Leaves’ Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead (2018)

LeavesEyes_SignDragonhead3.5 out of 5 Stars!

One thing I can say about Leaves’ Eyes—despite the occasional lineup changes through the years, the group possesses an unwavering style, and one that is moderately enjoyable, for the most part. This staunch consistency, however, is not without its problems, which I’ll address below, yet on a positive note, it makes the group instantly recognizable. High production standards, complex song arrangements, often-bombastic orchestrations with choirs and the inclusion of whistles, fiddles, bagpipes, and archaic instruments such as nyckelharpas, and stellar musicianship grace each new Leaves’ Eyes’s release, thus allowing fans to know exactly what they will be getting without even having to sample tracks before making the purchase.

Yet when it comes to Sign of the Dragonhead, there is one notable difference, one that had the power to seriously alter the band’s style since the previous album (2015’s King of Kings), and that’s the addition of a new vocalist. In general, a band altering a lead singer is always risky business. I mean, no one generally notices whenever a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, or guitarist is replaced in most groups, unless that particular musician is so utterly unique as to have a trademarked sound. But when a singer, the very voice of the band, changes from one album to the next? Well, things can (and often do) take a drastic turn when it comes to an act’s overall sound. Especially—as in the case of Leaves’ Eyes—a highly recognizable sound, thanks in no small part to singer Liv Kristine, who’d fronted the group since it burst onto the scene in 2004.

Now, although vocalist Elina Siirala is not entirely “new” (having already appeared on the group’s 2016 EP Fires in the North) she’s new to me since I hadn’t heard that particular release. So, with Sign of the Dragonhead being my first exposure to Ms. Siirala voice, I am happy to report that her range, tonal quality, and manner of delivery are in keeping with what I’ve come to expect on all Leaves’ Eyes’s albums. In fact, had I not known prior to hearing this album about the change in lead singers, I might not have noticed anything different. So bravo to the band members for selecting a gifted vocalist who could jump aboard ship (a Viking vessel, no doubt) without causing any serious disturbances in the otherwise calm and consistent waters.

And as always, the material the band chose to record for this new album is often spirited, typically melodic, and generally better than numerous other female-fronted groups in this genre, with several tracks going above and beyond. For me, a handful of tunes really stood out, their choruses and riffs proving happily memorable and annoyingly repeating in my head at the oddest of times.

In my estimation, “Riders on the Wind” is probably one of the finest songs the band has recorded since its inception, with Siirala’s melody lines floating atop both full and rich instrumentation and a driving and head-bopping rhythm. The tune also includes all the bells and whistles (literally) associated with the group’s sound—grand orchestrations and choirs and all those odd instruments the band adores employing, perfectly encapsulating—in the proverbial nutshell—the band’s overall style in the space of only four minutes. Actually, a similar state of musical affairs as described above revolve around “Jomsborg,” “Shadows in the Night,” “Across the Sea,” and the masterful “Sign of the Dragonhead,” all tracks representing everything the band is about within three to four minute bursts, with the title tune especially sounding even more imposing and ostentatious, if that were even possible.

Thankfully, the band successfully toys with dynamics as well, merging both lighter (acoustic piano and guitar) instrumentation with the typical “metallic” grandiosity on the more intricate “Like A Mountain” or the gentler “Fairer Than the Sun,” which add welcomed breathing space to the sometimes-overblown majesty of the other surrounding tracks.

Now, with all that said, there are, however, a few tracks that don’t quite work for me. For instance, the instrumental “And Waves” is basically a celebration of all things Celtic that I feel goes on, even at three minutes, a bit too long. Other tunes don’t ring entirely triumphant as well, such as “Völva,” with a chorus that simply doesn’t grab me, and “Fires in the North,” that seems a tad disjointed with different sections linked together and varying melody lines not quite gelling into anything cohesive or memorable.

Moreover, the album’s closer, the lengthier and ambitious “Waves of Euphoria,” suffers from an entirely different dilemma—and this is one of those negative consistency issues I alluded to in the opening paragraph—the continual inclusion (and an unnecessary one for Leaves’ Eyes and any other band that tragically includes them) of the horrific “grunts and growls” male vocals. Sorry, but these completely unmelodious and indiscernible explosions of demonic vomit simply annoy me to no end and always lessen the enjoyability factor of most tracks on which they appear, especially when they take center stage, which happens on this otherwise engaging epic. If I wanted to hear orcs spewing nonsensical words at me in some guttural foreign language I’d rather replay The Lord of the Rings trilogy, thank you very much.

This last factor played a large part in not only forcing me to instantly lower the volume on my stereo, but also to lower my overall rating of the album. Additionally—and back to the consistency issue again—even though fans of Leaves’ Eyes will likely not be disappointed at this collection of tunes (or even those hellish male vocals) I wonder just how many new followers the band will muster with this release. Sorry to say, but even though most of the tunes are commendable and the musicians certainly know how to write some engaging melodies—and can orchestrate the pants off of many other groups in the Symphonic/Gothic Metal genre—I can’t help feeling that I’ve heard it all before on previous albums by the band. Yes, there is a high level of consistency in the group’s overall sound, and even in the Viking-inspired lyrics, but this begs the question as to whether Leaves’ Eyes is moving forward at all, or is the band simply parroting previous material?

These days, I can’t help feeling it’s mostly the latter since everything does seem a bit too samey from one album to the next. Yes, it’s enjoyable material for the most part, but unfortunately, it’s also nothing truly new.

Album Currently Not Available At Amazon
To Be Released 01/12/18

Beautiful Sin – The Unexpected (2006)

BeautifulSin_Unexpected4 out of 5 Stars!

Magali Luyten, lead vocalist for Germany’s Beautiful Sin (and also for the group Virus IV) is, in a single word, terrific. I liken her gruff and powerful voice to almost a female version of the mighty Jorn Lande, which is too perfect for this often bombastic brand of Heavy Metal. Plus, the band’s dramatic, full-bodied sound is often similar to Masterplan (no surprise, considering two of its members—keyboardist Axel Mackenrott and drummer Uli Kusch—were in both bands) as well as acts playing in a similar vein, such as Thunderstone, Heavenly, At Vance, Firewind, and Ride the Sky, so the Luyten/Lande vocal comparisons are even more appropriate.

On The Unexpected, hard-hitting tracks such as “Metalwaves,” “This is Not the Original Dream,” “Give Up Once for All,” “Take Me Home,” “Pechvogel (Unlucky Fellow),” “Lost,” and “The Spark of Ignition,” had me turning up the stereo to revel in the searing and snarling guitars, courtesy of Jorn Viggo Lofstad (Pagan’s Mind), Mackenrott’s often-pompish and regally grand keyboard backgrounds and blasts, and the thundering rhythms, thanks to Kusch and his partner in metal mayhem, bassist Steinar Krokmo. Also included are several ballads—”Close To My Heart” and “I’m Real”—to not only provide tempo variety and assorted moods, but also to further display the true depth and scope of Luyten’s breathtaking vocal talents.

My only gripe is that a pair of instrumentals also appear in this collection, the driving “Brace for Impact” and the laid-back, keyboard-orchestrated “The Beautiful Sin.” Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with either track, mind you—in fact, both admirably showcase the impressive chops of the four gifted musicians—but having these tracks taking up disc space offers two less opportunities of being able to enjoy Luyten “belting out the jams.” And it’s even more frustrating when you consider that Beautiful Sin released no additional material since this 2006 debut.

Therefore, I’m unsure if this band still exists or if it’s merely “on hiatus,” but considering it’s been more than a decade since The Unexpected dropped on the unsuspecting public, I can only assume the worst. Too bad, since Beautiful Sin showed real promise, and there are way too few female-fronted bands of this nature on the Heavy Metal scene.

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After Forever – After Forever (2007)

AfterForever_AfterForever5 out of 5 Stars!

Unfortunately, I discovered After Forever, a female-fronted Symphonic Metal band from the Netherlands, way too late. Indeed, the group announced its break-up a few weeks after I purchased this particular album, which completely blew me away, and also introduced me to the genre of female-led groups that often used operatic falsetto vocals, thus sending me on a desperate quest to hunt for similar-sounding bands. I like to think that had I not stumbled upon (and taken a chance on) this release, I might have never subsequently discovered Nightwish, Within Temptation, Edenbridge, Leaves’ Eyes, Silentium, and numerous other artists of this nature.

Anyway, upon first listen, I fell in love with the extraordinary singer Floor Jansen, who would go on to form another exciting band (ReVamp) and is now the singer in Nightwish. Although after absorbing this album for several weeks, I started digging into After Forever’s back catalogue and eventually decided that none of the group’s earlier albums tops this final, stellar, and self-titled release, yet each deserves a listen since Floor KILLS on each and every album.

Here, the band offers a seemingly perfect combination of bombastic Symphonic Metal, barreling Power Metal, with even a burst of Progressive Metal, thanks to the intricate instrumentation and song arrangements. “Discord” opens the album with a mighty bang, with Joost van den Broek’s keyboards layered and grand, and Sander Gommans’s and Bas Maas’s guitars brutal and beastly. Bassist Luuk van Gerven and drummer André Borgman unleash their own furious backing, their musical foundation substantial and rigorous. And although the band includes some “growling” vocals on occasion (typically an aspect that often ruins many albums of this nature for me), I can tolerate them here since they are not dominant within the mix, allowing Jansen’s wide-ranging and pristine leads to shine through and impress.

Although the album contains plenty of other tunes to match the alluring fury of “Discord”—for instance, “Transitory,” “Who I Am,” “Withering Time,” “Evoke,” “De-Energized” and “Equally Destructive”—other songs follow different paths, offering up diversity. The ballads “Cry You a Smile” and “Empty Memories” offer lighter moments, allow breathing space for the listener from the high-voltage moments, and also thrust Jansen’s soaring and emotional vocals to the forefront. On the other hand, the eleven-minute “Dreamflight,” the album’s longest and most adventurous track, is a full-out foray into Progressive Metal—the myriad segments and divergent passages, not to mention the wide array of instrumentation, shines a fierce spotlight on the band’s formidable orchestrational skills. And then, my favorite track, the luscious and upbeat “Energize Me,” has a breathtaking chorus that repeated in my head for weeks on end, showing that After Forever also had a talent for writing memorable songs.

Overall, the album blazes with a luxuriant beauty that most female-led Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal acts would kill to possess. About the only band I subsequently discovered that could, in my opinion, occasionally match the sheer nuclear grandiloquence of this material is (ironically enough, considering Jansen’s future) Nightwish, but even that group has never delivered a collection of tracks with such consistent vigor and majesty as this.

Regardless, Floor Jansen has me as a lifelong fan, and this swansong release by After Forever is one album I have never removed from my I-Phone since purchasing it all those years ago. Five Stars all the way!

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Stone The Crows – Ode to John Law (1970)

StoneCrows_OdeJohnLaw4 out of 5 Stars!

With the terrific Maggie Bell as the band’s front-woman, one might expect to hear thunderous and raspy Janis Joplin-inspired vocals, loaded with angst and emotion, over hard-driving Blues Rock, which is exactly what’s on offer here. To me, Stone The Crows is what Faces might have sounded like with a female vocalist at the helm—had Rod Stewart perhaps undergone a gender reassignment.

Ode to John Law, the band’s second studio album—and its second album released in 1970—continues on from where the debut left off, with more Psychedelic-tinged, Blues-based Rock ‘n’ Roll, along with a touch of Funk and Soul added to the mix, thick-sounding Hammond, trippy electric piano, spirited and tasty guitar, and a solid and punchy rhythm section. And with not only Maggie Bell belting out tracks such as “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” “Sad Mary,” “Love 74,” “Things are Getting Better,” and a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone,” but also with the underrated guitarist Les Harvey (band founder and brother of the “sensational” Alex Harvey, who would be fatally electrocuted on stage only a few short years later) and bassist/vocalist James Dewar (who would soon join with Robin Trower to create a string of classic albums), the band’s lineup, rounded out by keyboardist John McGinnis and drummer Collin Allen, simply smokes!

Of course, the band would go on to release one additional top-class album (Teenage Licks) in ’71 without Dewar and McGinnis, and another (Ontinuous Performance) in ’72, just after the death of Harvey, where the remaining musicians quickly hired Jimmy McCulloch (Small Faces/Wings) to finish the album. But surviving in the wake of such a tragedy proved too difficult, and Stone The Crows fell apart shortly afterward. A shame, really, since as heard especially on its self-titled debut and Ode to John Law, the band possessed a unique style, had undeniable chemistry, a seemingly endless drive, and a knack for skillfully incorporating touches of numerous influences into its sound.

(RIP to Les Harvey, James Dewar, and Jimmy McCulloch, true legends and horribly missed.)

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Solstice – Prophecy (2013)

Solstice_Prophecy4 out of 5 Stars!

Solstice is a shamefully obscure band from the U.K. that released only five studio albums between 1984 and 2013, with Prophecy being the most recent. Although with only five studio releases in a twenty-nine-year period, with numerous lineup changes through the decades, plus the band taking lengthy breaks, the reason for Solstice’s continued obscurity is certainly understandable. After all, it’s not like the Prog-Rock community has been continually bombarded with announcements from the band regarding fresh material, news of upcoming album releases, world tours, etc., right?

Be that as it may, Solstice plays majestic, engaging, complex, and often-hypnotic Symphonic and Neo-Prog material with Prog-Folk influences, and with the band featuring female vocals, I’m sure many fans of artists such as Magenta, Flamborough Head, Curved Air, Mostly Autumn, Thieves’ Kitchen, and Introitus will find much to savor here.

On Prophecy, the band shows its gift for successfully offering up a delicate balance of acoustic-based passages along with electrified fare, typically with a dreamy atmosphere on which the serene vocal melodies float. This is never more evident than on both the opening tune “Eyes of Fire” and on the lengthier “West Wind.” Then, on “Keepers of the Truth” and “Blackwater,” the band adds a larger degree of fiddle to the overall instrumentation, and with the more upbeat tempos, often creates a sound similar to early Kansas, only melded with a group such as Magenta (thanks to the female vocalist, of course).

My favorite track, however, is the seventeen-and-a-half minute epic “Warriors,” which takes the listener through numerous moods and tempo shifts, with both acoustic and electric segments seemingly united in a perfect marriage, and lovely vocal segments loaded with rich background harmonies. Here also is where—due to the electric guitar and synth trading off enjoyable solos in the lengthy middle Neo-Prog section, and the vocals popping in with rhythmic accents—the band once again reminds me primarily of Magenta. Simply beautiful and captivating in its tunefulness and scope.

All in all, although Prophecy is not an essential item for Prog-Rock enthusiasts to add to their music collections, it’s nevertheless a splendid release that contains enough alluring moments to justify its replay value. And as mentioned earlier, fans of female-led Symphonic and Neo-Prog bands, especially those who prefer a somewhat lighter, more acoustic touch, will certainly delight in the material.

Also please note, along with the five tunes described in this short review, the album also contains three additional “bonus” tracks. “Find Yourself,” “Return of Spring,” and “Earthsong” were originally recorded back in 1984 for the band’s debut album Silent Dance, but were remixed by Steven Wilson from the original tapes for inclusion on Prophecy. Although none of these tunes adds any extra magic to the main bulk of the album, it’s still nice to compare the band’s past and present style, which, frankly, hasn’t changed all that much.

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Danté Fox – Under the Seven Skies (2007)

DanteFox_UnderSevenSkies4 out of 5 Stars!

When Danté Fox popped onto the U.K. music scene in the late 1990s to release two catchy albums (1996’s Under Suspicion and 1999’s The Fire Within), I immediately thought the band an updated, more rockin’ version of North American acts such as Heart, Toronto, Saraya, or Chicago’s mighty Tantrum (albeit with a single female vocalist as opposed to three). And that opinion didn’t change in the least when the band finally returned to action in 2007 with the release of Under the Seven Skies.

Here, on tunes such as “The Last Goodbye,” “Lucky Ones (Born Tonight in the Setting Sun),” “Love Tried To Fine You,” “Firing Guns,” and “Goodbye to Yesterday,” Sue Willetts’s voice is still in splendid and stunning form, commercial as all heck, and the skillful band delivers yet another powerful collection of ultra-catchy material, destined for greatness in a perfect world. Indeed, the nine-minute title track, with its intricate symphonic arrangement, is AOR perfection itself.

I’m still not sure why this band isn’t better known, except for the fact that this world is indeed (and too sadly) far from perfect, darn it. Nevertheless, Under the Seven Skies kicks melodic butt, and Danté Fox Roxx!

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Mother’s Finest – Mother’s Finest (1976)

MothersFinest_19764 out of 5 Stars!

From Atlanta, Georgia, Mother’s Finest burst out of the starting gate during the early ’70s to offer something truly unique in the Hard Rock genre—a seemingly perfect blend of Hard Rock and Funk, with touches of Metal, Soul, Jazz, and Pop-Rock performed by a multiracial line-up. And to increase the uniqueness factor even more, the band featured a female singer, an African American powerhouse by the name of Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy. Actually, to be more precise, the group included a male lead vocalist as well named Glenn “Doc” Murdock, also quite forceful and adept, but for me (and no offense to Murdock) it’s Kennedy, whether belting out leads or background harmonies, who truly stole the show and kept me coming back for more.

Mother’s Finest’s 1976 self-titled second release (not to be confused with the self-titled debut from 1972) is the one that initially caught my attention and remains a collection of tracks I enjoy even to this day. On rollicking songs such as “My Baby,” “Rain,” “Fire,” the controversially titled “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll,” and the blazing “Give You All the Love (Inside of Me),” Kennedy’s clean, crisp, and soulful voice simply kills, cutting through the air like the proverbial siren and drawing in the listener, while Murdock and the other talented musicians offer up ultra-tight, deft, catchy, and percussion-rich “Hard Rockin’ Funk.” My only gripe with this album when I initially purchased it is that the band delivered only a total of seven tracks, collectively not quite reaching the thirty-five-minute mark, and I instantly yearned for more.

Regardless, it’s still a wonder to me why Mother’s Finest, with more than a dozen albums to its credit, the last one being released only a few years ago, remains so horribly obscure, and why Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy isn’t more widely acclaimed for her fantastic set of pipes. Holy crap, this gal can sing, and this album rocks (and funks) out!

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Jefferson Starship – Red Octopus (1975)

Starship_RedOctopus4 out of 5 Stars!

Red Octopus is the album that finally put Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Whatever back in the spotlight. Having both the wonderful Grace Slick and Marty Balin (who returned to the group full time) behind the microphone for the ’75 release, along with Paul Kantner and the revamped line-up of musicians, Red Octopus made the vocal sound of “Airplane” relevant again.

Although I was never an avid fan of the huge (and heavily edited) hit single “Miracles,” feeling it a bit too “adult contemporary” for my tastes, I still savored the vocal interplay between Slick and Balin, and through the years, eventually grew to love the lengthier album version. I was also pleased to hear some high-caliber songwriting from Slick—indeed, the album contains “Fast Buck Freddie,” which Slick co-wrote with guitarist Craig Chaquico, “Play On Love,” a collaboration between Slick and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears, and Slick’s own “Ai Garimasu (There Is Love),” with all three becoming some of my favorite “Grace songs” of the band’s career. Besides the aforesaid “Miracles,” the Balin-fronted tracks “Sweeter Than Honey” and “Tumblin'” were also fine slices of melodic rock, while “There Will Be Love” and “I Want to See Another World,” where the group’s trademarked “gang vocals” come into play, are also quite commendable.

In truth, however, I could have easily done without the pair of instrumentals (“Git Fiddler” and “Sandalphon”) appearing on the album—with Jefferson Starship having numerous songwriters in its line-up and two dynamic lead singers in the form of Slick and Balin, one would think the band might have whipped up some additional vocal tunes to further showcase their talents and satisfy fans of the crooning duo. After all, the male/female vocal interplay is what made each album from Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship so special, so why include two less-than-spectacular instrumentals and deprive the fans of additional Slick/Balin chemistry?

Regardless, with the revamped group hitting the big time thanks to Red Octopus, this insured its survival for many more years, despite numerous line-up changes and another name change/shortening that would eventually follow.

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Starship_RedOctopus

Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973)

FleetwoodMac_MysteryToMe3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Prior to achieving worldwide superstardom, Fleetwood Mac had churned out music for years and years, first creating some fine albums in the (originally) Blues Rock genre with spectacular guitarist Peter Green at the helm, then (during its second phase) releasing a handful of additional albums that contained a more commercial, laid-back sound with only a hint of Blues Rock. This often-forgotten second phase of the group saw guitarist/vocalist Bob Welch and the ultra-talented keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie (gosh, I adore this woman!) joining up for the ride.

But despite the two new members bringing with them their advanced songwriting skills, and the group’s relatively stable line-up during this period, Fleetwood Mac still couldn’t quite generate mega-stardom status. That wouldn’t happen until Welch left the group and the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks team came aboard for the band’s third “heavily soap-opera drama” phase.

Regardless, I always enjoyed Fleetwood Mac’s second phase, and still listen to those five 1971-1974 albums on a semi-regular basis, especially this particular platter. On Mystery to Me, the band included more than a handful of its finest, most memorable songs from this era, including Welch’s “Somebody,” “Emerald Eyes,” “The City,” and “Hypnotized,” and a decent cover version of the classic Yardbirds’ track “For Your Love.” But for me, McVie’s songs are typically the special ones, and in this case, her compositions such as “Just Crazy Love,” “Why,” “The Way I Feel,” and “Believe Me,” though perhaps not as brilliant as her future endeavors, still sounded as if they could have easily appeared on any of the classic albums during the Buckingham/Nicks years.

Meanwhile, Bob Welch and Christine McVie’s instrumental and vocal skills are in tip-top shape, while John McVie and Mick Fleetwood prove once again to be a “wonderfully tight though nothing-too-fancy” rhythm team. And Bob Weston, his contributions to the band often underappreciated or dismissed, plays some surprisingly tasty lead guitar throughout, especially his subtle riffing on the bluesier “Somebody,” the slide guitar intro on “Why,” or on the harder-rocking “The City” and “Miles Away.” Additionally, with the now-legendary Martin Birch (Deep Purple/Wishbone Ash/Jeff Beck/Faces/etc.) now handling production duties instead of just engineering like he did on the band’s previous three albums, the sound here is rich and full, probably one of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most consistent during this period.

By the way, I continually roll my eyes in amazement and chuckle when I hear or read comments by supposed music-lovers who still seemingly have no clue that Fleetwood Mac even existed before the appearance of Stevie Nicks. What a shame for them, since Fleetwood Mac delivered a stream of enjoyable and catchy, diverse and often-imaginative music prior to 1975, especially on Mystery to Me.

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Landmarq – Entertaining Angels (2012)

Landmarq_EntAngels4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When singer Damian Wilson (Rick Wakeman/Star One/Headspace/Threshold) left Landmarq after the band released the exceptional album The Vision Pit back in 1995, I prayed the group would be able to fill his shoes with another fine vocalist and continue onward.

Thankfully, my wish was granted, and in spades. Not only did Landmarq continue, but recruited a female vocalist to replace Wilson, one of exceptional talent named Tracy Hitchings (Quasar/Strangers on a Train).

After releasing an album in 1998 with Hitchings, the band took a lengthy break and finally returned in 2012 with Entertaining Angels.

The album’s title says it all, since not only is this collection of tracks more than entertaining, but with Hitchings’s angelic voice once again featured, the album ended up being a near masterpiece. Songs such as the opening title track, as well as “Mountains of Anglia,” “Turbulence (Paradigm Shift),” the two-part “Glowing,” the sixteen-minute epic “Calm Before the Storm,” and the stunningly beautiful “Prayer (Coming Home)” will likely appeal to fans of female-fronted Prog-Rock acts such as Magenta, Lana Lane, Introitus, Scarlet Hollow, IOEarth, and Janison Edge.

The luscious melodies and often-grand instrumentation, along with the soul-stirring vocals appearing throughout Entertaining Angels, are simply superb!

Final note: If seeking out this album, be certain to grab the “Special Edition” version, which includes four extra songs, equaling more than twenty-eight minutes of additional music.

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