- Recent Releases

This page has reviews of recent releases - as they become older they will gradually be moved to the Archive Reviews page and be replaced with newer material. The reviews in the "current" section are not in alphabetical order, the latest reviews are always listed at the start. CD catalogue numbers are also listed along with contract details where appropriate.


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FARRENHEIT- “III – Greasetown” (F-Man, 2000)

Charlie Farren really seems to be lugging his finger out and getting material he’s recorded over the last ten years finally accessible on a more widespread basis. Already we’ve had the “Deja Blue” solo album (reviewed elsewhere at this site), and now there’s a further two Farrenheit albums, though this one – “Greasetown” – had earlier masqueraded on tape as Charlie’s first solo album.

This album seems to take most of its inspiration from the standout tracks “Goofy Boy” and “Fool in Love” from the first Farrenheit album. Those were my favourites on that release with their wide open stretch of melody, vocal striations and iridescent musical layers. Seamless radio AOR. Their vitalizing structures are now taken a stage further and expanded throughout the passage of a full album.

There’s also a slight poppy, idiosyncrasy thrown in here and there that brings a song like “In Fashion” closer to the knotty side of The Babys and some of John Waite’s solo work.

For me this album is all album contrasts within individual songs. The vocals are given quite a showcase, but what makes the effect is the sheer variety of different guitar sounds employed. Too many bands, particularly some of the boring European hopefuls, have their guitarists use the exact same guitar sound all the way through an album in a seemingly strange effort at wearing down the listener. When the different guitar sounds start to define the different tracks, then the effect is magnified many fold.

Also now released is “Farrenheit II – Raise the Roof” which is from a different point in the band’s progression. It was recorded right after they’d finished touring in support of the debut album, and it shows…. What you get on that release is a road-toughened, hard rocking version of Charlie Farren nailing down a much more insistent set of songs. Very good too, but for an entirely different set of reasons.

DAKOTA- “Little Victories” (DAK Music/Thoughtscape Sounds DAK-002, 2000)

Dakota have been working on this, their fifth album, for quite a little while. I also find it encouraging that they’ve forgone a small European label release and shown the courage of their convictions by setting up and releasing it on their own label.

Even after giving this album one listen, one thing in particular seemed to be in a light-bulb over my head: this is a much more plausibly and obviously the band that released their debut in 1981 on Columbia and “Runaway” (MCA, 1984).

What does that mean? Well there’s some important, and maybe a little convoluted, points that come to mind. Dakota’s 1970s starting point is all the more obvious on this release and all the better for it.  My main point is that they sound exactly like they should, there’s no screwing about trying to adapt what they do, there’s no “how can we make this perfect for the US market” compromises made.

Given Jerry Hludzik’s starting pedigree and the people that appeared on the original Dakota albums, they should blow away most other indie releases: and this time they do….. And, for all that this feels like the most personal album put out under the Dakota name. Nobody else is bold enough to show influences of Chicago (and Bill Champlin does guest on a duet here) and Don Henley’s conviction in this current music scene. Modern values are still present as well, but supporting the music’s starting point and not taking it over.

Everything is refined, everything is mature and more than any release I can think of in the last year, these are real AOR-steeped musicians being true to themselves. This album is like one huge nose being thumped at the current poor state of the music market worldwide, and European labels that want to fit all AOR bands into easily compared, easily reviewed, and easy forgotten too, pigeonholes. If you long for the time when musical integrity was valued over everything else, then sit right down with this album….

Long-time fans of Dakota should also grab a copy of “Three Live Times” ago: a limited edition release of 1980 live concert from the band plus some rare demos.

   

8084- “So Far” (GB Music GB-1005, 2000)

New Hampshire’s 8084 really seemed to have things going their way for a little bit in the late 1980s. But two bad decisions, and one terrible twist of fate took away all their momentum just as quickly as it had appeared.

First they got involved with absolutely the wrong manager, and second they went into the studios to record their second album with Aldo Nova producing just when he was at the height (or just past the height) of his drug problems making its progress somewhat fraught. If that wasn’t enough, just as they escaped from the manager with no clue what to do with them and had finished off their second album with New England drummer Hirsh Gardner taking over from the incommunicado Nova, one of the band’s founders and in some ways its guiding light, keyboard player Charlie Hawthorne, was killed in a car crash, as I recall just before Christmas 1988. The band continued without him, but never replaced him, speaking on a personal level as well, he was the sort of genuine, committed man and musician no one could easily replace. Vocalist Randy Smith doubles up on keyboards to fill the void.

“So Far” is a compilation of old material, but the oldest tracks have been re-recorded to bring them bang up to date in an effort to make up for lost time. On the more venerable tracks, like  “Bad Man”, the Angel-flavoured “Fire”, “Lover’s Feel” and the Hirsh Gardner-penned “Thunder in her Heart”, the sound is much more dynamic than the original versions. The difference is now that the band seem more self-confident and have more behind them, rather than sounding like a band having to fight to keep ends meeting in pursuit of their art as they did in the younger days. Randy Smith’s vocals also seem to be improved, and he seems to have more range and generally be in much more control of his voice than before.

If you’ve never heard them before, then get ready for material a little like New England, but with a harder edge. If you’re already a fan then the old material never sounder better and seems rejuvenated.

   

THRILLS- “3” (Rewind/Song Haus 50004-2, 2000)

Wow this is a cool album, but it’s hard to understand who’s been waiting for it with baited breath! Mind you, Long Island (which is where Thrills are from) seems to be one of those areas where bands can be very popular and earn a decent living without breaking out to be more well known. If you don’t know them, they released two albums in the early 1980s that as far as I knew weren’t that well known, but had a lot of great AOR moments. This is a third album they recorded in 1983 though, inconveniently their label then went bust and the album ended up being buried.

This one is a little more poppy and commercial than their early two vinyl albums (which will be re-released on CD later this year as well), but in a way that brings them closer to much overlooked Australian early 1980s band The Sherbs (for whom solo artist Daryl Braithwaite was the singer). Great songs, great hooks, lots and lots of keyboards, and guitars that alternately support or prickle. My only complaint would be that some of the drum tracks lack a little variation between songs.

A lot of the old, semi-forgotten about, sitting on shelves for an eon material that has seen the light of the day over the last five years has been heavily compromised or held back by poor, dated production. Not so with Thrills, these songs glisten like they were emerging out of the early morning mist with dew on their feet. And, someone’s made the effort to make the album HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) compatible and that lifts the sound quality as well whether you’ve got a player with that chip (which you really should!) or not.

Very much a product of the early 1980s which in the current contemporary environment makes it stand out a lot. If it had actually got released when it was first recorded it would have stood out just as prominently and been a vital cog in many a listener’s musical appreciation development process. Quite a find, quite a surprise!

   

AXMINSTER- same (GB Music GB-1006, 2000)

Another band that started going someplace before the decade that the American rock music industry forgot (I mean the 1990s, obviously), but never got released at the time. I remember hearing Axminster demos back in about 1986-1987 and although little was known about the band, the fact that New England’s Hirsh Gardner was producing their material made plenty of people pay attention. As I understood at the time, Hirsh actually joined the band for a while, right after he’d been exploited and ripped-off by the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, however it appears that he never joined the band though he did act as their manager for quite some time.

This album is essentially a tidied-up collection of their demos and as such they cover several incarnations of the band. The first couple of tracks don’t sound like the Axminster I remember, they’re way heavier and almost belligerent in their attitude. As I get further into the album I come across tracks which I’m familiar with from the first time around, and they’re more poppy and in some ways like a souped up version of Cheap Trick that you wouldn’t have to make excuses for.

An interesting mixture of songs that alternate between hard rock with poppy overtones and some cleverly dumb lyrics (if you see what I mean…, that is a compliment), and some clever heavy rock that has the same high level of thought behind them that you used to see from bands like Cry Wolf and Hurricane.

TRADIA- “3” (Advance CD-R, Revolver release due April 2000)

It’s more than ten years since New Jersey’s Tradia debut album “Trade Winds” emerged, but they’ve now concluded recording of their third album. The band’s members might have been involved in discrete projects over the years, but they still seem to come home to Tradia!

Enough preface, “Didn’t Lie” is the first of the nine songs on offer and is unforeseen. Their previous work has always been very Journey-influenced, but this couldn’t sound more unlike Schon and his cronies, instead it’s more organic and idyllic midwest rock like some of Brett Walker’s material. For this track the band still sound AOR, but they’ve updated the format to sound (slightly) contemporary as well. The vocals are also mixed in a modern, upfront, dry way while the drums are somewhat dug in and small sounding. The keyboards, meantime, are the obvious connection with the two previous releases. In some ways I was reminded of the modern-ish sound adopted by Tommy Shaw on its recent solo album, but it’s better and less conniving.

“Portrait in Blue” follows and would have made a much better opener to these ears. There’s still a slight Journey influence there, but it’s rougher and harder, attacking you on several different levels. The hook is also cleverly worked out rather than being enforced on the listener. Throw in a jazzy bass line that Dave LaRue (Steve Morse/Dixie Dregs and solo) would be proud of and you end up with a sound that’s as if the Steve Morse Band were playing a Journey song and taking no prisoners in the process. You’re also hit by the band sounding like a more cohesive single unit, after the bityness of the “Welcome to Paradise” album.

Track three, “Loving Arms”, sees the band falling back to what they know best: a big power ballad. As a male/female duet it also works surprisingly well and is the sort of thing that if it was covered by Mariah Carey or Aerosmith (isn’t surprising those two can be mentioned in the same breath these days!) or used in a film, you can imagine it rushing up the mainstream charts! To be perfect though, the lyrics could do with a little tweaking to make their succession a little less obvious.

“I’m Gonna Tell you a Story” is next and actually creates quite a quandary. It totally overloads itself with ideas and lacks any central moment. Playing wise there’s lots of clever things going on, but its modernity is forced, the horns are furtive and sound like they belong in a blaxplotation movie, and overall you feel like you’re listening to a bad drugs trip! In places is sounds like Sonia Dada or the forgettable Fredriksen/Phillips album, but in other spots it sounds like Tom Jones!!! I’ve lived with the track for the best part of a year and it can grow on you a little, but I can only imagine that most listeners reaction is going to be “ehh?” The band did have another similarly modern track they demoed at the same time, but thankfully it’s been dropped from the final album.

Mercifully, “Now She’s Gone” gets things back on the right track. While not strictly speaking a power ballad, it is a slow stinger and the lofty hook reminds me of Saga. The mix of the vocals is also much more “wet” allowing you to hear more room around them and, if I’m not totally mistaken, the vocal phrasing has a candour very similar to Elton John!

The stomping guitar dominated verses of the next track “Jefferson High” are straight out of the Journey “Frontiers” songbook, while the chorus is pure 1970s Styx. Interestingly this is actually a very old song the band first did way back in 1986 and recently rediscovered on a video of them playing live at a school – Jefferson High, funnily enough! Original guitarist Mark Durgett also contributes the solo on this one. Another old song – “Exiles” – follows. This track goes right back to their mid-1980s incarnation (Rapture) and was also recorded on “Trade Winds”. This time around, it’s captured in a very different way, almost unplugged with piano and strings really the only backing to the vocals. I prefer the original’s see-through openness, even though this is a strident, heart-beating-against-the-ribcage rendition. It’s such a great song to start with that I think the first version you hear is the one that really sticks with you….

Track eight is “Standing in the Shadows” and a lot of Europeans are going to lap it up with its guitar dominated Giant-like sound. It could even fit in on the second Prophet album “Cycle of the Moon”. Keyboard player Scott Madsen is very muted on this one, as he seems to be for much of the album, but on final track “Never Fell in Love Before” he cuts lose in archetypical Tradia fashion. Admittedly this is a track that also appeared on “Welcome to Paradise”, but that version used a very mediocre, early mix and it’s given its full due here with its powerful and vivid structure and just the right elements of Toto’s sound. This one really needs to be moved up the running order, rather than languishing at the end, if anything the perplexity of “Gonna Tell you a Story” would be better served to round off the album.

The wild mixture of material on offer might surprise some listeners. As an overall album there are a lot of different aspects flying around and its hard to isolate a key, defining element. In a effort to sound more contemporary, a couple of the tracks perhaps end up sounding a little underdeveloped (including opener “Didn’t Lie”). However, what is clear is that Tradia are not afraid to renovate their sound and are not keen to just churn out apathetic, pass√© albums that would have sounded average in the 1980s – strangely that’s just the sort of album many of the current European labels like to release! Tradia are clearly not going to pander to that easy option but are prepared to try and reach fresh audiences as well. In some ways a dicey strategy, but nothing ventured…. There’s enough of their older material to please their older fans as well, and if you can approach it with a reasonably open mind you’ll find a pretty good album.

CHARLIE FARREN- “Deja Blue… the Color of Love” (FarrenHeit Records, 1999)

Charlie Farren is one of those talents that seems to remain highly well-liked in his native Boston area. Despite that (or maybe because of that?) he seems to get forgotten about in the bigger picture of things. Many people recall the name from his one album with the Joe Perry Project, and the out-and-out AOR of the later FarrenHeit album, but since then the greater world has somewhat mistreated him.

This latest release is presented in a semi-unplugged format. Live unplugged releases are one of those formats that I think has now been flogged to death, but thankfully all but one of these 12 tracks were recorded in the studio and sound more akin to “stripped down” rather than unplugged. The aforementioned live track is “Nobody’s Somebody” which is co-written with Boston/Orion the Hunter/RTZ man Barry Goodreau, and it’s such a great song it would sound terrific in any format.

It might be stripped down, but the style of the songs are just like the FarrenHeit release: very AOR, great songs, fantastic singing, and right-on production. “Heart Thunder” is a prime example of what you get from Farren in this format: a simple AOR song with an acoustic rather than an electric starting point. “Resurrected” and “She Knows” are obviously related to FarrenHeit (and we’re going to see another release from that band soon) and the songs sound familiar as a result. Even more recognisable is the reworked version of “Impossible World” from the same preceding band. Apart from the acoustic guitars it doesn’t sound too different from the original, if you know the original then you’ll pretty much know the style of this album straight away.

The album title and packaging, make it feel like this should be a blues release, However, only “Three Cheers for Love”, “Apricot” and “Nobody Good Enough” (strangely the last three tracks on offer) could be considered truly bluesy. Even then they’re more like Robben Ford than some old bluesmaster drowning in depression.

At many times, I find myself wanting to compare Farren with Glen Burtnik. Their singing styles are similar, but Farren has more range and greater control. A tremendous talent that everyone should be paying attention to. Like Eddie Money’s “Unplug it In” and Gowan’s “No Kilt Tonight” this can be marked down as one of the better examples of an unplugged release (though both of those were live), and is powerful as a result.

A.C.T- “Today’s Report” (MTM 0681-02, 1999)

Someplace during the last ten years I think the Scandinavian melodic music scene really lost its direction. Maybe the band Europe’s success was the root cause of the problem, for most of the 1990s the most high-flying bands, particularly from Sweden, have displayed the same sort of influences that eventually lead back to Ritchie Blackmore and the monotony of bands like Rainbow.

Without sounding like an old fart (!), when I was growing up, the Scandinavian bands took US and British AOR and came up with their own squeaky unsoiled version that was idiosyncratic. Sometimes this could make them seem syrupy sweet, but it was much more comfortable and ordered than that. And with all due respect, order and comfort are two major parts of the Scandinavian lifestyle, all these Swedish bands trying to act tough with dirt under their fingernails sound hollow as a result, as it just isn’t redolent of their home environment.

Therefore, it was with some surprise that I found A.C.T to display most of these qualities I hadn’t been able to associate with Scandinavian releases for some time. The only other Swedish band I’ve noticed really breaking this trend is Higher Ground. While, Higher Ground seem to take Toto as a starting point, A.C.T seem to commence their journey for “Worlds Apart”/Heads and Tales” period Saga. But even with those old Saga albums as a beginning A.C.T don’t sound deliberately dated at all, far from it.

The twists and turns of first track “Abandoned World” are so clever, that most of the band’s contemporaries would shudder and turn away in disbelief. Those twists and turns continue through the whole album. Sometimes saying a band is influenced by Saga automatically classifies them as “progressive” (and somewhat dreary as a result), but A.C.T are the other side of Saga influences because they take it a much more poppy direction, while still displaying high aptitude. The end result is like a complex mixture of Saga and Airrace, with a particularly high variety of keyboard sounds.

The guitars are also surprisingly sharp and varied in this context. Their sharpness helps the album sound modern while still having that sheen and depth you sometimes get from “10 years in the making” releases. Use of double bass drum effects also helps the material sound modern-day but, overall, it gets a little overdone by the end of the album.

“Waltz with Mother Nature” is the most progressive of the tracks and wouldn’t sound out of place on Lana Lane’s “Curious Goods” release such is it intricacy, even if it is far more mercantile overall.

If you ever wondered where Scandinavian bands like Easy Action (only the “That Makes One” album obviously) DE-5 and Lava would be in the late 1990s then this is it. Clean and sharp, yet cool at the same time and fundamentally intellectual.

      

NETWORK- “Crashin’ Hollywood” (AOR Heaven/Point Music, 1999) 

Sometimes it seems like almost any half respectable (although that isn’t an critical quality) unreleased melodic rock that’s been sitting mouldering on a shelf someplace, will eventually find someone in Europe that’s willing to put it out. Southern New Jersey based Network’s album has been sitting on such a shelf since the late 1980s and is now unexpectedly seeing the light of the day….

For me such revived releases fall into two or three camps: an authentic unreleased classic; something that was semi-decent at the time but has had its reputation grow as it’s been so hard to actually hear; and something of hazy interest because the musicians involved have gone on to something healthier or more successful. However, I’m not sure which category these guys fall into.

Network weren’t a band I remember being exposed to at the time. Even if I had listened to it in its own contemporary environment I can’t see that I would have thought it any more than passable. None of the songs are spectacular, and everything seems a bit frenetic and hasty.  There just doesn’t seem to be any long-term worth hidden within and they remind me of one of those late ‘80s bands were image was everything and the music came secondary, either that or one of those US bands that achieve regional popularity without having strong enough material to break out nationally.

The mainland Europe (and particularly German) melodic rock market might well lap this one up. But it seems stuck in a stagnant pond with nowhere to go. Maybe if this band had been supported by the industry at the time of its recording they might have developed into something that I would be praising right now, but for the moment this one is too run of the mill….

THE PROMISE- "Human Fire" (Frontiers/Now and Then FR CD 024, 1999)

Two years of recording and Aberdeen-based (OK, I’ll admit it that’s where I’m from too) The Promise have finally got their second album out and in the racks. While the drummer and keyboard player have changed the main core of the band is still undiminished as it has been for more than 10 years.

"Let’s Talk About Love" re-introduces the band to the world and sees them in full blown British version of Night Ranger mode with the odd Thin Lizzy influence stealing in the background as well. The second song, "Kiss me and Kill Me" treads the same ground and some of the guitar licks remind me of the good bits of the first Ten album.

So far things are OK rather than great. But "Hold on to Love" is much more dulcet and has a much better long-term effect. It’s here I really start to notice the progress in Ian Benzie’s vocals with him now sounding similar to Max Bacon in his pitch and diction. The vocals are even better on "There Goes my Heart" where the keyboards sound like they belong on a Journey "Escape" period ballad. This track also benefits from a different range in the mix.

Indeed the mix is somewhat wanting through all the opening tracks. While it’s adequate it doesn’t do enough to really champion the music and sounds hasty: the drums and bass are far too recessed and you can’t properly distinguish the contrasting striations of the guitars and keyboards. A little more atmospherics around the vocals would have been nice too. With Now and Then having its own studio and using the same technical staff all the time there’s a real danger of them ending up with a "house sound" for all the bands in its stable and, to be honest, I think this at times quells some of The Promise’s better aspects. The band also let themselves down a little on "When Love Takes a Hand", that has good ideas but comes across as a little numb and crying out for decent lyrics.

"Hole in My Heart" harks back to their oldest material from the early 1980s (when the band was still called Freebird, before becoming Tour de Force), sort of like an AOR UFO (around the time of the "Obsession" album). Vaguely nostalgic, but refined and clever rock nonetheless.

The next two tracks, "Let the Night go on Forever" and "Only a Woman" are in explicit contrast and the former in particular is probably the best track they’ve ever recorded. "Let the Night go on Forever", in fact, is leaps and bounds ahead of most of the current Euro AOR hopefuls, employing intelligence and refinement in a way that brings it close to the softer side of GTR. "Only a Woman" is almost as good and displays maturity in the extreme, but I’d still like to hear the mix doing a little more for the song.

On the closing two tracks, "Looking Glass" is a Gary Moore-esque guitar dominated affair, while I wasn’t sure if I liked the mid-80s feel of "Arms of a Stranger" until its unexpected mid section with Craig Chaquico style acoustic solo won we over.

Despite a limited market for melodic rock, there seems to be a never ending stream of European AOR hopefuls most of whom are too derivative and lacking in imagination. The Promise have been around for much longer than most, and it shows in just how much more urbane they are – and that’s not just a polite way of saying they’re old codgers! They seem assured in their own style and beliefs while clearly not being a flash in the pan compensating by showing off unduly. A valiant effort that has way more going for it than most of its European contemporaries.

                 

MARK ALLEN BAND- "Six Interlocking Pieces" (Blue Car 1095-2, 1997)

A Californian six piece (hence the title) with three girl members, what’s going on here, how idiosyncratic! OK, now I see, two of the girls provide backing vocals and the third is the drummer, and a good consequential drummer at that, not some jazz style workout provided by other notable girl drummers like Carola Grey.

I’ll level with you right now, there are times when I despair in all hope for melodic rock making a proper comeback, or that sufficient people really still care about it. However, sometimes you come across an indie release like this one, when it hits you square in the chest that there obviously many like-minded people out there, playing that style of music simply because they believe in it. Then you remember that there is optimism and its just the barrage from the prosaic mainstream beginning to abrading you.

Mark Allen gets off and running with "Wishing Well" and what a tremendous AOR sound it displays. Somewhere right between Eric Martin, Michael Stanley and Duke Jupiter. Keyboards try to provide some brass textures and the guitars are nice and sturdy but still full of bristling adrenaline. There’s also a slight R&B/soul crossover link, which moves it more into Jimmy Barnes’ territory musically, but with a cleaner, less lived-in voice on top.

Second track "Take my Heart" sounds very Californian, melodic AOR with some midwest tones as well. Quite like Brett Walker and the layered female backing vocals remind me of the long-lost Tantrum (on their second album "Rather be Rockin’"), and musically it comes from the same roots as well.

Through both of the first tracks, Mark Allen’s vocals had been reminding me of someone I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but "Lightning Never Strikes" brings it home. This track feels like Le Roux’s classic "So Fired Up" album: same rationale, same mix of instruments, same qualities, and Mark’s vocals clearly have some parallelisms to Fergie Frederiksen.

"I Will be There" has me making a note of "wow" – this time it’s more like the second Franke and Knockouts album ("Below the Belt") thanks to the way that piano is used above some sharp guitars. An approach that’s also similar to Toto around their "Turn Back" period and, if I’m not mistaken, the end guitar part started off life in the Toto track "Could this be Love" from the "Fahrenheit" album.

"Fear of Falling" and "Heart and Soul" again bring memories of Le Roux flooding back. But, they’re not actually dated, just vaguely familiar. All the other tracks are pretty great as well and a track like "One Night" has most of the elements that go to make up a perfect AOR track.

To me this is what the term "AOR" (and is this case we can call it Adult Orientated Rock) really stands for. It’s not some watered down heavy rock, rather its real songs with decorum and a careful overall effect implanted in melody, texture and depth. If it seems like I’ve made some comparisons to some hugely lofty names in the history of AOR, than that’s because this release is that good! The only question that remains is why it’s not more well known. Let’s change that situation right now….

LANA LANE- "Queen of the Ocean" (Limb Music Products LMP 9903-009, 1999)

Back again in double quick time is Lana Lane with an all new studio album to further cement her success in Japan where momentum is very important. The same livery of musicians as before is used on some pretty attenuated tracks, the only difference this time around is that she’s got a European release through a decent sized label. The European release also has three bonus tracks, but most Lana fans will have the tracks involved already as they’re all from previous Japanese releases.

"Night Falls" is the full starting point and sounds less progressive than before, almost more like Kansas or even Joshua in places. It seems more guitar orientated, though it’s Lana’s mystical vocals that are still the standout. The title track is next and starts with mellotrons a plenty. Overall it is nicely spacious and closer to producer Erik Norlander’s band the Rocket Scientists: progressive and pithy at the same time, edging in the direction of Pallas’ material on the "Sentinel" album.

"Let Heaven In" is on a par with previous Lana highlights though it is perhaps a little more commercial via its operatic-scaled, sonorous chorus.

On first hearing this album I came away the impression that this was too sober an album with a much more simplistic approach that I expected from a Lana release. Repeated listens have removed most of that discernment, though there is a series of three tracks that lack something from my point of view.

"Frankenstein Unbound" is the first of the tripartite. The vocals somehow keep it interesting, but it seems to sound too European and it lacks the duplicity of sounds and emotional/cerebral effects of previous tracks and releases. "Souls of the Mermaids" helps even less and I can’t stand the progressive metal guitar track which sounds out of place. Again, it sounds far too like an entry from one the sea of medial European progressive metal bands, eschewing the more urbane Californian collective of earlier releases. And, "Rainbow’s End" feels more like Saxon or Motorhead, albeit with keyboards and brains. The vocal placement and pace on the track is really clever, but musically is too standard an affair.

The last track before the bonus cuts, "Without you", does repair some of the damage and is in the mould of Lana’s previous symphonic hard rock.

As a whole, Lana Lane has simplified her approach with this release and stripped away some layers of colouration. The production has slightly less scale as a result of more emphasis being put on the guitars, fewer keyboard sounds, and less complex rhythm tracks.

Not a bad release, but not as invigourating as her previous efforts. The tracks I like the least will probably draw in more listeners, but I would still like to hear what the style of "Curious Goods" taken to its ultimate evolution would be….

UNDER FIRE- Same (Point/AOR Heaven/GB Music, 1998)

Don’t really want to get bogged down in the chronicles of this band, but this is one of those projects that’s been on a musty shelf after never being released by a major label when it was originally recorded. The tracks are copyrighted 1984 and 1988 and Cary Sharaf is/was the lissome force behind the band, though his sidekicks include Jimmy Waldo from New England.

When something’s been obscured from view for a long time I’m not always sure what to expect. But, "No More Heartaches" introduces a band that seem to be mixing together Journey and the aforementioned New England. The production is good and sounds like the days when big budgets abounded. Somehow though you end up with this nagging suspicion at the back of your mind that it’s a little stillborn as the band are likely very much long gone and what you’re listening to is purely historical.

"Crazy for Love", "Heart in Pain" and "Rolling down that Road" follow in the same general vein with banks of 1980s style keyboards on hand. While not sounding overtly characteristic, Under Fire are restrained and melodic placing them firmly in the traditional AOR camp, almost like a slightly more pliant Signal mixed with "Power" period Kansas. I like that there’s plenty of "room" around the vocals (singer Moki DeMarco sounds quite like Lou Nadeau from Canadian band Wrabit with the odd Steve Walsh articulation), though the drums are quite recessed.

Other good points are "Hold Out" which gets close to the poppy side of Angel or even the second King Kobra album, and particularly "Burning Desire" which has keyboard proportions that would do the first White Sister album proud. At other times I also found myself wanting to compare the transmission of vocals, keyboards and guitars to British band After Hours (originally called XS) on their "Love Attack" album, but I think that’s more of a eulogy to After Hours!

A couple of tracks ("Love you one More Time" and "Always on the Run") see the band’s song-writing take a bit of backseat, and end up a little antiquated and frigid.

However, this album still feels like an old, familiar favourite that you pull out for a quick listen when you’re feeling down or your spirits are flagging. With that in mind it’s almost paradoxically hard to think of it as a new release, but it’s well worth visiting.

RECEIVER SET- Same (ReallyFab Records 9701, 1997)

Receiver Set is Billy Maddox. A name that way not be instantly familiar though he’s played drums in Eric Johnson’s early band The Electromagnets and has appeared on Johnson’s solo work including Eric’s original first solo album "Seven Worlds" which was only recently released. He might have established his name previously as a drummer, but on this album he plays absolutely everything and proves himself to be a fine guitarist in the process.

Thanks to the Eric Johnson connection I was expecting a jazzy, fusion workout, so when "Try" started I was somewhat taken aback by its quirky guitar rock sound like some of Bourgeois Tagg’s material or even Paul Gilbert’s two solo albums. Unexpected its direction might have been, but fine work it is regardless. Track two "I Can’t Wait" does have elements or Eric Johnson or similar guitarist Barry Richman, but it too is surprisingly direct and rocky.

By the time you get to "Divine Milieu" a slightly more avant-garde edge comes it which brings it closer to The Tubes or Bill Spooner’s solo work. Quirkiness also runs through the lyrics of "Simple Simple" which reminded me of Warren Zevon, though the guitar playing is more like Eric Johnson but with significantly more grime under his fingernails.

The production throughout is weighty and quite unrestricted, and helps provide an interesting foil to the lovely fluid guitar tracks on "That Won’t Bring you Back" where Maddox’s playing gets close to David Gilmour.

Fine moments keep on flowing too. "Menu" has enough gnarled guitars to make it practically luscious to the current mainstream and is somewhere between Larry Tagg and the better bits of Enuff z’Nuff. Two instrumentals also appear. Both are quite different: "Surfland" mixes Chris Duarte-style craggy blues guitar sounds with Eric Johnson’s track "SRV", while "Receiver Set" is the only real fusion moment on the whole release – its guitars are much harder than you would expect with fusion, but they are really only there to support some top-notch drumming where the whole kit gets a workout.

A really enjoyable rock record from start to finish which shows Maddox to be a well travelled and truly urbane musician. A miniature treasure trove that can be both direct and quirky at the same time!

TANDYM- "City out of Time" (Saffold Productions SAFFPROD01, 1997)

With AOR very much the underground of the moment, many independent releases are recorded on a shoestring budget. Sometimes they still work out OK, but Tandym’s debut is one of those that really writhes from lack of a real kitty.

This three-piece from Georgia start off with the album’s title track and while it has plenty of good melodic rock elements, it just does not quite come together and becomes a bit run-of-the-mill and hollow sounding. "Can’t Blame the World" is more guitar orientated, but the production is as poor as poor can get: meagre, flimsy and detached: it’s a much better song, but like a bad truss the vocals don’t have nearly enough support. "Annie" and "Love Walked Away" also suffer at the hands of the parsimonious production and barely even sound like demos!

However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. "Don’t Walk Away" particularly, plus "Symptom of Reality" and "I’ll Wait" really are pretty good songs, but without decent production support they sound a little sloppy and cheap.

I would be intrigued to hear what these guys would sound like with proper backing and support, but the deficiencies on their debut (of bad production and far too simple programmed bass and drums) make them sound like the background music to a furtive porno film!

JOHN KEANE- "Straight Away" (Lay Cut Records LC957, 1999)

Since the two superb Japan only albums under the name of Keane the brothers of the same name (Tom and John) have been appearing at sporadic intervals, but never seem to get the breaks that propels up the musical ladder in a more public fashion. Tom Keane has recently done some fine production work (especially on Chris Camozzi’s "Windows of my Soul" album for Higher Octave), and John (although he’s done a previous solo album) has been doing a lot of film and TV music.

"Straight Away" is straight at the start and while it’s not the same as the Keane albums (neither should it be given the foregoing time), but it’s still steeped in the same quality rock influences of the much earlier project (don’t forget that Keane was frequently nick-named "Little Toto" at the time). Good, proper AOR with a sharp enough commercial edge to make it almost affable to the current mainstream. Crafty stuff indeed that uses the Burning Water brothers Ted and Michael Landau, and has some of Burning Water’s demeanour but in a clear AOR context rather than the sometimes abstruse direction of that band. John Keane plays drums, all keyboards, and sings too. Other musicians appearing on later tracks include Tim Pierce, Steve Porcaro, and much travelled guitarist Buzz Feiten.

"Red Raven" helps indicate how good the production is, and shows what people that really know what they’re doing can do even on a budget. Wyn Davis (long time Michael Thompson cohort) is also involved in a production capacity on two tracks. It’s an interesting song, which takes all the qualities of the time-honoured westcoast sound and makes it sound a little more topical and less disinfected. "We Love our Fantasies" uses the same theme of westcoast values without dating itself. It also has fine drive and transients almost despite of its structure – again the production and mix are spot on.

For some reason I think "Venus is Sinking" has already been recorded by somebody else, but I can’t place who. The pacing of the vocals there is very like Jay Gruska and the overall structure is like Toto when they were at their most ambitious and grandiose.

With years of material to draw on, Keane manages to contrast the material very effectively from the brooding "After Dark" were the vocals are effete and celestial and almost sound like Paul Janz, through to the entirely poppy AOR of "Love is the Last Frontier" (reminiscent of Kevin Raleigh’s solo album or Martin Briley’s song "Salt in my Tears") which has sharp guitars and a strident chorus.

"Darkside of the Earth" is comparatively plaintiff and a little like the best bits of the Bruce Hornsby last album. It’s a song that’s about pure feel and is almost cheeky in its simplicity and easy going quality. "Since I met You" is almost like Paul Janz crossed with the Police.

One of those westcoast albums that just says quality, experience and breeding! And, it’s not a half-hearted reworking of old tracks that were lying on a shelf – it is clearly a cohesive modern album that draws on the high values of its predecessors and past contemporaries to hit the mark with quality and effortless self-belief. Lap it up…

       

BILLY WARD- "Two Hands Clapping" (DrumPike DP1006, 1998)

Billy is a well-travelled session drummer who’s appeared on many a quality release and, in particular, seems well plugged into the Marc Jordan/Bruce Gaitsch group of musicians. His first solo album features ten tracks recorded with only one aiding musician on each track.

"Sound of the Rain" is first up and is a fellowship with Bill Champlin on Hammond B-3 and vocals. I’m right away struck by the audiophile qualities of the recording (and it’s HDCD compatible too, actually that’s something I should have recommended before there are clear benefits from having a CD player with HDCD decoding capability), quite like Niacin in some ways, but with even more dynamics. Champlin also appears on the later "High Heel Sneakers" and Percy Mayfield’s "Danger Zone" which both have similar virtues.

"Be Careful" is second and with Glen Phillips. A pretty interesting song, only two instruments but it still sounds extravagant! I find myself reminded of the Sheffield Labs "Track and Drum Test Record" (and just like Sheffield’s stuff it’s live in the studio) which had the highest possible recording standards but also a musical righteousness and pureness that really made you aware of what listening to music should be all about.

"Step Inside" moves into much more jazzy territory like Chick Corea - the drum sound is again quite incredible and worth listening to on its own. Talking of Chick Corea his bass-player John Patitucci is on "Devaney’s Goat/The Whistling Postman", which actually reminds me more of late great French-Canadian fusion band Uzeb.

Guitarist Chris Whitley joins Billy on "Some Mortal Dreams" and "Aphasia". These two are the least likeable for me. "Some…" doesn’t really grab me with its audiophile Velvet Underground approach and "Aphasia" lacks something in its final effectiveness in the same way that much of Whitley’s solo albums do. Great drumming though….

Many might label this is as a jazz release, but I think that would be pigeonholing it far too much – it’s much more for listeners who just like to have their minds expanded. If you don’t have a good drum sound then you’ve got nothing! And Billy has it here – everything a drum sound should be, so rather than have the hassle of Billy bringing his drum kit round to the house of every CD buyer this is an excellent alternative….

JANINE STANGE- "One Way" (Tamer Records TPCD 1002, 1997)

An comely young lady, and a Christian own at that, that wants to rock – gosh! With a dire lack of youthful musicians following a melodic rock direction, it’s important that show some belief in rock as otherwise the long-term health of this segment (and that’s all it is at the moment) of music will be in a precarious situation.

"One Way" introduces Janine to the listener and is both study and melodic with razor barbed guitars kicking in hard. Not bad, maybe a little forced in places, but adding up to an interesting mixture of Q5, forward Idle Cure, the first Margaret Becker album ("Never for Nothing") while especially coming close to the result of Cindy Cruse’s second album ("Small Town Girl").

"Live to Love you" and "I Know You" have a vaguely modern crossover sound – mainly due to their sullen and foreboding guitars, but with far superior vocals than a current mainstream band. In places it’s not unlike CITA/Guild of Ages. "Waiting" and "Be the One" also rock in a more classical hard rock style almost like Hurricane or Cry Wolf.

A couple of the tracks – particularly "Come Together" – hint at the style of Terri Nunn on her solo album "Moment of Truth", and when singing deeper, Janine’s vocals do indeed have some similar intonations to Terri. "With Me", meantime tries is best to be modern, but just doesn’t work for me.

Overall the programmed drums are a little one dimensional and irritating. As a result, the backing for the guitars and vocals sounds somewhat effete. Another slight downside is that "Save my Life" completely lifts the guitar part from Montrose’s classic "Rock Candy" and, thanks to the tremendous size of the guitars, the vocals are left with nowhere to go. Indeed, the vocals aren’t always quite up-front enough throughout and sometimes they seem divorced from the music. But I think this is more down to the production than anything else as it doesn’t always allow Janine to show her best – constrained budgets can do that!

Maybe overall Janine needs slightly more clarity of direction, though the whole Christian music scene seems to be becoming a bit insipid and Janine’s style and material should shake it up a bit right now….

UNRULY CHILD- "Waiting for the Sun" (MTM 199667, 1998)

Where to start a review of Unruly Child? I guess with reflecting on the first album which is so often held up by many as a bastion of everything that should be precious in melodic rock. Not for me, I thought is was a pitiable, misguided effort: a couple of OK moments, but overall hugely fatuous songs with cliched titles, slapdash lyrics, and banal song structures. Beau Hill’s (he’d been a downward slide for many a year at the time) production and mix were sadly lacking in dynamics and the Mark Free’s vocals were left unsupported and dry, giving rise to the feeling that it was a compression test record. To me it’s "identi-kit" melodic rock was a huge step backwards for Mark Free after the nigh-on perfect Signal "Loud and Clear" release.

So why am I even bothering to give this new release (where Kelly Hansen has replaced Free on vocals) for the band any review space? Well, even with those previous bad experiences at the forefront of my mind, I find a mammoth amount to like in this new album. "Heart Run Free" and "Why Should I Care" are prime examples full of quality melodic rock ideals and sounding much more like Signal than anything that was ever released before under the Unruly Child moniker. With Bruce Gowdy handling the production himself the results are way more potent than Beau Hill’s, blown, big budget.

Hansen seems to be an excellent stand-in for Free, especially on "Forever" where you suddenly realise how similar their singing approaches are. If Mark Free was still in the band I would be able to say that this was a much more sound follow-up to the Signal album that the first Unruly Child album…. No where is this is more clear than the track "Do you ever think of Me" which in three and a half minutes has more good ideas that the whole of the first album!

MTM have kept up a steady release schedule, but if they can keep up releases of this quality then there’s no reason why quality melodic rock can’t make a more wholesale come-back. High praise indeed when associated with a band name that held no worth for me even just six months ago. The debut was cold and impotent, but the second album is sparklingly alive and truly emotive – what a turnaround!

LANA LANE- "Live in Japan" (Avalon MICY-1065, 1998)
ROCKET SCIENTISTS- "Earth Below and Sky Above" (Think Tank Media TTMD-1019, 1998)

I don’t know if it’s that the Japanese listener just ignores trends in other countries, or they are the only country that puts musical value above everything else. Whatever it is, Japan is certainly keeping new high quality rock alive, and has really taken Lana Lane’s brand of artisan, dulcet hard rock to heart. Despite, having a high frequency of new releases in Japan, Lana still seems to be able to maintain a uniformly high quality while also being able to develop further musically rather than stagnating under the obligation of demanding release schedules.

With that level of success in Japan, I guess a "Live in Japan" release was predestined sooner rather than later. Many such releases are pure exploitation of the listeners and quick cash-cows for the record label (remember how many, barely-different, Japanese live releases Mr. Big and Harem Scarem have done!).

But every Lana release seems to have a higher purpose and a real assurance behind it, and the live album is no different. Immediate impressions are of a superb, clear transcript of the live environment, and one of the most courteous audiences I’ve ever heard. You don’t hear them saying "shhh" to each other in the quieter passages, but you could imagine a high proportion had "quiet please" and an intense stare at the ready. Her backing band for the Japanese tour was essentially the Rocket Scientists plus guitarist Neil Citron (who himself has a solo album on the way). Despite having two guitarists, wheel-barrow loads of keyboards from Erik Norlander, and Chapman Stick bass from Don Schiff, the sound is never congested and always spatially correct.

Of the eleven tracks included, there’s a surprisingly large amount of "Love is an Illusion" material, which is strange as I don’t think it had actually been released in Japan at the time of the tour. But, of Lana’s material it’s probably the most suited to a live environment. The more finely-crafted, symphonic "Curious Goods" might be harder to reproduce, though "Symphony of Angels" is represented in fine form….

However, "Love is an Illusion" has now been released in Japan (Avalon – MICY-1069). For the re-release, as it were, most of the tracks have been souped up with new rhythm tracks and auxiliary guitars and keyboards. All the tracks have a new found glimmer and an additional scale. There’s also a couple of bonus tracks including the surprisingly belligerent and heavy "Into the Ether".

Back on the live album, "Through the Fire" from the first album also gets a very interesting acoustic treatment, which works well, and shows off Lana’s vocals to even finer effect. One of the most involving live albums I’ve heard in a long time. With the audience so polite it’s like every listener is getting a personalised performance. A real archive record of an weighty concert, rather than the anonymous "any where, any time" feel of many a live album.

Reviewing Lana’s live album also segues smoothly into Rocket Scientists’ own live album which was primarily recorded in Germany at a 1997 progressive rock festive in front of a rather languid, and seemingly jaded audience. Prior to being booked for the festival, the Rocket Scientists had essentially been a studio project with two interesting, albeit very progressive albums under their belt.

In many ways, I think this is a much better introduction to the Rocket Scientists’ material than their studio albums, as in a live environment all the songs seem more involving. The progressive side of the music is still very much emphasised and in true progressive fashion the vocals are the weakest element, but the musical prowess of tracks like "The Fall of Icarus" make up for any short-comings in that area.

Lana Lane handles the lead vocals on two of the tracks – "Avalon" (which is a little like old-style Pallas) and "Stardust". For me these two are the standouts on the album as her vocals invigorate the songs with broader appeal.

The video version of the album is also well worth checking out, as you get more tracks with Lana Lane, see some real Chapman Stick technique in action from Don Schiff and also encounter Tommy Amato’s combined drumming and aerobics workout – just as well he’s at one side of the stage as his contortions must be very distracting for the rest of the band, when in full serious prog rock mode! Proper American progressive rock like a modern-day Gentle Giant, but with just enough variety to appeal to a broader rock audience.

TEN- "Spellbound" (Now and Then/Frontiers FR CD 014, 1999)

Criticising Ten in Europe seems to be next to heresy. Their first album was obliging enough, but the two studio follow-ups seemed hurried, though the recent double live album, it has to be said, had some pretty good moments. Band leader Gary Hughes has continued to be busy with auxiliary projects including the solo album "Precious Ones" which is rather more interesting and perspicacious than most of Ten’s output, while he also did all the hard work for Magnum/Hard Rain singer Bob Catley’s solo album, though it still sounded flat and wearied.

To me, it almost seems like Ten are victims of their own success. They have to keep putting out albums quickly to maintain their momentum in their prime market of Japan, and change is never a good thing to the Japanese listener so they have to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

"Spellbound" is the new album and it has a grim sleeve which gives an initial impression of progressive metal in hiding. Opening instrumental "March of the Argonauts" doesn’t help matters much more as it’s rather pretentious.

"Fear the Force" is the first vocal track and sees the band sounding more like Saxon or Iron Maiden than a melodic rock outfit. There’s really no AOR content at all, and "Inside the Pyramid of Light" is like Thin Lizzy rehashed in a heavier format.

A lot of sword and sorcery imagery is adopted, but this is just plain fatuous and a bit Dio-ish: i.e. a little silly! The horses and armour of "We Rule the Night" is a prime offender, and the "The Alchemist" could be a new reference mark in trite, boring lyrics. To further add to the hotch-pot of cultural influences, Celtic themes are brought into tracks like "Remembrance for the Brave" and "Red" and bring back more visions of Thin Lizzy lamenting about noble warriors on day trips from the mountains. I might be from a Celtic race myself, but why people keep on wanting to put these influences into a rock context is beyond me.

The barely disguised Giant ripp-offs and pinched Journey guitar riffs of Ten’s early material have been thrown right out of the window. Now they sound like very standard early 1980s British hard/heavy rock. Strangely there’s a high number of Scandinavian bands that currently employ the same sound, and fans of Brazen Abbott and their ilk, will probably lap this up.

The production and mix are merely OK, but hardly sparkling. It’s almost like a conscious effort has been made to try and reproduce the muddiness of early 1980s NWOBHM ("New Wave of British Heavy Metal" for those who’ve forgotten, or were never exposed to, the term) – could it be coincidence that the Tygers of Pan Tang also had an album called "Spellbound"? Lyrically they could certainly do with some fresh influences as most are, frankly, pretentious and supercilious.

From an AOR point of view there’s almost nothing (apart from a half decent ballad) to hold the attention. Listeners with more melodic sensitivities should move straight to Gary Hughes’ "Precious Ones" solo album rather than adding more Ten releases to their collection.

RESTLESS- "Alone in the Dark" (MTM 199661,1998)

I know hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back I think late 1980s L.A. is the root antecedent of the currently emasculated rock mainstream. There were too many poor quality bands there that managed to find a deal easily enough, and it all started to become about the "hair band" image rather than music. But within that wasteland of throwaway hard and glam rock there was some great AOR bands waiting to be discovered. One of them was Freelance, who later changed their name to Restless but never got picked up by a label. But now MTM has resurrected their material, despite how long it’d been gathering dust on an obscure shelf.

The tracks come from two original four song demos that were recorded in "a bedroom and a garage" on a 16-track home studio, plus some later "proper" studio tracks recorded when the line-up had changed significantly and band-leader Roger Sommers was trying to move in a "Def Leppard with keyboards" direction…. Some of those newer cuts didn’t work so well as they sound like a band adapting a sound to suit the trends at the record labels at that time (see the sadly lacking in singularity of "Body to Body" for evidence). At the time I felt the first four song demo was a little jagged (in that it had a fairly brutish drum sound) and the second was much better because of the superior songs and Sommers had been doing a lot of work on his vocal technique at the time. Musically it’s obviously 1980s AOR/pomp rock but with lots of seventies influences, and vocals similar to Billy Squier.

Looking at some of the tracks then: "Guilty" (from the second demo) and "Alone in the Dark" are sort of White Sister meets a superior version of House Of Lords. "Don’t do it to Me" is third and the best so far, moving more into "Out On Bail" era Legs Diamond but with more keyboards. Then you get "Lightnin’ Strikes" (which actually featured on the AOR Basement "Hot Night in the City" compilation album) – one helluva melodic rock song. "In Your Eyes", and "Keep the Fire Burnin’" are obviously from a similar writing period, and are so mature – this is real gutsy melodic rock for grown ups! Almost like Billy Squier meets Angel, meets every good influence going! With "Keep the Fire Burnin’" in particular, I defy anyone to not find this track an archetype for everything that AOR means to them. Hearing a track like that (OK, I’ve lived with it for ten years) finally released properly restores my flagging musical spirits without indulging in superfluous nostalgia.

"Painted Lady" is from the first demo and is not as jagged as I remember, fine stuff, superbly played and instrumented but a little standard in writing terms. "I Don’t Wanna Want You" belies Foreigner’s fundamental influence on Sommers, but Michael Lord’s keyboards add a whole dimension of pomp to it to a spine tingling degree. Meanwhile "Feels Like Love" is the very definition of pomp rock, so Roadmaster or Trillion-ish, that old bass and drum pulse, keyboard textures, stabbing guitars, big harmonies – serious but bright and breezy at the same time, so lavish that someone will want to place a "listening tax" on it!

Production roughness isn’t an issue, Sommers seems to know how to get the most of what’s available to him. Even when Freelance was working hard to land a deal he was still in demand as a producer and engineer and now he’s a well-respected studio engineer guy: check out the recent Saga albums for evidence in that regard.

I’m not trying to say that if Freelance/Restless had picked up a deal at the time they were first circulating then the whole music industry would have been saved. But maybe it wouldn’t have been exactly like it is now either…. Better hear it soon, anally-retentive demo traders have been drooling over these tracks for years, so it’s fitting that they be heard by a more urbane audience now.


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Ian McIntosh

Copyright © 2004 Ian McIntosh, AOR Basement, all rights reserved
Most recent revision Monday February 22, 2010 - originally created November 1995.