Millenium – Exist (2008)

Millenium_Exist4 out of 5 Stars!

Millenium, a Prog-Rock band from Poland (not to be confused with the Jorn Lande Hard Rock/Heavy Metal outfit that bore the same name), released its debut album back in 1998, and to this day continues onward, always creating enjoyable, highly melodic and moody, above-average music of the Neo-Prog variety on a fairly regular basis, for which I am eternally thankful.

Exist, the band’s 2008 release (its seventh studio album) is probably one of my favorites, with each of its four lengthy tracks (from eleven to fifteen minutes each) often mesmerizing, containing a perfect balance of heavier and lighter moments, solid melodies, and top-notch musicianship.

Fans of Galleon, Airbag, Pink Floyd, Big Big Train, and similar acts will likely enjoy Millenium’s material as much as I’ve come to appreciate it.

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Shaolin Death Squad – Shaolin Death Squad (2004)

ShaolinSquad_SDS4 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of Texas comes a truly bizarre band with an equally bizarre name, and even the individual band members take on bizarre personas (“The White Swan” on vocals and keys, “The Black Scorpion” on guitar, “Black Ninja” on drums, etc.) with all of them wearing masks to fit their alter egos. As I said, bizarre…but fun as hell.

Regardless, although the band’s style is often difficult to categorize, Shaolin Death Squad generally plays modern Prog-Rock with some Metal touches, incorporating a wide range of styles (including Zappa) into its music, which in many respects, reminds me of the early Art Rock albums by The Tubes, only with contemporary musical styles and influences vividly coloring the somewhat-theatrical vocal performances, song arrangements, and instrumentation.

Be that as it may, the band’s various studio releases—including this self-titled, six-track, thirty-minute debut EP—are highly creative, often experimental, well-performed, and quite enjoyable.

I wish Shaolin Death Squad (despite its name) a long and productive existence. 🙂

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Warpig – Warpig (1970)

Warpig_14 out of 5 Stars!

This is a damned decent one-off album from a hard-rocking Canadian band with Heavy-Prog and Psych elements, which was remastered and re-released in 2006 by Relapse Records.

Fans of groups such as Captain Beyond, Warhorse, Deep Purple, Birth Control, and Uriah Heep might appreciate this one, as well as those who might be interested to hear what an evil Black Sabbath-esque guitar riff might sound like with a harpsichord accompaniment.

Seriously, that’s exactly what happens on the track “Tough Nuts,” so the band was nothing if not inventive with its instrumentation.

And since the track “Rock Star” has a similar rhythm and vibe, chord pattern, and guitar fills as Deep Purple’s “Speed King” from the In Rock album, I seriously have to wonder if either band heard the other’s demo tapes prior to their own recording sessions, since both albums came out in 1970.

Regardless, it’s a crying shame Warpig didn’t release more material in the ’70s since the band would have certainly and easily fit in with the aforementioned groups and—perhaps?—taken a magical ride to stardom. With so much creativity on display here, it would have been interesting to see how the band might’ve honed its skills and developed on subsequent albums.

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Humble Pie – Smokin’ (1972)

HumblePie_Smokin4 out of 5 Stars!

Give me a dose of Steve Marriott’s raspy and raucous and rampaging vocals soaring over slamming Hard “Boogie” Rock and I’ll always be happy.

On the band’s fifth release, Humble Pie was at the top of its game, offering up some classic and (yes, I have to say it) smokin’ tracks, such as “Hot ‘n’ Nasty,” “C’mon Everybody,” “The Fixer,” “Road Runner,” and “30 Days in the Hole,” with the diminutive Marriott flexing his gigantic “vocal muscles” and belting out a storm over Clem Clempson’s heavy and sizzling guitar riffs, and the formidable team of bassist Gregg Ridley and drummer Jerry Shirley never sounding tighter or more thundering.

Smokin’ was a perfect example of a hungry band unafraid to add elements of Folk, Soul, and Funk into its overall solid Blues-Rock foundation to add tasty variety and further expand its sound.

Humble Pie is one band I wish could have lasted forever and ever and ever with this line-up of musicians, who really jived as a cohesive team…but alas, it ended all too soon.

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May Blitz – The 2nd of May (1971)

MayBlitz_2ndMay4 out of 5 Stars!

May Blitz, a hard-rockin’ and creative trio made up of two Canadians (guitarist/vocalist Jamie Black and bassist Reid Hudson) and a Brit (drummer Tony Newman, formerly of Jeff Beck Group who eventually joined Boxer and T-Rex) sadly released only two albums before disbanding.

Both albums are crammed with grooving and occasionally funky Hard/Blues Rock, Heavy Psychedelic Rock, and even a touch of Prog-Rock, with rather dark (proto-Metal) atmospheres overall. On this particular platter, the group’s second release, the driving opening track, “For Mad Men Only,” is a perfect example of that more metalized sound, with the band barreling out of the gate in the finest tradition of rock ‘n’ roll power trios—thundering and unrelenting rhythms and blazing guitar leads. A similar style also appears on “8 Mad Grim Nits,” the first track on the flip side, an instrumental where Hudson and Newman maintain a riotous beat behind Black’s often-explosive six-string antics.

Meanwhile, the other half-dozen tracks are less in-your-face, with “The 25th of December 1969,” “Honey-Coloured Time,” and “Snakes and Ladders” offering up mid-tempo fare loaded with both acoustic and electric guitar riffs, intriguing and varied percussion, highly melodic and jazz-inspired bass runs, and—especially on the latter track—hypnotic atmospheres galore. And one of my favorite tunes, the laid-back “High Beech,” with its beautiful acoustic guitar background and psychedelic vibes, could almost be a lost track from Ten Years After’s A Space in Time album.

The two lengthier side-closers seem almost text-book examples for bands on how to create captivating and almost free-form Heavy Psych material. The rollicking and flute-enhanced “In Part” even features a lengthy drum solo, a definite rarity for studio albums in any genre or in any era, while the luscious and dreamy “Just Thinking” allows the listener to float away on a sea of psychedelia—ideal for any listener who occasionally enjoys indulging in a certain type of…hmm…”cigarette.”

Overall, however, The 2nd of May is not without its flaws. Like on the band’s debut platter, Black’s lead vocals are indeed the weakest link. His delivery is often frail and perfunctory, lacking in all emotion, and his precision is not always meticulous. Yet May Blitz was never about vocal prowess, never about luring in listeners who demand a recognizable crooner churning out catchy and singalong lyrics, but instead, a raw celebration of tasty and mesmerizing fret-work. Therefore, Black’s generic vocals are in no way an aural affront to the ear drums, just a bit of a disappointment for those of us who can imagine what might have become of May Blitz had it also possessed a frontman as powerful and as sterling as its musicians.

And speaking of which, the fantastic musicianship on display here often reminded me of the excellent U.K. power trio Three Man Army (which—highly coincidental—also featured Tony Newman), another band that also never received the fame it so justifiably deserved. So fans of groups such as the aforementioned Three Man Army and Ten Years After, plus outfits such as Captain Beyond, Blues Creation, Groundhogs, Flower Travellin’ Band, Dust, and even Jimi Hendrix, will likely enjoy May Blitz, a band that disappeared way before its time.

 

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GNP – Safety Zone (1989)

GNP_SafetyZone3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Safety Zone, the single album by GNP (aka Gilmour Negus Project) is a collection of tracks created by two longtime members of the legendary Canadian Prog-Rock group Saga (keyboardist Jim Gilmour and drummer Steve Negus) along with vocalist Robert Bevan.

But unlike a typical Progressive-leaning album by Saga, the music on Safety Zone is instead AOR/Pomp Rock material, a musical landscape similar in many respects to groups such as Toto, Asia, Mr. Mister, and Ambrosia, with just a touch of (no surprise) Saga influences. In other words, highly polished, commercial and melodic tunes with an emphasis on (again, no surprise) keyboards.

While various studio musician “guest stars” provide additional instrumentation—most notably guitarist John Albani (Wrabit/Lee Aaron)—the music again relies heavily on Gilmour’s extensive keyboard skills, and is generally likeable and catchy, if not unremarkable overall.

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Samson – Shock Tactics (1981)

Samson_ShockTactics3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Samson was a decent, albeit inconsistent, band that enjoyed only a modicum of success (mostly in England) during the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” era of the late ’70s/early ’80s.

In truth, I didn’t much care for Survivors, the band’s debut album, but for the following two collections, including Shock Tactics (the band’s third release), Samson featured the powerful and recognizable Bruce Dickinson (aka Bruce Bruce) on lead vocals before Iron Maiden snatched him away, and both albums were certainly a giant improvement in quality over the debut.

Although there is nothing on Shock Tactics to set the world on fire, nothing “shocking” despite the album’s title, Samson did nevertheless produce some enjoyable Heavy Metal during this period in its existence.

The blazing opener “Riding With the Angels” or the galloping “Earth Mother” wouldn’t seem at all out of place on any of Dickinson’s early solo albums, while the slow-grinding “Once Bitten” and the driving “Bright Lights” wouldn’t sound too far afield beside any of Iron Maiden’s initial efforts with the singer. And other tunes such as “Nice Girl,” “Go To Hell,” and “Grime Crime,” easily rival other bands of the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” era, such as Tygers of Pan Tang, Saxon, or Raven. Throughout the album, Paul Samson displays fairly impressive guitar prowess, giving most of the tunes a bright and powerful spark, with even a hint of Blues in several of his riffs and solos.

Only the final track—a fierce power ballad named “Communion”—offers something a bit different from the rest of the album, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Dickinson’s stunning performance on this tune is what cinched the deal when it came to his being hired for Iron Maiden.

So, with “Bruce Bruce” behind the microphone, Shock Tactics is certainly better than average, with the musicianship and songwriting more than acceptable, and is worthy of investigation, especially for Dickinson devotees.

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Benedictum – Uncreation (2006)

Benedictum_Uncreation4 out of 5 Stars!

This California band features a terrific singer by the name of Veronica Freeman, who—if the listener didn’t know better—might be justifiably identified as a man due to her deep and forceful tone. Veronica is easily able to give singers like the magnificent Ronnie James Dio (Rainbow/Black Sabbath/Dio) and similar vocalists like Nils Patrik Johansson (Astral Doors/Wuthering Heights) a run for the money, since she matches them in regards to her aggressive power and emotion.

Hell, on this debut album, the band covers both “Heaven And Hell” and “The Mob Rules” by Black Sabbath, and on the next album, “Balls To The Wall” by Accept, and she KILLS on each track!

In short, this woman’s voice sends chills down my spine, and the band’s dense and driving wall of sound on tunes such as “Them,” “Misogyny,” “Valkyrie Rising,” “Ashes To Ashes,” and “Two Steps to the Sun” is pure metal mayhem. Excellent!

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Lords of Black – II (2016)

LordsOfBlack_24 out of 5 Stars!

Lords of Black’s second release is basically a continuation of the same type of music from the debut album—dense and punchy, solid and kick-ass Power Metal (with a slight Progressive and Neoclassical bent) in a style similar to groups such as Masterplan, Thunderstone, Ride The Sky, Astral Doors, Kamelot, and Beyond Twilight.

The band’s robust singer, Ronnie Romero, has a voice from the same “school of rock” as Jorn Lande, Ronnie James Dio, Nils Patrik Johansson, and Bjorn Jansson, so it came as no great surprise to learn that Romero had been hired to front the newest line-up of Rainbow.

Now I’m only praying Romero’s role in Rainbow doesn’t screw with Lords of Black’s plans since I would love to see a third album from this group in the not too distant future.

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Socrates Drank The Conium – Socrates Drank The Conium (1972)

SocratesDrank_14 out of 5 Stars!

Formed in Athens back in the late ’60s, the oddly named Socrates Drank The Conium released a trio of albums in 1972 and 1973, all of which provide a enjoyable blend of Heavy Psych, Hard/Blues Rock, and a touch of Progressive Rock, thanks to some of the arrangements and altering time signatures.

And although the vocalist (Antonis Tourkoyorgis) isn’t always 100% accurate when belting out the melodies, his impassioned, sometimes-gruff delivery is more than acceptable for music of this nature. On tracks such as “Live in the Country,” “Bad Conditions,” “Starvation,” “Close the Door and Lay Down,” “Hoo Yeah,” and the multi-part, bluesy and ballsy “It’s a Disgusting World,” with its thundering rhythms, trippy flute insertions, and outstanding guitar solo, the band often reminds me of an amalgam of artists such as Cream, May Blitz, Ten Years After, Mountain, Jimi Hendrix, and Three Man Army. Indeed, each track, even the mid-tempo, psychedelic “Underground,” features tasty and aggressive lead and bass guitar throughout (thanks respectively to Stratocaster-wielding Yannis Spathas and the aforementioned Antonis Tourkoyorgis, who also acted as bassist), and a tight, driving rhythm section, with drummer Elias Boukouvalas proving his solid worth, each member equally rivaling the musicianship of the aforementioned artists.

For fans of the genre and era, this highly obscure band with the odd name is definitely worth investigating. Also keep in mind, that after some lineup changes around 1976—including the addition of keyboardist Vangelis—the band shorted its moniker to simply Socrates and released four additional albums, the first one, Phos, appearing later that same year.

 

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