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