Wigwam – Dark Album (1978)

Wigwam_DarkAlbum3 out of 5 Stars!

In the early ’70s, Finland’s obscure yet legendary Wigwam released several “must have” albums for Prog-Rock fans—Fairport (1971), Being (1974), and Nuclear Nightclub (1975)—then altered its sound to include a bit more Pop Rock into the mixture of styles, no doubt seeking a wider audience.

For the most part, the experiment worked marginally well, at least for some fans, and 1977’s Dark Album (the band’s seventh and final album before disappearing until the ’90s) falls into this “for the most part” category.

The music on offer here is a hybrid, coming somewhere between commercial AOR/Pop Rock material (the album opener “Oh Marlene!” or “Helsinki Nights” and “The Silver Jubilee,” for example) and Prog-Rock, with many of the hybrid tracks (“The Item is the Totem,” “Horace’s Aborted Rip-Off Scheme,” “The Vegetable Rumble,” and “Cheap Evening Return”) being occasionally reminiscent of groups such as Kayak, City Boy, Supertramp, and other more Art Rock acts that successfully balanced the two genres, only with gruffer vocals and no reliance on the vocal harmony gymnastics that instantly identified the aforementioned bands.

Although Dark Album is not my favorite within Wigwam’s catalogue of releases—I prefer the earlier Prog-Rock platters—it’s fairly intriguing and enjoyable nevertheless.

And one final note (hint) to Prog fans: If investigating this release for purchase, seek out the version with the two bonus tracks (“Grass for Blades” and “Daemon Duncetan’s Request”) and you’ll find even more to enjoy.

Why these two more Prog-oriented/keyboard-featured tracks were left off the original release is just one of those annoying music-history mysteries…well, probably not such a mystery, since everyone knows that pushing a band to become “more commercial” to greedy, insatiable record company executives always means “more sales to line their greedy, insatiable pockets.” 🙂

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Silentium – Seducia (2006)

Silentium_Seducia4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I stumbled upon this talented Finnish group when hunting for more music similar to bands such as After Forever, Nightwish, and Within Temptation, and Seducia (Silentium’s fourth studio album and the collection that introduced me to the group) is generally quite superb—ominous Goth Metal atmospheres with full and biting dual guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, and the ultra-lush keyboards so highly associated with this particular genre.

But what sets Silentium apart from the aforementioned Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal groups is that Riina Rinkinen, the gifted female vocalist (the band’s third and final one), is not at all operatic in her approach, but more Hard Rock oriented. Plus, the band also includes Elias Kahila, a full-time cellist (a rarity in the “rock business”), thus adding an unusual, almost eerie lead instrument to Silentium’s overall style, and definitely places the group slightly apart from the rest of the pack. The sheer goth-drama of the cello is used to wonderful effect on the beginning passages and instrumental sections of the bombastic “Serpentized” and “Empress of the Dark,” or during brief solo spots on “Dead Silent,” when simply accenting verses on “Frostnight,” or accompanying the gentle piano during the introduction to “Unbroken.”

Regardless, from the beautifully orchestrated “Hangman’s Lullaby” and “Children of Chaos,” through to the lengthy and majestic self-titled closing tune, Seducia is a high-quality, well-produced album. Most of the arrangements are quite complex, almost soundtrack-worthy, compared to many of Silentium’s contemporaries. Moreover, the vocals—both female and the less-abundant male “counterpart” vocals—are bright and powerful in the mix, and don’t veer too profusely into that “beauty and the beast” territory that typically destroys the enjoyable factor on so many albums of this nature when overdone, either by the total number of appearances or by the sonic ugliness of the male’s growling and grunting and indecipherable babble. In other words, Silentium keeps things musical when it comes to the male vocals and doesn’t bombard the listener with the unnecessary noisy “demonic” nonsense described above.

Although the band released one additional album in 2008, the equally impressive Amortean, after that, Silentium suddenly fell off the radar (dare I say, “went silent”?). Therefore, since the group had previously released a new album every few years, this current ten-year gap doesn’t bode well for fans of the band like myself who were hoping for new material.

 

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White Heart – Tales of Wonder (1992)

WhiteHeart_Tales4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although being an atheist, I’m not a fan of Christian lyrics, yet the band White Heart grabbed my attention back in the late ’80s when it came to the often-stunning AOR/Hard Rock material on the album Freedom.

And thankfully, unlike several other groups of this nature, White Heart never attempted to cram the “worshipful lyrics” down the throats of the average listener, therefore allowing the beautiful melodies, the creative musicianship, and the absolutely awesome vocal harmonies to really shine through without distraction.

Tales of Wonder, the band’s eighth studio album, is one of my favorites. The album includes some fantastic material, with rollicking and catchy tunes such as “His Heart Was Always in It,” “Vendetta,” “Raging of the Moon,” and “Where the Thunder Roars” each having choruses that repeat in your head.

But as good as those tracks are, the true “stars” of the show are the mid-tempo AOR/Pomp Rock tunes and ballads. These are where the band really showcases its strengths in melody and instrumentation, especially when it comes to the keyboards, intriguing guitars and rhythms, and the glorious background vocals, with song arrangements also including some Prog-Rock influences. “Unchained,” “Say the Word,” “Silhouette,” “Who Owns You,” “Gabriela,” and especially the slow-building and stunning “Light a Candle” are top-quality tunes, easily matching the power and grandeur of any material delivered by groups such as Toto, Journey, Styx, LRB, and Strangeways.

Although the band disappeared before the new century, it left behind a score of fantastic music, and the well-produced Tales of Wonder is part of a string of above-average collections White Heart delivered in the early ’90s, each of them highly recommended.

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W.A.S.P. – Helldorado (1999)

Wasp_Helldorado4 out of 5 Stars!

The often-maligned yet ever-determined L.A. glam rockers W.A.S.P. closed out the last century with a “back to basics” album—meaning no dark or introspective conceptual themes, no linked or orchestrated or experimental tracks, just raucous and rowdy and rebellious tunes with Blackie Lawless shrieking his lungs raw, blazing guitars, and thundering rhythms.

And let’s not forget the other band trademark from the early days of its existence—rude and raunchy (ie. juvenile) lyrics about (you guessed it) sex, sex, and, oh yes, more sex. (Or S.E.X. in grand W.A.S.P. tradition.)

In my eyes, nothing will ever beat the band’s self-titled debut from 1984, a brutal and blistering 5-Star affair through and through, but Helldorado—with slamming tracks such as “Cocaine Cowboys,” “Saturday Night Cockfight,” “Dirty Balls,” “Don’t Cry (Just Suck),” “Hot Rods to Hell (Helldorado Reprise),” and the title track itself—is at least a decent attempt at revisiting that album’s overall “take no prisoners” style.

And one final note—play it L.O.U.D!

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Styx – Man of Miracles (1974)

Styx_Miracles4 out of 5 Stars!

One of the seemingly forgotten Styx albums from the early days of the band’s career, Man of Miracles showed the group steadily heading in the direction that would eventually bring it fame and fortune.

The straightforward hard-rocking tunes (most featuring James Young on lead vocals) and the more melodic AOR and Pomp Rock tunes mixed with a generous amount of Prog Rock influences (usually with Dennis DeYoung on lead vocals), are rather evenly distributed. Some standout tracks include the heavier “Rock & Roll Feeling,” “Havin’ A Ball,” and “Southern Woman,” while the better AOR/Pomp Rock songs include “Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” “Evil Eyes,” and “Golden Lark.” Yet to me, the best tunes included here are, undoubtedly, the most Prog-oriented ones, “A Song for Suzanne” and the glorious title track. And despite the numerous styles on Man of Miracles (or, for that matter, the majority of early Styx albums, up until around 1978’s Pieces of Eight), the group nevertheless sounds cohesive, with the “juggling of musical styles” quite balanced, which proved a band hallmark.

Although Man of Miracles didn’t include any “hits,” I found much of the material easily digestible and ended up playing the album rather often through the years, more so than many of the group’s later “hit-oriented” collections.

Although the next album, Equinox, would become the first to truly catapult the band to loftier heights, Man of Miracles proved itself a worthy and solid launching pad.

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Flamborough Head – Lost in Time (2013)

FlamboroughHead_LostInTime4 out of 5 Stars!

When hunting for music similar to Magenta—my favorite Prog-Rock band with a female vocalist—I stumbled across Flamborough Head, a group from the Netherlands, which is one act that is indeed quite similar.

Like Magenta, Flamborough Head’s music often falls into the same Symphonic Prog style as Genesis, IQ, Arena, Camel, Marillion and a host of other supreme groups. Although the current singer, Margriet Boomsma, might not have a timbre and delivery style as instantly recognizable as that of the insanely terrific Christina Booth from Magenta, she certainly does possess an alluring and expressive voice nonetheless.

The albums I own by Flamborough Head are all quite enjoyable, and Lost in Time, the band’s seventh and most recent release, is a favorite among them. Here, the dexterous musicians are always at the top of their game, producing often-complex, dramatic, and high-quality music as clearly displayed on the epic tracks such as “Damage Done,” “The Trapper,” “Andrassy Road,” and the title track, with plenty of old-style keyboards and synths, luscious guitar solos, a tight rhythm section, and even a bit of flute and recorder included to add some extra spice.

Overall, Lost in Time is top-shelf material from a highly talented band.

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FlamboroughHead_LostInTime

Osanna – Landscape of Life (1974)

Osanna_Landscape4 out of 5 Stars!

Lately I’ve been enjoying the various releases by this Italian band, those from the early 1970s as well as the latest 2015 release Palepolitana, and 1974’s Landscape of Life is among them.

In general, Osanna has quite a bit of diversity…the band includes a conglomeration of Hard Rock, Folk, Blues, Jazz, and a bunch of Prog-Rock all wedded together into a splendid, rather unique mix, with many of its songs ranging from acoustic pastoral beauty to electronic in-your-face strangeness. On all of its albums, including Landscape of Life, the band seems to have been inspired by many bands such as early Genesis and Jethro Tull to the wackier Van Der Graaf Generator and even Zappa. And when the occasional and wild flute or sax solos combine with Mellotron in the background, it makes for some interesting listening.

Several of the band’s early albums, including its fourth release Landscape of Life, are considered masterpieces of the Italian Symphonic Prog-Rock scene, and after savoring tunes such as “Two Boys,” “Flume,” “Il Catello Dell’es” “Fog in My Mind,” “Somehow, Somewhere, Sometime,” and the title track for many years now, it’s easy to see why.

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Ciccada – A Child in the Mirror (2010)

Ciccada_ChildMirror3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Athens, Greece, comes Ciccada, a female-led band playing highly folksy music with a touch of Canterbury jazz and even chamber music tossed in.

On A Child in the Mirror, the first of only two albums by Ciccada, the arrangements on compositions such as the instrumentals “Elisabeth,” “Ciccada,” and “A Storyteller’s Dream,” along with vocal tunes like “A Garden of Delights,” “Isabella Sunset,” and the title track, are occasionally complex in the style of Symphonic Prog groups such as Renaissance and Camel and mixed with more than a smidgen of Progressive Folk music performed by groups like Gentle Giant, Strawbs, Jethro Tull, and Gryphon, thanks to a healthy dosage of acoustic guitar and “medieval” instrumentation such as flute, recorder, clarinet, French horn, violin, cello, and glockenspiel. And overall, the pretty voice of Evangelia Kozoni adds a generous amount of lilting elegance and sophisticated charm to the band’s folksy retro style.

The band isn’t about bombastic power or high energy, but of serene atmospheres and emotive melodies, with the musicians displaying their instrumental prowess without blowing up your stereo speakers in the process. Both this debut as well as 2015’s even better The Finest of Miracles are worthy of investigation for fans of lighter Progressive material that is also somewhat different from the norm.

 

 

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Golden Earring – Golden Earring (1970)

GoldenEarring_GoldenEarring4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1970, when the band’s big breakthrough song “Radar Love” wouldn’t even be on the “radar” (sorry, couldn’t resist) for several more years, Golden Earring released a self-titled album (its sixth studio collection overall, I believe), also nicknamed “The Wall of Dolls” based on a song title as well as the bizarre cover art background.

Regardless, this ended up being my favorite period of the band’s lengthy history, before it hit the (relative) “big time” and the albums started sounding a bit overproduced.

Here, the more stripped-down style and the occasionally “darker” atmosphere on tracks such as “I’m Going to Send My Pigeons to the Sky,” “The Loner,” “Back Home,” the mellower “See See,” and the aforementioned “The Wall of Dolls” (which strongly reminds me of The Guess Who, thanks to the instrumentation featuring electric piano and singer Barry Hay’s gruff performance) gives Golden Earring a rough and youthful edge. The mostly guitar-driven, Blues-based Hard Rock with a touch of Psychedelic Rock, even Prog-Rock ala Jethro Tull (thanks to the trickier song arrangements and the inclusion of flute mixed with acoustic and electric guitar on “Yellow and Blue” and “Big Tree, Blue Sea”), along with a hungry, almost rebellious “punk” attitude, especially from vocalist Hay, pervaded the vinyl grooves and proved both entertaining and enchanting.

Thankfully, Golden Earring continued on with this particular style/attitude for two additional albums, 1971’s Seven Tears and 1972’s Together, which I also continue to enjoy on a regular basis. And with the arrival of drummer Cesar Zuiderwijk, this album is the first to feature Golden Earring’s classic and endurable line-up of musicians, which not only makes it a definite milestone, but also marks the beginning of the band’s most satisfying era to my ears.

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