Review Summary: An absolutely brilliant live band releases an absolutely average live CD/DVD. What a shame, what a shame.
Shinedown is an anomaly in the modern rock scene. However, their plan of attack is basically the same as every other dime-in-a-dozen radio-rock band, striving for explosive singles, beautifully crafted ballads and, in a rather broad sense, catchy songs delivered over heavy instrumental performances. We see it in some of the scene’s most revered bands – Breaking Benjamin, the Foo Fighters, and Alter Bridge – as well as some of their less respected peers, like Nickelback and Hinder. So what separates the good from the bad in this genre? For Shinedown, it is their flair for southern rock and Brent Smith’s overpowering vocals. But if we were to once again aim for the simplest conclusion possible, the answer is surprisingly straightforward – they are actually talented musicians
. We have seen Shinedown ride the vocals of Brent Smith for three straight albums, and they have yielded tremendously huge singles ‘45’, ‘Save Me’, ‘Devour’ and ‘Second Chance’ while garnering record sales upwards of 8 million in the process. Consequently, they are now considered one of the most skilled and successful hard rock bands of the new millennium.
The lesson here? There is no substitute for talent, and Shinedown’s talent – from Zach Myers’ blistering riffs to Smith’s Lynyrd Skynyrd style vocals – boils over when they perform live. Those who have been to one of their concerts, or hell…even those who have seen the youtube video of their ‘Simple Man’ cover (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPVDj-wqgP4) know that they absolutely kill it in a live setting. So that should spell out smooth sailing for their latest CD/DVD Somewhere In The Stratosphere
, right? Well, unfortunately there are a number of things weighing this down...some within the control of the band members, and others that can be traced to questionable mixing, editing, and overall production. There is still no denying the raw skill that is present when they perform though, and that alone lends Somewhere In The Stratosphere
a certain level of appeal. For die-hard Shinedown fans, this is still a worthy addition to one’s collection; however, it is those same die-hards that will see just how much this album failed to represent Shinedown’s potential for a truly brilliant
The CD/DVD is divided into two sections: the first titled Live From Washington State (Electric Show)
and the second titled Live From Kansas City (Acoustic Show)
. At approximately eight minutes and fifty five seconds into the electric portion of Somewhere In The Stratosphere
, I was absolutely thrilled. Cheesy introduction aside (‘Scary Fairy’), Brent Smith and co. had things off to a rollicking start that included supercharged performances of ‘The Sound of Madness’ and ‘Devour’, the two lead tracks off of their most recent full-length release (2008’s The Sound of Madness
). Zach Myers’ backing vocals are a welcome addition on both of these songs, especially when he belts out Devour’s most urgent verse, “Nobody nobody to feel like this, nobody nobody wants to live like this, nobody nobody wants a war like this!” His rough, imperfect edge compliments the energy in Shinedown’s songs, and it also allows for an excellent give-and-take between Brent and himself. The crowd is audible and clearly having a good time, and it really starts to make you feel like you are there; pushing, shoving and struggling to keep your balance amongst the mayhem. However, things begin to take a steep dive going forward, even though there is still more than an hour left to go in the electric portion alone.
“I Dare You’ presents us with the start of that decline. Although a solid performance overall, there is little to distinguish it from the studio recording besides the spoken introduction and the occasional screams that, for the most part, are willingly and knowingly suppressed to the background of the mix. As the album wears on, you will find that this becomes quite annoying – at times sounding like nothing more than a consistently low fuzz. Right around the time of that realization, Brent Smith starts to taint his otherwise exceptional performance with tiny nuances that would drive any Shinedown fan up a wall. In ‘Cyanide Sweeth Tooth Suicide’ he self-censors by singing, “Screw
the silver let’s go straight for the gold” – the only
possible way to make the original line even more awkward than it already was. Then there is the introduction to ‘If You Only Knew’, where he explicitly informs us of the song’s title, even though the concert took place two years
after the release of the album. The fact that he does this here and not anywhere else makes ‘If You Only Knew’ seem like we are being treated to a peek at an upcoming album when we are in fact listening to one of The Sound of Madness
’ most popular singles. The band’s fist-pumping performance of ‘Diamond Eyes’ provides a small dose of redemption for the album’s midsection, but only to fall back into mediocrity with ‘45’, where Brent Smith takes the band’s best song to date and butchers it by over annunciating every syllable and not singing in his natural voice. He also hands the vocal responsibility over to the audience at the most inconvenient times, expecting them to fill in small, sporadic gaps instead of letting them do what they do best: sing along gang-style to the haunting chorus. Smith repeats all of these mistakes and then some with his rendition of ‘Simple Man’, which I am sad to say is a far cry from the link posted earlier within this review. His voice is impressive as always, but he overextends the song by stopping in between verses to talk to the fans (which is okay occasionally, and can even be good), pausing in silence for dramatic effect (which is very risky and rarely okay), and dragging out the last few syllables of every word in the last chorus like an American Idol pop star (never, ever okay). On the bright side, examples of disappointments like this are for the most part uncommon…as a whole, Brent Smith’s vocals are emotional, powerful, and at times breathtaking. Unfortunately, he just gets a little carried away at times; and in combination with some errors in production and some questionable lyrical replacements, it hurts the flow of the experience.
The electric portion concludes with Shinedown’s most successful (some may say nauseatingly successful, with how much airplay it received) single, ‘Second Chance’, which is another good performance thwarted by the producer’s inability to capture the song’s live essence. This also marks the beginning of the acoustic set, titled Live From Kansas City
. The acoustic section of Somewhere In The Stratosphere
is easily the better half, as there are less chances for the production team to screw the pooch. It is just every band member and their voices/instruments, and for the most part, they nail it every single time. However, as much as it pains me to say this, there are still several inherent weaknesses with the compilation itself, such as the fact that acoustic settings naturally aren’t as exciting, and that the tracklisting is nearly identical to that of the electric show. So when all is said and done, even though Shinedown puts on one hell of an acoustic performance, the listener is weary of the songs they are playing and potentially still stewing in disappointment from the lack of crowd presence and overall excitement in the Live From Washington State
portion. To put it simply, there is no set up for the listener to want
to hear the acoustic versions of the songs after the CD/DVD’s first half. As a result, the Live From Kansas City
section works better on its own, as a release completely separate from the electric show. The DVD itself does not contain nearly as many flaws, as a lot of the awkward gaps in the audio CD are filled in with story telling and other cool features. Of course, it also makes the whole thing feel more complete when you can see
the band and come that much closer to experiencing the concert firsthand. There are some minor quibbles to be found, such as the overabundance of slow motion edits (who wants that in a concert DVD, seriously?) and the fact that it sounds
exactly the same as the audio CD, but for the most part, this is the way to go when given the choice between the CD or DVD. Whereas the energy can’t be heard as well on the CD, it can be seen
, and the color and vibrancy lends Somewhere In The Stratosphere
In the overall, Somewhere In The Stratosphere
is a live album that is disappointing, but partially because we all know what it could
have been. Brent Smith is one of the greatest hard rock vocalists of the 2000’s, and he is surrounded by more than competent musicians. We have also seen just how adrenaline-pumping and emotionally moving they can be in other concert clips. Here, they deliver some great performances, but they are outweighed by a lack of energy that comes directly from poor mixing. The band isn’t without fault either, as they slip up a few times themselves from Smith’s occasional boneheaded-ness to the complete lack of variation between the two track lists. Shinedown’s talent is admirable on all levels, and while no DVD should change your mind about that, I think we all just wish that Somewhere In The Stratosphere
would have been the album to finally capture their unbelievable energy, passion, and overall essence.
And it is not.
The Sound of Madness (Live From Washington State)
Devour (Live From Washington State)
Diamond Eyes (Live From Washington State)
If You Only Knew (Live Acoustic From Kansas City)
Shed Some Light (Live Acoustic From Kansas City)
Call Me (Live Acoustic From Kansas City)