…Well, this is a great start. New site layout, new schedule, new focus, new month…and the first thing I cover is something that I actually gave up on the album on first listen before I’d even finished the first track because I was so bored by it.
…I know that’s not the best of signs, but here’s the funny thing, if you pardon me giving away my thoughts on this album already: it’s actually not a bad album. It’s not going to be getting a recommendation, but I can’t say this is as bad as my first indication was pointing towards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by actually talking about Cruzh (incidentally, how ARE you meant to pronounce that? I genuinely don’t know and I’m meant to be reviewing their album!).
Well, Cruzh are a Swedish trio who formed when the sleaze metal band TrashQueen ended. Bassist Dennis Butabi Borg and guitarist/backing vocalist Anton Joensson wanted to continue producing material together, but wanted to go for a change of direction towards melodic hard rock and AOR over the more sleaze influenced direction they had done in the past with TrashQueen. Teaming up with vocalist and keyboardist Tony Andersson (who had been a studio musician with TrashQueen on their album, which was never released), the band went on to release two EPs (which were also demo recordings) independently before joining the Frontier Records family and heading off to record their self-titled debut album. Which is what I am currently reviewing.
…Hey, it’s not a lot to go by, but these guys are fairly new, so there’s not really a huge amount to catch everyone up on.
Anyway, as I said earlier, Cruzh didn’t exactly start off on the best of notes for me, but I have to say, a few repeated listens later, that I don’t dislike this record. It suffers from a few problems which I think restrict its appeal to diehard fans of the genre only, but it’s certainly not unlistenable by any stretch of the imagination, just lacking anything to really appeal to anyone who isn’t already a huge fan of this genre of music.
The band’s sound is pretty much your typical 80s rock influenced sound, which means high pitched vocals, catchy hooks and obligatory ballads. Nothing really that new in the grand scheme of things, but, when done well, it can be a fun ride. Unfortunately, Cruzh don’t do it especially well, with my personal overwhelming thought during listening to the record being that the songs are lacking something to push them from being truly great. I’m kind of reminded of Blood Red Saints, oddly enough: there’s nothing really wrong with what they’re doing and I could see people really enjoying them based on their sound alone, but they feel like they’re missing something to really push them to the next level.
Also like Blood Red Saints, Cruzh’s songwriting isn’t BAD, but I feel like the band falls into the trap of playing every cliche of the genre straight in a time when the genre has been so thoroughly deconstructed that it’s hard to find it new and exciting and not having strong enough songwriting to overcome that fact. Considering the entire appeal of melodic metal is to be constantly catchy, I was kind of surprised at how unmemorable most of the material was: I can faintly remember a couple of choruses and some of them are decent enough (“Stay”, “Survive”, “Set Me Free” and, after a few listens, “In n’ Out of Love” have choruses which I enjoyed), but nothing really reached the point that I was really loving them as a whole (although “Set Me Free” and “Before I Walk Alone” certainly came close) and some songs literally could not have made less of an impact upon me if they tried (case of point, I genuinely cannot remember a single note of “Hard to Get” or “You”, no matter how hard I try and even while I’m listening to them!). Even the two ballads on the record (“Anything For You” and “Straight From My Heart”) feel kind of unimpressive, although I will acknowledge that “Straight From My Heart” has its moments. I honestly find myself having a greater appreciation for Blood Red Saints after listening to this album, because at least they had songs which I liked from start to finish (“Wrapped Up in These Arms” and “The Best Thing”): I literally can only tell you what songs I liked from this record because I have the song titles in front of me to allow me to check what they are! I appreciate that it is hard to write good hooks for songs while still being original nowadays and the record actually gets to its best moments at the end of it, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling more than a bit unimpressed with this record on the songwriting front.
The performance front of the record, in complete fairness, isn’t actually too bad. It’s nothing that you haven’t heard before on a record like this, but it’s still a series of performances which actually support the music, which is all that can really be demanded from a melodic hard rock record, considering the appeal of the genre isn’t technical ability. Session drummer Louisian Boltner (who has worked with quite a few other musicians in the past, including, to my own surprise, Paul McCartney) won’t exactly invite comparisons to Neil Peart any time soon, but he does a solid job with what he has to work with and it’s hard to say that he doesn’t add some much needed punch to some of the songs! Borg’s bass playing serves to create a decent backbone to the rest of the performances, but he doesn’t really stand out that much, so you’d be forgiven for not even noticing him beyond a tiny solo in “Aim for the Head”. Joensson’s guitar playing is, admittedly, somewhat impressive when you consider there is just him playing the guitar on the record, but he still won’t exactly blow anyone away, as his performances are still rooted in the obvious influences that one might expect from a modern day melodic hard rock musician. Producer Erik Wiss also makes an appearance on the record as the pianist on “Anything For You” and he actually doesn’t do a bad job, although Art Tatum, he is definitely not! Andersson’s keyboard playing is also reasonably good, although I would say that he is definitely not the best keyboardist I’ve heard even this year (I’m still quite impressed with Mark Mangold’s performance on the last Drive, She Said record!).
Speaking of Andersson’s performance on the record, I have to say that his vocals are actually not that bad. He’s not going to blow anyone away and he doesn’t really stand out too much from the sea of melodic hard rock musicians out there, but he has a reasonable vocal range, his vocal tone is pretty pleasant to listen to without breaking too far from what one might expect to hear in this genre and he knows how to use his voice well, so there’s not really a lot to say against him. Some might argue that he doesn’t really help the band to stand out, but I can’t really fault his voice on a technical level and, frankly, I’d take a vocalist who sounds like everyone else who fits the music than one who sounds distinctive, but doesn’t fit the music.
The production on this record is OK, but it suffers from my usual production woes (which, for the benefit of newer readers, are slightly too quiet bass for my liking and a slightly too loud mastering job). I also think the mix feels surprisingly like it is overly crowded. It’s hard to explain exactly what is wrong, considering this is usually a mastering issue and I don’t think the mastering is causing it this time, but, in the busier moments of the record, I feel like every single instrument is trying to fight to dominate the mix, with the end result that the keyboards and guitars feel like a big mess that has blended together. It’s not the worst problem I’ve ever heard, but I think the mix suffers for it all the same. That said, in the quiet moments in the record, the mix is pretty great and everything is given the space it deserves. It’s certainly a professional sounding recording, so credit to everyone involved for that, but I think it lets itself down in the busier moments due to that earlier mentioned mixing issue.
Ultimately, Cruzh is a record that, while not really bad, isn’t really great either. I’ve certainly heard far worse than this in my time and it does grow on you, but I expected something stronger than what I got. I’ll be fair and say that I probably shouldn’t have expected so much, considering it’s the band’s debut album and most really great bands didn’t really hit their stride until a couple of albums into their career, but I really hope the band steps it up for their next record if they want to become a huge international band, because this isn’t going to cut the mustard and I really get the feeling that these guys are capable of more than they showed on here. For diehard fans of melodic hard rock only.
Cruzh will be released on the 26th of August by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.