House Of Lords – Saint of the Lost Souls (2017)

HouseLords_SaintLostSouls4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Apart from perhaps one so-so album in the early part of this century, and despite seemingly endless changes within its lineup since its debut in the late ’80s, House Of Lords is probably one of the most consistent bands in the genre regarding its overall sound and style, delivering albums every few years with catchy material, outstanding musicianship and vocals, and full and rich production.

2017’s Saint of the Lost Souls is another out-and-out scorcher, grand and glistening and glorious, perhaps even matching the supremacy of 2006’s near-perfect World Upside Down, with (sole original member) James Christian’s powerful vocals leading the way, and the band’s trademarked Pomp-Rock keyboards (originally supplied by the great Gregg Giuffria of Angel fame until his retirement, and performed on this album by Christian himself) adding to the majesty of the band’s overall style. Also featured on this album is the wonderfully tasty and blazing six-string fretwork from seasoned guitarist Jimi Bell, as well as the tight-as-heck rhythm section of new bassist Chris Tristram and long-time House of Lords’s drummer B.J. Zampa.

With tracks such as the keyboard-rich opener “Harlequin,” as well as other melodious rockers like “Art of Letting Go,” “Concussion,” “The Other Option,” “Reign of Fire,” “New Day Breakin’,” and the outstanding title tune, along with the lush ballad “The Sun Will Never Set Again,” Saint of the Lost Souls proves once again that House Of Lords is truly a top-class act, and this album is simply Pomp-tastic!

 

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GNP – Safety Zone (1989)

GNP_SafetyZone3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Safety Zone, the single album by GNP (aka Gilmour Negus Project) is a collection of tracks created by two longtime members of the legendary Canadian Prog-Rock group Saga (keyboardist Jim Gilmour and drummer Steve Negus) along with vocalist Robert Bevan.

But unlike a typical Progressive-leaning album by Saga, the music on Safety Zone is instead AOR/Pomp Rock material, a musical landscape similar in many respects to groups such as Toto, Asia, Mr. Mister, and Ambrosia, with just a touch of (no surprise) Saga influences. In other words, highly polished, commercial and melodic tunes with an emphasis on (again, no surprise) keyboards.

While various studio musician “guest stars” provide additional instrumentation—most notably guitarist John Albani (Wrabit/Lee Aaron)—the music again relies heavily on Gilmour’s extensive keyboard skills, and is generally likeable and catchy, if not unremarkable overall.

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The Magnificent – The Magnificent (2011)

TheMagnificent_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Knowing this lone album by The Magnificent was created by the team of Michael Eriksen (vocalist from Circus Maximus) and Torsti Spoof (guitarist from Leverage), I purchased it without doing any additional research, simply assuming (based on the talents of the individual members and their previous releases from their associated groups) it would be another high-quality release from a new Prog-Metal band.

But it’s not—it’s actually a high-quality release from a Hard Rock/AOR band that ultimately blew me away!

The Magnificent is, indeed, magnificent, with the band creating some of the finest, catchiest material released in the past decade. Indeed, the chorus to the opening track “Holding On to Your Love” kept ringing through my head for days, as did the melody lines from numerous other tunes on this album. With sizzling guitars, layered keyboards, driving rhythms, and spectacular vocal harmonies, fans of other modern-day Hard Rock/AOR groups with a strong dose of Pomp Rock such as Magnum, Work Of Art, Overland, Find Me, Sunstorm, and Brother Firetribe will undoubtedly enjoy this highly polished release.

I’d love to hear more material from this particular team of individuals, although I suspect this album was simply a one-off project.

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Storyteller – Corridor of Windows (2000)

Storyteller_Corridor4.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Los Angeles, Storyteller (not to be confused with several other groups with the same name) released only one mere album of terrific, keyboard-heavy AOR/Hard Rock in 2000 before vanishing. But a bit of history here to clarify the album’s year of release—

From what I’ve been able to unearth regarding Storyteller, the band (made up of Jerome Story on lead vocals, Stephen Teller on drums—get it? Story & Teller, hence the band’s name—J.P. on guitars, Craig Campbell on keyboards, and John Fagan on bass) strove unsuccessfully to secure a recording contract for more than a decade, but the timing for a band of this nature in the grunge-obsessed ’90s proved a nightmare, as you can imagine. Yet during those many years, Storyteller worked with famed producer Jeff Glixman to produce numerous demos, until finally, a German record label (MTM) released this collection for the world’s enjoyment in 2000. Now, I’m unsure whether the band re-recorded the tracks or simply used the original demos and added fresh production, instrumentation, and mixing magic, but whatever Storyteller did, this album was about a decade in the making.

But was it worth the lengthy wait?

Absolutely! On tracks such as the glorious Pomp-Rock opener “What She Wants,” as well as “Like It or Not,” “White Liar,” “She Sherea,” “Private Eye,” “Never,” and the Prog-touched “Wait ‘Til You Find Me,” the band demonstrates its knack for creating catchy melodies, with rich background vocals, layered Pomp-Rock keyboards, sizzling guitar solos, and solid and varied tempos in the tradition of bands such as Giuffria, White Sister, Vishusgruv, Strangeways, LRB, Axe, Touch, and perhaps a pompier version of early Bon Jovi. On the magnificent ballads with soaring vocals and lush production such as the title tune, along with “Where Is Daniel?” and “Hello Heaven,” it’s clear that Storyteller could have easily and successfully taken up the torch from groups such as Bad English and Journey if only Storyteller had been given the chance.

Supposedly, most of these tracks were written in the late-’80s/early-’90s, another reason for my comparisons to the aforementioned groups from that period, since Storyteller’s musical influences are fairly obvious and abundant. Yet as mentioned, the overall production on Corridor of Windows sounds pristine and modern, so fans of more contemporary AOR and Pomp Rock acts such as House of Lords, Place Vendome, Find Me, Sunstorm, Work of Art, Serpentine, and Bad Habit will undoubtedly discover much to enjoy here.

Regardless, Storyteller was a band that should have been given a chance to shine, but timing played a major stumbling block, thus delaying this superior collection of tracks from seeing the light of day. But thankfully it did, and I, for one, cherish it.

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Hellfield – Hellfield (1978)

Hellfield_Hellfield4 out of 5 Stars!

From Toronto came Hellfield, an obscure group led by vocalist Mitch Hellfield (with a surname like that, how could the man NOT form a rock ‘n’ roll band, right?).

Anyway, when this album first came out in ’78, I purchased it immediately based on the cover art (and band name), unsure of the type of music being delivered. Turns out the album was chock-full of both kick-ass rockers and strong Pomp Rock laced with grand harmonies and some AOR melodies. In many respects, the band had a Midwestern sound, often reminding me of groups from this area of the USA such as Roadmaster, Trillion, and Styx, with touches of Angel, thanks to the Pomp keyboards.

The album opens with a magnificent track entitled “The Pact,” which leads into “Magic Mistress,” another standout tune, both with catchy choruses, rich harmony vocals, and tons of blazing guitar and keyboards, acting as a one-two punch to the jaw that hooked me on the album during my initial hearing. Side B also opens with “Tell Me Are You Listening,” another killer track with some Supertramp-ish influences and further solidified my fondness for this release.

Before eventually disbanding, Hellfield dropped a second album (Night Music) the following year, but the band just couldn’t seem to gain any foothold in the U.S., probably due to CBS Records doing zero promotion. Indeed, were it not for me engaging in my “weekly browse” at my neighborhood record store, I would likely have never discovered the band myself.

Anyway, I’m glad I did since this debut album still has a special place in my heart even after all these many decades.

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Hellfield_Hellfield

Angel – Angel (1975)

Angel_14.5 out of 5 Stars!

Back in the mid-’70s, several friends eagerly told me about an extraordinary new band that played a combination of straightforward and melodic Pomp/Hard Rock mixed with intricate, fantasy-tinged Progressive Rock that sounded as if a group such as Yes or Starcastle had suddenly gone really heavy. “Oh, and by the way,” they added, “the band members look kinda like chicks and wear all white.”

Okay, so intrigued by the description of both music and band image, I purchased Angel’s self-titled debut platter, turned up the volume as my buddies had also recommended, and found myself facing an onslaught of wild synthesizers blasting from my stereo speakers as a killer track called “Tower” began. Talk about an “in-your-face” introduction to a band.

Anyway, “Tower” did indeed seem a perfect blend of keyboard-heavy Pomp/Hard Rock mixed with Prog, and I adored it. The merging of genres continued on through glorious tracks such as “Long Time,” “Broken Dreams,” “Mariner,” and “Sunday Morning,” whereas “Rock and Rollers” and “On and On” seemed less Prog-oriented, more commercial (a foreshadowing of Angel’s overall change in style for its third album) yet just as impressive and gratifying. And of course, let’s not forget that the album closes with a short instrumental burst of utterly perfect Pomp Rock entitled “Angel (Theme)” that instantly had me blaring the album from start to finish yet again, and again, and again. (And how can you not love a band that has its own “theme song,” huh?)

Regardless, not only did the genres blend perfectly, but so did the pianos, organs, synths, and Mellotron of Greg Giuffria mix deliciously with the metalized guitar fury of Punky Meadows. And with a highly capable and often-creative rhythm section of bassist Mickey Jones and drummer Barry Brandt maintaining a solid backbone, Frank DiMino’s powerful, wide-ranging, and multi-tracked voice soared over the lush proceedings—dare I say it?—like an angel, giving the band a majestic, bombastic, and distinctive sound.

Even to this day, Angel’s 1975 debut stands as one of the finest, most unique Pomp/Prog Rock albums in history, introducing me to the talents of Giuffria and DiMino—who became instant heroes and future influences for my own work—and I still love it to death.

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Bob Catley – Immortal (2008)

BobCatley_Immortal4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Bob Catley, with his highly recognizable voice, has been fronting the excellent band Magnum since the early ’70s. But when Magnum briefly broke up in the latter half of the ’90s, Catley not only joined his former guitarist Tony Clarkin in a new “offshoot” band called Hard Rain, but also put together his first solo album. Then, even as Magnum (thankfully) reformed and entered a fairly prolific period in the new century, Catley somehow found the time to concurrently record a string of his own albums.

For Magnum fans like myself, this proved nothing short of a godsend, since each of Catley’s solo efforts delivered music within the same keyboard-rich Hard/Pomp Rock universe. Certainly, the musicians on Catley’s releases were different than those who made up Magnum, but since Catley’s voice was front and center, you’d hardly notice the difference, which meant that every new solo album seemed almost like a new Magnum release, thus giving the fans a double dose of Hard/Pomp Rock through the first decade of the new millennium.

Catley’s last platter, Immortal, also ended up being one of his best. And since the album features seasoned guitarist/keyboardist Magnus Karlsson (Allen & Lande/The Codex/Starbreaker) as well as gifted axe-slinger Uwe Reitenauer (Pink Cream 69/Place Vendome/Sunstorm) and multi-instrumentalist Dennis Ward (Pink Cream 69/Place Vendome/Sunstorm), it hardly comes as a shock that the same type of grand and catchy material, stellar musicianship, and high quality production values displayed on Magnum albums are also here in spades. From opener “Dreamers Unite” through to the closer “Heat of Passion,” Immortal shines bright, contains numerous magical moments, with each song being simply magnificent!

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Grand Illusion – Prince of Paupers (2011)

GrandIllusion_PrincePaupers4 out of 5 Stars!

Swedish group Grand Illusion popped onto the AOR scene in 2001 after changing its name from the rather lame Promotion (which released two collections in the ’90s). Not sure what the Promotion albums sounded like (although probably similar since the band members didn’t change) but the freshly christened Grand Illusion released five beautifully produced albums in the new century, with Prince of Paupers being the most recent in 2011.

Similar in many ways to fellow countrymen H.E.A.T. or Bad Habit, Grand Illusion plays hard-driving AOR, with richly layered, pomp-sounding keyboards and fierce guitar leads, and features a vocalist that has an impressively wide range in the style of Tony Mills or Fergie Fredericksen, along with thick harmonies.

On Prince of Paupers, rollicking tunes such as “Gates of Fire,” “St. Theresa’s Love,” “On and On,” “Under the Wire,” “Through This War,” and the title track sit comfortably alongside several magnificent ballads such as “So Far Away” and “Believe in Miracles,” each song being a feast of melodies, with classy and bombastic charm.

All in all, this is blazing Pomp Rock in the same tradition as acts such as House of Lords, Sunstorm, White Heart, Find Me, Place Vendome, and Shy, as well as the aforementioned H.E.A.T. and Bad Habit, and highly recommended for fans of the genre.

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Magnum – Chase the Dragon (1982)

Magnum_ChaseDragon4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Like the majority of releases by Magnum, I rated Chase the Dragon (the group’s third studio album) with a near-perfect score of 4.5 Stars. Each track is engaging and memorable, especially “Sacred Hour,” a five-and-a-half minute masterpiece, along with Pomp-Rock/Prog-Rock opener “Soldier of the Line,” plus “The Spirit,” “Walking the Straight Line,” “The Teacher,” “On the Edge of the World” and…well, hell, each track is special in its own right, so I won’t bother to list them all.

Even back in 1982, it became stunningly clear that this U.K. band had that “special something,” excelled in creating ultra-classy Hard Rock, with AOR, Pomp, and Progressive Rock thrown in for good measure, and Chase the Dragon is the album that hooked me on the group, immediately enticing me to run out and grab the band’s first two studio releases.

Additionally, Mark Stanway’s performances and keyboard tones often inspired my own playing, and with Chase the Dragon, he immediately shot to the top of my “idols” list (where he still remains, along with Colin Towns, Greg Giuffria, etc.) as one of my favorites in this particular musical genre. Moreover, guitarist Tony Clarkin also proved with this album that his songwriting capabilities had reached exemplary levels, which he continued to display album after album after album.

As I always state in my reviews for Magnum releases, this group has to be one of the most professional, most consistent acts in rock history, never failing to deliver the well-produced goods even after 40+ years. May this exceptional band live on forever!

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Styx – The Grand Illusion (1977)

Styx_GrandIllusion5 out of 5 Stars!

While reading album reviews on some music-related websites regarding this band’s output, it becomes instantly apparent that people either love Styx or detest Styx with every fiber of their being. Either the praise flows in abundance, or the venom spews forth, with very few “middle of the road” attitudes. Then again, it stands to reason—as the band’s career progressed, Styx could squarely fit into no particular category. The group wasn’t always Progressive, not always commercial, not always hard-rocking, not always ballad-meisters. Styx had its own sound, which changed through the years as the mood struck and musical trends changed. But whether you loved or hated the band, one thing was certain—Styx would not be ignored.

I’ve always considered myself a fan of the band (perhaps because of its “local sons” status, seeing as the group was based in my hometown of Chicago). Although, like many fans, I also faced major disappointments (Mr. Roboto being a prime example). Nevertheless, when Styx was on its game, it was, in my eyes, one of the best bands in the biz. Although there’s usually a debate among Styx fans which of the albums is considered the “masterpiece,” most fans agree it’s one of the three albums marked by the arrival of guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw—Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, or Pieces Of Eight. (The last album of the pre-Tommy Shaw period, Equinox, comes darned close, but doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye.)

My selection for the masterpiece would have to be The Grand Illusion. It has everything you could love (or loathe) about Styx all rolled into one record—the pomp and circumstance (“The Grand Illusion,” “Castle Walls,” and the middle section of “Come Sail Away”), the kick-ass arena-type rockers (“Miss America”, “Superstars,” and the second half of “Come Sail Away”), and the ballads (the opening section of “Come Sail Away” and “Man In The Wilderness”). The three unique lead vocalists (an updated version of Three Dog Night, if you will) proved a formidable and blazing team, and The Grand Illusion displays a band with purpose, with imagination, with talent, and drive.

Unfortunately, commercial radio attempted to shove this album down everyone’s throats (as they would with the Pieces Of Eight album the following year as well, then the over-sappy DeYoung ballads that ensued), which helped to create that strong dividing line between Styx-lovers and Styx-haters. Fortunately for me, I never listened much to commercial radio, so I didn’t have to contend with the “overkill,” therefore The Grand Illusion probably remains fresher to me than to many others. It still represents everything good to many (or horrid to some) about one of America’s most recognizable and successful acts, and has a special place on my shelf.

 

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