Masterplan – Aeronautics (2005)

Masterplan_Aeronautics4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Perhaps not as immediate as the debut album, this is still one KILLER release!  This comes off as a cross between Dio meets Black Sabbath meets Whitesnake meets a whole slew of prog-metal bands such as Dream Theater and Symphony X and Vanden Plas all mixed into one (although Masterplan is neither as out-and-out “prog” or as straight-in-your-face “metal” as the aforementioned bands, but instead they are a nice merging of the genres….the best of the best). Each song on offer here is different (ie. no two songs sound the same) which makes for a nice variety of rhythms and melodies and arrangements.

But the icing on the cake is Jorn Lande, a front man who is perhaps THE best heavy-rock vocalist since the good ol’ days of Ritchie Blackmore discovering what would prove to be the finest line-up of singers in the history of rock (through Deep Purple and Rainbow).  Lande has BALLS and a voice that (to my ears) puts him right up at the top with the greats such as Ronnie James Dio, David Coverdale, and Ian Gillan.  He not only has one of the strongest set of pipes I’ve heard in a long time, but also a keen sense of melody and both a gruffness and a bluesy smoothness when required. Fans of the singers mentioned above will LOVE this guy!

Unfortunately, Lande left the band shortly after this album was released (note: he will eventually return), so I can only hope his replacement is at least half as good, since the band deserves to go far with two strong releases in a row.

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Masterplan – Masterplan (2003)

Masterplan_Masterplan5 out of 5 Stars!

This has to be one of the best heavy-metal/prog-metal debut releases of all time!  Not since the release of Rainbow Rising (Rainbow) or Dio’s debut album or Dream Theater’s Images and Words or Symphony X’s V masterpieces have I fallen in love so quickly with an album of similar genres.  These guys captured lightning in a bottle the first time out and I’m nothing if not completely impressed and in awe. Although the second album Aeronautics is almost equally excellent (just not as immediate) there is still something almost magical about what comes together on this debut…more cohesive, perhaps. Hard to put a finger on what makes this one a bit “more” special than the follow up.

Regardless, either album kicks royal butt, so if you’re a fan of this type of music, you’ll more than likely be hooked immediately. Besides, this as well as the second release features Jorn Lande, one of the finest heavy rock vocalists in the history of music, so how bad could things be with him fronting the show?

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Manic Eden – Manic Eden (1994)

ManicEden_14 out of 5 Stars!

A fun, no-frills album of music in a similar style/vein as Cry Of Love, Little Caesar, or Gotthard, with hints of The Black Crowes, Robin Trower, Free, and other bands that include a touch of funk into their rhythms.

Here, Ron Young (Little Caesar) is singing lead and adding his trademark grit (perhaps even more so than normal) to the proceedings, perfect for this type of music, while Adrian Vandenberg, Rudy Sarzo and Tommy Aldridge veer from the normal “Whitesnake playbook” to deliver a straightforward dosage of kick-ass hard rock. The album includes several acoustic-based ballads, but overall it’s a driving affair.

Definitely recommended.

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Malibran – The Wood of Tales Plus (1990)

Malibran_WoodTales4 out of 5 Stars!

Can someone, anyone(!), please explain to me this horribly bizarre phenomena?…Italy is known to produce the most outstanding, pitch-perfect singers in the world when it comes to the genre of “opera,” yet in the genre of “Italian Progressive Rock,” the majority of the singers are outrageously untalented, warbling messes, many with odd, chilling vibratos, who can barely locate the correct notes to sing even in the clearest of circumstances. (Banco del Mutuo Soccorso is a perfect example of this cringe-worthiness.) Why??? How is this possible??? Please, someone, anyone(!), explain this to me!!!

Regardless of my feelings toward the vocalists of many Italian Progressive Rock bands, I chanced upon this release not too long ago and decided to risk a listen due to the praise-worthy reviews I read. Thankfully, the vocalist (although limited and shamelessly off-key on many of the vocal passages, as I’ve come to expect from bands in this genre) is at least tolerable (unlike most of the other bands from Italy…in other words, not vomit-inducing like Banco del Mutuo Soccorso). And the music, itself, is truly excellent–complicated and diverse, mellow at times, yet often exciting–reminding me of such acts as PFM (another Italian Prog-Rock band I can thankfully tolerate), Genesis, IQ, early Marillion, and more than a bit of Jethro Tull (thanks to the occasional flutes, played flawlessly).

So actually, after PFM (or perhaps Doracor), I put Malibran as probably my second or third favorite band amongst Italian Prog-Rock acts when it comes to holding my interest without making me wince because of the singer’s lack of abilities. And, since I’ve listened to the band’s later albums, where the vocalist does indeed improve as the years progress, I know at least that this band’s debut album is not a fluke…it’s actually an undiscovered gem in the genre, showing exactly what this band promises to achieve when it comes to instrumental chops and songwriting abilities that will guide them to future (and even better) releases.

Not perfect, but flawed indeed, yet showing terrific promise and still enjoyable overall for fans of the prog-rock genre.

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Magnum – The Eleventh Hour! (1983)

Magnum_11thHour3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Extremely excellent band and songs contained herein…extremely horrendous production quality which made mincemeat of those excellent songs contained herein.

If you can look past the bland “produced in a closet” quality and savor the melodies and musical arrangements, all the better. Perhaps not as good as the previous Chase The Dragon album, especially in the quality of production, there are no songs with the strength of “Soldier of the Line” or “Sacred Hour,” the band still had genuine creativity, and it’s apparent here in spades. Additionally, considering that the following Magnum album, On A Storyteller’s Night, would be their unqualified masterpiece, the production on this album is (almost) forgiven, since the band is obviously moving toward their magnum opus, and the quality of the material here shows that.

By the way, Magnum’s album covers are usually way above average, and this cover is one of their best. Slightly misleading, certainly, since the band doesn’t play the type of Progressive Rock the cover might lead one to believe, but they have enough progressive elements in their music that the striking cover isn’t too far afield.

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Philippe Luttun – The Taste of Wormwood (2014)

PhilippeLuttun_Wormwood3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Were I to rate this on the music portion alone, I would give this at least 4.5 Stars! Some great Progressive Metal with some terrific vocals.

Unfortunately, there are just WAY TOO MANY non-musical sections of this album—sound effects, radio reports, Russian dialogue, etc.—which really become annoying since they are so lengthy and chop up the musical portions of the album way too often.  That brings the entire album rating down by at least a full star. Sorry, this concept album just has way too much “atmosphere” for its own good. Limiting these “noise sections” to only a minute at the opening, perhaps a few seconds tossed in between a few songs, would have been so much better. But the album starts out with endless minutes of “noise” and tosses these in too many times (and for too long) throughout.

I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing more from these folks in the future, but if they release more material, I hope they limit future albums to just music and not “noise,” since their talent for writing and performing some great Progressive Metal is where they truly shine.

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Logical Riddle – Evolution (2012)

LogicalRiddle_Evolution0.5 out of 5 Stars!

Good GOD, the band is out of tune!!!! Seriously, folks, before recording, make sure your guitars and keyboards are tuned…TO EACH OTHER!!!!!

A complete waste of money. Buyers seriously beware, this is one of the worst albums to have ever existed. Avoid this at all costs or your ears will likely bleed.

Stories – Traveling Underground (1973)

Stories_Undeground4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Okay, a show of hands, please…how many people like myself miss the days of browsing through the endless bins at the local record store, especially the “bargain bin” section, hunting for anything that looked at least marginally interesting, AND at a cheap-enough price that you didn’t mind buying the album without even hearing the music first?

I don’t know about you, but after years of habitually flipping through thousands of albums in those cherished bins, and purchasing many items in the process, I’d often feel like a modern-day version of one of those “miner forty-niners” from the mid-1800s, frantically hunting in the wilderness for the merest hint of gold. More often that not, my efforts proved only moderately successful, but every once in a while, my unflagging bargain-bin forays would pay off big time and I’d walk away with a giant solid-gold nugget.

How well I remember unearthing this particular nugget, with its bizarre cover and the $0.99 price sticker in the upper right-hand corner. Certainly I’d heard the name of the group countless times, was familiar with the band’s hit singles—including “Mammy Blue,” which appears on this platter—so I eagerly snatched up the album, thinking there might be at least a few additional pop-rock ditties worthy of the not-so-hefty price. And boy, was there ever!

Best known for the chart-topping 1973 hit “Brother Louie,” the short-lived Stories (with Rod Stewart soundalike Ian Lloyd featured on lead vocals) defied record company expectations by releasing (what I soon concluded was) an excellent third and final album later that same year. Not only did Traveling Underground contain the aforementioned “Mammy Blue”—a song clearly in the same vein as “Brother Louie” to obviously make the record company happy—as well as two other tunes—”If It Feels Good, Do It” and “I Can’t Understand It”—also aimed for the Pop charts, but what I hadn’t expected to discover were six additional songs of a more Progressive nature.

“Bridges” is a grand and glorious opening track, with Kenneth Bichel’s piano flourishes and blazing Mellotron creating a solid soundscape for guitarist Steve Love’s fierce power chords and sizzling leads. How well I recall repeating this terrific track numerous times during that initial hearing of the album, trying to absorb the sheer drama of it all, and due to its bombastic majesty, it still remains my absolute favorite Stories’s song of all time.

“Soft Rain,” another of my favorites, adds the perfect amount of acoustic guitar and Moog into the melodic mix, while additional synths along with harpsichords can be found sprinkled throughout the album, especially on tracks such as “Stories Untold” and “Hard When You’re So Far Away.” Both tunes contained deceptively complex instrumentation that included more tasty guitar and keyboard work, and (for the latter tune) odd time signatures and ever-changing rhythms, thanks to drummer Bryan Madey and seasoned bassist Kenny Aaronson (Derringer/HSAS/Dust).

The longest song on the album, however, the lush and moody “Earthbound/Freefall,” plus the album’s closing title track, are each loaded with synths, symphonic keyboards arrangements, and sound effects that wouldn’t sound all that foreign had they appeared on albums by Yes or Flash, and both really push the “Progressive” button. And all the while, Ian Lloyd’s raspy voice sounds fantastic atop the synth and Mellotron washes, and in my opinion, was much better suited to a keyboard-oriented style than the rockier and poppier tracks for which the band was better known.

Anyway, once I’d gotten through the entire album that first time, and after repeating “Bridges” yet again, I recall having to pick up my jaw from the ground—the last thing I had expected was discovering an album of such profound diversity, especially after assuming Stories was nothing more than a harder-edged Pop Rock band. Although the group obviously disbanded way before its time—I would have loved to hear more albums of this exploratory nature—at least it went out with a defiant and experimental bang. All in all, the band had created an enjoyable near-masterpiece in my eyes, definitely worth the mere $0.99 I’d shelled out for it. And certainly one of my favorite “solid-gold nuggets” from those days of “bargain-bin hunting.”

 

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Little River Band – Playing to Win (1985)

LRB_PlayingWin4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the mid 1980s, Australia’s Little River Band decided to reinvent itself, rechristening the band LRB (at least for this single album) and injecting some much-needed beef into its overall sound, which means heavier guitars, grander and pomp-styled keyboards, and less of the lighter Pop Rock style that graced the band’s previous releases.

And what did LRB end up delivering? Great lead vocals and exceptional harmonies, great and catchy melodies, great musicianship and production…indeed, Playing to Win is one of the best AOR releases from the ’80s. To my ears, it could easily rival any of the most popular releases from groups such as Journey, Ambrosia, Touch, and especially Toto and White Heart from the same era, while on many tracks, such as “Blind Eyes,” “When Cathedrals Were White,” “One Short in the Dark,” and “Piece of the Dream,” the band actually sounds quite similar to Magnum when it comes to the lead and harmony vocals, song arrangements, overall instrumentation, and production quality.

Shamefully overlooked, this album and its equally enjoyable follow-up, 1986’s No Reins, were LRB at its best.

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