Beautiful Sin – The Unexpected (2006)

BeautifulSin_Unexpected4 out of 5 Stars!

Magali Luyten, lead vocalist for Germany’s Beautiful Sin (and also for the group Virus IV) is, in a single word, terrific. I liken her gruff and powerful voice to almost a female version of the mighty Jorn Lande, which is too perfect for this often bombastic brand of Heavy Metal. Plus, the band’s dramatic, full-bodied sound is often similar to Masterplan (no surprise, considering two of its members—keyboardist Axel Mackenrott and drummer Uli Kusch—were in both bands) as well as acts playing in a similar vein, such as Thunderstone, Heavenly, At Vance, Firewind, and Ride the Sky, so the Luyten/Lande vocal comparisons are even more appropriate.

On The Unexpected, hard-hitting tracks such as “Metalwaves,” “This is Not the Original Dream,” “Give Up Once for All,” “Take Me Home,” “Pechvogel (Unlucky Fellow),” “Lost,” and “The Spark of Ignition,” had me turning up the stereo to revel in the searing and snarling guitars, courtesy of Jorn Viggo Lofstad (Pagan’s Mind), Mackenrott’s often-pompish and regally grand keyboard backgrounds and blasts, and the thundering rhythms, thanks to Kusch and his partner in metal mayhem, bassist Steinar Krokmo. Also included are several ballads—”Close To My Heart” and “I’m Real”—to not only provide tempo variety and assorted moods, but also to further display the true depth and scope of Luyten’s breathtaking vocal talents.

My only gripe is that a pair of instrumentals also appear in this collection, the driving “Brace for Impact” and the laid-back, keyboard-orchestrated “The Beautiful Sin.” Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with either track, mind you—in fact, both admirably showcase the impressive chops of the four gifted musicians—but having these tracks taking up disc space offers two less opportunities of being able to enjoy Luyten “belting out the jams.” And it’s even more frustrating when you consider that Beautiful Sin released no additional material since this 2006 debut.

Therefore, I’m unsure if this band still exists or if it’s merely “on hiatus,” but considering it’s been more than a decade since The Unexpected dropped on the unsuspecting public, I can only assume the worst. Too bad, since Beautiful Sin showed real promise, and there are way too few female-fronted bands of this nature on the Heavy Metal scene.

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Ad Maiora – Repetita Iuvant (2016)

AdMaiora_RepetitaIuvant4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Ad Maiora appeared on the scene back in 2014 with the release of a fairly impressive self-titled album. So in 2016, when the band released its sophomore effort, Repetita Iuvant, I looked forward to hearing what the musicians had created the second time around.

Like the debut, Repetita Iuvant features a collection of tracks mostly in the Symphonic Progressive Rock genre, with even a few Jazz-Rock and Avant-Prog touches added for auditory tinsel. And once again, the level of musicianship shown during the typically intricate song arrangements rates high in my book, with guitarist Flavio Carovali delivering tasty riffs and occasionally rampaging solos, bassist Moreno Piva performing ultra-melodic runs and rhythmic counterpunches, and drummer Ezio Giardina adding splendid fills amidst his rock-solid tempos and smooth time-shift transitions. Moreover, I especially savor the wide variety of keyboards and synth tones Sergio Caleca employed throughout the album, including Clavinet and the generous use of the mighty Mellotron…the latter being always a welcome addition for Prog-Rock fans like myself to appreciate.

Although several compositions (“Torba,” “Repetita Iuvant,” and “Never Mind”) are dynamic instrumentals with varied styles, when lead vocalist Paolo Callioni makes his appearance on songs such as “Life,” “Invisible,” “Molokheya,” and “Etereo”—some of which he croons in his native language—his tone and style occasionally remind me of Saga’s Michael Sadler, only with a wider range and a slight accent (when he sings in English, of course)

Also of special note for Procol Harum fans, one of the album’s highlights (for me, at least) is the “bonus” track “Whaling Stories,” which Ad Maiora originally recorded for a Procol Harum tribute album—Shine on Magic Hotel—issued by Mellow Records in 2014. Thankfully, the musicians elected to include their rendition of the tune here also, since it’s simply terrific!

Anyway, to me, Ad Maiora is one of the more promising Italian Prog-Rock groups to have emerged in the recent past. Now I’m hoping the band sticks around for a good long while to concoct even more appetizing material for lovers of the genre like me who can never get enough.

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Stone The Crows – Ode to John Law (1970)

StoneCrows_OdeJohnLaw4 out of 5 Stars!

With the terrific Maggie Bell as the band’s front-woman, one might expect to hear thunderous and raspy Janis Joplin-inspired vocals, loaded with angst and emotion, over hard-driving Blues Rock, which is exactly what’s on offer here. To me, Stone The Crows is what Faces might have sounded like with a female vocalist at the helm—had Rod Stewart perhaps undergone a gender reassignment.

Ode to John Law, the band’s second studio album—and its second album released in 1970—continues on from where the debut left off, with more Psychedelic-tinged, Blues-based Rock ‘n’ Roll, along with a touch of Funk and Soul added to the mix, thick-sounding Hammond, trippy electric piano, spirited and tasty guitar, and a solid and punchy rhythm section. And with not only Maggie Bell belting out tracks such as “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” “Sad Mary,” “Love 74,” “Things are Getting Better,” and a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone,” but also with the underrated guitarist Les Harvey (band founder and brother of the “sensational” Alex Harvey, who would be fatally electrocuted on stage only a few short years later) and bassist/vocalist James Dewar (who would soon join with Robin Trower to create a string of classic albums), the band’s lineup, rounded out by keyboardist John McGinnis and drummer Collin Allen, simply smokes!

Of course, the band would go on to release one additional top-class album (Teenage Licks) in ’71 without Dewar and McGinnis, and another (Ontinuous Performance) in ’72, just after the death of Harvey, where the remaining musicians quickly hired Jimmy McCulloch (Small Faces/Wings) to finish the album. But surviving in the wake of such a tragedy proved too difficult, and Stone The Crows fell apart shortly afterward. A shame, really, since as heard especially on its self-titled debut and Ode to John Law, the band possessed a unique style, had undeniable chemistry, a seemingly endless drive, and a knack for skillfully incorporating touches of numerous influences into its sound.

(RIP to Les Harvey, James Dewar, and Jimmy McCulloch, true legends and horribly missed.)

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AC/DC – Let There Be Rock (1977)

ACDC_LetThereBeRock4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ll never forget how I discovered this band…back in 1979, I found myself in the hospital for several days—nothing too serious, thankfully—and coincidentally, my roommate just happened to be a high school buddy whom I hadn’t seen since our graduation the previous year. Not only did the poor guy have a nasty, dysfunctional appendix, but before leaving for the hospital, he had the foresight to bring along with him a bunch of cassette tapes, two of which were by an unknown (to me) band from Australia called AC/DC.

One afternoon after his inevitable appendectomy, he played Let There Be Rock (along with the band’s follow-up release Powerage) on his portable cassette player, and needless to say, I found myself immediately hooked. So within days after being released from the hospital, I headed to the record store and purchased both albums, and I must say, I have never grown tired of either.

On Let There Be Rock, AC/DC’s fourth studio effort, the band displayed a raw and dirty, no-holds-barred style of barreling and bluesy Boogie Rock, the rhythm guitars (thanks to Malcolm Young) blasting and metal-tinged, and the bass and drums (respectively assaulted by Mark Evans and Phil Rudd) punchy, pounding, and pumping. Meanwhile, Angus Young’s six-string solos sliced through the thundering chaos like feisty bolts of melodic lightning, as if he used razor blades as guitar picks, while singer Bon Scott’s roaring and shredded tonsils helped to provide the band with not only an instantly recognizable sound, but a discernible and unapologetic attitude, one of rebellious, punk-like belligerence.

The tracks “Dog Eat Dog,” “Problem Child,” “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “Go Down,” “Overdose”—heck, every single tune, as it turned out—left a profound impression on me that day in the hospital, but it was the rollicking title track that truly seared its way into my brain, and I sensed it would one day be recognized by Hard Rock fans as an undeniable classic. Add to all of this Angus Young’s unusual image and fashion sense, not to mention his antics being that of a hyperactive schoolboy on acid, and it came as no shock to me that AC/DC would quickly become a driving force on the worldwide music scene.

So to this day, whenever I hear this band—especially Let There Be Rock and Powerage—I instantly think of my friend Rollo and his near-bursting, seeming worthless appendix, which (in a truly bizarre and macabre way), ended up being quite valuable to me regarding my further musical enlightenment.

(RIP Malcolm Young & Bon Scott)

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Orchid – Capricorn (2011)

Orchid_Capricorn4 out of 5 Stars!

Several years ago, I had lamented the fact that I had a fierce craving to hear additional artists that “worshiped at the altar of Black Sabbath” but I didn’t quite know where to turn. Thankfully, several friends supplied me with recommendations, and among the list was a new (or newer) San Francisco band that went by the moniker of Orchid. Well, since one early Sabbath album (Master of Reality) had a short instrumental with the same name, I figured this band might be a good place to start my investigation. And man, did that logic ever pay off…in spades.

My journey of discovery began with finding a copy of Through the Devil’s Doorway, the band’s four-track EP from 2009, where Orchid not only delivered the tunes in a style replicating early Black Sabbath (I would liken the sound to albums from Paranoid through Vol. 4, prior to Sabbath becoming more experimental), but also the lead vocalist went so far as to nearly copy the vocal nuances of Ozzy Osbourne. Now, granted, I was never a huge fan of Osbourne’s, his nasally voice often rubbing me the wrong way. Don’t get me wrong, I could tolerate him well enough and I adore many of the albums on which he appeared—I mean, Black Sabbath were the gods of Metal, as far as I was concerned—but he was never my favorite singer in the universe due to the thin and often whiny nature of his voice. Now, although Orchid’s Theo Mindell does have a similar delivery style and possesses a set of pipes that can occasionally (and eerily) mimic Osbourne’s, his timbre is thankfully much fuller, rounder, more forceful, not to mention a tad gruffer, which happily eliminates any and all “Osbourne annoyance factor” in my ears.

Therefore, being generally impressed with the EP, I immediately dove headlong into the band’s 2011 full-length debut album Capricorn, praying the band had continued along the same musical pathway. And once again, from the opening track “Eyes Behind the Wall” onward, the classic Sabbath sound/style is wonderfully replicated, probably more so than most other groups considered “Sabbath tribute” acts. (Indeed, I’ll admit that I enjoy Orchid’s material even more so than the most recent Sabbath “reunion” recordings themselves.) For me, on Capricorn, the dark, dastardly, and doomy guitar riffs steal the show, proving highly enjoyable and occasionally memorable, especially on the aforesaid tune plus “Electric Father,” “Black Funeral,” “He Who Walks Alone,” “Masters of It All,” and “Cosmonaut of Three.” Actually, every single tune has something special going for it.

But is it unique? Heck no, and frankly, I don’t care. The closing ballad, “Albatross,” is an outward attempt to fashion another “Planet Caravan” (from Black Sabbath’s Paranoid) while the album’s title track contains an opening riff that instantly brought to mind “Hole in the Sky” (Sabotage). I could go on and on citing further comparisons, but I won’t bother. The band doesn’t even attempt to mask its influences, yet Orchid in no way perfectly clones or plagiarizes Sabbath either, even though sections of additional tracks, whether it be the main riffs or the rhythms or the solos or the vocal melodies or even the tone of the instruments, periodically send shivers of déjà vu up my spine. And I love every second of it. Now it’s just a matter of me accumulating the band’s subsequent releases so I can continue to revel in the sound/style I’ve adored since my teenaged years.

So for Black Sabbath lovers who don’t mind a contemporary band attempting to recreate the sound and style of its idols from the past, then you might want to investigate Orchid. I certainly have no problem with this “tribute” approach to current music, no matter the genre or the band in question, as long as the obvious tribute is done correctly and with high reverence. And as far as I can see (or hear), the talented members of Orchid have indeed done everything correctly, and with unabashed and untainted respect for the granddaddies of Heavy Metal dripping from every doom-laden note.

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Heartbreakers – L.A.M.F. (1977)

Heartbreakers_LAMF4 out of 5 Stars!

Featuring both guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan from New York Dolls, along with bassist Billy Rath and guitarist Walter Lure, Heartbreakers (also known as Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers) released only one album, but what a killer platter it was.

Punchy and energetic tracks such as “I Wanna Be Loved,” “Baby Talk,” “Do You Love Me,” “Goin’ Steady,” “Chinese Rocks,” and the blazing opener “Born to Lose” barrel from the speakers “Like A M*ther F*cker,” hence the album’s abbreviated title. Similar to Sex Pistols, the guitars sound frenzied and full on the majority of the fourteen tunes, yet almost like New York Dolls, also wonderfully sloppy and slovenly. And the always defiant and typically off-key lead vocals match the fury of both aforementioned groups, which gives the down-‘n’-dirty music extra debauched charm and garage-band character.

Therefore, crammed with both punkish attitude and youthful exuberance, a cacophony of pounding rhythms and singalong choruses, the band had enough snarl and swagger to give the mighty Sex Pistols a run for the sleazy moolah. But alas, also like the Pistols, narcotics and personal mayhem took a toll on the band members, and Heartbreakers splintered apart after releasing this one full-length studio album, which ended up being a classic of the genre, and a ferocious, disobedient, and long-lasting sockdolager to the musical jaw.

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Tank – War Nation (2012)

Tank_WarNation4 out of 5 Stars!

Part of the U.K.’s “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal Movement,” the wild and raucous Tank enjoyed some marginal success until disappearing in the late ’80s after its fifth studio release. Thankfully, however, the band reappeared in the new century with several lineup changes, the most important one (for me, anyway) being the addition of the superb vocalist Doogie White (Rainbow/Cornerstone/La Paz/etc.), who appeared on the previous War Machine album in 2010 as well as this collection.

With this particular change in lineup and the band’s rather straightforward and driving Metal style—different than the group’s more Motorhead-like approach from the early days of its existence—Tank had noticeably altered its sound. Here, on spirited and barreling tracks such as “Don’t Dream in the Dark,” “Song of the Dead,” “Justice For All,” “State of the Union,” “Hammer and Nails,” “Wings of Heaven,” and the more laid-back “Dreamer,” the group came across almost like a blending of Rainbow and Accept—two of my favorite acts of all time. And while White’s vocal melodies shine through on both the verses and memorable choruses, the band still sounded heavy as all freaking hell, thanks to the thundering rhythm section of bassist Chris Dale and drummer Steve Hopgood, and the blazing riff-laden guitars of Mick Tucker and Cliff Evans.

Therefore, with the band delivering a collection of tracks in the style of more traditional Heavy Metal outfits such as Saxon, Hammerfall, Dio, and Judas Priest, War Nation is one of my favorite Tank albums. And to those who want to savor the sheer sonic power in all its glory, my advice is to PLAY IT LOUD!

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Cobra – First Strike (1983)

Cobra_FirstStrike4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the early ’80s, Cobra emerged as a promising group from the area of Memphis, Tennessee—a band not related in any single way to the state’s booming, renowned Country Music scene—and really grabbed my attention. First Strike, Cobra’s lone album, displayed a maturity and polish not often found on debuts, with the group’s blend of hard ‘n’ heavy rockers and lighter melodic ballads, its sizzling guitars and tight rhythms, and one of the most gifted and recognizable vocalists to have ever emerged in the Hard Rock/AOR genre.

Of course I’m talking about Jimi Jamison, the singer who would eventually go on to major fame as part of the group Survivor, not to mention becoming the answer to a TV Trivia question regarding the track “I’m Always Here,” the theme song of the mega-popular Baywatch series that ran through the entire decade of the ’90s in America. But also featured in Cobra was Canadian-born-turned-Switzerland-resident Mandy Meyer, a chap who would go on to perform tasteful and shredding six-string solos for bands such as Asia and Unisonic, Gotthard and Krokus (for a second time). Anyway, when First Strike sadly didn’t make a huge splash on the scene as anticipated, the group started to disintegrate, and in 1984 with both Jamison and Meyers (the two chief songwriters) leaving Cobra to join up with Survivor and Asia respectively, that certainly signaled the official end for the band, and even all these years later, I can’t help feeling it a crying shame.

As I said above, the band was nothing short of promising. With melodic, hard-hitting songs like the pounding title track to “Only You Can Rock Me,” “Danger Zone,” and “Travelin’ Man,” to “Thorn in Your Flesh,” “Fallen Angel,” and “Blood on Your Money,” the album didn’t lighten up except for the catchy mid-tempo ballads “I’ve Been a Fool Before” and “Looking at You,” the tunes that truly showed the band’s full commercial potential.

With only the merest hint of keyboards to round out the already rich guitar sound and add some atmosphere, the band’s music often came across (to me, anyway) as almost a throwback to Hard Rock groups such as Montrose, April Wine, Moxy, Y&T, and Hydra (but without the latter’s Southern-Rock flavor), only with more than a touch of straightforward AOR magic in the tradition of Survivor (which is why it came as no shock to me when the Chicago band snatched up Jamison to replace the departing Dave “Eye of the Tiger” Bickler, their individual singing voices too similar in style and tone to dismiss).

Anyway, I missed Cobra, hoping for at least a second album, perhaps a reunion of sorts, that would never materialize. Thankfully, aside from Jamison and Meyers, the band’s underrated rhythm section (bassist Tommy Keiser and drummer Jeff Klaven) went on to join Krokus (but at a different time than their former Cobra cohort Meyers), whereas guitarist and keyboardist Jack Holder (previously of Black Oak Arkansas fame) tended to avoid the future limelight, working instead as mostly an in-demand session musician back in Tennessee.

Regardless, based on this enjoyable album, Cobra’s sting should have been felt worldwide, but alas, fate had other ideas.

(RIP Jimi Jamison and Jack Holder)

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Little Atlas – Wanderlust (2005)

LittleAtlas_Wanderlust4 out of 5 Stars!

Little Atlas, a quartet formed near the sunny beaches of Miami, Florida, delivered five above-average albums from 1998 through 2013 before seemingly disappearing.

Wanderlust, the band’s third release, is perhaps my favorite of the five. On tunes such as “Higher,” “Mirror of Life,” “The Prisoner,” and “The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust,” the band delivers Progressive Rock in a similar vein to groups such as Yes, Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Pallas, Salem Hill, The Flower Kings, etc., but never directly copying any of the aforementioned groups. Instead, the band creates its own unique twist on the Prog-Rock genre, while each of the seven tracks, all falling somewhere between the five and ten minute mark, are loaded with memorable melodies, often-complex instrumentation, and a variety of moods.

Moreover, I especially appreciated the nod to Gentle Giant on the track “Weariness Rider” when it came to the counterpoint a capella vocal passage, which further displayed the band’s overall creativity.

Regardless, it’s a crying shame Little Atlas didn’t receive wider recognition throughout the years, since the group showed great promise and I would have easily welcomed additional material.

Thankfully, in 2014, the group Strattman (named after Little Atlas’s guitarist Roy Strattman) emerged on the scene with a terrific album, and also includes Steve Katsikas (vocals/keyboards) and Rik Bigai (bass), both from Little Atlas as well. Therefore, the band basically lives on in spirit, only under a fresh moniker and with several different members, which is certainly good news for the Prog-Rock community and fans of the original group.

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Edge of Forever – Let the Demon Rock ‘n’ Roll (2005)

EdgeForever_LetDemon4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, the group Edge of Forever released a trio of powerful yet melodic albums in the new century, mainly Hard Rock bordering on Progressive Metal and Pomp Rock yet touched with AOR.

When it comes to Let the Demon Rock ‘n’ Roll, the band’s second album, catchy tunes such as “Crime of Passion,” “Mouth of Madness,” “One Last September,” “Feel Like Burning,” “The Machine,” and the title track barrel from the speakers with the force of a hurricane, while dramatic and hard-hitting ballads (“A Deep Emotion” and “Edge of Forever”) add variety. With his range, tone, and style of delivery, vocalist Bob Harris often reminds me of singers such as Glenn Hughes or Göran Edman. Meanwhile, bassist Christian Grillo and drummer Francesco Jovino construct a powerful sonic foundation, and the grand and rip-roaring instrumentation includes a perfect balance between Matteo Carnio’s blazing guitars and Alessandro Del Vecchio’s impressive “pompish” backgrounds and Prog-Metal-esque keyboard leads, which would seem almost right at home on albums by Time Requiem, Adagio, Space Odyssey, or basically any other group featuring Richard Andersson on keyboards.

And speaking of comparisons, the band’s overall musical style has much more in common with heavy yet occasionally commercial artists such as Rainbow, Heaven & Earth, Sunstorm, and Eden’s Curse as opposed to lighter and “pure” AOR groups such as Journey, FM, Babys, or Shy. So don’t let the AOR genre designation fool you—Edge of Forever has a mighty edge indeed, one that’s loaded with scads of hummable melodies.

Please also note, Let the Demon Rock ‘n’ Roll was produced by Bobby Barth, long-time vocalist and guitarist of the hard-rockin’ and melodic Florida band Axe, who may have aided Edge of Forever in keeping its style on this particular musical path.

Regardless, even through it’s been many years since the band’s lineup changed (leaving keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio as its vocalist) and its last album (2010’s Another Paradise) saw the light of day, Edge of Forever has subsequently signed a multi-album deal with Italy’s renowned Frontiers label and is supposedly working on new material for a comeback platter. Therefore, I’m thrilled to know the band has not fallen into oblivion, thus leaving my previous fears of possible dissolution in the dust.

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