Dio – Strange Highways (1994)

dio_strangehighways4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This album is, in a single word…Killer!

After acclaimed vocalist Ronnie James Dio’s second short stint with Black Sabbath for 1992’s generally ignored (and terrific) Dehumanizer album, he resurrected his own band with a new batch of musicians and released his sixth studio album, which (to me) is just as powerful and riff-heavy as the Sabbath release, thanks in large part to underrated guitarist Tracy Grijalva.

For some unknown reason, however, a lot of Dio fans maligned this particular “comeback” album, but I, for one, loved and embraced it, placing it near the top of my list of “All-Time Best Dio Releases,” and it still remains one of my “most played” Dio albums. With dark, hammering, and bombastic metal tracks such as “Firehead,” “Pain,” “Here’s To You,” “Hollywood Black,” and “Evilution,” how could it not? Also included on this release is the eerie, atmospheric (Sabbath-like) title track, along with the similar metal ballad “Give Her a Gun.” Then there’s “One Foot in the Grave” and “Bring Down the Rain” (which could both have easily been excerpts from Dehumanizer), and the opening track, “Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost,” which comes off as a wildly demented, metal version of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” A tad odd, yes, but heavy as hell.

RIP Ronnie James Dio…your vocal performances on this album will remain extraordinary—simply “metal perfection”—for all time and your talent is missed daily!

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Dante – When We Were Beautiful (2016)

Dante_Beautiful4.5 out of 5 Stars!

To my tastes, this German act is probably one of the better Progressive Metal bands to have emerged in the past decade. Indeed, the band burst out of the gate with The Inner Circle, a debut album that made me immediately sit up and take notice. For a debut release, the sound was quite impressive and sometimes jaw-dropping, with the band displaying a high level of sophistication with its classy, diverse, and grand orchestrations and melodies, not to mention the outstanding musicianship. And with each subsequent release, Dante proved that its debut album was no fluke, and the band was no flash in the pan.

And now along comes the band’s fourth release, When We Were Beautiful. And beautiful it is, indeed! Thankfully, Dante has lost none of its metal-tinged elegance, none of its solid backbone, none of its brilliance for delivering engaging melodies within the often-complex framework of its songs. And one thing’s for certain—like the previous three releases, the band’s music is never boring. Not in the least. Indeed, throughout the seven tracks on offer here, it’s soon clear that Dante possesses a talent for keeping the listener on the edge of their seat.

The nearly eleven-minute opening track, “Rearrangement of the Gods,” blasts from the speakers with everything a fan of Prog-Metal in the vein of Threshold, Adagio, and Empty Tremor can fully and joyously embrace…some thunderous and often-complicated rhythms, some beefy and crunchy guitar riffs, some orchestrated and luscious keyboards, and a melody line delivered by a powerful singer, who (to me) sounds similar in tone and style to Zach Stevens (Savatage/Circle II Circle/etc.).

“Ambitious” comes next, offering up another killer and dense guitar riff, and some grand keyboard washes and licks, somehow bringing to mind another German band, Poverty’s No Crime. The verses, somewhat sparsely orchestrated, allow the vocals to really punch forward with some eerie keyboard sound effects in the background. For me, the high point of the song, however, comes after the second chorus, where a truly bizarre guitar riff bursts forth, backed by an odd and melodic counterpoint bass riff, then the keyboards pop in to add additional stabs of counterpoint rhythms, offering up an image of what might have happened had Gentle Giant gone heavy metal during its glory days. For the next few minutes, more intriguing instrumental fun ensues, including wicked guitar riffage, some galloping rhythms, some strange atmospheric keyboard sound effects, and even a jazzy piano solo. Terrific stuff overall, which shows the band’s creativity and musicianship has risen to the level of groups such as Dream Theater and Vanden Plas at their peak. As the song title indicates, the orchestration of this track is quite “Ambitious” indeed. Bravo to Dante for this track alone! Impressive.

The title of the following track, “Beautiful Again,” is misleading, as the orchestration is rather dark in tone, especially with the slamming guitars and punchy metal rhythms. The bands Circus Maximus and Spheric Universe Experience spring to mind here, and perhaps the band Redemption as well, when it comes to the overall sound of the track, the various complex arrangements, the tone of the instruments, and the vocal melodies. The powerful, frenetic pace is given a rather surprising break only when a “beautiful” grand piano comes in, left to its own melodic devices for only a brief period, before the rest of the instruments return full force, bringing the track to a monster close.

Another lengthy track, “Until the Last Light Breaks In,” contains an engaging and mellow opening, with vocals accompanied by only an electric piano. All too soon, however, a driving riff pounds forth, with guitars and keyboards both given a chance to shine through shifts and twists in timing and melodies. Intricately orchestrated verses follow, including opposing vocal lines, all of it bringing to mind Shadow Gallery at its Prog-Metal finest. Then, more outrageously terrific instrumental passages eventually bring the song to a reprise of the mellow opening, closing the track with an elegant grace.

Although several other tracks of a Prog-Metal nature are also included, I feel I must mention one specific track since it falls into a different spectrum. “Sad Today” is where comparisons to Savatage are (in my eyes) inevitable. With its lovely melody, the comparatively short (under four minutes), straight-forward, and gentle tune contains vocals with only a grand piano accompaniment and some added “atmosphere,” and could have easily appeared on an album such as Edge Of Thorns or Dead Winter Dead. Here, also, is where Dante’s singer once again does his best “Zach Stevens impersonation,” whether intentional or not. Regardless, the track is quite splendid and stands out due to its sparse instrumentation and its dissimilarity to the rest of the material on offer here.

So, for fans of highly creative and diverse Prog-Metal acts such as Threshold and Circus Maximus, Subsignal and Vanden Plas, Adagio and Dream Theater, Dante is perhaps another band you’ll happily embrace. Sadly, on this album, the band probably did not surpass the material it delivered on its previous three releases. But then again, Dante had set the bar extraordinarily high for itself. Therefore, the joyous news is that none of the new material on When We Were Beautiful is in any way below par, but of equally high quality, and nothing less than I have come to expect from such a talented group of individuals. The band shows no signs of letting up, or of selling out its “progressive soul” to a more commercial audience. So I strongly suggest that Prog-Metal fans seeking a wild ride should grab a copy of this album (and Dante’s previous albums) and revel in the majesty of it all.

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DiMino – Old Habits Die Hard (2015)

Dimino_OldHabits4 out of 5 Stars!

Finally, it happened! After endless decades of false rumors and grapevine gossip, inklings of possible reunions that eventually fizzled, tidings of potential solo releases by a member or members of the legendary band Angel that frustratingly never happened, the seemingly impossible finally, in 2015, came to pass. Aside from the momentarily thrilling announcement in Kerrang! Magazine that Angel had actually reformed back in 1984 (it turned out to be the group that quickly rechristened itself Giuffria), no original member of Angel (aside from keyboardist Gregg Giuffria) had popped onto the music scene with an actual album since the band’s untimely demise in 1980.

But after more than three decades, singer Frank DiMino released a solo album in 2015, and it seemed the gods of rock ‘n’ roll had blessed the universe—or at least the legions of Angel fans long-starved for more music from any of the band’s members. (Update: After originally writing this review in 2015, guitarist Punky Meadows also released a new album in 2016…another “blessing” for Angel fans.)

To me, Frank DiMino was one of the most gifted, most underappreciated vocalists from the ’70s, a singer whom I believe should have gone on to “hugeness” instead of being relegated to only a mention in the rock ‘n’ roll history books. But the world is not perfect, and for whatever the reasons (whether his personal situation or merely Fate), the man had unfortunately disappeared from the music scene. I had long ago surrendered to the sad notion that I and the other Angel fans would likely never hear the man’s voice on any new material, or see his name grace an album sleeve, ever again.

But as I said, it actually happened, and it was probably one of the most pleasant surprises I’d experienced in the recent past. And I could only wonder, what sort of music would the singer release? Music in the spirit of Angel itself, or something completely different? The answer is actually somewhere in between.

First, let me say that DiMino’s voice is as powerful today as it was when I last heard it, with his wide range readily on display and his distinct vibrato fully intact. His voice, however, has also evolved a bit, and on several tracks I almost don’t recognize him. Still, there are enough of the old DiMino trademarks to make this release a welcome treat.

In general, the album contains a slew of rather straightforward, ’70s-inspired rockers, with many of the heaviest—”Never Again,” “Rockin’ In The City,” “The Rain’s About to Fall,” and “Mad as Hell”—being where DiMino is probably the least recognizable, where his voice sounds a tad meatier, yet where his delivery displays an almost youthful exuberance.

Other tracks, however—such as the mid-tempo “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” or the powerful and melodic ballad “Even Now”—are where DiMino is at his most recognizable, where all his formidable gifts as a singer come to the fore. These are also the tracks where comparisons to Angel are most likely to occur. Although the rollicking party song “Tonight’s the Night” comes off as if it might have been an outtake from Angel’s White Hot album, and “The Quest” (probably due to the more prominent keyboards and the frantic pace) is another track I could imagine being included somewhere in Angel’s back catalogue.

As far as overall instrumentation, the album is definitely guitar-heavy, with keyboards relegated to the background for the most part. Had the keys been a bit more dominant (or the album featured more than a single synth solo) then the album might have sounded closer to DiMino’s former band. Still, there are enough keys included that the occasional “ghost of Angel” makes an appearance, as mentioned above. And a special note to Angel fans: no, there are no songs here that mimic early Angel (the period where the band included its Prog-Rock inspirations) but instead, when Angel comparisons are most appropriate, the music is more a cross between the albums On Earth as It Is in Heaven and White Hot.

Regardless, most of the eleven tracks here are quite memorable, although a few of them do lean toward “filler territory.” Though things are never boring. Indeed, DiMino’s debut album is upbeat in mood, highly energetic, and enormous fun, nothing short of exciting for an Angel fan like myself, and I’m sure it will be the same for other fans of the legendary act.

Yes, folks, the voice of Angel finally returned to the scene, and let’s pray Frank DiMino gains the recognition and success he deserves, and sticks around for a long, long while.

 

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D’AccorD – An Overview

DAccordAlbums In My Collection

– D’AccorD
– Helike
– III

An Overview

Upon first listen, one might think this current Norwegian band existed about 40 years ago, since their style is eerily reminiscent of a time in music when the sound of Genesis or Yes using a Mellotron, for example, inspired so many music lovers to jump on the Prog-Rock bandwagon. Along with the mighty Mellotron, the band also incorporates other vintage keyboard sounds (Hammond, electric piano, etc.), flute and sax, and heavy guitar reverb that tips a hat toward Pink Floyd atmospherics. Indeed, D’AccorD’s production brings to mind the olden days of analog recording equipment, and even the cover art on their albums looks retro.

The band is also not afraid of stretching its musical muscles when inspiration strikes, mixing some “normal” shorter tracks with a few extended pieces. Indeed, their second release, Helike, is comprised of only two tracks—”Helike, Part 1″ and “Helike, Part 2,” each surpassing the twenty-minute mark—which, combined, become one mega epic. But whether the songs are short or extended, no one can accuse the band of not being daring and even adventurous, as each track shows their capabilities throughout various styles and atmospheres, some powerful, some mellow, and all of them well-performed, ambitious, and full of musical depth.

The band has developed a sound that reminds me of a Prog-Rock act such as Birth Control, Jethro Tull, or Genesis melding together with a Hard Rock troop such as Deep Purple, Bloodrock, or Uriah Heep. In many ways, D’AccorD is similar to other “retro-sounding-bands” like Siena Root, Presto Ballet, Black Bonzo, or Hypnos 69, successfully incorporating the classic sounds and production techniques of bands from the 60s & 70s, adding a touch of Stoner Rock, a bit of Psychedelic Rock, some Jazz-Rock, a whole lot of Heavy Prog, and whisking music lovers back to the time when Prog-Rock began.

Hell, when listening to any of the band’s releases, you can almost smell the weed burning in the background…

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The Dust Connection – Trails (2009)

DustConnection_Trails4 out of 5 Stars!

First, let me begin by saying that I feel this band has a ton of potential. A TON!

But…

The problem for not receiving a higher rating, mainly (in my mind, at least), lies in the quality of production. The tracks don’t have a cohesive sound quality—almost as if the album had been pieced together from different recording sessions with various engineers/producers. Sometimes the drums are muffled, sometimes they’re “in your face.” Sometimes the keyboards are diluted, sometimes bright. Etc., etc., etc. You get the drift. The variety is enough to leave you wondering how many months/years between recording sessions this album got recorded. The musicians and singer, more than capable, and at times stellar, are certainly not the problem. It always falls down to the mix on certain tracks, again, as if the album had not been recorded in the same studio(s) or period(s) of time—you can definitely tell which tracks received greater care when it came to the mix, or time, (or finances, more likely) available.

Still, please don’t get me wrong—nothing here is what I would consider “horrible.” Nothing at all. In fact, the overall package is still quite good when it comes to the Progressive Metal label. The band certainly shows an ability for writing some interesting tracks, and the singer (who reminds me of Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden fame) is definitely no slouch. With a bit of “loving care,” this band, in my opinion, could certainly excel into becoming a tremendous force in the Prog-Metal genre. They have the chops, and the instinct for melody when it comes to their arrangements, so hopefully they will glom onto some producer who has the same level of dedication to his/her trade as these boys obviously have.

I’d love to rate this release higher (since it has the potential to be KILLER) but not for the inconsistent production. Sorry, but “them’s the breaks.” Nevertheless, I’m a “hopeful yet reluctant” fan when it comes to the overall group.

For specifics regarding the music and atmosphere, there’s a bit of the usual Dream Theater influences, with also a touch of Shadow Gallery and Pain Of Salvation tossed into the mix, although I generally believe the band is closer in sound and style to Power Of Balance. A nice direction, overall, so again, allow me to reemphasize my opening declaration, that this band has a TON of potential. Whether it is ever realized, however, is the question. Prog-Metal fans should proceed with caution, yet please keep an open mind when it comes to sound quality, especially if you enjoy the bands mentioned above.

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Division by Zero – Independent Harmony (2010)

DivisionByZero_IndependentHarmony3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Not bad, when the band is playing the traditional progressive metal (ie. a band with actual vocals and not the STUPID growl crap!!!) I HATE growl garbage, which ruins everything it encounters. So, for the actual metal music and “real” vocals, I give this album a 4 stars. For the growl bullcrap, I deduct a half-star. Why the hell do bands feel the growl-garbage enhances their appeal??? It’s a mystery, and one I wish would freaking end!

Deep Thought – The Tunnel (2013)

DeepThought_Tunnel4 out of 5 Stars!

I thought long and hard about how to rate this album. I reluctantly decided on 4 Stars.

Why reluctantly? Well, the music is quite good, sometimes near perfect, incorporating a variety of styles and moods (at times reminiscent of Marillion and IQ, or additional progressive rock bands), which makes for an enjoyable listen overall.

The vocals, however…oh dear, let’s just say they could be of higher quality (ie. more precise) when it comes to key and tunefulness. To me, the singer doesn’t seem as if he belongs in a band of this nature, but seems better-suited for an “alternative rock” or “punk” type of band, where an “attitude” is often more important than perfect pitch and the ability for the singer to make appropriate mood shifts in his delivery and tone. Now, had the band possessed a versatile, more gifted singer such as Jon Anderson (Yes), or Peter Nicholls (IQ), or Alan Reed (Pallas), or hell, even Fish (Marillion), I would have rated this album higher since, as I mentioned, the music is enjoyable. Instead, there are some cringe-worthy vocal moments and one can’t help thinking that the band “settled” for the first available singer as opposed to waiting for one who actually fits the style of music.

Nevertheless, despite my misgivings, I couldn’t help but rate this album at least 4 Stars since the band shows promise and the music is, generally, impressive.

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Deep Purple – Burn (1974)

DeepPurple_Burn4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Damn, I recall (as if yesterday) the moment this album came out. I picked it up and hesitated, wondering whether I should shell out my money for an album by a band that had recently went through major line-up changes. I mean, come on…replacing a singer (my favorite in the history of rock) named Ian Gillan with a totally unknown singer by the name of David Coverdale? What the hell???

But I did make the purchase, based on the Blackmore/Lord/Paice reputation, and hell, I have NEVER regretted that decision. Sure, the band had a different sound overall, but it wasn’t so horrifically different from the MKII era that I didn’t appreciate its greatness. And in truth, I loved Coverdale instantly, and Glenn Hughes…damn it, that guy not only added some thumping rhythms with his bass guitar, but vocally replaced the Gillan “screams” part of the band. In fact, there is something to be said for the vocal interplay between Coverdale/Hughes…perfection! It’s something that made this band even more outrageously wonderful then it was with Gillan solely fronting the band. Don’t get me wrong…to this day, Ian Gillan is still what I consider to be the ultra-best metal-vocalist on the planet, but the Coverdale/Hughes swapping-vocals extravaganza was something equally as wonderful. These guys truly worked as a pair, sounding superb as a duo, and their particular unison-sound has never been duplicated in history. Brilliance! One thing for which I have always blessed Ritchie Blackmore is his talent in hearing and hiring the most gifted vocalists, whether in Deep Purple or in Rainbow…all of them have ended up (basically) legends. The guy was a genius when it came to snapping up the “iconic vocalists of the future.”

Anyway, from the title track “Burn” to the ending track “Mistreated” (the final instrumental track not included in my review until below), this album ranks amongst the most inspired and enjoyable releases in metal history. “Might Just Take Your Life, “Sail Away,” “You Fool No One,” etc. all have a special enjoyment factor, a place in my heart (nostalgia-wise) and I will not fault this release (for those tracks). But one thing…

Come on…with two BRILLIANT singers in the band’s “revival,” why Deep Purple would decide to include a rather bland piece of instrumental garbage by the name of “A-200” to close out this terrific album of a mere eight total tracks is far beyond my understanding. It’s a complete mystery to me, and one I find myself unable to forgive even after all these decades. Hitting the world with another Coverdale/Hughes blast would have been so much more preferable.

Nevertheless, this album is as near to perfect as possible, and almost as close to perfection as any of the Purple Mark II releases. Too bad the momentum couldn’t last past this one final powerhouse of a release.

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Deep Purple – Who Do We Think We Are (1973)

DeepPurple_WhoDoWeThink4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is probably—and sadly—one of Deep Purple’s most underrated albums, often dismissed by the critics and usually rated poorly by fans of the group. Then again, after the previous releases of Made In Japan and Machine Head, just about anything this talented group of individuals had produced would have likely been less-than-enthusiastically received. After all, without another brilliant and memorable (and forever-classic) opening riff for a track such as Machine Head’s “Smoke On The Water” included on this album, most people wrote this off as a bunch of “filler tracks” with perhaps one or two decent songs tossed in for good measure.

Yet in truth, the riffs for tracks such as “Woman From Toyko” or “Rat Bat Blue” are equally as brilliant and memorable (and were not as annoyingly overplayed by US radio) as the riff to “Smoke On The Water”—or at least they are to these ears.

Of course, I’m prejudiced in the fact that this is one of the very first albums I ever purchased. Nostalgia plays a big part in my feelings toward this album, so forgive me for that. Nevertheless, to me, Ian Gillan is nothing short of a vocal god, and his trademark screams on “Rat Bat Blue,” “Place In Line,” “Woman From Tokyo,” and the urgency he employs with his voice on “Smooth Dancer,” not to mention the sarcasm that slices through his smooth vibrato on “Mary Long,” all conspired to influence me to pursue a musical career as a lead vocalist. Indeed, this album will forever remain one of my all-time favorites because of his performance and what it personally inspired me to achieve in my own life.

Also note: The studio outtake track “Painted Horse” is, I see, finally included in the remastered versions of this album. I have owned this track for a long while, what with it being included on the Powerhouse album (just another of the gazillions of compilations issued only for greed) and have long admired it. Why was it not included on the original album’s release, considering the album itself was so damned short? Well, truth be told, it definitely WAS an outtake in the sense that the style of music doesn’t “jive” with the other material on this last MK. II album. But damn it, I do love this song, a rather swaying, laid-back bluesy track featuring Gillan’s harmonica and some interesting Blackmore solos. Nope, it’s definitely not a “fit” with the other tracks that eventually made up this album, but a track worth seeking, if for nothing else but fun.

Deep Purple, Mark II—probably one of the finest groups in history. I can certainly live with a few “naff tracks,” as some people feel are included on this album, since they are, without a doubt, better than the majority of garbage being produced these days. Give me the classics any ol’ day!

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Joanna Dean – Misbehavin’ (1988)

JoannaDean_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always been a sucker for a female singer with a raspy, whiskey-soaked voice. Of course, Janis Joplin was the prime example of this in-your-face vocal style, but few, if any, female rock vocalist could match the power of Ms. Joplin.

Then I saw a video for the song “Kiss This” and just about had a heart attack! Not only did the singer have a killer voice, but a raspy one as well…one that also seemed to hit multiple notes at the same time, ala Ms. Joplin. Needless to say, I eagerly welcomed Joanna Dean’s one and only album (as a solo artist) into my collection.

Without a doubt, she is the closest thing to a Janis Joplin-type of singer I have ever discovered. Her musical style is also laced with the blues, but with a heavy, no-frills, rock and roll approach. (Kinda like a female-led version of a band like Cinderella or Aerosmith.) Not only does this album include the driving single “Kiss This,” but the highlight of the album has got to be Joanna’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” When she goes for those high notes, her raspy voice making the notes almost sizzle with simultaneous harmonics, you can almost imagine Janis Joplin smiling down on her from rock ‘n’ roll heaven, giving Joanna a big “thumbs up.”

If you like your rock and roll straight forward and stomping, if you like female singers who can belt out a tune with a gut-wrenching vocal delivery, you won’t find much better than this album…an undiscovered gem. Dean deserved worldwide fame and legendary status, but, sadly, she never got it.

NOTE: Don’t miss Code Of Honor by the band Bad Romance, which also features Joanna on lead vocals. She recorded that band’s lone album several years after this solo release. Since it’s an identical style of music, I basically consider it her second solo album.

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