Janus – Gravedigger (1972)

Janus_Gravedigger4 out of 5 Stars!

Music-loving kids of today don’t have a bloody clue how good they’ve actually got it, do they? Here’s why I say that…

It continues to astound me how a seemingly endless stream of above-average “old” albums by “old” obscure bands of which I’d never known existed keep popping up in my “middle/olden years” which, in a perfect world, I should have discovered way back in my youth but didn’t. Certainly this has everything to do with the situation back in the “olden days” before the mighty Internet existed. Dear heavens, remember those times when only local (lame) radio and (lame) television stations, along with a few assorted (mostly lame) magazines (aside from Circus and few others) provided the sole sources in discovering new music, and to a lesser extent, the meager selections in stock at the small local record store and word of mouth? For those of us in America (and especially in the Midwest), this is especially true of European (non-UK) bands whose albums were always tucked away in the high-priced yet always-intriguing “Import Section” at the record store, when a teenager had no available cash to splurge (experiment) on an album that looked so damned fascinating but wasn’t available to “test listen.” Hell, of course, then I would rather spend my meager cash on the heavily advertised albums from world-renowned groups such as Uriah Heep or Deep Purple or Yes or Black Sabbath instead of “chancing” a release (except sparingly) by seemingly unheard of German bands such as Jane or Lucifer’s Friend or Guru Guru or Scorpions. This is the area in which the upcoming Internet became (undoubtedly) the “holy grail of discovery” in the lives of die-hard music lovers like myself. So I repeat my earlier question—music-loving kids of today don’t have a bloody clue how good they’ve actually got it, do they? Probably not!

Anyway, this is the reason I write many reviews for older (ie. seemingly ancient) albums and bands, since for me, many are truly brand new discoveries, the actual year of actual release/existence be damned. Therefore, despite this album being released more than four decades ago, it is essentially a new release in my eyes, and Janus is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new band.

I stumbled upon them when digging for more information on Jane (a band I did actually unearth way back in the 1970s). So due to its similar name, and also being from Germany, Janus kept popping up in my various “Jane-related” searches. Since I also kept seeing words and phrases such as “great” and “wonderful” and “undiscovered gem” and “semi-progressive Krautrock” (a genre of which I am quite fond) when describing the debut Janus album, I had placed it on my “wish list” and (thankfully) located a copy.

Not only have I played the five-track album repeatedly since I snagged a copy, but have grown quite fond of it. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to label this mainly guitar-oriented album (with some piano back-up) as simply Progressive Rock (which oddly seems the sole or primary genre listed at most music-related websites when it comes to this release), I would certainly say that Prog-Rock is a secondary genre. Apart from that, I would classify this album as being Hard Rock with abundant Psychedelic-Rock influences.

In many ways, especially due to the “unaccented” lead vocals and almost blues-foundation to some songs (such as on the three shorter tracks “Whatcha Trying To Do?” and “Bubbles” and “I Wanna Scream”—the latter almost a template for a Thin Lizzy song) and the overall guitar tones the band employs throughout the album, Janus has (for the era) more of a “Brit-band” sound, occasionally bringing to mind groups such as Ten Years After, Beck, Bogart & Appice, Cream, Led Zeppelin, etc.

Yet the heavier-hitting Psych elements make all the difference in the world (as on the killer, nearly nine-minute, opening song “Red Sun” with its apparent “I Can See for Miles” influence by The Who, and the side-long, twenty-one-minute “Gravedigger” with its often Mellotron-dreamy, acoustic-based “Moody Blues/King Crimson” feel), bringing shades of Jane, Guru Guru, Grobschnitt, etc. into the overall mixture of influences, and offering that unique Krautrock flair. Indeed, these lengthier aforementioned tracks are reason enough to investigate this album, since they’re the ones that offer the perfect blending of the “Hard Rock/Psych-Rock/Progressive Rock/Krautrock” genres and make this album quite special.

Hell, these two tracks alone make me wish I’d discovered this album upon its release back in 1972, then maybe my friends and I would have rocked out (and “spaced out” with a particular weed I cannot name) to more than just the albums the highly influential record companies and “lame” radio stations of the era declared were the “best of the best.” Now I just need to hunt down a few of this band’s subsequent albums (released decades later themselves) to see if Janus eventually lived up to the potential it displayed on its debut.

Yes, the music-loving kids of today are so damned lucky to have something called the Internet, because even they can easily discover an album such as Gravedigger more than forty years after its release. Damn, in this respect, how I envy them…

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The Room – Beyond the Gates of Bedlam (2015)

TheRoom_BeyondBedlam4 out of 5 Stars!

After listening to The Room’s debut album (Open Fire) for more than a year now, and finally hearing this recently released sophomore collection of tracks, I’ve concluded that this group is definitely a bit weird. The debut album was not a fluke, as I thought might be possible, but rather an actual trademark of the band itself. And please know I say the word “weird” in a smile-worthy and positive way.

But why?

For me, it’s typically refreshing when I hear something slightly “off” when it comes to new bands playing in a favorite genre, bands offering more than just another cookie-cutter version of [insert the name of some classic, highly influential band here]. So when I discover a group that blends diverse influences (ingredients) to create its base sound, then sprinkles into the mix its own musical magic (and the talents of each band member) to concoct a somewhat different and successful end-product, I deem it a joyous occasion.

That’s what I’ve proclaimed with The Room. In my estimation, the band is, on many levels, a typical melodic Hard Rock act that successfully incorporates diverse Prog-Rock elements into its material in the same manner as a band such as It Bites triumphantly merged varying amounts of different genres to create its own sound/product. A bit odd, a bit quirky, for certain. But definitely engaging and weird…but also highly welcomed.

And I’m not talking about just the instrumentation either (including the diversity when it comes to guitar tones or keyboard/synth sounds), or the way the band writes or arranges its material, but also when it comes to the lead vocalist (the instantly noticeable “band stamp”). Martin Wilson truly has a different sort of voice and style of delivery. In quieter, ballad moments, such as the more straightforward tracks “Masquerade” or “As Crazy As It Seems,” Wilson reminds me of Michael Sadler from Saga, or Phillip Griffiths from Alias Eye (especially when it comes to the vibrato and overall tonality of both singers). Whereas on livelier, more off-the wall tracks, he has unsuspected yet recognizable quirks to his voice (and on songs such as “Full Circle” or “My Friend Jack,” there’s even a slightly demented manner to his delivery), giving him a fun, bizarre style that is not at all indigestible, but rather, it adds an unanticipated spice to the band’s overall off-beat flavor. This is in the same manner as singers Francis Dunnery (of It Bites), Jens Appelgren (of A.C.T), or even Alex Harvey (of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band) contributes/contributed to each of their group’s instantly identifiable sounds.

Therefore, as expected for an “off” band such as The Room, every track has numerous marriages of influences. For instance, on “She Smiles,” the electric piano brings to mind shades of Supertramp, only with a heavier twist when it comes to the other more traditional “Prog-Rock meets Hard Rock” orchestration. The intro of “The Book,” on the other hand, includes some dreamy Mellotron and choirs in a moody Neo-Prog opening, then goes off into a bouncy—almost pop—direction during the verse and choruses. The mid-section of the track, however, is yet another alteration in styles, with heavy organ (almost in the vein of Uriah Heep) and a quirkier, dramatic vocal delivery that seems like an Americanized version of Fish (from Marillion). The song’s ending, on the other hand, is yet another type of blended style, with dual guitar leads/melody lines that remind me of Thin Lizzy meets Wishbone Ash over typical Neo-Prog Mellotron/organ. Once again, this band excels at delivering surprises, at offering a wide level of influences while creating a sound all its own.

“Splinter” could have come straight off an album by the aforementioned Alias Eye perhaps, whereas “The Hunter” is a Saga-like track when it comes to its melody, instrumentation, and arrangement, but melded with sounds from instrumentally diverse groups such as Magic Pie or Magellan. “Bedlam,” on the other hand, is a harder-rocking tune in the style of (perhaps) the more Prog-oriented Axxis meets the more blues-based Gotthard, with those “slightly demented” style of vocals from Martin Wilson (including a “loony tunes” laugh at the end) along with touches of the more Prog-Rock moments of the British band Nightwing…a great closing track.

I couldn’t close out the review without also mentioning the album’s opening song (and single) “Carrie,” which is another fine (and catchy) example of The Room’s unique merging of styles. Melodic Hard Rock, diverse when it comes to its Prog-Rock orchestration (similar to It Bites), with a brief synth solo near the end straight out of GPS or Spock’s Beard. A quirky choice for a single, but an expected one from a band with such an unexpected merging of styles.

So for music lovers of the Prog-Rock variety, this is one band you might appreciate as much as I do. On either of the band’s albums, you certainly won’t find the “usual/usual” when it comes to any particular sound or style, but some variety and intriguing moments when it comes to the overall musical influences (the stylistic ingredients) to liven up the taste buds (or, more correctly, the I-Phone earbuds). I encourage those unfamiliar with the band to check out either release, as they are both high in quality. And have fun attempting to actually identify the band’s various musical influences…I sure did even though I’m sure I failed miserably.

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Mystery – Delusion Rain (2015)

Mystery_DelusionalRain4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve been a fan of this Canadian band for quite some time, so have watched (and quite enjoyed) its rather lengthy transformation in developing its current sound and style.

In 1996, Mystery released its first full-length album, Theatre of the Mind (prior to this, the band had released a self-titled five-song EP, of which I have yet to hear). To me, the band seemed primarily an AOR act (not unlike Journey, thanks to singer Gary Savoie, whose voice is similar to Steve Perry’s) with periodic touches of Prog-Rock on various tracks, especially the lengthier ones. For the most part, this style continued through to the next album Destiny?, which appeared several years later, although the band appeared to be adding more Prog elements to its sound. Eventually, after Savoie left the fold and the band added Benoit David to its ranks as his replacement, they disappeared for nearly a decade, and during those missing years, Mystery really flipped things around. Therefore, on its 2007 release Beneath the Veil of Winter’s Face, they seemed to have morphed into a full-fledged Prog-Rock act with only touches of its former AOR sound. 2010’s One Among the Living furthered that shift in style, until the last album to feature Benoit David, 2012’s The World is a Game, proved the final step in that lengthy (and fully successful) transformation. And to me, that album was undoubtedly the band’s most accomplished and enjoyable release to date.

Therefore, when I learned that Benoit David left the group to join Yes and the band hired yet another vocalist, I couldn’t help but wonder (with both anticipation and no small amount of dread) whether the band’s sound would change again, whether Mystery would continue down the path where it left off or if it would once again veer back toward the dominant AOR sound of its early career. Changes in vocalists are always tricky, so would the band weather the storm and maintain its style? It was (every pun intended) a complete Mystery.

And finally in 2015, the newest Mystery album became available with vocalist Jean Pageau at the mic. Thankfully—and with a huge sigh of relief on my part—it’s instantly apparent that Jean fits in splendidly. His range is as far-reaching as Benoit David’s, although his tone is a tad fuller, rounder in texture. And even better still, the band’s overall style has not changed one iota since its previous release. Indeed, it has actually improved, has been perfected even more, with the new songs being (in my estimation) the finest, most consistent collection of tracks the band has ever produced.

The album contains half a dozen songs in total, three of them in the six-to-seven minute range, and the other three lengthier, with one being nearly twenty minutes.

The album kicks off with the ten-minute title track, a high-quality piece of Prog-Rock in a similar vein to bands such as IQ, Also Eden, or Galahad. It perfectly blends both acoustic and electric instrumentation, including Mellotron, beneath a wonderfully grand and haunting vocal line. This track is expertly polished, a preview of the classy music to follow.

“If You See Her” is not only the shortest track, but an exquisite cross between Prog-Rock and AOR and probably the catchiest song Mystery has ever created. Reminding me of the band IQ in particular, the ballad’s full, rich chorus kept ringing through my head long after the album stopped playing, so deserves special praise for its memorability.

“The Last Glass of Wine” is yet another fine example of the Prog-Rock and AOR merger, the style in which this band excels. When it comes to Jean Pageau’s singing style and melody line here, vocalist Ted Leonard (and the band Enchant) somehow spring to mind.

At nineteen-and-a-half minutes, “The Willow Tree” is the album’s magnum opus, a magnificent treat for all Prog-Rock lovers. It starts with a dreamy atmosphere, mostly due to the hypnotic guitar pattern performed in the best Steve Hackett tradition, and some delightfully melodic verses. A heavier, orchestrated section eventually takes over, with each musician displaying mastery of their instruments, including terrific dual guitar solos, along with some synth leads and a complex arrangement. Afterward, the band brings us back to a reprise of the opening verses, this time with different instrumentation that somehow reminds me of Pallas, IQ, or Marillion. The song’s final section offers yet more enticing vocal lines, making this entire track a triumph of melodic Neo-Prog!

“Wall Street King” adds another slight shift in influences, with a powerful ballad played almost in the style of the Prog-Metal band Threshold. Dense, full-bodied, and moving.

At twelve-and-a-half minutes, “A Song for You” closes out the album. The introduction reminds me of bands such as Yes, Cairo, and Glass Hammer when it comes to the keyboard sounds and breaks, then a lighter section of the song, including gentle flute, kicks in with yet another beautiful vocal passage. Several shifts in rhythms, moods, and orchestration follow, all making for another breathtaking foray into Neo-Prog nirvana.

So congratulations to Mystery for not only successfully completing the ongoing transition into full-out Prog-Rock, but for also expertly selecting the new lead vocalist without altering the band’s style. For fans of Mystery (especially the previous album) who are wondering whether the band continues on its path to greatness with this new release, then fear not…this album is close to perfection. And for those unfamiliar with the band, but appreciate top-notch melodic Neo-Prog in the same realm as IQ, Galahad, Also Eden, Pallas, Arena, etc., grab this album as soon as humanly possible…and savor.

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The Savage Rose – In The Plain (1968)

SavageRose_InPlain2 out of 5 Stars!

I really wanted to love this album, especially after reading numerous plaudits regarding the female singer, Annisette Koppel, and how the band was supposedly so innovative (“sooo ahead of its time”) for a late-sixties’ group.

But in general, I find The Savage Rose a rather unimpressive Psychedelic/Blues Rock band from Denmark, hardly ahead of its time, but instead reminding me on occasion of groups such as Big Brother & The Holding Company or Jefferson Airplane (especially when the band incorporates loose “gang vocals” on several tracks, such as on the verses of “Long Before I was Born” or the Gospel-inspired “I’m Walking Through the Door”). Oddly enough, they come across more like a West Coast (San Francisco) band instead of a European one. Both jazz and country overtones pop up from time to time (“Evenings Child,” for instance), with piano/organ being dominant on most tracks as opposed to guitar (similar to the keys/guitar balance used by Procol Harem). Also, there’s the often-forceful vocals of its lead singer to consider. And here is where, to me, the main problem lies with the band overall. Certainly, Annisette has a unique style, but after a while her raspy voice with its powerful vibrato (especially when she’s singing in the rafters) can get somewhat annoying.

I have only this, the band’s second album, and perhaps the shrill vocals are less dominant on the debut album or subsequent releases, but I will likely never know as the singing pretty much turned me off enough to not want to investigate any further material. Additionally, The Savage Rose is also considered somewhat of a Progressive Rock band, but in truth, I heard very little on this album in the way of Prog-Rock content (except perhaps a sprinkling during the final song “A Trial in Our Native Town”). Therefore, despite the genre label appearing on many music-related websites in association with this album, lovers of Prog-Rock should definitely beware.

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Squackett – A Life Within A Day (2012)

Squackett_LifeDay3 out of 5 Stars!

Being a fan of both Yes and Genesis (and both Chris Squire’s and Steve Hackett’s solo work) I was initially excited to grab a copy of this album, all the while imagining what the merging of these two unique styles of musicians might sound like. But unfortunately, despite the joining of these musical legends from two legendary Prog-Rock bands, Squackett’s sole album ended up being rather a letdown for me.

Sure, along with some generally impressive musicianship throughout the album from all involved (and from Steve Hackett especially), there are some fun moments. For example, with its Led Zeppelinesque “Kashmir” atmosphere, the opening track, “A Life Within a Day,” includes some intriguing time breaks and solos (from both Hackett and Squire) in the middle section that had me sitting up to take notice. But as the subsequent tracks continued to play I found myself hearing less and less material that grabbed my attention for more than a moment or two. “Storm Chaser,” a track in the latter half of the album, also caught my ear with Hackett’s memorable and heavy guitar riff (and a great guitar sound to boot), along with some interesting noodling in the song’s mid-section. But then again, the slamming John Bonham-like electronic drum sound was also a bit of a turn-off.

Sadly, much of the album reminds me too much of other “Yes-offshoot-bands,” such as Conspiracy and Circa:—a bit too glossy and slick and processed as far as the production, way too safe as far as the arrangements and instrumentation, and far too AOR oriented in general—and bland AOR in nearly all cases due to the emotionless vocals. I was dearly hoping for something much more unique, more progressive, more intricate (such as the aforementioned middle section of the opening track) with both Squire and Hackett involved. If someone had told me that Billy Sherwood had been in charge of the album’s production, I wouldn’t have been shocked, since that’s how similar this album sounds to Sherwood’s usual style of “too much perfection/too much over-production.” (Instead, it seems the keyboardist Roger King took charge of the album’s production duties, but I firmly believe he learned his job from studying Billy Sherwood body of work.)

Anyway, there’s nothing horrible here, mind you. It’s all rather pleasant. Yet there’s also not much in the way of catchiness (apart from the beautiful “Aliens,” which has probably the album’s most memorable melody during its choruses) or any truly captivating instrumentation that makes me yearn to hear the album on a regular basis. It’s all a bit too run-of-the-mill for me, with nothing here that actually acknowledges the legendary status of the two main musicians involved in this project. Sorry, I much prefer Steve Hackett’s early solo works or Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water instead.

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Soft Machine – Third (1970)

SoftMachine_31.5 out of 5 Stars!

Throughout the seventies as I got more and more into Progressive Rock, I heard endless praise about this band, how Soft Machine were so “brilliant,” so “revolutionary,” so “extraordinary” and “mature” and “inspirational,” especially when it came to influencing the entire Canterbury Scene of Progressive Rock. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to hear the band. I remember my excitement when finally snagging this two-platter set, praying it would be the “unrivaled gem” music reviewers claimed, and expecting to hear the Tales of Topographic Oceans equivalent for the Canterbury Scene of Prog-Rock.

But damn, was I ever disappointed. Sorry to say, but after hearing this album, I could find nothing enthralling about it or the band in general, certainly nothing that would justify the praise heaped upon this two-album set. I almost wondered if I had somehow gotten the wrong platters within the album sleeve. Yes, the band continues to have a die-hard fan base that wholeheartedly believes the material on this album is indeed brilliant, revolutionary, etc., so perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal preference that I find their output well below average (and, yes, yawn-worthy). I thought so at the time of initially hearing this album, and upon listening to it recently (hoping the many decades would have altered my tastes or softened my original judgment), I realized that my initial reaction to this album still applied. Frankly, I just don’t get it.

Sure, Soft Machine incorporates a few intriguing moments of enjoyment within their (generally) Jazz-Rock/Psychedelic Rock/Avant-Rock excursions, but in my opinion, there’s truly nothing that places them high on the scale of “impressive Prog-Rock” music, certainly not when other bands from the Canterbury Scene had greater talent (and wrote actual memorable songs) during the same historical era.

The “A” Side contains the nineteen-minute track “Facelift.” For the first seven full minutes the listener is confronted by nothing but sound effects and feedback, with some fiddling around on the sax, and I find myself asking, “What’s the point of this?” Nothing is impressive in the slightest—indeed, this section of the track is so annoying that I skipped forward until the actual “song proper” began. And then, although there are some quirky, smile-worthy sax bits atop a light but upbeat rhythm, the track ends up being nothing more than a free-form piece of jazzy experimentation. So there truly is not a “song proper.” The sax eventually leads into a flute solo, and another rhythm begins, but again the track goes completely nowhere. Certainly there’s nothing at all offensive about the music, but the track is also nothing more than bland background filler. Again, it’s all rather pointless; a tuneless, non-structured jam session that just happened to get recorded.

“Slightly All the Time” (the eighteen-plus minute “B” Side track) is only slightly better. At least there’s some marginal structure, not just free-form jamming. Yet the saxes seem to twiddle on and on for eternity over an electric piano and bass, and occasionally play in harmony (so it’s not strictly free-form ad-libbing). But again, the song (if you can even call it that) just goes absolutely nowhere for six minutes before some flute pops in to add a bit of variety. And where are the drums? Oh, there they are, so light in the background that one has to wonder why they’re even included at all. More and more jamming occurs, with no melody to speak of, and again, I have to ask, “What is the point?”

The “C” Side contains the nineteen minute “Moon in June.” And finally, I find the makings of an actual song, with vocals delivering an actual melody (although the lyrics are virtually indecipherable and the voice is not the most appealing) atop some organ, bass, and the drummer playing an actual tempo. At about the six-minute point, electric piano comes in to add a new sound, but until the nine-minute point, seemingly endless fiddling around changes to another “section” that ends up being even more jamming and experimenting with instruments.

Finally, “Out-Bloody-Rageous” (another nineteen minute piece) encompasses the “D” Side. The title of this track says it all. More sound effects for five full minutes before some jazzy sax and piano spring up to seemingly improvise for another five minutes. Then the latter half of the track begins with more sound effects, some brass, more sax, more fiddling and free-form jamming. Yes, out-bloody-rageous indeed that I would waste my time actually trying to wrap my head around the notion that this experimentation is considered a masterpiece of the Canterbury Scene of Progressive Rock.

This is the reason I don’t own more material by Soft Machine. The band truly offered no engaging material to inspire me to investigate (or purchase) the remainder of their back catalogue. Granted, I’m unfamiliar with other Soft Machine albums, so maybe they’re better or at least different, more structured. But from this album (considered their “classic”), I find the band completely “blah.”

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Scarlet Hollow – What If Never Was (2012)

ScarletHollow_WhatIf4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is one female-led band I’ve discovered only recently and am currently enjoying both their short EP (Sanctuary) as well as their debut album (What If Never Was).  Well, in truth, I’ve been doing so for more than a year and have been itching to write a full review of Scarlet Hollow’s debut album, but only until now did I find the perfect moment.

Anyway, Scarlet Hollow is led by singer Allison von Buelow, a gifted individual who has a voice extraordinarily similar in tone and texture to that of Sandi Saraya (of the band Saraya), although Scarlet Hollow plays a cross between Progressive Rock, AOR, and Progressive Metal. The music is a delicate blend of guitars and keyboards, with an equal number of quiet passages and heavy sections, all with a rather dreamy and melodic atmosphere enveloping many of the tracks.

And the band displays a wide variety of styles, often within a single track. For instance, the opening song “The Path” starts out sounding as if it’s going to be a Heavy Metal/Progressive Metal excursion, but then the keyboards suddenly pop in with that “dreamy” atmosphere I mentioned earlier, and the female vocals deliver the first verse, and the listeners find themselves in another new territory, a delightful cross between Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal and Neo-Prog and AOR and…well, you name it. Near the song’s midway point, a light synth solo prevails, followed by a gentle section with acoustic guitar and another enthralling vocal passage (sung in a foreign language, no less), showing that this band is just crammed with pleasant surprises for the patient listener. So, just when that listener thinks one type of song/genre is about to occur, another type of song/genre (or many) shocks the listener from his/her complacency.

So many songs are appealing on so many levels, both aurally and emotionally, depending on which musical style one is seeking. “Apathy’s Child,” for instance, is a lighter foray into almost jazz-influenced Prog-Rock territory liberally mixed with strong AOR influences, thanks to the engaging melodies of the verses/choruses. Whereas “Thermal Winds,” subsequently, begins as a harder-rocking track with yet another absorbing (and haunting) melody line that, overall, might have seemed appropriate on an early album by Heart, only with some extra atmosphere in the Prog-Rock universe, thanks to the song’s midsection. It’s such a spot-perfect blending of moods and styles that it’s difficult to label Scarlet Hollow as any one specific genre of music when so many are obviously—and readily—abundant. Definitely a major plus!

And then, other styles abound. “The Waiting,” for example, begins with an acoustically-driven melody line, that eventually gives way to a hard-rocking buoyant chorus in the style of Lana Lane, Saraya, and Heart, yet almost—and always—eerily moody. Similarly, “Beyond The Lines” is a track that starts with an acoustic guitar and singable vocal line with a touch of yearning and angst that reminds me of early Heart or even Melissa Etheridge. Then “All That Remains” engages the listener in more low-level acoustic-based AOR with some emotional overtones, before a synth solo takes over, and then a piano joins the instrumentation in the final section before another memorable melody line (with thunder sound effects) brings the song to a close.

“As the Blade Falls” is a rockier track that approximates a “Heart meets Led Zeppelin” style of music, and once again, an intriguing melody line reigns supreme. “20/20” provides yet another mood, with some of the song being heavier in parts, yet lighter in others, and yet another intriguing melody shines through while an almost-Gothic atmosphere dominates much of the track. And the final song, “Nightfall Overture,” once again brings Prog-Rock elements to the fore as the band traipses through Saraya AOR-territory but wrapping it up in a blanket of almost creepy (at times) Prog-Rock/Metal influences in the style of darker Jethro Tull or (again) “Heart meets Led Zeppelin” dreamy, acoustic-driven rock.

Now, up to this point, I’ve held off mentioning my favorite track since it’s quite exemplary and definitely needs its own full paragraph…

At eleven minutes, “Around The Bend,” the album’s fourth (and longest) song, contains so many engaging moods—some spacey, some Gothic, some rocking, some AOR, and many progressive to boot—with each style performed with excellent instrumentation and vocals (Marillion and Magenta influences pop up everywhere, alongside a healthy touch of Lana Lane’s best material). And the track is performed mostly in a unique 7/4 time signature. Crap! Every damned instrument—from guitar and keyboards, to bass and drums—fits together into a hypnotic puzzle of perfection to enhance the melodic vocal line. And an eerie background— including exquisite vocal ad-libs, synth, guitar, and organ fills—just adds to the overall sound-tapestry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked REPEAT during this track in an attempt to absorb every seemingly flawless portion of its instrumentation. During every full play of the album as a whole, I can never get past this song. It’s as if I constantly hear something excitingly new every time I play it. I’m obsessed to hit REPEAT and revel again and again and again in its glory each time I listen to it. This is undoubtedly the spotlight track, the one to certainly “hook” new Prog-Rock fans into a love affair with this talented band. Absolutely brilliant! Now, let me pause the writing of this review in order to replay this track yet again…and again…and again…and, I kid you not, again…

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no other female-led band that has quite the same sound or style as Scarlet Hollow, so in that respect, there’s something definitely unique about the band’s approach. This is one act I’m going to watch closely to see how it progresses!

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Secret Sphere – Portrait of a Dying Heart (2012)

SecretSphere_Portrait4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Secret Sphere is an Italian band I’ve enjoyed quite a bit since I stumbled upon it about ten years ago, just as its Heart & Anger album (the group’s fourth) appeared on the scene. Since those days, I dove into the band’s archives and purchased the three previous albums, as well as the two subsequent albums upon their release, and never once have I been disappointed with any of the material. To me, Secret Sphere always delivered a perfect cross between sizzling Power Metal, intricate Progressive Metal, and bombastic Symphonic Metal, offered a nice balance between guitars and keyboards when it came to its lush instrumental arrangements, and never lost its edge or creativity through the years. Consequently, at various music review websites, I eventually rated each of the band’s first six albums with 4 Stars. Not a shabby track record (no pun intended) for certain.

But at the beginning of this latest decade, after the band had released the Archetype album in 2010, I learned that Secret Sphere had parted ways with longtime vocalist Roberto “Ramon” Messina. Over the years as the band had produced its six albums, several other members had come and gone, and the group’s sound hadn’t changed, or at least I hadn’t detected it. But we all know what happens any time a lead singer (especially one with a recognizable voice) leaves a group—a “major sound change” is usually imminent, unless a band finds itself miraculously lucky and locates a replacement with a nearly identical tone and vocal style (a rare occurrence). Therefore, I couldn’t even imagine what the future held in store for Secret Sphere and its sound/style. I could only pray the band would hire a suitable replacement for Messina, one that wouldn’t alter its overall sound (the sound I enjoyed) so drastically.

Thankfully, as it happened, I need not have feared. Indeed, I was almost beside myself with excitement when (in 2012) I finally learned that not only did the band find a replacement with a similar vocal range and style of delivery, but Secret Sphere had done so by recruiting the fantastic Michele Luppi, probably one of the most gifted and (of equal importance) one of the most recognizable vocalists of the age. I’d been a fan of Luppi’s, and had purchased everything (at least, I’d hoped so) he had ever done, albums from Vision Divine and Killing Touch (bands quite similar to Secret Sphere), to the AOR bands Los Angeles and Michele Luppi’s Heaven. As I said, the man possesses one of the best voices to have emerged in Rock these past twenty years, and is equally adept at singing so many genres. Not only does he have a truckload of power behind his voice, but a wide range, and a true gift for melody. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the next Secret Sphere album, Portrait of a Dying Heart, released later that same year.

And not only was I not disappointed (as usual) by Secret Sphere’s output, but I rated this album 4.5 Stars, higher than any of the band’s previous releases. And the reason is because of Luppi’s presence behind the microphone and his influence on the band when it comes to contributing memorable choruses.

So, not only did Secret Sphere once again deliver killer material performed by its top-notch musicians (just listen to the orchestrated and majestic opening instrumental “Portrait of a Dying Heart” to experience the high quality of musicianship involved), but a nice variety of material as well.

For instance, the tracks “X” and “Secrets Fear” offer driving Power Metal rhythms one moment, then switch to mid-tempo sections the next, then the band goes back and forth between the two as the songs progress, while the instrumentation is both symphonic at times, then light and sparse at other times. And all the while, Luppi is belting out melodic verses and choruses, his wide range on full and glorious display.

Some rather straightforward Power Metal (with chugging guitars, orchestrated keyboards, and slamming rhythms) can be found on “Wish and Steadiness,” “Healing,” and “The Fall,” often reminding me of bands such as Vision Divine (no shock, considering Luppi’s identifiable voice), Sonata Arctica, or Stratovarius, especially during the instrumental sections where some showy and adroit guitar and keyboard solos grace the tracks.

Other songs such as the excellent “Lie To Me,” “Eternity,” or “Union” are not only more AOR-ish—thanks to the stellar vocal performances—but also highly progressive when it comes to the fluid arrangements, the diverse tempos and instrumentation being frequently altered to best enhance and support the melody lines (which are usually chock-full of layered background vocals—damn, Luppi definitely knows how to stack those numerous harmonies).

The album also includes two rather grand and moving Power-Metal ballads in the form of “The Rising of Love” and “Eternity,” showing yet another side to the talented band. And, to my ears, both songs also include Luppi’s best vocal performances overall. (One minor criticism: I might not have placed the songs back to back in the track running order.)

Also note, the final “bonus track” is an alternate version of the song “Legend” (originally released on the band’s impressive second album, A Time Never Come). As much as I liked the original song just fine, this is largely an unnecessary inclusion since it basically adds nothing new. Instead, I would have definitely preferred another new track featuring Luppi.

Be that as it may, this album definitely deserves that extra boost of a half-star to my typical overall rating for Secret Sphere albums. With a new vocalist at the helm, not only has the band not lost anything when it comes to its lofty level of musicianship, professionalism, and creativity, but has gained so damned much in the vocal department, releasing a collection of songs more memorable than any previous Secret Sphere album. To me, the band has always been one of the most consistent and noteworthy groups in the Power Metal/Progressive Metal/Symphonic Metal genres, yet somehow underappreciated. Therefore, I can only hope (with this high-quality release in its catalogue) Secret Sphere can finally get the recognition it so richly deserves.


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Black September – Black September (1994)

BlackSeptember_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Simply put, back in 1994, this Prog-Rock band from the USA released its one and only album, then promptly disappeared from the scene (and to discover the reason why I believe that happened, please keep reading). Regardless, I’m sure the main question facing any Prog-Rock fan who craves anything and everything from the genre is whether they should even bother to investigate this obscure band and/or track down a copy of this lone album for their collections. Hopefully my review will make that decision easier.

To be certain, Black September had an interesting line-up, with a keyboardist, a bassist (or two, actually), and a drummer (the basic E.L.P. combo to start) along with a sax player (who doubled on bass) and a violin player (who also doubled on bass). As one might expect, without a guitarist and a heavy emphasis on keyboards, the band did often sound like E.L.P. (or occasionally the band U.K.) as on the album’s opening track.

“Bellicose Agenda” is a sprawling thirteen-minute tour-d-force that displays the band’s instrumental skills, which are definitely commendable. The keyboards (both background washes and frequent leads) are straight out of the Keith Emerson playbook, and the violin (which pops up for a solo early in the track) makes the band sound as if Jean-Luc Ponty or Eddie Jobson had stepped into the studio with E.L.P. to lend a hand.

Here, also, comes the first hint as to the album’s major flaw and the main clue as to why I believe this band likely fell apart after just one album—the vocals are nothing more than just passable, and barely that. On several occasions (when he’s not almost talk-singing the lyrics) the vocalist is off-key. It seems as if he wants to replicate Greg Lake at times, but always falls short. On this track, the result is (as mentioned) just passable, but please be warned, since there are more vocal tracks to follow…

Now, since the track “Freeze” features some sax (generally relegated to the background), imagine E.L.P. teaming up with, for example, Andy Mackay (Roxy Music) or Mel Collins (King Crimson). Once again, the instrumentation is quite good overall, the keyboardist especially, and the arrangement includes additional variations on Keith Emerson’s synth sounds. But also once again, the vocalist brings down the quality level with his frequent inaccuracy.

The album’s third song, “Forever Winter,” is where the vocals really muck things up. What would have otherwise been a melodic track (this time—with the violin and particular keyboard sounds—the U.K. comparisons come readily) is nearly destroyed by the tragically off-key vocal leads. I came to realize here that when the singer is delivering lines within the louder, more thicker-sounding framework of tracks such as the previous two songs, his shortcomings are much less noticeable. But on this track, mellower and only lightly orchestrated during the verses and choruses, his inadequacies are in the spotlight, glaringly so. Near the end of the track, when he attempts to belt the words “in the name of the law” repeatedly, the cracking in his voice and his constant pitch-wavering when he’s struggling to hold a long note are absolutely wretched. And to make matters worse, the violin (an instrument that has a tendency to be a bit squeaky itself) is ad-libbing behind him, and notes start clashing all over themselves, making for some major eye-twitching on my part. Definitely not a pleasant listen. And it’s a damned shame, too, since the song, with its pretty melody, could have been something quite special with a competent vocalist at the mic. It’s a mystery to me why no one in the recording studio insisted these parts be rerecorded and perfected prior to the album’s release. Therefore, I suspect that this is the main reason why Black September didn’t last longer than this single album. A good producer, a studio engineer—hell, anyone with an ear for tunefulness—is always worth their weight in gold.

Far from the debacle of the previous song, the high-quality “Floodgates” follows. This energetic and bouncy instrumental piece is where the keyboardist is really given a chance to shine, with his fingers working magic during wild Moog solos. The sax player also pops in for an equally frantic solo, while the rhythm section adds jazzy flair to several sections of the track along the way.

“The Glen By Afton” comes next, and it’s another vocal track. But relax, no need to worry too much here since the singer is, thankfully, more subdued. He’s not shooting for any high notes he can’t possible reach, and he’s not attempting to belt out the lyrics to the point of his voice cracking, so that’s a plus. And no surprise, because of his lighter approach, the melody lines are actually rather enjoyable. Indeed, it’s a nice track overall—certainly the best of the four vocal tracks on offer—especially with the sax showing up again to deliver some gentle background ad-libs.

The final track, “Beast in Plain View,” is another instrumental that actually lives up to its name, returning full-force to the sounds of E.L.P. with a saxophone and a hunger to impress. As on the previous “Floodgates,” the keyboardist really grabs hold of the reins and steers the band into more Keith Emerson-like synth madness, “beastly” territory, and it’s an exhilarating ride.

So, were it not for the below-par vocals on this release, I would have rated this album 4.5 Stars. Yes, the musicians (especially the keyboardist) are that good. But there really is no acceptable excuse for an otherwise top-quality band releasing an album that includes such a piss-poor vocal performance as on the “Forever Winter” track, unless, of course, the singer was the leader of the band (or perhaps his mother or father footed the bill for the recording). Who knows? Anyway, because of this inexcusable mistake on the part of Black September, I pulled a full star from the overall rating.

Therefore, Prog-Rock lovers who especially appreciate bands such as E.L.P. (with a twist) might be interested enough in this lone album to track down a copy. But please consider yourselves forewarned regarding the vocals.

Album Not Available At Amazon.
Purchase Link To Be Added In The Future.

Paradigm Shift – Becoming Aware (2015)

ParadigmShift_BecomingAware4 out of 5 Stars!

First, let me apologize in advance for the next few paragraphs. The reasons for them will soon become clear, so I pray you’ll bear with me.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to review a “soon to be released” album from a new UK band called Paradigm Shift. And, as usually happens in these rare instances, I found myself a bit hesitant. Why? Because I prefer to encourage musicians rather than discourage them, and when it comes to a forthcoming debut album, I feel an extra burden. What happens if I once again discover an album that leaves me disappointed or even appalled at the material or skill level of the musicians? Should I voice the unvarnished truth, which could potentially discourage customers from purchasing the music upon its release? Yet in doing that, I run the risk of kicking a group of hardworking musicians in the teeth, individuals who have likely sunk all their hopes and dreams (and finances) into creating their first album. As I mentioned, I’ve faced this situation before and am loathe to face it again.

By sharing my overall thought process, I hope to make anyone reading this understand that, for me, voicing the truth (as I see it) for potential customers is always preferable than whitewashing or hiding the facts for the sake of the artist. That way, music lovers will know that the words I publish on this website about a forthcoming debut album are indeed my personal feelings toward the material I’m reviewing and not an exercise in advertising or public relations for the bands or record companies. That way, my readers will learn to trust my opinion and know I’ll never offer a bunch of false praise when I actually think otherwise.

Now, with that explanation out of the way, please believe me when I say that this forthcoming debut album by Paradigm Shift is indeed worthy of purchase upon its release! Truly worthy!

As to the material itself…

Paradigm Shift kicks off this concept album in fine style, setting the stage with the fourteen-and-a-half minute epic, “A Revolutionary Cure.” After an atmospheric opening of sound effects and political commentary regarding the ugliness of “slavery” and the vital “fight for freedom,” the listener is treated to a highly diverse and occasionally intense foray into the world of Prog-Rock. Several melodic verses and a bridge (featuring pleasant lead vocals with enjoyable harmonies) eventually give way to equally melodic instrumental passages, many of them quite intricate and showcasing the full scope of the band’s potential. The final vocal section, with some grand orchestration, is where the epic feel truly comes into play until a final “jazz-heavy” section brings the song directly into the next track, “An Easy Lie.”

Here, the band drives forward with some metal influences, plus, to add even more variety to its overall sound, Paradigm Shift also includes verses sung in “rap” style. After the traditionally sung chorus, the listener is treated to some engaging instrumental segments. As on the previous track, time changes and rhythm shifts populate the song’s arrangement, providing a wide variety of moods. Here it also becomes clear that the band is not afraid to experiment with background accompaniment, using everything from both light and heavy guitars to grand and electric pianos. Even the bassist has a brief opportunity to solo, while the drummer accentuates all of these sections with intriguing fills and counter-rhythms.

The album’s shortest two tracks—both instrumentals—follow. “The Void” is a mellow, somewhat spacey and piano-driven piece that eventually leads into “The Shift,” this one bouncy and upbeat, featuring some commendable solos from both the guitarist and the keyboardist. The piano-rich backdrop actually reminds me of music one might hear on an album by either Kansas or Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, which was delightful overall. These dual tracks also serve as a double-intro to the next song, “Masquerade.”

Here, the band once again returns with probably the best vocal performance on the album, a great melody line during both the verses and choruses that somehow brought Kansas to mind once again. At the song’s midpoint, the band adds even more “voice-over political commentary,” then jumps into a splendid synth-heavy instrumental passage, including some blistering solos by both guitarist and keyboardist, sometimes playing in tandem or in harmonic counterpoint. The vocals eventually return to deliver a final verse before the song leads into the closing track “Reunification.”

The album’s “epic feel” now returns in full force, especially during a melodic opening vocal section. And, as I have already come to expect from Paradigm Shift, the varied instrumental sections in the song’s middle are quite superb. Expect to hear more tempo changes, more dual guitar/synth leads or solo passages, more “voice-over” commentary, etc. Then finally, after an orchestrated build up, the band surprised me by electing to conclude the track on a light and acoustic-driven “happy ending.”

Speaking of “happy endings,” I was pleased to discover that, despite the album’s “dark” theme, the music itself is not. Far from it, actually. The collection of songs exudes optimism, being generally full of upbeat, riveting, and electrifying instrumentation and chord patterns as opposed to what could have easily been a dreary, perhaps sluggish collection of songs laden with minor-key harmonics. So thankfully, the listener is left with the feeling of hope, of a brighter future, and especially, a lingering sense of tranquility.

Now, when it comes to the band’s overall sound and style—a successful marriage of traditional Prog-Rock with both Prog-Metal and Jazz-Rock elements—it’s difficult to pinpoint any “calculated influence.” In other words, Paradigm Shift doesn’t model itself on any one particular band in the same genre. With that being said, however, during the numerous instrumental passages, I am occasionally reminded of diverse groups such as the aforementioned Kansas and E.L.P., Hourglass and Spock’s Beard, Cairo and Haken, perhaps even some Dream Theater thrown in. A nice mixture. The keyboardist also relies heavily on piano (seemingly his main instrument on most songs, unlike many Prog-Rock bands where the “mainstay/foundation” keyboard is the organ) but also includes a wide variety of different synth sounds, both classic and modern. So whether keeping its influences intentionally ambiguous or not, Paradigm Shift comes across as highly sophisticated, skillfully adept, and wildly experienced on their debut album, certainly on par with many of their contemporaries who have numerous albums under their belts.

I must also add, that after listening several times to these six tracks, I’ve decided that I already want to hear more from Paradigm Shift. I do, however, hope that in the future they expand the vocals—the album seems a tad top-heavy when it comes to the instrumental sections. Nevertheless, Paradigm Shift is a welcome addition to the world of Prog-Rock. In my estimation, they have the chops and songwriting skills to go quite far, and I certainly wish them all the success on their journey forward.

So for fans of Prog-Rock, when this album is released (quite soon, I gather), I encourage you to give it a listen. And as for me, I’m just thrilled Paradigm Shift delivered an album of high-level material and made it so damned easy for me to tell the unvarnished truth!

Album Not Yet Available At Amazon.
Purchase Link To Be Added In The Future.