Artist: John DeGroff & Friends
Album: Salt 2: Trophy Hunting for Unicorns
Release date: 01/21/2021
Reviewed by: John Wesley
If you were a musician-type like me growing up, there’s nothing quite like cranking it up to 11 and jamming out with life-long friends in a stanky, hot, mid-summer garage with a few fans working around the clock desperately trying to keep air circulating. It’s simple times like these we musician types like to refer to as the “good ol’ days.” The jams, laughs and memories we cling on tight to honor the simpler days where the only real care in the world was the creation forming right before your eyes from your instrument of choice. John DeGroff & Friends do a great job preserving the sound you can only get from a pure, unadulterated chemistry when you get kindred spirits in a studio session who have mastered their craft. With the project’s sophomore album titled Salt 2: Trophy Hunting for Unicorns, this prog-rock fusion collective achieves a raw and organic musical height which displays smart song-writing ability while also making it clear that they are not afraid to let loose and jam.
With all the advancements in recording technology we have access to today, the majority of modern rock albums feel very polished and calculated. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but sometimes we all long for raw, energetic recordings with subtle human imperfections which enable us to feel the undeniable chemistry throughout the band members. There aren’t many modern albums out today that sound like what John DeGroff & Friends have unleashed to the world. This album is full of surprises that surpass any pinpointed genre or style. I suppose “prog rock” is the right umbrella for this project to fall under but nevertheless it would be criminal if our expectation stops there. This collaborative project is headed by bassist John DeGroff who, if you’re needing a quick Christian rock history lesson, was one of the founding members of rock legends Petra. DeGroff only appeared on the first two Petra albums but this was by no means the extent of his musical career. After all these years, Salt 2: Trophy Hunting for Unicorns presents DeGroff and his colleagues in a wonderful collection of fun and enjoyable tracks with plenty of diversity and surprises to keep the listener engaged.
Salt 2: Trophy Hunting for Unicorns features legendary Petra vocalist John Schlitt as the primary vocalist throughout the album. One cannot listen to Schlitt without cracking a smile. Even in his older age, Schlitt’s voice still carries melodies with strength and power. In the opening track Screens, we get a good dosage of his beloved vocal tone. The song starts with a clever scalar warm-up disguised as a boldly imposed prog rock moment heading straight into the first guitar hook of the album accompanied with powerful unison movement in the bass and keyboard parts. The main hook of the song is a super catchy 7/4 groove played over some busy drum work. From here to the end of the jam, we have a pleasantly predictable verse-chorus structure with a nicely put keyboard and guitar solo. Afterwards we get a tempo change for a little bit because why not. It’s prog rock after all! Don’t worry though, we’re back to the form of the song soon after. This is an excellent opening track that lets you know these cats mean business.
Track 2 Alone Again quickly sends the listener in for a surprise with a soft jazz number featuring a beautiful melody coupled in both the piano and bass. No need to relax for too long though, about a minute and a half into it, the song gets a shot in the arm and the rock energy returns in a delightful prog jazz fusion with soaring piano and impressive drumming. Not quite sure what the melody is done on, but my guess is some type of keyboard or synth-wind instrument. Whatever the case, this track is a sonic treat. Purely instrumental, this and many of the other tracks scattered throughout this album showcase the brilliant musicianship DeGroff and his pals graciously give us. We’re only on track 2 and the listener could be completely satisfied by this point.
Track 3 brings back Schlitt on vocals for the funky yet commanding tune Abundantly. DeGroff lays down a drop-tuned bass line after the intro that demands your attention. For merely being 3 songs deep, the listener will find it difficult to have a clear idea of what he or she could be getting into. This album is promising to display wonderful diversity.
Track 4 and 5 are instrumental. Homeward is a short, fast-paced bass solo in a 6/8 groove that sports some folk flair. It’s a very unique tune yet still just as enjoyable. How diverse can this album get? Just wait til Mountain Tops which is what I wish played in every retail store across the country. Death to all the life-less elevator music in our shopping malls! Just let John DeGroff and Friends provide both your passive and active listening needs. Mountain Tops is a beautiful standout track with a dreamy keyboard patch that melodically duels with acoustic guitar. Some more jazz fusion for ya! But the surprises continue…
Track 6 uniquely titled Anachronistic Anachronism is a straight-up, unapologetic, up-tempo blues tune to the core. This track features Shawn Browning on guest vocals who runs the project’s label Rottweiler Records. I can imagine Brownings response when asked to throw down some fun on this track in the studio. This is a super fun track that you can’t help doin’ the boogie too. Features a call-and-response section with the drums. At 1:49, there’s part of the drum feature where the floor tom is hit then pushed with the hand to give a really cool swell sound. Very nice touch. In this midst of all the jam-packed fun, we are reminded of the group’s convictions with the line “Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever.” You never know what setting you’re gonna get Jesus preached in!
We have arrived at the back-half of the album. Try to catch our breath and comprehend all of the brilliant musical moments that we’ve gone through. Maybe you need a minute to digest everything that happened in tracks 1-6. Sorry but there’s simply no time! On to track 7, Conversations, where we get a nice feature of original Petra guitarist Greg Hough. As the song-title suggests, this tune showcases a “conversation” between guitar and bass in a near 4-minute dialogue between both instruments. This track stands out due to the tasteful textures in this song provided solely by the guitar and bass. In this relaxing number, the differing guitar layers make for a pleasant atmosphere filled with jazz-inspired licks and chord progressions. There is back-and-forth between the guitar and bass near the middle of the track as to be expected. Very well done!
Track 8 qualifies for my imaginary top 5 list of favorite song titles. Please Don’t Feed the R.I.N.O is a drum-and-bass tune with crazy polyrhythmic passages and impressive chops from both respected instrumentalists. I guess we shouldn’t be too thrown-off by a track that lets you know DeGroff can really play his bass. I love this track. Short and sweet.
After all the crazy twists and turns this roller-coaster of an album has brought us through, we arrive at track 9, When the Grid Goes Down. With instrumentation very similar to track 1 and with Schlitt back on vocals, this track feels like we finally returned to a musical identity that we were expecting from the beginning of the album. Tracks 2-8 proved otherwise but it’s nice to get what your brain wanted this late in the game, at least for now. I find this track quite brilliant because of this. When the Grid Goes Down should have been track 2 but because it came so much later it acts as an award for those who took a chance and kept going on when things got a little weird. The bridge sports some surprising “fourthy harmonies” in the guitar and keyboard where you would expect typical 3rd or 6th harmonic intervals. Maybe I’m getting too technical for some of you but I’ve got the pen here so….yeah. The ending of this track is super fun. They really predicted the grid going down and it did. Hope the producer gets his power back. Don’t worry, there are 3 more tracks.
Track 10 is Basic Blue and as you may have guessed from the title alone, this is a fun blues track. At about 2:20 a considerably heavier guitar gives a little bit of shock value and comes in to rip the tune a new one. After this, all of our dreams come true and we get a harmonica solo!
Track 11 walks through the door and everything starts getting a little out of hand in the best way possible. Possibly the “heaviest” track on the record (yes I’m a metalhead bear with me) arrives. Visible from Space has such a nasty intro that is almost impossible to resist head-banging to. It doesn’t stay here for long as the pacing changes for a little around the minute mark. I know songs are titled the way they are for a reason because this track sounds like it’s from space. Maybe DeGroff and his pals were taught the art of rock from aliens at this point. I absolutely love the lead guitar starting at 2:35. Things get crazy again after this beautiful, melodically-soaring section. The bass on this track is the heaviest by far.
Here we are at the end. Track 12 Three Nails sports a heavy guitar riff to start but it doesn’t stay there. The verse kicks in with a nice bass groove and Schlitts vocals return with ferocious conviction singing about the crucifixion of our Savior. An awesome guitar solo comes in after the 2nd chorus. This was the first single released which I can understand. At about half-way you would think the song is coming to a close but nope we need more prog moments. Some beautiful bass harmonics arrive at the 3 minute mark to help land this monster of an album. DeGroff lets us depart from this musical journey with nicely played solo-bass variations of “Ode to Joy” and “Amazing Grace.”
What a wild ride. There’s something for everyone on this album. It’s so neat to see the faith resonate so clearly on an album where you may least expect it. This album definitely is not preachy and can be easily accessible for those not in the faith. The convictions are clear though on a couple tracks and sometimes that’s all you need. Everyone serves a different purpose in the body of Christ. I think the Lord gave John DeGroff and Friends a wonderful array of talent to use for His glory. Some are called to work the fields, some to the pulpit and some to the recording studio. If you are looking for a diverse, fun and friendly album that upholds musical integrity, this is for you. Available through Rottweiler Recordings, Salt 2: Trophy Hunting for Unicorns is a must-have to add to your crazy, ambitious prog rock collection. This release is filled with brilliant song-writing that isn’t afraid to let loose and not take life too seriously which in this day and age, is a perspective we all could be reminded of every now and then. Well done, John DeGroff and Friends!
Overall rating: 9/10
Top 3: Visible from Space, Alone Again, Please Don’t Feed The RINO
For fans of Petra, Mr. Bungle and Rush.