Guru Guru – An Overview

GuruGuruAlbums In My Collection

– Dance Of The Flames
– Don’t Call Us, We Call You
– Guru Guru 5
– Hinten
– Kanguru
– Mani In Germani
– Tango Fango
– UFO

An Overview

I became aware of this Krautrock band back in 1974 when one FM station in Chicago used to have a 2-3 hour show one night per week called “Sounds From Across The Big Swamp.” The station broke from its normal hard rock format to feature obscure or underground bands from, despite the name of the show, both Europe and America. To me, that show was PURE GOLD and I listened religiously each week! I heard some amazing material from early Gentle Giant, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Amon Düül II, Epitaph, Lucifer’s Friend, Roxy Music, Birth Control, Jane, etc. And one of the odder bands to get featured was Guru Guru.

Then, as a teenager, money was of course scarce, and although I found many albums by all these amazing bands at my local record store, they were mostly shelved in the “Import” section, meaning prices were outrageous, well beyond my means. Therefore, Guru Guru’s releases were not something I would be able to grab anytime soon, to my complete dissatisfaction. But I held the band’s name in memory for many decades until something called the Internet came into my life as an adult and I was able to finally rediscover some of the music I had been craving since youth.

When thinking of Guru Guru again, I located the album I distinctly remembered from those days on that radio show, 1974’s Dance Of The Flames. I was able to download it and, damn it, the album was just as bizarre as I remembered. Since then, I’ve located other Guru Guru albums and have been able to delve into their history. And let me tell you, this is one weird-ass band.

Call them Prog-Rock, Krautrock, Psychedelic Rock, “Jam Band” Rock, or whatever, they were quite bizarre. Some of the material is hit or miss (“garage band/improvisational” type of stuff in the band’s earliest days), but for the most part, they are enjoyable.

Their earliest releases were almost free-form Psychedelic jam sessions, as if someone plopped them into a studio and said, “Okay, guys, fool around with whatever the hell idea strikes you.” Whereas other releases have more “actual” song-oriented tracks (since I like music better when it has some structure, these are the albums I generally prefer, although the “jammy” album Känguru is also one of my favorites by Guru Guru).

So, depending on your musical preferences or mood, you may enjoy their material or be disappointed by it. Either way, you’re sure to find some goofy (mostly instrumental) material when investigating them.

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3rDegree – An Overview

3rDegreeAlbums In My Collection

– Human Interest Story
– The Long Division
– Narrow-Caster
– Ones And Zeros: Vol. 1
– The World In Which We Live

An Overview

This New Jersey band is a bit odd, and I say that in a good way.

First off, they’re not traditional Prog-Rock, despite the fact they use a lot of traditional (classic) Moog sounds on many tracks. Their style, instead, is more akin to Prog-Rock bands such as A.C.T or Kayak, or Art Rock bands such as City Boy or Be Bop Deluxe, yet I also hear some Echolyn, Spock’s Beard, and Gentle Giant-type influences on occasion. It’s an interesting blend that, in turn, allows 3rDegree to have their own style.

The band also includes a nice balance of soft (acoustic) and hard (electric) tracks. Their melodies are usually quirky, yet engaging, so they have a strong pop sensibility in their approach, and even though the majority of their tracks are shorter pieces (no 20+ minute epics here), they still cram everything from Metal guitar, Mellotron, jazz touches, avant-garde chord patterns, and even some intricate tempo shifts into their arrangements. What may at first seem like a straight-forward pop song, for instance, will often change upon further listens when you discover some  truly complex instrumental passages lay behind the pretty melody.

Also, the band’s full and rich background vocals are quite excellent, often bringing to mind bands such as Queen, A.C.T, 10cc, or Sweet. And when they toss in some intricate, counterpart vocals, the arrangements are almost “Gentle Giant-like.” Just listen to a track such as “The Gravity” off the band’s latest album Ones And Zeros: Vol. 1, or perhaps the song “Exit Strategy” from The Long Division, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Again, excellent!

Also, I would be remiss to not mention the band’s lyrics, which are often sardonic, mature, and witty.

So basically, whatever the release, track by track, you just never know what to expect when each song begins. This band truly keeps you guessing, and although that’s not always a good thing with some bands, when it comes to 3rDegree, it’s usually entertaining and always well-played.

3rDegree just keeps getting better and better, and I look forward to hearing what they’ll create next.

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Toronto – An Overview

Toronto_logoAlbums In My Collection

– Get It On Credit
– Girls Night Out
– Head On
– Lookin’ For Trouble

An Overview

Here’s a rather obscure band from the ’80s that started to see some moderate success before suddenly dissolving into oblivion. Too bad, since this group had the potential to really make it big. Or rather, BIG!!!

Led by a singer with the silly name of Holly Woods—yet a singer who had a voice and a range equally as powerful as Ann Wilson from Heart fame—and a guitarist/background vocalist named Sheron Alton, the group’s third album Get It On Credit had some people, including myself, sitting up to take notice. I recall seeing them on the then-infant MTV with the video for the single “Your Daddy Don’t Know” (with its ultra-catchy chorus) and immediately fell in love with Holly’s voice.

This album, along with Toronto’s first two albums Lookin’ For Trouble and Head On, had some fairly decent material, AOR mixed with Hard Rock, sort of a combination between Heart, Pat Benatar, and the mighty Tantrum. And always, fantastic vocals and background harmonies.

One song that truly highlighted Holly’s amazing range was “You Better Run” from their debut Lookin’ For Trouble album (yep, the same song eventually recorded and made famous by Pat Benatar), and Holly’s ad-libs and screams at the end of the track are simply jaw-dropping—sorry, Pat, but Holly’s performance makes mincemeat of your tamer version.

Anyway, the songs “Break Down The Barricades” and “Run For Your Life” (among countless others) from Get It On Credit were especially powerful, and this album, as a whole, was way the hell better than average. Had the band continued in the same vein with their fourth album, things may have gone much better for them, especially since they had their all-important “MTV-boost.”

Unfortunately, that fourth album (Girls Night Out) seemed a major step down. The band started to sound more pop to me (and to many others, unfortunately), with much lighter material (aimed toward the MTV crowd, still in its infant stage), and it was a huge letdown after the strong Get It On Credit album.

Also note, Toronto seemed to have released a final fifth album a year later, but I learned about it only recently and have yet to hear any of the material (if I can even locate a copy of it). Needless to say, it didn’t make a dent in the charts.

Nevertheless, the band’s first three albums, especially the third Get It On Credit album, are still enjoyable after all these years. And for fans of female-fronted rock bands, this group of three albums are a “no-brainer”—get them, on credit—if necessary (all puns intended).

Another final note: Holly Woods, whether with Toronto or solo (she released one album on her own, Live It Up!—which could have easily passed for a “heyday” Toronto album—recorded back in the 80s yet released only in 2007), had killer pipes and deserved huge success!

In general, Toronto is yet another band that (for me) remains sorely missed.

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Cairo – An Overview

CairoAlbums In My Collection

– Cairo
– Conflict And Dreams
– Time Of Legends

An Overview

Back in the mid-90s, hungering for something new in the way of Prog-Rock (and new to the Internet) I chanced upon a website for Magna Carta Records, saw their focus on Prog-Rock bands, and immediately splurged on buying more CDs than I could actually afford. I can still remember the guilt I felt over that enormous purchase.

Regardless, one of those CDs was the debut release by Cairo and, upon listening to it and a host of other Magna Carta CDs, all the guilt I originally experienced for spending money on that gigantic purchase fled. This band, I felt, was great! The MG label had provided me with exactly what I had been craving for so many years, and Cairo stood out among the pack for their unique sound.

Okay, granted, they weren’t completely unique, considering their influences sprang from a healthy dosage of Yes and ELP, but to me, it was unique since only Dream Theater had truly made a dent in the fabric of Prog-Rock/Prog-Metal in America at that time, and this merging of the Yes and ELP sound, along with the inclusion of a terrific vocalist, had me jumping for joy. Synth-heavy Prog-Rock. A dream come true!

Yes, this was great stuff overall, and although nostalgia may be dictating my opinions as I write this review, I still believe this band had something truly special. Too bad they fizzled after their last 2001 (not-quite-as-good-as-the-others) release. Still, nostalgia does play a big part today, and I still enjoy the debut release by this band named Cairo, which I feel held such promise and, needless to say, I continue to miss them. I’m praying they will eventually reform and produce some more material since they certainly had the chops to make it—big time!

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Arena – An Overview

arena_logoAlbums In My Collection

– Contagion
– Immortal?
– Live & Life
– Pepper’s Ghost
– Pride
– The Seventh Degree Of Separation
– Songs From The Lion’s Cage
– The Unquiet Sky
– The Visitor

An Overview

Since the mid-1990s, this long-lasting Neo-Prog act from the UK has released a series of albums I consider quite enjoyable in general. Yet, a warning—the band is somewhat inconsistent regarding its overall sound (not quality, which is always high, just overall style). This has much to do with the fact that Arena has had four lead singers (all good, yet some better than others) over the course of its two-decade lifetime, therefore, the material today sounds like it comes from an almost totally different band than the one that created the material of the past.

In the olden days, particularly with their second vocalist Paul Wrightson and his heavy Fish-like delivery, range, and tone, Arena reminded me of Marillion. And no shock, since Marillion’s original drummer, Mick Pointer, is one of the band’s founders and constant members. After a few albums, however, with the third singer Rob Sowden (and his different range and delivery style), Arena added a touch of metal to its overall sound on several tracks. And now, with yet another new singer (Paul Manzi) for the past few albums, and a more streamlined approach—ie. shorter tracks, meaning more concise ideas and less adventurousness when it comes to arrangements—the band sounds different still, much less “early-Marillionesque” and more like a band such as Fates Warning, only with an emphasis on keyboards (as usual) as opposed to guitars.

So to fans of the genre, beware when delving into Arena’s back catalogue—depending on your taste in Prog-Rock, some of the albums may have different levels of personal appeal. Although each era of the band has its pluses and minuses, each is also better than average as far as songwriting and musicianship when compared to its numerous contemporaries. So, as with me, it usually boils down to which singer one likes the best—and thankfully, I like all styles of singers about evenly, so I’m happy with each era of Arena.

Overall, the band produces some great Prog-Rock!

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Barock Project – An Overview

BarockProjectAlbums In My Collection

– Coffee In Neukolin
– Rebus
– Skyline

An Overview

A relatively new band from Italy (they popped onto the scene sometime around 2005), this one playing some rather exciting Neo-Pro and Symphonic Prog-Rock. Each of their releases (some sung in Italian, the most recent sung in English) has some of the usual inspirations creeping into their sound, including Spock’s Beard, Magellan, Gentle Giant, Transatlantic, Jethro Tull, Moon Safari, Unitopia, Yes, etc.

There’s actually nothing new as far as overall content goes, but each song sounds somehow fresh, like a modern, grander, almost forward-thinking take on older styles—the instruments are performed wonderfully with a singer that sounds invigorated, more “this century” than some bands who try to replicate the usual older Peter Gabriel or Fish-type vocals from the previous century. Sure, some of the vocals parts (especially when accompanied by the occasional flute insertions) are slightly reminiscent of Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, but again, with a more youthful sound, and always highly melodic. And truthfully, the singer has a broader range overall, a more AOR-friendly and enthusiastic delivery, which is always a plus.

In general, in all of their songs on each of their albums, Barock Project seems to magically include an energetic approach, more lively and upbeat than other contemporary bands, with some fascinating arrangements, an indescribable “capturing lightning in a bottle” type of phenomena, that makes one’s ears perk up with curiosity. This is where (to me) the Magellan comparison comes in the most, since that band also had a similar approach when they first appeared on the scene back in the ’90s.

So at first glance (or listen) it may seem as if Barock Project is offering nothing new to the Prog-Rock genre, yet with their spirited approach they are indeed adding their own spicy and robust take on a tried-and-true formula, although sounding as if there is no formula at all, therefore, sounding relatively fresh. And they just keep getting better and better with each new release, with the most recent (Skyline) being a near masterpiece. NICE!!!

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Headpins – An Overview

HeadpinsAlbums In My Collection

– Head Over Heels
– Line Of Fire
– Turn It Loud

An Overview

This Canadian group had an unremarkable career in the early ’80s, which seemed a shame since they featured a lead singer with a spectacular voice. Darby Mills was her name, and kicking major ass with her ballsy vocals was her game.

The band’s first 2 albums, Turn It Loud and Line Of Fire, each contained some hard-rockin’ tracks that showcased just how in-your-face Darby could be when given some fiery material. She fits comfortably into the same category of singers as Janis Joplin, Joanna Dean, Sass Jordan, et al., the sort of raspy female vocalists who were outrageously adept at pouring their emotions into blues-based hard rock music without sacrificing the melodies.

Although many consider the band’s final album, Head Over Heels, a major let-down, I didn’t find it horrible, even though the band altered their style, lightening things up with a more mainstream/AOR approach. Darby is still there kickin’ butt, so it ain’t half as bad as some people claim—it certainly blows to hell just about any other band out there who attempted the same style in the mid-’80s.

Also note, after Darby left the group, the band picked up another terrific singer by the name of Chrissy Steele, but instead of releasing material under the Headpins name with her, the Magnet To Steele album that eventually resulted in 1991 was issued under the name “Chrissy Steele.” Headpins guitarist Brian MacLeod was the only member who lasted into this period before sadly passing away shortly after this new album was released. Be that as it may, the Magnet To Steele album was basically a Headpins album without the actual name and a “return to form” of their previous harder rocking style.

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Curved Air – An Overview

CurvedAirAlbums In My Collection

– Air Conditioning
– Air Cut
– Phantasmagoria
– Second Album

An Overview

For some reason I had put off checking out this band for many decades. Not sure of exactly the reason why, but I suspect it had to do with a trusted someone once telling me that they were nothing but wimpy progressive folk rock and, in my mind, that equaled boring. Despite knowing that Eddie Jobson was once in their line-up, I had always avoided this band based on that original caveat.

But just recently, I chanced to hear their material from the early 70s and, although not completely blown away, I certainly wasn’t bored. Granted their brand of progressive rock isn’t the sort that really gets my blood flowing (nothing like Gentle Giant or IQ, for example) but it’s more than pleasant enough, especially with the talented vocalist named Sonja Kristina at the helm.

Since my recent discovery, I’ve delved into Curved Air’s back catalogue and can now call myself a fan, especially of the albums Phantasmagoria and Air Cut, which are both better than average. When it comes to their softer material, they remind me of Renaissance, yet their liberal use of violin, electric guitar, organ and synthesizers, along with a fondness for bouncier rhythms and some experimental instrumentation on other tracks, sets them apart from the other band. Nevertheless, Sonja’s tone, range, and vocal delivery has a lot in common with Annie Haslam’s, thereby making comparisons between the two bands inevitable.

Regardless, thanks but no thanks to that friend of mine from years ago who gave me bad advice about Curved Air. I’m glad I finally took the chance and judged their early albums for myself, discovering not wimpy progressive folk rock, but a female-led Prog-Rock band that were unique in many respects and quite adventurous upon occasion—just take a listen to the track “Over And Above” from Phantasmagoria, for example, and see what I mean.

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Two of a Kind – Two of a Kind (2007)

TwoOfAKind_14 out of 5 Stars!

As the name of the band implies, there are two of them—female vocalists, that is—Esther Brouns and Anita Craenmehr, both of them talented with decent vocal ranges.

The band plays a brand of hard rock with heavy AOR influences and many of the songs on their lone album are catchy and fairly memorable, and all feature some great harmonies.

The one criticism I have is that, when having two lead vocalists, it might have been better had they not sounded exactly alike. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell when either one of them takes the lead since their voices are basically identical. The one thing that made a band such as Tantrum unique is that each of the three singers had such distinguishable voices that happened to blend together perfectly when doing harmonies, yet could easily be identified when singing solo.

Nevertheless, Two Of A Kind are a better-than-average act and I hope they eventually release some more material.

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Toss ‘N’ Turn – Freestyle (1994)

TossNTurn_Freestyle3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Toss ‘N’ Turn is a German band I discovered just within the past decade, a female-fronted group that apparently created only a single album released back in the mid-’90s.

Fronted by singer Jaqueline Cipriano, the band played Blues-inspired Hard Rock with a touch of AOR, funk, etc. on several tracks, and for the most part, Freestyle contains fairly enjoyable material.

On rollicking and straightforward tunes such as “Torture, Torture,” “How Do You Feel,” “One Night & A Heartache,” “In My Blood,” and “Confession,” I liken Toss ‘N’ Turn to bands such as Tesla or Bad Company, with the guitars front and center, and a touch of keyboards included for added spice. Meanwhile, Cipriano’s voice, raw and throaty and raspy, is perfect for the fourteen songs on offer here, especially on the rock shuffle “Back To The Wall” and the punching “Hungry,” two of my favorite tracks, and on lighter, acoustic guitar-driven moments such as “Life (The Ups & Downs)” and a cover of The Bangles’ tune “Eternal Flame.”

Although Freestyle contains virtually no major surprises, nothing truly innovative to set the music world ablaze, the level of musicianship is relatively high, with Cipriano being the unquestionable “star” of the show. Moreover, the guest appearance of Michael Sadler (Saga) on keyboards and background vocals (and acting as the album’s co-producer with the band) might shock a few people since the material on Freestyle is about as far from the music of Saga as one can get.

Regardless, fans of female vocalists such as Alannah Myles, Sass Jordan, or Lorraine Lewis (Femme Fatale) might find interest in Toss ‘N’ Turn, since much of the band’s music is of a similar nature.

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