Masquerade – Surface of Pain (1994)

Masquerade_SurfacePain4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Sweden, Masquerade appeared on the scene in the early ’90s, released two albums, then disappeared, only to resurface again with two additional albums just after the turn of the century. Surface of Pain, the quartet’s second release, is a woefully underrated collection of sizzling Hard Rock/Heavy Metal.

On hard-hitting tracks such as “Wasteland,” “Say Your Prayer,” “America,” “Feels Good,” “Judas Kiss,” and “Suffering,” the guitar tones and riffs (provided by a guy who goes professionally by the name of Thomas G:son—real surname, Gustafsson) are some of the most brutal and engaging I’ve ever heard, and backed by the merest hint of keyboards to round out the band’s already full and rich sound. On the other hand, “God of Man” and “Free My Mind” drop things back tempo-wise, with G:son adding acoustic guitar to the backdrop for Masquerade to deliver a grand and crushing ballad in the former instance, and a mellow and melodic tune in the latter piece, which also closes out the album on a dreamy, wonderfully atmospheric note.

Moreover, the band’s singer, Tony Yoanson, has a forceful and passionate voice occasionally similar to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, and the strength of his melody lines, with full and punchy background harmonies, along with the pounding rhythms (thanks to bassist Henrik Lundberg and drummer Marco Tapani), provide for some memorable, head-bangin’ tunes.

Therefore, Masquerade was an obscure band shamefully ignored by the masses, with Surface of Pain shockingly rated with dismal scores on several music-related websites. I almost have to wonder if there are two versions of this album floating out there in the universe—the version I’ve owned and enjoyed for more than two decades, and another version that keeps getting lambasted by other reviewers (often with surprisingly vitriolic language). It’s almost as if there is a personal grudge being held against this particular band and this specific collection of tracks. Well, whatever the reason for the seemingly unfair hatred, I felt Masquerade (and Surface of Pain) truly deserved much more respect.

Get The Album Now!

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – The Good Earth (1974)

ManfredMann_GoodEarth3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Like on most albums from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, the music is often difficult to pigeonhole. Although many music-related magazines both past and present (as well as websites of the modern age) categorize the majority of the band’s various releases as only Progressive Rock, I still find that sole tag fairly inaccurate and misleading. When first purchasing albums by this group in the ’70s, based on this lone genre description mentioned in various magazines, I had originally expected music along the lines of Yes, ELP, Genesis, or Gentle Giant, for example, the bands I considered “true” Prog-Rock acts of the same era. What I discovered on albums by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, however, were basically tunes of melodic Hard Rock with only a smattering of Progressive Rock tinsel scattered over a handful of tracks.

The Good Earth is one of those albums I snapped up during my early days of record-buying, my teenaged self expecting one type of music, but getting another—or rather, finding a merger of styles instead of pure, out-and-out Progressive Rock. On this album, the majority of songs are basically melodic Hard Rock at their core. The Prog elements appear only periodically, thanks mostly to Mann’s always-impressive keyboard work, some overall atmospherics, and by the inclusion of more experimental passages on vocal songs such as “Earth Hymn” and “Earth Hymn, Part 2,” as well as “Be Not Too Hard” and “Give Me the Good Earth,” plus on the fantastic “Sky High,” an instrumental track where the musicians really cut loose with jazzy, Prog-Rock madness. But on other tracks, “Launching Pad” and “I’ll Be Gone,” the Prog-Rock elements are virtually non-existent.

Therefore, I remember being a bit disappointed at the time of purchasing this collection—not too horribly, thank goodness, since I did like the band’s overall sound, regardless if it wasn’t what I had expected due to those contemporaneous magazine articles and the few and insufficient album reviews I’d read. Nevertheless, I had vowed all those years ago that if I ever got the opportunity to write my own album reviews in the future, I’d do my best to properly designate genres and provide more substantial information so that potential listeners would know exactly what to expect when investigating any unfamiliar material.

Regardless, my thoughts of genre designations aside, The Good Earth ended up becoming one of my favorite collections from the group’s “early period,” prior to the band hitting the big time in ’76 with the mega-selling The Roaring Silence.

Get The Album Now!

Montrose – Mean (1987)

Montrose_Mean3.5 out of 5 Stars!

After leaving the band Gamma in the early ’80s, and prior to releasing a string of instrumental and experimental solo albums, legendary guitarist Ronnie Montrose joined up again with Gamma bassist Glenn Letsch, also snagged both drummer James Kottak (future Scorpions/Kingdom Come/Warrant) and vocalist Johnny Edwards (future Foreigner/King Kobra) from the band Buster Brown, and resurrected his famous namesake group from the ’70s. More importantly, he returned to his hard-rockin’ roots on 1987’s Mean.

And although the revamped group didn’t create another “classic masterpiece” to equal the original lineup’s stunning 1973 debut, it did produce a fairly enjoyable album nonetheless, with some stompin’, riff-heavy, and catchy tracks such as “M For Machine,” “Pass It On,” “Man of the Hour,” “Don’t Damage the Rock,” and “Flesh and Blood.” Although, in my opinion, the album contains a few filler tracks, the majority of the tunes feature pounding rhythms, powerful vocals, and the fantastic fretwork for which Ronnie Montrose was renowned, displaying the renewed lineup’s potential.

Unfortunately, however, the album dropped to almost zero fanfare, going by virtually unnoticed (and I can’t help thinking it had something to do with the horribly bland cover, the original version displaying only the giant “M”—the CD version at least had the group name added). Anyway, the foursome released no additional material after Mean, and Ronnie instead headed down the solo-album path, leaving behind (for the most part) the driving Hard Rock genre. Such a shame.

(RIP Ronnie Montrose, 1947-2012)

Get The Album Now!

Mr. Mister – Pull (2010)

MrMr_Pull4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1985, it seemed I couldn’t go a few days (even a few hours) without hearing music being played on the radio by Mr. Mister, the AOR/Pop Rock band that had just released its catchy sophomore album called Welcome to the Real World, which contained the wonderfully addicting tunes “Kyrie,” “Is It Love,” and “Broken Wings,” along with a host of other potential hits. Not only did the band include creative musicians and songwriters, but seemed destined for a long and lucrative career.

But when the band released its more innovative and somewhat-progressive third album, Go On, things suddenly went awry. Since the record label’s “mega hit machine” had stopped churning out instant Top Ten singles, RCA Victor was not happy, and amidst the fallout, the band lost its original guitarist, Steve Farris. And to make matters even worse, the group (with numerous guest guitarists, including Yes’s Trevor Rabin) recorded material for a fourth album planned for release around 1989/1990, with even more experimental AOR-oriented material included, and the record company executives (ie. royal and blundering noodleheads) decided to shelve the collection of tunes since it “wasn’t pop enough.” Morons!

Regardless, Mr. Mister’s remaining musicians—drummer Pat Mastelotto, keyboardist Steve George, and bassist/vocalist Richard Page—ended up disbanding in frustration when other labels also refused to accept the material.

Therefore, the eleven-song collection named Pull is an “archival” album that finally saw the light of day twenty years after its original creation. And yes, the album as a whole is indeed more experimental than 1985’s best-selling Welcome to the Real World, but it’s also a top-quality release, with intriguing melodies, lush instrumentation and harmonies, and Richard Page’s warm, pitch-perfect, and instantly recognizable voice front and center. Okay, so tracks such as “Close Your Eyes,” “Learning to Crawl,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “No Words to Say,” “Waiting in My Dreams,” and “We Belong to No One,” might not be instantaneous hit-single material, but the collection of tunes makes for an often-riveting AOR album, beautiful Pop Rock melodies with Prog-Rock leanings when it comes to song arrangements and keyboard instrumentation. Although the overall sound still has Mr. Mister’s undeniable stamp on it, the style is also not too far afield from the material artists such as Toto were recording in the late-’80s/early-’90s, and it’s occasionally similar in scope/style to Page’s 3rd Matinee project, the material he recorded with keyboardist Pat Leonard (Trillion/Toy Matinee) for the 1994 album Meanwhile.

So, although a previously “shelved” album might be considered by some people as being made up of “undeserving/poorly produced/low-quality material,” that is so far from the truth in the case of this particular album. In fact, many of the tunes on Pull are what I would deem as some of Mr. Mister’s best work, and any fan of the original group looking to hear this ultra-professional band delving into more adventurous sonic territory may enjoy this “archival” gem as much as I do.

Get The Album Now!

Michael Stanley Band – Heartland (1980)

MSB_Heartland4 out of 5 Stars!

Recently, after engaging in several conversations regarding how true talent, even brilliance in music, often goes both unrecognized and unrewarded, I got to thinking about the music industry as a whole, which has always been one baffling beast. It continually fascinates me how some out-of-the-gate and “just okay” rock groups or solo artists become instantaneous household names, showered in both plaudits and financial rewards based solely on either a single tune (a one-hit-wonder) or a handful of “so-so” songs, (often composed by outside songwriters, I might add), whereas an endless stream of highly gifted and deserving acts, religiously touring and performing all-original, hit-worthy material, continually languish in the shadows, struggling to break into the big-time after years and years of reliably generating top-quality work. Well, in truth, the absurdity of this unjustness doesn’t so much fascinate me as it simply pisses me off.

One such act that immediately sprang to mind during these conversations was the Michael Stanley Band, the city of Cleveland’s “best kept secret” (or, rather, a secret to most of the world outside of Ohio and several surrounding Midwestern states). How this band never broke big in America, let alone elsewhere, is still a mystery to me. MSB seemed to have everything going for it—instrumental prowess, songwriting chops, a distinctive sound, well-produced albums, a loyal fan base in Ohio where the band regularly sold out arenas and stadiums, and a major record label with oodles of moolah for which to promote their artists.

Anyway, when the band got snatched up by EMI America and released its fifth album, Heartland, in 1980 and finally started receiving regular airplay, thanks to the catchy hit single “He Can’t Love You,” I thought perhaps MSB had finally caught a break, that it would soon get major recognition throughout not only the U.S.A., but the world. Other tracks such as “Lover,” “Say Goodbye,” “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Voodoo,” “I’ll Never Need Anyone More (Than I Need You Tonight),” and “Hearts of Fire”—well, heck, pretty much every one of the eleven songs on this platter—proved quite memorable, and with the band including two chief songwriters (guitarist Michael Stanley and keyboardist Kevin Raleigh), there seemed no end to the creativity and sing-along choruses. Moreover, both songwriters had recognizable voices (the gruffer, deeper-voiced Stanley and the clean, soaring Raleigh), and their timbres blended together as tastefully as Kahlúa and cream, which gave the band an even wider commercial appeal. The fact that several tunes also featured a wailing sax (artfully supplied by the late Clarence Clemons—the band would recruit a full-time sax player shortly after this album was released) lent MSB a bit of a Springsteen vibe and should have also helped to propel the band to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll heap.

But after Heartland, despite the giant stride forward, nothing much happened for the group. Certainly, MSB continued delivering above-average material (with the albums North Coast, MSB, and You Can’t Fight Fashion being released in the subsequent three years following Heartland), yet the band simply could not catch that ever-illusive break. As stated earlier, the reasons why remain a mystery, but I chalk it up to lack of radio play and the overall apathy of the record company executives who neglected to provide the necessary promotion and finances. Regardless, this cluster of four albums—from 1980’s Heartland to 1983’s You Can’t Fight Fashion—remain special to me and I still listen to each of them on a regular basis.

Get The Album Now!

Mad Crayon – Diamanti (1999)

MadCrayon_Diamanti4 out of 5 Stars!

Italian band Mad Crayon released two albums in the ’90s, then another album ten years later, with Diamanti being the band’s sophomore effort. Unfamiliar with the 1994 debut album Ultimo Miraggio, however, or 2009’s final album Preda, I’m unsure how either compares to Diamanti, but if they are anywhere near the high quality of this splendid release, then Mad Crayon certainly has unquestionable talent.

Since the band at the time of this recording included two keyboardists and two guitarists (or three if you count the bassist, who is also credited with electric guitar), the balance seems near to perfect, with neither instrument dominating the proceedings. And as far as the music itself, the compositions range from upbeat and melodic Neo-Prog tunes with Symphonic touches, such as the ultra-catchy opening track, “La Ballatta Dell’uomo Nudo,” to pastoral, dreamier songs such as the closer, “Alchimia Di Un Leggenda,” where the band includes what sounds like flute and Mellotron, as well as spoken female vocals.

But most of the other tracks fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, with several of them having complex arrangements that trade off between light and heavy moments. “Deserti,” for example, includes a melody line in the initial verse and choruses that often brings to mind the Genesis track “Ripples,” only with acoustic guitar replacing the piano backdrop. Then a sax solo leads into the song’s mid-section, where electric guitars and Hammond take center stage, these heavier passages reminding me of groups such as The Flower Kings or Spock’s Beard, before the band returns to the mellower reprise of the verses and the song ends with beautiful violin accompaniment.

Other tunes such as the aforementioned opener, as well as the instrumental tracks “Glorioso Destino” and “Diamanti,” seem to have brief references toward the styles of Frank Zappa and Marillion, PFM or Credo, Doracor or Malibran, while the singer (on songs such as “L’allegra Brigata,” “Pioggia Di Fiori,” and “Principe Delle Marce”) periodically sounds like an Italian version of Phil Collins. Indeed, several of the compositions or various song arrangements on Diamanti have a distinct Genesis “post-Peter Gabriel” feel, so fans of the Trick of the Tail/Wind & Wuthering era of Genesis will certainly find much to savor.

Thankfully, I see that the band is still in existence, so hopefully Mad Crayon will be releasing new material in the near future. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to eventually hunt down the two albums I’m missing in the group’s catalogue. And to any Prog-Rock fans who, like myself, have a fondness for the generally exciting music that tends to come out of Italy on a regular basis, you may want to consider adding Diamanti to your collection.

Get The Album Now!


Moritz – Undivided (2010)

Moritz_Undivided4 out of 5 Stars!

The human mind is an amazing instrument, constantly storing endless bits of data—some of it vital, and some of it seemingly useless—until just the right moment comes along and bits of that seemingly useless data, memories you had no idea you’d even retained through the decades, rushes to the fore and, without warning, leads you to fun discoveries.

For instance, I distinctly recall that, way back in the mid-’80s, I heard positive buzz regarding an “up and coming” U.K. group named Moritz (I’m thinking it was a blurb in Kerrang! Magazine, although I could be wrong due to the occasional memory failures that come with age), but unfortunately, I was never able to track down a copy of the band’s lone release, an EP entitled Shadows of a Dream, before the group disbanded. Therefore, since those days, I eventually put the band out of my mind…that is, until just recently.

As it turns out, I stumbled upon a mention of the name Moritz a few years ago, bringing those bits of mental data from the ’80s back to the forefront of my mind, and learned that the band had actually reformed. Not only that, but it seems the group had released a handful of full-length albums since 2008, and not too long ago, I finally located a copy of the sophomore album, a twelve-song collection entitled Undivided.

Well, I’m thankful for what little memories I had regarding Moritz or I would’ve probably never paid much attention to that name popping up again, and had I not, I would’ve likely never discovered this particular album.

And what a fine collection of tunes it is. Fans of Hard Rock and AOR, especially from the ’80s time period, will more than likely appreciate much of the material on offer here. On tracks such as “Same but Different,” “Power of the Music,” “Never Together,” “World Keep Turning,” “Should’ve Been Gone,” and “Undivided,” Moritz delivers a string of powerful and memorable choruses, typically with upbeat rhythms, catchy guitar riffs and solos, occasionally pompish keyboards, pristine background harmonies, and a singer that possesses a touch of gruffness, a ton of emotion, and a barreling delivery style that drips with professionalism. When listening to the album, other groups such as FM, Strangeways, Airrace, Talisman, No Sweat, Survivor, Urban Tale, and W.E.T. periodically sprang to mind, but only in passing since, for the most part, Moritz has its own distinct sound and similarities to the other bands I mentioned are merely marginal.

Please note that I originally rated the album with an extra half-star. But after several hearings, and also comparing it to other albums within the genre, I finally settled on four stars since the final production/mix, at least to my ears, could be a tad brighter and beefier overall…just my personal preference.

Regardless, for lovers of Hard Rock/AOR seeking additional melodic material to enjoy, I pray you have at least as much memory as I do and will remember the name Moritz. Then, before you forget it, hunt for Undivided at your earliest opportunity and savor what the band has to offer. As for me, I not only made a mental note to myself, but a physical one, to hunt down the band’s other releases in the foreseeable future, praying they are just as enjoyable.

Get The Album Now!

Mother’s Finest – Mother’s Finest (1976)

MothersFinest_19764 out of 5 Stars!

From Atlanta, Georgia, Mother’s Finest burst out of the starting gate during the early ’70s to offer something truly unique in the Hard Rock genre—a seemingly perfect blend of Hard Rock and Funk, with touches of Metal, Soul, Jazz, and Pop-Rock performed by a multiracial line-up. And to increase the uniqueness factor even more, the band featured a female singer, an African American powerhouse by the name of Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy. Actually, to be more precise, the group included a male lead vocalist as well named Glenn “Doc” Murdock, also quite forceful and adept, but for me (and no offense to Murdock) it’s Kennedy, whether belting out leads or background harmonies, who truly stole the show and kept me coming back for more.

Mother’s Finest’s 1976 self-titled second release (not to be confused with the self-titled debut from 1972) is the one that initially caught my attention and remains a collection of tracks I enjoy even to this day. On rollicking songs such as “My Baby,” “Rain,” “Fire,” the controversially titled “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll,” and the blazing “Give You All the Love (Inside of Me),” Kennedy’s clean, crisp, and soulful voice simply kills, cutting through the air like the proverbial siren and drawing in the listener, while Murdock and the other talented musicians offer up ultra-tight, deft, catchy, and percussion-rich “Hard Rockin’ Funk.” My only gripe with this album when I initially purchased it is that the band delivered only a total of seven tracks, collectively not quite reaching the thirty-five-minute mark, and I instantly yearned for more.

Regardless, it’s still a wonder to me why Mother’s Finest, with more than a dozen albums to its credit, the last one being released only a few years ago, remains so horribly obscure, and why Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy isn’t more widely acclaimed for her fantastic set of pipes. Holy crap, this gal can sing, and this album rocks (and funks) out!

Get The Album Now!

Man – Do You Like It Here Now, Are You Settling In? (1971)

Man_DoYouLikeItHereNow4 out of 5 Stars!

The group Man, a Progressive Rock/Psychedelic Rock outfit from the U.K., is not only a long-lasting group, but one that remains (horribly enough) an obscure one.

From the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, Man released a string of engaging and clever albums (and more, since the band reformed in the ’90s and continues to this day) that remain cloaked in controversy—in other words, which genre label is the best to describe Man?

Although I’m sure no response will fully satisfy die-hard fans of the group, my answer would simply be “Progressive Rock.” Seriously, since the band was nothing if not experimental, created a style all its own by jumbling together so many various genres and was indeed true to the meaning of the term, “Progressive Rock” is quite apt.

Therefore, Do You Like It Here Now, Are You Settling In? (the band’s fourth album), with highly diverse tracks such as the experimental “Many Are Called But Few Get Up” that sounds almost a cross between Nektar and Gentle Giant, the ultra-wacky “All Good Clean Fun” with its crazy time signature shifts, the rocking “Love Your Life” with its Heavy Psych guitar and organ solos, and the bopping “Angel Easy” with its countrified-Pop feel, will be of possible interest to those Prog-loving individuals unfamiliar with Man, yet who are also seeking interesting music outside the norm that has inexplicably escaped their turntables throughout the decades.

Get The Album Now!

Mother’s Army – Fire on the Moon (1998)

MothersArmy_FireMoon4 out of 5 Stars!

Any new music from Joe Lynn Turner is on my “auto-buy” list, and with the ex-Rainbow/Deep Purple vocalist having been involved in so many various groups, one-off projects, and his own solo albums through the decades, that means I’ve made a ton of purchases with his name on them, and most everything he does is high on quality.

Mother’s Army, a “supergroup” also including guitarist Jeff Watson (Night Ranger), bassist Bob Daisley (Rainbow/Uriah Heep/Black Sabbath), and drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge/Cactus/King Kobra), was one such band that fell into that “auto-buy” category, and Fire on the Moon—the final of the band’s three releases—is rather an enjoyable affair.

Oddly enough, the band’s previous album (Planet Earth) didn’t quite hit the right mark for me, was a major step down in quality from the promising debut, and in Turner’s overall discography, ended up being one of my least favorite of all the albums on which he appears.

Therefore, I remember not holding out much hope for this collection upon its arrival in 1998, but thankfully, on the mighty opener “N.D.E.” and the tunes “No Religion,” “Way Out of the World,” “Moruroa Atoll,” “Another Dimension,” and the rip-roaring title track “Fire on the Moon,” the band actually sounded rejuvenated and more inspired, perhaps because legendary drummer Aynsley Dunbar replaced Appice and added some “fresh blood” to the mix.

Regardless of the reason, Mother’s Army ended its existence on a melodic and blazing high note, and Turner’s performance was, as always, impressive and clearly showed why he’s been so in demand all these years.

Get The Album Now!