Wally – Valley Gardens (1974)

Wally_ValleyGardens4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this U.K. band’s debut album sounded like what may have happened had a group such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young merged with a band such as The Strawbs or a “lite” version of Kansas, mixing Progressive Folk and Symphonic Prog with a trace of Country Rock, thanks to the inclusion of pedal steel guitar, violin, and mandolin.

But on Valley Gardens, Wally’s sophomore release, not only does the band continue with the pleasing blend of styles on the four tracks included, but by adding even more musical influences to its overall soundscape, improves on the mixture.

During the lengthier title track, for instance, one vocal section strongly reminds me of Nektar’s Remember the Future, while several instrumental segments within the complex introduction and ending passages, especially the synth tones and accompaniment, bring to mind both Camel and Flash. The mellow, piano-driven “Nez Perce,” however, is more reminiscent of the band’s debut album, where the spot-perfect harmonies and the violin are once again at the forefront.

From there, “The Mood I’m In” is a laid-back and dreamy tune with the inclusion of a jazzy sax solo in its ending section, while the final track, the eighteen-minute “The Reason Why”—the obvious centerpiece of Valley Gardens—is where the band includes all of its strengths, from the flawless harmony vocals, instrumental passages that employ both acoustic and electric guitar, luscious keyboard orchestrations that make captivating use of the Mellotron, and the violin adding extra symphonic touches in various sections of the intricate song arrangement. Additionally, the steel guitar makes an appearance here, leading into a segment that has obvious Yes influences, including an all-too-brief Wakeman-style synth solo, then a hypnotic “Space Rock” segment that brings to mind early Pink Floyd, before the band returns to more CSN&Y-styled vocals with a flavor of Country Rock, more violin insertions, and a Strawbs-like atmosphere. In short, the track is a beaut—a splendid achievement.

So with “The Reason Why” being undoubtedly the grandest (and longest) composition Wally ever recorded, Valley Gardens was an improvement on the 1974 self-titled debut and an obvious step forward in the band’s development, hinting at even more exciting creativity to come, which makes the fact that Wally completely evaporated shortly after this release (not taking into account a reunion album that popped up thirty-five years later, in 2010) all the more disappointing.

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Dirty Tricks – Hit & Run (1977)

DirtyTricks_HitRun3.5 out of 5 Stars

Dirty Tricks was a promising band from the U.K. that released only a trio of albums in the mid-’70s before disappearing (although the group resurfaced with a comeback album in 2009).

Regardless, and whether fairly or not, Dirty Tricks always reminded me of Yesterday & Today (Y&T), not only in its overall raw and hard-driving style, but simply because both groups popped onto the scene about a year apart and I learned about them on the very same day (at the long-defunct Rainbow Records in Park Ridge, Illinois…oddly enough, I remember that moment as if it happened only yesterday. Funny how one’s mind works, right?). Anyway, I purchased both debut albums together, and therefore, despite any differences between the bands—not too much, truthfully—they will forever be linked in my head.

Be that as it may, Hit & Run, the band’s third and final album from the ’70s, showed growth in its development—with Dirty Tricks adding more intricate arrangements and instrumentation on various tracks such as “Gambler,” “Lost in the Past,” “Road to Deriabah,” “I’ve Had These Dreams Before,” and “Get Out On The Street”—and proved just as enjoyable as the previous two releases, with searing guitars, pounding rhythms, and Kenny Stewart’s instantly recognizable vocals.

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Promenade – Noi al dir di Noi (2016)

Promenade_NoiAlDirDiNoi4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Promenade’s debut album includes some fun and wicked musical gymnastics on the opening track “Athletics” alone.

Actually, the band’s forays into Jazz-Rock and Avant-Prog territories remind me of the old Canterbury style of Prog-Rock, especially with the inclusion of wailing saxes, exciting rhythm shifts, and dexterous keyboard and guitar runs throughout.

Moreover, with some medieval-sounding instrumentation, the ghosts of both Gentle Giant and Gryphon also rear their beautiful heads on occasion, especially on the track “Roccoco.”

Therefore, Prog fans will find some fascinating material on offer here, which could allow Promenade to build a dedicated legion of fans.

There is, however, one major problem I foresee in the group achieving greater notoriety with this debut release—the cover layout. Certainly, the artwork is dazzling, yet it’s typically considered a good marketing strategy to have the band’s NAME/LOGO and the collection’s title actually displayed on the cover itself…somewhere…hello? Just a friendly suggestion to the record company… 🙂

Regardless, Italy’s Promenade—including Matteo Barisone (Keyboards/Vocals), Gianluca Barisone (Guitar), Stefano Scarella (Bass/Sax), and Simone Scala (Percussion)—is a promising young band and deserves some attention from Prog-Rock lovers.

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Jefferson Airplane – Jefferson Airplane (1989)

JeffersonAirplace_19893.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although likely never intended to set the world on fire with its overall creativity, 1989’s Jefferson Airplane reunion album (albeit without drummer Spencer Dryden) did present a golden opportunity for fans to revisit a sound long-missed, yet updated.

For me, hearing “Planes” (the opening track) felt like stumbling upon an acquaintance you haven’t spoken to for decades, and realizing how much you missed and truly cherished the timbre of their voice and their unique style.

Of course, Grace Slick’s presence on any album has always been a thrill for me, and with her contributing her songwriting gifts and sharing vocal duties with Paul Kantner and Marty Balin (or even with Mickey Thomas during the Starship years) lent Jefferson Airplane a certain magic, so that element alone made this album enjoyable.

And although this particular collection of songs ended up being no stirring “Crown Of Creation, Part 2” or no revolutionary “Volunteers Revisited,” for example, it did contain enough melodic and catchy gems—”True Love,” “Madeleine Street,” “Freedom,” “Summer of Love,” “The Wheel,” “Now Is The Time,” the aforementioned “Planes,” and the truly exceptional “Solidarity”—that I’ve found myself replaying it through the years nearly as often as the band’s classic releases from the ’60s.

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Tarot – Crows Fly Black (2006)

Tarot_Crows4 out of 5 Stars!

For me, being a fan of the group Nightwish, it seemed only natural to investigate Finland’s Tarot, which features Nightwish’s Marco Hietala on both bass and lead vocals.

Apart from Hietala’s presence in Tarot, however—his powerful and instantly recognizable voice, which pops up often on Nightwish albums—and a few nods toward Symphonic Metal thanks to the presence of a keyboardist, there is little to compare the two groups.

For the most part, on Crows Fly Black, Tarot plays rather straightforward Heavy Metal, much of it ultra-slammin’ and head-bangin’, which often brings to mind groups such as Accept, for instance, only enhanced by keyboards ala Deep Purple. Zachary Hietala’s thick-sounding guitar riffs and sizzling solos dominate tracks such as “Bleeding Dust,” “Traitor,” “Howl,” “Before the Skies Come Down,” “Ashes To the Stars,” and the title tune, which are all generally miles outside the realm of the keyboard-heavy, highly orchestrated Nightwish, yet nevertheless share the forcefulness and vibrancy of the other band.

Regardless, of Tarot’s nine studio releases between 1986-2011, Crows Fly Black is definitely one of my favorites…one that deserves to be played F***ING LOOOUUUD!!!

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Khallice – The Journey (2003)

Khallice_Journey4 out of 5 Stars!

Khallice, a talented band from Brazil, released only a single album in 2003 before sadly vanishing.

The Journey is a collection of spirited and highly complex Prog-Metal, with blazing guitar riffs, manic keyboard solos, thundering rhythms, and the band’s vocalist, with his wide range, belting out the lyrics like a champ.

While listening to various tracks on The Journey, I couldn’t help thinking that fans of groups such as Superior, Circus Maximus, Andromeda, Dream Theater, and Spheric Universe Experience would certainly enjoy much of the music on offer here.

Indeed, the band’s potential for greatness is apparent in spades on diverse and intense tunes such as “Turn the Page,” “Thunderstorm,” “Stuck,” “Spiritual Jewel,” “Loneliness,” and “Vampire,” so it’s unfortunate Khallice issued no additional material. Yet at least this single album is a clue to what might have been, so is worthy of investigation for lovers of the genre.

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