Category Archives: CD Reviews

Explorations of Classical and Metal

Acid Empire
Acid Empire

Acid Empire (2011)

Acid Empire is the musical project of composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Bridge. He is the bass player for a British gothic metal band called Season’s End. Acid Empire began as a solo project of Mike Bridge, who was interested in combining the rich dimension of a symphonic orchestra with the energy of heavy metal.

The album Acid Empire came out in 2011 and the album line-up includes Mike Bridge on bass and acoustic guitar; Dave Stanton on electric guitar, Jack Lipinski on vocals, Hannah Bridge on vocals, and Damian Wilson as guest vocalist on ‘Into The Void.’

Although I’m not a fan of heavy metal, Acid Empire has its interesting moments. The most noteworthy cuts are the symphonic introductory piece titled ‘Prelude’, the delicate acoustic guitar piece ‘Theme’, the first part of ‘1000 Days’ and the dreamy ‘The Return (Prelude)’.

On the more metal-oriented pieces you can also find epic guitar moments. I’ll keep floating the idea of doing two versions of albums such as this: a progressive rock mix without the metal and a metal mix full of the riffs that heavy metal fans like so much.

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A Master of Fusion Drumming

Lenny White - Anomaly
Lenny White

Anomaly (Abstract Logix, 2011)

Drummer Lenny White is a legendary name in jazz fusion. He has played with some of the best and most innovative musicians in the field. He was a member of Return to Forever and has performed with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke. Anomaly is his first solo album in 10 years and above all it is a master lesson in jazz and rock drumming.

The majority of the album contains jazz-rock in various forms. The Return to Forever essence is evident in several pieces, with guitar nods to Al Di Meola and Chick Corea-inspired keyboards. Although White rocks out in various parts of the album with turbo charged beats, he also ventures into funk jazz.

Contemporary jazz has been hijacked by easy listening melodies and Lenny White does not believe in wimpy music. I’ve been very critical of some of the current progressive rock groups who dumb down their music with heavy metal riffs to make their sound more powerful. Lenny White’s guest guitarists show you how you can deliver dazzling and blistering electric work that is creative and energetic at the same time. Guitar players include Nick Moroch (a former member of White’s Astral Pirates), David Gilmore, Tom Guarna and David Bendeth. On keyboards we find some of the best players: George Colligan, Bernard Wright, Donald Blackman (another Astral Pirate) and Vince Evans. Bassists featured include the legendary Return to Forever maestro Stanley Clarke as well as a new generation of top of ther line players: Victor Bailey, Richie Goods, and Charles Fambrough.

Anomaly is a phenomenal album of gripping jazz-rock fusion by Lenny White, one of the great jazz drum maestros of our time, accompanied by some of the hottest musicians in the fusion genre.

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Bostock’s Whereabouts

Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson - Thick As A Brick 2
Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

(Chrysalis/EMI, 2012)

The eagerly anticipated album by Ian Anderson, founder and leader of Jethro Tull is now available. TAAB2 or Thick As A Brick 2 revisits the life of Gerald Bostock. Those familiar with the original Thick As A Brick album will remember the attention-grabbing and humorous stories featured in the fictitious newspaper that served as album sleeve. Gerald Bostock was the spectacled child featured in Thick As A Brick. If you ever wondered what happened to him, Ian Anderson may have some answers.

The theme of this anniversary “part two” album is to examine the possible different paths that the precocious young schoolboy, Gerald Bostock, might have taken later in life and to create alter-ego characters whose song-section identities illustrate the hugely varied potential twists and turns of fate and opportunity,” says Anderson. “Not just for Gerald but to echo how our own lives develop, change direction and ultimately conclude through chance encounters and interventions, however tiny and insignificant they might seem at the time.”

Thick As A Brick 2 follows the Gerald Bostock saga with music that will please Jethro Tull fans. Ian Anderson’s unique voice has aged well, like a good wine. He treats the listener to a series of songs, narrations and flute performances that demonstrate that he is still a major musical force. Anderson’s flute performs solo and intertwined with Florian Opahle’s guitar. The primary keyboard used throughout the album is the electric organ, which adds yet another familiar element to Anderson’s music.

The band on Thick As A Brick 2 includes veteran musicians as well as a new generation of players. Performers featured in the album include Ian Anderson on vocals, flute and guitar; John O’Hara on organ, piano and keyboards; David Goodler on bass; Florian Opahle on guitar, Scott Hammond on drums and percussion, with additional vocals by Ryan O’Donnell and Pete Judge on horns.

Actually, I played much more acoustic guitar than usual on this record having written most of the music on that instrument,” says Anderson. “But there are still sections conceived on the flute and sometimes – quite often, in fact – the lyric writing preceded all the melodies and harmonic structures. Starting with lyrics and then thinking of the music is not normally the way I work but it was here. A title, a few words or a verse or two and then the acoustic guitar was immediately to hand to conjure up a full song section out of the growing lyrics. Having a plan was important. Stories to tell made it all easier. The imagination-filled process of thinking how things might have turned out for the young and older Gerald kept me fascinated. Maybe you will be too. And maybe not.”

The special edition 2-CD set includes the audio CD and a DVD with 5.1 stereo mixes, 24-bit stereo mix, video of the making of the album, interviews with the musicians and Ian Anderson reading the lyrics in different settings.

Thick As A Brick 2 is another memorable album by Ian Anderson with his carefully crafted and recognizable mix of rock, classical, jazz and folk music elements.

My River Flows

IZZ - My River Flows

My River Flows (Doone Records, 2005)

IZZ’s fourth album, My River Flows, shows a mature, skilled and cohesive band. The album begins with ‘My River Flows’ a hard rocking pieces that is probably the least interesting. Paul Bremner, who is an excellent guitarist, needlessly saturates the piece with hard rock riffs.

After hearing another hard rock intro, I was afraid that ‘Late Night Salvation’ was going to go in the same direction as ‘My River Flows.’ Thankfully, ‘Late Night Salvation’ is an excellent piece with a truly spectacular long electric guitar solo by Paul Bremner, an equally excellent drum performance by Greg DiMiceli and a masterful closing synthesizer solo by Tom Galgano.

As in previous albums, IZZ incorporates ear catching pop hooks. This is the case of ‘Rose Colored Lenses’ which begins in very pop mode and ends with another of those fabulous, but too short synth solos by Tom Galgano.

‘Deception’ features a synthesizer melody that would make Kit Watkins proud. And for the first time in the album, Laura Meade’s outstanding vocals get to have a leading role. In the finest symphonic rock tradition, ‘Deception’ ends with a mellotron and guitar grand finale.

In addition to the progressive rock masters, The Beatles is one of the main inspirations of the band. The first part of ‘Crossfire’ could be best described as Beatles with mellotron and Chris Squire-style bass. The lengthy piece later morphs into Yes-influenced sounds.

The Beatles’ aura refuses to go and continues in ‘Anything I Can Dream.’ The song is followed by an acoustic guitar-fueled lullaby titled ‘Abby’s Song.’

The core of the album is the final track, ‘Deafening Silence,’ a 21-minute masterpiece. This well-conceived composition contains the various elements that make progressive rock great: a mesmerizing introduction, captivating instrumental passages and arrangements, dreamy and intense moments, outstanding vocal work, and a climactic conclusion.

The line-up on My River Flows includes Tom Galgano on keyboards, lead vocals; John Galgano on bass, guitar, keyboards, lead and backing vocals; Paul Bremner on lead guitar; Brian Coralian on electronic and acoustic drums and percussion, programming; Greg DiMiceli on acoustic drums and percussion; Anmarie Byrnes on vocals; and Laura Meade on vocals.

Overall, My River Flows is an impressive recording by IZZ, one of the finest progressive rock acts in the United States. IZZ features skilled instrumentalists and three of the best vocalists in the current progressive rock genre.

Four on the Floor

Secret Saucer - Four on the Floor
Secret Saucer

Four on the Floor (Secret Saucer SFS004, 2011)

For its most recent album, space rock band Secret Saucer decided to make more cohesive pieces. Their outstanding blend of synths and guitar is still there, but the compositions are a little shorter and the band throws in a few surprises and interesting twists.

After a very brief introduction, the album opens with ‘Time Spent Out Of Mind,’ a fast paced guitar-led piece with a drum beat that borders on rockabilly. I envision this track used in a Robert Rodriguez film.

The rhythm slows down considerably in ‘Lunar Pull’, a trance-like mesmerizing song with robotized vocals and superb solo synthesizer and guitar interplay.

On ‘Daedal’ the band goes into jam rock fashion, incorporating Middle Eastern influenced guitars dueling with the synthesizers.

Next comes a delicate song with regular vocals, a rarity in Secret Saucer, which is known for its instrumental pieces. ‘Awaken’ features a mix of acoustic guitars and delightful synthesizers.

As the title indicates, ‘The Dark Rift’ has a darker ambiance, with dense atmospheres inspired by early Tangerine Dream.

‘Celestial Spigot’ could be best described as space rock meets Canterbury. Guest saxophonist Greg Klucher jams with the band, adding a tasty jazz element that brings the overall sound close to the great Canterbury-style progressive rock.

The dreamlike ‘Four On The Floor’ features wailing guitars and intricate mellotron and synths. The keyboard work at times is reminiscent of the great French space rock band Pulsar.

‘Aegean Bridge’ has more of a rock feel, blending guitar riffs with synth solos and bubbly sounds.

The short piece ‘Notch’ takes the band into deep space territory, with drones and atmospheres. It’s an appropriate prequel to the last cut on the album, Secret Saucer’s rendition of the early Pink Floyd classic ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets.’ It’s a fine tribute to the late Richard Wright, Pink Floyd’s keyboard player.

The line-up on this album includes Ted Boburka on drums and synthesizers; Steve Hayes on synthesizers; Dave Hess on synthesizers and glissando guitar; Billy Spear on bass; Dan Schnell on guitar and synthesizers; Greg Kozlowski on guitar, synthesizers. They are joined by special guests Nick Riff on guitar and Greg Klucher on saxophone.

Four on the Floor is another winner by Secret Saucer, one of the finest purveyors of progressive space rock in the current musical scene.

Beyond the Shrouded Horizon

Steve Hackett - Beyond the Shrouded Horizon
Steve Hackett

Beyond the Shrouded Horizon (Inside Out Music, 2011)

Of all the former Genesis musicians, guitarist Steve Hackett is the one that has foremost kept the progressive rock torch alive. Throughout his solo career, Hackett has explored various musical genres, including progressive rock, classical, blues-rock, pop and folk. Beyond the Shrouded Horizon brings together all of these genres influences, although the pop influences are thankfully minimal.

Steve Hackett is one of the finest guitarists in the progressive rock arena. As such, Beyond the Shrouded Horizon treats the listener to an excellent collection of solos and beautiful melodies performed on a variety of electric and acoustic guitars, using different techniques, such as his magnificent slide guitar style.

The album opens with a couple of rockers with heavy drums. Thankfully it’s not heavy metal. On ‘Loch Lomond’ Hackett easily moves between rock and Scottish folk music, from electric to acoustic guitars. ‘The Phoenix Flown’ is an electric guitar instrumental, where Hackett shows at times that he can shred as well as any of today’s top electric guitar players.

On track 3, ‘Wanderlust,’ Hackets performs one of his short but exquisite acoustic pieces. It segues into ‘Til’ These Eyes’ a song featuring acoustic guitars and delicate symphonic arrangements.

‘Prairie Angel’ begins as an anthemic instrumental (bass) with electric guitar that begins in progressive rock style and soon morphs into a heavy blues-rock piece.

Next comes ‘A Place Called Freedom’, where Hackett incorporates his beautiful Genesis-era acoustic guitar arpeggios, fabulous electric guitar solos and symphonic arrangements.

‘Between the Sunset and the Coconut Palms’ has a nostalgic feel. It is followed by ‘Waking to Life,’ a pop piece with some world music elements.

‘Two Faces of Cairo’ is one of the best cuts on the album. It’s a captivating and energetic progressive rock piece with superb Arabic inspired electric guitar.

Next comes a ballad titled ‘Looking for Fantasy.’ It’s followed by another signature acoustic guitar gem titled ‘Summer’s Breath.’

Blues-rock returns with the rocker ‘Catwalk.’ The album ends with the longest piece on the album, titled ‘Turn This Island Earth.’ One would think that this is the usual epic many progressive rock artists feature in their albums. However, it’s a collage of various styles and not a grand finale. The suite has variety of moods that includes ominous symphonic parts, pop sections, and hard rockin’ guitar.

Beyond the Shrouded Horizon is a cinematic collection of new pieces, spanning various genres, by one of the UK’s finest rock guitarists, who showcases his talent and skill as a versatile guitarist.

Fast And Blue

Lisa LaRue 2KX - Fast and Blue
Lisa LaRue 2KX

Fast And Blue (Fingerwoven/First People Media, 2011)

Keyboardist and composer Lisa LaRue is one of the great revelations in recent months in the progressive rock arena. Her new album Fast And Blue reveals one of the rising talents in the symphonic progressive rock category.

Fast And Blue
is primarily instrumental and Lisa LaRue has assembled an impressive cast of musicians. Her band comprises herself on keyboards, Steve Adams of the prog duo ARZ on guitars and bass, and Merrill Hale, the other component of ARZ, on drums. Guests include Don Schiff on NS stick, John Payne (Asia) on vocals, cellist Mike Alvarez, guitarist Mitch Perry (Edgar Winter Group, MSG, Cher and more), vocalist Michael Sadler (Saga), keyboardist Ryo Okumoto (Spock’s Beard and GPS) and backing vocalist Maxi Nil (Visions of Atlantis).

The epic ‘Prometheus’ (track 2) is one of the highlights, a 17:58 mini-symphony that weaves virtuoso keyboard work by LaRue, outstanding guitar creation and a potent rhythm section with orchestral percussion.

The epic is followed by another gem, a delightful neoclassical acoustic piece titled ‘Tryptych’ which is based on the sound of superb acoustic guitars, masterful cello and dreamy reverberating piano.

Track 4, ‘Jam Jehan Nima’ is the second longest piece. It begins with soaring electric guitars, rich symphonic keyboard harmonies and captivating synth solos that lead into an exploratory section and mesmerizing Benedictine chant. However, close to the end of the composition, the music enters hard rock territory. I don’t think hard rock or heavy metal belongs in progressive rock and LaRue could have gone in a more interesting direction.

Things get back to solid progressive rock on ‘Lament of the Cherokee/Ruins of Home.’ The piece has two parts. The first section is a spoken word tribute to the Cherokee tribe. Lisa LaRue has Cherokee heritage and is an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, which are descendants of the North Carolina natives that were sent to Oklahoma. The second part of the composition is purely instrumental with state of the art prog rock featuring outstanding intertwining guitar work.

‘Fast and Blue’ (track 6) features vocals by John Payne. They are good rock vocals, but better suited for hard rock or AOR. It’s probably the most radio friendly song and therefore, the least interesting.

The album concludes with ‘Recurring Dream’. The song begins with a great keyboard introduction, although brief, that leads into another unimpressive vocal piece.

Keyboardist and composer Lisa LaRue has recorded an impressive album, rich in detail. She shows tremendous potential in the progressive rock genre and I look forward to hearing more of her work.

Space Rock Maestros

Beyond-O-Matic - Time to Get Up

Time To Get Up (Trail Records, 2010)

Beyond-O-Matic was a San Francisco-based space rock band that unfortunately is no longer active. This album is as far as I know Beyond-O-Matic’s second and final recording and it is progressive space rock at its finest. Time To Get Up contains dreamy and flowing music, with captivating psychedelic vocals and extended trance-like jams featuring outstanding synthesizer and guitar work along with less conventional instruments such as electric accordion, flute, melodeon, and harmonium.

The pieces featured in Time To Get Up were recorded 2003-2004. At the time, Beyond-O-Matic included composer and multi-instrumentalist Peter Fuhry on guitars, vocals, flute, accordion, bass, effects; Stenzo on synthesizer, samples, effects; Anthony Koutsos on drums; and David Jayne on drums and tabla. Guest musicians who participated in the sessions include Melody Paine on bass, Rachel Shane Shultz on bass, KJ Luker on backing vocals.

Trail Records has been doing an admirable job, recovering lost progressive rock gems in the areas of psychedelic and space rock. They tracked down this album and remastered it, giving Time To Get Up improved sound quality and new life. The CD came out in 2010.

Time To Get Up is a masterful collection of highly creative laid back space rock. It’s a must have for any space rock music fan.

The Expert Craft of Sebastian Hardie

Sebastian Hardie - Blueprint
Sebastian Hardie

Blueprint (independent, 2012)

Blueprint is the first studio recording by legendary Australian progressive rock band Sebastian Hardie since 1976’s Windchase. Blueprint brings the classic line-up from the 1970s: Alex Plavsic on drums, percussion; Peter Plavsic on bass guitar; Mario Millo on lead guitar, vocals, mandolin; and Toivo Plit on keyboards.

Despite the years, Sebastian Hardie remains loyal to symphonic rock, delivering an album with extensive instrumental passages full of captivating guitar melodies and outstanding keyboard atmospheres, combining classical music, blues and jazz infused progressive rock. Toivo Plit contributes a wide palette of keyboards, including electric organ, epic mellotron and synths. Meanwhile, Mario Millo uses mesmerizing slide guitar, wah wah and other creative guitar effects.

Sebastian Hardie released two excellent albums in the mid-1970s, Four Moments (1975) & Windchase (1976). They disbanded in the late 70s. The band reformed a few times for special occasions. Getting Sebastian Hardie together again for Blueprint was no easy task. All the musicians had their separate careers and while the majority still lived in Sydney, drummer Alex Plavsic was based in Queensland, about 1000 kilometers from Sydney.

Uplifting and delectable, Blueprint is an expertly crafted new album by one of the significant masters of Australian progressive rock.

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Andalusian Prog Jams

Imán Califato Independiente - Edición Especial 30 Aniversario
Imán Califato Independiente

Edición Especial 30 Aniversario (Aristillus, 2006)

Imán Califato Independiente, the legendary Andalusian progressive rock band celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2006 with the release of a collection of live recordings. Although Imán only released two albums, they were a favorite of the rock festival circuit in Andalusia (southern Spain) and other parts of the country. While the studio albums were more structured, the live performances featured extended pieces in jam rock fashion, combining symphonic rock, cutting edge fusion, blues, Flamenco and Arabic music influences.

Edición Especial 30 Aniversario contains music extracted from long forgotten tapes recorded during Iman’s live performances. Drummer Kiko Guerrero and sound engineer Pepe Almadana kept these tapes in their archives. Thanks to the persistence of music fans, these recordings made in 1978 and 1979 were recovered. For the first in many years, progressive rock music fans were able to experience Iman, during its golden era.

The album features 2 jams, ‘Improvisación atmosférica’ (atmospheric improvisation) and ‘Improvisación 1-B’ and two well-known pieces that never made it to the studio: ‘Tema de Abdu’ and ‘La forja de los Tarantos.’

Musicians featured include the core band members Kiko Guerrero on drums and percussion, Manuel Iman on guitars and vocals, and Marcos Mantero on keyboards. The band’s first bassist, Iñaki Egaña, appears on tracks 2 and 4, and Urbano Morales, the secnd bassist, is featured on tracks 1 and 3.

The CD booklet holds vintage photos, detailed information about the band and biographies of all the musicians.

Edición Especial 30 Aniversario brings back the live magic of one of the most original and influential progressive rock bands in Spanish history.