Mötley Crüe – Mötley Crüe (1994)

MotleyCrue_MotleyCrue5 out of 5 Stars!

The criminally underrated (and best) Crüe album, bar none! Indeed, the only problem I have with this album is the name of the band on the cover—had Mötley Crüe changed its famous moniker when Vince Neil left the group after the Dr. Feelgood album, sure, name recognition may have been a stumbling block when it came to sales (ain’t that what the publicity department at a record label is supposed to counteract?), but perhaps the record-buying public wouldn’t have been so horribly and unfairly critical of this terrific album.

New vocalist John Corabi (The Scream/Union/Dead Daisies/etc.) suffered severe and unnecessary lambasting from “Vince” fans, yet his performance on this album (or, frankly, on any album on which he appears) is simply stunning. His gruff tone and emotional delivery on each of the slamming tracks—”Power to the Music,” “Hooligan’s Holiday,” “Poison Apples,” “Smoke the Sky,” “‘Til Death Do Us Part,” “Uncle Jack,” to name but a few of my favorites—added a certain je ne sais quoi to the band’s overall heftier, dirtier, grungier sound, not to mention how he seemed to add necessary octane to the aging band, and spice to the lyrics that was dreadfully missing on many of the previous “Vince” albums. And with some Blues Rock influences being apparent on several tracks (reminding me of Corabi’s work with The Scream) mixed with Mötley Crüe’s updated, revitalized style, the band produced something truly special here, never to be repeated.

So to me, this 1994 release is a 5-Star corker through and through, and Mötley Crüe never sounded more accomplished, more dastardly, or more driven!

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Last Crack – Burning Time (1991)

lastcrack_burningtime5 out of 5 Stars!

This has to be one of the most bizarre yet innovative bands I’ve ever encountered in the Heavy Metal genre. Both haunting and sinister, progressive and diverse, at times funky or driving while at other times mellow yet manic, the album Burning Time contains so many tracks that actually defy “normal” classification. Indeed, if the term “Psychotic Metal” was an actual musical genre, then this album would fit perfectly.

The unpredictable melodies, along with the ambitious instrumentation, song arrangements, and bizarre lyrics, are nothing short of a pure work of art, while the band’s singer on this album (a gifted guy simply named Buddo) is wholly unique when it comes to his style and delivery. And to know that this beautifully strange music came from the agricultural heartlands (Madison, Wisconsin, of all places) makes this release even more freakish and mind-bending…unless, of course, a high percentage of lunatic asylums frequently pop up in the middle of Wisconsin cornfields.

Regardless, this is a 5-Star masterpiece of gripping and memorable Metal for those craving adventurous musical territory…or perhaps those who savor taking a Tilt-A-Whirl ride in the mind of a madman.

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Deep Purple – Made in Japan (1972)

deeppurple_madejapan5 out of 5 Stars!

In my eyes, this is probably the finest live albums of all freaking time, in any rock genre, and even today the album holds enormous and undeniable power.

Ian Gillan’s vocal performances are absolutely searing and jaw-dropping (just listen to his ear-piercing screams on “Child in Time,” or the way he vocally counter-punches Ritchie Blackmore’s ad-libbed riffs on “Strange Kind of Woman”), so it’s no wonder why the man was perhaps the biggest influence on my own musical career.

Plus, the other guys in the band ain’t too shabby either…indeed, geniuses, each and every single one of them, no doubt. “Highway Star” is especially driving, thanks to Ian Paice’s frantic drumming and Roger Glover’s thumping bass, and blows the studio version of this classic track out of the water, while the song “Lazy” is anything but, especially when it comes to Jon Lord’s crazy, free-form intro and Blackmore’s bluesy guitar noodling. And the side-long “Space Truckin’, with its wild and extended jamming, shows exactly what these stellar musicians could do when given the freedom to improvise on stage with no time limits. Simply amazing.

Anyone who claims to be a true fan of Hard Rock from the ’70s certainly has this album in their musical collection, and if they don’t, then FOR FREAKING SHAME. Without question, this album is a perfect 5 Stars…sheer brilliance and unrivaled excellence!!!

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Robin Trower – Bridge of Sighs (1974)

Trower_BridgeSighs5 out of 5 Stars!

It’s a rare occurrence for an album to appear on the music scene that truly possesses a unique sound/style (despite some obvious influences). Certainly Robin Trower’s debut solo album from the previous year (Twice Removed From Yesterday) contained his own particular Hendrix-inspired sound/style, but it was 1974’s Bridge of Sighs album that—with its seemingly perfect collection of tracks, its songwriting adroitness, and its overall stellar musical performances and production qualities—not only solidified the group’s sound/style, but also popularized it to the Nth degree.

The album bursts forth with “Day of the Eagle,” a classic track in its own right, loaded with Trower’s “signature guitar sound,” a rollicking rhythm in its first section, then a bluesy laid-back second half, along with a note-perfect performance from James Dewar on vocals, just the sort of track that begs to be played at top volume…and often.

Next comes the hypnotic title track, which has the power to completely mesmerize the listener, making one feel as if they’re floating on a misty river where the water had been replaced by guitar-riff magic. Simply outstanding! The song’s final “chill wind” sound effects lead perfectly into the next track, the stripped-down and mellow “In This Place,” which features perhaps the album’s most beautiful and interesting vocal melody, as well as excellently placed drum fills by Reg Isidore and sparse bass notes by James Dewar, and stunning examples of Trower’s bluesy lead guitar insertions throughout.

The funky “The Fool and Me” and the slamming “Too Rolling Stoned” (both classic gems) are further examples of just what this talented trio of musicians could do with some catchy, upbeat material. Both tracks showcase Robin’s wicked guitar riffs, as the rhythm section energetically pumps away in the background, while Dewar delivers commendable vocal performances in his unique, highly recognizable manner.

As for the remaining tracks, “About To Begin” is another dreamy ballad, while “Lady Love” is a straight-forward and catchy rocker (with cowbell included) and the blues-heavy “Little Bit of Sympathy” offers more guitar brilliance, with Trower delivering that tremendously successful “signature” sound, never sounding so perfectly dissonant and (at times) so wonderfully evil.

Therefore, with not one filler track, this album is nothing short of a 5-Star masterpiece, an album that will forever be embedded in my memory as a true classic—a stunning nostalgic moment based on my initial hearing of the album—which also had major universal consequences (ie. it musically influenced scores of other bands in its wake). So Bridge of Sighs remains, to this day, a truly special and moving experience every single time I hear it, and each repeated listening is one I actually cherish, especially since it (somehow) magically whisks me back to the year 1974 and the feelings of youth. Absolutely brilliant!

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Toxic Smile – Farewell (2015)

ToxicSmile_Farewell5 out of 5 Stars!

When I saw that the new album by this seasoned Progressive-Rock band contained only a single song—an epic track with no breaks—the first word that popped into my mind was, “Seriously”?

But why that word? Well, through the decades, the number of bands that could tackle such an arduous task was one thing, but the number of bands that could do so without also allowing the “dreary factor” from taking control was quite another. Therefore, I was more than a little skeptical (generally pessimistic), even though I had rated the two previous albums by this band 4.5 Stars.

But when listening to this newest release from Toxic Smile, I couldn’t help but experience similar (and thrilling) feelings to the ones I had when listening several years ago to Echolyn’s Mei album (another album comprised of only a single track)—that music lovers today are so damned lucky. Why? Because musicians of the modern era have more freedom than ever before. Many artists no longer have the mighty record company executives forever demanding their bands “adhere to the rules.” Artists no longer have the constant threat to produce that all-important 45 RPM single “hit” of yesteryear forever dangling over their heads like the sword of Damocles lest the record label dump them in the blink of an eye. Artists no longer have to face a constant stifling of their creativity because of vinyl’s length limitations of separate A-Sides and B-Sides. In the modern era, in the days of computerized recording techniques, in the days of CDs and, more importantly, digital downloads, the limitations of the last century are now completely passé. If an artist has an adventurous spirit, if a band possesses the drive and the capabilities and the creativity to extend a song idea into a magnum opus of jaw-dropping length, they are free to do so, the dinosaur days of total record company control and the limitations of the old recording processes and formats be damned for eternity.

Therefore, it’s always refreshing for me to discover a band that is willing to embrace its modern freedom and actually attempt an album such as Toxic Smile’s latest release, made up of a single track of more than forty-two minutes. Certainly some bands of my youth managed to work around the old limitations, and had some free-thinking record company “suits” willing to give them leeway. Who can forget Iron Butterfly shocking the industry by issuing the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida album, with its “B” Side being a single song of the same name? Soon thereafter, bands such as Yes delivered “Close To The Edge” (from the album of the same name) and “The Gates of Delirium” (from Relayer) and did so seemingly with ease—and let’s not forget the four separate songs that took up one side each of the Tales From Topographic Oceans album. In the same period, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (with the mammoth “Karn Evil 9”) had a track that split sides of the Brain Salad Surgery album since its length needed to be divided into three movements. Pink Floyd produced “Echoes” (on Meddle), and Rush created both “2112” (from the album of the same name) and “Cygnus X-1 Book II – Hemispheres” (from Hemispheres). Yet even with today’s freedom, single-song albums are a rarity. And of those that appear on the scene, only a fraction are a total success as far as the material itself, the overall musicianship, the production quality, etc.

Therefore, I am pleased (no, make that joyful) to announce that Toxic Smile has indeed created one of those rare recordings—a single-song album that completely works on all levels!

Not only does the track have engaging melodies in each of its various sections, but it comes across as exquisitely arranged and orchestrated, with each musician playing what seems the perfect notes or rhythms in the most appropriate tones and paces. Nothing stands out as jarring like it doesn’t quite fit the entire “sound picture.” Indeed, the song flows from start to finish as a single entity instead of a collection of unrelated tracks that have been cobbled together. Prog-Rock lovers will undoubtedly savor the fact that—apart from the normal guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums—the band incorporates extra percussion instruments, some sax, and a host of both acoustic and electric instruments and sounds. Plus, many moods abound, with a flawless balance of heavy and light moments, and with every guitar and keyboard fill or solo elegantly performed. For fans of Big Big Train, Ageness, Transatlantic, Also Eden, The Flower Kings, and a plethora of similar acts, you’re certain to fall in love with this release as much as I did.

Additionally, one important fact must be mentioned. What struck me during my initial listening of this album is that the one track seems to go by so damned fast. Indeed, even during the second, third, and fourth hearings, I found it difficult to believe the track ended as quickly as it did, even though the clock told me differently. And that fact is commendable in and of itself. It means the lengthy piece is truly engaging, that no segments of the track drag on too long or the song in full doesn’t overstay its welcome. How many times I’ve sat through songs by different artists that came in at only half the length as “Farewell” and yearned that someone with authority had suggested some radical editing, I can’t even begin to count. So for a band to achieve the “seems so short” phenomena for such a lengthy track deserves a hearty round of applause.

Therefore, bravo to Toxic Smile, a band that reminded me why I so fiercely love this genre of music. It typically falls to Prog-Rock bands (groups who, by their very nature, thrive on expanding single ideas into lengthy epics) to attempt something of this immense scope, and better still, to end up with a masterpiece.

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Magenta – The Twenty Seven Club (2013)

Magenta_27Club5 out of 5 Stars!

First thing anyone needs to know is that this album has a weird (some might say “morbid”) concept, with every track being dedicated to a talented musician who (eerily) died at the ripe “oh-so-young” age of twenty-seven. And there are more people who fall into that category than I originally thought. Again, eerie. But oddly enough, the album (though fraught with some emotional lyrics at times) is neither dreary nor depressing, but hopeful and (most often) upbeat when it comes to the overall melodies and musical arrangements.

Regardless, Magenta picked up the concept and ran with it, dedicating each of the six tracks on this album to one of those tragic individuals. Granted, because each track is dedicated to one musician (all with different “sounds” associated with them) that doesn’t mean the song sounds like it was created by that individual or that it even sounds in the least like something that individual would have produced had they lived past their twenty-seventh birthday. Nope. What it does mean is that Magenta, when writing the lyrics to the tracks, when creating melodies and adding instrumentation, did so with that individual in mind. So please know, the music itself is PURE Magenta! All the grandeur, all the same Yes, Genesis, etc. influences remain intact, all the catchy melodies and instrumentation and vocal excellence (when it comes to both lead and background) that fans have come to expect from this wonderful band are on full (and magnificent) display. The concept proved a complete and utter success, driving the band forward in various and often-exciting directions.

So what do we have on offer here?

The first track, the twelve-minute “The Lizard King,” begins with a wickedly wild intro in the vein of Yes (with female vocals, of course) meeting a Prog-Metal band. Truth be told, this intro initially rocked me off my seat and I had to momentarily wonder if I hadn’t been given something other than a Magenta track, since the opening section was a bit more “metal” than the band usually delivers. But it was indeed Magenta, with the ultra-rich “Chris Squire-like” Rickenbacker bass lines thumping along my spine, and the resulting track is nothing but spectacular, adding a whole new dimension to the Magenta sound-picture. The track is dedicated to Jim Morrison (no shock when it comes to the title), and it’s a masterpiece of (again) a merging of Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal. The softer verses are so melodic and well-orchestrated (a Magenta strong point) and the choruses, middle and ending sections are absolutely riveting and grandiose. Basically, during the middle of the track, the song breaks into a different section (a second song, a Part 2, truthfully), which is basically the “edited single version” of the track. But for those of you who have not experienced the opening section, I encourage you to listen to the track in its entirety. Majestic instrumentation, outrageously grand arrangements and orchestrations, riveting lyrics, and Christina’s spot-perfect and spine-tingling vocals reign supreme. Damn, I defy any fan of the genre not to deem this one of the most terrific pieces of Prog-Rock in recent history.

“Ladyland Blues” (dedicated to Jimi Hendrix) is, frankly, a ten-minute Yes-like extravaganza. All musicians are doing their best to imitate Yes at their most creative, exciting peak in their history (with a touch of Genesis for good measure). And, damn it, the band pulls it off…in spades. Terrific.

To be frank, the track “Pearl” (which is, no shock, dedicated to Janis Joplin) brings tears to my eyes every single time I hear it. The often-sedate track has such an absorbing melody and instrumentation, it’s hard not to get emotional. And the lyrics are wonderful, especially the passages that begin with the words…

“I gave my all, the end will bring me down,
All alone, starting again the search for love.
I gave you my voice, I gave you my soul,
Tried to fit in, ’til I get old…”

The lyrics, sung over a sparse, heart-wrenching piano/keyboard landscape?…well, I get chills down my spine each time I hear the section of this track. Christina Booth’s delivery of these lines, of what Janis herself might have actually thought regarding what drove her career and her reflections on her tough upbringing and tragic life in general, is both gut-wrenching and shockingly truthful. Needless to say, this eight-minute track is my favorite off this album, and probably one of my favorites within the entire Magenta catalogue. Utter perfection, a song crammed with angst and passion and perfectly executed! Bravo, Magenta.

On “Stoned” (dedicated to Brian Jones), Magenta delivers eleven minutes of (again) some Yes-inspired riffing throughout, along with delightfully catchy melody lines, outstanding background harmonies, and solos galore.

“The Gift” (dedicated to Kurt Cobain and, at seven minutes, is the shortest track) begins with orchestral strings driving another heartfelt and memorable melody from Christina. Symphonic Prog at its most effective regarding emotional impact. Soon, the song delves into a hard-driving escapade of Prog-Rock splendor, with pianos, guitars, and rhythm section delivering some rich accompaniment to Christina’s dramatic vocals, bringing to mind the most emotionally intense tracks by the band Renaissance. An abrupt, shocking ending of instruments leaves only a dreamy piano passage before the song fades into twilight.

Finally, “The Devil at the Crossroads” (dedicated to Robert Johnson, guitar legend in blues circles, and the longest track at nearly fifteen minutes), is yet another Yes-like driven piece of intense Prog-Rock, with Christina again delivering an emotionally charged performance of “what might have beens” among some Steve Howe-inspired guitar solos, numerous time changes, some acoustic (quite sad, blues-inspired) guitar pieces, and elegant mood shifts that will leave Prog fans feeling utterly, breathlessly fulfilled and reeling, demanding more and more from this fantastic band.

To sum up, this is one MONSTER of an album. Magenta has always been a favorite of mine, with me rating just about all of their releases (both albums and singles) a full 5 Stars at various music-review websites. But when it comes to this particular release, were I to somehow be able to “cheat” on different rating scales, I would rate it a perfect 10! Yep, that’s how much I love this album. Since I purchased it nearly two years ago, I have not gone more than several weeks without listening to it…indeed, it has been on both my I-Phone and I-Pad (not to mention my main computer) since the day I purchased it, and I will not even dream to replace it for anything else, damn the “lack of memory” I-Phone warnings I occasionally receive. Jaw-dropping!

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Seven Steps to the Green Door – Fetish! (2015)

SevenSteps_Fetish5 out of 5 Stars!

Despite their silly name, this is one fantastic band from Germany with a perfect blending of Progressive Rock and Progressive Metal. They have both a male and female vocalist, both excellent, with some terrific background vocalists as well, so expect to hear amazing vocal arrangements, many along the lines of Gentle Giant when it comes to complexity. Indeed, some of the instrumental bits also bring Gentle Giant to mind, although with a more modern/updated sound like some of Spock’s Beard’s earliest work. Some of the other usual influences are included, along with everything from Yes and The Flower Kings, and newer bands such as Unitopia, United Progressive Fraternity, and Barock Project. And in many ways, Seven Steps (for short) also reminds me of the bands Introitus and Izz when it comes to the overall merged influences and styles as well as the inclusion of those striking female vocals.

Also note, that apart from the album’s short first track “Possible Delayed” (an a capella opening of both male and female voices, a beautiful introduction to the band’s vocal perfection), all of the following eight tracks are more than seven minutes long, with one even hitting the sixteen minute mark. This gives the band a chance to expand their wings and truly soar! And man, do they ever.

“Possible Delayed” leads into the track called “PORN!” that starts with a Gentle Giant-like riff on electric piano with counterpoint guitar strokes. Right then, I sensed I was in for something truly special. Sure enough, when the male and female vocal parts kicked in with this Gentle Giant-like riff behind them, I turned up the speakers to revel in the track. Time changes abound in different melodic sections of the song, before a sax comes in to liven things up even more. More time changes occur soon afterward, only to have the song end with an instrumental riff that slowly accelerates in speed before the final fade-out. Some fascinating Prog in the span of nearly nine minutes. Wonderful.

The next track, “Still Searching,” opens with more outrageously perfect vocal performances by both male and female. The harmonies are truly spectacular. A beautiful track ensues, softer than the opening track (but only at first) until we are treated once again to numerous rhythm shifts and key changes. Just before the song starts to heat up, the addition of Mellotron was a welcome surprise. And by the time the song gets really cooking, some heavier bits (both on guitar and Hammond) give the band another dimension. And, as if that wasn’t enough goodness already, the midpoint of the song kicks into more a capella vocals, pure Gentle Giant in the fashion of “On Reflection” from the Free Hand album, jaw-droppingly intricate and magnificent. Next up comes a luscious grand piano passage that introduces another bouncy section of the song, and then more vocals are added and more delightful sections keep the song building and building into something truly grand. And then it ends with more a capella grandeur. Good God, by this time (only three songs into the album) I was already in deep, deep love with this fantastic band with the silly name.

I won’t go into the details of every single track—there is so much going on, so many “keeping me on the edge of my seat” moments happening throughout the album—or I would find myself writing for days on end in order to cram everything I enjoyed into a single review. Let’s just say that the remainder of the album continues offering up one great track after another, and what seems like endless surprises galore, way too numerous to count.

The musicians and vocalists are all so damned talented and the band’s songwriting and arrangement skills are beyond commendable. I feel blessed to have heard this release and I look forward to delving into the band’s previous three albums to see what else they’ve created for my listening pleasure.

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Tantrum – Rather Be Rockin’ / Tantrum / Breaking Away (2005)

Tantrum_BreakingAway5 out of 5 Stars!

(I originally wrote this review back in 2005.)

Although I don’t own this particular compilation release, just the 1st two Tantrum albums on vinyl, I’ve had a copy of the unreleased Breaking Away on cassette since the days when the band was still together (indeed, I actually have an unmixed version of the album, since some of the background vocals had yet to be added or “upped” in the mix).

Unfortunately, the wonderful 3rd album, which included such outstanding tracks as “Rock And Roll Waltz” (Pam Bradley singing this live was a sight to behold), “Lady In Lust,” (another sexy Pam lead vocal), and “Now Or Never” (featuring Sandy Caulfield’s spectacular reach-for-the-heavens voice and the gals doing overlay harmonies in the background) never saw the light of day.  Thanks (NOT!) to Ovation Records, the company that went under due to financial scandal (supposedly) just before the release of this album and basically put the nails into the Tantrum coffin. I damn that company to this day, not to mention all the other record companies that “passed” on the band in those desperate days of trying to survive.

This group played the Chicago area for many years and I never missed a show! Even in the early days prior to the band’s debut album (when they had the equally talented Sara Sachra on vocals, prior to Barb Erber joining the group). The three gals (a “rockier” Three Dog Night, female-style) were each visually “hot” (a blonde, brunette, and a redhead…what more could a guy want?), enormously talented (Barb Erber, the throaty bluesier voice, Sandy Caulfield, the Ann-Wilson powerhouse, and Pam Bradley, the jazz-inspired crooner), and gifted live performers, their harmonies blending better than vodka and tonic and a twist of lime. Never has a band been so horribly missed, at least for me. They have been, and always will be, one of my favorite musical acts and will forever hold a special place in my heart. Heck, I still have the giant autographed “Rather Be Rockin'” poster I swiped from one of their shows, now framed and hanging in a special place in my music room at home.

I almost rated the album down half a star for one or two tracks on the debut album, mostly due to the lighter production quality and the rather overall “simplistic” lyrics on tracks like “You Are My Everything,” but decided not to. They are too good overall to worry about such nonsense. (Thankfully, the group’s songwriting capabilities matured by the time of their second release, although had they not I would have still loved them anyway due to their spectacular harmonic vocal blend.) Although they had minor hits in the Midwest (at least) with “Kidnapped” (from the debut album) and “Rather Be Rockin’,” from the album of the same name, they should have been HUGE! Fate, however, was not as kind, and Ovation fizzled (have I damned them already? Regardless, they deserve another “damn”) leaving this amazing group to the history books. How very sad!

Standout tracks? From the debut album…

“Listen” (The opening track—which they used to open their live shows also—with each gal taking the lead during various sections of the song in their trademarked “swapping vocal lead” style and slamming the listener. Hells’ Bells, these girls can SING!)

“Living My Life Without You” (A smooth ballad with, once again, the swapping of the lead vocals between the three gals every other line—the ending harmonies and swapped ad-libs as the song slowly fades still give me goose-bumps.)

Standouts from Rather Be Rockin’….

“How Long?” (A “Sandy Caulfield” masterpiece of vocal brilliance. I dare anyone not to have the darned chorus ringing through their skull after just one listen. An amazing track that, again, SHOULD have been HUGE!)

“Searching For A Reason” (The album’s closer, another swapping-lead vocal extravaganza—this is Tantrum at the height of their power.)

What’s happened to the members of the group since they broke up in 1980? About the only “more major” claim to fame I know about was that the bassist (Bill Syniar) joined the group Survivor (another Chicago-based act) for that band’s last album of the 80s, Too Hot To Sleep. Apart from that, I know Pam and Sandy and Barb were either clubbing around the area as background vocalists for a variety of singers, or doing their vocal gymnastics for advertising jingles and so forth. Again, each deserved so much more.

Now, I’m off to pull out those albums yet again and get listening—it’s been way too long.

————-
UPDATE: After writing the review, I discovered this CD on Amazon and purchased it immediately! Unfortunately, it appears it’s no longer available for a decent price. Instead, the good news is that the individual albums are now available in MP3 format.

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Symphony X – V: The New Mythology Suite (2000)

SymphonyX_V5 out of 5 Stars!

This album, from start to finish, ranks right up there with classic Prog-Rock-Band “must have” albums such as Yes’s Close To The Edge, Gentle Giant’s In A Glass House, ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, and Genesis’s Foxtrot releases, albeit a much more “modern” and heavier version of classical-influenced rock (very similar, in parts, to Dream Theater and Kansas and Yngwie Malmsteen) yet killer in every bloody department.

Since the band’s second album, Symphony X has NEVER produced a bad record, and, in my opinion, this is their benchmark for excellence. Either add it to your collection at the first possible opportunity or consider yourself a “wannabe” prog-rock/prog-metal fan 🙂

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Styx – The Grand Illusion (1977)

Styx_GrandIllusion5 out of 5 Stars!

While reading album reviews on some music-related websites regarding this band’s output, it becomes instantly apparent that people either love Styx or detest Styx with every fiber of their being. Either the praise flows in abundance, or the venom spews forth, with very few “middle of the road” attitudes. Then again, it stands to reason—as the band’s career progressed, Styx could squarely fit into no particular category. The group wasn’t always Progressive, not always commercial, not always hard-rocking, not always ballad-meisters. Styx had its own sound, which changed through the years as the mood struck and musical trends changed. But whether you loved or hated the band, one thing was certain—Styx would not be ignored.

I’ve always considered myself a fan of the band (perhaps because of its “local sons” status, seeing as the group was based in my hometown of Chicago). Although, like many fans, I also faced major disappointments (Mr. Roboto being a prime example). Nevertheless, when Styx was on its game, it was, in my eyes, one of the best bands in the biz. Although there’s usually a debate among Styx fans which of the albums is considered the “masterpiece,” most fans agree it’s one of the three albums marked by the arrival of guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw—Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, or Pieces Of Eight. (The last album of the pre-Tommy Shaw period, Equinox, comes darned close, but doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye.)

My selection for the masterpiece would have to be The Grand Illusion. It has everything you could love (or loathe) about Styx all rolled into one record—the pomp and circumstance (“The Grand Illusion,” “Castle Walls,” and the middle section of “Come Sail Away”), the kick-ass arena-type rockers (“Miss America”, “Superstars,” and the second half of “Come Sail Away”), and the ballads (the opening section of “Come Sail Away” and “Man In The Wilderness”). The three unique lead vocalists (an updated version of Three Dog Night, if you will) proved a formidable and blazing team, and The Grand Illusion displays a band with purpose, with imagination, with talent, and drive.

Unfortunately, commercial radio attempted to shove this album down everyone’s throats (as they would with the Pieces Of Eight album the following year as well, then the over-sappy DeYoung ballads that ensued), which helped to create that strong dividing line between Styx-lovers and Styx-haters. Fortunately for me, I never listened much to commercial radio, so I didn’t have to contend with the “overkill,” therefore The Grand Illusion probably remains fresher to me than to many others. It still represents everything good to many (or horrid to some) about one of America’s most recognizable and successful acts, and has a special place on my shelf.

 

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