Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff (1975)

VanDerGraaf_Godbluff4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1971, Van der Graaf Generator released Pawn Hearts, a masterpiece of an album and probably my favorite in the group’s catalogue. But even through the band’s reputation and popularity seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds on the Prog-Rock scene, the group surprisingly disbanded, with leader Peter Hammill deciding to concentrate on a solo career in lieu of keeping the band together. Thankfully, and much to the thrill of many fans, Hammill resurrected the band several years later, and Godbluff popped up shortly thereafter. To my ears, the album proved to be yet another masterpiece, a collection of four complex tracks that certainly matched Pawn Hearts in regards to creativity, moodiness, and technical proficiency, so easily it remains my second favorite of the band’s works and the one I still play as often.

Now, compared to Pawn Hearts, this collection of tunes is almost as musically creepy, almost as wickedly demented, but a touch more straightforward (that is, if one can consider anything released by Van der Graaf Generator during the band’s early years as being “straightforward”) and more jazz-inspired. Included on this album are the classic tracks “Scorched Earth” and “The Sleepwalkers,” the songs that initially enticed me to further investigate this group in the mid-’70s, and causing me to fall in love with Van der Graaf Generator’s overall strangeness. “The Undercover Man” and “Arrow” are equally as enticing, and offer up even more weird and wonderful, dark and dastardly fun, clearly showing Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans in tip-top form, while David Jackson’s exceptional and unusual saxophone performances act as the icing on the already wacky cake.

So to me, Godbluff (as well as the previous Pawn Hearts) is definitely a “bucket list” album, one collection that every Prog-Rock fan should experience before they die.

(Additional note: To read my short review of Pawn Hearts, click here.)

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Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld, Path II (2015)

VandenPlas_Chronicles24.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 2006, I became aware of this German group for the first time when (on a lark) I purchased the album Christ O, and I instantly fell in love with it. Immediately afterward, I hunted down all five of the band’s previous studio albums I had sadly missed upon their original release and found myself reveling for hours and hours in the glorious and symphonic Progressive Metal the band had unleashed on the world, with each magnificently talented musician performing his heart out and the extraordinarily gifted singer Andy Kuntz adding his recognizable voice to each track.

Well, since those exciting days of discovery, Vanden Plas has released three additional studio albums, this one being the most recent.

And let me tell you, I have never once been disappointed, since each new collection wound up delivering some of the most stunning, most dramatic, most well-written, well-performed, well-orchestrated, and well-produced Prog-Metal on the planet.

And Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld, Path II is no exception. Like the previous ten-track …Netherworld, Path I album (the opening salvo in the band’s grand Prog-Metal “Rock Opera”), this release offers nine additional tunes (or “visions” within the opera), awesome and often soul-stirring compositions such as “Diabolica Comedia,” “Godmaker’s Temptation,” “Circle of the Devil,” “Monster,” “Where Have the Children Gone,” and the epic “Blood of Eden,” with each and every track providing myriad moods, luscious melodies, and killer instrumentation, some of the finest in the band’s ever-growing catalogue.

For me, Vanden Plas is beyond amazing, the epitome of professionalism, and easily one of the best, most consistent bands in the Prog-Metal genre, a leader among many. May the band live on forever!

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Van Halen – Zero (2002)

VanHalen_Zero4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Originally recorded back in 1976, two years before Van Halen officially burst onto the scene with its debut album, this ten-song “demo” (produced and financed by Kiss’s Gene Simmons) includes higher-energy versions of four tracks that would appear years later on several of the band’s Warner Bros. releases—”On Fire” and “Runnin’ With the Devil” from the debut album, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” from the band’s sophomore album, and “House of Pain,” which would eventually pop up on 1984. Each of these tracks are slightly different than the versions with which fans are familiar, not only when it comes to tempos, but also with alternate lyrics and solos, or even added verses or bridges.

The remaining six tracks are rare and unreleased, with one called “Woman in Love” (not the same tune that appeared on the second album, however, but a driving rocker instead). And speaking of which, the other unreleased tunes—”She’s The Woman,” “Let’s Get Rockin’,” “Big Trouble,” “Baby, Don’t Leave Me Alone,” and “Put Out the Lights”—all fall into that “driving rockers” category. Indeed, some of these tunes are actually superior to a handful of tracks Van Halen released on its official albums, which were also quite short in length anyway, barely reaching the thirty-minute mark. So why the band elected not to slide a few of these shelved tunes onto Women and Children First, or Diver Down, etc. is a mystery.

Anyway, for fans of early Van Halen, this is certainly a collection of riches beyond compare. In my opinion, Zero is definitely one of the best Van Halen albums of all time, featuring the lean, mean, and hungry classic lineup before they were stars!

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Veni Domine – Fall Babylon Fall (1992)

VeniDomine_FallBabylon3.5 out of 5 Stars!

To be honest, the first time I heard this debut album from Swedish band Veni Domine, I’d thought someone had slipped on a new album from Queensryche, seeing as how Fredrik Ohlsson’s vocals had a definite Geoff Tate flair, with the same wide range, vibrato, and style of delivery. Be that as it may, the band also liberally incorporated Queensryche’s progressive-tinged metal sound into its music, along with obvious influences from groups such as Black Sabbath to Demon to Candlemass to Iron Maiden, only with the doomy and heavily symphonic atmospheres and dramatic song arrangements acting as a backdrop for Christian lyrics.

And although Fall Babylon Fall offered nothing truly innovative in the world of Heavy Metal, the level of musicianship, creativity, and songwriting prowess—especially on the twenty-one-minute epic “The Chronicle of the Seven Seals,” for example—did make for an enjoyable debut nonetheless.

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Vitriol – Into the Silence I Sink (2012)

Vitriol_IntoSilence4 out of 5 Stars!

Italian band Vitriol (also known as “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultam Lapidem”…yeah, Vitriol is much easier to remember, guys) released an enjoyable EP in 2009, and finally Into the Silence I Sink, a full-length debut album in 2012.

Generally speaking, Vitriol’s music is moody and dark, highly atmospheric and often-intense Progressive Metal. And best of all, Vitriol has a rather unique overall sound, since no comparable groups immediately spring to mind when listening to the album.

So, Into the Silence I Sink is a bit different, with intriguing compositions, a powerful and engaging singer in Gabriele Gozzi, plus adept and rock-solid musicianship thanks to guitarist Fausto De Bellis, bassist Francesco Lombardo, and drummer Michele Panepinto.

I’m really looking forward to hearing what the band creates next.

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Visions Of Tragedy – Visions Of Tragedy (2012)

VisionsTragedy_14 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 2012, the Spanish group Visions Of Tragedy released its self-titled debut album. Although containing only three tracks, and clocking in at just over thirty-two minutes in length, the music is highly impressive Prog-Metal in the same neighborhood as Circus Maximus, Symphony X, Andromeda, Vanden Plas, Altura, Mindwarp Chamber, Dream Theater, etc.

Here you’ll find not only excellent musicianship, but clean, crisp, and top-notch vocals also, along with grand and elaborate song arrangements with creative rhythms, and instrumentation featuring both electronic and acoustic guitar and a wide variety of keyboards and synths, all wrapped up in a slickly produced package.

Now I’m just praying Visions Of Tragedy releases more high-caliber material in the near future, although I believe the band is currently hunting for another record label—but with the talent displayed on this debut, I can’t imagine the band having any difficulty finding a label who’ll back them!

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Van der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts (1971)

vandergraaf_pawnhearts4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is one of my favorite Van der Graaf Generator albums, and (in my estimation) one of the band’s most wild and experimental.

Peter Hammill’s vocals are especially manic on the band’s fourth release, while the music on the three epic (and original) album tracks—”Lemmings (Including Cog),” “Man-Erg,” and the twenty-three-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”—is often dark, atmospheric, and (at times) downright creepy…certainly not for the faint of heart or for Prog-Rock fans who prefer pretty melodies or gentle instrumentation. Nope, the ever-changing rhythms, the screeching saxes, the whacked-out keyboards and discordant guitar arrangements, and those damned demented lead vocals, all seem strategically designed to set the listener’s hair on end, to send shivers down the spine. And if that was the band’s intention, then Van der Graaf Generator succeeded admirably. I love it!

By the way, the remastered version of the album contains five bonus tracks, which are welcome additions, although they aren’t quite in the same spooky “Stephen King soundtrack” vein as the original album. These five tracks are fairly “normal,” or as normal as an experimental Prog group such as Van der Graaf Generator can muster. Regardless, this is the version of the album to seek out.

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Steve Vai – Sex & Religion (1993)

SteveVai_SexReligion4 out of 5 Stars!

I bought this CD when it first came out, expecting another instrumental release along the lines of the highly entertaining and occasionally brilliant Passion & Warfare. Needless to say, I was surprised to find an actual vocalist (Devin Townsend) on this release, and I truly detested the whole thing, start to finish. After listening to the CD only one time, I chalked it up to a “bad purchase” and tossed it into the closet with all the other CDs or albums I thought I’d never listen to again.

Not long ago, however, when delving into those dusty and mountainous piles of long-forgotten CDs just for chuckles, I unearthed this release and thought I’d give it another shot (while cringing a bit, since I recalled why the CD had been relegated to those long-forgotten piles). Anyway, to my surprise again, I found it to be not only listenable, but I have played it dozens of times since that day and have actually grown to—gasp!—like it.  I suppose I got over that initial shock of hearing a vocalist on a Steve Vai release all those years ago—time had softened the blow, plus my tastes go through various cycles, so I guess I pulled this from the archives at the appropriate moment.

Granted, it’s still not my fave Steve Vai release, it takes a bit of getting used to, but it truly is better than the average fare (for this style of music, that is).  I’m glad I gave it another shot to “impress” me, and it has. Plus, it cut down my dusty and mountainous pile of long-forgotten CDs by at least one, so the house isn’t quite so top-heavy.

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