I will admit that Columbia, SC-based Stardog almost lost me for good with the opening track “Sister Transistor” on their 2016 EP release Lucky 13. The band does self-proclaim that their musical genre is best described as “Grind and Roll,” and the cover art for their latest EP sports an illustration of woman in lingerie with a 1940s pinup girl haircut, sleeve tattoos, and red high heels who is straddling a close approximation of the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki near the end of World War II. So I probably shouldn’t have been expecting a ton of subtleness in the band’s mix of hard rock and glam metal infused music. But I actually think it is does a disservice to the band to lead off with “Sister Transistor” as it isn’t to me the right starting point for a five-song EP that includes at least three fairly exceptional tracks that much better underscore the real talent in this band. A little more on that later, but first let me digress for a moment with a gratuitous literary reference.
Published posthumously in 1633, “The Flea” by English poet John Donne is based on a metaphysical conceit that (very simplistically) goes something like this: if a flea bites me and then bites you (my dear), thereby mingling our bodily fluids in what can only be seen as a completely sinless way, there is no really good reason (even though you are a virgin) that you shouldn’t have sex with me right freaking now!. The poem’s extended analogy is jam packed with sexual innuendo, yet as the metaphysical poets were want to do, Donne accomplishes this by comparing two things (flea bites / a night of banging it out) that do not really have a clear-cut relationship.
So in a way, Stardog opens “Lucky 13” with a straight up “metaphysical conceit” of sorts comparing features of a radio to a hot woman! But unfortunately, what maybe was clever, sly, and pushing the boundaries of scandalous in art in the 1600s doesn’t quite hold up as well here. Unlike Donne’s complex and cheeky-for-the-times eroticism, “Sister Transistor” comes off to me with more of the subtlety and nuance of a chainsaw wound.
Definitely no one can doubt that “Sister Transistor” rocks, and rocks hard. I’m thinking maybe the band was looking to repeat something akin to the full-frontal assault of “Black Mountain Rain” that opens Stardog’s admirable 2014 debut EP Black Mountain Rain. Perhaps also, “Dirty Flower” from that same early EP includes some lyrics that foreshadow the sexual wordplay later found in “Sister Transistor. But to me the over-the-top sexual references in “Sister Transistor” is fairly off-putting and undermines what at essence could be a solid hard-driving rock/metal offering.
Just a quick sampling: “This little girl will fry your circuits / I’m telling you boy she knows how to work it” and “she won’t come early and she won’t make you wait / she’ll leave your junk in a solid state” and “she’s got a cure for all your blues / she’ll make you harder than a 48 fuse.” For good measure, let’s throw in a reference to f*ing with “frequency,” a glowing “tube” that is “hard and red,” and a “socket” you can plug in to that will set “your pants on fire.”
See what they did there with “solid state” and “frequency” and “fuse” and “tube” and “socket”? Hey, wait a minute, I don’t think they are just talking about radio terms! I think they are talking about SEX!! Titter, titter, clever and funny. . . Particularly, if you are 12-year-old boy or still remember with fondness and a chuckle the table saw crotch art on the cover of W.A.S.P.’s Animal (F**k Like A Beast from 1984. Ok, ok – I know I’m being overly harsh just for the sake of trying to be funny. In fact, the band IS actually quite good in their chosen genre – I just don’t care for this one song much.
With that out of the way, though, let me hit on what I think goes right. For starters, the second track “Adrian’s Nickels” is exceptional. Stardog here has a way of using the space between notes to powerful effect – and accordingly, things get much more interesting. Anthematic guitar chords are allowed to linger among a judicious use of the keyboards. Lead vocals are nicely complimented by backing vocal tracks. The lyrics are far less literal. And the result is a real arena-rock smolder of a song.
Next up is the more breezy “Fly Away,” which could almost be at home on an album by Jupiter Coyote or The Badlees or another 90s jangle rock-era band (albeit Stardog’s approach includes a satisfyingly harder-tinged edge in the guitar phrasing and lead break). All in all, a very solid and infectious effort. The song may sound like a bit of an anomaly among the harder driving raucousness of Stardog’s overall vibe – but it it’s still one of their better songs. This could also explain why “Fly Away” may be the band’s most commercially successful track. To wit, trade magazine Friday Morning Quarterback (better known as FMQB) showed the song debuting at #156 on the secondary market FM radio charts when released as a single in 2015 and ultimately rising into the Top 40.
Fourth track “Walk Home Alone” slows it down some and still offers the sleazy, whiskey-soaked, bluesy feel of “Sister Transistor” (and several songs found on Black Mountain Rain). But ultimately, the song hits me as more plodding and muddy in structure. There is nothing really bad here per se, but also nothing that gives the song legs enough to be that memorable.
Stardog’s EP ends with “No. . .” – a prototype ebbing and flowing metal power ballad with (of course) a melodic acoustic guitar/strings/keyboard intro, the ensuing crescendo guitar riffs and chorus, requisite wailing guitar solo, mid-song return to the strings and piano of the opening bars, and then back up the ladder for the chorus and instrumental fireworks finale. “No. . .” is a slightly slower head bang than some of Stardog’s other fare, but a definite head bang nonetheless, and a totally solid effort that puts the song in the EP’s top 3 (maybe even 2) tracks. “No. . .” sounds maybe a little like a lesser-known Queensryche track from decades past, while still feeling more modern.
To be sure, Stardog overall harkens back frequently to the grandeur and ambition of classic metal with all the pros and cons that go with that. Yet there remains a freshness to the sound that fully places them in the now. The influences from 70s, 80s, and 90s metal are clearly evident, but Stardog isn’t just a contemporary retread – the band infuses just enough to keep the metal vibe both vibrant and relevant.
One key I think is that there is no question that the musicianship within the band is disciplined, tight, and professional. The veteran performers on Lucky 13 include Beau Long on lead guitar, Jimi Agard on bass, Jayson Moore on (according to their website) “percussion concussion,” and Mark Foy on keyboards. All performances here are top notch and clean. And Artie Joyner’s growling, gravel-tinged voice for lead vocals is exactly the right imposing and slightly menacing match for much of the band’s hard rocking aura. So maybe ignore a cliché here and there, focus on the talent of individual musicians, and you just may find the band is on to something.