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.

Get The Album Now!

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.

Album Currently Unavailable At Amazon!

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!

Get The Album Now!

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.)

Get The Album Now!

Masquerade – Surface of Pain (1994)

Masquerade_SurfacePain4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Sweden, Masquerade appeared on the scene in the early ’90s, released two albums, then disappeared, only to resurface again with two additional albums just after the turn of the century. Surface of Pain, the quartet’s second release, is a woefully underrated collection of sizzling Hard Rock/Heavy Metal.

On hard-hitting tracks such as “Wasteland,” “Say Your Prayer,” “America,” “Feels Good,” “Judas Kiss,” and “Suffering,” the guitar tones and riffs (provided by a guy who goes professionally by the name of Thomas G:son—real surname, Gustafsson) are some of the most brutal and engaging I’ve ever heard, and backed by the merest hint of keyboards to round out the band’s already full and rich sound. On the other hand, “God of Man” and “Free My Mind” drop things back tempo-wise, with G:son adding acoustic guitar to the backdrop for Masquerade to deliver a grand and crushing ballad in the former instance, and a mellow and melodic tune in the latter piece, which also closes out the album on a dreamy, wonderfully atmospheric note.

Moreover, the band’s singer, Tony Yoanson, has a forceful and passionate voice occasionally similar to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, and the strength of his melody lines, with full and punchy background harmonies, along with the pounding rhythms (thanks to bassist Henrik Lundberg and drummer Marco Tapani), provide for some memorable, head-bangin’ tunes.

Therefore, Masquerade was an obscure band shamefully ignored by the masses, with Surface of Pain shockingly rated with dismal scores on several music-related websites. I almost have to wonder if there are two versions of this album floating out there in the universe—the version I’ve owned and enjoyed for more than two decades, and another version that keeps getting lambasted by other reviewers (often with surprisingly vitriolic language). It’s almost as if there is a personal grudge being held against this particular band and this specific collection of tracks. Well, whatever the reason for the seemingly unfair hatred, I felt Masquerade (and Surface of Pain) truly deserved much more respect.

Get The Album Now!

Egg – The Civil Surface (1974)

Egg_CivilSurface3.5 out of 5 Stars!

When The Civil Surface appeared in 1974, it ended up being the third and (sadly) final album by the short-lived Egg, a sort of “retrospective supergroup” of the Prog-Rock/Canterbury Scene that featured keyboardist Dave Stewart, bassist Mont Campbell, and percussionist Clive Brooks—basically, the group Arzachel only without guitarist Steve Hillage on board.

After releasing its first two albums in 1970/1971 and having record company dilemmas along the way, Egg inevitably disbanded, with the members moving on to join other bands, such as Hatfield and the North and Groundhogs. But the trio briefly reformed several years later, however, to create this swansong release, which incidentally enough, also included some contributions from Hillage as a “guest star.”

From my understanding, many (if not all) of the mostly instrumental tracks included in this “reunion collection” were actually leftovers from the trio’s early years, compositions the group had performed during its concerts but—because of the record company woes—never got around to recording while Egg was in regular operation. But no matter the artist or the genre in which they operate, typically when it comes down to tracks considered “leftovers,” a few of them probably shouldn’t ever see the light of day, whereas others occasionally shine. The same is the case with this particular collection.

The longest compositions, the more sportive and intricate “Germ Patrol,” “Wring Out the Ground (Loosely Now),” and “Enneagram,” are pure gold in my opinion, generally matching the same lofty heights of inventiveness as the material that appeared on Egg’s first two albums. Yet on the other hand, most of the shorter tracks don’t come even close to equaling the same imaginative charm as the band’s earlier output. “Wind Quartet I” and “Wind Quartet II” are basically drawn-out exercises in Chamber Music featuring (no shock) woodwinds, and, in truth, bore me to tears. Then there’s the organ-heavy “Prelude,” another bland affair, but saved from being a total disaster in the middle section where guest female vocalists create pretty harmonies, which add a modicum of sparkle. Only “Nearch” offered up a bit of experimental verve to hold my interest, but unfortunately, still seemed way too underwhelming, especially for a band with an otherwise ingenious character.

Therefore, although not as intriguing as the prior albums thanks to a handful of tracks, The Civil Surface was nevertheless a welcome addition to the band’s legacy. And the longer tunes mentioned above include plenty of the same unexpected avant-garde whimsy, jazzy Proginess, and overall mesmerizing creativity that made Egg so delectable in the first place.

Get The Album Now!

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)

Get The Album Now!

Syzygy – Realms of Eternity (2009)

Syzygy_RealmsEternity4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Like the heavily Gentle Giant-influenced album The Allegory of Light, Syzygy’s impressive debut from 2003, Realms of Eternity, the Ohio band’s sophomore release—or its third, depending if one counts a single platter the group issued under the name Witsend back in the ’90s—still has those same influences sprinkled throughout when it comes to several tracks, but here the musicians have also considerably expanded their style into numerous other realms. And for this outing, the band also brought in accomplished vocal powerhouse Mark Boals, who surprisingly doesn’t sound like the “normal” Mark Boals I’d come to admire from ultra-slamming albums he did with Ring Of Fire, Royal Hunt, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc., but instead has trimmed away much of the former gruffness from his vocal cords, and his smoother tone and occasionally dramatic delivery seem absolutely perfect for this intriguing material.

On both shorter and lengthier tracks such as “Dreams,” “The Sea,” “Darkfield,” “Variations, Parts 1 & 2,” “Vanitas,” and the mammoth and glorious “Dialectic,” the band delves deeper into Yes and Genesis territory, featuring countless passages, shifting moods, and elaborate scoring, while also giving generous nods toward outfits such as Spock’s Beard, Moon Safari, The Flower Kings, Jethro Tull, Transatlantic, etc., all of which makes for another grand affair of classic Symphonic Prog-Rock with a touch of Avant-Prog.

Although the vocal segments are generally melodious, with a few songs openly flirting with Pomp Rock and AOR-styled choruses, the band simultaneously injects layered and labyrinthine harmony arrangements that once again bring the Gentle Giant influences to the fore. Meanwhile, the band delivers the vigorous and astounding material with top-quality musicianship. Indeed, the nimble fingers of guitarist Carl Baldassarre and keyboardist Sam Guinta continually impress, while bassist Al Rolik and drummer Paul Mihacevich consistently direct the band through twists and turns galore, showcasing everyone’s sheer diversity and talent.

As a quick aside, I must declare that it’s a crying shame the grayscale cover art is so damned bland and sedate, since the music on offer is the complete opposite—colorful, exciting, and vibrant—and the artwork doesn’t even come close in reflecting what’s in store for the listener.

Anyway, since this terrific release, the group put out a live “digipak” album in 2012, then Cosmos and Chaos in 2014, a “20th Anniversary Compendium” of the album previously issued under the Witsend name from 1993, but no other fresh material. I’m just hoping the band is still active and in the process of creating additional Prog-Rock magic for a future release.

Now, can someone please tell me once and for all how to actually pronounce the name of this exceptional band? 🙂

Get The Album Now!

Gillan – Future Shock (1981)

Gillan_FutureShock4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Gillan (the band) always played a weird-ass concoction of Hard Rock/Heavy Metal/Prog-Rock and even “How The Hell Do You Classify That?” Rock that somehow got simply clumped into the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement of the early ’80s (thanks to the era of the band’s productivity and splendor).

But just savoring each track on any of the band’s many albums showed that it had a TON of diversity, thanks to the extraordinary musicians involved (on this album, keyboardist Colin Towns, guitarist Bernie Tormé, drummer Mick Underwood, bassist John McCoy, and vocalist Ian Gillan) and their individual histories of playing on such diverse albums in numerous bands with such diverse styles.

As you can no-doubt tell, “diversity” is the key issue (and word) here, and 1981’s Future Shock is no exception. This collection of tracks features an eclectic blend of genres, where it’s almost unfathomable to pinpoint any primary category for the overall platter, except “pure Gillan wildness.”

Certainly many tunes, such as “Night Ride Out of Phoenix,” “Don’t Want the Truth,” “Sacre Bleu,” “Bite the Bullet,” “(The Ballad of) The Lucitania Express,” the title track, and the band’s rousing rendition of Guida/Royster’s “New Orleans,” could be considered simply Hard Rock bordering on Heavy Metal, yet each of the songs also includes such wacky guitar leads or avant-garde keyboard solos, or unpredictable arrangements and rhythmic breaks or tempos, that some people might argue the songs are Progressive Rock in nature also.

The same genre-oddness befalls “No Laughing in Heaven”—although the song’s foundation is Blues-based Hard Rock, Gillan’s vocals, an amusing and stunning combination of talking and shrieking during the verses, is like a precursor to Rap—”Heavy Rap Metal,” of course. Then we come to the absolute jewels of the album, the borderline Prog-Rock ditties “If I Sing Softly” and “For Your Dreams,” with both containing haunting scores and instrumentation that set them apart from the other eight tunes.

By the way, all of the aforementioned tracks appear on the original vinyl version of the album, but I also purchased the CD “re-mastered” version a decade later, which features ten additional bonus tracks—including my favorite, “Mutually Assured Destruction”—where even more craziness ensues with “genre-merging” from song to song, although not quite as stark or numerous.

Anyway, on Future Shock, the exact genre into which each track actually falls is entirely dependent on the personal preferences of the listener. As for me, as mentioned above, I call the band’s overall style “pure Gillan wildness,” and I still love every single moment of this album, as well as each platter produced by this unique, entertaining, and phenomenal band during its way-too-short existence. Nevertheless, Ian Gillan will forever remain my favorite vocalist of all time, and Colin Towns will always retain a spot on my Top Ten Rock Keyboardists list—both individuals proved enormously influential when it came to my own musical growth, and their performances on Future Shock show exactly why.

Get The Album Now!

Time Requiem – The Inner Circle of Reality (2004)

TimeRequiem_Reality4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Led by keyboardist extraordinaire Richard Andersson (Space Odyssey/Adagio/Majestic), Sweden’s Time Requiem never got the recognition it so richly deserved, in my opinion. Between 2002 and 2006, the band delivered a trio of dynamic and dramatic near-perfect studio albums, with The Inner Circle of Reality (the second release) also featuring the brutally powerful Apollo Papathanasio (Majestic/Firewind/Evil Masquerade) on vocals, unheralded guitarist Magnus Nordh, and the always-stellar rhythm section (from The Flower Kings/Karmakanic) of bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Zoltan Csorsz, both playing outside their “normal realm of Prog” in hard-hitting fashion.

As with each of the band’s releases, The Inner Circle of Reality presents complex yet highly melodic Prog-Metal/Prog-Rock of the Neoclassical variety. Compositions such as “Hidden Memories,” “Reflections,” “Dreams of Tomorrow,” “Definition of Insanity,” and the nearly twelve-minute title track contain outstanding, often breathtaking musicianship throughout, especially when it comes to Nordh’s sizzling guitar leads and Andersson’s delicious keyboard fills and wickedly speedy solos. Any fans of artists such as Symphony X, Harmony, Yngwie Malmsteen, Artension, Stratovarius, and Royal Hunt will certainly savor the jaw-dropping proficiency on display here and, probably like me, wish the album contained more than just seven tracks (not counting the eighth tune, “Bach Prelude Variation,” the horribly brief album closer that would’ve likely had Johann Sebastian Bach himself smiling proudly and begging to hear more).

Although Time Requiem, after suffering major lineup changes—most noticeably with the gifted Goran Edman replacing Papathanasio on vocals—released its somewhat more commercial third album (Optical Illusion) in 2006 and seemed on the brink of gaining wider recognition, the band suddenly vanished without a trace. Even worse, founder/mastermind Richard Andersson, apart from popping up as a “guest keyboardist” on several albums through the subsequent years, has kept a sinfully low profile, while all the while I’d prayed he’d once again put together another band to showcase his enormous songwriting and performing talents.

Get The Album Now!