Astral Doors – Of the Son and the Father (2003)

AstralDoors_OfSonFather4 out of 5 Stars!

Of the Son and the Father is the debut album from Sweden’s Astral Doors, a band that offers up dark and dastardly Heavy Metal from the same musical playbook as the band Dio, or Black Sabbath during its Ronnie James Dio period, only with the addition of a full-time keyboardist. Even vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson (Lion’s Share/Space Odyssey/Wuthering Heights) has the Dio sound and style of delivery down to a science.

From the energetic and thundering opening track “Cloudbreaker,” the band doesn’t let up the intensity for one solitary moment. Each of the eleven tunes included in this collection, from the delicious title track to “Burn Down the Wheel,” “Slay the Dragon,” “Night of the Witch,” “The Trojan Horse,” and “Rainbow in Your Mind,” holds fairly true to the Dio/Black Sabbath style. Indeed, for the most part, the performances by each musician, the album’s overall dark, dense, and driving atmosphere, and especially the songwriting (right down to the fantasy-laced lyrical content of which Dio was so fond of penning) pays full and glorious homage to the late/great Ronnie James Dio himself. Certainly, there are a few deviations, which gives Astral Doors a flair of its very own and keeps the band from being a direct copy of the aforementioned musical style, yet any fan of Dio’s work, whether with his own band, with Black Sabbath (or Heaven & Hell), and even with Rainbow (due to the heavier use of keyboards), will likely appreciate much of the material delivered on this debut.

Thankfully, Astral Doors didn’t disappear from the scene, but went on to release a string of additional albums, the most recent appearing in 2017, and each of them includes music within a similar realm and retains the same high quality as this debut. So to those RJD admirers who are still unfamiliar with Astral Doors, investigating this band will likely make you feel as if you’ve been catapulted into Heavy Metal Heaven.

One final note, if hunting for Of the Son and the Father, keep in mind that the album was released under this title with the cover shown here, but was also released under the title Cloudbreaker with an alternate cover and two “bonus” songs.

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Beautiful Creatures – Beautiful Creatures (2001)

BeautifulCreatures_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Chancing upon a band with a name such as Beautiful Creatures, one could easily assume the group played wonderfully sweet and melodic pop music, but that’s so darned far from reality. Instead, what we have here is some dirty, sleazy, greasy, and kick-ass Hard Rock/Glam Metal in the same realm of groups such as Guns n’ Roses, Vain, L.A. Guns, Roxx Gang, Faster Pussycat, or a host of other loud ‘n’ rude “hair bands” from the ’80s.

Indeed, led by gruff vocalist Joe LeSte (formerly of the talented Bang Tango) and including musicians from several of those aforementioned groups, including guitarists DJ Ashba (Guns n’ Roses/Bulletboys) and Anthony Focx (Bang Tango), bassist Kenny Kweens (L.A. Guns), and drummer Glen Sobel (Bang Tango/Impellitteri), Beautiful Creatures delivered two albums of slamming, glamming, and catchy Hard Rock with a touch of Grunge, Blues, and Industrial Metal.

Fans of “hair bands” from the ’80s and the early ’90s will likely find much to enjoy on this debut. Tunes such as “Wasted,” “Kick Out,” “Goin’ Off,” “1 A.M,” “Step Back,” and “Kickin’ for Days,” blast from the speakers with wicked riffs and thundering percussion, and thanks to LeSte’s vocals, a ton of attitude that could easily match the furious punches thrown by any of the acts that found themselves heavily rotated on MTV during that channel’s heyday. Additionally, the band includes several ballads/semi-ballads for variety—”Time and Time Again,” “Wish,” and “Blacklist”—where the inclusion of acoustic guitar and the occasional background keyboards make for a nice change of pace.

In truth, there’s absolutely nothing innovative or profound on this album, just pure, loud, and rebellious fun. So once again, be warned: these particular “creatures” are far from “beautiful.”

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Asia – Arena (1996)

Asia_Arena4 out of 5 Stars!

Since its debut release, Asia has been a band bordering on the edge of both Pomp Rock and AOR as well as the Progressive Rock genre, and on no other album within the band’s catalogue is this merging of genres more evident than on Arena, the group’s sixth studio collection (and the third with vocalist/bassist John Payne).

Including memorable tracks such as “Two Sides of the Moon,” “U Bring Me Down,” “Never,” “Arena,” “Words,” and the exceptional nine-minute “The Day Before the War,” the longest song Asia ever recorded, Arena is probably the most adventurous album in the band’s overall catalogue. When it comes to song arrangements and instrumentation, and with the inclusion of various percussion instruments (provided by guest Luis Jardim) that lend extra zing to several tracks, this is also the Asia album that contains the strongest Progressive-Rock influences, a development I eagerly welcomed with open arms. The Pomp-Rock keyboards of Geoff Downes are generally outstanding, while guitarists Aziz Ibrahim and Elliott Randall, along with drummer Mike Sturgis, display mastery of their own instruments.

Moreover, this is also the collection where I truly came to fully appreciate John Payne’s identifiable vocals, finally recognizing the fact that his contributions to Asia’s overall sound were not only the most enjoyable to me, but generally left me yearning to hear more. Once savoring this album, I no longer viewed Payne as just the “new kid on the block” or “Wetton’s replacement,” but as an extremely powerful and expressive vocalist in his own right, and a highly influential, full-fledged member of the group.

Therefore, due to the band’s more Progressive leanings on this collection of tracks, along with the strong performances by all the musicians involved, Arena became the Asia album I found myself playing most often through the years, followed closely by 2004’s Silent Nation.

Oh yeah, and the Rodney Matthews’s cover art (also featuring the Roger Dean-designed band logo) is pretty darned cool as well.

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Stingray – Stingray (1979)

Stingray_14 out of 5 Stars!

From South Africa, Stingray released only two albums before disappearing into the pages of musical history books, which always seemed a shame. This, the band’s debut album, brings to mind other talented yet relatively obscure AOR/Hard Rock groups from the same era, such as Ambrosia, Trillion, Preview, 707, American Tears, Touch, Franke & The Knockouts, Roadmaster, and Sheriff, all groups that might have easily made a bigger splash in the music industry had they been given the proper promotional push and financial backing from their respective record companies.

In the case of Stingray, tracks such as “Love Saver,” “The Man in My Shoes,” “Hard-Headed Loner,” “Breakdown,” and the excellent single “Better the Devil You Know” shine with endless melodies and memorable riffs that ring through your head long after the final tune fades away. Indeed, I wouldn’t consider any of the songs on this album as a “filler,” and with ten tracks in total, that’s saying a lot. Although I must admit, hearing this album nowadays, some of the pompish keyboard/synth tones sound more than a tad dated in places (alas, a lasting curse when it comes to those early synthesizers appearing on albums from this particular era). Yet the highly catchy material, the overall commendable musicianship, and especially the powerful lead vocals and layered harmonies make up for that one small fault, and this platter is still quite enjoyable all these many years later.

Therefore, fans of AOR/Hard Rock groups such as Styx, Journey, Survivor, Foreigner, and Toto who crave something similar yet more obscure from this period in history might want to seek out this album and relish the sing-along power of the music.

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Gravity Rain – Artifacts of Balance (2016)

GravityRain_ArtifactsBalance3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the Russian Federation comes Gravity Rain, a relatively new band that plays melodic Progressive Metal in a similar vein as Fates Warning and Redemption. Indeed, overall, the vocalist (who sings in English with no detectable accent) sounds similar in style, tone, range, and delivery as Ray Alder from the aforementioned groups.

I wouldn’t say, however, that Gravity Rain is as Progressive as those other bands. For the most part, tracks such as “Ikameshii (Jotun’s Rage),” “Temple of Haste,” “M.A.D,” “Closer,” and “Sunfire” contain a fairly “traditional” Metal sound, yet both Symphonic-Metal and Progressive-Metal touches do blaze forth from time to time, while the musicianship is typically at a high level. The riff-driven material is fairly thick with crunchy guitars and pounding rhythms, and although keyboards are included, they are basically added for only tinsel or atmospheric enhancement, relegated mostly to the background with only occasional piano or synth fills brought to the forefront.

One criticism I have, though, is that the majority of the ten tracks included on Artifacts of Balance are mid-tempo and composed in the same key, thus giving several of the tunes an almost “samey” feel. This is why I appreciate the occasions when the band employs those Symphonic and Progressive influences I mentioned, which lends some periodic distractions and keeps the album from becoming too mundane. Regardless, should Gravity Rain further develop its skills, include more diverse tempos and extra alterations in chord patterns regarding its songwriting, even experiment with more adventurous arrangements on future releases, the band apparently has the talent to give those aforementioned Prog-Metal bands a run for the money.

Nevertheless, Artifacts of Balance, the band’s first album (not including a three-song EP from 2014 called The Shining Silence, with which I am unfamiliar), is a fairly good introduction for an act with a ton of potential.

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Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff (1975)

VanDerGraaf_Godbluff4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1971, Van der Graaf Generator released Pawn Hearts, a masterpiece of an album and probably my favorite in the group’s catalogue. But even through the band’s reputation and popularity seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds on the Prog-Rock scene, the group surprisingly disbanded, with leader Peter Hammill deciding to concentrate on a solo career in lieu of keeping the band together. Thankfully, and much to the thrill of many fans, Hammill resurrected the band several years later, and Godbluff popped up shortly thereafter. To my ears, the album proved to be yet another masterpiece, a collection of four complex tracks that certainly matched Pawn Hearts in regards to creativity, moodiness, and technical proficiency, so easily it remains my second favorite of the band’s works and the one I still play as often.

Now, compared to Pawn Hearts, this collection of tunes is almost as musically creepy, almost as wickedly demented, but a touch more straightforward (that is, if one can consider anything released by Van der Graaf Generator during the band’s early years as being “straightforward”) and more jazz-inspired. Included on this album are the classic tracks “Scorched Earth” and “The Sleepwalkers,” the songs that initially enticed me to further investigate this group in the mid-’70s, and causing me to fall in love with Van der Graaf Generator’s overall strangeness. “The Undercover Man” and “Arrow” are equally as enticing, and offer up even more weird and wonderful, dark and dastardly fun, clearly showing Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans in tip-top form, while David Jackson’s exceptional and unusual saxophone performances act as the icing on the already wacky cake.

So to me, Godbluff (as well as the previous Pawn Hearts) is definitely a “bucket list” album, one collection that every Prog-Rock fan should experience before they die.

(Additional note: To read my short review of Pawn Hearts, click here.)

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Mad Crayon – Diamanti (1999)

MadCrayon_Diamanti4 out of 5 Stars!

Italian band Mad Crayon released two albums in the ’90s, then another album ten years later, with Diamanti being the band’s sophomore effort. Unfamiliar with the 1994 debut album Ultimo Miraggio, however, or 2009’s final album Preda, I’m unsure how either compares to Diamanti, but if they are anywhere near the high quality of this splendid release, then Mad Crayon certainly has unquestionable talent.

Since the band at the time of this recording included two keyboardists and two guitarists (or three if you count the bassist, who is also credited with electric guitar), the balance seems near to perfect, with neither instrument dominating the proceedings. And as far as the music itself, the compositions range from upbeat and melodic Neo-Prog tunes with Symphonic touches, such as the ultra-catchy opening track, “La Ballatta Dell’uomo Nudo,” to pastoral, dreamier songs such as the closer, “Alchimia Di Un Leggenda,” where the band includes what sounds like flute and Mellotron, as well as spoken female vocals.

But most of the other tracks fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, with several of them having complex arrangements that trade off between light and heavy moments. “Deserti,” for example, includes a melody line in the initial verse and choruses that often brings to mind the Genesis track “Ripples,” only with acoustic guitar replacing the piano backdrop. Then a sax solo leads into the song’s mid-section, where electric guitars and Hammond take center stage, these heavier passages reminding me of groups such as The Flower Kings or Spock’s Beard, before the band returns to the mellower reprise of the verses and the song ends with beautiful violin accompaniment.

Other tunes such as the aforementioned opener, as well as the instrumental tracks “Glorioso Destino” and “Diamanti,” seem to have brief references toward the styles of Frank Zappa and Marillion, PFM or Credo, Doracor or Malibran, while the singer (on songs such as “L’allegra Brigata,” “Pioggia Di Fiori,” and “Principe Delle Marce”) periodically sounds like an Italian version of Phil Collins. Indeed, several of the compositions or various song arrangements on Diamanti have a distinct Genesis “post-Peter Gabriel” feel, so fans of the Trick of the Tail/Wind & Wuthering era of Genesis will certainly find much to savor.

Thankfully, I see that the band is still in existence, so hopefully Mad Crayon will be releasing new material in the near future. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to eventually hunt down the two albums I’m missing in the group’s catalogue. And to any Prog-Rock fans who, like myself, have a fondness for the generally exciting music that tends to come out of Italy on a regular basis, you may want to consider adding Diamanti to your collection.

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SouthGang – Tainted Angel (1991)

Southgang_TaintedAngel4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of Georgia, the appropriately named SouthGang swept onto the music scene with Tainted Angel in the early ’90s around the same time as other highly melodic Hard Rock groups such as Firehouse, Sons of Angels, Slaughter, Warrant, and Trixter had started to gain attention from the record-buying audience and the MTV viewers. Although with a name like SouthGang, and considering the band’s state of origin, some people (such as myself) at first assumed the group would deliver a style of Southern Rock. Instead, however, the band sounded similar in many respects to the aforementioned acts, but with some chief differences—a talent for merging various Hard Rock styles and grooves, then creating intriguing song arrangements and catchy choruses, and finally employing slick studio wankery and trickery for added spice and zest.

Certainly, several tracks on the band’s debut album hinted at Southern Rock, such as the talk-box enhanced opening tune “Boys Nite Out,” along with the beginning and brief mid-section of “Big City Woman,” and the closing segment of “She’s Danger City/Seven Hills Saloon,” yet for the most part, the songs are fairly straightforward Hard Rock ditties mixed with a touch of AOR, especially when it comes to the stellar vocals and the stacked background harmonies. Other ballsy tunes such as “Georgia Nights,” “Russian Roulette,” and the single/MTV video “Tainted Angel” have gigantic choruses that, only after several hearings, rang through my mind for days on end. The band also included two stadium-rock ballads in the form of “Aim for the Heart” and the single “Love Ain’t Enough,” obviously meant to lure in the female audience, while “Shoot Me Down” and “Love for Sale,” as well as many of the previously mentioned tunes, seemed geared more toward the male party-animal crowd.

And with a slamming rhythm section in bassist Jayce Fincher and drummer Mitch McLee, a wickedly wild guitarist in Butch Walker, and a powerful and wide-ranging lead singer in Jesse Harte, SouthGang seemed to have everything going for it, including aid from Desmond Child, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers), and Kane Roberts (Alice Cooper), who aided the band either during the songwriting, recording, and production processes. This was no “cookie cutter hair band” of the era, but a group that had not only big-time support, but mastery over its instruments. Plus, the musicians also had a knack for incorporating numerous surprises into each song, whether it be unexpected rhythm breaks or key changes, inventive drum, bass, or guitar fills, or the addition of a brass section, harmonica and cowbells, light Hammond organ and honky-tonk piano, acoustic and slide guitar and the aforementioned talk-box, even one instance of female background vocals, all giving SouthGang that “unpredictable factor” that set it apart from its contemporaries. And with the ultra-catchy choruses, a budding “guitar hero” in its midst, the overall energetic performances and rowdy atmosphere, and slick yet robust studio production, the band truly seemed destined for greatness.

Unfortunately, after releasing another superb album (Group Therapy) the following year, SouthGang and other acts that played a similar style of music all seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye when the music industry suddenly began shoving nothing but Grunge down everyone’s throat. Such a shame, since the gifted SouthGang had the potential to offer even greater excitement to those of us who had little craving for the “Grunge scene.”

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The Twenty Committee – A Lifeblood Psalm (2013)

TwentyCommittee_LifebloodPsalm4 out of 5 Stars!

From New Jersey, The Twenty Committee’s debut (and thus far, only) album is a collection of highly melodic and well-produced tracks of diverse modern Prog-Rock.

Some songs (or sections of tunes) such as the track “How Wonderful,” are delightfully smooth and laid-back, yet quite jazzy at times, especially when the grand or electric pianos take the center stage and allow singer Geoffrey Langley’s mellow voice to dominate. Indeed, during these segments—which somehow remind me of Bruce Hornsby’s most beautiful piano-rich material—it would also hardly seem out of place to have Gerry Rafferty “Baker Street-like” sax making an appearance.

On the lengthier, more complex tracks, however, such as “Her Voice” and the five-part “The Knowledge Enterprise,” Neo-Prog and Symphonic Prog styles really burst to the fore, not dissimilar to groups such as Unitopia, Transatlantic, or United Progressive Fraternity.

So, as I mentioned, this collection of songs is wonderfully diverse and a seemingly perfect mixture of light and heavy moments, of both jazzy and poppy dreaminess liberally interspersed with a treasure trove of Prog-Rock madness. Impressive! After experiencing A Lifeblood Psalm, I certainly hope this won’t be the last we see of this talented group.

 

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Salem Hill – The Robbery of Murder (1998)

SalemHill_RobberyMurder4 out of 5 Stars!

This Prog-Rock group from Nashville, Tennessee (of all places) has released a slew of enjoyable albums since the early ’90s, and The Robbery of Murder (a concept album from 1998 about a troubled man seeking justice for his father’s death by a drunk driver, and the band’s fourth collection overall) is the one that first caught my attention and formally introduced me to the group.

To me, on mellifluous yet emotionally impactful tunes such as “Father and Son,” “When,” “Dream,” “Revenge,” “Someday,” and “Evil One,” Salem Hill plays within the same realm as Symphonic Prog acts such as Kansas, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, The Flower Kings, and offshoots of those various bands. The dozen tracks contain charming atmospheres and complex melodies, all with lush and sophisticated accompaniment, and a nice balance of both bouncy and upbeat rhythms versus moody, stark, and highly dramatic moments.

Also note, on this particular album, the Kansas comparisons are in even greater abundance, thanks to the violin contributions by guest star David Ragsdale, who appears on numerous tracks.

Overall, Salem Hill is yet another talented band that truly deserves greater acclaim within the Prog-Rock community, and this ambitious concept album proves why.

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