Epidermis – Genius of Original Force (1977)

Epidermis_OriginalForce4 out of 5 Stars!

German band Epidermis released its four-song debut (and probably, its best album) in 1977, which contains a mixture of various Prog-Rock styles, some reminiscent of the more experimental bands of the era such as King Crimson or Grobschnitt. But when it comes to song arrangements and the instrumentation of numerous passages—the surprising inclusion of recorders, for example—and (especially) the vocals—often complex, with multiple counterpoint melody lines and harmonies—Gentle Giant instantly springs to mind.

In fact, the track “A Riddle to Myself” could have come straight off any Gentle Giant album, while the vocal sections on the eleven-plus-minute “Genius of Original Force” are eerily reminiscent of GG’s “On Reflection” from the Free Hand album mixed with some bits off the platter The Power and the Glory—only with Epidermis singing in its native language—while the instrumentation seems to mimic the style of GG’s In A Glass House release.

So for Prog-Rock fans who revel in the Gentle Giant sound and want to experience more of it, Genius of Original Force is an album you’ll certainly want to investigate.

 

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Epidermis_OriginalForce

 

Ethos – Ardour (1976)

Ethos_Ardour4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the town of Fort Wayne, Indiana, came the group Ethos, a Prog band with high potential that released only two albums before sadly disbanding. Not until the groups Kansas, Starcastle, and Ethos appeared on the scene in the mid-’70s could the Central Midwest region of the USA claim such promising Prog-Rock bands in its midst, so it was a shame the latter act disappeared so shortly after emerging (and followed soon afterward by Starcastle).

Anyway, the band’s debut album, Ardour, contains some truly impressive, complex, and well-performed Symphonic Prog, very British-sounding overall, with lush melodies and grand vocal harmonies, keyboards galore—including Mellotron, Chamberlin, and multi-layered synths—a seemingly perfect balance of both acoustic and electric guitar accompaniment, a dynamic rhythm section including Rickenbacker bass, along with mandolins and flutes popping up on occasion.

On diverse tunes such as “The Dimension Man,” “Space Brothers,” “Long Dancer,” “Everyman,” and “Intrepid Traveller,” I hear Yes and Flash influences, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Genesis touches, a smattering of Van Der Graaf Generator, and (on “Atlanteans”) an all-too-brief guitar solo that instantly brings to mind the work of six-string axe wielder Georg Wadenius, who employed some inspired and jazzy “guitar/vocal duets” during his time with Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Regardless, Ethos was a band worthy of greater acclaim and wider recognition, and Ardour (and, to a lesser extent, the band’s 1977 sophomore release) is an obscure goldmine of musical riches.

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Galaxy – Nature’s Clear Well (1978)

Galaxy_NaturesWell3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Germany, a band with the odd name Waniyetula recorded this collection back in 1975, the six songs produced by the acclaimed Dieter Dierks for potential release on (I’m assuming) his own Venus record label. Yet for some reason, the album was shelved indefinitely. Then in 1978, only after another record label purchased the rights to the album, did Nature’s Clear Well finally see the light of day, only packaged/marketed under the more palatable band name Galaxy.

The music on Nature’s Clear Well is generally a mixture of Yes and Starcastle-inspired Symphonic Prog with a hint of Prog-Folk, thanks to several lighter acoustic guitar moments, while the keyboard instrumentation occasionally reminds me of Genesis, Nektar, Eloy, Jane, and Camel.

Well, regardless of the band’s name change, the album went nowhere fast in the “Punk/Disco era,” and Galaxy ended up reverting back to its original (and less-marketable) name, recorded another album released in 1983 (which also went nowhere fast), and finally called it quits.

Nevertheless, Nature’s Clear Well contains some fairly decent material, such as “Wish I Were Happy,” “Warning Walls,” “Dreams Out in the Rain,” and the eleven-minute title track, and fans of really obscure Prog-Rock might certainly find something to savor here.

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Ibis – Ibis (1975)

Ibis_Ibis19753.5 out of 5 Stars!

Ibis, a short-lived group from Italy formed by ex-members of New Trolls and Atomic Rooster, released three albums between 1973-1975, with this self-titled collection being its final offering, and probably also its weakest effort.

But even though the album might not match the overall superiority of the two preceding albums—thanks to two below-average songs where the band sings in English and pretty much abandons its normal Symphonic Prog style to venture into unexpected Hard Rock/Blues Rock territory—enough impressive moments still exist to satisfy the Prog-Rock cravings, especially with the dual guitarists working together exceptionally well, trading scorching solos and acting almost as a Prog version of Thin Lizzy on several tracks.

Plus, some of the more adventurous songs bring to mind groups such as Yes, especially when the beautiful vocal harmonies are allowed to blaze forth, such as on the fantastically diverse “Strada” or on the wonderfully acoustic “Passa Il Tempo.”

So overall, although the Ibis swansong is not the band’s most consistent work, it does include enough magical moments to bring a smile to my Prog-loving face.

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Il Castello di Atlante – Arx Atlantis (2016)

IlCastello_ArxAtlantis4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the mid-’90s, when I started delving into the Italian Prog-Rock scene thanks to a renewed interest in PFM, I stumbled across the 1992 debut by Il Castello di Atlante, and after savoring the album, immediately deemed the talented group one to watch.

Now, more than two decades later, with the arrival of Arx Atlantis, the band’s sixth (I believe) studio collection, I’m still impressed. The group continues to create some grand and often-complex material, with the vocal melody lines ever-enchanting and the instrumentation dynamic and laden with exquisite solos and background accompaniment.

And with the violin beautifully weaving its way in and out of the five songs on offer here, and the old-style keys and synths acting as a lush foundation for the band’s symphonic style, Il Castello di Atlante continues to remind me of a happy and fruitful marriage between acts such as PFM and Kansas.

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IlCastello_ArxAtlantis

House Of Lords – Saint of the Lost Souls (2017)

HouseLords_SaintLostSouls4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Apart from perhaps one so-so album in the early part of this century, and despite seemingly endless changes within its lineup since its debut in the late ’80s, House Of Lords is probably one of the most consistent bands in the genre regarding its overall sound and style, delivering albums every few years with catchy material, outstanding musicianship and vocals, and full and rich production.

2017’s Saint of the Lost Souls is another out-and-out scorcher, grand and glistening and glorious, perhaps even matching the supremacy of 2006’s near-perfect World Upside Down, with (sole original member) James Christian’s powerful vocals leading the way, and the band’s trademarked Pomp-Rock keyboards (originally supplied by the great Gregg Giuffria of Angel fame until his retirement, and performed on this album by Christian himself) adding to the majesty of the band’s overall style. Also featured on this album is the wonderfully tasty and blazing six-string fretwork from seasoned guitarist Jimi Bell, as well as the tight-as-heck rhythm section of new bassist Chris Tristram and long-time House of Lords’s drummer B.J. Zampa.

With tracks such as the keyboard-rich opener “Harlequin,” as well as other melodious rockers like “Art of Letting Go,” “Concussion,” “The Other Option,” “Reign of Fire,” “New Day Breakin’,” and the outstanding title tune, along with the lush ballad “The Sun Will Never Set Again,” Saint of the Lost Souls proves once again that House Of Lords is truly a top-class act, and this album is simply Pomp-tastic!

 

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Van Halen – Zero (2002)

VanHalen_Zero4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Originally recorded back in 1976, two years before Van Halen officially burst onto the scene with its debut album, this ten-song “demo” (produced and financed by Kiss’s Gene Simmons) includes higher-energy versions of four tracks that would appear years later on several of the band’s Warner Bros. releases—”On Fire” and “Runnin’ With the Devil” from the debut album, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” from the band’s sophomore album, and “House of Pain,” which would eventually pop up on 1984. Each of these tracks are slightly different than the versions with which fans are familiar, not only when it comes to tempos, but also with alternate lyrics and solos, or even added verses or bridges.

The remaining six tracks are rare and unreleased, with one called “Woman in Love” (not the same tune that appeared on the second album, however, but a driving rocker instead). And speaking of which, the other unreleased tunes—”She’s The Woman,” “Let’s Get Rockin’,” “Big Trouble,” “Baby, Don’t Leave Me Alone,” and “Put Out the Lights”—all fall into that “driving rockers” category. Indeed, some of these tunes are actually superior to a handful of tracks Van Halen released on its official albums, which were also quite short in length anyway, barely reaching the thirty-minute mark. So why the band elected not to slide a few of these shelved tunes onto Women and Children First, or Diver Down, etc. is a mystery.

Anyway, for fans of early Van Halen, this is certainly a collection of riches beyond compare. In my opinion, Zero is definitely one of the best Van Halen albums of all time, featuring the lean, mean, and hungry classic lineup before they were stars!

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Stratovarius – Nemesis (2013)

Stratovarius_Nemesis4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve been following Finnish band Stratovarius since the mid-’90s, and unlike some fans who believe the group fluctuated wildly in quality just after the turn of the century, with certain albums being rated unjustifiably and unfairly low at several music-related websites, I’ve felt the band has remained almost eerily consistent since 1995’s Fourth Dimension, more so than numerous other groups in the same genre, never veering too far off course. Certainly, some Stratovarius albums lean more toward Progressive Metal than Power Metal, and other albums vice versa, but despite the occasional change in the band’s lineup, nothing in the Stratovarius sound changes so drastically as for anyone to have a mental freak out if an album isn’t an exact carbon copy of the previous one. (Sorry—just a pet peeve I needed to get off my chest.)

Regardless, Nemesis, the band’s fourteenth studio album, is yet another melodic, well-written, varied and dynamic collection of Prog-Metal/Power Metal tracks, with each band member having enough shining moments to push this album toward the head of my “Favorite Stratovarius Album” list.

Tracks such as the blazing and barreling opener “Abandon,” along with “Dragons,” “Halcyon Days,” “Out of the Fog,” “Stand My Ground,” sit comfortably alongside highly pompish mid-tempo rockers “Castle in the Air” and “One Must Fall,” while the ballad “If the Story is Over,” contributes additional variety to the fine mix of styles. Even the two bonus tracks, “Fireborn” and “Hunter,” are exceptional slices of Prog-tinged Power Metal, crammed with sizzling synths and six-string madness.

Tomi Kotipelto’s vocals remain powerful and melodic, and the overall high quality and energy displayed here, plus the typical classy arrangements, instrumentation, and spectacular solos from keyboardist Jens Johansson and guitarist Matias Kupianinen, clearly show a band still at the top of its game even after three decades of being in existence.

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Il Balletto di Bronzo – Ys (1972)

IlBalletto_Ys4 out of 5 Stars!

Ys, the second (and last from the ’70s) album by Italian band Il Balletto di Bronzo, is somewhat of a “freak show” when it comes to the Progressive Rock genre.

I can’t think of another band quite like this one—except for perhaps Jumbo, another Italian group with similar strangeness from the same era, or the modern-day band Regal Worm.

When it comes to “Introduzione”—the opening track, for instance—the listener is confronted by so many outlandish and eerie atmospheres, rhythm shifts, zany Moog, piano, and organ solos, fiery guitar fills, peculiar bass guitar melodies, and unorthodox vocal passages, all hurled at you seemingly at breakneck speed, that it’s virtually impossible to wrap your mind around, and savor, any one element of the music, requiring numerous replays in order to absorb the pure Avant-Prog insanity that passed by in the eleven-minute stretch.

Each one of the other three tracks delivers more of the same. The music is also heavily laced with Psychedelic effects, making the use of headphones/earbuds a wild, almost life-altering experience.

And the even stranger thing is that, for the most part, it works! Sure, some aspects of the eccentric performances, musical arrangements, and instrumentation take some getting used to—such as the almost demented lead vocals—but once your mind settles into the uniqueness of it all, the album actually grows on you.

Perhaps Ys is not a masterpiece, but it’s nearly so.

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Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)

Eno_WarmJets4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Leaving Roxy Music after two masterpiece albums, “tapes treatment” and synth wizard Brian Eno created his first solo album with the aid of most of his former Roxy bandmates, as well as Chris Spedding, John Wetton, and Robert Fripp and many other guests, delivering his own masterpiece of Art Rock with a healthy dose of Glam. And although the music isn’t too dissimilar from Eno’s work with Roxy Music on the band’s debut release and For Your Pleasure, the experimentation here is at a much higher level.

Here Come the Warm Jets is completely unique to my ears, surreal yet accessible, zany yet catchy, sinister yet welcoming, with musical gems such as “Baby’s On Fire,” “Dead Finks Don’t Talk,” “Driving Me Backwards,” “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch,” and “Blank Frank”—oh, hell, in truth, every one of the ten tracks is golden—all being mind-blowing when it came to overall creativity and general “goofiness.”

Simply stated, when it comes to the avant-garde melody lines, the curious lyrical content, the eccentric instrumentation, or the innovative production techniques, sound effects, and “treatments” Eno gives to the various instruments and vocals, this is Art Rock at its finest. No wonder the man has become a musical living legend.

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