Riverdogs – Riverdogs (1990)

Riverdogs_14 out of 5 Stars!

Just prior to hooking up with Shadow King (and, soon thereafter, Def Leppard), guitarist Vivian Campbell (ex-Dio) popped up on the underrated debut album by Riverdogs, a Blues-based Hard Rock band from L.A.

Besides Campbell’s often-terrific guitar contributions, singer Rob Lamothe is perhaps the biggest reason I keep coming back to this album time and again year after year. To my ears, Lamothe falls into the “Paul Rodgers/David Coverdale/James Dewar” category of singers, and I adore his soaring, passionate, and distinguishable voice, the way he delivers his lines with such emotional angst, and often wonder why he didn’t become the “next big thing” in rock music.

Regardless, the album is crammed with catchy material, with sing-along fare such as “Whisper,” “I Believe,” “Toy Soldier,” “Water From the Moon,” and my favorites, the mid-tempo and more dramatic vocal showcases “America” and “Baby Blue.” In many cases, the music often reminds me of the style of albums generated by artists such as Bad Company, Cry of Love, Robin Trower, Badlands, Whitesnake, Trapeze, or Hydra, mostly Bluesy Hard Rock with a hint of Southern Rock as well…basically any group that features those vocalists I mentioned above, where Lamothe’s style really seems so darned appropriate.

And over the course of these ten memorable tracks, Campbell shows the full depth of his talent, his layered rhythm guitars, both acoustic and electric, sounding full and rich, while his six-string leads always melodic and emotive, and also technically stunning and occasionally shredding. Obviously, given his background with Dio, I purchased this album upon its release and originally expected Riverdogs to have a Heavy Metal edge, so it left me pleasantly surprised to hear Campbell do something so completely different, and do it so well.

Anyway, after this debut, Campbell unfortunately left the group for pastures anew, but Riverdogs soldiered on with another guitarist and released a fairly enjoyable second studio album in 1993 before calling it quits…for nearly two decades, that is. Although I have no firsthand knowledge as to their content, two more albums appeared, one in 2011 and the other in mid-2017, with Campbell returning to the fold for each while working simultaneously with both Def Leppard and (most recently) Last in Line. One of these days I hope to investigate both releases and see if either comes close to the high standards set by this debut with its mature songwriting, the exceptional performances, and the polished production quality.

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Shooting Hemlock – Big Green Monster (2010)

ShootingHemlock_Monster3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Shooting Hemlock, a little-known band out of Boston, eventually came to my attention based on the presence of guitarist Joe Stump (Reign of Terror/HolyHell) as well as singer/guitarist Brian Troch, a former member of a defunct Chicago group I used to know and see play on a regular basis. Although Shooting Hemlock released its debut album in the late ’90s, then seemingly disappeared, the band’s sophomore collection, Big Green Monster, suddenly popped onto the scene more than a dozen years later, and this is the release I finally tracked down several years ago.

To my ears, Big Green Monster is a rollicking, down ‘n’ dirty collection that often brings to mind a sort of “Tesla meets Soundgarden meets Anthrax” sound/style. Most of the twelve tracks, including “Minutes in the Sun,” “Whitewash,” “Brain Candy,” “Death & Taxes,” and “Payback,” offer up extremely raw and grungy Heavy Metal, typically loaded with a rebellious atmosphere and an almost Stoner-Metal or Heavy-Psych delivery (the latter never more apparent than on the band’s cover of Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral”). On the other hand, the tunes “Clockwatcher” and “Ride the Rusty Rig” are laid-back ballads that show another, more sensitive side to the group, and oddly enough, ended up being two of my favorite tracks.

Generally speaking, the material on this release delivers little in the way of innovation, but is rather perfect for when you need a good morning jolt or are in the mood for something loud, fun, and raunchy just to piss off the annoying neighbors. In other words, turn the volume up to eleven, bang your head, and let the Big Green Monster shake the rafters!

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Beautiful Creatures – Beautiful Creatures (2001)

BeautifulCreatures_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

Chancing upon a band with a name such as Beautiful Creatures, one could easily assume the group played wonderfully sweet and melodic pop music, but that’s so darned far from reality. Instead, what we have here is some dirty, sleazy, greasy, and kick-ass Hard Rock/Glam Metal in the same realm of groups such as Guns n’ Roses, Vain, L.A. Guns, Roxx Gang, Faster Pussycat, or a host of other loud ‘n’ rude “hair bands” from the ’80s.

Indeed, led by gruff vocalist Joe LeSte (formerly of the talented Bang Tango) and including musicians from several of those aforementioned groups, including guitarists DJ Ashba (Guns n’ Roses/Bulletboys) and Anthony Focx (Bang Tango), bassist Kenny Kweens (L.A. Guns), and drummer Glen Sobel (Bang Tango/Impellitteri), Beautiful Creatures delivered two albums of slamming, glamming, and catchy Hard Rock with a touch of Grunge, Blues, and Industrial Metal.

Fans of “hair bands” from the ’80s and the early ’90s will likely find much to enjoy on this debut. Tunes such as “Wasted,” “Kick Out,” “Goin’ Off,” “1 A.M,” “Step Back,” and “Kickin’ for Days,” blast from the speakers with wicked riffs and thundering percussion, and thanks to LeSte’s vocals, a ton of attitude that could easily match the furious punches thrown by any of the acts that found themselves heavily rotated on MTV during that channel’s heyday. Additionally, the band includes several ballads/semi-ballads for variety—”Time and Time Again,” “Wish,” and “Blacklist”—where the inclusion of acoustic guitar and the occasional background keyboards make for a nice change of pace.

In truth, there’s absolutely nothing innovative or profound on this album, just pure, loud, and rebellious fun. So once again, be warned: these particular “creatures” are far from “beautiful.”

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Stingray – Stingray (1979)

Stingray_14 out of 5 Stars!

From South Africa, Stingray released only two albums before disappearing into the pages of musical history books, which always seemed a shame. This, the band’s debut album, brings to mind other talented yet relatively obscure AOR/Hard Rock groups from the same era, such as Ambrosia, Trillion, Preview, 707, American Tears, Touch, Franke & The Knockouts, Roadmaster, and Sheriff, all groups that might have easily made a bigger splash in the music industry had they been given the proper promotional push and financial backing from their respective record companies.

In the case of Stingray, tracks such as “Love Saver,” “The Man in My Shoes,” “Hard-Headed Loner,” “Breakdown,” and the excellent single “Better the Devil You Know” shine with endless melodies and memorable riffs that ring through your head long after the final tune fades away. Indeed, I wouldn’t consider any of the songs on this album as a “filler,” and with ten tracks in total, that’s saying a lot. Although I must admit, hearing this album nowadays, some of the pompish keyboard/synth tones sound more than a tad dated in places (alas, a lasting curse when it comes to those early synthesizers appearing on albums from this particular era). Yet the highly catchy material, the overall commendable musicianship, and especially the powerful lead vocals and layered harmonies make up for that one small fault, and this platter is still quite enjoyable all these many years later.

Therefore, fans of AOR/Hard Rock groups such as Styx, Journey, Survivor, Foreigner, and Toto who crave something similar yet more obscure from this period in history might want to seek out this album and relish the sing-along power of the music.

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SouthGang – Tainted Angel (1991)

Southgang_TaintedAngel4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the state of Georgia, the appropriately named SouthGang swept onto the music scene with Tainted Angel in the early ’90s around the same time as other highly melodic Hard Rock groups such as Firehouse, Sons of Angels, Slaughter, Warrant, and Trixter had started to gain attention from the record-buying audience and the MTV viewers. Although with a name like SouthGang, and considering the band’s state of origin, some people (such as myself) at first assumed the group would deliver a style of Southern Rock. Instead, however, the band sounded similar in many respects to the aforementioned acts, but with some chief differences—a talent for merging various Hard Rock styles and grooves, then creating intriguing song arrangements and catchy choruses, and finally employing slick studio wankery and trickery for added spice and zest.

Certainly, several tracks on the band’s debut album hinted at Southern Rock, such as the talk-box enhanced opening tune “Boys Nite Out,” along with the beginning and brief mid-section of “Big City Woman,” and the closing segment of “She’s Danger City/Seven Hills Saloon,” yet for the most part, the songs are fairly straightforward Hard Rock ditties mixed with a touch of AOR, especially when it comes to the stellar vocals and the stacked background harmonies. Other ballsy tunes such as “Georgia Nights,” “Russian Roulette,” and the single/MTV video “Tainted Angel” have gigantic choruses that, only after several hearings, rang through my mind for days on end. The band also included two stadium-rock ballads in the form of “Aim for the Heart” and the single “Love Ain’t Enough,” obviously meant to lure in the female audience, while “Shoot Me Down” and “Love for Sale,” as well as many of the previously mentioned tunes, seemed geared more toward the male party-animal crowd.

And with a slamming rhythm section in bassist Jayce Fincher and drummer Mitch McLee, a wickedly wild guitarist in Butch Walker, and a powerful and wide-ranging lead singer in Jesse Harte, SouthGang seemed to have everything going for it, including aid from Desmond Child, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers), and Kane Roberts (Alice Cooper), who aided the band either during the songwriting, recording, and production processes. This was no “cookie cutter hair band” of the era, but a group that had not only big-time support, but mastery over its instruments. Plus, the musicians also had a knack for incorporating numerous surprises into each song, whether it be unexpected rhythm breaks or key changes, inventive drum, bass, or guitar fills, or the addition of a brass section, harmonica and cowbells, light Hammond organ and honky-tonk piano, acoustic and slide guitar and the aforementioned talk-box, even one instance of female background vocals, all giving SouthGang that “unpredictable factor” that set it apart from its contemporaries. And with the ultra-catchy choruses, a budding “guitar hero” in its midst, the overall energetic performances and rowdy atmosphere, and slick yet robust studio production, the band truly seemed destined for greatness.

Unfortunately, after releasing another superb album (Group Therapy) the following year, SouthGang and other acts that played a similar style of music all seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye when the music industry suddenly began shoving nothing but Grunge down everyone’s throat. Such a shame, since the gifted SouthGang had the potential to offer even greater excitement to those of us who had little craving for the “Grunge scene.”

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Judas Priest – Sin After Sin (1977)

JudasPriest_SinAfterSin4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Sin After Sin was the platter that “introduced” me to the mighty Judas Priest, thanks to the song “Starbreaker,” which I chanced to hear on an underground radio station here in Chicago upon the album’s release. As a high-school junior at the time and a fledgling singer in my first “garage” band, I was blown away and inspired by the song and the performances on this album, especially Rob Halford’s vocal delivery and awesome range.

Needless to say, after absorbing the metal power, the dual-guitar onslaught, of tracks such as “Raw Deal,” “Sinner,” “Let Us Prey,” and the blazing and screeching “Dissident Aggressor” with it’s layered vocal harmonies, I could barely contain my excitement for the U.K. group. Even the album’s two lighter moments, “Last Rose of Summer” and “Here Come the Tears,” had the power to mesmerize me, especially the latter, due to Halford’s gut-wrenching wails and a highly emotive guitar solo. And of course, the band’s now-classic cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” proved the perfect tune to blare in the high school parking lot as I tore out of the “prison” each afternoon with my middle finger raised high in the air. (The track also prophesied things to come for the band, the shift in a more commercialized direction, but more on that below.)

Anyway, in retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Sin After Sin had such a profound and immediate effect on my teenaged self, considering Deep Purple’s Roger Glover handled production duties. The man had produced Nazareth’s 1973 breakout album Razamanaz, for pity’s sake, a platter that also stirred and inspired me upon initial hearing and became another of my all-time favorite albums in history, so why should his work on Sin After Sin have any lesser power, right?

Therefore, once hearing this album I became “Priest-crazy” and soon afterward purchased the band’s previous Sad Wings of Destiny, then even dished out the extra bucks for the import-only Rocka Rolla. Of course, the album Stained Class came the follow year and proved to be a masterpiece, in my opinion, just before Priest got “discovered” by the masses and, thus, became more commercial and “leather-friendly.”

Thank goodness I had the early, more experimental Priest albums emblazoned on my soul so I had learned to appreciate the true magnificence of the band before the “sell out” phase began. Certainly, I enjoyed much of Killing Machine (or Hell Bent For Leather, as it’s known here in the States), but with this shift toward shorter, three-to-four minute anthem-like tracks aimed directly for the MTV crowd, I could never fully embrace the band afterward, never automatically snatched up future albums upon release, at least not for many years. Indeed, the same exact shift in style happened with Scorpions, a band I discovered at the same time as Priest (therefore, the groups are forever connected in my head)—once Scorpions got a taste of success (and record executives made demands), much of the former experimentation with songwriting or lengthier arrangements got kicked aside in favor of churning out shorter, hit-based tracks. In the case of both bands, this shift happened in the same year (curse the rise of Disco and Punk), and no longer did either group feel like my “personal discovery,” my “best kept secret,” but instead had suddenly become the “world’s darlings.” Damn, I hate commercialism and the effect it continues to have on bands regarding style and songwriting…

Regardless, from my early years of musical discovery and high school rebelliousness, Sin After Sin will always remain one of my favorite Priest albums, falling easily within my “Top Five” from the group’s vast catalogue.

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Reece – Universal Language (2009)

Reece_Universal4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, singer David Reece (Accept/Bangalore Choir/PowerWorld/Etc.) has a fierce, gruff, and emotionally charged voice just perfect for hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll, therefore, he ranks high on my list of favorite vocalists, and not only do albums on which he appears make it to my “auto-buy” list, but I typically find them better than average.

Therefore, when he released an album with his own group back in 2009, I instantly purchased a copy. And with the band also including guitarist Andy Susemihl and drummer Stefan Schwarzmann (both from U.D.O.) and bassist Jochen Fünders (Holy Moses), Universal Language is what one might expect from such a talented group of musicians (three of them related in some fashion to Accept or its offshoot groups).

Although the overall style of music is not quite as heavy as Accept, more melodic along the lines of Bangalore Choir, for example, the album does contain enough power chords, heavy riffs, and solid rhythms to keep me satisfied. And with Reece’s recognizable vocals dominating catchy and diverse fare such as “Flying Close to the Flame,” “Before I Die,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Rescue Me,” “Yellow,” and “Fantasy Man,” it only solidifies his reputation as a versatile powerhouse.

Fans of this grievously underrated vocalist will undoubtedly enjoy Universal Language as much as I do. Unfortunately, Reece (the band) released only one more album before disappearing, with Reece (the man) moving onto other projects, now admirably fronting both Bonfire and Tango Down. I wonder if the man ever sleeps…

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Alice Cooper – The Eyes of Alice Cooper (2003)

AliceCooper_EyesAlice3.5 out of 5 Stars!

After the original and legendary band fell apart midway through the ’70s, Alice “Vincent Furnier” Cooper went on to produce an endless string of solo albums that, for the most part, never really impressed me. Apart from one or two releases (most notably Welcome to My Nightmare, his first solo outing), none of his material from the late ’70s and through the ’80s/’90s truly brought to mind the high level of creativity, amusing theatrics, or raw “garage band” energy of that original lineup. Instead, typically backed by a slew of faceless and glossy studio musicians, Furnier’s music often proved too slick, too sanitized, too over-produced, and sometimes even too “Bon Jovi-ish” for its own good, despite the often “dark” lyrics, which (aside from the spidery eye makeup) seemed about the only holdover from the olden days. Plus, since I still continue to replay the classic albums from the original band (Killer, Love It To Death, Easy Action, Muscle of Love, etc.) on a surprisingly regular basis, Furnier’s solo material just never could compete for my attention.

But thankfully, and finally, 2003’s The Eyes of Alice Cooper album comes close, or at least it does when talking about a more “garage band” sound. That became crystal clear the moment I heard the blazing opener, “What Do You Want From Me?” followed by another driving tune, “Between High School and Old School.” The guitars are thick and loaded with feedback, while the bass is thumping and the drums are slamming, just like the good ol’ days of the original group. Although for a variety of reasons, some tracks still don’t work for me on a guttural level (such as “Man of the Year,” “Be With You Awhile,” or the overly poppy “Novocaine”), there are enough old-school rough ‘n’ rowdy rockers like “I’m So Angry,” “Detroit City,” “Love Should Never Feel Like This,” “Spirits Rebellious,” and “Backyard Brawl,” plus the weird track “This House is Haunted,” that periodically mirror the original band’s glam rock/shock rock/garage rock genius. Indeed, after all these many years, with the punchy and punkish sound quality and the (mostly) consistent style of the songs, I can almost imagine guitarists Glen Buxton (RIP) and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith wielding the instruments and backing up Furnier’s snarling, rebellious vocals.

Granted, I still feel this album lacks an ultra-snappy single as strong as (for instance) “Eighteen” or “Under My Wheels” or “School’s Out,” and no song comes close to resembling the creepy magnificence of a classic such as “Halo of Flies” or “Ballad of Dwight Fry” or “Dead Babies,” yet the stripped-down sound of the original band has been somewhat replicated on The Eyes of Alice Cooper, so to me it’s one of most enjoyable of Furnier’s solo albums since the original Alice Cooper’s Muscle of Love from 1973.

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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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Toby Hitchcock – Mercury’s Down (2011)

TobyHitchcock_MercurysDown4.5 out of 5 Stars!

As far as musicians go, Chicago’s Jim Peterik easily falls into the “legend” category for me. As I’ve stated countless times in the past, I’ve been a longtime fan of the man’s talents, not only because he’s a “local son” of my area, but also since his past groups, The Ides of March and Survivor, always appealed to me. Plus, having not only been a member of various groups that opened for Survivor, and also having been part of Peterik’s “Pictionary Team” at a local party we both attended many years ago—when we kicked major ass against the competition that night, I might add, thank you very much!—I have a tendency to follow his career with a keen eye and no small degree of anticipation for any new project in which he’s involved. 🙂

Seriously, however, as many people may not realize, one of Peterik’s unlauded talents that I learned to respect long ago is the ability to (like Deep Purple’s/Rainbow’s Ritchie Blackmore) select the best vocalists who can successfully perform his hit-single-destined material, and for his latest band, Pride of Lions, Peterik once again delivered in spades by “discovering” and presenting to the world a chap from nearby Indiana by the name of Toby Hitchcock. And on each Pride of Lions’s album from 2003 to the present day, Hitchcock belts his ever-lovin’ heart out, with his style, range, and timbre occasionally reminiscent of Survivor’s Jimi Jamison, but unique enough to often stun and amaze. Not too damned shabby, to say the least.

Therefore, in 2011, when I learned that Hitchcock had released a solo album, it was a “no-brainer” to immediately snatch up a copy. And what Hitchcock delivered (and no great surprise) was a classy collection of Melodic Hard Rock and AOR bordering on Pomp Rock, sort of a cross between the material delivered by acts such as Magnum, Bob Catley, Rage of Angels, Serpentine, Perfect View, Brother Firetribe, Drive She Said, Sunstorm, and (of course) Pride of Lions.

But unlike his “anchor” band, Hitchcock elected to create this particular collection with a different set of musicians and songwriters, specifically the team of (mainly) Erik Martensson and Miqael Persson, who worked and/or performed with artists such as Eclipse (Sweden), W.E.T., Giant, and the aforementioned Jimi Jamison, etc. In fact, Martensson not only produced the collection, but also performed everything from rhythm guitar and keyboards, to bass and drums and the kitchen sink, with several additional musicians from his band Eclipse lending a hand.

And of course, on this twelve-track collection, Hitchcock handles all the lead vocals, spectacularly so. Indeed, the man was apparently born to sing in this genre, and on glorious tracks such as “Summer Nights in Cabo,” “This is the Moment,” “I Should Have Said,” “Tear Down the Barricades,” “Strong Enough,” and the emotional ballad “One Day I’ll Stop Loving You,” he displays raw vocal talent that leaves me practically drooling and oh-so-damned envious. Indeed, Toby Hitchcock is a gifted vocalist not yet lauded worldwide for his striking set of pipes and his ear for melody and emotional delivery. How can he not be famous already? Where is the justice? Were he to have appeared on one of those brainless, banal, and commercially driven reality “talent shows” that crop up like zombie cockroaches across the TV screen, he would have effortlessly blown away all of those “supposed” competitor-singers within not even a full chorus, but a single line. So again, I ask, where is the justice?

Anyway, yes, as you can no-doubt decipher, I have become an avid fan of this talented gent, the same as I’ve been a longtime fan of Peterik’s. And despite the latter not performing on or contributing to this particular album as he would on any Pride of Lions album, I still rank Mercury’s Down highly on my rating scale, now being happily content that Hitchcock can deliver the goods even outside his “anchor” group. And, of course, I once again thank my former “Pictionary teammate” Jim Peterik for having repeatedly used his unheralded talents by introducing to the world yet another Hard Rock/AOR vocalist that has the ability to utterly captivate.

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