Uriah Heep – Wonderworld (1974)

UriahHeep_Wonderworld4 out of 5 Stars!

Uriah’s Heep’s Wonderworld shows a highly talented band at the apex of its career that suddenly found itself in a rather precarious position…and I’m not talking about the various poses the musicians display on the album cover.

After the brilliant album Sweet Freedom, not to mention the string of other high-quality releases that preceded it, Uriah Heep had developed some major dilemmas that threatened its future, what with an endless touring schedule, endless drug addictions, endless personal hassles and tax problems, endless…well, you get it. Therefore, the band, in the midst of its growing (and endless) struggles, and in a weakened condition, battled to keep its upward momentum going and eventually released Wonderworld just prior to its talented young bassist Gary Thain succumbing to ultimately insurmountable drug-destruction.

Although Wonderworld at the time of its release received even more crap reviews from the music press than the usual (and typical) amount of crap reviews “Heeped” upon the band (misspelling and pun intended) for previous albums, it was actually a damned fine release overall, with a handful of magnificent songs that still hold power to the present day. Personally, I find the title track, with the grand and glorious introduction featuring Mick Box’s slamming power chords and Ken Hensley’s Hammond and synth melody, one of the best album-openers in Heep’s history. Indeed, “Wonderworld,” within its mere four-and-a-half minutes running time, seemed to encapsulate all the band’s finest qualities—a Heavy-Prog arrangement with alternating dynamics, a seemingly fantasy-lush atmosphere, Gary Thain’s melodic bass riffs and Lee Kerslake’s thundering percussion, inspirational lyrics, spectacular background harmonies, and a dramatic performance by lead vocalist Dave Byron. Acting as the perfect “bookended” mirror of the opening track, “Dreams” closes the album in a similar bombastic fashion, with studio wizardry adding even more lush vocal theatrics to the already haunting tune.

Sandwiched between these two breathtaking tracks, however, are songs with varying degrees of quality. Although I concede that these tunes as a whole may not be the best material the band ever recorded, the majority of them still work for me (yet I can understand why other longtime fans of the group might not appreciate several of them). For me, however, the highlights include “The Shadows and the Wind,” a slow-building tune that showcases more of Heep’s signature harmony vocals, and “I Won’t Mind,” a lengthy and pounding Blues-Rock number quite different from the type of music that made the band famous. Moreover, “We Got We,” “So Tired,” “Something or Nothing,” and “Suicidal Man” may at first seem nothing more than uninspired rehashes of material found on the previous Sweet Freedom platter, there are enough enjoyable and savory moments, enough sonic “oomph” during each song, to keep me interested. In fact, the only tune that generally leaves me cold after all these decades is the piano-driven and orchestrated “The Easy Road,” but at least it closes out Side A, therefore, it’s easy to avoid. (Sorry, but for me, Heep was all about Heavy Metal/Heavy-Prog grandeur, and light ballads just didn’t seem to fit properly within the band’s repertoire.)

Sadly, Wonderworld would be the final Uriah Heep album to include its classic (and arguably its best) lineup of musicians (with Thain soon to be replaced by the talented John Wetton), and although it may not come as close to perfection as its previous four studio offerings, I still find it preferable to many of the albums that came later in the band’s lengthy and patchy career.

One final note: I know many people utterly detest the album cover, but I find it an absolute hoot, clearly remembering how it captivated me back in 1974 while roaming the aisles of my local record store. If anything, it’s definitely unique and attention-grabbing.

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Ursa Major – Ursa Major (1972)

UrsaMajor_14 out of 5 Stars!

Ursa Major is an underrated and long-forgotten band from New York that released only a single album back in the early ’70s.

This power trio, led by gifted guitarist/vocalist and in-demand session player Dick Wagner (The Frost/Alice Cooper/Lou Reed), played Hard Rock/Heavy Psych material that occasionally bordered on Metal (the songs “Stage Door Queen,” “Sinner,” “Lay Me Down,” and “Silver Spoon”), but also included several awesome acoustic-based tracks (“Liberty and Justice” and “In My Darkest Hour”), and one tune that successfully bridged both worlds (“Back to the Land”). The band also featured sprightly and skillful bass work (thanks to Greg Arama) and tight and snappy percussion (courtesy of Ricky Mangone), and quite often, especially on songs with the blending of electric and acoustic guitars, the powerful, creative music reminds me of equally diverse groups such as Led Zeppelin, Ten Years After, Three Man Army, Rush, Triumph, and Captain Beyond, only with an undeniable American flavor.

As expected from a mighty talent such as Wagner, impressive six-string fretwork and vocals abound, while the highly ambitious and occasionally dramatic song arrangements (provocatively adding a touch of Prog Rock to the band’s mixture of styles) and the stellar production values (thanks to the legendary Bob Ezrin) amaze. Simply put, this album is a classic through and through, one of those collections that just makes the listener ache for at least one additional follow-up platter.

But as quickly as Ursa Major appeared on the scene, the trio splintered after touring with both Jeff Beck and Alice Cooper, then Wagner went on to work with Lou Reed the following year, and soon afterward, Cooper himself, when they cowrote the stunning track “Only Women Bleed.”

RIP Dick Wagner (1943-2014), an unsung guitar hero, vocalist, and songwriter who, in my humble opinion, never got the amount of plaudits he so richly deserved.


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United Progressive Fraternity – Fall in Love With the World (2014)

UPF_FallInLove4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After the sad demise of Unitopia, one of the more promising Prog-Rock bands of the past ten years, a new group thankfully emerged almost immediately, one equally as enjoyable and professional.

Basically, United Progressive Fraternity (or UPF for short) is a “supergroup,” seeing as it includes the likes of keyboardist/woodwind player Marek Arnold (Toxic Smile/Cyril/Seven Steps to the Green Door), guitarist/keyboardist Guy Manning (The Tangent) and vocalist Mark Truey Trueack, guitarist Matt Williams, and percussionists David Hopgood and Tim Irrgang (Unitopia).

The music on Fall in Love With the World, UPF’s stunning debut album, should appeal to fans of any of the aforementioned groups or those in a similar vein. And for those Prog-Rock lovers who savor extended tracks, look no further than “Travelling Man (The Story of ESHU),” an epic of more than twenty-one minutes that incorporates a variety of moods, tempos, melodies, and outstanding instrumentation.

Now I’m praying UPF stays active for many, many years and releases more material in the near future.

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Utopia – Ra (1977)

Utopia_Ra4 out of 5 Stars!

After Utopia’s fantastic debut, as well as one live album of new material, guitarist/leader Todd Rundgren trimmed the band of two-thirds of its keyboard players, bringing Utopia to a quartet for its second studio release.

Thankfully, the shortage of keyboardists on Ra is unnoticeable, since Roger Powell (the lone survivor of the ivory-thinning) provides enough layers of synths, pianos, etc. to keep any Prog-Rock fan satisfied.

Picking up from where the previous albums left off, Ra is another splendid Prog-Rock foray, with some complex melodies, song arrangements, and inspired instrumentation.

On the first side of Ra, the band offers up some relatively shorter tracks where Rundgren’s Pop influences from his solo career shine through, especially on the amusing and fanciful “Magic Dragon Theatre,” (Utopia’s counterpart to Genesis’s “Harold The Barrel”), the rockier although somewhat bland “Jealousy,” and the Queen-ish ballad “Eternal Love,” somewhat predicting the major change in direction that would hit Utopia on its next release.

Meanwhile, the lengthier, more Prog-oriented tracks are either out-and-out masterpieces, or nearly so, depending on one’s tastes. “Overture/Communion With The Sun” and “Sunburst Finish” (the A Side’s opening and closing tracks) are both rather fun, with enough interesting bits to keep me on the edge of my seat.

But to me, the B Side is where the true magic happens—the dramatic “Hiroshima” is nothing short of brilliant, while the eighteen-plus minute epic “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” is often jaw-dropping in its scope, instrumentation, and general creativity.

Sadly, this would be Utopia’s final Prog-Rock album as, later in 1977, the band dove headfirst into some Pop Rock/Power Pop/New Wave mixture I could never tolerate. Regardless, despite Utopia’s dismal future when it comes to Prog-Rock, lovers of the genre would be remiss not to have Ra in their collections, along with the wonderful debut album and the enjoyable Another Live.

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Mogg/Way – Edge Of The World (1997)

MoggWay_EdgeWorld4 out of 5 Stars!

During one of UFO’s…hmmm…well, let’s just call them “time-outs”—sounds better than “recovering from a musician meltdown”—singer Phil Mogg and bassist Pete Way recruited ace guitarist George Bellas (Ring Of Fire/Palace Terrace) and legendary drummer Aynsley Dunbar (Journey/Jefferson Starship/Whitesnake) and issued Edge of the World, the first of two collections under the Moog/Way moniker.

Truth be told, however, either release could have easily passed for an album by UFO, which would reform at the end of the decade. So for fans who temporarily missed the “parent group” in the late ’90s for a handful of years, the Moog/Way albums helped to fill the gap. And with the new band even remaking the classic track “Mother Mary” for this album, and the quality of this release even surpassing some of the UFO albums from the early ’90s, the spirit of the “parent band” not only continued, but seemed rejuvenated, so no one experienced too much separation anxiety, I’m sure. I certainly didn’t.

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UFO – Misdemeanor (1986)

UFO_Misdemeanor4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although many faithful devotees of UFO often provide Misdemeanor with a low score on music-related websites, I found those dismal ratings completely undeserved.

For this release, to replace Paul Chapman, the band hired a sorely underrated guitarist named “Atomic” Tommy M. McClendon (what ever happened to him???), who delivers some sizzling riffs and spirited solos that displayed “guitar idol” potential, and Paul Raymond’s keyboard contributions were never better, while long-standing vocalist Phil Moog provides some of his most heartfelt performances throughout.

Certainly a few of the tracks (“The Only Ones,” “This Time,” “One Heart,” and “Dream The Dream,” for instance) had more of an AOR feel with the almost pompish keyboards higher in the overall mix, which turned off many long-time UFO fans, but the songs were generally catchy and the songwriting well above average, with some of the finest, emotionally charged tunes the band ever recorded.

Therefore, in my opinion, this is hardly the worst album UFO ever released—far from it, not with the slick, polished production values, and certainly not with strong, driving tunes such as “Heavens Gate,” “Name of Love,” “Blue,” “Meanstreets,” “Night Run,” and “Wreckless” included. In fact, I love each song in this collection, which I can’t say for every other album in the band’s vast catalogue, so Misdemeanor is easily one of my “Top 5” UFO releases of all time.

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Unto Us – The Human Landscape (2014)

UntoUs_HumanLandscape4 out of 5 Stars!

In 2009, when gifted vocalist Huw Lloyd-Jones parted ways with Britain’s Also Eden—one of my favorite Progressive Rock bands of the new century—after releasing two exemplary albums, I feared for not only the band’s future, but also wondered where Lloyd-Jones would end up.

Thankfully, Also Eden continued onward with a new singer, whereas the band’s former vocalist quickly found a place for himself in a new group called Unto Us. Finally, after four long years of anticipation, the band released its debut album in 2014. And was it worth the wait? In a word, definitely!

Lloyd-Jones’s instantly recognizable voice is on full display here, his melody lines just as compelling as what he delivered in Also Eden, and the music produced by the quintet, when it comes to intriguing atmospheres, song complexity, and sophisticated instrumentation, is also of a similar nature. Yet Unto Us does have its own identity as well, melding influences that seem to occasionally draw from groups such as IQ, Pallas, and Marillion with touches of jazz, classical, and even folk rock. And although a wide variety of keyboards and synths are used throughout the album, it’s when the grand piano dominates the arrangements beneath Lloyd-Jones’s beautiful voice that Unto Us finds its truly unique sound.

Be that as it may, The Human Landscape is a splendid debut, with the five lengthy tracks (and the short title track, a piano-based instrumental that serves as a lead in to another tune) all displaying top-notch musicianship and performances, and I’m praying the band continues moving forward, releasing another collection of classy fare in the near future.

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US – The Young and Restless (2006)

US_YoungRestless3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the Netherlands, this Symphonic Prog outfit has supposedly gone through a ton of turmoil, losing personnel along the way and finding difficulty in maintaining any sort of steady “full band” line-up. Nevertheless, the contributing individuals have released some decent material along the way, with the music sometimes seeming a cross between perhaps The Moody Blues and Genesis with a bit of Yes, Camel, and IQ inspirations included.

Although the vocals are not the strongest in rock history, they are at least tolerable, therefore, US is definitely worth investigation from Prog-Rock fans, especially the band’s earlier albums released from 2002 through 2006’s The Young and Restless, the fourth studio collection overall (and not the famous, long-running soap opera in America). 🙂

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Unifaun – Unifaun (2008)

Unifaun_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Here’s another single-album band that, sadly, didn’t last long. Or rather, it was a two-man project made up of Nad Sylvan and Bonamici (aka Christian Thordin) from Sweden that released only one collection of tracks that somehow, magically, captured the spirit of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis almost to a perfect “T.” Perhaps not as clone-like as the group The Watch, but close enough for a Genesis fan like me.

This album of twelve tracks is full of Prog-Rock gems. Some of the highlights include…

“Birth of a Biggie,” the opening cut, immediately whisks the listener back forty-some years to the Genesis glory days of Selling England by the Pound. Indeed, the song could almost have been an outtake from the album, that’s how similar Unifaun sounds like Genesis. The keyboards are completely Tony Banks, the guitar tones and playing style are straight Steve Hackett, and the lead vocals are a fairly decent replica of Peter Gabriel.

“Mr. Marmaduke and the Minister” not only eerily replicates the Genesis sound, but also incorporates its quirky humor when it comes to the whimsical storytelling lyrics and the vocal performance, not to mention the instrumentation, of a track such as Genesis’s “The Battle of Epping Forest.” Quite excellent, and one of my favorite tracks on offer here.

“ReHacksis” is a beautiful instrumental that could easily have popped up on an album such as Wind & Wuthering. And the track’s title suggests, the guitar sound is a tribute to Steve Hackett himself.

A mellow ballad entitled “A Way Out” brings to mind “Carpet Crawlers” from Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album, even nearly duplicating the background keyboard run.

A different sort of track called “Welcome to the Farm” brings to mind a more single-oriented version of Genesis (such as “I Know What I Like” or “Follow You, Follow Me”) that is quite upbeat and bouncy, almost poppy, yet still retains the classic Genesis feel. This could have easily been a hit single since the chorus is so damned catchy it will have you humming it for days.

Somewhat surprising to me, however, is that the nearly fourteen minute “Quest for the Last Virtue” is not as much “Genesis-like” as I had originally expected, considering it’s the album’s longest track and the biggest opportunity for Unifaun to get its Genesis “ya-yas” out. Oh sure, plenty of the Genesis tones, styles, instrumentation, etc. are here in abundance, but Unifaun actually seems more determined to explore and develop its personal style on this track. Even the vocals seem less chained to Peter Gabriel’s usual inflections and enunciation and quirks that are so prevalent on the majority of other tracks. Be that as it may, it’s quite appealing nonetheless, showing the two-man team is more than simply a clone of the band they so obviously worship.

So overall, this album contains a load of excellent and fun material. And if you’re a fan of Genesis, and have not heard this album already, I strongly suggest you immediately hunt down a copy, sit back with headphones firmly in place, and revel. It’s truly unfortunate Unifaun didn’t last longer than a single release since I would have eagerly welcomed more material.

Ending note: Thankfully, one member of the team (Nad Sylvan, who handled the lead vocals, the guitars and keyboards, etc.) went on the year following this release to join Agents Of Mercy (with Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings) as its lead vocalist, and that band produced a trio of high-quality albums between 2009 and 2011. Yet none of those releases were as “Genesis-inspired” as the single Unifaun album. Nad also has a handful of solo releases, but I’ve yet to hear any of them. (I hope to remedy that situation soon enough.) I can only hope they also have a Genesis-inspired vibe to them. Stands to reason they probably will, considering the sound, style, and mood of Unifaun’s sole album and how Nad’s vocals, guitar, and keyboard tones (from organ to Mellotron to synths) are about as close to the classic Genesis sound as one can get. Moreover, Nad’s now also working with the great Steve Hackett himself, so that’s an added bonus for all Prog-lovers.


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Uriah Heep – Sea of Light (1995)

UriahHeep_SeaLight4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When Bernie Shaw joined Uriah Heep for the Raging Silence album, I somewhat liked his voice, yet I felt his overall influence yanked the band down several pegs in quality, especially after the generally decent “Peter Goalby-era” of the band’s career.  This opinion carried on with the Different World album, which proved even more deplorable and lackluster.  I sighed my disappointment and figured Uriah Heep was done, and for GOOD, this time.

But then came the Sea Of Light album, and d*mn it, I was proven wrong. SOOOO wrong! Bernie Shaw’s performance not only kicked butt, but also now seemed to drive the band forward, or at least back to the place they were right after Goalby joined for the far superior (and re-energized) Abominog release compared to the horrible Conquest period.  In fact, after further listening, I actually believed they may have even snatched onto the mood, creativity, and determination of the mid-Dave-Byron-era of the band, the line-up of Heep that created the classic albums from Look At Yourself to Return To Fantasy. To me, they actually sounded revitalized yet again, ready to kick major ass once more, and full of ideas that had been lacking for many years instead of relying on covering tracks by Argent and The Little River Band. They were finally penning some commendable material, some quality stuff! And best of all, Shaw’s vocal delivery actually sounded about 20 years younger, crammed with attitude and angst and gruff “don’t screw with Heep and rule them out” threats that definitely rang true.

The bottom line is that, with this album, Uriah Heep came back to life (no, rather, ROARED back to life).  Overall the album is loaded with songs of driving metal mixed with strong melodies, repeatable choruses, some progressive touches tossed in for good measure, and everything else that made Heep special many decades earlier. It’s apparently clear, this band once again means business. They are apparently hungry instead of simply going through the motions, and with this album they obviously mean to take back their rightful claim as to being one of the ultimate hard rock/metal bands to have ever existed. Through the decades they influenced many other acts, and finally, d*mn it, they are ready to show the public the reason why!

A Bravo Comeback Album!  This would also prove to be the beginning of another 15+ years of killer offerings—granted, they don’t release new material all that often, but when they do (on Sonic Origami, Wake The Sleeper, Into The Wild, and Outsider), it’s as high a caliber as this release, which apparently proved their muse. Indeed, I now feel that this period of the band’s history borders on my favorite Look At Yourself to Return To Fantasy period of the band. Again, a commendable comeback with long-lasting repercussions and inspiration!

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