Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) – Photos of Ghosts (1973)

PFM_PhotosGhosts4 out of 5 Stars!

After releasing an impressive debut album (Storia di un minuto), then an equally stunning follow-up (Per un amico), PFM got “discovered” outside its native Italy by Greg Lake, who signed the band to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Manticore label.

Immediately afterward, the group either re-recorded or remixed some of its past material (mostly from its sophomore album) and added English lyrics, created one additional song as well (“Old Rain”), and packaged the “new” album as Photos of Ghosts, thus giving PFM more worldwide exposure through the Manticore distribution channels.

For the most part, the gamble paid off, and countries including America started to pay attention. Unfortunately, despite the added exposure over the next few years, the band went only so far in expanding its worldwide fan base and still remains horribly obscure.

Regardless, some PFM fans prefer the original Italian-lyric versions of the various tracks offered on this release, while I sit on the fence and replay all the band’s early albums, both in Italian or English, about equally.

Whichever preference one may have, however, the listener is treated to sophisticated, complex, and creative music from arguably Italy’s most talented Prog-Rock group in the first half of the ’70s, and Photos of Ghosts includes several of PFM’s most famous and classic tracks, including “Celebration,” “Mr. 9 Till 5,” “Il Banchetto,” and “Promenade The Puzzle.”

For those still Prog-Rock fans still unfamiliar with this legendary group, Photos of Ghosts wouldn’t be a bad place to start when delving into the band’s extensive catalogue.

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Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) – Storia di un minuto (1972)

PFM_Storia4 out of 5 Stars!

Storia di un minuto is the impressive debut album of a band many Prog-Rock fans (and friends of mine) deemed to be “the Italian Gentle Giant.”

Okay, I’ll concur with that, but to only a marginal extent. Sure, PFM occasionally incorporated “unconventional” instruments (woodwinds, violin, etc.) into its overall sound, bringing about much of the “Giant comparisons” from my friends. But PFM had actually created its own rather unique and theatrical style and so—to me, at least—truly sounded nothing much like Gentle Giant.

Regardless, Storia di un minuto was one of the first albums I investigated by this band, and I remember coming away with a smile on my face.

With its riotous and ever-changing tempos, chunky guitar and bright synth riffs, not to mention the inclusion of flute and the glorious Mellotron, the track “E’ festa” is where I viewed the most Gentle Giant comparisons. Similarly, the opening section of the instrumental “Dove… quando… (parte II)” offered some additional comparisons.

But that was about it. On other tracks such as “Impressioni di settembre” and “Dove… quando… (parte I)” the group’s more pastorial side came through, offering something completely different. Additionally, in the second half of the aforementioned “Dove… quando… (parte II),” when the band dove headfirst into Jazz-Rock territory during a free-styling flute solo, I realized that the seamless merging of genres was a trait not many other groups shared with PFM, and I was hooked. And as if to further intrigue me, the band also tossed in “La carrozza di Hans,” where again, the merging of numerous genres, of shifting styles and widely varied instrumentation within such a short time span (the track is just shy of seven minutes) gave PFM a unique character and enduced me to investigate even more groups with Italian heritage.

Unfortunately, in its heyday during the ’70s, the talented group could never quite break big into the booming “American market”—although it came damned close—therefore, PFM remains shamefully obscure even now.

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Macroscream – Macroscream (2016)

Macroscream_24.5 out of 5 Stars!

Macroscream is a “newish” Italian Prog-Rock band with a strong vintage flavor. Although I have not heard the band’s debut album (Sisyphus) from 2012, this sophomore release is quite stunning.

With the inclusion of violin, sax, and the prominent retro keys, along with some jazz and folk influences, fun time shifts and the intricate arrangements both vocally and instrumentally on tracks such as “Mr. Why,” “Goliath,” “Unquiet,” “Impenetrable Oak Bark,” and “The Flying Gianpy,” the band often reminds me of classic acts such as Gentle Giant or PFM mixed with the occasional touch of Supertramp, or more modern Prog-Rock groups such as Seven Steps to the Green Door, Black Bonzo, and Presto Ballet.

This is one exciting band to watch!

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Pride of Lions – Immortal (2012)

PrideLions_Immortal4 out of 5 Stars!

For me, when it comes to musicians, Chicago’s Jim Peterik easily falls into the “living legend” category. Peterik first earned his stripes with the Jazz-Rock group The Ides of March, then later, garnered even more acclaim as one of the driving forces in Survivor, penning numerous hits along the way (either individually or as part of a songwriting team) for not only his own groups, but for numerous other artists. Seriously, who in the world is still unfamiliar with the song “Eye of the Tiger,” right?

Therefore, in 2003, when I learned of Peterik’s involvement with a new band called Pride of Lions, I added the group’s future releases to my “auto-purchase” list and have never once been disappointed. With exceptional lead singer Toby Hitchcock (his style, range, and timbre highly reminiscent of Survivor’s Jimi Jamison—RIP) on board, Peterik found the perfect musical partner with whom to create additional AOR magic.

Immortal, the band’s fourth album, is once again a collection of beautifully written and well-produced tracks, both sing-along rockers such as the opening title tune, plus “Coin of the Realm,” “If It Doesn’t Kill Me,” “Vital Signs,” “Ask Me Yesterday,” and “Tie Down the Wind,” along with a handful of luscious ballads like “Everything That Money Can’t Buy,” “Are You the Same Girl,” and “Sending My Love”.

And no doubt, this album (as well as the band’s other high-quality releases) will appeal to fans of groups such as Journey, Mecca, W.E.T., Find Me, Sunstorm, and of course, Survivor.

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Landskap – II (2014)

Landskap_24 out of 5 Stars!

Like the group’s other two albums, Landskap’s sophomore release shows that this U.K. band is a rather unique animal on today’s music scene. Imagine what would have happened had The Doors gone Heavy Prog/Heavy Psych with more than a touch of Doom Metal and Stoner Rock included, with even a few jazzy rhythms sneaking in, and that’s what this act brings to the table.

Generally, on tracks such as “Leave It All Behind,” “Through the Ash,” “South of No North,” and “Tomorrow’s Ghost,” the music is delightfully dark and creepy, with growling Hammond organ and dreamy electric piano ala “Riders on the Storm,” grooving and often Sabbath-tinged guitar riffs, and a Jim Morrison soundalike behind the microphone.

Landskap would likely appeal to fans of other Retro-Rock bands such as D’Accord, Hypnos 69, Siena Root, Witchwood, etc. I find myself being drawn to this album more and more as the months pass by, continually reveling in the eerie yet driving atmospheres and the rock-solid performances by each musician.

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The J. Geils Band – Live! Blow Your Face Out (1976)

JGeils_LiveBlowYourFaceOut4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Live! Blow Your Face Out is easily one of my favorite live albums of all time, displaying Boston’s The J. Geils Band at its peak and in its true element, rockin’ out and funkin’ out to an adoring audience.

On high-energy versions of songs such as “Musta Got Lost,” “So Sharp,” “Love-Itis,” “Southside Shuffle,” “Detroit Breakdown,” “Back to Get Ya,” “(Ain’t Nothing’ but A) Houseparty,” the haunting “Chimes,” and of course, the hit “Give It to Me,” you can practically hear the perspiration trickling from the foreheads of all band members to the stage as they dish out classic after classic of soulful R&B tracks, with each instrument, especially Magic Dick’s spectacular harmonica, wailing up a storm. And all the while, singer Peter Wolf uses his exceptional skills as a former DJ to rile up the crowd into a frenzy between each song, making for nothing short of a huge and rip-roaring affair.

Nope, there ain’t nothing but a house party here, and done the J. Geils way. Simply electric!

(RIP to Mr. J. Geils himself…the world is gonna miss you!)

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Puzzle – Puzzle (1973)

Puzzle_14 out of 5 Stars!

Is there anyone besides me who remembers this group? When hunting through my album collection not long ago, I yanked out the two platters by an extremely obscure band from Chi-town named Puzzle.

I hadn’t heard these albums for decades, yet the moment I reviewed the song titles listed on the back covers, snippets of “tune memories” immediately raced through my mind and I itched to revisit these collections again.

Despite the band including a horn section, a rarity in and of itself, Puzzle truly offered nothing revolutionary in the Jazz-Rock/Jazz Fusion world. Indeed, the band sounded remarkably like Chicago, even featuring a lead singer (the band’s drummer) with a voice similar to Robert Lamm’s. Although since Puzzle did not include a trombonist, but two trumpeters and a sax player, the brass section is thinner—not as round or as full without the trombone—setting it apart from Chicago’s signature brass sound. Plus, groups such as Chicago, Ides of March, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chase had already been around for several years before Puzzle popped onto the scene, so again, the band offered nothing truly unique.

Still, the band had potential, and on its debut album, produced catchy, well-arranged material featuring wailing brass such as “On With the Show,” “You Make Me Happy,” “It’s Not the Last Time,” “Brand New World,” “Lady,” “Suite Delirium,” and the intriguing instrumental “The Grosso.”

Personally, I prefer Puzzle’s self-titled debut since the sophomore effort (boringly christened The Second Album) had a lesser emphasis on the brass instruments, yet Jazz-Rock lovers (especially those who enjoyed Chicago’s earliest albums and songs in the style of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Saturday in the Park,” or “Beginnings”) will likely find some satisfying material on either platter (both of which appeared, oddly enough, on the Motown label).

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Grace Slick – Welcome to the Wrecking Ball (1981)

GraceSlick_WreckingBall4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When the legendary Grace Slick took a break from Jefferson Starship after the band’s less-than-spectacular Earth album in 1978, she released two above-average solo collections before returning to the band—Dreams in 1980 and, the following year, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball.

This latter album proved itself unique among all of Grace’s solo efforts since, instead of being the expected mixture of Pop Rock, Psychedelic Rock, AOR, and Folk Rock, it contained stripped-down, back-to-basics, guitar-oriented Hard Rock material, with some songs even bordering on Heavy Metal, thanks mainly to the contributions of guitarist/arranger Scott Zito, who composed all of the tracks either by himself or with Grace as co-writer.

Therefore, due to the album’s hard-rockin’ style on tracks such as “Sea of Love,” “Wrecking Ball,” “No More Heroes,” “Shot in the Dark,” “Mistreater,” and “Shooting Star,” with blazing guitars, a pounding rhythm section, and Grace belting out wickedly sardonic lyrics throughout many of the tracks, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball ended up becoming my favorite of her solo releases.

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Melissa Etheridge – Brave And Crazy (1989)

MelissaEtheridge_BraveCrazy3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Before achieving her big breakthrough with 1993’s Yes I Am album, Kansas-born singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge released three collections of tracks in a genre now being coined “Heartland Rock,” basically a mixture of Hard Rock/Folk Rock with perhaps a hint of Country and R&B tossed in.

Well, whatever the silly and trendy “genre du jour” moniker being used within the industry at any given time to describe a musical style, Etheridge’s second release, Brave And Crazy, is crammed with no-frills and well-performed melodic songs such as “No Souvenirs,” “You Used to Love to Dance,” “Testify,” “Skin Deep,” “The Angels,” “Let Me Go,” and my favorite, “Royal Station 4/16.”

Overall, the collection contains a pleasant balance of Hard and Soft Rock, with Etheridge’s 12-string acoustic guitar at the forefront in the mix and the emotionally charged lyrics delivered in her raspy, recognizable, and soul-stirring voice, which I adore.

Plus, even this early in Etheridge’s professional career, her songwriting capabilities are already impressive, with most of the tunes on this release being highly memorable, adding to the album’s replay value.

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Gecko’s Tear – Primati (2016)

GeckosTear_Primati3.5 out of 5 Stars!

A decade after Italy’s Gecko’s Tear released its rather weird and impressive debut album Contradiction, the band finally returned in 2016 with a brand new album called Primati.

Like the first album, Primati includes some rather strange and complex material, a combination of Prog-Rock with a load of avant-garde arrangements, time signature shifts, awesomely bizarre vocal interplay (as on the track “Preambolo”), and highly creative instrumentation, bringing to mind the more Jazz Fusion albums by acts such as Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention and Frogg Café, along with other groups from Italy such as PFM, D.F.A., Jumbo, and Area.

And if memory serves me correctly, please also note, unlike the debut album, all lyrics on this second release are in the band’s native language.

Be that as it may, the tunes on Primati are often wild and wacky, definitely different from the norm and geared toward the more adventurous Prog-Rock listener who savors endless yet euphonious twists and turns and unpredictability in their music.

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