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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Cast – Power and Outcome (2017)

Cast_PowerOutcome4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although Cast is still quite obscure in many parts of the world, including America, this Mexican band has been around for more than twenty years, has released more than twenty albums, and continues to create stunning material in a similar realm as groups such as United Progressive Fraternity, The Flower Kings, Druckfarben, Kaipa, Spock’s Beard, Magic Pie, and Kansas.

Power and Outcome, the band’s latest release, is yet another fine collection of classy, complex, majestic, and jaw-dropping Symphonic Prog. Songs such as the grand and glorious, nearly twelve-minute opener “Rules of the Desert,” along with “Illusions and Tribulations,” the two-part magnum opus “Details: a) Circle Spins” and “Details: b) Start Again,” plus “The Gathering” and “Through Stained Glass” are loaded with layered and pomp keyboards and contain metallic-tinged guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, the occasional violin, and pitch-perfect vocals, both male and female. During the majority of the ten tracks, lush melodies and challenging instrumental soundscapes abound, along with enough tempo and mood shifts and other sonic surprises tossed in along the way to keep listeners on the edge of their seats.

After so many years, with so much talent within its ranks, how this top-notch group has remained “under the radar” for so many Prog-Rock fans is another of life’s annoying little mysteries. I’m hoping this latest album reaches a wider audience and finally brings Cast the recognition it so truly deserves.

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Alice Cooper – The Eyes of Alice Cooper (2003)

AliceCooper_EyesAlice3.5 out of 5 Stars!

After the original and legendary band fell apart midway through the ’70s, Alice “Vincent Furnier” Cooper went on to produce an endless string of solo albums that, for the most part, never really impressed me. Apart from one or two releases (most notably Welcome to My Nightmare, his first solo outing), none of his material from the late ’70s and through the ’80s/’90s truly brought to mind the high level of creativity, amusing theatrics, or raw “garage band” energy of that original lineup. Instead, typically backed by a slew of faceless and glossy studio musicians, Furnier’s music often proved too slick, too sanitized, too over-produced, and sometimes even too “Bon Jovi-ish” for its own good, despite the often “dark” lyrics, which (aside from the spidery eye makeup) seemed about the only holdover from the olden days. Plus, since I still continue to replay the classic albums from the original band (Killer, Love It To Death, Easy Action, Muscle of Love, etc.) on a surprisingly regular basis, Furnier’s solo material just never could compete for my attention.

But thankfully, and finally, 2003’s The Eyes of Alice Cooper album comes close, or at least it does when talking about a more “garage band” sound. That became crystal clear the moment I heard the blazing opener, “What Do You Want From Me?” followed by another driving tune, “Between High School and Old School.” The guitars are thick and loaded with feedback, while the bass is thumping and the drums are slamming, just like the good ol’ days of the original group. Although for a variety of reasons, some tracks still don’t work for me on a guttural level (such as “Man of the Year,” “Be With You Awhile,” or the overly poppy “Novocaine”), there are enough old-school rough ‘n’ rowdy rockers like “I’m So Angry,” “Detroit City,” “Love Should Never Feel Like This,” “Spirits Rebellious,” and “Backyard Brawl,” plus the weird track “This House is Haunted,” that periodically mirror the original band’s glam rock/shock rock/garage rock genius. Indeed, after all these many years, with the punchy and punkish sound quality and the (mostly) consistent style of the songs, I can almost imagine guitarists Glen Buxton (RIP) and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith wielding the instruments and backing up Furnier’s snarling, rebellious vocals.

Granted, I still feel this album lacks an ultra-snappy single as strong as (for instance) “Eighteen” or “Under My Wheels” or “School’s Out,” and no song comes close to resembling the creepy magnificence of a classic such as “Halo of Flies” or “Ballad of Dwight Fry” or “Dead Babies,” yet the stripped-down sound of the original band has been somewhat replicated on The Eyes of Alice Cooper, so to me it’s one of most enjoyable of Furnier’s solo albums since the original Alice Cooper’s Muscle of Love from 1973.

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Caravan – Cunning Stunts (1975)

Caravan_CunningStunts4 out of 5 Stars!

Although Caravan’s Cunning Stunts, the group’s sixth studio effort, is actually more straightforward and commercial when it came to its melodies and song arrangements, its sound more Symphonic Prog in nature, much less “Canterbury Jazz-oriented,” with diminished humor compared to previous albums, the album is still a rather enjoyable release, once you get past the band’s shift in style/approach.

Indeed, once I did, I found myself playing this album more and more through the years, savoring much of the laid-back and somewhat catchy material, and finally coming to appreciate Caravan’s altered direction.

Certainly, Cunning Stunts (love the naughty play on words) is nowhere close to being my preferred Caravan album (nothing can beat 1971’s brilliant In the Land of Grey and Pink), but with the fun and creative eighteen-minute, multi-part epic “The Dabsong Conshirtoe” included, along with more Pop-oriented, gentler Symphonic fare such as “No Backstage Pass,” “Show of Our Lives,” “Welcome the Day,” and “Stuck in a Hole,” this album is certainly far better than the majority of the group’s more lackluster (ie. sell-out) mainstream material that dominated the band’s albums during the late-’70s and onward.

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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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Cry Of Love – Brother (1993)

CryOfLove_Brother4.5 out of 5 Stars!

If you will, imagine Robin Trower’s classic Bridge Of Sighs album with a lead vocalist who’s a cross between Paul Rodgers (in bluesy raspiness) and Glenn Hughes (in Stevie Wonder-type funkiness) and you have Cry Of Love. Then again, picture Bad Company (any early albums) or Trapeze (circa the Medusa or You Are The Music… albums) with Robin Trower in the lead guitarist role, and once again you have Cry Of Love. Then again, the band’s Roots-Rock approach also brings to mind other similarly styled groups such as The Black Crowes, Humble Pie, and Free, with even a touch of Southern Rock in the vein of Ram Jam, Brother Cane, and the like.

As a random example of what I’m talking about, I dare anyone to listen to Cry Of Love’s “Bad Thing” and not make a comparison to Bad Company’s classic track “Can’t Get Enough,” especially when it comes to the chorus. Hmmm…wait a moment…”Bad Thing”/Bad Company? A bit eerie, but completely apt.

Anyway, Brother is fun album overall, and along with “Bad Thing,” it contains other exceptional Hard Rock tracks such as the rough ‘n’ tumble opener “Highway Jones,” as well as “Carnival,” “Too Cold in the Winter,” “Peace Pipe,” “Pretty As You Please,” “Drive It Home,” and the slow and bluesy “Saving Grace.”

I actually purchased this CD back when it came out, but as a fluke, a shot in the dark, based only on the fact that it “looked interesting enough” in my BMG Music Club catalogue. I needed to fulfill my purchase agreement with the club, you see, so I took a gamble, ordered the album, and crossed my fingers. Well, considering the type of music crammed onto the CD, I can say I won big!

So for those seeking some gritty and melodic Hard Rock with tasty guitar riffage from Audley Freed (who would end up joining The Black Crowes) and an exceptional vocalist named Kelly Holland (who sadly passed away several years ago), then look no further than Cry Of Love, one of the best bands “no one ever heard of.”

Kelly Holland…RIP.


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Ciccada – A Child in the Mirror (2010)

Ciccada_ChildMirror3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Athens, Greece, comes Ciccada, a female-led band playing highly folksy music with a touch of Canterbury jazz and even chamber music tossed in.

On A Child in the Mirror, the first of only two albums by Ciccada, the arrangements on compositions such as the instrumentals “Elisabeth,” “Ciccada,” and “A Storyteller’s Dream,” along with vocal tunes like “A Garden of Delights,” “Isabella Sunset,” and the title track, are occasionally complex in the style of Symphonic Prog groups such as Renaissance and Camel and mixed with more than a smidgen of Progressive Folk music performed by groups like Gentle Giant, Strawbs, Jethro Tull, and Gryphon, thanks to a healthy dosage of acoustic guitar and “medieval” instrumentation such as flute, recorder, clarinet, French horn, violin, cello, and glockenspiel. And overall, the pretty voice of Evangelia Kozoni adds a generous amount of lilting elegance and sophisticated charm to the band’s folksy retro style.

The band isn’t about bombastic power or high energy, but of serene atmospheres and emotive melodies, with the musicians displaying their instrumental prowess without blowing up your stereo speakers in the process. Both this debut as well as 2015’s even better The Finest of Miracles are worthy of investigation for fans of lighter Progressive material that is also somewhat different from the norm.



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Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (1986)

Candlemass_Epicus4 out of 5 Stars!

For me, Black Sabbath will always remain the epitome of the term “Heavy Metal,” so when another band appears on the scene that clearly attempts to replicate the Sabbath sound/style, I typically sit up and take notice.

Sweden’s Candlemass is one of those groups that caught my interest back in the ’80s, and I’ve enjoyed many of the band’s releases through the decades. The debut album, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, the only collection to feature the band’s original vocalist, is an album I still play periodically due to the dark and gloomy “Sabbathy” atmosphere, the “Iommi-esque” guitar tones and ominous riffs, and the powerful rhythm section.

And while this particular vocalist doesn’t replicate any of the long string of singers to have fronted Black Sabbath through the years, his voice is nevertheless appropriate for the genre and Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, by and large, with tracks such as “Demon’s Gate,” “A Sorcerer’s Pledge,” “Black Stone Wielder,” and “Solitude” included, comes eerily close to duplicating the style of early Sabbath.

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Conception – Parallel Minds (1993)

Conception_ParallelMinds4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this impressive Norwegian band sounded almost like a “prologue” to the group Kamelot, and no surprise considering that the wonderfully gifted Roy Khan was the singer on all four Conception releases in the 1990s before he joined the band for which he came to be most recognized.

Therefore, Kamelot fans will probably enjoy Conception, although the band is generally less grandiose, less heavily orchestrated, when it comes to its arrangements and production. Nevertheless, when listening to hard-hitting tunes such as “And I Close My Eyes,” “Water Confines,” “Wolf’s Lair,” “My Decision,” “Roll the Fire,” and the lengthier closer “Soliliquy,” the similarities between the two groups are way too numerous to ignore.

Although Parallel Minds (the band’s second album) is probably one of my favorites, in truth, all four Conception releases are just about equal when it comes to the high quality of the songwriting and overall musicianship.

(Also, a note for Prog-Metal fans: once Conception disbanded after Roy Khan’s departure, band founder and ace guitarist Tore Ostby went on to form Ark with singer Jorn Lande, a fantastic Prog-Metal group that released two exceptional albums just around the turn of the century before also disbanding.)

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Coalition – Bridge Across Time (2016)

Coalition_BridgeTime4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the U.K., the band Coalition released its first album in 2012, and Bridge Across Time, its sophomore collection, in 2016. Although I’ve not heard the debut album so I’m unsure of the band’s growth, Bridge Across Time is indeed an interesting collection of tracks that occasionally brings to mind several other Neo-Prog groups such as The Flower Kings, Transatlantic, IQ, Leap Day, and It Bites, especially the latter two groups due to some welcome “wackiness.”

For example, the way the band incorporated strange horn accents and what sounds like Kurzweil-sampled “background vocals” on the song “Labyrinth,” or the lead vocal treatments, odd time shifts, and unexpected keyboard and guitar instrumentation during the epics “Land of Dreams” and “The Watcher,” both clearly display Coalition’s overall creativity with arrangements and orchestration, setting the group further apart from many of its contemporaries.

These small details make a group truly memorable, therefore, Coalition seems on the right path to forging a name for itself in the Prog-Rock community. After savoring Bridge Across Time, I look forward to hearing the band’s debut album and any future releases it creates.

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