Ian Hunter – Overnight Angels (1977)

ianhunter_overnightangels4 out of 5 Stars!

Although often maligned for reasons I don’t quite comprehend, Ian Hunter’s third solo release is probably one of my favorites from the ex-Mott The Hoople frontman. Indeed, I find this album one of his most “Hooplesque” when it comes to the songwriting and the song arrangements. Additionally, the sound of the instruments are pure Mott, with the tinkling pianos and the stinging guitars.

The tracks here are a fine mixture of rather bombastic Glam Rock (the opening “Golden Opportunities”—in many ways similar in sound and style to Mott The Hoople’s “Marionette”—along with the more experimental title track, the rollicking “Wild ‘n’ Free” and the silly, tongue-in-cheek “Justice of the Peace”) and piano-driven ballads, of which Ian often excels (“Shallow Crystals,” “Miss Silver Dime,” “The Ballad of Little Star,” and “Broadway,” which rivals my favorite Mott The Hoople ballad, “Rose”). Only the album’s closing track, “To Love a Woman,” stands out among the rest due to its more contemporary style, and therefore, seems quite out of place with the rest of the album’s overall “Mottness.”

Generally speaking, much of this collection brings to mind memories of The Hoople album. And the musicians hired for this release, especially guitarist Earl Slick, also have such a “Mott-feel” when it comes to their performances that it’s a wonder why Slick wasn’t hired in Mott The Hoople instead of Mick Ronson to replace the departing Ariel Bender after The Hoople album. Anyway, it’s a shame Hunter didn’t keep this group of musicians together for at least another album or two.

The only true negative aspect of this album for me is the “over production” from Roy Thomas Baker, but I can easily overlook that flaw since the songs are all quite enjoyable and, through Ian Hunter, the undying spirit of Mott The Hoople once again reared its glorious head.

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Deep Purple – Made in Japan (1972)

deeppurple_madejapan5 out of 5 Stars!

In my eyes, this is probably the finest live albums of all freaking time, in any rock genre, and even today the album holds enormous and undeniable power.

Ian Gillan’s vocal performances are absolutely searing and jaw-dropping (just listen to his ear-piercing screams on “Child in Time,” or the way he vocally counter-punches Ritchie Blackmore’s ad-libbed riffs on “Strange Kind of Woman”), so it’s no wonder why the man was perhaps the biggest influence on my own musical career.

Plus, the other guys in the band ain’t too shabby either…indeed, geniuses, each and every single one of them, no doubt. “Highway Star” is especially driving, thanks to Ian Paice’s frantic drumming and Roger Glover’s thumping bass, and blows the studio version of this classic track out of the water, while the song “Lazy” is anything but, especially when it comes to Jon Lord’s crazy, free-form intro and Blackmore’s bluesy guitar noodling. And the side-long “Space Truckin’, with its wild and extended jamming, shows exactly what these stellar musicians could do when given the freedom to improvise on stage with no time limits. Simply amazing.

Anyone who claims to be a true fan of Hard Rock from the ’70s certainly has this album in their musical collection, and if they don’t, then FOR FREAKING SHAME. Without question, this album is a perfect 5 Stars…sheer brilliance and unrivaled excellence!!!

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Ratt – Ratt (1983)

ratt_14 out of 5 Stars!

When this EP appeared in stores back in ’83, I immediately purchased it based on the cover alone. Although I had also read a few blurbs about the band in Kerrang! and Metal Hammer magazine, I wasn’t expecting to hear a seemingly updated version of Aerosmith, only with a dark and dense, riff-heavy sound and a promising lead guitarist by the name of Warren De Martini. I instantly sensed the band (given the right promotion and solid financial backing) would likely make a big splash on the scene, and I was right.

I must admit, however, that this six-song EP remains my favorite release by the band—I loved the raw, dastardly sound of the instruments and the raucous vibe, as opposed to the slick and sanitized production of Ratt’s full-length albums that followed. Nowhere else in Ratt’s future catalogue of releases did the band have the same thunderous power as displayed on opener “Sweet Cheater,” with Bobby Blotzer’s drums barreling out of the speakers like cannon fire and Warren De Martini’s guitar solo shrieking out of the heavens like a six-string blitzkrieg. That earthshaking power continues through the tracks “You Think You’re Tough,” “Tell The World,” “U Got It,” and “Back For More” (a song the band would later rerecord—and water down, unfortunately—for its upcoming full-length debut album Out of the Cellar). But the track that remains my favorite on this EP is Ratt’s cover version of the Rufus Thomas classic “Walkin’ The Dog,” yes, the very same song Aerosmith covered on its own debut album. Truth be told, however, Ratt’s version is heavier—much, MUCH heavier, actually—and blows Aerosmith’s version to smithereens.

So for me, this EP is a true classic in the Glam genre and I wish Ratt had stayed on this “down and dirty path” instead of veering off onto the road to “slick land.”

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Be-Bop Deluxe – Sunburst Finish (1976)

bebopdeluxe_sunburstfinish4.5 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this is one of the most overlooked and finest “Art Rock” groups in history, with also one of the best “unsung guitar heroes” in Bill Nelson.

During its (way too) short history, the group started as almost a “David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust” clone. The band’s 1974 debut album, Axe Victim—perhaps my second favorite Be-Bop Deluxe release, due to Bill Nelson’s often-brilliant guitar leads—seems almost an extension of Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album. Then Nelson presumably fired the other band members and hired new musicians, dumped the glaring “glam” image, and Be-Bop Deluxe quickly developed its own rather unique musical style, with its third album, Sunburst Finish, being (arguably) the band’s “masterpiece.”

On this album, Nelson’s searing guitar leads amidst the quirky keyboards and catchy melodies (on “Fair Exchange,” “Beauty Secrets,” “Ships in the Night,” “Blazing Apostles,” and “Crying to the Sky”) are, at times, simply riveting, so this firmly remains my favorite album by the band.

And hell, the album cover alone is worthy of a solid “5 Stars.” A classic album all around!

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Dio – Strange Highways (1994)

dio_strangehighways4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This album is, in a single word…Killer!

After acclaimed vocalist Ronnie James Dio’s second short stint with Black Sabbath for 1992’s generally ignored (and terrific) Dehumanizer album, he resurrected his own band with a new batch of musicians and released his sixth studio album, which (to me) is just as powerful and riff-heavy as the Sabbath release, thanks in large part to underrated guitarist Tracy Grijalva.

For some unknown reason, however, a lot of Dio fans maligned this particular “comeback” album, but I, for one, loved and embraced it, placing it near the top of my list of “All-Time Best Dio Releases,” and it still remains one of my “most played” Dio albums. With dark, hammering, and bombastic metal tracks such as “Firehead,” “Pain,” “Here’s To You,” “Hollywood Black,” and “Evilution,” how could it not? Also included on this release is the eerie, atmospheric (Sabbath-like) title track, along with the similar metal ballad “Give Her a Gun.” Then there’s “One Foot in the Grave” and “Bring Down the Rain” (which could both have easily been excerpts from Dehumanizer), and the opening track, “Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost,” which comes off as a wildly demented, metal version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” A tad odd, yes, but heavy as hell.

RIP Ronnie James Dio…your vocal performances on this album will remain extraordinary—simply “metal perfection”—for all time and your talent is missed daily!

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Outside – Naked (2016)

outside_naked2 out of 5 Stars!

Warning: the genre label of “Progressive Rock” used on several music-related websites when it comes to describing this album is sadly inaccurate. On 2016’s Naked, Outside has lost nearly all of its former Neo-Prog sound from the days of the Freedom album in 2002, and now the band seems to be an Alternative Rock act with only a few Progressive Rock touches, such as during the ending section of “The Plague is Back” and, perhaps, the middle chunk of “Merry Go Round.” But trust me, I’m being generous when seeking out the potential Prog-Rock here. Therefore, here’s a second warning for fans of the group’s Freedom album: Neo-Prog fans expecting to hear anything similar to groups such as Genesis or Marillion or IQ, etc., will be sorely disappointed.

On Naked, the vocals (obviously performed by a different singer from the band’s 2002 release) are borderline “out of key” throughout most of the album and delivered in a lazy style, which, based on my rather limited experience with Alternative Rock, is unfortunately the type of tuneless, lethargic vocal style I frequently associate with this genre (and the reason I don’t gravitate toward this genre either). Moreover, the musicianship is also just “average,” with almost zero in the way of any Neo-Prog guitar or keyboard tones one might expect, with the song arrangements and melodies being, in many respects, ultra simplistic and similar sounding.

I’m not sure what happened within the band that its style would change so drastically from the Freedom album…I’m assuming it has to do with some members leaving the fold and new members (with their individual non-Progressive influences) joining. Be that as it may, the years have obviously not been kind to Outside when it comes to its former Neo-Prog sound, songwriting abilities, or general creativity. The band seems to have “regressed” instead of “progressed.” For an Alternative Rock band, however, the “new” Outside is probably “acceptable,” but sadly, this is not the style of music I can truly appreciate.

Planet X – MoonBabies (2002)

planetx_moonbabies3.5 out of 5 Stars!

This second album from all-instrumental band Planet X should be quite the treat for anyone into frenetic Prog-Metal with the occasional jazzy and funky touches.

Impressive drummer Virgil Donati and the three guest bassists form both solid rhythms or tinker with odd-metered passages, while guitarist Tony MacAlphine and keyboardist Derek Sherinian especially shine throughout. The wild orchestrations are rich and diverse, and added with the intriguing keyboard sounds and guitar tones (both in the plush backgrounds, the frantic fills, and during the many spectacular solos) makes the whole package rather unique in my eyes.

Please note: The reason I didn’t rate this album higher overall is that, in general, I’m not an avid fan of all-instrumental albums. Without vocals, with no sing-along melodies to follow, I typically find little to remember on these types of releases, so instead I rated this particular album based on the general mood I felt after numerous hearings. And although the musicianship is first-class, there is little for me to actually remember days (or even hours) later…ie. no hummable parts that repeat in my head, nothing that would induce me to come back time and time again, but only when I’m in the mood for the occasional “instrumental fix.” Unfortunately, that’s the “nature of the beast” when it comes to purely instrumental groups, no matter how skillful the musicians involved.

Be that as it may, the band is enormously talented, there’s no denying that, and for the type of music on display here, the album is enjoyable. To me, Planet X is to today’s instrumental Prog-Metal music what Brand X was to the instrumental Prog-Rock music of the ’70s. Hmmm…Planet X? Brand X? It might be the “Xs” in the names that make both bands so special to their particular eras, huh? 🙂

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Van der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts (1971)

vandergraaf_pawnhearts4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is one of my favorite Van der Graaf Generator albums, and (in my estimation) one of the band’s most wild and experimental.

Peter Hammill’s vocals are especially manic on the band’s fourth release, while the music on the three epic (and original) album tracks—”Lemmings (Including Cog),” “Man-Erg,” and the twenty-three-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”—is often dark, atmospheric, and (at times) downright creepy…certainly not for the faint of heart or for Prog-Rock fans who prefer pretty melodies or gentle instrumentation. Nope, the ever-changing rhythms, the screeching saxes, the whacked-out keyboards and discordant guitar arrangements, and those damned demented lead vocals, all seem strategically designed to set the listener’s hair on end, to send shivers down the spine. And if that was the band’s intention, then Van der Graaf Generator succeeded admirably. I love it!

By the way, the remastered version of the album contains five bonus tracks, which are welcome additions, although they aren’t quite in the same spooky “Stephen King soundtrack” vein as the original album. These five tracks are fairly “normal,” or as normal as an experimental Prog group such as Van der Graaf Generator can muster. Regardless, this is the version of the album to seek out.

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Kiss – Rock and Roll Over (1976)

kiss_rnrover4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After the highly successful (but over-produced) album Destroyer (with the sugary sweet “Beth”—good God, spare me!), the band returned to the studio to produce a “back to basics” sort of album, with raw production values and nothing in the way of horrific and sappy ballads or lush string orchestrations to mar the hard-rocking proceedings.

Rock and Roll Over is perhaps one of my favorite Kiss studio albums, thanks to infectious, energetic songs such as “I Want You, “Makin’ Love, “Mr. Speed,” “Take Me,” and the Rod Stewart-inspired “Hard Luck Woman.”

Yes, as you might be able to tell from the above paragraph, I have a fondness for Paul Stanley’s contributions, although I must say that Gene Simmons (the other chief songwriter) also delivered some commendable goods with “Ladies Room,” “See You in Your Dreams,” “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em,” and the hit single “Dr. Love.” (Note: I don’t normally rank Gene’s contributions too highly, only since I’m not overly fond of his vocal performances, unlike Paul’s.) Regardless, Peter Criss’s sole writing contribution (and his performance) on “Baby Driver” (as well as his vocals on “Hard Luck Woman”) are quite killer. Too bad Ace Frehley didn’t have any songs included on this album, although he was never known for delivering too many tracks to the overall Kiss repertoire…his guitar contributions were usually enough for me anyway.

Nevertheless, on this album, every single band member is playing at his best abilities, so it’s tough for me to criticize it. Indeed, every song is basically a keeper in my opinion, therefore I still play it regularly. Rock and Roll Over…indeed!

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Perihelion Ship – A Rare Thunderstorm in Spring (2016)

PerihelionShip_RareThunderstorm2 out of 5 Stars!

Some decent material here when it comes to the music and the musicianship, including the use of Mellotron during some blistering Metal passages.

The one thing that truly turns me off more than anything else, however, is the use of annoying growl/beast/death vocals. Nothing ruins a song for me more than this tuneless guttural shrieking crap, so I’m sorry to say, this album gets lower marks for the use of this “noise.” Completely unnecessary also, since the singer (when actually singing) has a fine voice.

Regardless, for those who may not mind this nonsense when it comes to the vocals, and are lovers of head-pounding Metal with major Progressive sections and orchestration, you will probably enjoy this album.

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