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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Edge of Forever – Let the Demon Rock ‘n’ Roll (2005)

EdgeForever_LetDemon4 out of 5 Stars!

From Italy, the group Edge of Forever released a trio of powerful yet melodic albums in the new century, mainly Hard Rock bordering on Progressive Metal and Pomp Rock yet touched with AOR.

When it comes to Let the Demon Rock ‘n’ Roll, the band’s second album, catchy tunes such as “Crime of Passion,” “Mouth of Madness,” “One Last September,” “Feel Like Burning,” “The Machine,” and the title track barrel from the speakers with the force of a hurricane, while dramatic and hard-hitting ballads (“A Deep Emotion” and “Edge of Forever”) add variety. With his range, tone, and style of delivery, vocalist Bob Harris often reminds me of singers such as Glenn Hughes or Göran Edman. Meanwhile, bassist Christian Grillo and drummer Francesco Jovino construct a powerful sonic foundation, and the grand and rip-roaring instrumentation includes a perfect balance between Matteo Carnio’s blazing guitars and Alessandro Del Vecchio’s impressive “pompish” backgrounds and Prog-Metal-esque keyboard leads, which would seem almost right at home on albums by Time Requiem, Adagio, Space Odyssey, or basically any other group featuring Richard Andersson on keyboards.

And speaking of comparisons, the band’s overall musical style has much more in common with heavy yet occasionally commercial artists such as Rainbow, Heaven & Earth, Sunstorm, and Eden’s Curse as opposed to lighter and “pure” AOR groups such as Journey, FM, Babys, or Shy. So don’t let the AOR genre designation fool you—Edge of Forever has a mighty edge indeed, one that’s loaded with scads of hummable melodies.

Please also note, Let the Demon Rock ‘n’ Roll was produced by Bobby Barth, long-time vocalist and guitarist of the hard-rockin’ and melodic Florida band Axe, who may have aided Edge of Forever in keeping its style on this particular musical path.

Regardless, even through it’s been many years since the band’s lineup changed (leaving keyboardist Alessandro Del Vecchio as its vocalist) and its last album (2010’s Another Paradise) saw the light of day, Edge of Forever has subsequently signed a multi-album deal with Italy’s renowned Frontiers label and is supposedly working on new material for a comeback platter. Therefore, I’m thrilled to know the band has not fallen into oblivion, thus leaving my previous fears of possible dissolution in the dust.

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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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Nocturnal Rites – Grand Illusion (2005)

NocturnalRites_GrandIllusion4 out of 5 Stars!

From Sweden, Nocturnal Rites released a string of eight studio albums between 1995 through 2007—most of them containing above-average material, in my opinion—with Grand Illusion being the second to last in the series. Although the band started out as a slamming Death Metal act, Nocturnal Rites quickly developed into one of the most consistent Power Metal groups, always delivering the goods in a highly professional and generally well-produced manner, despite various lineup changes as well as adjustments to the level of aggression and the amount of melodies included on each of its albums, which, in my eyes, always served to keep things from getting too stale. I realize that some longtime fans of the group have their preferred albums or periods of the band’s history; I pretty much like all the albums about equally, although I do seem to find myself playing the latter albums a bit more often these days.

Nevertheless, this collection (like always) features thundering and melodic Heavy Metal/Power Metal in a variety of tempos, with full and sizzling guitars, rich and grand keyboards, a rock-solid rhythm section, and a powerful vocalist who easily falls into the Jorn Lande style of “belting out the jams.” On tunes such as “Our Wasted Days,” “Deliverance,” “End of Our Rope,” “Fools Never Die,” and “Still Alive,” the band often reminds me of artists such as Firewind, Thunderstone, Kenziner, Tad Morose, Masterplan, Sonata Arctica, and At Vance, with memorable riffs driving the catchy material, hints of Progressive Metal included for extra spice, all wrapped up in a bold and bombastic package.

After the band released its next album, 2007’s The 8th Sin, Nocturnal Rites seemingly disappeared from the scene. Since the album received what I eventually decided was cruel and unfair criticism for being “too melodic” or “too keyboard heavy,” I had feared the worst, that the band members had collectively decided “screw it” and had called it quits. But thankfully, Nocturnal Rites returned a full decade later with the 2017 album Phoenix and a new guitarist in the ranks. Now I’m hoping the guys stick around for a good long while.

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Savage Circus – Of Doom and Death (2009)

SavageCircus_OfDoom4 out of 5 Stars!

On occasions when I find myself craving something bombastic, driving, and wickedly savage, I often turn to the German band with the perfect name for delivering the goods—Savage Circus.

Of course, with the band’s strong connection to Blind Guardian (original BG drummer Thomen Stauch initially formed Savage Circus to satisfy his own yearning to duplicate the sound of his former band’s early albums), the music on this release is of a similar nature, only with what sounds like the beasts of hell adding even more demonic aggression to the fury. Ironically enough, however, Stauch didn’t perform on this album due to health problems, but the remainder of the band carried on in the same fashion with a replacement drummer.

Like 2005’s Dreamland Manor, the band’s debut album, Of Doom and Death is loaded with ballsy, riff-heavy tracks such as the ferocious title tune, as well as “Chasing the Rainbow,” “From the Ashes,” “The Ordeal,” “Empire,” and “Legend (of Leto II).” Lovers of “speed-demon” Power Metal, with lightning-quick yet melodic guitar solos, dense and dastardly instrumentation, complex song arrangements, and dramatic and powerful lead vocals with multi-layered background harmonies in the same tradition as Blind Guardian (or even Queen) will likely savor much of the material on offer here.

But be warned: Of Doom and Death is definitely not for the weak of heart, but if you possess long-lasting stamina and a rugged constitution, then by all means, play it loud!

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John West – Mind Journey (1997)

JohnWest_MindJourney4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, New York State’s John West (Royal Hunt/Artension/Feinstein/Badlands) is one of the most shamefully obscure vocalists on the Metal/Prog-Metal scene. Considering West possesses a powerful, wide-ranging, and soulful voice that often brings to mind Glenn Hughes, and the musical style on his solo albums is similar to Yngwie Malmsteen, Rainbow, Adagio, and (not shockingly) Artension, I’m amazed he’s not more well-known or highly lauded in the industry.

Be that as it may, West’s first solo effort, Mind Journey, not only showcases his excellent vocal abilities on tracks such as “The Castle is Haunted,” “Hands in the Fire,” “Eastern Horizon,” “Dragon’s Eye,” and “Lost in Time,” but could very well have been released under the Artension moniker—the band he was fronting during the year of this release—despite the different lineup of musicians. Not only is the overall Heavy Metal style with a Neoclassical bent and a touch of Prog-Metal so similar, but the album seems more like a band effort (lots of wicked guitar and keyboard solos from George Bellas and Matt Guillory respectively) as opposed to simply being a vehicle for a vocalist to display his enormous talent.

Therefore, for fans of the aforementioned groups, as well as lovers of versatile vocalists who might have easily worked with Ritchie Blackmore had he been invited to do so, Mind Journey is an album that may be of interest to you.

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Montrose – Mean (1987)

Montrose_Mean3.5 out of 5 Stars!

After leaving the band Gamma in the early ’80s, and prior to releasing a string of instrumental and experimental solo albums, legendary guitarist Ronnie Montrose joined up again with Gamma bassist Glenn Letsch, also snagged both drummer James Kottak (future Scorpions/Kingdom Come/Warrant) and vocalist Johnny Edwards (future Foreigner/King Kobra) from the band Buster Brown, and resurrected his famous namesake group from the ’70s. More importantly, he returned to his hard-rockin’ roots on 1987’s Mean.

And although the revamped group didn’t create another “classic masterpiece” to equal the original lineup’s stunning 1973 debut, it did produce a fairly enjoyable album nonetheless, with some stompin’, riff-heavy, and catchy tracks such as “M For Machine,” “Pass It On,” “Man of the Hour,” “Don’t Damage the Rock,” and “Flesh and Blood.” Although, in my opinion, the album contains a few filler tracks, the majority of the tunes feature pounding rhythms, powerful vocals, and the fantastic fretwork for which Ronnie Montrose was renowned, displaying the renewed lineup’s potential.

Unfortunately, however, the album dropped to almost zero fanfare, going by virtually unnoticed (and I can’t help thinking it had something to do with the horribly bland cover, the original version displaying only the giant “M”—the CD version at least had the group name added). Anyway, the foursome released no additional material after Mean, and Ronnie instead headed down the solo-album path, leaving behind (for the most part) the driving Hard Rock genre. Such a shame.

(RIP Ronnie Montrose, 1947-2012)

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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