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Well, here’s something a bit different, if hardly outside the ballpark.

I was recently approached by the fine folks at Italian label Frontiers Records to check out a batch of their current releases, and I have to say, it was something of a pleasant surprise.  Who knew so many classic bands were still out there making quality melodic hard rock, crossing the borders of radio friendly AOR and 80’s style “glam” or “hair” metal in 2013?

So pull out that maximum hold hairspray, strap those bandanas around your jeans, spandex or leather pants, slip on that home painted, button and patch bedecked denim vest or leather jacket, bandana and mirrored shades, roll down the windows and prepare to pump your fist and sing along like it’s 1984 all over again…

Pat Travers - Can Do

Pat Travers Band – Can Do

Nice dual guitar harmony leads and melodic backing vocals mark this as very much of a late 70’s cum early 80’s AOR rocker ala Aldo Nova, Rick Derringer and suchlike.  Strangely, while Travers has been out there since the mid-70’s and I’ve certainly heard his name bandied about quite a bit, this is actually my first experience of the man and his sound.  And you know what?  I like it.  Why didn’t he get more radio airplay, if his earlier material sounded as good as this?  Were we just biased against Canadians not named Bryan Adams or something?

Now, I’ve looked into it a bit, and it seems that while diehard “hammer head” fans may disagree on this, Travers’ career sort of derailed in the mid 80s (just like it happened for a lot of the older, non-metallized rockers of the 70’s and early 80’s).  This motivated him to shift to a more blues based milieu, which as most musicians know, pretty much consigns you to the bar and club circuit.

But this album is apparently a deliberate return to form, by direct request from the folks at Frontiers.  Like any longtime fan of an artist, they want to hear their heroes at their best, so the label actually motivated the guy to get back to his roots and kick some ass.  And guess what – it worked.

While the title cut is by far the most hard driving of the tracks on here, and he does slip back into a more ZZ Top by way of George Thorogood vibe as the album progresses, Can Do is never less than listenable, and overall, I do like what I’m hearing here.  Not bad for a guy as old as my mother!  Time to check out the back catalogue and see what I’ve been missing…

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ARC ANGEL – Harlequins of Light

More old school early 80’s AOR.  Melodic, powerful, well constructed, keyboard inflected and guitar driven.  Never heard of Jeff Cannatta, his other band Jasper Wrath, or Arc Angel before, but apparently they did one album under this moniker back in 1983, and had a song covered by April Wine (remember them?).  There’s something very Asia about the band and Cannatta’s vocals, and the album as a whole displays a vague feel of the mellower end of the radio-rock equation – I’m hearing a dash of Godley & Creme, or perhaps Alan Parsons in there as well.

There’s some positive thought for a change, giving a little inspiration to carry on despite all the ugliness and collapse of the society around us (check out the lyrics to “war (battle wounds of life)” or “amnesia (for  the rest of your life)” if you don’t believe me – when’s the last time you heard someone approach the subject like that?).

Moreover, the album provides more than enough for the average Yes (“harlequins of light”), Foreigner (“diamonds and gold”) or Saga (“fortune teller”) fan to sink their teeth into.  But again, it’s not exactly hard rocking.  Think 80’s radio, those of you who were around for it, and you’ll get the general picture here.

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FERGIE FREDERIKSEN – Any Given Moment

Any album containing the lyric “I know I can be a better human being” gets my vote of approval right off the bat.  Tag in some soaring melodic vocals, proggy keyboard, guitar and drumming that calls to mind everything from fusion acts like Tony Williams Lifetime and Frank Zappa to straight ahead radio rock like Styx, Journey or 80’s Kansas, and  you’ve got a winner on your hands.  You mean they’re still making music like this?

More or less starting his career off with two tracks in the hilariously camp Village People “biopic” musical Can’t Stop the Music (seriously!), during the early to mid 80’s Dennis “Fergie” Frederiksen crossed paths with, auditioned for, and occasionally took part in bands and projects with the likes of Greg Giuffria, Tommy Shaw of Styx, Kansas, Survivor and Toto.  While his only ostensible “claim to fame” was his time with Toto from 1984-86, the guy was clearly in top tier company and moved in all the right circles.

So here we are, after decades of life drama in the interim and having survived a fatal diagnosis a few years back, and not only is he still at it, but the man puts out this album, which if it arrived back in 1983 would very likely have topped the charts and blared from the open windows of passing sports cars nationwide.

Sure, things get a bit mellow towards the latter end of the album, but the first few tracks are killer, and it closes on a strong high note, so no complaints from this end.

Total flashback to the point where you have  to wonder if the guy stepped into the Tardis or Bill & Ted’s phone booth and dropped here straight from 1985 – the album is THAT authentically displaced in time.  So what the hell are you sitting here reading for?  Go get it and see for yourself…

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Blackmore’s Night – Dancer and the Moon

My first guitar teacher comes to mind.

Well, OK, I was self taught to a more than respectable level by the time I started going for lessons, and it wasn’t long before he said there wasn’t anything else for him to teach me – time to find a jazz teacher (his own words, and good advice which I eventually took, at least for a time).

But regardless, the guy was a ripping blues-rock player in the Claptonesque mold, whose greatest impartation was in pointing out that Rush doesn’t make proper music – in other words, stiffly shifting back and forth between modes really doesn’t cut it.  And hey, I like Rush up through “subdivisions”, but it’s for the rhythm guitar work and Neal Peart’s lyrics and polyrhythmic drumkit skills rather than anything Alex ever put out as a lead player.  So hey, the guy was right!

Anyway, his big guitar hero, like Yngwie before him, was one Ritchie Blackmore, temperamental fretboard impresario whose work with first Deep Purple and then Rainbow pretty much defined the 70’s and opened the door to the whole neoclassical shredder movement in 80’s metal.

Me, I never cared all that much for the Ian Gillan lineup – like Zeppelin, it was just too bloated and overblown to support its own musical weight.

The Coverdale albums were more interesting, and would lead to two far more worthwhile spinoff acts: Coverdale, Lord and eventually Ian Paice to Whitesnake, and Blackmore to Rainbow (which spawned the careers of Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnett and Joe Lynn Turner, two of whom would continue to work with Blackmore disciples such as Yngwie Malmsteen and Chris Impelliteri thereafter).

Despite all that legacy and inspiration to so many musicians and big name acts being left in the wake of his two bands, Blackmore himself…sort of vanished around 1984.  Fans and hardcore musicos  may get up in arms about that statement, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a fact – consider the man retired as of that date.

Yet and still, the musical bug never really leaves you, and so it was that Ritchie and then girlfriend (now wife) Candice Night got together for Blackmore’s Night, an oddity of a project that hearkens a bit towards the British and Pagan folk rock movement of the 70’s (which spawned such excellent acts as Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and Fotheringay, Steeleye Span, the John Renbourn Group and especially the untouchable jazz/rock/folk act Pentangle), as well as the wiccan folk underground stretching from such notables as Kenny & Tzipora Klein to the gothic rock inflected pagan folk of Candia Ridley’s Inkubus Sukkubus.

Unfortunately, Blackmore’s Night is far less Stevie Nicks, Linda Thompson or Maddy Prior than it is sub-Joni Mitchell in execution.  While Night has a pleasant enough voice, there’s just not much there to latch onto – it’s neither rich or quirky enough to be interesting.  Picture Emma Thompson’s “Nanny G” from Frasier crossed with the barest hint of the aforementioned Candia for spice, and you get the general idea.

Nor does Blackmore really let things rip, as one might expect from his resume.  In fact, things are rather mellow throughout, even by folk standards, until we get to “the moon is shining,” where the band brings in more of a keyboard inflected feel and drum machine style marching tempo.  For what seems like the only occasion in the entire running time of Dancer and the Moon, we also get some mildly Rainbowesque extended guitar solo sections from Blackmore that bring the album out of its sub-Rennaissance Faire trappings* more towards a Belladona & Aconite-era Inkubus Sukkubus feel and tonality.  Yeah, it’s good.

* did I mention they even go by cheesy Medieval names, like “Bard David Of Larchmont” and “The Scarlet Fiddler”?

Unfortunately, that’s more or less a one-off, and we find ourselves drifting right back into vaguely witchy (in a quite subtle sense, mind) lullaby territory.

Look, it’s not bad.  But Rhapsody (“of Fire”) did it better in the ‘village pastoral’ sections of earlier multi-album epics, so this is quite a middle of the road compromise – neither fish nor fowl even within the general parameters towards which it casts a vague allegiance.  Listenably relaxing, and certainly good for, say, New Age music (where Billboard charts seem to place the band, somewhat disingenuously), but it’s hardly British Isles or Celtic based folk-rock or pagan/wiccan folk in any proper sense.

My advice?  Stop being nice.  Jump whole hog into the wiccan thing if that’s where you’re going with this – subtlety is lost on today’s audiences.  Say what you mean and mean what you say, and beef up the backing to match that.  It’s not like you’ve got a schlep there backing you up on the electric axe, you know…

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LITTLE RIVER BAND – Cuts Like a Diamond

When I think Australia, I think Bon Scott and classic AC/DC.

Sure, there’s been exports aplenty (hell, I still love some of those old Rick Springfield albums – laugh all you want, but have you pulled out Working Class Dog lately?  Angry, smooth, hard rocking and new wave all at once…), but it pretty much stops right there for me.

Thus it was a bit of a trip down memory lane to be reminded of the Little River Band, a countrified AOR act that provided any number of radio nuggets throughout my youth.  Sort of a more melodic, less hard rocking take on .38 Special (who they predated by several years), they did everything from balladeering (“reminiscing”, “lonesome loser”) to a more Kevin Cronin-era REO Speedwagon level of light rock.

Suffused with gorgeous harmony vocals (check out “what if you’re wrong”) and the sort of professional feel that screams veteran at the game, Cuts Like a Diamond could easily hail from somewhere between 1978 or 1982 – no half-assed “old timer reunion” stinkbomb here.

That being duly noted, things are a bit too mellow for my personal tastes: “the lost and the lonely” gets things started off on the right foot, and “way too good” taps into the same vibe, but much of Cuts Like a Diamond runs more towards the country balladeering end of the equation.

If you liked them back when, you’ll very likely dig this now – it’s well written, slickly produced, and played with a nigh-studio musicianship level of proficiency, but my heart’s a little darker and more aggressive than the audience the band is reaching for here.  A definite flashback, but your call whether you care to pursue or not.

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Find Me – Wings of Love

A new band I know nothing about, with members whose other projects I’m unfamiliar with, but boy is it good…

A fella named Robbie LaBlanc on vocals (think Jeff Scott Soto by way of Joe Lynn Turner, but with more body and Lou Gramm-like gravelly aggression to his sound) partnered with another guy named Daniel Palmqvist on guitars…but the sound is totally Journey by way of Giuffria with a dash of Autograph, Foreigner and 80’s Rainbow.  A few solos say second tier guitar hero – think a Craig Goldy more than a George Lynch: 8 bars or less, not incredibly flashy, but what’s there is more than solid.

This is certainly the most uptempo and metallized of the albums discussed so far, but that same pattern pops up that seems to be emerging among this batch of Frontiers artists, which is that the first half of the album is absolutely killer, but things start to peter off about halfway through.  While there’s still decent material to be found, once you’ve gotten past “firefight”, it’s pretty much all over but the shouting.

All told, a very good album, and recommended to those pining for 80’s melodic, radio friendly metal and AOR.  Hope to hear more from these guys in the future, that’s for sure…

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HAREM SCAREM – Mood Swings II

Yet another band out of Canada whom I’d never heard of, yet who have 13 studio albums and a host of EPs and live records to their credit (!)   What is it with radio down here in the States, anyway?

In any case, this is a re-recording of their second album from 1983, with 3 bonus tracks (presumably B-sides or unreleased material from the same era).  I’m not a huge fan of vocalist Harry Hess’ gritty pipes, which remind me a bit of, say, The Daniel Band, but the band (which features a Pete Lesperance on both guitar and bass) is pretty damn good, the songs are certainly catchy enough, the choruses are big and there’s hooks aplenty to be found herein.

Lesperance is certainly no slouch, displaying the insouciance of a skilled craftsman in his solos (think how Yngwie or Nuno Bettencourt have that penchant for fucking with the guitar line, just because they CAN, and you get the idea of what I’m talking about here), but there’s more than a touch of Edenbridge’s Lanvall here as well, in the heavily processed tone and prominent use of slides between notes, e-Bow-like legato feel and subtle two hand work.

Moreover, Lesperance spices up the material even beyond the leads, delivering an often off-kilter and experimental approach to the rhythm work.  This is a man who sees the fretboard as a workshop to be toyed and tinkered with, rather than adhering to established patterns of behavior – a refreshing novelty in today’s often soulless and obsessively copycat music scene.

All in all, and speaking as someone who never heard the original version, this is a strong (re)release, and certainly not to be sneezed at.  While things do slow down noticeably later in the proceedings, this appears to be something of a trend with Frontiers signings – were there any bands reviewed this month who didn’t take that approach to some degree?  At least it makes it easier to get to the “good stuff”, you know it’s all going to be in the first half of the album!  But if these were being sold as record albums, there’d be some well worn grooves on side 1 and a lot of pristine side 2’s out there…

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Sammy Hagar & Friends

Mr. “three lock box” himself, the man who helped me piss my father off by singing choice lyrics from “I can’t drive 55” at the guy every time he criticized my driving, the fella who gave us that “one way ticket to midnight” called “heavy metal”,  former Van Halen vocalist and Cabo Wabo barkeep and hot sauce entrepeneur, Sammy Hagar is back with one of those Ringo Starr and his All Stars jam session things.  Boy, I don’t think I’ve seen one of these since the 70’s…

Anyway, Sammy pulls in goofy new kids like Kid Rock, fellow early 80’s rockers like Nancy Wilson of Heart, bluesmen like Taj Mahal, Nashville names like half of Brooks & Dunn and that guy Toby Keith, and legends of rock and metal like Santana and Journey axeman Neal Schon and guitar teacher to the stars Joe Satriani to help him out here.

As anyone familiar with these sort of all star project jam sessions well knows, little of merit results – think everything from the Bloomfield Kooper Stills Super Session to Contraband here and you’ll see what I mean.

The overall feel is very countrified, with a dash of blues rock to liven things up a little, and there’s a few covers, but it should say something that I only perked up with the last track (“going down (live in studio, take 1”), which features a nice walking bass by former bandmate Michael Anthony and an amazing Van Halenesque solo by Neal Schon that reminds me why I walked away from the Hear N’ Aid sessions noting him as one of the best guitarists on the project (and there were some huge names in metal playing on that one).

I always liked Sammy from what I’ve seen of him in the media – he seemed to be more laid back, friendly and open than was standard for rockers of the era.  But this album just doesn’t have a hell of a lot going for it, unless you’re what the Stones referred to as a starfucker – outside of one strong closing track, it’s pretty much just a time filler, and easily passed over.

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WHITESNAKE – Made in Britain / The World Record

Ask anyone who knows me – I’m a huge Whitesnake fan.

Admittedly, it’s more old school – I’m far more of a Moody/Mardsen aficionado than the Sykes/Vandenberg/Campbell/Vai era, though they sure did bring some chops and good metal songs with them.

Like Ronnie James Dio’s Elf or Bon Scott-era AC/DC over its strangely more popular yet much stiffer (if not more metallized) Brian Johnson incarnation, it’s all about the boogie band feel, sauteed in cheesy innuendo and braised with smarmy vocals.  Throw in some killer blues-rock guitar solos for flavor, and you’ve got a winner.

I got to see them back in the day, but it was on their last legs, as it were – the 1989 Slip of the Tongue tour, with Steve Vai camping it up and guitars floating down to him on wires…it was extremely cheesy and surprisingly boring.  My pals and I spent most of the show watching the hot metal chicks in the row ahead of us shake their perky little asses in unison throughout – that was far more entertaining, I assure you.

A few years back, Coverdale got together with former Winger shredder Reb Beach for the surprisingly good Good to be Bad (yeah, that was intentional), which showed him in reasonably good form for a man of his years.  While I missed the subsequent Forevermore 3 years later, when I saw the band as part of the package of releases to check out here, I was pretty thrilled.

Well…this reminds me more of some recent shows I caught with an obese, nastily misogynistic Don Dokken (who actually stopped the show to harangue a heckler, and spent much of the time making some pretty bitter comments about the fairer sex) and a self absorbed, effete Geoff Tate-fronted Queensryche.  In both cases, I walked away shocked at how the once famous pipes had degenerated, requiring some less than subtle assistance from the backing members to get them through the songs and particularly the choruses (and God help you if there were any high notes involved).

I considered both shows to be the worst I’ve ever attended (yes, I said ever), the former saved only by a surprise last minute opening act (who blew the headliner so far off the stage, they practically landed in the parking lot, metaphorically speaking), and the latter an abomination in every respect, with Tate yammering on about his father and the military, sipping huge glasses of wine, and bringing his not-incredibly-talented daughter out on stage to sing with him.  Good Lord.

While hardly as disastrous as either of those fading nostalgia acts proved to be, Made in Britain shows Coverdale in rather sorry shape vocally.  A man who once jokingly referred to the secret of his smooth rasping vox as “coffee and cigarettes” probably had no right to expect a several decade career fronting a popular touring act, but even so, it’s disappointing.

That smoky deep tenor-approaching-baritone is now quite reedy and thin, with those howls, shrieks and wolf calls so often punctuating his words degenerating into the shrieks and quavers of a sadly inevitable seniority.

As with the Dokken and Queensryche shows aforementioned, the band overcompensates for such glaring deficiencies in what was always ultimately a vocal-centric band with plenty of bombast (in fact, far too much so – it’s almost comical at points) and multiple person chant-a-long backing vocals throughout (particularly on the choruses).  Aaaaand it fools absolutely no one.

The setlist remains firmly in the Sykes-era forward modality, with only the most passing of nods back to their earlier glory days (“aint no love in the heart of the city” and the Deep Purple-era “burn/stormbringer” medley), but that’s not even the issue, which is that we’re faced with a great who is unfortunately past his prime.

It’s always sad to have to bid adieu to a long beloved artist, but perhaps this is my cue to step away from stoking the last embers of a fading flame, and settle back with time tested classics like Come and Get It, Trouble and Live in the Heart of the City instead.

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