FM – Heroes and Villains (2015)

FM_HeroesVillains4 out of 5 Stars!

In my opinion, England’s FM (not to be confused with the Canadian Prog-Rock band) is not only one of the finest AOR/Hard Rock acts to have emerged in the mid-’80s, but a band that features perhaps one of the finest, most recognizable lead vocalists in the genre, a chap by the name of Steve Overland (Shadowman/The Ladder/Overland/Wildlife).

Indeed, every album by this group (or any band where Steve is behind the microphone) is generally a melodic treat for AOR fans, and even in this new century, FM releases nothing but top-quality material, including the tracks on the more recent Heroes and Villains album, such as the catchy and upbeat “Call on Me,” “Big Brother,” “Life is a Highway,” “Diggin’ Up the Dirt,” “Shape I’m In,” “Fire and Rain,” as well as the emotional ballads “Incredible” and “Walking With Angels.”

AOR gold!

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FreddeGredde – Brighter Skies (2014)

FreddeGredde_BrighterSkies4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After Swedish musician Fredrik Larsson released his highly impressive debut album (under the name FreddeGredde) back in 2011, I wondered whether he could match or better his efforts on future recordings.

Thankfully, he didn’t wait too long before creating new material, releasing Brighter Skies several years later. And once again, the grand and melodic material offered on this album (performed almost entirely by Fredrik alone—everything except flute and drums) is generally stunning, bordering on Prog-Rock genius and matching the utter sophistication and musical complexity of groups such as Galahad, Seven Steps to the Green Door, Unitopia, Also Eden, Kaipa, Anima Mundi, etc.

Any Prog-Rock fan craving more top-quality material should certainly investigate these two albums at the first opportunity. (Final note: A new album, Eyes on the Edge, has just been released, although I have not yet had the opportunity to hear it.)

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Foghat – Energized (1974)

Foghat_Energized4 out of 5 Stars!

Energized is one of my early favorites by Foghat, and (I believe) the first of the band’s albums I heard in its entirety.

As the title suggests, the band sounds more energized than ever for its third release and offers some memorable, hard-rockin’ riffs and driving rhythms on tracks such as “Honey Hush,” “Wild Cherry,” “Step Outside,” and several other concert favorites from the mid-’70s.

Additionally, the production quality is excellent, and the album is meant to be played loud, which I often did, especially in my high school years.

This is Boogie Rock simply perfect for cruising along the highway with the music blaring, and a musical snapshot of a band on the verge of mega-success in America.

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The Flower Kings – Space Revolver (2000)

FlowerKings_SpaceRevolver4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Another one of my favorite Progressive bands of the more modern age, Sweden’s The Flower Kings kept me riveted, especially when it came to the band’s earlier albums. The talented act was nothing if not amazingly prolific, at least in its first ten years of existence, especially considering it was led (and formed) by Roine Stolt, an exceptional guitarist and songwriter and the instigator of what seems like dozens of side projects (including the “supergroups” Transatlantic and Karmakanic, as well as Agents of Mercy, Kaipa, The New Grove Project, etc.), which all seem to bear his “sound stamp.”

Containing both short and mid-length tunes, along with a trio of ten-minute-plus epics, Space Revolver is one of my favorites by the band, with music heavily influenced by a host of acts such as Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, and the like. The often jazzy nature of numerous passages also brings to mind both Canterbury Scene Prog bands from the ’70s, along with The Tangent, another band in which Stolt had involvement several years after this album’s release.

Regardless, for any Prog-Rock lover unfamiliar with The Flower Kings, I urge you to investigate the band’s rather vast back catalogue forthwith.

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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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Flower Travellin’ Band – Satori (1971)

FlowerTravellinBand_Satori4 out of 5 Stars!

Flower Travellin’ Band, a strange name for a strange quartet from Japan, released a handful of albums in the early ’70s (then reappeared again with a new album in 2008). Satori, the band’s second platter, is a trippy, “doomy,” and bizarre collection of five tracks (entitled “Satori, Parts 1-5”), made up of bluesy Hard Rock bordering on almost Sabbath-like Heavy Metal, with Heavy Psych and Prog-Rock influences throughout. Moreover, had Flower Travellin’ Band lived up to its name and relocated to Germany during this period in history, the band’s music could have easily fit into the more experimental Krautrock genre since it shares numerous traits with several Teutonic bands of the period, such as Guru Guru and Scorpions (Lonesome Crow-era).

Anyway, on Satori, Hideki Ishima’s guitar work is generally quite stunning, with some of his alluring riffs being tinged with Asian influences, and the rhythm section is usually thundering and throbbing, with Jhun Kowzuki adding fascinating bass runs and Joji Wada tossing in energetic drum fills, while Akira “Joe” Yamanaka’s wide-ranging vocals are often as weird as a LSD freak-out and do take some getting used to, yet somehow, they work.

The eleven-minute “Satori, Part 4” is probably the stand-out track here, with the wicked guitar riff and wailing harmonica solo in the middle section almost mesmerizing.

Nevertheless, no other group from the era had quite the same sound as Flower Travellin’ Band, so the quartet remains unique in my eyes (and to my ears), and the album Satori is definitely worthy of investigation, especially for fans of early six-string craziness and something a bit different in the world of Hard Rock, Psychedelic Rock, and early Heavy Metal.

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Fireballet – Night on Bald Mountain (1975)

Fireballet_NightMountain4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I really liked this band from the mid-’70s that, sadly, released only two albums before disappearing. Although Fireballet was an American band from the East Coast, the music was quite British, often reminiscent of other bands from the same era…Genesis, Yes, ELP, King Crimson, etc. with shades of Uriah Heep when it came to the full and layered background vocals. The Night On Bald Mountain album is still one of my favorites after all these many decades. Expect a lot of terrific organ and synth work, thanks to the two keyboardists featured in the band, along with some sax and flute (played by guest musician and producer Ian McDonald from King Crimson) that adds a nice extra dimension to the sound.

The album consists of only five tracks, each of them adding something special to the overall package.

At first, “Les Cathédrales,” this ten-minute opener, begins with soft keyboards and acoustic guitar and sounds like a cross between Genesis, Flash, or early Yes, until both a sax solo and electric guitar pop up, which gives the track almost a Van Der Graaf Generator vibe. Countless time shifts, keyboard and guitar runs, and mood alterations abound, creating further drama, while some spoken “story parts” in the song’s midsection lend a storybook feel.

Although the next track, “Centurion (Tales of Fireball Kids),” is less than half the length of the opener, it’s still equally as complex and grand. Here the band takes on an almost “electrified ELP” sound, with terrific fuzz guitar leads playing counterpoint to Keith Emerson-like “pomp” keyboards.

“The Fireballet” sounds like a cross between Yes, Flash, Nektar, and some weird version of Gentle Giant, replete with (again) various time changes, counterpart keys and guitar riffs, and even some odd sound effects in the middle.

To bring things down to a mellower mood, “Atmospheres” is basically an acoustic guitar song, with pastoral-sounding piano and keys supporting a soft vocal melody, reminding me of something that may have appeared on the Nursery Cryme or Foxtrot albums by Genesis. On any other album by any other band, this could possibly have been considered nothing more than an outtake or filler track, but to me it’s not only the perfect opening to the album’s “B” side, but a song that leads smoothly into the monster title track extravaganza.

“Night on Bald Mountain (Suite),” a nearly nineteen-minute epic consisting of five parts, is nothing if not elegantly grand and wonderfully ambitious. It’s also a Prog-Rock lover’s dream come true, with the many twists and variations on different themes creating a spirited roller coaster ride through Prog territory. Each musician shines in different sections, and not only are we treated to numerous Yes, ELP, and Genesis influences again, but also Uriah Heep when it comes to the “layered background vocals over Hammond organ” section, reminding me of something off either the Demons and Wizards or The Musician’s Birthday albums. I suppose the Hungarian band Omega also springs to mind, considering that group was also heavily Heep-influenced. Regardless, sax makes another short but welcome appearance on this track as well, so even a touch of Van Der Graaf Generator pops up. As I’m unfamiliar with the actual work of Petrovich Mussorgsky (the composer of this classical track) I cannot make a judgment whether Fireballet gave the song, with all its twists and turns and mood shifts and intricate arrangements, any justice or made mincemeat of it. All I know is that the track, to me, is a rollicking good romp through Prog Heaven, and unlike a handful of reviewers who downgraded this album at various music sites because of their take on this particular rendition, I frankly don’t give a damn whether Mussorgsky is smiling proudly over Fireballet’s version or turning over in his grave.

Anyway, this debut album from Fireballet is one interesting and enjoyable collection of tracks, and I highly recommend it for all Prog-Rock lovers like myself.

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The Front – The Front (1989)

TheFront_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the late 80s/early 90s, several bands emerged that bore a striking resemblance (some say “ripped-off”) to classic bands from the mid 60s/early 70s. This phenomena of revolving musical genres occurs about every 15-20 years, usually under the banner known as “The New Wave of (Insert Genre Here),” so no one really should have been surprised. The Black Crowes wanted to be The Rolling Stones, The Quireboys did a damned good impression of Faces, and The Dogs D’Amour did a drunken marriage of both. By a similar token, The Front also appeared on the scene, taking up the musical torch left by The Doors.

When listening to this CD, the comparisons to Jim Morrison and crew are all too apparent. From the “outdated” sound of the organ to the sparse production and musical arrangements, and especially in the form of the front man Michael Anthony Franano—not only his voice, but his appearance (the mop of curly hair making him eerily resemble Jim Morrison himself)—one could almost assume that the band got their start by performing Doors cover tunes (perhaps as an actual tribute band) in barrooms.

Did they pull it off? For the most part, yes. This album is comprised of 10 tracks, all of them pretty “decent” and almost as catchy as The Doors’ better known songs (“Break On Through,” for example, or perhaps “Love Me Two Times,” etc.) But the key word here is “almost.” Then again, no band of “wannabes” could compare to The Doors in overall brilliance, or possess that extra spark that made them legendary, but the guys in The Front probably had a good time trying to find that magic and did their best impression nevertheless.

All comparisons aside, there is some good music included here. “Fire” (the video I saw on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball that inspired me to take a chance on this album) kicks things off nicely with its bouncy beat and driving guitars. “Sweet Addiction, “Ritual,” and “Violent World” are other high points. Actually, although I haven’t listened to this album for several weeks, the choruses of each of the ten songs instantly spring to mind just by glancing at the titles on the CD insert. If you can remember songs based on titles alone, that says a hell of a lot regarding the overall “catchiness” of the material included here.

The bottom line…if you’re looking for a Doors-type of band with some better-than-average songs, look no further. If you’re expecting a perfect clone of The Doors, however, one bearing the same special something to ensure that future generations will forever remember them, keep looking.

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Frequency Drift – Personal Effects (Part One) (2008)

FrequencyDrift_PersonalEffects14 out of 5 Stars!

Here’s another band that, in many ways, reminds me of the excellent Magenta.  The singer has a powerful voice, a wide range, and an ear for melody, not unlike Magenta’s terrific Christina Booth.  She even has a similar vibrato, though the tonal quality of her voice isn’t quite as round, a bit sharper, edgier, so it’s not an identical match yet nevertheless appealing.

The band relies on more modern-sounding instruments, and usually doesn’t capture Magenta’s direct and liberal nod to Yes and Genesis of yesteryear, still there are enough older-sounding synth keyboards—and tons of piano passages—to keep the neo-prog fans like myself happy. And in many places, the guitars and rhythm section are a bit heavier than Magenta’s, although they don’t quite push into Metal territory, only hint at it.  In general, there’s a nice variety of sounds, softness to heaviness, to successfully switch moods back and forth throughout the tracks.

Now, with all that said, I couldn’t make myself rate this higher than a 4 (I typically rate anything from Magenta’s catalogue a 4.5 or 5.0), and this is based solely on the lack of truly memorable melodies.  I’m almost certain, however, that numerous plays of this collection will result in some of the songs running through my head at a later time, but not just yet. Therefore, the melodies are not quite as “immediate,” but they are fairly good overall, and the band definitely has solid potential.

So with some impressive musicianship, melodic leanings, a strong and rich production, and a better-than-average singer leading the way, this is one group to watch.  Fans of the bands Magenta and Introitus will more than likely enjoy this as much as I did.  Now I’m looking forward to hearing their two additional releases.

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Ace Frehley – Ace Frehley (1978)

Kiss_AceFrehley3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I purchased this album when it first came out, figuring it would be the best (ie. rockiest) of the Kiss solo albums. And for the most part, at the time, I believed I was right. But now, many decades later, and listening to my two faves (Ace’s and Paul’s solo albums) again, I find myself leaning more toward Paul’s release as being the best of the batch.

The reason, I eventually came to decide, boils down to one simple word…lyrics. Overall, musically, Ace’s album rocks the best (and most consistently) out of all four Kiss solo albums, but his lyrics are sooooooo godd*mned cheesy. I mean, come on…”Speeding back to my baby, and I don’t mean maybe.” Seriously??? All the other songs have similar “moon/spoon/June” type of lyrics that, although they don’t horribly ruin any of the songs, do not do them any favors either. Granted, Paul’s solo songs also don’t feature brilliant lyrics, but the silliness factor (the lack of imagination when it comes to rhyming) isn’t quite as apparent.

So musically, Ace’s album is probably the best of the four solo releases when it comes to “rocking tracks,” but his lyrics really make it difficult to rate this any higher than just slightly better than average. So mainly for that factor, Paul’s album is now my favorite. I should also mention that Ace’s voice usually leaves a lot to be desired, whereas Paul’s voice is much more accessible, so that’s the only other reason I eventually decided to rate Paul’s album slightly higher.

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