UMR changes for 2017

Pardon the mad dash to the finish line here. I'm not even close to finishing up 2016, but I need to call it here for this year. Clearly I had my best year in writing reviews (most of which sit on RYM), and as I was reviewing my daily journal, it became increasingly apparent that what I was trying to accomplish on Under the Radar was not sustainable considering my current employment role. I'm caught up to June basically (yes, June....), with a few important releases that I'd rather highlight once a day, rather than in a bundle.  UTR will remain and have a specific purpose. You can read about that over there.

So starting this week, as you probably already noticed, I have decided that Unencumbered Music Reviews will be my blog for all reviews, regardless of the era. So with those shackles off, you will begin to see many more contemporary releases sprinkled in. Many of them were not published yet because of the logjam I had over on UTR (plus the backlog I have here). It will take me some time to move the existing reviews over from Under the Radar and I have no intention of making that a dedicated project. It will evolve slowly - perhaps taking more than a year to accomplish.

The purpose of this blog is now two-fold: 1) Act as a buying guide for my fellow collectors. And 2) a place for me to document my personal collection (perhaps adding more color to what is already in Gnosis, RYM, and Discogs).

With any luck at all, I'll start off 2017 getting a few more in, and then starting this Monday afternoon, my current job will likely be all encompassing for most of the year. Look for regular updates on Saturdays and Sunday mornings though! And perhaps an occasional weekday morning. We'll wrap up 2016, as well as report on all new listens in 2017. New reissues will be promoted to the top of the list, and then back to the journal entries.

Blackwater Park - Dirt Box. 1972 Germany

I first heard Dirt Box not long after the first Second Battle LP release in 1990. The album had quite a lofty reputation even then among rare LP collectors, and so after hearing its contents, I was sorely disappointed. Of course "Krautrock" had a completely different meaning to me at the time than "early 70s German hard rock". About a decade later, a famous (then) death metal band inexplicably named their album after this band, and suddenly the album reached the stratosphere in reputation. And now, some 15 years on from that, everyone is rushing to the front of the line to state it isn't really that great, it's overrated, bla bla bla.... Well, sure, given that. Not their fault though.

But what do we have here exactly? An early 70's German hard rock album. In retrospect, Opeth should have named their album after Night Sun, or Epitaph's debut, if anxious to exploit the region's immense hard rock talent from the early 70s. But then again, those bands didn't have a cool moniker like Blackwater Park, now did they?

By the time I finally got my head around to what this band was trying to accomplish, all the reissues had long sold out due to their sudden fame, and CDs were fetching collector's prices. So it is with this, some 26 years after first hearing the Second Battle LP, I finally picked up the album for my own collection, via a fresh reissue from Long Hair.

A completely objective viewpoint demonstrates that Blackwater Park were a very good hard rock band, but not necessarily extraordinary beyond one track. At that would be 'Rock Song', which is absolutely exemplary, and one of the finest early 70s "pure heavy metal" tracks you'll ever hear - and does remind me of Night Sun actually, and the psychedelic sequences here are devastating. The opening two tracks are also quite excellent. But there's some trash to wade through as well, in particular the horrific 'Dirty Face'.

Go in with your eyes and ears open, and let the album come to you verse the other way around. But the band had no chance to live up to an expectation it didn't ask for.

Personal collection
CD: 2015 Long Hair

The Long Hair CD comes with a full set of liner notes in German and English. No bonus tracks, as with the other reissues.

Aleph - Surface Tension. 1977 Australia

Though from Australia, Aleph in reality sound more like a band from Ohio, and would have been a perfect fit for my USA Midwest / Ontario Progressive Rock (1970's/early 80s) list. Commercial FM radio meets progressive rock, with long tracks, mellotron, extended ideas, etc... Comparisons to Sebastian Hardie are compulsory, but not really accurate. Whereas that fine band were more attuned to a certain European sophistication, Aleph are a brash unit, very much like an American group would be. Despite featuring two females (on keyboards primarily), and the vocals are in a decidedly higher range, the lead singer is definitely male - yet another Midwest-American-covering-Yes trait. I love music like this, but certainly understand that it will fall into the... "garbage can" for less tolerant progressive fans focused solely on atonal soloing over non stop rhythm changes. While we appreciate the latter as well, a little melody never hurt anyone around here. Fine album for those who like that uniquely late 70's American prog sound.

Personal collection
CD: 1996 Poor House (boot)

It's debatable if this album has been reissued properly. My copy (that I purchased way back in 1996) is on Poor House, and it was their very first release - so it was a fully pressed CD, not a CD-R as they later succumbed too. All the same, it's clearly a bootleg and taken from vinyl (which is why I'm not claiming ownership). The M2U release claims a license, so we'll trust it's legit, but questions have arisen to the contrary. One wishes Aztec had covered this in their prime to remove all doubt. And I would gladly have purchased that reissue. I probably should look into obtaining an original LP, though it's hardly cheap.

Adding this with the CD Reissue Wish List tag.

Motoi Sakuraba - Gikyokuonsou. 1991 Japan

Motoi Sakuraba's career began in the Japanese 80's progressive rock renaissance as the ivory tickler for the little known group Deja-Vu. Gikyokuonsou is his debut solo album which displays his immense talent, not only technically, but as a composer as well. The all instrumental album stays interesting throughout, and there's plenty of tonal color to keep it from monotony. The rhythms tend to be jumpy and staccato oriented, while Sakuraba performs his best piano concertos, seemingly random at that. Sadly this would be his only true progressive rock album, as apparently he landed a choice gig as chief composer of soundtracks for a company specializing in anime, and subsequently released a number of albums in supporting roles to games, films, etc... Many of those albums are excellent in their own right, but have a different purpose and aren't consistent for sit-down listening. Despite this local fame, and a second pressing on Musea (France), Gikyokuonsou remains an unknown today. An excellent album that could use some more exposure.

Personal collection
CD: 1991 Made in Japan

Bought the CD not long after it was released. For most of the 90s it was incredibly difficult to find, until Musea reissued it in 1999.

Last listen: June 11, 2016

NoVox - s/t. 2005 Netherlands

The Dutch band Cliffhanger may have been my favorite of all the groups working under the "neo prog" banner. I always liked their adventurous songwriting, elaborate compositions, and mix of modern and vintage equipment use. NoVox contains all the members of Cliffhanger minus vocals (hence... the name No Vox). Here the group mixes up full-band compositions with piano solos, fuzz bass/drum workouts, and mellotron featured tracks. Maybe what I like most from Cliffhanger, and NoVox, is the bass playing. He's very active and has that woody sound that really drives the material forward in an exciting way. An excellent, but long forgotten album, that too few know about. Time for a discovery.

Personal collection
CD: 2005 Musea (France)

Dark - Tamna Voda. 1988 Germany

Dark definitely has an Inner Mounting Flame burning on Tamna Voda, their second and final album. Guest L. Shankar has the spirit of Jerry Goodman flowing through his strings, while guitarist Miroslav Tadic emulates Mahavishnu John as much as possible. All the while, band leader Mark Nauseef keeps it all together with his ferocious drumming. Additional percussion keeps the party alive. There's the fire, water, earth, and air that was classic Mahavishnu Orchestra. David Torn is on board as well, and his atonal guitar contributions are obvious (and welcome), and the atmospheric pieces recalls his own Cloud About Mercury. The album loses momentum towards the end, but overall a very fine fusion work. It's modern and heavy, but the style clearly points to the early 70s. A long forgotten album that I think many fusion fans would enjoy.

Personal collection
CD: 1988 CMP

The LP edition comes in a fine gatefold.

Bondage Fruit - VI. 2005 Japan

Bondage Fruit's 6th, and apparently last album, sees the band diversifying their sound to the point of no identity. The Zeuhl backbone of their early works has all but been rubbed out here. Not to say that they didn't hit pay dirt on a few of these numbers. Opener 'Three Voices' is the longest piece here, and sounds like Tortoise playing the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Which seems like an oxymoron, until you actually hear it. A fantastic opening. 'Rath' is a raga rock piece, and fits well with Bondage Fruit's style. 'Locomotive' is a strange tune that's closer to Southern Fried blues rock, and contrary to what I said about 'Rath', this seems a bit self-indulgent for a band with no history of such. 'Dear Gazelle' has a bit of KBB styled Celtic violin, but begins to cook wildly midway, and is my personal favorite of the album. A very strong heavy fusion piece. 'The Train' recalls mid 70s King Crimson with long stretches of atmospheric violin but gets a bit long in the tooth after a while. 'Something Green' is a pretty melancholic instrumental that eases the tension. And 'I/O' sounds like 'Dueling Banjos' meets Bollywood electronica.

I don't normally do track by track breakdowns, but as you can see from above, there is no cohesiveness here. Which I don't personally consider a good trait for an album. Certainly worthy of consideration, as my 3.5 grade (Gnosis 10) attests to, but not to the standard of their early work.

Personal collection
CD: 2005 Maboroshi No Sekai

Cliffhanger - Circle. 2001 Netherlands

Circle is Cliffhanger's 4th, and apparently last, studio effort. As I recently stated on the NoVox review, this Dutch collective are among my favorites of those who play in the Neo Prog genre. And the primary reason for that is that Cliffhanger goes beyond the typical 80s Marillion type sound, and looks back to the origins of the movement itself: That of Selling England by the Nursery Foxtrot. The album opens up somewhat inauspiciously with the straightforward 'Limits', before climbing back onto the Genesis wagon with 'Autumn'. And from there it's all aces. Cliffhanger defiantly stick with analog gear, or at the very least, attempt to sound like a band from the 70s. Thick wedgy organ, psychedelic guitar, and woody bass define this mature work. Admittedly Rinie Huigen's heavily accented voice takes a bit to adjust to, but once you have, you'll find the music fits perfectly with his intonation. The final instrumental 'Chateau Jam' demonstrates that Cliffhanger could have been a successful space rock band if they had wished. Along with Sweden's Simon Says, Cliffhanger kept the original early 70s Genesis spirit alive into the new millennia.

One of the rare bands where "neo prog" and "retro prog" are accurate genre tags, despite the obvious contradiction.

Personal collection
CD: 2001 Musea (France)

Sammal - s/t. 2013 Finland

I first heard Sammal via their second album Myrskyvaroitus. My review there can easily be transported here. It's the re-creation of Finland 1972, complete with lyrics sung in the native tongue, which is essential for the authentic experience. Perhaps a bit more blues based than the followup, but very much in line with bands from the past like Kalevala, Elonkorjuu, and Tasavallan Presidentti. Retro prog heaven.

Personal collection
CD: 2013 Svart

Sammal - Myrskyvaroitus. 2015 Finland

Sammal are yet another modern "proto-prog" Scandinavian group to reach back to the glory years of 1970 to 1974 for inspiration. The instrumentation is entirely analog, as are the production techniques. We recently featured another such group from Finland - Malady - and the results here on Sammal's second album are very similar. The indigenous tongue is also quite important for the overall product to be successful (and thanks to Fairyeee for the cool explanation about 'Stormvarning'). For us Americans, who almost have no chance of understanding Finnish (or even figuring it out), we'll miss out on the meaning, but the sound of the language is integral to the presentation, and quite enjoyable to the ears. The end result is something akin to a Finnish Uriah Heep, circa 1972. It's a familiar recipe with a unique preparation. So if bands like Kalevala, Nimbus, and Haikara put a smile on your face, so shall Sammal.

Personal collection
CD: 2015 Svart

Grobschnitt - Jumbo. 1975 Germany

Grobschnitt's third, Jumbo, can be considered a natural progression from Ballermann. No doubt attaining a modicum of success on the previous album, Grobschnitt decided to continue along the path of the song-based portion of their predecessor. In some ways they've actually surpassed Ballermann as the songs are more clever and the music somewhat more interesting. There's a strong Genesis element here, with a bit of their goofball interjections to annoy. Unlike Ballermann, there are no space rock opuses to offset the shorter songs. Still, I find this album more enjoyable as I get older. The German version (aka Mit Deutschen Texten) is exactly the same music - but with German lyrics sung on top. So there's really no point in obtaining both separately. Unless you're a linguist of course...

Personal collection
LP: 1975 Brain
CD: 1998 Repertoire

Jumbo apparently sold well as the album pretty much remained in print throughout Brain's original LP cycle (including orange and black labels into the early 1980s). The German text version is actually a separate catalog number. English language originals are on the green label without the word Metronome printed. It's pretty easy to find, and I recently sourced an original for a reasonable price. Because of that, LP reissues would seem redundant. Most of the CDs have both versions contained within. The 2015 Brain CDs were released separately, but with additional live bonus tracks. According to Discogs, the Belle Antique version is a digi-pak rather than their usual mini-LP style.

Bullfrog - s/t. 1976 Germany

If there's ever an album to demonstrate to me how much my musical palate has evolved, it's Bullfrog's debut. I first found the LP on Annuit Coeptis (US press) while rummaging around the bargain bins in the mid 1980s. This wasn't an uncommon album to find in those days, usually with the promo-copy word "Free" tattooed in on the bottom. When I first saw it, and I was still new to the whole Krautrock thing, I was certain it was going to be a killer. Especially with that crazy cover and those long tracks on Side 2. Whatever the case, this is decidedly not what I wanted to hear. And I felt like I wasted $2 valuable dollars and couldn't get rid of it fast enough. Of course in those days, unloading albums was not a profitable thing to do, so I held onto it for a few more years and traded it off for something halfway decent (probably not).

Fast forward 30 years, and I now have a chance to source the Sireena CD on the cheap. Ah, why not? Let's see what I think of this album now. After hearing the first two tracks, I felt somewhat vindicated. Boring, straightforward hard blues rock, with a little bit of boogie, and really bad vocals. OH WELL, looks like it's back in the sell bin...

And then comes 'I Came from the Sky'. "Hey, wait a minute...". From here on out, we have an excellent hard rock album, with organ and synthesizer - and especially some fantastic guitar work. Those "bad vocals" start to sound good in the context in which they are delivered. By the time we get to the first lengthy number 'Get Away', I'm completely immersed into their sound. There's plenty of great melodies and theme changes throughout to keep the listener involved. Basically we have an inventive album along the lines of prime-era Jane or Birth Control, at that perfect point between hard and progressive rock, tilted more toward the former. Once you've bought into the premise, even the first two tracks no longer sound so bad.

30 years ago, I didn't have any foundation to build on. I was looking for some Kozmic Krautrock, not some "lame hard rock" that sounded weaker to my ears than the steady regimen of metal I was digesting back then. And of course I didn't have any patience, being a typical tempestuous youth. Proof positive - once again - that music appreciation can often come from experience.

Personal collection
CD: 2013 Sireena

Nebu - s/t. 1978 Canada

Low key, atmospheric smokey jazz with flute, piano, and standup bass. Gets experimental at times. Like Lloyd McNeill on a bad trip. Good one.

Personal collection
LP: 1978 Les Disques Cadence

The Next World - Symphonic Rock. 1973 USA

Such a strange album, this one is. The album is as exactly stated: Symphonic Rock. Yes, it's an orchestra that rocks. All instrumental, all original material, with some nice fuzz guitar. Side 2 is definitely better than the first. If it were Italian, it would sell for $1,000 as a Library Classic. It's American, and looks like one of those 1967 exploito albums your dad had in his collection, and he couldn't explain how it got there. Way out of date for 1973.

Personal collection
LP: 1973 Era

The album comes in a nice gatefold cover. Can't imagine much demand for a reissue here, but a CD could be cool, especially if there are some bonus tracks to be had.

Affirmation - Identity Crisis. 1985 USA

Much more edgy and interesting than their 1980 debut. There's almost a bit of "Kraut Fusion" here (think Real Ax Band), combined with the more obvious electric viola driven Jean-Luc Ponty styling. Rare that a jazz rock album from 1985 has any personality at all, much less surpassing one from a better era. Nice album here.

Personal collection

Would have been a Priority 3 on the old CDRWL blog.

Hemisphere - Attachment X. 2002 Germany

The band calls this "a psychedelic deep ambient soundtrack". I personally don't hear any psychedelic, and not much deep. This is a pretty typical modern day ambient styled electronic album. Layers of synthesizers create a mood, that eventually transition into something more rhythmic, and then back for more atmosphere - and then more beats... et cetera. It dutifully follows directions from the Electronic Cookbook.

One piece worth calling out is 'Point Four'.  It's an inventive track that creatively uses voice, and adds a bit of kick with electric guitar. An instrument that is almost entirely absent from this release otherwise. This track is like a modern take on Edgar Froese's Macula Transfer.

Personal collection
CD: 2002 Groove Unlimited (Netherlands)

Pulsar - Bienvenue au Conseil D'Administration! 1981 France

Pulsar.... meet Ange. Ange... meet Pulsar. Nice to meet you.

Personal collection
CD: 2001 Musea

Bonus tracks from Musea are nothing more than electronic music from Jacques Roman (circa 1986). While quite pleasant, it has little to do with the album proper.

Level Pi - Electronic Sheep. 2009 Germany

Uwe Cremer's second album sees the artist pay homage to the great German/French electronic performers of the 70s. This time around he kicks Gottsching to the curb, and gives us at once the usual Schulze/Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre styles, as well as the unusual Michael Rother and even early 70s Cluster characteristics. A very fine album from a musician who clearly was born too late.

Personal collection
CD: 2009 Dreaming/Musea (France)

Tarot - Reflections. 2016 Australia

Tarot's first album (or the compilation of cassette EP's as it were) was a great opener that had a unique blend: The music of the early 80s epic metal bands as played by 1971 era Uriah Heep.

Reflections sounds like 1974 era Uriah Heep. Period. End of story. Not the best period of that fine band now is it?

I'm all for the newer bands recreating the past, with history on their side to filter out only the best parts that have aged well to modern ears. But we don't necessarily need to rehash the past verbatim either. Is the third album going to be straight AOR, followed by a disco album, and then synth-pop maybe?

OK, I'm sure that isn't going to happen. And this is a very good album without context. But I was hoping for more dynamic output. Reflections is a bit ordinary to be honest. Interestingly, I found the vocals to be an improvement on the debut. They had to do something, though as I've read elsewhere, not everyone agrees with the execution.

Despite my criticisms here, I anxiously await new output from this most promising group.

Personal collection
CD: 2016 Heavy Chains

Ampledeed - BYOB. 2015 USA

BYOB is the second effort from Ampledeed of Los Angeles. The Canterbury edges are beginning to get rubbed out, though there's still plenty of excellent instrumental progressive rock to be had, especially on the bookends of the recording. But creeping in the middle is that annoying whiny indie psych that just doesn't resonate with me, and one can only hope it goes away quickly. I think they're trying to do more of an Art Bears thing, and it comes out more like Of Montreal. As Steve of Wayside says about a potential title for the 3rd album: "C is for Canterbury". That would be my vote too. In any case, still a fine effort overall, but they're targeting a different audience I fear.

Personal collection
CD: 2015 private

Drama - s/t. 1995 France

Drama are a French band from the heart of Normandy (between Rouen and Le Havre). Their debut is an all instrumental neo prog outing, that turns out to be quite engaging despite the premise. Imagine the 80s NWOBPR bands such as Lahost, Tamarisk, and even IQ - as all-instrumental concerns. With a little bit of that medieval Minimum Vital sound to boot. That should give you an insight as to what to expect here. Tight, punchy, energetic, and highly melodic songs in the 6 to 7 minute range is what you'll find on Drama. And despite the lengthy track times, nary a dull moment can be found. Mind you, if you're the progressive rock nut who insists on densely charted scores, or need 70s fat analog instrumentation for your musical diet, then I highly suggest you move on past this title. Otherwise if the bands mentioned above light your fire, and modern synthesizers with non-metal 90s guitar tones are welcoming to your ears, then give it a spin. Personally I have a soft spot for music such as this, and my Musea CD is a keeper.

Personal collection
CD: 1995 Musea

Kopecky - Serpentine Kaleidoscope. 2000 USA

Serpentine Kaleidoscope is the second album from the brothers' Kopecky, hailing from Racine, Wisconsin. The music is primarily a sophisticated kind of (mostly) instrumental prog metal, with middle eastern and Asian themes, including sitar from brother William. There's a couple of experimental tracks that detract a bit ('These White Walls' and 'Wings of Asphyxia'), but otherwise a very fine effort - one that will satisfy fans of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and metal.

Concerning Racine, interestingly enough I worked in the city for most of 1997 (as an IT contractor for tractor/farm equipment manufacturer J.I. Case). It's a nice town primarily made up of blue collar workers, with delicious family run Italian/Pizza restaurants (RIP Totero's), Greek diners, and Kringle shops on every corner. I hadn't heard of Kopecky while there, but admittedly I wasn't seeking live music at the time, nor was I plugged into that aspect of the culture. Though it's likely the band built up their following in nearby Milwaukee regardless.

Personal collection
CD: 2000 Cyclops (UK)

CD is housed in a standard jewel case, and was released by the UK progressive rock specialist label Cyclops. The label is no longer active, though copies are still available for below retail. I suspect that will not always be the situation.

Presto Ballet - Peace Among the Ruins. 2005 USA

Mannn... had this album only been around in 1979, right? Van Halen walks into the studio and jams with Kansas; Uriah Heep listened to Judas Priest and said "hey, let's add a little guitar muscle here and we can do this!"; Styx grew a pair (or James Young took control of the band - whichever). You know you would have waited all night on the radio to hear this - don't deny it! But alas, it's 2005, and it's a thrash metal guy bankrolling it. A guy with a vintage keyboard fetish, and he still has a crush on that girl from high school - except he knows she's fat and ugly now and lives in a trailer with 6 kids and double the pets... and he's actually quite accomplished, but doesn't know anyone that cares to prove it to anymore. Sigh. The life of all of us who grew up in that time frame. Well, anyway, great stuff here for us straight heterosexual men of a certain age. Not progressive rock - noooo (stop it guys!) - but that wonderful late 70s Pomp / AOR sound - with some 80s crunchy guitar to lap it up with. Why not? I'm buying the concept.

Personal collection
CD: 2005 InsideOut (Germany)

Nebelnest - s/t. 1999 France

France's Nebelnest hit the progressive rock world by storm in 1999, though it appears - sadly - that they are largely forgotten today. This debut is an incredible document. Imagine Belgium's Present playing the music of... Group 1850. Never has the edgy 80s and 90s merged with the most exciting and experimental psychedelic bands of the late 60s, as well as Nebelnest has achieved here. The two part 'Psykial Trysm' is something really special, and truly surpasses peak experience status. A high water mark for music such as this. Seriously, it has everything from the tribal drumming, to the mellotronic mystique, to the fuzzy Ratledge-styled keyboards, onto epic psychedelic guitar climaxes with a spastic rhythm section blasting it all to the stars. My goodness, what a piece of music! And that's hardly the end of the journey. It's just the beginning actually, and there are many other examples I could point to (see track ratings). This one will leave you breathless if you are like me, and the idea of late 60s instrumental psych mixed with high energy angular and angry avant prog sounds like a fetching concept.

Nebelnest carried on for two further albums (both of which I've already reviewed here on RYM), though they were much more towards a direct fashion, similar to the aforementioned Present actually (or mid 70s King Crimson if you insist), but leaving behind the late 60s Pink Floyd / Ash Ra Tempel psychedelic Kosmische... unfortunately.

Whatever the case, this debut album will most certainly be rediscovered, and be considered a highlight of the era in which it was released. Might be a few years yet. My guess? The 2030's...

Personal collection
CD: 1999 Laser's Edge (USA)

The CD was released by The Laser's Edge in the US initially, and later picked up by Musea in France. Today, both versions are long sold out, with only pirate editions running amok. It was never pressed on vinyl, nor ever repressed, thus making it a very rare CD today. I bought the Lasers Edge CD when it came out (still remember discussing it with those involved with the release at the time). This one goes to the grave with me.

Pyramid Peak - Ocean Drive. 1999 Germany

After 6 cassettes and 3 CD-R's, Pyramid Peak finally release their first solid state album. They are a German trio who essentially all play synthesizers in the field of electronic music. Wanna take a guess who they're influenced by? This would be the upbeat early 1980's era Tangerine Dream, just before they became incurably cutesy. Ocean Drive has some of the best digital - repeat: not analog - sequences I've heard in a long while. Some of the synthesized beats are more of our current next century era than the T Dream we all know and love. Also worth noting that the keyboard soloing is more geared towards Klaus Schulze than Edgar Froese. Pyramid Peak, along with Rainbow Serpent, were among the leading groups from the mother country of Berlin School electronic music in the 2000 decade.

Personal collection
CD: 1999 Invisible Shadows

The CD proper is on Invisible Shadows, and these CDs have gone extinct over the years. A label from Germany called SynGate have reissued many of their titles, but in the inferior CD-R format, which is truly unfortunate. I'm glad to have been able to source the original CD when it was still available. Perhaps it will become available again in a proper physical format (CD or LP).

Squonk Opera - Howandever. 1994 USA

Howandever is the debut album from Squonk Opera, a highly creative 6 piece outfit from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I suspect the group itself never saw themselves as a "progressive rock" band, yet they were adopted by the fans from the outset, and who wouldn't accept a new following? Not long after this album, they found their way to North Carolina and played for the small but exuberant ProgDay crowd. Their music is highly eclectic, bordering on what we now refer to as "avant prog", though never consciously trying hard to fit any such expectation, whatever that may be. There's an Irish meets Indian meets Broadway Play theme throughout (as noted by instruments such as Celtic flute, Wind Synthesizer, and Electronic Tabla). 'Dance of the Seven Vowels' takes the first two native elements and blends them directly together. Of course, having noted that, '... as yet...' has a strong Moorish Flamenco bent - with tablas of course. Eclectic... yeaaaa. Throughout, the female vocals of Kate Aronson soar peacefully over the proceedings - and certainly Lisa Gerrard needs to be in the conversation, even if not entirely accurate. The opener 'Inside Height' is a jaw dropper, and worth the price of admission alone. 'The Unusual Mrs. Spitz' and 'Whistle & Spit' are hilarious, and sounds more like the dialog one might run into from a modern cable TV show or movie, and would have to be considered ahead of its time in terms of smart female cynicism. This is the type of album I like almost by accident, and I've not ventured further with Squonk Opera fearing that it was a "chance meeting" never to be repeated again. I certainly will never turn down an opportunity to hear any of their other works, and would welcome to be proven wrong in my presumption. It appears the band even attained a bit of mainstream fame as a contestant on America's Got Talent (2011), and were eliminated in the quarters. I'll have to ask my wife if she remembers them (she loves those shows...).

Personal collection
CD: 1994 Forgotten Works

I bought this privately released CD not long after it was released, and saw the aforementioned concert in 1996. Nowadays this album has been completely forgotten, which is too bad really. Seems the label name is spot on.

A Piedi Nudi - s/t. 1994 Italy

A Piedi Nudi's debut album sounds very much what it strove so hard to be: An updated version of Il Balletto di Bronzo, especially from their fabled Ys album (it even opens with 'Introduzione' and closes with 'Epilogo' - not a coincidence). Not as brilliant or groundbreaking (of course... duh), but a valiant effort all the same. We'll start with the vocals of Mirko Schiesaro. Without any doubt he studied Ys intently, as he sings very much in the same way as Gianni Leone did (especially as he truncates the verses and lifts his voice near the end of each stanza). Perhaps not as histrionic - or as effective honestly - but oh yes, the style is basically the same. Now onto the guitar of Nicola Gardinale, who also happens to be the only songwriter here, so it's clearly his show. Gardinale's tone is decidedly 90s metal, with plenty of riffing. It's quite jarring against the expected heavy psychedelic tone of the almighty Balletto, but very exciting all the same, and fits well within the style of music. He also composes sudden breaks similar to Ys. On the downside would have to be the keyboards of Cristian Chinaglia. He's a competent player for certain, but the sounds are exactly what one would expect from the era's plastic digital gear, very typical of the 80s and 90s. Even when the "organ tone" is on, this is no match for the real-deal mellotron and organ of the masters. Lost in all of this is the fantastic rhythm section of the Bighetti brothers, who are perhaps the closest of all to the original Balletto recording, and are up to the task in keeping with the constantly shifting meters. The music, over the course of the album, begins to blur together in a samey sound manner, though a close listen will reveal many differences within. A Piedi Nudi's debut is one of many classics of the 1990s Italian progressive rock scene - and as with the 70's bands - will likely be discovered some 20 to 30 years after the fact. The band would improve from here and include more references from the 70s Italian scene (especially Semiramis), but this debut is outstanding, and I've never tired of it some 20+ years later (as I write this in Feb 2016).

There is at least one review here that only references UK groups, including 80s neo prog bands (and hair/grunge metal? OMG), and was disparaged because of it. That just completely misses the point, and the historical references that A Piedi Nudi were clearly aiming for - and were inspired by. Certainly the original 70s Italian progressive rock scene was heavily influenced by the UK masters to begin with, and so that point is never lost. But the sub-genre cannot simply be written off as copyist, considering the tremendous local culture imprint, all of which has been well documented as such for over 25 years now.

Personal collection
CD: 1994 Mellow

Korai Orom - 2000 Sound & Vision. 2000 Hungary

Sound & Vision 2000 is the 4th album from the Hungarian collective Korai Orom. At this point in their career, Korai Orom sounded like a direct cross between Can and Ozric Tentacles, but as played for Rave parties typical of the turn of the century. It's repetitive, danceable, and yet still very psychedelic rock influenced. Given they are a large scale band that plays real instruments, the music is far more interesting than a DJ with a massive sampler reserve bank. All the same, while the album is most certainly excellent background music, it's not as engaging on close listens as I'd prefer.

Personal collection
CD: 2000 private

The CD comes in a fine digi-pak.

Sieges Even - A Sense of Change. 1991 Germany

My initial reaction to this album was very similar to many reviews you may read - except real time in 1992. To my ears back then, Sieges Even were a prog thrash, or perhaps more to the point, technical metal band who did a fantastic replication / variation on what Watchtower was doing here in the States. Steps was a radical departure from Life Cycle (see the UMR entry for it), so they did tip their hand a bit as to where they were going.

But I never saw this one coming. It was not what I had expected - nor wanted - at the time. I ditched it quick, and left rather unflattering ratings behind. Fast forward another 25 years or so, and I had a chance to source the original SPV CD on the cheap, so why not take another shot at it? (especially considering I do enjoy the 2 albums that followed after). As the other reviews have stated so well, A Sense of Change is very much in league with mid 80s era Rush. Except far more technical, and "progressive" if you will. In fact, it's not metal at all, at least if heavy sound distortion is a criteria for said sound. Now I hear the album completely different, and is very enjoyable. A few nods to overt commercialism is the only thing holding this back from 4 stars. But there are some splendid songs here - particularly 'Prime'.

Personal collection
CD: 1991 Steamhammer

Sinister Street - Trust. 2002 Netherlands

There have been so many neo prog bands coming from the Netherlands in the last 30 years, one has to wonder if the genre isn't a major component of the country's GNP. Like many post-Marillion bands, Sinister Street balance Genesis-like (lite?) (pseudo) progressive rock with traditional radio friendly AOR. I guess the big question here is: Who listens to the radio anymore? Despite what it might seem reading my profile and reviews, I'm no "prog snob". In fact, I'm quite fond of the Neo Prog genre, especially in its earliest incarnation when better known as the New Wave of British Progressive Rock - and the subsequent followers of said movement (Collage's Basnie sends chills up my spine, for example). But while some bands chose the progressive angle, others took the more simple broad stroke composition style (vocal-chorus-instrumental-vocal-chorus-epilog). One style is not better than the other, of course, objectively speaking. All the same, subjectively speaking, this album is a bit straightforward for my tastes at the very least. There are some fine moments, as you can see from my track ratings, but mostly this album is for a different audience than I. As such, I did move out the CD.

Personal collection

Chainsaw Jazz - DisConcerto. 1993 USA

Lead by bass player Mark Smoot and joined by Muffins drummer Paul Sears, Chainsaw Jazz unleashed one of the hardest and most energetic avant progressive albums ever released. The kind of album that would be the crown jewel of the Italian AltRock label had it been released in modern times. Joining the aforementioned rhythm section, Chainsaw Jazz employs two guitarists providing the necessary raw hard rock (not metal) edge that propels the music forward in an exciting way. The melodic components are provided by the other two members - one on saxophone while the other plays violin and electric mandolin. The first 3 tracks demonstrate that Chainsaw Jazz can possess restraint and discipline, and avoided those annoying tuneless and cacophonous improvisations that mar many of these type of releases. But starting with 'Neon Baby' they would occasionally spazz out as if they had to prove they belong to the spirit of free jazz. Had they avoided this common trap, I would've been compelled to rate this higher.

Personal collection
CD: 1993 Cuneiform

Landberk - One Man Tell's Another. 1994 Sweden

Landberk were first. It was they who originally brought the early 70s Swedish analog progressive sound back to light in the prog starved early 90s (yes true). Anglagard and Anekdoten were to follow shortly thereafter. So after a brilliant debut (the native Swedish version being the more preferable of course), there was great anticipation for my friends and I, as to what would Landberk followup with. And it was... not this. Almost ironic in that Landberk, on the grammatically incorrect One Man Tell's Another, copied the more atmospheric and arty portions of Anekdoten's debut. And like the latter band, began to sing in English exclusively. WTF? Well, I never gave up on the album, storing it away for future listens. Today, I judge the band on what they were doing, not what I wanted them to do (a common problem we all deal with). It's still heavily based in psychedelia, with fuzz guitar, Hammond organ, and mellotron everywhere. But the music is geared more towards 90s art rock than 70s symphonic progressive. One can hardly blame a contemporary group trying to be relevant in modern times. This was still 1994, not 2016, where retro prog is now considered cool. Back then, it was not I assure you, and these bands from Sweden were pioneers with a very small audience (there were only a few of us then - and certainly not hipsters!). Of course, even in retrospect, I would have wished for a more developed successor to the debut. But what they recorded is still quite excellent. And has stood the test of time quite well. Perhaps better, yes.

Personal collection

May 22, 2018 update: Sold the CD as I received a great offer. I'll do without for now.

Killing Floor - Out of Uranus. 1970 England

The front cover is magnificent, showing a psychedelic collage of the beautiful female face and form. A complex album no doubt, right? It is - like the album itself - a facade. The gatefold shows nothing more than adolescent sexual fantasies. And the back cover lowers to the sick. Crawl Naked Women! CRAWL! Likewise the album presents itself as a credible early form of progressive hard rock. The title track (lots of 13-year-old yuks there, eh?) could have easily been the mythical Al Atkins' Judas Priest album we never got to hear. 'Soon There Will be Everything' has mellotron poured over everything giving off a whiff of sophistication and forward thinking. 'Acid Bean' begins to show the cracks of normality, and by the time of 'Sun Keeps Shining' we are in the gutters of straight-up blues rock. 'Call for the Politicians' is particularly bad (Sex Pistols meet Greg Kihn, in 1970?), before the band pull themselves up for two more decent tracks, and then back to the alleys of dirt and sleaze. Not blues rock? Bunk. What else could you call it? Not a bad album at all - above average on the whole actually - but it could have been so much more. The one-track deviant mind of the 15 year old was... derailed. Apparently.

Personal collection
none. Sold the 1988 SPM CD.

Originals were pressed in many countries, but the UK LP is worth a fortune. Because of its wide distribution, licenses abound, and there are a lot of shady reissues out there - though perhaps not outright pirates.

Pussy - Plays. 1969 England

Did you ever think there should have been another album between Pink Floyd's Saucerful of Secrets and Atom Heart Mother, and not named Ummagumma? I love the latter album, with its frenzied and psychotic live takes on album 1, though album 2 does reek a bit of unhinged experimentalism without focus. Which was the point of course. But what if it wasn't? One answer to this quiz is Group 1850's Paradise Now, an album I've frothed about much in the past. And another is... ("oh the foreshadowing Tom, you're killing us!")

Seriously,when I started collecting music the term "psych prog" was thrown out for just about every album on the planet. Do you know how few true examples there are of this sound? Pussy Plays is the pure embodiment of it. In a perfect world, Pussy Plays would have been played incessantly on classic rock stations, and we'd all be more civilized because of it. But of course, we know how it all turned out, and the only people who care about this now are crazies like yours truly... it didn't even catch on with the hipsters! #233 on RYM as I write this in May 2016. C'mon. Really? No "Comus factor" here apparently.

Side 1 is filled with catchy melodies in that Swingin' London sort of way, with plenty of effects, period instrumentation, creative ideas, and... completely zonked out of their friggin' minds, making Syd Barrett look sober as a judge by comparison. 'All of My Life' is the highlight of a stellar set of tunes. The weakest track, is also its most famous due to it supposedly being the "weirdest" (I guess - it has theremin - whoopdee-doo), and that's 'Comets'. It is a great song... that gets annoying in places unfortunately.

The wheels come completely off on Side 2. My goodness. It is hard to find a better side of music on any album of the 1960s. Period. Progressive, melodic, psychedelic, intense, serene, insane, psychotic, beautiful.

Personal collection
CD: 2006 Air Mail (Japan)

Originals have been a steady 4 figure album since I started collecting in the 1980s (check if you don't believe me - and I still have catalogs from the early 90s asking for well over $1k too). One of the best 60's/70's albums in my collection that I don't have the original LP of. And perhaps it does deserve the asking price... I'll look under every rock until I find an affordable (and nice) copy.

Until then, the Japanese Air Mail mini will have to do (officially licensed from the UK and mastered in Japan for this release only - and the mini textured flap back cover is replicated to the last detail). I've had this album for over 20 years (starting with the Background CD), and it just continues to improve to my ears.

There's a lot of shady reissue action with this album, especially on the LP front. The only one that looks completely above board (other than the 1969 Italian licensed one) is the 2009 reissue from Record Collector, which was mastered straight from the original tapes, and is quite hard to source in its own right. I would be leery of any other LP reissues out there.

Xhol - Altena 1970. Germany (archival)

Like with Soft Machine, Xhol has a tremendous amount of interesting archival material, given their improvisational nature. Similarly, they suffer from the same problem as the Softs do, and that is many of these releases run into each other. If you are to only obtain one I'd suggest the Motherf*ckers Live set (1968-1969) from United Durtro. But if wanting more of that vintage Krautrock jazz rock sound, live and in color, Altena 1970 is a fine representative. It meanders and wanders for much of its duration, but that's what the concert ticket bought you. Authentic to the core.

Personal collection
CD: 2006 Garden of Delights

Garden of Delights is to be commended for their relentless efforts to release so much material from the great Xhol Caravan. The CD gives you the maximum amount of minutes, and there's a wealth of historical info in the liner notes.

P205 - Vivat Progressio - Pereat Mundus. 1978 Germany

P2O5 is a chemical compound (and band name is stylized as such) called Phosphorus Pentoxide, which according to Wikipedia means: "a potent dehydrating agent as indicated by the exothermic nature of its hydrolysis". Well, then... isn't that edifying? In effect, it has no practical meaning, which is what the band were striving for - a practical meaning. So they were dumbo chemistry students... and dumbo musicians as well. What we have here is bonehead hard rock with organ. It just happens to be I like bonehead hard rock with organ... so there's that.

Personal collection
CD: 2007 Garden of Delights

A very rare album in original form, the usually great Garden of Delights CD should suffice for most folks, and their LP partner at the time Amber Soundroom fulfills the vinyl requirement.

You - Electric Day. 1979 Germany

Honestly, You's Electric Day represents the perfected rock form of electronic music, which unfortunately had so few examples such as this. The sequencers and Moog solos give it the Berlin School street cred, while the psychedelic guitars and manic drumming recall Germany's underground from a decade earlier. A window into what Tangerine Dream's Force Majeure lineup could have accomplished had they stuck with it. Sigh. Grab a hold of what you can, as there's very little of it to go around I'm afraid to say.

Personal collection
CD: 1996 Cue

The Cain label was one of Germany's great unsung imprints.They had a lot of these type of albums that flew way under the radar back in the day. The third scan is the Rock City issue, which I didn't know existed until researching this entry. The CD is part of a 5 CD set called Era. It had been long OOP, so the Bureau B reissues are most welcome, and include significant bonus tracks.

Siloah - Sukram Gurk. 1972 Germany

Siloah's second album translates to the "Markus Krug" album, who is the resident drummer this time around. Basically what we have here is long form organ jams in a 1972 Krautrock setting. There are worse ideas than that. Low budget recording gives it the underground badge, though one wishes Conny Plank or Dieter Dirks would walk in and save the day. No such luck. Much - much - different from their anarchic folk debut, and one wonders why they didn't change their name. Hardcore Gunderground here.

Personal collection
CD: 1999 Garden of Delights

Originals are super rare. With both Siloah albums, I wasn't impressed initially, and sold the Lost Pipedreams CDs not long after acquiring.  I recently sourced both of the GoD CDs at a good price, and that proved to be a good move. As always, copious liner notes are provided. Surprisingly, this title has never been reissued on vinyl, and I would expect there to be a market for such.

Nine Days Wonder - The Best Years of Our Life? 1971-1975 Germany (archival)

For my tastes, Nine Days Wonder is all about their debut album, and they fall off a cliff after that. This compilation covers 4 tracks from that superb era, including two lengthy live radio recordings. All of which was quite good, though not revelatory. From there I braced myself for the worst. And was pleasantly surprised to find that Nine Days Wonder were really a hard rock band at heart, but the production gloss of their followup studio albums took away all their edge. As such, this is a fine compilation of unreleased material, and is worth seeking out for fans of their debut album, with regards to their more aggressive attributes.

Personal collection
CD: 2001 Garden of Delights

Charlee - s/t. 1972 Canada

It's been often said that Frank Marino, at the dawn of his career, heavily copied Jimi Hendrix. More than likely, though, he was more influenced by fellow Montreal resident Walter Rossi and his band Charlee. Listen to the first 3 Mahogany Rush albums and compare to Charlee, which was recorded only a year earlier. Many parallels can be found. Frank eventually forged his own style and became one of the all-time great hard rock guitarists. No telling what Rossi could have achieved had he not chosen a career as a session musician. Excellent hard psych rock album.

Personal collection
LP: 1972 RCA

This album remained "in production" for a few years in Canada, and there are multiple "first presses". The label shown is what Discogs considers the original. My personal copy is with a tan label. There was also a second press released in the USA circa 1976 on the Mind Dust label, with a different cover (2nd scan). No idea what the story behind that is. There are a few pirates since of this album, but nothing legit as of today. Based on the high volume of original sales, I would think a legit CD reissue could do quite well even in these sparse times.

Siloah - s/t. 1970 Germany

Munich's Siloah were a commune-with-nature folk group, that only works in the era that it emerged from. If listening objectively (or sober), the listener will likely note all the obvious flaws, and ultimately be lulled to boredom. But when taking in the time and place, Siloah captures the mood perfectly of the free-from-boundaries mentality that was so pervasive amongst the rebellious German youth at the turn of the decade. An aural archive document of the real underground, something that would be prefab manufactured today, but here ignites the imagination.

To my ears, Siloah's debut recalls Denmark's Furekaaben - where it would seem forbidden someone would actually record the proceedings. But certainly the cosmic Pilz trinity, Paradieswarts Duul, and Kalacakra are in this same conversation, all to a lesser degree.

Like Furekaaben, the album is hardly a stellar masterpiece of songcraft. Best to approach as background music while perhaps viewing B&W photos of German urban parks. A libation wouldn't hurt.

Personal collection
CD: 1998 Garden of Delights

Worth noting that the 10 minutes of bonus tracks on the Garden of Delights CD are just as good as the album proper. In fact, the final track adds in a primitive synthesizer to great result.

M.I.A. - Transparencias. 1976 Argentina

Classically trained pianist Lito Vitale leads the Músicos Independientes Asociados bunch through one of Argentina's first true symphonic rock albums, when everyone else in the country were still mired in the blues. He mixes complex progressive rock with classical interpretations to create his own brain salad surgery. So yes, of course, Keith Emerson rises to the front of the influence line, as he has for many a budding keyboardist in the rock world. Side 2 brings forth a bit more jamming and hard rock to the mix, and probably could have been tightened a bit. So the album certainly has its flaws - it's painful to sit through Pomp and Circumstance at graduations much less for my own enjoyment. But let's give the kid a break, eh? I mean, he was 15 years old when he showed up on the world stage. What were you doing when you were 15? I most certainly wasn't putting out fully realized progressive rock albums with sick piano chops, that's for sure. It usually took me a few minutes just to take the shrink wrap off the LP. Still does actually...

Anyway, MIA were to improve from here, and then lay down one of the all time greats in Cornonstipicum two short years later. When he was an old man at 17.

Personal collection
CD: 1994 Belle Antique (Japan)

The 1994 Japanese disc was pressed in Argentina but marketed and sold in Japan.

Formula 3 - Le Grande Casa. 1973 Italy

Now here's an album that I had no use for when I first bought it. Like many Italian originals, I found it locally here in Dallas in the 1980s. Brand new copy. I had already owned Sognando... so I was thrilled to get this one too. Got it home, slapped it on the turntable and... What the heck is this? Sold it immediately, proud that I was a true progressive rock fan. Cough. Years later I secured another copy, and this time I put on my big boy pants. The album sounds exactly like the cover looks. It's pastoral, a bit poppy, and often times very beautiful. No manner of rationalization will likely raise this to masterpiece status, but that doesn't mean it's not a pleasant album. It's very much in league with what was going on in Italy at the time, and you can hear elements of this same sound on the debut by Il Volo, which Formula 3 rolled up into. I would only recommend this album to hardcore fans of the genre, and not as a starting point or early recommendation. Go in calm, and you will leave calm. And with a smile on your face.

Personal Collection
LP: 1973 Numero Uno
CD: 2003 BMG (Japan)

Original LPs are housed in a nice gatefold cover, as is the Japanese mini-LP.

Novalis - Vielleicht bist du ein Clown? 1978 Germany

Once hearing Vielleicht bist du ein Clown?, you'll realize this is where Novalis has been heading for some time. They were never the most complex and densest of writers, and most of their compositions were rather straightforward. But they had a tendency to drench it heavily in dressing, giving it more of a superficial progressive rock feel. Where Novalis shines is their ability to write beautiful melodies, along with very pleasant instrumentals. So it was only logical the group would eventually trim the tree so to speak, and get down to their core competencies. I'd even argue this is stronger than their last recognized progressive rock album Brandung. Of course, Novalis are now on the slippery slope to commercialism, and have started to become more irrelevant to the average progressive rock fan. But this one is a nice transitional album. Better than most that tried during this era.

Personal collection
CD: 1998 Repertoire

I first found this album in a dusty old used record store in west Dallas in the 1980s, a no-go ghetto area back then. A surprising find for the area, but unfortunately I was quite disappointed with the initial impression and sold it. So it's nice to obtain the CD again, and appreciate the album on its own terms, rather than the ones I dictated it must have.

Toni Esposito - Rosso Napoletano. 1974 Italy

Toni Esposito's debut is percussive heavy, with synthesizers, electric piano, and saxophone providing the color. All this on top of a deep funk groove. This is mood music for the early morning or late evening. A good one for jazz funk specialists.

Personal collection
CD: 2014 Sony

Brast Burn - Debon. 1975 Japan

I'll be honest, when I saw this album come up for a random listen, I figured it might find its way onto the next train out of here. Not even close. My first thought when seeing a 45 minute continuous track - noted as experimental and coming from Japan - is not something of an enjoyable experience.  In fact, noise is the only word that comes to mind. Brast Burn is anything but. It's very transcendental. The music has purpose, with interesting melodies and other sounds, and does maintain a rock base throughout. A thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Personal collection
CD: 1998 Paradigm (UK)

Regarding the CD, Discogs had it labeled as "unofficial". I just changed it. I wouldn't be surprised if it gets changed back, but I wanted to get on the record something that I had recalled years ago. Here are my notes as registered in Discogs: There was a slip of paper included with this CD, which I unfortunately did not keep, that went on to explain that Paradigm had the right to reissue this album. They went to great lengths to explain the legalities of it. The label itself is a legitimate concern, with no history of bootlegging (the Karuna Khyal was released under the same premise), so I think it's fair to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is a classic "gray area" reissue, but I wouldn't label it unofficial or pirate. If I'm overruled, I will accept the outcome, but for now I'm switching it back to legit.

No matter their final ruling, I'm comfortable owning this CD (copy #448), and if an indigenous reissue appears, then I may consider upgrading. Of course, there are plenty of other pirate editions slithering about today, that are best avoided.

Sieges Even - Life Cycle. 1988 Germany

Let's make it two in a row. What I said about Starcastle could apply here. Two entirely different genres, same beef. If you were looking for a technical metal album in 1988, you could seek out Watchtower... or Sieges Even*. Watchtower was first, therefore Sieges Even sucks. Huh? Nonsense of course. I'm a huge Watchtower fan, but for my Deutsche Marks, Life Cycle is the superior album. The compositions are just as dense, but the sound is heavier and the breaks are catchier. Sure lead singer Franz Herde shrieks like a zoo animal in pain, but that was the expected style-of-the-genre. It's not like Alan Tecchio sounded like Tony Bennett. It actually adds to the overall vibe of the organized chaos. I bought the LP not long after release, and it remains one of my all-time favorite metal albums. It's aged very well. The band were to change dramatically from here, never really regaining a foothold into tech metal again.

*It was actually called "Technical Metal" back then (not Tech Thrash). Check out some old Metal Forces mags if you don't believe me. I was a fan of the style from the get, so I was most interested in other bands similar.

Personal collection
LP: 1988 Steamhammer
CD: 1988 Steamhammer

Starcastle - s/t. 1976 USA

Those who write-off Starcastle as merely Yes clones, are the same ones who would do similar with Eskaton sounding like Magma. It's an easy comparison, makes for a populist styled review, and everyone goes home happy - satisfied in their self-assessed deep historical knowledge on the subject, along with sycophantic approval from other strictly-topical naysayers. Indeed if learning how to write in the first grade is the same as your college term paper, then the logic proves true.

I nearly wrote a dissertation on this very subject, painstakingly compiled for my USA Midwest / Ontario Progressive Rock (1970's/early 80s) list. Every band has influences they merge into their own music. Yes themselves borrowed from many a source to come up with their unique sound recipe. Now Starcastle comes along, takes the Yes recipe as a base, and distills it even further. Druid in England were doing the same thing at the same time, except to critical approval. The USA, while never having our own progressive rock scene like Europe, really took a shine to good ole Yes in the 1970s. So if you were to put together a band during that time, Yes was likely your first choice as an influence. It just so happens that Starcastle actually made a bit of a commercial mark doing it, thus subjugating themselves to years of undeserved ridicule by those who consider the Rolling Stone Record Guide a contemporary gospel that cannot be questioned, lest you too be tagged with a Scarlet M (for Moron) on your hard earned Fragile concert T-shirt.

As I state under the Starcastle entry on the list above: There can be no doubt that Starcastle had front row seats to the Relayer tour, but they also have that distinct American touch in the songwriting. Some will say watered-down, and perhaps that's not far from the truth - but getting on the radio was extremely important to any band who wanted a shot at success. And no local band was going to be afforded the opportunity to release a 'Gates of Delirium' type opus. Their gambit paid off, as Starcastle could only be considered a grand success in this scenario.

In reality, Starcastle weren't the "bloated corpse" (says the music critics, not I) of Yes' sprawling album side suites - but rather it was a more direct sound, similar to The Yes Album. There's more Tony Kaye than Rick Wakeman here, that's for sure.

I would highly suggest listening to this album on its own, taking into account the compositions themselves, then allow the "influence filter" into your mind. As an example of 1970s Midwest American progressive rock, it's damn near perfect.

Personal collection
LP: 1976 Epic
CD: 1992 Epic

Mogul Thrash - s/t. 1971 England

Mogul Thrash is most famous for being the point of entry for a one John Wetton, though in reality this was guitarist James Litherland's band fresh off his stint with Colosseum. Brian Auger is on hand for direction and some piano. Auger/Colosseum provides a good guidepost for the musical content as well, with the added attraction of horns, giving us that unique UK brass rock feel. 'Elegy' is a stunner, with another highlight in 'Going North, Going West'.

Personal collection
CD: 1999 Disconforme (Andorra)

One would think an album with such a blue chip pedigree would be better served in the reissue market. Not the case. Finding the CD at an affordable price (and not scratched up) can be a challenge. It took me a few years to secure mine, though I'm not sure demand is soaring. Because of this, and the album's notoriety, pirates own this title with multiple bootlegs on LP and CD proliferating about. I keep expecting Esoteric to put this one back on the shelf, but perhaps the pirate market killed off that chance. The Disconforme CD is no great shakes, lacking even their usual liner notes, but at least it's legit and features 4 relevant bonus tracks. They altered the original track order as well*. The second scan is the Blueprint CD, which I haven't seen, though it doesn't feature any bonus tracks.

*Back of the CD states: "Due to the time limits of the original vinyl, the track list was selected by the shortest takes. Now the producer, after a deep checking of all the tapes, made a definitive selection of the best releases."

Skywhale - The World at Mind's End. 1977 England

Skywhale's sole album is one of the rare non-Canterbury UK fusion albums that sound more in line with what was happening over the Chan...