Kraan – Let It Out (1975)

Kraan_LetItOut3.5 out of 5 Stars!

This rather inventive German group popped onto the scene back in 1972, and for a decade, released a series of seven above-average albums that incorporated highly rhythmic, even funky, Jazz-inspired Prog-Rock with the experimental Krautrock sounds of the era, making for some generally high-energy material.

Take Let It Out (the band’s fourth album) for example. Here, the title track, plus tunes such as “Bandits in the Woods,” “Picnic International,” “Luftpost,” “Prima Kilma,” and the truly strange “Die Maschine,” seem a quasi-merging between groups such as Passport, Return To Forever, Amon Düül II, Frank Zappa, and Hatfield and the North.

Although the band returned in the ’90s after an eight-year absence and released several additional albums, then again released even more material in the new century, Kraan’s early work, such as the more adventurous musical escapades found on Let It Out—even though this is probably not even Kraan’s best album during the first half of the ’70s—still remains special simply since, in those days, few bands played this type of material. Fun stuff!

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Jeff Beck Group – Rough And Ready (1971)

JeffBeck_RoughReady4 out of 5 Stars!

After his original band (with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood) fell apart, and after he recovered from a horrible car accident, legendary guitarist Jeff Beck eventually reformed his group with a whole new lineup of musicians, including the fantastic Cozy Powell (RIP) on drums and the underrated vocalist Bobby Tench. The new incarnation released two albums, with Rough and Ready being the first.

Whereas the Rod Stewart-era of the band featured mainly Blues influences, Rough and Ready drew more heavily on Beck’s fondness for Jazz and Funk instead, with gifted pianist Max Middleton and dexterous bassist Clive Chaman also included in the revised team and perfectly aiding the effort on tracks such as “Got the Feeling,” “I’ve Been Used,” “Situation,” “New Ways Train Train,” and “Max’s Tune.” And whether on the bustling and buoyant “Short Business” or the more dynamic and laid-back epic “Jody,” Beck shreds on guitar, his style instantly and wonderfully distinct in the rock ‘n’ roll universe. It’s no wonder he went on to influence thousands of future guitar players throughout the decades.

Although when this album first appeared, I remember how a lot of long-time Beck fans didn’t fully relish the band’s new direction. I, however, welcomed it, feeling that Beck and his highly skilled cohorts had created a unique Hard Rock style that no other group I know has truly duplicated. To me, Rough and Ready (and the band’s self-titled follow up album in 1972) is a rather overlooked and underappreciated classic.

Note: I also quite enjoyed the even jazzier/funkier Hummingbird, the band formed several years later by Tench, Middleton, and Chaman with a different guitarist and drummer.

 

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Gnidrolog – Lady Lake (1972)

Gnidrolog_LadyLake3 out of 5 Stars!

Although this U.K. group emerged during the height of the Prog-Rock explosion in the early ’70s, Gnidrolog gained no significant traction. In my opinion, this was probably due to two chief factors…

First…Gnidrolog? Not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue or is even pronounceable upon initial sight, is it? Turns out, the moniker is the backward spelling (with some adjustments) of the name Goldring, the surname of the twin brothers (Colin and Stewart) who led the group. Yes, an unfortunate name selection.

But the second and most important factor…although the two albums Gnidrolog released in 1972 (this one being the sophomore collection) contained some fascinating material when it came to instrumentation and song arrangements, occasionally bringing to mind groups such as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, and Van Der Graaf Generator—thanks primarily to the highly creative woodwind passages and background fills, the bizarre vocal harmonies, and the jazz and folk influences—the lead vocals are most definitely an acquired taste.

Indeed, on the opening track “I Could Never Be a Soldier,” the singer, especially when being unnecessarily overdramatic and shooting for the higher octave of his natural vocal range, is often out of key and simply too grating, which takes some getting used to and the reason I rated this album down a full star for my official review.

Therefore, putting aside the band’s odd name, I can’t help thinking these vocal deficiencies may be the chief factor why Gnidrolog never gained a legion of fans during its brief history. Personally, I have to be in just the right frame of mind when listening to this album, and I do so only for the rather imaginative music and instrumentation, all the while gritting my teeth through the more awkward vocal sections.

So, let this review serve as a warning to Prog-Rock fans who may be unfamiliar with this group yet drawn to this album due to the rather cool cover art. The music is often enjoyable; the lead vocals are often not.

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Gong – You (1974)

Gong_You4 out of 5 Stars!

I’ll admit, I’ve always had a bit of a Love/Hate relationship with Gong, loving much of the French group’s excursions into Canterbury Prog and Jazz-Rock territory, but hating (or rather, “not fully embracing,” since “hate” is too strong a word) much of the silliness that appears on some of its albums, like the hippy-dippy-trippy Psychedelic ingredients that occasionally seem to go on too long, and the spacier, free-form elements that sometimes seem more “endless, boring noise” than actual “engaging music.”

Yet the one factor that has me continually revisiting this band’s early albums is undeniable—the masterful guitar work of Steve Hillage. I adore the man’s talent and his guitar tones, the way he creates a unique sound for himself and, thus, the band in general. And on You, the band’s sixth studio release, Hillage provides some wonderfully tasty solos and fills, especially on tracks such as “The Isle of Everywhere,” “Master Builder,” and “A Sprinkling of Clouds.” I also savor the group’s use of woodwinds and various percussion instruments, often bringing some of Frank Zappa’s best work to mind.

Therefore, I can usually put up with the aforementioned hippy-dippy-trippy Psych and Space Rock experimentation as long as Hillage’s enjoyable guitar contributions, the creative woodwinds, and the exciting percussion remains at a higher percentage of an album’s overall content such as it does on this particular release, one of my favorites by the band.

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Ampledeed – BYOB (2016)

Ampledeed_BYOB4 out of 5 Stars!

Ampledeed is a newer Prog-Rock band from California, and on 2016’s BYOB—the band’s second album—the group created eclectic and engaging music with some strong Canterbury Prog and Jazz-Rock influences, among others, often bringing to mind legendary groups such as Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, only with a mixture of both classic and modern keyboard and guitar sounds/tones.

The instrumental passages are often elaborate, with dazzling musicianship on display, while the vocal tracks occasionally contain stacked harmonies of both male and female voices and tricky lead melody lines. Interestingly enough, I find that repeated hearings of BYOB always seem to magically reveal new elements, new sounds, new twists and turns in the instrumentation, that I somehow missed during previous plays.

Overall, this is fun and impressive material, highly imaginative and worthy of inspection for fans of the genre. By the way, a tip of the hat to Aaron Goldich, Luis Flores, Max Taylor, and the rest of the studio musicians for sharing their talents with the world. If the band continues to produce albums of this lofty caliber, Ampledeed is bound to make a reputable name for itself in the Prog-Rock community.

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The Tangent – A Place in the Queue (2006)

Tangent_PlaceQueue4 out of 5 Stars!

With guitarist Roine Stolt being involved with The Tangent in its formative years, this U.K. group at first seemed to me merely an offshoot of The Flower Kings, with the music being similar in many instances and just as engaging.

Yet, because of the jazzier passages that appear within many of its songs, The Tangent (expertly grounded and guided since its formation by keyboardist/vocalist Andy Tillison) occasionally seemed more influenced by the Canterbury Prog style as opposed to the Symphonic Prog style of, for example, groups such as Yes.

Regardless, A Place in the Queue (the band’s third studio release, and the first without Stolt on guitar) is a diverse collection of tracks. Most of the longer songs, such as “GPS Culture” or “Follow Your Leaders,” and the twenty-minute “In Earnest” as well as the twenty-five-minute “A Place in the Queue,” contain so many musical styles—from Symphonic Prog to Progressive Folk to Jazz-Rock to even a trace of Avant-Prog—it’s like musical whiplash trying to keep track of all the shifting sections and styles within each tune.

Then, on songs such as “Lost in London” and “DIY Surgery,” thanks mainly to the more prominent flutes and saxes plus the quirky nature of Tillison’s vocals, groups such as Caravan or Hatfield and the North pop into mind more frequently. But again, even the shorter tracks include passages with varied styles, so its always difficult to pinpoint specific outside influences for any one track, meaning that The Tangent (especially thanks to Tillison’s distinctive vocals and keyboard artistry) has developed a signature sound all its own.

So let’s just say that fans of acts such as The Flower Kings, Yes, Spock’s Beard, and Gentle Giant, for example, as well as the aforementioned Canterbury Prog groups will certainly appreciate much of the material on offer here. Indeed, A Place in the Queue will likely appeal to most Prog-Rock fans seeking beautiful melodies, song-arrangement complexity, and adept musicianship.

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Area – Arbeit Macht Frei (1973)

Area_ArbeitMachtFrei4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, Area played Prog-Rock that often dove into Avant-Garde territory, almost like a heavier version of Canterbury-style Prog, with highly dramatic vocals.

On Arbeit Macht Frei, the jazzier aspects of the band (those appearing on the title track, “240 Chilometri Da Smirne,” and “Consapevolezza,” where wild, jamming sax, numerous tempo shifts, and creative synth, guitar, and bass riffs keep things really popping) occasionally remind me of Zappa’s Hot Rats period, whereas other tracks (such as “L’abbattimento Dello Zeppelin,” “Luglio, Agosto, Settembre (Nero),” and “Le Labbra Del Tempo”) seem to take those same jazz aspects and merge them with a few Gentle Giant, King Crimson, or PFM influences and add a healthy dose of adrenaline to the mix, making for some wackier Prog and, therefore, creating a unique style for the band.

Although I’m unfamiliar with the majority of Area’s output from the latter half of the ’70s, and the band’s periodic releases afterward, the debut Arbeit Macht Frei (and the follow-up release Caution Radiation Area) are treks along fairly strange and imaginative pathways, and would likely appeal to lovers of offbeat music who enjoy a massive injection of free-form Jazz mixed with their Prog-Rock.

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Témpano – Nowhere Now Here (2016)

Tempano_NowhereNowHere4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve been a fan of Témpano, a Prog-Rock band from Venezuela, for only the past few years, having finally discovered the joys of the band’s 1979 debut (Atabal Yemal) thanks to a friend who thought I might enjoy the band’s experimental style. On its debut, Témpano reminded me of groups as diverse as Area, Nathan Mahl, Gentle Giant, Colosseum II, Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Return To Forever, artists willing to twist the norms and generate intriguing melodies among odd time shifts and inventive, often Avant-Garde instrumentation.

Thankfully, Témpano not only continues to exist and flourish, but has considerably extended its musical growth, as shown on its latest release, Nowhere Now Here. Certainly, much of the music offered here is of the same high caliber and fascinating variety as the band’s “early days,” but there are also several noticeable differences…

For one, the lyrics are now exclusively in English.

And two, the production is much richer, with the band successfully taking full advantage of modern studio techniques and equipment.

And three, the material (although still Jazzy in places, still bordering on Avant-Prog on many of the instrumental tracks—or even on one wonderfully twisted vocal track called “When Opposites Meet,” my absolute favorite) is a bit more accessible to the average listener. Indeed, a handful of tunes—”The Night Before the End,” “Daylight Moon,” “Whisper of the Blade,” and “Acrobat Citizens”—contain straightforward vocal melodies surrounded by Prog instrumentation, reminding me of some modern-day Prog-Rock/AOR groups with a Jazz-Rock flavor—thanks to the occasional sax insertions and dreamy atmospheres—such as the exceptional Moonrise.

Yet Témpano is nothing if not creative when it comes to popping in strange percussion accents or intriguing rhythms, flashy synth or guitar blasts that shock the system, so even those more accessible AOR-leaning tunes are full of happy surprises both large and small, and I reveled in all of them.

I’ve decided that, since the band are undoubtedly masters of Prog-Rock and do their native country proud, if I had my druthers, I’d direct that a statue be erected in the center of Caracas in their honor. This band is highly worthy of investigation for all Prog-Rock lovers, especially those who like some added experimentation and pizzazz.

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Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

SteelyDan_Ecstasy4.5 out of 5 Stars!

After its impressive debut from the previous year, Steely Dan followed up with the excellent Countdown to Ecstasy, proving this was no “average band.”

And here, with Steely Dan still being an actual band (instead of the Donald Fagen/Walter Becker songwriting duo that used mostly studio musicians to create its future albums), the sound is wonderfully cohesive and creative, with the sardonic lyrics and lead vocals (now performed exclusively by Donald Fagan, unlike the previous release) as quirky as ever, the musicianship brilliant, and the sound being a seemingly perfect blend of AOR/Hard Rock/Jazz-Rock with highly memorable melodies and riffs.

I especially loved the dual guitars of Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who also graced the album with some pedal steel guitar, as well as the impactful inclusion of guest stars such as the acclaimed Victor Feldman playing marimba/vibraphone, Rick Derringer offering up some sleazy slide guitar, and Ernie Watts, Bill Perkins, and Lanny Morgan delivering slick and sassy saxophones, which all added to the band’s sophisticated style.

From “Bodhisattva” to “Your Gold Teeth,” to “My Old School” and “The Boston Rag,” to “Show Biz Kids” and “King of the World,” to “Razor Boy” and “Pearl of the Quarter,” every single track ranks among my favorites within Steely Dan’s entire catalogue—indeed, I adore Countdown to Ecstasy from beginning to end, unlike the band’s subsequent albums—and I’ve never grown tired of hearing it, even forty-five years after snatching it up at the impressionable age of thirteen.

Besides, it was also the first album I owned that had the naughty “F-word” popping up in the lyrics of “Show Biz Kids,” so how could I not have fond memories of this platter, right?

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Riff Raff – Riff Raff (1973)

RiffRaff_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the U.K., Riff Raff produced two albums (or three, if you count the “archival” album released decades later) of Progressive Rock, mostly with either a folk or jazzy flavor on many of the tracks.

On this particular self-titled debut, in the lighter moments, the band occasionally reminded me of groups such as Strawbs or Mark-Almond when it came to both instrumentation and atmosphere, with beautiful acoustic guitar, flute, sax, and grand piano passages.

And during the heavier sections, the wah-wah guitars, sizzling saxes, keyboard leads, and jazzy tempos almost seem a merging of the bands such as Return To Forever, Baker Gurvitz Army, and Paice Ashton Lord.

Finally, of special note is the appearance here of stellar keyboardist Tommy Eyre, who would eventually go on to join Zzebra and, later, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

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