Alaska – Alaska (1998)

Alaska_13 out of 5 Stars!

Not to be confused with the numerous other groups bearing the same name, this particular band (actually, a duo from Pennsylvania comprised of vocalist/guitarist/drummer Al Lewis and keyboardist John O’Hara) released a single album in the late-’90s. To me, Alaska’s music seemed a lighter, keyboard-dominated version of Yes or Cairo, mainly due to the highly symphonic arrangements and, especially, vocalist Al Lewis (also appearing on Starcastle’s final album from 2007), who has a range and delivery style similar to Jon Anderson (Yes) and Terry Luttrell (Starcastle’s original singer).

On this eleven-track collection, most of the compositions, including “WellsBridge,” “Forests of Heaven,” “Anyman’s Tomorrow,” “IceSpirits,” and “Tiananmen Square,” have an array of dreamy melodies and wonderfully rich and layered keyboards and vocal harmonies. And, truth be told, although I find nothing overly exciting in the way of varied orchestrations or rhythms, no tense dramatics or chord pattern surprises, the overall nature of the album makes for a decent, non-intrusive experience nonetheless.

Therefore, this one and only Alaska album contains nearly seventy minutes of gentle, melodious material, which is great for when I’m in a mellower mood, and for when I’m craving a massive amount of synth-driven Progressive Rock to fill the silence.

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White Spirit – White Spirit (1980)

WhiteSpirit_13 out of 5 Stars!

White Spirit was a band from the U.K. that released a sole album back in 1980 and, due to its musical style (similar in many ways to bands such as Rainbow and Deep Purple) got lumped into the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” category.

But be warned if investigating this album: although the music is fairly enjoyable, with both tasty guitar and Hammond and synth solos popping up (hence the Rainbow/Deep Purple comparisons), the vocals are definitely White Spirit’s weakest link, with the singer being jarringly off key on too many occasions—especially when he unsuccessfully stretches for the high notes. Additionally, the production quality is often flat.

Therefore, both of those annoying factors bring down my overall rating of this otherwise decent collection of tunes by at least a full star (I ended up rating this 3 out of 5 Stars overall).

On a brighter note, the band’s guitarist was the talented Janick Gers, who would justifiably go on to big-time success the following year with the band Gillan, then later with Iron Maiden, and drummer Graeme Crallan joined up with Tank for a single album several years later.

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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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Gnidrolog – Lady Lake (1972)

Gnidrolog_LadyLake3 out of 5 Stars!

Although this U.K. group emerged during the height of the Prog-Rock explosion in the early ’70s, Gnidrolog gained no significant traction. In my opinion, this was probably due to two chief factors…

First…Gnidrolog? Not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue or is even pronounceable upon initial sight, is it? Turns out, the moniker is the backward spelling (with some adjustments) of the name Goldring, the surname of the twin brothers (Colin and Stewart) who led the group. Yes, an unfortunate name selection.

But the second and most important factor…although the two albums Gnidrolog released in 1972 (this one being the sophomore collection) contained some fascinating material when it came to instrumentation and song arrangements, occasionally bringing to mind groups such as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, and Van Der Graaf Generator—thanks primarily to the highly creative woodwind passages and background fills, the bizarre vocal harmonies, and the jazz and folk influences—the lead vocals are most definitely an acquired taste.

Indeed, on the opening track “I Could Never Be a Soldier,” the singer, especially when being unnecessarily overdramatic and shooting for the higher octave of his natural vocal range, is often out of key and simply too grating, which takes some getting used to and the reason I rated this album down a full star for my official review.

Therefore, putting aside the band’s odd name, I can’t help thinking these vocal deficiencies may be the chief factor why Gnidrolog never gained a legion of fans during its brief history. Personally, I have to be in just the right frame of mind when listening to this album, and I do so only for the rather imaginative music and instrumentation, all the while gritting my teeth through the more awkward vocal sections.

So, let this review serve as a warning to Prog-Rock fans who may be unfamiliar with this group yet drawn to this album due to the rather cool cover art. The music is often enjoyable; the lead vocals are often not.

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HB – Frozen Inside (2008)

HB_FrozenInside3 out of 5 Stars!

Hailing from Finland, HB is basically a Christian version of groups such as Nightwish, Within Temptation, and After Forever…the same style of Symphonic Metal/Power Metal only with “God/Jesus Is Love Love Love” lyrics in every song. Generally speaking, not exactly my thing.

Still, despite my initial revulsion to the preachy lyrical content, I must admit to enjoying the music itself, and the terrific female vocalist Johanna Aaltonen, quite a bit. The musicianship is top-notch and the intricate arrangements on many of the songs are right up there with other leading bands of the Symphonic Metal genre.

Therefore, if you’re a fan of Nightwish, etc., and can stomach song titles such as “God Has All Glory” and “The Jesus Metal Explosion” and the never-ending Bible-study lessons within the lyrics, then perhaps this is the band for you.

Although I’m unfamiliar with HB’s other releases (there are seven studio albums in total), Frozen Inside, the band’s third collection of tracks, is worthy of at least one listen if for nothing else than to enjoy Johanna’s better-than-average vocal performance.

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Brownsville Station – Yeah!

BrownsvilleStation_Yeah3 out of 5 Stars!

Not sure why, but Michigan’s Brownsville Station, with its stripped-down, straightforward, Hard Rock swagger, often reminded me of Slade, the legendary glam-rockers from the U.K.—perhaps it was the simplistic approach when it came to instrumentation, perhaps the short running time of the tracks, perhaps the stark production, or perhaps the defiant streak running through many of the songs.

Be that as it may, Brownsville Station released Yeah!, its third album, back when I was thirteen, and with the mega-hit “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room,” helped to define my generation, along with Humble Pie, Foghat, Alice Cooper, Mott The Hoople, the aforementioned Slade, and seemingly zillions of other groups.

Although not my favorite band in history (indeed, I felt Brownsville Station about “average” overall), the band certainly had an impact on my teenage rebelliousness, especially when it came to that one classic “Smokin'” song. Therefore, Yeah! is a fun trek back in time.

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Raspberries – Raspberries (1972)

Raspberries_13 out of 5 Stars!

I’ll admit, I was very late in investigating this short-lived band from Ohio, definitely because of its silly name and its overly clean and poppy TigerBeat magazine image. Nevertheless, at the time of this album’s release, and despite my growing obsession with groups such as Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, and Black Sabbath, etc. I clearly remember being instantly drawn to the band’s mammoth single “Go All The Way,” with its insanely heavy guitar “hook” and its ultra-memorable chorus, constantly being played on Chicago’s AM radio stations, and I had always kept Raspberries in the back of my mind as a band to “one day investigate.”

Well, that day finally arrived in the 1990s when I came across this album in a “$.99 discount” bin and snatched it up. Was I blown away then? No, not really…many of the tracks seemed way too tame/lame for my tastes.

But nowadays, twenty-plus years later…I surprisingly find myself going back to this album more and more, finally coming to appreciate the overall (and sometimes genius) pop sensibilities of Eric Carmen and company. Yes, some of the material is still a bit too “Beatles-oriented” for me—way too light and too overly orchestrated, such as “Waiting” or “With You In My Life”—but some of the album’s tracks, especially that darned catchy hit single I clearly remembered from 1972’s “AM radio days,” as well as the songs “I Saw The Light,” “Don’t Want To Say Goodbye,” “Rock And Roll Mama,” “Come Around And See Me,” or “Get It Moving,” now occasionally bring to mind diverse groups such as Cheap Trick, Stories, Badfinger, Susan, and (the magnificent) Starz. Go figure!

Anyway, despite some stunningly catchy material here, I still find myself giving only an average rating to the overall album, thanks to several tracks that continually rub me the wrong way and the occasional top-heavy orchestration. Happily the band’s next album showed some improvement and growth.

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Andy Jackson – 73 Days at Sea (2016)

AndyJackson_73Days3 out of 5 Stars!

Being mostly unfamiliar with guitarist/composer Andy Jackson, either through his previous solo album (2014’s Signal to Noise) or his work with his band The Eden House, I wasn’t sure what to expect before sliding this CD into the computer. But then, after learning that Andy had engineered for Pink Floyd in the past, I finally had a clue as to what this CD might include. The music, I figured, would probably be of a similar nature to Pink Floyd, and to no great surprise, my presumption proved accurate.

Therefore, the collection of songs included on this album—indeed, the entire atmosphere, from beginning to end—is pure Pink Floyd, only with perhaps a more updated production quality. In fact, to my ears, this album is flawlessly produced, with the instruments blending together in a harmonious marriage of sound, with no instrument being too domineering or boisterous, but perfectly in sync with its partners. Both acoustic and electric guitars, synths and Mellotrons, bass and drums appear, providing a full and rich soundscape, quite spacey as expected, with the vocal lines drifting lazily across the top.

The ten individual tracks are a combination of both instrumentals and vocal pieces, with several lengthy numbers included. But in truth, the shorter tracks that dominate the first half of the album seamlessly meld into each other, actually creating one dreamy “experience.” Moreover, Prog-Rock lovers shouldn’t expect anything too jarring here. Like the music of Pink Floyd, there is nothing mind-blowing when it comes to soloing instruments, and no abrupt time changes popping up at unexpected moments. Additionally, there are no shocks when it comes to the vocal melodies either (apart from one enjoyable section in the middle of the seventeen-plus-minute “Drownings,” where a female vocalist provides some welcome differentiation). This, therefore, leads me to one of the problems I had with the album overall…

Certainly all the tracks offered here are pleasant enough, with the musicianship and (as previously mentioned) the production being outstanding. Yet many of the tracks (when it comes to either the general arrangements/orchestrations or even the atmosphere) are way too similar for my tastes. In fact, apart from that brief section in “Drownings” featuring the female vocals, nothing much stands out, or is altogether memorable. After listening to the album on approximately half a dozen occasions over the course of two days, I’m still hard-pressed to pinpoint any other instance that inspired me to pay closer attention, any other instance that provided me with another one of those “Ah-huh, I remember that!” moments. Instead, I’m left with only a general impression of a “mellow, spacey, rather enjoyable” listen when it comes to the album as a whole, but that’s it. And this, I’ve come to determine, is due to one particular element…the lead vocals.

In general, I found the vocal passages to be quite bland. In fact, the vocals are delivered in a low and extremely limited range, lacking any true diversity regarding melodies, and sometimes sound more than a tad “iffy” when it comes to accuracy. I’m also not a huge fan of the “talk-singing” style used throughout, which is why the appearance of the female vocalist popping up in that single song made the only lasting impression on me. I can’t help but feel that were Mr. Jackson to hire a singer with a wider range, a more emotional style of delivery and a flair for “the dramatics,” the music would benefit greatly. Unfortunately, when the lead vocals are “off,” it’s usually that single musical flaw that will ultimately make or break any album, regardless of the other performances contained throughout. And I’m sorry to say, this album does indeed suffer from this particular aspect, and for that, I couldn’t bring myself to rate it higher.

So to summarize, for Prog-Rock fans who are excited by music related in any fashion to Pink Floyd, there is certainly much here for you to savor. The problems I had with this album—the lack of variety when it comes to the “feel” of the tracks, or the uninspiring vocal performances—may not mean much to you, and I wholeheartedly respect that. Therefore, if you’re seeking a journey into some tranquil territory, a chance to drift on a sea of lush chord patterns, breezy rhythms, and soothing sound effects, then this just might be the album for you. It’s certainly worth a spin.

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Squackett – A Life Within A Day (2012)

Squackett_LifeDay3 out of 5 Stars!

Being a fan of both Yes and Genesis (and both Chris Squire’s and Steve Hackett’s solo work) I was initially excited to grab a copy of this album, all the while imagining what the merging of these two unique styles of musicians might sound like. But unfortunately, despite the joining of these musical legends from two legendary Prog-Rock bands, Squackett’s sole album ended up being rather a letdown for me.

Sure, along with some generally impressive musicianship throughout the album from all involved (and from Steve Hackett especially), there are some fun moments. For example, with its Led Zeppelinesque “Kashmir” atmosphere, the opening track, “A Life Within a Day,” includes some intriguing time breaks and solos (from both Hackett and Squire) in the middle section that had me sitting up to take notice. But as the subsequent tracks continued to play I found myself hearing less and less material that grabbed my attention for more than a moment or two. “Storm Chaser,” a track in the latter half of the album, also caught my ear with Hackett’s memorable and heavy guitar riff (and a great guitar sound to boot), along with some interesting noodling in the song’s mid-section. But then again, the slamming John Bonham-like electronic drum sound was also a bit of a turn-off.

Sadly, much of the album reminds me too much of other “Yes-offshoot-bands,” such as Conspiracy and Circa:—a bit too glossy and slick and processed as far as the production, way too safe as far as the arrangements and instrumentation, and far too AOR oriented in general—and bland AOR in nearly all cases due to the emotionless vocals. I was dearly hoping for something much more unique, more progressive, more intricate (such as the aforementioned middle section of the opening track) with both Squire and Hackett involved. If someone had told me that Billy Sherwood had been in charge of the album’s production, I wouldn’t have been shocked, since that’s how similar this album sounds to Sherwood’s usual style of “too much perfection/too much over-production.” (Instead, it seems the keyboardist Roger King took charge of the album’s production duties, but I firmly believe he learned his job from studying Billy Sherwood body of work.)

Anyway, there’s nothing horrible here, mind you. It’s all rather pleasant. Yet there’s also not much in the way of catchiness (apart from the beautiful “Aliens,” which has probably the album’s most memorable melody during its choruses) or any truly captivating instrumentation that makes me yearn to hear the album on a regular basis. It’s all a bit too run-of-the-mill for me, with nothing here that actually acknowledges the legendary status of the two main musicians involved in this project. Sorry, I much prefer Steve Hackett’s early solo works or Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water instead.

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Samuel Hällkvist – Variety Of Live (2015)

SamuelHallkvist_Variety3 out of 5 Stars!

This is the only album I own thus far from this (mostly) instrumental band (or solo artist project with numerous musicians included). Here, a mixture of styles can be found, but mainly (in my opinion) are “Canterbury Scene Prog-Rock” influences such as Caravan, Gong, Hatfield And The North, National Health, but all wrapped up in a majestic, dreamy and hypnotic Ozric Tentacles-like atmospheric/jazzy blanket.

A perfect example of this merging of styles and influences can be located on the track “Chord, Horror Cacui.” The track begins with a slow and swirling trip down the Canterbury road, building up to a wailing and spacey jazz-rock frenzy. “Kiopotec” is another adventurous trek into jazz-land where the ultra-punchy rhythm section slams its way into almost otherworldly territory.

“Heru Ra-Ha Road” delivers even more instrumental strangeness, while a female singer adds her vocal gymnastics over various parts of the track, which immediately brings to mind some of the spaciest albums I own from acts such as Gong, Steve Hillage, or Khan. And when, during the track “Music For The Maraca Triplet,” vibes and light trumpet appear during the intro, along with more unusual percussion instruments, I get the sense of venturing into the realm of Avant-Prog.

Although many of the tracks are rather interesting and engaging, they are, unfortunately, hardly memorable. There are no “hooks,” per se, no catchy melody lines even when it comes to the sparse vocal bits, just a lot of free-form music to create specific moods. This is why I rated this collection with only an “average/pleasant” 3 Stars overall.

I’m not familiar with the band’s previous three releases, so I can’t declare whether they offer the same sort of adventurous material, but this latest one is definitely that. So for those fans of the “Canterbury Scene,” or perhaps the spacier Prog-Rock scene who like a ton of jazz tossed into their instrumental music, this might be a band/artist you’ll want to investigate to see if it’s to your liking.

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