Rock Goddess – Rock Goddess (1983)

RockGoddess_RockGoddess3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although all-female bands were always a rarity, and considered nothing more than “quaint novelty acts” by many people, the few groups that emerged through the decades were, by and large, highly talented. Yet shamefully, only a handful of them (Girlschool, Vixen, and The Runaways) seemed to gain any sort of name recognition and they continue, for the most part, to remain horribly obscure to the average Rock ‘n’ Roll fans.

Unfortunately, this lack of general audience acceptance (ie. near-total apathy) also befell Rock Goddess, a power trio of talented females led by two sisters, that emerged during England’s often exciting and celebrated “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” period. Although plagued by various line-up changes throughout its existence, the band initially solidified long enough to release two enjoyable albums (both issued in 1983) to some marginal acclaim.

The band’s debut is probably my favorite of these two, which featured driving and fairly catchy Heavy Metal/Hard Rock (not unlike Girlschool’s early material) on slamming tracks such as “Heavy Metal Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “To Be Betrayed,” “Start Running,” “Heartache,” “Satisfied With Crucified,” and “One Way Love,” which all displayed Jody Turner’s demanding & commanding vocals and monster guitar riffs, Tracey Lamb’s often-frantic bass playing, and Julie Turner’s thundering percussion.

The band’s sophomore release, Hell Hath No Fury, nearly equaled the debut’s raw power, but was a bit more polished, more experimental, yet proved nearly as engaging.

Unfortunately, Rock Goddess didn’t hold together, with bassist Tracey Lamb (who would eventually join Girlschool) leaving, and although the group released an additional album several years later with a new bassist (and a “lost album” appearing years after that), the magic, the sheer energy, had sadly disappeared. A shame!

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Airrace – Shaft of Light (1984)

Airrace_ShaftLight4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From London, Airrace released its stunning debut album back in 1984, and I immediately predicted the band would be huge.

And boy, was I horribly wrong. I’m still unsure why, however, since even listening to this album now, I’m once again struck by the seemingly perfect balance of AOR and Hard Rock material, with solid performances by all musicians involved (including a very young Jason Bonham on drums), and the crystal clear, powerful vocals of Keith Murrell—sort of a perfect cross between Steve Overland (FM/Overland) and Max Bacon (Nightwing/Bronz/GTR)—shining through.

And the songwriting? Truly exceptional, with every single track being catchy and memorable, especially “First One Over the Line,” “Caught in the Game,” “I Don’t Care,” “Not Really Me,” “All I’m Asking,” and the killer tune “Promise to Call,” with a guitar riff and melodic chorus that repeatedly play in my head whenever I so much as think of the title.

But the band sadly disappeared shortly after the release of this album, only to reappear nearly thirty years later with several new members to release a second collection in 2011, again, to zero fanfare. In my mind, the band’s lack of initial success probably had much to do with timing, with Shaft of Light being released just as England’s “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” movement was really picking up steam.

Regardless, at least I discovered the album (thanks to Kerrang! Magazine) upon its release and I continue to savor it to this very day.

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Astra – From Within (2009)

Astra_FromWithin4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Not to be confused with a newer Prog-Rock band in America with the same name, Astra (from Rome, Italy) is a Progressive Metal band formed around 2001 that created three stellar albums between 2006 and 2014, with From Within being the “middle child,” so to speak.

One thing that makes this band truly special is the presence of vocalist Titta Tani (DGM/Abstracta), who has one of those “normally” crystal clear voices with an extraordinary range that can easily turn gruff and demanding when the lyrics or a song’s aggressiveness warrant the extra “oomph”—basically sounding similar to either Michele Luppi (Killing Touch/Vision Divine/Secret Sphere) or Russell Allen (Symphony X/Adrenaline Mob/Allen-Lande), depending on the track’s requirements.

On From Within, the opener “Over the Hills” hooked me immediately with its raw power, adept musicianship, and sparkling vocals, and all the subsequent songs of complex yet melodic Prog-Metal take on similarities of groups such as Vanden Plas, Symphony X, DGM, Vision Divine, etc. Indeed, to me, From Beyond is one of the better Prog-Metal albums that has emerged in the past decade and has—thanks to Titta Tani’s spectacular vocals, along with the rather imaginative keyboard excursions, the intense guitars and rhythms—never been absent from my I-Phone’s playlist since the day I downloaded these ten entertaining tracks.

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Visions Of Tragedy – Visions Of Tragedy (2012)

VisionsTragedy_14 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 2012, the Spanish group Visions Of Tragedy released its self-titled debut album. Although containing only three tracks, and clocking in at just over thirty-two minutes in length, the music is highly impressive Prog-Metal in the same neighborhood as Circus Maximus, Symphony X, Andromeda, Vanden Plas, Altura, Mindwarp Chamber, Dream Theater, etc.

Here you’ll find not only excellent musicianship, but clean, crisp, and top-notch vocals also, along with grand and elaborate song arrangements with creative rhythms, and instrumentation featuring both electronic and acoustic guitar and a wide variety of keyboards and synths, all wrapped up in a slickly produced package.

Now I’m just praying Visions Of Tragedy releases more high-caliber material in the near future, although I believe the band is currently hunting for another record label—but with the talent displayed on this debut, I can’t imagine the band having any difficulty finding a label who’ll back them!

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America – America (1971)

America_America4 out of 5 Stars!

Sometimes during a really rough day you need gentle, harmonious music to wind down, to drift away from the craziness of the real world, and that’s when I often find the group America a godsend.

Formed in England, of all places, the songwriting trio of Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek had indeed an American flavor, seeming to draw at least part of its inspiration from Crosby, Stills, & Nash (or C,S,N & Young), offering up wickedly melodic and uncluttered acoustic-based pop music rich in spot-perfect vocal harmonies—almost like an acoustic version of Three Dog Night.

Anyway, the same as many of my contemporaries, my first experience with America was hearing the singalong track “A Horse With No Name,” being played just about every hour of every day on every AM or FM radio station seemingly between here in Chicago to Timbuktu, and since the tune appealed to me, I picked up the album even before the second hit “I Need You” replaced “Horse” on those hourly radio rotations. Anyway, with tracks such as those, along with the magnificent “Sandman,” “Riverside,” “Here” and a host of other fairly memorable ditties, I ended up playing this album almost as much as the DJs themselves and ended up following the band for many years until Dan Peek left the fold and, well, the magic had disappeared for me.

Nevertheless, this debut as well as several of the band’s subsequent releases are still essential in my music library for when those “crazy days” roll around.

(RIP Dan Peek)

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GTR – GTR (1986)

GTR_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

GTR (an abbreviation for “guitar,” for those who didn’t know) was another band that walked the delicate line between AOR/Hard Rock and Progressive Rock. With Steve Howe (Yes), Steve Hackett (Genesis), and Jonathan Mover (Marillion) in the band, there was bound to be some genre crossover. Although many listeners lamented the fact that the Progressive Rock element was somewhat lean overall—especially considering the history of the individual band members—I felt GTR provided a nice balance with the AOR style, thus creating a rather unique sound for itself.

Tracks such as the MTV hit “When the Heart Rules the Mind,” along with “Toe the Line,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Reach Out (Never Say No),” “The Hunter,” and (especially, the most Prog-oriented song) “Imagining,” displayed true creativity, certainly within the instrumentation and melody lines. And the instrumental tracks “Sketches in the Sun” (reminiscent of Steve Howe’s work with Yes) and “Hackett to Bits” (basically a reworking from some of Steve Hackett’s solo work) simply added Progressive Rock character to the track listing.

Therefore, I thought the band terrific, especially with the stellar Max Bacon (Nightwing/Bronz) on vocals, a singer with an instantly recognizable voice and an impressive range who sadly never got the recognition he so richly deserved.

The bottom line is that, to me, GTR was a promising outfit that fell apart way too soon for my liking and would likely appeal to fans of acts that also straddled the line between Prog-Rock and AOR—the group Asia instantly springs to mind—although GTR was more guitar-oriented than keyboard-oriented.

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Rainbow – Rising (1976)

Rainbow_Rising5 out of 5 Stars!

A perfect 5-Star masterpiece. To this day, forty-plus years after purchasing this album, I still get chills along my spine and goosebumps on my arms whenever I listen to each of these six tracks, especially the amazing high-fantasy-inspired “Stargazer,” the best and most dynamic song this band ever recorded, and I’m certain I’m not alone in my physical reaction when hearing it.

And to me, each track on Rising is a winner. The opener, “Tarot Woman,” is a feast of Ritchie Blackmore’s awesome guitar, of Ronnie James Dio’s commanding vocals, of Cozy Powell’s slamming drums, of Jimmy Bain’s tasty bass playing, and begins with a rare showcase for keyboardist Tony Carey, while the driving, manic, Deep Purple-like closer, “A Light in the Black,” is another near masterpiece that reigns high on my list of favorite Rainbow tracks, yet often seems forgotten in the shadow of the aforementioned “Stargazer,” which opens the side.

The catchy “Run With the Wolf” features a keyboard lead that sounds eerily similar to a guitar, while perhaps the most immediate song on Rising is the bouncy “Starstruck,” a tune I saw covered by many locals bands in my city through the years—indeed, I had to master it myself for several of my own group’s that insisted on adding it to our set lists. And “Do You Close Your Eyes,” the album’s shortest song that ends Side A, is perhaps the least mentioned track from this album among fans, yet I still find it a pure corker, an overlooked gem.

Aside from all this, I can say nothing detailed or profound about this album’s impact on both the industry or countless other musicians or groups in the genre that hasn’t already been stated thousands of times through the decades, so I’ll simply repeat the two words I hear most often regarding this release, and words in which I completely agree—”Sheer Brilliance!”

So, RIP Ronnie James Dio, one of the finest Heavy Metal/Hard Rock singers in the history of the universe, and RIP Cozy Powell, one of the finest Heavy Metal/Hard Rock drummers in the history of the universe, and RIP Jimmy Bain, one of the finest Heavy Metal/Hard Rock bassists in the history of the universe—the band Rainbow never had a finer line-up of musicians!

(And special kudos to Ken Kelly for creating the stunning artwork, which has to be one of the best album covers of all time.)

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Angel – Angel (1975)

Angel_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the mid-’70s, several friends eagerly told me about an extraordinary new band that played a combination of straightforward and melodic Pomp/Hard Rock mixed with intricate, fantasy-tinged Progressive Rock that sounded as if a group such as Yes or Starcastle had suddenly gone really heavy. “Oh, and by the way,” they added, “the band members look kinda like chicks and wear all white.”

Okay, so intrigued by the description of both music and band image, I purchased Angel’s self-titled debut platter, turned up the volume as my buddies had also recommended, and found myself facing an onslaught of wild synthesizers blasting from my stereo speakers as a killer track called “Tower” began. Talk about an “in-your-face” introduction to a band.

Anyway, “Tower” did indeed seem a perfect blend of keyboard-heavy Pomp/Hard Rock mixed with Prog, and I adored it. The merging of genres continued on through glorious tracks such as “Long Time,” “Broken Dreams,” “Mariner,” and “Sunday Morning,” whereas “Rock and Rollers” and “On and On” seemed less Prog-oriented, more commercial (a foreshadowing of Angel’s overall change in style for its third album) yet just as impressive and gratifying. And of course, let’s not forget that the album closes with a short instrumental burst of utterly perfect Pomp Rock entitled “Angel (Theme)” that instantly had me blaring the album from start to finish yet again, and again, and again. (And how can you not love a band that has its own “theme song,” huh?)

Regardless, not only did the genres blend perfectly, but so did the pianos, organs, synths, and Mellotron of Greg Giuffria mix deliciously with the metalized guitar fury of Punky Meadows. And with a highly capable and often-creative rhythm section of bassist Mickey Jones and drummer Barry Brandt maintaining a solid backbone, Frank DiMino’s powerful, wide-ranging, and multi-tracked voice soared over the lush proceedings—dare I say it?—like an angel, giving the band a majestic, bombastic, and distinctive sound.

Even to this day, Angel’s 1975 debut stands as one of the finest, most unique Pomp/Prog Rock albums in history, introducing me to the talents of Giuffria and DiMino—who became instant heroes and future influences for my own work—and I still love it to death.

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Rossington Collins Band – Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (1980)

RossingtonCollins_Anytime4 out of 5 Stars!

After the horrible tragedy in 1977 that tore the band apart, Lynyrd Skynyrd not only returned to the music scene several years later, but did so (and shocked more than a few fans in the process) with a revamped band led by a female singer. I read interviews with Skynyrd’s surviving band members at the time saying that, in respect to Ronnie Van Zant (Skynyrd’s deceased former frontman), Rossington Collins Band didn’t want to step on the exact same musical territory as covered by Skynyrd, wanting to avoid direct comparisons, and selecting a female to front the group helped to achieve that goal.

Of course, the new outfit played a style similar to Skynyrd’s in many ways, but with Dale Krantz (later Dale Krantz Rossington) fronting the band, the group opened itself to a potentially updated fan base as well (and sadly, perhaps a bit of scorn from old Skynyrd fans, too).

Regardless, RCB proved to be a decent group on its debut album Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (displaying an appropriate “phoenix rising from the ashes” cover), gained some radio play with the catchy single “Don’t Misunderstand Me,” and Dale proved herself an enjoyable and highly capable vocalist. With a deep, sometimes-gruff voice, more than a tad masculine sounding, she was often compared to Janis Joplin, especially on tracks such as “Three Times as Bad,” “One Good Man,” “Prime Time,” “Sometimes You Can Put It Out,” and “Getaway.”

Now, whether it’s a fair comparison or not is up to the listener, but I loved her voice and manner of delivery quite a bit, and because of her, I even followed the later band Rossington, which was more AOR oriented than the Southern Rock leanings of Rossington Collins Band.

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Bob Catley – Immortal (2008)

BobCatley_Immortal4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Bob Catley, with his highly recognizable voice, has been fronting the excellent band Magnum since the early ’70s. But when Magnum briefly broke up in the latter half of the ’90s, Catley not only joined his former guitarist Tony Clarkin in a new “offshoot” band called Hard Rain, but also put together his first solo album. Then, even as Magnum (thankfully) reformed and entered a fairly prolific period in the new century, Catley somehow found the time to concurrently record a string of his own albums.

For Magnum fans like myself, this proved nothing short of a godsend, since each of Catley’s solo efforts delivered music within the same keyboard-rich Hard/Pomp Rock universe. Certainly, the musicians on Catley’s releases were different than those who made up Magnum, but since Catley’s voice was front and center, you’d hardly notice the difference, which meant that every new solo album seemed almost like a new Magnum release, thus giving the fans a double dose of Hard/Pomp Rock through the first decade of the new millennium.

Catley’s last platter, Immortal, also ended up being one of his best. And since the album features seasoned guitarist/keyboardist Magnus Karlsson (Allen & Lande/The Codex/Starbreaker) as well as gifted axe-slinger Uwe Reitenauer (Pink Cream 69/Place Vendome/Sunstorm) and multi-instrumentalist Dennis Ward (Pink Cream 69/Place Vendome/Sunstorm), it hardly comes as a shock that the same type of grand and catchy material, stellar musicianship, and high quality production values displayed on Magnum albums are also here in spades. From opener “Dreamers Unite” through to the closer “Heat of Passion,” Immortal shines bright, contains numerous magical moments, with each song being simply magnificent!

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