John West – Mind Journey (1997)

JohnWest_MindJourney4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, New York State’s John West (Royal Hunt/Artension/Feinstein/Badlands) is one of the most shamefully obscure vocalists on the Metal/Prog-Metal scene. Considering West possesses a powerful, wide-ranging, and soulful voice that often brings to mind Glenn Hughes, and the musical style on his solo albums is similar to Yngwie Malmsteen, Rainbow, Adagio, and (not shockingly) Artension, I’m amazed he’s not more well-known or highly lauded in the industry.

Be that as it may, West’s first solo effort, Mind Journey, not only showcases his excellent vocal abilities on tracks such as “The Castle is Haunted,” “Hands in the Fire,” “Eastern Horizon,” “Dragon’s Eye,” and “Lost in Time,” but could very well have been released under the Artension moniker—the band he was fronting during the year of this release—despite the different lineup of musicians. Not only is the overall Heavy Metal style with a Neoclassical bent and a touch of Prog-Metal so similar, but the album seems more like a band effort (lots of wicked guitar and keyboard solos from George Bellas and Matt Guillory respectively) as opposed to simply being a vehicle for a vocalist to display his enormous talent.

Therefore, for fans of the aforementioned groups, as well as lovers of versatile vocalists who might have easily worked with Ritchie Blackmore had he been invited to do so, Mind Journey is an album that may be of interest to you.

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Jorn – Out to Every Nation (2004)

Jorn_OutEveryNation4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I contend, had Norway’s Jorn Lande been in the “singing business” back in the ’70s/’80s, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that celebrated guitarist Ritchie Blackmore (having perhaps the best “ear” when it came to selecting vocalists for his groups) would have recruited him to join either Deep Purple or Rainbow. No doubt at all, since Jorn Lande (to me, anyway) is on par with any of the legendary singers with whom Blackmore has worked, including Rod Evans, Ian Gillan, David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Joe Lynn Turner, Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, and Doogie White.

No matter on which album he appears, Lande’s voice is full, rich, and nothing short of stunning, with his performances always energetic and commanding, so it’s no wonder he’s been involved with numerous bands and musicians since arriving on the scene and is consistently in high demand.

On Out to Every Nation, Jorn’s third solo effort, he’s joined by a formidable group of musicians, including guitarist Jørn Viggo Lofstad (Pagan’s Mind/Beautiful Sin), bassist Magnus Rosén (HammerFall/Revolution Renaissance), drummer Stian Kristoffersen (Pagan’s Mind/Firewind), and keyboardist Ronny Tegner (Pagan’s Mind)…so basically, what we have here is the band Pagan’s Mind with a different bassist and Lande behind the microphone. Moreover, Lande and Lofstad wrote all the music for the album, while Lande tackled the lyrics himself. And as a result of having this particular lineup of powerhouse musicians, with all songs composed by the same duo, this is easily one of the most consistent Jorn albums, and also one of the heaviest. Mighty tunes such as “Rock Spirit,” “Young Forever,” “Through Day and Night,” “Living With Wolves,” “One Day We Will Put Out the Sun,” and the title track itself blast from the speakers like cannons of melodic fury, while the two ballads—”Behind the Clown” and “When Angel Wings were White”—add slower but no less powerful diversity, with the latter song being wonderfully dramatic, and in my opinion, one of the finest songs Jorn ever recorded.

Anyway, since “discovering” him just after the turn of the century, I believe I now own just about every album on which Lande’s ever appeared either as a solo artist, a member of a band, or as a “guest performer.” And thus far, whether delivering his own material or covering classic Heavy Metal tracks and often making them “his own,” as he’s prone to do with great success, he has yet to disappoint me. Therefore, that easily qualifies Lande as another legend in the making, and Out to Every Nation certainly displays his talent in full and awesome glory.

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Judas Priest – Sin After Sin (1977)

JudasPriest_SinAfterSin4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Sin After Sin was the platter that “introduced” me to the mighty Judas Priest, thanks to the song “Starbreaker,” which I chanced to hear on an underground radio station here in Chicago upon the album’s release. As a high-school junior at the time and a fledgling singer in my first “garage” band, I was blown away and inspired by the song and the performances on this album, especially Rob Halford’s vocal delivery and awesome range.

Needless to say, after absorbing the metal power, the dual-guitar onslaught, of tracks such as “Raw Deal,” “Sinner,” “Let Us Prey,” and the blazing and screeching “Dissident Aggressor” with it’s layered vocal harmonies, I could barely contain my excitement for the U.K. group. Even the album’s two lighter moments, “Last Rose of Summer” and “Here Come the Tears,” had the power to mesmerize me, especially the latter, due to Halford’s gut-wrenching wails and a highly emotive guitar solo. And of course, the band’s now-classic cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” proved the perfect tune to blare in the high school parking lot as I tore out of the “prison” each afternoon with my middle finger raised high in the air. (The track also prophesied things to come for the band, the shift in a more commercialized direction, but more on that below.)

Anyway, in retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Sin After Sin had such a profound and immediate effect on my teenaged self, considering Deep Purple’s Roger Glover handled production duties. The man had produced Nazareth’s 1973 breakout album Razamanaz, for pity’s sake, a platter that also stirred and inspired me upon initial hearing and became another of my all-time favorite albums in history, so why should his work on Sin After Sin have any lesser power, right?

Therefore, once hearing this album I became “Priest-crazy” and soon afterward purchased the band’s previous Sad Wings of Destiny, then even dished out the extra bucks for the import-only Rocka Rolla. Of course, the album Stained Class came the follow year and proved to be a masterpiece, in my opinion, just before Priest got “discovered” by the masses and, thus, became more commercial and “leather-friendly.”

Thank goodness I had the early, more experimental Priest albums emblazoned on my soul so I had learned to appreciate the true magnificence of the band before the “sell out” phase began. Certainly, I enjoyed much of Killing Machine (or Hell Bent For Leather, as it’s known here in the States), but with this shift toward shorter, three-to-four minute anthem-like tracks aimed directly for the MTV crowd, I could never fully embrace the band afterward, never automatically snatched up future albums upon release, at least not for many years. Indeed, the same exact shift in style happened with Scorpions, a band I discovered at the same time as Priest (therefore, the groups are forever connected in my head)—once Scorpions got a taste of success (and record executives made demands), much of the former experimentation with songwriting or lengthier arrangements got kicked aside in favor of churning out shorter, hit-based tracks. In the case of both bands, this shift happened in the same year (curse the rise of Disco and Punk), and no longer did either group feel like my “personal discovery,” my “best kept secret,” but instead had suddenly become the “world’s darlings.” Damn, I hate commercialism and the effect it continues to have on bands regarding style and songwriting…

Regardless, from my early years of musical discovery and high school rebelliousness, Sin After Sin will always remain one of my favorite Priest albums, falling easily within my “Top Five” from the group’s vast catalogue.

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Jefferson Starship – Red Octopus (1975)

Starship_RedOctopus4 out of 5 Stars!

Red Octopus is the album that finally put Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Whatever back in the spotlight. Having both the wonderful Grace Slick and Marty Balin (who returned to the group full time) behind the microphone for the ’75 release, along with Paul Kantner and the revamped line-up of musicians, Red Octopus made the vocal sound of “Airplane” relevant again.

Although I was never an avid fan of the huge (and heavily edited) hit single “Miracles,” feeling it a bit too “adult contemporary” for my tastes, I still savored the vocal interplay between Slick and Balin, and through the years, eventually grew to love the lengthier album version. I was also pleased to hear some high-caliber songwriting from Slick—indeed, the album contains “Fast Buck Freddie,” which Slick co-wrote with guitarist Craig Chaquico, “Play On Love,” a collaboration between Slick and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears, and Slick’s own “Ai Garimasu (There Is Love),” with all three becoming some of my favorite “Grace songs” of the band’s career. Besides the aforesaid “Miracles,” the Balin-fronted tracks “Sweeter Than Honey” and “Tumblin'” were also fine slices of melodic rock, while “There Will Be Love” and “I Want to See Another World,” where the group’s trademarked “gang vocals” come into play, are also quite commendable.

In truth, however, I could have easily done without the pair of instrumentals (“Git Fiddler” and “Sandalphon”) appearing on the album—with Jefferson Starship having numerous songwriters in its line-up and two dynamic lead singers in the form of Slick and Balin, one would think the band might have whipped up some additional vocal tunes to further showcase their talents and satisfy fans of the crooning duo. After all, the male/female vocal interplay is what made each album from Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship so special, so why include two less-than-spectacular instrumentals and deprive the fans of additional Slick/Balin chemistry?

Regardless, with the revamped group hitting the big time thanks to Red Octopus, this insured its survival for many more years, despite numerous line-up changes and another name change/shortening that would eventually follow.

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Journey – Journey (1975)

Journey_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to vocalist Steve Perry entering the fold and helping to drastically alter the band’s musical direction, Journey released a trio of Progressive-Rock (or at least semi-Prog) albums, with this one being the first and “proggiest.” Only a single tune here, “To Play Some Music,” offered the merest hint as to what the band would later become, but the other tracks contain some serious and tasty experimentation.

After leaving Santana, Gregg Rolie (keyboards/vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar) wanted to let loose and toy with something different, and it shows in the excellence of their playing on tracks such as “Kahoutek,” “In My Lonely Feeling/Conversations,” “Of a Lifetime,” “Topaz,” “Mystery Mountain,” and “In the Morning Day.” Along with the equally talented Ross Valory on bass, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and George Tickner on second guitar, the quintet produced some jaw-dropping music here—albeit with less-than-impactful lead vocals. And in my opinion, that was the one area on this debut where the band required some improvement, and also why I couldn’t bring myself to raise my overall rating by another half-star.

Although I’ve always had a general fondness for Gregg Rolie’s voice, thanks to his work in Santana, let’s face facts—it can be rather dull. Sure, his voice does have recognizable character, but his range and forcefulness are somewhat limited, the particular timbre of his voice doesn’t always cut through the often-dense instrumentation, plus his overall lack of emotiveness typically doesn’t make for a successful commercial vocalist. This was the very reason why the band eventually hunted for a singer who possessed all those necessary traits. Therefore, the vocals on this album are unfortunately the weak link, and the trio of appealing Prog-oriented albums the group issued prior to Steve Perry’s arrival sadly remain obscure for many people, forever lost in the giant shadow of Journey’s mammoth AOR stardom.

Too bad the band didn’t change its name for the second era of its existence, since music-wise, the two versions of Journey seem almost completely at odds, especially when it comes to this particular album. Regardless, despite the lack of vocal power on display here, this debut was rather special and deserved wider recognition.

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John Waite – Mask of Smiles (1985)

JohnWaite_MaskSmiles4 out of 5 Stars!

After the enormous success of his No Brakes album the previous year—thanks mainly to the classic single “Missing You,” which turned him into an undeniable superstar—John Waite followed up in ’85 with Mask of Smiles, another above-average collection of tracks with an eye-catching cover, that (oddly) seemed to get ignored by the fans, presumably since it arrived and got lost in the gigantic shadow of “Missing You.”

Although mainly due to its meager length (just over thirty-three minutes—come on, John, only nine short tracks? I’m assuming this album may have been rushed to release, thanks to record company greed) this is not my most-played Waite album overall (that would come next with 1987’s exceptional Rover’s Return).

Regardless, to keep me satisfied, this album does contain enough catchy rockers and memorable mid-tempo tunes such as “You’re the One,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Laydown,” “Just Like Lovers,” “Every Step of the Way,” and “No Brakes” (named after the previous album, so I’ve often wondered if the song was an outtake). Plus, also included on Mask of Smiles is what I believe to be the strongest ballad Waite ever recorded—”The Choice”—which is simply brilliant.

Anyway, I’ve rarely disliked anything Waite created, whether as part of The Babys, Bad English, or as a solo artist, and I’ll always consider him—thanks to his instantly recognizable voice and his extraordinary knack for delivering emotional melodies—one of the leaders in the AOR genre.

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Jefferson Airplane – Jefferson Airplane (1989)

JeffersonAirplace_19893.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although likely never intended to set the world on fire with its overall creativity, 1989’s Jefferson Airplane reunion album (albeit without drummer Spencer Dryden) did present a golden opportunity for fans to revisit a sound long-missed, yet updated.

For me, hearing “Planes” (the opening track) felt like stumbling upon an acquaintance you haven’t spoken to for decades, and realizing how much you missed and truly cherished the timbre of their voice and their unique style.

Of course, Grace Slick’s presence on any album has always been a thrill for me, and with her contributing her songwriting gifts and sharing vocal duties with Paul Kantner and Marty Balin (or even with Mickey Thomas during the Starship years) lent Jefferson Airplane a certain magic, so that element alone made this album enjoyable.

And although this particular collection of songs ended up being no stirring “Crown Of Creation, Part 2” or no revolutionary “Volunteers Revisited,” for example, it did contain enough melodic and catchy gems—”True Love,” “Madeleine Street,” “Freedom,” “Summer of Love,” “The Wheel,” “Now Is The Time,” the aforementioned “Planes,” and the truly exceptional “Solidarity”—that I’ve found myself replaying it through the years nearly as often as the band’s classic releases from the ’60s.

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The J. Geils Band – Live! Blow Your Face Out (1976)

JGeils_LiveBlowYourFaceOut4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Live! Blow Your Face Out is easily one of my favorite live albums of all time, displaying Boston’s The J. Geils Band at its peak and in its true element, rockin’ out and funkin’ out to an adoring audience.

On high-energy versions of songs such as “Musta Got Lost,” “So Sharp,” “Love-Itis,” “Southside Shuffle,” “Detroit Breakdown,” “Back to Get Ya,” “(Ain’t Nothing’ but A) Houseparty,” the haunting “Chimes,” and of course, the hit “Give It to Me,” you can practically hear the perspiration trickling from the foreheads of all band members to the stage as they dish out classic after classic of soulful R&B tracks, with each instrument, especially Magic Dick’s spectacular harmonica, wailing up a storm. And all the while, singer Peter Wolf uses his exceptional skills as a former DJ to rile up the crowd into a frenzy between each song, making for nothing short of a huge and rip-roaring affair.

Nope, there ain’t nothing but a house party here, and done the J. Geils way. Simply electric!

(RIP to Mr. J. Geils himself…the world is gonna miss you!)

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Jesse Strange – Jesse Strange (1992)

JesseStrange_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the city renowned for its wild and rocking spring break parties—Fort Lauderdale, Florida—came Jesse Strange, a band that released only two albums in the ’90s before disappearing.

The group’s brand of no-frills, guitar-driven, melodic Hard Rock/Hair Metal often reminded me of other acts from the same era, such as Tesla, Babylon A.D., Tora Tora, Great White, and Trixter.

Although Jesse Strange offered nothing revolutionary or overly special in the world of “party rock,” the band did have an ear for writing some catchy, sing-along choruses such as those found on “Love on the Telephone,” “Dancing for Strangers,” “Make a Wish,” “Weekend Tonight,” “Living Without Your Love,” and “The Last Goodbye,” and in general, had a decent singer and better-than-average musicianship compared to many of its contemporaries, thereby making this collection fun for the occasional listen.

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Jethro Tull – Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters 1973-1991 (1993)

JethroTull_Nightcap4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Unlike many other Prog-Rock groups, Jethro Tull always “over recorded,” producing way more demos than the band actually needed to fill an album. And thank goodness, since that meant Jethro Tull had plenty of material to include on various compilation albums through the years, including the excellent Living in the Past (1972) or the exceptional archival collection 20 Years of Jethro Tull (1988).

The other good news is that Ian Anderson and the boys were extremely nitpicky, and the rejected material often proved to be as good if not better than songs that actually made it onto official albums.

This is the case with 1993’s Nightcap, which includes one full CD of unreleased and rare tracks (outtakes from albums as far back as the War Child album), as well as a second CD that contains the legendary (and snarkily nicknamed) “Chateau D’Isaster Tapes,” with all songs being part of the “shelved” first attempt at recording a follow-up to Thick as a Brick, thus paving the way for what would eventually become the album A Passion Play.

Therefore, Nightcap is a “must have” for Jethro Tull fans who, like me, could never get enough from this sensational band throughout the decades.

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