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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Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff (1975)

VanDerGraaf_Godbluff4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1971, Van der Graaf Generator released Pawn Hearts, a masterpiece of an album and probably my favorite in the group’s catalogue. But even through the band’s reputation and popularity seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds on the Prog-Rock scene, the group surprisingly disbanded, with leader Peter Hammill deciding to concentrate on a solo career in lieu of keeping the band together. Thankfully, and much to the thrill of many fans, Hammill resurrected the band several years later, and Godbluff popped up shortly thereafter. To my ears, the album proved to be yet another masterpiece, a collection of four complex tracks that certainly matched Pawn Hearts in regards to creativity, moodiness, and technical proficiency, so easily it remains my second favorite of the band’s works and the one I still play as often.

Now, compared to Pawn Hearts, this collection of tunes is almost as musically creepy, almost as wickedly demented, but a touch more straightforward (that is, if one can consider anything released by Van der Graaf Generator during the band’s early years as being “straightforward”) and more jazz-inspired. Included on this album are the classic tracks “Scorched Earth” and “The Sleepwalkers,” the songs that initially enticed me to further investigate this group in the mid-’70s, and causing me to fall in love with Van der Graaf Generator’s overall strangeness. “The Undercover Man” and “Arrow” are equally as enticing, and offer up even more weird and wonderful, dark and dastardly fun, clearly showing Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans in tip-top form, while David Jackson’s exceptional and unusual saxophone performances act as the icing on the already wacky cake.

So to me, Godbluff (as well as the previous Pawn Hearts) is definitely a “bucket list” album, one collection that every Prog-Rock fan should experience before they die.

(Additional note: To read my short review of Pawn Hearts, click here.)

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Barclay James Harvest – Everyone Is Everybody Else (1974)

BarclayJamesHarvest_EveryoneElse3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although Britain’s Barclay James Harvest was never my favorite Progressive Rock group due to the band’s overall laid-back and less-intricate nature, I did nevertheless enjoy many of its albums, and Everyone Is Everybody Else, the group’s fifth studio effort, ranks among my favorites.

The majority of tracks on this 1974 release—such as the catchy and beautiful “Child of the Universe,” the countrified and harmonious “Poor Boy Blues,” the Mellotron-lush “For No One,” the electric-piano-enhanced “Negative Earth,” and the more dramatic “The Great 1974 Mining Disaster”—are generally mellow and moody, never in-your-face with twiddly bits or unnecessary passages. Additionally, even on the more upbeat “Crazy City,” the overall song arrangements are often elegant yet sparse, with the instruments never trampling over the vocal melodies or creating too much of a jarring distraction. Each song has plenty of breathing space, lending a lighter atmosphere to the proceedings.

Moreover, for Prog-Rock fans unfamiliar with Barclay James Harvest, don’t expect much in the way of a style comparable to various groups such as Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, ELP, etc., but more of a folksier, semi-Prog style played by bands such as Strawbs or The Moody Blues with perhaps a bit of Procol Harum, Wally, Supertramp, and even America and Crosby, Stills, & Nash thrown in. No, purchasing any BJH album is not with the anticipation of basking in lightning-fast guitar, Hammond, or Moog solos, or innovative time signature shifts, or jaw-dropping multi-part Prog-Rock epics with bizarre lyrics, but only to provide your mind with dreamy and undemanding melodies to savor at the end of a long, exhausting day.

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A.C.T – Circus Pandemonium (2014)

ACT_CircusPandemonium4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Sweden’s A.C.T is such a difficult act (pun intended) to describe. In many ways, the group brings to mind ’70s/’80s Pomp Rock/Art Rock bands such as Aviary, City Boy, and Sparks, and you can almost imagine the best ingredients of those bands being somehow tossed into a blender and poured out into the new century with modern-day production techniques bordering on perfection.

The group has a quirky uniqueness and often-brilliant song arrangements, vocal harmonies, performances, and songwriting, the type of band where no matter how many times you listen to its albums, you will always notice something bizarre you hadn’t noticed the previous times, something hidden in the shadows of each track that has eerily and magically appeared to enhance the experience.

Circus Pandemonium, the group’s fifth release after a lengthy break, is another top-notch offering. As the album title indicates, this is a circus-themed concept album, a dramatic and majestic collection of linked tunes with endless and catchy Pop melodies floating atop dynamic Symphonic-Prog arrangements, not too dissimilar from what one might hear on albums from groups such as the aforementioned City Boy, or It Bites and Spock’s Beard, with a touch of 10cc and Queen merged in, and often as theatrical as a rock opera or a cross between the genres of Broadway musical, cabaret, and vaudeville. In fact, fans of Saga’s grand concept album Generation 13 will probably find this album of great interest since it often has a similar sound and atmosphere.

And like any daring and industrious concept album worth its weight in ambition, throughout Circus Pandemonium, various voices and circus sounds pop up to either bridge several tracks or enhance the ambience of others and further the storyline. The lyrics here are generally dark, despite the rather upbeat rhythms and bright chord patterns on many of the tracks, yet a creepy vibe nevertheless infiltrates several tunes as the story’s main character comes to grips with his fate as being held captive as an exhibit in a freakshow by its sinister circus manager. As I said, creepy, and altogether intriguing.

Yet regardless of the dark theme, Herman Saming’s vocals are as peculiar and delightful as ever, as are the grand and layered background vocals, while Ola Andersson’s lead guitar insertions and Jerry Sahlin’s numerous keyboards, synths, and orchestrations prove melodically and bombastically riveting, like always. Simultaneously, the rhythm section of bassist Peter Asp and drummer Thomas Lejon keep the proceedings tight, yet often surprising with periodic tempo shifts or unexpected breaks and fills. And as displayed on A.C.T’s previous albums, the group’s collective technical skills are outstanding, far superior than most groups of the Prog-Rock genre.

Yes, A.C.T is indeed one group difficult to pigeonhole, with each of its albums providing high levels of creativity, and Circus Pandemonium proves that in spades. In the world of Progressive Rock, this group is not even close to being the “same old, same old,” and fans of the genre craving something different should investigate the band forthwith. I, for one, pray that A.C.T never stops delivering more and more of its truly eccentric and invigorating material, which always equals fresh blasts of aural greatness to my often-jaded ears.


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Frank Zappa – Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

Zappa_Sheik4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I state unequivocally, I love this double-album collection by the legendary Frank Zappa for three main reasons…

#1: To me, Zappa became a musical GOD the moment I first heard the album Hot Rats. The man not only shredded on guitar, churned out fresh and typically above-average material on a shockingly regular basis, and was a musical genius when it came to songwriting and scoring in a wide variety of genres. He was, in a word, brilliant.

#2: This collection of tracks is one of Zappa’s most creative and, in all cases with his music, is wonderfully performed by every musician involved.

And #3: Personal amusement…and now, it’s flashback time…

Way, way back in 1979, I was working at a local record store (remember those, folks?) and one day we received a shipment of albums marked “PROMO,” including Sheik Yerbouti. The general rule, as my annoyingly prudish manager (so tight-assed you couldn’t pry a needle out of her butt even when using a tractor) had drilled into my head and those of my co-workers, was to immediately take ALL new “PROMO” albums (regardless of our personal musical tastes) and, throughout the week, play them repeatedly over the store’s sound system, thus encouraging customer purchases. (This rule was—and I quote her exact words—”A MUST! No excuses to do otherwise or face the consequences!”)

So I did as I was ordered, and during one of my shifts, promptly placed this album into the usual “weekly rotation.” Well, imagine my manager’s already pale face when the track “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” came blasting out of the wall speakers during prime shopping hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Well, let me tell you, I about pissed myself freaking silly when she actually wobbled on her skinny legs when hearing the most sardonic (okay, wickedly crude) Zappa lyrics. Needless to say, she was NOT happy with me or the other employees for “following HER rules,” and for that utterly delicious moment in my personal history alone, I placed Zappa at the top of my “Music To Freak Out The ‘Suits'” Category, and (miraculously) adored him even more than I thought humanly possible.

Therefore, this album, which contains not only the hilarious “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” track, but other zany, satirical, and classic ditties such as “Flakes,” “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” “City of Tiny Lites,” “Dancin’ Fool,” “Jewish Princess,” and “Yo Mama,” plus stunning guitar showcases such as “Rat Tomago,” will always hold a special place in my heart since it not only displays Zappa and his group at their creative best, but instantly brings to mind that magnificent Saturday afternoon at the record store.

By the way, a quick FYI…remember that store manager I mentioned? Well, she finally recovered from her shock at hearing the “A” word, then canned every single employee (including myself) several weeks later, turned the shop into a “religious-music-only” store while hiring fellow church members to replace us, and ultimately put the store out of business within two short months. Karma’s a bitch, and Zappa Rules! Oh, and most importantly, I swiped that “PROMO” copy of Sheik Yerbouti from the “to be returned” bin when I picked up my final paycheck and have cherished it ever since.

And RIP to the magnificent Frank Zappa (1940-1993), who is sorely missed.

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Kestrel – Kestrel (1975)

Kestrel_14 out of 5 Stars!

The debut release—and lone album, unfortunately—from an obscure U.K. band named Kestrel features some rather commercial-sounding Progressive Rock with Hard Rock and AOR touches.

Indeed, the music on this album reminds me of numerous acts from the late ’60s and early ’70s—bands as diverse as Sugarloaf, The Guess Who, Argent, etc.—during the era when musicians really started experimenting with more complicated arrangements and instrumentation in a bid to add much-needed tinsel to their otherwise straightforward Pop songs.

So what you’ll find here is fairly decent, occasionally “singalong” material, with some creative instrumental fiddling, grand vocal harmonies, Mellotron excursions, and periodic rhythm shifts on many of the tracks, which adds flavor, texture, and unexpected treats.

Too bad the group didn’t release additional material; it would’ve been interesting to see the directions the band might have gone had Kestrel been given the opportunity for further experimentation and development.

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City Boy – The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1979)

CityBoy_EarthCaughtFire4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the U.K., City Boy always reminded me of Kayak, with its similar style of Progressive/Art Rock mixed with Pop and a healthy dose of Pomp Rock, while the band’s great, wide-ranging harmony vocals would have seemed right at home on an album by Sweet or Queen.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire, the band’s fifth album, is probably the most Progressive of them all, even more so than 1977’s Dinner at the Ritz album. Not only does the collection open with the bombastic and magnificent title track, but also concludes with the ambitious, multi-part, twelve-minute epic “Ambition” (appropriately titled indeed).

With Pomp-Rock grandeur, other catchy tunes such as “It’s Only the End of the World,” “Up in the Eighties,” “Interrupted Melody,” “Modern Love Affair,” and “New York Times” simply leap out of the record’s grooves. The album’s wealth of quirky melodies and glorious background vocals floating atop the deceptively intricate instrumentation are not only loaded with charm and whimsy, but are addictively replayable. Even the synth-enhanced vocals and zany orchestration of “Machines” fully displays the band’s high level of ingenuity and pop sensibilities.

For each of the above-stated reasons, The Day the Earth Caught Fire firmly remains my favorite of all the band’s releases, and has firmly established itself in my heart as one of those “must have on a deserted island” albums.

Unfortunately, also like Kayak, City Boy remains one of the most shamefully underappreciated and overlooked groups in rock history. And for “out of the norm” music lovers still unfamiliar with this group, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is definitely the place to start your investigation.

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Wigwam – Dark Album (1978)

Wigwam_DarkAlbum3 out of 5 Stars!

In the early ’70s, Finland’s obscure yet legendary Wigwam released several “must have” albums for Prog-Rock fans—Fairport (1971), Being (1974), and Nuclear Nightclub (1975)—then altered its sound to include a bit more Pop Rock into the mixture of styles, no doubt seeking a wider audience.

For the most part, the experiment worked marginally well, at least for some fans, and 1977’s Dark Album (the band’s seventh and final album before disappearing until the ’90s) falls into this “for the most part” category.

The music on offer here is a hybrid, coming somewhere between commercial AOR/Pop Rock material (the album opener “Oh Marlene!” or “Helsinki Nights” and “The Silver Jubilee,” for example) and Prog-Rock, with many of the hybrid tracks (“The Item is the Totem,” “Horace’s Aborted Rip-Off Scheme,” “The Vegetable Rumble,” and “Cheap Evening Return”) being occasionally reminiscent of groups such as Kayak, City Boy, Supertramp, and other more Art Rock acts that successfully balanced the two genres, only with gruffer vocals and no reliance on the vocal harmony gymnastics that instantly identified the aforementioned bands.

Although Dark Album is not my favorite within Wigwam’s catalogue of releases—I prefer the earlier Prog-Rock platters—it’s fairly intriguing and enjoyable nevertheless.

And one final note (hint) to Prog fans: If investigating this release for purchase, seek out the version with the two bonus tracks (“Grass for Blades” and “Daemon Duncetan’s Request”) and you’ll find even more to enjoy.

Why these two more Prog-oriented/keyboard-featured tracks were left off the original release is just one of those annoying music-history mysteries…well, probably not such a mystery, since everyone knows that pushing a band to become “more commercial” to greedy, insatiable record company executives always means “more sales to line their greedy, insatiable pockets.” 🙂

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Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)

Eno_WarmJets4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Leaving Roxy Music after two masterpiece albums, “tapes treatment” and synth wizard Brian Eno created his first solo album with the aid of most of his former Roxy bandmates, as well as Chris Spedding, John Wetton, and Robert Fripp and many other guests, delivering his own masterpiece of Art Rock with a healthy dose of Glam. And although the music isn’t too dissimilar from Eno’s work with Roxy Music on the band’s debut release and For Your Pleasure, the experimentation here is at a much higher level.

Here Come the Warm Jets is completely unique to my ears, surreal yet accessible, zany yet catchy, sinister yet welcoming, with musical gems such as “Baby’s On Fire,” “Dead Finks Don’t Talk,” “Driving Me Backwards,” “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch,” and “Blank Frank”—oh, hell, in truth, every one of the ten tracks is golden—all being mind-blowing when it came to overall creativity and general “goofiness.”

Simply stated, when it comes to the avant-garde melody lines, the curious lyrical content, the eccentric instrumentation, or the innovative production techniques, sound effects, and “treatments” Eno gives to the various instruments and vocals, this is Art Rock at its finest. No wonder the man has become a musical living legend.

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Shaolin Death Squad – Shaolin Death Squad (2004)

ShaolinSquad_SDS4 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of Texas comes a truly bizarre band with an equally bizarre name, and even the individual band members take on bizarre personas (“The White Swan” on vocals and keys, “The Black Scorpion” on guitar, “Black Ninja” on drums, etc.) with all of them wearing masks to fit their alter egos. As I said, bizarre…but fun as hell.

Regardless, although the band’s style is often difficult to categorize, Shaolin Death Squad generally plays modern Prog-Rock with some Metal touches, incorporating a wide range of styles (including Zappa) into its music, which in many respects, reminds me of the early Art Rock albums by The Tubes, only with contemporary musical styles and influences vividly coloring the somewhat-theatrical vocal performances, song arrangements, and instrumentation.

Be that as it may, the band’s various studio releases—including this self-titled, six-track, thirty-minute debut EP—are highly creative, often experimental, well-performed, and quite enjoyable.

I wish Shaolin Death Squad (despite its name) a long and productive existence. 🙂

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