Wishbone Ash – Argus (1972)

WishboneAsh_Argus4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Through the many years since Wishbone Ash first appeared on the music scene, my friends have continually and playfully (or sometimes, intensely and angrily, depending on their level of alcohol consumption) bantered over which of the studio albums in the group’s catalogue is its finest work of art. Back in the olden days (around the time of the band’s magnificent Live Dates album, one of the greatest live recordings of all time, in my opinion) my answer was always Argus, the group’s third release. And now, more than four decades later, even with more than twenty additional Wishbone Ash studio platters over which to debate, my response still remains the same, and unless miracles happen to alter my perspective, it likely always will.

Now, I’m in no way claiming that any Wishbone Ash album other than Argus is somehow undeserving of the “best studio album” spot, since I find the overall quality of several of the band’s other releases quite high. Indeed, I feel that the 1970 debut album, along with Pilgrimage, There’s the Rub, New England, and Just Testing, all contain generally top-level material, and I also find the majority of the group’s other early albums (prior to 1980) fairly entertaining. It’s just that, when hearing Argus even nowadays, intense memories of people and places and events instantly spring to mind. This album greatly contributed to the soundtrack of my early teen years, and the cherished recollections the music conjures will forever play an integral part regarding my feelings toward this particular platter (as well as for Live Dates).

But even putting aside my impassioned opinions and looking at this album objectively, Argus has a ton going for it. Not only is the songwriting quality consistent throughout the album, with the performances by each musician outstanding, but the band at this point in time (drummer Steve Upton, bassist Martin Turner, and guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner—the classic lineup) elected to incorporate an intriguing blend of everything from Blues, Country, Folk, and Prog-Rock into its often-catchy Hard Rock style. The band’s trademarked twin-guitar sound borders on rock ‘n’ roll perfection, while the song arrangements are often deceptively intricate and energetically charged. And best of all, the album contains a commendable balance of both heavy and light moments, with most of the seven tracks—”Throw Down the Sword,” “Blowin’ Free,” “Warrior,” “Time Was,” and “The King Will Come”—becoming long-standing concert favorites. And even the two additional tunes included—”Sometime World” and “Leaf and Stream”—have an undeniable charm that makes Argus, for me, not only a perfectly sequenced collection of tunes, but also a rich bounty of those exquisite memories I mentioned above.

But is the album an unblemished masterpiece? No, not quite, as I feel some of the vocals—never Wishbone Ash’s strongest asset, if the truth be told—could have been “tweaked and patched” to match the utter perfection of the guitars and rhythm section. Additionally, although Derek Lawrence’s production is highly commendable given the technology of the era, I would have liked the songs to have a tad more ambience, a “big hall” sound, which is why the tracks on Argus that also appear on Live Dates possessed an even greater allure for me in a concert setting.

Nevertheless, despite these slight flaws, Argus is a Hard Rock classic, and for the reasons stated above, will forever remain my favorite studio album from this extraordinary band.

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Little Atlas – Wanderlust (2005)

LittleAtlas_Wanderlust4 out of 5 Stars!

Little Atlas, a quartet formed near the sunny beaches of Miami, Florida, delivered five above-average albums from 1998 through 2013 before seemingly disappearing.

Wanderlust, the band’s third release, is perhaps my favorite of the five. On tunes such as “Higher,” “Mirror of Life,” “The Prisoner,” and “The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust,” the band delivers Progressive Rock in a similar vein to groups such as Yes, Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Pallas, Salem Hill, The Flower Kings, etc., but never directly copying any of the aforementioned groups. Instead, the band creates its own unique twist on the Prog-Rock genre, while each of the seven tracks, all falling somewhere between the five and ten minute mark, are loaded with memorable melodies, often-complex instrumentation, and a variety of moods.

Moreover, I especially appreciated the nod to Gentle Giant on the track “Weariness Rider” when it came to the counterpoint a capella vocal passage, which further displayed the band’s overall creativity.

Regardless, it’s a crying shame Little Atlas didn’t receive wider recognition throughout the years, since the group showed great promise and I would have easily welcomed additional material.

Thankfully, in 2014, the group Strattman (named after Little Atlas’s guitarist Roy Strattman) emerged on the scene with a terrific album, and also includes Steve Katsikas (vocals/keyboards) and Rik Bigai (bass), both from Little Atlas as well. Therefore, the band basically lives on in spirit, only under a fresh moniker and with several different members, which is certainly good news for the Prog-Rock community and fans of the original group.

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Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – The Good Earth (1974)

ManfredMann_GoodEarth3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Like on most albums from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, the music is often difficult to pigeonhole. Although many music-related magazines both past and present (as well as websites of the modern age) categorize the majority of the band’s various releases as only Progressive Rock, I still find that sole tag fairly inaccurate and misleading. When first purchasing albums by this group in the ’70s, based on this lone genre description mentioned in various magazines, I had originally expected music along the lines of Yes, ELP, Genesis, or Gentle Giant, for example, the bands I considered “true” Prog-Rock acts of the same era. What I discovered on albums by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, however, were basically tunes of melodic Hard Rock with only a smattering of Progressive Rock tinsel scattered over a handful of tracks.

The Good Earth is one of those albums I snapped up during my early days of record-buying, my teenaged self expecting one type of music, but getting another—or rather, finding a merger of styles instead of pure, out-and-out Progressive Rock. On this album, the majority of songs are basically melodic Hard Rock at their core. The Prog elements appear only periodically, thanks mostly to Mann’s always-impressive keyboard work, some overall atmospherics, and by the inclusion of more experimental passages on vocal songs such as “Earth Hymn” and “Earth Hymn, Part 2,” as well as “Be Not Too Hard” and “Give Me the Good Earth,” plus on the fantastic “Sky High,” an instrumental track where the musicians really cut loose with jazzy, Prog-Rock madness. But on other tracks, “Launching Pad” and “I’ll Be Gone,” the Prog-Rock elements are virtually non-existent.

Therefore, I remember being a bit disappointed at the time of purchasing this collection—not too horribly, thank goodness, since I did like the band’s overall sound, regardless if it wasn’t what I had expected due to those contemporaneous magazine articles and the few and insufficient album reviews I’d read. Nevertheless, I had vowed all those years ago that if I ever got the opportunity to write my own album reviews in the future, I’d do my best to properly designate genres and provide more substantial information so that potential listeners would know exactly what to expect when investigating any unfamiliar material.

Regardless, my thoughts of genre designations aside, The Good Earth ended up becoming one of my favorite collections from the group’s “early period,” prior to the band hitting the big time in ’76 with the mega-selling The Roaring Silence.

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Thieves’ Kitchen – Argot (2001)

ThievesKitchen_Argot4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Fans of Prog-Rock may be familiar with Thieves’ Kitchen from its more recent releases with the talented Amy Darby as its lead vocalist. But prior to her arrival in 2002, the U.K. band released two enjoyable albums with a male lead vocalist, which is when I originally discovered the group.

What instantly drew me to the band on its 2000 debut album, Head, was the strong Gentle Giant influences I immediately detected in not only the instrumentation and labyrinthine musical arrangements, but also since the male singer (Simon Boys) sounded eerily similar to Gentle Giant’s Derek Shulman. This further enhanced the illusion that I was listening to a modern version of Gentle Giant itself, albeit a tad heavier in places and with extra Neo-Prog influences tossed in.

For me, Argot, the band’s sophomore release, is equally as impressive as the debut album and often similar in style and scope. This time, the band elected to compose four ambitious and elaborate tracks—the twenty-minute “John Doe Number One,” the seventeen-minute “Call to Whoever,” and the “shorter pieces” (by Prog-Rock standards, at least) “Escape” and “Proximity,” both clocking in around the thirteen-minute mark.

On each of the tracks, the Gentle Giant influences are once again displayed in abundance, especially when it comes to the various eclectic tempos and rhythmic idiosyncrasies, the intricate and quirky vocal melody lines, as well as many of tones used for the guitars and the standard Prog-Rock keyboard arsenal—organ, piano, synths, and the mighty Mellotron. But also like the band’s debut, the music is in no way a perfect copy of Gentle Giant’s style. The talented musicians merely use that style as a starting template on which to construct its own brand of Prog-Rock magic—trimming out much of Gentle Giant’s abundant avant-garde ingredients and medieval inspirations, employing (albeit with the exception of an oboe) only traditional Prog-Rock instruments (ie. no saxes, no violins, no recorders, etc.), and incorporating more Symphonic and Jazz elements into its sound than Gentle Giant ever included on its own albums.

Nevertheless, the band’s influences during this early period in its history are crystal clear, so for any fans of Gentle Giant or groups with comparable styles—Advent, Echolyn, Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, or Beardfish, to name but a few—Argot (and the band’s debut) is certainly a “must-have” album.

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Solstice – Prophecy (2013)

Solstice_Prophecy4 out of 5 Stars!

Solstice is a shamefully obscure band from the U.K. that released only five studio albums between 1984 and 2013, with Prophecy being the most recent. Although with only five studio releases in a twenty-nine-year period, with numerous lineup changes through the decades, plus the band taking lengthy breaks, the reason for Solstice’s continued obscurity is certainly understandable. After all, it’s not like the Prog-Rock community has been continually bombarded with announcements from the band regarding fresh material, news of upcoming album releases, world tours, etc., right?

Be that as it may, Solstice plays majestic, engaging, complex, and often-hypnotic Symphonic and Neo-Prog material with Prog-Folk influences, and with the band featuring female vocals, I’m sure many fans of artists such as Magenta, Flamborough Head, Curved Air, Mostly Autumn, Thieves’ Kitchen, and Introitus will find much to savor here.

On Prophecy, the band shows its gift for successfully offering up a delicate balance of acoustic-based passages along with electrified fare, typically with a dreamy atmosphere on which the serene vocal melodies float. This is never more evident than on both the opening tune “Eyes of Fire” and on the lengthier “West Wind.” Then, on “Keepers of the Truth” and “Blackwater,” the band adds a larger degree of fiddle to the overall instrumentation, and with the more upbeat tempos, often creates a sound similar to early Kansas, only melded with a group such as Magenta (thanks to the female vocalist, of course).

My favorite track, however, is the seventeen-and-a-half minute epic “Warriors,” which takes the listener through numerous moods and tempo shifts, with both acoustic and electric segments seemingly united in a perfect marriage, and lovely vocal segments loaded with rich background harmonies. Here also is where—due to the electric guitar and synth trading off enjoyable solos in the lengthy middle Neo-Prog section, and the vocals popping in with rhythmic accents—the band once again reminds me primarily of Magenta. Simply beautiful and captivating in its tunefulness and scope.

All in all, although Prophecy is not an essential item for Prog-Rock enthusiasts to add to their music collections, it’s nevertheless a splendid release that contains enough alluring moments to justify its replay value. And as mentioned earlier, fans of female-led Symphonic and Neo-Prog bands, especially those who prefer a somewhat lighter, more acoustic touch, will certainly delight in the material.

Also please note, along with the five tunes described in this short review, the album also contains three additional “bonus” tracks. “Find Yourself,” “Return of Spring,” and “Earthsong” were originally recorded back in 1984 for the band’s debut album Silent Dance, but were remixed by Steven Wilson from the original tapes for inclusion on Prophecy. Although none of these tunes adds any extra magic to the main bulk of the album, it’s still nice to compare the band’s past and present style, which, frankly, hasn’t changed all that much.

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Mr. Mister – Pull (2010)

MrMr_Pull4 out of 5 Stars!

Back in 1985, it seemed I couldn’t go a few days (even a few hours) without hearing music being played on the radio by Mr. Mister, the AOR/Pop Rock band that had just released its catchy sophomore album called Welcome to the Real World, which contained the wonderfully addicting tunes “Kyrie,” “Is It Love,” and “Broken Wings,” along with a host of other potential hits. Not only did the band include creative musicians and songwriters, but seemed destined for a long and lucrative career.

But when the band released its more innovative and somewhat-progressive third album, Go On, things suddenly went awry. Since the record label’s “mega hit machine” had stopped churning out instant Top Ten singles, RCA Victor was not happy, and amidst the fallout, the band lost its original guitarist, Steve Farris. And to make matters even worse, the group (with numerous guest guitarists, including Yes’s Trevor Rabin) recorded material for a fourth album planned for release around 1989/1990, with even more experimental AOR-oriented material included, and the record company executives (ie. royal and blundering noodleheads) decided to shelve the collection of tunes since it “wasn’t pop enough.” Morons!

Regardless, Mr. Mister’s remaining musicians—drummer Pat Mastelotto, keyboardist Steve George, and bassist/vocalist Richard Page—ended up disbanding in frustration when other labels also refused to accept the material.

Therefore, the eleven-song collection named Pull is an “archival” album that finally saw the light of day twenty years after its original creation. And yes, the album as a whole is indeed more experimental than 1985’s best-selling Welcome to the Real World, but it’s also a top-quality release, with intriguing melodies, lush instrumentation and harmonies, and Richard Page’s warm, pitch-perfect, and instantly recognizable voice front and center. Okay, so tracks such as “Close Your Eyes,” “Learning to Crawl,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “No Words to Say,” “Waiting in My Dreams,” and “We Belong to No One,” might not be instantaneous hit-single material, but the collection of tunes makes for an often-riveting AOR album, beautiful Pop Rock melodies with Prog-Rock leanings when it comes to song arrangements and keyboard instrumentation. Although the overall sound still has Mr. Mister’s undeniable stamp on it, the style is also not too far afield from the material artists such as Toto were recording in the late-’80s/early-’90s, and it’s occasionally similar in scope/style to Page’s 3rd Matinee project, the material he recorded with keyboardist Pat Leonard (Trillion/Toy Matinee) for the 1994 album Meanwhile.

So, although a previously “shelved” album might be considered by some people as being made up of “undeserving/poorly produced/low-quality material,” that is so far from the truth in the case of this particular album. In fact, many of the tunes on Pull are what I would deem as some of Mr. Mister’s best work, and any fan of the original group looking to hear this ultra-professional band delving into more adventurous sonic territory may enjoy this “archival” gem as much as I do.

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Edith – Dreams (1993)

Edith_Dreams4 out of 5 Stars!

Talk about obscure and hard to locate! Dreams, Edith’s third release, is the one album I was finally able to track down and acquire through the years by this defunct Italian band from the 1990s.

The well-produced music offered on Dreams is pleasant, non-offensive Neo-Prog material, with tunes such as “Silent Whispers,” “Balance of Love,” “Out,” and “Africa” being generally melodic with a decent (albeit somewhat-quirky) vocalist who delivers the English lyrics with only the slightest of accents. Keyboards—mostly grand piano and spacey synths—tend to dominate the overall sound-picture, while both electric and acoustic guitar are also used in equal balance, with the six-string solos being sparse yet ever-tasteful. Moreover, on the tune “Friends,” the surprise appearance of woodwinds and an organ solo add extra spice to the album’s overall instrumentation. And through it all, the bassist is frequently given a chance to shine, his melodic runs acting as a solid backbone with the diverse yet often laid-back percussion. And speaking of laid-back, on tracks such as “I Dream of You,” “Endless Times,” “In the Darkness,” and “Dreamland,” the easygoing rhythms and flowing, unobtrusive background instrumentation become almost hypnotic in regards to the overall moodiness and almost New Age-esque atmospherics.

So when it comes to Dreams, there’s truly nothing outstanding being delivered in the musical spectrum, nothing earth-shattering to forever alter the Prog-Rock genre, but the music is certainly enjoyable enough, and I’ve found myself being drawn to this album countless times in the past few years, especially when I’m in the mood for serene and uncluttered musical nourishment. And better still, the album leaves me wishing I could locate the band’s other releases to see how they stack up. Additionally, no other major groups instantly spring to mind when attempting to compare this band to others—apart from perhaps the occasional nods to mellower aspects of IQ, Pallas, or Hogarth-era Marillion—so that’s also a positive trait for Edith.

Therefore, I firmly place this band into the category of “talented and overlooked…with albums difficult to locate.”

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Edith_Dreams

Cast – Power and Outcome (2017)

Cast_PowerOutcome4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although Cast is still quite obscure in many parts of the world, including America, this Mexican band has been around for more than twenty years, has released more than twenty albums, and continues to create stunning material in a similar realm as groups such as United Progressive Fraternity, The Flower Kings, Druckfarben, Kaipa, Spock’s Beard, Magic Pie, and Kansas.

Power and Outcome, the band’s latest release, is yet another fine collection of classy, complex, majestic, and jaw-dropping Symphonic Prog. Songs such as the grand and glorious, nearly twelve-minute opener “Rules of the Desert,” along with “Illusions and Tribulations,” the two-part magnum opus “Details: a) Circle Spins” and “Details: b) Start Again,” plus “The Gathering” and “Through Stained Glass” are loaded with layered and pomp keyboards and contain metallic-tinged guitars, a dynamic rhythm section, the occasional violin, and pitch-perfect vocals, both male and female. During the majority of the ten tracks, lush melodies and challenging instrumental soundscapes abound, along with enough tempo and mood shifts and other sonic surprises tossed in along the way to keep listeners on the edge of their seats.

After so many years, with so much talent within its ranks, how this top-notch group has remained “under the radar” for so many Prog-Rock fans is another of life’s annoying little mysteries. I’m hoping this latest album reaches a wider audience and finally brings Cast the recognition it so truly deserves.

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Fruupp – Modern Masquerades (1975)

Fruupp_ModernMasquerades3.5 out of 5 Stars!

With its more laid-back delivery and frequent pastoral tendencies, and its inclusion of Folk, Jazz, Classical, and even a hint of Cabaret into its sound, Ireland’s Fruupp often reminded me of a cross between Symphonic-Prog groups such as Camel, Barclay James Harvest, and early Genesis, with more than a few touches of Caravan, Flash, Supertramp, and Grobschnitt included. Never mind-blowing or ground-breaking in any respect, the group did nevertheless release four rather enjoyable albums in the early ’70s before disappearing, with Modern Masquerades being Fruupp’s final studio effort and (to me) probably its best.

Yet when listening to this album (or any of Fruupp’s releases, for that matter) I can’t help thinking that being devoid of a strong singer with an instantly recognizable voice, as well as not possessing some instrumental “quirk” or a unique overall style, held Fruupp back from achieving greater popularity, and thus, the group remains highly obscure in most Prog-Rock circles.

Regardless, fans of the aforementioned bands who are unfamiliar with this oddly named outfit might savor much of its material, including Modern Masquerades. Here, tracks such as the upbeat and dramatic “Masquerading With Dawn,” the blazing and manic “Mystery Night,” the Mellotron-enhanced and luscious “Misty Morning Way,” the tempo-shifting and highly complex “Sheba’s Song,” and the lengthier Canterbury-like composition “Gormenghast,” offer occasionally whimsical and symphonic fare similar to the groups I mentioned above and show the gamut of Fruupp’s full potential. Moreover, King Crimson’s Ian McDonald not only produced this collection of tracks, but guested on the album as well, with his sax contributions adding to the periodic Canterbury-Prog style, while a gaggle of French horn players tooted out some orchestrations as well, adding to the richness of the short, quirky, Pop-like ditty entitled “Janet Planet.”

Now for a brief, non-musical aside…

Is there anyone who remembers the wild, multi-dimensional character of Janet “From Another Planet” Green—the shy accountant who became a psycho villain and held her sister Natalie captive in a well and impersonated her for months, then for a time (when taking her meds) turned borderline heroine, then (when going off her meds once and for all) turned back into the wacky murderess everyone loved to hate—from the classic American soap opera All My Children? Anyway, every time I saw that character on TV—yes, I was addicted to the show for nearly three decades—I thought of “Janet Planet” from Fruupp. Amazing where the mind goes sometimes, huh?

Oops, my apologies for changing the subject. Now, back on my own meds and returning once again to Modern Masquerades

So, regarding this final Fruupp album—apart from the lead vocals, which I find limited, somewhat lackluster, and a tad off-key in sections, and one filler tune (the piano and vocal-only piece “Why”) that could have easily been eliminated, there’s nothing truly off-putting on display here. Indeed, I’m almost certain that lovers of Prog-Rock created in the mid-’70s will find much on Modern Masquerades to embrace.

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Architecture Of The Absurd – Beluga (2013)

ArchitectureAbsurd_Beluga4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Wow, Beluga is extremely fun! The music on this debut album is sort of like a marriage between Gentle Giant and Zappa / Mothers Of Invention during the Apostrophe / Roxy & Elsewhere / One Size Fits All era.

Nothing on this release is in the least bit “commercial,” but is nevertheless melodic, with some vocal sections (most very Zappa-esque) even catchy. The instrumentation on tracks such as “Photosynthesis,” “Under a Black Cloud,” “Monologue,” “Trying to Be a Court Clown,” and the wickedly entitled “Sunny View (For Douchebags)” is quirky, often jazzy, and wonderfully impressive. Along with Zappa-like guitar soloing on occasion, there’s also a heavy emphasis on keyboards, many sounding like older synthesizers (which is where much of the Gentle Giant and Zappa comparisons pop up) with even a Mellotron tossed in for extra pizzazz (and fairly dominant) on the tune “Thylacine.”

Generally speaking, the band’s name, Architecture of the Absurd, perfectly describes the seven diverse tracks contained on the album. Now I can only pray the absurdly named band releases more of the same type of material…and soon! Prog-Rock these days does have a tendency to get rather boring (in my opinion, there’s too much “atmospheric Prog-Rock” along the lines of Porcupine Tree, Riverside, and Pink Floyd-wannabes droning on and on album after album with lazy rhythms and keyboard washes). So bands such as Architecture of the Absurd, with odd and often-changing time signatures, complicated and upbeat arrangements, and impressively diverse instrumentation, are sorely required to keep things exciting. Toss in some fun and quirky melodies and what you have on Beluga is music that reminds me of why I fell in love with Prog-Rock many decades ago.

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