Aether – Inner Voyages Between Our Shadows (2002)

Aether_InnerVoyages3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I stumbled across the two albums from Brazilian band Aether about a decade ago, long after the group had already ceased to exist, and although I cannot claim to have added either of the two albums to my “most played/favorite” list, I can acknowledge that both releases generally contain likeable Progressive Rock of the Symphonic and Neo-Prog variety.

On Inner Voyages Between Our Shadows, the band’s second and final album (and, in my opinion, the most enjoyable of the two), the group delivers some occasionally light and periodically majestic material, nothing to set the world on fire, but certainly pleasant enough for repeated listenings. When it comes to the overall mood, performances, and orchestrations on lengthy tracks such as “Forgiveness,” “The Gate,” “Scenes of Wondering Beyond,” and “Prayer for a New Meeting,” I would liken Aether as a delicate cross between acts such as Airbag, Galleon, Abel Ganz, and (Poland’s) Millennium, mixed with touches of Pink Floyd, Nektar, and (most definitely) Camel being other chief influences. Typically, the music here is melodic and laid-back Prog-Rock, often with a spacey and dreamy atmosphere, and with a fair share of dramatic moments.

Additionally, since on this particular album, the band also includes its own nineteen-plus-minute rendition of Mussorgsky’s multi-part “A Night on Bald Mountain” suite—also recorded by Fireballet on its 1975 Prog-Rock album christened after this very composition—then Fireballet would have to be another potential influence. Yet to me, Aether’s arrangement lacks some of the overall “combustion” I was used to hearing on Fireballet’s older version, offering instead a less-urgent and—frankly—less-spicy rendition of the tune. Certainly, the arrangement appearing here is still highly ambitious, wonderfully symphonic and even more classically oriented, but with a gentler approach. Definitely not bad at all, yet—and it’s certainly a matter of taste—I still prefer Fireballet’s more bombastic, more rocking, more Uriah Heep-ish execution. So no offense to any Aether fans or its talented band members, but the groups obviously differed in their approach to covering such a magnificent piece of music, and both ended up with commendable interpretations, but with divergent areas of emphasis, instrumentation, and (in the end) resplendence.

Therefore, Inner Voyages Between Our Shadows is a fairly savory album, with some intriguing material that should certainly appeal to the majority of fans seeking music similar to the aforesaid groups. And although it might not be on my regular “playing rotation,” it’s an album I revisit periodically, especially when I’m in the mood for lush yet easygoing Prog-Rock.

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Black Oak Arkansas – High on the Hog (1973)

BlackOakArkansas_HighHog3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Formed in 1969, Black Oak Arkansas was a down ‘n’ dirty Southern Rock group from (yes, you guessed it) Black Oak, Arkansas, that enjoyed some marginal success in the first half of the ’70s, due in large part to the wild stage presence of the group’s wacky-sounding lead singer Jim Dandy Mangrum wielding his equally wacky washboard. Indeed, Mangrum was the “David Lee Roth” of rock ‘n’ roll before the actual David Lee Roth showed up years later to mimic him, and in those early days of the band’s career, Black Oak Arkansas quickly gained a reputation for putting on one hell of a live show. The band’s triple-six-string assault, along with its countrified Blues Rock repertoire, seemed almost a precursor to the future appearance of Southern stalwarts Lynyrd Skynyrd, only with a crazy form of gusto, thanks to Mangrum’s odd twang-riddled crooning and rollicking stage antics.

Although I find many of the band’s albums occasionally spotty regarding songwriting and overall production quality, High on the Hog, the group’s fourth studio release, seems to me one of its most successful efforts. Best known for the rousing single “Jim Dandy,” a boogie-rock ditty that garnered major radio airplay across America, High on the Hog also included fun tracks such as “Movin’,” “Why Shouldn’t I Smile,” “Red Hot Lovin’,” “Swimmin’ in Quicksand,” and “Mad Man,” which offered raw and rampaging frolic flavored with either back-country slide and steel guitars or hillbilly banjos. The album also included a spirited triple-guitar-featured instrumental named “Moonshine Sonata,” acoustic swampland singalongs in the form of “Back to the Land” and “High ‘n’ Dry,” along with some good, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll sleeze courtesy of “Happy Hooker.” Overall, I felt this a fairly consistent and catchy collection of tunes, which favorably mirrored the band’s stage shows when it came to offering diverse and energetic material.

Granted, I was never a die-hard fan of the group due to Mangrum’s vocal quirks, which I could tolerate in only marginal doses—depending, of course, on the amount of hooch I’d consumed. Nevertheless, I still periodically revisit some of Black Oak Arkansas’s early albums, including High on the Hog, and typically enjoy the spirited guitar interplay and especially loving the presence of future “superstar” drummer Tommy Aldridge, who’s solidly thumping away on just about every track.

Go, Jim Dandy, go…

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Barclay James Harvest – Everyone Is Everybody Else (1974)

BarclayJamesHarvest_EveryoneElse3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although Britain’s Barclay James Harvest was never my favorite Progressive Rock group due to the band’s overall laid-back and less-intricate nature, I did nevertheless enjoy many of its albums, and Everyone Is Everybody Else, the group’s fifth studio effort, ranks among my favorites.

The majority of tracks on this 1974 release—such as the catchy and beautiful “Child of the Universe,” the countrified and harmonious “Poor Boy Blues,” the Mellotron-lush “For No One,” the electric-piano-enhanced “Negative Earth,” and the more dramatic “The Great 1974 Mining Disaster”—are generally mellow and moody, never in-your-face with twiddly bits or unnecessary passages. Additionally, even on the more upbeat “Crazy City,” the overall song arrangements are often elegant yet sparse, with the instruments never trampling over the vocal melodies or creating too much of a jarring distraction. Each song has plenty of breathing space, lending a lighter atmosphere to the proceedings.

Moreover, for Prog-Rock fans unfamiliar with Barclay James Harvest, don’t expect much in the way of a style comparable to various groups such as Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, ELP, etc., but more of a folksier, semi-Prog style played by bands such as Strawbs or The Moody Blues with perhaps a bit of Procol Harum, Wally, Supertramp, and even America and Crosby, Stills, & Nash thrown in. No, purchasing any BJH album is not with the anticipation of basking in lightning-fast guitar, Hammond, or Moog solos, or innovative time signature shifts, or jaw-dropping multi-part Prog-Rock epics with bizarre lyrics, but only to provide your mind with dreamy and undemanding melodies to savor at the end of a long, exhausting day.

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38 Special – Wild-Eyed Southern Boys (1981)

38Special_WildEyed3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I could never deny that, though it wasn’t one of my “regularly played” bands, 38 Special did indeed have something “special” when it came to its overall approach.

Not quite Southern Rock, not quite Hard Rock, not quite AOR, this band from Jacksonville, Florida somehow managed to successfully merge these genres into its music with fairly equal doses, generally making for some catchy material.

And with the legendary Jim Peterick (Survivor/Ides of March/Pride of Lions) co-writing some of the band’s biggest hits and most memorable tracks, 38 Special usually came off to me as a “southernized” version of Survivor.

Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, the band’s fourth release, is a perfect example of this “genre-merging.” With the classic hit singles “Hold On Loosely” and “Fantasy Girl” included, as well as other radio-friendly and occasionally countrified Hard Rock ditties such as “Back Alley Sally,” “Throw Out the Line,” “First Time Around,” “Hittin’ and Runnin’,” and the Sweet-Home-Alabama-like “Honky Tonk Dancer” occupying space within the platter’s grooves, this is the album I usually found the most enjoyable from the early days of the group’s existence.

As mentioned previously, 38 Special wasn’t a band I listened to on a consistent basis through the years, but when I’m in the mood for some catchy and lighter material of an upbeat nature, Wild-Eyed Southern Boys (as well as several other platters from the band’s catalogue) will occasionally suffice.

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Supertramp – Supertramp (1970)

Supertramp_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

On the debut album from Supertramp, although much of the material is seemingly a million miles away from the style of music the group would produce during its 1974-1979 “glory period,” the band showed great promise nevertheless.

Additionally, since the line-up at the time of this release included only two members—Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies—who would continue on with Supertramp into its “glory period,” that explains much of the difference in style from subsequent albums.

One initial caveat…for those unfamiliar with this period in the band’s history, don’t be fooled by the cover art, which always brought the group Genesis to mind. But the music on offer here, although more Progressive than later Supertramp releases, has only marginal similarities to Genesis, mostly some of the folksier, pastoral atmospheres the groups occasionally shared in the beginning of their respective careers. Therefore, despite the cover art, don’t expect anything along the lines of “Supper’s Ready” or “Cinema Show.”

Instead, other than the song “Maybe I’m a Beggar,” where original guitarist Richard Palmer-James sings a portion of the lead (and has a voice not associated with the band’s popular sound), the music, for the most part, is still undeniably Supertramp. Tunes such as “It’s a Long Road,” “Words Unspoken,” “Shadow Song,” “Aubade and I Am Not Like Other Birds of Prey,” and “Surely” are probably the closest in style to the band’s heyday period, whereas “Nothing to Show” and sections of the lengthy “Try Again,” especially with the heavier guitar leads and Hammond organ, are completely different than what fans are used to hearing from the most popular version of the group.

So basically, what we have here is a promising band still struggling to find its trademarked sound/style, but producing some enjoyable music in the process.

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Humble Pie – On to Victory (1980)

HumblePie_OnToVictory3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’m not sure why this particular Humble Pie “comeback” album typically receives generally low ratings on many music-related websites. Perhaps it’s because the band at this time featured only two original members—drummer Jerry Shirley and the outstanding vocalist/guitarist Steve Marriott with his raspy, powerful, soulful delivery, undoubtedly the star of the show. For this album, Humble Pie also added Bobby Tench (Jeff Beck Group) on guitar, keys, and second vocals along with Anthony “Sooty” Jones on bass, yet perhaps because the album didn’t feature Clem Clempson’s tasteful lead guitar work, that may be part of the problem for some listeners.

And yes, this ten-track album may not contain the same overall raw and hungry atmosphere as many of the band’s releases from the early ’70s—Rock On, Thunderbox, or Smokin’, for example—but it’s nevertheless a definite step upward from the group’s previous (and poorly produced) ’75 release Street Rats. Plus, On to Victory does contain a gem of an opening track called “Fool for a Pretty Face,” along with the raucous and upbeat “Further Down the Road” and “Get It in the End,” the sleazy grind of “Take It from Here,” the bluesy and gut-wrenching “My Lover’s Prayer,” and the sax-enhanced “Infatuation.” And as always when it comes to a Humble Pie album, numerous tracks feature the gospel-tinged female background singers and an appropriate amount of organ and piano accents. Therefore, although On to Victory certainly isn’t a perfect album, not entirely “victorious” as the band no doubt had wished, it definitely ain’t half as bad as some listeners might have one believe either.

And hey, any album that includes an ass-kickin’ rocker with a silly title such as “You Soppy Pratt” can’t be too dismal, right?

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Britny Fox – Britny Fox (1988)

BritnyFox_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the glamming, slamming Britny Fox had much in common with the band Cinderella…not only regarding its city of origin, but some of its personnel, its overall rocking sound and big-haired image, and (as it turns out) its ultimate “level of fame”—although Cinderella undoubtedly had a tad more of the latter (and a head start) thanks to becoming “MTV darlings” upon the release of its debut album several years earlier.

Regardless, even though the bands are so darned similar, with the raspy vocals, the beefy guitars, the driving rhythms, and the infectious choruses, I preferred Britny Fox overall, finding the band’s first two albums more consistent than those by Cinderella (which noticeably altered its style between its debut and sophomore albums).

Anyway, with catchy boot-stompers such as “Long Way to Love,” “In America,” “Girlschool,” “Kick ‘n’ Fight,” “Hold On,” “Rock Revolution,” and a rollicking version of Slade’s “Gudbuy T’ Jane,” Britny Fox delivered some often-engaging material. “Dizzy” Dean Davidson’s lead vocals seem a cross between Cinderella’s Tom Keifer and Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty, therefore it didn’t seem particularly odd that the music also comes off as a blending of these two bands, with perhaps extra inspiration from groups such as Kiss, Quiet Riot, W.A.S.P., Black ‘n’ Blue, Tesla, and several other acts from the era.

Whatever the case, Britny Fox’s self-titled debut album proved especially addictive to fans of the “hair metal” genre during the fun yet silly, sleazy yet glittering, and mascara-lined and Aqua Net-infested ’80s, and truth be told, the music on this platter holds up rather well even all these decades later.

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Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973)

FleetwoodMac_MysteryToMe3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to achieving worldwide superstardom, Fleetwood Mac had churned out music for years and years, first creating some fine albums in the (originally) Blues Rock genre with spectacular guitarist Peter Green at the helm, then (during its second phase) releasing a handful of additional albums that contained a more commercial, laid-back sound with only a hint of Blues Rock. This often-forgotten second phase of the group saw guitarist/vocalist Bob Welch and the ultra-talented keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie (gosh, I adore this woman!) joining up for the ride.

But despite the two new members bringing with them their advanced songwriting skills, and the group’s relatively stable line-up during this period, Fleetwood Mac still couldn’t quite generate mega-stardom status. That wouldn’t happen until Welch left the group and the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks team came aboard for the band’s third “heavily soap-opera drama” phase.

Regardless, I always enjoyed Fleetwood Mac’s second phase, and still listen to those five 1971-1974 albums on a semi-regular basis, especially this particular platter. On Mystery to Me, the band included more than a handful of its finest, most memorable songs from this era, including Welch’s “Somebody,” “Emerald Eyes,” “The City,” and “Hypnotized,” and a decent cover version of the classic Yardbirds’ track “For Your Love.” But for me, McVie’s songs are typically the special ones, and in this case, her compositions such as “Just Crazy Love,” “Why,” “The Way I Feel,” and “Believe Me,” though perhaps not as brilliant as her future endeavors, still sounded as if they could have easily appeared on any of the classic albums during the Buckingham/Nicks years.

Meanwhile, Bob Welch and Christine McVie’s instrumental and vocal skills are in tip-top shape, while John McVie and Mick Fleetwood prove once again to be a “wonderfully tight though nothing-too-fancy” rhythm team. And Bob Weston, his contributions to the band often underappreciated or dismissed, plays some surprisingly tasty lead guitar throughout, especially his subtle riffing on the bluesier “Somebody,” the slide guitar intro on “Why,” or on the harder-rocking “The City” and “Miles Away.” Additionally, with the now-legendary Martin Birch (Deep Purple/Wishbone Ash/Jeff Beck/Faces/etc.) now handling production duties instead of just engineering like he did on the band’s previous three albums, the sound here is rich and full, probably one of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most consistent during this period.

By the way, I continually roll my eyes in amazement and chuckle when I hear or read comments by supposed music-lovers who still seemingly have no clue that Fleetwood Mac even existed before the appearance of Stevie Nicks. What a shame for them, since Fleetwood Mac delivered a stream of enjoyable and catchy, diverse and often-imaginative music prior to 1975, especially on Mystery to Me.

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Journey – Journey (1975)

Journey_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to vocalist Steve Perry entering the fold and helping to drastically alter the band’s musical direction, Journey released a trio of Progressive-Rock (or at least semi-Prog) albums, with this one being the first and “proggiest.” Only a single tune here, “To Play Some Music,” offered the merest hint as to what the band would later become, but the other tracks contain some serious and tasty experimentation.

After leaving Santana, Gregg Rolie (keyboards/vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar) wanted to let loose and toy with something different, and it shows in the excellence of their playing on tracks such as “Kahoutek,” “In My Lonely Feeling/Conversations,” “Of a Lifetime,” “Topaz,” “Mystery Mountain,” and “In the Morning Day.” Along with the equally talented Ross Valory on bass, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and George Tickner on second guitar, the quintet produced some jaw-dropping music here—albeit with less-than-impactful lead vocals. And in my opinion, that was the one area on this debut where the band required some improvement, and also why I couldn’t bring myself to raise my overall rating by another half-star.

Although I’ve always had a general fondness for Gregg Rolie’s voice, thanks to his work in Santana, let’s face facts—it can be rather dull. Sure, his voice does have recognizable character, but his range and forcefulness are somewhat limited, the particular timbre of his voice doesn’t always cut through the often-dense instrumentation, plus his overall lack of emotiveness typically doesn’t make for a successful commercial vocalist. This was the very reason why the band eventually hunted for a singer who possessed all those necessary traits. Therefore, the vocals on this album are unfortunately the weak link, and the trio of appealing Prog-oriented albums the group issued prior to Steve Perry’s arrival sadly remain obscure for many people, forever lost in the giant shadow of Journey’s mammoth AOR stardom.

Too bad the band didn’t change its name for the second era of its existence, since music-wise, the two versions of Journey seem almost completely at odds, especially when it comes to this particular album. Regardless, despite the lack of vocal power on display here, this debut was rather special and deserved wider recognition.

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Dr. Z – Three Parts to My Soul (1971)

DrZ_ThreeParts3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Loaded with tribal-like percussion, twiddling pianos, and (of all things) harpsichord, Three Parts to My Soul, the one and only album by Dr. Z, is certainly a bit bizarre and totally different in the world of Prog-Rock.

This trio of musicians (keyboardist, bassist, and drummer) from the U.K. is sort of a maniacal version of either Triumvirat or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. This has much to do with the rather crazy-sounding lead vocals (like the more deranged side of Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill), the hypnotically psychedelic and almost-creepy vibe, and the often-strange instrumentation and song construction on the lengthier tunes such as “Spiritus, Manes et Umbra,” “Too Well Satisfied,” and “In a Token of Despair.” Even the shorter, more commercial-oriented songs (if you can actually label them “commercial” in the general sense of the word) such as “Summer for the Rose,” “Evil Woman’s Mainly Child,” and the flute-enhanced “Burn in Anger” offer some strangeness, so Three Parts to My Soul is an album for Prog-Rock fans who yearn for something truly unique within the genre.

If you can imagine the Alice Cooper track “Black Juju” heavily dosed with the sinister atmosphere found on the debut album by the group Black Widow, and further picture the character of the macabre and grumbling manservant Lurch from The Addams Family playing along with these tracks on his harpsichord, then at least you’ll get an idea of what you can expect when listening to this rather strange album.

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