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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Leaves’ Eyes – Njord (2009)

LeavesEyes_Njord3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Years ago, when I first discovered groups such as Nightwish, After Forever, and Within Temptation—female-fronted Symphonic/Gothic Metal groups—I also happily stumbled upon Leaves’ Eyes from Germany.

Singer Liv Kristine has a magnificent range and style of delivery. More rock-oriented as opposed to operatic in overall nature, her voice nevertheless soars above the often-grand and occasionally folksy musical arrangements like a songbird in flight. My only pet peeve about this group—the same pet peeve I have with Epica and several other bands in this genre—and the reason I don’t typically rate the band’s releases higher on my scale, is the cheesy, jarring, and annoying-as-hell insertion of undecipherable “growling/beast” male vocals the band continues to employ, which basically destroy much of the beauty that is otherwise to be found on each album.

With that being said, Njord, the band’s third full-length release, still has its moments of greatness, such as on the grand and majestic opening title track, as well as the heavily symphonic compositions “Take the Devil in Me,” “Northbound,” “Emerald Island,” and the lengthy, multi-part “Froya’s Theme.” The band’s lush and dramatic rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” is also quite special. And despite the silly “beast vocal” garbage that pops up on too many tracks, the album can thankfully be savored without too much difficulty.

But a final note to all Symphonic Metal groups: Please, PLEASE, if you truly need to use these male “growling/beast” vocals to satisfy some deep-seated craving of which I am unaware, I beg of you to do so sparingly and give us fans of actual music a break from this unnecessary and insufferable noise. (And my apologies to anyone who disagrees with me on this point, but that’s just my opinion.)

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Silentium – Seducia (2006)

Silentium_Seducia4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I stumbled upon this talented Finnish group when hunting for more music similar to bands such as After Forever, Nightwish, and Within Temptation, and Seducia (Silentium’s fourth studio album and the collection that introduced me to the group) is generally quite superb—ominous Goth Metal atmospheres with full and biting dual guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, and the ultra-lush keyboards so highly associated with this particular genre.

But what sets Silentium apart from the aforementioned Symphonic Metal/Gothic Metal groups is that Riina Rinkinen, the gifted female vocalist (the band’s third and final one), is not at all operatic in her approach, but more Hard Rock oriented. Plus, the band also includes Elias Kahila, a full-time cellist (a rarity in the “rock business”), thus adding an unusual, almost eerie lead instrument to Silentium’s overall style, and definitely places the group slightly apart from the rest of the pack. The sheer goth-drama of the cello is used to wonderful effect on the beginning passages and instrumental sections of the bombastic “Serpentized” and “Empress of the Dark,” or during brief solo spots on “Dead Silent,” when simply accenting verses on “Frostnight,” or accompanying the gentle piano during the introduction to “Unbroken.”

Regardless, from the beautifully orchestrated “Hangman’s Lullaby” and “Children of Chaos,” through to the lengthy and majestic self-titled closing tune, Seducia is a high-quality, well-produced album. Most of the arrangements are quite complex, almost soundtrack-worthy, compared to many of Silentium’s contemporaries. Moreover, the vocals—both female and the less-abundant male “counterpart” vocals—are bright and powerful in the mix, and don’t veer too profusely into that “beauty and the beast” territory that typically destroys the enjoyable factor on so many albums of this nature when overdone, either by the total number of appearances or by the sonic ugliness of the male’s growling and grunting and indecipherable babble. In other words, Silentium keeps things musical when it comes to the male vocals and doesn’t bombard the listener with the unnecessary noisy “demonic” nonsense described above.

Although the band released one additional album in 2008, the equally impressive Amortean, after that, Silentium suddenly fell off the radar (dare I say, “went silent”?). Therefore, since the group had previously released a new album every few years, this current ten-year gap doesn’t bode well for fans of the band like myself who were hoping for new material.

 

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Flamborough Head – Lost in Time (2013)

FlamboroughHead_LostInTime4 out of 5 Stars!

When hunting for music similar to Magenta—my favorite Prog-Rock band with a female vocalist—I stumbled across Flamborough Head, a group from the Netherlands, which is one act that is indeed quite similar.

Like Magenta, Flamborough Head’s music often falls into the same Symphonic Prog style as Genesis, IQ, Arena, Camel, Marillion and a host of other supreme groups. Although the current singer, Margriet Boomsma, might not have a timbre and delivery style as instantly recognizable as that of the insanely terrific Christina Booth from Magenta, she certainly does possess an alluring and expressive voice nonetheless.

The albums I own by Flamborough Head are all quite enjoyable, and Lost in Time, the band’s seventh and most recent release, is a favorite among them. Here, the dexterous musicians are always at the top of their game, producing often-complex, dramatic, and high-quality music as clearly displayed on the epic tracks such as “Damage Done,” “The Trapper,” “Andrassy Road,” and the title track, with plenty of old-style keyboards and synths, luscious guitar solos, a tight rhythm section, and even a bit of flute and recorder included to add some extra spice.

Overall, Lost in Time is top-shelf material from a highly talented band.

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FlamboroughHead_LostInTime

Ciccada – A Child in the Mirror (2010)

Ciccada_ChildMirror3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Athens, Greece, comes Ciccada, a female-led band playing highly folksy music with a touch of Canterbury jazz and even chamber music tossed in.

On A Child in the Mirror, the first of only two albums by Ciccada, the arrangements on compositions such as the instrumentals “Elisabeth,” “Ciccada,” and “A Storyteller’s Dream,” along with vocal tunes like “A Garden of Delights,” “Isabella Sunset,” and the title track, are occasionally complex in the style of Symphonic Prog groups such as Renaissance and Camel and mixed with more than a smidgen of Progressive Folk music performed by groups like Gentle Giant, Strawbs, Jethro Tull, and Gryphon, thanks to a healthy dosage of acoustic guitar and “medieval” instrumentation such as flute, recorder, clarinet, French horn, violin, cello, and glockenspiel. And overall, the pretty voice of Evangelia Kozoni adds a generous amount of lilting elegance and sophisticated charm to the band’s folksy retro style.

The band isn’t about bombastic power or high energy, but of serene atmospheres and emotive melodies, with the musicians displaying their instrumental prowess without blowing up your stereo speakers in the process. Both this debut as well as 2015’s even better The Finest of Miracles are worthy of investigation for fans of lighter Progressive material that is also somewhat different from the norm.

 

 

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Grace Slick – Welcome to the Wrecking Ball (1981)

GraceSlick_WreckingBall4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When the legendary Grace Slick took a break from Jefferson Starship after the band’s less-than-spectacular Earth album in 1978, she released two above-average solo collections before returning to the band—Dreams in 1980 and, the following year, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball.

This latter album proved itself unique among all of Grace’s solo efforts since, instead of being the expected mixture of Pop Rock, Psychedelic Rock, AOR, and Folk Rock, it contained stripped-down, back-to-basics, guitar-oriented Hard Rock material, with some songs even bordering on Heavy Metal, thanks mainly to the contributions of guitarist/arranger Scott Zito, who composed all of the tracks either by himself or with Grace as co-writer.

Therefore, due to the album’s hard-rockin’ style on tracks such as “Sea of Love,” “Wrecking Ball,” “No More Heroes,” “Shot in the Dark,” “Mistreater,” and “Shooting Star,” with blazing guitars, a pounding rhythm section, and Grace belting out wickedly sardonic lyrics throughout many of the tracks, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball ended up becoming my favorite of her solo releases.

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Melissa Etheridge – Brave And Crazy (1989)

MelissaEtheridge_BraveCrazy3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Before achieving her big breakthrough with 1993’s Yes I Am album, Kansas-born singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge released three collections of tracks in a genre now being coined “Heartland Rock,” basically a mixture of Hard Rock/Folk Rock with perhaps a hint of Country and R&B tossed in.

Well, whatever the silly and trendy “genre du jour” moniker being used within the industry at any given time to describe a musical style, Etheridge’s second release, Brave And Crazy, is crammed with no-frills and well-performed melodic songs such as “No Souvenirs,” “You Used to Love to Dance,” “Testify,” “Skin Deep,” “The Angels,” “Let Me Go,” and my favorite, “Royal Station 4/16.”

Overall, the collection contains a pleasant balance of Hard and Soft Rock, with Etheridge’s 12-string acoustic guitar at the forefront in the mix and the emotionally charged lyrics delivered in her raspy, recognizable, and soul-stirring voice, which I adore.

Plus, even this early in Etheridge’s professional career, her songwriting capabilities are already impressive, with most of the tunes on this release being highly memorable, adding to the album’s replay value.

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Phantom Blue – Built to Perform (1993)

PhantomBlue_BuiltPerform4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always had a special fondness for Phantom Blue. This all-girl group popped onto the scene barely a split second after Vixen made its splash, and promptly got lost in the rock ‘n’ roll ether, completely ignored by the masses and the MTV Headbanger’s Ball crowd without an ounce of the same recognition.

What set Phantom Blue apart for me was the lack of polish displayed on its self-titled debut (unlike the high production values displayed on Vixen’s initial release). This wasn’t a bad thing, mind you, since Phantom Blue played a harder-edged Rock/Metal than their counterparts, more of an Americanized version of Britain’s Girlschool or Rock Goddess, and kicked major ass.

The band continued to improve, with Built to Perform (the second album) being equally as strong as the debut regarding energy and songwriting, but with the guitars even brighter (more scorching) in the mix. And on pounding tracks such as “Loved Ya to Pieces,” “Little Man,” “Nothing Good,” “Anti Love Crunch,” “Little Evil,” “Better Off Dead,” and “Lied To Me,” the band sounded more than a tad hungrier (angrier perhaps since the debut album didn’t get the same recognition as Vixen did from the mighty “Powers That Be” at MTV’s corporate offices?) than ever before. With a killer cover version of Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation” tossed in for the fun of it, Phantom Blue seemed poised to take on stardom, which alas, sadly never occurred…a damned shame!

 

 

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Benedictum – Uncreation (2006)

Benedictum_Uncreation4 out of 5 Stars!

This California band features a terrific singer by the name of Veronica Freeman, who—if the listener didn’t know better—might be justifiably identified as a man due to her deep and forceful tone. Veronica is easily able to give singers like the magnificent Ronnie James Dio (Rainbow/Black Sabbath/Dio) and similar vocalists like Nils Patrik Johansson (Astral Doors/Wuthering Heights) a run for the money, since she matches them in regards to her aggressive power and emotion.

Hell, on this debut album, the band covers both “Heaven And Hell” and “The Mob Rules” by Black Sabbath, and on the next album, “Balls To The Wall” by Accept, and she KILLS on each track!

In short, this woman’s voice sends chills down my spine, and the band’s dense and driving wall of sound on tunes such as “Them,” “Misogyny,” “Valkyrie Rising,” “Ashes To Ashes,” and “Two Steps to the Sun” is pure metal mayhem. Excellent!

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Girlschool – Screaming Blue Murder (1982)

Girlschool_BlueMurder3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Before Vixen became the supposedly “first” all-female Hard Rock band for many MTV listeners/watchers (those silly, silly “uninformed and naive” folks) in the late ’80s, Girlschool had actually ruled the freaking roost for nearly a decade. Indeed, Girlschool instantly got lumped into England’s “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement and quickly earned a reputation for being one of the more promising groups to have emerged during the movement’s early days, despite the gender of its band members.

Although Screaming Blue Murder, Girlschool’s third studio album, is not quite as stripped-down and driving as the band’s previous two releases, it’s the album where the girls started adding extra touches of commercialism to the overall sound, reaching for a wider market, and their efforts proved moderately successful, although they did lose some of the die-hard Metal fans in the process, those who preferred the band’s more straightforward sound.

Regardless, this is the album that introduced me to the band, and with tracks such as “Hellrazor,” “Wildlife,” “Flesh and Blood,” a cover of the Rolling Stones’s “Live With Me,” and the title track that opens the album, Screaming Blue Murder remains one of my favorites within Girlschool’s extensive catalogue of releases.

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