Ansoticca – Rise (2010)

Ansoticca_Rise4 out of 5 Stars!

Germany’s Ansoticca released only a single album in 2010 before seemingly disappearing. But I hope not for good. Indeed, the female singer (Carie van Heden) has more than a fair share of talent. She’s melodic and strong, while also appropriately dramatic, within the band’s framework.

Rise is a commendable effort, especially considering Ansoticca’s proclivity for replicating the similar musical stylings of Nightwish, After Forever, Epica, and some of their heavier contemporaries within the same Symphonic Metal and Gothic Metal genres. Indeed, look no further than the brief instrumental opening track “A New Dawn” for an example of this style—fans of the genre wouldn’t be shocked to hear this appearing as the opener on albums by any of the aforementioned groups. But on the following well-produced tracks, including “Endless Sacrifice,” “Our Time,” “Weight of the World,” “Heaven Burns,” and “In Silence,” display the band’s unique signature stamp, thanks mostly to Carie’s vocals, where (unlike the other groups) she employs very little in the way of the operatic, falsetto vocals normally associated with the genre, but is quite straightforward, more Rock/Metal-oriented, in her approach to delivering the melodies.

Overall, I felt Ansoticca had major potential, especially when it came to Carie van Heden’s stellar performances, the seemingly endless layers of grand keyboards, as well as the dark and punchy guitar riffs and pounding rhythms. And thankfully, at least when it comes to my tastes, the band left the typically annoying “beast/growl” male vocals to a minimum.

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Ten Years After – A Space in Time (1971)

TenYearsAfter_SpaceTime4.5 out of 5 Stars!

It’s nostalgia that plays a large part in me declaring this album to be Ten Years After’s finest achievement. Too many memories of special places, people, and events are locked up in this album, and each track brings numerous recollections to mind. So for me personally, this album puts me in A Space in Time…indeed.

Although 1970’s Cricklewood Green may be superior in several respects, it’s the beautiful melding of both electric and acoustic sections on A Space in Time that makes it truly special to my ears.

“One of These Days,” “I’d Love to Change the World,” “Hard Monkeys,” “Let The Sky Fall,” “Here They Come,” etc…each and every song is memorable, and I love the album’s overall production and studio experimentation.

Therefore, A Space in Time is the reason I fell in love with this influential band back in the early ’70s and it still remains my favorite.

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Rondinelli – Our Cross, Our Sins (2002)

Rondinelli_OurCross4.5 out of 5 Stars!

With drummer Bobby Rondinelli (Rainbow) at the helm, it’s no surprise his band does indeed deliver music in a similar style as his previous group with Ritchie Blackmore. Yet with both bassist Neil Murray (Whitesnake/Black Sabbath) and vocalist Tony Martin (Black Sabbath/Giuntini Project) also part of this album’s stellar line-up, the ’70s Metal sound is further enhanced with Black Sabbath influences, and again, considering the men involved, it’s not unexpected.

Each of the tunes on Our Cross, Our Sins, including “The Meaning of Evil,” “It’s a Lie,” “Time,” “Naughty Dragon,” “Dawn,” “Find the One,” “Midnight Hour,” and the title track, are killers, featuring ultra-heavy guitar riffs and solos (thanks to Teddy Rondinelli), occasionally embellished with some light keyboard touches (supplied by Dorothy Rondinelli), making for a “family affair” of sorts, and seemed a commendable merging of Black Sabbath with Rainbow.

Overall, this is a highly professional and enjoyable release that should certainly appeal to fans of (no great shock) Rainbow, Black Sabbath, or many of their offshoot groups!

So…”Black Rainbow” anyone?

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Saraya – Saraya (1989)

Saraya_Saraya4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Saraya is an obscure band that originally formed in New Jersey, and had received some minimum exposure on MTV (due to the video for “Love Has Taken Its Toll”) during the days when the station actually focused on music and played videos (what a concept, huh?).

Anyway, vocalist Sandy Saraya (ex-wife of Brian Wheat of Tesla fame) is one fantastic singer, and her self-named band had not only kick-ass tendencies, but a knack for delivering ultra-catchy choruses, which should have pushed the band into “hit single territory.”

Indeed, many of the songs on this high-quality, Jeff Glixman-produced debut, including the aforementioned “Love Has Taken Its Toll” along with “Gypsy Child,” “Back to the Bullet,” “St. Christopher’s Medal,” and “Healing Touch,” might have all been hits, had anyone at the record company (Polydor) actually given a damn.

But alas, worldwide fame eluded the talented group, even after Saraya released another equally impressive album (1991’s When the Blackbird Sings), which is unfortunate since I continue to enjoy both albums to this day.

For those unfamiliar with Saraya, imagine a female vocalist such as Lana Lane or Pat Benatar, Heart’s Ann Wilson or Toronto’s Holly Woods, fronting a group such as Montrose, Great White, or even Tesla, but with a fine blend of both guitars and keyboards, and that’s a fairly accurate description. In many respects, another forgotten band named Witness had much in common with Saraya, not only regarding its sound and female-led line-up, but also its way-too-early demise.

(Final note: Rumor has it that a third album is in the process of being produced, but whether the band’s original line-up has reunited after all these many years or if Sandy is working with a whole new set of musicians is anyone’s guess. I suppose I’ll just have to employ some patience and see what, if anything, occurs.)

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Imperia – Queen of Light (2007)

Imperia_QueenLight3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the city of Amsterdam, Imperia is—what a shock!—another band that falls into the Nightwish/Within Temptation/After Forever category. Thankfully, although Imperia is indeed another one of the zillions of groups that jumped on the “Symphonic Metal With Female Singers” bandwagon in the early 2000s, the band at least has a vocalist who can actually sing flawlessly on key.

Helena Iren Michaelsen has quite the beautiful voice, whether she’s hitting the rafters with her operatic overtures or singing “normally” during the quieter sections, so there’s nothing horrible here, unlike many lesser-known acts in this genre that feature female vocalists who couldn’t find the right key without the aid of a tuner and a compass.

Although occasionally some of Imperia’s songs seem a bit dense—overloaded with thick instrumentation, arrangements far busier than needed, heavy production quality and reverb—the general impression I nevertheless received when hearing Queen of Light (Imperia’s second release) is of a highly competent band with an ear for intricate melody, so that’s not at all shabby.

And the other BIG plus is that this album does NOT include those horrific guttural/growling “beast” male vocals that destroy so many songs by so many other bands in this genre. So for that fact alone, Imperia is far more advanced than the norm and I enjoyed this album nearly as much as the music I own by Nightwish, Within Temptation, and After Forever.

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Ursa Major – Ursa Major (1972)

UrsaMajor_14 out of 5 Stars!

Ursa Major is an underrated and long-forgotten band from New York that released only a single album back in the early ’70s.

This power trio, led by gifted guitarist/vocalist and in-demand session player Dick Wagner (The Frost/Alice Cooper/Lou Reed), played Hard Rock/Heavy Psych material that occasionally bordered on Metal (the songs “Stage Door Queen,” “Sinner,” “Lay Me Down,” and “Silver Spoon”), but also included several awesome acoustic-based tracks (“Liberty and Justice” and “In My Darkest Hour”), and one tune that successfully bridged both worlds (“Back to the Land”). The band also featured sprightly and skillful bass work (thanks to Greg Arama) and tight and snappy percussion (courtesy of Ricky Mangone), and quite often, especially on songs with the blending of electric and acoustic guitars, the powerful, creative music reminds me of equally diverse groups such as Led Zeppelin, Ten Years After, Three Man Army, Rush, Triumph, and Captain Beyond, only with an undeniable American flavor.

As expected from a mighty talent such as Wagner, impressive six-string fretwork and vocals abound, while the highly ambitious and occasionally dramatic song arrangements (provocatively adding a touch of Prog Rock to the band’s mixture of styles) and the stellar production values (thanks to the legendary Bob Ezrin) amaze. Simply put, this album is a classic through and through, one of those collections that just makes the listener ache for at least one additional follow-up platter.

But as quickly as Ursa Major appeared on the scene, the trio splintered after touring with both Jeff Beck and Alice Cooper, then Wagner went on to work with Lou Reed the following year, and soon afterward, Cooper himself, when they cowrote the stunning track “Only Women Bleed.”

RIP Dick Wagner (1943-2014), an unsung guitar hero, vocalist, and songwriter who, in my humble opinion, never got the amount of plaudits he so richly deserved.

 

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The Allman Brothers Band – The Allman Brothers Band (1969)

Allman_Allman5 out of 5 Stars!

It’s rare when a band barrels out of the gate with a debut album that not only includes a wealth of stunning material, but also has such a unique sound/style as to create its very own musical genre, but that is exactly what The Allman Brothers Band did back in 1969. This collection of tunes, this magnum opus of Southern Rock, created a standard/mainstream musical genre for decades to come and put this band on the road to deserving stardom. It certainly remains one of my all-time favorites in the genre, and the performances by all involved are nothing short of brilliant and breathtaking.

Side A, from start to finish, is sheer and utter perfection. The upbeat guitar-driven instrumental “Don’t Want You No More” showcased the dual-guitar action of Duane Allman and Richard “Dickey” Betts, then ushered in “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” a slow bluesy track that introduced to an unsuspecting public the gruff and gritty power of Gregg Allman’s voice atop a Hammond organ backdrop. “Black Hearted Woman” and “Trouble No More” offered more engaging Southern-tinged Hard Rock, and with the formidable rhythm section of bassist Berry Oakley and twin-percussionists Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks never letting up for a moment, helped to make these two foot-tappin’ tracks instant epitomes of the genre.

Side B is just as stunning, from the riff-laden opener “Every Hungry Woman,” through to Gregg Allman’s signature Hammond-lush semi-ballad “Dreams” with its mesmerizing guitar solo, and finally to the album’s explosive climax, “Whipping Post,” where each band member gives the performance of his life to make this tune (and the aforementioned “Dreams”) one of the band’s concert staples for its entire existence. Talk about a classic track!

As I said earlier, the album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Yet, despite this lofty designation on my part, I do grudgingly admit, I find one minor flaw—the album contains only seven songs, where I would have wished for many more. But I suppose any additional tunes might have screwed up the flawless sequencing of the tracks and destroyed this ne plus ultra in Southern Rock, so I have never grumbled too much about not getting my wish. And thankfully, Idlewild South, the band’s impressive follow-up, arrived about ten months later and came damned close in matching the debut’s unquestionable vigor and long-lasting influence on the music industry and in the minds of the fans, including myself.

Although many of the skillful artists performing on this album are no longer with us, leaving the world way too young, they gifted us with a treasure trove of musical riches by which to remember them for generation after generation. May Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, and most recently Gregory LeNoir Allman rest in peace…and thank you, guys, for leaving behind such a timeless musical legacy.

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Abraxas Pool – Abraxas Pool (1997)

AbraxasPool_AbraxasPool4 out of 5 Stars!

For people unfamiliar with this short-lived San Francisco group, Abraxas Pool was created in the late ’90s by members of the original (or near-original) Santana band—Gregg Rolie (Keys/Vocals), Neal Schon (Guitar), Alphonso Johnson (Bass), Michael Shrieve (Drums), Michael Carabello (Congas), and Jose “Chepito” Areas (Timbales)—but without Carlos Santana himself.

Despite the legendary guitar player’s absence, Abraxas Pool nevertheless recreated Santana’s vintage sound on its one and only 1997 release. From the opening song “Boom Ba Ya Ya” through to the final track, a remake of Santana’s classic “Jingo,” this album contains a bevy of slick and sophisticated Latin Rock, well-produced and well-performed in the style that easily compares to any of the first three Santana studio releases (the platters prior to the band’s more jazz-oriented Caravanserai). Indeed, the ultra-catchy “A Million Miles Away,” as well as “Don’t Give Up,” “Baila Mi Cha-Cha,” “Waiting for You,” and “Szabo” all make me yearn for the original Santana group to return to the limelight.

So for me and many other fans of the quintessential line-up, this became the “Santana album that never was” and that time has forgotten.

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HB – Frozen Inside (2008)

HB_FrozenInside3 out of 5 Stars!

Hailing from Finland, HB is basically a Christian version of groups such as Nightwish, Within Temptation, and After Forever…the same style of Symphonic Metal/Power Metal only with “God/Jesus Is Love Love Love” lyrics in every song. Generally speaking, not exactly my thing.

Still, despite my initial revulsion to the preachy lyrical content, I must admit to enjoying the music itself, and the terrific female vocalist Johanna Aaltonen, quite a bit. The musicianship is top-notch and the intricate arrangements on many of the songs are right up there with other leading bands of the Symphonic Metal genre.

Therefore, if you’re a fan of Nightwish, etc., and can stomach song titles such as “God Has All Glory” and “The Jesus Metal Explosion” and the never-ending Bible-study lessons within the lyrics, then perhaps this is the band for you.

Although I’m unfamiliar with HB’s other releases (there are seven studio albums in total), Frozen Inside, the band’s third collection of tracks, is worthy of at least one listen if for nothing else than to enjoy Johanna’s better-than-average vocal performance.

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Angra – Holy Land (1996)

Angra_HolyWar4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In my opinion, Angra’s strength stemmed from not only featuring a stellar line-up of musicians—including the highly gifted, soaring, and recognizable Andre Matos on lead vocals—but also merging into its overall Symphonic/Prog-Rock and Metal style the band’s Brazilian musical roots/cultural influences. So when the band incorporated different “Santana-like” percussion, along with acoustic and wind instruments into its songs, and added that Brazilian tang to its rhythms and melodies, it truly set Angra apart from the majority of its contemporaries within the genre. This is what made Angra’s earlier albums (especially Holy Land) quite special.

Therefore, it’s a shame that, as the years passed and each new album emerged, the band slowly seemed to shy away from adding these particular elements, thus eventually diminishing much of Angra’s signature uniqueness.

Be that as it may, Holy Land, Angra’s second studio release, is probably one of my favorites by the band, with forceful Power Metal riffage on songs such as “Z.I.T.O.” and “Nothing to Say,” sweeping Prog-Rock balladry on “Make Believe” and “Deep Blue,” while many of my favorites, such as the title track along with “Carolina IV,” “The Shaman,” and “Silence and Distance,” wedded a hodgepodge of musical styles, with much of the Brazilian influences brilliantly emerging and enriching the pageantry of it all.

Nowadays, although I still enjoy Angra, finding each of its albums generally better than average within the genre, it’s not with quite the same high level of enthusiasm I felt during the band’s early days when Andre Matos still wielded the microphone and the South American flavor proved spicier.

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