Vocalist Chris Donley contacted me to review two of his CDs; Theatrics, by the band he fronts Via the Sun, and Sunshine, Donley’s solo release. While the content of the CDs are pretty different, I decided to make this a double review and put them up together.
Via The Sun: Theatrics (2012)
Bio (excerpted from Facebook.com/viathesun):
Via the Sun. What can be said about this creative and interesting group of songwriters from the often gray, blue collar Cleveland area? Anything you want. Via the Sun writes rock songs. Period. No filler, no fluff. Hard rocking, catchy hooks that prove rock isn’t dead. Not that the group are crusaders, but already branded by peers and fans alike Via the Sun is ready to carry the flag of rock into battle.
Chris Donley (Vocals), Steve Simbeck (Guitars), Derek Hatfield (Guitars), Mark Gordon (Bass), Brian Hanculak (Drums)
THEATRICS is hard to pin down. It is rock, yes, but what kind? Some songs are pure radio-friendly modern rock, some tracks are a bit more mellow, and then others are a bit more schizophrenic and alternate between something very radio friendly, and something almost akin with Slipknot or Disturbed… but just for a few bars, then back to the radio!
I was immediately impressed in listening to THEATRICS by the production quality. Many albums I get – if they’re not electronica – have production issues. It just comes with not having all the money labels have to throw at an album. As a low-budget musician, you work with what you can and you do with it the best you can do. THEATRICS has no issues there; this is a very well produced, well-made album. The sound quality is just as good as anything I’ve bought at the local music store (yes, I still go to those); there are no problems with bad levels or hard to discern lyrics on this album.
I also was struck by the fact that this is a relatively new band, less than a few years old from what I’ve been able to research, but they sound like a band that has been playing off of each other for a decade. The musicianship is good and the grooves are tight; these guys know how to play nice together. Sometimes with younger bands you can hear that there are disparate influences on the music that stretch it out of shape, and you end up with a metal drum beat behind a punk-rock bass line and a jam band guitar groove. This is not an issue with Via the Sun. While they do sound like they have some very diverse influences, and those influences show up in the music, everyone’s not going off in multiple directions at once. When the music switches up, everyone is along for the ride.
THEATRICS certainly dies have its fair share of catchy riffs and catchy songs. As I said before, there is a lot on this album that would qualify as possible radio-friendly unit shifter material. I think Via the Sun would easily gain a decent following on alt-rock radio stations. I found myself singing to myself “Everything will turn into a big pile of / shut up I’m still telling you…” (from “Atrophy”) both because of the catchy nature of the riffs, and also the fun wordplay. I love wordplay like this; one of my favorite tracks from Primus’ Pork Soda is “The Air is Getting Slippery” in which you repeated expect Les Claypool to drop an F-bomb, but he only finally does at the conclusion, and I love it when MF DOOM makes you think you know what his next line is going to be, like in “Great Day” where he raps “Spit so many verses sometimes my jaw twitches / One thing this party could use is more… booze.” I love a good changeup, and Donley shows off his lyric writing ability throughout THEATRICS.
There is a lot to like with THEATRICS. These guys can rock. Donley can sing. The band can play. And as a unit, they all know how to come together to write a good song. There was really only one thing that rubbed me wrong with THEATRICS: Via the Sun needs to make up their mind! I kept saying that to the sounds coming out of my speakers as I listened. THEATRICS feels like a band compromising between being a metal band and being a modern rock band. Over and over again, most obviously in “Cliff Diver,” “Bad Roots,” “Recycle Day,” “Livin’ Fast,” and “Stacks,” the song will be mostly straightforward alt-rock, but then for a break or a few bars per verse will morph into metal. Via the Sun can do both, alt-rock and metal, very well. The problem here is that they try to do both in one song, and will be alienating potential fans. Most people that like the radio-friendly modern rock are going to be turned off by the metal, and fans of metal are going to feel like the rest of the song is too light. Via the Sun would be much more successful if they would write some songs that are all around heavy and others that are light; Smashing Pumpkins made a few great years out of this very concept.
Overall, I really like a lot about this band. I think that they have a very mature, well-gelled sound for a band that has only been together for a few years, and they certainly can bring the rock. I think they could be a really, really big band if they can get the right exposure, but before they get that exposure they need to make up their mind. They could be a big hard-rocking band, or a big alt-rock band, or they could be both, as long as they make up their mind on each track and choose one element to focus on instead of trying to get a little of both into each song.
Overall 6.5 / 10
THEATRICS for sale: https://www.paypal.com/us/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_flow&SESSION=mIoSW2tx-cZrq_sV7FSx4ytdpDFBF1_iluhlZLDVh4JsiL6gs8iQHfgXPvS&dispatch=50a222a57771920b6a3d7b606239e4d529b525e0b7e69bf0224adecfb0124e9b61f737ba21b081981856b91947e5c600b2b0863f9534cbec
THEATRICS site: http://www.viathesun.com/
Chris Donley: Sunshine (2011)
Bio (from reverbnation.com/chrisdonley):
Chris Donley (singer/songwriter from Cleveland, OH) …writes songs… Also known for knowing thousands of cover songs…Taking requests and making every night a good time…
Chris Donley (All Music and Lyrics), Wes McCraw (Various Instruments)
It seems to me that Donley must be the radio-friendly influence in Via the Sun, because listening to SUNSHINE it is obvious that he’s not where the metal is coming from. He can scream, he can growl, and he can get heavy, but on SUNSHINE he does none of the above. SUNSHINE is a very laid-back, acoustic rock friendly album built around nice grooves and the aforementioned writing skills of Donley. The majority of the tracks are dominated by Donley’s voice – which is fine since he has a solid voice to carry them – and acoustic guitar. There is a variety of other instrumentation on display, but the backbone of SUNSHINE is Donley.
Donley’s lyrical ability is very nicely represented on SUNSHINE. I first really noticed it on “Hello to Goodbye” with the opening lines: “You looked so good tonight, no one can take that from me / Except maybe father time, what a bastard he can be.” Donley really is a solid songwriter, and the fact that he also has a voice to go with that makes him a threat in the modern rock scene, not to mention that he also has skill on the guitar. Donley could easily be a big star with just a little spotlight focused on him.
Like THEATRICS, SUNSHINE also is a very well produced album that is easy to listen to. The vocals, the guitars, and all of the backing music is all mixed with skill. There is never a moment where one bit is too loud or too soft, and there are never any issues with being able to hear or understand what Donley is trying to say. In addition, the CD itself is put together with some decent art, photography, and a full lyric listing (which is important when you have a singer-songwriter who actually has something to say). All in all this is a really nicely made low-budget album from both the musical and the visual aspects.
Overall I felt that SUNSHINE was a much easier listen than THEATRICS. Both albums are well made, and Donley does his work well on both, but SUNSHINE is a bit more under control. THEATRICS rocks harder and is its own beast, but it suffers from the schizophrenic nature of many of its tracks, while SUNSHINE knows what it wants to be and it gets there with style. Donley, in having the reigns to himself, guides SUNSHINE to be a much more complete, a much more even-keeled album that really is easier to listen to. Not just because it is mellower – truthfully, my own musical tastes defiantly favor the metal more than the acoustic rocks – but because SUNSHINE really has a direction and sticks to it. This is a very nice album that will take Donley far, if he can get the spotlight focused his way. I would think that if Donley would do the radio-friendly unit shifter music on his own and let Via the Sun go balls-to-the-wall metal (like they hint at trying to over and over again), both would be big in their own right.
Overall 7 / 10
SUNSHINE for sale: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/chrisdonley1
SUNSHINE site: http://www.myspace.com/chrisdonley