Greta Van Fleet – Black Smoke Rising (EP)

Frankenmuth Michigan, about an hour and a half drive north of Detroit, has for as long as I can remember, been known for its German cultured shops and the infamous chicken dinners served at Zehnder’s and The Bavarian Inn restaurants. But in late 2017, Frankenmuth became known for something else – Greta Van Fleet – one of the hardest rocking quartets since … dare I say … Led Zeppelin.

The comparisons between Greta Van Fleet and Zeppelin come with no apologies from the band members who are huge Zep fans. But they are also quick to point out that they are not by any stretch, a Led Zeppelin cover or tribute band.

Still, if you like Led Zeppelin, and wish there were more bands around today that recorded that kind of music, well, you need to pick up either “Black Smoke Rising” their debut four song EP or “From The Fires”, their first full length LP.

Right now, my vinyl collection only includes the “Black Smoke Rising” EP, but trust me, that will soon be rectified.

…Stay tuned…

Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Going into the 1980s, synthesizers started to become more and more prevalent in popular music. At first, synths were used primarily to supplement songs or for an occasional solo. But moving into the new decade, a handful of bands, like the Eurythmics, began to use them as the primary, sometimes exclusive instrument in their songs.

Although the Eurythmics didn’t officially abandoned guitar in their music the way some other bands did at the time, Annie Lenox and Dave Stewart did make minimal use of it – especially on their second album, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”.

The Eurythmics, and especially this album, were very influential for the rising popularity of alternative, or new wave music in the eighties. The title track became one of the biggest hits for the Eurythmics and is the most immediately recognizable songs by the band. It is a song that is immediately associated with pop culture of the ’80s.

Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Rick Wakeman is an amazing musician and composer. Jules Verne was an amazing author. Combine the two and you get an amazing album.

Never one to shy away from the grandiose, the former keyboardist for Yes wrote “Journey to the Centre of The Earth” following the release of his first solo album, “The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth”. Rather than going into the studio, Wakeman chose to record his second solo record live. For the huge undertaking, he employed the talents of conductor David Measham who lead The London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir for the performance. The story is supplemented through prose read in between the main musical passages by British stage and film actor David Hemmings.

Part classical, part rock, part spoken word, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” topped the British charts and made it to the third position in the U.S. It is an amazing piece of music, composed by an amazing musician, based on a story by an amazing author. If you have never listened to it, you owe it to yourself to do so. I think you’ll be amazed.

Journey – Next

While most people who are familiar with the band Journey will associate their music with the incredible voice of Steve Perry, some may be surprised to learn that they released three albums before Perry joined the band.

Released in 1977, “Next” was the third and final album Journey would record before deciding to change their sound by bringing in an additional singer to front the band. This album, like the two before it, has a strong contrast to the album’s recorded with Steve Perry. In classic progressive rock style the songs on “Next” focus more on musicianship than on the vocals. If there was ever any doubt, “Next” makes it clearly obvious what great players the members of Journey were

While I have to admit that I like the later albums with Steve Perry better than Journey’s first three records, I still love listening their early stuff. It has a more aggressive style to it. Plus, I’m a sucker for extended solos an jamming. I’m glad Journey changed their sound by add-in Steve Perry. He had an amazing voice and they recorded some incredible music with him. The thing is, they recorded some greAt stuff without him too. It just didn’t become as well-known.

The Who – Live at Leeds

One of the things that always made albums cool was their size. With twelve inches of real estate to work with, there were some albums that took advantage of the size to do cool artwork. Others used it to throw in some cool extras – or in the case of The Who’s “Live at Leeds” A LOT of extras.

Almost all of the extras included with the original 1970 release of “Live at Leeds” were artifacts from The Who’s early career. Among some of the more interesting are a rejection letter from EMI Records (They were eventually signed to Decca), a sheet where they had worked out the lyrics to “My Generation”, a notice to take them to court if they didn’t pay the rental fees for some amps after their check bounced, A couple of tour schedules (one recent and one from before they were signed and were still performing under the name “The High Numbers”), a picture taken from backstage with band notes and some lyrics to their rock opera “Tommy” scribbled on the back, and the contract they signed to perform at the Woodstock festival in 1969. And there was more… But the album is about to run out so that’s all I have time to mention.

“Live at Leeds” is considered by many to be the greatest live album ever recorded. I don’t know if I’d personally place it at the top of the heap but as most Brits would have said it back then, I’d put it bloody well close.

The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

Even though I had never heard anything by The Pineapple Thief, I had been wanting to pick up something by them for a while. I had read some good things about them and they were referenced a lot by other bands I liked. But the clincher that got me to pick up “Your Wilderness”, was Gavin Harrison jumping on board as their drummer.

Gavin Harrison is one of those rare drummers who plays the drums not to merely rhythmically hold songs together, but like my other favorite drummers, Harrison approaches the drums as another instrument that adds to the composition – not just underlying, but overlaying the architecture of the music. Although he is not as well-known, I hold Gavin Harrison in the same league as Bill Bruford of Yes and Neal Peart of Rush.

This album takes influences from numerous bands that are notoriously unique. If I had to pick three that most prominently shined through, it would be The Flaming Lips, Porcupine Tree, and early Radiohead. There are elements of many others, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with those bands since rec of them are masters at combining a diverse combination of musical influences into something totally original.

I love albums that focus around a central theme. Maybe that’s why I liked this album so much on the first listen. All of the songs seem to revolve around losing that one special love in your life and not realizing that it was your own shortcomings that tore things apart until it was too late. It’s a theme encapsulated in the lyrics in the opening track, “In Exile”: “Don’t be afraid to miss me / Don’t be afraid to hate me”. It’s also a sentiment that is sadly and romantically reminisced in “Where We Stood” the song that brings the whole emotional tug-of-war of this album to its inevitable open closure: “I don’t remember if we stood up there / I don’t remember if we stood”. This is a somber album and for the most part the music fits that mood. In all honesty, the playing is much more laid back than I expected, only breaking out a with some serious jamming on a couple rare occasions. But then, this is an album that is all about composition and song structure and making the listener feel this is a personal story. Their own personal story.

“Your Wilderness” is everything I had hoped for based on what I had heard about The Pineapple Thief. It is definitely a progressive rock album. But it is not one founded only on early prog. In a true progressive tradition, “Your Wilderness” is a musical collection built upon the influences of post-progressive rock bands that were influenced by the original prog rockers – an end result that is as inspiring and impressionable as the music that inpired and made an impression on it.

Blackfoot – Strikes

Released in 1979, Blackfoot’s third album, “Strikes”, was one of their biggest commercial successes. The band had two big hits off the album, “Highway Song” and “Train Train” the latter of which was written by lead guitarist Rick Medlocke’s grandfather Shorty Medlocke, who also played the harmonica introduction to the song.

“Train Train” wasn’t the first time the then 69 year Medlocke had appeared on a Blackfoot album – he had played banjo on their debut album in 1975. It wouldn’t be the last either, nor would it be the ‘Train Train” be the last time he would write songs for Blackfoot. Shorty co-wrote “Fox Chase” on the band’s follow-up album “Tomcattin'” and wrote “Rattlesnake Rock ‘n’ Roller”, on Blackfoot’s fifth album “Marauder” The song was another hit for the hard rock/southern rock band. Sadly, Shorty would pass away in 1982.

Although they were from Jacksonville Florida, Blackfoot’s third album had a couple distinct Detroit connections. First, the album was recorded in Ann Arbor, near the Motor City and home to the University of Michigan. Secondly, the harmonica heard within the song “Train Train” was played by Cub Koda, a former member of the Detroit band Brownsville Station.

ZZ Top – Degüello

“Degüello” was the sixth album by ZZ Top and the first from the “little band from Texas” that graced my record collection. It wouldn’t be the last.

The album was the first for them on the Warner Brothers record label and the last of their purely Texas blues and boogie albums. Even though its follow-up “El Loco” still had a strong emphasis on ZZ Top’s traditional sound, it also had many songs that were geared in a hard rock and synth sound. A style that would almost totally overtake the band’s eighth album, “Eliminator”.

Although “Elimnator” remains ZZ Top’s most successful album, “Degüello” is my personal favorite. Like its predecessors, it is grounded in hard rocking blues riffs and solos it also has deeper groove to it than any other ZZ Top album. That groove is augmented in places by “The Lone Wolf Horns” which is in reality the three band members, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard, picking up baritone, tenor, and alto saxophones instead of their usual guitar, bass, and drums.

“Degüello” is Spanish for “no quarter” which means to take no prisoners. I think they chose that name for the album because their previous records had not been the commercial successes they had hoped for or felt they deserved, and usually received, at best, lukewarm reviews from most critics. On “Degüello”, ZZ Top seemed to be refreshed by being signed to a new record label and went all in with a “take no prisoners” attitude that resulted in what is, in my opinion, their best work.

Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills

While most people today probably think Janis Joplin performed the song “Piece of my Heart” they’re wrong. It’s true, Janice did sing lead vocals, but the song was actually performed by a band Janis Joplin was in, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Those who know the album and the band that recorded it still might have some misconceptions about it. The album comes across as being almost entirely live tracks. The cover even says “live material recorded at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium”. However, only one song off the album, “Ball and Chain”, was actually recorded live. The rest of the songs just had audience overdubs put in to make them sound live. The album even kicks off with an introduction by Bill Graham that by today’s standards would probably be considered politically incorrect: “Four gentleman and one great, great broad, ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company.'”

Like “Piece of My Heart” the rest of “Cheap Thrills” is filled with mostly blues laden rockers that are played as passionately as they are sung by Janis. There is a little psychedelic sound that also creeps in from time to time (this was 1968 after all) most notably on “Oh Sweet Mary”, although the closing “Ball and Chain” is a great combination of the two.

I was turned on to the this album by my mom when I was 6 years old. She loved Janis Joplin. My dad however, could not stand her. Some of my earliest memories of music are listening to Janis Joplin with my mom. She had great taste in music.

R.E.O. Speedwagon – R.E.O. T.W.O.

As the name implies, “R.E O. T.W.O.” was R.E.O. Speedwagon’s second album. It was also the first with lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and contributing songwriter Kevin Cronin.

Although their 1972 sophomore effort didn’t have any hit singles and had lackluster sales at first, it still made a mark for the band. Five of its eight songs would make it onto their 1977 live album “You Get What You Play For”, which marked the beginning of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s phenomenal success. That live album also sparked an interest in the band’s back catalog which propelled the sales of “R.E.0. T.W.O.” to eventually go gold.

Although there are many, T.W.O. of my favorite highlights from this album are R.E.O.’s recruiting of legendary sax player Boots Randolph (best known for his song “Yakety Sax” which became the theme song to “The Benny Hill Show”) to augment their sound on the Chuck Berry cover “Little Queenie”, and the politically charged “Golden Country”. That last song, with its extended guitar soloing by lead guitarist Gary Richrath and great keys by Neal Doughty (one of the most underappreciated keyboardists in rock and roll in my opinion) make it the perfect closer to one of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s best albums.