Heaven & Earth
Heaven and Earth, put together by ex-Sweet guitarist Stuart Smith in 1996, have a third outing, Dig, for 2013. The band's style of music is a pleasant mixing pot of old school/70s arena rock (think Foreigner, Deep Purple, Bad Company), with a heavy saturation of pop and blues. Although Dig presents little musically new or ground-breaking, it has been quite some time anyone has heard a solid album’s worth of this particular style of music — majestic, triumphant, straight forward rock, without any of today's assembly line, paint-by-numbers blandness.
Produced by David Jenkins (who has worked with Metallica and Slayer, amongst others), Dig offers up 12 compositions, that will, for the most part, satisfy the age demographic that has apparently been left behind and forgotten; that is, fans of solid musicianship, excellent songwriting skills, and music that stands above whatever is being passed off as rock music today.
“Victorious,” opens up with a spell-binding, hypnotic instrumental passage; surreal in feel, and heavy Arabic influence, that invites high expectations for the rest of album. When the vocals by Joe Retta (also a former Sweet member) kick in, one may find it hard to resist pumping a fist into the air. Yeah, it's that kind of music. Such a strong intro is risky — if the following tracks can not maintain the same consistency and fail to deliver in the opening songs promise, the rest of the music will falter in comparison. Thankfully, the music stays, for the most part, right on track.
“No Money, No Love” keeps the momentum going forward. Heavily reliant on keyboards (like most of the tracks), the song is a fine blending of blues-meets-Southern-fried soul. This track would have fitted snugly on a Deep Purple album (specifically, Tommy Bolin-era Come Taste The Band). “I Don't Know What Love Is” takes the mood down several notches. There is a heavy inspiration here of those ever-popular 80s/MTV-era power ballads. It is, undoubtedly, an excellent track, but, the placement slows down the pacing of Dig a bit. I think it should have tracked a bit later in the album, primarily because “Victorious” and “No Money, No Love” are such heavy rockers.
“Back In Anger” is a blistering, all-out barnstormer — a locomotive-paced blending of keyboards and drums, that drives like a team of hell-bent stallions. I love “A Day Like Today,” as it reminds me of one of Jethro Tull's best. “Live as One,” is a decent song that stays true to the album’s tone, but it isn't strong enough to qualify as the closing number. “Back In Anger” would have been a better choice.
Dig stays, for the most part, consistent, save for the misplacement of a couple of tracks. But, I can't take points off for that. The bottom line is that the songs all have the strength to stand on their own. Retta's vocals are dynamic, and strong, an excellent choice to deliver these songs. He sings with confident conviction, a trait necessary for this style of hard rocking, but always melodic, rock and roll. For the record, Ex-Quiet Riot front-man Paul Shortino, and Joe Lynn Turner, formerly of Rainbow and Deep Purple, sang for Heaven & Earth previously. That speaks volumes as to why Stuart Smith just had to get the talents of Retta for Dig.
Smith's guitar work is dazzling, but never arrogant. Once a student of Ritchie Blackmore, his playing is definitely in the same style, but never stolen from the former Deep Purple guitarist. In all honesty, I think Smith sounds a bit held back in much of his playing. You just know there is more to his talent waiting to be unleashed. I would have loved to hear him let loose a bit more, but I appreciate his modesty.
The keyboard work of Arlan Schierbaum is dazzling, reminiscent of Jon Lord and Keith Emerson. Drummer Richie Onari is solid and never "goes off" in some self-indulgent tangent, as so many other drummers may have chosen to do based upon this material. Bassist Chuck Wright also keeps it simple, resisting any temptation to dazzle. As a matter of fact, I get a sense the band, as a whole, has held back a bit, in terms of playing, and never truly exhibit what I believe this level of talent could execute. I doubt I would be wrong in stating that Heaven & Earth probably tear up it on stage in a live environment.
The band has a formula they believe in and stick with it, rather than run rampant in a vain attempt of demonstrating their musical versatility. If it works, why deviate from the game plan, right? It is apparent, the band know what they want, and how to do it (and do it well), as Dig demonstrates. I hope the members are attached enough, in artistic terms, to continue giving this band a life of its own for many years to come. Music of this caliber deserves to be heard.
~ Bruce Forrest