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Review Of The Week

Dig - Heaven & Earth

A new era has begun, folks. Or, should I say an old era has resurfaced.
That old era had bands like Deep Purple and Rainbow laying the foundation, this new era has a fresh new face building a solid rock fortress upon that foundation.
That fresh new face has a name.
It’s Heaven & Earth.
Led by guitar wiz Stuart Smith, Heaven & Earth has entered a whole new realm of musical significance. I was going to give you some history on the Heaven & Earth name and the two previous releases in the catalog, but I’ve decided not to, and I’ll tell you why. With H&E’s two earlier discs, Stuart Smith assembled a potpourri of A-list musicians that varied from song to song to carry out material that, primarily, he had written. Although the material was solid, it played more like a compilation of different bands. With this new release, Dig, Smith has assembled one firm unit. They all got in a room and hashed out these songs the old-fashioned way, and it shows. This is really the first album for Heaven & Earth as we now know it, and they are fully equipped to make the Earth spin in reverse so many of us can again experience the musical Heaven we so hunger for.

What Heaven & Earth is trying to achieve here is immediately obvious with the very first track, “Victorious.” With a Middle Eastern riff that runs through the entire track, it has mystical effect that reminded this listener of “Stargazer” from Rainbow’s epic Rising album. Anyone that has heard Stuart Smith play guitar knows that his style, as well as his appearance, is heavily influenced by the great Ritchie Blackmore. Like Blackmore, Smith has a great feel for the song. His solos come at the perfect times, they last just long enough, and his balance of melody and raw angst is completely perfected. “Victorious” puts all of that on exhibition. But the overall sound of this band only starts and ends with Smith’s talent. It’s the cream filling of this rock and roll donut that’s so damn tasty.

“There’s something that’s magical and serendipitous with a band in the room together knocking out ideas.”
Chuck Wright, Heaven & Earth bassist

The backbone for the band comes by way of Richie Onori on drums, and veteran bassist Chuck Wright. Onori has partnered with Stuart Smith on the earlier H&E releases, as well as during his tenure with glam rock legends, Sweet. Wright also appeared on H&E’s earlier releases, and is no stranger to Onori’s style as they played together for six years in the popular L.A. band, Satyr. These two play as one solid unit throughout the disc, rumbling through these tunes like an iron tumbleweed. But, as Wright told me in an interview, “The gem and the find of all time, as far as I’m concerned, is the vocalist, Joe Retta.” Wright’s praise of Retta comes as no surprise once you’ve heard him sing. Retta is a gem, with a powerful frontman image and the vocal power to back it all up. His sound is very raw, earthy and organic. And, although his sound is fairly unique, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joe Lynn Turner when hearing Retta fronting these songs. Between Smith’s nods to Blackmore and the Rainbow-like keyboard licks. It’s almost like hearing Joe Lynn Turner singing Dio-era Rainbow. And speaking of keyboard licks…. The guy that really drives the entire sound and mood of the record is keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum. With the Hammond-like whine and the Jon Lord-ish renderings, his work slings the whole project back in time. With solos, orchestral arrangements, and all kinds of tinkerings, Schierbaum is a huge force here.

All of the songs on Dig have distinct personalities.
“No Money No Love” has a straight forward Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow feel, along the lines of “Power.” “I Don’t Know What Love Is” is a great ballad that shows off the harmonic intelligence of the band, as well as Stuart Smith’s talent as a patient and passionate player. This song also makes use of two of music's most talented musicians, David Paich (Toto) and Howard Leese (Heart/Paul Rodgers). Paich does strings on the track, while Leese plays acoustic guitar. “Man & Machine” is a heavy rocker that finds guest guitarist Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi) doing his signature slide and talk box soloing. And again, we get great harmony vocals for the rising chorus of the song. “House Of Blues” gets back to the Dio-era of Rainbow, with a nice fuzzy riff and a vocal part that lets Retta bellow with a Paul Rodgers-like swagger. “Back In Anger” has a Deep Purple Perfect Strangers-era feel. This song is also one that allows for some social commentary from the band as it includes a few radio spots that speak of natural and financial disasters that are rocking the world. This song is the band’s plea for help. “Waiting For The End Of The World” sounds a bit like a Kansas song during the verses, with a chorus that erupts into a Dio-era Rainbow mood once again. This song is a real highlight for me. I love the structure, the underlying keyboard riff, and Retta’s vocal is as good as it gets.  “Sexual Insanity” finds Retta sounding a bit like Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), with a chorus reminiscent of “Last Child” and pieces of the verses a bit like “Dream On.” “Rock & Roll Does” is another tight rocker in the spirit of Rainbow’s “Death Alley Driver,” with killer solos from Smith on guitar and Retta on harmonica. My favorite track on the album is something called “A Day Like Today.” It’s a ballad, but not your ordinary average ballad. It is done in the spirit of a traditional Irish or English folk song. There is even a renaissance jig-like sequence in the middle of the song. Retta’s voice is truly exquisite, and Smith’s acoustic picking is sheer perfection. We also get another appearance by Howard Leese here, as he plays strings and acoustic guitar. This track was also co-written by Leese. This is by far the “song that doesn’t belong,” which ironically makes it a more than welcome addition to the set. “Good Times” is yet another rocker that shows off the band’s amazing cohesive talents. It’s a fast rocker that only the tightest of bands could pull off. The album winds down with a ballad called “Live As One.” This isn’t one of my favorites, but it still puts Retta’s vocal talent on display, and shows off the band’s vocal harmony prowess as well as they join forces with the Agape Love Ensemble. The Agape singers appear on "I Don't Know What Love Is" as well, and they create a full, anthemic chorus in each.  

As far as the production duties for the record, another veteran was at the wheel. Dave Jenkins, who cut his teeth recording bands like Slayer and Metallica, gives Dig a refined sound by the use of a device called CLASP.  The Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor (CLASP) is a device that integrates real analog tape recording into digital tools like Pro Tools to create a warm and vintage sound. This technique, partnered with the band’s overall sound, gives this record a sonic relevance that should change the course of music in the future. Just like Nirvana is credited with putting a stake in the heart of hair metal and starting the grunge movement, Heaven & Earth should make kabobs out of Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj and be the start of a real rock resurgence.


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