A decade ago, QUEENSRŸCHE guitarist Michael Wilton started a little project called SOULBENDER. SOULBENDER originally featured Wilton with MY SISTER'S MACHINE vocalist Nick Pollock, second guitarist Dave Groves, drummer Wes Hallam and bassist Marten Van Keith. Along the way, SECOND COMING vocalist Travis Bracht and none other than Tim "Ripper" Owens have fronted SOULBENDER. Even one-time NEVERMORE drummer Van Williams had a brief stint in this camp.
Wilton, Groves, Hallam and Pollock have since kicked SOULBENDER back into action, at least part-time, to lay down four new tracks for inclusion on this year's re-master of the original "Soulbender" album from 2004. Three of these bonus cuts aren't quite up to par with the main selections from "Soulbender", which is a bit heavier and far grungier than QUEENSRŸCHE and MY SISTER'S MACHINE. In other words, postulant of ALICE IN CHAINS and MAD SEASON. When in Rome, or in this case, Seattle.
Of the new songs, "Turn Anger Up" starts "Soulbender II" on an agro pump barely within reach of the original album's material. The band rides upon a steady crash and hits stride on the seething choruses where the singular verse riffs pick up steam. On the flipside, the next new cut "Shoal" lulls with a faint breeze. The guitars frolic over the slow pace of the song and become more the story than the song itself. The choruses are catchy enough, but the emphasis on jacking up the guitar tiers are the real reason to hang with the overdrawn cut, which rolls past six minutes. "Slave to Reality" is a bit meatier than its predecessors with some chiseled out verses, while the so-so but catchy choruses seem to merely pass the time. "Seraphim", the best of the new tracks (and minute cousin to "Three Towers" from the original album), rolls through trance grooves and two sets of guitar lines, one willowy and one dirty. Inevitably, the 6:26 "Seraphim" comes off like ALICE IN CHAINS, but there's undeniable focus (even with its drowsy jams) and sparkling guitar solos that should please the band's followers, particularly when the tempo picks up and rocks out.
The original cut of "Soulbender" was recorded at three different studios, yet culminating a sound derived from the surrounding vibes Seattle had to offer outside of QUEENSRYCHE and MUDHONEY. That being said, there's a solid polish and energy to songs like "Fix", "Clockwork and Compass", "Samsara", "Shoot Poem" and "Hunger" giving the album a basic entertainment value.
On the other hand, there's a feeling this record's going nowhere past its grunge origins, which was probably all SOULBENDER ever sought to accomplish. In 2004, ALICE IN CHAINS had seen its heyday and was still reeling from the demise of Layne Staley two years prior. Whether or not Michael Wilton and his SOULBENDER posse took it upon themselves to honor Staley in their modest way, modest is the operative word. The grunge-driven riffs of the songs are appropriately bare bones and Nick Pollock's vocals are fittingly maudlin. Michael Wilton's guitar solos are sometimes apposite spectacles, especially on "Rabbit Hole", "This Ocean", "Three Towers" and the scratchy intro and transitions for "The American Dream". Grunge as interpreted by a heavy metal migrant.
For devoted QUEENSRŸCHE and MY SISTER'S MACHINE fans, "Soulbender II" will be an oddity album to pick up for completion sake if they haven't already. "Hunger" is the closest SOULBENDER gets to QUEENSRŸCHE (barely, at that), so take it into consideration if you're a newcomer. The brisk-paced bitch-out of "Samsara" is worth dialing into, but otherwise, William DuVall's holding it down better than anyone could've expected in ALICE IN CHAINS.