Leaves’ Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead (2018)

LeavesEyes_SignDragonhead3.5 out of 5 Stars!

One thing I can say about Leaves’ Eyes—despite the occasional lineup changes through the years, the group possesses an unwavering style, and one that is moderately enjoyable, for the most part. This staunch consistency, however, is not without its problems, which I’ll address below, yet on a positive note, it makes the group instantly recognizable. High production standards, complex song arrangements, often-bombastic orchestrations with choirs and the inclusion of whistles, fiddles, bagpipes, and archaic instruments such as nyckelharpas, and stellar musicianship grace each new Leaves’ Eyes’s release, thus allowing fans to know exactly what they will be getting without even having to sample tracks before making the purchase.

Yet when it comes to Sign of the Dragonhead, there is one notable difference, one that had the power to seriously alter the band’s style since the previous album (2015’s King of Kings), and that’s the addition of a new vocalist. In general, a band altering a lead singer is always risky business. I mean, no one generally notices whenever a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, or guitarist is replaced in most groups, unless that particular musician is so utterly unique as to have a trademarked sound. But when a singer, the very voice of the band, changes from one album to the next? Well, things can (and often do) take a drastic turn when it comes to an act’s overall sound. Especially—as in the case of Leaves’ Eyes—a highly recognizable sound, thanks in no small part to singer Liv Kristine, who’d fronted the group since it burst onto the scene in 2004.

Now, although vocalist Elina Siirala is not entirely “new” (having already appeared on the group’s 2016 EP Fires in the North) she’s new to me since I hadn’t heard that particular release. So, with Sign of the Dragonhead being my first exposure to Ms. Siirala voice, I am happy to report that her range, tonal quality, and manner of delivery are in keeping with what I’ve come to expect on all Leaves’ Eyes’s albums. In fact, had I not known prior to hearing this album about the change in lead singers, I might not have noticed anything different. So bravo to the band members for selecting a gifted vocalist who could jump aboard ship (a Viking vessel, no doubt) without causing any serious disturbances in the otherwise calm and consistent waters.

And as always, the material the band chose to record for this new album is often spirited, typically melodic, and generally better than numerous other female-fronted groups in this genre, with several tracks going above and beyond. For me, a handful of tunes really stood out, their choruses and riffs proving happily memorable and annoyingly repeating in my head at the oddest of times.

In my estimation, “Riders on the Wind” is probably one of the finest songs the band has recorded since its inception, with Siirala’s melody lines floating atop both full and rich instrumentation and a driving and head-bopping rhythm. The tune also includes all the bells and whistles (literally) associated with the group’s sound—grand orchestrations and choirs and all those odd instruments the band adores employing, perfectly encapsulating—in the proverbial nutshell—the band’s overall style in the space of only four minutes. Actually, a similar state of musical affairs as described above revolve around “Jomsborg,” “Shadows in the Night,” “Across the Sea,” and the masterful “Sign of the Dragonhead,” all tracks representing everything the band is about within three to four minute bursts, with the title tune especially sounding even more imposing and ostentatious, if that were even possible.

Thankfully, the band successfully toys with dynamics as well, merging both lighter (acoustic piano and guitar) instrumentation with the typical “metallic” grandiosity on the more intricate “Like A Mountain” or the gentler “Fairer Than the Sun,” which add welcomed breathing space to the sometimes-overblown majesty of the other surrounding tracks.

Now, with all that said, there are, however, a few tracks that don’t quite work for me. For instance, the instrumental “And Waves” is basically a celebration of all things Celtic that I feel goes on, even at three minutes, a bit too long. Other tunes don’t ring entirely triumphant as well, such as “Völva,” with a chorus that simply doesn’t grab me, and “Fires in the North,” that seems a tad disjointed with different sections linked together and varying melody lines not quite gelling into anything cohesive or memorable.

Moreover, the album’s closer, the lengthier and ambitious “Waves of Euphoria,” suffers from an entirely different dilemma—and this is one of those negative consistency issues I alluded to in the opening paragraph—the continual inclusion (and an unnecessary one for Leaves’ Eyes and any other band that tragically includes them) of the horrific “grunts and growls” male vocals. Sorry, but these completely unmelodious and indiscernible explosions of demonic vomit simply annoy me to no end and always lessen the enjoyability factor of most tracks on which they appear, especially when they take center stage, which happens on this otherwise engaging epic. If I wanted to hear orcs spewing nonsensical words at me in some guttural foreign language I’d rather replay The Lord of the Rings trilogy, thank you very much.

This last factor played a large part in not only forcing me to instantly lower the volume on my stereo, but also to lower my overall rating of the album. Additionally—and back to the consistency issue again—even though fans of Leaves’ Eyes will likely not be disappointed at this collection of tunes (or even those hellish male vocals) I wonder just how many new followers the band will muster with this release. Sorry to say, but even though most of the tunes are commendable and the musicians certainly know how to write some engaging melodies—and can orchestrate the pants off of many other groups in the Symphonic/Gothic Metal genre—I can’t help feeling that I’ve heard it all before on previous albums by the band. Yes, there is a high level of consistency in the group’s overall sound, and even in the Viking-inspired lyrics, but this begs the question as to whether Leaves’ Eyes is moving forward at all, or is the band simply parroting previous material?

These days, I can’t help feeling it’s mostly the latter since everything does seem a bit too samey from one album to the next. Yes, it’s enjoyable material for the most part, but unfortunately, it’s also nothing truly new.

Album Currently Not Available At Amazon
To Be Released 01/12/18

Little Atlas – Wanderlust (2005)

LittleAtlas_Wanderlust4 out of 5 Stars!

Little Atlas, a quartet formed near the sunny beaches of Miami, Florida, delivered five above-average albums from 1998 through 2013 before seemingly disappearing.

Wanderlust, the band’s third release, is perhaps my favorite of the five. On tunes such as “Higher,” “Mirror of Life,” “The Prisoner,” and “The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust,” the band delivers Progressive Rock in a similar vein to groups such as Yes, Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Pallas, Salem Hill, The Flower Kings, etc., but never directly copying any of the aforementioned groups. Instead, the band creates its own unique twist on the Prog-Rock genre, while each of the seven tracks, all falling somewhere between the five and ten minute mark, are loaded with memorable melodies, often-complex instrumentation, and a variety of moods.

Moreover, I especially appreciated the nod to Gentle Giant on the track “Weariness Rider” when it came to the counterpoint a capella vocal passage, which further displayed the band’s overall creativity.

Regardless, it’s a crying shame Little Atlas didn’t receive wider recognition throughout the years, since the group showed great promise and I would have easily welcomed additional material.

Thankfully, in 2014, the group Strattman (named after Little Atlas’s guitarist Roy Strattman) emerged on the scene with a terrific album, and also includes Steve Katsikas (vocals/keyboards) and Rik Bigai (bass), both from Little Atlas as well. Therefore, the band basically lives on in spirit, only under a fresh moniker and with several different members, which is certainly good news for the Prog-Rock community and fans of the original group.

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Lake – Lake (1976)

Lake_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the ’70s, a radio station in Chicago had an “underground” program several hours each night that featured obscure and new groups from Europe, bands not being played on any other “normal” FM stations. One of the unknown acts introduced to me was Lake, and what made the group different from others being showcased was its genre. Whereas the station typically focused on Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, and Prog-Rock groups (everything from Guru Guru and Nektar to Judas Priest, Three Man Army, Lucifer’s Friend, etc.), Lake played extremely catchy AOR material with perhaps a touch of Prog-Rock tossed in. The song that grabbed my attention was the driving and harmony-drenched “On The Run,” which I played repeatedly on my portable cassette player (I had a tendency to record that radio program as often as possible for future reference). Based on that track alone, I sought out the album during my next shopping trip to the record store, and was shocked that I actually found it, not in the pricey “import” section, but in the main section, thanks to Lake being contracted by the CBS/Columbia label.

Anyway, although some websites incorrectly classify Lake as being “Krautrock,” that label is far from the truth—and style—of the matter (aside from the band being formed in Hamburg, but made up of multinational musicians). Instead, Lake could have easily passed for any American AOR band featuring Pop melodies, music aimed directly at the U.S. market. In fact, the melodic track “Time Bomb” was not only released in America, but actually hit Billboard’s Top 40, giving Lake some genuine and coveted bona fides back in its home country.

With wonderfully slick production and top-notch musicianship, Lake delivered an undeniable AOR masterpiece on its debut. Aside from the aforementioned tunes, several others (“Sorry To Say,” “Chasing Colours,” and “Key to the Rhyme”) are in a similar vein, all containing a nice balance between guitars and keyboards, with exceptional vocals and multi-layered harmonies, deceptively complex instrumentation, and (for the most part) upbeat rhythms. The group also included a single ballad (“Do I Love You?”), which somehow reminds me of the Little River Band, as well as the ten-minute closer “Between the Lines,” which is where the musicians let loose with an extended outro section that borders on Prog-Rock. All in all, the melodies from the majority of tracks stubbornly stay in your head long after the album concludes. In fact, I hadn’t heard the platter for more than a decade, but when I played it recently, I could automatically hum along to almost every track, with memories of lyrics and hook-lines rushing back to me as if I’d heard those tunes only days earlier. Amazingly catchy material, which I have replayed several times now since the songs are so addictive (and long-missed).

Thankfully, Lake went on to produce several additional albums of high quality (although none of them quite matched the pure brilliance of this debut, in my estimation), but the group eventually went “stale” as the ’80s approached. Then, with scads of personnel changes also becoming routine in future years, the group never could recapture the magic from the ol’ days, even though its last release came out as recently as 2014.

Regardless, for fans of the AOR style produced by groups such as mid-period Ambrosia, Little River Band, Toto, 707, Le Roux, Player, Tycoon, etc., you might want to investigate this stand-out release (or the band’s next two albums, Lake II and Paradise Island, the latter being slightly better of the two, in my opinion). But if snatching up a copy of this debut, be warned you’ll likely have many of these songs repeating in your head for days.

One final note: I always thought the music on this album was, in many ways, a precursor to the style of material abundant on Lucifer’s Friend’s undervalued Sneak Me In album from 1980. Ironically, the singer during that AOR-ish period in Lucifer’s Friend’s history was Mike Starrs, who would actually join up with Lake in the opening decade of this new century. Eerie…

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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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Kerry Livgren – Seeds of Change (1980)

KerryLivgren_SeedsChange4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Seeds of Change, the debut solo album from guitarist and keyboardist Kerry Livgren, will always remain special to me for three reasons.

First, it showcases Livgren’s enormous skills as a musician outside the realm of his various groups—Kansas, AD, and Proto-Kaw—with music in various styles, including (primarily) Prog-Rock, but also AOR and a touch of Blues Rock.

Second, it features Livgren’s Kansas cohort Steve Walsh singing on the track “How Can You Live.”

And third, it also includes two exceptional tracks—”Mask of the Great Deceiver” and “To Live for the King”—sung by the legendary Ronnie James Dio, which makes Seeds of Change a “must-have” album for all fans of the ex-Rainbow/Dio/Black Sabbath vocalist.

Therefore, with the aforesaid tracks, as well as the Kansas-like Prog-Rock forays “Ground Zero,” “Just One Way,” “Down to the Core,” and the slide guitar- and harmonica-laced blues rock of “Whiskey Seed,” this is an above-average, commendable collection of tracks that Livgren, sadly, could never duplicate with the same level of success on his subsequent solo efforts.

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Lucifer’s Friend – Sneak Me In (1980)

LucifersFriend_SneakMeIn4 out of 5 Stars!

After the legendary Lucifer’s Friend lost vocalist John Lawton (who temporarily left to join Uriah Heep), the band thankfully continued onward, hiring a replacement vocalist, Mike Starrs (Colosseum II/Lake), who had a voice occasionally similar to Lawton’s.

Lucifer’s Friend was always known for altering its overall style on just about every new album (going from Heavy Metal, to Prog Rock, to Jazz Rock, to…well, you name it). And at this time in its history, with Mike Starrs in the lead vocalist seat, the band adopted a new, more consistent style that actually lasted two albums in a row, this one Hard Rock touched with AOR. And Sneak Me In, the second album from the revised line-up, is easily my favorite of the two.

Whereas the previous album Good Time Warrior seemed a rather mixed affair, with the band not quite firing on all cylinders, struggling to locate the comfort zone with its new style and revised line-up, Sneak Me In shows a band fully recharged and focused. With upbeat and driving songs such as “Foxy Lady,” “Indian Summer,” “Goodbye Girl,” “Stardancer,” and “Love Hymn,” each track includes some deceptively complex instrumentation and typically has the keyboards pushed more to the forefront than on the previous album, and Starrs now belts out the catchy melodies with fierce determination, giving Lucifer’s Friend a unique AOR flavor.

If I had to liken Sneak Me In to any previous album within the group’s catalogue with Lawton behind the microphone, it would probably be a cross between I’m Just a Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer and Mind Exploding, but with less Jazz overtones. Or in truth, the style on this particular platter is actually not too dissimilar from the sound of the band’s most recent Lawton-led release Too Late to Hate that dropped in 2016.

Be that as it may, despite Lawton’s absence during this rather forgotten period in the band’s lengthy history (he would return to the group the following year on the Mean Machine album), Sneak Me In is an enjoyable collection of eight songs, one I still play with surprising regularity, with many of the tracks being underrated gems of the Hard Rock/AOR genre.

By the way, to read my full overview of this special German group, visit my website on this page: https://zapniles.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/lucifers-friend-an-overview/

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Landmarq – Entertaining Angels (2012)

Landmarq_EntAngels4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When singer Damian Wilson (Rick Wakeman/Star One/Headspace/Threshold) left Landmarq after the band released the exceptional album The Vision Pit back in 1995, I prayed the group would be able to fill his shoes with another fine vocalist and continue onward.

Thankfully, my wish was granted, and in spades. Not only did Landmarq continue, but recruited a female vocalist to replace Wilson, one of exceptional talent named Tracy Hitchings (Quasar/Strangers on a Train).

After releasing an album in 1998 with Hitchings, the band took a lengthy break and finally returned in 2012 with Entertaining Angels.

The album’s title says it all, since not only is this collection of tracks more than entertaining, but with Hitchings’s angelic voice once again featured, the album ended up being a near masterpiece. Songs such as the opening title track, as well as “Mountains of Anglia,” “Turbulence (Paradigm Shift),” the two-part “Glowing,” the sixteen-minute epic “Calm Before the Storm,” and the stunningly beautiful “Prayer (Coming Home)” will likely appeal to fans of female-fronted Prog-Rock acts such as Magenta, Lana Lane, Introitus, Scarlet Hollow, IOEarth, and Janison Edge.

The luscious melodies and often-grand instrumentation, along with the soul-stirring vocals appearing throughout Entertaining Angels, are simply superb!

Final note: If seeking out this album, be certain to grab the “Special Edition” version, which includes four extra songs, equaling more than twenty-eight minutes of additional music.

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Little Caesar – Little Caesar (1990)

LittleCaesar_14 out of 5 Stars!

Los Angeles’s Little Caesar released its debut album back in 1990, and with its hard-rockin’ style, heavily steeped in both Blues and even Soul influences, thanks to the inclusion of classic covers such as Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools” and The Temptations “I Wish It Would Rain,” the band showed great promise and didn’t appear to be just another Guns ‘n’ Roses clone.

Indeed, the band’s “biker” image—complete with overly tattooed arms, dirty boots, tattered jeans, leather, and bandanas—seemed more akin to Circus Of Power than any “hair band” of the era. But when it came to the music itself, the Circus Of Power comparisons were more limited. Whereas the other act had a gruffer, no-frills, garage-band style, Little Caesar possessed a slicker, well-rounded sound with some light keyboard enhancements on several tracks, thanks in part to the guidance of famed producer Bob Rock.

Not to say anything is watered down or wimpy here, since tunes such as “Down ‘n’ Dirty,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll State of Mind,” “Drive It Home,” “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” “Little Queenie,” and “Hold On” have the same boot-stompin’ goodness as the other group. Yet Little Caesar also included a few lighter, less-raging moments on this collection, such as on the ballad “In Your Arms,” along with “Cajun Panther,” “From The Start,” the fantastic “Midtown,” and the aforementioned “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Chain of Fools” (the band’s first single), where the group displayed higher commercial appeal.

But thanks (not!) to the arrival of the Grunge era, it mattered little since any straightforward rock ‘n’ roll band like Little Caesar, no matter how talented, got kicked to the curb until the musical “trend du jour” ran its course. Not even the arrival of accomplished guitarist Earl Slick for the group’s second album could gain Little Caesar any publicity and kick its career into overdrive. Such as shame!

At least the band reunited in the new century and released two additional albums, although it still remains too obscure for my liking.

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Leaves’ Eyes – Njord (2009)

LeavesEyes_Njord3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Years ago, when I first discovered groups such as Nightwish, After Forever, and Within Temptation—female-fronted Symphonic/Gothic Metal groups—I also happily stumbled upon Leaves’ Eyes from Germany.

Singer Liv Kristine has a magnificent range and style of delivery. More rock-oriented as opposed to operatic in overall nature, her voice nevertheless soars above the often-grand and occasionally folksy musical arrangements like a songbird in flight. My only pet peeve about this group—the same pet peeve I have with Epica and several other bands in this genre—and the reason I don’t typically rate the band’s releases higher on my scale, is the cheesy, jarring, and annoying-as-hell insertion of undecipherable “growling/beast” male vocals the band continues to employ, which basically destroy much of the beauty that is otherwise to be found on each album.

With that being said, Njord, the band’s third full-length release, still has its moments of greatness, such as on the grand and majestic opening title track, as well as the heavily symphonic compositions “Take the Devil in Me,” “Northbound,” “Emerald Island,” and the lengthy, multi-part “Froya’s Theme.” The band’s lush and dramatic rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” is also quite special. And despite the silly “beast vocal” garbage that pops up on too many tracks, the album can thankfully be savored without too much difficulty.

But a final note to all Symphonic Metal groups: Please, PLEASE, if you truly need to use these male “growling/beast” vocals to satisfy some deep-seated craving of which I am unaware, I beg of you to do so sparingly and give us fans of actual music a break from this unnecessary and insufferable noise. (And my apologies to anyone who disagrees with me on this point, but that’s just my opinion.)

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Landskap – II (2014)

Landskap_24 out of 5 Stars!

Like the group’s other two albums, Landskap’s sophomore release shows that this U.K. band is a rather unique animal on today’s music scene. Imagine what would have happened had The Doors gone Heavy Prog/Heavy Psych with more than a touch of Doom Metal and Stoner Rock included, with even a few jazzy rhythms sneaking in, and that’s what this act brings to the table.

Generally, on tracks such as “Leave It All Behind,” “Through the Ash,” “South of No North,” and “Tomorrow’s Ghost,” the music is delightfully dark and creepy, with growling Hammond organ and dreamy electric piano ala “Riders on the Storm,” grooving and often Sabbath-tinged guitar riffs, and a Jim Morrison soundalike behind the microphone.

Landskap would likely appeal to fans of other Retro-Rock bands such as D’Accord, Hypnos 69, Siena Root, Witchwood, etc. I find myself being drawn to this album more and more as the months pass by, continually reveling in the eerie yet driving atmospheres and the rock-solid performances by each musician.

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