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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Astral Doors – Of the Son and the Father (2003)

AstralDoors_OfSonFather4 out of 5 Stars!

Of the Son and the Father is the debut album from Sweden’s Astral Doors, a band that offers up dark and dastardly Heavy Metal from the same musical playbook as the band Dio, or Black Sabbath during its Ronnie James Dio period, only with the addition of a full-time keyboardist. Even vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson (Lion’s Share/Space Odyssey/Wuthering Heights) has the Dio sound and style of delivery down to a science.

From the energetic and thundering opening track “Cloudbreaker,” the band doesn’t let up the intensity for one solitary moment. Each of the eleven tunes included in this collection, from the delicious title track to “Burn Down the Wheel,” “Slay the Dragon,” “Night of the Witch,” “The Trojan Horse,” and “Rainbow in Your Mind,” holds fairly true to the Dio/Black Sabbath style. Indeed, for the most part, the performances by each musician, the album’s overall dark, dense, and driving atmosphere, and especially the songwriting (right down to the fantasy-laced lyrical content of which Dio was so fond of penning) pays full and glorious homage to the late/great Ronnie James Dio himself. Certainly, there are a few deviations, which gives Astral Doors a flair of its very own and keeps the band from being a direct copy of the aforementioned musical style, yet any fan of Dio’s work, whether with his own band, with Black Sabbath (or Heaven & Hell), and even with Rainbow (due to the heavier use of keyboards), will likely appreciate much of the material delivered on this debut.

Thankfully, Astral Doors didn’t disappear from the scene, but went on to release a string of additional albums, the most recent appearing in 2017, and each of them includes music within a similar realm and retains the same high quality as this debut. So to those RJD admirers who are still unfamiliar with Astral Doors, investigating this band will likely make you feel as if you’ve been catapulted into Heavy Metal Heaven.

One final note, if hunting for Of the Son and the Father, keep in mind that the album was released under this title with the cover shown here, but was also released under the title Cloudbreaker with an alternate cover and two “bonus” songs.

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Gravity Rain – Artifacts of Balance (2016)

GravityRain_ArtifactsBalance3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the Russian Federation comes Gravity Rain, a relatively new band that plays melodic Progressive Metal in a similar vein as Fates Warning and Redemption. Indeed, overall, the vocalist (who sings in English with no detectable accent) sounds similar in style, tone, range, and delivery as Ray Alder from the aforementioned groups.

I wouldn’t say, however, that Gravity Rain is as Progressive as those other bands. For the most part, tracks such as “Ikameshii (Jotun’s Rage),” “Temple of Haste,” “M.A.D,” “Closer,” and “Sunfire” contain a fairly “traditional” Metal sound, yet both Symphonic-Metal and Progressive-Metal touches do blaze forth from time to time, while the musicianship is typically at a high level. The riff-driven material is fairly thick with crunchy guitars and pounding rhythms, and although keyboards are included, they are basically added for only tinsel or atmospheric enhancement, relegated mostly to the background with only occasional piano or synth fills brought to the forefront.

One criticism I have, though, is that the majority of the ten tracks included on Artifacts of Balance are mid-tempo and composed in the same key, thus giving several of the tunes an almost “samey” feel. This is why I appreciate the occasions when the band employs those Symphonic and Progressive influences I mentioned, which lends some periodic distractions and keeps the album from becoming too mundane. Regardless, should Gravity Rain further develop its skills, include more diverse tempos and extra alterations in chord patterns regarding its songwriting, even experiment with more adventurous arrangements on future releases, the band apparently has the talent to give those aforementioned Prog-Metal bands a run for the money.

Nevertheless, Artifacts of Balance, the band’s first album (not including a three-song EP from 2014 called The Shining Silence, with which I am unfamiliar), is a fairly good introduction for an act with a ton of potential.

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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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Firewind – Burning Earth (2003)

Firewind_BurningEarth4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, apart from the less-than-stellar debut album in 1998, Firewind has been one of the most enjoyable and memorable Heavy Metal/Power Metal acts to have emerged in the past few decades, with not only ultra-heavy riffs, shredding solos, and thundering rhythms on each of its albums from 2002 onward, but also numerous catchy melodies and some of the finest and most powerful lead vocalists in the genre, whichever singer is at the forefront (the band has had several throughout the years).

On Burning Earth, the band’s third studio release, Graham Bonnet-soundalike Stephen Fredrick (Kenziner) once again tackles the vocals and, on tracks such as “I Am the Anger,” “We Have Survived,” “Immortal Lives Young,” “Brother’s Keeper,” and the dynamic “The Longest Day,” proves his mighty worth. Additionally, group founder and long-time guitarist Gus G. (Dream Evil/Mystic Prophecy) shows his considerable six-string skills, offering killer riffs and blazing solos throughout, especially on the wild instrumental “The Fire & the Fury” and “Still the Winds,” a dreamy bonus track guitar showcase, while also adding a few keyboard washes on several tracks to beef up the sound. Meanwhile, the band’s rhythm section of bassist Petros Christo (Breaking Silence) and drummer Stian Kristoffersen (Pagan’s Mind/Trivial Act) construct a solid backdrop in a variety of tempos, several of them (such as on “Steal the Blind,” “Waiting Still,” and “Burning Earth”) fast and furious and storming.

Unfortunately, this would be Fredrick’s final album with the group. Initially I had worried that the band’s sound would change, like it often does with the replacement of a singer, but thankfully the band hired another underrated powerhouse vocalist (Chity Somapala) for its next release (Forged by Fire), thus maintaining Firewind’s fierce momentum in a lengthy string of high-quality Power Metal releases that stretched into the current decade.

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Steeler – Steeler (1983)

Steeler_Steeler4 out of 5 Stars!

Not to be confused with the German band of the same name, America’s Steeler released a sole album back in 1983 and introduced the music world to a (then) twenty-year-old “guitar hero” named Yngwie Malmsteen.

I vividly recall the afternoon I heard this album for the first time, and when listening to the opening track “Cold Day in Hell,” I immediately repeated the guitar solo section several times, my jaw hanging to the floor. By the time I got to “Hot On Your Heels” (the last track on Side A) with its three-and-a-half minute “acoustic and electric guitar solo hybrid intro,” I could barely contain my excitement. This man could mutha-freaking play, his technique often reminiscent of both Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple/Rainbow) and Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions/Electric Sun), but not in any way a direct copy of either artist. And when it came to his speed on the fretboard? Well, it was unbelievable and remains, for the most part, unsurpassed.

But aside from Malmsteen’s spectacular riffing, the album contains mostly catchy and thundering tracks, those previously mentioned as well as “On the Rox,” “No Way Out,” “Backseat Driver,” “Down to the Wire,” and the moody, powerful, and lengthy closer “Serenade.”

Sure, the handful of songs I failed to mention are fairly average fare, but with Malmsteen’s guitar blazing throughout, and the band’s overall talent, it’s truly difficult to completely dismiss any of the tunes included on this release. Not to be forgotten, bassist Rik Fox (W.A.S.P./Hellion) and drummer Mark Edwards (Lion) formed a solid and commendable rhythm section, while vocalist Ron Keel had a forceful and recognizable voice perfect for the genre, therefore, this album proved a keeper and had me yearning for more material.

Unfortunately, the band broke up shortly after this album’s release, and Malmsteen went on to hook up with Alcatrazz while the remaining members joined or formed other bands, most notably Keel with his self-named group that released a string of albums through the ’80s.

Meanwhile, this is an album I’ve savored an unfathomable amount of times through the decades, and (for me) it altered the “metal scene” for good, thanks to one particular guitarist with enormous talent.

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Hard Stuff – Bulletproof (1972)

HardStuff_Bulletproof4 out of 5 Stars!

Because of its power-trio line-up and the era of its brief existence, not to mention the occasional hard-driving and often funky rhythms showcased on its debut album, this U.K. band always reminded me of the legendary Trapeze, only with a more “metal” edge.

Featuring underappreciated guitarist John Cann (Atomic Rooster), lauded bassist (RIP) Johnny Gustafson (Ian Gillan Band/Roxy Music/Quatermass), and drummer Paul Hammond (Atomic Rooster), Hard Stuff started in 1970 (along with vocalist Al Shaw) under the name Daemon, then (for whatever the reason) dropped Shaw to forge onward as a threesome.

And that’s what I originally viewed as a detriment—the fact that Trapeze possessed an extraordinary and recognizable vocalist in bassist Glenn Hughes, whereas Hard Stuff did not. So, to be perfectly frank, I originally never embraced this album due to its “only average” vocals.

But thankfully, with hindsight being 20/20, I reexamined Bulletproof in the past decade, paying closer attention to the stellar musicianship involved, and have since grown quite fond of it. Indeed, it’s heavy as hell, with occasionally Blues-influenced tracks such as “Sinister Minister,” “Taken Alive,” “Millionaire,” “Mr. Longevity,” “Time Gambler (Rodney)”,” “The Provider,” and “No Witch at All,” blaring out of the speakers. One other track in particular, “Monster in Paradise”—which I vividly remembered through the many years before once again revisiting this release—was a collaboration between Gustafson and Ian Gillan/Roger Glover of Deep Purple fame, and (to me) sounds as if it could have easily fit into the other band’s repertoire—or at least, I can easily imagine Gillan singing it.

Regardless, before finally disbanding, Hard Stuff went on to create a second platter (Bolex Dementia), but also altered its style a bit, thus leaving Bulletproof as the group’s unrivaled masterpiece. Therefore, fans of other Proto-Metal groups of the era such as Dust, May Blitz, Sir Lord Baltimore, Three Man Army, etc. who are unfamiliar with this group would likely find this debut album of interest.

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White Spirit – White Spirit (1980)

WhiteSpirit_13 out of 5 Stars!

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

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

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

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

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Krokus – Headhunter (1983)

Krokus_Headhunter4 out of 5 Stars!

Although I was never a huge fan of Switzerland’s Krokus, feeling the band’s albums to be horribly inconsistent with silly lyrics, hackneyed riffs, and often tame production, with the group usually coming across like a second-rate version of AC/DC, 1983’s Headhunter certainly packed a mighty wallop and finally had me sitting up to take notice.

Here, with Krokus expanding its AC/DC-influenced sound and writing truly exemplary head-banging material with more mature lyrics—thundering and catchy tracks such as “Night Wolf,” “Russian Winter,” “Eat the Rich,” “Ready to Burn,” “Stayed Awake All Night,” and the single “Screaming in the Night”—plus adding a take-no-prisoners energy, a more sinister atmosphere, and a richer full-bodied sound (thanks, no doubt, to producer Tom Allom), the upgraded heaviness-factor nearly rivaled that of Germany’s Accept. Hell, the album’s furious and fiery opening track, “Headhunter,” blasts out of the speakers to create pure metal mayhem, instantly becoming a classic of the genre.

Therefore, not only was this my favorite Krokus album by far, but it was also the band’s most commercially successful. To me, considering Krokus’s previous less-than-spectacular platters, Headhunter displayed the group’s amazing transformation from having only a “second-string opening act” ranking to achieving full-blown “potential headliner” status, obviously a giant leap forward in the band’s development.

But unfortunately, Krokus never again matched Headhunter‘s sheer power, and by the time of the next album a year later, the band had already sold out to its newfound commercial success and once again delivered watered-down, inconsistent, and fairly lame material. Needless to say, my interest in the band quickly faded.

And what a shame, since Headhunter—showing the band’s full potential with the right producer at the controls—simply slaughters!

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Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law (1980)

Saxon_StrongArm4 out of 5 Stars

Another act that got lumped into the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement in the ’80s, Saxon always reminded me (primarily) of bands such as Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang, and Accept when it came to its overall style, but mixed with the occasionally “more-commercial sound” similar to groups such as Krokus, Scorpions, and Def Leppard.

Through the decades I’ll admit to finding a handful of the albums in the band’s extensive catalogue nothing more than “decent but average,” yet Strong Arm of the Law—Saxon’s third release—truly has some inspired energy, some rebellious power, some extra “oomph” (despite the horribly bland cover art) that would be sadly lacking on too many of its subsequent albums in the mid-’80s/early-’90s. Indeed, this release proved as solid as the previous Wheels of Steel album, the band having created a staggering one-two musical punch, with vocalist Biff Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill slamming through the eight tracks on offer here as if their very lives depended on it.

And with tunes such as the blazing opener “Heavy Metal Thunder,” as well as “20,000 Feet,” “To Hell and Back Again,” “Sixth Form Girls,” and the title track, along with the terrific closer “Dallas 1 PM,” Strong Arm of the Law is easily one of Saxon’s most laudable efforts. In many ways, this collection of tracks, although not groundbreaking or revolutionary in any respect, certainly helped to set the stage—and the quality benchmark—for countless other acts that eventually popped up in the “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” movement in future years.

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