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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Beautiful Creatures – Beautiful Creatures (2001)

BeautifulCreatures_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Chancing upon a band with a name such as Beautiful Creatures, one could easily assume the group played wonderfully sweet and melodic pop music, but that’s so darned far from reality. Instead, what we have here is some dirty, sleazy, greasy, and kick-ass Hard Rock/Glam Metal in the same realm of groups such as Guns n’ Roses, Vain, L.A. Guns, Roxx Gang, Faster Pussycat, or a host of other loud ‘n’ rude “hair bands” from the ’80s.

Indeed, led by gruff vocalist Joe LeSte (formerly of the talented Bang Tango) and including musicians from several of those aforementioned groups, including guitarists DJ Ashba (Guns n’ Roses/Bulletboys) and Anthony Focx (Bang Tango), bassist Kenny Kweens (L.A. Guns), and drummer Glen Sobel (Bang Tango/Impellitteri), Beautiful Creatures delivered two albums of slamming, glamming, and catchy Hard Rock with a touch of Grunge, Blues, and Industrial Metal.

Fans of “hair bands” from the ’80s and the early ’90s will likely find much to enjoy on this debut. Tunes such as “Wasted,” “Kick Out,” “Goin’ Off,” “1 A.M,” “Step Back,” and “Kickin’ for Days,” blast from the speakers with wicked riffs and thundering percussion, and thanks to LeSte’s vocals, a ton of attitude that could easily match the furious punches thrown by any of the acts that found themselves heavily rotated on MTV during that channel’s heyday. Additionally, the band includes several ballads/semi-ballads for variety—”Time and Time Again,” “Wish,” and “Blacklist”—where the inclusion of acoustic guitar and the occasional background keyboards make for a nice change of pace.

In truth, there’s absolutely nothing innovative or profound on this album, just pure, loud, and rebellious fun. So once again, be warned: these particular “creatures” are far from “beautiful.”

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Black Oak Arkansas – High on the Hog (1973)

BlackOakArkansas_HighHog3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Formed in 1969, Black Oak Arkansas was a down ‘n’ dirty Southern Rock group from (yes, you guessed it) Black Oak, Arkansas, that enjoyed some marginal success in the first half of the ’70s, due in large part to the wild stage presence of the group’s wacky-sounding lead singer Jim Dandy Mangrum wielding his equally wacky washboard. Indeed, Mangrum was the “David Lee Roth” of rock ‘n’ roll before the actual David Lee Roth showed up years later to mimic him, and in those early days of the band’s career, Black Oak Arkansas quickly gained a reputation for putting on one hell of a live show. The band’s triple-six-string assault, along with its countrified Blues Rock repertoire, seemed almost a precursor to the future appearance of Southern stalwarts Lynyrd Skynyrd, only with a crazy form of gusto, thanks to Mangrum’s odd twang-riddled crooning and rollicking stage antics.

Although I find many of the band’s albums occasionally spotty regarding songwriting and overall production quality, High on the Hog, the group’s fourth studio release, seems to me one of its most successful efforts. Best known for the rousing single “Jim Dandy,” a boogie-rock ditty that garnered major radio airplay across America, High on the Hog also included fun tracks such as “Movin’,” “Why Shouldn’t I Smile,” “Red Hot Lovin’,” “Swimmin’ in Quicksand,” and “Mad Man,” which offered raw and rampaging frolic flavored with either back-country slide and steel guitars or hillbilly banjos. The album also included a spirited triple-guitar-featured instrumental named “Moonshine Sonata,” acoustic swampland singalongs in the form of “Back to the Land” and “High ‘n’ Dry,” along with some good, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll sleeze courtesy of “Happy Hooker.” Overall, I felt this a fairly consistent and catchy collection of tunes, which favorably mirrored the band’s stage shows when it came to offering diverse and energetic material.

Granted, I was never a die-hard fan of the group due to Mangrum’s vocal quirks, which I could tolerate in only marginal doses—depending, of course, on the amount of hooch I’d consumed. Nevertheless, I still periodically revisit some of Black Oak Arkansas’s early albums, including High on the Hog, and typically enjoy the spirited guitar interplay and especially loving the presence of future “superstar” drummer Tommy Aldridge, who’s solidly thumping away on just about every track.

Go, Jim Dandy, go…

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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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Borealis – Purgatory (2015)

Borealis_Purgatory4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always considered Ontario’s Prog-Metal group Borealis as a more brutal, straightforward version of Symphony X, and on Purgatory, the band’s third release, the comparisons again come to the fore.

But there are some differences between the groups. For instance, the vocalist seems an even “growlier” version of Russell Allen, and punchy guitars tend to dominate the proceedings, are usually beefier in the mix, more so than the symphonic keyboards associated with the latter group.

Additionally, instead of finding lengthier “epic-like” compositions on this collection, Borealis’s songs are not as extended, more streamlined, with what seems a higher percentage of heavier moments as opposed to the more keyboard-dominated and airier passages Symphony X employs about evenly. Indeed, driving and bombastic tunes such as “Revelation,” “Destiny,” “Place of Darkness,” “From the Ashes,” “My Peace,” and “No Easy Way Out” kick major ass and make up the majority of the collection, while only “Darkest Sin,” “The Journey (Prologue),” and “Rest My Child” offer the mellower moments, a chance for the listener to catch their breath.

Be that as it may, the similarities in sound and style between the two groups is often quite startling, so I expect Borealis has a legion of crossover admirers like myself.

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Black Star Riders – All Hell Breaks Loose (2013)

BlackStarRiders_AllHell4 out of 5 Stars!

I’m certain that, like me, many long-time fans of Thin Lizzy found it difficult to accept the band’s announcement way back in 1983 that it was breaking up. I mean, seriously, the group had just released the excellent Thunder and Lightning album, which featured John Sykes on guitar, and everything seemed rosy for the band’s bright future, therefore the decision came as a shock to many. And then, horror of all horrors, any hopes for a possible future reunion vanished when news came several years later of the untimely passing of leader Phil Lynott. Tragic, and a cruel blow to the musical world!

So imagine my thrill (and no short amount of skepticism) to learn in 2012 that, after many years of reading about numerous short-lived reunions by various former band members, a permanent lineup under the driving force and guidance of guitarist Scott Gorham would actually be recording new material. Finally! The band, however, would be using the name Black Star Riders, which made sense, I suppose, simply since Gorham was the only Thin Lizzy member during its actual existence, and with all that fresh blood in the form of guitarist Damon Johnson (Witness/Brother Cane), bassist Marco Mendoza (Whitesnake), drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (Y&T/Megadeth), and vocalist Ricky Warwick (The Almighty), the Thin Lizzy moniker didn’t seem quite appropriate.

But in truth, after hearing the debut album, I came to the conclusion that had the group used the name Thin Lizzy, it wouldn’t have been such a terrible idea. Indeed, the lineup sounded almost exactly like the former band, certainly more so than other groups that attempt to replace a recognizable lead vocalist. I mean, remember the mental adjustment required when Deep Purple replaced Ian Gillan with David Coverdale, or when Marillion replaced Fish with Steve Hogarth? In these examples, we’re talking about singers that possessed completely different tones, ranges, and styles of delivery from the previous vocalists.

But in this case, not only did Ricky Warwick sing eerily similar to Phil Lynott, but the guitarists recreated the same twin-guitar sound of old, and much of the material presented on All Hell Breaks Loose could have appeared on Thin Lizzy albums.

The opening title track, for example, sent chills of delight down my spine since I could easily imagine it being played by the original Thin Lizzy, sung by Phil Lynott. Then “Bound for Glory,” with its dual-guitar harmonies and upbeat rhythm, provided even more tingles of excitement since it seemed almost an outtake from an album such as Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox, or Renegade. And by the time the Irish-inspired intro to “Kingdom of the Lost” led into the song’s first verse, I’d heard enough to realize that the members of Black Star Riders couldn’t have concocted a better homage to the former band and its deceased leader.

Other tracks such as “Hey Judas,” “Before the War,” “Hoodoo Voodoo,” “Blues Ain’t So Bad,” and “Valley of the Stones,” offered even more obvious tributes to the memory of Lynott, and better still, the album as a whole seemed a worthy follow-up to ’83’s Thunder and Lightning. The musicians perform with enough gusto and vigor to satisfy the yearnings of Thin Lizzy fans who still missed the original group, and with the production full and rich, the guitars sizzling and pushed to the forefront, it seemed as if the original band (or at least its rapacious spirit) had been transported into the modern age to not only appease the hungry fans of yore, but to gain a new generation of followers.

Thankfully, unlike the previous Thin Lizzy reunions that disbanded before releasing new material, Black Star Riders doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Not only did the band release an enjoyable second platter in 2015, but a third dropped early in ’17, giving hope the group will be sticking around for a long, long time.

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Bad Habit – After Hours (1989)

BadHabit_AfterHours4 out of 5 Stars!

Way back in 1989, on a lark, I picked up Bad Habit’s full-length debut album, knowing virtually nothing about this Swedish band, but seeing the “big hair” on the cover, I expected perhaps some passable Hard Rock.

What I discovered, however—and to my pleasant surprise—was a group that delivered some solid and engaging Hard Rock/AOR music in a similar vein to my favorite acts in the genre, such as FM, Shy, Boulevard, Strangeways, Bad English, and Toto.

The singer, Bax Fehling, has an impressive range comparable to vocalists such as Fergie Fredericksen, Tony Mills, or Terry Brock, while the guitarist, Hal Johnston, delivers solos as impressive as Steve Lukather or Neal Schon. Lush and occasionally “pomp-sounding” keyboards, thanks to Doc Pat Shannon, feature heavily on many songs, while the memorable choruses on tracks such as “Play the Game,” “Rainbow,” “Rowena,” “Don’t Stop,” “Coming Home,” “Living on the Edge,” and “Winner Takes It All” are loaded with grand and rich background vocals.

About the only letdown I experienced when hearing After Hours is the band’s recording of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which, although passable, comes shy of matching the sheer power of the original. Therefore, with the group obviously possessing fine songwriters in its midst, I’m unsure why Bad Habit decided to include just an “okay” version of a cover tune on its debut, especially when it’s not being offered with reworked instrumentation, or at a different tempo, or from an entirely new musical perspective, but remains basically a carbon copy of Boston’s version. So having this song close out After Hours is perhaps not a horribly misstep, but certainly a lost opportunity for the band to have included another of its original compositions.

Regardless, despite some personnel changes through the years, Bad Habit went on to produce five additional albums of the same high quality as After Hours, the last appearing in 2011. I’m unsure if the band is still in existence, but any of the group’s releases are deserving of inspection by fans of the genre.

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Britny Fox – Britny Fox (1988)

BritnyFox_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the glamming, slamming Britny Fox had much in common with the band Cinderella…not only regarding its city of origin, but some of its personnel, its overall rocking sound and big-haired image, and (as it turns out) its ultimate “level of fame”—although Cinderella undoubtedly had a tad more of the latter (and a head start) thanks to becoming “MTV darlings” upon the release of its debut album several years earlier.

Regardless, even though the bands are so darned similar, with the raspy vocals, the beefy guitars, the driving rhythms, and the infectious choruses, I preferred Britny Fox overall, finding the band’s first two albums more consistent than those by Cinderella (which noticeably altered its style between its debut and sophomore albums).

Anyway, with catchy boot-stompers such as “Long Way to Love,” “In America,” “Girlschool,” “Kick ‘n’ Fight,” “Hold On,” “Rock Revolution,” and a rollicking version of Slade’s “Gudbuy T’ Jane,” Britny Fox delivered some often-engaging material. “Dizzy” Dean Davidson’s lead vocals seem a cross between Cinderella’s Tom Keifer and Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty, therefore it didn’t seem particularly odd that the music also comes off as a blending of these two bands, with perhaps extra inspiration from groups such as Kiss, Quiet Riot, W.A.S.P., Black ‘n’ Blue, Tesla, and several other acts from the era.

Whatever the case, Britny Fox’s self-titled debut album proved especially addictive to fans of the “hair metal” genre during the fun yet silly, sleazy yet glittering, and mascara-lined and Aqua Net-infested ’80s, and truth be told, the music on this platter holds up rather well even all these decades later.

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The Brecker Brothers – The Brecker Bros. (1975)

BreckerBros_14 out of 5 Stars!

Randy Brecker’s time with the original line-up of Blood, Sweat & Tears proved short-lived unfortunately, and I heard nothing more significant from this talented trumpeter until he joined up with brother Michael (sax) in another fleeting group called Dreams (which also included ace drummer Billy Cobham).

Eventually, however, the siblings found a more permanent gig for themselves by forming The Brecker Brothers, which released its first album back in ’75.

Certainly initial comparisons to Blood, Sweat & Tears are understandable, but instead of sticking to strictly Jazz-Rock, the band also injected a healthy dose of Funk into its overall style. Heck, the vigorous and buoyant opening track is called “Some Skunk Funk”—which lives up to its name, by the way—and other flamboyant ditties such as “Twilight,” “Rocks,” “A Creature of Many Faces,” and “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” occasionally toss more Funk influences into the sophisticated song arrangements, although often blended with Jazz, Soul, and even Progressive Rock due to their general complexity. Thus, the debut album by The Brecker Brothers becomes almost a melding of Blood, Sweat & Tears with Tower of Power, only a mostly instrumental version of such.

Regardless, this debut, featuring—as one would expect—an impressive blaring-and-blazing horn section (the brothers along with the legendary David Sanborn on alto sax), plus a stunning array of Jazz-oriented backing musicians, is a thoroughly energetic and enjoyable affair, not only for “brass enthusiasts” like myself, but also for those who delight in often-intricate Jazz-Fusion material.

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Buffalo – Dead Forever (1972)

Buffalo_DeadForever4 out of 5 Stars!

Although perhaps not as memorable as the band’s second album Volcanic Rock (reviewed previously on this blog), Buffalo’s debut still remains a strong introduction to this gang of hard-hitting Australian blues rockers.

On Dead Forever, the guitar work is wonderfully heavy yet melodic, reminding me of a cross between early Wishbone Ash, Cream, Flower Travellin’ Band, and Mountain (while one of the two vocalists sounds almost like Kenny Stewart from Dirty Tricks).

Of the eight tracks on this album, the band includes two covers, the first being “Pay My Dues” by Blues Image (from that band’s Open album), and the other being a terrific Heavy Psych version of “I’m A Mover” by Free (originally included on its Tons of Sobs debut), which Buffalo rearranged, then toyed with various rhythms and extended the running time past the ten-minute mark, making the track seem like a completely different tune. Meanwhile, John Baxter’s wild guitar rules the roost, his solos and riffs on tunes such as “Bean Stew,” “Leader,” “Forest Rain,” “Ballad of Irving Frank,” and the boogieing title track make for an enjoyable affair. Again, Dead Forever isn’t nearly as hard-hitting as the next album in the band’s catalogue, but the memorable, well-performed riffs and driving rhythms are fairly impressive and offer plenty of hints of what will come next.

Were this album released in today’s market, it would certainly be labeled as “Stoner Rock,” and the description would be quite appropriate.

A shame the cover art is ugly as hell, though—indeed, all five of Buffalo’s covers were rather putrid—but don’t let that stop you from investigating this talented group, especially its first three albums.

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