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The ‘ALTERNATIVE’ BEST OF 2021 !

Yep, it’s that time of year again, and with Covid still raging across the world, I have to say, 2021 unfortunately didn’t really revive my spirits on the music front. Now that’s not to say there weren’t any good quality releases this past year but in general I’ll be labeling it as ‘disappointing’ especially with big hitters like Maiden and Helloween turning out very average offerings, especially by their standards (explained later). But, there were some brilliant releases by bands I thought would never figure in my top five, although please be aware that I haven’t listened to everything this year (who has?) and only in set genres I like, so certain albums may have passed me by which I might have also enjoyed. Anyway, here is my alternative best of 2021 – one without all the ass kissing of the bigger bands that you’ll find in most other print and online ‘best ofs’! 

The Top Five:

W.E.T. - Retransmission

WET – Retransmission – An early candidate for album of the year came in January with WET’s latest CD which to my ears is their most complete and best effort yet. All killer and (almost) no filler is definitely applicable here, even if the polished melodic hard rock sound and formula is basically identicle to previous efforts.

Hughes, Gary - Waterside

Gary Hughes – Waterside – An unexpected diamond of an album came from Ten mastermind Gary Hughes in March and quite unexpected mainly because the last few Ten albums have been mediocre at best and additionally I’d never really heard his solo stuff before. However his latest solo venture contains ten superbly constructed and supremely catchy numbers, each with their own flavour and, importantly, sufficiently different and lighter than his Ten material. In a just world, some of these tunes would be in the charts and on the radio, given the crossover appeal and textbook songwriting. Indeed, if Ten’s next offering is half as good this, I’ll be a happy man.

Kane, Chez - Chez Kane

Chez Kane – S/T – A bolt out of the blue came again earlier in March with Chez Kane’s solo debut LP, an artist I only discovered on Youtube with her lovingly retro and brilliant‘Too Late For Love’ single, which more than anything blow me away due to her stunning voice. Therefore coming from a major fan of Heart, Robin Beck, Vixen, Fiona etc I was always going to love this debut which is chock full of pure 80s female AOR and naturally catchy as hell. Nothing too much more to say other than this is an essential purchase if this genre is your cup of tea. A sequel is also coming out in 2022 I reckon mainly due the amazing reaction this debut, which I’m genuinely damn excited about. Top stuff!

DeYoung, Dennis - 26 East, Vol. 2

Dennis DeYoung – 26 East (vol 2) – Another release which I didn’t have great expectations for was the former Styx mainman’s the second volume to last year’s 26 East, which for me is a really big improvement over the first album in terms of consistency of great songs and refreshingly intelligent lyrics. It’s lovingly varied as well from clearly Beatles homage ‘Hello Goodbye’, satisfying rockers ‘ Land Of The Living’ and ‘Last Guitar Hero’, classic DeYoung ballads ‘Your Saving Grace’ and ‘Made For One Another’ and (early Styx sounding) progressive epic ‘Isle of Misanthrope’. And while there are a couple of tracks which aren’t that notable, for a final release (sadly) Dennis should be absolutely proud of himself with this offering, which also beats Styx’s own 2022 release. Take a bow sir!   

Album cover art, showing a solar eclipse

ABBA – Voyage – ABBA??!! Surely not? Well actually, yes. Let me say, in a sort-of coming out of the closet moment, that I’m a huge ABBA fan and so news of a new album 40 years later (yes 40!!) was, for me, tantamount to the Beatles or Zepplin reforming! And fortunately, while understandably not their best work, ‘Voyage’ continues where ‘The Visitors’ left off with the classic ABBA sound still intact and most surprisingly Agnetha and Frida’s vocals still spine chillingly good (if a little deeper and weaker these days). Without naming all the songs, the songwriting, musicianship, variety of material, lyrics and production are all there and SO refreshing to hear after such a long absence. Yes, it’s not the quality of ‘Arrival’ or ‘The Album’ but come on guys, who could have ever predicted this comeback for a band all in their 70s? Indeed, it would be tempting to label this as a great return to form but in actual fact they never went out of form! A giant bright light in a dark cruel world.

Best of the rest:

Styx – Crash of the Crown – After the excellent ‘The Mission’ opus, the band returned with a great record of mid-70s Styx styled material and excellent performances all round. A definite return to form.

Wig Wam – Never Say Die – Sadly not quite the return to form I had hoped for but still has it’s fair share of good moments, if a not-so-welcome heavier direction. ‘667’ is still their best for me.

Epica Omega – Again, good, but not their best by any stretch. Too many Mark Jansen growls for me and again its sonically opting to be metal album with the more inventive orchestration taking second place.

Accept – Too Mean too Die – Reliable trad metal but I’m growing tired now of Marc Tornillo’s vocals, which I’m afraid will never replace UDOs.

Alice Cooper – Detroit Stories – The Coop continues with the garage rock sound in honour the 70s scene in Detroit and came up with a decent collection of tunes, yet without any real standouts. I’d still pick ‘The Eyes of …’ if you like this retro rock style.

Disappointments (and general rants !):

Jim Peterik – Tigress – A great idea for a project (with the all female vocal cast) but where are the songs? Too many of them as well! Peterik, I think really needs to cut down the number of albums he puts out and focus on quality over quantity.

Magnus Karlsson – Heart Healer – Another all female vocalist project which had tremendous protential yet lacked any real standout material, alongside Karlsson’s other recent output I has to be said. Where are the memorable choruses, for example?

Night Ranger – ATBPO – After just a couple of listens to this one, it was clear that NR have again opted for a more ‘modern’ alternative rock styled release with a definite (country)  ‘twang’ to the numbers, far removed from their perfectly blended AOR/hard rock 80s heyday. Just stick on ‘Dawn Patrol’ (or even 2011’s return to form ‘Somewhere in California’) after listening to this to hear the difference. Average.

Annette Olzon – Strong – Even though I loved the second Dark Element album with Annette, this, her second solo LP, again just failed to connect with me in the same way, again mostly due to the generic and predicable songwriting and song structures which Margus Karlsson was responsible for (a coincidence given his poor songwriting form of late?). It’s also one of those blatant Frontiers project (or studio creation) releases, marred by the familiar overly compressed and muddy label production, where you never really hear the individual instruments clearly, particularly the bass. I’ll give it a few some more spins though as I do genuinely love the ex-Nightwish singer’s voice and tone.

Helloween – S/T

Another MAJOR disappointment this year above and beyond anything else was the reunited Helloween album, with all the bands past prime members back together and contributing to the material. Trouble is, Helloween or indeed Hansen or Kiske haven’t released anything exceptional since the 90s (specifically the magnificently varied and accomplished ‘Better Than Raw’), so expectations of an album to match the Keeper era or classic 90s Gamma Ray, should have been pretty low. And so, despite the wealth of talent and Kiske’s god given vocals, the results are merely a serviceable power metal album without any sort of innovation or true progressive qualities (unlike the aforementioned ‘BTR’) whilst almost all the songs rattle along in that oh-so-familiar power metal tempo and groove which has been copied to death by virtually every PM group since Helloween. It’s as fresh as dirty dishwater really and actually inexcusable given what the album could and should have been. The ball-less media of course have lapped it up mainly on the back of all the reunion media hype, but true fans will feel this was a massive opportunity missed for Helloween to reinvent the PM wheel for the next decade. What a shame!

Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

Oh god this is hard to write! Yep Maiden were THE band that got me into rock and metal all those years back and yet in 2021 I’ve almost lost interest in what they have to offer. Why? Well, I’m sorry but all their output since 2003’s ‘Dance of Death’ has, for me, has fallen WAY below their classic peerless 80s material, with the band these days opting for excessively long dull, plodding ‘epic’ numbers, with familiar sounding structures, riffs, percussion and devoid of any ‘sense of the song’ or indeed any real great hooks or catchy memorable choruses. Not even one song comes under four minutes and when you think of all those great staples and singles the band wrote between 1980 and 1992, it’s really read to stomach.

Yes I know there are two camps here with the second of people who actually like this recent (proggy apparently!?) direction but, at the end of the day, Maiden are still selling out arenas on the back of the past legacy, not their most recent offerings. I don’t know … I will always love the band and respect them for their immense contribution to the whole metal genre but (and given Bruce’s deteriorating voice) I really think this should be their last album, after which I’d be happy to see them tour solely on the back of their greatest ‘hits’. And don’t get me started on that god-awful clear as mud Kevin Shirley production! Argh!

Featured post

Introducing …

File:Edenbridge-logo.png - Wikimedia Commons

This month, by way of a change, I’ve decided to start a new feature, focusing on an overlooked and underrated band and acting as a kind of buyers guide for newcomers to them. So, what you won’t see is a top ten Maiden or Priest album rundown (just go on Youtube for these) but something more to celebrate the underdogs, as part of the mission statement for this site. This month then, the often underappreciated Austrian symphonic metal greats Edenbridge are under review, a band formed all the way back in 1998 yet still going strong today, partly due to a small but extremely loyal fanbase (myself included). 

A quick history often starts with the band’s first release ‘Sunrise in Eden‘ in 1999 – a real blueprint of the band’s unique heavily melodic style and instantly identifiable sound, powered as always by the angelic ethereal voice of Sabine Edelsbacher and the golden guitar strings of mastermind songwriter Lanvall. 2001 then saw the release the classic ‘Arcana‘ LP which really cemented the musical formula and by now the band were receiving favourable comparisons with then contemporaries Nightwish, The Gathering and Within Temptation, although they were far from imitators. With a growing fanbase, especially in Asia, Edenbridge then continued through the 2000s with consistently great and sophisticated albums such as 2004’s ‘Shine‘, the epic orchestral ‘My Earth Dream‘ in 2007 and 2009’s arguably career high ‘Solitaire‘, the latter especially receiving great reaction through the minor hit single ‘Higher‘. 

In the 2010s, despite having switched labels a few times, multiple line-up changes and not touring on a scale deserved by them (blame the record companies!), the band continued their consistent quality on the orchestra backed ‘The Bonding‘ through to the progressive tinged ‘Dynamind‘ (their most recent opus), all musically much more removed from their original faster paced (power metal-esque) material, and all with high profile single video releases consistently clocking up high viewing figures on Youtube. 2017’s ‘The Great Momentum‘ also landed in the national Germany charts at no.82, their highest album peak to date. Now, with a second ‘best of’ collection released this year (the ‘Chronicles of Eden‘ part 2), while Edenbridge have yet to crack the metal mainstream in the same way that Nightwish or Evanesence have it (which is quite frankly a crime), it’s still a good time to discover a massively underrated and overlooked band who have yet to release a below average album. So, for fans and newcomers alike, here is my very first album guide …

ESSENTIAL (must have purchases): 

MyEarthDream (2008) – This is Edenbridge’s ‘Once‘ – it’s that simple. A stunning landmark release for the band, full of brilliant material supported with the backing of the Czech film orchestra, which really delivered in style on the likes of the punchy ‘Paramount‘, the sweeping majestic ‘Place Of Higher Power‘, the rocking ‘Remember Me‘ and magnificent epic title track.  Lanvall’s guitar riffs were for the first time down tuned resulting in their heaviest material to date which added brilliantly to the bombast and epic tone. Even the very ‘Disney’ ballad ‘Whale Rider‘ hits the mark for shear emotional appeal, partly of course due to Sabine’s top form vocals. And if you needed confirmation of Lanvall’s superb composing skills, the instrumental ‘MyEarthDream Suite‘ would surely also prove the point beyond any doubt. In sum, this is essential Edenbridge and a masterful symphonic metal effort. 

Arcana (2001) – Only a year after 2000’s extremely promising debut, ‘Arcana‘ upped everything in terms of songwriting, performances and production resulting in a wonderfully varied and diverse release. There isn’t a single filler from the full force prog power of ‘Starlight Reverie‘ and ‘Susperia‘, the glorious epics ‘The Palace‘ and mammoth title track, the gorgeous gentle ballads ‘Moment Of Time‘ and ‘Winter Winds‘ and of course upbeat and catchy as hell ‘Fly On A Rainbow Dream’ – the best example of ‘happy metal’ (outside of Freedom Call) you’ll ever hear! Everything here in fact just clicks with style, bravo, melody, and a unique positivity – a world away from all those bands singing about death, destruction and Satan. And when an album’s bonus tracks ‘Whisper of the Ages‘ and ‘Velvet Eyes of Dawn‘ are right up there with the rest of the album, you know you’re hearing a band sounding so fresh and inspired and who at the time even had a sub-genre named for them: ‘angelic bombastic metal’. ‘Arcana‘ will show you why.

Shine (2004) – My last pick essential album pick goes to 2004’s ‘Shine‘, which by all accounts marked the end of the speedy double bass (power) metal sound towards a much more heavy riffed, mid-paced and bolder sounding offering, yet still brimming with classic Edenbridge standards. The title track is a great example (still included in their set today) alongside the epic ‘And The Road Goes Go‘ and the more progressive and quirky ‘Canterville Ghost‘, whilst the band still showed they could deliver an ideal up tempo melodic winner with the lightning ‘October Sky‘. Elsewhere, Sabine absolutely shines (excuse the pun) with that immense angelic and ethereal tone on the spellbinding ballads ‘Centennial Legend‘ and ‘The Canterville Ghost prelude‘ where as again the album B-side ‘Sacred Ground‘ is an absolute gem which, like the whole album, challenges the listener with an array of sonic landscapes and styles (i.e. dipping into traditional Asian textures), backed up by Lanvall’s instantly identifiable and memorable soloing guitar tone. Finally, ‘Shine’s big production is also a step up from former efforts, perfectly balanced between heavy and melodic and equalling another must have CD. Exceptional stuff.

GREAT (Definitely check out in addition to the above)

Solitaire (2010) – After the landmark ‘MyEarthDream’ opus, Edenbridge’s next release ‘Solitaire‘ kept the upfront de-tuned guitars although dropped much of the (live) orchestration yet still resulted in a quality LP. Arguably the album could have featured in my essential list (and I’m sure many fans would have put it there), not least on the back of the now signature tune (Youtube) hit single ‘Higher‘ (a superbly written and structured number tailor made as a single), although a couple of fillers do weaken the side a little – the unremarkable ‘Come Undone‘ and ‘A Virtual Dream?’ spring to mind.  However, the rest of the tracks are superbly constructed, diverse, epic, melodic and accessible in true Edenbridge musical style, including the title track, the mesmerising ‘Skyline’s End‘ (Sabine’s sweeping vocals at their best), the intense ‘Bon Voyage Vagabond‘ and of course the climatic, almost cinematic, ‘Brothers on Diamir‘ – musically and thematically a standout. The heavier production and performances are also striking on the album and the progressive keyboard flourishes equally compelling.  In other words, another great Edenbridge addition to your collection. 

Sunrise in Eden (2000) – The album that started it all and as such the band’s debut is one where they were still discovering their sound and style and therefore the LP is a bit of a mixed affair and sonically very much rooted in progressive power metal territory (albeit the lighter end). However, while the band these days rarely draw from this release live, it does contain some absolute Edenbridge standards including the speedy and hugely catchy ‘Cheyenne Spirit‘ (a live encore track in the band’s early days), the mighty and enthralling ‘Wings Of The Wind‘, the title track displaying Lanvall’s oriental influences (especially in the intro) and two dreamy power ballads ‘Forever Shine On‘ and ‘Take Me Back‘, both showcasing for the first time Sabine’s unique soothing and natural voice. Again ‘Sunrise …’ is an early example of the strength of song craftsmanship, musical textures and influences (from Middle Eastern to Asian), great melodies and a vocalist who did not try and copy all the generic operatic Tarja Turunen clones post 2000. Of course, it being the debut, a few tracks don’t quite hit the mark (to these ears the more average ‘Holy Fire‘ and ‘Midnight At Noon’) and the album is less cohesive than future efforts. Nevertheless, for collectors it is still pretty much essential listening, and let’s hope the band do start to include more of this material in future live sets.

The Bonding (2013) – The best Edenbridge album of 2010s goes to the ambitious and wonderfully varied ‘The Bonding‘. Here, despite the odd filler, the symphonic magnitude of ‘Far Out Of Reach‘, the sublimely haunting ‘Sea Of Souls‘, total tear jerker ‘Death Is Not The End‘ and the monumental title track epic (with Erik Mattesen guesting on vocals) are proof of a band on top form and engaging the listener at every turn. Many fans indeed view the title track as the group’s best epic track (over 12 minutes) whereas blatant single ‘Alight A New Tomorrow‘ also should have propelled the band to higher level commercially, of course not forgetting the excellent performances and production everywhere here. If true be told, I’m not too keen on run-of-the-mill ‘The Invisible Force‘ and ‘Shadow Of My Memory‘ (especially the latter’s use of death metal style grunts) but they do not take away from an otherwise hugely engaging and endearing opus I often regularly revisit.

GOOD (Not their best but still worth exploring)

Aphelion (2003) – After the career and style defining ‘Arcana‘, ‘Aphelion‘ continued the pacey symphonic power metal direction yet without the standout cuts of the latter. The material here is a little less adventurous and compelling and more one dimensional than your average Edenbridge release, with more fillers creeping in such as the straightforward ‘Deadend Fire‘, ‘Perennial Dreams‘ and ‘Farpoint Anywhere’ – perfectly fine but not essential listens. Likewise, the more lengthy tracks (‘The Undiscovered Land‘ and ‘Red Ball In Blue Sky‘) also seem a little less inspired, lacking the bombastic X factor of future efforts. However for every average moment, the album does produce a gem, from the blistering and instantly rewarding ‘Skyward‘ and ‘Fly at Higher Game‘ of the faster numbers to Lanvall’s lovely delicate strings on ‘Where Silence Has Lease‘ and another great bonus track ‘The Whispering Galley‘, demonstrating a more measured and musically interesting listening experience complete with lovely time changes, varied tempos and some sweet Lanval guitar licks. The overall result of ‘Aphelion‘ is therefore a mixed bag and therefore not considered essential. 

The Grand Design (2005) – Following 2004’s exceptional ‘Shine‘, ‘TGD‘ saw Edenbridge further spread their musical wings, not least due to their collaboration with solo artist virtuoso Robby Valentine helping bolster the vocal lines and harmonies and general bombast. And the results are certainly impressive on the majestic opener ‘Terra Nova‘ (which hits you straight away with the “welcome home, welcome life” opening verse), the catchy as always ‘Flame Of Passion‘ and parts of the title track (naturally, the ‘epic long song’) and its fabulous chorus, even if the track is too disjointed overall. The AOR flavoured and uplifting ‘On Top Of The World‘ and ‘Electric Eye’ Priest-esque sounding ‘See You Fading Afar‘ are also highlights but again the album still suffers from a few duds – the dull ‘Evermore‘ and two throwaway ballads which are pleasant sounding (due to Sabine’s vocal touch) but nothing more. Why the band’s brilliant single at the time – a cover of the James Bond classic ‘For Your Eyes Only‘ – didn’t make the original album is anyone’s guess, nor did exotic B-side ‘The Thin Red Line‘ get included, although luckily the recent SPV reissue features both these tracks. Overall then, despite some definite highlights, ‘TGD‘ with its weaker production values (especially from a guitar sound standpoint) is often rated lower by fans and you can’t really argue with that and hence comes under the ‘worth exploring’ category. 

Dynamind (2018) – Another album worth hearing, if not one of their best, was 2018’s ‘Dynamind‘, a good if inconsistent release which scales back the orchestral/symphonic leanings of previous efforts in favour of more upfront guitars and 70s prog rock touches.  Again, leading single ‘Live And Let Go‘ is a textbook example of Lanvall’s ability to craft a hooky up tempo four minute winner whilst the equally irresistible Celtic flavoured ‘On The Other Side‘ (almost a sister track to Shine’s classic ‘Wild Chase’) is another leading highlight alongside the sweeping orchestral strings of ‘All Our Yesterdays‘ and brilliantly punchy heaviness on ‘What Dreams May Come’. Unfortunately, the rest, aside from the accoustic folky, if plodding, ‘Tauerngold‘, are fairly unremarkable by Edenbridge’s high standards – i.e. good but lacking those trademark standout riffs, solos, melodies or strong choruses. The closer and by now all too familiar epic final finale ‘The Last Of His Kind‘ has some fine moments but again follows almost the same musical structure as previous and more engaging epics on former albums. Full marks nevertheless as always for the production, yet for the next album, an upsurge of variety, even scaling back the heavy guitars, as well as a focus on more catchy hooks and choruses should be the band’s priority.

AVOID (fans only):

The Great Momentum (2017) – Even for an extremely consistent band like Edenbridge, the occasional below average release is commonplace and as such 2016’s ‘The Great Momentum‘ is in all likelihood what most fans would consider their most predictable, by-the-numbers offering, despite the production and performances being of typical (tight) high standards. There is actually nothing awful about the material here but coming after the fantastic experimental ‘The Bonding‘ opus, ‘TGM‘ feels far too formulaic, with familiar riffs and reframes being borrowed from previous releases with only hooky singles ‘Shiantara‘ and ‘The Moment Is Now‘ making a memorable impact. Indeed even the grand finale ‘The Greatest Gift Of All’ meanders on too long to hold interest and lacks direction, resulting in the band’s weakest 10 minute plus song. A shame as I personally love the album artwork and the positive messages within the lyrics – often another unappreciated aspect of Edenbridge’s musical identity. For true fans only then.

So there we have it, Edenbridge’s back catalogue (minus the live releases and Voiciano CD) put in order and what a diverse and rich body of work it is aswell. If you agree or disagree, pop a comment below and for the newcomer, hunt down these releases (most which were reissued by SPV) asap! For more info see: https://edenbridge.org/en/main/

Album of the month (April, 2021)

Alice Cooper – From The Inside (Warner Bros / 1978)

From the Inside (Alice Cooper album) - Wikipedia(Album cover © Warner Bros 1978)

Cooper’s underrated classic

It’s nice once in a while to review an album by a music legend and in the case of this review, they don’t come much bigger than the godfather of shock rock and instantly recognisable Mr Cooper. Indeed, now at the age of 73, ‘the Coop’ shows no signs of slowing down and with a new album out already this year (‘Detroit Stories’), a timely dig into his vast back catalogue was in order to pull out perhaps the most underrated of all his offerings and his last album of the 70s: ‘From The Inside’.

As true fans will already know, the LP was a concept affair about Alice’s experiences in rehab as a result of his alcoholism at the time and was actually co-written by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin – a strange pairing, but one which nevertheless produced an album of timeless endearing material. In fact, the songs could have almost doubled for the soundtrack to the classic Jack Nicolson flick, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, given the similar ‘clinic’ scenario theme. Lyrics are therefore one of the album’s main appeals detailing Alice’s experiences and the stories of the other inmates in the clinic, with a healthy dose of that trademark Alice black humour thrown in for good measure. The original vinyl album sleeve is also one of best from Cooper, featuring a gloomy make up facial shot and a few cardboard picture hatches to open in the gatefold sleeve itself, visually really setting the tone for the music contents within.    

Disappointingly, despite Alice recovering (albeit temporarily) from his alcoholism, ‘FTI’ wasn’t a reason to further celebrate despite the classic hit single ballad ‘How You Gonna See Me Now’ (reaching no 12 in the States) and was overlooked at the time in the wake of bands like KISS and Van Halen and of course the rise of disco and punk. In retrospect however, this is a milestone record from start to finish, really capturing the imagination of the listener as well as a musical milestone for Alice.

Track by Track:

From the Inside – The title track starts the album with a piano led intro and develops into a fairly laid back number with some catchy little guitar flourishes from faithful axeman Dick Wagner. Lyrically, Alice’s drink related woes at the time are exposed (“I never dreamed that I would wind up on the losing end”) and while not an album highlight, sets the scene for it well.

Wish I were born in Beverly Hills – If the record starts a little slow, ‘Wish I …’ rectifies the situation with a blasting opening riff and continues on through as a great catchy upbeat rocker. In fact, the riff straight after memorable chorus really minds me of the John/Taupin classic ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, and that’s a really good thing! Great performances aswell from Alice (man and band) whilst the album’s strong and clear production and sound compliments the material very well throughout.

The Quiet Room – Third track in and the pace is slowed immediately down with a piano intro and gentle vocals from Alice, luring you into thinking it’s time for the album’s first ballad. Just after a minute though, the song suddenly changes direction with Alice’s snaring, “they’ve got this place where they’ve been keeping me”, and the horror is amped up to his description of the quiet room, “sterilized and white … like a tomb, with just a moth stained naked light”. Later Cooper doesn’t know why suicide appeals to him and, “cannot get these wrists to bleed”, revealing his dark thoughts at the time and reflected by similarly dark musical themes and bleak picture lyrics. Despite the doom and gloom though, the song stays remarkably melodic with breezy pop-laden keys dominating from start to finish, which is something of a Coop trait in having serious lyrics without the need to heavy the song. A real gem then.

Nurse Rozetta – Then almost in recognition of the lyrically bleak former track, ‘Nurse Rozetta’ lifts the pace for a Toto-esque pop rocker full of tongue and cheek. In fact just about every line is comic in detailing Alice fantising about the nurse helping treat him: “Nurse Rozetta make me better, secretly my eyes undress her, let me feel your tongue depressor …  I’m suddenly twice my size and my pants are all wet inside” – nuff said! The central guitar riff is also well placed and again the track doesn’t fall into any conventional category musically which is the beauty of it, and it certainly leaves a smile on your face!

Mille and Bille – Side A of the original vinyl then closes with another album highlight which again cannot be easily categorised and again starts off as a ballad, only this time female vocals (courtesy of Marcy Levy – Mille) opening with up and dueting with Alice (Bille). The pairing of voices surprisingly work a treat and you could even be mistaken in initially thinking the piece is from the ‘Grease’ soundtrack (!) before an examination of the dark lyrics. The latter depict two criminally insane patients, both responsible for the murder of Millie’s late husband whilst later the song takes a dark turn musically around 3.30 minutes, with horror-like strings working their way into the composition and a buzz saw sound effect giving the listener a mental vision of the murder act. Quite chilling actually. But again, it’s the unexpected twists in these songs which win me over coupled with the ‘razor sharp’ songwriting.  

Serious – Half way through the record now, side B of the original LP, kicks off in hard rocking style with a cracking riff resulting in ‘FTI’s heaviest offering. Yep, ‘Serious‘ is a great little belter containing more of Alice’s autobiographical lyrics (“All of my life was a drink and a smoke and then I passed out on the floor”) and again has that ‘Saturday Nights Alright …‘ vibe, so I assume Bernie Taupin had a strong input in this one. Alice has also previously said that the track is one of his all time favourite Cooper numbers and the one that sums him up perfectly, so that alone should map out the song as another winner and essential listening.

How You Gonna See Me Now – We’re now firmly back into ballad land and actually the album’s only hit single. And while these are usually the tracks I prefer less, in the case of ‘How …‘ , this really is Alice at his heartfelt vocal best as he ponders the song title to his wife when he eventually returns home from rehab, all with that super smooth mid-range tone of his. Musically, it’s a simple straight forward piano led ballad destined to be a hit, yet the relaxed tempo and Alice’s effortless vocals on the verses really shine and usher a welcome change of pace. I’d go so far actually to put the song up with Alice’s all time best ballads (‘Only Women Bleed‘, ‘I Never Cry‘, ‘Only My Heart Talkin‘ et al) and you get that feeling that it really could or should have featured in a romantic blockbuster movie. Pure gold.

For Veronica’s Sake – After a deeply soulful ballad, the next two album songs lyrically focus back on some of Alice’s inmates at the clinic with ‘For Veronica’s Sake‘ amusingly detailing a patient determined to reunite with his pet dog. Yet even if the track is not as forceful as something like ‘Serious’, the pop/rock catchiness is definitely present, especially in the post chorus riff and main chorus itself. One for all dog lovers in fact!

Jackknife Johnny – ‘FTI’s penultimate number is again a mellower semi-ballad depicting a shell shocked Vietnam veteran trying to re-adjust to normal life and hence the song exudes a more serious tone. Musically it’s as solid as ever with a memorable guitar solo on the second half of the track and Alice again proving his voice has more to it than his trademark snarl. Female vocals also creep in under some of the verses to add effect (“Johnny!”) in what is definitely an all round emotional piece to, “welcome Johnny to our world”. 

Inmates (We’re All Crazy) – And so, ten tracks in, ‘FTI‘ concludes with arguably it’s magnum opus, a collective call-to-arms if you like, of all the inmates in an anthem for the crazy ones. It’s a number which builds momentum into the final gang chant of, “we’re all crazy”, and yet again contains some brilliant lyrics with Alice singing on behalf of his crazy companions with lines such as, “It’s not like we did something wrong …we just burned down the church
while the choir within sang religious songs”. The song in fact mirrors the Cooper classic “I Love The Dead” structurally and is a near perfect finale to thrilling ride that is ‘FTI’, not forgetting the atmosphere strings in the intro. Again, I can imagine this as a movie piece for a picture like ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ such is the impact of taking the listener on a visual ride – what great music should always do. In sum, it’s another unsung Cooper classic but is best enjoyed after listening to whats all come before for full impact.

Final Words …

Overall then ‘FTI’ to me is easily one of Cooper’s most memorable releases, packed with great numbers which never bore, whilst the concept has arguably never bettered by the man. It’s a real ‘album’s album’ if you catch my drift, which despite being produced at a difficult time for Alice, is an clear creative and musical success. Of course, Cooper went off the edge again after the 1970s, resulting in some odd but interesting early 80s offerings (notably 1983’s ‘DaDa’) and then made a commercially successful comeback in the late 80s, although fan’s who haven’t checked out ‘FTI’ really are missing out on a mini masterpiece and definite top 10 Coop opus. Lets have a deluxe edition reissue soon please!

Sample Album Track:

BEST OF 2020

Well, after a year to remember for all the wrong reasons, in a rare period of downtime, I’ve decided to put together a short mini review of the year that was 2020. Of course without all the gigs we normally go to due to Covid, albums were the only way to get our rock fix and so here I present a selection of my top choices for the year in no particular order, including some of the disappointing releases for 2020. Of course I haven’t listened to every single new CD this year but let’s fire away anyway …

Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic (Nuclear Blast)

An absolute favourite LP from the first half of 2020. Yep Aeromantic is arguably NFO’s best release to date, with even bigger hooks, choruses, variety and general retro-‘ness’ than before. The production in particular is a complete blast from the past whilst the song writing covers everything from AOR to synth wave to disco in classy style. Some may question the sincerity of the band’s music (i.e. it is parody?), also given their Soilwork connections, but with an album this fun, I’m not complaining!

Picks: all of them

Perfect Plan – Time for a Miracle (Frontiers)

Time for a miracle indeed, especially if you happen to be living in soon-to-be third world England, ravaged by Brexit and Corona :-(. Oh, where was I? Yes, Perfect Plan passed their second album test with flying colours this year with an offering of more refined and varied numbers (e.g. two great ballads this time), polished production and of course the ace in their pack: sensational vocalist Kent Hilli with his distinctive Coverdale-esque delivery. And while it’s not the best melodic hard rock of the recent times, as some internet rock sites may have you believe, it is a very good example of how to convincingly (re)produce an exciting classic hard rock record in 2020. Like Survivor, Giant, Whitesnake et al? Then this is for you.

Picks: ‘Better Walk Alone’, ‘Don’t Leave Me Here Alone’, ‘Every Time We Cry’, ‘Fighting to Win’.

Brother Firetribe – Feel The Burn (OMN)

After a lengthy wait, Brother Firetribe were back this year, minus Nightwish guitarist Emppu Vuorinen but with a superb album to consolidate their position in the modern hard rock / AOR premier league. And even though loosing Vuorinen took some of the rocky edge out of the material leading to some unnecessary unfavourable online reviews, the tamer more keyboard driven songwriting still delivered a remarkably consistent great set of songs with more atmospheric than before but still with monstrous melodies, choruses, sweet solos and synths. I’ve also always had a major soft spot for Pekka Heino’s vocals and here he again just shines with that unique tender delivery – ‘Love Is A Beautiful Lie’ being a case in point. Overall, it’s a record just short of a classic despite the pretty dismal cover art (!). Perfect for a ‘Night Drive’ though! 😉

Picks: All of them   

And, my personal favourite album this year …

H.e.a.t – II (Absolute)

Wow, what a monster of a record! I’ve got a couple of CDs from these guys including the highly regarded debut and ‘Address The Nation’ but this tops them both. Heavier, more confident, catchier and edgier, this is an outstanding album with the songwriting pushed to 11 and all killer and no filler. Frontman Erik Gronwall pushes his superb voice to the limit (just check out ‘We Are Gods’) whilst the whole band just sound so inspired and fired up.

What a massive shame then to hear about Erik’s recent departure from the band, something I suspect due to Covid ruining the band’s momentum, and whilst their original singer (Kenny) is back, he is stepping into very big shoes. I’m sure they’ll tour this album in 2021, so for heaven’s sake grab a copy soon! A career highpoint, make no mistake.

Picks: ALL, except for the weaker opener ‘Rock Your Body’ (too blatantly Def Leppard!)

Other honourable mentions:

AC/DC – ‘Power Up’ – the veterans have still got the rock! Great stuff!

Amberian Dawn – ‘Looking For You’ – ABBA pop metal at it’s best and that’s always a good thing for this reviewer! Great vocals, melodies and instant songs equal a winner. A quick last word: I LOVE about those ABBA-esque keyboards which dominate the songs here – pure ‘Super Trooper’ era! Fun as hell.

Others? – Post your comments!

And some big disappointments …

Nightwish – Human II Nature (Nuclear Blast)

Why lord? Why? Nightwish were once my absolute favourite symphonic metal band but since vocalist Floor Jansen joined, the band have become far too ambitious sounding at the expense of ‘the song’ (whilst again Floor’s talent has not been utilised fully here). I mean, I really can’t recall one standout guitar riff or solo on this release (poor Emppu!). ‘Slaying The Dreamer’ this ain’t! – true fans will know what I mean.

Decent choruses are also non-existent here and sadly for an album that was five years in the making, it’s a dull and over-indulgent ride, far removed from a genre-defining record like ‘Oceanborn’. Strangely I also miss the big metallic beats of former sticksman Jukka Nevalainen, again another sign the band are abandoning their metal roots. Anyway, rant over. For diehard fans only, who must own every Nightwish CD.

Pride of Lions – Lionheart (Frontiers)

While not a bad album, I had really high hopes for POL’s latest offering based on the fantastic advance single ‘Carry Me Back’. Alas, that turned out to be by far and away the best track on the album with Jim Peterik’s songwriting being much more formulaic and predictable these days compared to his 80s heyday with Survivor and early 00s POL releases. Of course he’s been banging out lots of one-off side project releases recently, giving out the feeling that ‘Lionheart’ is more an album of leftovers – with the borrowed Survivor intros on some of the tracks not disguising this! Whatsmore, Peterik takes on too much singing this time at the expense of the remarkable Toby Hitchcock who should be front and centre for all the numbers here.

In sum, I will always love Peterik for his huge contribution to AOR’s most memorable tunes (too many to name here) but just get the impression here that his song well has finally started to run dry. Check out POL’s last CD ‘Fearless’ instead (a much more satisfying and varied listen). Regardless, hopefully there’ll finally be an official POL tour in 2021. Come on Frontiers, put some money behind them!

Bon Jovi – 2020 (Island)

Oh dear, this is about as far removed from ‘Slippery When Wet’ and the classic era as you can get. Stop recording new albums and just play the hits Jon!

RIPs (of personal sadness)

Pete Way

Eddie Van Halen

Paul Chapman

Peter Green

Ken Hensley

Neil Peart

 

Also actors:

Ian Holm

David Prowse

Diana Rigg

Fred Willard

And, of course:

Sean Connery – THE best Bond, always and forever.