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Steve McLaughlin - Toy Empires Award winner

Steve McLaughlin
Toy Empires
by Emmalyn Campbell at 11 June 2018, 11:06 AM

STEVIE MCLAUGHLIN is a Progressive Hard Rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Hailing from Ireland, he is best known for his work in SANDSTONE and as a touring guitarist with TIM “RIPPER” OWENS. “Toy Empires,” which was released worldwide in April of this year and May in North America, is his first as a solo artist, which he wrote, performed, recorded, mixed, and mastered himself.

Between Life & Death” opens the album, and what a stunning opener it is. I couldn’t ask for a thicker, more powerful riff, and there are nearly two minutes of intricate guitar work before McLaughlin’s voice comes in. He’s created beautiful, soothing harmonies in the vocals and melodic, soulful guitar mastery in every area, slow and controlled when it needs to be but fast and energetic like bolts of lightning. “Shadows Alone” opens with soft piano and deep, emotional vocals before the full band hits you like a wave of bliss. The song stays slow but no less intense than the first, with inventive rhythms and a loose but not lazy easiness that makes this song a carefully constructed masterpiece. “Apocrypha” is eight minutes of Prog heaven. It’s the seamless blending of the slow and enchanting with the dark and undeniably heavy that makes this genre so compelling, and McLaughlin is showing us track after track.

Straw Men” comes next, the first verse expertly building in intensity to an easy-listening yet lasting chorus, with a fantastic guitar solo about three minutes in. As the song kept going, I thought that a fade-out would be a perfect ending, and that’s just what I got, another example of this album knowing exactly what I want before I even do. “Prophetic Skies” is simply epic, and I can hardly describe that complicated guitar work at the beginning. It’s fast, a little reminiscent of DREAM THEATER, and truly divine. McLaughlin’s prowess as a guitarist might overshadow a lesser vocalist, but luckily he is the vocalist and knows how to make these two elements brilliantly complement each other, as shown in this track.

Immortal Rose” surprises me most in the drumming, soft but commanding, and the rhythm they provide allows every instrument to have its moment, heard in a gorgeous and melancholy guitar solo. “Chimera” is as introspective as it is heavy and is a song that you can really close your eyes to. It fits its length well without dragging or being repetitive. “Depletion” is another song which opens with piano and vocals, soon flanked by a thick bassline and atmospheric guitars. The song stays eerie, moody, and again shows the diversity of sound displayed on this album.

Next is the title track “Toy Empires,” which has the opening drums of an ancient army marching to war. It’s undoubtedly the heaviest on the album and is full of emotion, which explains its importance as the title track. “Memories of Eden” closes the album, the first two minutes of ten is McLaughlin establishing himself as a capable multi-instrumentalist. In the first verse, he doesn’t rush the vocals but takes his time to enjoy the lyrical content. The song takes many twists and turns but keeps a certain cohesiveness that makes it very effective as the last on the album.

Quite frankly, I’m a little mad someone this talented is allowed to exist, but I’m also thrilled that everyday listeners get to enjoy the benefits. Half the time, my ears could hardly believe what they were hearing. “Toy Empires” knocks you down but never fails to lift you up again, and if it has a weak spot, I haven’t found it. This has to be the start of a hugely successful solo venture for STEVIE MCLAUGHLIN.

Songwriting: 10
Originality: 9
Memorability: 10
Production: 10

5 Star Rating

1. Between Life & Death
2. Shadows Alone
3. Apocrypha
4. Straw Men
5. Prophetic Skies
6. Immortal Rose
7. Chimera
8. Depletion
9. Toy Empires
10. Memories Of Eden
Stevie McLaughlin – Vocals and All Instruments
Record Label: Limb Music


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Edited 05 June 2023

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