Queensrÿche – Empire

Empires can be built in many different ways. Dedication and drive. Crime and Corruption. Narcissism. Greed.

They can also have many different consequences for the builder. Satisfaction. Loneliness and abandonment. A desire for more.

Those topics and more pretty much sum up the theme of Queensrÿche‘s fourth album, aptly titled “Empire”.

Queensrÿche had paid their dues as a band throughout the eighties. After years of rejection from every record label they courted, the band finally signed a deal with EMI, and released their first album in 1984. “The Warning” earned them a moderate but solid fan base which stayed with them for their subsequent albums. Their third album, “Operation Mind Crime” should have been the album that broke them, but EMI did little in promotion and it never did as well as it had potential. When Queensrÿche released “Empire” as the follow up, it absolutely exploded. There was no holding it back. It hit near the top of the charts in almost every country it was released in, including number 7 in the U.S. It sold over 3 million copies worldwide.

The song “Silent Lucidity” was nominated for two Grammy Awards – Best Rock Song and Best Rock Vocal. Unfortunately, it didn’t win either. I honestly forget what songs it was up against at the time, but I remember thinking at the time that “Silent Lucidity” was the hands down winner. It is one of the most beautifully and emotionally gripping rock songs ever performed. A masterpiece of a song on an album that is the same.

John Cougar Mellencamp – Uh-huh

Written, arranged, and recorded in a 16 day blowout, John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1983 album, “Uh-huh”, was the transitional point where his music started to have a more Americana feeling to it. On “Uh-huh” Mellencamp’s lyrics were becoming more heartfelt and personal and his music was moving away from the more pop/rock/prog leanings of his earlier records to a more organic sound. It wasn’t as pronounced as it would be on the albums that followed and which defined his later career, but it was still a noticeable shift. It was this transitional combination of styles that made “Uh-huh” one of his most popular albums, and one of my personal favorites by him.

Recorded at his home studio that he called “The Shack”, “Uh-huh” was also Mellencamp’s first album to bear his actual last name. When he started out his career, the record company refused to sign him unless he changed his last name to “Cougar” because they felt the name “Mellencamp” was simply not marketable. This is the only album where he used both names. He dropped “Cougar” all together on all his subsequent records, making his name on his seventh album as much of a transitional combination as his music on it.

I wonder if that was intentional or just a lucky coincidence.

Roger Hodgson – In the Eye of The Storm

When Rodger Hodgson had a fall out with Rick Davis and decided to leave Supertramp and release a solo album, he didn’t fool around. Almost as if he was out to prove who was the main creative Force in Supertramp, he wrote, arranged and produced every song on his debut solo album, “In the Eye of the Storm”. But he didn’t stop there. With only a handful of exceptions Rodger Hodgson please and since every vocal part on this album.

“In the Eye of the Storm” has a sound very reminiscent of Supertramp -progressive rock that is as powerful as it is insightful. It’s primarily keyboard oriented, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have some fine guitar work too. But really, the overall strength of this album lies in the composition and arrangement of the songs on it.

Although Roger Hodgson’s first solo record did have better success than Supertramp’s first album without him, neither he or his former band ever achieved the level of success apart, compared to what they accomplished together. Regardless, I still rank it up there with the best of anything he did with Supertramp.

Queen

One of the joys I’ve always had with record collecting, is going back and discovering earlier albums by bands I like. After first hearing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, all over the radio, I was enthralled by their originality. After buying the album “A Night at the Opera”, and hearing “Sheer Heart Attack”, which a friend of mine discovered in his uncle’s record collection, I felt compelled to check out other music by this truly original band. Queen only had four albums out at this time and I had already heard two of them, so I figured I pick up their eponymous debut.

From the opening song , “Keep Yourself Alive” with is heavily phased guitar panning from the left to right speaker, I knew this was going to be a unique record that, just like their later records, would take full advantage of stereo sound. The production was a bit rougher than their later albums that I had heard, but it had a huge amount of variety and experimentation – a very ambitios alblum, especially for a band coming right out of the gate. The lyrics covered a wide range of topics from the mystic and medieval to religion; from personal introspection to songs that were about just having a good time.

When it comes to bands I like, I’ve always appreciated originality and innovation over virtuosity and technical ability, but I still highly regarded the latter. Queens first album had an abundance of both. It will always be one of my favorite albums of all time.

Muse – The 2nd Law

When I think of the band Muse, I think of innovation and originality. Every album by them is very different from its predecessor, yet it always sounds unmistakably like Muse.

“The 2nd Law” is perhaps Muse’s most ambitious and innovative album today – although that’s a hard call to make – all of their albums are pretty ambitious and innovative. From the James Bond feel of the opening song “Supremacy”, to the use of a full symphony orchestra and vocal chorus on “Survival”, to the heavy funk beat in “Panic Station”, to the dubstep and over-driven guitar insanity on “The 2nd Law (Unsustainable)”, to the obvious nods to Queen injected throughout it all, Muse seems determined to go in as many different directions as they possibly can on one album. For almost any other band, this would come across as a chaotic mess, Muse is one of those rare bands that can pull it all together with a unique cohesiveness.

Muse named this, their sixth studio album, after the second law of thermodynamics which the band uses as an analogy to make social-political and social-environmental statements with on the album’s two closing tracks, “The 2nd Law (Unsustainable)” and “The 2nd Law (Isolated System).”

This album is part of a limited edition box set that also includes the album on CD, a behind the scenes “making of…” DVD and some other goodies related to the album.

Wishbone Ash – New England

Wishbone Ash is a British rock band that formed in the early ’70s and used dual lead guitars that many would bands would try to emulate, but few could equal. Wishbone Ash’s seventh album, “New England” saw them move somewhat away from the strong progressive rock sound they had in their beginning towards a more blues and contemporary sound. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any impressive musicisnship on “New England”. By this time Wishbone Ash had become more concise with their songwriting. They were able to fuse a wider array of styles together in the span of one album than they ever did before while still including some impressive dual lead jamming. This helped make “New England” one of Wishbone Ash’s most diversified albums ever and my favorite by them.

Wishbone Ash chose the name “New England” for their seventh album because they had recently moved to that area of the United States to avoid the high tax rates in Great Britain. The tax rate could go as high as 95 percent if you grossed enough income in a year. Many bands simply could not afford to pay their taxes and relocated themselves and their assets to other countries they had lower tax rates.  most didn’t advertise that they were tax exiles. Apparently, Wishbone Ashwasn’the one of them.

Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon

After some long negotiations, I finally convinced my wife to let me not only have a turntable in the man cave, but also upstairs in the living room. As I was getting out of bed, eager to start hooking up the new system, she added one more point to the deal: no playing any Jethro Tull upstairs (for whatever reason, she hates Jethro Tull). I told her that “Aqualung” was the first thing I wanted to play on the new setup. This earned me a bit of an expected scowl in return. 

“I’m joking” I replied, adding “You know what the first thing I always play on any new sound system is.” 

She just said “You’re such a nerd”, rolled over and went back to sleep.

Supertramp – Crime Of The Century

Supertramp’s third album, crime of the century was their commercial breakthrough. It also was a near perfect combination of progressive rock showmanship and pop rock sensibility. Come to think of it, that’s probably why it was their commercial breakthrough.

“Crime of the Century” was the first in a string of highly successful albums by Supertramp. A streak that would be climaxed by 1979’s “Breakfast in America.” 

Kansas – The Prelude Implicit

It’s a wonderful thing when one of the bands you admired in your youth can still put out one of their best studio albums decades after their heyday and over a decade and a half since their last release. It’s not reminiscing when it’s new music. It’s a refreshment of youth revisited.

“The Prelude Implicit” is the first studio album by Kansas in over 16 years, and it was well worth the wait. It has all the elements associated with Kansas’s sound: lyrics  that are deep and introspective and music that is a combination of gritty Midwestern rock combined with complexity and virtuosity associated with progressive rock. The production is exactly what you would dedemand from a band of Kansas’s stature: dynamic and clean without sounding overproduced.

Although Kansas’s previous album, 2000’s “Somewhere to Elsewere”, was a solid recording, it was unfortunately evident that lead singer and keyboadist Steve Walsh’s voice was straining and he could no longer hit the high notes most notable in Kansas’s sound. Walsh retired from the band in 2014 and was replaced by Ronnie Platt, who is also an exceptional keyboardist. Shortly thereafter, a rejuvenated Kansas started working on “The Prelude Implicit”. An album that literally and figuratively hits all the right notes.

Golden Earring – Cut

Golden Earring was almost a one hit wonder in the United States. In 1973 they released their album “Moon Tan”, which spawned their hit “Radar Love”, which hit number one on the Billboard rock charts in the U.S.. Although the Dutch band remained extremely successful in the Netherlands, they failed to have any further hit records in the United States. That is, until nine years later.

In 1982, Golden Earring released their 16th album. With the help of a spy themed video that got heavy airplay on the newly launched MTV, the song “Twilight Zone” became Golden Earring’s second number one hit in the United States. Following the success  The “Twilight Zone”, he band released a follow-up single, “The Devil Made Me Do It”. Unfortunately, that song failed to do well in the U.S. because it contained the word “bullshit”, and was not released with an edited version – consequently, many U.S. radio stations refused to play it.

Although they had continued success in the Netherlands, Europe, in the U.K., Golden Earring failed to see any significant success in the United States following “Cut”. They continue to perform over 200 concerts a year to capacity crowds in those areas of the world. They released their 25th album “Tits ‘N Ass”, in 2012 under the same band lineup they have had since 1970. That album hit number one on the Dutch record charts.