Nocturnal Rites – Grand Illusion (2005)

NocturnalRites_GrandIllusion4 out of 5 Stars!

From Sweden, Nocturnal Rites released a string of eight studio albums between 1995 through 2007—most of them containing above-average material, in my opinion—with Grand Illusion being the second to last in the series. Although the band started out as a slamming Death Metal act, Nocturnal Rites quickly developed into one of the most consistent Power Metal groups, always delivering the goods in a highly professional and generally well-produced manner, despite various lineup changes as well as adjustments to the level of aggression and the amount of melodies included on each of its albums, which, in my eyes, always served to keep things from getting too stale. I realize that some longtime fans of the group have their preferred albums or periods of the band’s history; I pretty much like all the albums about equally, although I do seem to find myself playing the latter albums a bit more often these days.

Nevertheless, this collection (like always) features thundering and melodic Heavy Metal/Power Metal in a variety of tempos, with full and sizzling guitars, rich and grand keyboards, a rock-solid rhythm section, and a powerful vocalist who easily falls into the Jorn Lande style of “belting out the jams.” On tunes such as “Our Wasted Days,” “Deliverance,” “End of Our Rope,” “Fools Never Die,” and “Still Alive,” the band often reminds me of artists such as Firewind, Thunderstone, Kenziner, Tad Morose, Masterplan, Sonata Arctica, and At Vance, with memorable riffs driving the catchy material, hints of Progressive Metal included for extra spice, all wrapped up in a bold and bombastic package.

After the band released its next album, 2007’s The 8th Sin, Nocturnal Rites seemingly disappeared from the scene. Since the album received what I eventually decided was cruel and unfair criticism for being “too melodic” or “too keyboard heavy,” I had feared the worst, that the band members had collectively decided “screw it” and had called it quits. But thankfully, Nocturnal Rites returned a full decade later with the 2017 album Phoenix and a new guitarist in the ranks. Now I’m hoping the guys stick around for a good long while.

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New England – New England (1979)

NewEngland_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the late ’70s while working at a record store, one of the most memorable “PROMO” albums that arrived was the self-titled debut by an act called New England. I distinctly recall hearing it for the first time…it was a long, dreary night with no customers, due to a torrential rainstorm. My co-worker and I, bored out of our skulls and unpacking shipments, tugged this album from the box, saw the lightning-decorated cover art, and decided that on such a stormy evening it would be highly appropriate to crank it up on the store’s sound system. We actually didn’t realize how appropriate until after hearing the lyrics to “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya.”

Anyway, just as Side A faded out, then after lifting our jaws from the floor, we simultaneously sprinted to the turntable. I wanted to flip the platter to Side B since I couldn’t wait to hear more, while my co-worker begged to repeat the first five tracks, especially that “catchy song about losing someone during a storm.” She eventually won the argument only since I wanted to once again absorb all the layered vocals and lush keyboard instrumentation (never had I heard an album outside of Prog-Rock that actually featured the Mellotron so liberally). Well, I got to hear Side B soon enough, fell in love myself with the song “Nothing To Fear,” and she and I ended up repeating those five songs before replaying the album in its entirety. And before we realized it, the “quitting hour” had arrived and the thunderstorm outside had also miraculously vanished.

Needless to say, over the course of the following week, she and I “promoed” this album as often as possible and we both purchased it when our next paychecks arrived (with our employee discount, of course). And since those days, I have savored the album more often than I can count and have never grown tired of it. From the rockier tunes such as “P.U.N.K. (Puny Undernourished Kid)” and “Shoot,” to the aforementioned AOR masterpieces “Nothing To Fear” and “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya,” to the Poppy, Art-Rockish, and Pomp-tastic “Hello, Hello, Hello,” “Turn out the Light,” “Encore,” “Shall I Run Away,” and (another favorite) “The Last Show,” the musicians had created a grand and majestic style all their own.

Although the band hailed from the Boston area, that musical style, however, did seem so damned British, almost as if the groups 10cc and Mott The Hoople had joined forces with Queen and Badfinger, then added perhaps Rick Wakeman or Patrick Moraz to play Mellotron. Indeed, when he’s not adding full power chords or blazing solos, guitarist/vocalist John Fannon sings with almost a British accent at times, and on piano-featured tracks such as “Turn out the Light,” and the highly theatrical “The Last Show” and “Encore,” Fannon’s voice could almost pass for Ian Hunter’s (only somehow tamed) while various musical passages and chord patterns often remind me of material from Mott the Hoople’s final days, only mixed with those other groups I mentioned…and the abundant Mellotron. And speaking of which, when it came to New England, no one ever had to ask the question “Where’s Waldo?” since keyboardist Jimmy Waldo was always front and center, adding his symphonic flourishes to create some of the most extravagant Pomp Rock on the planet. Meanwhile, bassist Gary Shea and drummer/vocalist Hirsh Gardner set a high standard, their rhythms always tight, punchy, and easily fluid while they shift from one tempo to the next. And adding to the magnificence of it all, Kiss’s Paul Stanley produced the collection along with Mike Stone (of Queen/Journey fame), who also engineered the project.

But after such an impressive release, the question remained—could New England follow it up successfully? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding “yes,” with 1980’s Explorer Suite easily matching the same catchy high quality, although with (sorry to say) less Mellotron overall. Oh, well, you can’t have everything, right? Anyway, after releasing a third album in 1981, the group sadly disbanded for reasons unknown to me. I did, however, happily find myself in a situation some years later when one of my own bands opened several shows for Alcatrazz, a group that included both Waldo and Shea, and I got to hang out one evening with these “idols” of mine, so had New England not broken up, that evening certainly would have never happened. (Yes, I know, I’m selfish.)

But one final and happy note: it’s a thrill to know that New England is once again together and touring, so I’m praying for the guys to release new material in the near future. I will never forget that stormy-night-turned-special at the record store when I discovered the band, so New England remains special to me for that reason alone and I can never get enough from this wildly talented team of musicians. So come on, boys, you can do it…you’ve got “noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, noth, nothing to fear.”

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Nazareth – No Mean City (1979)

Nazareth_NoMeanCity4 out of 5 Stars!

No Mean City is one of my favorite Nazareth albums—the band’s tenth studio release, if memory serves me correctly. This is also the first Nazareth album to include Zal Cleminson, the guitar hero of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who injected a boost of energy into the band, not only contributing his songwriting chops, but adding his distinctive guitar tones to the proceedings and finally giving Nazareth that dual-guitar punch I felt it needed.

Unlike most (if not all) previous Nazareth albums, no outside songwriters were used for No Mean City—the group reworked no “cover tunes”—and includes not only some sterling kick-ass rockers such as the opener “Just to Get Into It,” but also “Simple Solution (Parts 1 & 2),” “Claim to Fame,” “What’s in It for Me,” and the brutal “No Mean City (Parts 1 & 2),” but also the track “Star,” probably the finest ballad Nazareth ever recorded.

Moreover, the album features my best-loved Nazareth cover art of all time, thanks to artist Rodney Matthews, which clearly gives a hint as to the killer material on offer.

Though perhaps not as perfect as previous Nazareth collections such as Hair of the Dog or (my favorite) Razamanaz, the power and consistency of material on No Mean City easily matches that of other top-tier albums such as the previous Loud ‘n’ Proud, Play ‘n’ The Game, and Expect No Mercy, making this one another gem in the band’s vast catalogue.

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Nektar – Remember the Future (1973)

Nektar_RememberFuture4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I realize that nostalgia plays a large part in my feelings toward this album, and please excuse me for that, but during my youth, Remember the Future was one of several albums that actually engendered my obsession with Prog-Rock that continues to this day, so because of that, I’ll always hold it dear.

Back in 1973, I’d heard only a snippet of Remember the Future on a Chicago FM radio station that occasionally showcased “underground” groups from Europe, and since I adored the “short track” by this unknown group called Nektar, I purchased the album immediately, eagerly looking forward to hearing all the various songs.

But when I got the album home and discovered that Remember the Future actually contained only a single thirty-five minute composition—divided into Side A and Side B, of course—my thirteen-year-old self, a budding musician/songwriter who had thought in terms of only three or four minute compositions up to that point, found Nektar’s daring achievement totally unique and utterly awesome, which inspired me to seek out even more bands audacious enough and creative enough to release lengthy Prog-Rock material.

Anyway, although I’ve played this beautifully melodic album countless times through the years, it somehow still sounds fresh today, more than four decades later. I’m sure many Nektar devotees will disagree, but I still believe Remember the Future (as well as the group’s Recycled album from 1975) are the band’s finest achievements, near-perfect masterpieces of Prog-Rock, two albums that helped to instigate my long-running affair with the genre.

(And RIP to underappreciated guitarist/vocalist Roye Albrighton, who passed away only last year…Nektar fans like myself won’t only remember the future, but also remember your extraordinary talents!)

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Nazareth – Razamanaz (1973)

Nazareth_Razamanaz4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Razamanaz is undoubtedly one of my favorite Hard Rock albums of all time, and my personal favorite in the Nazareth catalogue.

The bluesy riffs, the scorching performances, the spiffy production (thanks to Deep Purple’s Roger Glover), the selection of original and cover songs, and Dan McCafferty’s whiskey-shredded voice all seemed to gel on this album. Indeed, it was on Razamanaz, the Scottish band’s third studio effort, where the trademarked Nazareth style perfectly came together.

From the storming title track and a take-no-prisoners version of Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz,” to the eerie and devilish “Sold My Soul” and the ultra-catchy “Broken Down Angel,” this collection of tunes just doesn’t let up for one single minute. Both “Vigilante Man” and “Bad, Bad Boy” are showcases for Manny Charlton’s wild and wonderful slide guitar, and “Night Woman,” “Too Bad, Too Sad,” and “Woke Up This Morning” (a track from the band’s previous album, but rerecorded and energized) are nothing less than rockin’ and stompin’ killers, displaying impressive teamwork from the long-time rhythm section of bassist Pete Agnew and drummer Darrell Sweet.

Although Nazareth subsequently released numerous other top-quality albums during its forty-plus-years career, none of them seemed as near to everlasting “Hard Rock Paradise” as Razamanaz…a “must have if stranded on a deserted island” album if I ever heard one.

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Nazareth – Boogaloo (1998)

Nazareth_Boogaloo4 out of 5 Stars!

One thing that can easily be said for Nazareth—the Scottish band cannot be classified as a group of “quitters.” After Nazareth’s initial semi-major success in the ’70s began to fade, the band kept rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ onward, despite the various musical trends that created havoc in the industry through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the new century. And Nazareth never altered its style too drastically, but strove forward into each new decade by continually producing its enjoyable (albeit occasionally spotty—ie. “varied”) style of Hard Rock.

Indeed, apart from one or two albums that fell below the band’s “quality benchmark,” Nazareth’s latter-day albums still contained some fun and delicious music, Hard Rock with a touch of Blues, Country, and AOR mixed in, with Dan McCafferty’s raspy and punchy vocals and Pete Agnew’s thumping and melodic bass lines, regardless of the other musicians that eventually joined the fold throughout the years.

And this album from the late ’90s is no exception. For starters, Boogaloo opens with the gruff and gritty “Light Comes Down,” a blast of rock ‘n’ roll that could have easily appeared on any of the band’s albums from the ’70s. From there, “Cheerleader” is another upbeat boogie-rocker with dastardly vocals, slamming drums, and tinkling piano in the tradition of tracks such as “Razamanaz.” With some brass accompaniment, “Loverman” adds a whisper of funk to the killer beat, while “Open Up, Woman,” “Talk Talk,” “Party at the Kremlin,” “Robber the Roadie,” and “Waiting” all pack the heavy swagger that made Nazareth so special in its early days. Even the more mid-tempo, slower-bluesy tracks “Nothing So Good” and “God Save the South” pack a mighty wallop to the jaw, whereas the final tune, “May Heaven Keep You,” is the only actual ballad included here, yet nevertheless has an impact during the choruses.

Indeed, Boogaloo contains an above-average collection of songs, is probably one of the most consistent albums in the band’s more recent catalogue, and isn’t too far afield from classic albums such as Razamanaz, No Mean City, or Hair of the Dog—in other words, the music is pure Nazareth, and terrific!

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Nektar – Recycled (1975)

Nektar_Recycled4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After this German band released the terrific Remember The Future album in 1973, the follow-up release in 1974 (the brass-riddled, circus-concept album Down To Earth) was rather a disappointment. Thankfully, the band bounced back almost immediately with the excellent Recycled, one of its most keyboard-rich, ultra-Progressive albums, which subsequently became one of my favorite Nektar releases of all time (probably second only to Remember The Future).

On Recycled, Side A (Part One) is absolutely stunning, with each short track flawlessly linked into one continuous suite of music, a glorious seventeen-plus-minute affair of sheer Prog-Rock beauty. Side B (Part 2), however, contains four non-linked songs, with two of them (“Marvellous Moses” and “It’s All Over”) being two of my favorites within Nektar’s entire catalogue of material, with the latter song, a ballad, containing verses that have probably the most delicious vocal melody lines and chord patterns Nektar ever put together.

Unfortunately, this was probably the last truly great Nektar album also, although no subsequent album was actually horrible, merely inconsistent when it came to quality and songwriting, and some of the band’s more recent releases (2004’s Evolution, 2008’s Book of Days, and 2013’s Time Machine) were rather enjoyable, just not quite up to the same lofty standards set by Recycled or Remember The Future. Regardless, I have them all, and continue to enjoy most of them on a regular basis.

Finally, RIP to Roye Albrighton, guitarist extraordinaire, who passed away in 2016, a year ago this very week, in fact. So sad…

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Neurotic Outsiders – Neurotic Outsiders (1996)

neuroticoutsiders_14 out of 5 Stars!

When I learned in 1995 that Steve Jones (Sex Pistols/Chequered Past), Duff McKagan (Guns ‘N’ Roses), and Matt Sorum (The Cult/Guns ‘N’ Roses) had formed a new “supergroup” with John Taylor (Duran Duran/The Power Station), I had high expectations, even though I was mostly unfamiliar with John Taylor, and never a fan of either of his groups. Since I was a fan of the other musicians and their bands, however, those high expectations remained, and for the most part, the band’s debut album did not disappoint.

Loaded with loud, driving, and rebellious Hard Rock liberally crossing into Punk territory, yet with some lighter, melodic ingredients that actually reminded me of David Bowie’s Ziggy-era material (more on that later), the album simply slams nearly as thunderously as the Sex Pistols’ lone album—just listen to the single “Jerk” and you’ll see what I mean. Other Pistols-like tracks such as “Always Wrong,” “Nasty Ho,” “Good News,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Revolution” also barrel through the speakers with as much Punk nastiness as could be expected from a line-up featuring Steve Jones. The only difference from the Sex Pistols is that the vocals on this album (not the best, but at least passable) are actually “sung” and not “spat” in the tradition of the legendary Johnny Rotten (who is, by the way, actually mentioned within the lyrics of the song “Union,” along with other Sex Pistols members, including Steve Jones himself.). I also must mention the catchy song “Angelina,” where the sing-along choruses showed an almost “poppy” side to the band and made for another decent single.

Of the lighter tracks, the Bowie influence on “Better Way” brings to mind the classic track “Rock and Roll Suicide,” not only when it comes to the chord patterns in the verses, but the lead vocals, which sound similar to Bowie’s when he sang in the lower registers. Truth be told, however, several other lighter moments of this album (specifically the tracks “Union” and “Story of My Life”) are the weakest points of this collection for me, despite the occasional Bowie influences. I much prefer the brash, head-banging tracks that make up the majority of the album, where thankfully the ghost of the Sex Pistols seems to be the chief overall component, and I typically find myself cranking the stereo to “10,” reveling in the fullness of the guitars, the rambunctious bass and drums, and the rich and well-rounded production.

Sadly, this promising group never lasted long enough to produce another full-length studio album, only a short EP (Angelina) the following year, which also features the same catchy album track mentioned above, a version of “Jerk” with “clean” lyrics, along with a trio of new tunes. Regardless, this album was a fun discovery for me and made me yearn for more.

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Nuova Idea – Clowns (1973)

NuovaIdea_Clowns4 out of 5 Stars!

How this classic Italian Prog-Rock band eluded me all these decades until just recently, I’ll never know, but I’m just glad I finally discovered them and tracked down a copy of Clowns, their third and final album, originally issued way back in 1973.

Generally, when it comes to the music on offer here, I am quite pleased, giddy even, especially since I’m a big fan of the band Gentle Giant. Please note, since Nuova Idea released this particular album during the midst of Gentle Giant’s “creative peak” years, it’s impossible to know exactly who might have “borrowed” from whom, but I suspect Nuovo Idea was more the “borrower” than the “borrowee.”

On the song “Clessidra,” for example, the main riff instantly brings to mind “Prologue” from Gentle Giant’s Three Friends album, whereas part of the song “Un’Isola” somehow seemed heavily influenced by “Wreck,” a classic track off Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste album. The long and complex title track “Clowns” also contains numerous riffs that could have easily found a home on Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House album…similar keyboard sounds, similar rhythm patterns, similar guitar tones, etc. Overall, there’s nothing that’s a direct Gentle Giant rip-off, mind you, but enough traits of Gentle Giant to put a wide smile on my face.

In addition to the heavy hand of Gentle Giant appearing on this album, I can also detect the occasional nods to fellow countrymen PFM and Jumbo throughout. On “Clowns,” especially, these additional influences come through when the classical and jazzy moments slip onto the picture. The rhythm changes, as well as the keyboard and guitar arrangements on this track, are generally quirky, and even the inclusion of some trumpet adds an extra dimension to the often-strange, yet enjoyable slice of Italian Prog-Rock. Again, the band Jumbo springs to mind most prominently, and I love it.

One important caveat I must mention—the singer of this band, Ricky Belloni, takes some getting used to, and in truth, may not appeal to some less-forgiving listeners. At times, although he does sing on key, his vocal quality is more than a tad grating, especially when he’s reaching for the high notes on a track such as “Un’Isola.” The overuse of vibrato, such as on “Il Giardino dei Sogni” and segments of “Clowns,” along with the gruffness of his voice, as well as his overly dramatic approach, could be a turn-off for some people. But when he’s singing in a mellow voice and doesn’t use his vibrato, he’s perfectly fine. The same goes for when he’s singing as part of a team with other band members, such as on “Clessidra,” his voice blends in quite well and the irritation factor is reduced to almost nil. Nevertheless, listeners should beware of this one “negative” when it comes to this album.

Despite that single criticism, I found this album quite silly and fun, often engaging. You could tell the musicians had a great time putting this album together, and their overall instrumentation is quite superb. Despite the lack of originality regarding their style, Nuova Idea were indeed a talented lot that, sadly, disappeared off the landscape after only a few short years.

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Night Sun – Mournin’ (1972)

NightSun_Mournin4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1972, this German band released its one and only album.

Because of the thick Hammond organ and Psych guitar, Night Sun reminded me (primarily) of other German acts such as Birth Control or Lucifer’s Friend (its debut album), only heavier. Much heavier, actually. Just listen to the two slamming opening tracks—”Plastic Shotgun” and “Crazy Woman”—and hear what sounds like Birth Control meets Deep Purple in a marriage of fuzz guitar and Hammond, with phased drums and thumping bass in the background along with a vocalist not afraid to belt out the lyrics like his very life depended on it.

One of my favorite tracks, “Got a Bone of My Own,” starts with eerie instrumentation preceding a killer riff, both immediately bringing to mind the debut Black Sabbath album, the album where Ozzy and company clearly displayed Blues inspirations. Is this what Deep Purple may have sounded like had the group had Tony Iommi on guitar delivering his “evil” riffing? One can only guess.

“Slush Pan Man” shows even more of Night Sun’s own Blues-based influences when it comes to the sound, but again, wrapping them up in a catchy, memorable Deep Purple-like riff that would have fit right at home on the In Rock album.

Side B opens with another monster track named “Living With the Dying,” which somehow reminds me of Led Zeppelin, only with more of a Deep Purple feel, due mainly to the organ. And once again, those phased drums pop up in the middle of the song, playing a rather extended solo bit before the guitar and Hammond trade their own heated solos prior to the final verse.

“Come Down” opens with a moody organ background before the singer lays a pretty melody over the top of it, momentarily adding a welcome break from the frantic madness of the previous track. Before long, however, this ballad turns into a mid-paced rocker in the best tradition of early Lucifer’s Friend or Birth Control. This is another of my favorites.

Some additional organ and guitar solos pop up on “Blind,” another blues-based song that conjures up the same style as Deep Purple’s “Lazy.” While “Nightmare” is a fast-paced slammer (similar to Deep Purple’s “Speed King” in pace and style). Here the Hammond organ is given a chance to truly shine and the singer even produces some screams in an attempt to replicate Ian Gillan’s unique vocal delivery.

The album closes with another rocker called “Don’t Start Flying,” which surprisingly brings in a sax, adding yet another dimension to the band’s overall sound. Can you picture a song by Deep Purple with an in-your-face sax wailing throughout? Hard to imagine, I’m sure, but this is probably what it may have sounded like had Deep Purple attempted it.

Anyway, since some of the songs here have a touch of Progressive Rock included, I can’t help wondering what Night Sun might have produced had the band stayed together for at least another few albums. Would the group have gone more Prog-Rock or continued on with the Blues-based Heavy Metal sound, or would Night Sun have continued to perfect an equal blending of the two genres? Who knows. The band had great potential.


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