Reviewed by Dave Reynolds

  Coming Soon: Syndicate, Midnight Blue, Jeff Scott Soto, Mr Big, Phantom Rocker & Slick and Pretty Maids!
Jack Blades - 'Rock 'N Roll Ride' (Frontiers)

The second solo album from Night Ranger's Jack Blades gives us no surprises, but it is another solid effort from a man who has rarely disappointed since the former Rubicon bassist entered the big league with Night Ranger thirty years ago. There are songs on 'Rock 'N Roll Ride' that span the styles of each of Blades' projects including Night Ranger. For example, 'Love Life' is very much akin to his work with Damn Yankees; 'Back In The Groove' is akin to a stripped back, organic version of Night Ranger and the acoustic, Beatles vibe of 'West Hollywood' and 'Anything For You' brings Jack's collaboration with Damn Yankees cohort Tommy Shaw to mind. Virtually every track on this album is of the quality you'd expect from Blades, with the exception of the rather dreary 'Don't Give Up', but that track aside Jack is still riding that rock 'n' roll train. Long may he continue!

 

Sonic Station - S/T Sonic Station - 'Sonic Station' (Frontiers)

A lovingly rendered effort from a Swedish act (the brainchild of Alexander Kronbank and a project in which he has enlisted a huge array of fellow musicians) that sits very much in the Westcoast AOR realm, the debut album from Sonic Station's beauty is in the fact that a mixture of male and female lead vocalists add a certain variety and spice to the mix. Although possibly too lightweight for some tastes, it nevertheless does surprise with some wonderful twists and turns. Carefully weighted in terms of its running order, the listener is treated to the pure Westcoast sounds of  'Love's Gonna Show You The Way' and 'Never Let The Sun Die' (the latter truly Richard Page-esque in appeal)  or the lounge-ish 'Reasons' whilst perhaps being surprised at just how urgent and rather harder in approach 'You Have To Let Me Go' and 'Running Through The Night' (with harmonies reminiscent of Chicago bands Tantrum or Tami Show) are. A very nice record and one that, rather surprisingly from Sweden and Frontiers, doesn't feature Tommy Denander on!

 

SafetySuit - 'These Times' (Universal Republic)

I thought SafetySuit's 2008 debut album 'Life Left To Go' was a pretty decent affair as "Post New Breed" releases go (there, I've started a whole new category of music to annoy folks with!). 'These Times', as pleasant a record as it is, sadly sounds rather just too derivative of many of their peers; including Nickelback. There isn't a uniqueness about SafetySuit as everything they deliver on this album has been done before. I suppose the same could be said for plenty of 80s rock bands too, but the difference is that each tended to have a distinctive vocalist. SafetySuit's frontman Doug Brown, I'm sad to say, is very difficult to distinguish from a plethora of his similar sounding peers and as such tends to give the album a distinct lack of character. Like I said, the album is pleasant enough and has added to their expanding fanbase, but the band just sounds too ordinary for my tastes this time around.

 

Praying Mantis - 'Time Tells No Lies' (Rock Candy Reissue)

For some reason Praying Mantis had always been one of those bands I'd given little attention to over the years. I don't recall ever owning the original vinyl version of this album and I'm at a loss to really understand why. Maybe it was because, at the time, there were a host of other groups around that I deemed more exciting and that Mantis' contribution to the first 'Metal For Muthas' compilation album hadn't resonated with my still young ears; the band's more intricate approach lost on someone so polluted on the thrust and stomp of gargantuan American rock. So, to discover the delights of 'Time Tells No Lies' after all this time has been a very nice surprise. As with all Rock Candy reissues, this release is beautifully presented both from a remastered sound point of view and with the love and care put into the booklet (great liner notes courtesy of Malcolm Dome) and the addition of bonus tracks.

 

Van Halen - 'A Different Kind Of Truth' (Interscope)

I've never known an album to have created so much discussion, so much interest, so much controversy as Van Halen's long-awaited (to some) comeback album with David Lee Roth.  So is it good, bad or just simply ok? Well, it's certainly not the kind of album that blows you away the first time that you hear it as 'Van Halen', 'Fair Warning', '1984' or even 'OU812' did. It has its moments, but the opener (and first single) 'Tattoo' isn't one of them. 'Tattoo' is a poor, poor opener. It would sound more at home on a David Lee Roth solo album than on here. 'She's The Woman' is a bit more like it. It's more like the Van Halen of old, which is no surprise really given that this song is merely a revamp of a previously unreleased song I have owned for many years now from the group's original Gene Simmons produced demo cut back in 1977. Indeed, many of the songs on this album are of nearly similar vintage, all ideas originally visited yet unused over thirty years ago (in the case of 'Big River' the production is so non-existent it almost sounds like the original save for Roth's poor vocals). However, very few make much of an impact, perhaps because they lack Ted Templeman in the producer's chair to bring some quality to the delivery. 'You And Your Blues' is thus a meandering ditty with an unconvincing vocal; 'Bullethead' is very average; 'Stay Frosty' a piss poor resurrection of the 'Ice Cream Man' idea; 'Honeybabysweetiedoll' a confusing mess and 'As Is' just blood, piss, vinegar and bombast just for the sake of it. However, the album does have two tracks to join 'She's The Woman' at the prom. 'China Town' and 'Outta Space' are both up and at 'em, old school Van Halen butt kickers. Indeed, the latter track could easily slip on to the first two Van Halen albums with ease. However, three great tracks do not a great album make, so whereas the aforementioned classics will always be dusted off and spun regularly, it's pretty doubtful whether 'A Different Kind Of Truth' will get more than just the cursory listen to again.

 

Donnie Vie - 'Wrapped Around My Middle Finger' (Livewire)

This is where Donnie Vie really comes into his own as a solo artist and proves just how important his talents - including those spell binding vocals - have been to the longevity and success of Enuff Z'Nuff. Pulling all his influences together into one place Vie creates a truly fantastic album. Opening with the album's superb title track there's a good deal of light and shade involved throughout the record. Vie wears his Beatles influences on his sleeve (shamelessly ripping off the guitar riff to 'Day Tripper' on 'Lisa') and coming close to sounding like Elvis Costello on occasion too ('Flames Of Love' has a rather neat Costello-like vibe about it). It's worth noting that Kip Winger guests on vocals and bass on 'Now Ya Know' and you must check out the heady blues of 'Lil' Wonder' and the closing Cheap Trick-like romp of 'Smokin' Hot Lollipop'. Both are ahead of the game, but on the whole are just part of a fantastic album!

Casablanca - 'Apocalyptic Youth' (Rocket Songs)

Touted in some quarters as hanging on the tailcoats of the Swedish sleaze revival, Casablanca are certainly way beyond some mere trashy outfit. Centered on a 70s and 80s blend of melodic hard rock more betraying of main man Ryan Roxie's influences, 'Apocalyptic Youth' is absolutely perfectly captured by Chris Laney's production in a similarly stunning fashion to his work on Steevi Jaimz's criminally ignored 'My Private Hell' album. Roxie, a former member of Candy, Electric Angels, Alice Cooper's band and Ryan's own Roxie 77, bases himself in Stockholm these days and has gathered around him an exceedingly tight group that comprises vocalist Anders Ljung, guitarist Erik Stenemo, bassist Mats Rubarth ( I was actually quite thrilled to see Rubarth involved as he is a former professional footballer - capped at international level by Sweden too- and was a cult figure at AIK, my favourite Swedish team) and erstwhile Sahara Hotnights drummer Josephine Forsman. After a fairly low-key start with the album's title track that has a faint Thin Lizzy vibe to it, Casablanca (surely named in salute to the finest record label the 70s had to offer?) step up a gear with 'Deliberately Wasted' and then head 'Downtown'; the latter a sort of 21st Century take on Electric Angels. With 'Rich Girl' betraying those Thin Lizzy influences again, 'Beast Of Summer' providing a real bright and breezy anthem and 'Love And Desperation' taking equal parts Scorpions, Helloween, White Lion, UFO and Thin Lizzy to offer the album's most metallic track adding to a vibrant mixture of quality hard rock, there's a nice surprise at every twist and turn. However, if I were to choose two songs on the album to highlight the refreshing inventiveness of Casablanca then they have to be 'The Juggler' and 'Secret Agents Of Lust'. While the latter features some thunderous drumming from Forsman and a Shark Island-like sheen to its swagger, the former is an elegant romp that's underpinned by Rubarth's bass that mated to the guitars of Roxie and Stenemo sound curiously like Thin Lizzy attempting Kiss' 'Sure Know Something'! All in all, this is a wonderful album. I love it!

 

Axe - 'Axeology 1979-2001' (Deadline)

I've always found Axe a bit of an odd beast. Feted by many, in my opinion they've never quite managed to consistently fulfil their potential, their albums (especially the early MCA brace) containing some absolute crackers yet also a few clunkers as well with the production never quite being there either. Reading Bobby Barth's liner notes in this 2CD package you begin to realise why. As with his previous band Babyface, Barth was the victim of all kinds of record label interference and curious decision making. It's clear to see that this continues to this day as the seven tracks culled from 1981's 'Offering' album and the six fromm '83's 'Nemesis' are re-recorded versions laid down in 1997 with a revamped line-up (first featured on the '20 Years From Home Volumes 1 And 2' release) rather than the original versions released through Atco and produced by Al Nalli. Rights issues, no doubt, are the reason for the inclusion of the re-recordings. For hardcore Axe fans there's a couple of previously unreleased tracks to make things more interesting; including 'No More Heroes' (written by Barth alongside Bruce Nazarian of The Automatix) cut between 1987 and 1988 features erstwhile Mayday singer Steve Johnstad in the ranks.

 

St. Paradise

St. Paradise - 'St. Paradise' (Wounded Bird Reissue)

Derek St. Holmes is possibly one of the more underrated vocalists in rock. Having spent much of his career as a sideman to Ted Nugent, St. Holmes has, on occasion, ventured into other projects that have hit all the right buttons with AOR anoraks like yours truly, but have failed to turn him into the gold or platinum selling artist his talent deserves. A trio comprised of St. Holmes (guitar/vocals), fellow Nugent alumni Rob Grange (bass) and, fresh from Montrose, Denny Carmassi (drums), St. Paradise’s sole release tended to get lost on the radar back in the day but is a glorious record that eschews the full frontal lobotomy St. Holmes was used to delivering with Uncle Ted and thus strolls between country rock, melodic rock and hard rock with relative ease. Although the Aerosmith-like gait of ‘Tighten The Knot’ offers a precursor to Derek’s collaboration with Brad Whitford three years later, the main comparisons to be had from this album in retrospect are with the oft ignored 70s hard rock outfit Rex (fronted by a Broadway bound Rex Smith) and, especially, Ozz; two band names that would be only too familiar to melodic rock devotees who picked up on this record the first time around. St. Holmes has a remarkably similar timbre in his voice to that of Ozz’s Alexis T. Angel and so the harder edged ‘Miami Slide’ and ‘Beside The Sea’ wouldn’t sound out of place on Ozz’s superb ‘No Prisoners’ album released a year later than this 1979 release . The funky ‘Live It Up’ meantime recalls the Reggie Knighton Band’s sole offering from a year earlier. This really is one of the overlooked classics of the era and is truly wonderful stuff.

 

USA

USA - 'USA' (Essential Media Group Reissue)

This really is a case of "Long forgotten pomp release in bizarre reissue shock."  Despite the rather poor presentation (there are no liner notes or even the band line-up given) and laughably released in the ‘Essential Pop’ series by Florida based EMG,  this is the first time the sole, self-titled debut album from Philadelphia based hard rock outfit USA has been made available on CD (or, as is the case here, a CD-R). The truth is, for whatever reasons behind the name change, this record was actually cut by the hugely popular Philly club band Network, fronted by Larry Baud (later of Red Dawn). A very schizophrenic release it turned out to be, veering between first rate pomp rock (‘I Love You’ , ‘Come Back Baby’ and ‘Alone In The World’) - comparable with Styx and Steeplechase - and cutting hard rock (‘Hard Life’) akin to Great White; with the emphasis more on the former than the latter.  An album as curious as a reissue as it was when first released on vinyl through the Philly World label in 1982.

 

Trust - 'Au Rockpalast' (Xiii Bis CD/DVD)

Recorded on 5th June 1982, with Nicko McBrain still ensconced on the drum stool, the French metal band Trust marched into the Rockpalast set in a blaze of glory. At the time they were supporting the 'March Ou Creve' album (released with the vocals recorded in English as 'Savage') and the band's set features a rather bizarre selection of songs that include English versions of some - including 'Antisocial'  - and the more familiar French versions of others. Still, what does it matter when the band are in such biting, powerful form as this?  Front man Bernie Bonvoisin proves throughout this performance that he was perhaps the first vocalist with a punk attitude in a metal band as he venomously spits out the words to each song ,tackling a wide range of politically motivated subjects backed by a band that keeps up a rapid fire diet of riffage (courtesy of  lead guitarist Nono and rhythm man Moho Chemlekh) and hammer-like backbone (the aforementioned McBrain and bassist Vivi). Highlights? Hard to pick, as the whole performance is excellent, but if pressed I'd have to go for 'L'Elite', 'Get Out Your Claws', 'Repression' and an emotive version of 'Your Final Gig', the song written about and dedicated to the late Bon Scott that at one point finds Bernie hunched up on the floor directly beneath the stage edge as his band mates play above him.

 

Tokyo - 'San' (Yesterrock Reissue)

The third and final instalment in Yesterrock's release programme to ensure the Tokyo back catalogue finally gets to see the light of day on CD, 'San' has often been considered the weaker of the trio of releases that commenced with 1981's superb, self-titled debut, and continued with 'Fasten Seat Belts' the following year. In many ways this marks guitarist Robby Musenbichler's musical transition from the Toto and Supertramp influenced pomp and prog rock of early Tokyo to the slicker, more contemporary Jojo he went on to form a couple of years later (indeed, one of the bonus tracks is actually a Tokyo version of  'Diana', later found on the Jojo album). I had actually forgotten just how heavy the band got on this album, yet all the while with a certain Toto influence prevalent through much of the material; not least opener 'Don't Want Your Money' (with its additional nod to Saga) and the West Coast feel of 'Don't Run Away'. Yet also check out the hugely atmospheric 'Too High' and 'Invisible' for a band truly on top of its game. Fantastic stuff!

 

Day One - 'One Look' (Retrospect Reissue)

Originally released back in 1985, this album is something of a long forgotten gem that, up until now, had previously only made it to vinyl (and my copy of which I perhaps stupidly sold in a vinyl purge during the mid 90s, but it was a case of maintain LP collection or pay bills and buy food? Hmmm). Often compared to Angel and Roadmaster, I've always found that a bit odd as they are absolutely nothing like Roadmaster and the only thing that sounds anything like the white hot ones, f are the stirring keyboard solos from Craig Otte that spring out at you on occasion. However, there's no denying that the L.A. based Day One were collectively brought up on a steady diet of pomp rock. The only thing they lacked was the funds to do the job properly, as the production betrays the lack of a healthy budget to propel these songs further into the stratosphere. Day One thus fall into the same category as the likes of Sinful and Saint; similar bands held back by financial constraints. Still, its that independent charm that leads people to this album and you can't deny the MPG style brilliance of the album's title track and 'Early Warning' along with the Zon-ish 'What Else Can I Say' even if 'Waves Of Time' is a disappointing dirge by comparison.

 

The Outfield - 'Replay' (Self-Release)

A fantastic comeback for the hugely underrated British AOR outfit who enjoyed massive success at the start of their career in the States, but sadly meant little back home. 'Replay' reminds me a great deal of Lodgic, who themselves were a cross between Yes and the Police. In actual fact, this album might just be my favourite record of 2011. Opening with the hugely colourful 'Aladdin's Cave', Messrs Spinks, Lewis and Jackman take us through a selection of songs that are full of texture, light and shade. They even doff their caps towards Led Zeppelin with 'Shake Your Thing'. However, it's that remarkable Billy Sherwood/Sting style vocal of Tony Lewis that shines like a beacon atop a fluid combination of guitar, bass and drums that makes the album that little bit more special. The man is in sparkling form throughout on an album that easily competes with their earlier, American breakthrough efforts. Superb!

 

Red White & Blues - 'Shine' (Self-Release)

The new vehicle for the former Jagged Edge duo of Matti Alfonzetti and Myke Gray, Red White & Blues offer up a delicious blend of bluesy hard rock that should be causing all manner of disturbances of a seismic nature throughout the lands on earth. Comparable to the best bits of Skin, Thunder, Black Country Communion, Badlands, Whitesnake (if stripped down to a musical trio behind David Coverdale) and a dash of AC/DC, this is a thoroughly enjoyable album that runs the blues rock gamut from A-Z and back again. 'Shine' offers a steady collection of 14 tracks that offer up all the twists and turns you'd associate from previous exposure to Matti and Myke's former works; as the riff heavy 'Stand Up For Rock & Roll' to the ballad 'A Little Too Late' clearly demonstrates. One can only hope that this album will cause such ripples of excitement within the music industry that Red White & Blues won't have to self-release the next record and thus return with some well deserved label backing. In the meantime, I urge you to lap every second of this one up at all costs!

 

Warp Drive - 'Something To Believe In' (AOR BLVD) 

Despite a hefty amount of criticism being fired at the band's 1989 issued 'Gimme Gimme' debut album on internet message boards some twenty odd years after the event, I stand by my supposedly over the top review of that record in 'Kerrang!' magazine. AOR BLVD's Kelv Hellrazer hasn't forgotten them either; hence this belated reissue of material that was originally intended for a follow up album in the early 90s. This release actually highlights a band with a more concise selection of songs that lose none of the power of the debut. The huge drum sound is still there, as are the distinctive combination of guitar and guitar synth employed by main man Mark Woerpel that combined to make Warp Drive sound like Bon Jovi or Winger backed up with a panzer division for musical support. Full marks to Rick Medlocke for his production on the original tracks; opener 'Rock 'N' Roll Party In The Streets' (a massively rousing cover of the Axe song found on 'Offering') worth the price of the CD alone! There's a couple of more recently recorded bonus tracks added that finds the band resurrecting the previously never recorded 'Fools of Faith' from the archives, but the cover of the Doug Bare written  'Closest Thing To Heaven' (originally recorded by Medlocke himself in 1987) should've been left well alone, but that should take nothing away from the fact that this is a really good record and provides proof as to how Warp Drive were progressing before the advent of grunge took the wind out of their sails.

 

The Magnificent - 'The Magnificent' (Frontiers)

Possibly one of the most invigorating releases of 2011, The Magnificent's debut album came storming out of the traps to a great deal of critical acclaim. Featuring the distinctively named Torsti Spoof (ex Leverage) and Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus) this album is so good they certainly lived up to the project's name, with a distinctly heavy, melodic, powerful sound that can only be from a Nordic based group of musicians in its delivery. All credit to George Thatcher at the Glorydaze site, who is absolutely spot on when he compares this album to the Masquerade effort from 1992. Like Masquerade, The Magnificent entrance you from start to finish with an album of songs that are dramatic and, thankfully, nowhere near contrived as many of these kind of band projects have sounded in recent years. 'Holding On To Your Love', 'Bullets', 'Smoke & Fire' and the ballad 'Angel' are particularly noteworthy from an album that is still getting a good deal of exposure to the reyno-roxx.com Death Deck! By the way, that cover art is really pretty damn striking too! What a package this is!

 

Fergie Frederiksen - 'Happiness Is The Road' (Frontiers)

Having beaten cancer following the release of his long awaited new solo album, Fergie Frederiksen finds himself back in the game and already planning a reunion with collaborator Tommy Denander for his next project. Much of the material for this album had been selected from songs submitted by a string of writers, ranging from Fergie's good friends Jim Peterik and Joe Vana to Mark Baker and Work Of Art's Robert Sall. It's actually the two songs courtesy of the latter that are far and away the most impressive on what is, overall, a steady comeback for Frederiksen. 'Elaine'  (that neatly adds to Fergie's collection of songs that he's recorded throughout his career titled after a girl's first name) and 'The Savior' are superb songs that Fergie handles with aplomb. They are certainly on another planet when put up against the disappointing opener, 'Angel (Mirror To Your Soul)' that is rather too contrived - too AOR by numbers - and featuring an unconvincing Fergie vocal that, at first, had me a little concerned as to how the rest of the album would fare. Thankfully, the likes of Jim Peterik's terrific ballad 'Follow Your Heart', his heavier 'Writing On The Wall' and the sole Fergie co-write in the album's title track put any fears to bed as to the rest of the album similarly struggling. With a sturdy production job from Dennis Ward, this is a very consistent effort indeed and I look forward to Frederiksen's next effort immensely.

 

B.E. Taylor Group - 'Our World' (Yesterrock Reissue)

1986’s ‘Our World’ is considered to be the best of the three B.E. Taylor Group albums, although I prefer ‘Love Won The Fight’ overall. From the same management stable as Donnie Iris And The Cruisers, the group similarly merged hugely addictive, pop rock chorus lines with brilliantly delivered AOR. It’s actually uncanny how much Taylor (who turned his back on AOR after he became a born again Christian) sounds like Steve Perry on the more quirky material such as ‘Reggae Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Runaway’ that could’ve come straight off one of the ex Journey man’s solo records. Still, let’s not forget that  ‘The Fire’s Gone’ is one of the greatest AOR opening tracks of all time with the peach of a line: ‘all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put the two of us together again’. This is truly marvellous stuff!

 

Cherry People - 'Whoopin' & Whoppin'' (Angel Air)

Primarily known as the band that launched Angel guitarist Punky Meadows’ career, Cherry People were Washington D.C.’s biggest band prior to the white hot ones. Only ever having released a record company manipulated bubblegum LP in the late 60s, this collection of previously unreleased recordings from the mid 70s proves that the group had evolved into a pretty tight, flashy rock combo led by brothers Chris and Doug Grimes. Much interest may well be derived from the fact that by 1973 the band’s guitarist was Rick Benick, later of Roadmaster, whilst the drum stool was occupied for many of these tracks by Barry Brandt, prior to his recruitment into the Angel ranks (he was replaced by Steve Riley, who joined Benick in Roadmaster before his much later stints in W.A.S.P. and L.A. Guns). The album consists of typically straight ahead 70s rock fare, but does have some pretty solid moments worth checking out.

 

MPG - 'MPG' (Retrospect Reissue)

Available on CD for the first time, ‘MPG’ is a bona-fide, if perhaps little known, pomp rock classic. Originally released through A&M in 1981, the record found the band embracing old school 70s pomp added to a slight dash of the quirky new wave pop rock approach that was in vogue in the US at the time. Established in the 70s in Atlanta, Georgia as The Miles Brothers, the band continued under that moniker even after the departure of founder David Miles, but changed to MPG after signing to A&M. Highlights have to be the exquisite ‘Too Many Questions’ replete with Toto-ish keyboards, the New England style harmonies of ‘Workin’ Overtime’ and the huge keyboard sound on the sinister ‘Get Yours Tonight’. Re-mastered by vocalist David Mikael and featuring four fascinating demo or alternative versions of album material, this is a ‘must have’ for all AOR fans.

 

Riggs - 'Riggs' (Wounded Bird Reissue)

Demanded to be officially reissued by fans for years, Wounded Bird have heeded the cry, albeit sadly (due to licensing issues) without the luxury of also offering the two tracks featured on the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack that a previous bootleg issue was blessed with. Originally issued in 1982, ‘Riggs’ is an essential hard rock release with opener ‘Ready Or Not’ sounding rather like a stripped down Night Ranger. The crisp, huge sound is such that you’d think Roy Thomas Baker had produced the thing, but you’d be wrong. Andy Johns was the man responsible and it’s worth noting that  the glorious ‘One Night Affairs’ and ‘Over And Over’  sound so eerily similar to Hughes/Thrall I can’t help but feel that, If I’d been front man Jerry Riggs, I might’ve been a little irritated upon hearing that act’s subsequent Johns co-produced album a little later...

 

 

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