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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