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Caffery, Chris - Pins and needles 3/5

Reviewed: 5-18-07


1. Pins and needles
2. Sixty-six
3. Torment
4. Walls
6. Sad
7. Chained
8. Worms
9. Crossed
10. The time
11. Metal eastern
12. Qualdio
13. The temple
14. Once upon a time (bonus track)

Savatage may well be dead and gone, judging by some recent interviews given by mainman Jon Oliva. But fans of the band have no real standing to fret, as no fewer than 3 principals from the Florida act are regularly releasing solo output that utilizes the Savatage sound to a greater or lesser extent. Guitarist Chris Caffery turned many heads with his 2004 solo debut, 'Faces', which was a surprisingly strong, diverse effort featuring well-written songs and convincing performances. The 2005 follow-up, 'W.A.R.P.E.D.', was written about the Iraq war and emphasized Caffery's angry, aggressive side, but was still a more than competent effort. Shortly thereafter, Caffery's record label, Greece's Black Lotus Records, folded, leaving him and every other artist on its roster scrambling for a new label home. Caffery ultimately landed on Metal Heaven, which is fast becoming a haven for solid melodic/traditional metal acts but which unfortunately has only limited United States distribution. As such, Caffery's latest platter, 'Pins and needles', isn't the easiest to track down on these shores at the moment, but I understand that a proper U.S. release is pending within the next few weeks.

No one will ever accuse Chris Caffery of playing it safe on 'Pins and needles'. He's chosen a darker, more modern, heavier, and decidedly more experimental tack this time around. Gone is the lighter, airier fare like "Music man", that leavened the weight of his previous output. And the traditional/melodic metal trappings that surfaced frequently on Caffery's earlier CDs are largely absent here, save for the occasional glimpse, such as the uptempo "Chained", which is essentially power metal. In general, the catchy melodic approach has been supplanted by an emphasis on bludgeoning downtuned chuggy groove guitars that may be dialed in to what's popular in "heavy music" in the U.S. market today, but that are likely to alienate many Savatage fans who prefer a more melodic approach to the axework. The experimentation vibe is particularly evident in the vocals, where Caffery varies up his Oliva-esque snarl with some oddly different vocal deliveries, including whispers and even half-spoken words on a couple of tracks. Then there are the unconventional arrangements, lending an almost chaotic, unfocused feel to the proceedings, as the band lurches and stutters through an array of ideas that often seem lacking in focus and underdeveloped. Some of the most noticeable, jarring detours are the saxophone solo on the rather messy "Worms", the spacy synthesizers on "Reach out and torment again", the tinkering with Middle Eastern melodies on "Metal eastern", and the misplaced piano interlude on "Walls". There's an awful lot going on this CD, and not all of it is good, unfortunately.

After a single listen, I was prepared to write off 'Pins and needles' as a major disappointment. I didn't get it. Fortunately, I persevered for several more spins for purposes of this review. The more I listened, the more the hooks seeped into my addled brain and the overarching method to the madness became apparent. I certainly won't say that I love 'Pins and needles', but I don't think Caffery wrote it for me or my traditional metal ilk. Honestly, I think he wrote it for himself, not for anyone else. It is common knowledge that Caffery and his Savatage mates earn a comfortable living with their annual Trans-Siberian Orchestra touring circus, so Caffery has the luxury of being able to write whatever music he wants on the side without being dependent on it to put food on his table or silver in his pocket. Personally, I much preferred the songwriting and arrangements on 'Faces', but I can still find enough nuggets of quality on 'Pins and needles' to retain my interest. "Chained", "66", "The time", and "Mettle eastern" are all winners, and most of the other cuts have their moments. More importantly, I can respect Caffery for writing what he wants and not worrying about how and whether the Savatage legions will react. Old-schoolers should approach with caution, but more open-minded folk who yearn for something a bit outside the norm and yearn for that modern guitar punch with schizophrenic tendencies may find much to their fancy here.




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