Scarlet Hollow – What If Never Was (2012)

ScarletHollow_WhatIf4.5 out of 5 Stars!

This is one female-led band I’ve discovered only recently and am currently enjoying both their short EP (Sanctuary) as well as their debut album (What If Never Was).  Well, in truth, I’ve been doing so for more than a year and have been itching to write a full review of Scarlet Hollow’s debut album, but only until now did I find the perfect moment.

Anyway, Scarlet Hollow is led by singer Allison von Buelow, a gifted individual who has a voice extraordinarily similar in tone and texture to that of Sandi Saraya (of the band Saraya), although Scarlet Hollow plays a cross between Progressive Rock, AOR, and Progressive Metal. The music is a delicate blend of guitars and keyboards, with an equal number of quiet passages and heavy sections, all with a rather dreamy and melodic atmosphere enveloping many of the tracks.

And the band displays a wide variety of styles, often within a single track. For instance, the opening song “The Path” starts out sounding as if it’s going to be a Heavy Metal/Progressive Metal excursion, but then the keyboards suddenly pop in with that “dreamy” atmosphere I mentioned earlier, and the female vocals deliver the first verse, and the listeners find themselves in another new territory, a delightful cross between Prog-Rock and Prog-Metal and Neo-Prog and AOR and…well, you name it. Near the song’s midway point, a light synth solo prevails, followed by a gentle section with acoustic guitar and another enthralling vocal passage (sung in a foreign language, no less), showing that this band is just crammed with pleasant surprises for the patient listener. So, just when that listener thinks one type of song/genre is about to occur, another type of song/genre (or many) shocks the listener from his/her complacency.

So many songs are appealing on so many levels, both aurally and emotionally, depending on which musical style one is seeking. “Apathy’s Child,” for instance, is a lighter foray into almost jazz-influenced Prog-Rock territory liberally mixed with strong AOR influences, thanks to the engaging melodies of the verses/choruses. Whereas “Thermal Winds,” subsequently, begins as a harder-rocking track with yet another absorbing (and haunting) melody line that, overall, might have seemed appropriate on an early album by Heart, only with some extra atmosphere in the Prog-Rock universe, thanks to the song’s midsection. It’s such a spot-perfect blending of moods and styles that it’s difficult to label Scarlet Hollow as any one specific genre of music when so many are obviously—and readily—abundant. Definitely a major plus!

And then, other styles abound. “The Waiting,” for example, begins with an acoustically-driven melody line, that eventually gives way to a hard-rocking buoyant chorus in the style of Lana Lane, Saraya, and Heart, yet almost—and always—eerily moody. Similarly, “Beyond The Lines” is a track that starts with an acoustic guitar and singable vocal line with a touch of yearning and angst that reminds me of early Heart or even Melissa Etheridge. Then “All That Remains” engages the listener in more low-level acoustic-based AOR with some emotional overtones, before a synth solo takes over, and then a piano joins the instrumentation in the final section before another memorable melody line (with thunder sound effects) brings the song to a close.

“As the Blade Falls” is a rockier track that approximates a “Heart meets Led Zeppelin” style of music, and once again, an intriguing melody line reigns supreme. “20/20” provides yet another mood, with some of the song being heavier in parts, yet lighter in others, and yet another intriguing melody shines through while an almost-Gothic atmosphere dominates much of the track. And the final song, “Nightfall Overture,” once again brings Prog-Rock elements to the fore as the band traipses through Saraya AOR-territory but wrapping it up in a blanket of almost creepy (at times) Prog-Rock/Metal influences in the style of darker Jethro Tull or (again) “Heart meets Led Zeppelin” dreamy, acoustic-driven rock.

Now, up to this point, I’ve held off mentioning my favorite track since it’s quite exemplary and definitely needs its own full paragraph…

At eleven minutes, “Around The Bend,” the album’s fourth (and longest) song, contains so many engaging moods—some spacey, some Gothic, some rocking, some AOR, and many progressive to boot—with each style performed with excellent instrumentation and vocals (Marillion and Magenta influences pop up everywhere, alongside a healthy touch of Lana Lane’s best material). And the track is performed mostly in a unique 7/4 time signature. Crap! Every damned instrument—from guitar and keyboards, to bass and drums—fits together into a hypnotic puzzle of perfection to enhance the melodic vocal line. And an eerie background— including exquisite vocal ad-libs, synth, guitar, and organ fills—just adds to the overall sound-tapestry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve clicked REPEAT during this track in an attempt to absorb every seemingly flawless portion of its instrumentation. During every full play of the album as a whole, I can never get past this song. It’s as if I constantly hear something excitingly new every time I play it. I’m obsessed to hit REPEAT and revel again and again and again in its glory each time I listen to it. This is undoubtedly the spotlight track, the one to certainly “hook” new Prog-Rock fans into a love affair with this talented band. Absolutely brilliant! Now, let me pause the writing of this review in order to replay this track yet again…and again…and again…and, I kid you not, again…

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no other female-led band that has quite the same sound or style as Scarlet Hollow, so in that respect, there’s something definitely unique about the band’s approach. This is one act I’m going to watch closely to see how it progresses!

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Echoes Landing – Closer To You (2006)

EchoesLanding_CloserToYou4 out of 5 Stars!

This short-lived California band eventually became, with some personnel changes, the excellent (and current) Progressive Rock/Metal group named Scarlet Hollow. Like the current band, Echoes Landing also featured Allison VonBülow as its lead vocalist and her partner in musical crime (and in life, as it happens), guitarist Gregg Olson, but instead of Progressive Rock/Metal, the band’s sole album is sort of like Scarlet Hollow Lite…acoustic-driven Rock, AOR oriented, with only the merest whispers of Progressive Rock on a few songs, and in many respects seems a combination between the groups Saraya and Heart with perhaps a modicum of both Alannah Myles and Lana Lane added to the blend.

Overall, 2006’s Closer To You contains some beautiful and catchy material, with Allison’s instantly recognizable voice always at the forefront. Additionally, the tracks are all relatively short and succinct, without the extra fluff or lengthy instrumental excursions, thus allowing the vocal melodies to reign supreme without major distractions.

Take, for instance, the tune “Reach Out II,” a mid-tempo rocker that acts as almost a “style template” for many of the other compositions on this release. Here, with a seemingly perfect blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and Allison belting out the lyrics on two separate tracks (both a lead and an “answer back” track) with an occasional emotional twang in her voice (one that wouldn’t be out of place on any album by Shania Twain or Faith Hill), the song could actually fall into what is being coined the “Heartland Rock” genre, where elements of Contemporary Rock, Folk, R&B, and Country blend with Pop Rock melodies in the style of various artists such as Melissa Etheridge, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Bob Seger, etc. And the album’s title track is certainly of a similar nature, only this time with a dynamic and gutsy guitar lead, piano touches, and light and swirling synths that add dreamy Prog-Rock atmospherics to the background (actually quite similar in nature to Scarlet Hollow’s future signature style).

The mellower and jazzy “Timing,” with the unexpected inclusion of trumpet, offers even more instrumental diversity, and is nothing short of a showcase for Allison’s terrific abilities, her vocals expertly weaving through the track in a serpentine fashion and setting her apart from other singers in the genre. Moreover, one of my favorite tunes, the beautiful “Echoes Landing,” (yes, the group had its very own theme song, it seems) is a heavily acoustic composition that features Allison performing multiple background harmonies, again drawing attention to her vocal gifts and almost making me fleetingly wonder if this is what the group America might have sounded like had it been comprised of females.

Anyway, with other catchy and periodically moody tracks such as “Shine My Way,” “Side by Side,” “Real Life,” and even a melodic little ditty entitled “I” (the lyrics comprised solely of that single word, believe it or not), Echoes Landing acted as a playful platform on which the VonBülow/Olson musical partnership could experiment, laying a solid groundwork for the duo’s next major venture, Scarlet Hollow.

Fans of the female-led groups or individual artists I mentioned at the top of the review will likely enjoy this release as much as I do.

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EchoesLanding_CloserToYou