout its run is the incredible palette of performances. ‘Long Black Carriage’ is one of those, with atmospheric guitars sliding in and out of the soundscape with mysterious tact. Again, this speaks to the outfit’s ability to harness those dark themes and manifest them into an instrumental performance that feels authentic and original.
Similar to ‘Taking Chances,’ ‘Concord Road’ feels like its a piece right out of the Grand Ole Opry. String sections, lighthearted production, and soaring vocals depart the creepy atmospheres of tunes like ‘Black Cat’ and ‘Long Black Carriage.’ These endeavors may be some of the strongest on the album, especially in regard to Bonazzoli’s vocal performance. ‘If You Wait For Me’ is another song like that, too.
‘Can’t Let Go’ meanders a bit, perhaps into oblivion. It’s very quickly forgotten about when ‘Invicta’ hits its stride. My goodness, this song is a rocker. How about one of the best guitar solos I’ve heard in indie rock thus far this year? That’s what you get in ‘Invicta.’ It’s the defining, passionate moment of the record that bombards your speakers like a bat out of hell. It’s the instrumental focal point of the whole piece. The dramatic tonal shift right after it, ‘The Best of Intentions,’ feels awkward as a result. This tune brings me to one of my key critical talking points: the production.
At many times throughout ‘American Ghost Stories,’ I found the production to be lackluster. It had a very tinny timbre to it and no instrument or vocal piece felt warm or overly well-mixed. There are exceptions: ‘Black Cat,’ ‘Invicta,’ and ‘Taking Chances’ to name a few. There are other tunes, however, such as ‘Long Black Carriage’ and ‘The Best of Intentions’ where the mix falls flat - both figuratively and literally. On a studio-grade sound system, I found performances often poorly mixed with levels all out of whack in the pan. It’s a shame, because I don’t think the energy of the Bonazzoli Band is properly captured throughout this album.
‘Front Porch’ is another exception to my previous observation; that mix is warm, welcoming, and the levels accentuate one another masterfully. Then, though, you hit ‘Union Station’ and the vocals feel muffled, the percussion feels squashed, and the synthesizers overbearing. This may be far less noticeable on a more typical sound system, but as a test, I did plug in some standard Apple earbuds and I found the levels to be particularly harsh as they peaked randomly. (As is the case with the synthesizer on ‘Union Station.’)
‘Do They Dream’ is a fine little closer to an excellent record. It’s an instrumental with a unique sense of resolution and finality to it. I love that. Thus, where do I stand on this album? I think ‘American Ghost Stories’ is terrific. I do think it is burdened by hodgepodge production in many places. Fortunately, Bonazzoli’s energy picks up that slack and makes up for it, for the most part. I think the album would benefit massively from a remastered endeavor with a solid engineer and producer.* Until then, though, it’s still very much worth your time.
*I reviewed this record with standard MP3 files. One could argue that the production may be more favorable with a lossless format file. So with that said, your mileage with that may vary. Regardless, my concern in regard to the quality stands.