Blood, Sweat & Tears – New Blood (1972)

BST_NewBlood4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After David Clayton-Thomas abandoned his post as lead vocalist, Blood, Sweat & Tears thankfully ventured onward, recruiting new vocalist Jerry Fisher (with his whiskey-soaked raspy voice) and several additional musicians (bringing the band to a ten-piece), including fantastic players such as Swedish guitarist Georg Wadenius, keyboardist Larry Willis, and sax player Lou Marini (destined for The Blues Brothers and “Saturday Night Live” band fame).

The album’s title, New Blood, says it all, with the band injecting some stunningly fresh energy and even more Jazz-Rock/Prog-Rock inspirations into its overall sound. Although the album included no blockbuster singles, tracks such as “Down in the Flood,” “Alone,” “Over The Hill,” along with the minor hits “So Long Dixie” and “I Can’t Move No Mountains,” simply blazed with BS&T’s signature horns and brimmed with jazzy rhythms, while the band’s rollicking version of Gerry Goffin/Carole King’s “Snow Queen” merged with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” with Georg Wadenius delivering one of his unique “dual guitar/vocal” solos, proved to be a savory marriage of Jazz-Rock-Prog at its best.

Although changes in band personnel would quickly follow (it did after each new BS&T album, truth be told), this album also began one of the group’s most exciting and creative periods when it came to its outstanding brass arrangements, both its own songwriting and selection of cover tunes, and the merging of Jazz, Prog, and Hard Rock influences, with the next platter, No Sweat, being more of the same experimental concoction, but even jazzier.

Just as a quick aside…in 1973, when in eighth grade, one of my classmates and I gleefully dove into the Blood, Sweat & Tears back catalogue during our endless quest for more music to absorb. Learning of this, my teacher and his wife, also extremely fond of this group, invited both my friend and I to see the band perform at their former college in Chicago. We attended the concert (part of the tour for the next album, No Sweat)—my very first concert by a “professional band”—and of course, I was enamored. After the show, while walking past the side “alleyway” of the auditorium, I happened to notice the band actually leaving the building to get on their bus—and with no other fans in sight. Well, being bold (and a rabid music-lover), I raced down the alleyway to meet them, much to the confusion and shock of my friend, our teacher, and his wife. But I ignored their frantic calls for me to return to them and proceeded to meet the band, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I also recall which band members joyfully shook the hand of a thirteen-year-old budding musician & music enthusiastic and talked to me, and I also recall which band members did not.  Anyway, it was a special moment in my life (imprinted in my brain), so “Thank You” all these many decades later to vocalist Jerry Fisher, guitarist Georg Wadenius, trombonist Dave Bargeron, drummer Bobby Colomby, and bassist Jim Fielder, who spent several minutes happily answering my eager questions and making this particular fan feel special. Oh, and “Thanks But No Thanks” to the other band members who turned up their noses and gave me the stink eye.  🙂

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Cream – Wheels of Fire (1968)

Cream_WheelsFire4 out of 5 Stars!

When listening to this truly classic double album, I often find myself imagining how many of the songs might have sounded with either Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan or Trapeze’s Glenn Hughes singing lead vocals. Nothing against Jack Bruce, who certainly did a commendable job, but I can’t help thinking the already pleasant tracks would have sounded even stronger had Ian or Glenn been in the “lead vocalist seat.” Alas, it’s a daydream that will never be realized, I know.

Now, despite my short aside, Wheels of Fire includes some memorable studio tracks, both original compositions and interesting covers (“White Room,” “Politician,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart”—need I say more?) and a handful of raw, live rockers (“Spoonful” and “Crossroads”—some standard Blues Rock, anyone?), plus with the commendable performances of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker, the album still holds great power all these many decades later (especially the studio portion).

Sure, a few of the studio tracks are rather lackluster and odd, and I could easily do without the self-indulgence on the overly lengthy live tracks—especially the drum solo on “Toad”—but for me, Wheels of Fire (even more so than the band’s previous album Disraeli Gears) remains a pleasant trip back in time to my “days of youth” whenever I hear it.

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Budgie – Never Turn Your Back on a Friend (1973)

Budgie_NeverTurnYourBack4 out of 5 Stars!

This U.K. band, whether fairly or not, always reminded me of Rush. Both bands consisted of only three musicians, both played similar styles of hard-driving rock (at least on the debut albums), and both bassists/vocalists (Burke Shelley and Geddy Lee) had higher-pitched voices that either intrigued and shocked some listeners (although Geddy’s voice was the most untamed, and the higher and “shriller” of the two—therefore, the most nerve-rattling). Nevertheless, both groups had tons in common at the beginning of their respective careers (apart from their geographical origins, and the fact that Budgie appeared on the scene several years prior to Rush) and are often interchangeable, so I enjoyed them about equally.

But unlike Rush, I always appreciated Budgie’s more creative song titles (on this album alone, there are some real beauties). And again, unlike Rush, which quickly dove more and more into Progressive Rock territory after its debut album, Budgie (although usually adding minimal Prog-Rock elements to its albums, as evidenced here on the tracks “Parents,” “You’re the Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk,” and “In the Grip of a Tyrefitter’s Hand”) stuck mainly to its heavier roots (such as on “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Breadfan,” and the aforementioned tunes with the Progressive elements also showing) along with a few lighter acoustic-based moments (“You Know I’ll Always Love You” and “Riding My Nightmare”) and continued playing a mixture of these same styles for much of its early career. Although looking at the band’s album covers through the years, (including some Roger Dean masterpieces such as this stunner), one might think the band was more Progressive-oriented.

Nevertheless, I enjoy many of Budgie’s ’70’s albums, with Never Turn Your Back on a Friend (the group’s third studio effort) being one of my favorites, thanks to Tony Bourge’s wild guitar leads and numerous overdubs, Burke Shelley’s always imaginative bass lines, and Ray Phillips’s often frantic and unpredictable drumming. Too bad Budgie never got the same recognition as Rush, since the group truly deserved similar fame.

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Bryan Ferry – In Your Mind (1977)

BryanFerry_InYourMind4 out of 5 Stars!

No one can deny that vocalist Bryan Ferry has a style and sound all his own. Being a fan of his performances during the Roxy Music years, Bryan’s unique vocals and songwriting always held me in thrall, so I was naturally drawn to his solo efforts.

Unfortunately, since he had a fondness for reworking old “classics,” his early solo albums featured few original compositions (or included only some revamps of early Roxy songs), and since his songwriting/lyrics were exceptional with Roxy Music, I therefore felt slight disappointment.

But once Roxy Music started to fade and Ferry found himself without a working band to record his newest Art Rock/Art Pop songs, his solo albums eventually reflected this shift in focus from “covers” to “originals.” So In Your Mind, the first album of Ferry’s all-original compositions—his fourth solo album overall—was in many respects another Roxy Music album, with numerous tunes sounding as if they could have easily fit somewhere on Siren, for example, and several of his former Roxy cohorts (guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson, and bassist John Wetton) making guest appearances.

True, in my eyes, nothing Ferry created on his own could ever come close to topping or at least matching Roxy Music masterpieces (For Your Pleasure, Stranded, etc.), but since the band was technically on “hiatus” during the recording of this album, In Your Mind was the closest one could get to enjoying more Roxy-styled material, even though it’s not quite as cohesive or as “genius.” And although more straightforward and possessing a less “arty” flavor than Roxy Music, In Your Mind nevertheless included several gems such as “This Is Tomorrow,” “Tokyo Joe,” “Party Doll,” “Love Me Madly Again,” and the title track, therefore, it remains my favorite of Ferry’s solo efforts and actually rates higher in my opinion that any of the material Roxy Music released once it reformed for the Manifesto album.

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Raven – Rock Until You Drop (1981)

Raven_RockUntilYouDrop3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although never achieving more than “cult status” in America, Raven gained much attention in the U.K., thanks mostly to magazines such as Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, and the band got heaped into the generally exciting “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement during the ’80s.

Even though Raven delivered nothing truly “new” in the Metal/Rock genre, the trio—brothers John Gallagher on bass and vocals and Mark Gallagher on guitar, as well as Rob “Wacko” Hunter on drums—did indeed pack a heavy wallop on its self-produced debut album, offering up a dozen in-your-face tunes like “Lambs to the Slaughter,” “Hard Ride,” “Rock Until You Drop,” “Don’t Need Your Money,” “Hell Patrol,” and “Tyrant of the Airways,” many of them catchy and driving, not to mention loud, rebellious, and energetic.

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707 – Mega Force (1982)

707_Megaforce3.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the early ’80s, just as acts such as Journey, Foreigner, and Styx started filling countless arenas with their brand of undeniably catchy “stadium rock,” numerous bands appeared on the scene, attempting to duplicate that success. Some (such as Survivor, Loverboy, and 38 Special) achieved their lofty goal, while a greater number of deserving bands (such as Wrabit, Sheriff, Axe, Spys, Prism, Franke & The Knockouts, and Shooting Star, to name only a few), despite having some minor hits and/or receiving radio airplay, couldn’t quite snatch that fickle and elusive brass ring and their names continue to remain in relative obscurity.

Unfortunately, 707 fell into the latter category.

From Detroit, the band released a trio of albums from 1980-1982, each containing a slew of AOR/Hard Rock tunes, many of them three-to-four-minute bursts of melodic, guitar-heavy, keyboard-accented frenzy, that could have garnered hit-single status if only given the right promotion.

For example, on this, 707’s third album, the opening track “Mega Force,” despite being featured in the movie of the same name and being co-written by Jonathan Cain of Journey fame, should have rocketed up the Billboard charts, but Boardwalk/CBS Records didn’t seem to give a hoot. The same could be said for other melodic gems on this album, such as “Heartbeat,” “We Will Last,” “No Better Feeling,” “Out of the Dark,” and “Write Again,” but not one of them was released as a single, and therefore, the album quickly fizzled.

Despite the lack of record company support, the band sure had talent, with unheralded vocalist Kevin Chalfant and axe-slinger Kevin Russell, and in many respects, 707’s sound compared to Journey (no shock, since the “Steve Perry-like” Chalfant went on to work with ex-Journey members in both The Storm and The VU), but the band sadly broke up shortly after this album was released, regrouped with some new members for three additional albums from 2000-2006, before vanishing again.

Regardless, when it comes to AOR/Hard Rock material from the early ’80, Mega Force remains a favorite of mine.

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Thin Lizzy – Black Rose: A Rock Legend (1979)

ThinLizzy_BlackRose4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Black Rose: A Rock Legend has to be one of my favorite Thin Lizzy releases, which includes some of bassist Phil Lynott’s most mature, inspired, and heartfelt songwriting up to this point in his career, such as the thundering, riff-heavy rockers “Do Anything You Want To,” “Waiting For an Alibi,” “Get Out of Here,” “Toughest Street in Town,” and the Jailbreak-like “Got To Give It Up,” along with the wonderfully funky “S & M,” the romantic and deceptively catchy mid-tempo tunes “Sarah” and “With Love,” and of course the grand and layered closer “Róisín Dubh (Black Rose) – A Rock Legend.”

This album alone proves that Lynott and Brian Downey made for a formidable rhythm team, creating a solid and rumbling backbone for the band’s signature twin-guitar sound, and it certainly didn’t hurt matters that kick-ass guitarist Gary Moore was also a member of the band at this time, his work with second guitarist Scott Gorham making for some memorable dual axe-attacks, and Moore also blazing a trail of killer solos throughout this rock-solid collection of tunes.

Black Rose: A Rock Legend…indeed!

(RIP to both Phil and Gary…you are sorely missed.)

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Grand Illusion – Prince of Paupers (2011)

GrandIllusion_PrincePaupers4 out of 5 Stars!

Swedish group Grand Illusion popped onto the AOR scene in 2001 after changing its name from the rather lame Promotion (which released two collections in the ’90s). Not sure what the Promotion albums sounded like (although probably similar since the band members didn’t change) but the freshly christened Grand Illusion released five beautifully produced albums in the new century, with Prince of Paupers being the most recent in 2011.

Similar in many ways to fellow countrymen H.E.A.T. or Bad Habit, Grand Illusion plays hard-driving AOR, with richly layered, pomp-sounding keyboards and fierce guitar leads, and features a vocalist that has an impressively wide range in the style of Tony Mills or Fergie Fredericksen, along with thick harmonies.

On Prince of Paupers, rollicking tunes such as “Gates of Fire,” “St. Theresa’s Love,” “On and On,” “Under the Wire,” “Through This War,” and the title track sit comfortably alongside several magnificent ballads such as “So Far Away” and “Believe in Miracles,” each song being a feast of melodies, with classy and bombastic charm.

All in all, this is blazing Pomp Rock in the same tradition as acts such as House of Lords, Sunstorm, White Heart, Find Me, Place Vendome, and Shy, as well as the aforementioned H.E.A.T. and Bad Habit, and highly recommended for fans of the genre.

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Dreamscape – 5th Season (2007)

Dreamscape_5thSeason4 out of 5 Stars!

Although this German group released numerous albums of high-quality Prog-Rock/Prog-Metal since the late ’90s, Dreamscape could never seem to create a consistent sound for itself due to the revolving door of lead vocalists and musicians contributing from one album to the next.

Regardless, 5th Season (no shock, the band’s fifth studio release) is one of my favorite albums by the group, with either its third or fourth singer—I lost count by this time. But thanks to the well-rounded production, often-dazzling and creative musicianship, and wildly elaborate arrangements found on tracks such as “Deja Vu,” “Fed Up With,” “Phenomenon,” “Point Zero,” and the nearly fifteen-minute epic title track, the music will likely appeal to fans of diverse Prog-Rock/Prog-Metal groups such as Dream Theater, Section A, Altura, Circus Maximus, Subsignal, Poverty’s No Crime, Symphony X, etc.

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Kansas – Kansas (1974)

Kansas_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

To my mind, this was one of the best debut albums by any Prog-Rock band of the ’70s. Kansas was truly rare. Few other major Prog bands of the era (Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Van der Graff Generator, Jethro Tull, etc.) debuted with an album where the band’s instantly identifiable “signature” sound/style was fully intact…with most other bands, it typically took several albums before that occurred.

And with the violin prominent and used on every song, often as a lead instrument, along with the layered keyboards mixed with occasionally heavy guitars, a lively and agile rhythm section, two recognizable lead singers, and even a hint of Southern Rock on several tracks (“Can I Tell You,” “The Pilgrimage,” and “Bringing It Back” as examples), Kansas also had a unique Prog-Rock sound for the era, not to mention a unique image—a band member wearing a flannel shirt and overalls? Yes, the group’s image and style was pure down-home Americana at its Midwestern best!

Regardless, from a band residing in the midst of the agricultural heartlands, who would have guessed that the debut album featured a highly sophisticated blend of driving Hard Rock and adventurous Symphonic Prog with strong classical overtones, as witnessed on tunes such as “Journey From Mariabronn,” “Apercu,” “Belexes,” and “Death of Mother Nature Suite,” with everything from the songwriting, to the arrangements, to the performances being nothing short of jaw-dropping. No wonder Kansas went on to become world-renowned within a few short years, and a large influence on many future Prog-Rock bands to come, even those forming in this day and age. Kansas truly deserved all the plaudits it received!

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