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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Cobra – First Strike (1983)

Cobra_FirstStrike4 out of 5 Stars!

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

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

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

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

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

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

(RIP Jimi Jamison and Jack Holder)

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Saga – Silent Knight (1980)

Saga_SilentKnight4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When it comes to Saga’s third album, the first album I purchased by this Canadian band back in 1980—on a whim, actually, due to the eye-catching cover art—the instant I heard the synth intro to the opening track “Don’t Be Late,” I fell in love. Indeed, I clearly recall listening to the album several times in a row, then dashing to the record store the very next day to purchase the band’s prior two albums to discover all that I had missed thus far.

Including the dramatic opening tune, the superbly produced Silent Knight is brimming with synth magic, thanks to dual keyboardists Jim Gilmour and Michael Sadler, with the music expertly accented by an unsung guitar hero in the form of Ian Crichton, whose distinctive sound and dexterous style proved the icing on the proverbial cake. Add to that the ever-melodic bass riffs of Jim Crichton and the solid tempos of drummer Steve Negus, then toss in Sadler’s instantly identifiable vocals, and what you get is a collection of lush and glossy Prog-Rock with generous AOR overtones.

Along with “Don’t Be Late,” many of the additional songs included in this collection, such as “Too Much to Lose,” “What’s It Gonna Be,” “Help Me Out,” “Compromise,” and the stunning closer “Careful Where You Step,” display the band firing on full Prog-Rock cylinders. The labyrinthine song arrangements and creative instrumentation proved to be quite brilliant in their subtlety and polished execution, while Sadler’s vocal melodies etched their way into the listener’s skull, forging a permanent home in the memory banks like any of the best AOR songs of the period. Although Silent Knight wouldn’t become the band’s breakthrough album—that would come the following year with Worlds Apart, when Saga suddenly became MTV’s video darlings thanks to the single “On the Loose”—this third album cemented a solid foundation for the band’s deserved success.

Unbelievably, despite several lineup changes and a temporary break-up or two, Saga pretty much stayed around in some form or another for four full decades (officially calling it quits in 2017, its fortieth year) and I’ve stuck with the group for the entire ride (more than twenty studio albums), regardless of several “iffy” releases along the way where the group experimented with less-Progressive styles and sounds. Thankfully, however, those missteps proved few and far between. Nevertheless, Silent Knight will forever remain my favorite Saga album, since not only was it my introduction to the group, but the opening synth-riff to “Don’t Be Late” still has the power to put a smile on my face, even after all these many years.

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

EdgeForever_LetDemon4 out of 5 Stars!

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

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

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

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

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

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Mr. Mister – Pull (2010)

MrMr_Pull4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1985, it seemed I couldn’t go a few days (even a few hours) without hearing music being played on the radio by Mr. Mister, the AOR/Pop Rock band that had just released its catchy sophomore album called Welcome to the Real World, which contained the wonderfully addicting tunes “Kyrie,” “Is It Love,” and “Broken Wings,” along with a host of other potential hits. Not only did the band include creative musicians and songwriters, but seemed destined for a long and lucrative career.

But when the band released its more innovative and somewhat-progressive third album, Go On, things suddenly went awry. Since the record label’s “mega hit machine” had stopped churning out instant Top Ten singles, RCA Victor was not happy, and amidst the fallout, the band lost its original guitarist, Steve Farris. And to make matters even worse, the group (with numerous guest guitarists, including Yes’s Trevor Rabin) recorded material for a fourth album planned for release around 1989/1990, with even more experimental AOR-oriented material included, and the record company executives (ie. royal and blundering noodleheads) decided to shelve the collection of tunes since it “wasn’t pop enough.” Morons!

Regardless, Mr. Mister’s remaining musicians—drummer Pat Mastelotto, keyboardist Steve George, and bassist/vocalist Richard Page—ended up disbanding in frustration when other labels also refused to accept the material.

Therefore, the eleven-song collection named Pull is an “archival” album that finally saw the light of day twenty years after its original creation. And yes, the album as a whole is indeed more experimental than 1985’s best-selling Welcome to the Real World, but it’s also a top-quality release, with intriguing melodies, lush instrumentation and harmonies, and Richard Page’s warm, pitch-perfect, and instantly recognizable voice front and center. Okay, so tracks such as “Close Your Eyes,” “Learning to Crawl,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “No Words to Say,” “Waiting in My Dreams,” and “We Belong to No One,” might not be instantaneous hit-single material, but the collection of tunes makes for an often-riveting AOR album, beautiful Pop Rock melodies with Prog-Rock leanings when it comes to song arrangements and keyboard instrumentation. Although the overall sound still has Mr. Mister’s undeniable stamp on it, the style is also not too far afield from the material artists such as Toto were recording in the late-’80s/early-’90s, and it’s occasionally similar in scope/style to Page’s 3rd Matinee project, the material he recorded with keyboardist Pat Leonard (Trillion/Toy Matinee) for the 1994 album Meanwhile.

So, although a previously “shelved” album might be considered by some people as being made up of “undeserving/poorly produced/low-quality material,” that is so far from the truth in the case of this particular album. In fact, many of the tunes on Pull are what I would deem as some of Mr. Mister’s best work, and any fan of the original group looking to hear this ultra-professional band delving into more adventurous sonic territory may enjoy this “archival” gem as much as I do.

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Michael Stanley Band – Heartland (1980)

MSB_Heartland4 out of 5 Stars!

Recently, after engaging in several conversations regarding how true talent, even brilliance in music, often goes both unrecognized and unrewarded, I got to thinking about the music industry as a whole, which has always been one baffling beast. It continually fascinates me how some out-of-the-gate and “just okay” rock groups or solo artists become instantaneous household names, showered in both plaudits and financial rewards based solely on either a single tune (a one-hit-wonder) or a handful of “so-so” songs, (often composed by outside songwriters, I might add), whereas an endless stream of highly gifted and deserving acts, religiously touring and performing all-original, hit-worthy material, continually languish in the shadows, struggling to break into the big-time after years and years of reliably generating top-quality work. Well, in truth, the absurdity of this unjustness doesn’t so much fascinate me as it simply pisses me off.

One such act that immediately sprang to mind during these conversations was the Michael Stanley Band, the city of Cleveland’s “best kept secret” (or, rather, a secret to most of the world outside of Ohio and several surrounding Midwestern states). How this band never broke big in America, let alone elsewhere, is still a mystery to me. MSB seemed to have everything going for it—instrumental prowess, songwriting chops, a distinctive sound, well-produced albums, a loyal fan base in Ohio where the band regularly sold out arenas and stadiums, and a major record label with oodles of moolah for which to promote their artists.

Anyway, when the band got snatched up by EMI America and released its fifth album, Heartland, in 1980 and finally started receiving regular airplay, thanks to the catchy hit single “He Can’t Love You,” I thought perhaps MSB had finally caught a break, that it would soon get major recognition throughout not only the U.S.A., but the world. Other tracks such as “Lover,” “Say Goodbye,” “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Voodoo,” “I’ll Never Need Anyone More (Than I Need You Tonight),” and “Hearts of Fire”—well, heck, pretty much every one of the eleven songs on this platter—proved quite memorable, and with the band including two chief songwriters (guitarist Michael Stanley and keyboardist Kevin Raleigh), there seemed no end to the creativity and sing-along choruses. Moreover, both songwriters had recognizable voices (the gruffer, deeper-voiced Stanley and the clean, soaring Raleigh), and their timbres blended together as tastefully as Kahlúa and cream, which gave the band an even wider commercial appeal. The fact that several tunes also featured a wailing sax (artfully supplied by the late Clarence Clemons—the band would recruit a full-time sax player shortly after this album was released) lent MSB a bit of a Springsteen vibe and should have also helped to propel the band to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll heap.

But after Heartland, despite the giant stride forward, nothing much happened for the group. Certainly, MSB continued delivering above-average material (with the albums North Coast, MSB, and You Can’t Fight Fashion being released in the subsequent three years following Heartland), yet the band simply could not catch that ever-illusive break. As stated earlier, the reasons why remain a mystery, but I chalk it up to lack of radio play and the overall apathy of the record company executives who neglected to provide the necessary promotion and finances. Regardless, this cluster of four albums—from 1980’s Heartland to 1983’s You Can’t Fight Fashion—remain special to me and I still listen to each of them on a regular basis.

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Lake – Lake (1976)

Lake_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the ’70s, a radio station in Chicago had an “underground” program several hours each night that featured obscure and new groups from Europe, bands not being played on any other “normal” FM stations. One of the unknown acts introduced to me was Lake, and what made the group different from others being showcased was its genre. Whereas the station typically focused on Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, and Prog-Rock groups (everything from Guru Guru and Nektar to Judas Priest, Three Man Army, Lucifer’s Friend, etc.), Lake played extremely catchy AOR material with perhaps a touch of Prog-Rock tossed in. The song that grabbed my attention was the driving and harmony-drenched “On The Run,” which I played repeatedly on my portable cassette player (I had a tendency to record that radio program as often as possible for future reference). Based on that track alone, I sought out the album during my next shopping trip to the record store, and was shocked that I actually found it, not in the pricey “import” section, but in the main section, thanks to Lake being contracted by the CBS/Columbia label.

Anyway, although some websites incorrectly classify Lake as being “Krautrock,” that label is far from the truth—and style—of the matter (aside from the band being formed in Hamburg, but made up of multinational musicians). Instead, Lake could have easily passed for any American AOR band featuring Pop melodies, music aimed directly at the U.S. market. In fact, the melodic track “Time Bomb” was not only released in America, but actually hit Billboard’s Top 40, giving Lake some genuine and coveted bona fides back in its home country.

With wonderfully slick production and top-notch musicianship, Lake delivered an undeniable AOR masterpiece on its debut. Aside from the aforementioned tunes, several others (“Sorry To Say,” “Chasing Colours,” and “Key to the Rhyme”) are in a similar vein, all containing a nice balance between guitars and keyboards, with exceptional vocals and multi-layered harmonies, deceptively complex instrumentation, and (for the most part) upbeat rhythms. The group also included a single ballad (“Do I Love You?”), which somehow reminds me of the Little River Band, as well as the ten-minute closer “Between the Lines,” which is where the musicians let loose with an extended outro section that borders on Prog-Rock. All in all, the melodies from the majority of tracks stubbornly stay in your head long after the album concludes. In fact, I hadn’t heard the platter for more than a decade, but when I played it recently, I could automatically hum along to almost every track, with memories of lyrics and hook-lines rushing back to me as if I’d heard those tunes only days earlier. Amazingly catchy material, which I have replayed several times now since the songs are so addictive (and long-missed).

Thankfully, Lake went on to produce several additional albums of high quality (although none of them quite matched the pure brilliance of this debut, in my estimation), but the group eventually went “stale” as the ’80s approached. Then, with scads of personnel changes also becoming routine in future years, the group never could recapture the magic from the ol’ days, even though its last release came out as recently as 2014.

Regardless, for fans of the AOR style produced by groups such as mid-period Ambrosia, Little River Band, Toto, 707, Le Roux, Player, Tycoon, etc., you might want to investigate this stand-out release (or the band’s next two albums, Lake II and Paradise Island, the latter being slightly better of the two, in my opinion). But if snatching up a copy of this debut, be warned you’ll likely have many of these songs repeating in your head for days.

One final note: I always thought the music on this album was, in many ways, a precursor to the style of material abundant on Lucifer’s Friend’s undervalued Sneak Me In album from 1980. Ironically, the singer during that AOR-ish period in Lucifer’s Friend’s history was Mike Starrs, who would actually join up with Lake in the opening decade of this new century. Eerie…

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New England – New England (1979)

NewEngland_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the late ’70s while working at a record store, one of the most memorable “PROMO” albums that arrived was the self-titled debut by an act called New England. I distinctly recall hearing it for the first time…it was a long, dreary night with no customers, due to a torrential rainstorm. My co-worker and I, bored out of our skulls and unpacking shipments, tugged this album from the box, saw the lightning-decorated cover art, and decided that on such a stormy evening it would be highly appropriate to crank it up on the store’s sound system. We actually didn’t realize how appropriate until after hearing the lyrics to “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya.”

Anyway, just as Side A faded out, then after lifting our jaws from the floor, we simultaneously sprinted to the turntable. I wanted to flip the platter to Side B since I couldn’t wait to hear more, while my co-worker begged to repeat the first five tracks, especially that “catchy song about losing someone during a storm.” She eventually won the argument only since I wanted to once again absorb all the layered vocals and lush keyboard instrumentation (never had I heard an album outside of Prog-Rock that actually featured the Mellotron so liberally). Well, I got to hear Side B soon enough, fell in love myself with the song “Nothing To Fear,” and she and I ended up repeating those five songs before replaying the album in its entirety. And before we realized it, the “quitting hour” had arrived and the thunderstorm outside had also miraculously vanished.

Needless to say, over the course of the following week, she and I “promoed” this album as often as possible and we both purchased it when our next paychecks arrived (with our employee discount, of course). And since those days, I have savored the album more often than I can count and have never grown tired of it. From the rockier tunes such as “P.U.N.K. (Puny Undernourished Kid)” and “Shoot,” to the aforementioned AOR masterpieces “Nothing To Fear” and “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya,” to the Poppy, Art-Rockish, and Pomp-tastic “Hello, Hello, Hello,” “Turn out the Light,” “Encore,” “Shall I Run Away,” and (another favorite) “The Last Show,” the musicians had created a grand and majestic style all their own.

Although the band hailed from the Boston area, that musical style, however, did seem so damned British, almost as if the groups 10cc and Mott The Hoople had joined forces with Queen and Badfinger, then added perhaps Rick Wakeman or Patrick Moraz to play Mellotron. Indeed, when he’s not adding full power chords or blazing solos, guitarist/vocalist John Fannon sings with almost a British accent at times, and on piano-featured tracks such as “Turn out the Light,” and the highly theatrical “The Last Show” and “Encore,” Fannon’s voice could almost pass for Ian Hunter’s (only somehow tamed) while various musical passages and chord patterns often remind me of material from Mott the Hoople’s final days, only mixed with those other groups I mentioned…and the abundant Mellotron. And speaking of which, when it came to New England, no one ever had to ask the question “Where’s Waldo?” since keyboardist Jimmy Waldo was always front and center, adding his symphonic flourishes to create some of the most extravagant Pomp Rock on the planet. Meanwhile, bassist Gary Shea and drummer/vocalist Hirsh Gardner set a high standard, their rhythms always tight, punchy, and easily fluid while they shift from one tempo to the next. And adding to the magnificence of it all, Kiss’s Paul Stanley produced the collection along with Mike Stone (of Queen/Journey fame), who also engineered the project.

But after such an impressive release, the question remained—could New England follow it up successfully? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding “yes,” with 1980’s Explorer Suite easily matching the same catchy high quality, although with (sorry to say) less Mellotron overall. Oh, well, you can’t have everything, right? Anyway, after releasing a third album in 1981, the group sadly disbanded for reasons unknown to me. I did, however, happily find myself in a situation some years later when one of my own bands opened several shows for Alcatrazz, a group that included both Waldo and Shea, and I got to hang out one evening with these “idols” of mine, so had New England not broken up, that evening certainly would have never happened. (Yes, I know, I’m selfish.)

But one final and happy note: it’s a thrill to know that New England is once again together and touring, so I’m praying for the guys to release new material in the near future. I will never forget that stormy-night-turned-special at the record store when I discovered the band, so New England remains special to me for that reason alone and I can never get enough from this wildly talented team of musicians. So come on, boys, you can do it…you’ve got “noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, nothing to fear.”

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Spys – Spys (1982)

Spys_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1980, after the “leaders” of the band Foreigner dumped its more creative and adventurous founding members to further commercialize its already commercial sound, I stopped listening. Without these members (especially keyboardist Al Greenwood), the group became way too bland for my tastes, and no amount of wimpier fare such as “Waiting for a Girl Like You” or “I Want to Know What Love Is” could lure me back into the fan base.

Anyway, in 1981, when I learned a new group was being formed in New York featuring both Greenwood and original Foreigner bassist Ed Gagliardi, I couldn’t wait to hear the end results. Thankfully, that came soon afterward when the debut from Spys appeared, and after hearing the platter just one time, I realized the band that had incorrectly spelled its name (like the Babys) had correctly executed its music.

The album’s opening track (and first single) “Don’t Run My Life,” along with other tunes such as “She Can’t Wait,” “No Harm Done,” “Danger,” “Hold On (When You Feel You’re Falling),” and “Don’t Say Goodbye,” delivered solid and energetic AOR/Pomp Rock, highly melodic with grand and layered vocal harmonies, often complex instrumentation, and inventive song arrangements. Better still, I found that Greenwood’s contributions—generally front and center in the mix and more dynamic and creative then they had ever been with Foreigner—added intriguing chills and thrills to songs such as “Ice Age,” “Desirée,” and “Into The Night,” making sections of these tracks almost Prog-oriented in their keyboard complexity. Moreover, Gagliardi is also given the occasional spotlight on many tracks, his melodic bass lines popping through crisp and clean thanks to Neil Kernon’s stellar production magic.

As far as the other “non-famous” band members, John DiGuardio performs tasty guitar leads throughout, giving the songs a powerful punch, while Billy Milne proved himself a formidable drummer, his work with Gagliardi extremely tight, especially when including unexpected breaks and twists in the tempos. Meanwhile, vocalist John Blanco belts out the lyrics with the self-assurance of a pro, his tone, range, and delivery enjoyable and fairly distinctive.

Overall, the album impressed the hell out of me upon initial hearing, and even today stands out as something special in the AOR/Pomp Rock genre, a forgotten masterpiece. With the music being an interesting mixture of groups such as Foreigner and Toto with more than a touch of Asia, Styx, and Angel, thanks primarily to Greenwood’s bombastic keyboards, I can think of no other band from this era that had quite the same spark or zest or promise.

That’s why it was woefully unfortunate that the group’s sophomore effort (1983’s Behind Enemy Lines) paled in comparison, with a noticeable dip in songwriting quality and a slight change in direction. With the band’s fortunes swiftly diminishing, it truly came as no great surprise when Spys broke up shortly thereafter. And although Greenwood immediately went on to work with legendary Rainbow/Deep Purple vocalist Joe Lynn Turner, the other talented guys basically vanished off the scene. A sad twist of fate, especially for a band that could create such a stunning debut, one I still regularly enjoy all these decades later.

(RIP Edward John Gagliardi—February 13, 1952 – May 11, 2014)

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Asia – Arena (1996)

Asia_Arena4 out of 5 Stars!

Since its debut release, Asia has been a band bordering on the edge of both Pomp Rock and AOR as well as the Progressive Rock genre, and on no other album within the band’s catalogue is this merging of genres more evident than on Arena, the group’s sixth studio collection (and the third with vocalist/bassist John Payne).

Including memorable tracks such as “Two Sides of the Moon,” “U Bring Me Down,” “Never,” “Arena,” “Words,” and the exceptional nine-minute “The Day Before the War,” the longest song Asia ever recorded, Arena is probably the most adventurous album in the band’s overall catalogue. When it comes to song arrangements and instrumentation, and with the inclusion of various percussion instruments (provided by guest Luis Jardim) that lend extra zing to several tracks, this is also the Asia album that contains the strongest Progressive-Rock influences, a development I eagerly welcomed with open arms. The Pomp-Rock keyboards of Geoff Downes are generally outstanding, while guitarists Aziz Ibrahim and Elliott Randall, along with drummer Mike Sturgis, display mastery of their own instruments.

Moreover, this is also the collection where I truly came to fully appreciate John Payne’s identifiable vocals, finally recognizing the fact that his contributions to Asia’s overall sound were not only the most enjoyable to me, but generally left me yearning to hear more. Once savoring this album, I no longer viewed Payne as just the “new kid on the block” or “Wetton’s replacement,” but as an extremely powerful and expressive vocalist in his own right, and a highly influential, full-fledged member of the group.

Therefore, due to the band’s more Progressive leanings on this collection of tracks, along with the strong performances by all the musicians involved, Arena became the Asia album I found myself playing most often through the years, followed closely by 2004’s Silent Nation.

Oh yeah, and the Rodney Matthews’s cover art (also featuring the Roger Dean-designed band logo) is pretty darned cool as well.

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