Firewind – Burning Earth (2003)

Firewind_BurningEarth4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, apart from the less-than-stellar debut album in 1998, Firewind has been one of the most enjoyable and memorable Heavy Metal/Power Metal acts to have emerged in the past few decades, with not only ultra-heavy riffs, shredding solos, and thundering rhythms on each of its albums from 2002 onward, but also numerous catchy melodies and some of the finest and most powerful lead vocalists in the genre, whichever singer is at the forefront (the band has had several throughout the years).

On Burning Earth, the band’s third studio release, Graham Bonnet-soundalike Stephen Fredrick (Kenziner) once again tackles the vocals and, on tracks such as “I Am the Anger,” “We Have Survived,” “Immortal Lives Young,” “Brother’s Keeper,” and the dynamic “The Longest Day,” proves his mighty worth. Additionally, group founder and long-time guitarist Gus G. (Dream Evil/Mystic Prophecy) shows his considerable six-string skills, offering killer riffs and blazing solos throughout, especially on the wild instrumental “The Fire & the Fury” and “Still the Winds,” a dreamy bonus track guitar showcase, while also adding a few keyboard washes on several tracks to beef up the sound. Meanwhile, the band’s rhythm section of bassist Petros Christo (Breaking Silence) and drummer Stian Kristoffersen (Pagan’s Mind/Trivial Act) construct a solid backdrop in a variety of tempos, several of them (such as on “Steal the Blind,” “Waiting Still,” and “Burning Earth”) fast and furious and storming.

Unfortunately, this would be Fredrick’s final album with the group. Initially I had worried that the band’s sound would change, like it often does with the replacement of a singer, but thankfully the band hired another underrated powerhouse vocalist (Chity Somapala) for its next release (Forged by Fire), thus maintaining Firewind’s fierce momentum in a lengthy string of high-quality Power Metal releases that stretched into the current decade.

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Odd Logic – Penny for Your Thoughts (2016)

OddLogic_PennyThoughts4 out of 5 Stars!

From the Tacoma area of Washington State, Prog-Metal band Odd Logic came to my attention about ten years ago with the impressive and sophisticated Legends of Monta: Part 1 album, and since then I have snapped up every new release by the group.

Despite the rather goofy yet eye-catching cover art, 2016’s Penny for your Thoughts features more of the same sophisticated Odd Logic style—wonderfully melodic and varied Progressive Metal on tracks such as “Life, Lore, & Love,” “Mr. Compromise,” “The Traveler,” “The Island,” and “Court Of Ancient Rulers.” The clean, crisp, and wide-ranging vocals, the creative musical arrangements and instrumentation, stellar production values and a moody atmosphere, all make for an enjoyable listening experience.

Please note that, up to this point, I’ve used the words “band” and “group” to describe Odd Logic, but truth be told, the actual “band/group” on this album consists of a single member, Sean Thompson, who provides all the vocals and instrumentation. So in essence, Odd Logic is merely the moniker used for Thompson’s solo projects (the band’s original trio of musicians when it formed back in 2003, including Thompson, having disbanded after the debut album). Therefore, apart from several releases where Thompson enlisted the aid of a few individuals who added vocal bits or instrumentation, Thompson typically writes and performs all the material himself, which makes the resulting albums, including Penny for Your Thoughts, even more impressive.

Regardless, fans of other classy Prog-Metal groups such as Andromeda, Dream Theater, Threshold, Circus Maximus, and Poverty’s No Crime should certainly investigate this highly talented act/solo project.

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A.C.T – Circus Pandemonium (2014)

ACT_CircusPandemonium4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Sweden’s A.C.T is such a difficult act (pun intended) to describe. In many ways, the group brings to mind ’70s/’80s Pomp Rock/Art Rock bands such as Aviary, City Boy, and Sparks, and you can almost imagine the best ingredients of those bands being somehow tossed into a blender and poured out into the new century with modern-day production techniques bordering on perfection.

The group has a quirky uniqueness and often-brilliant song arrangements, vocal harmonies, performances, and songwriting, the type of band where no matter how many times you listen to its albums, you will always notice something bizarre you hadn’t noticed the previous times, something hidden in the shadows of each track that has eerily and magically appeared to enhance the experience.

Circus Pandemonium, the group’s fifth release after a lengthy break, is another top-notch offering. As the album title indicates, this is a circus-themed concept album, a dramatic and majestic collection of linked tunes with endless and catchy Pop melodies floating atop dynamic Symphonic-Prog arrangements, not too dissimilar from what one might hear on albums from groups such as the aforementioned City Boy, or It Bites and Spock’s Beard, with a touch of 10cc and Queen merged in, and often as theatrical as a rock opera or a cross between the genres of Broadway musical, cabaret, and vaudeville. In fact, fans of Saga’s grand concept album Generation 13 will probably find this album of great interest since it often has a similar sound and atmosphere.

And like any daring and industrious concept album worth its weight in ambition, throughout Circus Pandemonium, various voices and circus sounds pop up to either bridge several tracks or enhance the ambience of others and further the storyline. The lyrics here are generally dark, despite the rather upbeat rhythms and bright chord patterns on many of the tracks, yet a creepy vibe nevertheless infiltrates several tunes as the story’s main character comes to grips with his fate as being held captive as an exhibit in a freakshow by its sinister circus manager. As I said, creepy, and altogether intriguing.

Yet regardless of the dark theme, Herman Saming’s vocals are as peculiar and delightful as ever, as are the grand and layered background vocals, while Ola Andersson’s lead guitar insertions and Jerry Sahlin’s numerous keyboards, synths, and orchestrations prove melodically and bombastically riveting, like always. Simultaneously, the rhythm section of bassist Peter Asp and drummer Thomas Lejon keep the proceedings tight, yet often surprising with periodic tempo shifts or unexpected breaks and fills. And as displayed on A.C.T’s previous albums, the group’s collective technical skills are outstanding, far superior than most groups of the Prog-Rock genre.

Yes, A.C.T is indeed one group difficult to pigeonhole, with each of its albums providing high levels of creativity, and Circus Pandemonium proves that in spades. In the world of Progressive Rock, this group is not even close to being the “same old, same old,” and fans of the genre craving something different should investigate the band forthwith. I, for one, pray that A.C.T never stops delivering more and more of its truly eccentric and invigorating material, which always equals fresh blasts of aural greatness to my often-jaded ears.


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Royal Hunt – X (2010)

RoyalHunt_X4 out of 5 Stars!

Since the early ’90s, Denmark’s Royal Hunt has been a fairly consistent and recognizable band when it comes to its signature sound/style—Heavy Prog-Metal with rich and layered Pomp/Symphonic keyboards and a touch of Neoclassical Metal thrown in.

Despite several changes in vocalists and other chief players through the years, that sound hasn’t altered too much, undoubtedly thanks to keyboardist André Anderson, group founder and sole original member, who seemingly provides the “musical Super Glue” when it comes to keeping the band’s style relatively intact.

And on this album, with vocal powerhouse Mark Boals (Yngwie Malmsteen/Ring of Fire/Mattsson/Etc.) behind the microphone, the group once again delivers some melodic, grand, and driving Metal with a glorious symphonic approach. Tracks such as “End of the Line,” “Army of Slaves,” “Blood Red Stars,” “King for a Day,” and “Shadowman,” with their often-complex instrumentation, are occasionally bombastic and explosive, filled with blasts of keyboards and guitars, rumbling bass and thundering drums, along with undoubtedly one of the finest singers in the genre belting out his heart.

Unfortunately, this would end up being Boals’s final release with the group, and for the next album, singer D.C. Cooper would return to the fold after a thirteen-year absence. But again, despite the change in personnel, the band’s sound would remain consistent, thanks once again to that aforementioned “musical Super Glue” provided by André Anderson.


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38 Special – Wild-Eyed Southern Boys (1981)

38Special_WildEyed3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I could never deny that, though it wasn’t one of my “regularly played” bands, 38 Special did indeed have something “special” when it came to its overall approach.

Not quite Southern Rock, not quite Hard Rock, not quite AOR, this band from Jacksonville, Florida somehow managed to successfully merge these genres into its music with fairly equal doses, generally making for some catchy material.

And with the legendary Jim Peterick (Survivor/Ides of March/Pride of Lions) co-writing some of the band’s biggest hits and most memorable tracks, 38 Special usually came off to me as a “southernized” version of Survivor.

Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, the band’s fourth release, is a perfect example of this “genre-merging.” With the classic hit singles “Hold On Loosely” and “Fantasy Girl” included, as well as other radio-friendly and occasionally countrified Hard Rock ditties such as “Back Alley Sally,” “Throw Out the Line,” “First Time Around,” “Hittin’ and Runnin’,” and the Sweet-Home-Alabama-like “Honky Tonk Dancer” occupying space within the platter’s grooves, this is the album I usually found the most enjoyable from the early days of the group’s existence.

As mentioned previously, 38 Special wasn’t a band I listened to on a consistent basis through the years, but when I’m in the mood for some catchy and lighter material of an upbeat nature, Wild-Eyed Southern Boys (as well as several other platters from the band’s catalogue) will occasionally suffice.

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Thin Lizzy – Johnny the Fox (1976)

ThinLizzy_JohnnyFox4 out of 5 Stars!

Although perhaps not as memorable as Jailbreak, the band’s breakthrough—from jail or otherwise—album released earlier the same year, Johnny the Fox also contained a cohesive feel, with enough enjoyable tracks and tasty riffs to make it a worthy follow-up collection, thus solidifying the band’s growing reputation as being a consistent and creative Hard Rock act.

And let’s face it, other than Phil Lynott’s often-intriguing songwriting, when it comes to a Thin Lizzy album, it’s truly all about the band’s twin guitar sound that makes or breaks each release, correct? Indeed, the lightning-quick guitar interplay between Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, the melodic and memorable riffs, the sheer and impressive teamwork shown on ballsy tracks such as “Massacre,” “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed,” “Boogie Woogie Dance,” “Johnny,” and the exquisite classic “Don’t Believe a Word,” along with the lighter moments on several of Lynott’s finest ballads and mid-tempo tunes “Sweet Marie,” “Borderline,” and “Old Flame,” are the highlights of this album, thus guaranteeing its replay value.

In general, although lacking that guaranteed knockout musical punch of containing multiple hit singles in a single collection like the Jailbreak album, Johnny the Fox still proved a solid effort, a diverse selection of well-written and well-performed songs from a band finally achieving deserved and long-desired recognition in America.

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Black Star Riders – All Hell Breaks Loose (2013)

BlackStarRiders_AllHell4 out of 5 Stars!

I’m certain that, like me, many long-time fans of Thin Lizzy found it difficult to accept the band’s announcement way back in 1983 that it was breaking up. I mean, seriously, the group had just released the excellent Thunder and Lightning album, which featured John Sykes on guitar, and everything seemed rosy for the band’s bright future, therefore the decision came as a shock to many. And then, horror of all horrors, any hopes for a possible future reunion vanished when news came several years later of the untimely passing of leader Phil Lynott. Tragic, and a cruel blow to the musical world!

So imagine my thrill (and no short amount of skepticism) to learn in 2012 that, after many years of reading about numerous short-lived reunions by various former band members, a permanent lineup under the driving force and guidance of guitarist Scott Gorham would actually be recording new material. Finally! The band, however, would be using the name Black Star Riders, which made sense, I suppose, simply since Gorham was the only Thin Lizzy member during its actual existence, and with all that fresh blood in the form of guitarist Damon Johnson (Witness/Brother Cane), bassist Marco Mendoza (Whitesnake), drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (Y&T/Megadeth), and vocalist Ricky Warwick (The Almighty), the Thin Lizzy moniker didn’t seem quite appropriate.

But in truth, after hearing the debut album, I came to the conclusion that had the group used the name Thin Lizzy, it wouldn’t have been such a terrible idea. Indeed, the lineup sounded almost exactly like the former band, certainly more so than other groups that attempt to replace a recognizable lead vocalist. I mean, remember the mental adjustment required when Deep Purple replaced Ian Gillan with David Coverdale, or when Marillion replaced Fish with Steve Hogarth? In these examples, we’re talking about singers that possessed completely different tones, ranges, and styles of delivery from the previous vocalists.

But in this case, not only did Ricky Warwick sing eerily similar to Phil Lynott, but the guitarists recreated the same twin-guitar sound of old, and much of the material presented on All Hell Breaks Loose could have appeared on Thin Lizzy albums.

The opening title track, for example, sent chills of delight down my spine since I could easily imagine it being played by the original Thin Lizzy, sung by Phil Lynott. Then “Bound for Glory,” with its dual-guitar harmonies and upbeat rhythm, provided even more tingles of excitement since it seemed almost an outtake from an album such as Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox, or Renegade. And by the time the Irish-inspired intro to “Kingdom of the Lost” led into the song’s first verse, I’d heard enough to realize that the members of Black Star Riders couldn’t have concocted a better homage to the former band and its deceased leader.

Other tracks such as “Hey Judas,” “Before the War,” “Hoodoo Voodoo,” “Blues Ain’t So Bad,” and “Valley of the Stones,” offered even more obvious tributes to the memory of Lynott, and better still, the album as a whole seemed a worthy follow-up to ’83’s Thunder and Lightning. The musicians perform with enough gusto and vigor to satisfy the yearnings of Thin Lizzy fans who still missed the original group, and with the production full and rich, the guitars sizzling and pushed to the forefront, it seemed as if the original band (or at least its rapacious spirit) had been transported into the modern age to not only appease the hungry fans of yore, but to gain a new generation of followers.

Thankfully, unlike the previous Thin Lizzy reunions that disbanded before releasing new material, Black Star Riders doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Not only did the band release an enjoyable second platter in 2015, but a third dropped early in ’17, giving hope the group will be sticking around for a long, long time.

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Passport – Cross-Collateral (1975)

Passport_Cross4 out of 5 Stars!

Since its formation in Germany back in 1970, Passport has been one of the best (mostly) instrumental Jazz-Fusion/Prog-Rock bands (and one of the longest-lasting bands in the genre) to have emerged. The material is ultra-professional (well-performed and well-produced), and the albums (especially those from the 1970s, like Cross-Collateral) are typically highly rated by many fans of the group and are some of my favorites in the genre.

Even way back in 1975 on Cross-Collateral, it’s abundantly clear that Klaus Doldinger (on sax, flute, and keyboards, including Moog and Mellotron) is masterful at his craft. The man’s woodwind solos always soar wildly with jazzy melodies, while his keyboards add the perfect spacey and ethereal atmospheres to tracks such as “Homunculus,” “Albatros Song,” and the blazing and lengthy title track.

Plus, the other musicians throughout history who’ve appeared on Passport albums also deserve high praise, especially those who perform on this release. Kristian Schultze’s Fender Rhodes piano contributions, sometimes wonderfully mellow as shown on “Damals” and the aforementioned “Albatros Song,” always add sparkle and structure, while Wolfgang Schmid’s nimble and melodic bass lines and Curt Cress’s always tight, slamming, and often-funky percussion energize tunes such as “Jadoo,” “Will-O’The-Wisp,” and “Cross-Collateral,” making for a seamless merging of Prog-Rock and Jazz Fusion.

As I mentioned, the band stands at the head of this particular sub-genre of Prog-Rock, falling along the same “high-quality” lines set by groups such as Brand X, Weather Report, Return To Forever, and Frank Zappa (his jazzier releases). Passport is top-class all the way!

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Heart of Cygnus – Over Mountain, Under Hill (2009)

HeartCygnus_OverMountain4 out of 5 Stars!

From Los Angeles, Heart of Cygnus released four albums between 2007 and 2012. Over Mountain, Under Hill, the band’s second collection, contains energetic Progressive Rock with both Metal and Symphonic touches throughout. I couldn’t help but imagine a merging of groups such as Iron Maiden and early Rush with more modern Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal bands.

The singer has a wide range (occasionally reminding me of Geddy Lee without the shrillness) and tracks such as “Over Mountain,” “Under Hill,” “Lost at Sea,” “Revelations,” and “The Mountain King,” feature often jaw-dropping musicianship, thrilling guitar solos, and wildly diverse tempos, with creative musical arrangements galore.

Were this a perfect world, Heart of Cygnus would have received greater attention from lovers of the genre. Now, since the band’s most recent album came out back in 2012, I’m praying the band is still active and creating new material.

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Steeler – Steeler (1983)

Steeler_Steeler4 out of 5 Stars!

Not to be confused with the German band of the same name, America’s Steeler released a sole album back in 1983 and introduced the music world to a (then) twenty-year-old “guitar hero” named Yngwie Malmsteen.

I vividly recall the afternoon I heard this album for the first time, and when listening to the opening track “Cold Day in Hell,” I immediately repeated the guitar solo section several times, my jaw hanging to the floor. By the time I got to “Hot On Your Heels” (the last track on Side A) with its three-and-a-half minute “acoustic and electric guitar solo hybrid intro,” I could barely contain my excitement. This man could mutha-freaking play, his technique often reminiscent of both Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple/Rainbow) and Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions/Electric Sun), but not in any way a direct copy of either artist. And when it came to his speed on the fretboard? Well, it was unbelievable and remains, for the most part, unsurpassed.

But aside from Malmsteen’s spectacular riffing, the album contains mostly catchy and thundering tracks, those previously mentioned as well as “On the Rox,” “No Way Out,” “Backseat Driver,” “Down to the Wire,” and the moody, powerful, and lengthy closer “Serenade.”

Sure, the handful of songs I failed to mention are fairly average fare, but with Malmsteen’s guitar blazing throughout, and the band’s overall talent, it’s truly difficult to completely dismiss any of the tunes included on this release. Not to be forgotten, bassist Rik Fox (W.A.S.P./Hellion) and drummer Mark Edwards (Lion) formed a solid and commendable rhythm section, while vocalist Ron Keel had a forceful and recognizable voice perfect for the genre, therefore, this album proved a keeper and had me yearning for more material.

Unfortunately, the band broke up shortly after this album’s release, and Malmsteen went on to hook up with Alcatrazz while the remaining members joined or formed other bands, most notably Keel with his self-named group that released a string of albums through the ’80s.

Meanwhile, this is an album I’ve savored an unfathomable amount of times through the decades, and (for me) it altered the “metal scene” for good, thanks to one particular guitarist with enormous talent.

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