Mona Lisa – Vers Demain (1979)

MonaLisa_VersDemain3.5 out of 5 Stars!

On its fifth album, French band Mona Lisa altered its style a bit, opting to record a selection of only shorter, more-focused tracks instead of balancing them with several extended pieces, which typically occurred on the band’s previous albums.

Yet although the songs on Vers Demain are fairly streamlined, that’s not to say the group didn’t still produce creative material. Indeed, the humorous theatricality the band injects into the various arrangements keeps the songs from getting too commercial or stale.

Instead, what Mona Lisa delivers is still a collection of Symphonic Prog-Rock, but with more of an Art-Rock flavor, similar in approach to groups such as Kayak, Wigwam, Ariel, or City Boy that specialized in including a ton of exciting twists and turns in its instrumentation and tempos, and unexpected orchestration within generally shorter tracks that often possessed almost pop vocal hooks.

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MonaLisa_VersDemain

Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure (1973)

RoxyMusic_ForPleasure5 out of 5 Stars!

In my eyes, For Your Pleasure, the second release from Roxy Music, is one of the finest Art Rock albums ever made, and is certainly my favorite by this unique band itself.

Sure, Roxy Music’s self-titled debut from the previous year contained a slew of exciting material and aural oddities, the songs being simultaneously both catchy and bizarre, but Peter Sinfield’s production quality lacked. The vocals or instruments ended up either too forceful or too buried in the mix so the listener couldn’t fully appreciate all the delicate nuances Roxy Music offered regarding the fascinating woodwind blasts, keyboard and synth effects, and luscious guitar and bass melody lines.

On For Your Pleasure, however, the overall production (the band self-producing this release) took a giant leap forward, with the collection possessing a sleek and sensual atmosphere, and all of those instrumental idiosyncrasies, those peculiarities that set this band apart from all of its contemporaries, stood on full and wacky display.

Bryan Ferry’s songwriting had grown seemingly by leaps and bounds, his lyrics being especially quirky, clever, and wry, and the musicians had perfected the art of spiraling off on individual whims, occasionally jamming wildly over and around each other within the confines of each song, yet the band still sounded remarkably cohesive and tight.

With classic tracks such as “Do The Strand,” “Editions of You,” The Bogus Man,” “Beauty Queen,” “For Your Pleasure,” and the unforgettable and rather creepy “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the album contained a wealth of Art Rock experimentation with a touch of Glam, including strange and kooky arrangements, eerie and mind-bending synths and sound effects, all dripping in top-notch elegance and pizzazz, with the end product becoming nothing short of a 5-Star masterpiece.

Unfortunately, this would also be the last album to include Brian Eno, and his genius-like contributions to the Roxy Music sound would be sorely missed on future releases.

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Ariel – A Strange Fantastic Dream (1973)

Ariel_StrangeDream4 out of 5 Stars!

From Australia, Ariel was a band difficult to categorize. Take A Strange Fantastic Dream, the debut album, as an example.

At first blush, the band’s semi-commercial songs seem to easily fall into almost simplistic Hard Rock/Blues Rock territory, but upon further listens one can’t help but notice how Ariel includes frequent touches of Zappa-inspired humor and quirky instrumentation into each track, along with some intricate arrangements, and those crazy ingredients add a great deal of spice to the album’s overall appeal.

Song titles such as “Confessions of a Psychopathic Cowpoke,” “Chicken Shit,” and “Garden of the Frenzied Cortinas” make it clear there is something a tad “off” with this band, and in a good way.

So I would sub-categorize A Strange Fantastic Dream as “Art Rock with Attitude.”

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Bryan Ferry – In Your Mind (1977)

BryanFerry_InYourMind4 out of 5 Stars!

No one can deny that vocalist Bryan Ferry has a style and sound all his own. Being a fan of his performances during the Roxy Music years, Bryan’s unique vocals and songwriting always held me in thrall, so I was naturally drawn to his solo efforts.

Unfortunately, since he had a fondness for reworking old “classics,” his early solo albums featured few original compositions (or included only some revamps of early Roxy songs), and since his songwriting/lyrics were exceptional with Roxy Music, I therefore felt slight disappointment.

But once Roxy Music started to fade and Ferry found himself without a working band to record his newest Art Rock/Art Pop songs, his solo albums eventually reflected this shift in focus from “covers” to “originals.” So In Your Mind, the first album of Ferry’s all-original compositions—his fourth solo album overall—was in many respects another Roxy Music album, with numerous tunes sounding as if they could have easily fit somewhere on Siren, for example, and several of his former Roxy cohorts (guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson, and bassist John Wetton) making guest appearances.

True, in my eyes, nothing Ferry created on his own could ever come close to topping or at least matching Roxy Music masterpieces (For Your Pleasure, Stranded, etc.), but since the band was technically on “hiatus” during the recording of this album, In Your Mind was the closest one could get to enjoying more Roxy-styled material, even though it’s not quite as cohesive or as “genius.” And although more straightforward and possessing a less “arty” flavor than Roxy Music, In Your Mind nevertheless included several gems such as “This Is Tomorrow,” “Tokyo Joe,” “Party Doll,” “Love Me Madly Again,” and the title track, therefore, it remains my favorite of Ferry’s solo efforts and actually rates higher in my opinion that any of the material Roxy Music released once it reformed for the Manifesto album.

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Be-Bop Deluxe – Sunburst Finish (1976)

bebopdeluxe_sunburstfinish4.5 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this is one of the most overlooked and finest “Art Rock” groups in history, with also one of the best “unsung guitar heroes” in Bill Nelson.

During its (way too) short history, the group started as almost a “David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust” clone. The band’s 1974 debut album, Axe Victim—perhaps my second favorite Be-Bop Deluxe release, due to Bill Nelson’s often-brilliant guitar leads—seems almost an extension of Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album. Then Nelson presumably fired the other band members and hired new musicians, dumped the glaring “glam” image, and Be-Bop Deluxe quickly developed its own rather unique musical style, with its third album, Sunburst Finish, being (arguably) the band’s “masterpiece.”

On this album, Nelson’s searing guitar leads amidst the quirky keyboards and catchy melodies (on “Fair Exchange,” “Beauty Secrets,” “Ships in the Night,” “Blazing Apostles,” and “Crying to the Sky”) are, at times, simply riveting, so this firmly remains my favorite album by the band.

And hell, the album cover alone is worthy of a solid “5 Stars.” A classic album all around!

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Van der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts (1971)

vandergraaf_pawnhearts4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is one of my favorite Van der Graaf Generator albums, and (in my estimation) one of the band’s most wild and experimental.

Peter Hammill’s vocals are especially manic on the band’s fourth release, while the music on the three epic (and original) album tracks—”Lemmings (Including Cog),” “Man-Erg,” and the twenty-three-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”—is often dark, atmospheric, and (at times) downright creepy…certainly not for the faint of heart or for Prog-Rock fans who prefer pretty melodies or gentle instrumentation. Nope, the ever-changing rhythms, the screeching saxes, the whacked-out keyboards and discordant guitar arrangements, and those damned demented lead vocals, all seem strategically designed to set the listener’s hair on end, to send shivers down the spine. And if that was the band’s intention, then Van der Graaf Generator succeeded admirably. I love it!

By the way, the remastered version of the album contains five bonus tracks, which are welcome additions, although they aren’t quite in the same spooky “Stephen King soundtrack” vein as the original album. These five tracks are fairly “normal,” or as normal as an experimental Prog group such as Van der Graaf Generator can muster. Regardless, this is the version of the album to seek out.

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Max Webster – Max Webster (1976)

MaxWebster_MaxWebster4 out of 5 Stars!

I adored this fun-loving band from Canada, mainly due to its musical uniqueness and its sometimes-silly image.

In many respects, Max Webster was a straightforward Hard Rock act, but with highly imaginative musicians in its midst, giving the band an Art Rock flair.

One moment a track would be rolling along “normally,” until ace-guitarist Kim Mitchell tossed in a weird riff or guitar tone, or his vocals would take on a manic quality, or some amusing lyrics would appear to tickle the brain. Look no further than the tracks “Hangover,” “Blowing The Blues Away,” and “Summer’s Out” for some fine examples of these traits.

Whereas at other times, just when all seemed “normal” again, keyboardist Terry Watkinson would add strange synth leads or eerie and colorful background washes or creative chord changes to the mix (“Here Among The Cats” or “Summer Turning Blue”), or the rhythm section would plop in some off-time beats or frantic fills (“Coming Off The Moon” or “Only Your Nose Knows”), or the band (in general) would unexpectedly venture into full-on Progressive Rock territory (“Lily”) to turn songs completely upside down.

And sometimes, just plain wackiness ensues, as on the truly crazy track “Toronto Tontos.”

Therefore, because of these “never knowing what to expect” characteristics, Max Webster seemed almost a precursor to groups such as It Bites…a band offering undeniably catchy, mature, and professional music, yet also quite a bit off-the-wall.

And I loved every minute of it!

 

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3rDegree – An Overview

3rDegreeAlbums In My Collection

– Human Interest Story
– The Long Division
– Narrow-Caster
– Ones And Zeros: Vol. 1
– The World In Which We Live

An Overview

This New Jersey band is a bit odd, and I say that in a good way.

First off, they’re not traditional Prog-Rock, despite the fact they use a lot of traditional (classic) Moog sounds on many tracks. Their style, instead, is more akin to Prog-Rock bands such as A.C.T or Kayak, or Art Rock bands such as City Boy or Be Bop Deluxe, yet I also hear some Echolyn, Spock’s Beard, and Gentle Giant-type influences on occasion. It’s an interesting blend that, in turn, allows 3rDegree to have their own style.

The band also includes a nice balance of soft (acoustic) and hard (electric) tracks. Their melodies are usually quirky, yet engaging, so they have a strong pop sensibility in their approach, and even though the majority of their tracks are shorter pieces (no 20+ minute epics here), they still cram everything from Metal guitar, Mellotron, jazz touches, avant-garde chord patterns, and even some intricate tempo shifts into their arrangements. What may at first seem like a straight-forward pop song, for instance, will often change upon further listens when you discover some  truly complex instrumental passages lay behind the pretty melody.

Also, the band’s full and rich background vocals are quite excellent, often bringing to mind bands such as Queen, A.C.T, 10cc, or Sweet. And when they toss in some intricate, counterpart vocals, the arrangements are almost “Gentle Giant-like.” Just listen to a track such as “The Gravity” off the band’s latest album Ones And Zeros: Vol. 1, or perhaps the song “Exit Strategy” from The Long Division, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Again, excellent!

Also, I would be remiss to not mention the band’s lyrics, which are often sardonic, mature, and witty.

So basically, whatever the release, track by track, you just never know what to expect when each song begins. This band truly keeps you guessing, and although that’s not always a good thing with some bands, when it comes to 3rDegree, it’s usually entertaining and always well-played.

3rDegree just keeps getting better and better, and I look forward to hearing what they’ll create next.

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Curved Air – An Overview

CurvedAirAlbums In My Collection

– Air Conditioning
– Air Cut
– Phantasmagoria
– Second Album

An Overview

For some reason I had put off checking out this band for many decades. Not sure of exactly the reason why, but I suspect it had to do with a trusted someone once telling me that they were nothing but wimpy progressive folk rock and, in my mind, that equaled boring. Despite knowing that Eddie Jobson was once in their line-up, I had always avoided this band based on that original caveat.

But just recently, I chanced to hear their material from the early 70s and, although not completely blown away, I certainly wasn’t bored. Granted their brand of progressive rock isn’t the sort that really gets my blood flowing (nothing like Gentle Giant or IQ, for example) but it’s more than pleasant enough, especially with the talented vocalist named Sonja Kristina at the helm.

Since my recent discovery, I’ve delved into Curved Air’s back catalogue and can now call myself a fan, especially of the albums Phantasmagoria and Air Cut, which are both better than average. When it comes to their softer material, they remind me of Renaissance, yet their liberal use of violin, electric guitar, organ and synthesizers, along with a fondness for bouncier rhythms and some experimental instrumentation on other tracks, sets them apart from the other band. Nevertheless, Sonja’s tone, range, and vocal delivery has a lot in common with Annie Haslam’s, thereby making comparisons between the two bands inevitable.

Regardless, thanks but no thanks to that friend of mine from years ago who gave me bad advice about Curved Air. I’m glad I finally took the chance and judged their early albums for myself, discovering not wimpy progressive folk rock, but a female-led Prog-Rock band that were unique in many respects and quite adventurous upon occasion—just take a listen to the track “Over And Above” from Phantasmagoria, for example, and see what I mean.

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Split Enz – Mental Notes (1975)

SplitEnz_MentalNotes4.5 out of 5 Stars!

For years I had avoided investigating this New Zealand band, and for only one reason—the weird image really turned me off. I was never a fan of quirky, costume-wearing acts such as Devo, considering them all one-hit wonders of the ever-trendy and often-silly Pop world, and I always categorized Split Enz among groups of that nature. New Wave Pop garbage, is what I’d always assumed, a style of music I could never come to embrace.

But what’s the old adage about never judging a book by its cover?

Anyway, after several decades, I eventually ran across recommendations for the band’s debut album, with several people claiming Split Enz wasn’t anything like Devo (the goofy image aside), but instead was a band that played music (at least on this album) more akin to a blending of Prog-Rock outfits such as Genesis, Kayak, or Camel with eclectic Art-Rock acts such as The Tubes, Brian Eno, and Sparks, creating a sort of Pop-Art-Prog-Rock genre. And, darn it, after finally giving this album a chance, I concluded that the above description is exactly what the band turned out to be.

For certain, Mental Notes contains some odd vocals at times that will likely not appeal to everyone, but the wonderfully twisted melodies and complex instrumental passages really do make this album something quite special. I can’t actually compare the group to any specific band, that’s how unique its overall style. Sure, on tracks such as “Spellbound,” “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Walking Down a Road,” “Maybe,” and “Under the Wheel” I can detect traces of all the acts I mentioned above, but I truly can’t recall any other band that has Split Enz’s particular balance of influences within its music, or a group that mixes them up in an occasionally theatrical or whimsical fashion like this.

Therefore, I ended up giving Mental Notes 4.5 Stars due to the band’s special (and successful) marriage of styles, plus the flavor of tongue-in-cheek wackiness, which somehow made a unique genre all its own. I’m unsure whether the group continued with this sound/style on further releases, but seeing how the band’s image (its costumes, etc.) seemed to change throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, I’m assuming the music also fluctuated and evolved with the times. Maybe one of these days, if adventurous, I’ll investigate further.

 

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