Musical Style: Metal/Hard Rock

Produced By: Independent
Record Label: Independent

Country Of Origin: USA & New Zealand
Year Released: 2018 

Tracks: 11 

Rating: 80%
Running Time: 39:00

Evans & Stokes - Valley of the Kings

Evans & Stokes is jumping into new territory with the spring of 2018 independent release of its sophomore album Valley Of The Kings.  The multi national act, consisting of American guitarist, bassist and keyboardist John Evans and New Zealand based vocalist Jenny Stokes, sidesteps the Gothic influenced sounds of its 85% reviewed 2017 debut Beyond The Gates (also independent) in favor of a straightforward metal and hard rock bearing with occasional leanings towards the thrash side of things.  If Beyond The Gates presents with the darker, melancholic and at times more progressive landscape, Valley Of The Kings contrasts with a rawer, stripped down and overall heavier climate in which much of the previous progressive semblances play a corresponding reduced role.   

What has not changed, however, is the Evans & Stokes bent towards concept based lyrical themes.  Beyond The Gates, for instance, focused its prose around a lost soul enslaved to addiction that in the end finds redemption.  Valley Of The Kings draws upon a historical concept in detailing the rise and fall of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who came to power in the 15th century BC.  Further details from the groups press material: 

“Our purpose in writing this story was to celebrate the strength of this historic woman.  In the face of strong opposition and a male dominated culture, Hatshepsut took what should have been rightfully hers by birth, the Kingship of Upper and Lower Egypt.  While in power, she did what her predecessors could not- she brought peace and prosperity.

“Another intriguing facet of the story was how her successor(s) defaced all public images that showed Hatshepsut as King.  In effect, this action erased her leadership from history (until her tomb was uncovered in 1903).  We couldn’t help but wonder what effect her story may have had on subsequent generations.  Would here strength of character have been something for other women to aspire to?  Would the struggle, over the centuries, for women’s rights as we know it, have been different somehow?”

Similar to other conceptual releases, Valley Of The Kings is home to its share of narration and shorter ‘interlude’ pieces that serve to bridge the gap between individual songs and help tie the storyline together.  Opener “Relict” is one such cut as it opens to narration that provides the backdrop for the concept in question:

Hatshepsut lived in the 15th Century B.C.
At age 12, she was married to her half brother Thutmose II.
Upon his death, she became Regent to his infant son, a child of a lesser wife.
But Hatshepsut was destined for greater things.
In a man's world, she would become King.

Songs remaining duration is instrumental as driving guitars plunder over a rumbling drumbeat.

Albums first full-length vocal cut follows in “Pharaoh”.  The song plays up a light thrash mien in which aggression and tempo elevate exponentially but not to the point of forsaking melody, with the gist Milano, Italy based former Megadeth tribute band Boarders coming to mind either way.  Vocally, I described Stokes in my Beyond The Gates review as taking a darker if not more lower register approach in comparison to some female vocalists, and while the same applies to Valley Of The Kings, she reaches down on “Pharaoh” and lends and a fitting extreme feel to her delivery.  The cool fade out bass solo at the end helps rank this among my albums choice cuts.

Ensuing cut “Spellbinder” is also top of the line.  Starting slowly to quietly played guitar and keyboards, “Spellbinder” abruptly takes off to a storm of momentum in maintaining a technical metal air in combining galloping riff driven verse sections with a catchy chorus to find the songs title whispered in ominous fashion.  With the exception of a few brief seconds of extreme vocals at the midpoint, Stokes sings in her signature clean but opaque style.

Two minute instrumental “Bloodless” proceeds its distance drifting between delicate moments upheld acoustically and others in which staunchly done rhythm guitars assert themselves.  Evans does a nice job revealing both the lighter and heavier sides to playing.

“Slave” follows as a no-frills and too-the point metal-based cut.  It moves its distance at a dogged mid-tempo clip, uplifted from its commanding drum presence and distorted bass underpinnings but sidestepping repetition with its emphasis on understated but stark melody.  This one, as a result, stands alongside several cuts here that require several listens to grow on you. 

The Evans & Stokes attempt at ballad territory, “Behind The Veil” is nicely done as acoustic guitars assert front to back in intermingling with periodic appearances of more decided rhythm guitars.  Distinct melody and distant falsettos, noting albums finest performance from Stokes, hearken back to the melancholic sounds to Beyond The Gates.  Lone misgiving is how it feels a bit short as a ballad at just three-minutes.

“Valley Of The King” opens to foreboding keyboards that transition to crushing guitars and reverberant drums of a thrash like form.  Moving forward, the song represents four stout minutes of straight on metal to feature intricate riffing, melodic harmonies and powerful refrain that has doom-like written all over it.

Second instrumental “Ankh” ups energy levels in maintaining the harmony emphasis as Evans applies his intense soloing throughout.

“Afterlife” makes diversity its focal point.  Subsequent to an open-air guitar opening, the song drifts ahead in acoustic form – calm, lucid and warmly inviting – only to give way at periodic junctures to outbursts of earnest rhythm guitar, as impetus mounts accordingly.  This one fills out a bit better as a ballad, in comparison to “Behind The Veil”, in coming in at four minutes.

“God Of The Underworld” rates with the Valley Of The Kings heaviest.  Impertinent and combative is the feel from the get go, with its first minute instrumentally driven by riffs hearkening back to old school Deliverance and subsequent two to feature a trade off between guttural narration and vocals of a smoother capacity.  Yes, a bit short at three minutes but one cannot deny the pointed focus and channeled energy.

Evans & Stokes revisits its progressive ways on six minute closing cut “Erased”.  First four come across moody and haunting as piano and orchestration lead the way with light acoustic facets – a classic ballad is the first thought to come to mind – but an abrupt transition is made over the final heavier rocking two as rhythm guitars step in to bring things to their emotional conclusion.

Strong production values reinforce a marked rhythm guitar presence but also allow room for acoustic sentiments and a clear-cut mix of bass and drums to match.  In terms of packaging, the Egyptian Pharaoh skull-cover art fits the albums theme, although I wish instead of a single page insert, a mini booklet had been included with lyrics and detailed liner notes.

I always have maintained a strong affinity for concept albums, particularly those that are history related, noting how one of my favorites is the Battle of Hastings themed Hastings 1066 of Italian power metal band Thy Majestie.  Bonus points, obviously, to Evans & Stokes in this regard in that Valley Of The Kings is right down my alley, even though I was previously unaware of Hatshepsut despite the fact I am fairly well versed in ancient history.

Also commend Evans & Stokes for shedding its Gothic skin in that it could easily have recorded Beyond The Gates II and not missed a beat.  Rather, it stretches and expands upon its musical repertoire in recording what amounts an unmitigated metal and hard rock release, albeit not without occasionally hearkening back to the melancholic form of Beyond The Gates.  If we are going to tally bonus points, then all the more so in light of the occasionally thrash influence imbuing Valley Of The Kings, noting how it can go from bone-crushing heavy to lightly acoustic and back again at a moments notice.   

That said and perhaps it is due to said aggression - and accept this as neutral observation - but I found the Valley Of The Kings material to take several listens to fully grow into, at least in comparison to Beyond The Gates.  Otherwise, constructive commentary revolves around how perhaps several of the shorter cuts in the three minute range could have been fleshed out and developed a bit more, while it would also have been interesting to hear some Middle Eastern musical nuances mixed in, at least in light of the subject at hand.  Still, on Valley Of The Kings the John Evans and Jenny Stokes due continue to perform up to standard and set the stage for what I hope are many releases to follow.

Review by Andrew Rockwell


#13 on the Angelic Warlord Top 20 Metal Albums of 2017!

#13 on the Angelic Warlord Top 20 Metal Albums of 2017!

Musical Style: Gothic/Hard Rock

Produced By: Independent
Record Label: Independent

Country Of Origin: USA & New Zealand
Year Released: 2017

Tracks: 12

Rating: 85%
Running Time: 51:33

[Evans & Stokes - Beyond The Gates]

If you're in the market for a female fronted Gothic influenced hard rock band, then one option stands out from the crowd: multinational act Evans & Stokes and its summer of 2017 independent debut full length Beyond The Gates.  Multinational in terms of how Evans & Stokes follows a similar pattern as multinational cohorts The World Will Burn from also featuring a US based guitarist, John Evans, and a vocalist from New Zealand, Jenny Stokes.  Whereas The World Will Burn traverses modern rock mixed with hard rock territory, Evans & Stokes resides upon a Gothic foundation but with strong leanings towards metal and hard rock and the progressive side of things.  Now, much of what today falls under the 'Gothic' heading comes across more as symphonic metal - found in its use of classical keyboards, choral vocals and orchestral overtures - but with an extreme male vocalist replacing a signature operatic female vocalist.  Evans & Stokes has nothing to do with such nonsense.

Rather, the group does a better job staying true to the Gothic by sidestepping the symphonic trappings in favor of a somber and melancholic landscape and not just musically but also lyrically with its introspective prose (Beyond The Gates is a concept album that details a lost soul enslaved to addiction that in the end finds redemption).  Helping further define the Gothic based Evans & Stokes sound is lead vocalist Jenny Stokes, who takes a darker if not more lower register approach in comparison to many female vocalists, a particular that took some getting used to.  Consider, for instance, how as of late I have spent a great deal of time listening to front women that range from fiery (Nancy Jo Mann of Barnabas) to symphonic (LEAH) but came to embrace her becoming expansive style.  Helping lend to the heavier side of Evans & Stokes is guitarist John Evans with his emphasis on metal and hard rock based guitar riffs and soloing of a melodic nature.  A multi-instrumental role reveals itself from how Evans also takes on bass and keyboard duties, while Stokes handles piano and lyrics.   

The Evans & Stokes partnership traces to October of 2016 when the two met online and clicked musically at once.  Evans, whom hails from Pennsylvania, had already composed the music to the song "Kingdom", while Stokes, making Aotearoa her home, added lyrics and vocals.  With momentum of said completed song behind them, the two started work on Beyond The Gates, a daunting undertaking that took ten months to complete.  Daunting from the challenges both faced due to literally being on the opposite sides of the planet (as taken from the Evans & Stokes press material): “the (writing and recording) process was done through thousands of emails, sharing files on Dropbox, etc. Back and forth, and back and forth, until each song was complete. An exhausting but very rewarding process.”  Ultimate benefactors of such rewards, of course, ended up being the music buying public!

In terms of the Beyond The Gates concept, albums first half is the darkest in following an individual at the end of her life with no hope.  The songs are reflections on a lifetime of poor choices, and family and friends lost.

 It begins with "Alone I Lie" with its combining of the swarthy and reflective.  Former revels in the portent as driving, mid-paced overtures furrow its length (guitars in particular dig and bite), while latter shines in terms of a deliberate if not contemplative mood to rise above the surface (quite the catchy melody stands out in the process).  Impression is how Evans & Stokes can stay true to a song while reinforcing the Gothic and progressive but not to a fault either way.

"My Lullaby" places further emphasis on the progressive.  The song opens its first two minutes gently to acoustic guitar and pensive keyboards only to pick up initiative at once to the rhythm guitars that power its remaining distance.  Statement made this time is how the Evans & Stokes heaviness is understated but not to the point of compromising melody.

I rate "Defy The Demons" among my favorite tracks.  It begins with the ethereal atmosphere that propel its length, as acoustic sentiments and bluesy guitars coalesce, but it also includes the hauntingly emotional performance of Stokes as she aligns with the portent mood at hand.  In the end, this one touches upon the scathingly doom-like.

A faster but shorter (three and a half minutes) cut, "The Devil's Ride" descends further into the doom-ish at the start only to gradually gain impetus as one of the albums more up-tempo cuts.  Evans shines in this capacity, as he divulges a literal avalanche of expeditious riffs and soloing that bounces between the left and right channels.

Of all the albums tracks, "Sadness" most roots itself in the Gothic aesthetic.  Haunting and atmospheric, the song smoothly drifts its length to acoustic guitar and airy keyboards as placid orchestration decorates the back end.  When placed alongside, "Sadness" gently distances the listener from the heightened crescendo that is "The Devil's Ride".

First half ends to (mostly) instrumental "Psalm 23".  The song opens its first seconds to shadowy narration from the passages fourth verse that gives way to an all out assault of metal edged guitars.  The rest of the way is instrumental, as Evans skillfully reveals the full repertoire of his blinding riffs and chops.

Over the second half, hope comes with the vision of an angel.  As death approaches, the angel's offer of peace is accepted and her journey ends at Heaven's Gate with her last breath.

"Kingdom" comes across in the form of a dark and placid ballad, with keyboards and softer guitars carrying its verses, while refrain elevates as rhythm guitars maneuver to a forward place of prominence.  Lending to the songs emotional vestiges is perhaps albums finest performance from Stokes, who stretches and exhibits the full breadth to her lower register flavorings.

"In Your Silence" represents a hulking and muscular plodder.  With trenchant guitars leading the way, the song opens its first seconds repeating the phrase 'your silence and trust is your strength' before yielding to the notable melodies and grandiose if not lofty overtures that command its remaining span. Feeling left is how this one roots itself in profound melody despite the overriding opaque sentiments.

"Angels Eyes" mirrors some classic rock leanings, as found in softer keyboards and acoustic guitars that make periodic appearances alongside firmer rhythm guitars, which play every bit a defining role.  A joining of the delicate and prodigious is how I might describe things.  I can see 70's era Rez Band coming up with something along these lines.

I like to think of "Forgiven" as an easygoing semi ballad.  With orchestration and piano at the start, the song mildly drifts until decisive guitars step forward to give rise to the more forward momentum despite the accenting keyboards in the backdrop.  Impetus occasionally drifts back to the lighter moments at the beginning.

The traditional praise and worship of "I Cry No More" is the albums most clear-cut piece in light of its lighter guitars and orchestral based sentiments.  Lending to the songs impelling feel is the bluesy soloing that adorns its final half.

Albums closing epic (seven-minute) title track brings the story to its momentous close.  Crashing thunder and choir vocals convey the opening "Beyond The Gates" moments until impetus picks up at once to assuming guitars.  Remaining distance revels in the progressive, as verses reach down for a darker edge with their assailing allure and uplifting refrain contrasts by making the more vehement statement: ‘Take me, I’m yours.  Let me Beyond the Gate’.  In between, moments range from stunningly composed placid guitar sentiments to heated instrumental passages driven by full throttle guitars.

Typically, I do not go into detail regarding lyrics to concept albums for fear of potentially giving any story line away, but on Beyond The Gates they are so well written and poetic I feel a few brief snippets are warranted.  “Alone I Lie” does a good job touching upon the more somber aspects to the albums first side:

Faults overtake me
No strength to contain them
My dreams for a good life
No will to attain them
No consequence heeded
I'm friendless and nameless
Alone I lie in this bed of my making

As does “My Lullaby”:

My Lullaby, awake but dreamin through life
A fallen mind, driven to the darker side
My Lullaby, innocence and evil collide
An empty life

“Forgiven” manifests the hope to the albums second side:

My heart is open
Power courses through my veins
I’m forgiven, I walk the valley
With everything to gain
No fears to weaken, I am forgiven

“I Cry No More” sums things up succinctly:

I am a sinner, but now I’m whole
Black to white, I cry no more
I am a sinner
But I confess, I cry no more
Cause I am blessed

Production is solid if not unremarkable for an independent release.  Impression on first listen is a bit murky, but that might be a misnomer in light of both the albums darker musical direction and how the Gothic format intrinsically lends to a certain element of murkiness.  Overall, guitars stand out above the mix, while keyboards layer but not to a fault, although bass could have made its presence better felt during the albums quieter moments.  Packaging is a bit bare bones with a single sided insert to feature credits, track listing, etc.  Lyrics, however, are available at the bands website.

While it might not be entirely accurate to pigeonhole Evans & Stokes as 'Gothic", the somber aspects of its sound cannot be denied not to mention its every bit as strong leanings towards metal and hard rock and the progressive.  Tying everything together is the albums concept, which brings to mind other concept releases from Jacobs Dream (Beneath The Shadows) and Destra (Joe's Rhapsody) from how it centers around a troubled main character that in the end finds redemption.  Of course, it would all be for naught without the contributions of John Evans and Jenny Stokes, whom lend their duel abilities in the form of guitar, bass and songwriting (former) and lyrics and piano (latter).  If interested in any type of hard music with a darker and/or progressive edge or are a fan of concept albums, then be sure to check out the Evans & Stokes debut Beyond The Gates.

Review by Andrew Rockwell