DiMino – Old Habits Die Hard (2015)

Dimino_OldHabits4 out of 5 Stars!

Finally, it happened! After endless decades of false rumors and grapevine gossip, inklings of possible reunions that eventually fizzled, tidings of potential solo releases by a member or members of the legendary band Angel that frustratingly never happened, the seemingly impossible finally, in 2015, came to pass. Aside from the momentarily thrilling announcement in Kerrang! Magazine that Angel had actually reformed back in 1984 (it turned out to be the group that quickly rechristened itself Giuffria), no original member of Angel (aside from keyboardist Gregg Giuffria) had popped onto the music scene with an actual album since the band’s untimely demise in 1980.

But after more than three decades, singer Frank DiMino released a solo album in 2015, and it seemed the gods of rock ‘n’ roll had blessed the universe—or at least the legions of Angel fans long-starved for more music from any of the band’s members. (Update: After originally writing this review in 2015, guitarist Punky Meadows also released a new album in 2016…another “blessing” for Angel fans.)

To me, Frank DiMino was one of the most gifted, most underappreciated vocalists from the ’70s, a singer whom I believe should have gone on to “hugeness” instead of being relegated to only a mention in the rock ‘n’ roll history books. But the world is not perfect, and for whatever the reasons (whether his personal situation or merely Fate), the man had unfortunately disappeared from the music scene. I had long ago surrendered to the sad notion that I and the other Angel fans would likely never hear the man’s voice on any new material, or see his name grace an album sleeve, ever again.

But as I said, it actually happened, and it was probably one of the most pleasant surprises I’d experienced in the recent past. And I could only wonder, what sort of music would the singer release? Music in the spirit of Angel itself, or something completely different? The answer is actually somewhere in between.

First, let me say that DiMino’s voice is as powerful today as it was when I last heard it, with his wide range readily on display and his distinct vibrato fully intact. His voice, however, has also evolved a bit, and on several tracks I almost don’t recognize him. Still, there are enough of the old DiMino trademarks to make this release a welcome treat.

In general, the album contains a slew of rather straightforward, ’70s-inspired rockers, with many of the heaviest—”Never Again,” “Rockin’ In The City,” “The Rain’s About to Fall,” and “Mad as Hell”—being where DiMino is probably the least recognizable, where his voice sounds a tad meatier, yet where his delivery displays an almost youthful exuberance.

Other tracks, however—such as the mid-tempo “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” or the powerful and melodic ballad “Even Now”—are where DiMino is at his most recognizable, where all his formidable gifts as a singer come to the fore. These are also the tracks where comparisons to Angel are most likely to occur. Although the rollicking party song “Tonight’s the Night” comes off as if it might have been an outtake from Angel’s White Hot album, and “The Quest” (probably due to the more prominent keyboards and the frantic pace) is another track I could imagine being included somewhere in Angel’s back catalogue.

As far as overall instrumentation, the album is definitely guitar-heavy, with keyboards relegated to the background for the most part. Had the keys been a bit more dominant (or the album featured more than a single synth solo) then the album might have sounded closer to DiMino’s former band. Still, there are enough keys included that the occasional “ghost of Angel” makes an appearance, as mentioned above. And a special note to Angel fans: no, there are no songs here that mimic early Angel (the period where the band included its Prog-Rock inspirations) but instead, when Angel comparisons are most appropriate, the music is more a cross between the albums On Earth as It Is in Heaven and White Hot.

Regardless, most of the eleven tracks here are quite memorable, although a few of them do lean toward “filler territory.” Though things are never boring. Indeed, DiMino’s debut album is upbeat in mood, highly energetic, and enormous fun, nothing short of exciting for an Angel fan like myself, and I’m sure it will be the same for other fans of the legendary act.

Yes, folks, the voice of Angel finally returned to the scene, and let’s pray Frank DiMino gains the recognition and success he deserves, and sticks around for a long, long while.


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Leap Day – From the Days of Deucalion Chapter 2 (2015)

LeapDay_FromTheDays24.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Leap Day, a band from the Netherlands that consistently delivers above-average material in the Neo-Prog genre. To me, Leap Day falls into the “Genesis-inspired” category of bands, although it isn’t in any way a direct copy, but has its own sound, creating a nice mixture between bands such as Genesis, Spock’s Beard, Arena, and IQ, wonderfully symphonic with generally attractive melodies and varied, often-moving instrumentation.

Yet, when I realized their entertaining third album, From the Days of Deucalion, was also labeled as “Chapter 1,” I sort of cringed inside. I’m always a bit skeptical when bands plan multi-part collections, since a band can only occasionally pull it off successfully—Big Big Train succeeded with both parts of the recent English Electric albums being equally enjoyable—whereas other times the dual-album release is a huge flop—Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime II came nowhere near the greatness of the original masterpiece.

Therefore, could Leap Day create an absorbing, melodic, and engaging album to equal its 2013 predecessor? It wouldn’t be easy to do, especially when, from the “Chapter 1” collection, I came to believe the melodies and instrumentation on the track “Haemus” were pure excellence, with Leap Day firing perfectly on all cylinders. So on its newest release, could the band offer more tracks like “Haemus” where everything gelled in a similar fashion?

The answer, thankfully, is a resounding “Yes.” And indeed, I feel the band even surpassed all expectations.

The album opens with the instrumental “Pseudo Science,” a grand, three-minute affair where both guitar and keyboard leads and dramatic orchestrations rule the day. This somewhat spacey/somewhat pomp track might seem right at home on an album by groups such as Spock’s Beard or Transatlantic. This intro leads into “Amathia (Homo Ignoramus),” a vocal track that begins with beautiful piano and vocals, along with a gentle organ in the background, quite reminiscent of Procol Harem. And as always, Jos Harteveld’s tone and often-fun delivery, thanks to the quirky hook in his voice ala Frances Dunnery (It Bites)—which seems a bit more pronounced than usual, adding more of a recognizable flair to Jos’s voice—croons a melody that is both dramatic and memorable. I especially enjoyed the lyrics of this song, with lines such as “All we’ve ever taught, all we’ve ever written down, is nothing but a fart in the windstorm reeling…” Wonderfully droll.

The seven-and-a-half minute “Taurus Appearance” starts off as a bouncy Spock’s Beard-inspired instrumental with some great bass riffs and solid drums, some organ and synth fills, and a terrific chord pattern that soon adds a touch of Yes to the overall feel. About halfway through the track, a more laid-back section pops in to take the song into a different direction, with more leads, by both synth and guitar, until yet another passage, this one wonderfully gentle, brings the track to a close. The whole arrangement is Neo-Prog at its finest, a delightful merging of various styles that Leap Day always delivers with gusto. But the experience is not over yet, since this track basically acts as an intro to another seven-and-a-half minute tune, “Phaeton,” this one a vocal song, and a foray into Neo-Prog magic, both memorable and wickedly diverse when it comes to moods and instrumentation. The inspirations here are numerous and again varied, with IQ, Citizen Cain, and early-Marillion styles seemingly the most predominant. In general, these two connected tracks are fifteen minutes of greatness, and a definite highlight of the collection.

“Ya Who” begins with a momentary dip into strangeness, with Asian instruments popping into the spacey intro behind a female speaking in Chinese, I’m assuming, based on the lyrics that follow once the intro morphs into an actual song. The 3/4 waltz time signature proves an interesting change of pace, with the light instrumentation and keyboard washes, and extra instruments (including what sounds like an accordion) in the outro, being particularly unique to the band’s overall arsenal of musical tools.

The next track, “God Of Wars,” seems to be a mixture of IQ and It Bites, thanks again to Jos Harteveld’s vocal quirks, some of the zany synth patches going on during the verses, as well as the general musical arrangement by the band as a whole. This is another track I find myself repeating quite often; definitely another highlight for me.

At nearly eleven minutes, “Deucalion” is the longest individual track, and is once again a musical adventure into all the best traits of Neo-Prog. Along with Leap Day’s brand of offbeat instrumentation, the band also incorporates a bit of Gentle Giant/Spock’s Beard here, along with perhaps some touches from The Flower Kings. And along with all this, the song has one of the catchiest melody lines the band has ever recorded. Most fans of the genre will likely fall in love with this track, which is also favorite of mine.

“In the Shadow of Death” is another lengthy number, and is more of the same from this talented band…a song rich in synth and guitar interplay, some lively soloing, with countless changes in rhythms and atmospheres, and yet another great melody to go along with it.

Finally, the album closes with “Ancient Times,” actually a reprise of the short acoustic-guitar instrumental intro from the “Chapter 1” album. This time, however, the band gives the memorable melody line the full treatment it so richly deserves, with lyrics this time, and the entire band creating a rather mellow, somewhat spacey arrangement to the haunting melody. The perfect bookend to this two-part album collection.

So yes, with From the Days of Deucalion Chapter 2, Leap Day has not only pulled off its two-album collection in spades, but has gone above and beyond all expectations by creating, what I wholeheartedly believe, is a near masterpiece. I can’t wait to see what this band does next!

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Kiss – Monster (2012)

Kiss_Monster4 out of 5 Stars!

Well damn it, after listening to this album several times, I have to concede that this is probably one of the most powerful albums of Kiss’s career, with much of the album reminding me of the feeling I had when first listening to the slamming Creatures Of The Night album when it appeared after the band had fallen into lackluster territory in the late ’70s/early ’80s.

Although many reviewers seem to provide each of the albums in the post-Creatures Of The Night era of the band (from the albums Lick It Up to Hot In The Shade) with less-than-enthusiastic ratings, I’ve always felt those ratings completely unjustified. Certainly, the band at that time (having finally removed the make-up and showing the actual faces of the musicians involved to the public) jumped on the “hair band” bandwagon and went a bit “heavy-commercial,” they still seemed rejuvenated and wrote some decent tracks (certainly better than the Unmasked period of the band). Indeed, I quite enjoyed that period of Kiss. Not only was the band consistently powerful on that string of albums through the entire 1980s, delivering some catchy—and generally loud—stadium anthems, but the band seemed to possess an endless infusion of high energy that put most of their contemporaries of that era (Warrant, Dokken, Bon Jovi, etc.) to shame.

Soon came several more releases, from Revenge to the Psycho Circus album, which (sadly) I never quite embraced. To me, the songwriting quality had greatly diminished, as did the band’s “fun factor” and “attitude,” with Kiss even sounding in some ways like just another lackluster, depressing grunge band of the era, which completely took me by surprise, as I’m sure it did many longtime fans. Sadly, during this period, I lost nearly all interest in any of the band’s releases.

Then, more than a full decade passed, and the band finally released another album, this one being a collection of remakes under the name Jigoku-Retsuden (which I didn’t purchase). Again, I had lost much interest in the band, and I certainly didn’t feel like revisiting a bunch of “Kiss doing Kiss” tracks. But then to my thrill, a year later, the true comeback album Sonic Boom appeared, and I finally saw more than a glimpse of the old Kiss Alive energy and the band’s rejuvenated “fist-raising,” “rollicking-good-time” image rearing its welcomed head. In many ways, that album reminded me of the “back to basics” approach Kiss used on the album Rock And Roll Over after the overly produced Destroyer album had smoothed off the harder edges of their sound (“Beth” anyone? Good God!). Anyway, although the overall Sonic Boom package wasn’t quite what I had prayed, it was far from bad and was certainly a giant improvement from the Psycho Circus album. Thankfully, Kiss decided to continue in the same vein, only adding even more Adrenalin to the mix, and finally, Monster appeared in 2012.

An undeniable, sorely missed energy encompasses the album, a drive that the band hasn’t fully displayed since the early 1980s, not since its Creatures Of The Night masterpiece of kick-ass heavy rock (and an album that somehow captures the energy of their live performances). As mentioned at the start of the review, I feel this is one of the most powerful albums of Kiss’s career, both studio and live.

The opening track, “Hell Or Hallelujah,” barrels through the speakers with full guns blazing, and the album barely lets up until the closing track “Last Chance.” Guitarist Tommy Thayer truly leads the way into crunch-territory, delivering some wickedly wild leads and some memorable riffs—many of them reminiscent of Ace’s best solos and riffs from the olden days, or even Bruce Kulick’s blazing leads and riffs during that underrated ’80s period—and all the while the current rhythm section of Gene Simmons and Eric Singer, along with Paul Stanley’s dynamic guitar fills, create a magnificently grand, round and rich and bombastic sound and ultra-killer delivery in the best tradition of “stadium rock.” The full and blaring vocals only add to the excitement and fury, coming across as a “dare to listen to us again” call to arms to the Kiss Army. Sure, there are a few tracks that are lacking a tad (not in overall power or energy, but in substance and memorability), yet many of the tracks are not only catchy and infinitely repeatable, but also rival many of the tracks of the band’s early “classic” Alive years.

Yes, Monster proves that Kiss are back in full swing, and let’s pray the ride lasts forever.

Oh, and one final note: Turn It F*cking Loud!!!

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Heliopolis – City of the Sun (2014)

Heliopolis_CitySun4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I crave discovering surprises during my “new music hunt” searches for Progressive Rock bands. I’m sure many fans of the genre will have similar feelings. Yet the surprises are usually few and far between. So when I recently stumbled upon this debut album by Heliopolis, labeled as Prog-Rock on many music-related websites, I expected nothing too earthshaking or monumental or overly fun from this five-track debut, certainly nothing that would add anything truly new to the genre. The best I hoped for was hearing a band that had the chops to actually deliver some decent music in the specified genre, a band that would (no doubt) present a nice rehash of something we’ve all heard before.

What I happily discovered was a band heavily influenced by Yes (again, nothing new in the world of contemporary Prog-Rock, yet this is a band dissimilar to a group such as Starcastle that duplicated the Yes sound almost to a “T”). Instead, Heliopolis is a band with a modern, more sparkling “take” on the overall classic Yes sound from the ’70s, a band more in the spirit of modern Symphonic-Prog acts such as Ad Infinitum, Glass Hammer, Ilúvatar, Mystery, etc. So in total, Heliopolis is a band that seems to have completely absorbed the sound of Fragile, Close to the Edge, or The Yes Album yet took those influences into directions that consequently (and cheerfully) produced its own style of sorts.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised, however, considering that the band’s commendable rhythm section of Kerry Chicoine (Bass Guitar) and Jerry Beller (Percussion) were previously members of Mars Hollow, another terrific group that drew eagerly from the “Yes playbook” and released two impressive albums in the past decade. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant discovery to learn that this new band is creating music along the same lines, yet different enough to individualize its overall style.

On Heliopolis’s debut album, the aforementioned Yes influences do pop up immediately, especially when it comes to the lead vocals and background harmonies, the presence of Hammond organ and sparser Mellotron (Rick Wakeman-inspired certainly), the quirky, lively guitar leads (ala Steve Howe), and the wildly Chris Squire-like jamming Rickenbacker bass guitar continually and energetically riffing around in the background of each song.

The opening track, “New Frontier,” makes the Yes comparisons as clear as crystal, especially during the ultra-catchy verses, which have that same bouncy rhythmic feel and similar upbeat melody lines as the iconic song “Roundabout.” The non-Yes influences, however—from Spock’s Beard to Ilúvatar to Transatlantic to Gentle Giant to “whomever”—also (and quite distinctly) rear their glorious head, with some unexpected keyboard and guitar sounds during the intro and mid-sections, some intriguing and elaborate arrangements, and various instrumental insertions (very Mars Hollow in that respect) with a bright, rambunctious, almost bubbly sound. The band’s music is more like a rejuvenated yet refashioned version of classic Yes instead of the same-old “classic/clone” effect. A huge plus. Additionally, the lyrics speak of a band discovering new frontiers, a changing in realities, how the band is perhaps embracing the move forward, embarking on a journey into a real adventure, and a full-out invitation to the listener to “join us.” I, for one, was happy to do just that, especially in light of the fantastic sounds blasting through my speakers. If this is an official declaration that the band Mars Hollow has actually called it quits, than I will certainly follow along to wherever Heliopolis wants to take me on its new adventure.

The high-quality, dynamic musicianship impresses throughout. The next track, “Take a Moment,” is a more “non-Yes” type of song, showcasing the band’s individual style. Again, there are undoubtedly the occasional Yes-like inspirations, and a cross between the bands Ad Infinitum and Ilúvatar first sprang to mind, but only periodically. Therefore, Heliopolis, with its inclusion of a beautiful melody and (especially) a rowdy keyboard-dominated section near its end, displays what it can do as an individual entity and not simply as a band relying solely on its predecessors for its overall sound. Instead, the track displays a band that can create interesting and impressive Prog-Rock of its own making, with only the barest hint of bring inspired (borrowing/thieving?) from other classic groups.

“Mr. Wishbone” is a brief instrumental that earns high scores for again offering up the band’s unique style to a Prog-Rock audience, although one can certainly detect some Spock’s Beard/Gentle Giant inspiration during the bizarre intro and mid-sections. Be that as it may, this is a definite Prog-Rock lover’s type of track, with offbeat rhythms, weird instrumentation, sound effects, and a sense of experimentation throughout.

“Elegy” starts as a mostly piano-dominated, jazzy track, where the vocalist drops an octave during a pretty melody (no Jon Anderson-inspired vocals here), along with another upbeat mid-section with delicious organ and guitar solos before the vocals take control of the ending segment. Another grand, bright, and resplendent showcase of all Heliopolis has to offer outside the “Yes realm.”

The fifth and (unfortunately) final track, the fourteen-minute “Love and Inspiration,” will undoubtedly be the highlight of the album for most fans of the genre. And no reason why it shouldn’t be. The track simply embraces everything the best of Prog-Rock has to offer, with both Gentle Giant and Yes instrumental inspirations in the opening four-minute intro alone. This track also offers probably the most memorable verses/choruses of all the songs on offer here, somewhat reminding me of Spock’s Beard-meets-Yes at its most melodic best. Some spirited Rickenbacker bass melodies drive beneath a splendid guitar solo, which slams through after the initial verse, once again bringing Yes to mind before another jazzy vocal verse/chorus appears. Immediately afterward, a frolicking synth solo blasts through the speakers, along with an all-too-brief drum solo, which eventually brings the track back into focus. As you might glean by now, this is an epic-style track with many changes and moods, a prize in the world of Prog-Rock, one that I repeat often to savor every engaging section.

To sum up, City of the Sun was a wonderful surprise during my most recent Prog-Rock discoveries, an album displaying a band in only its first stages of development, yet seemingly already miles ahead of other more seasoned acts. In other words, this is one damned impressive debut album and a talented band to watch. Should the group’s development continue, I expect Heliopolis will make quite a name for itself in the Prog-Rock universe. I certainly pray they deliver more material in the near future.

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Quandary – Ready To Fail (2010)

Quandary_ReadyFail4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the world of music, one sad fact remains consistent through the years—way too many bands disappear before their time. Whether it be record company interference or the general lack of publicity, personality clashes between band members or personal hardships, financial burdens, or a band playing the wrong trend of music during the wrong era, leading to an apathetic audience, it’s a shameful state of affairs when a group of individuals with extraordinary talents are forced to disband after one meager release.

One such group that fell victim to this sad fact is Quandary, an exciting band from Australia that, on its single album, successfully straddled the line between Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal before unfortunately breaking up soon after the album’s release. Also, one can’t help but wonder if the band sealed its own fate when electing to christen its debut album with the title Ready to Fail.

Regardless, this album should appeal to Prog-Rock fans like myself who savor ultra-heavy bits (mostly when it comes to guitar tones) tossed into their melodic and highly intricate Prog. Indeed, this band was gifted at shifting moods at a moment’s notice, which only increased the excitement factor. Most of the instrumental sections on this album are nothing short of awesome. Imagine the often-complicated instrumental passages of a band such as Yes or Gentle Giant played in metal style, with wildly wicked guitar and keyboard leads atop swirling and whirling background textures and thundering percussion. During many of these passages (such as in the mid-section of the track “Illusion Of Progress” or on the two instrumentals “Umbra” and “Penumbra”), the band features impressive dual guitar/keyboard solos (quite similar in sound and style to Ian Crichton/Jim Gilmour of Saga fame), along with complex arrangements and snappy, jaw-dropping changes in tempo that would make each track seem quite comfortable on albums by Thought Chamber, Distorted Harmony, or Haken.

The band was also quite adept at creating some intricate and often-catchy vocal melodies, as on the tracks “Waiting For Change,” “Disconnect,” and “Stepping Stones,” which occasionally remind me of bands such as Aztec Jade, Proteo, or Dreamscape.

And to show the depth of Quandary’s creativity, the two closing tracks (“Cloud Shapes”—an instrumental at more than twelve minutes in length—and the aforementioned “Stepping Stones”—a vocal track surpassing the twenty-minute mark) are both exquisite examples of what this group could achieve when given the freedom to fully explore. Both tracks contain magnificent instrumentation (as usual), delightful shifts in mood and tempo, and impressively demanding and diverse arrangements that would easily rival any of the band’s most seasoned contemporaries. It’s difficult to believe this is only a debut album and not a release by a band that had been recording for decades.

Therefore, fans of groups such as Circus Maximus, Dream Theater, and Andromeda—or perhaps Vox Tempus, Sphere of Souls, and Altura (three other talented, short-lived groups with only single albums) will likely enjoy this release.

Yes, with each of the four musicians in Quandary being undeniable masters of their individual instruments, it’s a shame this talented bunch didn’t last longer to deliver additional material. A damned shame! In my eyes, if any band could be given a chance to reform with substantial financial backing to support it, Quandary would be the perfect candidate. (Thankfully most of the band members went on to form Caligula’s Horse, another terrific Prog-Rock group, so all is not lost.)

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Karnataka – Secrets of Angels (2015)

Karnataka_SecretsAngels4 out of 5 Stars!

Since I’m always on the lookout for Progressive Rock bands with female vocalists (hunting for the next Magenta, my current favorite Prog-Rock band), I took notice recently when I saw postings regarding the band Karnataka and eagerly began investigating the group. To my frustration, I soon realized that the band has been around since the late 1990s, and it has five albums in its catalogue. Why I hadn’t heard of the band before this year is anyone’s guess—and quite annoying—but at least I know of Karnataka’s existence now. And more importantly, after savoring to the band’s most recent album, I now plan to seek out the four previous releases.

Although Karnataka is typically labeled as nothing other than Progressive Rock on most music-related websites, the label is extremely inaccurate and misleading. Indeed, the majority of tracks on this album don’t sound much like Prog-Rock, but thankfully I still enjoyed what the band does offer. The songs range from a union of genres such as AOR meets Symphonic-Prog (“Feels Like Home” and “Because of You,” both occasionally bringing to mind the music of Lana Lane and Within Temptation), to lush and dramatic ballads (“Forbidden Dreams” and “Fairytales Lie”), to melodic Hard Rock or Metal with heavy Symphonic touches (such as the Led Zeppelin-inspired opening track “Road to Cairo” with its “Kashmir” atmosphere, or “Poison Ivy” and “Borderline,” which both fall somewhat into the After Forever or Nightwish territory, only without the operatic vocals).

But the final track, the album’s unrivaled masterpiece, is where the band displays its true calling (true colors). “Secrets of Angels” is a twenty-minute excursion into actual Prog-Rock. Both Celtic and Prog-Folk influences are here in abundance, and the rich and full orchestrations, the varying moods and often-dreamy soundscapes, along with the intricate instrumentation and soaring vocals, come across as a heavier version of bands such as Renaissance or Edenbridge. I couldn’t help listening to the track several times back to back, hoping to absorb all the song has to offer, or wishing Karnataka would concentrate on more tracks like this in the future. Excellent!

So, although in investigating this band, I did not locate the next Magenta (again, the style of music isn’t even close), yet I did discover a talented band nonetheless, only one that shouldn’t be classified as pure Prog-Rock. Be that as it may, there is quite a bit to enjoy on this album. The musicians are superb, the songwriting is commendable, and for me, the vocals of Hayley Griffiths (the newest in a long string of female singers since the band’s formation) are undoubtedly the high point of the album. Her tone is crisp and clear throughout, her pitch spot-on and her melody lines memorable, and her range wide and impressive. With her style and tone being somewhat unique, I can’t directly compare her to any specific singer (which is always a good thing), but she easily falls into the same enviable category of vocalists such as Sabine Edelsbacher (Edenbridge), Linda Odinsen (IOEarth), Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), or Lana Lane.

Yes, this band has won me over based on this album alone. So now I can only pray the different vocalists on Karnataka’s previous releases have equally enjoyable performances.

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