Preview – Preview (1983)

Preview_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of New York came Preview, an admirably melodic AOR group that released only a single album full of catchy material before (mournfully and unjustifiably) disappearing off the scene prior to gaining any traction. Years later, however, a bootleg became available of the band’s unreleased second album, and although Preview seemed to have soldiered on (at least for a short time) in the same overall style on its second potential release, creating another decent record, the songwriting didn’t seem quite as immediate or the “polish” quite as sparkling. But then again, these tunes had not been finalized for an “official” release, therefore, although the potential certainly existed, who knows what the tunes may have sounded like in a professionally produced and mastered condition?

Nevertheless, this eponymously titled debut is an obscure gem of the AOR genre, equaling nearly every other platter from similar Arena Rock bands during the same era.

On this collection of ten highly memorable songs, any number of them (especially “All Night,” “Running Back,” “Red Lights,” “Love Finds a Way,” and “Open Up Your Heart”) might have been hit singles had the band received so much as an iota of promotion from its record label, Geffen Records. Indeed, with four obviously talented musicians in its ranks, as well as a recognizable lead vocalist supported by tight background harmonies, Preview had a sturdy foundation for success. Yet better still, Preview also had one hell of a secret weapon in its musical arsenal—a marvelously gifted tunesmith in keyboardist Ernie Gold, who composed nine of the ten songs and co-wrote a handful of them with Alan Pasqua, keyboardist and composer associated with artists such as Giant, Santana, and Eddie Money. So with Gold at its creative helm, the band possessed a songwriter worth his weight (and every pun intended) in gold, an enviable resource for any AOR band. By the way, it should also be noted that vocalist Jon Fiore contributed one tune, the stunning closer “It’s Over,” showing that’s Gold’s talent wasn’t entirely unique within the band.

Anyway, I played this album continuously upon first purchasing it back in 1983, and indulged in it countless times through the following decades, and even now, it’s lost none of its harmonious power or charm. In fact, one hearing of the full album is never enough during a single sitting, and I still find myself hitting the REPLAY button to get a second dose, even after all these many years.

So, one might ask themselves, how could a band with so much raw musical potential and superb songwriting muscle go absolutely nowhere and remain so wretchedly obscure?

To answer that question, I’m once again pointing a finger directly at the record label—and guess which finger I’m using! This is the same finger I aimed several years earlier at RCA Victor when it likewise did nothing to promote another top-class act called Susan, allowing that band’s enjoyable debut album to flounder when, with a modicum of effort and a few extra advertising dollars, could have saved the group from entering the gates of oblivion. Why record labels go to the trouble of contracting bands, then do virtually nothing to aid the band in selling records—the label’s very business, their raison d’être, for pity’s sake—is beyond my understanding.

Anyway, all of my blame-casting aside…fans of diverse AOR groups such as Survivor, Cobra, The Babys, Journey, Franke & The Knockouts, Prism, Honeymoon Suite, Loverboy, and Wrabit will most certainly find interest in this mostly unknown group. Now, the trick is to actually track down a copy of this album to add to your collections. But be patient…it’s worth the efforts of investigation to do so, and thankfully, copies now seem more readily available then they were years ago.

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Passport – Cross-Collateral (1975)

Passport_Cross4 out of 5 Stars!

Since its formation in Germany back in 1970, Passport has been one of the best (mostly) instrumental Jazz-Fusion/Prog-Rock bands (and one of the longest-lasting bands in the genre) to have emerged. The material is ultra-professional (well-performed and well-produced), and the albums (especially those from the 1970s, like Cross-Collateral) are typically highly rated by many fans of the group and are some of my favorites in the genre.

Even way back in 1975 on Cross-Collateral, it’s abundantly clear that Klaus Doldinger (on sax, flute, and keyboards, including Moog and Mellotron) is masterful at his craft. The man’s woodwind solos always soar wildly with jazzy melodies, while his keyboards add the perfect spacey and ethereal atmospheres to tracks such as “Homunculus,” “Albatros Song,” and the blazing and lengthy title track.

Plus, the other musicians throughout history who’ve appeared on Passport albums also deserve high praise, especially those who perform on this release. Kristian Schultze’s Fender Rhodes piano contributions, sometimes wonderfully mellow as shown on “Damals” and the aforementioned “Albatros Song,” always add sparkle and structure, while Wolfgang Schmid’s nimble and melodic bass lines and Curt Cress’s always tight, slamming, and often-funky percussion energize tunes such as “Jadoo,” “Will-O’The-Wisp,” and “Cross-Collateral,” making for a seamless merging of Prog-Rock and Jazz Fusion.

As I mentioned, the band stands at the head of this particular sub-genre of Prog-Rock, falling along the same “high-quality” lines set by groups such as Brand X, Weather Report, Return To Forever, and Frank Zappa (his jazzier releases). Passport is top-class all the way!

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Promenade – Noi al dir di Noi (2016)

Promenade_NoiAlDirDiNoi4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Promenade’s debut album includes some fun and wicked musical gymnastics on the opening track “Athletics” alone.

Actually, the band’s forays into Jazz-Rock and Avant-Prog territories remind me of the old Canterbury style of Prog-Rock, especially with the inclusion of wailing saxes, exciting rhythm shifts, and dexterous keyboard and guitar runs throughout.

Moreover, with some medieval-sounding instrumentation, the ghosts of both Gentle Giant and Gryphon also rear their beautiful heads on occasion, especially on the track “Roccoco.”

Therefore, Prog fans will find some fascinating material on offer here, which could allow Promenade to build a dedicated legion of fans.

There is, however, one major problem I foresee in the group achieving greater notoriety with this debut release—the cover layout. Certainly, the artwork is dazzling, yet it’s typically considered a good marketing strategy to have the band’s NAME/LOGO and the collection’s title actually displayed on the cover itself…somewhere…hello? Just a friendly suggestion to the record company… 🙂

Regardless, Italy’s Promenade—including Matteo Barisone (Keyboards/Vocals), Gianluca Barisone (Guitar), Stefano Scarella (Bass/Sax), and Simone Scala (Percussion)—is a promising young band and deserves some attention from Prog-Rock lovers.

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Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) – Photos of Ghosts (1973)

PFM_PhotosGhosts4 out of 5 Stars!

After releasing an impressive debut album (Storia di un minuto), then an equally stunning follow-up (Per un amico), PFM got “discovered” outside its native Italy by Greg Lake, who signed the band to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Manticore label.

Immediately afterward, the group either re-recorded or remixed some of its past material (mostly from its sophomore album) and added English lyrics, created one additional song as well (“Old Rain”), and packaged the “new” album as Photos of Ghosts, thus giving PFM more worldwide exposure through the Manticore distribution channels.

For the most part, the gamble paid off, and countries including America started to pay attention. Unfortunately, despite the added exposure over the next few years, the band went only so far in expanding its worldwide fan base and still remains horribly obscure.

Regardless, some PFM fans prefer the original Italian-lyric versions of the various tracks offered on this release, while I sit on the fence and replay all the band’s early albums, both in Italian or English, about equally.

Whichever preference one may have, however, the listener is treated to sophisticated, complex, and creative music from arguably Italy’s most talented Prog-Rock group in the first half of the ’70s, and Photos of Ghosts includes several of PFM’s most famous and classic tracks, including “Celebration,” “Mr. 9 Till 5,” “Il Banchetto,” and “Promenade The Puzzle.”

For those still Prog-Rock fans still unfamiliar with this legendary group, Photos of Ghosts wouldn’t be a bad place to start when delving into the band’s extensive catalogue.

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Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) – Storia di un minuto (1972)

PFM_Storia4 out of 5 Stars!

Storia di un minuto is the impressive debut album of a band many Prog-Rock fans (and friends of mine) deemed to be “the Italian Gentle Giant.”

Okay, I’ll concur with that, but to only a marginal extent. Sure, PFM occasionally incorporated “unconventional” instruments (woodwinds, violin, etc.) into its overall sound, bringing about much of the “Giant comparisons” from my friends. But PFM had actually created its own rather unique and theatrical style and so—to me, at least—truly sounded nothing much like Gentle Giant.

Regardless, Storia di un minuto was one of the first albums I investigated by this band, and I remember coming away with a smile on my face.

With its riotous and ever-changing tempos, chunky guitar and bright synth riffs, not to mention the inclusion of flute and the glorious Mellotron, the track “E’ festa” is where I viewed the most Gentle Giant comparisons. Similarly, the opening section of the instrumental “Dove… quando… (parte II)” offered some additional comparisons.

But that was about it. On other tracks such as “Impressioni di settembre” and “Dove… quando… (parte I)” the group’s more pastorial side came through, offering something completely different. Additionally, in the second half of the aforementioned “Dove… quando… (parte II),” when the band dove headfirst into Jazz-Rock territory during a free-styling flute solo, I realized that the seamless merging of genres was a trait not many other groups shared with PFM, and I was hooked. And as if to further intrigue me, the band also tossed in “La carrozza di Hans,” where again, the merging of numerous genres, of shifting styles and widely varied instrumentation within such a short time span (the track is just shy of seven minutes) gave PFM a unique character and enduced me to investigate even more groups with Italian heritage.

Unfortunately, in its heyday during the ’70s, the talented group could never quite break big into the booming “American market”—although it came damned close—therefore, PFM remains shamefully obscure even now.

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Pride of Lions – Immortal (2012)

PrideLions_Immortal4 out of 5 Stars!

For me, when it comes to musicians, Chicago’s Jim Peterik easily falls into the “living legend” category. Peterik first earned his stripes with the Jazz-Rock group The Ides of March, then later, garnered even more acclaim as one of the driving forces in Survivor, penning numerous hits along the way (either individually or as part of a songwriting team) for not only his own groups, but for numerous other artists. Seriously, who in the world is still unfamiliar with the song “Eye of the Tiger,” right?

Therefore, in 2003, when I learned of Peterik’s involvement with a new band called Pride of Lions, I added the group’s future releases to my “auto-purchase” list and have never once been disappointed. With exceptional lead singer Toby Hitchcock (his style, range, and timbre highly reminiscent of Survivor’s Jimi Jamison—RIP) on board, Peterik found the perfect musical partner with whom to create additional AOR magic.

Immortal, the band’s fourth album, is once again a collection of beautifully written and well-produced tracks, both sing-along rockers such as the opening title tune, plus “Coin of the Realm,” “If It Doesn’t Kill Me,” “Vital Signs,” “Ask Me Yesterday,” and “Tie Down the Wind,” along with a handful of luscious ballads like “Everything That Money Can’t Buy,” “Are You the Same Girl,” and “Sending My Love”.

And no doubt, this album (as well as the band’s other high-quality releases) will appeal to fans of groups such as Journey, Mecca, W.E.T., Find Me, Sunstorm, and of course, Survivor.

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Puzzle – Puzzle (1973)

Puzzle_14 out of 5 Stars!

Is there anyone besides me who remembers this group? When hunting through my album collection not long ago, I yanked out the two platters by an extremely obscure band from Chi-town named Puzzle.

Now, I hadn’t heard these albums for decades, yet the moment I reviewed the song titles listed on the back covers, snippets of “tune memories” immediately raced through my mind and I itched to revisit these collections again.

Now, despite the band including a horn section, a rarity in and of itself, Puzzle truly offered nothing revolutionary in the Jazz-Rock/Jazz Fusion world. Indeed, the band sounded remarkably like Chicago, even featuring a lead singer (the band’s drummer) with a voice similar to Robert Lamm’s. Although since Puzzle did not include a trombonist, but two trumpeters and a sax player, the brass section is thinner—not as round or as full without the trombone—setting it apart from Chicago’s signature brass sound. Plus, groups such as Chicago, Ides of March, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chase had already been around for several years before Puzzle popped onto the scene, so again, the band offered nothing truly unique.

Still, the band had potential, and on its debut album, produced catchy, well-arranged material featuring wailing brass such as “On With the Show,” “You Make Me Happy,” “It’s Not the Last Time,” “Brand New World,” “Lady,” “Suite Delirium,” and the intriguing instrumental “The Grosso.”

Personally, I prefer Puzzle’s self-titled debut since the sophomore effort (boringly christened The Second Album) had a lesser emphasis on the brass instruments, yet Jazz-Rock lovers (especially those who enjoyed Chicago’s earliest albums and songs in the style of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Saturday in the Park,” or “Beginnings”) will likely find some satisfying material on either platter (both of which appeared, oddly enough, on the Motown label).

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Phantom Blue – Built to Perform (1993)

PhantomBlue_BuiltPerform4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always had a special fondness for Phantom Blue. This all-girl group popped onto the scene barely a split second after Vixen made its splash, and promptly got lost in the rock ‘n’ roll ether, completely ignored by the masses and the MTV Headbanger’s Ball crowd without an ounce of the same recognition.

What set Phantom Blue apart for me was the lack of polish displayed on its self-titled debut (unlike the high production values displayed on Vixen’s initial release). This wasn’t a bad thing, mind you, since Phantom Blue played a harder-edged Rock/Metal than their counterparts, more of an Americanized version of Britain’s Girlschool or Rock Goddess, and kicked major ass.

The band continued to improve, with Built to Perform (the second album) being equally as strong as the debut regarding energy and songwriting, but with the guitars even brighter (more scorching) in the mix. And on pounding tracks such as “Loved Ya to Pieces,” “Little Man,” “Nothing Good,” “Anti Love Crunch,” “Little Evil,” “Better Off Dead,” and “Lied To Me,” the band sounded more than a tad hungrier (angrier perhaps since the debut album didn’t get the same recognition as Vixen did from the mighty “Powers That Be” at MTV’s corporate offices?) than ever before. With a killer cover version of Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation” tossed in for the fun of it, Phantom Blue seemed poised to take on stardom, which alas, sadly never occurred…a damned shame!

 

 

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Pink Cream 69 – Thunderdome (2004)

PinkCream_Thunderdome4 out of 5 Stars!

Although Pink Cream 69—this hard-edged yet melodic act from Germany—released its first album back in 1989, the group has (oddly) yet to achieve the worldwide acclaim it so richly deserves.

On Thunderdome, the band’s ninth studio album, tuneful barnstormers such as “Retro Lullaby,” “Gods Come Together,” “Shelter,” “Another Wrong Makes Right,” a slamming version of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” and the (yes, I had to say it) thundering title track provide a wealth of sing-along choruses, memorable riffs, hang-banging’ beats, and sparkling guitar solos. And with magnetic vocalist David Readman (Adagio/Voodoo Circle/Missa Mercuria) behind the mic since the mid-’90s, the band’s vocals are also instantly recognizable, both on the aforementioned tracks as well on the mid-tempo rockers “See Your Face,” “Carnaby Road,” and “As Deep As I Am,” and on the enchanting power ballad “That Was Yesterday.”

Therefore, how this group never achieved “household name” status in America is a mystery to me, considering that Pink Cream 69 produces music in a similar realm as, for example, Whitesnake and Winger, bands with a similar style that broke in the States. Instead, the band suffered the same fate as other talented groups in the same genre such as Gotthard, Harem Scarem, Sunstorm, and Jaded Heart, never quite garnering American accolades, despite their consistently enjoyable output. Perhaps timing had something to do with the low name recognition, considering Pink Cream 69 popped up just as the Grunge obsession began in America, or possibly a general lack of promotion, or even the band’s land of origin, likely making it difficult for touring. As I said, a mystery.

Well, whatever the answer, Pink Cream 69 continues to deliver some of the finest, well-produced, and well-performed music one album after the other, and 2004’s Thunderdome (to me) is one of the best of the batch.

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Pownd – Circle of Power (2006)

Pownd_CirclePower3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Pound vs. Pownd…however it’s spelled, the name perfectly describes the music offered by this Kentucky Heavy Metal group.

Loud and brash with a full and robust sound, with a style that often reminded me of a mixture of Fight and Black Sabbath (especially since the vocalist seems a cross between Ozzy Osbourne when singing in his normal register but Rob Halford when belting out the high notes), Pownd released this sole album before disappearing.

Too bad, since the band showed great promise, especially on blaring tracks with rip-roaring solos and “pownding” rhythms such as “Slowly Drowning,” “Still I Bleed,” “Swatting Flies,” “Monster,” “Ellie,” and “Divided,” each meant to be played loud!

The only track that doesn’t quite work for me, or at least partially, is the lengthier “Never Means Forever,” where the band veers off from its standard Heavy Metal route into a piano-laced ballad—and actually includes some borderline off-key vocals. Only the blazing guitar solo in the second half saves the tune from being completely abysmal.

Regardless, out of eleven total tracks, ten enjoyable tunes (one handful about average, and the other handful simply killer) ain’t too shabby.

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