Arena – An Overview

arena_logoAlbums In My Collection

– Contagion
– Immortal?
– Live & Life
– Pepper’s Ghost
– Pride
– The Seventh Degree Of Separation
– Songs From The Lion’s Cage
– The Unquiet Sky
– The Visitor

An Overview

Since the mid-1990s, this long-lasting Neo-Prog act from the UK has released a series of albums I consider quite enjoyable in general. Yet, a warning—the band is somewhat inconsistent regarding its overall sound (not quality, which is always high, just overall style). This has much to do with the fact that Arena has had four lead singers (all good, yet some better than others) over the course of its two-decade lifetime, therefore, the material today sounds like it comes from an almost totally different band than the one that created the material of the past.

In the olden days, particularly with their second vocalist Paul Wrightson and his heavy Fish-like delivery, range, and tone, Arena reminded me of Marillion. And no shock, since Marillion’s original drummer, Mick Pointer, is one of the band’s founders and constant members. After a few albums, however, with the third singer Rob Sowden (and his different range and delivery style), Arena added a touch of metal to its overall sound on several tracks. And now, with yet another new singer (Paul Manzi) for the past few albums, and a more streamlined approach—ie. shorter tracks, meaning more concise ideas and less adventurousness when it comes to arrangements—the band sounds different still, much less “early-Marillionesque” and more like a band such as Fates Warning, only with an emphasis on keyboards (as usual) as opposed to guitars.

So to fans of the genre, beware when delving into Arena’s back catalogue—depending on your taste in Prog-Rock, some of the albums may have different levels of personal appeal. Although each era of the band has its pluses and minuses, each is also better than average as far as songwriting and musicianship when compared to its numerous contemporaries. So, as with me, it usually boils down to which singer one likes the best—and thankfully, I like all styles of singers about evenly, so I’m happy with each era of Arena.

Overall, the band produces some great Prog-Rock!

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Barock Project – An Overview

BarockProjectAlbums In My Collection

– Coffee In Neukolin
– Rebus
– Skyline

An Overview

A relatively new band from Italy (they popped onto the scene sometime around 2005), this one playing some rather exciting Neo-Pro and Symphonic Prog-Rock. Each of their releases (some sung in Italian, the most recent sung in English) has some of the usual inspirations creeping into their sound, including Spock’s Beard, Magellan, Gentle Giant, Transatlantic, Jethro Tull, Moon Safari, Unitopia, Yes, etc.

There’s actually nothing new as far as overall content goes, but each song sounds somehow fresh, like a modern, grander, almost forward-thinking take on older styles—the instruments are performed wonderfully with a singer that sounds invigorated, more “this century” than some bands who try to replicate the usual older Peter Gabriel or Fish-type vocals from the previous century. Sure, some of the vocals parts (especially when accompanied by the occasional flute insertions) are slightly reminiscent of Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, but again, with a more youthful sound, and always highly melodic. And truthfully, the singer has a broader range overall, a more AOR-friendly and enthusiastic delivery, which is always a plus.

In general, in all of their songs on each of their albums, Barock Project seems to magically include an energetic approach, more lively and upbeat than other contemporary bands, with some fascinating arrangements, an indescribable “capturing lightning in a bottle” type of phenomena, that makes one’s ears perk up with curiosity. This is where (to me) the Magellan comparison comes in the most, since that band also had a similar approach when they first appeared on the scene back in the ’90s.

So at first glance (or listen) it may seem as if Barock Project is offering nothing new to the Prog-Rock genre, yet with their spirited approach they are indeed adding their own spicy and robust take on a tried-and-true formula, although sounding as if there is no formula at all, therefore, sounding relatively fresh. And they just keep getting better and better with each new release, with the most recent (Skyline) being a near masterpiece. NICE!!!

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Headpins – An Overview

HeadpinsAlbums In My Collection

– Head Over Heels
– Line Of Fire
– Turn It Loud

An Overview

This Canadian group had an unremarkable career in the early ’80s, which seemed a shame since they featured a lead singer with a spectacular voice. Darby Mills was her name, and kicking major ass with her ballsy vocals was her game.

The band’s first 2 albums, Turn It Loud and Line Of Fire, each contained some hard-rockin’ tracks that showcased just how in-your-face Darby could be when given some fiery material. She fits comfortably into the same category of singers as Janis Joplin, Joanna Dean, Sass Jordan, et al., the sort of raspy female vocalists who were outrageously adept at pouring their emotions into blues-based hard rock music without sacrificing the melodies.

Although many consider the band’s final album, Head Over Heels, a major let-down, I didn’t find it horrible, even though the band altered their style, lightening things up with a more mainstream/AOR approach. Darby is still there kickin’ butt, so it ain’t half as bad as some people claim—it certainly blows to hell just about any other band out there who attempted the same style in the mid-’80s.

Also note, after Darby left the group, the band picked up another terrific singer by the name of Chrissy Steele, but instead of releasing material under the Headpins name with her, the Magnet To Steele album that eventually resulted in 1991 was issued under the name “Chrissy Steele.” Headpins guitarist Brian MacLeod was the only member who lasted into this period before sadly passing away shortly after this new album was released. Be that as it may, the Magnet To Steele album was basically a Headpins album without the actual name and a “return to form” of their previous harder rocking style.

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Curved Air – An Overview

CurvedAirAlbums In My Collection

– Air Conditioning
– Air Cut
– Phantasmagoria
– Second Album

An Overview

For some reason I had put off checking out this band for many decades. Not sure of exactly the reason why, but I suspect it had to do with a trusted someone once telling me that they were nothing but wimpy progressive folk rock and, in my mind, that equaled boring. Despite knowing that Eddie Jobson was once in their line-up, I had always avoided this band based on that original caveat.

But just recently, I chanced to hear their material from the early 70s and, although not completely blown away, I certainly wasn’t bored. Granted their brand of progressive rock isn’t the sort that really gets my blood flowing (nothing like Gentle Giant or IQ, for example) but it’s more than pleasant enough, especially with the talented vocalist named Sonja Kristina at the helm.

Since my recent discovery, I’ve delved into Curved Air’s back catalogue and can now call myself a fan, especially of the albums Phantasmagoria and Air Cut, which are both better than average. When it comes to their softer material, they remind me of Renaissance, yet their liberal use of violin, electric guitar, organ and synthesizers, along with a fondness for bouncier rhythms and some experimental instrumentation on other tracks, sets them apart from the other band. Nevertheless, Sonja’s tone, range, and vocal delivery has a lot in common with Annie Haslam’s, thereby making comparisons between the two bands inevitable.

Regardless, thanks but no thanks to that friend of mine from years ago who gave me bad advice about Curved Air. I’m glad I finally took the chance and judged their early albums for myself, discovering not wimpy progressive folk rock, but a female-led Prog-Rock band that were unique in many respects and quite adventurous upon occasion—just take a listen to the track “Over And Above” from Phantasmagoria, for example, and see what I mean.

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Kaipa – An Overview

kaipa_logoAlbums In My Collection

– Angling Feelings
– In The Wake Of Evolution
– Keyholder
– Mindrevolutions
– Notes From The Past
– Sattyg
– Vittjar

An Overview

This band from Sweden has the uncanny ability to truly kick my ass. Although, at this point in time, I’m still unfamiliar with their early releases (from the 1970s and ’80s), getting “into them” just as the new decade began when they reformed with basically a new line-up, and thus, I started listening to only their newest releases. And, surprisingly and thankfully, each album gripped me.

Everything Kaipa delivers is ultra-professional, from the performances of each musician down to the high-quality production. The melodies of their songs are generally engaging, and their arrangements will have most lovers of Prog-Rock in a perpetual heavenly bliss. The bottom line…every album the band has released since reappearing back in 2002 has been a 4- or a 4.5-Star rating from me, each featuring countless jaw-dropping moments, with each album close to perfection.

For those unfamiliar with the band, they play a generally bright, highly complex version of Symphonic Progressive Rock, with a perfect mixture of extended and shorter tracks, an impressive range of instruments, and both male and female vocals with rich harmonies. And grand KUDOS to Aleena, the female vocalist, whose style and delivery and range are extraordinarily! The tracks where she is featured are typically my favorites.

In many ways, Kaipa sounds similar to The Flower Kings when it comes to their overall sound and musical approach, and that’s certainly not a fluke, considering that Roine Stolt (founder of The Flower Kings) was also the guitarist of the original Kaipa back in the ’70s and also involved in the band’s resurgence within the first half of the new decade. Like the band The Tangent, due to their own connection to Roine, I place Kaipa firmly in the “Offshoots of The Flower Kings” category, whether they deserve the classification or not. Be that as it may, keyboardist Hans Lundin truly deserves a round of applause for “keeping the dream alive,” being (I believe) the only consistent member of the band since their formation, and thus, is the grand master of the entire affair, despite Roine’s occasional involvement.

If I had to offer any negative critique to the band, it’s that the majority of their albums can be, in my eyes, overly long. This is the same critique I would also offer to both The Flower Kings and The Tangent. But frankly, I’d much rather have too much new music with each album than too little, so my critique is quite minor in the grand scheme of things, especially to a band that offers such wonderful material.

Highly recommended for all Prog-Rock fans!

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It Bites – An Overview

ItBitesAlbums In My Collection

– The Big Lad In The Windmill
– Eat Me In St. Louis
– It Happened One Night
– Map Of The Past
– Once Around The World
– The Tall Ships

An Overview

Another band, this one wonderfully quirky in its early years, that often straddles the line between Progressive Rock and AOR. Since they seem to fall mostly into the Progressive Rock genre, especially these days, I’ve included them on this list.

The earlier releases, featuring the talented Francis Dunnery on lead vocals and guitar, provided the most “quirky” aspect of this band. The material on the early releases was a mixture of Pop Rock/Hard Rock/AOR Rock and Progressive Rock, a unique-sounding blend to be certain, and these albums grabbed me instantly. They had a unique flavor that no other band has yet to duplicate.

Then the band disappeared for many years…until…

It Bites blasted back onto the scene in the new decade—but when Francis left the band to go solo and John Mitchell joined as his replacement. Since then, the band got rid of the more “quirkier” aspects in favor of more straight-forward Prog-Rock (in the Neo-Prog variety) approach, and the subsequent albums are also terrific, yet completely different from the band’s original releases.

So, for fans of Prog-Rock, be warned of the two different versions of this band. Both are extremely talented and enjoyable, but whichever style you might prefer depends on your personal preference when it comes to “what’s enjoyable” within the Prog-Rock universe.

Personally, I love both versions of the band, and hope that this newest incarnation continues for many years to come!

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Quidam – An Overview

QuidamAlbums In My Collection

– Alone Together
– Quidam
– Saiko
– Sny Aniolów (aka. Angel’s Dream)
– SurREvival
– The Time Beneath The Sky (aka. Pod Niebem Czas)

An Overview

A band from Poland, one of my favorites from that country, with two distinct eras—prior to 2003, they boasted a terrific female vocalist, and afterward (and to the present day) feature(d) an enjoyable male vocalist. Each era has lyrics sung in both Polish and English.

Both eras are also quite superb musically, with songs/arrangements that run the gamut of the Neo-Prog-Rock style, featuring luscious guitars (electric and acoustic), keyboards, extra percussion instruments, even flute, usually along with intricate and wonderfully (at times) mellow and absorbing atmospherics. On each of the albums I own, the production quality is near perfect. So depending on one’s taste, you might find either (or both phases) of the band entertaining, as do I.

Regardless which of the band’s eras you might prefer (female vs. male lead vocals, or whether its Polish or English in which they sing), when it comes to the music itself, fans of both modern and legendary groups such as Millenium, Galahad, Moonrise, Jethro Tull, Introitus, Marillion (especially on releases with the male vocalist, only not as drab), and even latter-day Pink Floyd will probably savor something offered by this terrific band.

And a special note: on the album The Time Beneath The Sky (aka. Pod Niebem Czas), the band’s rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” is hauntingly terrific…just the way I had always imagined the song SHOULD sound, especially with the female vocals.

Overall, an excellent band!

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Renaissance – An Overview

RenaissanceAlbums In My Collection

– Ashes Are Burning
– Azure d’Or
– Novella
– Prologue
– Scheherazade & Other Stories
– A Song For All Seasons
– Symphony Of Light
– Turn On The Cards

An Overview

I tend to feel that without Renaissance there would have never been a Magenta (my current favorite band). Renaissance’s existence could be summed up and divided into two parts—before and after Annie Haslam.

For the first two albums, the band featured singer Jane Relf and a host of musicians who eventually all left the band, with several of them (including Jane) going on to form Illusion, a band with a similar style. For the third album, the band’s management recruited the great Annie Haslam and musicians who would make up a Renaissance (Mk II) line-up. Throughout the many years that followed some of the musicians would come and go, but Annie remained constant. Thankfully!

The band started out (and remained for most of the 70s) a unique act for their time—a progressive rock band (featuring a stellar female vocalist, unlike the majority of their contemporaries) who placed an emphasis on acoustic instruments (especially some killer grand piano) and orchestral arrangements (again, unique for their era). You won’t hear much, if any, in the way of Yes or Genesis or Gentle Giant comparisons here, but a intricate mixture of rock, classical, folk, and jazz music all built around the angelic and powerful vocals of Annie Haslam (apart from a handful of songs during the earliest days). And no surprise—if you have the luck to get a singer with such unique talent, why not flaunt the treasure? Annie has a voice that is truly special. She can hit the highs and lows without difficulty, all the notes pitch-perfect and crystal clear, and all loaded with emotion. I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of the band’s later career, when they altered their sound to fit with the 80s’ poppish/new wave nonsense, but the first decade saw some excellent material from the band, material that remains enjoyable to this day.

As mentioned, Magenta is a band that owes at least a tip of the hat to Renaissance, since they take the band’s influence and merge it with sounds of other (more traditional) progressive bands from the 70s to create a great revamped version of their own for the 21st century. So thanks to Annie and Renaissance for releasing some stellar albums such as Scheherazade and Other Stories, or Turn Of The Cards, or Novella, or Ashes Are Burning—without these albums, a band such as Magenta might not have ever existed in this new century.

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Magic Pie – An Overview

MagicPieAlbums In My Collection

– Circus Of Life
– King For A Day
– Motions Of Desire
– The Suffering Joy

An Overview

I find this Norwegian band to be extremely fun. In many ways, they remind me of a weirder version of The Flower Kings, fully embracing traditional Prog-Rock band elements, especially when it comes to retro-sounding keyboards (including Moogs and Mellotrons), but also adding a touch of slamming metal guitars along with some complicated vocal harmonies/arrangements that would seem quite at home on an album by Queen or A.C.T. Most of their songs, especially the lengthy ones (some between 20 and 30 minutes), include spectacular instrumental passages where each musician is given a chance to shine, energetic, playful, and ever-changing rhythms, while the melodies are fairly engaging overall, with the lead vocals delivered with grit by a rather powerful frontman.

The usual inspirations are occasionally apparent—everything from classic Gentle Giant, Yes, and Genesis, to more modern-day Prog-Rock like Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, Transatlantic, etc.—yet through it all Magic Pie manages to create a style all its own. Generally speaking, the band could easily fall into the category of “Retro Prog-Rock,” the category that also includes acts such as Presto Ballet, Black Bonzo, Siena Root, D’Accord, etc.

Regardless of where Magic Pie is best categorized, one thing’s for certain—the music is never boring. The band offers some unbelievable, often breathtaking, Prog-Rock, so fans of the genre will likely find much to cherish on any of the four high-quality albums.

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Tantrum – An Overview

Tantrum_logoAlbums In My Collection

– Breaking Away
– Rather Be Rockin’
– Tantrum

An Overview

During the late 1970s, this popular Chicago-based act was aptly publicized as “The Female Version of Three Dog Night.” Supposedly their soon-to-be manager heard Three Dog Night performing the song “One” on the radio and imagined what would happen if he put together a harder-rocking band revolving around three female singers.

From that simple pondering, Tantrum was born. Their self-titled debut album Tantrum was released in 1978 on the small Ovation Records label, and their second album, Rather Be Rockin’, was issued in 1979, bringing the unusual band growing popularity and critical acclaim throughout the Midwest and beyond, due to radio play of the singles “Kidnapped” (from the Tantrum album) and “Rather Be Rockin'” (from the album of the same name). Their third and final album, Breaking Away, was never released as planned when Ovation Records folded due to financial hardship (rumor has it this occurred just one day prior to the vinyl being shipped to the retail stores).

Subsequently, disheartened and shocked at the situation, the band also folded shortly thereafter, unable to generate interest from another, more financially sound record label. Only more recently, in 2005, twenty-five years after its originally scheduled release, did Tantrum’s third album come to light, thanks to Escape Music (a European company), who issued all three albums in a special 2-CD set entitled Rather Be Rockin’/Tantrum/Breaking Away.

There’s no question about it—Tantrum is probably my favorite band of all time!

First, I admit to being totally prejudiced when it comes to them, since I personally knew the band members.  Having gone to as many of their shows as possible, I got to meet and eventually became friends with the band. I even had an advanced copy of their third  album. Nevertheless, this personal connection would have never happened if I hadn’t been such a huge fan of this local Chicago act to start with. They are the band I MOST MISS of all defunct acts, and even after all these decades I still regularly listen to their albums (and obsess over “what might have been” had they continued).

For those unfamiliar with this band, again imagine a female version of Three Dog Night, with an attractive blonde, brunette, and redhead, all with powerful and (most importantly) distinct voices, doing a blend of melodic hard rock and catchy AOR material, swapping lead vocals and with spot-on harmonies, backed by four terrific male musicians. This sort of lineup is highly unique, especially considering the type of music the band played…the only other acts with three female lead singers fall into the soul or pop categories, and the only other “rock act” with this sort of lineup was the outrageously successful Three Dog Night. This is one of the reasons this band, in my eyes, is sorely missed. Love them!

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