Fruupp – Modern Masquerades (1975)

Fruupp_ModernMasquerades3.5 out of 5 Stars!

With its more laid-back delivery and frequent pastoral tendencies, and its inclusion of Folk, Jazz, Classical, and even a hint of Cabaret into its sound, Ireland’s Fruupp often reminded me of a cross between Symphonic-Prog groups such as Camel, Barclay James Harvest, and early Genesis, with more than a few touches of Caravan, Flash, Supertramp, and Grobschnitt included. Never mind-blowing or ground-breaking in any respect, the group did nevertheless release four rather enjoyable albums in the early ’70s before disappearing, with Modern Masquerades being Fruupp’s final studio effort and (to me) probably its best.

Yet when listening to this album (or any of Fruupp’s releases, for that matter) I can’t help thinking that being devoid of a strong singer with an instantly recognizable voice, as well as not possessing some instrumental “quirk” or a unique overall style, held Fruupp back from achieving greater popularity, and thus, the group remains highly obscure in most Prog-Rock circles.

Regardless, fans of the aforementioned bands who are unfamiliar with this oddly named outfit might savor much of its material, including Modern Masquerades. Here, tracks such as the upbeat and dramatic “Masquerading With Dawn,” the blazing and manic “Mystery Night,” the Mellotron-enhanced and luscious “Misty Morning Way,” the tempo-shifting and highly complex “Sheba’s Song,” and the lengthier Canterbury-like composition “Gormenghast,” offer occasionally whimsical and symphonic fare similar to the groups I mentioned above and show the gamut of Fruupp’s full potential. Moreover, King Crimson’s Ian McDonald not only produced this collection of tracks, but guested on the album as well, with his sax contributions adding to the periodic Canterbury-Prog style, while a gaggle of French horn players tooted out some orchestrations as well, adding to the richness of the short, quirky, Pop-like ditty entitled “Janet Planet.”

Now for a brief, non-musical aside…

Is there anyone who remembers the wild, multi-dimensional character of Janet “From Another Planet” Green—the shy accountant who became a psycho villain and held her sister Natalie captive in a well and impersonated her for months, then for a time (when taking her meds) turned borderline heroine, then (when going off her meds once and for all) turned back into the wacky murderess everyone loved to hate—from the classic American soap opera All My Children? Anyway, every time I saw that character on TV—yes, I was addicted to the show for nearly three decades—I thought of “Janet Planet” from Fruupp. Amazing where the mind goes sometimes, huh?

Oops, my apologies for changing the subject. Now, back on my own meds and returning once again to Modern Masquerades

So, regarding this final Fruupp album—apart from the lead vocals, which I find limited, somewhat lackluster, and a tad off-key in sections, and one filler tune (the piano and vocal-only piece “Why”) that could have easily been eliminated, there’s nothing truly off-putting on display here. Indeed, I’m almost certain that lovers of Prog-Rock created in the mid-’70s will find much on Modern Masquerades to embrace.

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Firewind – Burning Earth (2003)

Firewind_BurningEarth4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, apart from the less-than-stellar debut album in 1998, Firewind has been one of the most enjoyable and memorable Heavy Metal/Power Metal acts to have emerged in the past few decades, with not only ultra-heavy riffs, shredding solos, and thundering rhythms on each of its albums from 2002 onward, but also numerous catchy melodies and some of the finest and most powerful lead vocalists in the genre, whichever singer is at the forefront (the band has had several throughout the years).

On Burning Earth, the band’s third studio release, Graham Bonnet-soundalike Stephen Fredrick (Kenziner) once again tackles the vocals and, on tracks such as “I Am the Anger,” “We Have Survived,” “Immortal Lives Young,” “Brother’s Keeper,” and the dynamic “The Longest Day,” proves his mighty worth. Additionally, group founder and long-time guitarist Gus G. (Dream Evil/Mystic Prophecy) shows his considerable six-string skills, offering killer riffs and blazing solos throughout, especially on the wild instrumental “The Fire & the Fury” and “Still the Winds,” a dreamy bonus track guitar showcase, while also adding a few keyboard washes on several tracks to beef up the sound. Meanwhile, the band’s rhythm section of bassist Petros Christo (Breaking Silence) and drummer Stian Kristoffersen (Pagan’s Mind/Trivial Act) construct a solid backdrop in a variety of tempos, several of them (such as on “Steal the Blind,” “Waiting Still,” and “Burning Earth”) fast and furious and storming.

Unfortunately, this would be Fredrick’s final album with the group. Initially I had worried that the band’s sound would change, like it often does with the replacement of a singer, but thankfully the band hired another underrated powerhouse vocalist (Chity Somapala) for its next release (Forged by Fire), thus maintaining Firewind’s fierce momentum in a lengthy string of high-quality Power Metal releases that stretched into the current decade.

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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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Frijid Pink – Frijid Pink (1970)

FrijidPink_14 out of 5 Stars!

On the debut album from Frijid Pink, a long-forgotten band from Detroit, the “Motor City”/Michigan influence truly shows, especially when it comes to the blues-based Hard Rock style on display.

The band seemed to follow a similar starting template as other popular Hard Rock acts to arise from the same general area of the USA, including The Stooges, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, and perhaps even MC5 (although definitely not quite as blisteringly loud or frantic as the latter). Nevertheless, tunes such as “Crying Shame,” “Tell Me Why,” “I Want To Be Your Lover,” “Drivin’ Blues,” “End of the Line,” and the catchy opener “God Gave Me You” are liberally sprinkled with shredding riffs, a fuzzy psychedelic guitar tone, frantic “Keith Moon-esque” drumming, and a rowdy and rebellious (almost proto-punk…or dare I say “proto-PINK”?) atmosphere. And one additional highlight of the album is the band’s cover of the classic “House of the Rising Sun,” which, to me, is far superior to the Animals’ version. Yes, this is “Garage Rock” at its sometimes-sloppy, occasionally rough, yet riotous finest.

Too bad Frijid Pink never gained the same lasting recognition as the other Michigan bands that emerged during the same era, since this album and the subsequent two releases—Defrosted (1970) and Earth Omen (1972)—are all nearly forgotten gems of Heavy Psych Rock.

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Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973)

FleetwoodMac_MysteryToMe3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to achieving worldwide superstardom, Fleetwood Mac had churned out music for years and years, first creating some fine albums in the (originally) Blues Rock genre with spectacular guitarist Peter Green at the helm, then (during its second phase) releasing a handful of additional albums that contained a more commercial, laid-back sound with only a hint of Blues Rock. This often-forgotten second phase of the group saw guitarist/vocalist Bob Welch and the ultra-talented keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie (gosh, I adore this woman!) joining up for the ride.

But despite the two new members bringing with them their advanced songwriting skills, and the group’s relatively stable line-up during this period, Fleetwood Mac still couldn’t quite generate mega-stardom status. That wouldn’t happen until Welch left the group and the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks team came aboard for the band’s third “heavily soap-opera drama” phase.

Regardless, I always enjoyed Fleetwood Mac’s second phase, and still listen to those five 1971-1974 albums on a semi-regular basis, especially this particular platter. On Mystery to Me, the band included more than a handful of its finest, most memorable songs from this era, including Welch’s “Somebody,” “Emerald Eyes,” “The City,” and “Hypnotized,” and a decent cover version of the classic Yardbirds’ track “For Your Love.” But for me, McVie’s songs are typically the special ones, and in this case, her compositions such as “Just Crazy Love,” “Why,” “The Way I Feel,” and “Believe Me,” though perhaps not as brilliant as her future endeavors, still sounded as if they could have easily appeared on any of the classic albums during the Buckingham/Nicks years.

Meanwhile, Bob Welch and Christine McVie’s instrumental and vocal skills are in tip-top shape, while John McVie and Mick Fleetwood prove once again to be a “wonderfully tight though nothing-too-fancy” rhythm team. And Bob Weston, his contributions to the band often underappreciated or dismissed, plays some surprisingly tasty lead guitar throughout, especially his subtle riffing on the bluesier “Somebody,” the slide guitar intro on “Why,” or on the harder-rocking “The City” and “Miles Away.” Additionally, with the now-legendary Martin Birch (Deep Purple/Wishbone Ash/Jeff Beck/Faces/etc.) now handling production duties instead of just engineering like he did on the band’s previous three albums, the sound here is rich and full, probably one of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most consistent during this period.

By the way, I continually roll my eyes in amazement and chuckle when I hear or read comments by supposed music-lovers who still seemingly have no clue that Fleetwood Mac even existed before the appearance of Stevie Nicks. What a shame for them, since Fleetwood Mac delivered a stream of enjoyable and catchy, diverse and often-imaginative music prior to 1975, especially on Mystery to Me.

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Flash – Flash (1972)

Flash_14 out of 5 Stars!

Okay, Prog-Rock fans, think back—which of you, when hearing the track “Small Beginnings” for the very first time, thought it was a song by Yes?

If you raised your hand, you are certainly not alone. I distinctly remember, the day after catching the song on the radio, I headed to my local record store to hunt for a Yes album including that song title, then when finding none, being informed by the friendly, all-knowing shop-owner that the song in question was by a new group named Flash instead.

Well, at least I didn’t feel so naive once I subsequently learned that both guitarist Peter Banks and keyboardist Tony Kaye (both original members of Yes) were included in the band’s ranks. And with bassist Ray Bennett often mimicking the playing technique of Chris Squire, and singer Colin Carter having a range, timbre, and delivery style similar to Jon Anderson’s, no wonder Flash had a nearly identical character as Yes on “Small Beginnings,” enough so that the band had completely fooled me and many other Yes fans, I’m sure.

Anyway, although Flash’s self-titled debut has that undeniable Yes-stamp, the band did manage to add numerous touches of its own on tunes such as the mellower “Morning Haze” and “The Time It Takes,” as well as on the longer, more elaborate “Children of the Universe” and the thirteen-minute “Dreams of Heaven.”

Flash released two additional albums in quick succession, each bearing a slight drop in quality, before vanishing (until recently, that is, although I have not heard the 2013 release by the revamped version of the group featuring Carter and Bennett). Regardless, this is my favorite Flash album and recommended for devotees of—that’s right, you guessed it—Yes.

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Free – Free (1969)

Free_Free4 out of 5 Stars!

The legendary band’s self-titled second album, just as solid as its debut release Tons of Sobs earlier that same year, came to be considered another cherished gem by many fans, including myself.

On this release—oh, hell, on just about every single album on which he appears—Paul Rodgers nails each performance, his gruff and emotionally charged voice always laden with drama and angst, and clearly showing why he’s considered one of the best singers in the biz. Not only do the musicians—drummer Simon Kirke, bassist Andy Fraser (RIP), and guitarist Paul Kossoff (RIP)—play their blues-loving hearts out on both the gruff and forceful rockers we well as the laid-back, sometimes-haunting, folk-inspired ballads, but the album also contains a wealth of classic songs in the form of “Broad Daylight,” “Trouble on Double Time,” “Mourning Sad Morning,” “Songs of Yesterday,” and the wonderfully stark “Free Me.” Plus, my two favorite tunes on the album, “I’ll Be Creepin'” and “Woman”—both destined to be admirably covered by Three Dog Night in future years—would have also seemed right at home on any platter by the future Bad Company.

With Rodgers’s soulful wailing, Fraser’s funk-heavy bass, Kirke’s solid percussion, and Kossoff’s tasty guitar riffs and often subtle and heart-rending lead insertions, this highly talented group not only entertained with seeming ease, but simultaneously created a signature sound for itself, one that’s never been perfectly duplicated in rock ‘n’ roll history.

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Free – Fire and Water (1970)

Free_FireWater4 out of 5 Stars!

Fire and Water was the first Free album I ever purchased (back in ’74), based not only on the classic track “All Right Now,” but also because the musical press had started reporting that Paul Rodgers was rumored to be joining up with Deep Purple as a replacement for Ian Gillan. Well, being a die-hard fan of Purple’s yet being completely unfamiliar with Rodgers’s previous work (aside from “All Right Now”), I wanted to see what I might expect on future Purple albums if the rumors proved true.

Well, of course the rumors proved false—Rodgers had actually turned down Deep Purple’s offer in favor of forming Bad Company—yet in my haste to sample Rodger’s voice, I nevertheless discovered a talented and important band I might not have been prompted to investigate until years later.

But, although I adored Rodgers’s extraordinary vocal gifts upon first hearing this album, I didn’t automatically fall in love with Free itself. You see, apart from that mega-hit song “All Right Now,” along with “Remember,” the opening title track, and the killer “Mr. Big,” with the awesome guitar and bass solos in its middle section, I recall being slightly disappointed by the remainder of the album since I was hoping for even more tracks in a rocking, heavier vein (basically, I’d incorrectly assumed that Fire and Water would be loaded with tracks bathed in the same overall style and energy of “All Right Now”). This seven-song collection, however, seemed somewhat “ballad heavy” overall, way too light for my tastes at the time (remember, I was a die-hard Purple fan) and I listened to it in full only a handful of times before finally shelving it.

But then several years passed, and as my musical tastes broadened and I slowly acquired additional albums by the band—and also became a huge fan of Bad Company—I pulled out the album again. After several additional hearings, I thankfully came to fully appreciate the general “lightness” of the material, the stripped-down and often sparse instrumentation and the beautiful subtleties of songs such as “Heavy Load,” “Don’t Say You Love Me,” and “Oh I Wept, and the stellar yet laid-back performances of each musician.

Now, all these decades later, I consider Fire and Water (as well as Free’s other studio albums) an undeniable classic, with John Kelly’s bare-bones production rather charming and intriguing, making it seem as if the band is performing a live and intimate concert for the listener.

And RIP to both Andy Fraser and Paul Kossoff.

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Flamborough Head – Lost in Time (2013)

FlamboroughHead_LostInTime4 out of 5 Stars!

When hunting for music similar to Magenta—my favorite Prog-Rock band with a female vocalist—I stumbled across Flamborough Head, a group from the Netherlands, which is one act that is indeed quite similar.

Like Magenta, Flamborough Head’s music often falls into the same Symphonic Prog style as Genesis, IQ, Arena, Camel, Marillion and a host of other supreme groups. Although the current singer, Margriet Boomsma, might not have a timbre and delivery style as instantly recognizable as that of the insanely terrific Christina Booth from Magenta, she certainly does possess an alluring and expressive voice nonetheless.

The albums I own by Flamborough Head are all quite enjoyable, and Lost in Time, the band’s seventh and most recent release, is a favorite among them. Here, the dexterous musicians are always at the top of their game, producing often-complex, dramatic, and high-quality music as clearly displayed on the epic tracks such as “Damage Done,” “The Trapper,” “Andrassy Road,” and the title track, with plenty of old-style keyboards and synths, luscious guitar solos, a tight rhythm section, and even a bit of flute and recorder included to add some extra spice.

Overall, Lost in Time is top-shelf material from a highly talented band.

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FlamboroughHead_LostInTime

Fuzzy Duck – Fuzzy Duck (1971)

FuzzyDuck_14 out of 5 Stars!

This band from the U.K. with the silly name released only a single album, and a damned good one at that. Full of Hard Rock with a ton of Jazz, Funk, Soul, and Progressive Rock touches, it’s often difficult to pinpoint an exact style, apart from the fact that the album is catchy as hell and an enjoyable listening experience, especially with a track such as “A Word from Big D” that even includes some Duck voices, I kid you not.

The album features some terrific guitar riffs, energetic rhythms, and punchy lead vocals, while the occasional Heavy Psych influences bring to mind groups such as Captain Beyond and the rollicking Hammond organ reminds me of the more upbeat side of groups such as Deep Purple, Atomic Rooster, Bloodrock, Mountain, and Grand Funk Railroad. In other words, on tunes such as “Mrs. Prout,” “In Our Time,” “Country Boy,” “Time Will Be Your Doctor,” and “Afternoon Out,” don’t expect much in the way of dark or sinister tunes, but mostly bright and uplifting melody lines and chord patterns with some tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

It’s a shame the band didn’t release more material. And speaking of which, a special note—if seeking out this album, be certain to hunt for the version with the four bonus tracks included. Thankfully, these tunes—”Double Time Woman,” “Big Brass Band,” “One More Hour,” and “No Name Face”—are of the same high quality as the album’s original tracks and definitely add to the overall fun.

 

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