Whitecave – Impressions (2018)

Whitecave_LobelyTraveller4 out of 5 Stars

Okay, I’ll admit, this was a rather strange review for me to write. Not when it comes to the music, mind you, but when it comes to the execution of the review itself. You see, in the past few years, my review-writing experience has been limited to providing overviews of only full albums, actual albums, and not (as in the case of these tunes by Whitecave) collections of individual songs released and available separately. In other words, I’m used to hearing songs in the order in which the album has been sequenced, with songs intended to be heard in a specific order and not in a random fashion. Now granted, the songs the band delivered to me did have not only a name, Impressions, listed in the “TITLE” field of the MP3 files, along with track numbers, so, in essence, could be deemed as an actual album, yet on the other hand, there is no specific album cover for Impressions, but separate cover art for each individual track.

Therefore, for the sake of “normal,” I decided to pretend this was an actual album and not a bevy of individual random songs, and the cover art I selected to accompany the review on my website is not representative of the “album” as a whole, but of one individual composition. Got it? Okay, now with that explained, let’s get to the content of the musical tracks.

As a whole, these eight songs—more than forty-six minutes of total music—offer up an enjoyable and lush soundscape of Symphonic Prog and Neo-Prog Rock in a style that typically brings to mind artists such as Pink Floyd, Airbag, Riverside, and Eloy, with (for the most part) relaxing atmospheres, mid-tempo rhythms, and somewhat spacey background accompaniments. In other words, the band doesn’t veer too far from this signature sound, offers no in-your-face power blasts or jarring tempo shifts or eclectic bits of strangeness to yank the listener into uncharted musical territory, staying rather neatly within a strict transonic avenue.

This is not to say that the tracks are merely duplicates of each other. Certainly not. The various melodies and chord progressions, as well as the sundry song arrangements and scoring, are quite distinct for each composition, yet each of the tunes laid out side by side (or back to back, as the case may be) are also uniform in their presentation when it comes to overall sound, style, and substance.

“Demented” kicks off the collection in fine fashion, and features Whitecave’s “signature” sound—grand and lavish keyboard washes (thanks to Cor Steijn), solid and steady rhythms (courtesy of Dick Wit), and biting and tasty guitar leads (deftly supplied by Hans Holema). Additionally, melodic bass runs also seem the norm (although the band is currently without a permanent bassist, it turns out that Holema supplied the majority of those tracks as well). Regardless, the full and lavish instrumentation displayed on this song seems straight out of the Pink Floyd playbook, while Holema’s vocal tone, range, and delivery style had me instantly imagining Eloy’s Frank Bornemann wielding the microphone.

“Tunnel of Life” is not only the lengthiest tune on offer, but certainly one of the most complex as well. Here, Steijn offers a wide variety of synth and keyboard sounds, including a magnificent “cathedral” organ, so when a guitar solo bursts forth in the tune’s mid-section atop the organ backdrop and a stoic rhythm pattern, it soars through the sonic heavens like a melodious and piercing comet. The same can be said for the song’s ending section, where Holema’s six-string riffs once again engage and captivate. One note, however: I’ll admit that some rather odd “phasing” effect happens in various sections of the song and does become a distraction, but after several listens, I eventually concluded this was unintentional, and instead was the result of a defective MP3 file and not some stylistic design on the group’s part.

Next up comes “Fresh,” the shortest composition included, and the only instrumental. Granted, not being a huge fan of non-vocal tracks, part of me looks upon “Fresh” as the weakest offering, while the other part of me can’t help but appreciate the searing guitar tones during the introduction and ending passages, as well as the spacey synths weaving in and around the laid-back guitar leads that dominate the main body of the piece. Nevertheless, were the track not included in this collection, I likely wouldn’t have missed it, but again, this is only since I prefer vocal tracks as opposed to instrumental pieces and nothing to do with the talent on display.

“Destruction in Paris,” however, is where the band once again regained my undivided attention. A beautifully tranquil and elegant grand piano introduction added another dimension to the group’s arsenal of sounds and atmospheres, and when the lazy rhythm kicked in, it provided a sedate yet steadfast foundation on which Holema’s emotionally melodious guitar leads could fully capture center stage. After an almost plaintive verse and chorus, the band abruptly interjects rat-a-tat rhythm breaks and blasts of sonic drama into the mix before a more uptempo mid-section ushers in another vocal segment, with the lyrics laden with invocations for survival. Then, the most chilling moment of the track arrives when an announcer’s voice interjects a brief “news report” about November 13th, 2015, the date when coordinated terrorist attacks upon Paris took the lives of so many innocent souls, atop a series of haunting chord patterns and sampled choir voices, along with another of Holema’s fierce and emotionally charged solos. My only complaint about this tune is that it doesn’t stretch out a bit longer, since the ending section is quite riveting.

The tune “Betrayal” is another highly dramatic piece revolving around human survival and man-made destruction—and once again, amid almost mournful synth chord sequences, the band appropriately elected to add sparse yet icy synth accents, forlorn guitar fills, and snare drum rolls that conjured up images of soldiers marching toward battle. The song slowly builds at a steady pace, the instrumentation growing in both volume and grit until the final brief sequence includes sounds of war.

After those two strikingly dark compositions, “Lonely Traveller” offers up a lighter ambience, a delightful respite from the emotional intensity of the former tracks. Here, a series of uplifting chord patterns, melodic and sprightly guitar and bass riffs, along with shifts in tempo and numerous rhythmic fills, plus widely varied instrumentation in the song’s different sections, makes for some solid progressive moments. Periodically, I’m reminded of old-time Eloy or Camel material, or perhaps modern-day Airbag, Mystery, and IQ styles, and this tune ultimately came to be my favorite track among the lot, one I find myself replaying quite often.

Similarly, the next track, “Tall (Lonely Traveller, Part 2),” summons up parallel feelings, the mood highly “proggy” and somewhat ethereal, but this time in a more Floydian manner with the overall arrangement a bit less complex. Played back to back, however, with the previous “Lonely Traveller,” these tunes make for a seemingly perfect introduction for listeners new to Whitecave, a flawless “sampler” by which to recruit more fans.

Finally, “Afterburner” is a track the band supplied to me only recently, yet I decided to nevertheless include it in this review since I found it highly enjoyable. With its punchy introduction, the inclusion of Hammond organ and a spirited and driving tempo, “Afterburner” comes as a surprise, yet a pleasant one. Indeed, after living with the previous seven songs for many weeks now, I found this tune’s meatier introduction and some sections in the middle a commendable change of pace, which adds yet another dimension to the group’s general style. Now I can’t help but wonder whether the band members may have also been influenced through the years by artists such as Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, or Presto Ballet. Regardless, with a wonderfully beefy guitar riff in the middle section, the lighter verses, some varying instrumentation and shifts in moods throughout, “Afterburner” provides another fine example of modern-day Prog-Rock with a “retro” flair, a style I have grown to appreciate more and more in recent years.

Therefore, after savoring Whitecave’s material far longer than normal before typing this review (thanks to real-life intrusions, and sincere apologies to the very patient band), I’ve concluded that with its seemingly wide range of inspirations, its obvious deftness when it comes to scoring, dramatics, and song arrangements, and each musician’s raw and undeniable talent, Whitecave is a highly promising band, with a lengthy and (hopefully) lucrative future in the stars. Indeed, with numerous memorable tracks available in this collection, I couldn’t help myself but to add one of them to an upcoming Prog-Scure Radio episode, and it’s an inclusion I look forward to providing for my listeners. Those music fans who are forever on the prowl for “fresh Prog-Rock blood” will most certainly find much here to enjoy, and I for one look forward to seeing what these creative gents will concoct in the future.

Album Currently Unavailable At Amazon!

Preview – Preview (1983)

Preview_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of New York came Preview, an admirably melodic AOR group that released only a single album full of catchy material before (mournfully and unjustifiably) disappearing off the scene prior to gaining any traction. Years later, however, a bootleg became available of the band’s unreleased second album, and although Preview seemed to have soldiered on (at least for a short time) in the same overall style on its second potential release, creating another decent record, the songwriting didn’t seem quite as immediate or the “polish” quite as sparkling. But then again, these tunes had not been finalized for an “official” release, therefore, although the potential certainly existed, who knows what the tunes may have sounded like in a professionally produced and mastered condition?

Nevertheless, this eponymously titled debut is an obscure gem of the AOR genre, equaling nearly every other platter from similar Arena Rock bands during the same era.

On this collection of ten highly memorable songs, any number of them (especially “All Night,” “Running Back,” “Red Lights,” “Love Finds a Way,” and “Open Up Your Heart”) might have been hit singles had the band received so much as an iota of promotion from its record label, Geffen Records. Indeed, with four obviously talented musicians in its ranks, as well as a recognizable lead vocalist supported by tight background harmonies, Preview had a sturdy foundation for success. Yet better still, Preview also had one hell of a secret weapon in its musical arsenal—a marvelously gifted tunesmith in keyboardist Ernie Gold, who composed nine of the ten songs and co-wrote a handful of them with Alan Pasqua, keyboardist and composer associated with artists such as Giant, Santana, and Eddie Money. So with Gold at its creative helm, the band possessed a songwriter worth his weight (and every pun intended) in gold, an enviable resource for any AOR band. By the way, it should also be noted that vocalist Jon Fiore contributed one tune, the stunning closer “It’s Over,” showing that’s Gold’s talent wasn’t entirely unique within the band.

Anyway, I played this album continuously upon first purchasing it back in 1983, and indulged in it countless times through the following decades, and even now, it’s lost none of its harmonious power or charm. In fact, one hearing of the full album is never enough during a single sitting, and I still find myself hitting the REPLAY button to get a second dose, even after all these many years.

So, one might ask themselves, how could a band with so much raw musical potential and superb songwriting muscle go absolutely nowhere and remain so wretchedly obscure?

To answer that question, I’m once again pointing a finger directly at the record label—and guess which finger I’m using! This is the same finger I aimed several years earlier at RCA Victor when it likewise did nothing to promote another top-class act called Susan, allowing that band’s enjoyable debut album to flounder when, with a modicum of effort and a few extra advertising dollars, could have saved the group from entering the gates of oblivion. Why record labels go to the trouble of contracting bands, then do virtually nothing to aid the band in selling records—the label’s very business, their raison d’être, for pity’s sake—is beyond my understanding.

Anyway, all of my blame-casting aside…fans of diverse AOR groups such as Survivor, Cobra, The Babys, Journey, Franke & The Knockouts, Prism, Honeymoon Suite, Loverboy, and Wrabit will most certainly find interest in this mostly unknown group. Now, the trick is to actually track down a copy of this album to add to your collections. But be patient…it’s worth the efforts of investigation to do so, and thankfully, copies now seem more readily available then they were years ago.

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Leaves’ Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead (2018)

LeavesEyes_SignDragonhead3.5 out of 5 Stars!

One thing I can say about Leaves’ Eyes—despite the occasional lineup changes through the years, the group possesses an unwavering style, and one that is moderately enjoyable, for the most part. This staunch consistency, however, is not without its problems, which I’ll address below, yet on a positive note, it makes the group instantly recognizable. High production standards, complex song arrangements, often-bombastic orchestrations with choirs and the inclusion of whistles, fiddles, bagpipes, and archaic instruments such as nyckelharpas, and stellar musicianship grace each new Leaves’ Eyes’s release, thus allowing fans to know exactly what they will be getting without even having to sample tracks before making the purchase.

Yet when it comes to Sign of the Dragonhead, there is one notable difference, one that had the power to seriously alter the band’s style since the previous album (2015’s King of Kings), and that’s the addition of a new vocalist. In general, a band altering a lead singer is always risky business. I mean, no one generally notices whenever a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, or guitarist is replaced in most groups, unless that particular musician is so utterly unique as to have a trademarked sound. But when a singer, the very voice of the band, changes from one album to the next? Well, things can (and often do) take a drastic turn when it comes to an act’s overall sound. Especially—as in the case of Leaves’ Eyes—a highly recognizable sound, thanks in no small part to singer Liv Kristine, who’d fronted the group since it burst onto the scene in 2004.

Now, although vocalist Elina Siirala is not entirely “new” (having already appeared on the group’s 2016 EP Fires in the North) she’s new to me since I hadn’t heard that particular release. So, with Sign of the Dragonhead being my first exposure to Ms. Siirala voice, I am happy to report that her range, tonal quality, and manner of delivery are in keeping with what I’ve come to expect on all Leaves’ Eyes’s albums. In fact, had I not known prior to hearing this album about the change in lead singers, I might not have noticed anything different. So bravo to the band members for selecting a gifted vocalist who could jump aboard ship (a Viking vessel, no doubt) without causing any serious disturbances in the otherwise calm and consistent waters.

And as always, the material the band chose to record for this new album is often spirited, typically melodic, and generally better than numerous other female-fronted groups in this genre, with several tracks going above and beyond. For me, a handful of tunes really stood out, their choruses and riffs proving happily memorable and annoyingly repeating in my head at the oddest of times.

In my estimation, “Riders on the Wind” is probably one of the finest songs the band has recorded since its inception, with Siirala’s melody lines floating atop both full and rich instrumentation and a driving and head-bopping rhythm. The tune also includes all the bells and whistles (literally) associated with the group’s sound—grand orchestrations and choirs and all those odd instruments the band adores employing, perfectly encapsulating—in the proverbial nutshell—the band’s overall style in the space of only four minutes. Actually, a similar state of musical affairs as described above revolve around “Jomsborg,” “Shadows in the Night,” “Across the Sea,” and the masterful “Sign of the Dragonhead,” all tracks representing everything the band is about within three to four minute bursts, with the title tune especially sounding even more imposing and ostentatious, if that were even possible.

Thankfully, the band successfully toys with dynamics as well, merging both lighter (acoustic piano and guitar) instrumentation with the typical “metallic” grandiosity on the more intricate “Like A Mountain” or the gentler “Fairer Than the Sun,” which add welcomed breathing space to the sometimes-overblown majesty of the other surrounding tracks.

Now, with all that said, there are, however, a few tracks that don’t quite work for me. For instance, the instrumental “And Waves” is basically a celebration of all things Celtic that I feel goes on, even at three minutes, a bit too long. Other tunes don’t ring entirely triumphant as well, such as “Völva,” with a chorus that simply doesn’t grab me, and “Fires in the North,” that seems a tad disjointed with different sections linked together and varying melody lines not quite gelling into anything cohesive or memorable.

Moreover, the album’s closer, the lengthier and ambitious “Waves of Euphoria,” suffers from an entirely different dilemma—and this is one of those negative consistency issues I alluded to in the opening paragraph—the continual inclusion (and an unnecessary one for Leaves’ Eyes and any other band that tragically includes them) of the horrific “grunts and growls” male vocals. Sorry, but these completely unmelodious and indiscernible explosions of demonic vomit simply annoy me to no end and always lessen the enjoyability factor of most tracks on which they appear, especially when they take center stage, which happens on this otherwise engaging epic. If I wanted to hear orcs spewing nonsensical words at me in some guttural foreign language I’d rather replay The Lord of the Rings trilogy, thank you very much.

This last factor played a large part in not only forcing me to instantly lower the volume on my stereo, but also to lower my overall rating of the album. Additionally—and back to the consistency issue again—even though fans of Leaves’ Eyes will likely not be disappointed at this collection of tunes (or even those hellish male vocals) I wonder just how many new followers the band will muster with this release. Sorry to say, but even though most of the tunes are commendable and the musicians certainly know how to write some engaging melodies—and can orchestrate the pants off of many other groups in the Symphonic/Gothic Metal genre—I can’t help feeling that I’ve heard it all before on previous albums by the band. Yes, there is a high level of consistency in the group’s overall sound, and even in the Viking-inspired lyrics, but this begs the question as to whether Leaves’ Eyes is moving forward at all, or is the band simply parroting previous material?

These days, I can’t help feeling it’s mostly the latter since everything does seem a bit too samey from one album to the next. Yes, it’s enjoyable material for the most part, but unfortunately, it’s also nothing truly new.

Album Currently Not Available At Amazon
To Be Released 01/12/18

The Throbs – The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds (1991)

Throbs_LanguageThieves3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I still vaguely recall all the silly and preposterous hoopla surrounding The Throbs when the New York band first appeared on the scene in the early ’90s. The PR department at Geffen Records worked endlessly to make people believe how this band was destined for the big time, how The Throbs were the next Guns N’ Roses and would thoroughly and masterfully take over all of planet Earth with a debut album loaded with such infectious and rapturous music that even die-hard fans of Jazz, Soul, Rap, Country and even Classical, Opera, and every other genre imaginable would instantly switch allegiance to The Throbs, and only The Throbs, for the rest of eternity. Yes, the over-the-top hype pushed the notion that it would soon become the world of The Throbs, like it or not, with people of all races, all religions, all ages, and even America’s Republicans and Democrats, all banding together to honor the magnificence of this act, and (ultimately) praise Geffen Records for discovering such a life-altering musical treasure.

Well, needless to say, this grand and glorious destiny did not occur, not even close, even despite the fact the album was co-produced by the heavy-hitting team of Bob Ezrin and Richard “Dick” Wagner, or that it even included a guest appearance by Little Richard himself. I can’t help but wonder whether Geffen Records fired the head of its PR department for not making “instant worldwide fame” happen, or perhaps canned someone in the art department for approving an almost unreadable band logo to grace the way-too-cluttered album cover, or maybe even dumped someone higher up for not foreseeing the sudden advent of a monster genre called Grunge. Well, whatever the various fates of those record company “suits,” the band itself—fronted by a dude with the way-too-cutesy name of Ronnie Sweetheart—did seem to try its level best to leave a mark on the industry.

The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds, the group’s sole album, contained some fun music, mostly foot-tappin’ and sleazy rock ‘n’ roll loaded with hooks that (somewhat) had a Guns N’ Roses style and swagger. But to me, the rocking tracks such as “Sweet Addition,” “Come Down Sister,” “Rip It Up,” “It’s Not the End of the World,” “Underground,” and the Little Richard-enhanced “Ecstasy” sounded more like The Cult (Sonic Temple-era) with a touch of Hanoi Rocks, The Quireboys, and The Dogs D’Amour, whereas the two ballads included in this collection—”Honey Child” and “Dreamin'”—seemed to take on a similar vibe to The Rolling Stones, L.A. Guns, The Black Crowes, and other straightforward groups unafraid to include acoustic guitar into the mix.

So, even though The Throbs offered nothing at all innovative when it came to its music or its “hairsprayed and eyelinered” image, The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds did deliver some fairly decent tracks and a whole lot of attitude, thanks mostly to Sweetheart’s snarling lead vocals. But then again, so did countless other albums of the era by countless other equally talented bands. Unfortunately, after that “instant worldwide fame” thing didn’t happen for The Throbs, Geffen (no shock) dropped the group within the better part of a year and certainly went on to hype the “next big thing” that likely never occurred. Oh, well, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, right?

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The Doors – L.A. Woman (1971)

Doors_LAWoman4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I freely confess, I was never a fan of The Doors during the band’s actual existence (from 1965-1973). In hindsight, the reason was certainly understandable—when the band burst onto the scene in ’67 with its self-titled album, I was only seven years old, and during that time in my young life, The Monkees were (to my mind) the next best thing to peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and chocolate milk. Then, when I really started “getting into” music around the age of eleven or twelve, no one within my circle of friends even owned an album by The Doors, but instead, introduced me to “new” and exciting groups they’d discovered such as Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Yes, The Allman Brothers Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, Bloodrock, and Black Sabbath. Plus, by this time, The Doors had already lost Jim Morrison (RIP) and were already considered “old hat” and “hanging on by a thread.”

Therefore, it wasn’t until the early ’80s—when I’d reached my twenties and regularly performed in my own groups—that I gained an interest in the band. For this sudden exposure, I thank a Chicagoland act called Moonlight Drive. As the name implies, the outfit was a “Doors tribute band,” fairly popular in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, and I luckily found my own band playing several shows with the group in the tri-state region. Of course, I’d certainly heard of The Doors, but only knew the hit singles such as “Hello, I Love You” and “Touch Me,” and had always thought the band rather lightweight and way too “acid rock poppish” for my tastes. But after seeing Moonlight Drive deliver a dramatic, heavy-hitting set of The Doors’s best tunes, including many of the non-hit singles, on several nights, I suddenly found myself hooked. Only then did I realize that The Doors’s back catalogue apparently had much more to offer than the Pop-Rock fare I’d always associated with the band, so on a whim, I subsequently purchased the six studio albums from the “Jim Morrison” heyday.

My favorite of the group’s platters not only proved to be the “rockingest” of them all—no surprise, considering my preference for heavier material—but also the last of the Morrison albums. On L.A. Woman, the group included one amazing track after the other—not one “filler” in sight—and I ended up playing it regularly through the decades, certainly more so than any of the group’s earlier efforts, which I consider less consistent (and yes, as on 1969’s The Soft Parade, for instance, occasionally way too light for me). Additionally, this collection had a biting edge to it, along with a darker atmosphere (perhaps since I knew it would end up being Morrison’s swansong), and also included more Blues-based tunes as opposed to much of the group’s previous and “trippier” Psychedelic-tinged work.

Here, Morrison performs at his grittiest and gruffest best, belting out the lyrics with an almost punkish urgency and dementia—I have to believe that vocalists such as David Johansen from New York Dolls gained much inspiration from Morrison’s performances—where I can easily forgive his occasional inaccuracies regarding pitch. Moreover, his often cryptic and mysterious lyrics are, as ever, pure poetry, justifiably earning him legendary status in the rock ‘n’ roll world.

Meanwhile, although never a stable fan of Ray Manzarek’s organ tones (depending on the track, such as the catchy hit “Love Her Madly,” where the Hammond has a Farfisa sound that always rubbed me the wrong way), his rollicking performances on the funky opener “The Changeling” and the thumping “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” helped launch both tunes to the top of my “favorites” list, plus his strange Hammond insertions on “L’America” made for some creepiness I found endlessly charming. And of course, his wildly melodic traditional piano dexterity on the bopping “L.A. Woman” as well as the Fender Rhodes that graces that composition and also provides the haunting leads and solid chord patterns on the stunning “Riders on the Storm” aided to create two unforgettable and endurable classics, which incidentally are my other two favorite tracks not only on this album, but in the band’s entire catalogue.

Meanwhile, Robby Krieger impresses throughout. His guitar leads (especially on the bluesier songs “Been Down So Long,” “Crawling King Snake,” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”) are always tastefully executed and often inspired, while his rhythm guitar bits (as well as those provided by “guest” rhythm guitarist Marc Benno) never distract or hog center stage when not warranted, allowing the songs to breathe without clutter. Drummer John Densmore also displays the full spectrum of his skills, his tempos always tight and punchy, and his fills perfectly appropriate on both the rockers and the laid-back numbers. Additionally, although just one in a long string of session bassists playing on each of the band’s studio albums, Jerry Scheff also delivered a meritorious performance, his bass lines working in perfect tandem with Densmore’s beats, and his riffs always melodious with first-rate implementation. Plainly speaking, in my estimation, he was the “guest bassist” through the years who offered the most energy and backbone to the band’s overall sound.

Regardless, anyone still unfamiliar with The Doors (and without the good fortune of having a tribute band like Moonlight Drive to provide a marvelous replica) who yearns to investigate the band, L.A. Woman is a great place to begin, since it shows the group at the height of its fame and creativity. After Morrison’s passing, the surviving members went on to release two additional albums, but alas, the music seemed a pale imitation of what appeared on this platter, so who knows what else the band may have fashioned had Morrison not left this planet so tragically young? I can’t help thinking that, if L.A. Woman gives any indication, chances are it would’ve likely been just as exceptional.

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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.

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!

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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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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.

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