Robin Trower – Victims of the Fury (1980)

Trower_VictimsFury4 out of 5 Stars!

When it comes to Robin Trower’s many releases, in my opinion, there’s never been a better album than Bridge of Sighs. But many of Trower’s numerous releases come a very close second, therefore, if interrogated by another Trower fan, it’s always difficult for me to select another specific favorite since the answer usually changes from day to day, depending on which album I yearn to hear.

Recently, that album has been 1980’s Victims of the Fury, Trower’s seventh studio release, which also features long-standing collaborator, the exceptional singer/bassist James Dewar (RIP), and rock-steady drummer Bill Lordan, and of course, Trower’s outstanding guitar solos and riffs.

Again, the material on offer here is similar to the sound/style of the Bridge of Sighs masterpiece, with bluesy, often funky, and mesmerizing tracks such as “Mad House,” “Roads to Freedom,” “The Shout,” “Jack and Jill,” “Only Time,” and the title tune. In fact, all of the tracks as a whole seemed a step up from the more lackluster fare found on the previous release, Caravan to Midnight, which wasn’t a horrible album by any means, just somewhat mellower and less impactful.

So in my opinion, even though Victims of the Fury doesn’t quite hit that lofty “5-Star” benchmark set by Bridge of Sighs, it sure comes damned close.

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Tarot – Crows Fly Black (2006)

Tarot_Crows4 out of 5 Stars!

For me, being a fan of the group Nightwish, it seemed only natural to investigate Finland’s Tarot, which features Nightwish’s Marco Hietala on both bass and lead vocals.

Apart from Hietala’s presence in Tarot, however—his powerful and instantly recognizable voice, which pops up often on Nightwish albums—and a few nods toward Symphonic Metal thanks to the presence of a keyboardist, there is little to compare the two groups.

For the most part, on Crows Fly Black, Tarot plays rather straightforward Heavy Metal, much of it ultra-slammin’ and head-bangin’, which often brings to mind groups such as Accept, for instance, only enhanced by keyboards ala Deep Purple. Zachary Hietala’s thick-sounding guitar riffs and sizzling solos dominate tracks such as “Bleeding Dust,” “Traitor,” “Howl,” “Before the Skies Come Down,” “Ashes To the Stars,” and the title tune, which are all generally miles outside the realm of the keyboard-heavy, highly orchestrated Nightwish, yet nevertheless share the forcefulness and vibrancy of the other band.

Regardless, of Tarot’s nine studio releases between 1986-2011, Crows Fly Black is definitely one of my favorites…one that deserves to be played F***ING LOOOUUUD!!!

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Threshold – Clone (1998)

Threshold_Clone4.5 out of 5 Stars!

The U.K.’s Threshold has to be one of my favorite Prog-Metal bands since I stumbled up the debut album back in the ’90s, and for me, each of the band’s ten studio collections easily hovers around either the 4 or 4.5 Star (out of 5) rating category, being near perfect, and Clone (Threshold’s fourth release) is one of the best.

This well-produced album, the first to feature the wonderfully gifted Andrew “Mac” McDermott (RIP) on vocals, sees Threshold further developing its trademarked style of classy and sophisticated, often-complex yet catchy Progressive Metal on tracks such as “Voyager II,” “The Latent Gene,” “Goodbye Mother Earth,” “Lovelorn,” “Freaks,” and “Sunrise on Mars.”

As like every one of Threshold’s albums, Clone includes a seemingly perfect balance of both mellow or manic moods, often within the same track, with haunting melodies galore, enthralling instrumentation, and masterful performances by each musician.

Simply put, this band never fails to impress!

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Taï Phong – Windows (1976)

TaiPhong_Windows3.5 out of 5 Stars!

France’s Taï Phong (supposedly meaning “great wind” in Vietnamese) appeared on the scene in the mid-’70s to release three albums, then disappeared, only to resurface in 2000 with another album, and then again in 2013 with one more.

Although I’m unfamiliar with both “modern” versions of the band, the ’70s’ version played often beautiful, occasionally dreamy music that seemed heavily influenced by Yes and Flash, Le Orme, Strawbs, and Camel, with a touch of Supertramp and Pink Floyd, and featured a vocalist similar in style and range to Yes’s Jon Anderson (although, during the music’s more energetic moments, he can be a tad shrill when delivering his melody lines too forcefully at higher pitches).

Nevertheless, Windows (the band’s second album) and the self-titled debut platter from the previous year are both highly recommended for fans of Symphonic Prog. On Windows, tracks such as “When It’s the Season,” “Circle,” “The Gulf of Knowledge,” and “St. John’s Avenue” brim over with creativity when it comes to melodies, as well as song arrangements and instrumentation, highly varied in nature, with a nice balance of guitar (both acoustic and electric) and keyboards, while the musicianship is always at a high level.

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Trillion – Trillion (1979)

Trillion_14 out of 5 Stars!

Trillion was a promising band from my small corner of the globe, and actually included some guys from my high school—and nearby rival schools as well. And on the band’s debut album, Trillion also featured the fantastic lead vocals of Dennis “Fergie” Fredericksen (eventually a member of Toto, LeRoux, Mecca, and even Angel…RIP, Fergie).

Trillion (originally known as Whisper) got signed to a recording contract at the same time as what seems like zillions of other bands in Chicago got signed (when Chi-Town was the “happening” place for record companies to hunt for talent, prior to the days of grunge-band-crazed Seattle). Yet unfortunately, when this album came out in the late ’70s, it was somewhat of a disappointment for fans of the group, considering that, when in the clubs as Whisper, the band was way more Prog-Rock oriented and the album was not, featuring mostly shorter, more commercialized tracks and less experimentation when it came to song arrangements, which many Whisper fans had hoped would be included.

Nevertheless, the album blasts forth with two enjoyable songs, the excellent opener “Hold Out,” which leads into “Big Boy,” both tunes displaying grand vocal harmonies and some exceptional keyboard work, thanks to Patrick Leonard (a graduate of my high school, and future musician with Toy Matinee/3rd Matinee, future producer for Madonna, etc.). “Child Upon the Earth” is probably the most Progressive track, closer to the band’s early style when playing in the clubs as Whisper, but “May as Well Go,” “Bright Night Lights,” “Never Had it So Good,” and “Fancy Action” all have instrumentation comparable to any Prog-Rock group of the era, but crammed into condensed tracks with the AOR vocal melodies reigning supreme.

Therefore, despite the band’s name change and its honed musical style, this debut remains a favorite album of mine, probably due to my fleeting connection with members of Trillion, some of their family members and mutual friends, and because one of my former bands opened for Whisper on numerous occasions back in the Chicago-area clubs during those good ol’ days.

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Twelfth Night – Collector’s Item (1991)

12thNight_CollectorsItem4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the early ’80s, Twelfth Night popped onto the music scene during the “New Wave Of Progressive Rock” era in England, right alongside Marillion, Pallas, IQ, and a host of other interesting acts.

I thought the band showed great promise, especially with Geoff Mann, a vocalist in the same general sphere as Peter Gabriel (Genesis) and Fish (Marillion), only with an even more dramatic/theatrical style, and understandably an acquired taste for some people.

Personally, though, I enjoyed him, and on Collector’s Item (a compilation album), the tracks “We Are Sane,” “Sequences,” “The Collector,” and “Creepshow” (among several others) are all excellent pieces of lengthy and complex Prog-Rock, each masterpieces in their own respects, rivaling classic Genesis in my opinion and each holding a special place in my memories.

Sadly, Geoff left the band after only a handful of years/albums and although a new singer came aboard, nothing much happened with the band afterward. Too bad, since during its early years, Twelfth Night was both fun and creative.

(And to Geoff Mann…RIP.)

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Thieves’ Kitchen – Head (2000)

ThievesKitchen_Head4.5 out of 5 Stars

Head, the debut album from Britain’s Thieves’ Kitchen, is in many respects a full-out foray directly into Gentle Giant territory, with a singer (Simon Boys) who even sounds remarkably like Derek Shulman from the mighty Gentle Giant itself.

Here, on the five tracks included, such as the sixteen-minute “Mute” and (especially) on the nineteen-minute “T.A.N.U.S,” it’s almost shocking how often the musicians and vocalist seem determined to get as close to the harder-edged sound of, for instance, In A Glass House or Three Friends. Even on the album’s three short tunes—ie. only Prog-Rock lovers can deem songs between seven and eleven minutes in length as being “short,” right?—the GG similarities are on full display. Yet please note, as on the epic tracks, the music on “Time,” “The Return of the Ultragravy,” and “Integrity” includes modernized instrumentation, certainly when it comes to the synths and the beefier guitar tones, therefore the band is by no means a direct GG rip-off, only that the GG comparisons are often striking. Nevertheless, despite the band’s influences, the material on Head is quite melodic and intricate, with grand song arrangements and orchestrations that feature altering tempos galore and expert musicianship at every turn, making for some savory Prog-Rock material and giving the band its own style.

Now, please note, if delving into this band’s back catalogue of releases, Head and the second album, 2001’s Argot, are quite similar in sound and scope. But in 2002, a second incarnation of the band began after Simon Boys left the group, only to be replaced by an impressive female vocalist named Amy Darby, which obviously altered the group’s overall sound. Nowadays, Thieves’ Kitchen no longer has many Gentle Giant influences, yet each new album since 2003’s Shibboleth is equally impressive with Ms. Darby behind the microphone.

Therefore, whatever the incarnation of the group, Thieves’ Kitchen is a band truly worthy of investigation for any Prog-Rock fanatic seeking intriguing music with elaborate arrangements and top-tier performances by all involved.

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The Tangent – A Place in the Queue (2006)

Tangent_PlaceQueue4 out of 5 Stars!

With guitarist Roine Stolt being involved with The Tangent in its formative years, this U.K. group at first seemed to me merely an offshoot of The Flower Kings, with the music being similar in many instances and just as engaging.

Yet, because of the jazzier passages that appear within many of its songs, The Tangent (expertly grounded and guided since its formation by keyboardist/vocalist Andy Tillison) occasionally seemed more influenced by the Canterbury Prog style as opposed to the Symphonic Prog style of, for example, groups such as Yes.

Regardless, A Place in the Queue (the band’s third studio release, and the first without Stolt on guitar) is a diverse collection of tracks. Most of the longer songs, such as “GPS Culture” or “Follow Your Leaders,” and the twenty-minute “In Earnest” as well as the twenty-five-minute “A Place in the Queue,” contain so many musical styles—from Symphonic Prog to Progressive Folk to Jazz-Rock to even a trace of Avant-Prog—it’s like musical whiplash trying to keep track of all the shifting sections and styles within each tune.

Then, on songs such as “Lost in London” and “DIY Surgery,” thanks mainly to the more prominent flutes and saxes plus the quirky nature of Tillison’s vocals, groups such as Caravan or Hatfield and the North pop into mind more frequently. But again, even the shorter tracks include passages with varied styles, so its always difficult to pinpoint specific outside influences for any one track, meaning that The Tangent (especially thanks to Tillison’s distinctive vocals and keyboard artistry) has developed a signature sound all its own.

So let’s just say that fans of acts such as The Flower Kings, Yes, Spock’s Beard, and Gentle Giant, for example, as well as the aforementioned Canterbury Prog groups will certainly appreciate much of the material on offer here. Indeed, A Place in the Queue will likely appeal to most Prog-Rock fans seeking beautiful melodies, song-arrangement complexity, and adept musicianship.

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Toto – Hydra (1979)

Toto_Hydra4.5 out of 5 Stars!

In the forty years since Toto has been together, 1979’s Hydra remains one of my favorite albums simply because it’s one of the band’s most progressive releases.

With no trio of mega hit singles included (no mighty “Hold The Line”/”Georgy Porgy”/”I’ll Supply the Love” type of triumvirate, which all appeared on the band’s previous platter) this sophomore effort—which spawned only one hit single in the form of “99”—was summarily and unfairly dismissed by many original fans of the band and the music press, but I on the other hand (being more of a rebel, I guess, and also being a Prog-Rock lover more than a Pop-Rock devotee) eagerly embraced Hydra, with songs such as “St. George and the Dragon,” “White Sister,” “All Us Boys,” “Lorraine,” and the awesome title track, hoping it actually indicated the future of the talented group.

In some ways, my wish came true, with the next album (Turn Back) also stretching the musical boundaries for AOR fans with the additional progressive flourishes, with Toto experimenting a bit more, and thus—with no hit singles at all—becoming another big disappointment for many original fans and critics alike.

For me, however, this “pre-Rosanna/Africa” period of Toto’s history was always the most enjoyable, and Hydra remains the best of the band’s initial three releases and (apart from 1984’s Isolation, which featured the excellent Dennis “Fergie” Fredericksen on lead vocals) the Toto album I continue to hold most sacred.

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Témpano – Nowhere Now Here (2016)

Tempano_NowhereNowHere4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve been a fan of Témpano, a Prog-Rock band from Venezuela, for only the past few years, having finally discovered the joys of the band’s 1979 debut (Atabal Yemal) thanks to a friend who thought I might enjoy the band’s experimental style. On its debut, Témpano reminded me of groups as diverse as Area, Nathan Mahl, Gentle Giant, Colosseum II, Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Return To Forever, artists willing to twist the norms and generate intriguing melodies among odd time shifts and inventive, often Avant-Garde instrumentation.

Thankfully, Témpano not only continues to exist and flourish, but has considerably extended its musical growth, as shown on its latest release, Nowhere Now Here. Certainly, much of the music offered here is of the same high caliber and fascinating variety as the band’s “early days,” but there are also several noticeable differences…

For one, the lyrics are now exclusively in English.

And two, the production is much richer, with the band successfully taking full advantage of modern studio techniques and equipment.

And three, the material (although still Jazzy in places, still bordering on Avant-Prog on many of the instrumental tracks—or even on one wonderfully twisted vocal track called “When Opposites Meet,” my absolute favorite) is a bit more accessible to the average listener. Indeed, a handful of tunes—”The Night Before the End,” “Daylight Moon,” “Whisper of the Blade,” and “Acrobat Citizens”—contain straightforward vocal melodies surrounded by Prog instrumentation, reminding me of some modern-day Prog-Rock/AOR groups with a Jazz-Rock flavor—thanks to the occasional sax insertions and dreamy atmospheres—such as the exceptional Moonrise.

Yet Témpano is nothing if not creative when it comes to popping in strange percussion accents or intriguing rhythms, flashy synth or guitar blasts that shock the system, so even those more accessible AOR-leaning tunes are full of happy surprises both large and small, and I reveled in all of them.

I’ve decided that, since the band are undoubtedly masters of Prog-Rock and do their native country proud, if I had my druthers, I’d direct that a statue be erected in the center of Caracas in their honor. This band is highly worthy of investigation for all Prog-Rock lovers, especially those who like some added experimentation and pizzazz.

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