After Forever – After Forever (2007)

AfterForever_AfterForever5 out of 5 Stars!

Unfortunately, I discovered After Forever, a female-fronted Symphonic Metal band from the Netherlands, way too late. Indeed, the group announced its break-up a few weeks after I purchased this particular album, which completely blew me away, and also introduced me to the genre of female-led groups that often used operatic falsetto vocals, thus sending me on a desperate quest to hunt for similar-sounding bands. I like to think that had I not stumbled upon (and taken a chance on) this release, I might have never subsequently discovered Nightwish, Within Temptation, Edenbridge, Leaves’ Eyes, Silentium, and numerous other artists of this nature.

Anyway, upon first listen, I fell in love with the extraordinary singer Floor Jansen, who would go on to form another exciting band (ReVamp) and is now the singer in Nightwish. Although after absorbing this album for several weeks, I started digging into After Forever’s back catalogue and eventually decided that none of the group’s earlier albums tops this final, stellar, and self-titled release, yet each deserves a listen since Floor KILLS on each and every album.

Here, the band offers a seemingly perfect combination of bombastic Symphonic Metal, barreling Power Metal, with even a burst of Progressive Metal, thanks to the intricate instrumentation and song arrangements. “Discord” opens the album with a mighty bang, with Joost van den Broek’s keyboards layered and grand, and Sander Gommans’s and Bas Maas’s guitars brutal and beastly. Bassist Luuk van Gerven and drummer André Borgman unleash their own furious backing, their musical foundation substantial and rigorous. And although the band includes some “growling” vocals on occasion (typically an aspect that often ruins many albums of this nature for me), I can tolerate them here since they are not dominant within the mix, allowing Jansen’s wide-ranging and pristine leads to shine through and impress.

Although the album contains plenty of other tunes to match the alluring fury of “Discord”—for instance, “Transitory,” “Who I Am,” “Withering Time,” “Evoke,” “De-Energized” and “Equally Destructive”—other songs follow different paths, offering up diversity. The ballads “Cry You a Smile” and “Empty Memories” offer lighter moments, allow breathing space for the listener from the high-voltage moments, and also thrust Jansen’s soaring and emotional vocals to the forefront. On the other hand, the eleven-minute “Dreamflight,” the album’s longest and most adventurous track, is a full-out foray into Progressive Metal—the myriad segments and divergent passages, not to mention the wide array of instrumentation, shines a fierce spotlight on the band’s formidable orchestrational skills. And then, my favorite track, the luscious and upbeat “Energize Me,” has a breathtaking chorus that repeated in my head for weeks on end, showing that After Forever also had a talent for writing memorable songs.

Overall, the album blazes with a luxuriant beauty that most female-led Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal acts would kill to possess. About the only band I subsequently discovered that could, in my opinion, occasionally match the sheer nuclear grandiloquence of this material is (ironically enough, considering Jansen’s future) Nightwish, but even that group has never delivered a collection of tracks with such consistent vigor and majesty as this.

Regardless, Floor Jansen has me as a lifelong fan, and this swansong release by After Forever is one album I have never removed from my I-Phone since purchasing it all those years ago. Five Stars all the way!

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Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)

SexPistols_Bollocks5 out of 5 Stars!

Say what you will about this short-lived and controversial band, either adore it or detest it, but Sex Pistols sure left a deep, nasty, and indelible mark on the music industry and pop culture after blasting out this one album, ruthlessly assaulting the public with its rude and raw sound and creating a masterpiece in the process.

On aggressive, ear-splitting, and occasionally expletive-laden tracks such as “Holidays in the Sun,” “Problems,” “Liar,” “Pretty Vacant,” “E.M.I,” “Submission,” and the ferocious “Bodies,” the guitars are sinfully mammoth, the rhythms wickedly thundering, and the vocals disgustingly rotten yet sarcastically brilliant. I vividly recall having a friend play for me a homemade cassette tape of the album’s most famous tracks he’d caught on the radio, “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” (along with a non-album tune “Did You No Wrong,” which, thankfully, was included as a “bonus track” on later editions of the album), and itched to hear them numerous times in quick succession, unbelieving the ruthless heavy sound, which simply blew me away. Many folks considered frontman Johnny Rotten the star of the band, but to me, it was the little-known Chris Thomas who truly shone with the light of a thousand suns, his production work being absolutely brilliant.

Now, whether or not all the band members could actually play their instruments with any true skill or sober conviction, Sex Pistols will always be to Punk Rock what the Bee Gees will always be to Disco, the indisputable leaders of an often annoying, even repulsive genre and trend that surprisingly turned the musical world completely topsy-turvy. The band was indeed in a league of its own, with no other Punk Rock band having a fraction of the same filthy power, the same rebellious swagger, the same nerve-rattling fury as this album provided, and even to this very day, I love hearing this collection of tunes bloody-f*cking loud!

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Mott – Shouting & Pointing (1976)

Mott_Shouting5 out of 5 Stars!

After legendary Mott The Hoople lost Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, then found a replacement vocalist in Nigel Benjamin and a keen guitarist in Ray Majors, the revised lineup shortened its name to simply Mott and released the album Drive On to mixed reviews. I, for one, thought the album rather disjointed, with some truly brilliant fare mixed with way too many hackneyed moments, but nevertheless showing the quintet’s potential.

The following year, however, after finding its “musical legs” with the new band members, Mott returned with Shouting & Pointing. Not only did that potential displayed on the debut album come to fruition, but far exceeded all of my initial expectations.

In my eyes, Shouting & Pointing is a lost and (mostly) forgotten gem, 5 Stars all the way!

The A Side is a perfect collection of tunes, from the bombastic “Shouting and Pointing,” to the rocking “Collision Course” and “Storm,” to the outstanding ballad “Career (No Such Thing as Rock ‘n’ Roll).” On these four tracks alone, Nigel Benjamin shows his true talent, his vocals sassy and sneering and soaring, while Ray Major also displays his chops with some expert riffs, fills, and power chords. Morgan Fisher’s piano excursions were never more awesome, while the long-standing rhythm team of bassist Overend Watts and drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin kicked butt in the same tight and driving tradition as they did in “Hoople.”

And the B Side is pretty damned good also, and a bit more diverse. With Overend Watts taking control of the microphone, “Hold On, You’re Crazy” kicks off the proceedings, reminding me of the tune “Born Late ’58,” which he wrote and also sung on MTH’s The Hoople album. “See You Again” is a sparse and catchy rocker with wonderfully tasty and countrified guitar fills likening back to Major’s previous group Hackensack, whereas the rip-roaring “Too Short Arms (I Don’t Care)” is pure Mott The Hoople, with a slightly out-of-tune piano tinkling throughout, giving the impression of the band performing in a smoky pub in some hidden corner of London. “Broadside Outcasts” is the strangest song, a tune that, thanks to the chord patterns during the bridge and the overall instrumentation, partially seemed destined to become another teenage-rebel anthem similar to those written by David Bowie for Mott The Hoople such as “All The Young Dudes” or “Drive-In Saturday” (the latter was offered to MTH, but the band oddly turned it down), but the chorus kicks in with tongue-in-cheek vocal silliness and turns the song completely topsy-turvy. And finally, the band recorded a rousing version of Vanda/Young’s “Good Times” to close out the album, which easily blows the original version by The Easybeats to smithereens.

It’s a crying shame that Mott broke up shortly after releasing this album (or rather, it lost Nigel Benjamin and replaced him with John Fiddler, ultimately becoming British Lions). With Shouting & Pointing proving exactly what this lineup could accomplish, I had prayed Mott would stay together forever.

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Starcastle – Starcastle (1976)

Starcastle_15 out of 5 Stars!

Oh, Starcastle…the memories…

The moment I heard this album back in 1976, I fell in love, as did many of my like-minded, Prog-loving buddies. I distinctly recall the party where someone slipped this onto the turntable, and just about everyone came to a complete standstill, with brows furrowing, jaws dropping, and started asking whether Yes had released a new album unbeknownst to the general public.

Soon learning that Starcastle was basically a sextet of “local boys” (well, okay, from the college town of Champaign, Illinois—close enough to Chicago to consider them “local”) made us so damned proud, and within days we had all purchased a copy of this platter for our collections.

The album’s A Side contains an excellent trio of songs, with the ten-and-a-half-minute “Lady of the Lake” arguably being one of the most stunning openers of any Prog-Rock album from any era. Indeed, the song’s introduction still sends tingles of anticipation along my spine—yes, still, even more than forty years after I first heard the track. The catchy Steve Howe-ish guitar lead backed by Rick Wakeman-like Hammond arpeggios, then a driving rhythm with exorbitantly melodic and energetic bass riffs ushering in a verse sung in flawless harmony, whisks the listener headway down the “Yes Highway.” The epic contains so many various sections, so many abrupt tempo shifts, so many sizzling solos, yet this musical patchwork is sewn together so immaculately, one might think the song had been written, arranged, and performed by a group of seasoned professionals only masking as a novice band on its debut album. And actually, that wasn’t so far from the truth. Only after my friends and I had been floored by this album did I eventually learn that the band members had indeed worked together many years under a variety of monikers—Mad John Fever, Pegasus, etc.—before settling on the name Starcastle and finally securing the recording contract. Anyway, “Lady of the Lake” is definitely a “twenty on my five-point scale.” Simply put, it’s Prog-Rock perfection!

Following the mighty opener, the shorter “Elliptical Seasons” includes an appearance of acoustic guitar before the synth pops in for a lead and the band once again engages in delivering another harmonized verse, until the lone voice of Terry Luttrell (ex-REO Speedwagon) makes its first solo appearance. Certainly the man sounds similar to Yes’s Jon Anderson, but not a direct clone, yet his wide range, timbre, and delivery style are (as the saying goes) “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.”

The final A-Side tune, “Forces,” is another Yes-like extravaganza of multiple sections, tempos, and solos, with fanciful synths, twiddling guitars, and Gary Strater once again performing thrilling acrobatics on his bass guitar. Indeed, not to take anything away from the other talented musicians in this band, but Strater was (to me) the indisputable star of the show here, and bass players everywhere, regardless of genre, seeking to gain inspiration and expand their musical horizons should study this man’s mellifluous and unrestrained performances on this album, especially on this particular track. Every serious Prog-Rock group should find a clone of this man. Amazing!

The album’s Side B is nearly as impressive, with the three-minute, synth-dominated instrumental “Stargate” leading into “Sunfield,” another vigorous romp into Fragile-era Yes territory. My favorite part of the track is the section performed in 9/8 time, with Luttrell’s “The light in the eyes of a thousand carry you away…” melody being highly memorable, as well as the section at the five-minute mark where the band slowly returns to the song’s main theme beneath the “Into revolving you will see the sunrise…” melody. Again, like “Lady of the Lake,” the various segments of this track, the endlessly shifting tempos and sparkling instrumentation, are dazzling and spine-tingling.

“To The Fire Wind,” the final vocal composition, is another appropriate vehicle for Strater to display his Rickenbacker mastery, his fingers not stopping for one second as the tune blazes along in a Prog-Rock frenzy of spectacular keys, guitars, and harmonies. Once again, any Yes fan who adores the Fragile era of the group but is also unfamiliar with Starcastle should seek out this album as soon as humanly possible.

The platter ends with “Nova,” another short instrumental piece that clearly displays the chops of each musician in the band’s line-up. I must admit, though, I typically skip this track when listening to the album. Seeing as how Starcastle had a mastery over three- and four-part harmonies, I would have wished for another vocal track to close out the album. Oh, well…

Regardless, despite the overwhelming Yes similarities, Herb Schildt’s resplendent synths and keys, Steve Hagler’s and Matt Stewart’s fantastic guitar teamwork, Gary Strater’s wondrously riveting Rickenbacker bass, and Steve Tassler’s rigorous percussion, not to mention the formidable harmonies and the divine angelic voice of Terry Luttrell, Starcastle had its own bombastic and charismatic sound/style. And when I take into account the memories of my high school days that this collection of tracks instantly conjures…well, for me, this is truly a special and majestic album, a Prog-Rock classic I still savor on a regular basis.

And to the awesomely gifted Gary Strater…RIP.

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The Watch – Vacuum (2004)

Watch_Vacuum5 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, The Watch creates a nearly perfect replica of the classic Genesis (Peter Gabriel-era) sound on each of its albums. No other band in the world, in the galaxy, in the entire universe, comes as close. Indeed, with vocalist Simone Rosetti eerily replicating Gabriel in timbre and delivery (apart from a slight Italian accent), and the musicians duplicating the same playing styles and tones as Banks, Rutherford, Hackett, and Collins, it’s as if the classic Genesis line-up had hibernated since 1974 and, reanimated and energized, reappeared in the new century completely intact to continue where they left off, only with modern studio production techniques to aid them.

To me, Vacuum, The Watch’s second collection of tunes (and basically an extension of the band’s 2001 debut Ghost) is far better than anything Genesis ever released during the post-Gabriel years, and devotees of albums such as Foxtrot, Nursery Cryme, and Selling England by the Pound will certainly enjoy The Watch, especially after hearing this album—which I played repeatedly for weeks and weeks after purchasing it a decade ago, and still yearn to hear on a regular basis.

With compositions such as “Damage Mode,” “Shining Bald Heads,” “Out of the Land,” “Wonderland,” and the fantastic “The Vacuum,” this album is nothing short of a 5-Star masterpiece, with all of the band’s other releases (including the lone album from a “prequel band” featuring Rosetti called The Night Watch) nearly as inventive and stunning.

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Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure (1973)

RoxyMusic_ForPleasure5 out of 5 Stars!

In my eyes, For Your Pleasure, the second release from Roxy Music, is one of the finest Art Rock albums ever made, and is certainly my favorite by this unique band itself.

Sure, Roxy Music’s self-titled debut from the previous year contained a slew of exciting material and aural oddities, the songs being simultaneously both catchy and bizarre, but Peter Sinfield’s production quality lacked. The vocals or instruments ended up either too forceful or too buried in the mix so the listener couldn’t fully appreciate all the delicate nuances Roxy Music offered regarding the fascinating woodwind blasts, keyboard and synth effects, and luscious guitar and bass melody lines.

On For Your Pleasure, however, the overall production (the band self-producing this release) took a giant leap forward, with the collection possessing a sleek and sensual atmosphere, and all of those instrumental idiosyncrasies, those peculiarities that set this band apart from all of its contemporaries, stood on full and wacky display.

Bryan Ferry’s songwriting had grown seemingly by leaps and bounds, his lyrics being especially quirky, clever, and wry, and the musicians had perfected the art of spiraling off on individual whims, occasionally jamming wildly over and around each other within the confines of each song, yet the band still sounded remarkably cohesive and tight.

With classic tracks such as “Do The Strand,” “Editions of You,” The Bogus Man,” “Beauty Queen,” “For Your Pleasure,” and the unforgettable and rather creepy “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the album contained a wealth of Art Rock experimentation with a touch of Glam, including strange and kooky arrangements, eerie and mind-bending synths and sound effects, all dripping in top-notch elegance and pizzazz, with the end product becoming nothing short of a 5-Star masterpiece.

Unfortunately, this would also be the last album to include Brian Eno, and his genius-like contributions to the Roxy Music sound would be sorely missed on future releases.

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The Allman Brothers Band – The Allman Brothers Band (1969)

Allman_Allman5 out of 5 Stars!

It’s rare when a band barrels out of the gate with a debut album that not only includes a wealth of stunning material, but also has such a unique sound/style as to create its very own musical genre, but that is exactly what The Allman Brothers Band did back in 1969. This collection of tunes, this magnum opus of Southern Rock, created a standard/mainstream musical genre for decades to come and put this band on the road to deserving stardom. It certainly remains one of my all-time favorites in the genre, and the performances by all involved are nothing short of brilliant and breathtaking.

Side A, from start to finish, is sheer and utter perfection. The upbeat guitar-driven instrumental “Don’t Want You No More” showcased the dual-guitar action of Duane Allman and Richard “Dickey” Betts, then ushered in “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” a slow bluesy track that introduced to an unsuspecting public the gruff and gritty power of Gregg Allman’s voice atop a Hammond organ backdrop. “Black Hearted Woman” and “Trouble No More” offered more engaging Southern-tinged Hard Rock, and with the formidable rhythm section of bassist Berry Oakley and twin-percussionists Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks never letting up for a moment, helped to make these two foot-tappin’ tracks instant epitomes of the genre.

Side B is just as stunning, from the riff-laden opener “Every Hungry Woman,” through to Gregg Allman’s signature Hammond-lush semi-ballad “Dreams” with its mesmerizing guitar solo, and finally to the album’s explosive climax, “Whipping Post,” where each band member gives the performance of his life to make this tune (and the aforementioned “Dreams”) one of the band’s concert staples for its entire existence. Talk about a classic track!

As I said earlier, the album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Yet, despite this lofty designation on my part, I do grudgingly admit, I find one minor flaw—the album contains only seven songs, where I would have wished for many more. But I suppose any additional tunes might have screwed up the flawless sequencing of the tracks and destroyed this ne plus ultra in Southern Rock, so I have never grumbled too much about not getting my wish. And thankfully, Idlewild South, the band’s impressive follow-up, arrived about ten months later and came damned close in matching the debut’s unquestionable vigor and long-lasting influence on the music industry and in the minds of the fans, including myself.

Although many of the skillful artists performing on this album are no longer with us, leaving the world way too young, they gifted us with a treasure trove of musical riches by which to remember them for generation after generation. May Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, and most recently Gregory LeNoir Allman rest in peace…and thank you, guys, for leaving behind such a timeless musical legacy.

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Gamma – Gamma 2 (1980)

Gamma_25 out of 5 Stars!

This is a fantastic album from Gamma, the band ace guitarist Ronnie Montrose (RIP) formed after leaving the Edgar Winter Group and Montrose.

Although the first three albums by the band are all commendable (and although Gamma altered its style a tad, the fourth one that came many years later isn’t too shabby either, despite various counter-opinions), this second album is nothing short of a masterpiece in my eyes, Hard Rock touched with the perfect amount of AOR.

On Gamma 2, every single song is a winner, from the sizzling opener “Mean Streak” through to the manic closer “Mayday.” But the tracks “Four Horsemen” and, especially, “Voyager” (two songs I had to perform when one of my previous bands—at my suggestion—happily covered them in its set list) are quite exceptional, with the latter being breathtaking, especially when it comes to the dramatic and raging guitar solo, Davey Pattison’s emotional vocals, and the “windy atmosphere.”

Moreover, not only did bassist Glenn Letsch and drummer Denny Carmassi lay down a solid foundation to each of the eight tracks, but Ronnie Montrose and keyboardist Jim Alcivar (and his synthesized “voices”) injected their unique instrumental flair to the entire proceedings, over which impressive vocalist Davey Pattison delivered his robust and memorable melodies. Indeed, the band had a unique sound/style that made it instantly recognizable, and that sound/style remained thoroughly consistent over the course of the first three albums, with Gamma 2 (thanks to the songwriting) showing the band and producer Gary Lyons capturing that proverbial lightning in a bottle.

Anyway, Gamma was a terrific band, and this album is a “must own” for all fans of Hard Rock. Nuff said! 🙂

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Marillion – Market Square Heroes (1982)

Marillion_MarketSquare5 out of 5 Stars!

This is the EP that not only introduced Marillion to the world and added a major boost to the “New Wave of British Progressive Rock” movement, but got me instantly hooked on the band.

I vividly recall the first time I heard this EP, of having chills of excitement race along my spine, and of battling the urge to leap for joy because a new group had actually adopted a style so eerily reminiscent of Gabriel-era Genesis.

Both A-Side songs “Market Square Heroes” and “Three Boats Down From the Candy” featured Fish’s quirky lead vocals and creative lyrics, along with plenty of Tony Banks-inspired keyboard runs with fantasy-tinged atmospheres, more than enough to make me sit up and take notice.

But it was hearing the creepy, highly dramatic, seventeen-plus minute “Grendel” that encompassed the whole B Side when I cautiously wondered if I might have been catapulted to Prog-Rock heaven. Here was a band that created an epic tune reminiscent of the Genesis classic “Supper’s Ready,” with various sections, eerie atmospheres, and odd tempos. Brilliant!

Thankfully, the band’s Script for a Jester’s Tear album appeared about six months later, finally verifying that Prog-Rock heaven truly DID exist, and I loved every single minute of that “New Wave of British Progressive Rock” period in musical history.

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Rainbow – Rising (1976)

Rainbow_Rising5 out of 5 Stars!

A perfect 5-Star masterpiece. To this day, forty-plus years after purchasing this album, I still get chills along my spine and goosebumps on my arms whenever I listen to each of these six tracks, especially the amazing high-fantasy-inspired “Stargazer,” the best and most dynamic song this band ever recorded, and I’m certain I’m not alone in my physical reaction when hearing it.

And to me, each track on Rising is a winner. The opener, “Tarot Woman,” is a feast of Ritchie Blackmore’s awesome guitar, of Ronnie James Dio’s commanding vocals, of Cozy Powell’s slamming drums, of Jimmy Bain’s tasty bass playing, and begins with a rare showcase for keyboardist Tony Carey, while the driving, manic, Deep Purple-like closer, “A Light in the Black,” is another near masterpiece that reigns high on my list of favorite Rainbow tracks, yet often seems forgotten in the shadow of the aforementioned “Stargazer,” which opens the side.

The catchy “Run With the Wolf” features a keyboard lead that sounds eerily similar to a guitar, while perhaps the most immediate song on Rising is the bouncy “Starstruck,” a tune I saw covered by many locals bands in my city through the years—indeed, I had to master it myself for several of my own group’s that insisted on adding it to our set lists. And “Do You Close Your Eyes,” the album’s shortest song that ends Side A, is perhaps the least mentioned track from this album among fans, yet I still find it a pure corker, an overlooked gem.

Aside from all this, I can say nothing detailed or profound about this album’s impact on both the industry or countless other musicians or groups in the genre that hasn’t already been stated thousands of times through the decades, so I’ll simply repeat the two words I hear most often regarding this release, and words in which I completely agree—”Sheer Brilliance!”

So, RIP Ronnie James Dio, one of the finest Heavy Metal/Hard Rock singers in the history of the universe, and RIP Cozy Powell, one of the finest Heavy Metal/Hard Rock drummers in the history of the universe, and RIP Jimmy Bain, one of the finest Heavy Metal/Hard Rock bassists in the history of the universe—the band Rainbow never had a finer line-up of musicians!

(And special kudos to Ken Kelly for creating the stunning artwork, which has to be one of the best album covers of all time.)

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