Nazareth – Razamanaz (1973)

Nazareth_Razamanaz4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Razamanaz is undoubtedly one of my favorite Hard Rock albums of all time, and my personal favorite in the Nazareth catalogue.

The bluesy riffs, the scorching performances, the spiffy production (thanks to Deep Purple’s Roger Glover), the selection of original and cover songs, and Dan McCafferty’s whiskey-shredded voice all seemed to gel on this album. Indeed, it was on Razamanaz, the Scottish band’s third studio effort, where the trademarked Nazareth style perfectly came together.

From the storming title track and a take-no-prisoners version of Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz,” to the eerie and devilish “Sold My Soul” and the ultra-catchy “Broken Down Angel,” this collection of tunes just doesn’t let up for one single minute. Both “Vigilante Man” and “Bad, Bad Boy” are showcases for Manny Charlton’s wild and wonderful slide guitar, and “Night Woman,” “Too Bad, Too Sad,” and “Woke Up This Morning” (a track from the band’s previous album, but rerecorded and energized) are nothing less than rockin’ and stompin’ killers, displaying impressive teamwork from the long-time rhythm section of bassist Pete Agnew and drummer Darrell Sweet.

Although Nazareth subsequently released numerous other top-quality albums during its forty-plus-years career, none of them seemed as near to everlasting “Hard Rock Paradise” as Razamanaz…a “must have if stranded on a deserted island” album if I ever heard one.

Get The Album Now!

Thieves’ Kitchen – Head (2000)

ThievesKitchen_Head4.5 out of 5 Stars

Head, the debut album from Britain’s Thieves’ Kitchen, is in many respects a full-out foray directly into Gentle Giant territory, with a singer (Simon Boys) who even sounds remarkably like Derek Shulman from the mighty Gentle Giant itself.

Here, on the five tracks included, such as the sixteen-minute “Mute” and (especially) on the nineteen-minute “T.A.N.U.S,” it’s almost shocking how often the musicians and vocalist seem determined to get as close to the harder-edged sound of, for instance, In A Glass House or Three Friends. Even on the album’s three short tunes—ie. only Prog-Rock lovers can deem songs between seven and eleven minutes in length as being “short,” right?—the GG similarities are on full display. Yet please note, as on the epic tracks, the music on “Time,” “The Return of the Ultragravy,” and “Integrity” includes modernized instrumentation, certainly when it comes to the synths and the beefier guitar tones, therefore the band is by no means a direct GG rip-off, only that the GG comparisons are often striking. Nevertheless, despite the band’s influences, the material on Head is quite melodic and intricate, with grand song arrangements and orchestrations that feature altering tempos galore and expert musicianship at every turn, making for some savory Prog-Rock material and giving the band its own style.

Now, please note, if delving into this band’s back catalogue of releases, Head and the second album, 2001’s Argot, are quite similar in sound and scope. But in 2002, a second incarnation of the band began after Simon Boys left the group, only to be replaced by an impressive female vocalist named Amy Darby, which obviously altered the group’s overall sound. Nowadays, Thieves’ Kitchen no longer has many Gentle Giant influences, yet each new album since 2003’s Shibboleth is equally impressive with Ms. Darby behind the microphone.

Therefore, whatever the incarnation of the group, Thieves’ Kitchen is a band truly worthy of investigation for any Prog-Rock fanatic seeking intriguing music with elaborate arrangements and top-tier performances by all involved.

Get The Album Now!

Gotthard – Firebirth (2012)

Gotthard_Firebirth4 out of 5 Stars!

After the tragic death of long-time, talented singer Steve Lee in 2010, this band from Switzerland decided to soldier onward, eventually hiring a replacement vocalist named Nic Maeder and releasing Firebirth in 2012, three years after the band’s previous Need To Believe album.

Thankfully, the hiring of Maeder did nothing to alter the band’s varied Hard Rock sound, and I can’t help thinking that Steve Lee is somehow smiling down in approval at his former bandmates since Firebirth continues in the same highly melodic tradition as the group’s previous releases.

“Starlight,” the album’s catchy opening tune, indicated immediately that the band was still in tip-top form. Additional energetic tracks such as “I Can,” “Fight,” “Right On,” “Give Me Real,” and “Yippie Aye Yay,” mixed with mid-tempo ditties such as “The Story’s Over” and “Take It All Back,” as well as the emotional ballads “Tell Me,” “Remember It’s Me,” “Shine,” and the beautiful closer “Where Are You?” make an enjoyable package. Indeed, Firebirth rivals some of Gotthard’s classic albums from the early ’90s as well as a few of the albums that appeared during the latter half of the previous decade.

Gotthard always reminded me of an updated version of groups such as Bad Company and Thunder, but with far less acclaim then I felt it truly deserved. Let’s hope this new era of the band changes that.

Firebirth is rock solid!

Get The Album Now!

Le Orme – Felona e Sorona (1973)

LeOrme_DelonaESorona4 out of 5 Stars!

Le Orme, a keyboard-rich Italian trio that burst onto the scene during Prog-Rock’s initial explosion in popularity, produced some killer material.

On Felona e Sorona, the band’s fourth studio album (and probably my favorite within Le Orme’s vast catalogue of releases), the band often reminded me of a cross between groups such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Triumvirat, Genesis and UK, only with that overall “signature Italian style” Symphonic Prog so readily produced in the early ’70s.

One thing that set the band apart from many of its contemporaries was the seemingly effortless transitions between the lighter, folksy passages, the jazz-influenced flourishes, and the grandiose, bombastic sections loaded with Hammonds and Mellotrons and Moogs. Although this overall collection of tracks is on the short side (approximately only thirty-four minutes) and the production quality is rather dull in places, the music itself is a splendid representation of what many Italian bands were creating during this exciting period in history, with Le Orme offering tight and solid performances on some wonderfully versatile, adventurous, and ambitious compositions.

Get The Album Now!

Simeon Soul Charger – A Trick of Light (2015)

SimeonSoulCharger_TrickLight4 out of 5 Stars!

I love today’s Retro-Rock bands, especially those of the Progressive, Heavy Psych, or Stoner Rock varieties, and Ohio band Simeon Soul Charger easily falls into several of these genre categories. Similar to the music from other Retro acts such as D’Accord, Siena Root, and Hypnos 69, this album whisks the listener back in time to the late-’60s/early-’70s, back to the days when rock was liberally drenched in psychedelic influences.

On A Trick of Light, the fun and melodic tunes seem to encompass remnants of everything from The Doors to Frijid Pink, from Spirit to The Guess Who, with a touch of Cream, Captain Beyond, and even Space Rock and a smidgen of Zappa/Mothers of Invention craziness melded together. Yet even though numerous influences periodically spring to mind when hearing this collection of tracks, Simeon Soul Charger has forged a sound all its own, sometimes poppy, sometimes wacky, and always creative. Just hear the band’s innovative, bluesy, almost “Sabbathy” Heavy Psych arrangement of the classic “I Put A Spell On You” to see what I mean.

Listening to A Trick of Light…it’s like tripping without the acid.

Get The Album Now!

The Tangent – A Place in the Queue (2006)

Tangent_PlaceQueue4 out of 5 Stars!

With guitarist Roine Stolt being involved with The Tangent in its formative years, this U.K. group at first seemed to me merely an offshoot of The Flower Kings, with the music being similar in many instances and just as engaging.

Yet, because of the jazzier passages that appear within many of its songs, The Tangent (expertly grounded and guided since its formation by keyboardist/vocalist Andy Tillison) occasionally seemed more influenced by the Canterbury Prog style as opposed to the Symphonic Prog style of, for example, groups such as Yes.

Regardless, A Place in the Queue (the band’s third studio release, and the first without Stolt on guitar) is a diverse collection of tracks. Most of the longer songs, such as “GPS Culture” or “Follow Your Leaders,” and the twenty-minute “In Earnest” as well as the twenty-five-minute “A Place in the Queue,” contain so many musical styles—from Symphonic Prog to Progressive Folk to Jazz-Rock to even a trace of Avant-Prog—it’s like musical whiplash trying to keep track of all the shifting sections and styles within each tune.

Then, on songs such as “Lost in London” and “DIY Surgery,” thanks mainly to the more prominent flutes and saxes plus the quirky nature of Tillison’s vocals, groups such as Caravan or Hatfield and the North pop into mind more frequently. But again, even the shorter tracks include passages with varied styles, so its always difficult to pinpoint specific outside influences for any one track, meaning that The Tangent (especially thanks to Tillison’s distinctive vocals and keyboard artistry) has developed a signature sound all its own.

So let’s just say that fans of acts such as The Flower Kings, Yes, Spock’s Beard, and Gentle Giant, for example, as well as the aforementioned Canterbury Prog groups will certainly appreciate much of the material on offer here. Indeed, A Place in the Queue will likely appeal to most Prog-Rock fans seeking beautiful melodies, song-arrangement complexity, and adept musicianship.

Get The Album Now!

Armored Saint – Delirious Nomad (1985)

ArmoredSaint_DeliriousNomad4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always held a particular fondness for Armored Saint. After taking a chance on the band (along with Ratt, Motley Crue, and numerous other acts, thanks to an article about the “L.A. music scene” in Kerrang! Magazine), I purchased the debut album and instantly appreciated the fact the group wasn’t like the others mentioned in the article (no “glam band” here), but rather a no-holds-barred Heavy Metal band with a terrific singer (John Bush), a shredding guitar team (Phil Sandoval and Dave Prichard), and a thundering rhythm section (bassist Joey Vera and drummer Gonzo Sandoval).

Since those days, I followed the band through thick and thin, and although I’ve loved everything Armored Saint has released, the second album, Delirious Nomad, still remains one of my favorites.

The production (by Max Norman) is full and rich, simply superb, while the music—with stellar tracks such as “Long Before I Die,” “The Laugh,” “Released,” “Conqueror,” “Aftermath,” and my favorite, “You’re Never Alone”—is rock-solid and often brutal, with the band performing on all cylinders, like a well-oiled engine streaking and shrieking across the Heavy Metal, head-bangin’ heavens!

Delirious Nomad should be retitled “Deliriously Wonderful.”

(RIP Dave Prichard)

Get The Album Now!

Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure (1973)

RoxyMusic_ForPleasure5 out of 5 Stars!

In my eyes, For Your Pleasure, the second release from Roxy Music, is one of the finest Art Rock albums ever made, and is certainly my favorite by this unique band itself.

Sure, Roxy Music’s self-titled debut from the previous year contained a slew of exciting material and aural oddities, the songs being simultaneously both catchy and bizarre, but Peter Sinfield’s production quality lacked. The vocals or instruments ended up either too forceful or too buried in the mix so the listener couldn’t fully appreciate all the delicate nuances Roxy Music offered regarding the fascinating woodwind blasts, keyboard and synth effects, and luscious guitar and bass melody lines.

On For Your Pleasure, however, the overall production (the band self-producing this release) took a giant leap forward, with the collection possessing a sleek and sensual atmosphere, and all of those instrumental idiosyncrasies, those peculiarities that set this band apart from all of its contemporaries, stood on full and wacky display.

Bryan Ferry’s songwriting had grown seemingly by leaps and bounds, his lyrics being especially quirky, clever, and wry, and the musicians had perfected the art of spiraling off on individual whims, occasionally jamming wildly over and around each other within the confines of each song, yet the band still sounded remarkably cohesive and tight.

With classic tracks such as “Do The Strand,” “Editions of You,” The Bogus Man,” “Beauty Queen,” “For Your Pleasure,” and the unforgettable and rather creepy “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the album contained a wealth of Art Rock experimentation with a touch of Glam, including strange and kooky arrangements, eerie and mind-bending synths and sound effects, all dripping in top-notch elegance and pizzazz, with the end product becoming nothing short of a 5-Star masterpiece.

Unfortunately, this would also be the last album to include Brian Eno, and his genius-like contributions to the Roxy Music sound would be sorely missed on future releases.

Get The Album Now!

Ariel – A Strange Fantastic Dream (1973)

Ariel_StrangeDream4 out of 5 Stars!

From Australia, Ariel was a band difficult to categorize. Take A Strange Fantastic Dream, the debut album, as an example.

At first blush, the band’s semi-commercial songs seem to easily fall into almost simplistic Hard Rock/Blues Rock territory, but upon further listens one can’t help but notice how Ariel includes frequent touches of Zappa-inspired humor and quirky instrumentation into each track, along with some intricate arrangements, and those crazy ingredients add a great deal of spice to the album’s overall appeal.

Song titles such as “Confessions of a Psychopathic Cowpoke,” “Chicken Shit,” and “Garden of the Frenzied Cortinas” make it clear there is something a tad “off” with this band, and in a good way.

So I would sub-categorize A Strange Fantastic Dream as “Art Rock with Attitude.”

Get The Album Now!

Toto – Hydra (1979)

Toto_Hydra4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the forty years since Toto has been together, 1979’s Hydra remains one of my favorite albums simply because it’s one of the band’s most progressive releases.

With no trio of mega hit singles included (no mighty “Hold The Line”/”Georgy Porgy”/”I’ll Supply the Love” type of triumvirate, which all appeared on the band’s previous platter) this sophomore effort—which spawned only one hit single in the form of “99”—was summarily and unfairly dismissed by many original fans of the band and the music press, but I on the other hand (being more of a rebel, I guess, and also being a Prog-Rock lover more than a Pop-Rock devotee) eagerly embraced Hydra, with songs such as “St. George and the Dragon,” “White Sister,” “All Us Boys,” “Lorraine,” and the awesome title track, hoping it actually indicated the future of the talented group.

In some ways, my wish came true, with the next album (Turn Back) also stretching the musical boundaries for AOR fans with the additional progressive flourishes, with Toto experimenting a bit more, and thus—with no hit singles at all—becoming another big disappointment for many original fans and critics alike.

For me, however, this “pre-Rosanna/Africa” period of Toto’s history was always the most enjoyable, and Hydra remains the best of the band’s initial three releases and (apart from 1984’s Isolation, which featured the excellent Dennis “Fergie” Fredericksen on lead vocals) the Toto album I continue to hold most sacred.

Get The Album Now!