Symbolic – Nevertime (2011)

Symbolic_Nevertime3 out of 5 Stars!

This was a tough one to rate.  On one hand, the music is pretty good, probably worthy of a “3.5 – 4” rating, with some fairly decent musicianship and several memorable riffs on many of the tracks.  Nothing truly innovative, generally, but nothing too shabby either.

On the other hand, however, the vocals are questionable, hovering around the “2” rating zone, with the singer always “thisclose” to completely marring things up by his “almost off-key” tonal quality. It’s too bad, since the vocal melodies themselves aren’t too shabby, but the singer’s delivery leaves you on the edge of your seat, waiting for his voice to drift off the correct notes.  I’ve heard worse singers for certain, and I suppose many people won’t find him as annoying as I do, but for a band with so much potential, the sins of the vocalist are completely unforgivable.

Additionally, the overall production could use some improvement, since the general sound is rather flat in places, especially when it comes to the drums, and sometimes guitar solos pop out a bit louder in the mix than they should, which can be a tad jarring.

So, an average rating is what I ended up giving this release. Were the band to locate a more capable, sure-footed vocalist, and keep progressing down this road where it comes to their song-writing skills, they have the potential for greatness.

Steamhammer – Steamhammer (1969)

Steamhammer_13 out of 5 Stars!

Not quite sure how to rate this album. Many tracks are nothing more than traditional blues-based rock with a touch of psychedelic rock, whereas on a few other tracks the band includes some traces of progressive rock and seems to intentionally mimic early Jethro Tull, adding flute and the singer doing his best Ian Anderson impression. Overall, I’d equate Steamhammer to a band such as Status Quo trying to meld themselves with Wishbone Ash and Jethro Tull.

Therefore, this is a mixed affair for me. Nothing overly special, but nothing that completely turns me off either. An average release.

On a side note, the album features one BUTT-UGLY cover.

Shy – Welcome to the Madhouse (1994)

Shy_WelcomeMadhouse3 out of 5 Stars!

Without the terrific Tony Mills on lead vocals, this album sounds nothing like a typical Shy album. (The weird and ugly cover should have given me a clue something was a bit “different” on offer here.)

Generally speaking regarding the songs and the band’s sound, there’s certainly nothing even remotely close to the excellent AOR band found on the Excess All Areas release.  Instead, this sounds like a middle-of-the-road arena rock group, a lesser cousin of bands such as Autograph or Warrant.  The tracks here might be good for a listen or two, perhaps, but they’re hardly memorable and, overall, this is a definite disappointment when it comes to the band’s catalogue of albums.

Pentwater – Pentwater (1977)

Pentwater_13 out of 5 Stars!

Here’s a Chicago band that released a single album back in 1977. When they played the local scene, Chicago bands were on the verge of being signed to recording contracts left and right—Survivor, Tantrum, The Boyzz, Off Broadway, Gambler, Trillion, Hounds, etc.—but the one thing that set Pentwater apart from the rest of the pack was that they were a Prog-Rock band. About the only other similar acts in Chicago that fell into that genre (and were offered a recording deal) were both Shadowfax and Zazu (the former had some mild success and continued on for years, while the latter released a single album and it went nowhere). So when the Pentwater album appeared, I had eagerly listened to it several times, but unfortunately, I distinctly remember not being impressed. Now, after all these years, I finally managed to track down another copy and, sadly, my impressions truly haven’t changed.

Certainly the band had imagination with their songwriting and arrangements, including some Gentle Giant, Kansas, ELP, Yes, and King Crimson influences into their sound, and musically they weren’t too shabby and I give them credit for that. The inclusion of some flute, violin, and Mellotron proved an unexpected touch, so I applauded them for that. But the problems lie mostly in the vocal department. Some of the leads are absolutely wretched, almost maniacal sounding, and when the vocalist sings “straight,” without the wild silliness, both his tone and accuracy leave a lot to be desired. The background vocals are also not the most superb (they occasionally attempted to perform counterpart vocals in a style similar to Gentle Giant, but just didn’t have to talent to pull it off successfully). Therefore, the band is at its best on the few instrumental tracks that appear.

The production quality is also quite lame, even for the era, with some of the instruments dropping back into the mix seemingly at random on several tracks, lending an uneven and unpolished feel to the songs, as if they had been recorded on a tight budget, and in a basement or home studio.

Now, with all that being said, the band wasn’t absolutely horrible (again, the instrumentation is quite commendable at times), so Prog-Rock lovers who crave obscure releases within the genre might find Pentwater of some interest. Just don’t expect brilliance or perfection or anything earth-shattering.

Mercyful Fate – Melissa (1983)

MercyfulFate_Melissa3 out of 5 Stars!

A killer album musically, if you love the darkness of Black Sabbath riffs and themes. A wretched album vocally, however…King Diamond has a relatively “okay” voice when he actually “sings,” but unfortunately he reaches for the rafters even when unwarranted, continually screeching in falsetto like a castrated tomcat and turning each track into a banshee-wailing mess. Definitely takes a lot of getting used to, and I truly never could get used to it. Even listening to him today, all these years later, is like having dozens of sharp nails raking a chalkboard.

So, the music gets a “5” and King Diamond gets a “1,” bringing the album to a respectable “3” rating overall. This was the first and last album I purchased from this band, since KD’s voice left my eardrums bleeding and gave me a churning stomach waiting to spew. I would have also purchased many of his solo projects, since the music was definitely above average for the metal genre, were it not for him and his vocal gymnastic nonsense.

Haze – In the End: 1978-88 (1993)

Haze_InTheEnd3 out of 5 Stars!

If this compilation is anything to go by, Haze had its moments of potential brilliance. Some occasionally exciting time changes in the midst of “epic-like” songs, some commendable twiddling of the instruments (especially on the keyboards), and the rhythm section also had their “WOW moments.”

Unfortunately, those moments are not only few and far between, but are flawed by several nasty elements. Sure, at times Haze sounded like a promising version of Yes, Flash, Nektar, and Camel, yet they seem to be held at “garage-band” level. Just not as polished, nor as professionally produced. They truly had the makings of being potentially (again, that word) a powerful progressive rock act in the late 70s/early 80s.  Unfortunately, regardless of their apparent talent in musicianship, they don’t go much beyond that “garage-band” status. The production is less-than-perfect, as if they recorded in (who would have guessed?) a garage.  Secondly, the guitars also sound “thisclose” to being out of tune with the slightly also out of tune keyboards, and in turn, the vocals come “thisclose” to being out of tune with the guitars, etc. A nasty circle. Again, just “thisclose” to being on par with other “professional bands” such as Yes, Camel, etc. but never quite making the mark. Moreover, the vocals just don’t have any true appeal—middle of the road, unfortunately, whereas if they’d possessed a truly exciting frontman they might have not only sounded more “in tune” but had a higher appeal.

Quite lackluster in retrospect, whereas this might have been a much higher (and more popular) act.  This falls into the “too bad” category, since the potential existed.

Built For The Future – Chasing Light (2015)

BuiltFuture_ChasingLight3 out of 5 Stars!

Built For The Future is (from what I gather) a new band from Texas, although the word “band” doesn’t quite seem appropriate considering the act consists of two members, vocalist Kenny Bissett and multi-instrumentalist Patric Farrell, with a handful of guest performers.

For the most part, the music is rather pleasant, melodic, and well-performed with high-quality production. The majority of the tracks (including “Lightchaser,” “Burning Daylight,” “The Siren Will,” and “Radiowave”) seem to be more straightforward AOR songs. heavily laced with electronic percussion, and with only the merest hint of Prog-Rock, typically based on much of the keyboard instrumentation, whereas others (“Running Man,” “Samsara,” and the three-part “The Great Escape,” most notably) contain more than a touch of Progressive Rock in, what I consider, the sound of the most recent Yes albums. Or to be more accurate, the “Yes offshoot” bands, such as Conspiracy and Circa: and White, even World Trade. And truth be told, that’s where the main problem lies with much of the material here.

After initially listening to this release, I was not shocked in the least to learn that Billy Sherwood was involved in some capacity with the production/mixing of this album. Indeed, his stamp seems to be all over this release. Not that there’s anything wrong with Sherwood (who is quite talented in my book), but when it comes to those previously mentioned “Yes offshoot” bands, even World Trade, the vocals always seem to be rather emotionless. Oh, the singing is perfectly in tune, the harmonies are always commendable, but they generally lack any trace of raw emotion. “Singing by the numbers,” I call it. Way too slick, too smoothed over, too…well, sorry to say, gutless. This is, unfortunately, the one thing that Sherwood projects generally seem to have in common. And for me, this is the main aspect of the music that brings down this release at least a half-star.

Therefore, since the material is more often than not better than average—although I would have preferred more variety in the tunes and less of an “electronic” feel to much of the instrumentation—I have to rate it 3 Stars, but the album likely would have been closer to 3.5 Stars if the band possessed a singer with more punch, more passion, more attitude in his performance instead of the “sing by the numbers” approach that infects many Sherwood-related (or Sherwood-inspired) projects.


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Alusa Fallax – Intorno alla mia cattiva educazione (1974)

AlusaFallax_Intorno3 out of 5 Stars!

The instrumental portions of this album are wonderful. The singer, however, is pretty much wretched, hence my lower amount of stars. So buyer beware. Thankfully the singer doesn’t insert himself throughout every track, so those prog-rock lovers who have an enormously tolerant attitude may not care too much. Normally, I am tolerant if the vocals in question are either quirky or purposefully off-the-wall (Marillion, Ange, PFM, Zappa, et al). But in this case, the extremely dramatic vibrato and “HEY, I’M IN YOUR FACE, SO NOTICE ME, DAMN IT” forceful delivery of the vocals are nothing but annoying.

Musically speaking, on the other hand, this is a fine album, often amusing, stimulating, and brilliant, but I’m sorry I couldn’t rate it higher than a 3-Star average rating due to the aforementioned “annoyance” with the vocalist.

Now…I can’t help wondering if the band produced only a single album due to this glaring “vocalist flaw.” Hmm….