Wishbone Ash – Argus (1972)

WishboneAsh_Argus4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Through the many years since Wishbone Ash first appeared on the music scene, my friends have continually and playfully (or sometimes, intensely and angrily, depending on their level of alcohol consumption) bantered over which of the studio albums in the group’s catalogue is its finest work of art. Back in the olden days (around the time of the band’s magnificent Live Dates album, one of the greatest live recordings of all time, in my opinion) my answer was always Argus, the group’s third release. And now, more than four decades later, even with more than twenty additional Wishbone Ash studio platters over which to debate, my response still remains the same, and unless miracles happen to alter my perspective, it likely always will.

Now, I’m in no way claiming that any Wishbone Ash album other than Argus is somehow undeserving of the “best studio album” spot, since I find the overall quality of several of the band’s other releases quite high. Indeed, I feel that the 1970 debut album, along with Pilgrimage, There’s the Rub, New England, and Just Testing, all contain generally top-level material, and I also find the majority of the group’s other early albums (prior to 1980) fairly entertaining. It’s just that, when hearing Argus even nowadays, intense memories of people and places and events instantly spring to mind. This album greatly contributed to the soundtrack of my early teen years, and the cherished recollections the music conjures will forever play an integral part regarding my feelings toward this particular platter (as well as for Live Dates).

But even putting aside my impassioned opinions and looking at this album objectively, Argus has a ton going for it. Not only is the songwriting quality consistent throughout the album, with the performances by each musician outstanding, but the band at this point in time (drummer Steve Upton, bassist Martin Turner, and guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner—the classic lineup) elected to incorporate an intriguing blend of everything from Blues, Country, Folk, and Prog-Rock into its often-catchy Hard Rock style. The band’s trademarked twin-guitar sound borders on rock ‘n’ roll perfection, while the song arrangements are often deceptively intricate and energetically charged. And best of all, the album contains a commendable balance of both heavy and light moments, with most of the seven tracks—”Throw Down the Sword,” “Blowin’ Free,” “Warrior,” “Time Was,” and “The King Will Come”—becoming long-standing concert favorites. And even the two additional tunes included—”Sometime World” and “Leaf and Stream”—have an undeniable charm that makes Argus, for me, not only a perfectly sequenced collection of tunes, but also a rich bounty of those exquisite memories I mentioned above.

But is the album an unblemished masterpiece? No, not quite, as I feel some of the vocals—never Wishbone Ash’s strongest asset, if the truth be told—could have been “tweaked and patched” to match the utter perfection of the guitars and rhythm section. Additionally, although Derek Lawrence’s production is highly commendable given the technology of the era, I would have liked the songs to have a tad more ambience, a “big hall” sound, which is why the tracks on Argus that also appear on Live Dates possessed an even greater allure for me in a concert setting.

Nevertheless, despite these slight flaws, Argus is a Hard Rock classic, and for the reasons stated above, will forever remain my favorite studio album from this extraordinary band.

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John West – Mind Journey (1997)

JohnWest_MindJourney4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, New York State’s John West (Royal Hunt/Artension/Feinstein/Badlands) is one of the most shamefully obscure vocalists on the Metal/Prog-Metal scene. Considering West possesses a powerful, wide-ranging, and soulful voice that often brings to mind Glenn Hughes, and the musical style on his solo albums is similar to Yngwie Malmsteen, Rainbow, Adagio, and (not shockingly) Artension, I’m amazed he’s not more well-known or highly lauded in the industry.

Be that as it may, West’s first solo effort, Mind Journey, not only showcases his excellent vocal abilities on tracks such as “The Castle is Haunted,” “Hands in the Fire,” “Eastern Horizon,” “Dragon’s Eye,” and “Lost in Time,” but could very well have been released under the Artension moniker—the band he was fronting during the year of this release—despite the different lineup of musicians. Not only is the overall Heavy Metal style with a Neoclassical bent and a touch of Prog-Metal so similar, but the album seems more like a band effort (lots of wicked guitar and keyboard solos from George Bellas and Matt Guillory respectively) as opposed to simply being a vehicle for a vocalist to display his enormous talent.

Therefore, for fans of the aforementioned groups, as well as lovers of versatile vocalists who might have easily worked with Ritchie Blackmore had he been invited to do so, Mind Journey is an album that may be of interest to you.

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West, Bruce & Laing – Why Dontcha (1972)

WestBruceLaing_WhyDontcha4 out of 5 Stars!

Why Dontcha is the first of two albums released in the early ’70s by the “supergroup” power trio composed of guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing (Mountain), who team with bassist/keyboardist Jack Bruce (Cream), for highly electrifying and straightforward Blues Rock with a touch of Soul and Heavy Psych.

On its debut album, each musician takes a turn at singing lead. But let’s face it, anyone familiar with the voices of these three individuals knows that none of them has the awesome skills to compete with the likes of Ian Gillan, Paul Rodgers, or Robert Plant, for example. Yet even through none of the guys has what I would consider supreme vocal talent, each musician at least holds his own and services the style of material quite admirably. Nevertheless, this is not an album for music-lovers merely seeking outstanding vocal prowess.

No, this album instead is for those who revel in wonderfully slick guitar, melodic bass, and thumping drums, and thankfully in this arena, each individual musician plays at the top of his game while working with his cohorts as a cohesive team. Indeed, some of the rousing and often-inspired performances on stomping and pounding tracks such as “The Doctor,” “Love is Worth the Blues,” “Third Degree,” “Pollution Woman,” “Turn Me Over,” and the scorching title tune often bring to mind the best work of both Mountain and Cream, and occasionally even surpass it, while a few other tunes—the piano-enhanced “Out into the Fields” and “While You Sleep”—offer up lighter moments, adding diversity to the package and showing the group’s potential.

Overall, fans of the individual musicians and their famous “parent groups” will certainly appreciate much of the material here, while devotees of other bands such as Cactus, Beck Bogert Appice, Humble Pie, Faces, and Free will also likely savor the often-fun and raucous material.

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Withem – The Unforgiving Road (2016)

Withem_UnforgivingRoad4.5 out of 5 Stars!

The Unforgiving Road is the second release from Norway’s Withem, a Prog-Metal band that seems to have just about everything—superlative musicianship, a vocalist with a killer set of pipes, and a knack for skillfully merging memorable AOR melodies with the technical instrumental maturity required for this demanding genre. Not many Prog-Metal bands can pull off this mixture successfully, but on tracks such as “In the Hands of a God,” “The Eye in the Sky,” “Riven,” “Unaffected Love,” and “The Pain I Collected,” the band certainly does.

For followers of groups such as Angra, Wingdom, Circus Maximus, Ice Age, or Sphere Of Souls, fans who prefer hearing lightning-quick yet tasty guitar and keyboard solos, thundering rhythms, crisp and clear vocals that often shoot for the stars, and creative instrumentation within often-intricate song arrangements that are somehow still easily accessible to the average listener, then Withem may just be a band for you to appreciate.

So as far as I can see, the only thing Withem doesn’t have is the worldwide plaudits it justifiably deserves.

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White Spirit – White Spirit (1980)

WhiteSpirit_13 out of 5 Stars!

White Spirit was a band from the U.K. that released a sole album back in 1980 and, due to its musical style (similar in many ways to bands such as Rainbow and Deep Purple) got lumped into the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” category.

But be warned if investigating this album: although the music is fairly enjoyable, with both tasty guitar and Hammond and synth solos popping up (hence the Rainbow/Deep Purple comparisons), the vocals are definitely White Spirit’s weakest link, with the singer being jarringly off key on too many occasions—especially when he unsuccessfully stretches for the high notes. Additionally, the production quality is often flat.

Therefore, both of those annoying factors bring down my overall rating of this otherwise decent collection of tunes by at least a full star (I ended up rating this 3 out of 5 Stars overall).

On a brighter note, the band’s guitarist was the talented Janick Gers, who would justifiably go on to big-time success the following year with the band Gillan, then later with Iron Maiden, and drummer Graeme Crallan joined up with Tank for a single album several years later.

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Wishbone Ash – Just Testing (1980)

WishboneAsh_JustTesting4 out of 5 Stars!

After the release of 1973’s impressive Live Dates (one of my favorite live albums of all time), Wishbone Ash entered a second phase in its career, with the band not only hiring a new guitarist in Laurie Wisefield (replacing founding member Ted Turner), but also experimenting with its overall sound/style. Although the change in line-up proved more or less successful, since the talented Wisefield fit it nicely, the latter change—the experimentation—resulted in mixed results.

Thankfully, the band’s initial album with Wisefield, 1974’s There’s the Rub, was a noticeable step forward from the previous Wishbone Four, which lacked some of the band’s earlier energy and passion. But now with the band operating at full steam again, showing that the change in personnel had no initial negative effects, the musical evolution slowly began.

Unfortunately, several albums during this phase ended up rather lackluster and sterile, with a noticeable drop in heat and quality. But a few stood out to me, with 1980’s Just Testing being one of them.

On this release, rocking tracks such as “Living Proof,” “Helpless,” “Pay the Price,” the acoustic and electric hybrid “Master of Disguise,” the ballad “New Rising Star,” and the more Progressive “Lifeline” occasionally harken back to the band’s early days, featuring inspired fretwork, with plenty of Blues influences and the band’s signature twin-guitar riffs on glorious display. Whereas a handful of other tunes, such as “Haunting Me” and “Insomnia,” add sound treatments and production techniques often associated with other genres, including New Wave—subtle additions for sure, enough to show the band toying with genre boundaries, but not too far out of the norm as to create an incohesive collection of tunes.

In fact, the general cohesiveness of the tracks, the enhanced production, as well as the sterling performances of each musician and the overall catchier songwriting are what sets this album apart from several of its predecessors during this era of Wishbone Ash. So although Just Testing is not a perfect album, not quite worthy to share the pedestal with classic studio albums such as Argus, in my opinion, it’s still one of the better platters in Wishbone Ash’s vast catalogue.

And sadly, Just Testing also marked the end of this second phase of the band’s history, with long-time bassist/vocalist Martin Turner exiting shortly after this album’s completion. The band’s next release, despite John Wetton joining the line-up, ended up (due mainly to the absence of Martin Turner’s recognizable voice) being a bit too different in sound/style for many long-time fans of the group, including myself, and therefore also marked the end of my further interest in Wishbone Ash’s subsequent albums.

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Waken Eyes – Exodus (2015)

WakenEyes_Exodus4 out of 5 Stars!

Although several websites state that Waken Eyes is a Canadian band, the group is indeed comprised of international musicians, including in-high-demand German drummer Marco Minnemann, killer New Jersey bassist Mike LePond (Symphony X), and Swedish vocal powerhouse Henrik Bath (Harmony/Darkwater), which leads me to believe that skillful guitarist/keyboardist Tom Frelek is the actual Canadian native.

Regardless, the band’s wealth of experience and craftsmanship clearly shows on its debut album, especially on sundry tracks such as “Cognition,” “Cornerstone Away,” “Deafening Thoughts,” “Across the Horizon,” and “Palisades.” Aside from the seemingly flawless musical performances and often-complex instrumentation, and the clear yet punchy production quality, Exodus includes everything fans of Progressive Metal typically require—melodic songs that periodically shift and spiral through a wide variety of influences, a splendid balance of laid-back, mid-tempo, and energetic moments, with the diverse extremes of stark/moody and bombastic/orchestrated passages providing welcome contrasts, along with the often cinematic-sounding epic title track exceeding the eighteen-minute mark.

In short, Waken Eyes is a promising band, and Exodus is an impressive debut!

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Witness – Witness (1988)

Witness_Witness4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, the female-led Witness released only one album back in 1988, and in short, it kicked serious butt. In many respects, the talented group reminded me of Saraya, and produced material that seemed a heavier version of what appeared on Robin Beck’s solo albums from the same era.

This worthy collection contains a combination of driving rock songs (“Show Me What You Got,” “Do It Till We Drop,” “Jump Into The Fire,” “Borrowed Time”), tunes with AOR melodies and atmospheres tossed in for good measure (“Desperate Lover,” “Back To You,” “Let Me Be The One”), and a ton of catchy choruses to go around (just about every track).

With the right promotion, Witness may have had bigger sales, since it certainly possessed above-average material, so shame on the lame record company for doing seemingly nothing to promote the group. It’s also a shame that singer Debbie Davis never resurfaced in subsequent bands since she definitely had the chops. Thankfully, guitarist Damon Johnson did pop up in various groups through the years, the most notable including Brother Cane and his current band Black Star Riders.

Regardless, fans of female-fronted Hard Rock should definitely hunt down a copy of this album, and chances are they won’t be disappointed. Also note, appearing on the album as guest stars are guitarists Neal Schon (who also co-wrote two tracks) and Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis, as well as Journey’s Steve Smith on percussion.

This is a true and forgotten classic, with excellent material and enjoyable performances throughout.

 

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John Waite – Mask of Smiles (1985)

JohnWaite_MaskSmiles4 out of 5 Stars!

After the enormous success of his No Brakes album the previous year—thanks mainly to the classic single “Missing You,” which turned him into an undeniable superstar—John Waite followed up in ’85 with Mask of Smiles, another above-average collection of tracks with an eye-catching cover, that (oddly) seemed to get ignored by the fans, presumably since it arrived and got lost in the gigantic shadow of “Missing You.”

Although mainly due to its meager length (just over thirty-three minutes—come on, John, only nine short tracks? I’m assuming this album may have been rushed to release, thanks to record company greed) this is not my most-played Waite album overall (that would come next with 1987’s exceptional Rover’s Return).

Regardless, to keep me satisfied, this album does contain enough catchy rockers and memorable mid-tempo tunes such as “You’re the One,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Laydown,” “Just Like Lovers,” “Every Step of the Way,” and “No Brakes” (named after the previous album, so I’ve often wondered if the song was an outtake). Plus, also included on Mask of Smiles is what I believe to be the strongest ballad Waite ever recorded—”The Choice”—which is simply brilliant.

Anyway, I’ve rarely disliked anything Waite created, whether as part of The Babys, Bad English, or as a solo artist, and I’ll always consider him—thanks to his instantly recognizable voice and his extraordinary knack for delivering emotional melodies—one of the leaders in the AOR genre.

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Wally – Valley Gardens (1974)

Wally_ValleyGardens4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this U.K. band’s debut album sounded like what may have happened had a group such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young merged with a band such as The Strawbs or a “lite” version of Kansas, mixing Progressive Folk and Symphonic Prog with a trace of Country Rock, thanks to the inclusion of pedal steel guitar, violin, and mandolin.

But on Valley Gardens, Wally’s sophomore release, not only does the band continue with the pleasing blend of styles on the four tracks included, but by adding even more musical influences to its overall soundscape, improves on the mixture.

During the lengthier title track, for instance, one vocal section strongly reminds me of Nektar’s Remember the Future, while several instrumental segments within the complex introduction and ending passages, especially the synth tones and accompaniment, bring to mind both Camel and Flash. The mellow, piano-driven “Nez Perce,” however, is more reminiscent of the band’s debut album, where the spot-perfect harmonies and the violin are once again at the forefront.

From there, “The Mood I’m In” is a laid-back and dreamy tune with the inclusion of a jazzy sax solo in its ending section, while the final track, the eighteen-minute “The Reason Why”—the obvious centerpiece of Valley Gardens—is where the band includes all of its strengths, from the flawless harmony vocals, instrumental passages that employ both acoustic and electric guitar, luscious keyboard orchestrations that make captivating use of the Mellotron, and the violin adding extra symphonic touches in various sections of the intricate song arrangement. Additionally, the steel guitar makes an appearance here, leading into a segment that has obvious Yes influences, including an all-too-brief Wakeman-style synth solo, then a hypnotic “Space Rock” segment that brings to mind early Pink Floyd, before the band returns to more CSN&Y-styled vocals with a flavor of Country Rock, more violin insertions, and a Strawbs-like atmosphere. In short, the track is a beaut—a splendid achievement.

So with “The Reason Why” being undoubtedly the grandest (and longest) composition Wally ever recorded, Valley Gardens was an improvement on the 1974 self-titled debut and an obvious step forward in the band’s development, hinting at even more exciting creativity to come, which makes the fact that Wally completely evaporated shortly after this release (not taking into account a reunion album that popped up thirty-five years later, in 2010) all the more disappointing.

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