Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)

SexPistols_Bollocks5 out of 5 Stars!

Say what you will about this short-lived and controversial band, either adore it or detest it, but Sex Pistols sure left a deep, nasty, and indelible mark on the music industry and pop culture after blasting out this one album, ruthlessly assaulting the public with its rude and raw sound and creating a masterpiece in the process.

On aggressive, ear-splitting, and occasionally expletive-laden tracks such as “Holidays in the Sun,” “Problems,” “Liar,” “Pretty Vacant,” “E.M.I,” “Submission,” and the ferocious “Bodies,” the guitars are sinfully mammoth, the rhythms wickedly thundering, and the vocals disgustingly rotten yet sarcastically brilliant. I vividly recall having a friend play for me a homemade cassette tape of the album’s most famous tracks he’d caught on the radio, “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” (along with a non-album tune “Did You No Wrong,” which, thankfully, was included as a “bonus track” on later editions of the album), and itched to hear them numerous times in quick succession, unbelieving the ruthless heavy sound, which simply blew me away. Many folks considered frontman Johnny Rotten the star of the band, but to me, it was the little-known Chris Thomas who truly shone with the light of a thousand suns, his production work being absolutely brilliant.

Now, whether or not all the band members could actually play their instruments with any true skill or sober conviction, Sex Pistols will always be to Punk Rock what the Bee Gees will always be to Disco, the indisputable leaders of an often annoying, even repulsive genre and trend that surprisingly turned the musical world completely topsy-turvy. The band was indeed in a league of its own, with no other Punk Rock band having a fraction of the same filthy power, the same rebellious swagger, the same nerve-rattling fury as this album provided, and even to this very day, I love hearing this collection of tunes bloody-f*cking loud!

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Steeler – Steeler (1983)

Steeler_Steeler4 out of 5 Stars!

Not to be confused with the German band of the same name, America’s Steeler released a sole album back in 1983 and introduced the music world to a (then) twenty-year-old “guitar hero” named Yngwie Malmsteen.

I vividly recall the afternoon I heard this album for the first time, and when listening to the opening track “Cold Day in Hell,” I immediately repeated the guitar solo section several times, my jaw hanging to the floor. By the time I got to “Hot On Your Heels” (the last track on Side A) with its three-and-a-half minute “acoustic and electric guitar solo hybrid intro,” I could barely contain my excitement. This man could mutha-freaking play, his technique often reminiscent of both Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple/Rainbow) and Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions/Electric Sun), but not in any way a direct copy of either artist. And when it came to his speed on the fretboard? Well, it was unbelievable and remains, for the most part, unsurpassed.

But aside from Malmsteen’s spectacular riffing, the album contains mostly catchy and thundering tracks, those previously mentioned as well as “On the Rox,” “No Way Out,” “Backseat Driver,” “Down to the Wire,” and the moody, powerful, and lengthy closer “Serenade.”

Sure, the handful of songs I failed to mention are fairly average fare, but with Malmsteen’s guitar blazing throughout, and the band’s overall talent, it’s truly difficult to completely dismiss any of the tunes included on this release. Not to be forgotten, bassist Rik Fox (W.A.S.P./Hellion) and drummer Mark Edwards (Lion) formed a solid and commendable rhythm section, while vocalist Ron Keel had a forceful and recognizable voice perfect for the genre, therefore, this album proved a keeper and had me yearning for more material.

Unfortunately, the band broke up shortly after this album’s release, and Malmsteen went on to hook up with Alcatrazz while the remaining members joined or formed other bands, most notably Keel with his self-named group that released a string of albums through the ’80s.

Meanwhile, this is an album I’ve savored an unfathomable amount of times through the decades, and (for me) it altered the “metal scene” for good, thanks to one particular guitarist with enormous talent.

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Subsignal – The Beacons Of Somewhere Sometime (2015)

Subsignal_Beacons4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always had a special fondness for Subsignal—a German group formed out of the ashes of Sieges Even—that has released a string of four classy and enchanting albums in the Progressive Rock/Metal genre.

The Beacons Of Somewhere Sometime, the band’s fourth and most recent release, is quite similar in substance to the previous three albums, containing Neo Prog-style Progressive Rock. The music is often melancholy and dreamy, yet deceptively intricate, with tricky time-signature changes, and containing luscious melodies, stacked vocal harmonies, and rich orchestration, including the occasional flute, sax, violin, etc. The band also mixes in heavier passages, chunkier guitar blasts and rhythms, that could certainly be classified as borderline Metal, but its not overblown in scope and used mainly to great dramatic effect. Aside from the brief instrumental opener, each of the lengthier vocal tunes, from “Tempest” to “Everything Is Lost” to “And the Rain Will Wash It All Away” to the wonderfully grand and moody four-part title track, incorporates enough levels of excitement as to keep most lovers of Progressive Rock fully engaged and enthralled.

For fans of groups such as Knight Area, Dreamscape, Karmakanic, Doracor, modern-day It Bites, and a host of other acts that seamlessly incorporate ethereal sections into its compositions, that happily sprinkle both acoustic and electric guitar into its arrangements, Subsignal might be a band you’d appreciate.

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Supertramp – Supertramp (1970)

Supertramp_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

On the debut album from Supertramp, although much of the material is seemingly a million miles away from the style of music the group would produce during its 1974-1979 “glory period,” the band showed great promise nevertheless.

Additionally, since the line-up at the time of this release included only two members—Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies—who would continue on with Supertramp into its “glory period,” that explains much of the difference in style from subsequent albums.

One initial caveat…for those unfamiliar with this period in the band’s history, don’t be fooled by the cover art, which always brought the group Genesis to mind. But the music on offer here, although more Progressive than later Supertramp releases, has only marginal similarities to Genesis, mostly some of the folksier, pastoral atmospheres the groups occasionally shared in the beginning of their respective careers. Therefore, despite the cover art, don’t expect anything along the lines of “Supper’s Ready” or “Cinema Show.”

Instead, other than the song “Maybe I’m a Beggar,” where original guitarist Richard Palmer-James sings a portion of the lead (and has a voice not associated with the band’s popular sound), the music, for the most part, is still undeniably Supertramp. Tunes such as “It’s a Long Road,” “Words Unspoken,” “Shadow Song,” “Aubade and I Am Not Like Other Birds of Prey,” and “Surely” are probably the closest in style to the band’s heyday period, whereas “Nothing to Show” and sections of the lengthy “Try Again,” especially with the heavier guitar leads and Hammond organ, are completely different than what fans are used to hearing from the most popular version of the group.

So basically, what we have here is a promising band still struggling to find its trademarked sound/style, but producing some enjoyable music in the process.

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Sinister Street – The Eve of Innocence (1992)

SinisterStreet_EveInnocence4 out of 5 Stars!

In many respects, Sinister Street, a group formed in the Netherlands, reminded me of bands such as Saga or Alias Eye, especially when it came to the tone, range, and vibrato of the lead vocalist (who occasionally comes across as a Michael Sadler clone), who offered plenty of Pop-like melody lines over Prog-Rock instrumentation, mostly in the Neo-Prog vein.

And despite the band’s rather ominous moniker, the music is generally not “sinister” at all. For instance, on The Eve of Innocence, the band’s debut release, the rhythms, melody lines, and chord patterns are often upbeat in nature, as displayed on tracks such as “One in a Million,” “Caught in Flight,” and “Exception to the Rule.” Although this doesn’t mean that drama is completely absent from the band’s overall repertoire. Indeed, other tunes such as “A Prayer for the Dying,” “The Covenant,” and “Pulse of Life,” are each highly moody and atmospheric, thanks to their diverse instrumentation. And several additional compositions—”Summit (Boundaries, Part 1)” and “A Provisional Anthem (Boundaries, Part 2)”—swing from mood to mood, tempo to tempo, in each of their eight-plus-minute lengths, with complex arrangements and loads of guitar and synth solos in the best Neo-Prog tradition of bands such as IQ, Pallas, Also Eden, Citizen Cain, or early Marillion, as well as the aforementioned Saga and Alias Eye.

Therefore, it’s too bad this talented yet obscure band released only two full-length albums—The Eve of Innocence and, after numerous changes in personnel, a second collection called Trust a full decade later—as I would have happily welcomed additional material.

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SinisterStreet_EveInnocence

Sweet – Off the Record (1977)

Sweet_OffRecord4 out of 5 Stars!

Sweet’s seventh release, Off the Record, continues in the same style as the trio of platters that immediately preceded it (Sweet Fanny Adams, Desolation Boulevard, and Give Us a Wink), featuring some slamming and glamming Hard Rock, occasionally bordering on Metal, with each track laden with the wickedly rich, layered, and trademarked background harmonies Sweet did to perfection, surpassed (perhaps) only by Queen.

Off the Record is one of the band’s heaviest albums, thanks mainly to Andy Scott’s chunky and blazing guitars, and is crammed with powerful tunes such as “She Gimme Lovin’,” “Lost Angels,” “Live for Today,” “Fever of Love,” “Hard Times,” “Midnight to Daylight,” and “Stairway To The Stars,” while the lengthier and more complex track “Windy City” (with its “Woman From Tokyo”-like riff) easily ranks in my “Top 5 List” of best songs Sweet ever recorded. Despite the “heavy factor,” the band retains its catchy pop sensibilities throughout, with the majority of choruses being of “sing-along caliber,” and for diversity’s sake, the band also includes a lighter moment on the beautiful “Laura Lee” and a heaping dosage of funk on the appropriately named “Funk It Up (David’s Song),” which incidentally is my least favorite Sweet song on this or any other album within the band’s catalogue.

Therefore, for lovers of Hard Rock who wrote off the band due to its early pop hits such as “Wig Wam Bam” or “Little Willy” and are unfamiliar with this phase in the band’s varied history, Off the Record may come as a pleasant surprise. In many respects, mid-’70s Sweet had little in common with the original version of the group—no “bubblegum rock” here, only punchy, well-performed, and melodic Hard Rock with a Glam Rock edge, plus some of the most creative and stunning multi-layered background vocals in rock ‘n’ roll history.

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Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law (1980)

Saxon_StrongArm4 out of 5 Stars

Another act that got lumped into the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement in the ’80s, Saxon always reminded me (primarily) of bands such as Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang, and Accept when it came to its overall style, but mixed with the occasionally “more-commercial sound” similar to groups such as Krokus, Scorpions, and Def Leppard.

Through the decades I’ll admit to finding a handful of the albums in the band’s extensive catalogue nothing more than “decent but average,” yet Strong Arm of the Law—Saxon’s third release—truly has some inspired energy, some rebellious power, some extra “oomph” (despite the horribly bland cover art) that would be sadly lacking on too many of its subsequent albums in the mid-’80s/early-’90s. Indeed, this release proved as solid as the previous Wheels of Steel album, the band having created a staggering one-two musical punch, with vocalist Biff Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill slamming through the eight tracks on offer here as if their very lives depended on it.

And with tunes such as the blazing opener “Heavy Metal Thunder,” as well as “20,000 Feet,” “To Hell and Back Again,” “Sixth Form Girls,” and the title track, along with the terrific closer “Dallas 1 PM,” Strong Arm of the Law is easily one of Saxon’s most laudable efforts. In many ways, this collection of tracks, although not groundbreaking or revolutionary in any respect, certainly helped to set the stage—and the quality benchmark—for countless other acts that eventually popped up in the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement in future years.

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Starcastle – Starcastle (1976)

Starcastle_15 out of 5 Stars!

Oh, Starcastle…the memories…

The moment I heard this album back in 1976, I fell in love, as did many of my like-minded, Prog-loving buddies. I distinctly recall the party where someone slipped this onto the turntable, and just about everyone came to a complete standstill, with brows furrowing, jaws dropping, and started asking whether Yes had released a new album unbeknownst to the general public.

Soon learning that Starcastle was basically a sextet of “local boys” (well, okay, from the college town of Champaign, Illinois—close enough to Chicago to consider them “local”) made us so damned proud, and within days we had all purchased a copy of this platter for our collections.

The album’s A Side contains an excellent trio of songs, with the ten-and-a-half-minute “Lady of the Lake” arguably being one of the most stunning openers of any Prog-Rock album from any era. Indeed, the song’s introduction still sends tingles of anticipation along my spine—yes, still, even more than forty years after I first heard the track. The catchy Steve Howe-ish guitar lead backed by Rick Wakeman-like Hammond arpeggios, then a driving rhythm with exorbitantly melodic and energetic bass riffs ushering in a verse sung in flawless harmony, whisks the listener headway down the “Yes Highway.” The epic contains so many various sections, so many abrupt tempo shifts, so many sizzling solos, yet this musical patchwork is sewn together so immaculately, one might think the song had been written, arranged, and performed by a group of seasoned professionals only masking as a novice band on its debut album. And actually, that wasn’t so far from the truth. Only after my friends and I had been floored by this album did I eventually learn that the band members had indeed worked together many years under a variety of monikers—Mad John Fever, Pegasus, etc.—before settling on the name Starcastle and finally securing the recording contract. Anyway, “Lady of the Lake” is definitely a “twenty on my five-point scale.” Simply put, it’s Prog-Rock perfection!

Following the mighty opener, the shorter “Elliptical Seasons” includes an appearance of acoustic guitar before the synth pops in for a lead and the band once again engages in delivering another harmonized verse, until the lone voice of Terry Luttrell (ex-REO Speedwagon) makes its first solo appearance. Certainly the man sounds similar to Yes’s Jon Anderson, but not a direct clone, yet his wide range, timbre, and delivery style are (as the saying goes) “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.”

The final A-Side tune, “Forces,” is another Yes-like extravaganza of multiple sections, tempos, and solos, with fanciful synths, twiddling guitars, and Gary Strater once again performing thrilling acrobatics on his bass guitar. Indeed, not to take anything away from the other talented musicians in this band, but Strater was (to me) the indisputable star of the show here, and bass players everywhere, regardless of genre, seeking to gain inspiration and expand their musical horizons should study this man’s mellifluous and unrestrained performances on this album, especially on this particular track. Every serious Prog-Rock group should find a clone of this man. Amazing!

The album’s Side B is nearly as impressive, with the three-minute, synth-dominated instrumental “Stargate” leading into “Sunfield,” another vigorous romp into Fragile-era Yes territory. My favorite part of the track is the section performed in 9/8 time, with Luttrell’s “The light in the eyes of a thousand carry you away…” melody being highly memorable, as well as the section at the five-minute mark where the band slowly returns to the song’s main theme beneath the “Into revolving you will see the sunrise…” melody. Again, like “Lady of the Lake,” the various segments of this track, the endlessly shifting tempos and sparkling instrumentation, are dazzling and spine-tingling.

“To The Fire Wind,” the final vocal composition, is another appropriate vehicle for Strater to display his Rickenbacker mastery, his fingers not stopping for one second as the tune blazes along in a Prog-Rock frenzy of spectacular keys, guitars, and harmonies. Once again, any Yes fan who adores the Fragile era of the group but is also unfamiliar with Starcastle should seek out this album as soon as humanly possible.

The platter ends with “Nova,” another short instrumental piece that clearly displays the chops of each musician in the band’s line-up. I must admit, though, I typically skip this track when listening to the album. Seeing as how Starcastle had a mastery over three- and four-part harmonies, I would have wished for another vocal track to close out the album. Oh, well…

Regardless, despite the overwhelming Yes similarities, Herb Schildt’s resplendent synths and keys, Steve Hagler’s and Matt Stewart’s fantastic guitar teamwork, Gary Strater’s wondrously riveting Rickenbacker bass, and Steve Tassler’s rigorous percussion, not to mention the formidable harmonies and the divine angelic voice of Terry Luttrell, Starcastle had its own bombastic and charismatic sound/style. And when I take into account the memories of my high school days that this collection of tracks instantly conjures…well, for me, this is truly a special and majestic album, a Prog-Rock classic I still savor on a regular basis.

And to the awesomely gifted Gary Strater…RIP.

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Silentium – Seducia (2006)

Silentium_Seducia4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I stumbled upon this talented Finnish group when hunting for more music similar to bands such as After Forever, Nightwish, and Within Temptation, and Seducia (Silentium’s fourth studio album and the collection that introduced me to the group) is generally quite superb—ominous Goth Metal atmospheres with full and biting dual guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, and the ultra-lush keyboards so highly associated with this particular genre.

But what sets Silentium apart from the aforementioned Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal groups is that Riina Rinkinen, the gifted female vocalist (the band’s third and final one), is not at all operatic in her approach, but more Hard Rock oriented. Plus, the band also includes Elias Kahila, a full-time cellist (a rarity in the “rock business”), thus adding an unusual, almost eerie lead instrument to Silentium’s overall style, and definitely places the group slightly apart from the rest of the pack. The sheer goth-drama of the cello is used to wonderful effect on the beginning passages and instrumental sections of the bombastic “Serpentized” and “Empress of the Dark,” or during brief solo spots on “Dead Silent,” when simply accenting verses on “Frostnight,” or accompanying the gentle piano during the introduction to “Unbroken.”

Regardless, from the beautifully orchestrated “Hangman’s Lullaby” and “Children of Chaos,” through to the lengthy and majestic self-titled closing tune, Seducia is a high-quality, well-produced album. Most of the arrangements are quite complex, almost soundtrack-worthy, compared to many of Silentium’s contemporaries. Moreover, the vocals—both female and the less-abundant male “counterpart” vocals—are bright and powerful in the mix, and don’t veer too profusely into that “beauty and the beast” territory that typically destroys the enjoyable factor on so many albums of this nature when overdone, either by the total number of appearances or by the sonic ugliness of the male’s growling and grunting and indecipherable babble. In other words, Silentium keeps things musical when it comes to the male vocals and doesn’t bombard the listener with the unnecessary noisy “demonic” nonsense described above.

Although the band released one additional album in 2008, the equally impressive Amortean, after that, Silentium suddenly fell off the radar (dare I say, “went silent”?). Therefore, since the group had previously released a new album every few years, this current ten-year gap doesn’t bode well for fans of the band like myself who were hoping for new material.

 

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Styx – Man of Miracles (1974)

Styx_Miracles4 out of 5 Stars!

One of the seemingly forgotten Styx albums from the early days of the band’s career, Man of Miracles showed the group steadily heading in the direction that would eventually bring it fame and fortune.

The straightforward hard-rocking tunes (most featuring James Young on lead vocals) and the more melodic AOR and Pomp Rock tunes mixed with a generous amount of Prog Rock influences (usually with Dennis DeYoung on lead vocals), are rather evenly distributed. Some standout tracks include the heavier “Rock & Roll Feeling,” “Havin’ A Ball,” and “Southern Woman,” while the better AOR/Pomp Rock songs include “Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” “Evil Eyes,” and “Golden Lark.” Yet to me, the best tunes included here are, undoubtedly, the most Prog-oriented ones, “A Song for Suzanne” and the glorious title track. And despite the numerous styles on Man of Miracles (or, for that matter, the majority of early Styx albums, up until around 1978’s Pieces of Eight), the group nevertheless sounds cohesive, with the “juggling of musical styles” quite balanced, which proved a band hallmark.

Although Man of Miracles didn’t include any “hits,” I found much of the material easily digestible and ended up playing the album rather often through the years, more so than many of the group’s later “hit-oriented” collections.

Although the next album, Equinox, would become the first to truly catapult the band to loftier heights, Man of Miracles proved itself a worthy and solid launching pad.

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